Photo : Anne-Marie Lafleur
In 2013, Les éditions Tusitala decided to publish Dandy, twenty-seven years after its original release in the USA. Were you surprised by the interest they showed in your novel after all this time?
When Tusitala contacted me to publish Dandy I was surprised. I had pretty much given up hope that I would be able to continue my work as a novelist. Not because I didn’t believe in my work, but because the U.S. publishing industry had been turned over to the Sales Departments who looked at books only as products to be sold, and so focused on audience demographic appeals, not what the books were about.
Since then, Vulnérables and Paria have been published in 2017 and 2020 by Tusitala, (whereas they are still unpublished in the USA), and your three novels have come out in paperback. How do you explain the success you have in France? On the contrary, do you know why it is difficult for you to find a publisher in your country?
What became apparent to me with first Dandy, then Vulnerables and Paria, all published by Tusitala, is that readers and reviewers in France were, in general, more thoughtful and contemplative. They understood not only the story, but the philosophical, sociological, cultural and psychological underpinnings of a story. They liked complex characters. Too often in the U.S. the emphasis in fiction, among writers, readers, and publishers, is primarily on plot, and because of that we want simple two-dimensional heroes and villains who can fit into a 90 minute movie. Because that’s what the American publishing industry is to a large extent interested in, film properties, not literature. There are, of course, exceptions to this. But in the U.S. too often we want simple good and bad characters, with no nuance.
When I was sending Vulnerables (as At the Mercy) around to publishers in the U.S. I received rejections from Senior Editors at NY publishing houses, who praised the writing but found it disturbing. One called it the greatest first person novel since Camus’ The Stranger, but then went on to say they couldn’t publish it because the Sales Department didn’t see a demographic. I had one of those ‘super agents’ at the time who thought my novel would go out on auction and bring in a 6-figure, possibly 7 figure, offer. He couldn’t sell the book and was stunned.
Have you completely abandoned the idea of convincing the Americans ?
During that period a couple things happened that also influenced my temporary turn from trying to publish. My first two children were born. I became deeply involved in running a non-profit that taught writing at homeless shelters, women’s shelters, drug programs, ESL classes, housing projects, prisons (including Death Row). And the woman I was married to at the time had mental health issues which led to my becoming a single parent for two young children and an adult. Despite the fact Dandy (as Time Sharing) had garnered critical attention in the NY Times, Publishers Weekly, LA Times, Village Voice, had sold film options to a major Hollywood producer, I was confronted with an indifferent publishing industry where Sales Departments had usurped editorial decisions and now had final say over what books were published. I kept writing but decided to withdraw from the publishing scene in the U.S. With the thoughtful attention I’ve received in France I haven’t felt a need to put any time or effort into publishing in English. I suppose I should. But I’d rather spend that time writing than attempting to wrestle with the American publishing industry.
You seem to be like Bukowski, SaFranko, Stokoe, Fante or Roberge, more appreciated by the French than the American readers. Do you feel an affinity with these writers?
Once, at a costume party in a bookstore I dressed up as Bukowski – I wore a stained bathrobe, hair disheveled, and swore at those around me. I’m Bukowski I said, what do you expect? I do feel an affinity for Bukowski, and other writers like those you mention. But among contemporary American writers I feel a greater affinity towards early Robert Stone, Richard Price, Raymond Carver, Nick Flynn. Writers whose characters are anti-heroes, complex and damaged trying to navigate through a corrupted world where there often are no clear ways forward.
Billy, in Vulnérables, reads Albert Camus. What did you want to express through this particular reading?
Billy is a little like Meursault. He has experienced a traumatic event which results in his committing an extreme act of violence, although Meursault’s seems on the surface more arbitrary. Neither one fits in their society, neither one ‘plays the game’ as Camus put it. I also thought the point of having Billy read that book, or reading at all, was to show people are capable of far greater intellectual engagement than we give them credit for. When I teach in prisons, the insight the women and men have into works of literature is often highly sophisticated, much more so than my university students. They focus on the characters, the situations, not the prose techniques. I once met a man from Cuba in a homeless shelter who had appeared on a radio program with Neruda. One of the greatest poets I’ve ever read was in a shelter, a woman from New Zealand writing about the Maoris. Unfortunately, she got trapped in the crack whirlpool and could not swim out.
Your novels talk about people who struggle to make a living, who feel rejected, left out. Do you want to give voice to those who are unheard?
I grew up one street over from the projects – where my next novel, Les Paralysés is set, by the way. From a young age, I saw the way some people were treated like they didn’t exist, like their voices didn’t matter. I was treated that way. I did want to give voice to those who were silenced directly, or by indifference. I experienced class prejudice my whole life – the son of a Polack and an Irish woman, the first one in my family to go to college. I remember one leftist ‘scholar’ stopping me in the corridors of the university one day to scold, « You’re in college now, time to lose your working class accent ».
Do you consider you write social, political novels?
I think my novels include social and political arguments, but they develop out of the lives of the people I write about, people who are struggling to survive in all ways – physically, emotionally, psychologically, economically – often without any clue how they are to attempt that. They are thwarted by the families and systems they are randomly born into. But I always begin when I ‘see’ a character in some setting, dealing with some conflict, or hear them speak, and I am curious to find out what they are going to do next. Through their human stories, the social and political are revealed.
The stories of Dandy and Vulnérables take place in the late 1980’s, when unbridled capitalism was advocated by Reagan. Do you think, as Larry Fondation wrote in the French preface of Dandy, that poverty, disparities have increased, that everything has even gotten worse since? Do you think Biden will be a better president for the poor than Trump?
Yes, I do think everything has gotten worse in this country. I don’t see it getting any better. Absolutely, trump was a disaster. But Biden seems clueless – look at his immigration fiasco. Hundreds of thousands of refugees hidden away in warehouses, crammed shoulder to shoulder in sleeping cells. Thousands of Haitians deported to a country rife with physical and economic violence. Children sexually abused at detention centers. The press is denied the right to access these facilities and see what’s going on inside, talk to the refugees. During our entire covid crisis people in poor neighborhoods have been left out – no testing or vaccination facilities in their communities, poor medical care – while the needs of the upper middle class white population and corporations have been addressed. So, no, I see little hope today, or for the future frankly. Worse, the true potential tragedy is this – the more Biden struggles it sets up the very real possibility that trump could run and get elected again. The failure of one side always leads to the success of the other because in the U.S. we ‘think’ things through in a simplistic binary way.
Your website biographical presentation says that : « his writing is informed by his personal experiences. He grew up in the depressed, working class city of Brockton, Massachusetts, and his many jobs include assembly line worker, dishwasher, newspaper delivery person, truck driver, fast food and short order cook, cabbie, waiter and teacher. » You knew the same difficult living conditions as your characters. Do you think an author writes well on what he knows well?
Everyone always advises – write what you know. And that’s true. But the danger in that is to write simply personal reflections. Writing only about what you have experienced offers a limited vision of the world. It is important to write about what you have learned through your personal experiences and feelings. But it is equally important to write about what you have learned through witnessing the lives of others. It’s important to pay attention to all the people you have met along your journey of life, even those you dislike, to try and understand what has happened to them, why, how it has affected their interior lives and how it manifests itself in their interactions with others. Don’t writers have to try to understand the forces that go into forming every human being. Yes, we can only fail at this, but it’s important to try. As Louise Erdrich said, « None of us is wise enough to understand the heart of another, but it is our duty in life to try. »
So yes, know one’s self. But also know others. In addition, research research research research research. Always be eager to learn. The last element that is essential to a writer, the one most overlooked these days, is imagination. A writer’s imagination should be valued as much as a writer’s experience. Some years back The New Yorker published a long piece on the dialogue of Richard Price and the author of the piece made an important point. Often we talk about how some writers have a ‘good ear’ for dialogue, meaning they can listen to others and report speech nuances accurately. But this piece in The New Yorker spoke about Price having a ‘good imagination’ for dialogue, the ability to render dialogue that sounded true to a character while also bearing thematic weight.
The reader feels a great empathy for your characters, (I think about Artie and Jolene, or Billy) even if they are not exempt from meanness. You avoid any kind of naive optimism or Manichaeism to portray them. They can be liars, calculating, violent but they judge themselves more harshly than we do. Have you put a lot of yourself in a character like Billy, for instance?
There is a part of me in every character I’ve written, every single one. On the other side, none of the characters I’ve written is really that close to being me. The real me. Whatever that means. I began my writing journey wanting to give dignity to people I saw in my daily live, people I knew who were ignored, erased from society as if they did not exist. But I did not want anyone to pity them. I wanted people to love them, and to do so despite their human failings, their imperfections, to recognize the shared humanity that binds us all. That has made my fiction difficult for many in the U.S. One woman said to me, after reading Dandy, « I know there are poor people, but I don’t want to have to look at them. » It’s easy to condemn or pity a character. To do either allows the reader to keep the character at arm’s length, to treat them as ‘other, not me’. I want to bring the reader into the same existential room with my characters, I want them to sit down and have a conversation as it were.
The environment where your characters live is very important in your novels. Do you think that town-planning has an influence on people’s life?
Town planning – you hit on something important there. Yes, planning conditions how people in a community think about themselves and others. The city I live in now, Durham, NC used to have a thriving African-American middle class, a merchant district, Hayti, which was a center of the community. I first lived in East Durham, which was rife with poverty, after the city destroyed Hayti. The city planners, under the guise of improving the city for all, built a loop road around the city center, closed down the Hayti district, and moved the African-American merchants out to a strip of tin shacks – temporarily they said. Of course it wasn’t temporary. It was an attempt to destroy those businesses, and the power that came with a thriving middle class community. The real purpose of the loop road was to attempt to remove people of color from the downtown area, to prevent African-Americans easy access to downtown, so developers could build projects to attract more ‘white people’ downtown. They engaged in similar behavior in Raleigh, implementing changes to a thriving city center full of poor and working class people. They were the ‘wrong kind’ of people for the developers. So they closed stores, removed benches from parks the homeless slept on, forced services out of the center to remote areas of the city – planned changes designed to remove poor, working class and people of color from the downtown area so they could ‘revitalize it’ by encouraging white, suburbanites to move in. In essence, make it look like a suburb.
The settings of my novels are not incidental. They are where my characters live. The environment affects one’s choices, limits one’s possibilities.
photo : Sylvia Freeman
The society you depict is so violent, physically and psychologically. Billy, or Stewart in Paria, are unable to manage their own violence. Because violence is inherent in american society?
In such a place, with limited opportunities or paths forward, violence often becomes endemic. Violence against women, against people of color, against those who are gay, or intelligent. Today we might refer to it as toxic masculinity, racism, misogyny, homophobia. U.S. society is violent – we came here and immediately began to slaughter the tribal people. We burned women we pretended were witches. Hung people merely because their skin was brown. Our government in the past gave blankets infested with smallpox to tribal people – our first use of a weaponized virus. Look at our foreign policy today? How many millions have we killed, left homeless, turned into refugees, while pretending we are making the world safe for freedom? We just celebrated and honored a general who died, despite the fact that general covered up a massacre in Vietnam, spoke against allowing gays into the military, and deliberately lied to the American public about WMDs in Iraq, which resulted in an unjustified war that left literally millions dead or without homes in the Middle East, and is still causing destruction today.
Is the american dream a myth?
In a society based on violence, where violence is presented as good, a society where we celebrated the dropping of atomic bombs, instead of mourning their usage, where people watch drone strikes on the news and applaud as if they are enjoying violent entertainment in a video game – how can people not be expected to resort to violence on a personal level? It is as American as apple pie. The American myth? There is none. We have been infected with the virus of capitalism, it enacts its philosophies in almost all our people without being noticed. We don’t even think about how everything has devolved to a series of personal transactional relationships. A few years back one of the most popular bumper stickers was, He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins. That’s our myth.
Society is even more violent towards women. They are beaten by their lovers and are victims of sexual assaults. There is a passage in Paria where you describe how Stewart, like most men during the 60’s, is uneducated in matters of sexuality. He thinks he has to be brutal to affirm his masculinity and that girls love roughness. Do you think the younger generation of men is improving?
As recently as the 1960s advertising showed men spanking women to get them to make a better cup of coffee. I resigned from directing a play in 1986 because the theater group wanted me to direct a classic play where a woman was slapped across the face to ‘knock some sense into her’. I volunteered for the Women’s Center and Shelter when I lived in Pittsburgh, had many friends who were survivors of violence, physical and sexual, my poetry press, Jacar Press, has sponsored free workshops for survivors of rape. I’ve taught workshops for children and adults who were abused, and also men who are abusers. So I may be biased, but I don’t see the situation getting better in this country. I think men are more aware that they will be judged for their actions towards women. Some younger men choose to withdraw from relationships rather than work through it – which I suppose is a healthier choice. But I guess young people in general are more sensitive to this than previous generations. Young women more willing to speak out. I think the growing acceptance of a variety of lifestyles among the young helps lessen the violence. But it’s still a major problem in the U.S.
Society is also violent towards the minorities. In Paria, which happens in the 60’s, there is a wave of racial hatred, lynchings… Do you think racism is still as strong as before in the USA? Is the Black Lives Matter movement changing things?
I don’t think we are in general less violent towards those we see as ‘other’. We just hide it better. Still, I am a Romantic Pessimist. I am optimistic that community-based groups like Black Lives Matter can lead to incremental change from the bottom up. But I am concerned too at the growing support for military and intelligence systems and actions by those on the mainstream left who previously would have questioned those systems.
Society is above all violent towards its children. All your characters are misfits because their parents were not up to it, they failed in giving them love or because of their immaturity or their ignorance. We are suffering for Dandy or Billy so much. Do you think that the original purity is always corrupted by the adults?
We often hear the phrase, It takes a village to raise a child. We parrot that as if we are speaking only about raising children to be good and kind. But it also takes a village to raise a rapist, a racist, a murderer. People become who they are through a cauldron of dna and life experiences. Hitler, Trump, Vacher were all born babies who didn’t hate; they were born capable of loving. How did they become who they became? Yes, it begins with parenting – how does anyone know how to parent? Some people are born lucky, into families that care and nurture their children. Some are born to people who are clueless, often dealing with their own fears and anxieties and extreme economic distress. Some children can be damaged as much by that as by abuse. Who knows why one person can endure and overcome and another can’t? Sometimes a potentially good parent can be turned violent, mean, by economic stress, or untreated illness. Then there are things that happen one has no control over. One man I worked with who was executed for murder was actually a creative misfit who was caught peeping into a window and sent to prison where he was brutally gang-raped every day for over a year. Is it any wonder he came out of prison a man capable of murder?
You also write poetry. Do fiction and poetry involve completely different forms of sensibility?
I’ve been fortunate to have published a wide range of writing – novels, stories, essays, poems, plays, creative non-fiction, investigative journalism. Each form has its own literary needs and approaches. As well as time requirements. I can sit and write a draft of a poem in 1 morning, set it aside and either return to it the next day, week, or month. When writing a novel I really need to live with it in my head constantly, sometimes for years. The lockdown for covid was perfect for me because it wiped clean my calendar. I literally lost all my work, couldn’t go anywhere, see anyone, so my time was fully my own and I wrote, and read, more in 2 years than I had in the previous10. I finished one novel, Les Paralysés, and am close to completing another, Damage.
Can you give us details about them?
My next novel, scheduled for 2022 release, Les Paralysés, is set in a housing project. It features a cast of women, men, children all trying to overcome the society and culture and entrapment of their lives, trying to find some way to achieve happiness, against the odds of the limitations of their lives and experiences, despite the society and environment and personal relationships, which impose limitations on their possibilities. The setting is a sprawling mazelike housing project, closed in by a toxic swamp and a rubbish dump, an empty factory standing at the entrance. The people who live there are trapped. They have no way out. No is coming in to help, except for the predators.They are left to fend for themselves, to feed on one another, to fight and scrabble to find something – love maybe? hope? And Damage – that latter title might point to my main theme in all the writing I do – is about the damage we witness, receive, perpetrate, overcome, or don’t. Our struggle to live despite.
Interview published in New Noise n°60 – January-february 2022