July 2005

Daniel Nester

features

An Interview with Lee Gutkind

Creative nonfiction. The term’s very sound makes some people smirk, others scoff. This so-called “fourth genre,” this ambiguous umbrella term. Is it first-person journalism? Tell-all memoir? Artsy fartsy prose poems moonlighting as essays? Many would say it is all these things, but one person who ends up in this conversation, no matter how you slice it, is Lee Gutkind. The English Professor at University of Pittsburgh started teaching classes in creative nonfiction in the early 1970s, much to the chagrin of academe, and in 1993 founded the journal Creative Nonfiction, which he still edits.

The creative nonfiction term now is rather well known, at least in writerly circles, and Gutkind has gone on to be an ambassador of a certain brand of nonfiction that, as he writes, “employs techniques like scene, dialogue, description, while allowing personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity.” The otherwise self-aware James Wolcott, himself an author of creative nonfiction, decried the genre in a sour-pussed 1997 Vanity Fair article, in which he dubbed Gutkind the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction.” Gutkind adopted the title for himself with aplomb in his latest collection, Forever Fat: Essays from the Godfather.

We spoke to Gutkind in a cop-themed bar called Crime Scene on the Bowery in New York City’s Lower East Side. With talk about defining creative nonfiction out of the way, and calling the current reality TV craze as “the poor man’s creative nonfiction,” our conversation then turned to his recently reissued account of baseball umpires, The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand! We also talked about wrestlers, allegedly corruptible cocksuckers, and, of course, robots on Mars.

Before we begin, I’m sure a lot of Bookslut readers are also professional wrestling enthusiasts. You sparred with wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino?

He lifted me up in the air, and he nearly smashed me down. But he was nice and twirled me around and let me down. But after he read the article I wrote about him, he threatened that if he ever saw me again, he would lift me up in the air again and smash me down as hard as possible and crush me.

What did you write? Why was he angry?

He was very sensitive about being called a “buffoon,” and I called him a buffoon. I called all professional wrestlers buffoons. The wrestling world was kind of different then, because wrestlers took themselves more seriously.

This was before the revelation that things were fake and wrestling was called “entertainment.”

Right, and I talked about things like blood capsules. I mean, you go to the store and buy them, and you would have them in your mouth, and you could chomp them down and blood would come out. And he got very angry, because he insisted that there were no artificial things that he used, and when he bled it was real blood. So yes, he was angry.

You haven’t seen him since then?

Well, he’s dead! But it was odd, because he lived in Pittsburgh, and I live in Pittsburgh, and we worked out for years in the same place, and after I did this article I never saw him again. I like to say that I never saw him again because he was afraid to meet me. [Editor's note: Sammartino, in fact, is very much alive; and, acccording to his site <http://www.brunosammartino.net>, he still lives in Pittsburgh]

How does it feel to be, or have been, if you will, the go-to guy when people think of creative nonfiction? I know you’re not the “creative nonfiction police,” as you write in one of your essays, but the question seems unavoidable.

Well, it’s odd to be in the forefront of this kind of deal, because on the one hand, you have this sense or aura from time to time of being really important and taking the lead somewhere. But creative nonfiction is one, such an odd name; and two, such a little bit of the world. So no one knows who you are or what the hell it is. There was somebody who kept saying the other day I was part of this company called “Creative Notification.” She said, “You do Creative Notification!”

It’s interesting that I started doing this in the middle '70s and started writing it before that, and then started to try to convince people to let me teach it and talk about it. And I was pretty unsuccessful fighting with my colleagues, who were annoyed because they thought I was saying they weren’t creative. But now, it’s kind of nice to know there are a few people out there who know what it is and are turned on by it.

I forget your question now, to be honest, you can ask it again if you want.

Well, I suppose a follow-up to this line of conversation is that the term has seemed to expand from what I think of as your initial notion of what creative nonfiction is, which is first-person journalism that has no pretenses of the “sham of objectivity.” Nowadays, it seems to encompass all these other terms -- the “lyrical essay,” things that usually pass off as prose poetry -- cross-genre work, for lack of a better term.

I think it’s wonderful. I’ve been trying to get as many different forms of this kind of creative nonfiction under this umbrella, because that’s where I think it belongs. When people say to me that their writing doesn’t belong there, when someone says I don’t write creative nonfiction, I write literary journalism, or memoir, or personal essay, I frankly don’t see that big of a difference. Creative nonfiction is the umbrella term, probably the only needed term, because you are trying to write the truth and making it read like a short story or fiction.

One pet theory I have -- and I guess it’s a lot of others’ -- is that creative nonfiction’s ascendance, in particular the memoir’s, has been the case of novelists not going in there and changing the names of real people. Maybe it’s the culture of authenticity we live in now -- we prefer real stories as opposed to made-up ones.

Well, in the '50s and '60s, one wrote these incredibly autobiographical books, and since the novel was the hottest genre, you called it a novel, and you got it published, and that was okay. Maybe it was only 80 percent true, or 70 percent true. You had a lot more flexibility. So now, people are realizing that the literature of reality is now what’s of interest to the publishing world, and the novel is dying, or supposedly it is dying. And so now they’re writing these autobiographical books that are still 82 percent true, and 18 percent fudging, and they’re calling it memoir. That just seems to be what’s happening these days.

I’m so surprised and amused at publishers who say that the memoir is passé, as they publish more and more memoir each year, and buy them, and give the advances. It’s really odd to hear that. The memoir is just blowing up in trade publishing, and it’s exploding in the smaller press world, which to me is really exciting, because that’s where the new writers are coming from.

I just read The Best Seat In Baseball, But You Have To Stand!, your account of the world of baseball umpires from 1975, and it’s been reissued recently. And I think the book certainly holds up -- many of the same issues, like the racial divide issue, remain relevant today. My question is this: Does a creative nonfiction writer have the same onus of addressing the ages as a poet or novelist? There seems to be an issue of shelf life in creative nonfiction. When you were writing this book, did you think it would be reissued 30 years later?

Well, when I was writing The Best Seat In Baseball, you have to understand, I was thinking it was going to be the next Ball Four [Jim Bouton’s 1970 best-selling account of professional baseball]! That didn’t happen. I mean, when all writers are young, as I did, they think about where the books are going to go now. And now I write for the future and for the present. And I always think about where my books go now. But back then -- I think I was in my late twenties -- I thought I had so many books in front of me that I didn’t think about where my book was going to be tomorrow. I thought about where it’s going to be today.

It’s funny that you mention Bruno Sammartino, because the men who really wanted to kill me are from The Best Seat In Baseball: Harry Wendelstedt and Doug Harvey [two of the umpires covered in the book]. So there I am, writing a book on umpires, not because I love umpires or even because I love baseball, but I’m writing about these folks because no one else has. And I’m really curious about what kind of secret lives they have behind these really dark blue uniforms with all these chest protectors. Using some friends that I knew who worked for the Pittsburgh Pirates, I got access to hang out with a crew of National League baseball umpires for a year and to write about their lives.

Now I didn’t know this, but Wendelstedt and Harvey were the hot shot umpires of the league, and what happened was the year before the American League hired the first black umpire in baseball. And so the National League was under pressure to hire someone, and they hired this guy named Art Williams, who had only two years’ experience as an umpire. But the thing that was really interesting to me as a writer is that you decide you’re going to write about Subject A, the hardship of being an umpire.

Suddenly, there’s another story that comes out, and it was the story of racism in baseball and not baseball at all. And so it became a story of racism, and Wendelstedt and Harvey trying to make Art Williams a great umpire, and also -- and this was the philosophy -- make him feel comfortable by this constant racial taunting. And the way they felt relaxed was they taunted themselves.

I suppose you could say it was about four working class men busting each others’ balls, and when it’s given the bullhorn of being put on the page, it has an entirely different effect.

But was what those people said to each other really okay? Art Williams said it was okay, but I’m not sure if he really meant it was okay. He had no choice. It was definitely a time that made him keep his mouth shut.

And so all this was in the book, and when it came out it became very controversial, and Harry Wendelstedt and Doug Harvey insisted that I wasn’t with them, that I wasn’t there.

But the other two people did say you were there? They signed off to that effect, didn’t they?

Yes, and of course I was there. I had receipts, I had everything! Wendelstedt called my mother, drunk -- he gets drunk in the book all the time -- telling me what a horrible son she had. So that’s part of the “discoveries” of creative nonfiction.

Let me take you an another dance here. I did this other book [Many Sleepless Nights], about the four years I spent with doctors and nurses and the world of organ transplantation. Four years is a lot of time to spend, watching people... die, really, which is kind of what happened. It’s still in print, it’s done really well. And people ask me about what things I would do differently in that book, and I say it’s that I didn’t spend enough time because by the time my book was published, over half the people were already dead. Now, 25 years later, everybody is dead, except for one person.

Which brings us back to Art Williams. I lose track. I’m so upset with the whole thing, how angry the umpires are. This guy named Dick Young, who was a sports writer for the New York Daily News, sued me because I quoted Wendelstedt as saying that Young was a “corruptible cocksucker.” And Young sued me over the word “corruptible.”

Aren’t we all corruptible?

[Laughs] Well, I thought my publisher was going to defend this, it was such a dumb suit. But they caved, and they said, “Okay, we’re gonna settle, and if you want to settle, you’ll have to do it by yourself.” This was Dial Press. And so we paid some money, I had to pay some of the money to Dick Young, and had to promise if there was another edition, the word “corruptible” would have to come out.

Is it in this new edition?

I think it is in there.

Yes. I think it’s in all caps.

Fuck 'em. He’s dead anyway. [Laughs.] And he probably was corruptible.

So that was 1977. And last year, 2004, I start thinking about Art Williams. I Google him, and I can’t find Art Williams anywhere. I call the Baseball Hall of Fame, and they can’t find Art Williams anywhere. I mean, Art Williams is kind of a hero -- I mean, Jackie Robinson was the first black baseball player, and Williams is the first black umpire in the National League. And they go back and find these old articles dating back to the latter part of the 1970s. We’re talking about these six, old, yellowed articles -- there is nothing written about Art Williams after 1979. I searched LexisNexis, everywhere. It’s as if he disappeared.

Well, it turns out he did. He got fired the next year -- and he did blame me in this one article. But he also sued the National League for racism. He took all his money, he invested in this lawsuit and he invested in -- I can’t remember which now -- but it was this laundromat or liquor store. Probably a liquor store. So he spent his money for a liquor store and an attorney. He had some family problems, his wife left him and took the kids, departed from Bakersfield [Williams’s home town]. He lost the suit, and lost the liquor store. And died of cancer in 1979 in a charity ward of the local hospital.

I never knew this until last year. So, I mean, I don’t know what to say about this, but now I think the story isn’t over. The first black umpire in the National League -- maybe fired because of racism, ruined because he sued for racism.

So what are you writing about now?

I got these two books going simultaneously. One is a book on robots. I’ve been hanging around The Field Robotics Center [at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute], the largest center for robotics in the world, watching these guys build and test robots. The one I’m really interested in is this one called Zoe, this robot that they hope will go to Mars in 2011 and discover life. Right now, the robots there can collect only a very little bit of data, and they can only go so far -- hardly a kilometer. This robot should be able to go 40 or 50 kilometers, and really determine if there’s life on Mars and what kind of life there really is. Every year they go to the Atacama Desert in Chile, the place on Earth that is most like Mars -- it hasn’t rained there in 200 years. So I’m there with these guys who don’t talk about girls or sex -- nothing but robots.

So I do that nine months out of the year, and during the summer I work on a book on fatherhood. My son Sam is 14-years old, and I meet with him at the same Starbucks and I read to him aloud. When he was 11, I read a lot of books Gary Paulsen, like this very popular book called Hatchet. And he wrote this other book that wasn’t too popular called The Car, where this kid [who is abandoned by his parents] drives to San Francisco to see his father’s brother and... do you know the Grateful Dead?

Yes.

Well, in this book, the people in the book go truckin’. So my son and I have been doing that. But my son, he likes the concept of truckin’, but doesn’t like the Grateful Dead’s music as much as the Rolling Stones’. So we started to do that, driving around to places and listening to Mick Jagger. And then we realized that truckin’ in an Audi was stupid. So we opened the paper and bought a goddamned truck. We’ve done three summers truckin’ -- the Grand Canyon, we went to Alaska, and all the way down the Pacific coast.

Sounds like you’re an awesome dad.

I lucked out. I became a dad with grey hair. So here I am doing the thing I most care about, and I’m writing about it.

You should bring your son to Chile to see Zoe the robot.

I’d love that. That would be great.