April 2006

Paul Holler


An Interview with Jay Parini

The works of Jay Parini have crossed many literary boundaries and blurred many more. His novels have told of both on his own experiences growing up in the coal mining region of Pennsylvania and that of literary icons facing their own ends. His nonfiction works include biographies of John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and William Faulkner. His poetry, essays and criticism reflect both the events of his own life and his political views. For the past thirty years, Mr. Parini has taught undergraduate courses at Middlebury College in Vermont.

I recently spoke with Mr. Parini about his work, the world it reflects.

“I write because I like doing it,” says Mr. Parini. “I can't wait to get out my notebook in the morning, and to start. I always begin the day by working on poetry. I love that moment, when I first open the blank page, and when I begin to hear the voice accumulating in my head, then transferring that energy to the page. I always write poems in longhand, in a notebook; later, I type them into a computer. But I do many revisions by hand first, in my notebook. I like the feel of writing fiction and criticism, too; I work on these after I've finished with the poetry for the day. Novels are absorbing projects. I submerse myself in the subject, always; when I'm working on a novel, it's always there, somewhere, on my mind. Criticism and biography have their own charms, and I like to do them as a break from the strictly creative work, although I don't really see much difference between a novel and a biography; in both cases, you're selecting among a zillion possible facts, finding a narrative, creating order from chaos. I like to use language, and so it's thrilling to let the language roll off the fingers, off the mental tongue. I always feel grounded when I'm writing, which is probably the real reason I write. When I don't write, I feel disconnected from the world, and that is an uncomfortable feeling.

“I began as a poet, in high school. I wrote poems through college, with considerable focus after the beginning of my junior year, in Scotland. I read and wrote poetry avidly as a young man. I came to fiction a bit later, writing a novel in graduate school, when I was perhaps 23 or 24. It was never published, and it was not good. I took up novel-writing again at around the age of thirty, writing The Love Run more for my own amusement than anything. It was a rotten book. I think my frustration with that failure got me writing The Patch Boys, which took five years.

"I was also writing poetry. I have always written poetry as a primary occupation, then added on fiction and criticism as other ways of using language. The Last Station, a novel about the last year of Tolstoy's life, was my first mature novel, and I loved writing it. Same with the other novels... It amazes me to see I've published six novels, with a seventh on the way. I never thought of myself as a novelist. But I think about these novels a lot, and I have ideas for half a dozen more novels, so I guess I'm a novelist. I have never stopped writing poems, though I have occasionally written with less focus and intensity. In the past few years, however, I've returned to the poetry with real energy, and feel quite excited about my New and Selected Poems. I still write reviews and essays, as the situations arise for these. I am more or less finished with biography, having just published a life of Faulkner. I plan to do one more little biography, a life of Thomas Aquinas, and then that's it.

“I make few distinction between straight biographies and novels. They both are works of fiction. Fiction means ‘shaping’ in Latin. I shape reality in both genres. There are demands that come from the genre itself: You can't really change points of view in a biography, and you can't make things up; but I think these are small considerations, and that in general they both involve creating narratives, and narrative is what I like: telling a story. The story of a life can be told in the conventional way of biography, which I find less satisfactory, or in fictional form. Fiction allows you more freedom: you can imagine motives, dig into the unconscious of a character, go inside a character's head. A biographer would write: ‘Sophia Tolstoy threw herself into a pond in the summer of 1910, upset about her husband's disappearance.’ A novelist can go inside her head, imagine what it really felt like to be in that situation. I prefer the latter approach, although there are satisfactions in biography that are undeniable; I always like the dense accumulation of factual details, the sense of a mounting story of a life. I like the fact that the plot is more or less given, too. That makes it easier to write something based on a life.”

It is interesting to note that most of Mr. Parini's biographical works concern the lives of famous American authors. John Steinbeck and Robert Frost have been subjects of his past works. A new biography of William Faulkner was his most recent biography.

But this concern with the lives of famous authors extends also to his fictional works. Two of Mr. Parini's novels are based on the lives of writers who actually lived. In The Last Station, the author imagines the last year of Leo Tolstoy's life. Likewise, Benjamin's Crossing is based on the life of German writer Walter Benjamin, culminating in his escape from Nazi occupied Paris. In the case of Tolstoy, we are presented with a very human picture of a great novelist. Likewise, Mr. Parini's portrait of Walter Benjamin presents the human side of a man some consider to be an archetypal figure in twentieth century thought.

The decision to write about a famous literary figure can speak to the author's personal taste and the tastes of the reading public. But the decision of whether to cast that book as a work of fiction or as straight biography speaks to both the craft of the writer and the nature of the subject.

"I do see Benjamin as an archetype of the Old World intellectual, a man who knew the classics, who read widely in literature and philosophy and politics, who knew the history of the world, and so forth," says Mr. Parini. "He was not a specialist, and this attracted me to him as well. He wrote stories, and his essays ranged so widely from the personal to the theoretical. He debated the major issues of his time. He was part of the larger conversation of the world of thinkers.

"This all caught my attention, plus the fact that he was caught in a very bad time, and had to flee from the Nazis. The story seems to me a natural novel, but one rooted in facts. I did a good deal of research to write that book, and spent a lot of time with Benjamin and his work. Of course the man you imagine is always a distance from the actual man; I accept that. The Benjamin of my novel is a work of fiction, a made-up character, but a character with some allegiance to the historical figure. For example, I keep the dates and places the same. The basic outline of his life and his ideas are accurate. But I dig into his mind in ways that a straight biographer could never dare to attempt. Straight biography is fairly rigid in its conventions, and the straight biographer never enters into the subjective consciousness of a subject in the way novelists always do.

"With Tolstoy, I loved the work first, then the man. I was always attracted to his ideas, and to his narratives. I loved his letters and diaries. These led me back to the man, and the situation of his life, which seemed especially compelling, especially during that fateful last year when he was so conflicted about where his last days should take him, and how he should get there. I loved the drama of that household, and the set-pieces that the novel allowed me to write. I still think of myself as essentially a Tolstoyan in my spiritual and political life. I often reread Tolstoy, his novels and -- in particular -- his great essays."

"I've done the three big biographies, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost and now William Faulkner, which I think will be my last biography of that kind," says Mr. Parini. "These are just three figure who have meant a lot to me over the years. For a long time I've planned to write about Faulker. One of my mentors, my close friends, was Robert Penn Warren. He and I would spend a lot of time together and go for long hikes in the woods here in Vermont from the late '70s though the whole decade of the '80s. He urged me to write about Faulkner long ago and got me going. I spent one weekend with Warren and Cleanth Brooks and they got me excited about Faulkner. And I started teaching him, whenever I could throw a Faulkner novel or book of stories into my creative writing seminars, and over the years I developed an interest in the work. I saw there was clearly room for the kind of biography I do. And so, this book is a side product of my personal reading and writing workshops.

"I think what I can bring to a biography is a writer's sense of what kind of discipline and commitment it takes to assemble a shelf of books over a lifetime. To me it's got an inherent drama, the whole cycle of production and rejection, agony, elation, all of the different things that go into producing a body of work. And so I love tracking that in a biography and seeing how another writer does it."

It is clear why a novelist would be attracted to other literary figures as subjects for biography. But a writer's own life, and the times in which he or she lives, can be the most important of all stories. Flashes of his own life and views occur in many of Mr. Parini's works, but perhaps they appear most frequently in his poetry.
"It's fairly true that I keep poetry -- or have kept it -- for the most autobiographical and personal stuff," says Mr. Parini about his most personal work. "My first real book of poems was Anthracite Country (1982), and it focused on my childhood in the coal mining region of northeastern Pennsylvania. My grandfather and uncles were miners. My one uncle died in the mines. I grew up with this imagery around me, as part of the landscape of my life; it still lives there, in the back of my mind, as an essential landscape. I did one novel about this stuff, called The Patch Boys, published in 1986. It's my father's life in fiction, a story of a young man of Italian immigrant parents growing up in the mining country of Pennsylvania, near Scranton. I returned to that material in my most recent novel, The Apprentice Lover (2002). The hero of that novel, who goes to live in Italy as secretary to an older writer, is a fellow from near Scranton; there's a lot of material there from my own life. The main character is an alter-ego of mine, a version of myself, with much the same background.

"My new poems are more political. I have a volume of New and Selected poems: The Art of Subtraction. This begins with a sequence of poems that deal with Iraq and Bush and all of that madness...."

The question of the personal and the political in a writer's work can lead in turn to the question of a writer's responsibility to comment on social issues. Should a writer be a detached observer reporting on events and people? Or should he or she become involved in the political process?

"There's two bits to that question that I'll separate out. The one bit would be the question of to what extent are any of my political interests reflected in the fiction. And I'd have to say that it indirectly it bears on the fiction. Because the Tolstoy book, Benjamin's Crossing and The Apprentice Lover and I suppose even The Patch Boys, my early novel, all, to some degree, deal with the question of morality and public morality. And the responsibility of the artist, especially in the last three novels, to the public events of the day. Obviously, Walter Benjamin's story is the story in many ways a failure to comprehend the severity of the political situation at the moment. For all of his intellectual weight and breadth and depth, there was still a sense in which he was somewhat naive about the Nazi war machine and the trouble he was in. He stayed in Paris way too late.

"But nevertheless, he was an acutely sensitive political thinker. He was a Marxist. And so there was a way in which, in writing that novel through the mirror of history, I was thinking about contemporary events. And certainly with the most recent novel of mine, The Apprentice Lover, there's a lot in there about the Vietnam War. In many ways the Vietnam War is the touchstone event in my life. And I've gone back to it mentally over and over again. And in my poems as well. My poems have actually crept toward politics. Usually very quietly. In my book from 1988, Town Life, there's a poem in there about Cambodia. And I did visit the Cambodian refugee camps in the early '80s and wrote about them. So politics creeps into the poems periodically. And, of course, in the '80s I got reawakened into big time politics with the Reagan administration and their dreadful invasion of Nicaragua and support for the Contras and support for the death squads in El Salvador, support for right wing elements of Honduras and then the long history of America's relationship with Guatemala. Those things really obsessed me in the '80s. I was having difficulty writing about them and knowing how to get involved. So my political work consisted mostly of protests, letters to the editor and things like that.

"I think for the first time in a really major way I've been able to bring politics into my poetry with my new book of poems, The Art of Subtraction: New and Selected Poems. The first 54 poems in there are all brand new and a lot of them deal explicitly with George Bush and Iraq and Afghanistan and with the war on terror and 9/11. I had a villanelle about 9/11 which appeared in Poetry magazine a year after 9/11. And that's the opening poem in my new book. So, in my work, I've crept toward learning how to write imaginative work that's still politically engaged without just being boring political tracts. I've always hated political poetry fiction that is just rambling tracts. I try to have everything I do have the full weight of imagination behind it."