March 2008

Jeff VanderMeer


An Interview with Peter LaSalle

One of our most distinguished short fiction writers, Peter LaSalle has won several awards for his work, and his stories have appeared in such magazines and anthologizes as the Paris Review, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Best of the West, Best American Fantasy, Best American Mystery Stories, and Sports' Best Short Stories, among others. He's a member of the creative writing faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches in both the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. His books include a novel, Strange Sunlight, and three short story collections, most recently Tell Borges If You See Him: Tales of Contemporary Somnambulism from the University of Georgia Press. Bomb Magazine called these stories "masterful and idiosyncratic," and reviewing the book for the Providence Sunday Journal in December, Kristin Latina wrote: "Peter LaSalle may not be a literary household name, but if you read his latest collection of short stories, Tell Borges If You See Him, you might just wonder why not." I interviewed him via e-mail earlier this year.

How do you feel your fiction has changed over the years, beyond the changes that occur from acquiring greater mastery of technique?

Well, since I started writing in college, I've always had two distinct instincts. They're sometimes opposed, nearly wrestling with each other -- one for the realistic, in my case meaning the very descriptively detailed, and one for a fiction that's more daring, with the attraction to work in an overtly experimental vein. I suppose that lately I'm willing to listen more to the experimental voice. Actually, I see the stories in Tell Borges If You See Him in line with all of this by blending the two to a degree, and the writing is maybe a realistic surrealism, if that makes any sense. I chose the word “somnambulism,” or sleepwalking, for the subtitle because I thought that it got at that feeling we often have of moving dreamlike through landscapes that are very much our waking, realistic ones, and our doing so in a sort of intensely experienced and even visionary way. André Breton talks of the luminous painting of the wonderful nineteenth-century French Symbolist Gustave Moreau -- whose work apparently changed Breton's life when he first encountered the canvases at seventeen -- as being an invitation to enter a “somnambulistic world.” I think that's what I'm after here, evoking some sense of that for my characters in the book, whether they might be a college girl strung out on pills in Paris or a guy up against the AIDS epidemic. Probably strangest -- and therefore dreamiest, I'd say -- is the story about the old piano-lounge entertainer, an optimistic sort once locally famous in seaside resorts around New England who won't accept the truth that he is, in fact, dead. I do hope the word “somnambulism” gets taken this way in the subtitle, not the hokey cartoon image of somebody in pajamas trudging along with eyes closed and arms held out straight.

What, for you, are the fundamental questions or issues facing fiction writers today? Or, to rephrase, what's on your mind lately when it comes to thinking about fiction?

I think it's the whole tricky matter of having enough conviction -- or being crazy enough -- to forget what the marketplace is demanding and to explore and push against the limits some. Though I published one novel a while back, the short story for me has always had more potential for innovation than the novel. It might be because it's essentially closer to poetry and can make startling leaps, what's perhaps metaphysical, bypassing the cause-and-effect, plot-heavy logic and explanation that a novel's several hundred pages can understandably require because of that length. The story genre is currently rather out with big publishers, I'm told, seldom meeting the right bottom line in sales for them, and long gone is the sweet era of Raymond Carver in the '80s when the short story boomed in New York, comparatively speaking, anyway.

You know, that could actually be a good thing, because for the time being it takes commercial pressure out of the formula a bit more and leaves most story publishing up to the independent presses and the university presses, as well as, and especially, the literary magazines. I never fail to read some great stuff when I pick up a magazine like Agni or Tin House, let's say, often by new writers. And there was the beautiful story that you had in the anthology you edited, Best American Fantasy, by a young writer named Ramola D. from the Green Mountains Review, about gathering corpses in the shadowy streets of India. I found myself reading it then immediately starting it again, rereading it, savoring the precise language and haunting mood. In America we're really lucky to have the vibrant literary magazine scene. I think it's probably done more than anything to keep serious short fiction alive and thriving here. I go to teach in France sometimes, know some writers there, who tell me that the French usually don't write stories anymore because they don't have the many outlets like our literary magazines to first publish them. Man, what sorrow and loss, when you think this was the land that produced Maupassant.

To what extent does the “sense of play” factor into the success of a short story?

At times plenty, and not only in the short story but in all writing. Of course, such play isn't to be thought of as something frivolous, just fooling around, and on this I'll also avoid getting into the whole complicated business of -- here come our Gallic confrères again -- what the French call jouissance. For me “play” basically means an exploration of the wonderful, and hopefully pleasurable, possibilities of the imagination given free rein. You see it in Cervantes, Sterne, Nabokov, García Marquez, Barthelme, and the Virginia Woolf of Orlando, and you certainly see it in most any fiction by Borges, his story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” a perfect example.

In one story in my book, “The End of Narrative,” I know that play surely figured in. It's the final piece, about a rather melancholy painter in New York discovering that his beautiful lover keeps a very revealing personal blog on the Web -- with the looming question as to which is real, the woman he knows or the woman on the Web, definitely a dreamlike plight for him. The writing of that story was a veritable high, to borrow the jargon from my own lost youth in the '60s. I was totally floating in the world of it for a couple of weeks one hot Austin summer while writing it, as ideas on where it might go, what might happen in it, even the phrasing of it, bounced and circled around in my head, vertiginous, triggering still other ideas that, yes, bounced and circled around. I'd like to think the reader has that kind of experience with it, too, and I wanted the text to look as if it's being composed right before the reader's eyes, complete with repetitions, contradictions, false starts in paragraphs, crossed-out sections, and such.

There's a solid anthology on this sort of thing, in case anybody is interested, that was brought out by Sarabande Books several years back, a book still in print and that I was lucky enough to be included in. It builds on the idea of play, stressing especially the essence of it in the fullness of language itself, called A Fine Excess: Contemporary Literature at Play. It has some amazing work by poets such as Yusef Komunyakaa and C.K. Williams and fiction writers like William Gass, John Hawkes, and Rick Moody. I use it as a reader for my creative writing classes sometimes, to, if nothing else, combat the kind of more predictably old-fashioned Richard Ford, etc. fare that you can get too much of in the safe -- and also absurdly overpriced -- mainstream anthologies financed by the big college textbook companies.

What is your relationship with readers? Are you your own ideal reader when you write?

Simply enough, besides always hoping that I do have some readers in the first place, I want to try my best to keep them always intrigued, caught up and immersed in the spell of the narrative conjured up by words. It's as old as a mother telling a child a story before bed – which my own mother, a former librarian, always did for me, making up the tales spontaneously -- to send him or her into the world of dreams with that transport of words. I wouldn't say I am my own ideal reader when I write, and that could sound pretty self-defeating, even close to demented, like every man his own king or something, no?

Can you teach a beginning writer to be more aware of the details of the world around them? How about imagination -- can that be taught?

Questions along these lines have kept bobbing up ever since teaching creative writing began as a campus experiment. I myself have been teaching for a long time, having done so at several schools. It's been my only real means of livelihood as an adult except for a stint as a beach cleaner in coastal Rhode Island -- oh, that smell of discarded Pampers slow-roasting in the July sun! -- and then a brief and somewhat confused early career as a daily newspaper reporter, where I started out, believe it or not, working the tough-guy city police beat. I had terrific, selfless creative writing teachers who both inspired me and taught me a lot, including Carter Wilson and Alan Lebowitz at Harvard during college and, especially, Richard Stern during my year of grad school for a master's in creative writing at the University of Chicago. It's Stern, by the way, to whom Tell Borges If You See Him is co-dedicated, along with the writer Zulfikar Ghose. Until recently, Ghose was on the creative writing faculty with me here at University of Texas, a fine teacher and novelist of rock-solid artistic integrity who has written beautifully about Brazil, somebody I greatly admire and who might represent for me, now that I think about it, an ultimate, all-time ideal reader.

I think you can do two things as a creative writing teacher. You can teach some craft, like how to pace a narrative or make sure dialog sounds real, and you can turn somebody on to good reading. The reading you suggest to students, hopefully, will also teach them craft and touch them with the literary fire -- excite them, make them long to write something worthwhile themselves. As for imagination and an eye for detail, plus verbal ability, you can't give those to anybody, of course, any more than you can give a wide receiver or running back in football innate athletic ability. But you can help activate the gifts if they're there, encourage writing students to work hard and be brave and daring in the service of such gifts, too, as they discover their own subjects and obsessions. And believe me, to see the results of all of this can be more than satisfying. To be frank, I love teaching and am ceaselessly and gushingly grateful for having it as a job -- reading what students produce, taking home a big pile of stories over the weekend and wondering what I will find. And do the students ever produce. I suppose I'm also repeatedly humbled -- bordering on being intimidated, semester in and semester out -- by the amount of raw talent I encounter in my classes, both graduate and undergrad. It's wonderful, yet, as said, inevitably a bit daunting. There's a good observation that no less a personage than John Updike himself once made on how he tried formal teaching of creative writing just one time, maybe at the Harvard Summer School when young. Updike explained that he was so bowled over by the quality of the work written for his class that he suspected that only by the grace of God had he himself made it as a writer, so he decided not to do any further teaching -- he didn't need to be constantly reminded of something like that.

What are the most common misconceptions about fiction writing in your students? Not pie-in-the-sky career misconceptions, but about writing or the act of writing.

It might be that some of them don't quite understand yet the actual nature of a writer's daily life, which more often than not means being stuck in a room by yourself for long stretches -- it's what constitutes the ultimate punishment in the prison business, called solitary confinement, right? -- and endlessly clicking away at a keyboard. Granting that there's a welcome good measure of the aforementioned pleasure of the imagination involved, I think that to a certain extent it's always taken a kind of loner, or possibly almost strange type of person who doesn't mind being alone, realizing that it goes with the territory. Chamber of Commerce glad-handers and Elks Club back-slappers usually need not apply, if you know what I mean. Though I guess, in a way, you have to occasionally envy those grinning suckers for being the carefree, happy-go-lucky citizens they are.

What do you most fear?

That's putting the old cards on the table, all right. Let's see. Well, probably the same as most everybody else, I sure wouldn't like the idea of being dead, which would rule out a lot of things. It would rule out venting on the page my own near lifelong obsession with words and what I still doggedly believe -- even in this clamoring age of mostly empty and meaningless so-called information -- they can tell us about the never simple mysteries somewhere pretty deep inside us all. And it would also rule out being with the people who are dear to me, as well as mean my missing stuff like playing ice hockey and traveling to offbeat foreign places to learn all I can about a country's literature there, usually doing so on a shoestring and solo, as if in a dream -- which I truly love.