An Interview with Christian Bauman
Christian Bauman is the author of three novels, the most recent of which is In Hoboken, set in the folk music scene of the ‘90s. I’ve been a fan of Bauman’s from the beginning, his first novel The Ice Beneath You, and have corresponded with him briefly around the release of each book, so I jumped at the chance to do this interview for Bookslut. This interview was conducted over a series of e-mails.
Well, let's get started.
June 2008. Hello from Paris, where I’m answering these questions. The weather is milder over here this week than at home in Pennsylvania, and for that I’m thankful. The weather and the foie gras, thankful for both. And I saw Jeanette Winterson today. Not in a “we shared witty conversation and a bottle of wine at a small table overlooking the Seine” kind of way, but in a “I walked into Shakespeare & Co. wondering what the line was about and there she was, signing books.” Unable to browse the stacks because of her line, I wandered over to Notre Dame just in time to have the guard lock the gate on me. A wrinkled little pear of a street woman saw my defeat and showed me how to get in through the Exit, so she got my 5 Euros directly, rather than me having to pass it through God’s hands first. Okay, let’s answer questions.
First of all, I have to say that as much as I loved your first two novels, reading In Hoboken felt like your writing was finally hitting its stride. I kept finding myself smiling, not because of anything that was happening in the book, but just because it was so pleasurable to read. Was writing this book more enjoyable as well? What do you think accounted for the difference?
Well, first: thank you. It’s a funny thing about what is pleasurable to write, and why. My second novel, Voodoo Lounge, is a fairly dark piece of writing, but it was a pleasure to write in an odd way because I was in a very dark place when I wrote it. This new novel In Hoboken has its moments of sadness and tragedy, but is in general of a much lighter mood, and it was a pleasure to write because I was coming out of a dark place and this book helped me do that. In fact, I abandoned the novel I was planning on following Voodoo Lounge with because it too was dark and I couldn’t stay there anymore. I’m sure I’ll eventually write that book, I think it will be a good one, but I just couldn’t do it then. In Hoboken started on an unfocused whim, but unfolded like a well of relief.
As for hitting my stride, I like to think that I’m learning something as I go along. I don’t know if In Hoboken is the best thing I’ve written or not so far, but it certainly feels good right now, and it felt good writing it. Most writers I know, myself included, tend to think that whatever they’re working on at any given moment is the best they’ve ever done. Except when I’m depressed, and then I’m pretty sure I’ve never written anything any good, and it’s actually all getting worse.
While I was reading this book, I kept wanting to ask you if you've read Wendell Berry. His writings on being rooted in a place are certainly much more agricultural in nature, but they were still continually brought to mind by your obvious love of Hoboken. Did you know that you loved the city when you lived there? Or is it one of those loves that only becomes clear in retrospect?
Wendell Berry... you know, I haven’t yet read any of his work. I am a fan, though, of another Kentucky writer, from a different generation, a contemporary of mine, Silas House. His work is deeply and beautifully rooted in place. But when I was writing In Hoboken, the two writers most on my mind were Penelope Fitzgerald and Bruce Chatwin. Which may not make sense on the face of it because this book is nothing like either of them, and they’re nothing like each other (apart from both being British and dead). But as a writer I’ve always admired how they not only capture a place but make it an equal character, as well. Hemingway, when he was good, pulled this trick off. Marilyn Robinson does it, and Annie Proulx.
As for Hoboken, New Jersey, I never officially lived there (as I’ve had to explain to a lot of people this spring). I slept on a lot of couches in Hoboken, worked there very briefly, and made music there. And yes, I did love it. The love started from realizing a friend of mine was in love with the place, and then trying to figure out why, and appreciating his reasons then discovering my own. It was still a city of beautiful contrasts, in the 1990s. In some ways it still is.
The other great love of this novel is folk music, and you yourself toured the folk circuits after leaving the military. Were you tempted to just flood the book with lyrics you'd loved or written?
I was not only tempted to flood it with lyrics (folk, rock, and otherwise), in the first writing of the book I did flood it. Copyright laws and small fortunes demanded for royalties took the flood to a trickle, though. There was a lot of stuff in there that had to come out. Most disappointing was losing a good chunk of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi.” Under what’s called “fair use” there is still a small sliver of the lyric in a scene where Thatcher plays the song in the New York City subway. But as originally written, almost the whole song was there, interspersed with the forward narrative. It was a bigger scene than lives in the book now, and frankly a better scene, with deeper meaning. But the publisher that controls the rights to Woody’s songs wanted a fee that I couldn’t afford. I had to pull the song except for just a few lines, and because of that, had to severely edit the scene because it didn’t make sense without the backdrop of Woody’s lyrics. It was the first time I’ve had to deal with changing my work because of non-artistic reasons, and it was a bitter pill to swallow. No question I’ve rewritten my work because of conversations with an editor, but not from the point of commerce per se, but just to make a better book or story or essay. This was my first experience with having to gouge out a chunk of my baby against my will and judgment. My fault, I guess, for writing a scene that relied on a the glue of someone else’s work... but it just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to use the song. Naïve me. Problem is that Woody’s daughter Nora and the other family members don’t control the publishing; the publishers do. It’s their right to ask for some "Do Re Mi" to use the song, and I would have gladly paid it if I could have afforded it, so I’m not complaining. Just bummed.
“Do Re Mi” has long been an important song to me, personally. I got to sing that song on stage with Pete Seeger, and then a few years later got to sing it with Woody’s sister when Camp Hoboken was on tour out in Oklahoma. I think it’s one of Woody’s best (and he wrote no shortage of great ones).
You've said in various places that when you were younger you liked to imagine yourself as a modern-day Woody Guthrie or John Steinbeck -- traveling the country and telling the everyday tragedies that mostly go untold. What do you think is our modern day dust bowl disaster?
There’s not a clear parallel to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression; not yet, anyway. I mean in terms of the economic devastation and wholesale collapse of society that America went through then. But as for trying to tell stories that have gone untold... that’s what I’ve been trying to do all along, and certainly with my first two novels. America has a very uncomfortable relationship with its soldiers, especially its young enlisted soldiers. As a country we love to wave the flag and yell rah-rah, but relatively few really know who it is who wears the uniform, and what those people are really like, and why they’re in the uniform to begin with. I’ve referred to this new novel In Hoboken as a love song, and it is, but Voodoo Lounge and The Ice Beneath You were love songs, too, in their own ways. As a kid, I wasn’t so much a fan of Steinbeck as a fan of the idea of Steinbeck, the idea of “Here’s this thing I’ve seen, these people I’ve met, and I’d like to tell you about them.” As a writer, I’m more interested in making the descriptive introduction than I am in a purely social novel. And maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be less of it, these days. Certainly among the stars of fiction. You do have your Annie Proulx, your Michael Ondaatje. But the big, thick social novels usually get the attention. Anyway, as a reader, it’s all good, but as a writer, there are definitely certain things I’m interested in and certain things I’m not.
I recently read your essay "Not Fade Away" from the anthology Bookmark Now, and as someone who also has notebook after notebook filled with short stories, lyrics and poems, I have to ask: Do you keep everything
you've ever written?
You know, I really like that essay, so thanks for bringing it up. As for the notebooks from my teens and twenties, yeah, I have them. Somewhere. In a box in the attic. I made a decision a few years ago to box them up and put them away for awhile, some unspecified while, maybe five years, maybe a decade. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never look at them again. I think I will look at them again, but I need to put some air in there, so to speak. I also wanted to put them away so they’ll be out of reach if I do something stupid like get drunk one night and decide to burn them. If I pull them out a few years from now and everything in there sucks, then I can throw them out in good conscience. But at least this way I give anything in there that might be good a chance to live, by putting the time to it. Because when you put time behind writing, I’ve learned, both the good and the bad become almost immediately apparent.
From a place now of moving forward, my modern era, I guess (he says with a smirk), I’ve gotten better at seeing what is shit and quickly losing it (“quick” being relative; now it might only take me 6 months to identify something as shit, where it used to take a few years). There are short stories I wrote in my twenties that I truly never want to see again.
Also in that essay, I love that you pointedly reference novels by both Stephen King (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption) and Anne McCafferey (Dragonriders of Pern) as books that young writers could learn from. When should we expect your first work of horror or speculative fiction?
Sooner than you might think, maybe. I’m working on two books right now. I’m working on a novel called The Dog House about (among other things) a woman who keeps buying dogs, and the small Pennsylvania town she lives in, and I’m working on a young adult novel with a working title of The Night Door. (“Young adult” means, I guess, teens.) It couldn’t be more different than the other book. Or from anything else I’ve ever published, for that matter. It’s about two sisters in Manhattan and the sun hasn’t been out in a year and it won’t stop snowing and there’s this heavy door and a stairway and that’s all I’m going to say about that right now.
As for King and McCafferey, I’ve about had it up to here with writers who like to pretend they never read anything but Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners as children. I grew up in a weird house of readers where I was reading adult literary fiction at a very young age (in some cases, way too young an age) but what got me off and kept me up nights reading under the covers were books that scared the shit out of me or took me somewhere way out of my universe. Some of it you leave behind (I’m not likely to read Dean Koontz again, no offense Dean) but Peter Straub is a brilliant writer, one of our country’s best, you can quote me on that. Stephen King, when he hits it, hits it so very hard (and, after a decade or so of floaty unevenness, there is real evidence that he’s hitting it hard again; I haven’t read the new one, but Lisey’s Story was like meeting an old friend). We were talking of writing of place before... one of my first great lessons in that came from King, and his early novels, his ability to so deeply capture the time and place and people of lower-middle-class Maine in the 1970s. And Anne McCafferey; is she less a writer because she writes about dragons and dragonriders and not college cocktail parties? Please.