September 2008

Sean P. Carroll

features

An Interview with Stanley Crawford

Stanley Crawford is a writer whose work displays a deep understanding of the complex enterprise of being human. His first novel, the dark satire GASCOYNE, appeared in 1966. This eerily prophetic look at communication, consumption and consumerism could easily have been composed in the present day. Crawford’s second novel, Travel Notes (From Here To There) appeared in 1967. Log of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine was first published by Knopf in 1972. Unfortunately, the book fell out of print and for a time was revived by the University of New Mexico press.

Dalkey Archive has come to the rescue again; they also publish Crawford’s Some Instructions to My Wife. They have reprinted Crawford’s iconic novel, with a new afterword by Ben Marcus, so a new generation of readers can discover the unusual Unguentines and their namesake barge. Crawford has published one other novel, Petroleum Man in 2005 but has mostly focused on nonfiction, Mayordomo (1988), A Garlic Testament (1992) and A River in Winter (2003); all while operating the garlic farm that he and his wife RoseMary founded over 30 years ago in New Mexico.
                       
This interview was conducted via e-mail during the middle of August.

Can you explain the genesis of Log of The S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine and the landscape of the novel upon its 1972 publication?

I wrote my first novel on Lesbos, my second on Crete, and my third, Log, in San Francisco and Northern New Mexico in 1969-70. I had spent about seven years in Europe and South America during my 20s and early 30s, returning to the States in late '68. The transition was agonizing, and I stopped writing for about six months. Log came out of the blue in May of ‘69 -- a name in a short sentence. In retrospect, several themes went into it. The old couple on Killiney Hill near Dublin who lived in a greenhouse back of the main house, which they had carved up into three apartments, one of which my wife and I rented for six months before moving on to the States. RoseMary is Australian, daughter of a legendary mother whom I had not yet met. It's likely that they were the basic ingredients of the Unguentines.

I wrote the first draft of the novel in San Francisco and re-wrote it in Northern New Mexico in the spring of 1970. I remember receiving a tremendous boost in confidence in it when my English editor sent me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude: I felt I was mining a small tributary or tendril of the vein Marquez had discovered. What else? I discovered Virginia Woolf about that time; also Edith Wharton. But I can't say what was generally happening in the literary world, in part because I had moved so far away from London and New York. At that time people were still wondering whether New Mexico was in the United States….
 
Unguentine's obsessiveness with their barge borders on the fanatic and his near muteness enhances this quality. Do you feel that his is a religious devotion and how is this aspect integral to the narrative?

No; but all of my narrators are obsessives. I think his muteness was a way to represent and therefore deal with my own difficulties in returning to the States and trying to learn the new language of that rapidly changing and deeply polarized time. I felt I had come back to a foreign country and had to learn a new set of gestures and code words.
 
Communication and miscommunication are central themes in this novel. How does Mrs. Unguentine cope with the repeated rebuffs from her husband and how do her reactions impact their shared environment?
 
Mrs. Unguentine weaves everything into her fluctuating narrative, the good, the bad, the flat. I think that's how she copes. Unguentine is fodder for her narrative fantasies. I can't say I knew it at the time except instinctively, but I think this is how many women cope, or coped, with their lot.

The marriage of the Unguentines is unorthodox at best and abusive at worst. However, within these poles there are moments of tenderness and joy. Is their relationship an extreme example of the shared solitude that develops in a long relationship?

My wife's stepfather, a brilliant German chemist who had settled in Australia, died not long after RoseMary and I met on Crete. He was an erudite man, and several of his sayings worked their way into our relationship. One of them, to RoseMary's mother, his wife: "We are our predestined enemies." "Shared solitude" is a good way to put it.

Do you consider Unguentine an ecological novel?

Written during what some considered apocalyptic times not unlike the present day, I imagine that Unguentine's decision to take to sea was a response to the then-state of the world. Yes, there are ecological elements. At the time of writing the novel I was fiercely interested in back-to-the land technologies and I certainly felt that urban living of the sort I had known most of my adult life was as we say now unsustainable. During that time Stuart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog was my bible. Other than that I had not done any reading in the still small ecological bookshelf. Certainly, Carson's Silent Spring was in the air, as was Francis Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet. And certainly the neighboring hippie communes in Northern New Mexico -- none of which I knew directly -- probably had an influence. Except Lama, less a commune than an eclectic spiritual center, which I visited frequently in 1970.

You mentioned earlier that all of your narrators are obsessives. Why is this personality type such an appealing narrative vehicle for you? Do you consider yourself of a similar bent to some of your narrators?

Either I'm a little more obsessive than most people, or else more aware of it, as are perhaps most artists. An obsession is a way to organize experience -- or distort it. Probably the writer who opened that door for me was Moliere, who used obsessions and their silly extremes to deflate pretensions of all sorts and even as political sallies to the extent that his times allowed him to do so.
 
In Ben Marcus's afterword he mentions that Gordon Lish took the book under his editorial aegis but I understand this is somewhat of a misconception.
 
Lish was given a copy of the book by my editor, Robert Gottlieb, who was having trouble promoting it. Then at Esquire Magazine, Lish became a fan of the book, wrote me frequent notes, probably passed it on to Ann Beattie, who put it on her best books of the year list in, I think, The Village Voice.

You have used several structural devices in your novels, the diary in Petroleum Man, the domestic manual in Some Instructions to My Wife, as well as the ship's log in Mrs. Unguentine. What makes these frameworks so appropriate to your fiction?
 
Two points. Sartre said something to the effect that history had stripped us of the right to assume the position of the god-like omniscient narrator hovering over the action as if he has nothing to do with it except tell the story. From this it follows that the narrator must be part of the story, which he can be telling to someone for stated or for ulterior motives, or both, or confiding to himself (or herself, in the case of Log) in order to make some sense of what has befallen herself or simply to leave a record of events. An audience, sometimes specific, sometimes shadowy or indefinite, is posited, someone other than "the reader" of conventional omniscient narration. That said, I must say that I can enjoy a well-constructed novel told by an omniscient narrator as well as anyone, and many great novels have been written this way. As a writer I may simply not have the confidence to assume such narrative certainty.

You and your wife have been running a garlic farm in New Mexico for over 30 years. You have written eloquently and passionately on the subject, i.e., A Garlic Testament. How did you become involved in this atypical agrarian venture?

As a young writer I made a lot of money on my first novel, whose film rights were sold, though no movie has ever been made. I could have lived on in Europe another ten years, but when RoseMary and I met on Crete, got married, had our first child, things began to change. We came back to the States in late 1968, a time of urban violence and extreme political polarization over Vietnam. After six months in San Francisco, we followed new friends to Northern New Mexico, a la Easy Rider, took up gardening, then farming, built our own house, and all the rest. My years abroad had made me long for a life in which I had more control over the basic business of feeding ourselves and keeping warm in the winter, at a time when the political fabric of society was becoming shredded. During all this I was also discovering that I was not the sort of writer who could crank out a book every year, and that my gestation time was often slow and certainly unpredictable.

Do you have anything new that you are working on?

I hope to complete at least one of two MSS this winter, after the farm shuts down: a coming of age novel, and/or a nonfiction book about building the house. I started both in Mexico several years back.
 
Why do you think Unguentine continues to garner such fervent devotion and dedicated acolytes some 36 years after its publication?

Since I find it agonizing to re-read -- or re-live -- the novels, I'm never certain why people like them. Because they perhaps come from some deep place in the psyche? A couple of years ago, Mark Rudd of Weather Underground notoriety, confided to me that my first novel, GASCOYNE, was what radicalized him… As for Log, perhaps because it's a kind of luxuriant refuge from the world…?