An Interview with Charles Baxter
Charles Baxter is the kind of person you’d hope to have as your friend. He’s the kind of person that people like whether it’s for his enormous talent as a writer, poet and essayist or because he has a certain honesty about him that you might find in any one of the characters in his last nine or so works published. Baxter is likeable in ways that make others want to emulate his writing style or even just the everyday life he leads.
I had the opportunity to talk with Charlie via e-mail about his latest work, The Soul Thief, where a young college student loses his own identity to a friend who has ultimately blurred the lines between reality and fantasy. Perhaps what’s even more interesting is that Baxter is someone who’s encountered a similar situation much like the one in his own novel that caused him to really think about what’s so interesting and alluring about identity as a theme in his works and in life.
Here we discuss what prompted him to write The Soul Thief, Gertrude Stein, living in Minnesota and what it is about Saul and Patsy that’s kept them alive in his work for all these years.
Let’s talk about your latest work, The Soul Thief. This is the 12th work you’ve completed, right? You’ve written two collections of essays (Beyond Plot and Burning Down the House), one work of poetry, (Imagining Paintings) and now, nine works of fiction. That’s a pretty outstanding resume! The Soul Thief is one of the most unique pieces I’ve read since Feast of Love. Tell me how this book came to be. Did it evolve out of a smaller work or did you have the story of Nathaniel waiting to be told and it just kind of came together?
Something once happened to me that was a dramatic distant-cousin to what happened to Nathaniel. Someone went around Los Angeles for a while claiming to be Charles Baxter. I thought about that for years and finally felt that I was ready to write about it (but I had to have some formal problems in the story solved so that I could do it).
I'm really interested that the premise of this book was derived from a real person actually walking around telling Angelinos that he was you. How did you end up finding out about him? How did that make you feel? How did that ultimately end for him?
He didn't quite say that he was me. What he said was that "Charles Baxter" was his pen name and that he had written my work. He was a friend, but I didn't know that he was doing this, of course. The whole thing eventually unraveled. I felt terrible for both of us -- because he had tricked me and betrayed me and felt the need to do so, and for myself, because I had lost a friend.
Having written short story collections and novels, and being equally good at both, do you feel you are better at one than the other?
I prefer to write short stories. “Better” at one or the other? The writer him- or herself probably shouldn’t say. That’s up to the reader.
You like to write about Michigan. You were working and teaching there at the University for many years. Now that you’ve moved to Minnesota to teach, do you feel that it has the same influence over you with writing?
It’s always had an influence because I grew up in Minnesota. I’ve always thought of myself as a Minnesotan -- there’s a certain mildness of temperament of the people here that I share.
The book prior to The Soul Thief, you’d written Saul and Patsy which stemmed from re-occurring stories about them in previous short story collections -- first being from Believers “Saul and Patsy are in Labor” and then in A Relative Stranger, “Saul and Patsy are Pregnant.” Why do you think the stories of Saul and Pasty were so attractive to you? Do you think there are other characters that you’ve written about that would garner the same attention going forward, looking down the road?
Actually, the first chapter of Saul and Patsy derived from “Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan,” which appeared in Through the Safety Net. I’m not sure why I kept going back to those two characters. They were interesting and sexy and sweet, I guess. In the first story about them, the one I just cited, I thought I had killed them off; actually, I hadn’t. There always seemed to be more to say about them. For me, they were a representative married couple who get mixed up with kids who are under-parented. I thought that was a good theme, and which was doubled by the subject of people who feel as if they’re excluded from the house of happiness.
Feast of Love was the first book I read of yours and after that, I went back through and read all of the other works one by one. I thank Nick Hornby for the recommendation. He had been raving about Feast of Love while at a reading here in Los Angeles at the Beverly Hills Library. This last year, Feast was adapted for the screen, a film that starred Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear. What was that process like for you as a writer?
Well, it was interesting. Many talented people worked on that movie. I didn’t have much of anything to do with it, apart from having written the book it was based on. And then there it was, up on the screen.
You’ve written some short -stories over the years and in 2003, I recall having met you at a little thing called WordTheatre in Venice, California. Cedering Fox, who began WordTheatre, (a production of actors and sometimes, writers who read from other written works by well-known authors) asked you to come out about the time you released Saul and Patsy. What was it like for you to hear your words/work being performed by other actors? Ron Carlson and Adam Arkin read from your work, if I recall correctly. I think Catherine Dent was there too. Had you ever been to an event like the one Cedering put on?
One other time, when an actor read my work in New York. I was very happy with the event in Venice. I thought Catherine Dent was marvelous, as was Adam Arkin. I was overjoyed by the way the evening went, by the dedication of those actors to my texts.
The Soul Thief is your latest novel which delves into the life of Nathaniel Mason, a grad student in the 1970’s in New York who encounters Jerome Coolberg, (aptly named as the reader can later surmise) a charming guy with an odd way about him. Even more interesting, he tends to tell others about experiences that happen to others, but claims them as his own. This story seems like a departure for you in style, yet it also simmers with a similar theme you seem attracted to. Identity. Whether it’s the lives of your characters in Feast of Love or the high school student infatuated with Saul in “Saul and Patsy” or here with Coolberg and Nathaniel, it seems to be an undercurrent in several of your works. Why do you think identity is a re-occuring theme in your work(s)?
For me, identity is the great mystery: how do we become who we are? Is it possible for us to become other selves? (Obviously, for a fiction writer, it is possible.) I've always thought of my own identity as somewhat fluid. My very first book of poems was titled Chameleon. So it goes.
In The Soul Thief Nathaniel is haunted by the voice of Gertrude Stein as he is in need of advice. The fact that Nathaniel’s subconscious chose Stein says a lot about him. What are your thoughts on Stein as a muse in this story? And in your decision to include her in this story of souls and mirror images, shadows and deception.
Oh, well. Gertrude Stein presents such a complex figure. Sometimes she sounds like a baby and sometimes she sounds like Oscar Wilde, with all those epigrams. You can’t quite get a handle on her. You never quite know whom you’re dealing with when you’re dealing with her. Her identity always seems to be going out-of-focus. That’s why I wanted her in my book.
This novel, at moments felt a bit Palaniuk to me, almost like I wasn’t sure if Nathaniel was having a Fight Club-ish problem in who he perceives himself to be and who he really is/was. Why do you think Nathaniel has such trouble dealing the details Coolberg tells him when they meet up years later?
Because he’s implicated in them. He didn’t fight back. He let things happen. He obviously feels guilty about what’s happened to Jamie; he didn’t do it himself, but a series of events have been set into motion, and he was at the center...
You are still teaching in Minnesota, but prior to this, you taught at University of Michigan. What made you decide to move?
I needed a change. It was a mid-life crisis. Ann Arbor began to seem a bit... small.
Let’s talk a bit about the ending of the book. Some reviewers have criticized the ending, but some say that ending is the ultimate in thievery, having the book end like it does. Overall the metaphysical here makes this work different from your more recent publications. What made you end the book the way you did? (I guess its okay to give it away here since we’re discussing it). Was it your plan from the beginning to have the story to turn itself onto the reader?
Oh, sure. What’s the book about if not that? Of course Coolberg has been writing Nathaniel’s story. He’s taken it over. Your story doesn’t belong to you, does it? Why shouldn’t I write your story and claim it as mine? Who says I can’t do that? I’m serious.
Having taught in the MFA programs at Univ. of Michigan and now in Minnesota, do you feel MFA programs and their reputation amongst other writers, industry natives and the publishing remains the same or do you see that climate changing at all in the future?
Finally, I don’t think there is much concern about MFA programs in general. It’s the way things are, now. Any writer is free not to go into an MFA program. You don’t have to sign up. If you want to do it on your own, more power to you.
A lot of your characters are mid-westerners and your stories are often set in the mid-west. Aside from living in Michigan and Minnesota, and taking with you your experience of the people there, do you feel that there is something about the way of life and those characters, those people in that landscape that are alluring to you?
William Maxwell used to say about Illinois that it was his “imagination’s home.” There is something about the Midwest that I’ve tried to get into my stories: the odd politeness of the people here, their secretiveness, their wish to do good. But The Soul Thief is largely set in Los Angeles and Buffalo -- not really the deep Midwest. I wanted to go from a locale where things were once made, to a locale where images are manufactured and mass-marketed.
What do you see yourself working on next? What do you think has given you the most grief as a writer over the years, in terms of certain stories or characters?
I’m working on stories now. Everything gives me grief. It’s difficult human work. But if it weren’t difficult, where would be the reward?