Voices in the countercurrent, gentle satire versus jugular-vein satire, and the material world of growing things.
A visitor to Stanley Crawford’s website will immediately notice a curious thing—along the page’s sidebar there is a link to purchase books, as one might expect, but also, placed just as prominently, a link to purchase shallots by the pound. Crawford, who in 1970 settled in Dixon, New Mexico after years of study and travel, says he did not intend to become a farmer, but that having done so, he took to the work. Indeed, his three works of nonfiction—Mayordomo (1988), A Garlic Testament (1992), and The River in Winter (2003)—reflect this commitment and display a fierce, yet practical, attachment to his calling and community.
Crawford’s works of fiction—five novels published over the course of nearly fifty years, including the cult classic Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine and the recently reissued Travel Notes—display their own kind of ferocity. These novels tend to extremes of character and setting. His narrators, with the exception of Mrs Unguentine, are all, to varying degrees, monsters. They are puffed up with self-importance, espouse unpopular opinions, and suffer from lack of self-awareness. They’re also funny.
The humor in Crawford’s work, which often comes from his ability to follow logic to its most absurd ends, is sharp and unsparing. He has said elsewhere that what proves interesting to him is often something that at first appalls, which accounts for the tediously literal and scrupulous narrator of Some Instructions (the full title continues: To My Wife Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage and to my Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of Their Childhood):
[L]ights are to be turned off inside the house promptly at eleven, since late nights . . . . suggest discord or argumentation between the Husband and the Wife, and should this prove necessary, should the Husband and Wife choose to quarrel after eleven at night, they are advised to draw the curtains and lower the blinds and turn off the lights and to quarrel in a low voice, a whisper if at all possible.
Some Instructions is a domestic piece, which is rather an exception in Crawford’s fiction. The other novels are full of mad energy and movement. GASCOYNE careens along LA’s freeways; Unguetine drifts off to sea; Petroleum Man jets off to broker business deals. In Travel Notes, the narrator takes us on a (mental) journey through a world full of colorful characters—aviators who only dream of flying, linguists afraid of words—and bizarre locations—seaside resorts lined with mausoleums and cities under siege from trees—yet no inventory of the novel’s wonders does justice to the whole.
Stephen Sparks With Calamari Press reissuing Travel Notes nearly fifty years after its original publication and, before that, Dalkey Archive reissuing Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine (in 2008), I want to ask: how does it feel to be a writer who seems destined to be continually rediscovered?
Stanley Crawford The reissuing has gone on for a few years now. Palomar (Bari) issued an Italian translation of Log by Mario Materassi a few years back, and Cambourakis (Paris) will reissue the French translation in June. All preferable to the alternative of terminal obscurity. I have probably always known that I wasn't and never would be a mainstream author despite the usual fantasies of commercial success, and perhaps one of the effects of that condition is being periodically “rediscovered.” It's hard thinking of yourself as a writer with nothing in print—the case a couple of times in the 1970s and 1980s—so there's a certain satisfaction in finally seeing all the fiction back on the shelves. Though of course the usual doubts remain.
SS What kind of doubts?
SC Books are like children, and when one is “rediscovered” I'm very happy for it. The writer who wrote it, however, is long gone, has moved on to other things, and though I'm sure my writer's ego receives a little boost, such things do little to assuage the overall anxiety or insecurity of being a writer who has not been commercially successful in a major way. Obviously I've managed to keep working through this countercurrent—or because of it?—within a society that is inclined to measure success in monetary terms. Perhaps such insecurities are what lure one onward to the next project, to try to fill the void. As to the why, early circumstances—education, travel, early work experience—tended to cultivate a somewhat subversive or alternative view of mainstream culture and politics, and my fiction taps into all of that (or so I hope). This might lead to the peculiar argument that were my work to attain bestseller status, I might see that as another kind of failure.
SS You put various forms to use: the log, notes, reports. What about these forms appeals to you?
SC Letters, notes, logs: these were the devices that early novels used to legitimize themselves, being a late-blooming form with a newcomer's inferiority complex, which perhaps it has never lost. Tragedy, comedy, epic and lyric poetry didn't fret about their legitimacy. Perhaps the best epistolary novels are the eighteenth-century La Princesse de Clèves and Les Liaisons dangereuses, but the technique has never entirely lost its appeal. The letter, notes, logs, found manuscripts, messages in bottles, are all attempts to establish verisimilitude. With my most recent three novels, as yet unpublished, I have finally dispensed those devices, perhaps in the realization that what really carries me into a novel is voice and detail and delight at how language is being re-formed by the pressures of the situation and story. And next winter I plan to rewrite a novel told from perhaps a dozen points of view, in violation of Sartre's dictum that we no longer have the right to play god via an omniscient point of view.
SS Your fiction is largely voice-driven. Considering the often overbearing nature of these narrative voices, I wonder how you live with them. Do they insist? Cajole? Does the presence of a voice contribute to the way you write novels?
SC It was not easy living with Leon Tuggs of Petroleum Man, but I had just spent a couple of years trying to write a nonfiction book on the automobile and was becoming weary of my own liberal pieties. I decided to try to have some fun. Well, I did, sort of. Including Petroleum Man, the earlier novels were all voice-driven, and each took about five weeks to get most of a first draft down, seven days a week (when possible), from early morning until often early afternoon, with mid-afternoon (coffee) and pre-dinner (wine) note-taking sessions for the next day's work. Since Petroleum Man, my routine has somewhat loosened, and two of the novels since then have not been voice-driven, or certainly not as much, plus the one now in progress; and the five-week business has evolved into years of putting manuscripts down and then picking them up again, in part because I no longer have the sort of uninterrupted blocks of time I had during my five expatriate years in Greece and France. The voices just speak, you might say, freeing me not to worry about grammar, repetition, varying sentence structures, plotting, arranging details—all those things I fret over while writing the other way. In editing, of course, I trim away some excess, some repetition, etc., but not much. Perhaps the story is concealed within the voice, which makes the telling of it seem both easy and stimulating. In the novel I'm rewriting now I find myself fitting details together like a puzzle—which I'm actually enjoying.
SS Is there something about a character like Leon—or GASCOYNE, or the narrator in Some Instructions—that appeals to you, difficult as they may be?
SC For some reason, being outspoken became a value to me and it eventually entered my writing through my curmudgeonly narrators. What appealed to me in them was their insistence on voicing the difficult truths, if not always acceptably. In speaking and writing we're fenced in by all kinds of taboos about sex and money and bodily functions in general and the often yawning gap between what we really think and what we are obliged to say within social and political constraints. In fiction we can be as outspoken as we want and get away with it, or even be rewarded for it. I would guess that most politically liberal readers find Leon Tuggs abhorrent, but I would also hope that his reflections on money and power are firmly based in the economic realities of the era. Perhaps a good villain is one who speaks some of the difficult truths about human nature. My most recent curmudgeon, the aged narrator of Seed, is not ideologically driven, unlike his predecessors, and as a result his outspokenness is far less sharp, and he's much more fun to be around.
SS Do extremes—of character, logic, setting—make for better satire?
SC Some satire is sharp, jugular vein stuff—mainly political satire—and yes, extremes of all kinds are useful to drive home the knife. But then there's what I'll try to call gentle satire, in which there's an element of affection and even sympathy. I would put some of Shakespeare's comic characters and all of Molierè's in this category. I think this is in part why I love Kate Grenville's Idea of Perfection. She sends up her characters but also loves them. Think of it as satire that's akin to teasing and kidding. It's what I hope I'm now writing in the new novel, as yet untitled.
SS Is there a relation between satire and morality? Do you think your fiction is moral?
SC Kant via Isaiah Berlin, an approximate quote: “From the crooked timber of mankind, nothing straight has ever been cut.” This is what fiction (and poetry) constantly remind us of. And this is why totalitarian and fundamentalist regimes are so quick to persecute writers. Novels and stories are about the exceptions that threaten the perfection of ideological systems of all kinds. Of my novels, GASCOYNE and Petroleum Man are the most political, being about men who have sought to impose a kind of perfection on their vacillating subjects. So political, yes, but moral? Yes, perhaps in that I am celebrating the exceptions, the individuals in the other fiction. Yet the verdict on all that will remain out until it becomes clear whether or not our cherished individualism will end up completely despoiling the planet.
SS You didn’t publish any fiction in the 1980s or 90s, though during these years you published two nonfiction accounts of your life in Dixon, Mayordomo and Garlic Testament.
SC Nonfiction occupies another part of the brain, and the writing of it is mostly not the obsessive seven-day-a-week business that has characterized my experience of writing novels. In some ways it's more immediately satisfying to write directly about the farm, the material world, and politics, but in fiction it's a lot more fun and usually far more exciting, and has a peculiar shaping experience, as a kind of feedback, on the imagination.
SS So, your nonfiction work grew out of your experience farming. Besides subject matter, what do you think is the major difference between being a working, as opposed to a teaching, writer?
SC In my more radical days I proposed that writers and artists shouldn't be allowed into the classroom or workshop as teachers until they had established themselves professionally, and even then there should be term limits on their teaching. I read somewhere recently that the main object of publishing a book is to get a teaching position in an MFA program. This is a little worrisome. I have, however, mellowed since then, and after teaching two semesters in the UMass/Amherst MFA program I came to admire my students for their courage in choosing a career that was likely not to reward them well in financial terms. However, I did suggest to them that whatever work they took on to cover their writing should be something they actually like to do, not just a means to an end, and should be potentially something they could eventually write about. Teaching, however rewarding, usually doesn't count for this.
SS This points to something in your writing that I’ve noticed: you take great pleasure in farming. It might surprise readers of your fiction, especially Log, to learn that the novel was published as you were embarking on your life in the desert. How do the two—farming and writing—relate to each other?
SC Log was unconsciously an imaginative blueprint—and I emphasize imaginative—for the lives we would create in northern New Mexico, lives in which we would have at least some control of the basic elements of existence, food, housing, water. I wrote the first draft in San Francisco in 1969, and finished in Dixon, New Mexico in 1970. There was no plan in the garden leading to a small farm, it just sort of happened. Writing income was also drying up, and the alternative, part-time teaching, quickly proved unsatisfying. Gardening, then farming, relieved me of writing anxieties and lured me into a material world of growing things, building things, and the weather, which until then had been rather more decorative. In particular, the whole experience of making adobe bricks and building the first rooms of our house, friends helping on and off, was an experience more intense than any I could imagine—and that soon became true of farming. These experiences led to my first attempts at nonfiction, in which I found a puzzling lack of guidance. There was Thoreau, of course, and John McPhee (so good, so intimidating), but finally a huge nudge came in the form of Hannah Arendt's posthumous work serialized in the New Yorker in which she contemplates the gulf between manual and intellectual labor and the prejudice the latter has always directed toward the former. Her message to me was that I could in fact write about what I was experiencing as a builder, as a farmer, and as a ditch worker. During those intense years—the 1970s—with the exception of Some Instructions, my attempts at fiction seemed rather pallid in the face of what I was actually living. I think I had worked on our local irrigation ditch, the acequia, for seventeen years, as a commisionado and then as mayordomo before I began writing about it; I now consider fifteen years to be a reasonable lead time from conception to execution, which of course no young writer wants to hear.
SS How well did the “imaginative blueprint” of Log measure up to life in the desert?
SC Log was both an imaginative blueprint and a summary of fantasies about our lives ahead. After a dozen years as an urban intellectual—student, teacher, writer—and now a husband and a father feeling suddenly vulnerable to the political and economic instabilities of the times—the late 1960s—I saw a way out through mastering the basic tools of survival and production: gardening, which became farming, building our own adobe house, becoming part of a place-based community, and all the rest, as championed in the first Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools. I first heard about the WEC during my last year on Crete, and when we got back to the States, and to the Bay Area, it quickly became my bible. We lucked out in moving on to Northern New Mexico, and into venerable vernacular traditions of adobe construction and irrigation ditch (acequia) governance, which were imported from Spain during the Conquest. And, because of its relative isolation as the northernmost outpost of first the Spanish colonial system, and then during the Mexican period, Spanish evolved into an archaic dialect outside of the control of those cultural forces that seek to police and regulate speech and writing, and it has remained an overwhelmingly verbal language, playful, subversive, inventive—in effect an argot. This was at first confusing. Eventually I began to understand that my less educated neighbors were saying that the language belongs to us, not to the school or the government, and we can do whatever we want with it. For me, this was revolutionary back in the 1970s, though now, with the proliferation of all kinds of subcultures, it may no longer seem so.
SS Does your experience with farming and life in Dixon complicate your identity as a writer? Do you feel you’re more one—farmer or writer—than the other?
SC Before I moved to New Mexico, I was just a writer, and not at all known. Conversationally, this doesn't get one very far, as a lot of people don't know whether it's polite to ask about your writing or what you're working on or what it's like to be a writer. When we moved to New Mexico and eventually took up farming, I went to some effort to identify myself as a farmer despite the relative smallness of our operation—seven acres at the peak—an identity which better fit into the larger community we were becoming part of. Until very recently, I have never made much of an effort to become part of a community of writers. Perhaps I shouldn't say this: I don't have a lot of patience with writers' journals, perhaps trapped as I am in an old “solitary writer” paradigm. (Perhaps this interview is an attempt to break out of that.) The identity question was somewhat complicated by the fact (a recent discovery), or better, my theory, that my fiction is best known back east, my nonfiction in the inter-mountain west. To add to a previous answer, I think the small press world is more community-minded than the mainstream publishing world.
What do I think of myself now? A lot of your identity has to do with the immediate effects upon the world of your actions. Usually, in writing, there's a considerable delay between the act and publication, and another delay between publication and somebody actually commenting on your work. I do sell a lot of books at the Santa Fe Farmers' Market and thus have a somewhat more direct connection with my readers than perhaps many writers, and occasionally visitors will seek me out there. But I go there as a grower—and to a lesser degree as a community activist. In the end, I guess I think of myself as all of those things, and this is somewhat a function of the time of year. At the moment, March, I can be the writer; come June through October, I'm the farmer.
SS Besides the influence of your community, what else influenced you during these years? What books, for instance, helped shaped your work?
SC Influences, murky, except at the beginning. I've only held nine-to-five jobs about four or five years, and the first (of two) was as a technical writer in LA and San Bernardino for the fledgling missile industry, in the early 1960s. I had so little to do that I read on the job: all the James Bond thrillers, then Chandler, Hammett, and many other detective writers. With my BA and MA in English Lit, I had never read these writers, and I was much taken by the narrative energy of even Fleming's rather shoddy but entertaining narratives, and my first novel (probably now lost) was a James Bond parody. Number three, GASCOYNE, written in Molybos, on the island of Lesbos, and the first time in my life without a car or a phone, tapped into that narrative energy as a backhanded celebration of the LA I was raised (in San Diego) to despise but in fact, when living there, found very exciting.
Later influences? George Barker's The Dead Seagull probably triggered Log, though I might well find its purple prose now unreadable. I am pretty well versed in the traditional British and French canons but can't draw any lines from any one work to my own. Except perhaps Molière, whose characters follow logic (of a certain sort) to wonderfully nutty conclusions. Within the past decade or so there are a few novels I wished (impossibly) I could have written myself: Coetzee's Disgrace, Kate Grenville's Idea of Perfection, Kent Haruf's Plainsong and, most recently, Julie Otsuka's Buddha in the Attic. I'm not fond of contemporary writers who use too many words, though I would except Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
SS With the exception of Petroleum Man (Overlook Press, 2005), your novels were all published by big houses and later reissued by small presses. And Seed, as you say, will be published by FC2. Can you speak a little about your experience transitioning from NY to the small press world?
SC I started publishing in the mid-late 60s, an easy time to break into print. My champion with GASCOYNE was Tom Maschler, who was running Jonathan Cape in London—Cape started out in the 1920s publishing primarily American writers—and who helped sell the book to the French, Italians, and Finns. Richard Lester, of Beatles movie fame, eventually bought the film rights. All this to point out that within about three years of setting myself up as a full-time writer, I was catapulted financially into the ether. But the book didn't sell well, rapidly slipped out of print, the movie was never made, and by the mid-70s tectonic shifts within the NY publishing world were beginning to take place. (Perhaps to repeat myself, I was painfully discovering that my relatively thin talent was not one that could produce a book every year or two). I had no real knowledge of the publishing or book-selling world until circa 1979—had never given a reading, never been to any writing conferences—when I taught a Saturday course called “Writers at Work” at UNM/Albuquerque.
A major revelation came through “The Blockbuster Complex,” Thomas Whiteside's series on publishing that ran in the New Yorker in September-October 1980. Whiteside’s piece detailed the changes, which have continued to this day. A change in the tax code enabled the taxing of backlists—until then, publishers' reputations were largely based on their backlists. Publishers were beginning to conglomerate, the advent of the computer enabled point-of-sale inventory control, and bookstore chains threatened the existence of independent bookstores. All of this tended to focus publishers on the bottom line and narrow the range of what was commercially viable. There is of course much more, but the main point again is that I was published for literary reasons (or so I hope) not out of commercial expectations. I guess I've always known (but often denied) where this was heading, and that eventually my only publishers would be small and university presses. In financial terms, two NEA fellowships and a three-year Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Writer's Award have now and then helped take up the slack.
One of the disturbing things about the large NY houses is how fast my books went out of print. By contrast, UNM Press, Dalkey Archive, and even The Overlook Press (a small NY house) have kept everything in print for years, if not decades, and I assume this will be the case with FC2 and Calamari. In the end, the money may more or less even out. And in the end, being in print is probably the really important thing.
SS Speaking of being in print: you have three manuscripts under consideration or soon to be published. Are these recent works?
SC The Canyon goes back to perhaps 2001, the first winter we spent (of two) in San Miguel de Allende, whose multi-generational street life triggered the story, a coming-of-age piece set in the Rockies, in the 1950s. Just walking down those streets, amid the crowds, made me feel as if I was somehow re-living my entire life. I worked on it off and on until circa 2010, finishing it while teaching in the MFA program at UMass. My intention was to write a relatively conventional novel in the manner, somewhat, of Alice Munro. No crazed narrator, but no dramatic revelations either.
Seed came to me while I was proofing it and somewhat weary of something in it, in another one of those let's-have-some-fun moments. In the course of writing it I had to learn, or relearn, the old Beat dictum, “First thought, best thought,” in order to keep up with the aged narrator's love of word play, punning, and his uncertainties about the distinction of what he thinks and what he says, amid a flow of inappropriate thoughts.
Intimacy (still unplaced) knocked on my door in 1988, conceived as a protest against a sort of loyalty statement I had to sign in order to receive my second NEA grant, and was written in reluctant spurts over the course of several years. It was accepted by HarperCollins, but my agent at the time considered the advance offered to be insulting and I turned it down. She was unable to place it anywhere else in NY, and I put it away. Late last year a young writer, Ken Baumann, read it and urged me to get it back out there, and in December I edited lightly as I transcribed it on my computer.
SS Do you think any of these three novels reflect changes in your perspective based on your engagement with nonfiction?
SC I think the flow tends to be from fiction to nonfiction, not the other way around. Nonfiction mostly feels like work, with the occasional tiny moment of joy, plus a sense of the inadequacy of words to net the incredible complexity of the world. The writing of fiction, when it is going well, is an exercise in joy, in figuring out how to love the world, at least imaginatively, with the illusion that yes, imaginatively, you can encompass and understand its entirity. An illusion, to be sure, a too brief illusion. Yet that, the imagination, is what is best about us as a species. Or best, most agonizing, most destructive. Fiction can net at least some of this.
Stephen Sparks is a bookseller and writer in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared in Tin House, The Paris Review, Music & Literature, and elsewhere.