The New School, New York City
April 19, 2001
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Darcey Steinke We’re going to try to be informal tonight. I have lots of questions. They’re grouped into three topics. Some questions about the new book, some questions about postmodernism, and then some questions about God. So, I’m going to start with the questions about the new book and then Rick has some questions too. So we’re going to go back and forth a little bit. So, your new book is great! I loved it. It was so good.
Rick Moody (interjects) The best of all opening remarks.
DS It was fantastic. In preparation for today, I read your last book of stories. And I was really thrilled and surprised that along with the stylistic virtuosity that we all know you for, there was also more heart, I thought, and more compassion for the characters and the scenarios. And that reminded me of when you were writing Purple America, I remember you told me that you were intentionally trying to load the narrative up with lots of emotional, sentimental stuff like the paralyzed mother and the stuttering son. I remember I gave you lessons on how to stutter, because I stutter myself. (laughs) I thought that was such an interesting idea, that you would see sort of how much emotion, how much sentimentality a narrative could actually hold. And I thought that you could maybe talk a little bit about that, about the relationship between emotion and sentimental drama and storytelling in there––what you think the relationship is.
RM I had this experience with The Ring of Brightest Angels, which is the first book of stories I wrote after I published The Ice Storm, I think it was ’95. The stories are all really rangy with respect to structure. There’s one story that takes the shape of a fake film treatment for an East Village romance. And there’s one story that’s just a list of books with annotations about how each book was important to me. So the shapes of all these books were really divergent. There was a particular review by our mutual acquaintance, Madison Smartt Bell, who essentially said, This is just way too cerebral, there’s no feeling in here, it’s all just about the shapes of the stories. Where’s the feeling in this? And I felt that the review was a misinterpretation of the book because for me, of course, since I wrote it, it seemed like it was suffused with feeling. Admittedly, after The Ice Storm came out, there were a lot of people who said, "Why don’t those people just talk about their feelings." So I come out of this background of characters where the repression of sentiment was in a way an evocation of sentiment. In other words, the feeling is always coming out laterally and it’s misdirected and it’s not obvious. So as a writer, I always felt I have to work against those impulses. So when I started this novel called Purple America, I just thought, I’m gonna make a book that Madison Smartt Bell will never be able to say is too cerebral. So in the first scene this guy’s going to bathe his terminally ill mother. It’s going to be really potent with feeling, thus Purple America right, it’s purple. It’s almost to the point of opera. That was the idea, to make a novel that was as pregnant with feeling as opera. And there’s a commonplace I think in American letters which suggests that formal strategizing is on the opposite end of the spectrum from human feeling. Never mind Ulysses, or The Good Soldier, or Remembrance of Things Past, for example . . . Books that are formally ingenious and also really beautiful and moving at the same time. But we’ve gotten to the situation now where naturalistic American short fiction equals feeling, for some reason. I don’t know why that’s the case.
DS Well, that’s something I want to talk about. I think because of the culture’s obsession with feeling, like Oprah, we’re all talking about our feelings all the time and how we want intimacy and all that stuff. In literature there’s a feeling that we mistrust the language of emotion. I think that’s a thing that has been happening in poetry. It’s been debased, sort of. I think that’s the problem. Most people feel that we should question the language of emotion.
RM Which is bad. The problem is not talking about emotions. It’s talking badly about emotions. You know, there’s a difference between emotion and sentimentality. Sentimentality, my teacher used to always say in undergraduate school, was unearned emotion. That’s the kind of hackneyed formula. That doesn’t mean don’t write about emotions.
DS Our friend, Judith, who’s a stained-glass artist, was talking about sentimentality when I interviewed her for Spin Magazine. And she said, "I like sentimentality, I think it’s great." Every sentimental thing is a thing that needs to be recycled into something real and beautiful. So we need to work hard to make sentimentality something that actually is genuine.
RM I agree entirely. I think I’ve gotten better at it. If what you’re saying about Demonology is true, I’ve figured out the way to get around this WASP reticence and really probe in there to where the feelings are and locate that spot and let language inhabit that spot. because the truth is if you say something honest and genuine about sentiment, instead of like, Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or something––
DS Or One tear fell from my eye.
RM That’s a good one! (laughter) Then, if you get to that spot, then language pours out of you. It’s the truth. There’s a story in Demonology called “Boys” which is just a bunch of reiterations…
DS Which is a masterpiece, basically. The best story in there.
RM Best story I ever wrote. (laughter)
DS It’s the best story. Everyone should read it. (laughter)
RM Anyways, one sentence “boys entered the house,” and it just gets repeated and repeated and repeated and added on and so forth, until you’ve pried that language loose from its obvious meaning and start to burden it with all kinds of . . .
DS It’s like it stops making sense. I mean, it’s like you’ve taken the language out of it and put it back in.
RM And what comes out, the explosion that results, is an explosion of feeling.
DS I know. Actually that story made me wonder if that wasn’t how the bible was written, actually. If maybe these sort of things that people say every day were used . . . which they would use and overuse, the begotten and thus, and maybe that’s what the people who wrote the bible were trying to do.
RM Well it’s certainly true in Ecclesiastes with all that repetitive language.
DS I know. The title story, “Demonology,” I know is about real events. It’s about your sister; about your sister’s death. When I write memoir pieces, I sometimes feel a little uneasy, like I might be taking advantage of the reader a little bit. Because there’s not enough distance between . . . I sometimes feel like I'm less interested in my own emotions. Laying out the things I’ve worked out in a fictional way. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt that way. And also then what you feel the relationship should be between the artist and their life––the writer and their actual life experience. I read a quote not too long ago by Duchamp who said he felt like the man who suffers should be as far away as possible from the artist. And of course Duchamp would say that, right. He was such a cold bastard but still a good artist. I just wondered if you ever feel that way.
RM First of all, just for the record and my own sanity, I have to correct a factual error that’s been kicking around because of the New York Times. My sister did not get in a car crash and have a seizure. In fact, in the story there’s this whole passage about how I always expected she would get in a car crash and she never did. And somehow the Times guy read it incorrectly, and since then everybody thinks my sister was in a car crash which she wasn’t.
DS It just happened randomly right?
RM Yeah, she just keeled over. So it’s all disjunction. To answer your question, it would be great if we could all sit down and really think through these stories and sort of be pre-meditated about it and arrive at the most elegant solution to creative problems. I’m not like that at all. Writing at some level for me is automatic, un-chosen. It’s just completely a calling. And so, when certain material has to get written, it’s tough shit if I don’t want to write about that or it’s the wrong thing for me to be doing; I have to write about it anyhow. So when I got to the time in my life when these events were taking place, I ordered the horror and tragedy of that time by writing stuff down. It would be great if I didn’t write it or I never published it or whatever. Then I wouldn’t have to have these mixed feelings about this material being out there in the world. But the fact is, I’m a writer, I don’t know what else to do with life. That’s all I know to do, you know. So the material came out first. It’s sort of that Marxist remark about history: first it’s tragedy and later it’s farce, or whatever. So the first time through when I was writing after these events took place, that story “Demonology” is what came out. Then I sort of figured, Okay I did this; I’ve written through this experience, it’s time for me to move on. But I found, no matter what I did, this grief theme kept coming back into it. So the story, “Mansion On The Hill,” which opens the book, reconfigures all these same events. Because I could not stop, I just could not stop. So, you know, people say, what’s the right time to write about this, are you too close to the events, and all that stuff. My response is, I didn’t choose. The material is dictated to me to some extent and I just have to go with it.
DS I mean, why write about the Eskimos if you have things that you actually want to write about.
RM I actually had the idea to ask you the same question, because I’m really interested in how you’ve used events from your own life, but they’re much more subliminal. Darcy, for those who don’t know, is a minister’s daughter . . . that experience of being close to the church, adjacent to the church, as a child, sort of suffuses the whole book. But it’s done in a much more elegant way than I do it.
DS Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever had a character that hasn’t been a minister’s daughter. (laughter) I mean they have variations. I find the experience of being a minister’s daughter fascinating to myself. (laughter) I just hope it’s fascinating to everybody else, you know. I just can’t get over it. I keep thinking every time I’m going to get over that time, but I never do. Because you’re raised in an almost ancient way with different texts and the things that you’re concerned with. It’s strange to be that person and then go to the strip mall. So that juxtaposition is really fascinating to me and it’s hard for me to get over it. It’s hard for me to not have those conflicts at the center of my work. I don’t know what I’m going to do, if I’m ever going to get over it or not.
RM Do you find that you first select different material and the autobiographical element creeps in?
DS Yeah, that’s what always happens. Because when it comes down to working out the conflicts and the philosophical grid of the main character . . . It’s not even the most interesting, but it’s the most exciting, it’s thrilling for me to write about that. There are lots of charged particles on it, and I can’t wait to do it. Where if I decide to make her a doctor’s daughter, I’m like, ehh, you know, I’m just not interested in trying to figure that out.
RM How about with non-fiction, because Darcey wrote a really great piece abut Monica Lewinsky during the Monica-gay period. And part of the reason it was a great piece is that Darcey Steinke was an intern in the White House.
DS Yeah, I sat at Monica Lewinsky’s desk, actually, the same desk.
RM Did you know when you started the piece, that that was gonna be the way in or did you encounter that?
DS I think her image has sort of been recycled now, but at that point there weren’t a lot people giving her much compassion. So I decided I was going to try to make her like Madame Bovary, someone in love with bad romance novels. So I was interested in trying to see if I could do that. I had tremendous compassion for her when I was writing the piece. I got really interested in the way a woman comes into the world, and her sexuality is interesting.
RM I’m going to offer a rash hypothesis that all art is autobiographical, even Ad Reinhardt’s paintings, even Duchamp’s urinal. It’s all autobiographical.
DS Yeah, but why are people so against that though?
RM I don’t know.
DS That’s what I can’t figure out.
RM I mean, why not make art to express yourself? It’s no fun if you don’t do that.
DS Well that’s what I’m saying, you know, exactly. I don’t know. Alright, let’s see . . .
RM There’s nothing more to say about it. (laughter)
DS The next question has to do with this though, because I know when The Kiss came out, the Katherine Harrison book, we were both mortified. The memoir was at this high point then. And I remember you were going to make your new book a kind of anti-memoir. And I was wondering if you felt like that the rise of the memoir is a direct response to postmodernism’s war against subjectivity, a way to assert yourself within this idea that everything’s fake and just your experiences in writing about your family, and things like that.
RM Well there is this way that the artifice of fiction can get tiresome. I remember one time Bradford Morrow said to me that he felt there was a stench of fiction. And he’d open up a book and say, “I smell the stench of fiction,” and he’d want to put it away. (laughter) What I think he’s saying is that we know the codes too well, and we know what’s going to happen. You pick up the well-made New Yorker story and know too well how to interpret it. And I think that the memoir boom, to a certain extent, occurs as a resistance to those codes. To try and find a way around them. I realized at a certain point in my work, that there was a tendency that erupted again, and again, and again, and that was for narrators to lurch out of the story near its close and say, I don’t wanna do this anymore, this story is fake, I don’t want this. Both in The Ice Storm and in the novella, Ring of Brightest Angels, there’s that eruption. And I think it was my own feeling of some kind of exhaustion with respect to these codes of fiction. I just got tired of it somehow.
DS But even when you don’t do that, like in “Twister,” you sort of do that. I mean, you move from the story to this other point that angles you, as the narrator, differently at the story, you refuse to sort of stay in it.
RM You know, the stench is so horrible sometimes that even I think about my own work and I just go, ugh, god. So I’m sitting here, and I’m talking about my stories, and all I can think is that the stench of fiction is in the room.
DS (laughs) Yeah . . . I know, I know exactly what you mean. It’s depressing.
RM Can I ask you a question? Have you ever thought of writing straight memoir?
DS Well, I have . . . You know. I really enjoy writing my memoir pieces. I have to say, I like it a lot. I mean it’d be fun to write one about being a minister’s daughter. (laughter) Maybe that would cure me. But, in another way, I do like to make stuff up. Not that I couldn’t do that in a memoir too. But I feel more free to do that in fiction. Don’t you like to make stuff up, or no?
RM Yeah . . . I think I like to exaggerate a little bit.
DS Me too. And I like to riff, which I don’t think I would feel I could do as easily in memoir either. But I have a question about suburbia now. Do you want to answer that one?
DS In reading the analogy, I was seeing how you were turning again to suburban themes. There was a while when people were sort of bad mouthing suburban novels and everybody was sick of them and that subject matter seemed to be over. But there seems to be an endless interest in suburbia. The writer Barry Hannah is a friend of mine and I was complaining to him about the way I grew up and the subdivisions and strip malls and everything. And he said to me, “Yeah, but y’all keep coming up with good stuff from it." (laughter) And I thought, he’s right. He’s really right. It’s been a tremendous subject matter for us, really. Even though everyone complains about it and it’s bad and all that, it’s been really rich and diverse. Incredible amounts of good art have come from it. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your relation to it, and how you feel like, in the cultural imagination, suburbia’s changed.
RM You know, my first book tried to resist being suburban. I wrote this novel called Garden State, and it reflects my life in Hoboken. I lived in Hoboken for seven years. And I messed with the town a little bit so it would not resemble Hoboken. It was really basically about that. It was an attempt to steer clear of that material. Because even in graduate school people had said to me, "Oh you’re at writing about the suburbs." And I was sort of embarrassed about it, you know. So I wrote this book that was more working class and it had a slightly more urban landscape. And then I published it and I showed it to this friend of mine who worked at The Voice, and she said to me, "You don’t know anything about this, so you shouldn’t write about it." And I was so wounded and hurt, that I thought, Well what could I write about that I really, absolutely know about? The truth is it’s great to pretend that I didn’t grow up in the suburbs, but I did. And it seems counterproductive to create artifice about what you really know. Why not use the material that’s really close at hand? So I decided, okay, I’m just gonna take this suburban landscape and I’m gonna look for what else is implicit in it, since, you know, like 80 percent of the United States of America lives in a suburban setting, or near a suburban setting. Everybody knows about it. So it must really reflect some social things that are going on, some sociological things, some historical things, some philosophical things. Why not take the setting and just overlay all these other things onto it and see what comes out of it. So people think I’m crazy when I say I started writing The Ice Storm after reading about Nixon and Cambodia. But it’s really true. I was thinking about Nixon, and how, from my point of view, the Nixon presidency was about hypocrisy and the normativizing of hypocrisy, the beginning of accepting it and all its manifestations. And my idea was that that trickled down into the suburbs, when the sexual revolution got to New Canaan, Connecticut, that was the Nixon presidency manifest in the daily lives. . . (laughter) So that was the idea. So people say, Oh you wrote a suburban book. But I thought I was writing a philosophical book about Nixon. (laughter)
DS Well that’s the Nixon mask, right, which is so terrifying. I also think that the suburbia that we see represented in films and art and books now is somewhat more 3-D. It’s not negative, boring, and you know, soulless. It has a little more dimension than it once had, which I think is a good thing.
RM Yeah, plus it’s more diverse. Now Montclair has every kind of American. It’s not just a bunch of WASPs in there.
DS I think The Soprano’s is a good example, it’s not safe anymore either. Now it’s not just the Mafia hanging around Little Italy. They’re also out there in the suburbs. Which I think people sort of like . . . The idea that the suburbs are dangerous. (laughter)
RM One thing that I’ll say though is that I think there’s not enough literature written about the strip mall experience now. After minimalism, there’s a way that we shy away from the way we really live. Like all of us went to Target in the last year (maybe some of you didn’t) and drove down past Wal-Mart and all that stuff.
DS I love Wal-Mart actually. Sorry, I do.
RM I think we need to get that stuff into the literature. We’re in a bad spot when the literature’s not reflecting the way that people really live.
DS It’s true. Another thing I noticed in “Demonology”, well this is sort of part of Purple America too, your idea of the undistinguished American. You go to great lengths to say that this guy is a regular guy. And I thought that a lot of your work centers on this insistence on ordinariness. And I was also thinking that part of the power of your work and its cultural resonance is that you’ve been able to reinvigorate the middle class white guy. Like, you’ve made him compassionate again, and sympathetic. Do you think that’s true?
RM I hope so. (laughter_) It’s to say the same thing I was saying before, about getting Wal-Mart into the literature. Not Wal-Mart, actually, you know what I mean. (_laughter) The whole idea that the characters in the work have to be sympathetic, there’s a kind of hackneyed idea that really adheres to contemporary fiction. If you read New York Times reviews of contemporary fiction, you’ll find reviewers saying, Oh, you know, this character is unsympathetic. A lot of the people walking past this building right now are unsympathetic. Or at first glance, they appear to be. I felt like, I’ve been attracted to trying to get at the psychology of regular people, and invited in. And instead of saying, Oh, this guy’s a loser. Hex Raitliffe in Purple America is a loser because he’s a publicist, the worst possible profession for a character in a novel. I wanted him to have a hideous profession.
DS He’s so sympathetic though.
RM If you tell the truth about human psychology, they end up being sympathetic.
DS I agree with that.
RM But it’s through a backwards route. There are some reviewers who want the characters to be virtuous, and I find that appalling.
DS I’ve actually had a lot of people say to me, you know, why don’t people write books anymore about characters you could admire, who are building their own homes and schools for disabled people. But like, you could never do that! I don’t know if they’ve read any books, or I’m not sure what books they’re even talking about. I mean, it’s hard to write a book, but actually I get that a lot too.
RM I admire the truth, you know, that’s the thing that I admire. Life is actually lived.
DS I know. Okay, now we’re going to move into the postmodernism questions.
RM Thank god. (laughter)
DS You have a story in the new collection called the “Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal,” right, which sort of pokes fun a little bit at postmodernism, do you think that’s true?
RM Everybody says it pokes fun, but I think that it couldn’t have been written but from the inside of the literary critical apparatus.
DS Oh, yeah totally, I liked it for that reason. We were once at this thing, at St. Luke’s, and the minister there, Richard Furlough, used to be a professor, and you were saying, “You used to be a postmodern son of a bitch.” (laughter) And I’ve been thinking a lot about postmodernism. Right now I feel like it’s sort of this bookkeeping mechanism. We’ve been through a big period of lots of transformation and change, and it’s a way to run through all the ideas. But I’m really hoping that now we can accept and internalize the idea that all ideas have precedence. You know what I mean; this is not a new idea. I wanted to ask you what you thought . . . If postmodernism has informed your work in the past, or now, or where you think it fits into contemporary letters at the moment.
RM The truth is that I really don’t know what it is. There was point where I thought I did know what it was. And there were a lot of commonplaces: oh this is work that’s reflexive, or this is work that thinks that the rules of literature have become depleted somehow.
DS Well, that’s the thing that most people point to, right, is regular literature, maybe sustention fiction. You’re tied to this idea linear narrative and postmodernism freed everyone from this idea of using linear narrative, which seems sort of simplistic.
RM Yeah. I mean, I find that when people wanna pin me down, I feel closer to the late modernist tradition that everything is permitted. In fact, someone asked me recently, “What traditions do you think inform your work?” And I said, “The modernist idea that everything is permitted, the postmodernist idea that everything is exhausted, and the post-postmodernist idea that because everything is exhausted, everything is permitted.” (laughs)
DS Wow, that is a serious like smarty-pants answer, Woo! (laughter)
RM You know, I hear William Gass say that postmodernism was an architectural term and ill-applied to fiction, and I really think that’s true.
DS I like that. Remember you emailed me not too long ago (I asked you about postmodernism) and you said, “Well I think everyone believes in the genuine.” So the idea about the false construct . . . I mean you can say whatever you want about it, but everybody in their hearts somehow, or in their soul, or in their mind, or whatever, believes in the genuine.
RM I totally think that’s true. And I know somewhere, further in Darcey’s list of questions, she’s gonna ask me if I believe in moral absolutes. I believe that…
DS No, but don’t say it yet though!
RM I believe that the genuine exists. I don’t think it’s merely a signifier and that everyone in this room has a different idea about what the genuine is. I adhere to the Platonic idea that we all really know the genuine and that we’re capable of experiencing it and that often the same things will make all of us experience it.
DS Right. You know, I have a five-year-old daughter and she’s just getting into this, is your red the same as my red? You know, the colors that you see and it’s an idea that you pass through in a way, that there’s diversity and you hope to move to a place where there’s communal ideas and what’s right—
RM What do you think about postmodernism?
DS Well, you know, this is a bad time to ask me. (laughter)
RM There’s never a good time to ask about postmodernism. (laughter)
DS I have to say, I always felt postmodernism was a boy thing. I never felt all that close to it cause I thought it was a boy thing. But I also feel like a book is a book! No one really believes you did all these things and this happened. A book is a book, no matter what. Whether you have a linear narrative, or whether you’re messing around with time. Like it’s made up by someone. And so I’ve never really gotten it, you know what I mean, like the amazingness of it. I’ve been confused by it. It seems a little bit obvious, I don’t know.
RM I don’t know, I mean, messing around with form is fun. I only did it because I thought it was fun.
DS You have to build your own and a whole new sort of boat, to carry the kind of writing that you want to do, right? And that’s when people write the best, if they’re not forced into something that that they feel has come before or they have to do. So if that’s postmodernism then that’s fantastic, I mean, I think that’s the best kind of writing, when you have to build a new vehicle for yourself and drive.
RM Where you figure out the theme of your book, and you come to understand that this theme, if it’s gonna be best expressed, has to have some unique form to go along with it. That seems to me to be a modernist notion, like okay, you can do what you want. There’s a story in here, in Demonology, called “Surplus Value Books Catalogue # 13,” and it’s a story about guy who’s a book collector. And I realized the only way I could express his character was to do it in the form of a book catalogue. I made up all the books, they’re fake books. So this guy ostensibly sets out to tell you about all the books in his catalogue and how much they’re worth. And along the way he starts to reveal more and more of himself, so that by the end you really know the guy. You don’t care about the books, or how much they’re worth, or about its shape, you’re interested in knowing about the person. So the formal stuff, even though it’s really fun, has to be, for me, an evocation of theme. So even recently, I read a hypertext novel of this tremendous writer called Shelley Jackson. She wrote one of the classic early hypertext novels. Already, hypertext is classic.
DS Yeah. Well, what is hypertext, I’m sorry to ask?
RM It’s on a disc. The novel comes on a CD-rom, and you put it in your computer. You know you get to a certain point in the book and it says, do you want the character to set her hair on fire or ask the guy out? And if you check, set hair on fire, then you go through this whole thing. You know, the burning scalp. And if she says, meet the guy, you go down . . . You know, it forks a million ways. I found it really fascinating for about two hours. I wasn’t going to like take it to bed and keep reading it. Because it seemed to me that it was mapping the possibility instead of wanting to express psychology and emotions.
DS Yeah, it’s interesting. What about the postmodern ideas of “the fake” and “the real.” Do these things have anything to do with constructing stories?
RM Well the presumption of postmodernism is that “the real” is a construct. It’s a construct like any other construct and hence artificial. The privilege of the fake over the real in a postmodernist test is to be honest. That’s not an argument I ever found useful because I don’t think anyone really lives as though the real is entirely fake. It would be schizophrenic to live that way. And so, to write a novel that really completely reflects that idea would take you to a really disjunctive place. Maybe some of those Rikki Ducornet that I really like but I don’t entirely understand, fit into that category.
DS Yeah. Well, that’s almost like hyper-lyricism. I don’t know if anybody knows this writer. But it’s like the Pope’s dying, and a white elephant comes in, and there’s a beautiful African-American boy with incense, and then a woman comes in to breast feed the Pope. It’s unbelievable, you have no idea what’s going on but it’s fantastic.
RM “Phosphor in Dreamland,” that’s the really way out there one.
DS Yeah, she’s a great writer. Okay, now we’ve come to God. I don’t know if everyone knows this but today is the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Mount Carmel tragedy in Waco, which is, of course, sad. And we talked about praying over it, but we decided that we weren’t going to pray in public. We’re going to pray tonight, on our own. But I was thinking about how crucial a point of view and story were in these events, that’s what I was thinking about today, the conflicts and the horror in them. Actually Murakami talks about this in a recent interview in book form. I’m not sure if you’ve read this yet. But he talks about how cult members take on a cheap, or instant, or quick story. And how, in order to believe the story of the cult, they have to leave their reality and go into a new reality. So they can’t believe the story that they want to believe unless they’re in a new reality, which I think is an interesting idea. And it made me think of how transformative stories really are. And, being the minister’s daughter, I can’t help thinking about the New Testament. If you believe the story of the New Testament, clearly there’s going to be some re-patterning and transformation. And therapy works in a similar way, therapists work to re-define personal narratives in ways that are more helpful and palpable, and things like that. And then I thought about novels and how novels tell stories that reverberate against cult––the culture of the time and cultural ideas. And I thought you could talk a little bit about the relationship between the writer and the culture at large or the writer and the community and how you think those two function.
RM Why don’t you tell us instead of your story about being at Waco, which is more interesting. Darcey was actually there, and wrote a really fabulous magazine article about it.
DS What about it? Which one?
RM Well, your magazine piece.
DS I know, but which story about being in Waco, though.
RM Well they don’t know that you were there at all.
DS I was at Waco for three weeks during the siege. For me, it was just the hotel room and then waiting with all the other. . . Well, I guess I did interview lots of people and stuff. But it was a lot of waiting around. We always thought they were going to come out, which they never did. But we were just waiting for them to come out.
RM How did you feel about the narrative of the Branch Davidians. The constituted narrative––
DS The thing that interested me the most was David Troy, the guy who was the press guy for the . . . Not the FBI, who are they again, the ones who actually did the—
RM Oh the tobacco, the alcohol, and stuff.
DS Yeah. Because he was so arrogant. They didn’t take Koresh’s religious ideas at all seriously. The really interesting thing was they knew Koresh had a radio in there. The press conferences were often recorded live. So they were speaking directly to him. It was all really weird Texas macho stuff going back and forth. It was just a complete breakdown in two ideologies. There was David Koresh, the branch that came off Davidian Seventh Day Adventism. They had their own sect. They had some nutty ideas, but all religions have some nutty ideas. It’s unclear what Koresh actually did, clearly he had lots of guns in there. And then there was the State, who also was completely convinced of its rightness. Their point of view was completely solidified. But there were funny moments too. Like when people kept breaking into the compound. Two different people broke into the compound.
RM Like reporters?
DS No, just people who were crazy. Well, not necessarily crazy, but just very passionate. (laughter) Extremely passionate people. Twice during the time I was there, two guys got in. They thought maybe Koresh was God and wanted to get in there and see. And that always made for funny press conferences, because it was sort of their fault because they had this big periphery and people were getting in there. And those people eventually would come out, they didn’t usually stay.
RM Don’t you wonder about the conversation inside?
DS I know. Well, there have been several movies about Waco. And they actually had some videos that Koresh and his followers actually sent out sort of as a peace offering. And you know, they’re very sad. They come off as tremendously simple, sincere people. And the FBI had those and they didn’t let them out because of that fact. I think it’s pretty much a horror, you know, everything that happened there. I don’t think there’s anything good about it. I think we’re probably to blame, we’re all complicit.
RM So then it’s really about power of storytelling to constitute civilizations. The Branch Davidians were a little multicultural unit that told certain stories, came to believe the truth-value of these stories, and as civilizations sprang up in the wake of the . . . ? The ATF had their own—
DS —had their own story.
RM Yeah, so it’s part of how narrativizing, the making up of stories, is so powerful. And we can forget everyday, especially when writing in this culture has less cultural throw-away than movies or TV or something. We forget how a sentence or a sequence of sentences carries this awesome responsibility.
DS It’s incredible. When you think about Waco, it’s incredible.
RM I was at dinner party recently, and there was this sort of rabid atheist guy going off for a while. And he said, “What’s the difference between a cult and religion.” And I said, “A thousand years.” He said, “No! Money, money’s the difference.” But I really resist that idea. I really think that the potential in a Branch Davidian narrative, is that if people find it useful for thousands of years, then it isn’t a cult then.
DS Also, I have deep sympathy for people that are looking for community, religious community. Which clearly the Branch Davidians were. And then the thing is they want a story that removes them from the terror and cruelness of the regular world. And that’s the real irony of the situation, is what they get then is sort of . . . But that longing makes them form around a story that has a very violent center as well. But I think that there are some questions in why you would want to take on a story like that, and make it a part of yourself, and live in that way.
RM My sort of initial route back into the Church. Even though it’s a tremendously unpopular thing to say in public . . . I do go to church. The route back into it, to me, was Jesus of Nazareth as a character. I really took the New Testament and the Gospels. I thought, this is the most awesome piece of character construction in any book I’ve ever read. He’s reconfigured four different times by four different narrators. At the end of it he has a density and complexity of character that you find in no novel. That was the route in. Like Dylan said it was the music that lured him in. For me, it was the story and the immensity from a narrative angle, from a story-telling angle.
DS Well, two, and you don’t get very much internal. Thank God, right. You never have passages where Jesus says, Well I was thinking about doing a miracle but then I wasn’t in a good mood. You know, it’s all told in this way that’s sort of off.
So, do you think that God inhabits the universe in the same way that a writer should inhabit their text?
DS Just a little one I thought I’d throw out.
RM I think that creativity is a little imitation of divine creation.
DS Yeah, clearly, right.
RM The fact that we’re given the luxury to create here on earth and that that is a great expression of our personalities is a little metaphor so that we’ll have some glimmer of what divine creation is like.
DS If God does inhabit the universe, does he have authorial intention?
RM This is getting so heavy. We’re driving people out of here. (laughter) Uh . . . it would take me an hour.
DS Okay, okay, we can do that one later. Well, I know that you have a regular religious practice. You go to church, you pray. I was wondering if you think that’s affected your work at all, or what you think the relationship is for you between your practice and your writing.
RM How could it not affect me—of course it affects me. Because at a certain very fundamental level it’s to arrive at an idea about what the universe is and how it operates. Principally for me, what’s valuable in the church that I go to which is an Episcopalian church, is two things. One is ritual, and how ritual is practiced there, which is in a really old-fashioned, luminous kind of way. And the other is the idea of scripture’s importance to the practice of faith. So, in the Episcopal Church, interpretation is not only open to a certain degree, you’re invited to take the text and arrive at your own interpretation, but it’s utterly central to the whole thing. So as far as I’m concerned it’s a reader’s faith. It’s a bait that someone like me would be naturally attracted to. Do those things then in turn affect how I do my job, absolutely. The whole idea that I can wake up and say, I hate the church that I was born in, I don’t wanna go anymore. This is utterly an Episcopalian idea. It’s already been built into the practice. So that kind of rebelliousness, I’m going to take the code of fiction, break it all apart, see what it means, put it back together. That’s very much a part of what I’ve been doing all my life on Sundays. So I do think it’s central. And even the decade that I was certain I was an atheist was built in too, that was all there. It’s all part of the same experience in a way. I wanted to ask you about Lutheranism. Do you feel that the particular flavor of Lutheranism has been useful in your work?
DS Well, in Lutheranism we have this idea of grace, which is so hard to both explain and understand. In my work there’s a lot of people waiting for God to come to their apartments, or searching for God in the closet and things like that. And I think that that is definitely informed by Lutheranism. The idea that grace is not something that you can actually ask for, it just sort of comes to you. It can be a relief. But if you’re anxious, it’s not that much of a relief. And not that Lutheranism isn’t interested in questioning and studying. But I think that it’s less an Episcopalian church, actually. You are saved by grace. And also I just think that since my father, and so many of my uncles, and my grandfather were all Lutheran ministers, in some ways it’s the variations in their faiths that fascinated me. Like the way their practices were different, and the things they believed were different. And also, just being a minister’s daughter. It’s like being an actor’s kid or something, you see behind the scenes a lot. Those things have informed my life a lot too, the politics or the workings of a church and things like that.
RM Do we get to a point where we get to have them ask questions?
DS I think so, are we at that point? Or actually, can we do our moral absolute question?
RM Let’s talk about rock and roll.
DS Really? I worked so hard on this one though . . .
RM Alright, alright.
DS Well, if we’re going to have one more, you can choose, since you are the main—
RM No, no.
DS Alright. Well, I wanted to ask you if you believed in moral absolutes on a personal level and as a writer. And how this affects your work. I mean this is an interesting question for me as a writer, because on the one hand, I really like work like Andre Dubus, where the characters have a moral grid. There are repercussions. And where people, if they do things that are bad, they feel bad about them, they don’t quickly get over it the next day. It becomes a part of them. I think it makes for nice conflicts, and tension in fiction to have characters who have a moral underpinning and don’t think that everything in the world is okay. But then I also feel like compassion is key when you’re a novelist. You have to be so you could have compassion for almost anyone. You know, for Timothy McVeigh. You have to see the whole range. Because if you, as a writer, are judging your characters, the readers are gonna start to see an agenda and are gonna balk against it. They want to decide for themselves. It’s not that . . . You clearly have some ideas. It’s the relation between those two things that, narratively, I think is fascinating.
RM There was this whole period when the movie of The Ice Storm came out. I’m guessing some of you saw it. There was this spot when the kid gets killed in a grizzly, sudden way. And when the movie came out, for some reason, there were a lot of reviews that said, this movie is appalling because it’s judging the parents and it’s making the kid’s death be the sacrifice for the parents. I never had that thought at all. I think it was much closer to what Betsy was saying before, that nature in that book is retributive but it’s disjunctive. The accident is just an accident. That’s the condition of the universe. There are these accidents and there’s nothing that you can do about them. It’s not that you’re a bad person. It’s just how it is. On the other hand, I did feel while I was writing the book that it was okay for me to say out loud that the parents getting into everybody else’s beds and stuff was gonna have a negative effect on the kids. Because that was my belief. And I would still adhere to that belief. So I didn’t feel like it was incumbent upon me to be completely morally relativistic, to say, "Oh that’s just their expression of love and the kids are going to have to learn to handle it." I wasn’t willing to go that far. So I think it’s a balance. But it’s also true, like in Purple America, this other book I wrote, the terminally ill woman’s husband announces in the beginning of the book that he can’t take it anymore, and walks out on her. She can’t take care of herself, she’s bedridden and so forth. And when I started the book I thought, this guy’s gonna be the fall man of the book and I’m gonna make him pay. And it turned out that, as soon as I made that decision I started to think that he was sort of heroic in some way. And he ended up coming back to her at the end of the book which was not my plan. So, the experience of trying to be compassionate to people who are “unsympathetic” creates really interesting possibilities in the book.
DS I think that’s true actually, that can be a door, definitely.
RM Now let’s talk about rock and roll.
DS Okay. Well clearly, you’re very interested in rock and roll. You have a band.
RM Not anymore. You have a band.
DS Now I have a band, well, you know. My band’s all here. You know tons about music. And I thought that you could talk a little bit about what kind of influence that’s had on you and your work.
RM Well, my contention is that almost all contemporary fiction is about observation. The principle sense that’s used in most contemporary fiction is the visual. And in these classes we always say, "Oh you should work in some other senses." And everybody goes, "Damn, I forgot to put in those other senses, make the character smell bad just to get it in there."
DS Or touch leather. (laughter)
RM Right. But principally we’re operating with the visual, you know. But my whole method of 55 22, as a kid, has always been about sound, and the way things sound. And I think a lot of the stories in Demonology are first about listening to the way people talk and also to what rhythm can do. We’re getting back to that idea in Ecclesiastes, it derives its power from Latanical phrases, and so forth. I’m thinking about the way stuff sounds. And so music’s been really influential. I always listen to music when I compose. Mostly the first drafts I can’t have lyrics cause they get in the way. But certain musical ideas are always creeping into the work just because of how fundamental music is to the writing process. When I was finishing Purple America, I listened to Blood on the Tracks for like six months. Just every time I wrote, I had Blood on the Tracks on because it kindled something. I wanted what it had.
DS Do you ever care more about the sound of the word more than the meaning of the word? Like would you choose a word that sounded better even if the meaning wasn’t as precise?
RM No, it’s a balance between the two things. But I would never choose words just because the meaning was right if there was a better word that had the same meaning. All things being equal, I’m going for the sound.