Allan Gurganus by Donald Antrim

BOMB 61 Fall 1997
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Allan Gurganus. Photo by Marion Ettlinger, courtesy of the artist.

Allan Gurganus’ new novel, Plays Well with Others, is his first since Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, that magnificent and encyclopedic work of comic, familial, southern storytelling history. The wildly energetic new book is a kind of history as well—of New York in the years immediately before, then during, the AIDS epidemic; of a group of friends coming of age artistically and erotically; and of a particular young man, Hartley Mims, Jr., a Carolinian who becomes caretaker to the dying, chronicler of their lives. Allan, like Hartley, has returned to North Carolina; we spoke (and wrote; this interview was conducted by fax as well as long-distance phone) over several days in August. Allan, like Lucy Marsden in Widow, is a gifted talker; brief questions can prompt answers that fire in every direction, then back again. Talking to Allan is a good kind of talking. The pleasure is in the listening.

Donald Antrim How is life in North Carolina? What’s the weather like down there?

Allan Gurganus Dear Donald, my bombardier, the weather’s sunny, 85 degrees, wind NE. I’m eager to talk about my new natal bundle. I enclose some of the drawings I’m doing for the book.

DA I’m glad to see that you’re doing your own art again. It’s a nice tradition.

AG Yeah. After all the verbiage, the interiority of writing the novel, illustrating it feels like tying a bow. I keep recalling the sixth grade booklet I wrote and illustrated: “Switzerland: A Nation Beautiful and Neutral.”

DA Let’s talk about Plays Well with Others, shall we? Unless you want to show me a copy of “Switzerland: A Nation Beautiful and Neutral.”

AG I’ve lost my first hardback book; varnished, actually. Yes, I love to talk.

DA I want to ask you about the book’s composition. First, though, there is something I have to know. There is a tremendously funny scene, early in the book. The young Carolinian writer, Hartley Mims, rushes to the home of a dying friend—the friend is in the hospital; parents from Iowa are expected any minute—to clear the apartment of pornography and about thirty dildoes in assorted lengths, widths, and colors, arranged like toy soldiers in the broom closet. The young writer bags then carts the dildoes onto the subway. However, the shopping bag packed full breaks open, and the dildoes tumble and bounce across the crowded subway car. Obviously, I have to ask if anything like this ever happened in your life?

AG Like so many lucky survivors of the AIDS epidemic, my job, by default, became that of Eulogist and cleaning service. Not necessarily in that order. Part of knowing that your friends are really dying arrives when you become the curator of their “stuff.” Transporting thirty of a pal’s dildoes, that’s based on hearsay and on many such airlifts done myself. These were usually undertaken just minutes before two stern, decent Midwestern parents barged into the apartment, scene of so much they’d never guess.

Though I never mislaid dozens of dildoes at rush hour on the IRT, I did squirrel away friends’ porn collections; I stowed many accoutrements of avant-garde desire. It’s curious how, when a loved one dies, the material “personal effects” grow luminous, especially the sexy ones. I recall going through a friend’s soft-core ‘50s porn weeks after he’d died. He loved these art shots. Some sleek California boy, posing as a naked fisher-lad, the fishnet only just covering his credentials. I sat there feeling the desire of my friend, joined with my own. I could jerk off for both of us, no, for all three, including the earnest baby-oiled boy in the net.

DA This is a new kind of triangulation, I think. A triangle of which two members are present mainly as imagined or remembered.

AG Yes, I wanted to write that most difficult (because familiar) form: a love story. Odd, that’s how this whole hideous period begins to present itself in memory, as our own love story: the tie between straight women and gay men; the confusion that bisexuals leave in their scary wakes; the odd purity that only comes when you’re still avidly in love with someone who’s actually dead now! In this book, I’ve tried to find new geometries of desire; they were right there, Xed throughout my address book and waffleironed into my heart.

DA Going back for a moment, I believe that the scene in question—a portion of the book’s beginning—was scheduled to appear in Harper’s magazine under the title, “Thirty Dildoes.” Is this something you would care to talk about?

AG Harper’s has published eight or nine of my stories and a novella, “The Practical Heart,” so it seemed natural that I would send them an early chapter from the new book. They loved it, bought it at once. I was working with a young editor at Harper’s, and on the day the piece was set to go to press, Lewis Lapham phoned me at home to say, of course, he couldn’t use the title, “Thirty Dildoes”—not on the cover of the magazine. Advertisers would flee. He proposed a new title, “Thirty Friends.” Hard-hittin’, huh?

Since the chapter involves the aforementioned mix-up, and since the shopping bag’s breaking offers the main character a test—to abandon these things or save them?—since dildoes become human totem stand-ins—I explained to Lapham that I couldn’t “soften” the title while pretending not to notice. The novel is largely about accidental moral growth while taking care of those pals that nobody else wants. I just couldn’t mute the narrative’s ethical meaning. No can do. Life is too short to sell out all at once. There’d be no suspense left. He, after a day of reconsideration, agreed to my terms, my title. I celebrated. Three weeks later, I learned, via my agent, that not only was Harper’s taking the title off its cover, but my name was going too. Talk about ghettoization. Plain brown wrapper, queer content, beware.

I jerked it out of their hands at record speed. Lapham, the First Amendment proponent, has never explained, or called me since. He completely recanted on his word. If an unpublished story by Hemingway were discovered tomorrow in Key West and its title were “Thirty Dildoes,” would there be any question of the offending noun appearing on Harper’s cover?

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Artwork by Allan Gurganus. Courtesy the artist.

DA This is all very odd, isn’t it? Actually, it’s hard for me to imagine that the word “dildoes” could seem threatening at all. Dildoes are less threatening than funny. Maybe that was the problem—sex and humor.

AG We’re always being told in schools that James Joyce made the novel safe for sex, and that, these days, anything goes. Yeah, right. More and more I think that we have one standard of sexual candor in our lives and another on the page. Even those of us who’ve considered ourselves erotic pioneers, we really hold two standards when it comes to speaking or writing our sexual fates and tastes. Writing about sexual deeds—of the omission and the co-kind—is notoriously difficult. We find it easier to say such stuff aloud, preferably long-distance, by phone, to our beloved therapists.

Writing “funny” is also very dark and serious business. Bergson describes humor as “the mechanical grafted onto the natural.” This might also describe sex itself, the wit of nature (with all its Rube Goldberg plumbing). For me, getting these two toughies together makes for the most dangerous and seductive mixtures. Highly flammable, prettier than a Trader Vic’s cocktail wearing gold foam and three paper umbrellas. I have said elsewhere that I try writing the funniest stories possible about the worst things that can happen to people. I’d add: I hope to write the sexiest stories possible set during those moments least likely to be erotic. Sex still constitutes the finest way to show who your characters really are. If you’ve “known” someone erotically, if you have decoded their little bedroom yips and shouts, then you can love them in most any circumstance. Nursing dying lovers was made sadder and yet easier by one’s familiarity with this, this single formerly gorgeous body.

My own work’s preferred ingredients are: History, Death, Humor, Sex. To eroticize history, to joke yourself towards dead, to use our inherent powerlessness before the forces of invasion and evasion, that offers a fertility unceasing. The new book is turned on by every creature it flashes at us. It fairly pants, until it can’t.

DA The novel’s beginning, the section called “Before,” is as much a love song to New York as to the bodies and souls of its inhabitants. At this point in time, it is fair to say that “Before” is truly a history; “After” has only just begun. Hartley Mims, the protagonist of Plays Well with Others, bears a number of close resemblances to this book’s actual author. Both are writers who come of age in New York. Both have left small towns in North Carolina. Both will be on hand for the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the early ’80s; both will nurse the dying; and both will return, in time, to a small town in North Carolina. Allan, where shall we begin in talking about the autobiographical significance of this new novel?

AG When it comes to writing one’s life, I had a huge advantage in publishing my first book, Widow, at the ripe old age of 42. Through impersonating a funny garish woman of 99, one abused by a husband known widely as The Civil War, by writing about the death of the patriarchy and not my own coming of age, I sidestepped the usual “Tonight Show” question: “This is pretty much you, right?” I think it’s the stupidest of all questions, no offense. But it’s based on people’s belief that living your life is really writing the novel about that life. It don’t work that way. Not even if you have all of Richard Nixon’s and Joan Collins’ tales to tell.

By leaving New York, I entitled myself to sing it. By losing my friends, I came to see them as subjects. I had read Daniel Defoe’s brilliant Journal of the Plague Year. It was written a generation after the actual plague, written with the conviction that this thing, now over, had been imperishably important. My goal was to write a comic version of Defoe’s account. Mine had to be funny, because the people I limned were goddamn laugh riots. I miss them as much for their constant source of jokes as for their erotic referrals. By outliving them, I outlived the need to write the coming of age novel. It was replaced by the coming of death novel. But crucially, not mine; not mine yet.

Suddenly, instead of having the usual first person young artist novel, you had, Portrait of the Artist as A Youngish Registered Nurse. It was a lesson in love as detachment—someone essentially squeamish must learn to deal with blood. You must learn to hook a catheter into the breastbone of some kid that you and everyone in town desperately wanted sexually only three years back. I can now address those years, our venturesome spirit, only because of my status as an exile. I, at 50, create a young man of 25. I’m twice his age, twice as fat, yet forty times as tender toward that very boy. He’d be polite only in dodging someone like me. From here, I can see him. From there and then, I’d remain invisible to him. Maybe this is hindsight’s autobiography. It’s not mine.

DA Allan, in the first place, I don’t think you’re twice as plump as you once were. You’re too hard on yourself. Actually, you mentioned something to me, a few weeks ago, about the extraordinary experience of writing Plays Well with Others. November to March? What in the world was that like?

AG Yes, this book’s medical chart is odd, pure Everest fever spike. November of last year, I agreed to turn in a group of novellas. Perched among the novellas was one half-done essay called, “On Whether To Purge The Dead From One’s Address Book.” It was a literal attempt to present this bookkeeping problem and, through it, to suggest the void created by your most-often-dialed ones becoming a dead letter file.

My father had died, quite suddenly, some months earlier. Then my mother, living near me, went into a strange decline. Nothing was lethally wrong, but we watched her—evincing this curious poise that made us oddly proud—take herself out. It could be the most imaginative thing that any of us will do—knowing we’re done for, and mustering the strength to truly make it so!

My younger brother and I were in the room with her when she achieved it. That’s how it felt, a victory. At last, I was free of the visiting time and the chronic constant worry. Seeing how she’d managed it, dying in her own way at eighty, lowered me again into the visions of my young friends’ untimely exits. Suddenly I turned to this essay. Almost at once, I knocked the back wall out of it. Felt like some sports car firing through a flimsy plywood garage. Of a sudden, what I saw out the windows was a landscape in motion. What released me was all the caretaking’s rerouted energy. Now, having buried all my ill ones, I was taking care of a new novel about caretaking. I literally thought of the book as an infant I’d been granted, a new starter kit, some freshly issued life. It somehow contained all the lives I’d lost.

I found I was rising earlier and earlier; drinking Balzacian coffee of a toxicity unknown at Starbucks. I became some deranged undergrad trying to complete his sophomore paper at the expense of his own health and sanity. (I kept fearing I would die before I finished it.) But then I slowly saw: this was my own health and sanity coming in, like a tide. As a book, about them. About those days. Only a fairy tale could’ve dawned on me like that, beguiling, making me come back a day at a time for what it might, just might, reveal. I told the novel as a Fable; it seemed improbable and longgone, haunted by A Moral.

This book was a strange gift. We’re told: You can’t write a love story these days. We hear: Everything about Manhattan has been overstated already. We’re told: The pandemic deserves the solemnity of documentary, a balanced reasoned telling. There’s a rarefied NPR belief that the best work comes from never taking sides, from showing all points of view, even when one of those is rabid and heartless. I say, if it can’t be biased and partisan and impassioned and even somewhat cloddish in its willingness to take huge emotional risks, then I don’t got time for it. Such certainty shouldn’t address a subject as operatic as 25-year-olds aging five decades in two months, literally having their lives burned out of them by some organism too self-interested to even respect its own survival by permitting the continuing existence of its host’s life! At such times, helpful tips about what’s permissible in the wellwrought, admirable novel fall far away. You get to your subject by whatever carpentry, flimflammery or animal instinct is left to lead you.

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DA The new book presents a vision—and this vision is humorous and odd and reassuring at the same time—of heaven. I’m referring to a section of the novel called, “Toward a More Precise Identification of the Newer Angels.” Heaven is described as a place of eternally sustained erotic life; a place—or a condition—in which human interconnectedness is felt to be never-ending and uninhibited and orgasmic. And certain people, it seems, have a difficult time gaining admission to heaven. Teachers generally make the cut, as do mail carriers. There are a lot of writers in heaven, apparently. Among those routinely denied access are “career Manhattanites and Parisians.” I can understand about the career Manhattanites. But why Parisians? I noticed, too, that President Lincoln gets in, though Jefferson is refused. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, wrote the Declaration of Independence, and designed a clock that uses cannonballs as clock weights. This guy can’t get into heaven?

AG Don’t get me wrong, I love Paris; and I keep the life-sized Houdon bust of Jefferson right here in my workroom. But, while designing the sort of Paradise that the novel’s young artists would most want, I became the admissions committee; ugly work but, somebody has to do it; and so I created a couple of absolutes. No one gets in without photo ID proving that they openly adore sex, and that they have a supple sense of humor. True, Jefferson wrote a hell of a document. U. Va. still looks great. And true, cannonballs as clock ballast…good thinking. Swords to ploughshares, high concept. But, arrogantly intelligent as he was, you would not want him in your life raft. Trust me here. Lincoln, however, gets in every time. Picasso collected Lincolnalia; Marilyn Monroe said she married Arthur Miller because he looked so much like Lincoln, someone she considered “the sexiest man in American history.” Also, one of its funniest, ever.

So, you go ahead and sit around in Paradise with Jefferson discussing the precedents for, and possibilities of, national toll roads. I’ll take my chances with Einstein’s violin music and my own talkative, associative, and much missed friends.

DA Uncle. I give. No Jefferson. This is consistent, I guess, with the book’s assertion that heaven is a place “tailored to our former faults, not just our dull onrolling merits.” This is an appealing formulation—this relationship—between imperfection and virtue, in a life or in a novel. Books, I think, need to be flawed; their imperfections are testaments to their origins in human thinking and feeling.

AG Yes. Walt Whitman, being a self-sacrificial caretaker himself, became the accidental patron saint of the pandemic. He said: “We are all hopelessly lost without the sexual fiber of things.” I wanted a paradise where such fibers could be macraméd, where all the broken circles might be re-knit, lucky Pierre. These days, even in the gay community, there is The New Prudery, it’s simply more blaming, the sort of logic that accused Native Americans of hogging real estate and therefore asking for massacre. There is a contempt for sexual experiment, that’s considered asking for it, anything short of a Hawaiian marriage is sneered at as selfish, jeopardizing behavior. But young folks who feel contemptuous of those of us who, pre-AIDS, tried out every last erotic option might as well sneer at an apple that, knocked off a table, then falls on the floor. Desire and gravity—you do what they say to do. If limits are later required, then and only then do you build the necessary dams. But during free fall, I’m here to tell you it felt wonderful.

A character in my novel asks his friends after their nights out: “And what did you learn?” One of Grace Paley’s characters says: “Being a reformed junkie is better then having a masters in education.” In the same way, promiscuity is my own favorite advanced degree. Coursework was never more fun. In this book I wanted to chronicle this crazy, happy period, and without any puritanical foreshadowing. Edmund White has pointed out, “Anonymous sex is a term invented by those who never had it.” Once two people notice each other, touch and strip, and tell each other their life stories either in words or looks, anonymity ceases. I can, these 28 years later, tell you the exact eye color and hatrack sexual construction of someone with whom I spent just forty eventful minutes. His name and exact country of origin I never quite learned, but in Paradise, I’ll go right up to him: “You again—now where were we?” Oh the joy, inventing a heaven where not your job qualifications but your identifying genitals survive and describe you.

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DA One of the interesting privileges of membership in this heaven involves a kind of retroactive wish fulfillment, in which a desire for an experience constitutes as its memory. In other words, if, once dead, you wish you had done some certain thing in life, then presto, you’ve done it. What are some of the things you might do or undo retroactively after death? Remember, you can always change your answer after you die.

AG Right. I think my regrets involve the things I didn’t do, rather than those I did. As a young man I was very nervous about sleeping with older people who might help me with my work or my career. I was very proud. If I could revise some part of my psyche, I would wish to become one of those people who is attracted to silver hair at the age of eighteen. I think it would have made my life richer in some ways to be interested in people with more experience than I. But I’m an extremely lucky person, giddily lucky to be alive at all. And very fortunate to be doing something that I love to do everyday. So I feel very blessed and have few regrets. Maybe 40 percent blonder?

DA You took care of a lot of people. You’ve written about that in this book, and you’ve talked about that in this interview. You’ve also talked a lot about this business of teaching and learning. I want to ask you about something that John Cheever once wrote about you, that he thought that you were the most morally responsive writer of your generation. Is that something you think much about? And what does it mean to you to be, in your work, morally responsive? And in what way, if any, is there a didactic side to this?

AG If you think about being “morally responsive,” you aren’t. Just as there are Newtonian gravitational force fields at work in the material world, it seems to me there are laws, cause and effect, in human behavior. It’s erratic because it’s constantly governed by human emotion which is notoriously chaotic and heedless of consistency; but there’s this basic feeling that certain things are right and others, crueler, aren’t. The follicles know, even as we—clever—play dumb. In my novella “Blessed Assurance,” a poor white kid sells funeral insurance to older black people who stand to lose thousands. On his own, the boy begins paying, “carrying them.” How accountable are we for each other? There’s one situation I find so provocative—in the new book, in Widow, in White People: Place, at the center of a jeopardized community (they all are), one person who feels hyper-responsible, who is, as it were, most morally responsive to her cohorts. It’s the booby prize, eureka. Comedy, only comedy, can follow. And only the presence of the pratfall makes it possible to then write about ethics. Without a comic sense, it’d be preaching or, worse, taxidermy. Bergson again defines a joke as “the exact moment when the flesh fails the spirit again.” Oh, that hilarious exhausted “again!”

The phrase “no good deed goes unpunished” would be my own personal motto. And it’s certainly true in my fiction. How far must I go to defend my friends? The answer is in the moment of exhaustion, when you’re ready to run the other direction, there’s this moment of illumination which is maybe the didactic that you ask about. The deeper I can enter another person, the more I can imagine being them, the better I know myself and the better prepared I am for this very sickness, this very mortal circumstance, when it’s my turn.

DA I want to go back to heaven for a moment…

AG Take me, please!

DA I want to go back to ask you, in some way, about angels. Angels make a number of appearances in your work—so, what kind of position, in a non-literary sense, do you have on death and angels? Are angels among us, and if they are, what are they?

AG I believe increasingly in supernatural explanations. Why the hell not? The more experience you have, the more improbable reality becomes, the more likely unlikely answers are. If I discovered that the 78-year-old woman who lived next door to me died, and that the mortician came and took her out of the house, and found she had no genital openings in her body, and that she was made out of magnesium, and that she belonged to a different order—it would and wouldn’t surprise me. But beyond angels as a sub-species or a superspecies, each of us has an inherent capacity for providing other people with bridges or transitions or assistance that can serve an angelic function. People have done that for me. Call them freelance Fairy Godmothers, but we have all been in positions where we were feeling hopeless and despondent, stuck, and somebody came along at exactly the right time, sometimes people we didn’t even know, and said, “A piano is about to fall on you from the fourth floor,” or “You have the ability,” or “Call this person,” or “Here’s a job,” or “Come to bed with me.” There are junctures in our lives where people can serve supernal and angelic functions for us. Without half knowing!

One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my work, apart from creating stray literal angels, is to provide opportunities for transcendent experiences; natural experiences, as well as sensationalistic or detrimental or scary or overtly negatively dramatic ones. Evil is easy on the page; but I try to create characters who have the possibility of radical goodness in them. I think one reason Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All has remained an unbelievable evergreen is precisely because Lucy Marsden has a psychic dowsing rod’s regenerative power.

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DA Lucy remarks at one point that, with Carolinians, “gene-knowledge means character-knowledge means history-knowledge means destiny-knowledge.” Has this been true for you? Has your career as a writer been a fulfillment of destiny, and has your return to North Carolina been a realization of destiny?

AG Well, in North Carolina “gene-knowledge” means that you are often literally the first cousin of almost everybody black or white. Going to New York in 1980, I brought this energized, mythological ability to project family virtues onto others. In New York, everybody’s from a different culture or different state, everybody’s a different lovely color. One thing that made me feel safest in New York was reconstituting my village, my family. Famously now, we have the option, especially in the gay community, of endlessly reinventing what a family is. I took full advantage of that and found in my peers, who were fellow writers, painters, composers, artists, a group of people who became my ideal circle, the family I wish I had been born into. They became my governing reality, and I wrote my stories and did my work for them as much as anybody else. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers.” I write for friends and myself.

Only now, after finishing the book and fictionally reconstituting our group—because there are no absolute equivalents, it’s an approximation, an allegory—do I feel surrounded and safe again. I am back in North Carolina, so I guess it’s full-circle. I am living in a literal village instead of an invented one. I wanted the novel to be not just a love poem to youth and artistic possibility, but to the city itself. I thought of it very consciously as a kind of Dick Wittington London, where people from narrow circumstances could feed in like cool freshets into this great powerful river and enjoy and enlarge each other, our beautiful flood.

All of us who were trying to make Art found each other and supported each other and offered each other this tremendous excitement and sense of possibility. So it’s very satisfying for me not only to be one of the oldest living survivors of my circle, but to use fictional techniques that have taken 35 years to evolve, to portray my beloved missing ones. A refrain in the book: “We thought we were something!” And we were.

DA Let me ask you one thing about fictional technique. I always notice certain stylistic tendencies: you often drop, several times in a single sentence, your definite articles; you avoid prepositional phrases; you’re not at all afraid of bold alliteration. In general, I think you work toward a kind of compression in your lines; a dense, speech-like rhythm. For instance, I hope you won’t mind if I make a little example, instead of saying “the light on the ceiling,” I can imagine you writing “ceiling’s light.” The light is in some kind of special relationship with the ceiling, perhaps owned by the ceiling, or trapped by the ceiling, or even cherished by the ceiling. This seems like a way of animating the inanimate world.

AG I’m an animist. Every word in every sentence should have its own autonomy and integrity. Part of the problem with prepositional phrases is that they’re full of servant words. I’m a linguistic democrat. I’m trying to give as much energy, as much velocity as possible to each sentence. To replicate in prose the ragged expertise that most people bring to what’s really in their hearts. A Strunk and White formality of diction, however compressed and elegant, often gets bypassed when people speak during emotional emergencies. And my work often shows people responding lyrically to urgent, often physically challenging experiences. I want the language to have a sense of flight and hue and possibility. I started life as a painter, and my skill and preference is plainly, militantly, visual. The history of painting is the literature that most inspires me. I try to come up with a visible concomitant for the most abstract philosophical tropes. I hope that both a PhD in philosophy and someone very smart if self-taught, someone with a fifth grade education can read my work and cart off something sustaining. I despise jargon. I love shop talk. I’m dubious of “ideas” that have not been pre-tested by the senses. Everybody has eyes; everybody’s the genius of their own senses. If you can make their senses trust then love you, your Fable can do anything. The seduction is complete. Death is just a little weaker for a while.

Conrad swore that the meaning of a novel must exist in every sentence of that novel. This was a phrase I bitterly resented for years; it seemed to me he set us an impossible standard. But the more I work, the more reasonable that statement becomes. It demands that every sentence be stylized, not in the sense of a hairdresser’s curling (because he’s being paid to curl and has a curling iron), but because every sentence has its own particular dynamic function both independent of and in relation to the sentence before and after it. A mark of the real writer and a real composer is that you can hear three notes of Bach or three notes of Brahms, for instance, and know exactly whose music it is. Henry Green I admire immensely. Isaac Babel, Grace Paley, Faulkner and Ray Carver…they are all writers who are instantly identifiable. Musical, they have recreated diction. I would like to think that instead of having a standard voice, that each novel I offer invents its own language. I don’t set out to stylize on purpose; style is the utility of storytelling and what’s required by the narrative protein. I’m interested in writing pure protein. I love carbs; love ornament and party cake; but I also want the food value, a can of tuna in every sentence.

DA Another quote from Oldest Living Confederate Widow: “Stories only happen to people who can tell them.” What is the story you think most about now. And what comes next?

AG I suppose the tale that speaks to me most is Robinson Crusoe’s, being the soul survivor; the sense of betrayal that one feels at having somehow been left behind. I think of a Henry James’ story in which someone gathers all the traces of lost ones and, maudlin and morose, worships them through these objects. After enough study, memory and recreation, one begins to feel accompanied and enclosed by friends. As if you have somehow re-earned their company by remembering them with sufficient irreverence. For me, humor is the shortest distance between two points. To remember the inconsistencies and the hilarity of my missing ones, humor is the fastest way to summon them up. It’s odd, because when I started writing Oldest Living Confederate Widow I was in my twenties, and here I was describing a woman who had outlived her entire generation and all of her children. In some ways, the book predicted what would happen to so many of us. But, by describing family and friends, by preserving them while teasing them while praising them, my ancient widow regained her own lost loved ones. And, in many ways, through Plays Wells with Others, I have, too.

Donald Antrim is the author of two novels, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and The Hundred Brothers.

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BOMB 61, Fall 1997

Featuring interviews with Gregory Crewdson, Lorna Simpson, Allan Gurganus, Louis Auchincloss, Marie Howe, Rilla Askew, Rupert Graves, Andrew Blanco, and Paula Vogel.

Read the issue
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