I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Another summer in the city. It’s a heat wave—as bad as it used to be, but a month early. Nowadays, August cools off, and in July, we’re still new to this new summer—and better able to withstand the heat. Maybe it’s the sense that material stuff doesn’t have quite the same hold on us, maybe it’s that the rents have gone down, maybe it’s the accumulation of happenstance that makes for fate, but this summer, the city is smiling, almost enlightened. Charlie Smith arrives at my office dressed for a divine day anywhere in the world: white linen and jeans.
Smith, the recipient of numerous accolades and the author of six novels and seven books of poetry, distinguishes his prose with precise metaphor, and insight that bridges lyricism and candor. His most recent novel, Three Delays (Harper Perennial), chronicles the deep love and bumpy journey of Billy Brent and Alice Stephens. Istanbul, Florida, Italy, Mexico—the geography is global, but the cartography is internal, and one of dissolute sameness. Through multiple partings and reconciliations, the lovers can never entirely leave one another—but nor can they find one another.
Smith and I discuss the best seating arrangement, move the table closer to the air conditioner, and hunker down. I nervously deploy the space-age digital recorder.
John Reed All right, so I was hoping you’d sign this book?
Charlie Smith Why don’t we do it at the end after we see how this goes?
JR Okay. Let’s see, my first question for you: the relation of poetry and novels. There seems to be some kind of mystical connection, poets as novelists—apropos here, James Dickey, E. E. Cummings, Jessica Hagedorn. Insights?
CS I don’t see that very often—novelists writing poems that have any kind of power and authority particularly, and vice versa. Many of the poets I know don’t read novels at all; they don’t read any fiction. And my close friends who are novelists don’t read any poems; they are not even interested in reading mine. So I don’t know if there is that kind of crossover. It’s not necessary, in fiction, to concentrate in the same way—to bring the same intensity, spirit, language, into the line—as it is in writing a poem.
In my case, I just happened to write both right at the beginning. I was exposed to both as a youngster and then, in boarding school, we were required in ordinary assignments to write short stories and poems. I fell in love with both, and began to write both on my own. What I began to see was that the two disciplines could cross over to a certain extent. Poems can cross over to fiction, but I haven’t seen fiction cross over to poems much. A fiction line in a poem—I mean, you sometimes run into what passes as poetry, which is often just prose chopped up into lines, but it doesn’t have intensity. Real poems can’t exist anywhere but in the lines of the poem. If you try to take a fiction line and insert it into a poem, it’ll sag like a swayback mare. I found that to be pretty strictly true, at least in my case. But it’s possible to take poems and shift them into fiction; I used to take poems and de-line them like you debone a trout. Then, I’d just lay them into a page of fiction and they would pass perfectly well. I did it in most of my earlier novels: Canaan (1984), Shine Hawk (1988), The Lives of the Dead (1990) … There may have been others. Before poetry broke loose from the continental shelf, it was the easiest thing to haul lines over to the fiction side.
I try to bring as much energy and penetration into my fiction as possible. To hold onto the line of expression as earnestly as possible, like you’re holding onto a mustang out in the desert, letting it be fully itself but, as firmly and inevitably as possible, bringing it into the remuda. Because I also write poems, I have access—if I’m lucky—to those particular acts of imagination that take place in a poem—I can sometimes see that things that appear to be disparate actually are connected.
I tend to like fiction that jumps and yips, fiction that moves around, that’s got language barreling through it. The best at it in my generation are probably Denis Johnson, Javier Marías, and Martin Amis. Maybe if I’d never written a poem I would still seek something like that out. I hope I would.
JR In the last three years or so, there’s been a tendency to sprawl in literary fiction, which is something that had gone away. Certainly, when I was in graduate school, it had been squeezed out. Now, there are a lot of big novels again, as had been the literary benchmark until the mid-20th century—there’s room to breathe, room to live as if side by side with the characters. Were you consciously looking toward a more patient pace in Three Delays?
CS People write the way they’re taught to write. So if we’re going through an episode in writing history where people are being taught to be concise, to make it short, that’s what most of them are going to do. Of course there are breakthroughs. Rust Hills contrived a breakthrough in fiction using Raymond Carver’s stories as his manifest and writers loved what he did and wanted to write like that too. But it’s a big profession. It includes, as well as the school taught, many outlandish and nutty practitioners who are going dedicatedly about their isolato and feverish sorceries. They’ve not read the guides, only the great books. Generally it’s among this latter group that the greatest American novels get written.
Really, the only thing that matters is sustaining the energy. Novels end because the energy quits and it’s time to bring them to a close. If novelists, for one reason or another, are able to sustain the energy, why not write as long as they want?
JR I’ll quote this bit from the title poem of your Indistinguishable from the Darkness (1991): “It is not a matter of being saved, I know this.” I’d like to think about this in relation to something that Three Delays deals with: is redemption the biggest lie?
CS Gee, I don’t know. I mean, I can’t really speak for that. It’s not my philosophy; Three Delaysis just a novel. In some ways I wonder if it’s a bit of a scam, the whole notion that people need redemption. In my observation, people are already the way they’re supposed to be, and however they are is the way that suits the moment of the universe that they inhabit. So the notion of needing to be redeemed from that place seems like something that may be imposed on them. As I go along, I tend to take what I see on a case by case basis, and what I find is that in that moment each person is cooking along in the way he or she’s supposed to. Even if it’s lame and churlish, it doesn’t matter, we’re rolling along.
JR That touches on some other questions I have, going back to something you were saying about poetry. Bringing together disparate elements, as you say, seemingly opposed elements: can language do it?
CS Sure. Language, paint, music, dancing feet, demolition derby—they all can. That’s what imagination is, as far as I’m concerned: the ability to see the unacknowledged correspondence between disparate things. Whatever art it is, the forms of the particular art express that. And an imaginative writer is someone who is able to see that and to put it into words. It’s expressed often through simile or metaphor—the cohabiters of the central force of art, and then just comes out. If it doesn’t include the bringing together of things that don’t seem to be alike but in fact are—my love is like the deep blue sea—then it’s journalism or memoir writing.
JR In Three Delays the ego of the characters is curiously everywhere and nowhere, a kind of Zen depression—always at ease, always unhappy. Let me cite a line of your poetry from The Palms (1994): “it is a tone I listen for, an inflection, / the moment when the argument breaks down, / because someone can’t take it anymore.”
CS The poems in that book are in a sense what happens at the end of exhaustion. When we reach a place of spiritual and psychic exhaustion—what then?
I don’t have plans when I write a poem or a novel, or even hard notions in terms of whom or what I want to write about. I don’t have a template that I try to place things into. I just start writing. What comes out is something that I discover, if I ever discover it, because I don’t ever really go at books critically. As far as the characters in Three Delays, they are imagined people who are discovered, by me and by the reader, in a certain situation, a kind of extremis. A psychic extremis in terms of personality and abilities; a spiritual extremis, expressed, say, by drugs. The veneer that the drugs and the alcohol provide in this book, covering what turns out to be pretty honest emotion, is a kind of carapace. It’s just in the nature of the situation and what’s going on. How long can love last? When do you quit? How do you stay in it under terrible circumstances? All of that is interesting to me—in the lives of these people—so I wrote about it. I’m not trying to figure anything out about it: those are problems for people’s individual lives. I try to let myself be as open as possible to characters and situations within the confines of the book. That means that in my own life I may need to act in certain ways to make that possible, so I’m not distracted by all that’s going on in the world. Live quietly. Let the world take care of itself. Seek a calm heart.
JR Turning this question to the writer: what about ego as a writer?
CS Well, I look at writing not as a management position but as a service position. I’m there to serve the needs of the book. That’s all it is, and the more I’m able to do that, the better the book goes. When I start thinking that I’m the big shot in the book, or that the big shot is writing it, there is no book.
It’s like raising a child or loving a woman; when you really do love them you’re willing to serve. That’s what I find operating in my marriage. I find it operating in the lives of people who have raised families—despite ourselves, despite our shortcomings, and our inabilities, we’re willing to serve the ones we love. A book is like that; it’s not a living thing, but the act of writing is. I go after the willingness to serve the poem, or the novel. I do that as best as I can within my limitations.
JR Coming back to the narrative in Three Delays, we have these two characters on the periphery of the American experience: can’t quite settle down; can’t quite stay off drugs or out of jail. Is there something political, particularly relevant to our current world, in opting out?
CS If you look closely you’ll see that Billy works for a newspaper, he’s writing book after book, and his books get published. He has to put various chemicals in his body to stay up writing, but regardless, within his limitations, he seems to be a pretty hardworking guy. He’s awake to the world’s being a murderous place—you have to be pretty sleepy to avoid it. Alice is not quite as formally engaged, though she is a practicing musician. But they are both giving life as much attention as they are able. She too is aware of how things go in the world. I think both of these people are astounded by the fact that life is so short, and that the world is a place where you’re going to tumble into grief, no matter what you do. They’re not opting out, they’re amazed and angry and bewildered.
You know, Key West, one of the settings for Three Delays, is a place many people go to because they can’t make it anywhere else. They’ve busted out, and in Key West there’s a lot more leeway than there is in other places. The main festival in Key West is a big city party in which everybody takes off all their clothes and walks the streets painted in various colors. You’ll see people in their eighties, ordinary folks who just like to walk around that way at festival.
You’ll see folks who are just driving a taxicab three days a week and making it that way. It’s warm all the time, so a lot of people can live on the street. Some people get so sick that they’re just knocked out of the game, but almost everybody is doing the best he can to get a little something going, whatever it may be. It might just be to stroke a cat three times, because it’s all he can do that day, but he’s still giving it a whirl.
JR Are all your novels road novels?
CS Are all my novels road novels? Ah, I don’t know. I mean, there’re only a couple stories out there: What are you doing here? Where are you going? That’s about it. It’s either one or the other. I haven’t even thought about whether my novels are road novels.
My first long piece was a novella called Crystal River, which I wrote back in the ’70s. It’s about a wilderness canoe trip from the north Florida delta down to the Gulf. I was very conscious of the framework of that trip, the daily traveling. It was very helpful. You go this far, you go this far: I saw I could chop the mileage up into the chapters, and that was helpful to me, as a beginner. Except for Shine Hawk, my other novels are not so much like that. My first long novel, Canaan, is 421 pages and it mostly happens in a rural town in Georgia. Most of my novels tend to be concentrated in one place. One of them, The Lives of the Dead, takes place on this street, Crosby, at least partially.
JR Doesn’t Cheap Ticket to Heaven (1997) move around?
CS Does it? I can’t remember that book. Yeah, it does … it happens in a lot of different places. Those characters are bandits, criminals—they have to be on the run. They’re not really taking a trip, they’re just staying alive. They have to go from place to place. You could, in a sense, call that book a road novel, but they’re just trying to keep from getting hit by bullets.
Road novels are traveling novels. I guess that’s why I don’t see mine as road exactly. The characters make homes where they find themselves. They try to settle in. Part of the energy in the novels is created by their inability to get along with the world they find themselves in. So they hightail it to some other promising burg.
JR There’s a long-standing current toward genre—literary prose delivering murder, crime. The drift to genre, which felt postmodern in the ‘70s or ‘80s, has become almost defacto, partly because publishers are desperate for a marketing plan. You’ve employed genre elements before; I’m thinking of Shine Hawk and Cheap Ticket to Heaven. Three Delays teases at those elements without directly engaging them.
CS Well, you give me more credit than is due. I don’t really think about those things. It’s really hard to write novels, for me, at least, so I just use anything I can get my hands on that might help me write one. Anything that can help me to see more clearly, to help me to sustain a figure. Everything that you put in a novel has to either move the story or deepen the character, or both, that’s it. That’s really all that a novelist is doing as far as I can tell, they’re deepening a character, they’re moving the story.
I used to read a lot of detective novels in the ‘70s, when I was starting out. I also worked at theSavannah Daily News and the Savannah Evening Press, morning and afternoon newspapers, and I did that on purpose because there are some really valuable things to learn working for a newspaper. One: you’ve got to show up and do the work no matter how you feel about it, no matter whether your day is going good or bad. Two: you’ve got to write something that people are able to read. That was a marvelous thing to learn as somebody who’s beginning. That’s in detective stories as well, whether they’re by Raymond Chandler or whomever. Yet there’s a certain level in genre that, for me, makes genre unreadable—the writing’s just not interesting enough. There’s another level in which it is still interesting: guys are trying to get somewhere, find something out, do this or that … It’s helpful for a novelist to learn to get a sentence to move along quickly and how to get characters into and out of situations, abruptly or smoothly or however you want. The truly great can teach you about the profundity of the moment, no lie, but the thriller writers can show you how to get a broken heart from here to there.
I don’t see myself as trying to produce a genre novel or anything like that. Cheap Ticket to Heaven is most like that in that it’s about some American outlaw killers, people who are willing to kill whomever’s between them and what they feel they can’t live without. But that’s more because I find killers interesting—my killers—more than because I had a desire to write any kind of thriller. I once tried to pass it off as a thriller at one of those mystery bookstores. They took a look at it and didn’t want to carry it.
JR Why is it that books with drug addicts in them are so predictable? Aren’t you supposed to make Billy hit bottom or something?
CS Make him hit bottom? (laughter) Well, I don’t really care about that. It’s like genre books: addiction is a kind of genre that has a standard movement to it. We like to think things will turn out well, that a lesson will be learned. We try to stay hopeful. But the people in this book are living with the failure of that sort of hope. They’ve run on out past the mechanicals and hometown frets, they’ve put their money on love, even if they are nutcases.
The truth of the matter is that it’s very rare for any addict to get sober and stay sober. It happens so infrequently that the people who do get sober and stay sober call it a miracle. Popular thinking has it that people are drunks or drug addicts, and then they go get straightened out and life improves. That’s not the most common story; most people who have that disease don’t ever shake it. I’m just writing about these people in this particular book, and there’s no concern—or there is, to a slight degree only—for rebushing. A guy gets sober for a period of time, then he sinks back into the caginess and the power of the disease and what he calls love. Tough for him.
JR Why is it—within the diegesis of the Three Delays—that what’s most atrocious about the opposite sex is what most attracts us? What most compels us?
CS Whoa, wow, well, not in my case.
JR I qualified: “within the diegesis.”
CS Oh, you think that’s what happens in the book? That this guy is attracted to the most …
JR Billy and Alice are mutually attracted.
CS They see the universe in simpatico ways; that’s what pulls them together.
JR Like pathologies attract?
CS Yeah, in a sense. Early in the book they compare themselves to people who seem to have no particular pathology—the husband Alice has at the beginning of the book is described as a guy without pathology. He’ll just live a good life and prosper and all of that. But they are people with pathology: they’re fucked up and they’ve got to deal with it. Whether it’s their fuckedupness or their nature—I mean, they’re extremely bright and perceptive people but … It’s a gas when you’re around somebody who yucks at the same things you do. Whether it’s friendship or a marriage, you can go on that. People who can yuck it up together. They see the same things in the same way and that’s extremely powerful. That’s not to say that it’s some kind of solipsistic deal where you’ve got schizophrenics over there yucking it up.
They’re human beings, they appreciate life—that’s what’s going on with them. They’ve got severe handicaps. Alice is overburdened by rage and fear, and Billy is overburdened by rage and fear that he treats with chemicals. She treats her affliction, I guess, by raging and trying to get over this particularly obsessive, fucked-up way of loving somebody. But, I think, they are, at all times, like I said, just struggling to go forth and get something going. They just happen to be alike.
Truth is, they are both in love with beauty to the point of death. And they find this to an inestimable degree in each other.
JR For the last question, I’m going to throw you a softball …
JR … And ask you to tell me a story, one that you’ve told recently anywhere, to anyone.
CS I don’t know that I tell stories anywhere except on the page.
JR Never at a dinner …
CS I don’t go to dinners.
CS Very rarely, I’m not social. I’m not part of the literary world, the academic world, any of those places. They tend to distract me from work.
JR You don’t have a good Key West story?
CS Oh, well, I do have a Key West story about when I first moved into the apartment I was living in. It was up on the second floor. It had beautiful views, wonderful light. The colors of the apartment were tangerine and lime—lovely—but the walls, and even the floor, were very thin. My downstairs neighbor was a person who drinks a lot, a large woman who was escaping whatever was tormenting her in the place that she lived in before she had come to Key West.
She showed up at my door a couple of weeks after I got there. I had hardly noticed her or had any exchanges with her. She was in some kind of fury that I couldn’t understand. She was saying something about noise, but I couldn’t quite understand her problem because I’m quiet; I don’t even wear shoes in the house and I’m not a stomper or anything.
She was so drunk that she was wild, railing, belligerent, flailing, and all of that. My wife had just flown in, so she was standing there—we were both just so taken aback by what was going on. We tried to get her out of the house, but she wouldn’t go, and so I called the cops. It was my first time ever doing a thing like that, calling the cops on somebody.
The cops came and quieted her down. It seemed to be over, but when the cops left, they didn’t take her away, so it began all over again. She was screeching and cursing—she thought we were English, and started saying things like, “You Englishmen get out of America!” I’m from Georgia, and my wife is from Germany, but she doesn’t speak with a British accent.
And, so it went on: it flowed into the street, neighbors were coming out of their houses, seeing this railing dervish, poor soul, God bless her, and I called the cops again. By then everybody who lived in this small building was out on the sidewalk or the porch looking around. This time the police were unable to calm her—what was shrieking in her heart was overthrowing her and couldn’t be calmed. So, they put her in the back of the squad car and they locked her up, they took her away. In Florida, there’s a law whereby the cops can take you to the drying-out center rather than the jail. I forget the name, but there’s a term for it. That’s what they did; they took her away for 72 hours, or something like that, to the treatment center.
When she came back, she was abashed by what she had done. She wrote me a letter telling me how sorry and ashamed she felt. I wrote a letter to her saying that if I had made any noise that had bothered her, I’d do my best to correct it up to the limits that I could go. So we exchanged these letters and then I felt … I know what it’s like to feel downcast and ashamed, and so I baked a pan of cornbread and I took it down to her. Then, later in the day, she and her boyfriend were making a Mexican dinner, and they brought up dinner for me. From that moment on, everything was fine. That happened two weeks after I got there, and for the rest of the year we were at ease with each other and happy to see each other. It worked out.
JR That’s a lovely story.
CS Yeah, it’s a great story.
John Reed is author of the novels A Still Small Voice, The Whole, and Snowball’s Chance, as well as the play All the World’s a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. His new novel, Tales of Woe, is forthcoming from MTV Press. He is the books editor of The Brooklyn Rail and is a member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee