If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
James Purdy is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and plays. Nightshift, a N.Y. theater group working out of the Laight Again Club in New York’s East Village, performed three of Purdy’s one-acts, What Is It Zach?, True, and The Berry-Picker, during October and November of 1982.
Allen Frame When did you write the three one-act plays that Nightshift performed?
James Purdy About four years ago.
JP True I wrote about five years ago, and I wrote it because these actors said, “Why don’t you write plays for us?” I said, Well, I sort of quit doing that, you know, because no one would put them on, the ones I did write, and when they did put them on, critics were so horrible to us.
AF True is very close to your novella 63: Dream Palace.
JP Yes, it’s very much like it, and yet I wrote it so many years later. But as I said, these actors kept asking and I got really provoked with them and wrote True, and showed it to them and they were thunderstruck. They said, “I don’t think anyone could ever act it. It makes impossible demands on actors.” I said, “Well, you see, I’m not an actor. I don’t see that.” And they said, “Because there is no preparation. You just come out and this happens.” But I think by the time the play is over you know almost everything about the characters.
AF One of my favorite things in all your writing is the section in 63: Dream Palace when Fenton, the older brother thinks with such sadness about everything in his life being so late. (“And as he went on with his drink he knew that nobody was ever coming to the house because it was the ‘latest’ time in his life and maybe the ‘latest’ in the world.”) His consciousness of his existential dilemma seems to come from a European tradition of writing. You could find this marginal character in a dire predicament in other American work, but would he be so aware of himself?
JP You know Melville’s books are full of those boys. Almost Melville’s whole cast of characters are derelicts. Certainly everyone on the Pequod is a derelict. And in Redburn, White Jacket, Omoo, they are really like my characters. I think derelicts say those things. I don’t think they feel it’s self-conscious. It’s so concrete. They just feel it’s so “late” because there are no opportunities. Time has run out, they have run out. I remember once during the Vietnam War, near the end of it, there was this young boy, 18, come back, had been discharged. And this reporter said, “How do you feel?” And he said, “I feel I’m a hundred years old.” And at that moment he sort of looked like he was a hundred years old. But you see that would be a thing you wouldn’t think a boy that age would ever say. And yet he’d been through such terrible things. He wasn’t self-conscious. It was just that. That’s what it felt like.
AF There’s an attraction to obscure people and places in your work. Do you think you did things in your career to ensure that you would be allowed to live in an obscure stay?
JP I live quite an obscure life, certainly. I don’t really like society in the sense of literary clubs or academies. I have taught in some schools but I don’t really like it. I like the students but I don’t like, as the Spanish say, el ambiente, the atmosphere, and I think you shouldn’t do it if you’re a writer. You shouldn’t teach. In a way, writers shouldn’t be encouraged because it makes for more bad writers, of which we have legions today.
AF Do you want to name a few for the record?
JP No. Almost any writer whose book is selling you can be sure is trite.
AF How long have you lived in Brooklyn?
JP 20 years now.
AF Was that a choice?
JP No, not at all—in fact, in a previous interview it says I just fell from a plane. That was true. I was desperate to find a room.
AF You mean you’d rather live in Manhattan?
JP No, I don’t know where I’d like to live.
AF A lot of your work is set in rural areas and I was wondering whether you’ve chosen to live here to keep an objective distance from your material.
JP Where I grew up in Ohio, is all vanished. They’ve put roads through there, felled forests and trees and everything. So there’s really nothing to go back to. And then all my family are dead so—
AF Your brothers also?
JP I have one brother left.
AF Did you have three brothers?
JP Yes, and there’s not really much to go back for. Also, I liked individuals, but never really liked the tenor of the towns and small places I lived because they’re so hostile to the artist. New York is too, God knows. It’s hostile to anyone who’s different. And though there are individuals everywhere who’ll accept you, in general, you’re not wanted if you’re an artist. And I would put New York first in that category. Because all that they want in New York is money, some created creature. It doesn’t matter how you earn that money.
AF What did you think of the atmosphere of the Laight Again Club?
JP What’s that?
AF Where your plays were performed.
JP Oh, is that the name of it?
AF It’s like an old speakeasy—not even a knob on the door. You have to knock.
JP Well, I found it harrowing and uncomfortable. But it had its good qualities, too. I felt that people who wanted to see those plays should suffer. They shouldn’t be too comfortable. If they weren’t able to suffer the discomfort of the place, they shouldn’t be there.
AF You came to quite a few of the performances.
JP Yeah, nearly all of them. I finally got a bad cold. And this red nose is part of it. I can’t quite shake it. It was a dreadful cold. I think it was from sitting in the damp cellar. But I thought it was sort of wonderful to have the plays there; that particular theater just seems like it’s nowhere. You know, you say, “What’s it near?” And I want to say, “Why, it’s near nothing.” (laughter) It has no location.
AF Your style in the novel Narrow Rooms is traditional narrative but departs from realistic expectations in the manner of a fairy tale almost.
JP Yes, it gradually goes off the track, you might say, or changes.
AF I think there are two things about that novel and some of your other work which perhaps the literary establishment can’t reconcile. First, the overt homosexual passion.
JP Oh yes, unless it’s dealt with clinically, you know, by some senile psychiatrist, who’s above all human emotions except earning money.
AF And since they’re thrown off by the subject matter, they don’t know how to react to its also becoming a fantasy.
JP Indeed, the bugbear of all these New York pygmies who rule literature is imagination. That is the unforgivable crime—to have imagination. And the other is to deal with human nature. You shouldn’t deal with human nature. You should deal with documentary. And so nearly everything written now is a documentary. But it’s so shoddily superficial. You can write about anything if you, the author, are not involved and if you don’t involve the reader.
AF When I read that you had three brothers, I immediately thought of Narrow Rooms.
JP (laughter) Uh huh. And a lot of cousins.
AF You must have had a lot of male peer company in your childhood.
JP True. So I didn’t have any trouble finding models for my writing. You see, ordinary people, that’s not to say anything against them, aren’t supposed to remember their lives. They want to forget it. They want to get down to the business of raising a family, earning money, and becoming well-fixed. But the artist is chained to a rock and does nothing but remember, try to find out what really happened, who people really were. That’s his obsession or his vision. And you see the critics are really businessmen, and they’ve been domesticated to the point of castration.
AF Did Lindzee Smith confer with you very much in directing the three one-act plays that Nightshift produced?
JP No. I did tell him things I thought could be changed with his presentation, but I think if you have someone like Lindzee, you don’t want to interfere. You should do it his way even if it were wrong. It would be better than if I stood there and said, “Don’t do that.” It might just get him put off his track and he is a very intuitive, sensitive man …and strong too, which is good.
AF I thought the intimacy in these plays was well served by the intimacy of that particular theater.
JP Yes, that’s true. You felt it was happening right there, while on stage the intimacy is lost. A woman who came to the play said something I liked. She said that, “the characters finally learn to accept themselves.” The one exception is the young retarded boy in True, whose world is destroyed. But the older brother does accept himself and the younger brother. His whole life is taking care of his brother so he really died for it, so to speak. The younger brother isn’t really capable of understanding that, I don’t think. It’s very much like 63: Dream Palace. When the boy feels his older brother is going to leave him or doesn’t believe in him, he dies because this cord that holds them together is snapped. I remember one night a man held his hands over his face. He just couldn’t bear it. But that’s the difference in real theater and the theater in which you just pass your time. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s where you go to escape, but theater should be an experience, sometimes shattering, and so should novels.
AF In your work there’s a motif of an innocent storyteller and then there’s the contrast of the menacing revelation the story tells and the shock of that revelation.
JP Are you thinking of a particular work?
AF Many of them. (laughter) For instance both plays, The Berry-Picker and True, are about the gradual unfolding of a story through interrogation.
JP In The Berry-Picker, I think the older man is a rough and—at least outwardly—insensitive man. He’s shattered by the very purity of the story his young assistant tells him. His whole defense is gone. You know, he’s rendered almost a wreck by hearing it because he remembers when he was untouched by the world, when he had a mother, when he had a family, when he was loved … so that the story destroys him. When he says, “It busted me,” it’s really true. He’s destroyed. And then they’re all sort of destroyed by the truth.
AF The truth having to do with their need for each other.
JP Yes, which they don’t want to admit. There was a horrible woman who came to the plays one night and said they were trash. She said, “it’s interesting that the actors are so dedicated to such horrible material, which is just nothing but closet homosexuality.” Isn’t that typical of a very coarse person who claims to have a very sensitive stomach, and she can’t see that this is not about any particular kind of sexual orientation; it’s about desperation, desperate loneliness, human need?
AF What do you think about the treatment of homosexuality in Tennessee Williams’s plays?
JP It’s almost dealt with as though a non-gay person were writing about it. Also, as though it were bad and evil, secret and punishable. I don’t think he really deals with it at all. I think he’s more interested in women.
AF I understand Rosa von Praunheim hopes to film Narrow Rooms. Are you excited by this prospect?
JP Terrified of what they’ll do with it.
AF He’s noted for his controversial direction.
JP Yes, well maybe he can do something with it without destroying it. In that book, I don’t think those men are conscious they’re homosexuals. I think that would come as a sort of amazement to them. They’re so busy loving and hating one another they don’t know it has a name.
AF Have you ever wanted to write a screenplay?
JP No. A scenario is a blueprint. That isn’t true of a play. I think you can read a play and get a lot out of it. You get more out of it performed. It’s strange too, that many of my short stories have been dramatized. You just sort of take them and put them on the stage and they work.
AF Isn’t Day After the Fair a longer play?
JP Yes. That’s the one I guess, shocks everybody to death. It’s the most violent thing I ever wrote. It’s about two clowns who’re brothers, of course, and they’ve been ruined by this man who runs the circus because he’s so jealous. It’s never been done. We’ve had people want to do it. One person wanted to do it with marionettes.
AF Are you writing something?
JP I have been writing a longer play.
AF For Nightshift?
JP Maybe for them, though one is so nervous about anything he’s writing because you never know whether you’re going to write again or not. It’s such an act of will. And I think one is one’s own most severe critic. You always wonder who on earth will be interested in this, you know. But I hope to finish it.
AF Do you see much theater?
JP No, it’s so expensive.
AF Not much to see.
JP Awful, what you do see. Same with films. I find a new kind of film which is neither entertainment nor documentary. And it’s all camera work, which is interesting … Heaven’s Gate was sort of interesting.
AF That was only around for a week.
JP Yes, he has something.
AF That’s interesting. The Deer Hunter was all about male bonding in small towns and Vietnam—which is akin to your work.
JP You see, America is such a strange culture. It has all this wildness in it. And yet the heart is so dead.
AF And particularly in film now. The censorship imposed on American filmmaking justifies itself by the need for profit. So subject matter is restricted.
JP And when they deal with so called taboo subjects they do it in such a documentary, sapless way. It’s so heavy-handed. Again, lacks imagination. So many of the films are coarse and vulgar. They’re lacking in true sensitivity. You can write about anything but you have to have some delicacy. You wouldn’t want a surgeon to examine your body that coarsely and crudely.
AF I had an interesting time reading both Narrow Rooms and Eustace Chisolm and the Works. They were novels I took with me when I went to my parents’ house in Mississippi in two successive Augusts. I was reading Narrow Rooms upstairs in my bedroom and then I would go downstairs to visit with my grandfather who’s an invalid who loves to talk and goes on and on with these stories that are basically memories from childhood. They’re interesting stories but they leave out the darkness. He’s not a novelist. I had finished the book and went downstairs. He picked up where Narrow Rooms left off, telling me of a relationship he had had with an older boy who had been very sadistic with him. They were very close. The older boy always putting him through tests, torturing him with sinister practical jokes. They tried to drown each other starting out playfully and then getting—
JP Getting worked up.
AF After my grandfather came back from serving in WWI, this older guy was hospitalized in Memphis and my grandfather, who couldn’t go up to see him, sent word by the man’s sister that he would come later. And according to the sister, when she told him that my grandfather had sent his regards, the man broke down and cried and died soon after. Now what my grandfather had left out of the story was so vivid to me, having just finished Narrow Rooms.
JP Maybe your having read that evoked that in him—a psychic electricity.
AF What fascinates me about Eustace Chisolm and the Works is the sense of a character’s obsession with other people’s material. It’s in the title—”The Works,” as Eustace calls these characters who are objectified as works of art—it’s their disgorgement of the “material” of their lives.
JP I based Eustace on a real man—that’s not me.
AF I wondered, because I imagined him to be closer to you than any of your characters.
JP Of course, I suppose there’s a lot of me in that but I based it on a real writer who I thought was, in a way, a horrible man. He’s dead now.
AF Was he known?
JP Sort of known, yes, but he never really made a name for himself—one book published, I think. He was always eliciting other people’s stories and he never told his own.