My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
This interview is featured, along with 34 others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.
Dale Peck is my buddy, and through a few dozen conversations over the past two or three years we’ve concurred about almost nothing. Well, okay. His first novel, Martin and John, is a strange and beautiful book, a miracle of awakening love and nascent anger. His second, The Law of Enclosures, is a brave dare that, for all its acclaim, still hasn’t registered as deeply as it should. His new one, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, is something else, another wonder. It’s an enormous book, brilliant without being gratuitously difficult, comic, horrific, sly, a stretch that the kid pulls off with ease. If you didn’t know it already, you’ll know by the time you’re done: Dale Peck can do whatever he wants to. His secret power is an ability to be at once warm, and questing, and then again low-down when the mood strikes him. At the risk of disarming him, here, before we’ve even begun, I’d say don’t listen to the singer: listen to the song. You won’t hear a more generous or sophisticated one in all of contemporary American fiction. Sometimes I think that he’s my big brother: my older, intrepid brother. More often I think he’s my little brother—he is, after all, a few years younger than me (though one book ahead of me, the bastard)—my little, queer brother who’s managed to rope us into riding along with him on his way to wherever. I’d admire him either way.
Jim Lewis and I first met about three years ago at a dinner party, and then a few weeks later on the streets of the East Village, and a few weeks after that, on a beautiful spring morning, we exchanged books in Tompkins Square Park. A few days later we ran into each other at the gym, which is where, gleeful if somewhat sweaty, we began the dialogue which continues here. Don’t let that scare you: though what follows is an exchange between two writers who are both friends and fans of each other, there was a surprising amount of contention in our initial interview, and subsequent attempts at clarification seemed to me only to widen the rifts between us. I suppose I was surprised. Lewis’ new novel, Why the Tree Loves the Ax, charts the course of Caroline Harrison, a fugitive from something as simple as the law and as complex as her past, a picaresque heroine whose wanderings take her from New York to Texas and back again. Her journey is singularly personal, and yet, with a prose that seamlessly melds the discursive with the descriptive, the novel addresses those questions of identity and narrative which so preoccupy the national consciousness right now. These questions are answered in the Chekhovian manner, by finding the only right way to ask them, and in all of this I thought I saw my own explorations of similar questions in my new book. But if our answers do have a lot in common—the one point on which Jim and I do agree—then its all the more surprising given that we seem to be asking ourselves entirely different questions. Or are we?
Jim Lewis I wanted to start with Henry James’ essay, “The Art of Fiction.” Because in it, James says, in response to some forgotten, pedantic piece about fiction writing, that the worst advice given to young writers is, “Write what you know.”
Dale Peck Jesus, I must have gotten that advice 50 fucking times.
JL Well, there you go. James says, no, that’s wrong. As a writer it’s your job to be able to imagine any experience, whether you’ve had it directly or not. He says, “Try to be one of those people upon whom nothing is lost.” I bring this up because both of us are coming out with books which are considerably removed from what anybody would think, on the face of it, was our own experience. I wonder if that was a conscious choice on your part.
DP It was. Specifically, one of the things I was trying to address was the idea of being a “gay writer.” I don’t have a problem with the label as much as it’s assumption that the work can only be about gay subject matter and only of interest to gay people. So in Now It’s Time To Say Goodbye I used a spectrum of characters: gay and straight, black and white, male and female, young and old; but I also threw in a point character, a gay white man close to my age. This point character is closely allied with the narrator of my first novel, who is in turn allied with me. I wanted to make the process of writing outside my experience seem more self-conscious to readers, so that those characters who aren’t gay white men could be seen as specifically not that, and could be compared with the point character for “clarification,” if that’s the right word. The result is that readers can look upon a character as a gay black man or a straight white female or whatever, or as nothing more than the projections of a gay white man and his vision of what these other identities and experiences are like.
Was it a conscious decision for you to make Caroline Harrison, the narrator of Why the Tree Loves the Ax, a woman?
JL Not really, not as such. I was looking for a story, and when I began it was the story of a love affair between a woman and a city. And then of course it grew, and she ended up telling it. Because when you write in the first person, there are gaps between what the narrator knows and what the audience knows, what the author knows and what the other characters know, and those gaps are a powerful place in which to play. You can twist things in there. In Sister I had an entire obverse plot hidden deep in the book. It was another picture of things, another story, another explanation. So when the narrator, Wilson, tells what happened to him, he also tells this other, buried story; but he doesn’t realize it, himself. That was very hard to pull off—Wilson isn’t stupid—and very few people noticed it. Or maybe no one cared. But I wanted to try again, on a much smaller scale; I wanted there to be moments of revelation in Why the Tree Loves the Ax that a reader might notice, even if the narrator (and again, she’s not a fool) doesn’t. So the reader is burdened with this secret, which they can’t convey to the narrator—ever, even after the book is done. It’s a kind of dirty knowledge. I had some friends from Dallas in a band called Killbilly, and once in the back room of a club in Kansas City I saw some graffiti they’d scrawled on the wall the week before: PUTTING THE ‘PISS’ BACK IN EPISTEMOLOGY. I wanted to do that. Then again, I wrote first person because the book is a love story, and “I loved him,” “I didn’t understand,” “I started crying” are more powerful than “She loved him,” and so on.
DP I know it’s a bit reductive, but I still think I should ask: Are you saying that the experience of gender is incidental to the story?
JL I’m saying there’s no such a thing as “the experience of gender.” Maybe there is if you’re reforming public policy, but certainly not when you’re writing a novel. There’s the experience of this character, who is, among other things, a woman. But she doesn’t represent every woman in the world. She just represents herself. She’s a character; she’s not A Woman, she’s Caroline; she’s doesn’t have An Abortion, she has an abortion. So yeah, every so often I’d pass a sign that said, “If you lived here you’d be home by now.” But I learned to ignore them—because if you go looking for archetypes, you lose. In the end, writing a character across that kind of boundary is … it’s like having an orgasm: it’s the sort of thing you can only do if you’re not trying.
DP What is it that makes a writer able to do that?
JL Negative capability.
DP Which you will define as …
JL (pause; laughter) As far as I can remember this was Keats’s idea, in a letter to his brother. For his purposes, it’s the ability to suppress your ego and act as a medium when you’re faced with something you don’t understand. More generally, it’s come to describe a kind of willful selflessness.
DP And do you think that’s possible?
DP Do you think it’s a complete suppression, or that your depiction of a woman, or whomever, is bound to be affected by your own experiences?
JL I don’t think it’s a complete suppression, but I’d like to think that it’s filtered through my writing style, rather than direct experiences. Of course, my writing style is ultimately a product of my experiences, but the distance between my own life (for example, the fact that I grew up, in part, overseas) and my book (say the fact that my narrator, Caroline, tends to ask rhetorical questions) is a very attenuated one, and I don’t think much can be made of it.
DP And that’s where we differ. One of the tenets of identity politics that I do buy is the idea that an author’s identity is inevitably a part of any character he creates. There are two issues here. The first is aesthetic, this idea of negative capability, which works for me as a metaphor but falls apart when you sit down and analyze it. The second issue, and for me the more important one, is political, and revolves around the historical problem of representation and power. To a certain extent the whole identity politics movement is a reaction against the tradition of certain groups, i.e., straight white men making art about other groups over whom they possess some level of socially or culturally ordained power, i.e., everyone else. And this results in all sorts of stereotypes and diminishing depictions, be it Shylock or Queequeg or even Uncle Tom.
JL Fair enough. I don’t know what good it does to describe either Shakespeare or Melville as a straight white man. They both seem a little bent to me. But okay; it would be ridiculous to claim that literature is untainted by prejudice. But when you abstract from that to a set of strictures, real or implicit, you lose me. I don’t see the point in putting a priori limits on my imagination, nor can I waste time second-guessing myself. The alternative is to write only about myself, or stop writing, and I’m not going to do either of those things.
DP No, no, no. Now you’re being coy, or you’re just wrong. I mean, one of the great tropes in literature, if not the great trope, is precisely what we’re talking about here: the clash between one’s notion of one’s identity as it conflicts with some externally imposed notion, be it familial or societal or even physical. And it’s pretty clear to me that you’re working in that mode as much as I am. I mean, in your new book, Caroline’s walked away from a life that wasn’t hers before the novel even opens, and in many ways the book’s action is a charting of her rediscovery of what it is that she ran from, which could be either a man or the state of being a wife. It looks to me like you’re adopting a pose—a construction that allows you to deal with the same notions of identity that I do without slipping into the programmatic formulations advocated by the p.c. patrol—and all I’m doing is striking another pose, one that, if dissimilar to yours, nevertheless allows me to do exactly what yours does: think and write anything I want.
JL If I’m posing, okay, that’s all right. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I don’t think the great trope and after all, it’s only one of many—is about staking a claim to one’s identity so much as it’s about rejecting the very idea of identity—cultural identity, personal identity: they just don’t exist. They don’t. If you think they do, then you’re just going to substitute one stereotype for another. I mean—as a Jew—I’ll take Shakespeare’s depiction of Jews over Philip Roth’s any day. The proof is in the poetry: everything else is speculation. So I do what I want, I do what I can, and if I do it well, folks are happy with me, and if I don’t, they’re not. But I don’t believe in prior restraint. I’ll take my chances. Can we change the subject?
DP Yeah, sure.
JL I want to talk about story and character; we’ve talked about this before. Like the question of form and content, they’re indissoluble in a lot of ways. I think you and I would agree on that. But with this book, as with my last, I started out with a situation I wanted to set up—or maybe a kind of language I want to use, which is after all a kind of plotting—and the characters came out of that. And it seems to me that this new book of yours is very elaborately plotted. Is that something you did deliberately?
DP It is.
DP Because one of the issues I wanted to deal with in this book was the loss of interesting storytelling methods in literary fiction, and, even more importantly, the fact that interesting stories, elaborate stories have essentially been usurped by popular fictions. It’s genre fiction that gets to offer up thrills and chills and heartache, whereas most contemporary literary fiction offers up interesting situations which seem to have been lifted from a newspaper headline, and which are then dissected and analyzed in a near-academic mode. And that’s the supposedly innovative stuff. Most literary fiction is stuck in some pre-cinematic 19th-century Victorian mode, perhaps the least thrilling era in literature’s history. I wanted to get away from all that, to write a story that was as exciting as an action movie or a Greek myth. So Now It’s Time is a quest that takes the form of a detective story, and the object being searched for is a woman. And ultimately what’s really being searched for are the identities of the various people who are looking, or not looking. Identity in this case not to be confused with the buzzword “identity,” but meaning the notion of self.
JL It’s surprising, because under that description it sounds almost identical to my book, and yet they’re so different.
DP Actually, you started working on your book before I started writing mine, and when you first told me about it I remember being thrilled as you recounted the story to me. Hearing you describe your novel was in fact one of the things that nudged me along my own course, to really go for an intricate, suspenseful (dare I say it?) lowbrow plot in a literary novel. I mean, the story you were describing was almost racy, with money, criminality, sexual misadventure, and what it immediately reminded me of was the action-adventure stuff I read when I was a kid, and the gut thrill I got from reading it. And with the literary fiction I read today, I have to say I miss that. I wanted to bring it back.
JL The question now becomes: how to do that? Say we both believe that one of the functions of literature is to provide stories that somehow mirror, or maybe even change, the way people structure the understanding of their lives. That’s what Paul Bunyan stories do, and B’rer Rabbit stories, outlaw stories, good jokes, tall tales, and so on. The Thousand and One Nights—a book I love. Or story songs like Frankie and Johnnie, or Night of the Johnstown Flood. There are these narratives that come up again and again that seem to have no origin. They’re just there because people like to tell them, over and over again. It’s not that they’re universals … or whatever that Joseph Campbell nonsense is. They’re very specific. It’s just that certain people at certain times want to hear certain stories. So the question I asked myself was, how can we use that in a way that isn’t merely reactionary? That isn’t dopey, that acknowledges what literature has gone through for the past century?
DP It’s a funny question. I guess I want to ask one question before answering: Why should we do it in a way that isn’t merely reactionary? If those old stories are so good and were so helpful, why can’t they be helpful again?
JL They can; but you can’t pretend that Queneau never wrote Exercises in Style. Besides, there are new stories. 1998 becomes 1998, and not 1837, not 1971, and it becomes that in large part because we tell it that way. So with Tree/Ax, Caroline is something of a loner; a woman who moves from one society to another, alone; who has the strange, sidelong but very loaded relations with friends and family, with civic society, with her own restlessness, and fear, and desire. I don’t think I could have told that story 50 years ago.
DP Well, of course. As long as society keeps changing there will always be new things to write about.
DP I’m just not sure that those new things are new stories. I think they’re simply our oldest stories, the stories that you find in most of the world’s mythologies, in modern drag. In fact, I think there’s really only one story: you’re born and then you die. I look upon everything that comes after that as a kind of necessary incidental elaboration, because all that elaboration is the stuff that makes our time here bearable if not actually pleasurable.
JL We were talking once some time ago, and I said, “I just keep writing the same book over and over again, and probably will until I die.” And you agreed that you do that also. I would describe the book that I keep writing as “Looking for Home.” How would you describe yours?
DP “Looking for My Mother.” (laughter) I qualify that by saying that my mother died when I was three, so I have an excuse to be looking for her. Look at the book I’ve just written: here’s a story in which a girl is kidnapped, and all of the characters in the book, including the characters who have absolutely no stake in whether she’s found or lost, are obsessed with the idea of finding her. And while she’s kidnapped her captor impregnates her, and then she’s killed by her supposed rescuers in order to prevent her from giving birth to a monster, in essence to prevent her from becoming a mother, my mother, yet again. But birth or no birth, I think I’m still telling the same story.
JL There’s something we agree about. I’m obsessed with the idea of generations, of reproduction. To me, those are the oldest lessons. Being and begetting: pregnancy, abortion and miscarriage, parenthood, marriage, sex of course, siblinghood, fertility, the problems inherent in being fruitful and multiplying. And certainly in this new book, you have the same obsession.
DP I do, and yet I also abhor reproduction on some level. I just think that there are far too many people on the planet, overwhelmingly too many people on the planet, and that this urge to keep on producing more babies, it’s just absolutely insane. But I am really fascinated by motherhood, fatherhood, childhood, you know, the condition of being a child.
JL You always cast yourself in the role of the child.
DP Well, no. I cast the narrator of Martin and John in the role of the child, but the two narrators of The Law of Enclosures were both conceived as parents, as, in fact, John’s parents. And in Now It’s Time, there are an assortment of parents and children. Only the point character is a child; I try to identify with all my characters.
JL Okay. So you’d say, when you’re writing, you’re looking for your mother; I would say I’m looking … for my children.
DP Looking for your children?
JL In some sense, yeah. I don’t know what I am going to write about if and when I actually have them. By the way, we’re going to have to cut all this out, because I don’t think I want people to know this about me. Besides, you know, we’ve both just contradicted ourselves. You’re now saying you identify with all your characters, and I’m now saying all my main characters are me. Which just goes to show you how fruitless it is to talk about this stuff. It’s worth remembering that writers lie a lot when they talk about their own work. Lie all over the place. It can’t be helped.
DP God, this is better than a session with my old psychiatrist, not to mention cheaper … So, um, where do you see yourself in the current panoply of American writers?
JL Oh God.
DP Do you feel allied with any, opposed to any?
JL In a word, no. How can I answer this? It’s a question that appeals to my worst instincts. Let’s just say that neither alliance nor overt opposition is quite my style. And anyway, one of the best things about being a writer is that a lot of your contemporaries have been dead for centuries. Among the living, there are some writers whose work I admire, and a few writers I like personally, and a very few writers I like to talk to about writing. Those are three different categories, which sometimes overlap and sometimes don’t. In any case, I seem to have more to talk about with artists, and a few musicians. And then of course there’s everything else in the world, everyone who does something else for a living.
DP One thing which I think does ally us, aesthetically I mean, is that you and I both have a utilitarian notion of fiction. We both believe people read novels in order to better understand their situation.
JL Yeah, I believe that, but then it’s on such a subtle level, because literature is also about entertainment, and pleasure. I don’t want to be giving people instructions or advice. I’ll say this: To the extent that anything that’s well made helps you appreciate God’s glory, then I would agree with you. But I don’t know if that’s what you mean by utilitarian.
DP What I mean is that fiction should help readers understand something far greater than society or politics or the world in which they live. You can call that God’s glory, which is a charming anachronism that probably a lot of people will find problematic (although I don’t), or you can just say that fiction is supposed to help the reader understand his or her soul, which is just another anachronism.
JL I didn’t mean it as a charming anachronism. I meant it quite literally. Somehow. I’m afraid that any way I try to explain it will sound glib. Here: Bach once dedicated a musical score, “To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby.” I think that’s a fine thing to strive for. And it has strange implications. One of the things, for example, that I find myself doing, I wonder if you do the same thing, is I put things into books that nobody will ever find. It’s like making a chair, and up underneath where nobody’s ever going to look, you make it especially beautiful. I mention this because it speaks to the question of utilitarianism.
DP I do sort of the same thing, but I think I do it for my own pleasure. I mean, I have such a Jesus complex when I write that I view the whole enterprise as this selfless act I’m offering to other people. And because a part of me knows that’s not really the case, I do things to make the book purely my own. For example, there’s a snippet in The Law of Enclosures where a sonnet is embedded within a paragraph. One or two people have caught it, most people have missed it.
JL I ever tell you this story? There’s a sentence in Sister that I lifted, word for word, out of Proust, just because I liked it—a description of a church bell ringing. And then I got a review which cited that same sentence as an example of my fine way with language. (laughter)
DP There’s a character in Now It’s Time who is a painter who is commissioned to restore a mural of John Brown holding a Bible in the one hand and a gun in the other. When he’s restoring the Bible he writes the words: “John Brown was right.” Then he paints over them with the regular page of the Bible. So no one ever knows it’s there until thirty years later, when he confides it to somebody. There are just ingenuous ways of concealing information and sometimes it just comes out. I sometimes wonder, even as I say this, if we do those little things so we can reveal them later.
JL I want to ask you about names and titles. Tags. Martin and John is the kind of book it is in large part because of this difficulty you had coming up with names for your characters—a brilliant move, a vice that you turned into a virtue. This new book of yours is so shaggy and at times sort of deliberately ridiculous, I thought. I mean, a man eaten alive by pigs … and you have a main character named Justin Time. When I started Tree/Ax my narrator was called Jane Doe; but then I chickened out. Probably wisely. But I put a lot of time into names. For example, I named Olivia in Sister for the letter O. Of course there’s the sexual connotation; and the whole book was a circle, within which I made other circles. And then again she’s named for Hamlet’s Ophelia, and for a girl named Eliza whom I once met very briefly in a bar. In this new book, Sugartown, the name for an imaginary city in Texas was important to me; a contrast to the real city of New York. Billy was for Dollar Bill; Malcolm because I wanted this little white child to have the name of a black hero; Roy because I don’t know anyone named Roy, so I could write the narrator’s love for him without preconception. Sometimes I think names are about a third of the game. How much do you sweat over names; and do you ever worry that you won’t get away with it?
DP I sweat names a lot—more and more with each book. With Now I went to town. Literally, actually: I operated on the principle that in a town of 350 people, everybody’s name would be known by everyone else, and so I felt I had to name each and every person who passed a point of view character on the sidewalk.
But let’s start with the town name: its black residents call it Galatia; its white residents call it Galatea. On the one hand, the reference is idiosyncratic: there’s a real town in Kansas called Galatia, named after the Biblical land of plenty, but when I was a kid I pronounced it Galatea, as in the statue. I first realized my error in high school, and have wanted to use it in a book ever since. In those eight letters I managed to encapsulate the Bible, Greek mythology, and also the struggle between blacks and whites in my town. Character names followed from that. Some came from my earlier books; some were jokes the characters played on their readers—Justin Time is a pseudonym made up by a character who refuses to reveal his real name, but who wants to remind everyone that they don’t know who he really is; and some were simply my jokes on the character—Portland Oregon Smith and his brother, Kissimee Florida Smith. Some names were imbued with symbolic meaning, for instance, Colin Nieman—Nieman means, literally, “No Man” in German, so the name was important symbolically and narratively.
JL And how did you get the name of the book?
DP Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye? It’s the closing theme song to “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
JL But what made you use it as a title?
DP I like the fact that it sounds so melancholy, but if you source it back it becomes maudlin. What seems to be tragic is really comic. Call it “irony.” I have a tendency to just write down titles, lots and lots and lots of titles. In Martin and John, one of the stories is called “Given This and Everything,” and it was simply thinking up the title that produced the story. Where’d you get your title?
JL I didn’t get mine until I was standing in my agent’s office and she said, “All right, we’re going to send the book out this afternoon. What’s the title?” I’d had these horrible working titles. Just terrible. But Ellen [Levine] was sitting there waiting for me. And I kind of came out with, “Why the tree loves the ax.” It’s about sex, of course; it’s a paraphrase of a line from the book, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. It seems like the right question to propose. Why does the tree love the ax? It seemed like the question my narrator would ask. And Ellen said: That’s the one. So that was the one. And now it’s done, it’s out, and yours is coming out. So here we go again. We have to start all over again. (laughter)
Jim Lewis is the author of two novels, Sister (Graywolf) and the recently published Why the Tree Loves the Ax (Crown), and numerous articles and essays on contemporary art for various magazines, journals, and museum publications.
Dale Peck’s novels are Martin and John, The Law of Enclosures, and the upcoming Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye (all Farrar, Straus & Giroux). His criticism appears regularly in the London Review of Books and the Voice Literary Supplement, and his short fiction has appeared in BOMB, Conjunctions, and Threepenny Review.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.