Steven Millhauser by Jim Shepard

BOMB 83 Spring 2003
BOMB 083

This interview is featured, along with thirty-four others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

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Steven Millhauser. Photo by Jerry Bauer. Courtesy of Knopf.

I first met Steven Millhauser some 16 years ago, when, with my friend Ed Hirsch along as a somewhat disinterested coconspirator, I induced Steven to meet us at the Russian Tea Room. My plan was to convince him to take the job of visiting writer at Williams College, to replace me when I went on leave. He took some convincing.

Steven’s hesitations—and hesitations is too tepid a word for the tenacity and resourcefulness of his initial resistance to the idea of himself teaching anyone anything—were just one part of an enduring conviction he’s displayed throughout his career that his work alone should do the talking; that nearly anything else the writer has to offer is either an impertinence or an unacceptable approximation of what it was the writer really wished to express.

There was a single week sometime soon after his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, appeared, when three different writers called to tell me that I had to read it. Once I’d done so, I started calling people. The sensibility on display was a revelation: the book posited childhood as a magically illuminating state, and the tenderness and generosity of its perceptions made that wonderful and Nabokovian claim entirely persuasive. Nine books later, Steven’s work is still all about magical illuminations: The King in the Tree, three novellas, opens up the intensities of obsessive love and anguished betrayal with both minute precision and startling élan. That book was the occasion for the following interview, conducted over a couple of weeks through email, a format that spared at least one of us the bother of having to clean our house for company.

Jim Shepard Perhaps as much as any American writer I can think of, you’ve been drawn to the novella. Are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to the form? Does it even have a form?

Steven Millhauser Is it possible not to be drawn to the novella? Everything about it is immensely seductive. It demands the rigor of treatment associated with the short story, while at the same time it offers a liberating sense of expansiveness, of widening spaces. And it strikes me as having real advantages over its jealous rivals, the short story and the novel. The challenge and glory of the short story lie exactly there, in its shortness. But shortness encourages certain effects and not others. It encourages, for instance, the close-up view, the revelatory detail, the single significant moment. In the little world of the story, many kinds of desirable effect are inherently impossible—say, the gradual elaboration of a psychology, the demonstration of change over time. Think of the slowly unfolding drama of self-delusion and self-discovery in Death in Venice—a short story would have to proceed very differently. As for novels: in their dark hearts, don’t they long to be exhaustive? Novels are hungry, monstrous. Their apparent delicacy is deceptive—they want to devour the world.

The novella wants nothing to do with the immense, the encyclopedic, the all-conquering all-devouring prose epic, which strikes it as an army moving relentlessly across the land. Its desires are more intimate, more selective. And when it looks at the short story, to which it’s secretly akin, it says, with a certain cruelty, No, not for me this admirably exquisite, elegant, refined—perhaps overrefined?—delicately nuanced, perfect little world, whose perfection depends so much on artful exclusions. It says, Let me breathe! The attraction of the novella is that it lets the short story breathe. It invites the possibility of certain elaborations and complexities forbidden by a very short form, while at the same time it holds out the promise of formal perfection. It’s enough to make a writer dizzy with exhilaration.

JS And how do such characteristics impact the novella’s form? Is it worth trying to talk about the peculiar nature of that form, or does that simply head us into the land of “There are as many forms as there are…,” etc.?

SM The novella isn’t really a form at all. It’s a length, and a very rough length at that (sixty to a hundred pages? Seventy-five to a hundred and twenty-five pages?). In this it’s no different from the short story or the novel, which are frequently called “forms” but are in fact nothing but rough lengths. A true literary form exists only in the fixed poetic forms: the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, and so on. But having said that, I don’t mean to suggest that nothing more can be said about the novella. Length invites certain kinds of treatment rather than others. Just as a very short length is likely to concentrate on a very short span of time (say, a crucial afternoon), in a tightly restricted space, with a very small number of characters, and an extensive length is likely to cover a great stretch of time, in a wide variety of settings, with many characters, so the novella length seems to me peculiarly well suited to following the curve of an action over a carefully restricted period of time, but one wider than that suited to the short story, in a small number of sharply defined spaces, with two, three or perhaps four characters. To be more precise than that is to risk insisting on proper behavior. But the novella is much too alive to be asked to behave properly. Compared to the short story, it’s a length that hasn’t even begun to be explored.

JS Part of the revelation of Edwin Mullhouse for many readers was its ability to render the intensity of attention involved in childhood perception: how certain objects, especially for children, become luminous, if not numinous. Does what you’re doing—when it’s going well—feel like aesthetic problem solving, or more exalted than that?

SM Hmmm: aesthetic problem solving. That sounds like the sort of thing a sly critic might wish to say about a book he particularly dislikes. Of course, there’s no getting around it—one thing you relentlessly do when you write is solve aesthetic problems. But to leave it at that! No, when things are going well, the feeling I have is much more extravagant. It’s the feeling that I’m at the absolute center of things, instead of off to one side—the feeling that the entire universe is streaming in on me. It’s a feeling of strength, of terrifying health, of much-more-aliveness. It’s the kind of feeling that probably should never be talked about, as if one were confessing to a shameful deed.

JS And is that a feeling that seems important in terms of understanding childhood?

SM Yes, so long as it’s clear that, for me, childhood is above all a metaphor for a way of perceiving the world.

JS In that we’re all, if we keep our eyes open, in the position of confronting barely apprehensible wonders?

SM Exactly.

JS Don Juan in “An Adventure of Don Juan,” the second novella in The King in the Tree, longs for “a madness of desire, a journey into feeling so intense that he would ride through himself like a conqueror of unknown inner countries.” Is that what fiction should enable?

SM I’m fanatically reluctant to say that fiction ought to do one thing rather than another. I do know what I want from fiction. I want it to exhilarate me, to unbind my eyes, to murder and resurrect me, to harm me in some fruitful way. But that said, yes, the journey into intense feeling and the conquest of unknown emotional territory is something fiction can make possible.

JS Your Don Juan also says of his host that “the irrepressible squire had a way of making you feel like a 12-year-old boy following an adventurous 14-year-old brother.” Is that also an ambition of your fiction?

SM Fiction is an adventure or it’s nothing—nothing at all. What’s an adventure? An invitation to wonder and danger. If what I write doesn’t lead a reader into the woods, away from the main path, then it’s a failure. Somebody else wrote it. I disown it.

JS Does that mean that your fiction is always in some ways a fiction of initiation?

SM I would never myself put it in those words. That is, I would never say to myself: Now I am writing a story about initiation, or Now I have written a story about initiation. But if you define “initiation” to mean more or less what I mean by adventure and the wayward path, then it must be true that in some ways my fiction is a fiction of initiation.

JS The narrator of “Revenge,” the first novella, in her opening paragraph compares houses where doors open right into living rooms to “being introduced to some man at a party who right away throws his arm around your shoulders,” and says she prefers instead “a little distance, thank you, a little formality.” Do you find yourself making aesthetic choices with the same sort of preferences in mind?

SM Yes, I do. But words like “distance” and “formality” are easily misunderstood. To say I prefer distance isn’t to say I prefer coldness, haughtiness, lack of feeling, deadness. In my view, it’s precisely that “little distance” that permits genuine feeling to be expressed. My dislike of warm, cozy, chummy writing is that it always strikes me as fraudulent—a failure of feeling. Passion, beauty, intensity—everything I care about in art—is made possible through the discipline of distance. Or to say it another way: Powerful feeling in art takes place only through the particular kind of distance known as form.

JS Many of your works play off literary antecedents in affectionate and complicated ways. Does that mean you’ll reread The Romance of the Rose or “The Cask of Amontillado” half thinking it might engender a story of your own? Or do you continually tell yourself you’re just reading?

SM It may be that I’m deluding myself, but I never have the sense of looking for inspiration in my lustful, wildly irresponsible reading. What I’m looking for, I think, is pleasure so extreme that it ought to be forbidden by law. As for the engendering of stories: that, for me, is a mystery I don’t pretend to understand. I not only don’t know what gives me the idea for a story, I don’t even know whether it’s proper to say that what comes to me is something that might be described as an “idea.” It’s more like a feeling, vague at first, that becomes sharper over time and expresses itself after a while in images and then in oppositions that might develop into protodramas. A murky business, at best. But once a story starts taking shape in my mind, if that’s where it takes place—I think it takes place all over my body—then it’s fed by everything in my experience that can feed it. And part of my experience is a mile-high mass of books, which I sometimes draw on deliberately to create certain effects. I’m reluctant to talk directly about my work, for fear of harming it with deadly explanations that I’m bound to regret, but let me try just a little. When I wrote Edwin Mullhouse, I made use of a number of models, such as Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Mann’s Doctor Faustus. But to say that any of those books somehow engendered my own would be, I think, false. My book came from something deeper, more personal, more intimate, more ungraspable, more obscure than other people’s books, though at the same time it was pleased to make use of those books in order to become itself, in order to give birth to itself. Books as midwives—maybe that’s what I mean.

JS Books as midwives makes sense. But when asking about how much your reading engendered in you, I didn’t so much mean ideas as feelings: so much of your fiction seems to come from deeply personal responses to already-created worlds, to previous stories: Tristan and Isolde’s, or Don Juan’s, to cite the most recent examples. Is that another way of maintaining what you called that discipline of distance?

SM It’s true that I sometimes make deliberate use of existing stories, though it’s also true that I very often don’t. Insofar as I do, it is, yes, one way of maintaining a necessary distance, for the paradoxical sake of closeness. But I think something else is also at work. When I make use of an existing story, I take pleasure in participating in something beyond myself that is much greater than myself, and equal pleasure in striking a variation. I take pleasure, you might say, in acknowledging the past and then sharply departing from it. And there is something to be said for releasing oneself from the obligations of relentless novelty; a certain kind of insistent originality is nothing but the attempt of mediocrity to appear interesting to itself.

JS Given your delight in wonders and your interest in the forbidden, does it surprise you that you haven’t taken an even greater interest in monsters? The Lernean Hydra shows up in Don Juan, for example, but it’s a special effect in a theme park.

SM Legitimate, bona fide monsters do in fact make occasional appearances in my work, but what interests me is something quite different. What interests me—not exclusively, but in relation to the monstrous—is the place where the familiar begins to turn strange. When things cease to be themselves, when they begin to turn into something else, which has no name—that is a region I’m always drawn to. This, I think, accounts for my interest in night scenes, in childhood, in bands of prowling adolescent girls, in underground and attic places, in obsession, in heightened states of awareness. In this sense, it might easily be argued that the wondrous and the monstrous are very much the same. My plan for Mr. Juan was to estrange him from his familiar world of loveless conquest and lead him toward the terrifying world of genuine feeling.

JS So is the stress on “terrifying” intended to crucially complicate the novella’s overall design as a moral fable? Or would you claim that it has only the shape and not the intent of a moral fable?

SM If I hear a piece of writing described as a moral fable, my instinct is to head for the hills. I’ll never admit to having written one myself. But let’s say that, by some oversight on my part, a moral fable did slip out. In that case, then yes, the design is crucially complicated through the new discovery of feeling. Don Juan’s fate isn’t to be punished for sin, but to be led—or shall we say initiated?—into human feeling. To put it somewhat differently: In traditional Don Juan stories, the hero is punished by hellfire. Here, his fiery punishment is unrequited love. Meanwhile the underworld becomes, as you wittily put it, only a theme park.

JS The “head for the hills” disclaimer is one very similar to Nabokov’s, but like Nabokov’s, it’s a claim that’s easily misunderstood. Would you resist the notion that your work promotes or valorizes certain values—such as an exalted tenderness—while repudiating others, like cruelty?

SM I do resist the notion, even though it may well be true. I resist it because when I write I have the sense that what compels me isn’t the promotion of certain values, but something else—the working out of a harmony, the completion of a necessary design. This may be just another way of insisting that the values that belong to art are aesthetic. Exactly how moral values fit in is for a trained philosopher to say.

JS Two of the three novellas feature obsessional preoccupations with betrayal (three of the three, if we imagine Don Juan as feeling as if he’s betrayed himself), and betrayal can be understood as a darker, and more intensely felt, version of that fundamental moment you were describing earlier when the familiar begins to turn strange. Are you drawn to betrayal for its potential to generate that “inner riot of grief” in a way that’s more charged and divided against itself than other kinds of grief—say, the death of a loved one—would be?

SM I don’t know exactly why I’m drawn to the notion of betrayal, though your explanation of it makes good sense to me. I like things that cut deep. And I’m attracted to opposites. Betrayal is the dark other side of friendship and love—it’s, if you like, the monster that friendship and love are always threatened by.

JS Did you have fun with the chatty/colloquial voice narrating “Revenge”? I’m thinking of the playfulness in all those radio-like moments such as “Mmm, that’s good. That’s very good. Tea calms me.”

SM Yes, I enjoyed that voice, which one day began speaking to me like a troubled stranger on a streetcorner. It’s almost as if all I had to do was write down what was being whispered in my ear. Her playfulness exhilarated me. Who knows where she came from? The whole story strikes me as an unlikely, uncharacteristic one for me to have written, and I’m pleased by anything in myself that strikes me as not myself.

JS Jeffrey Eugenides has remarked that his generation of writers grew up backwards: weaned on modernism and fabulism and then working their way back to the great 19th-century masters of realism. Was your experience anything like that?

SM Not at all. Or rather, not exactly, and therefore not at all.

What troubles me about such a formulation is that it seems to imply a dismissal of modernism and fabulism—those decadent, questionable pastimes—and a retreat, with a great sigh of relief, into the arms of dear old realism. But the great modernists, including Kafka, are all supremely gifted masters of realism. To experience the modernists—I’m speaking specifically of Joyce, Kafka, Mann and Proust, though it applies to lesser figures like Musil and Gide and Woolf—is to experience the shock of realism, along with the shock of what undermines it or transcends it. To work your way back to the great 19th-century masters of realism from the astonishing heights of 20th-century modernism is to experience a past that, however noble and admirable it may be, has already been questioned and challenged and, as I see it, vitally transformed.

As for me, I revere the great realist masters and am drowned in their work. I turn to Chekhov and the maligned but superb Maupassant far more than I turn to Kafka and Bruno Schulz. But I read them, always, with the sense that they brilliantly exhausted a method, a way of looking at the world, and that another way must be found. I read them, in short, as they were read by the very writers who directly inherited their work and turned it into something boldly new. The problem, as I see it, isn’t to choose between two opposed methods—the method of 19th-century realism, on the one hand, and the method, as if there were one, of modernism/fabulism on the other—but to write something that pays homage to whatever in the past is richest and most alive, while it sets forth on its own wayward journey.

Something must be wrong with me, I think I’m beginning to enjoy this. Well, fire away.

JS I want to get back for a moment to your nice notion of wanting fiction to unbind your eyes. Is the implication that we might fathom ourselves more fully if we direct a more perfect attention to those unexpected things around us? (I’m thinking of a remark like Hemingway’s: “A hard light thrown on objects softly illuminates the beholder.”) Or does it have more to do with the giving of one’s self that’s involved in perceiving: as in Simone Weil’s formulation that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity?

SM I like both those suggestions, but what I meant was much simpler, much less…interesting. I meant that the world is there, presenting itself to us ceaselessly, and yet it remains largely invisible. I remember being struck by a passage in a philosophy book that pointed out how no object is completely present to sight. If you look at a cube, you can see only three sides. The passage went on to distinguish seeing from imagining—in imagination, I immediately apprehend all six sides—but for me the simple fact that objects don’t reveal themselves completely to sight became a symbol of the general invisibility of the world. Even the three visible sides of a cube are barely visible if, when it hits your sight, you happen to be meditating the murder of your wife’s lover. And what about hollow cubes, like houses, that contain invisible spaces, filled with unseen things that we can only guess at? To say nothing of cubes that once were there and are there no longer. We walk through a world continually disappearing from view. One thing fiction does is restore the hidden and vanishing world. It makes the blind see. It gives us the mystic’s vision: the universe in a grain of sand (not a bad definition of the short story, by the way). That’s what I meant when I said that I want fiction to unbind my eyes.

JS I like the wistfulness of “We walk through a world continually disappearing from view,” as well as the consolation inherent in the notion that fiction restores some of that loss. And I’ve always loved the quiet comedy in your work. It seems to depend on a sobriety of tone, often in the seemingly straightforward presentation of the impenetrably mysterious. Isn’t there something inescapably comic about our relation to the cube, as you’ve just described it? Potentially comic?

SM I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but as you say it, I’m immediately struck by the comedy of the cube. I imagine some earnest soul eager to see the other three sides: he turns the cube, discovers the missing sides, and suddenly realizes that he’s concealed the original three, which he desperately longs to see again. He turns the cube, faster and faster; finally, in rage, he picks up a hammer and shatters the cube. The lust for knowledge, for vision, for memory, for penetrating the impenetrable—all this noble longing hovers on the edge of the comic. You remember those old toys in Cracker Jack boxes—or am I inventing them? One slight turn of the wrist, and the clown’s glum mouth becomes a smile.

JS We’re almost out of space, or time. So: whether we like it or not, there are some matters about the Writer Himself that need to be at least gestured toward when one is doing an interview like this. Here are four of those sorts of questions, for you to evade or deflect as you please.

SM Phew.

JS First: The King in the Tree is your tenth (!) book. In many ways I assume you feel yourself to be the same writer who delivered Edwin Mullhouse to Knopf. But are there any aspects of that guy that you miss?

SM I have the belief that I carry around in myself all stages of myself simultaneously. I don’t outgrow myself, I merely add on. In that sense, he’s still with me, whoever he is, or was. I don’t miss him, or any of them. They’re here.

JS Second: Do you have a horror of the hands-on editor? At what point do you want other opinions? And from whom do you want them? Does anyone else read your work in its early stages?

SM I once read a biography of Robert Lowell, who was quoted as saying something like: “A good critic is someone who loves your work but doesn’t like all of it.” Bravo. I’ve always shown my work to a small number of friends, who are in sympathy with what I do but are willing to say that they don’t like this or that. I show only work that seems to me final. If they’re right, I change it. When it comes to editors, my feeling is basically: Take it or leave it, kiddo. In general, I feel immense gratitude to anyone, even an editor, who points out to me a blunder of any kind. An editor once suggested that I change the fate of a character. I was not grateful.

JS You’ve always kept your distance from that part of the writer’s life in America that doesn’t involve writing: judging contests, going to conferences, etc. Was that distance changed in any way by receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Martin Dressler? Has it been changed by teaching?

SM Prizes have always struck me as extremely arbitrary. The one you mentioned—what was it called again?—somehow appeared, but I could just as easily have been arrested and shot for the crime of fiction. As for teaching: the difficulty for me is that I’m essentially a person who likes silence, and teaching is talk. I now talk more—a bad sign, surely.

JS And finally: this may represent your only opportunity to reminisce about your hometown of Stratford, Connecticut, in an interview with a fellow native. Any biographical tidbits, fictional or otherwise, that you’d like to relate? Any horrors or delights you’d like to revisit? What was it like growing up there?

SM Everything I had to say about Stratford is in my first novel, though in a fractured, splintered, meticulously distorted way. But there are two things that your question brings to mind, as a kind of legacy from those years. One is the sweetness in my ear of Italian and Slavic surnames. My father was a teacher, at the then brand-new University of Bridgeport (we had moved to Stratford from my original home, in Brooklyn, when I was four), and his salary and my mother’s (she taught first grade) brought in only enough to permit us to live in a working-class neighborhood. My friends and classmates all had names like Zielski, Stoccatore, Saksa, Mancini, Pavluvcik, Ciccarelli, Leitkowski, Cerino, DiCicio, Politano, Recupido. Names like these, as sheer sounds, have the power to move me like chords struck on an old piano. The other thing that springs to mind is more difficult to express. It’s the sense, given to me by growing up in that neighborhood, in that town, of what an American small-town street feels like and smells like, what kitchens and cellars and attics are like, what roadside weeds and telephone poles are like. There’s plenty I don’t know about American life, but those things are mine.

—Jim Shepard is J. Leland Miller Professor of English at Williams College and the author of five novels, including Lights Out in the Reptile House (Norton, 1990) and Nosferatu (Knopf, 1998), and a collection of stories, Batting Against Castro (Knopf, 1996). His latest novel, Project X, is forthcoming from Knopf this year, and a second collection of stories, titled Love and Hydrogen, will follow in 2004.

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Originally published in

BOMB 83, Spring 2003

Featuring interviews with Paul Pfeiffer, Pat Steir, Tom Sachs, Marie Ponsot, Steven Millhauser, Meshell Ndegeocelo, David Greenspan, and Neil Labute.

Read the issue
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