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68

The Art of Fiction No. 248
(missing author)

0
terms
8
notes

interview with Allan Gurganus

? (2021). The Art of Fiction No. 248. The Paris Review, 236, pp. 68-97

77

INTERVIEWER

Did your father ever come around to showing interest?

GURGANUS

When I was twelve, I started selling paintings and he began offering advice. “Double, no, triple your asking price. You’ll sell twice as much in the end. There’s an art to this, I tell you.” Dad feared I would starve to death as a grown-up artist. To prevent that he tried disinheriting me of any stray respect. But this only made me trust art more, him less. Everything he withheld I found quadrupled in a sixty-nine-cent bottle of india ink. Pen and ink became my superpower. I didn’t think of aesthetics as aesthetics but as tactics for survival. When my first book sold, Dad told me he’d assured his golfing partners, “I never doubted it.” I thanked him, knowing better.

—p.77 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

INTERVIEWER

Did your father ever come around to showing interest?

GURGANUS

When I was twelve, I started selling paintings and he began offering advice. “Double, no, triple your asking price. You’ll sell twice as much in the end. There’s an art to this, I tell you.” Dad feared I would starve to death as a grown-up artist. To prevent that he tried disinheriting me of any stray respect. But this only made me trust art more, him less. Everything he withheld I found quadrupled in a sixty-nine-cent bottle of india ink. Pen and ink became my superpower. I didn’t think of aesthetics as aesthetics but as tactics for survival. When my first book sold, Dad told me he’d assured his golfing partners, “I never doubted it.” I thanked him, knowing better.

—p.77 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
79

GURGANUS

Remember, it was the Summer of Love, and here I was, nineteen, sexually able but with my head shaved and at sea for weeks on end. The best of what I’d done so far and might do just ahead could only be described one blank page at a time. Drawing and writing soon started feeling interchangeable. I could now draw mug shots of my characters, I could write my still lifes. In sketchbooks, I paid studious homage to minds and skills far, far beyond my own. It felt like a religious practice but one freed of tithing to any single God.

INTERVIEWER

You needed to make things.

GURGANUS

I made something every day. Early on, I sensed that—in every art—the ultimate shared subject is human consciousness itself. The more comic-tragic notes you can wrest onto a single active page, the better. I would later suggest to my students that they put something funny on every page and something beautiful on every other. My naive obsession was to shape something so true, energized, and hilarious, it would necessarily outlive me. The goal was not becoming known, it was becoming useful.

INTERVIEWER

You were conscious of a literary immortality even then?

<3

—p.79 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

GURGANUS

Remember, it was the Summer of Love, and here I was, nineteen, sexually able but with my head shaved and at sea for weeks on end. The best of what I’d done so far and might do just ahead could only be described one blank page at a time. Drawing and writing soon started feeling interchangeable. I could now draw mug shots of my characters, I could write my still lifes. In sketchbooks, I paid studious homage to minds and skills far, far beyond my own. It felt like a religious practice but one freed of tithing to any single God.

INTERVIEWER

You needed to make things.

GURGANUS

I made something every day. Early on, I sensed that—in every art—the ultimate shared subject is human consciousness itself. The more comic-tragic notes you can wrest onto a single active page, the better. I would later suggest to my students that they put something funny on every page and something beautiful on every other. My naive obsession was to shape something so true, energized, and hilarious, it would necessarily outlive me. The goal was not becoming known, it was becoming useful.

INTERVIEWER

You were conscious of a literary immortality even then?

<3

—p.79 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
87

GURGANUS

Plot confuses beginning storytellers by sounding so extruded, mechanical. Simply put, plot is what your characters most want and whatever they will do to get it. I am always attracted to characters having a hard time. Fiction can be summarized as “and then something went terribly, terribly wrong.” The more specific the hero’s trouble, the more unconventional his wish or obsession, the greater chance the story has of saying something new and helpful. Empathy is a writer’s pilot’s license. Without it, you are grounded. You aren’t creating characters. You’re judging them.

—p.87 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

GURGANUS

Plot confuses beginning storytellers by sounding so extruded, mechanical. Simply put, plot is what your characters most want and whatever they will do to get it. I am always attracted to characters having a hard time. Fiction can be summarized as “and then something went terribly, terribly wrong.” The more specific the hero’s trouble, the more unconventional his wish or obsession, the greater chance the story has of saying something new and helpful. Empathy is a writer’s pilot’s license. Without it, you are grounded. You aren’t creating characters. You’re judging them.

—p.87 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
88

The twentieth century said, Nothing and no one is fully accountable anymore. Nothing can be trusted. But the outrageous fiction I love often passes as reliable truth-telling. Huck Finn, Bartleby, Lolita, Gatsby, Beloved. The very word narration derives from the Latin gnarus, meaning “to recognize or know.” So a narration is a knowing, a narrator a knower. A know-nothing narrator has no value to me. Confused narrators? They’re both endearing and essential. But someone setting out to mislead, he’s not my tour guide of choice. You shouldn’t travel with people you don’t truly love or whose credit cards bounce. Ergo, if I’m going to invest my life in inventing stories, I want them to have lasting value and as much meaning as I can possibly impart. They should be difficult but reliably so. And it’s no embarrassment if they’re about something.

—p.88 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

The twentieth century said, Nothing and no one is fully accountable anymore. Nothing can be trusted. But the outrageous fiction I love often passes as reliable truth-telling. Huck Finn, Bartleby, Lolita, Gatsby, Beloved. The very word narration derives from the Latin gnarus, meaning “to recognize or know.” So a narration is a knowing, a narrator a knower. A know-nothing narrator has no value to me. Confused narrators? They’re both endearing and essential. But someone setting out to mislead, he’s not my tour guide of choice. You shouldn’t travel with people you don’t truly love or whose credit cards bounce. Ergo, if I’m going to invest my life in inventing stories, I want them to have lasting value and as much meaning as I can possibly impart. They should be difficult but reliably so. And it’s no embarrassment if they’re about something.

—p.88 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
89

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk for a second about that sexual candor in your work. How have you arrived at such intrepid portrayals?

GURGANUS

Long research, sleepless nights. I want to offer my characters some sexual risk taking, a reflection of the way I once lived my life. I’ve learned so much about others, in and out of bed. Tennessee Williams swore he’d never created a character to whom he was not sexually attracted. I always urged my students to let their characters have erotic existences on the page. We put the poor things through such tortures, why not let them score a few Fridays and Saturdays per annum? What a protagonist eats and wears and how he decorates his rooms and treats his parents—yeah, all that’s important. But what she wants sexually and what she’ll risk to get some of it on a given weekend—that’s a fast, amazing way to show her true hidden identity. I’m pleased to see young novelists now risking far more sexual honesty. What subject is more mystical and entertaining? Most sexual exchanges are far more awkward, and therefore more endearing, than what you find online. Ordinary folks’ groping attempts I usually find far sexier than a couple of tanned models going at it in Malibu. A writer, a real writer, must be fully committed to those people somehow created on his pages. He cannot stand apart from them, cannot cartoon or disdain them. They are not quite villains, they are hardly saints. They are all citizens different from each other, each with a peculiar mission, varying sets of merits and flaws. They are partial talents striving toward something, but what? For sure, it’s a fascinating exercise, creating others and then trying to be responsible both for and to them.

—p.89 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk for a second about that sexual candor in your work. How have you arrived at such intrepid portrayals?

GURGANUS

Long research, sleepless nights. I want to offer my characters some sexual risk taking, a reflection of the way I once lived my life. I’ve learned so much about others, in and out of bed. Tennessee Williams swore he’d never created a character to whom he was not sexually attracted. I always urged my students to let their characters have erotic existences on the page. We put the poor things through such tortures, why not let them score a few Fridays and Saturdays per annum? What a protagonist eats and wears and how he decorates his rooms and treats his parents—yeah, all that’s important. But what she wants sexually and what she’ll risk to get some of it on a given weekend—that’s a fast, amazing way to show her true hidden identity. I’m pleased to see young novelists now risking far more sexual honesty. What subject is more mystical and entertaining? Most sexual exchanges are far more awkward, and therefore more endearing, than what you find online. Ordinary folks’ groping attempts I usually find far sexier than a couple of tanned models going at it in Malibu. A writer, a real writer, must be fully committed to those people somehow created on his pages. He cannot stand apart from them, cannot cartoon or disdain them. They are not quite villains, they are hardly saints. They are all citizens different from each other, each with a peculiar mission, varying sets of merits and flaws. They are partial talents striving toward something, but what? For sure, it’s a fascinating exercise, creating others and then trying to be responsible both for and to them.

—p.89 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
92

I like to be up by six thirty. I guess I do this as proof to my father—dead for decades—that writing is really manly labor. He himself was an early riser. Like him I prefer those hours when dew is everywhere and birds are first auditioning their day’s likely song. I’m sure that if God created Eden he did it all with a single dawn. Early-hour innocence promotes ambitious, unrealistic hopes. You’ve just been dreaming. You have strong coffee and a piece of fruit. You reread what you got down yesterday. It’s important to leave yourself a handhold on the cliff you are inventing. Most days involve rewriting, boiling out the cornstarch, essentializing a gesture, paring down dialogue that’s grown too wordy or explicit. On schedule you go through familiar rituals that’ve at least produced satisfying results. Most days such work can go on till two or three. Then you get to do your banking or shopping or gardening. You again become a citizen of the sloppy capitalist realm after shoring up the secret world you’ve been home inventing in black and white.

—p.92 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

I like to be up by six thirty. I guess I do this as proof to my father—dead for decades—that writing is really manly labor. He himself was an early riser. Like him I prefer those hours when dew is everywhere and birds are first auditioning their day’s likely song. I’m sure that if God created Eden he did it all with a single dawn. Early-hour innocence promotes ambitious, unrealistic hopes. You’ve just been dreaming. You have strong coffee and a piece of fruit. You reread what you got down yesterday. It’s important to leave yourself a handhold on the cliff you are inventing. Most days involve rewriting, boiling out the cornstarch, essentializing a gesture, paring down dialogue that’s grown too wordy or explicit. On schedule you go through familiar rituals that’ve at least produced satisfying results. Most days such work can go on till two or three. Then you get to do your banking or shopping or gardening. You again become a citizen of the sloppy capitalist realm after shoring up the secret world you’ve been home inventing in black and white.

—p.92 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
93

When writing first drafts, the only music audible should be your own language and pulse—the metronomic drumbeat of your personal digestive percussion section. But, later, when I’m typing in handwritten changes, what sometimes speeds my fingers and cheers me is listening to solo keyboard work—played by Oscar Peterson or Glenn Gould, Monk, or Gershwin’s piano rolls. Reading the work aloud is another trade secret that can’t be stressed too often. Every sentence must make logical sense while offering its appropriate ghost song. Even someone reading your work silently should be always registering its music. I prefer chamber works. I love four instruments in conversation, arguing before briefly agreeing. That’s closer to the spirit of my work. Bach, Mozart, and Brahms are some of my friends I daily hear and learn the most from.

—p.93 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

When writing first drafts, the only music audible should be your own language and pulse—the metronomic drumbeat of your personal digestive percussion section. But, later, when I’m typing in handwritten changes, what sometimes speeds my fingers and cheers me is listening to solo keyboard work—played by Oscar Peterson or Glenn Gould, Monk, or Gershwin’s piano rolls. Reading the work aloud is another trade secret that can’t be stressed too often. Every sentence must make logical sense while offering its appropriate ghost song. Even someone reading your work silently should be always registering its music. I prefer chamber works. I love four instruments in conversation, arguing before briefly agreeing. That’s closer to the spirit of my work. Bach, Mozart, and Brahms are some of my friends I daily hear and learn the most from.

—p.93 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago
96

INTERVIEWER

I’m continually baffled by this. If the sentences don’t work—in their unexpected exactitudes, in their rhythms and freshness, in their allusiveness and connotative complexity—how does the story work? Is the story not being told with sentences?

GURGANUS

Exactly. And then there are writers whose sentences always surprise with their inevitable loving precision. Henry Green, early Evelyn Waugh, Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, Chekhov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Flaubert, Nabokov, Montaigne, Dickinson, Agee, Beckett, Melville, Günter Grass, George Eliot, García Márquez, our lists go on and differ year by year. I keep the works of my current deities in easy reach. Scanning even one of their living sentences can resurrect me like CPR. People talk of plot and character, but too few genuflect to the beauty and power of the actual single sentence itself.

<3

—p.96 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago

INTERVIEWER

I’m continually baffled by this. If the sentences don’t work—in their unexpected exactitudes, in their rhythms and freshness, in their allusiveness and connotative complexity—how does the story work? Is the story not being told with sentences?

GURGANUS

Exactly. And then there are writers whose sentences always surprise with their inevitable loving precision. Henry Green, early Evelyn Waugh, Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, Chekhov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Flaubert, Nabokov, Montaigne, Dickinson, Agee, Beckett, Melville, Günter Grass, George Eliot, García Márquez, our lists go on and differ year by year. I keep the works of my current deities in easy reach. Scanning even one of their living sentences can resurrect me like CPR. People talk of plot and character, but too few genuflect to the beauty and power of the actual single sentence itself.

<3

—p.96 missing author 2 years, 4 months ago