Resist Despair: An Interview with Charles Baxter

charlesbaxter_photoCharles Baxter is the author of four novels, most recently The Feast of Love and Saul and Patsy.  He is also the author of four collections of short stories, three collections of poems, and Burning Down the House, a series of essays on fiction.  He is a National Book Award finalist and has received the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Charles Baxter was born in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota.

Sycamore Review: I’ve heard you say that you prefer short stories to novels, and that you approach the novel with “great trepidation.”  Does working from short stories, as you did in Saul and Patsy, help with the trepidation?

Charles Baxter: Oh, a little bit, because at least with Saul and Patsy, I had something to start with, that I could move on from.  I like to think of novels as made up of little bits that have been glued together to make this big thing.  If I think of the novel as a big thing that I have to write, the trepidation kicks in, and I can’t get it done, but if I think of it as one scene leading to another scene that will then lead to a piece of expository material, then I can get it written.  I probably wouldn’t feel like this if I hadn’t written three really crummy novels that were never published and that took something like ten years out of my life.  But because I had that experience, whenever I start something new, I feel this sense of doom. So it’s nice to have the idea that all I have to write is this small piece, this one small tile in the mosaic.

I came here from Florida, and a lot of Midwesterners will ask you why would you want to come to the Midwest.  You write a lot about the Midwest, and you’ve said that Midwesterners almost seem apologetic about where they live.  What attracts you to writing about it, to setting your stories here, that you think the locals are missing?

There’s some dormant element in the Midwest that is less visible than other parts of the country, I think.  In their way, people in California are visible, people in the West and Montana and Wyoming are visible; they make themselves that way.  We have images of what they are and what they do: cowboy hats and the rest of it.  Even Southerners have this–there’s a kind of theatricalization of the way of life and the way people behave or are thought to behave.  The closest cousins Midwesterners have are New Englanders, in the way they don’t want you to understand them too quickly.  And I’m attuned to that element of secrecy, and I think it matches certain features of my kind of fiction pretty well.  It takes a while to get to know somebody in the Midwest; it takes a while to get to know these characters in my fiction.  I like that sense of gradually unpeeling–that’s the right word–a character before you get to know that person.   It turns every piece of fiction into a kind of detective novel.  Who is this person?  What is he or she doing in this story?  Gradually the secret comes out.  What I’m talking about is subtlety.  Subtexts in the work and latency in the character.

Whereas Southerners wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Well, you know, I’m getting into dangerous ground here, overstatement, because there’s so much great literature from the South, from Faulkner,  Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Barry Hannah.  There are as many different kinds of literature as there are places.  I’m only describing my own way of getting at it.

One of my favorite things that you’ve written is Burning Down the House, and I heard that we sold out of our copies of it last night.  But it’s been about eight years since that was published, and certain things have changed.  We’ve had two elections, September 11th.  Do you think that the narrative landscape that you described in that–I think you described it as “dysfunctional”–do you think it’s changed at all in the past couple years?

What do you think? (Laughs)  I know I’m tossing this back at you, but I heard two weeks ago a spokesperson in this administration–the administration of George W. Bush–say “Mistakes were made.” The trademark phrase of a weasel.  And if there’s an administration that has talked more about responsibility and accountability and has had less to do with responsibility and accountability, I haven’t seen it. These guys are permanently in the position of disavowing any responsibility for any outcomes that turn out badly.  They’re kings of hypocrisy. I mean, talk about dysfunctional narratives: Iraq is the ultimate dysfunctional narrative; the entire war has been a hoax.  I could go on like this for hours, but I won’t.  If you’re asking me if the political landscape has changed, I would say, yeah, it’s gotten worse.  But dysfunctional narratives are as strongly in the news as they ever were, if not more so.  

Reading Burning Down the House last year, it seemed awfully prophetic.  Along with that, though, you use a lot of political examples from history in your book. This might come as sort of a chicken and the egg question, but do you think that the political rhetoric, the political discourse affects everyone’s sense of the narrative in a culture, or do you think that it’s just a symptom of something else at work?

Oh, I think it’s both. I think it affects people, and I think it’s a symptom. Which is to say that you can find weasels in public office, and you can find weasels pumping gas.  And the only difference now is that Bush’s popularity rating is at an all-time low, and his disavowals of responsibility have become so blatant and obvious.  I mean, you look at Bush and you think, “I don’t want to be like that guy.  I don’t want to do things the way he’s doing them.”  So, yes, it affects people, and yes, it’s a symptom, and it’s true that somebody who takes responsibility for a bad outcome can look like a chump, but I think there may be fewer disavowals of this sort as time goes by because it’s just becoming so obviously a sign of cultural decadence.  People don’t want to be like that.

You think people prefer a narrative of responsibility, a narrative of accountability?

I do. People are interested in stories in which somebody takes a fall for what she or he has done and is in some sense responsible for.  It’s adult fiction: “I did that thing because I wanted to do it.”  I mean, that’s a very different kind of narrative, and I don’t know whether people want to read it or not, but it’s the kind of story I want to write.

Do you feel the Internet makes your job easier, both in terms of the access to raw information, and in the sense of it being a community–that you can talk to such a variety of people and hear those people’s stories and opinions?

The problem of the Internet is a problem that the French writer Houellebecq has written about and that we’re all facing.  The problem is what you could call atomization.  When you go into the blogosphere, what you’re looking at is a manifestation of the idea that everybody has a story, everyone has a blog.  That’s great in some ways, because we can pick up all of these stories that everybody puts into their blog. But at the same time, it also means that we’re being given a landscape in which there are these little atoms, and the atoms may or may not coalesce or cohere into a larger community, into any community at all.

My problem as a writer, anyone’s writerly problem, is that we want to tell stories that will have a community of readers that won’t be identical to us. It’ll be for a larger community. And the problem that we’re facing is the loss of cultural prestige for a literature, generally. It’s harder for my students to get a foothold in the world of literature because people appear to be paying less attention to it and more attention, more hours per day, to the web.

How do we deal with this? I don’t know. You go on practicing the art that you’ve learned through discipline, and you resist despair. In my parent’s generation, and my grandparent’s generation, somebody would have gone into a bookstore and bought a book of stories by Scott Fitzgerald or Tolstoy or Willa Cather and would have read it and gotten excited, and would have said, “Scott Fitzgerald is telling my story.” You don’t necessarily go into a bookstore and buy a book of stories anymore and say, “Amy Bender is telling my story.” Instead, you think: Amy Bender is putting on a great performance. And then you start your own blog, you tell your own story. I don’t know where any of this is going; all I know is where we’ve just been, and where I’ve been.

So, I’m not in the business of prophecy. I can’t say where it’s going to go. I think there’s always going to be a place for books, and for literature, but I think it’s maybe going to be in a relationship that radio has to TV and the movies. It’s always there, it just doesn’t have the kind of cultural power or influence that it once had.