From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1982, Vol. 2.3
This interview was conducted in the spring of 1978 in New York City, and later edited and expanded through correspondence.
JOHN O’BRIEN: Is it difficult for you to talk about or explain your writing?
COLEMAN DOWELL: There are writers who can tell you precisely what they do, but I am not one of them. There was a lecture E. M. Forster delivered called “Inspiration” which concerns the mind turning turtle. I put a piece of paper in the typewriter and, if I’m going to write well, the mind turns turtle. Out comes the person at the typewriter, the writer, whom I do not carry away from the typewriter. I talk about writing with other writers in this sort of desultory manner but I’m not really eager to do it. So there is that thing that belongs to the typewriter and the piece of paper. This turning turtle occurs, but as Forster says in his lecture, this one can also produce gibberish. This element of mystery is there for me. I’m not very articulate about writing, as you can see. If I could sit here and tell you everything that happens and why I do it—aside from a compulsion and an absolute love for writing, I don’t think I’d write. I don’t think I’d do it all because it’s a lonesome thing. When I start a new book I feel as though I’m going into a cave that I can’t come out of until the book is finished. I have a routine of getting to bed early and then getting up early so that I’m at the typewriter by no later than seven. It’s very lonesome, and nobody is really willing to share while you’re going along and writing. I can tell you why anything in my books is there and why something happened, but aside from that, I probably can talk about somebody else’s writing better than I can my own. When a work is finished, I can talk with you about it, every section and every word, but that is when it’s finished. At the time I am writing, I can’t talk because the process is not known to me. For me, the writing is enough. I don’t need to discuss it. When I write, I want to look at something as closely as I can. I have old notes stuck in my journal. One of them is very old now, it’s from about 1968, and it says, “Examine the essence of shunning.” That interested me at the time, and some day I might write about it. But that’s the way it comes about; I said that I want to look at that as closely as I can.
JOB: If you’re talking to a cabinetmaker, he can tell you why he put one shelf here and another there, but he may not be able to talk about that cabinet in the way that an antique dealer will years later. Despite the limitations of this metaphor, does it describe your relation to your writing?
CD: The metaphor goes a good long way. I’ve always liked the word “craftsman” and anyone who uses that word about me has my allegiance because writing is a craft. I was talking to a friend of mine about Mae West’s comedy and what made it work, and we began talking about timing. And I said the way that timing works for me—when I was writing plays and now that I am writing novels—is simply the feeling that this needs a few more pages. I just have a feeling that it needs a few more pages. And I can’t come any closer to explaining timing than that, though people have talked about my timing as being pretty good. However, there are sections that seem overly long to some people: an opera composer friend said that the section on words, where Chris goes crazy in “Island People,” goes on much too long. But this part is crucial, the whole structure of the book depends on it. It is precisely that length and has that density because it’s holding the book up. It’s the section where he disappears into words. It “is” the book and without it I simply wouldn’t have what I have now. But “musically,” I suppose, it’s too much, Well, it isn’t music, after all.
JOB: I’m interested in the framing device of Miss Ethel in “Too Much Flesh and Jabez” and how she tells her story. Would that have been the same novel had you left out the framing device in which you explain that she has written the novel which follows the introduction?
CD: I wrote her novel first. And afterwards I did the framing device. Then I went back and put in all of Jim’s references to Miss Ethel, his memories of her. When I wrote the first novel, I knew that something was wrong and it was the point of view. Whose was it? If nobody else was writing the book, Jim was not going to lie in bed and think about the design of the house and that sort of thing. It was the hardest book I’ve had to write. I started it ten years before it was finally done and I would go back and look at it and say, “One day.” It had to be simple, and I was only capable at that time of the sort of elaborate writing I was doing in “Mrs. October” and “Island People.” I knew that I would write a book about natural victims, which is the theme of “Jabez,” but that was all I knew. So finally, with my own sense of growing old, I said, “That’s it.” It would be a story about somebody getting old and feeling sterile. And then I thought it must be about a virgin, something that a virgin would write. And then of course I made quite a few changes in “her” novel after I know who was writing it.”
JOB: I think that there are certain implausibilities in Miss Ethel’s novel which are wholly explainable if you keep in mind that she is narrating it.
CD: Yes, there is information that Jabez alone couldn’t have had; only Miss Ethel could have had it. There were no books he could have found this in at that time. As James Laughlin kept saying.
JOB: Depending upon whom she’s writing about at a particular moment and how she wants you to see that character, she becomes that character.
CD: That’s right. The Wilde references, and there are several of them, were not in the original ms. of the book. When I went back and created the frame, I put them in. And I had some rather elaborate references to “The Heart of Darkness” and she even quoted “the horror, the horror” two or three times. That was going to be a constant reference for her throughout the book. But a friend talked me out of that.
JOB: Does the reader have to keep in mind throughout the novel that this is being told by Miss Ethel?
CD: They don’t. A nice thing somebody said to me was that after Jim says near the end that he never even heard of this fellow Jabez, he remembered, “My God, “she” wrote the book!” Other people have forgotten it, too. Obviously it’s not entirely essential. People get caught up in her novel, Miss Ethel’s novel. They’re not so nearly caught up in her life. I think that at the end people are touched by Jim’s going to see her. One reviewer said that she wished I had let her know a little bit more about the real Jim in contrast to Miss Ethel’s. Well, that would be another book. I wanted the novel to be short, just as short as possible, so that it could be read quickly, in one sitting.
JOB: How do you react to that, that Miss Ethel’s story is read almost detached from the frame?
CD: It’s all right with me. By the end of the book it’s going to come back. I don’t think a reader must keep it in mind, but I don’t know how it’s quite so easy for anyone to forget because there are these constant references to herself all the way through. And she crops up in Jim’s mind all the time. It seems to me that every time he remembers something Miss Ethel said or did, one would say, “Oh, yes, she’s writing it.” But obviously many people don’t.
JOB: Could you have written “Jabez” with an omniscient point of view and simply have made Miss Ethel a somewhat neurotic character?
CD: I don’t think so because it had to be her novel. I was so puzzled because I wasn’t sure what she would be like. This is why it took ten years to write. Finally the frame was an ideal solution for me. I can’t imagine just making her a character in the novel. As you notice, I write about everybody else. In “Island People” it’s one man writing about every aspect of himself and trying to become a peninsula because he’s so tired of being an island.
JOB: What kind of problems were presented to you because Miss Ethel, who is not a novelist, is writing a novel? Did you have a problem in determining how well she should write?
CD: I just assumed that she was a literate woman and I set out with the fact that “The Heart of Darkness” would be the reference to her life. Her life really was a horror. She really had only one person in all her years of teaching who was of interest to her. So it seems to me that in these circumstances, she would read hungrily and avidly. She would be well read, just because of the horror of her life. We all escape the horrors of our lives through literature and art. I had that in mind for her, that she would be an extremely well-read person and that she would be radical. Certainly in the South at that time schoolteachers were very literate people. I meant her to be a bright woman and a curious woman.
JOB: The fact that she can write is a “given” in the novel which is, I suppose, beyond questioning. But, still, was it a problem for you in deciding how well she could write and whether, for instance, her writing should be flawed?
CD: How cunning it is when right on the first page she says how surprised she is to see that she had a gift for narrative. That tells you right off that this is not going to be an amateur venture. It’s not going to be a schoolteacher doing her first book. She may have written all her life, but I don’t think that anybody is remotely interested in that, whether this is her fourth or fifth or twentieth novel is all those years. Her teaching and her tutoring let her get away from the terrible boredom of her life. I cannot think of anything more terrible than facing the fact that one is a virgin when one gets old; or an approximation of that—just not much experience. This makes me very sad and claustrophobic when I think about that because contact with another person in an intimate way is one of the points of life surely.
JOB: Whether good or bad?
CD: Yes, whether good or bad. In the book I am working on now, I’ve finished a long section called “The Snake’s House” and the experiences are so terrifying. I can’t work on it too much at a time because I have to deal with the horror that sexual things can be in the imagination. It’s so grim and really destructive. This to me is a nightmare. Obviously there are people who go through life without knowing another person in that way. The most melancholy words in “Jabez” are at the end of the first section: “She had never entered another person and another person had never entered her.” I don’t think that minds meet unless the two people have some knowledge of sexuality. It’s an assumption that sex is a common territory and then you can talk. But if I imagined that I were talking to a virgin, who had got to a certain age of course, I wouldn’t think that we would have anything to say. We wouldn’t have any language in common. Not to have any frame of reference would be pretty grim.
JOB: What is so interesting about Miss Ethel is that, despite her virginity -or perhaps because of it—, sex preoccupies her and seems to control everything she does and thinks about.
CD: Yes, it’s very debilitating. I had to make Jabez a boy because Miss Ethel could not even face the idea of being penetrated. She could accept homosexuality because it’s not a woman, it’s not herself. I thought that for Miss Ethel it had to be an androgyne. The part of herself that is Jabez is the androgynous part and sets up the fact that she was androgynous when she was a girl. But I think that she couldn’t really imagine sex for a woman. And so in her novel she must make it painful for Effie to have intercourse. The one sexual woman in the book—Ludie—goes crazy. This is why it was such a hard book to me to write, to imagine a person with such an imagination.
JOB: So everything in her life is related to sex.
CD: You obviously could not think about another thing if you were a virgin. Miss Ethel is preoccupied with sex because she is a virgin. If she were not a virgin, she could think about anything else in the world for long periods of time. But it doesn’t have to be sex; it could be anything that’s powerful and is denied you. It could be money. People who don’t have money and can’t make money think about money all the time. It becomes an obsession, and the more of an obsession it becomes, the more difficult it seems to get, whatever “it” is. Sex or money or fame.
JOB: At least Miss Ethel is beginning to identify her demon; she is writing this story.
CD: That’s the woman in her decline. She goes quite mad. The way she practices saying words like “fuck.” It’s insanity for her to see her chance gone.
JOB: There’s something in her relationship with Jim that reminds me of how nuns relate to boys, her condescension and superiority towards Jim and her grand idea that she can save him and lead him towards something he’s been deprived of.
CD: Not the same thing with priests?
JOB: No, I don’t think so.
CD: Because I just reviewed Mary Gordon’s wonderful book “Final Payments.” In there the relationship between Isabel and the old priest is quite beautiful. But when she asks him in for a cup of coffee after her father’s death, he can’t go in with her because he can’t be alone with her in the house.
JOB: Did you attend a Catholic school when you were young?
CD: Not Catholic schools. When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, my friends were Catholic. It seemed like a beautiful ritual. So I became a Catholic. I was allowed to become a Catholic, though I never practiced. But there were no Catholic schools in rural southern Kentucky. My Catholic friends in Kentucky made it sound like fun and games. Girls and nuns may be quite different than boys and nuns. There’ve got to be strange things, I suppose, with these boys growing up under these mysterious, dominant women. If there is a new wave of writing, I hope it will be the Catholic novel. We are finished, I think, with the Jewish novel. Everything’s the same in them. There’s nothing to rebel against except the parents, and this gets very tedious. If you’re rebelling against Faith, God, the Church—this is an enormous rebellion. Or, if it’s not rebellion, then enormous adoration. There’s no such thing as a “Protestant” novel as far as I know. But if there were, wouldn’t it be dull? No protestant novelist writes from being a Protestant. The Catholic experience is something that has been ignored in this country, at least for a long time.
JOB: When did you start reviewing?
CD: This is my second review. I don’t know why I waited so long. I don’t like the way most people write about novels; most reviewers go entirely the wrong way. You must go from inside the writer. What is “he” trying to do? Especially when writers are doing other writers’ books, they sound as though they’re talking about the book they wanted to write. I am a reviewer who one day would like to be a critic. I know that I am able to look at another writer’s work and see what he’s doing.
JOB: Do you worry about audience while you are writing?
CD: After the book comes out, I have to. I want the books to be accessible to people. If I am having a conversation with somebody, I want to be understood. If the reception of “Island People” had been better, I was going to do another book called “People of the Peninsula.” But I don’t want to write like that anymore. I don’t want to get into that extremely difficult and complicated formal writing because I want an audience. If people are going to be puzzled and if it’s such hard reading, I don’t want to write that way anymore. In “Island People” I had to invent everything—my techniques and everything because I wanted to do things I wasn’t sure words could do. I don’t know how well I succeeded; somebody else can tell me that. But I wanted to set up emotions, and juxtapose things, and suggest things. Many sections of that were published in the New Directions anthologies and I would get responses about individual parts. I seemed to be getting through. But then you put the book together and it is too difficult for people.
JOB: I don’t know how you would consciously go about creating a larger audience without radically altering the way you write.
CD: I don’t know if you can consciously do that. I think I got a clue from “Jabez” because it was taken by a small book club and they called up and said it had broken all sales records for a week or ten days. And more people have written to me about that book than any other. There is a directness about “Jabez” that doesn’t exist in the other books. It’s a complicated book, though its surface is direct. And there’s a lot of dialogue, which I think people like. So in the new book I am trying to simplify the style even more. But this is not just to reach an audience, it’s also because I am very tired of writing at this point. I have the greatest stack of unfinished works of anyone you’ve every seen. All in this elliptical, complex style. That style has ceased to interest me. But I don’t think the style has changed because I want to reach people; it’s changed from the inside. I finally got bored with carrying the burden of “Island People.” I really did want to do that sequel and had written two hundred pages of it. It was going to be about people who had found a way to make connections, which is more difficult to do all the time in this world.
JOB: But you can’t sit there and worry whether an audience is going to find something too difficult.
CD: No, I couldn’t do that. When I am writing a book, I believe that I am a very moral person. I can’t do anything that would be for any other reason than the good of the book. It wouldn’t be possible for me to say I am now going to write a commercial book. I couldn’t write it. It wouldn’t sustain my interest for a second. And I don’t know what a commercial book is anyhow. If I could write like Harold Robbins, I wouldn’t. I think that would be very immoral to do.
JOB: You have an amazing way of using ideas in a novel without having the novel exist for the sake of the ideas. There is a lot of “thinking” in “Island People,” for instance, but it is made a part of the fabric of the book.
CD: I was really offended by one part of Hayden Carruth’s review when he said I should have been a paragraphist or an aphorist, missing the point that this is fiction. This is a novel. This is not me expressing my ideas. I am expressing the ideas of the people I have created. And I want to examine those people. And so it’s a total misreading to think of them as my ideas, especially in “Island People.” Even some of my relatives assumed that it was me and asked how I could be so insular. I was actually upset by that. One friend who has known me for years and with whom I have been on many beaches asked me, after reading “Island People,” where my birthmark was. I said, describing the birthmarked character, Low, “Well, it’s all over my back and goes down my leg and curls around my ankle.” I imagined she thought somehow or other her eyes had deceived her all those years. Of course Chris’s birthmark is much greater than Low’s. Chris’s is the one, the birthmark, of her title: that coldness and terrible, passionless curiosity.
JOB: Then writing for you is not a matter of self-expression.
CD: Not in that way. I don’t believe in that at all. That would be nothing but self-indulgence. You would be writing memoirs forever. I like to choose characters who are as unlike me as possible. Miss Ethel in “Jabez” and Chris in “Island People” . . . are very unlike me. I don’t like Chris but I like his search for himself and I like his cathartic act of writing that mass murder. He’s dry, and he’s prejudiced about everything. I take a man like that and say, “Let me see.” Then I hope there is no chance of me filtering through. I’m not interested in writing about Coleman Dowell or telling what he thinks, except when I think in some other persona. When I finish a book I lose connection with it after a time. When I go back and look at it, I can’t believe I wrote it. There really is a personality change for some writers. My personality is nothing like those in my books. Now I’m in mourning—my dog’s blindness and old age—but generally I am rather like Noel Coward.
JOB: Is it a recurring problem that people read you into fiction?
CD: Absolutely. From the beginning. I don’t think you’ve read my first novel, “One of the Children Is Crying.” People still assume that this is a picture of my family and me. Why do they assume that I set off to write my autobiography at age forty? I should say, however, that there are some autobiographical things in “Gethsemane.” But they’re submerged, tucked away in the section called “Gethsememe.” They’re like Miss Ethel’s secret self-references. Of course I have to add here that my dachshund, Tam, is in two books—”October” and “Island People”—and these are true portraits. And the small ‘dash-hound,’ as Lena Barnes calls it, who is given to Jabez to play with at the end of that book, was my wistful attempt to make Tam a puppy again.
JOB: Would it be possible for you to use autobiographical materials?
CD: Yes, I could. I like my life and there are often interesting people in it, but I don’t find it interesting in a literary way at all. I keep a journal, a big thick thing that’s been going on forever, and I try to write in it every day. But this is devoted to friends who may be of interest to people long after I’m dead—like Colette’s portrait of Proust, for example. I like it when she asks the reader to trust her, saying, “This is the way he really was.” So one day, when I am very old, I’ll write about famous people I’ve known or met, like Isak Dinesen.
JOB: When you were writing “Island People,” did you have to keep charts in order to keep straight the points of view and who was writing what section?
CD: I don’t make charts and I don’t take notes. Once I copied down a German lyric I liked and finally put it in “Mrs. October” and then when I got to the galleys at New Directions they said that I would have to acknowledge it. So I told them it was Goethe. James Laughlin went through his Goethe and couldn’t find it. So I went to Goethe House, and nada. I was told by our housekeeper, a German, that it was from an opera, but she couldn’t remember which. I went to Lincoln Center and within ten minutes they had found the libretto and given me a xerox of the lyric. This is the only thing I ever wrote down ahead of time and said that it would be in a book somewhere. I didn’t know how it was going to be used, but it had an aura about it of less and yearning. Then I saw that it could be used to encircle the dog, Madame Alexis, who was going to die, at least for a moment, as a “revolutionary example.” She does die, but then of course she is resurrected . . . and that act is, of course, autobiographical, autobiography growing out of a future fear. But back to sketches and notes. When I’m writing, my mind is at its peak. I seem never to forget anything. I don’t change too many things, either. I don’t do all those drafts and so on, generally. Memory is not a labor for me.
JOB: Did you write “Island People” in the order in which it finally appeared?
CD: Yes. The book is about a man putting himself through a great cross section of experience and finally committing that mass murder, which is all prepared for from the very beginning. I knew where I was going all the time. The “island” is an isolated man. And island people are all the people who are isolated from each other. I wish some day that some people could read “Island People” accurately. I wish that Gilbert Sorrentino could have reviewed it because I would like to see the book recognized for what it is. He wrote to me that all the parts scintillate off all the other parts . . . that’s so important to an understanding of the book. The most essential thing to understand in that book is that there are all those reflections: it’s full of mirrors. I do say, near the end, through the surgeon, that this man has been alone for two years in a house filled with telephones that never rang and where occasionally music blared out of the windows. But totally alone. He hadn’t had any of the visitors or any of the lovers he wrote about. He is a greatly fragmented man who is going crazy out of isolation. In the section, “The Surgeon,” in which he kills everybody on the island and his little dog, he thinks he’s writing a story. What I’m saying is that that kind of loneliness will not lead to a knowledge of reality or how to separate art from life. I guess I was too elliptical, for I wanted the reader to understand the danger in isolationism—people or countries. I feel that making connections with other people or countries is the most essential thing in the world. Some dreadful thing will happen to us if we don’t. Here, I am quite political. I’m saying that sympathy and understanding are antithetical to isolationism—and therefore the United States is isolationist. States are isolated from other States through chauvinism. This allows quick and violent rescinding of human rights, of human, and other, lives. The climate of Dallas explains assassinations or such attacks as the one on Stevenson there. I was beaten up once in Fort Worth; the explanation given was that my clothes proclaimed me an Easterner. . . . “Island People,” of course, is about the fragmentation that results from prolonged isolation. When Christopher rejoins the human race, it is through an act of mass murder.
JOB: Somewhere in “Island People” Chris says that the book is an exercise in style. Is that true of “Island People” or is that Chris’s peculiar view?
CD: That section in which he gets totally lost in language is a symptom of his psychopathy. Though one half of “me” says that there is just construction, that this is the most interesting thing about writing, the other half says that the most important things is to convey themes and a sense of life. I, too, believe sometimes that “run” is jut a word and when you see it you don’t see an act. But that may be my psychopathy. Ask William Gass.
JOB: How did you first conceptualize “Island People”?
CD: Just as “Jabez” is about natural victims, “Island People” is about a really fragmented man. Depersonalized. He has no idea who he is. He’s just a mass of pain, all kinds of pain, and prejudices. And that’s all he knows. So he finds the woman in him—a real helpmeet—and makes his peace with her through infinite struggle. This is not a small struggle. How can you go on suppressing a part of yourself that’s so enormously vital? The most haunted thing is a person who has no identity and who doesn’t know what’s in those rooms and is afraid to look. So you take a man and imprison him in a lonely place with a dog and leave him there opening rooms. Towards the end of the novel he finds some capacity to love; too late, he yearns to be with the islanders.
JOB: Then it began with this character?
CD: It began with a theme. “One need not be a chamber to be haunted/One need not be a house/The brain has corridors surpassing material place.” From those lines of Emily Dickinson’s the novel grows. A man, haunted and afraid, depersonalized to the extent that all he can claim to know of himself is the urge toward/away from/violence: this man leaves the city and buys a house in the country where a murder had taken place in the mid-nineteenth century. He has a pair of guests, the Steubers; when they are gone he maligns them by writing a story about them, changing their name to DRESDEN. This story is his last individual act for perhaps two years. His personality splits; he begins to write malignant things about himself, which he attributes to his feminine doppelganger, Beatrix Dresden. About himself he has hated two things especially: his feminine side, and his old age to come. He puts himself through—as “penance” for maligning his feminine side—many experiences, most of them violent and unbearable, first pretending and then believing that they are written by Beatrix. In an attempt to understand himself, he goes into the past—the nineteenth century and even, in a momentary glimpse, back to the 12th century (“I, Philippe August, crowned at Etempe on May 29th, 1180″). There are future projections as well, but cloudy. Among other suggestions made by himself through Beatrix, we receive hints that he had helped his mother to die: “Examine euthanasia. Consider complicity: what guilt attaches to turning your head?” He gives himself alternate childhoods in an attempt to escape the truth. One childhood is with a mother named Christine—the “almost” child abuse scene. Another is the one involving Cousin Margaret, where he learns to be a snob and bigot. He is made to feel a birthmark; made to experience a homosexual blackmailer—Childe; made to feel himself old in Claudo as well as in the nineteenth-century man who, also, may have assisted in the murder of his stepmother. At last his schizophrenia drives him to seek aegis in words, words only, and he goes mad, vanishing into words (“First Person Biography”). All the characters he has invented come to live with him, and their slow withdrawal indicates a return to some kind of sanity—at least to the desire to be sane and become part of the world again. As a final act of expiation he “writes” a story about a mass murderer (“The Surgeon”); but when he comes out of his writing trance he finds the smoking rifle leaning on the porch, the Islanders are missing, and there is a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs. He cannot face the fact that, believing himself caught in velleity, he has in fact murdered Miss Gold as well as the Islanders, and so he retreats once again into the nineteenth century and dies. (Nobody has ever understood this, and here’s the way it happens): He becomes old, in the nineteenth century, places himself in the last day of his life; his going into the tenebrous house and up the stairs to the attic is the act of death. The woman standing at the window, turning to smile at him, is: the stepmother; the mother; Beatrix; Miss Gold. Joining her in death, he joins/makes peace with his feminine side, as he has made peace with old age and death.
I once had a final scene in which the plumber discovers his body at the attic window, “the wind’s eye”: “Soul to the wind, eye to the sun,” but did not like its explicitness and sentimentality.
One quote that four or five reviewers picked out—the point of the novel, so it pleased me greatly—was “All a man is is fragments,” pages 287 through 288. So in one sentence this novel is about a fragmented man trying to gather the pieces together; or as it is put early in the book, he is an island trying to become a peninsula. The other strong statement/theme is the danger in believing that creation—as in writing—is a substitute for life; written charity, for instance, does nobody any good, and a written murder may turn out to be a real one. The book insists upon experience; it hammers home (I think) the tragedy of inaction, or velleity, of throwing in the towel, of running away. Finally, but hardly least, there is the All In One, the indirect insistence that we ARE all part of each other and the world itself, and the plea (a tiny lost voice) is that we recognize it before it is too late. The narrator—a single voice all though the book—realizes the connections too late, and kills, and dies (page 306). His realization that it IS too late is found on page 308, when he restates, in italics: “I live in nightmare. My primary activity is concealing that fact. I am less and less successful.” In the next paragraph—”For my loving murderers, surcease, now”—he acknowledges his failure, and his intention to retreat to “pre-experience when the mind holds all the world but the world is good.”
And then I chose a character, a badly flawed human being. And it began as it is in that first section of the book called “The Keepsake.” That section reveals his prejudices and his penchant for misusing people. He maligns Beatrix and out of this act the rest of the novel grows, because she has to be given a voice so that she can answer back. This is the only way I could see doing it: let him invent Beatrix, as God invented Eve to give Adam someone to argue with. From then on the book was rather simple for me; it took me a fairly short time to write—two years. I had a clear idea of where I was going and why. I did cut out large sections of the nineteenth-century part; he had many more experiences in that persona. I had to cut out a hired girl named Julie, a marvelous character. She lived vicariously; everybody else’s experience was all that she had. She couldn’t form an opinion; she reacted to anything somebody said with astonishment, as though it were the most original thing in the world. If they said to her, “The pot’s boiling,” she was astonished, though she was cooking the dinner. It was necessary for somebody to tell her what was in the pot. But the book was much too long, two parallel novels. Somebody has since done that, though.
JOB: And how did you begin “Mrs. October Was Here”?
CD: I was thinking very much about the revolution that was trying to happen in America during the 1960’s and I wondered whether there is any relation between revolution and creativity, where they come together and where revolution becomes the opposite of creative. And what art would be like in a country that had had a successful “revolution.” What would be the latitude of creativity? I know that I wouldn’t be allowed to write as I do, not for a second, in Russia. After the Nazi revolution in Germany the language deteriorated. And the writers who came after had to recreate German. So my sympathy for the attempted revolution here was tempered by many things, many considerations.
JOB: It seems to me that the writing of a novel like “Mrs. October” is filled with pitfalls because you must avoid so many cliches and slogans.
CD: I was aware of how that might be viewed. So I figured the best way was to have all those viewpoints, as many viewpoints as possible, and also a true revolutionist who believed, Mrs. October. Now the kind of revolution she’s talking about relates to writing. That book is finally more about writing than it is about anything else. The tone, therefore, had to be satiric. And I realized that I would go too far, way beyond satire. But I did keep Swift in mind and there are a couple of quotes from him in the “Gesthemene” section, as guide lines. Swift was able to hate quite beautifully, constructively. I decided to dislike everything, I, Coleman Dowell, writer. I decided to despise everything I saw, and that would be “my” viewpoint. I COULDN’T allow myself to swerve from that decision because I could so easily go to one side or the other. Having given myself that absolute freedom, I decided to have fun. I made it as funny as I could, at everybody’s expense, and I do think it’s a funny book. But every idea of Mrs. October’s, every word of hers, is about writing. I carry that on in “Island People” where Chris gets so afraid of every word he puts down- it’s my personal reaction to “Mrs. October,” I think. Chris is so afraid of putting anything down for fear of influencing somebody. You have to have the strongest moral responsibility when you write (he is saying). Somebody might take an idea, some submerged idea of yours if you are not sure of what you are doing, and use it as the basis for a life. I hope that in “Island People” I get across the error of looking at things the way Chris does. The responsibility of the creator to the created is God’s to man. The writer has the same kind. In my first novel I had to let the brother and the sister discover at the end of the novel that they have loved each other incestuously and that this has been the basis of their assuming the roles of mother and father. When Erin finally sees it, it drives her out of her mind. She and Robin go into the orchard in the heavy snow and imagine that there’s the heat of the sun on them, and they lie down in the snow and are dying there. And their lives end with her saying, “Isn’t it extraordinary, snow in June?” She reaches out and in her imagination Robin is wearing the red smoking jacket that belonged to their father. They had become their own parents. That was my first book and I still feel dreadful about it. There was a father in the book whom I allowed to be killed for the sake of the book. I felt ghastly about it. You create people, you give them life, and then you give them horrible deaths. Or you give them horrible lives. I feel terrible about it. I have created the world and then made chaos, reversing the order. Obviously there wouldn’t be anything resembling life if people didn’t die and some people didn’t have terrible lives, but I have to have the strongest reason now for letting any of this gratuitous taking of life occur.
JOB: Hubert Selby said something similar to this. He said that he wanted his characters to be smarter and to understand more about themselves, but they aren’t and they can’t.
CD: That’s true. The characters take over. But we can make an effort, give causalities and so forth. If they’re too jarring they have to come out, but one can hope. . . . I loathe the kind of movie or book that doesn’t explain death and mutilation and torture to some extent. The creator is just saying that he will put all of that in there and scare people to death, like the spate of horror films that don’t amount to anything. The first thirty pages of my new book is unrelenting psychological bombardment. It will make everybody terribly nervous, and should, but I have the soundest of reasons for opening the book that way.
JOB: You have that horrifying scene in “Island People” with the little boy who won’t talk.
CD: I really wanted to go on and do a thing about child abuse, to finish that and have her torture him with the water she was heating up. It was to be one of Chris’s horrifying experiences. But I couldn’t do it. That part ended there, abruptly, because I was too full of horror to go on.
JOB: And you have that scene in “Jabez” in which Jim buys a starving boy something to eat and the boy vomits it up. That’s a horrifying, pathetic episode.
CD: I never saw anything like that but I used to imagine it. I was born in 1925 and so I grew up during the Depression. When I was five and six years old, the Depression was in full swing and all of this was all around us. People lived in tar paper shacks and cardboard boxes. I thought a lot about that and wished there was some way I could have experienced it; it haunts me very much. I imagined the mother starving and she’s fed the kid and now the kid is feeding her because she’s eating his vomit. It’s a very painful thing to think about and write.
JOB: And it’s painful reading.
CD: James Purdy has a story of a mother mentally torturing a little boy. He can’t have his father’s photograph, and he has all of these things of his father’s in a shoebox. Finally they’re in a cellar and she has taken him down there and she is going to burn all these effects of the father’s. The boy crouches on the floor and something black comes out of his mouth. It’s the most painful story. When I met Purdy, I said, “How could you do that?” Those are the first words I said to him. He didn’t like it. But we got to be pretty good friends.
JOB: When did you start writing fiction?
CD: I didn’t write a word on a book until I was forty. I was playing around in the theater—two plays—and I finally had a flop musical in 1961. But I was always going to write novels. I said that I would make a lot of money in the musical theater and then I could write any kind of novel I wanted without thinking about sales. But I didn’t make a lot of money, and when I was forty I said that’s it. I’m going to write novels. And then there was a large gap between the first novel and “Mrs. October.” Not because I didn’t write “Mrs. October” right away, but because every publisher in town was turning it down. Twenty-six, before New Directions took it on.
JOB: How did your play writing influence your fiction?
CD: The influence goes in the other direction. The plays were very novelistic. There were very literary sections. That was the trouble. The stage directions in some of the plays were enormously long, and they were what interested me most. I was writing novels with a lot of dialogue and not too much action. I lifted some of the character descriptions right out of my play “The Eve of the Green Grass” for my first novel. That was when I realized that writing for the theater is not interesting to me.
JOB: What other writers showed you how things could be done in fiction, or what writers did you learn from?
CD: Proust, first. Consciously, anyway. I read him in the twelfth and thirteenth years. We were inseparable. I would lie in a brook on hot summer days with my head on a rock and read. I was obsessed with a sense of the simultaneity of time, and in Proust I found this to a staggering degree. In “Island People,” the flickering light, the tin lamp, that propels Chris back to the nineteenth century is Proust’s madeline. Nowadays, alas, I can’t read him at all, but the memory, the influence, is permanent. “Wuthering Heights,” still a favorite, gave me my insouciant attitude to what anybody might think of my use of melodrama. I have no fear of it, of letting all the passions run rampant in my books. Peter Handke, for example, is the opposite of this. I don’t like desiccated things. I like the juices to overflow, even if the effect is ludicrous. And then there’s “Madame Bovary”; a movie before movies were invented, wonderful cinematic effects, long lines like a camera tracking a person, or a microphone following a sound. And Tennessee Williams’ plays. When I saw “Streetcar” it gave me a great sense of freedom within a restricted form. There was something remarkably releasing about the knowledge that I could do anything I wanted and still stay within a frame. I don’t know Williams but he wrote a very nice blurb for “Island People.” So I wrote him a letter and said, “Thanks, because you are one of my teachers.” I guess that all the writers I read when I was growing up influenced me subliminally. I read what was available . . . Thackeray, Goldsmith, the Brontes, Fielding, Hardy, Hawthorne, Greek plays. But the two novels and Proust, as mentioned, gave me my strongest sense of place.
JOB: Did anyone influence you stylistically?
CD: Nobody. I acknowledge no influence at all because my style is so personal. I don’t know of anybody else’s that is as eccentric as mine.
JOB: How did you arrive at a style?
CD: It is the themes of the books that determine style for me. I don’t think that “Jabez” has anything in common with “Island People” or “Mrs. October” in terms of style. The content, what I am trying to say, is going to determine the style of my new book. Its style is very direct and brutal, there are almost no adjectives or adverbs, at least right now. It’s the most direct writing I have done and that’s because of the characters who are psychotic people with singular motives and a nostalgia for death—a quite basic impulse, though generally unacknowledged.
JOB: When you are beginning a book, how does that style come about?
CD: I do some things, though I wouldn’t call them preliminary. I began writing the book and then I say, “This won’t do.” This happens in the first two or three pages. Then I think about it. Then some voice presents itself. This is already the voice that will contain the point of view, even if it’s going to change, ostensibly, many times. Then I say, “OK, I’ve got this book.” It’s like a pulse or a heartbeat. Does that sound pretentious? In “Island People” Chris is doing all that writing. He invents Beatrix to fight with and then he goes on to write like her. Then he’s writing like Beatrix writing like him. There’s a lot of satire there, perhaps self-satire. It was like a private joke at times. Edmund White, who has since turned out to be my good friend, reviewed “Island People” for the “New York Times” and picked out a sentence as an example of absurd writing. But this was intentional; it was Chris writing like Beatrix writing like him. But if you’re playing private jokes you can’t expect the reader to pick up all these things, even though the private jokes are the characters’ and not your own. But I had hoped . . .
JOB: And what’s wrong with such private jokes?
CD: Well, if they exceed the formality of the novel, a formality I hope will always last. It won’t be a novel if we go too far. What makes a novel for me is a particular design, to do what we can, within that design, to make people, the reader, accept what we are doing. Clearly, Edmund White did not accept what I was doing in “Island People” and so I failed, for him, at least, though it was a good review in general. But regardless of how experimental we are, we’re still trying to grab you. For the time that we are exercising that craft or witchcraft, we want to be believed, or disbelieved, if that is the form . . . many modern novels fit into this last category. In “Island People” I felt that I was floating free, with nobody to help me. I was trying to solve many problems by myself. Naturally, I believe that I succeeded.
JOB: When you decide to place a novel like “Mrs. October” in Ohio, do you think it’s necessary to know anything about Ohio?
CD: Not really. There’s a French book called “The Garden” by a writer who had never been to America, and I like it a lot. Yves Berger’s Virginia is so delicious. The aura that you get of a country from music and painting would give a much more interesting landscape, for instance, than accurately describing it. Otherwise that’s travel writing. I invented Tasmania, Ohio, in “Mrs. October.” I went into the Army from Columbus and I had family in Cleveland; that’s about all I know of Ohio. Somebody said, “Why do you hate Columbus so much?” How could I hate Columbus, I don’t know Columbus! That whole thing in “Mrs. October” was because of Columbia, the gem of the ocean, and what Christopher Columbus means to America. It could have been any city with a similar aura. But Ohio is the home of presidents and “Mrs. October” is a very political book. I think that it is a radical book. It hates everything and that’s surely radical. But if Tasmania were a real city and a major character in the book, then I had better know the city. If I were going to write about New York the way that Nelson Algren writes about Chicago, it would be to be absolutely accurate. If you’re writing about cooking or about building a chair, you had better know the materials.
JOB: Could you write if you were living some place other than New York? For instance, if you were still living in Kentucky?
CD: Kentucky is a very good place for writers to live. Many, many good writers live there. I think that I would write more books on a Long Island farm. The only book that I fully wrote in New York was the first novel. All the others were written on the farm, quite isolated. I had no friends then and wanted none. When people came, in droves, in summer, I could not write.
JOB: Do you find flaws in your novels which you could not alter without also radically changing the rest of novel? Are the flaws almost inseparable from the virtues?
CD: That’s right. Generally with me it’s a structural problem. There is one place in “Island People,” which I won’t identify for you, that is so awkward I can’t believe it. I had taken out a few hundred pages from “Island People,” the nineteenth-century section, which was a novel in itself. I had to fill in the gaps and suture up the wounds. Most of the wounds healed nicely but there was one gap I couldn’t close up; it just jars the hell out of me when I think about it. When I gave my agent the first sections of that novel she said, “Don’t you realize that you’ll never be able to take anything out? It is so tightly knit.” But that was partially solved when I took out almost all of the nineteenth century. It is the “almost” that caused the trouble, for me. But nobody’s mentioned it.
JOB: But you finally accept those flaws.
CD: I have to. I don’t think a perfect thing exists, and flawed beauty is the most interesting kind. . . . When I’m doing the galleys I get depressed because I think that I have not accomplished anything at all that I set out to do. Seeing it in print is quite different from seeing the typescript. My typescripts are very clean but there’s something about the galleys. I go into a deep state of depression. It isn’t just disappointment; I really hate them. Then the first copy of the book arrives and then I say that I will read this thing just one more time and then I say it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was.