From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1983, Vol. 3.3
What follows is an edited transcript of several conversations that I conducted with John Hawkes at Brown University on June 25, 26, and 27, 1979. These conversations were recorded in the English Department at Brown, and Hawkes talked openly and at length on several matters: remembered scenes from childhood, the geneses of his several novels, the importance of travel to his imagination, the function of ritual in his work, the archetypal symbols that found the imaginative conflicts of his artistic vision. Since the conversations took place on a fairly informal basis, it has been necessary for me to delete, modify, or reorganize much of the original transcript for the purposes of the “interview” published here; however, the tapes and transcripts of our discussions have been deposited in the John Hawkes Collection at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and are available there for review by those interested. I gratefully acknowledge the rights to reprint material from the transcripts by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and from my book, John Hawkes, Copyright 1982 by Twayne Publishers, Inc., and reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston.
I: I’d like to begin by asking you to recall any scenes from childhood that strike you as important. Or perhaps we could begin further back, with memories of your parents.
JH: I could talk a little about them. My father’s parents were Irish. Only a year before my father died, he and I went back to Ireland for a week to look at the old homestead. I had seen this place in photographs from my earliest childhood. It was a ruin on top of a high hill not far from Cork. The old gates in the photograph are still there. In the photograph is a carriage being pulled by a horse. My father’s Irish family was landed gentry. There were nine brothers, one of whom was my grandfather, and these nine brothers rode to the hounds. That, in one sense, accounts for the genesis of my interest in horses. My father was one of four brothers, all of whom were well off. If I think of my father (he was very tall), I think of him in a camel’s-hair coat. He used to tell me about the cars they had, Stutz Bearcats and the like, big automobiles with brass all over them. He was elegant, and terribly proud of his family. When he and I went back to Ireland, we went to the family plot, where on every tombstone was the crest of the family—a hawk, obviously.
I: What memories do you have of your mother and her background?
JH: I don’t know much about my mother’s family. Her father was in the banking business. My mother met my father simply because her family was vacationing in Connecticut, where my father’s family lived, and my mother and father happened to meet on the family tennis court, which I remember as being overgrown, the affluence already a thing of the past. My father was shy at the time, and one of the houses where my mother’s family was staying had a driveway that went around it. My father used to drive around the house in his car very slowly trying to get the attention of my mother.
My mother wanted very much to play tennis; she wanted, most of all, to be a singer and play the piano. These things she gave up because, in the early ’30s, after the Depression, my father went to Alaska in order to speculate. In 1935 my mother and I went with him to Alaska, when I was ten, and we stayed for five years while my father did all kinds of exploring on various bays, islands, cliffs, was reported lost, and was injured. There’s a character called Uncle Ben, I think, in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—my father’s a little bit like that. My father was tall, good looking, adventuresome and overly honest; he was taken advantage of all too often. He was also a great storyteller, and terrifically artistic. I remember he used to make tiny ship models to scale, out of wood, with a total length of, say, an inch-and-an-eighth. He loved the sea, and he drew and painted it. My mother, with her singing and piano playing, was also very artistic, but the Alaskan life was the very antithesis of the kind of world my mother should have been in.
I: You grew up in Connecticut, at the site of your father’s family home. Could you talk about your early memories of this place?
JH: In my earliest childhood, we seemed to move back and forth between New York City and Connecticut until I was about eight or ten years old. The earliest memory in Connecticut that I can think of has to do with a riding stable that abutted against the property of my grandfather. I think of the man who ran the stable, a little seventy-year-old Cockney Englishman with very bowed legs, who was very good to me . He taught me to ride. He was very tiny and had a marvelous Cockney accent—Sparrow [of The Lime Twig] must, in some sense, be related to this man. One time, on one winter day, he wanted to go in a pony-and-sleigh to a nearby town, and he took me along with him. The problem was that if we both sat on the front seat of the sleigh, it would tip up, so I had to sit in the back, on the “bed” of the sleigh. I sat there in the straw and froze to death. Whenever I think of that small event, I think of the cold, associated with the pony, associated with the blue of the night. I often think of the sounds of horses. Sometimes, as a child, I would awake in the middle of the night, perhaps with asthma or having just recovered from asthma, which always gave one a kind of high because of the sudden adrenalin and the sudden clear breath. Then I would hear the close thudding of horses. I was afraid of horses, always afraid of them or of falling off them. But I loved being with them—their smells, the dust in their coats.
I: Any other recollections of your parents or yourself during those early years in Connecticut?
JH: I remember one moment when…my father’s family had another place in Connecticut which was their summer retreat, high on a hill, exactly like the home in Ireland. And I remember my father taking my mother and myself up to see this place along a dirt road, now only a ruin, only a chimney and overgrown grass. My father was telling us, as we were walking, about the enormous platters of rich cream that the family used to have every morning with strawberries or blueberries. I should say that he was a sensual man who loved things such as thick cream, three inches deep in an enormous bowl, and hot pies. As he was telling us about these pleasures, at that very moment, in the ruin and the tall grass, I stepped on a hornets, nest and got stung. I remember my mother finding mud somehow and putting it on the sting. Years later, when our oldest child was about ten or twelve, we were on Vinalhaven, the Atlantic island of Second Skin , where we were spending a few weeks in the summer, and there was a circle of trees and dark grass, but in shadow because the trees were very dark. One of our children went down into the center of this little glen and began to hop up and down—he was stung by bees. The other children rushed in after him, and they got stung, while I was watching, unable to move. Then I had to go in to pick them up and carry them out—it was a moment before I could do even that. And, remembering my own bee-stung childhood, I got some mud which Sophie [Hawkes’s wife] and I slapped on the children.
I: You mentioned earlier your father’s move to Alaska, which must have been for you as a child a “lunar landscape.” What memories do you have of living there?
JH: When we lived in Juneau, Alaska, it was a town of about 7,000 people, and totally isolated; the only way to get to it was by ship.
I: So you felt like you were living on the frontier?
JH: Oh, absolutely. I remember that I had a paper route which used to take me up a canyon where they used to mine, and I’d deliver papers to the miners’ barracks. I had a small, silver 32- caliber revolver that I used to carry around with me, just for the pleasure of it—I liked to think that I was protecting myself, but obviously I wasn’t.
I: It sounds as if you were living out fantasies of the Wild West.
JH: I suppose. I remember seeing at night from our house, which was on the highest hill overlooking the bay and ringed in by snow-clad mountains, those miners coming down the trail with their lanterns.
Really, I didn’t like Alaska. It rained, almost every day, at least 300 days out of the year. It was very forbidding: terrifically overgrown, with such things as devil’s clubs, which were long stalks with spines on them that would leap out if you touched them. I simply didn’t like it; it was a frightening place, and it certainly was mythical—it must have had a lot to do with the source of my fiction, with the sense of rich desolation.
I: Could you expand on this a little? On Alaska as both desolate and mythical?
JH: I remember that right across from our house I could see a little town, more or less abandoned, with an abandoned mine running half-way up the mountainside, as if painted rust red, and old, horrible, rusted pieces of machinery scattered over the landscape. Our house was, in effect, on a ridge that faced the bay from the front, and in the rear it faced a bowl, at the bottom of which they made a playing field for children. At the edge of this field, down in the bowl, was a terrific river, so that, symbolically, the place was a mixture of Hades and Freudian imagery. It gave one a tremendous sense of isolation and loneliness living in this place, though only in retrospect—I don’t remember feeling lonely at the time. I remember my mother being quite valiant in being able to live there with my father gone a great deal on small boats that were always dangerous. I, myself, was interested in chemistry at the time, but only in a poetic way. I liked the idea of chemistry as magic, but I never really did anything with it. I liked to amass rocks and chemical apparatus. I was also trying to build model airplanes, like many boys, but they were never very successful—a thwarted imagination from the beginning.
I have one more memory, of an Indian with an artificial leg whom my father knew, who carved magnificent things out of ivory, and made a hunting knife which my father gave to me as a present. It had a bear on the front of it; when I think of it I remember this Indian, who was a kind of Huckleberry Finn figure. The Indians there lived in terrible poverty, in shacks right on the waterfront of the city. I was always aware of them: I remember one time seeing a piece of canvas draped, cutting off a part of the capitol building, where they were hanging an Indian outside for some crime. It was a strange, nightmarish world.
I: Where did you go when you finally left Juneau?
JH: When World War II started, my mother and I went to New York. I went to Trinity School on 91st Street for eighteen months, where my father had gone to school. My mother, who was concerned about the war and anxious about New York as a possible target, quite by accident picked the town of Pawling, New York, where she and I went. I went to the local high school there for another eighteen months, my father returned from Alaska, then I entered Harvard in the summer of 1943. I failed out very soon afterwards, partly because of the chemistry and science requirement, and then was in the army for a little while, but was discharged because of my asthma. Then I went into the American Field Service, and that really is quite a long story.
I: Perhaps we could back up a little. You once said in an interview at Muhlenberg College that “my life has been one of odd isolation and separation from a lot of the rituals and experiences that would comprise normal living.” From what you’ve been saying here, that phrase certainly seems applicable to the experienes of your early life. Upon reflection, do you think the experiences you’ve been relating reflect isolation and separation from the “rituals” of normal living?
JH: Well, the rituals of “normal living”—what could they be? They could be going through school in an uninterrupted fashion, receiving one’s diploma, going on to the next thing. My education was constantly interrupted. I moved around a great deal, had no real sense of home, except for the New England landscape. My home, if there ever was one, is that place in Connecticut that bordered a sound on the one hand, and on the other always made me aware of horses. At six, seven, eight years old I was working in the garden of this stable in order to ride free. Rituals? Of conventional dating, conventional church-going. I had to go to Sunday school once or twice in my life, and that’s where I commented someplace on hearing…
I: A trumpet in church?
JH: That’s in Alaska; I’m playing the trumpet which appears in The Passion Artist. The Sunday school I’m thinking of was in New York. I remember hearing a couple of boys in the group of children attending talking about how someone had been kicking about the street a dead baby in a gunnysack.
From an early age, at about ten on, I was trying to write my first little story. Certainly by the age of fifteen or sixteen I was writing poetry. I was not typical. Whatever typical or normal is, I was somehow separated and different. I remember posing for an absurd adolescent photograph, wearing a checked vest and a homburg hat, holding a bottle of whiskey in one arm and a cane in the other. I was imagining myself as a parody of an elegant, removed aristocrat. I was writing poetry all of that time, was never a good student, was always anxious in classes, never participated in sports, never learned to dance or went to school dances.
I: Could you talk about your early writing efforts, and when you began deciding to pursue writing as a career?
JH: I wrote lots of poetry in high school—all of it terrible. When I left to go to Harvard, I had a friend whose mother knew the poet Robert Hillier, who was at Harvard at the time, and this woman told me to take my poems to him. So I did; Hillier read all of these poems, picked out about sixteen, and suggested I have them printed myself—this resulted in Fiasco Hall. A lot of these poems reflected romantic notions about the war; I certainly thought I was probably going to be killed in the war, and I had the same romantic sensibility of some of the World War I poets -Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke. So I had these dreadful poems printed. Long after the war, I tried to destroy them by throwing them down the incinerator near our apartment in New York, but my mother luckily saved about fifty of them. Hillier told me about Hemingway’s experiences in the first war as an ambulance driver, which inspired me to join the American Field Service, thinking of myself as a poet. I used to carry about with me a German map-case filled with poems. After the Field Service, when I was back at Harvard, I was still writing poetry, and I met the poet Theodore Spencer. I remember being in his under graduate poetry-writing class with John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara—actually, O’Hara was in Albert Guerard’s fiction-writing class. Before that, I was in a freshman English composition class, and I remember a rather stocky, plump man, with a tight three-piece suit, smoking a pipe, telling me that I should never write anything again. He said this in a very remote, cold, placid way, puffing on his pipe. I was writing, as best as I can remember, a highly clotted, overwritten, overheated kind of prose. Obviously, he didn’t like it, and thought it was evidence of a lack of verbal ability of any kind. Ironically, Spencer tried to get me into Delmore Schwartz’s writing class, but it was unfortunately full.
I remember a freshman English exercise in some other class, during my first year at Harvard. It could have been in a class of Richard Stowcraft’s. He was the first person to befriend me at Harvard. At any rate, in some class the teacher gave us an exercise which I’ve used ever since. The point of it is to assume that you are somebody else, real or made up, and then you write a character sketch of yourself in the voice of this assumed guise.There was a young student in the class who lived next door to me and claimed he was a Polish count; he wore black patent leather shoes and very ragged Brooks Brothers jackets, and he was probably only seventeen. He was as sophisticated as I was naive. When I wrote this exercise, filled with self loathing, I took his personality and his voice as the media through which I attacked myself and my own weaknesses. That schizophrenic act was probably my first real fictive effort, written in 1943.
I: Given your movement from poetry to fiction, have you ever felt, as Thomas Hardy was said to do, that writing fiction is a substitute for writing poetry, something he could do, but not as “high” as poetry?
JH: When I started writing fiction, I knew how good it was immediately. I knew that I would continue to write fiction, and at that moment, that I had not written a truly genuine poem in my life, or at most one—a couple of my poems were published in The Harvard Advocate. Once I started to write prose, I certainly did not envy the poets. I’ve mocked poets and poetry ever since I began writing fiction. I was with William Gass and John Barth in Germany recently, and I heard Gass talking marvelously about how, in our age, fiction has taken over much of the function of poetry. I’ve always resented what we could call biographical poetry, though I gather from a teacher’s or a good poet’s point of view that it is amongst the best poetry written in the twentieth century. It isn’t that I want any of Joyce’s godlike Omniscience, it’s just that I want whatever one creates out of words to be so clearly something made, so clearly an artifice, artificial. I want prose fiction to be recognized as that, and I’m not interested in writing as it becomes more personal.
I: You’ve talked in previous interviews of your realization, while working on a dam in Montana, that you were going to make a career of writing. Can you expand here on what was happening at that time to encourage that decision?
JH: It’s very hard to draw out that decision from the moment when I was sitting in Montana with my feet in a bucket of potassium permanganate [the result of Hawkes’s incurring a severe case of athlete’s foot, an interesting incident recounted in “Hawkes and Barth Talk about Their Fiction,” New York Times Book Review, 1 April 1979, pp. 7, 31-33] reading a book that Sophie had given me, realizing that I didn’t like it, and suddenly thinking that I could write something better, asking her for a pencil and paper, and just beginning to write, immediately doing to our parents, without admitting it to myself, what I had done to myself in that earlier self-parodic sketch. I never was aware of any connections between events; it simply was a leap. At the verge of being married [John and Sophie Hawkes were engaged at this time] I suddenly found a tremendous detachment or distance from the allegorical figures of ourselves and our parents. And I cast them all in a comic light, dripping with anxiety and the fear of life, making fun of the fear of life.
Then, I went back to Harvard with half of this [Charivari] written. I saw Theodore Spencer and wanted to show him the prose, and he said to go see Albert Guerard. There were about 150 people trying to got into his class. I showed him a poem, though I had forty or fifty pages of Charivari, which I gave him in manuscript soon afterwards. When the class list went up and my name was on it, I was elated. In the first meeting of the class, I saw a young man wearing a trench coat and was immediately offended because he looked like what I imagined a writer to be. After some preliminaries, Guerard said that one of the manuscripts submitted by the group was certainly going to be published and published soon, and I thought, “Oh, God, it’s the man in the trench coat.” Then he read us a passage, and I recognized my own words coming from his mouth; it was quite a wonderful experience.
Still, it’s interesting that I can’t account for how Charivari came into existence. It’s interesting that at the most important moment of my life, just when I was about to get married and was feeling enormously pleased with life, I found myself pleasurably attacking the very figures closest to this moment. I don’t really understand it. Why does one make fun of oneself at the moment of being involved in an essential ritual? Sophie and I were in an inferno; that landscape was a burned, blasted, mosquito ridden world, full of ritualistic, mythic elements. There were abandoned villages where thousands of workers used to be housed, lying in remnants all over the place. We hated being there, but we loved being with each other. It was idyllic, in the middle of the worst mosquitoes in the world. At that time, I exercised a power, I just liked doing it, and then I began to love the words as I was using them; I knew I was doing something right, and Sophie knew it too. We discarded the first few pages; after that, Charivari became itself, and I don’t think I revised it much later. On the night before we were married, all of the anxiety in the world came down upon me. That night as I was going to sleep alone, I remember this terrible, tremendous sense of anxiety coming because I had made a choice, and I knew that forever after what was to come depended on this choice. I didn’t for a moment doubt the choice, but if life is ever fearsome, it is truly fearsome then. The next day, I found it very hard to go through the actual ceremony—I think Sophie was holding on to me very tightly to help me stand up. Then we left on some marvelous train to Chicago and New York.
All of this I’ve been saying about the beginning of my career as a writer—what is behind it has always been powerful and full of opposites.
I: You mentioned Albert Guerard as the teacher with whom you completed your first work of fiction. How did he inspire your beginning career? How has your relationship with him paralleled, if it has, your development as a writer?
JH: I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere, but maybe never quite at length or in enough detail, exactly how privileged I was two years after the Second World War when I met Sophie, when we married, when I began to write fiction, and when I met Albert Guerard. I haven’t conveyed what it meant to be a student of Guerard, which I was, for two years. Guerard, at this time, was probably in his early thirties, but to me he was an awesome figure. He was quite formidable, quite authoritarian, extremely knowledgeable, a novelist himself, and he had so suddenly and abruptly praised my fiction at the outset in such a way as to give me real confidence. I had confidence to start with, but it was the confidence of innocence. Guerard gave an informed confidence; he treated my work in such a way that I knew it was good, serious, different, and publishable. The point of being Guerard’s student, among other things, was that from the first instance, especially when I began The Cannibal, on Christmas, 1947, finishing it about nine months later, Guerard reacted meticulously. Not merely marginal, sentence-by-sentence comments—he wrote me long, typed comments. I’ve never known any other teacher like Guerard; I think now, and certainly felt so at the time, that he knows more about the creative process and about fiction than anyone in the United States. He was a remarkable presence, in that he was always able to indicate where my own detachment was beginning to fail, where my distance from the material was beginning to collapse, so that I was becoming involved in those materials in such a way as to cause the language to break down, to become clotted. Guerard helped me to maintain a consistent and a proper distance while narrating. Also, the class was terribly exciting. It was small, twelve students or so, and they were extremely good students, generally older because of the war. It was Guerard who did suggest when The Cannibal was completed that I take all of the 1914 sections and put them in the middle so that the novel was in three parts, rather than alternating the 1945 and 1914 sections. The only literature courses I took at Harvard were a Chaucer course, which meant a great deal to me, two courses of Harry Levin’s in which I was quite at sea (nevertheless, they were courses in Elizabethan literature, and they did have a value for me), and several of Guerard’s fiction courses, where I really began to read. My reading life began and, in a sense, ended with Guerard during those two years. I learned a great deal simply as a student in his lecture courses.
I: How has Guerard continued to affect your career?
JH: Through The Lime Twig (that is, 1961, and I had met him in 1947), he was a powerful influence. I showed all of my work to him; he was willing and eager to read all of it. The Lime Twig reflects the most important relationship we had after The Cannibal. I wrote the first draft in a summer, sent him the manuscript in Europe, and he sent it back saying “Jack, this is deplorable; it’s a good idea, but poorly conceived and written, and you’ll have to start over again.” It was thanks to Guerard, of course, that I got published in the first place. In 1948, Guerard was in Paris and met James Laughlin, whom he knew already, and told Laughlin about my work. Somehow, in the summer of 1948, I got a note from Laughlin, from a Parisian bar where he and Guerard had conversed about my work, written in tissue paper, asking me to send my work to him. Later, Albert and Maclin Guerard arranged for Sophie and me to meet Laughlin on one occasion in Boston. So that my wife, mentor-teacher, and mentor-publisher all came together at that precise moment in my life when I was twenty-two or twenty-three. If I thought my childhood and adolescence weren’t very inspiring or happy, certainly by the time of my early manhood I really had a direction that was extremely well defined. The first half of my college life was deplorable; in the second half, I was on the dean’s list and began to get “A”s. Once I started to do well creatively with Guerard, I then became something of a student. Because of my father’s dislocated life, I knew intuitively that I wanted to have as few jobs as possible by the time I was married. I didn’t know what kind of jobs, because how was I prepared? At best, I would be an AB in English. But I knew I wanted to do something and not change it. So luckily, through Guerard again, I got a job at the Harvard University Press and I worked there for six years; I was writing all during that time, from 1949 to 1955.
I: During those years when you were working for the Press, you wrote The Goose on the Grave, The Owl, and The Beetle Leg. How did you manage to work full time and write also?
JH: I wrote at night. When Jack, our first child, was born, I was writing The Owl and I remember getting up very early in the morning, writing, then going to work. My life at the Harvard University Press was a good one: I became the assistant to the production manager. Sophie [who also worked for the Press] designed books and book jackets, and I ended up being responsible for the cost control of manufacturing the books. It was a good job, and I liked it very much indeed. All this time, Guerard had been getting me back into his classes for ten minutes at a time, or visiting a writing class to read from my work. The first important moment after I graduated and started working for the Press was when Guerard asked me to give a ten-minute lecture at the end of one of his own lectures. It was a large lecture course, and I was frightened to death at the thought, but I wrote it and immensely enjoyed those ten-minutes’ worth of words. It had dimly been in my mind that I would like to teach, but I simply gave up the hope because it seemed utterly impossible. I think it was Guerard’s wife, Maclin, who, as strongly as he, wanted me to be a teacher. I realized later that Guerard’s constantly bringing me into his classes couldn’t have been totally unconscious. I think he was waiting and hoping for some moment when I might be able to get a job at Harvard, and that’s what happened. A man who taught writing died, and Guerard got me his job—a one-year appointment to teach writing, the beginning of my actual career. So I’ve only had three jobs: six years at the Harvard University Press, three years teaching writing at Harvard, and twenty years teaching at Brown.
I: Has Guerard continued to support and criticize your work, even after you both left Harvard, and he went west to Stanford?
JH: Up through The Lime Twig, I’ve told you how instrumental he was in everything I did, and he’s always remained important, but in a less explicit way. Beginning with Second Skin, I was reluctant and partly afraid to ask my mentor for his approval of my work. That was the first manuscript I published without Guerard’s pre-reading. I know he likes Second Skin a great deal, as he teaches it all the time. I don’t think he likes the next two novels all that much; my feeling is that he thinks The Blood Oranges is, in some ways, a falling off. But he liked Travesty a great deal, and thought of it as a classic French novel, which pleased me enormously because, since Second Skin, my fiction has depended on France. The reason that we first went to France was because Guerard, himself, is partly French. When he and Maclin returned from one of their trips abroad, they brought Sophie and me a copy of The Cannibal bound in hand-tooled leather and those ornate, rosecolored papers that the French use. So France was a world that Guerard represented, though I didn’t expect to know it personally or concretely. We were finally able to go to France, and a great deal has come of it—three or four novels now.
The first so-called conventional novel that I remember enjoying was Gide’s The Immoralist. I remember Albert’s copy of The Immoralist at that time, with its black binding and yellow spine. I remember reading that novel in translation and admiring enormously its pure prose and its hurtful vision—I’ve always had that novel in mind. Guerard is important, then, for career, for an actual place, France, and for writing—all these he gave me as a student, and I remained a student through at least 1961. James Laughlin’s importance to me is very similar. From the very beginning, he recognized my work and supported it. It’s interesting to me that he began his life at Harvard at about eighteen, and the most important thing for him was wanting, suddenly, to publish a little book. He was working on The Harvard Advocate and got the type for a story, had the printer rearrange the type so that that he could be printed on small pages, and thus made the first New Directions book. He was later a protege of Gertrude Stein’s and that is how he got into the world of letters; you know what a contribution he’s made to it. From 1949 until the present, he has been a friend and a supporter, always sustaining me with letters, helping me in any way possible, inviting Sophie, myself, and our children out to his ranch in Wyoming, spiritually and literally helping me to keep writing. I can’t imagine anyone in a more fortunate position than myself, with my relationships to my wife, Guerard, and Laughlin.
I: You’ve spoken in several interviews about the geneses of some of your novels—an article on cannibalism that inspired The Cannibal, a newspaper story on horse racing in England that inspired The Lime Twig, a trip to two islands that served as the source for Second Skin. It seems that your novels are motivated by what Henry James called ‘germs”: seemingly small events or snatches of conversation upon which the imagination works, creating an entire fictional world from a corpuscular beginning. Could you talk about these beginnings, for some of your fictions?
JH: I haven’t said enough about how important horses were to the inception of The Lime Twig The first draft of the novel was written in one summer, and I remember going to a newsstand in Cambridge and finding a magazine on horse racing—that was, perhaps, my first moment of research. Also, my father’s best friend was a steward for the New York racetrack system, and I knew this man and his family from a very early age. I associate with them memories of handsome engravings of nineteenth-century racehorses, sometimes with jockeys on them, sometimes not. Though I loved horses and was intrigued by the idea of horse racing, I had never actually seen one when I was working on the first draft of The Lime Twig. Then I was at a party where I met the poet, J. V. Cunningham. We were talking, and I mentioned horse racing. Cunningham said that he went down to the Narragansett racetrack all the time, so he invited me to go down with him and bet. He made a lot of money, but he wouldn’t give me any tips, so I lost my two dollars immediately. But the one thing I got out of the experience was going down to the rail of the track, along a turn. By standing next to the rail as the horses went by, I could hear the jockeys talking to each other and thwacking the riding crops against the rumps of the great beasts—that impression is in The Lime Twig.
I: You mentioned that the parody of marriage in Charivari is a result of attitudes you were projecting toward your parents and your own marriage at the time of its writing. Is there any carry-over of this attitude in The Lime Twig in the parody of the Bankses’ marriage?
JH: In The Lime Twig I took two very young people and made them very old. The only constant I can see in both sets of characters, starting from the man and woman in Charivari to the pair in The Lime Twig, is that innocence is immediately a dominant theme, along with anxiety and dream. As in The Lime Twig dream and illusion are right at the center of Charivari.
I: I think the greatest gap between publications of your work is that which exists between the appearance of The Owl and The Goose on the Grave in 1954, and The Lime Twig in 1961. Is there any particular reason for the gap? Was the conception or drafting of The Lime Twig especially difficult in any way?
JH: I wrote the first draft of The Lime Twig in 1955, then taught two more years at Harvard, and I was still tinkering with the novel when we came to Brown in 1958. I really can’t explain why it was so difficult to write. As I told you, Guerard did not like the first draft, then Sophie and I worked on it by cutting it apart and making charts, which we had also done with The Beetle Leg. The fact that it took six years before it came out has something to do with very slow revising, going into teaching, being at Harvard and then moving to Brown, which was very disruptive. The reconceiving and revision of The Lime Twig were extensive: I took characters out, I took out scenes, I added Hencher I had to revise it considerably, sentence by sentence. James Laughlin then suggested a gloss for the reader in the novel, which was ironic, because Albert Guerard had thought that The Cannibal needed a gloss, as in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I abandoned that idea but when Laughlin raised it for The Lime Twig quite independently, I thought it was good because it added an extra perspective to the novel, and I could ridicule the speaker, I could mock that narrator. In a sense, that idea, which resulted in the presence of Slyter in the novel, heightened its ironic qualities considerably. The Hencher section of the novel came next to last, then the Sidney Slyter column was written last. I didn’t feel any urgency in writing, and I didn’t feel anything unusual about this novel. I worked on it as I could, and it simply took a long time.
I: Second Skin, published in 1964, seems to have come easier—is that true?
JH: Second Skin underwent a metamorphosis over several years. I began to write something that didn’t work, “The Nearest Cemetery.” Then a friend of ours committed suicide. He was a Greek American, and a fellow of tremendous humor and aptitude, perhaps more as a sculptor than a writer. His suicide changed Second Skin tremendously, as well as the realization that I was attempting in “The Nearest Cemetery” an interior monologue at a pitch I couldn’t sustain. But the story generated the notion of an island. At this time I knew another man, a friend of ours, whose daughter was having emotional problems. So I decided that maybe I could make a fiction out of a New England island with a central character, an older man, whose daughter had emotional problems, the older man trying to get his daughter out of the trap of emotional disability, but unable to do so. That was how I saw the novel up until the moment we left Providence to go to Grenada, an island in the West Indies where I wrote the novel. The suicide of my friend was close to our departure, and this gave the novel its central theme of suicide. It allowed me to arrange the dramatic relationship between father and daughter with much more clarity and power. Suicide was a serious theme I could work with which had a lot of dramatic actuality to it, so the novel changed: it became about a man who is trying to save his daughter from suicide.
I: Was your friend an artist?
JH: Yes, Stevie Stavrolakes. Death, Sleep & the Traveler is titled after a piece of sculpture he did.
I: Is that sculpture captured in the image on the cover of the novel?
JH: Oh, no. Stavrolakes’ sculpture is not available—I think none of his work is available. The piece “Death, Sleep & the Traveler” was carved out of wood and very abstract. There were two figures leaning away from each other, with a third figure suspended, like a hammock, in the middle, carried by the other two. So death and sleep are carrying the traveler. It’s a very powerful, lovely piece of work, and I’m disappointed that it’s not available.
I: Is this sculpture the genesis of Death, Sleep & the Traveler?
JH: Partially. Sophie and I had gone to Greece after the publication of The Blood Oranges with our youngest child, Richard, and we planned to spend our whole summer there, but we had a lot of troubles. It was a wretched place—we went to Lesbos—a terrible place. So we fled. Out of that, and a newspaper story Sophie told me about concerning a Dutch crew member on a ship, the novel grew. The story was about a Dutch sailor who was accused of the murder of a rich female passenger on board, who had simply disappeared. They decided that he had thrown her overboard, so there was a trial, during which they found the woman’s journal. There was something in the journal to suggest that perhaps the woman was unstable enough to exonerate the sailor. His wife also testified at the trial on his behalf. However, when he was acquitted, his wife left him. Now I liked that story a lot, and I remember thinking about it before we went to Lesbos. There we met a Dutch couple, a very young rare book dealer and his new bride who played ping pong all day long. And his name was, I think, Allert. I had also known briefly in San Francisco a Dutch critic named Vanderveen, a remarkable man, probably in his forties, with an extremely young wife and a daughter who seemed much younger than her mother. So this man was in a rather luxurious position. I took his name, added the last “an,” and reversed things—gave him a hard life instead of a good life. I think many of the figures of my novels—Skipper and Sonny, Cyril and Hugh, Allert—are, in some sense or other, benign or malignant versions of the artist.
When Sophie told me the story about the ship, I couldn’t use it. It was a totally realistic story. I thought about it and dismissed it, but then it would always come back to mind. The trip to Greece, for some reason or other—the sight of the water, the feeling of deadness in the little town where we stayed for a little while on the island of Lesbos—somehow they shocked me. We got home on a Friday, and by Monday I was writing. I had the narrator created and I decided to use dreams consciously in the fiction. I knew I was going to write three kinds of dreams. One kind would be actual dreams of my own. Another would be invented dreams, and a third would be episodes from my life that I could phrase as dreams . It gave me an odd, curious pleasure to know that there was a wealth of material on creativity in these dreams, but that no one would ever be able to know which dreams were mine.
I: Does Travesty begin out of a similar series of associations between disparate memories or events?
JH: Very similar. I was beginning a year abroad with nothing to write, and we were in Brittany for the summer, getting ready for the year in Venice. I found Camus’s novel, The Fall, in English, in the farmhouse where we stayed, and read it. I had never read it before; I had looked at it when it was first published, and as soon as I saw that it was a monologue, I gave it up. In France I read the book and became interested in it—I think it raises a lot of problems. Then I saw an automobile accident, remembered Camus’s idea that you can’t really live unless you answer the question “why not suicide?” and suddenly the novel came together. It is a travesty of The Fall, as it takes the content of Camus’s novel as far as it will go—suicide, or murder, or failure in terms of suicide. In that sense, the book is actually an homage to Camus, as Heide pointed out [the reference is to Professor Heide Ziegler, a German Hawkes critic who has done extensive work on Hawkes’s conception of irony].
In the middle of writing the novel, I realized that it and the two preceding novels [The Blood Oranges and Death, Sleep & the Traveler] were related in a descent to comic lyricism, in which I thought of Hugh as a kind of Malvolio. By the time you get to Travesty, it is really Hugh who is narrating and driving the car, and it is the Cyril-Allert figure who is sitting beside him. To me, the Hugh figure who is driving ingests his formal role as artist into his personality—he is, I think, the closest I’ve come to creating the character of an artist or a man whose entire being is committed to the imagination.
I: To the extreme possibilities of the imagination?
JH: Yes. The only reason I thought of suicide was to tax the imagination to its utmost. I wanted to imagine what I knew could not be imagined—the extension of death, the cessation of life.
I: How did you begin writing The Passion Artist?
JH: A year ago, Sophie and Richard and I were again in the south of France and I had nothing to write, just the echo of a thought a friend of mine had raised in passing. I had said to her that the interior of the human being was a cesspool, and she said, ‘Well how do you know it isn’t a bed of stars?” And that pair of possibilities stuck with me. Still, I was at a loss about what to write; then I met a man at a literary conference whom I so detested that I realized I could use him as the central figure in a novel. And I remembered a paragraph from The Cannibal, when the women from the village go to the institution to put down the rebellion. I decided I would do that aver again—make an entire novel out of that one little passage. Then I recalled the source of the passage in The Cannibal, a story my father had told me: he had, himself, volunteered to join a group of guardsmen who went into a women’s prison to put down a rebellion. As soon as I thought of that, I knew I would try to write a story about a man whose mother is in prison for murdering his father, a man who, even though he is a widower, knows nothing about women and is hostile to them. By the end of the novel the women’s rebellion has succeeded, the protagonist is a hostage, and learns from his mother and her best friend something about the nature of women. This was a very hard, painful novel to write. Sophie says that it lays bare the horrors of the masculine mind. I told my editor that, and it has now become the last line of the jacket copy.
I: From all you’ve said, it sounds as if you constantly feel that you have to be working on something.
JH: But that’s not true. If we go back, in 1963-64 I worked on Second Skin, while I was away from Brown. The Blood Oranges was begun in the south of France. Both Travesty and The Passion Artist were written during years off from Brown. My point is that fiction writing is for me so intense, so difficult a matter, that I can’t sustain it for very long. I prefer to do the work of writing fiction in a single period of time, and then have the relief of coming back to teaching, which then, itself, becomes very intense. Then I want to get away from teaching and get back to writing, so I’ve got a kind of cycle that seems to work. Now, for the first time in my life, I have a vague idea of what I want to write when we are next off, which is going to be in 1980-81. It will be a comic novel, hopefully about some sort of eroticism—maybe a parody of a pornographic novel [The reference is to what would become Virginie: Her Two Lives, published in 1982].
I: Can you say which of your fictions gave you the most trouble to write?
JH: The Lime Twig and The Beetle Leg were obviously most difficult to write in that they didn’t come out very well in their first drafts. Somehow, though, I don’t think of those revisions as involving much real difficulty or pain. I had quite a lot of trouble with The Blood Oranges. There are certain parts of that novel when I couldn’t see where it could go and found it very difficult to write, even when we were in an absolutely idyllic spot in Greece. It was a hard novel, but I think the last two [Travesty and The Passion Artist] were the most difficult novels. I think I came the closest to dangerous personal involvement in both those novels. None of these fictions, from Second Skin on, underwent much revision. But Travesty and The Passion Artist came out of a real desperation in questioning my own imagination, whether I had used it up. Of course I don’t believe that; intellectually, the imagination could not be used up. I suppose self, the brain, psyche, and the imagination could be destroyed cell by cell through drugs. But as long as we have our physical being, there is no such thing as the imagination being used up, because the imagination is infinite, it makes up its own materials. I suppose a person could become so psychologically depressed or remote or unrewarded as to be dead in his life, so that he wouldn’t be interested in the imagination—he would forget it and wouldn’t use it. But that’s not using up its materials—an impossibility, as I see it.
I: I’d like to go back to something you said earlier about your “triad” [The Blood Oranges, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, and Travesty] embodying a lyric descent. Could you discuss what you mean by that term, or how you perceive the structure of the triad?
JH: I suppose that my structuring consciousness is evident in the triad. I think of The Blood Oranges as the poetry of the imagination; I take the middle one, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, as the artist’s descent into his unconscious, and I take Travesty as the final statement on the relationship between the imagination, death, and sexuality. I didn’t write those three novels intentionally as a triad of fictions, but as I said, discovered their relation ship to each other while writing Travesty.
I: They all seem to involve versions of the artist. Do you see Cyril in The Blood Oranges as a pastoral artist in his lyric landscape?
JH: In that novel, the artist is presented through Cyril, the benign, the joyous imaginer, but also through Hugh, the darker spirit, maimed and injured. I had Twelfth Night in mind to a certain extent when I wrote the novel, and Ford’s The Good Soldier. So I thought of Hugh and Cyril as two versions of the same character. Then, in Death, Sleep & the Traveler, the central character is endowed with all the negative qualities of Hugh, but he’s benign, he’s a suffering man who appears to be perfectly normal. I think he’s a version of the two characters put together—Cyril and Hugh—except, of course, there’s still a clear pairing in the novel. Just as we have Cyril and Hugh, here we have Allert and Peter, the psychiatrist who is an alter ego of Allert, and is a safe and ruthless embodiment of what Allert is suffering. Then the wireless operator is just a shade of Peter. Both characters are subjecting Allert to the agony of what he doesn’t really know, the combination of death and a total loss of the imagination. He’s taking a night sea journey, and in a sense it’s the reverse of the progression in The Blood Oranges. By the time we get to Travesty, again we have two men, but they are deliberately and obviously a single character. Papa, the poet, drives the car, and his less sensitive, less imaginative poet-self, the passenger, learns what it is to imagine.
I: I find the comparisons between The Blood Oranges and Twelfth Night or The Good Soldier interesting, Can you say more specifically about how Shakespeare and Ford influenced your novel?
JH: There is the epigraph to Ford’s The Good Soldier which is in the front of The Blood Oranges, asking can there never be any terrestrial paradise. It is the desire for a terrestrial paradise, or immortality, or harmony and total beauty that are as much a part of my imaginative needs as the necessity of coping with the cruelest, most deformed, defamed aspects of life. I’m a very lyrical person as well as a maker of nightmares; that is why I’m so drawn to Ford’s novel. There he portrays the impossibility of sexual relationships that go beyond monogamy, but also the utter impossibility of two people loving each other. In Ford’s book, that state which we consider normal and conventional in our lives is denied the fictional characters. The only thing that exists is torment, lyricism, and the magnificence of language. So The Blood Oranges derives from The Good Soldier, except that in my novel the ending is circular, and in that, after the catastrophe of Hugh’s accidental death and Fiona’s leaving with the children, Cyril and Catherine have been symbolically married in the boat-launching scene, and are beginning a new married relationship.
I: But isn’t it a sexless relationship?
JH: Not at all. At the moment the boat is launched, the two of them are together looking at the genitals of the old man on the stern of the boat as this white, virginal ship goes into the sea. The four characters of the novel are actually two: the male figures are the benign and malignant versions of the artist; the female figures are the mother and Aphrodite. They switch places, so that Fiona leaves to become a symbolic mother, and Catherine remains to become a lover, I hate the word “optimism,” and I don’t like to deal with such words as “affirmation,” but certainly The Blood Oranges is a different book than The Good Soldier, in that it is circular and points to a new life.
I: Also, the narrator, Cyril, seems more knowledgeable, as absurd as he some times is, about the potential for failure or death than the narrator of The Good Soldier.
JH: Oh, much more so. I made Cyril a comic character because it’s impossible for me to imagine the perfect man. But he is a projection of what I would really like to be; I would like us all to be versions of the sex-singer. However, I have much more of myself invested in Hugh. When I tried to teach The Blood Oranges in one of my classes, a student was outraged: he thought I was trying to make fun of the sexual victim. I was deeply disturbed, because I tried to make the novel sympathetic to Hugh. It does ridicule and lacerate him, but that’s just what I was doing to myself as a freshman in college when I adopted the persona of the guy next door, and then attacked myself. In Twelth Night Shakespeare never relents on Malvolio; he is forever punished for his ludicrous, distorted, inhuman ideas of love and his terrible vanity. My novel is filled with an honoring of Hugh, even though he is the evildoer, the nay-sayer, the harbinger of sexual and real death. Still, he is an artist, perhaps of the wrong kind, but one I feel increasingly sympathetic toward. By the way, I am interested in the idea that, in Twelfth Night Shakespeare dismantles Viola’s personality, projects it into a series of personae that are both male and female, and then, by the end of the play, reintegrates Viola, who is wholly herself again.
I: In the next novel, Death, Sleep & the Traveler, how is the descent from Cyril’s lyrical world portrayed?
JH: It was inevitable that, having reached the lyrical pitch of The Blood Oranges, I would have to go back to the dark realm again, back toward the cesspool. I didn’t consciously take the Cyril and Hugh versions and transpose them into Allert and Peter, but somehow that happened. By the time of Death, Sleep & the Traveler, Cyril, the invulnerable sex-singer, has the crippled state of Hugh. Allert is wounded, though he tends to keep his wounds within himself. He seems quite isolated from all the world around him; he’s a man without motivation. He doesn’t know where he’s going; that ship he’s on, obviously, is not going to any recognizable place. He’s a version of the lyrical, larger-than-life singer who doesn’t sing, who is beginning to act out the warmth, the fear, the lyrical stuff of sexuality in a context of its hurt, nothingness, and silence. If he is a kind of container of the Hugh/Malvolio wreckages, he’s also an integrator of them, since he’s the one who, without any hesitation whatsoever, removes the excrement from Peter’s dead body. Allert is comfortable with what other people would be afraid of.
In a way, the world of The Blood Oranges is an island because it is isolated from everything else around it. By the time of Death , Sleep & the Traveler, that island-world has become a very small place in the midst an endless ocean, really two islands containing two kinds of life. On the first island we see a family so harmonious as to deny sexuality, even in their nudity. Only Allert, I think, is able to be involved with the erotic, asexual life on that island. In a sense, he gets his revenge on the Hugh figure, the sexual antagonist, when the wireless operator gets sunburned, while Allert, though a psychic cripple, is experiencing the very essence of life in the water with Ariane. That first island is small, unrealistic, and it polarizes ordinary life against mythic life. It gets abstracted into the second island of the goats, the past. Illyria, whether it’s Skipper’s tropical island or Cyril’s “island,” becomes, in Death, Sleep & the Traveler only and finally, a place where goats live eternally, without humans. It’s the goats Ariane plays to, the Sedar or Pan figures who, by then, have been condensed or reduced to singleness—Pan with no humans, no love; it’s an emblem.
I: Of totally mythicized sexuality and existence?
JH: Yes, I think so. And by the end, Allert has taken a journey into the very center of himself, which is the world of the dead, and has experienced the most profound kind of relationship to death, because lie has to kill the person who is, for him, perfection—musical, human, physical—an embodiment of total generosity and love. She is a singer at home with the skulls of dead goats. Maybe Allert is the Minotaur that she can save people from.
After finishing that novel, I tried to take the Malvolio figure and endow it with the mind, lucidity, and richness of expression of a Cyril, as if Hugh had become an Ariane. Travesty is a novel that is trying to be most precise in bringing the conflicts between death, sexuality, the imagination, and marriage to their apotheosis. And the island, I guess, has disappeared, but not the sun. Even though it’s a night drive, the sun is there.
I: Do any of these linkages present in the triad carry over to The Passion Artist?
JH: I suppose there, not only was I doing The Cannibal over again, but was also doing Allert over again. In so doing, I’ve tried to be, more than ever, faithful to the underground world that, as Albert Guerard has pointed out, becomes increasingly conscious in my fiction. The novel is a conscious effort to create a landscape that is a version of the unconscious. In all the previous landscapes, characters, or impulses, the concern was with sexual death and destruction; here, the coin turns over, and the opposite side is revealed as the two absolutely necessary aspects of the imagination appear. In The Passion Artist all of the crippledness of The Cannibal and everything else I’ve written is concentrated in one figure who has almost nothing to redeem himself, except that his life must, in some way, relate to our own deepest, unconscious fears and desires. As the normal world of this unpleasant man becomes unhinged, and he begins to move into a world that is predominantly female, he makes a journey that is, somehow, a recapitulation of the world of The Cannibal. I don’t think with death and sexual fear, the power of women or female characters in this context of imprisonment, masculine domination, and ultimate female liberation—I don’t think I could do it in any better form than I have in The Passion Artist.
I: So this is a definite breaking away from the movement seen in the triad?
JH: Well, the triad seemed to come to an end with the artist as consciously undertaking to render most intensely the unimaginable. In The Passion Artist, the artist is without consciousness: he’s supposedly normal; his life is unsexual, even though he has a daughter. The world of this banal figure is suddenly, totally disrupted and violated when the imprisoned women revolt and take it over. For the first time in my life I’ve tried to include significant female characters, and though they are not rendered with anything like the detail or extensiveness of the protagonist, at least I was aware that I wanted to write about women. These characters do function; the mother tells her stories.
So now that I’ve got all the “death-stuff” presumably confined to The Passion Artist, I want to do the reverse and see how close I can come to the lyricism of The Blood Oranges. I’d like to create a larger, panoramic fiction which would be, hopefully, a parody of a pornographic novel. I’d like to write a novel that has much more to do with explicit sexuality and with the invention of different worlds in history. I want to try to create, if I can, at least one believable female character. [Hawkes is referring here to his projections for what would become Virginie: Her Two Lives.] I: As you were talking about the beginnings of your novels, I was struck once more about the importance of travel, not only to the actual processes of your writing, but as a thematic concern in much of your work. Do you have a philosophy of travel? Can you talk about its importance to your creativity?
JH: For me, traveling is not a matter of escape. I think I started out having some feeling about travel because of the distance created by abrief existence in a foreign landscape which, when you’re removed from it, can become a starting place for imagined worlds. From the beginning, I was always writing about a world either that I had briefly visited or that I had made up. I never have had a directly autobiographical fictive impulse. I was never interested in rendering my own life, or the lives of people I knew best. Most first novels, as we know, tend to be heavily autobiographical. It’s as if the first novelist’s concern is with the life he thinks he knows, grounded in his personal experience and in a particular world. I never had a world like that, but I had a whole series of brief experiences in different countries by the time I came to write Charivari and The Cannibal. From the time I was writing The Cannibal, I knew I wanted to be creating landscapes that were different from any world I knew personally. I had a simple theory of detachment: that if one could find a landscape which, in some way or other, without the writer necessarily being conscious of it, could touch off psychological themes, that would provide the energy and even the subject matter of a fiction. I as trying to find, or happened to be exposed to such landscapes. I knew that I wanted, emotionally and literally, to be very separated from what I was writing about. I knew that what I was writing about was so emotionally charged or cathected, that only considerable detachment would make it possible to write the fiction in the first place. Every novel is somehow related to a brief, intense moment of existence in a foreign landscape which then gets elaborated upon or becomes the germ for a new world. In a sense, my writing is a real life acting out of a theory or a metaphor–the metaphor of distance.
I: Do you see yourself at all in the tradition of American writers who have exiled themselves from their native land for aesthetic purposes, because America didn’t seem to be a rich enough location or fertile enough ground for the nurturing of imagined worlds?
JH: No, not at all. It has never occurred to me, for example, to question whether America is something to write about. I’m not interested in it. I’ve written two fictions which have something to do with America, The Beetle Leg and Second Skin. I didn’t write them because of any particular need d to write about America, and I didn’t write about Italy, Germany, England, France, Greece–all made up, in a sense–because I thought there wasn’t anything to write about America. I wrote about them because, from the very onset, a coincidence of movement, a lot of travel with my parents, and going to Europe established a pattern related to an idea of distance. I wanted to make up worlds, and I wanted to be distant enough to control these worlds authoritatively, superbly. I do not feel an exile from America in any sense. I don’t think there’s any question of America being an impoverished source for my fiction, because I’ve never been interested in writing particularly about American or European life; I’m only interested in the novels themselves. Partly from coincidence, partly from choice, finally out of theory, I’ve determined that I would always prefer to be outside the United States when I write fiction. I expect to use brief incidences, brief images or totems–sudden glimpses of a goat on a hillside–to find the particular psychic source of subject matter and energy for a novel. As you know, I’m only interested in fiction that in some way or other voices the very imagination which is conceiving it.
I: In 1968, you had a Rockefeller grant, and went to France and Greece. Perhaps it is because these are the places you’ve been to, but it seems that southern, Mediterranean climates are symbolic in your work. I was wondering if you had anything to say about this, because you have said that you might want to retire to Greece or France, and you seem strongly attracted to these places.
JH: Isn’t there a Keatsian line about a beaker-full of the warm south? Yes, I think that I must have been psychically drawn to the sun when I went to Grenada. The Mediterranean world is simply the opposite of the night world. I like to spend time in these Mediterranean or sun drenched worlds, whereas I would not want to spend much time in any landscape that had to do with the more nightmarish aspects of my fiction. I like peace, tranquility, wine, goats, or just ordinary life, as here in Providence, which is very quiet, yet interesting because of the students. I’m drawn either to the tranquility or the volatile quality of the sun-world, as an opposite of the materials I was, at first, writing about. If I was writing about sexual death as an analogue of real death, if I was writing about all the cruelties, barbarism, and peculiarities of being human, as I started to do with Second Skin, then the possibility of creating a rich, sun-drenched world allowed me to turn the coin over.
I: Looking over your comments on childhood, I notice that you remark you did not have a strict religious upbringing, which brings about a sense of ritual in a lot of people, and that you passed over the “usual” initiatory rites of childhood. Yet your work is filled with the form and power of ritual. Where do you think this sense of ritual, which could almost be said to structure your novels, comes from?
JH: I don’t really know. But for some reason your question makes me think of something that seems unrelated. I was talking to a few friends the other night while making ailloli, garlic mayonnaise. It’s hard to make, with a mortar and pestle, and you have to beat it for a long time. I was doing this, pouring in the olive oil drop by drop then whipping the mixture, when I suddenly found myself telling a story. I recalled two images or events from my Alaskan life that relate to my ideas about sexuality and the imagination. I remembered the one road leading out of town that went about thirty miles and then ended. Somewhere along that road there was a little cove, where the water was high, and a sunken airplane that seemed to me almost made of concrete. It was a strange object; I can’t remember there being any glass in the windows. When the tide was high, the plane would be totally submerged. When the water went down, this airplane was totally uncovered, and the sea substance that was all over it–barnacles, mud, all kinds of sea life–was dead. I thought of it as very frightening and fascinating. And I also remembered a magazine I saw in a store window when I was between ten and fifteen years old called Film Fun. I got ahold of this magazine, which was a very clandestine experience as it contained images of naked women, probably drawn rather than photographed. Then, oddly, only this past fall or spring I was teaching Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which I had read before The Lime Twig but had totally forgotten, though I’m still quite certain that the language and materials of The Lime Twig came more from the soldiers I knew in the American Field Service than from Graham Greene. At any rate, in Greene’s novel there is a moment when Pinky, moments before his marriage, looks into a store window that is filled with obscenities and sees a magazine called Film Fun. Somehow, that moment cohered for me. From my earliest life I associated violence and death with sexuality that was taboo. I secreted the magazine in my room, amongst my rocks and chemicals in bottles.
Where did I get a sense of ritual? I don’t know. I suppose horseback riding could be called ritualistic, in the sense that it creates a living order, a human being and an animal that you control in certain ways. And I also fenced. For the eighteen months that I was at Trinity School I fenced and became captain of the junior-varsity fencing team; I loved that sport.
I: I suppose what I’m calling the ritualistic element of your fiction is the sense of imposed order, and of things having to be done in a certain way so as to get to a certain point.
JH: I am reminded of one of the earliest images I could think of, probably from not older than the age of four. I remember having an asthma attack, and having an army of lead soldiers in bed, making them fight and smashing them to pieces, which disturbed me. At that time, I had a strange ritual that I had to go through before going to sleep, I would amass whatever playthings I had- soldiers or little animals–put them all together in a little group, and then give them a kind of benediction. It was a compulsive benediction, consisting of waving my right hand over them, in an arc, like a rainbow, to the left side and then back again, backwards and forwards, as if one was making a benediction over the imagined lives of these artificial playthings, the artificial “stuff” of a child’s life. I was obsessive about this; I couldn’t go to sleep without doing it. An absolute, ingrained component of my childhood personality was acting, in a sense, like a child-god. I knew that I was making the community of animals and soldiers safe through my benediction.
I: That sense of ritual gets into your work, I think, in that it is often, structurally, cyclical or repetitious.
JH: I do see things as cyclical and ordered. I have a powerful associative imagination. What I really want to do is to create things that haven’t been created before, even though life itself seems sometimes totally cyclical and totally coherent. I find it very difficult to cope with the notion of being alive, being human; I’m not able to accept us very easily. I think we are so unaccountable. Life is also a constantly terrifying mystery as well as a beautiful, unpredictable, exfoliating, marvelous thing.
I: Your well-known statement about fiction as a matrix of recurring images and events seem to have something to do with ritual, as well as with the use of what I would call obsessive images in your fiction. One example might be the image of the lighthouse in Second Skin, foreshadowed by the shape of Stella Snow’s house in The Cannibal, the castle in The Owl, the airplane in The Lime Tree. Do you see the psychic contours of life or fiction as a series of recurrences?
JH: It’s terribly hard to say. I may not understand the question. Earlier than my writing The Lime Twig, between 1955 and 1960, I began to get an image of an ocean liner abandoned far out at sea, except that the water is only mid shin high, so that you can walk out to it; you have to walk in low water a mile or so to an enormous black ship lying on its side, with lifeboats dangling from the davits. Such an image is fetal: it is dead but full of potential. Last night, as I was going to sleep, I saw myself on a dark, black sea, at night, with the prow of an enormous ship coming at me. And I had another fleeting image of being on the water and watching the Lusitania on it, going down, with only its stern above the water; there were lights on it, and I was waiting for it to go down. Both of these visions are, of course, related to all of the house-tower images, crashed airplanes–they’re always life/death constructions. Last night, with these two images, I didn’t have any particular emotional reactions, just slight anxiety as the great prow of the ship approached, which to me is a potentially fear-inspiring image. To be anywhere near an enormous ocean liner when you are just like a fish in the water is frightening. Somebody once told me that he thought all of these images–airplanes, ships, lighthouses–are images of sexual fear, sexual destruction, the lighthouse in particular being a ruined, gutted phallus. It’s hard to tell whether the ship or airplane–they’re all the same, I’m convinced–is male or female; it may shift back and forth. Obviously an air plane is male from the outside as you see it start to move through the air, but female in its interior, like a whale. Hencher entering the airplane is a uterine experience.
I don’t see my own life as a series of recurrences. I’m sure if I thought about it I could say, in one sense, it’s all a series of recurrences, the coral on the coast of Grenada must be like the pebbles and beaches of Greece. I know I’ve seen certain images in different places. When we went back to Germany just a few weeks ago, I saw a ruined church spire that had been preserved in the middle of West Berlin, flanked by two modern churches, and Sophie reminded me of the line in The Cannibal in the proclamation that Zizendorf prints, “from the spires of Berlin to the ruins, of Athens,” When I wrote The Cannibal, I had never seen Berlin or Athens, so I didn’t know there were any spires in Berlin. Suddenly to see the very spire was, in itself, a kind of recurrence.
I: One of the recurrences of your fiction, which strikes me as having something to do with ritual, is the death-in-life image, the sunken or downed airplane you spoke of earlier, the ship dead in the water, the aborted fetus. Could you expand on the importance of this image?
JH: In one way, we could say the fetus is the result of ritualized living together, sexuality, and the imagination. Early on, I was very interested in the relationship between marriage and the fetus, and it was very fortunate in Charivari that I hit on the plot idea of a false pregnancy. That novel is about two middle-aged people who are like children, and I was concerned with the concept of innocence projected into middle age, with a relationship that was clearly not sexual. When the idea Of pregnancy enters the fiction, it’s nightmarish, it causes terrific anxiety and pain, and then of course it proves false anyway–so there’s a double irony. Then, when I was on the island of Vinalhaven off the coast of Maine, which is the North Atlantic island of Second Skin, I heard an anecdote about a very young girl whose boyfriend was a sailor. She became pregnant by him, he left, and she aborted her own fetus, or the child was stillborn in a fetal shape, and she preserved it in a fruit jar. She used to carry it around with her or take people to look at it. She was very proud of this creature that had come from her own body, and wasn’t afraid of it; she didn’t see it as dangerous, horrible, tabooed, or even an embodiment of loss. She saw the fetus, apparently, as something emblematic of her own ability to produce life and to live sexually. When I got to the point in Second Skin where I knew that Skipper’s birthday present had to be his own daughter’s fetus in a fruit jar, I decided to have it wrapped up, as a birthday present, thereby preserving the fetus as a possibility. Actually, of course, the reader has to imagine the fetus himself; whereas, if I had not had it wrapped the amount of involvement with the fetus would have been less, and the reader might have been repelled by the image.
I: Of course there’s the fetus fished out of the flood in The Beetle Leg.
JH: Yes. Thinking of that image reminds me of an interview with John Graham where I said that “the writer should be his own angleworm, and the sharper the barb with which he fishes himself out of the darkness, the better.” That interview probably came after the publication of The Beetle Leg. Oddly enough, I don’t think I was thinking of The Beetle Leg when I came up with that figure of speech about what the creative process should be. It’s an interesting paradox: separating the artist from the human personality, the artistic self from the human self, then thinking of the artist’s job as one of catching, capturing, snaring, using a very dangerous and unpleasant weapon, a hook, knowing that his subject matter is himself or his own imagination, which he has to find himself and which he catches ruthlessly. It’s a very schizophrenic image, full of dangerous, archetypal maneuvers in the deepest darkness within us. To me, the most horrifying object to touch would be the fetus, and I would be unable to touch one. But in The Beetle Leg, that action is a real paradigm of what the artistic process should be. The writer should undertake to do what he finds most difficult and most threatening, and then deal with these materials in such a way as to reintegrate them within human consciousness. When the protagonist of the novel seizes what he has caught, this aborted, fish-like form of dead human life, and removes the hook from the caul that the hook has actually penetrated, then puts it back into the initial floodwaters of Noah’s time–that, to me, is a parable of the artistic process.
I: Does this complex of opposing and contradictory feelings which the image of the fetus engenders have any source or origin you can recall?
JH: I’m able only to think of the photographs of my own childhood that I’ve seen. One in particular is a mere snapshot showing a hospital nurse holding a newborn child dressed in a long gown–so long that it goes down the legs of the nurse–a tiny, doll-like creature dressed in a flowing, white lace gown. I remember another photograph of me, I must have been under a year old but certainly able to sit up, wearing a light gown. For me, this picture was almost androgynous, you couldn’t tell the sex of the child. We were talking earlier about androgyny in The Blood Oranges and I recalled the stone figure I had seen in a museum in Corinth, with a wooden piece that could be installed or removed from the figure. I seized upon that androgynous figure for the novel; it is as important as Hugh’s arm–the wooden, sculpted, gilded, artificial arm, treated as a work of art that protrudes from the wall of the church and is, in a sense, a sexual member. Obviously, I react powerfully to sexuality, male and female, to androgyny, all of which are related to the fetus.
I think that I can explain “fetus” through those childhood images, which I recognize as beautiful, but which I resist, and would like to efface or erase. Perhaps the pictorial version of the person as a very young child contributes to my fear of the fetus, but I think that fear is primal. The fetus represents a terrible conjunction of life and death, as you suggest. It is like a giant sea horse: it’s shrunken, and it consists largely of skull, which makes it look dead. The rest of its body is still unformed, though in the first six weeks of its life its fingernails are actually developing, when the creature itself is smaller than our thumbnail–it’s an extraordinary idea. The enormous skull of the fetus suggests futurity, but also death; it suggests terrific knowledge. The fetus invariably seems to grin, but it is withered, so that it points toward the future with its enormous cranial space, but it suggests death in its hollow-eyedness, and something perverse and terrifying in its grin. It suggests totally the opposite of human being or life-form in its grotesquely diminutive, withered torso. The fetus must be even more primary than the Jungian archetype of the child who is totally vulnerable and totally invulnerable at the same time. It antedates that archetype, and therefore it is the aged and the very young, the dead and the living combined. And since it is reptilian as well as mammalian, it combines everything there is to be aware of, what is still to me the absolute terrifying inexplicableness of life itself, as well as its grandeur.
I: Primarily, though, the fetus image, as you describe it, would suggest a fear of life.
JH: That is one side of it, and I could never get over my fear of life, because without it one would then be innocent in the worst possible way. One would be the lyrical fool without the fool’s wisdom. The Shakespearean fool is not merely a life-giver or scene-changer or ringer of the bells; he is the figure who incorporates that which is taboo, and thus is rejected from the human community. He is utterly alone, and he both entertains and advises the sovereign. Of course, being sexless, he can have no lover, no sexuality, because he is androgyny elevated to a very high and, at the same time, crippled level. So he is polarized as we all are in that we are aware of our constant failings yet, at the same time, acting as the judge who wants to be aware of and condemn our own weakness. I’m interested in a life where weakness is absolutely essential. I cannot stand the person who is totally selfconfident; my fiction is based on the opposite. It’s Conradian, in the sense that the failures which are absolutely integral to us all have to be acknowledged and seen as somehow beautiful or useful, but in the guise of physical disability, as corpses.
I: Could you expand on this notion of fiction as a process of transmutation, where the horrible or ugly elements of existence are dredged up by the artist and transformed into something beautiful?
JH: I can by relating an anecdote that comes from a recent visit to Kalamazoo College, where I met an extraordinary man who loved fishing, and who showed me the fly rods he made himself. We became fast friends almost immediately. He’s probably the least pretentious man I’ve ever met, one of the kindest, and someone who had an extraordinary imagination. We got close enough so that he showed me a medal he had received–the Legion of Honor–for something he did in the South Pacific during the war, and for which he was commissioned in the field. The case of the medal was covered with dust, and it was a marvelous thing to see because, in one sense, it wasn’t important. He kept it hidden away or casually left it where it could collect dust, so that when you opened it up it was an extraordinary, rich, artistic object, a cross inlaid with ivory and gold, He told me that one day, on an island where he was stationed, the surface of the island was such that they couldn’t bury the dead, so that the place was covered with corpses, and he said he never appreciated the value of life until he confronted death directly in this way. He told me how, at one moment, he looked at a corpse, and he noticed that the maggots inhabiting the corpse were golden. To me, that was immediately the statement of an artist. The compliment this man then paid me was to say that my work uncovers that which we most fear or most dislike, and turns it into a kind of beauty that can be integrated into life as a whole. I told him about my fear of consciousness, that I’m never really able to accept the fact of our existence, that I find it not simply mysterious, but unbelievable, unconvincing, as if life’s a bad play. In The Passion Artist my protagonist is concerned with this problem. He’s afraid of human consciousness and cannot account for it, whereas his dead wife has thought that there are no discrepancies, degrees, or qualities in life, that human consciousness is every bit as much a part of his life as the leaf on the tree. This man was praising my work for taking the tabooed, or all the things that we’re unwilling to face in life, and not only making them beautiful, but harmonizing them into the totality of life.
I: So that, to put the question in a different way, your fiction transforms guilt into innocence, corruption into purity?
JH: That’s what I tried to do in The Blood Oranges. The question recalls for me another incident, an experience I myself, had during the war. I had my nineteenth birthday during the only five days I spent in Naples. We came into the Bay of Naples, which was filled with sunken ships, on a troop-ship. One day, I was walking along a street in Naples, in the sunlight, and an old, old woman in a black dress I was passing pulled up the skirt of the dress and bunched it with both hands in her crotch, like a big, black bunch of dark flowers–flowers of dread and death. She was, in a sense, shaking her sexuality at me, violently expressing her hostility and contempt for the invading armies of males who were searching for sex. At that time, I was virtually sexually innocent. During my nine months in Italy and Germany at the end of the war, there were a few very simple but cataclysmic, destructive sexual events. Everywhere I went, I was forever aware of the female as being a major inhabitant of that inferno. It was always the women who were alone, bereft; I was always aware of displaced persons, and most aware of displaced women. There were moments when I knew that a few of these women were extraordinarily beautiful, but those moments were certainly overshadowed by the vastness of sexual ruin that, for me, summed up the Second World War. I found sexual death to be the only conceivable analogue to death itself, the only way to dramatize the power of death. So the time spent in Italy and Germany crystallized the polarity between my own innocence and a sense of nightmare. All of my writing is thus filled with sexual violence and death as the analogue to death itself. With The Blood Oranges, I decided to reverse the whole thing, and to capture the relationship between the satiric, cruel, or destructive elements of existence and its lyrical qualities.
I: Again, in life and art, it seems to me that the bringing together of these extremes, or the transformation of one into the other, is accomplished by a journey to the interior where psychological processes are also revealed as aesthetic processes.
JH: Yes. I’m not interested in reflection or representation; I’m only interested in creating a fictive world, and my concept of a fictive world means that it draws heavily on what Bernard Malamud once called “psychic leakage.” For me, I think the metaphor isn’t strong enough or large enough. I’m interested in the mainstream of psychic life; I want to find the underground conduit or river in which all the dead and living dwell. I want to find all the fluid, germinal, pestilential “stuff” of life itself as it exists in the unconscious. The writing of each fiction is a taking of a psychic journey; the fictions, in themselves, are a form of journey, I consider being alive a form of journey, and I want to imitate the interior journey, so I like traveling. And the journey, in a sense, is always the same.
I: I think this interview, like many others conducted with you, reveals your generosity in discussing your own work, in becoming novelist turned self critic. And your critical analyses of other writers–Barth and O’Connor in particular–are essential to an understanding of their artistic visions. Do you see any conflict between yourself as critic and as novelist; more importantly, why do you feel the impulse to analyze your own work?
JH: It’s important for a writer to say all that he can to anyone who is interested in his work. Of course, the work ultimately stands alone. But insofar as the living person who created it can find his own way through it, his uncovering of the work’s materials and dilemmas has to be of some value to the reader. I look at my work as if somebody else had written it. When I talk about it, I do so with the sympathy and detachment that I would use in talking about anybody’s work. Even though we know that all writers are untrustworthy, liars, distorters, and so on, still I take a very naive, interested attitude toward my work, I want to help find out what’s in it; I would like to help the reader understand it, and, again, I feel generally quite different from the personality that created it. I like and admire this work a great deal, I know that nobody else has written anything like it, I feel that it’s important, and I feel that I can say things about it that are helpful.
On occasion, I have felt strongly enough about someone else’s work to write about it, whether it’s Flannery O’Connor’s work or a comparison of my own later fiction to Barth’s earliest work. I was going to try to write a book on Nathanael West, but I couldn’t do it. I admire him enormously; I spent one summer reading a bit and uncovered a lot of interesting material that revealed how scandalously he was treated by those closest to him. I think he is an absolutely essential, totally original American writer. I felt a great deal of kinship with him when I first read him, just as I did with Flannery O’Connor and with Barth when I read The Floating Opera, but I’m really not a person who is capable of writing many critical essays, and certainly not a critical book. I think my little pieces of nonfiction writing come out of my own serious need; they’re not a professional endeavor. I compare myself, by contrast, with William Gass, who is not only one of our truly extraordinary fiction writers, but also has a mind that is beautiful and lovely, and trained in a professional way. Mine is not, and now I’m sure that I will write no more nonfiction because it takes away from what I can do.
I: One final question. In your revisions of The Cannibal you changed from the third-person to a first person narrator in the “I, Zizendorf” sections, and most of your work since has been concerned with the development of first person narratives. In relation to this, you’ve said you’re sympathetic with the criminal, the outcast, and the disinherited whom Zizendorf represents. What do you mean by a sympathy for the criminal mentality?
JH: In a sense, that’s like asking the question about myself as critic over again. Every one of my characters is, in some way, a criminal character. The criminal character is an outcast, an alien in society, disabled in some way, sometimes a figure of enormous rank or authority. My fiction has always been concerned with reversed sympathy, and the whole point of it has been to help the reader expand his own capacities for compassion, to view these dangerous creatures exiled from human society, and to discover that he, the reader, is every bit as vulnerable to unsocial behavior that might result in his imprisonment or being ostracized. Emotionally, that’s one purpose of my fiction, and in that sense, it’s very Conradian in its viewing the conflict between sympathy and judgment. It’s a romantic notion, I know, to conceive of the writer as a kind of Shelleyan, satanic figure, but I have often felt that way. The matter would relate, again, to the problem of space, traveling, and distance. Extreme detachment might be a quality of the extreme authoritarian, the dictator, or the leader of a criminal gang.
From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1983, Volume 3.3