A Conversation with Ron Loewinsohn By Corey Weber

Note: This interview was conducted via e-mail in Summer 2002, prior to the Dalkey reprint of Ron Loewinsohn’s Magnetic Field(s) in November of the same year.
CW: When Magnetic Field(s) was first published in 1983, there really weren’t many books out at the time to which it could be rightfully compared. What were the origins of this novel?
RL: The most immediate impulse for writing the book was the fact that I’d just been burglarized. This was maybe the fourth or fifth time this had happened to me, and all of the issues connected with being broken into, being invaded, were all very much on my mind. The cops who investigated the burglary also told me some remarkable anecdotes about burglars—some of Albert’s adventures derive from those anecdotes. Like David in the novel, I’d been burglarized just before leaving to go back east for part of the summer, which my family and I were planning on spending in a house much like the one David sublets. So the parallels between the burglar and me were already reverberating in my head: we were both invading someone else’s space or life. But of course this is exactly what the novelist has to do: get into someone else’s experience and live there, for some extended period: it takes weeks and weeks to write a novel.
CW: How long did it take you to write Magnetic Field(s)?
RL: It was written in six weeks. I’d written a couple of novels already, even though I’d never taken the manuscripts out of the box once they were finished. They had both been chores, very laboriously produced, while Magnetic Field(s) felt absolutely like a gift. By the last weeks I was writing 3,000 words a day, and probably about as happy as I had ever been in my life.
CW: Do you find that writing poetry and prose tends to be a positive experience for you in general?
RL: I talk to a lot of writers and read accounts of writing that make it sound as if writing a novel were like going through some incredibly painful rite of initiation, something that would be found in The Magic Flute, the tortures of the damned and all that, just to get out a couple of brief paragraphs. It’s never been like that for me. Writing has always been fun, and I was gratified to read that Richard Wright, in talking about the process of writing Native Son, which I teach on a regular basis, refers to the “deep fun” of writing. The deep fun of writing a poem is just as real as the deep fun of writing a novel. It’s just the deep fun of writing a novel lasts longer. You could complete a lyric poem in an afternoon, you could write several on a single afternoon. A novel requires commitment, over a long haul of 6-10 weeks, or more, for years. In my experience, the writing of Magnetic Field(s) was like the deep fun of writing a poem, only stretched out over a period of six weeks, during which I just followed the characters I’d set in motion. It seemed very little like work, or ordeal, and much more like a continuing, delightful exploration. I’d write all morning, and then in the afternoon I’d go out and run or swim, something physical. Then in the evening it would be delicious to go out and socialize, bounce up against people again, enjoying the notion that in the morning you’d be back at work, knowing where to pick up the action and where it’s going to go, the scenes waiting there inside the typewriter like (as Brautigan put it) airline tickets.
CW: Were there any particular writers or works that served as models or inspiration for you while writing the book?
RL: I don’t know of any book(s) that I used as models. Although now I recall that the original title was “Being in the House,” modeled on Heidegger’s phrase “Being in the world.” His notion that we have our being only within the context of our world was (and remains) very important to me. Because of my origins in poetry, various people have tried to connect the book to Charles Olson’s notions of “composition by field.” Olson and his ideas have been tremendously important to me, and I’m sure that they influenced me in some way, but I was in no way consciously playing off his ideas at the time. The first time someone asked me this I thought it was pretty far-fetched. William Carlos Williams, who was even more important to me as I was developing as a poet, has used this circular form, and so has Gary Snyder (in Myths & Texts), and to a certain extent, Thoreau. But none of them were consciously in my mind when I wrote the book.
CW: How did you get interested in the ideas of space(s) and violation of space?
RL: The central story—of Mr. Mortimer and his son—had been in my head for many years, and I’d tried to write it several times, with no success. I couldn’t get the voice right. But when I began thinking about what the burglar and I were doing—getting inside somebody else’s space (their life), and living there for some extended period, I realized that trying to write Mr. Mortimer’s story really posed the same problem, just as Mr. Mortimer tries desperately to get inside his son’s life and, failing that, attempts to construct a new life (or new lives) that they can both inhabit (the railroad set and the “living room” in the woods). The last section, “Daniel,” was the final piece of the puzzle. In the first two sections, people imagine themselves into the lives of strangers, and in the last section David imagines himself into the life of a close friend. And even when I had the pieces in the right order, I couldn’t really get started in any consistent way until I’d dealt with the problem of structure—how were the three parts going to be related to one another? That problem was solved when I heard the opening line and the closing line, which are variations on each other.
CW: Did you always envision the book comprising three distinct sections?
RL: Originally, I wanted to have the book printed with no breaks at all between the sections; I wanted a Table of Contents page that would specify that section two began on p.___. But when the reader got to that page, there wouldn’t be a new half-title or anything. When the last sentence of part one ended, he or she would find only a bracket announcing, in the same font as the rest: “Part Two: Kindertotenlieder.” Part three was supposed to do the same thing in the middle of a sentence. My editor at Knopf, Alice Quinn, insisted on the section-titles, insisting that the reader would be confused otherwise.
CW: It doesn’t sound like she had much faith in the intelligence of your readers. I found that one of the most captivating and intelligently executed aspects of the book is the improbable recurrence of certain phrases and images. How did this evolve?
RL: I had occasion recently to look again at some of the reviews Magnetic Field(s) got when it first came out, and I was surprised that in one the reviewer pointed out that two characters have identical initials. I was totally unaware that I’d given those two characters names with identical initials: other factors had gone into the selection of their names. But how could I deny that the two characters did in fact have the same initials? The parallel that critic drew from his observation seems unquestionable to me, even though it formed no part of my conscious intention for the book. Other readers have come up with a very wide range of explanations in trying to account for the repeats, the “improbable recurrence of certain phrases and images.” I’ve been impressed with the sensible-ness of many of these, even where the “explanation” formed no part of my conscious intention for the book. One reviewer suggested that the repeats equal snippets of tape, of the sort that David uses in constructing his compositions. To me, they were the reader’s warrant that all these experiences actually come out of the same sensibility or consciousness, and they are all attempts to get inside someone else’s experience: the person making the attempt always brings some of his own “baggage” into the other person’s “space.” So the device was one of the means by which I tried to get the reader to actually enter the “inside” of the book, in something like the way David and Anselm try to get the viewer to enter their installation, which is also called “Magnetic Fields.”
CW: Lastly then, what do you as author see the book as being “about?”
RL: From the very beginning, the book was about how it is to be “in the house.” I was concerned with literal houses, but also with the life lived in them, and how we (or anyone) could get “inside” someone else’s experience. When I was burglarized, the burglar handed me the metaphor I needed. I was always concerned with the story simultaneously from the writer’s point of view and from the audience’s. As William Carlos Williams puts it, “an interpenetration both ways.”
I recently realized that in one series of flashbacks in the TV series The Sopranos, a fade into the flashback time frame is always introduced by a close-up of a TV set showing the O. J. Simpson trial, which establishes the date of the people who are watching the trial. The repeats in Magnetic Field(s) work to establish or locate the point of view that’s anchoring all three narratives. The device was a part of the plan for the novel from the very beginning: it was a key element in how I conceived of the novel, what I think the book is “about.”
Recently, a friend asked about the parentheses around the final “s” of “Field(s)” in the title. The parentheses are there to provoke the reader to ask, Is this a book made up of one magnetic field? Or of three? Or of more?—since within each of the three sections, various characters construct and/or inhabit “worlds” that interpenetrate each other.

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