From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1983, Vol. 3.1
WE: You asked in your letter who influenced me.
JOB: “Influence” is perhaps a bad word because it smacks of imitation.
WE: Whom I admire, then. Stephen Crane, Mark Twain of course, and I have a great admiration for Melville. Emily Dickinson. And Conrad. And Louis Ferdinand Celine, who wrote “Death on the Installment Plan.” Eugene O’Neill was a great influence. And of course Faulkner, whom I knew slightly. And some of Hemingway’s stories. I think that most of Hemingway is a failure but he did have touches that made him the best of his time. The only way to judge a writer, and this is why I try not to make judgments on my contemporaries, is his survival value. This takes time. We don’t know how much survival value Hemingway has. He was a macho character who tried to live up to that fake image of himself, which ended in suicide. We only have the test of time to go by. We know now that Shakespeare made it. I think Conrad made it, though he’s out of style right now. I’m quite certain that Faulkner will make it. Perhaps some of Hemingway. But Hemingway is more doubtful because he was selling a personality and because he was more an actor than he was a writer. Already something of his macho character has died because this present generation doesn’t want to kill things. Grace under pressure requires you to go to war; you have to kill things. His philosophy is now regarded as junk. Whether his economical writing will survive, I suspect that it will. But only time will tell.
JOB: I suppose that if you find Hemingway’s values ridiculous from the start, then you can’t take any of him too seriously. But what I find, especially in a novel like “The Sun Also Rises,” is that he holds his characters and their values up to us to look at without the reader having to believe in those values. If Hemingway’s views about masculinity are finally an illusion, then at least he has written very clearly about that illusion.
WE: I don’t think he brought his own personal life into his fiction; he edited it out of his work. But what I’m saying is that he sold his work on the basis of his personality. And he wasn’t faking it; he was doomed to be suicidal. You cannot fake an act. The writer cannot say, “If I could put on as good a public relations job as Norman Mailer, then I too could sell books.” You can’t do that because selling yourself has got to be natural. Or you can’t say, “I’m going to New York and get in the group, which is an incestuous group. It’s a small group, a bunch of academic dullards who take into their fold anyone who’s dull enough or crazy enough—a controversial heterosexual like Mailer or a controversial homosexual like Gore Vidal. They must be able to naturally sell themselves. You can’t fake it. By the same token you can’t fake bad writing. I met someone in my agent’s office who said that he was going to write something for “Redbook” and make some money. And I said, “OK, try it,” and he tried it. And “Redbook” said no. In other words, you can’t write down to people. You’ve got to “be” stupid. Harold Robbins is doing his best. This is what Harold Robbins believes. You can’t fake it. You cannot say that you’re going to write this book and believe it as long as you write it, because they know it’s phony. They’re brought up on “True Confessions” and you cannot write down to them. They can spot you. So, you’re doomed. You are what you are and most of the people you are interviewing are doomed not to make money. Everyone does the best he can at that time. My friends who are working in Hollywood are doing the best they can when they’re writing for “All in the Family” and driving a Mercedes. And oddly enough all of them are working on a play or a novel, though they don’t want to discuss what they’re doing. What I’m saying is that you’re doomed to write what you write. And you’re doomed to either commercial success or artistic success. You can’t say you’re going to write well and going to have survival value. No one can guarantee survival value. After all, Dostoevsky sold extremely well. Hemingway sold well. The only thing is to be fascinated and interested and dedicated and enjoy the work you’re doing. The great problem I have with survival value is that when you’re dead, you’re dead—despite the nuts who talk about reincarnation. When you’re dead, you’re dead. I don’t care what people will think of my work when I’m dead. I would like to be accepted today. How much that pressure drives you into fake writing, as it did Crane, I do not know. I do believe that most good writers I know, and maybe that’s because of their early rejection, feel that the publisher is the enemy. When you begin to suspect that your agent is in cahoots with the publisher, then you dump the agent. Most writers go from publisher to publisher. The successful writers I know stay with the same publisher and turn out the same book. But the writers who are trying to do something creative don’t stick with the same publisher.
JOB: Can you explain to me how Conrad, for instance, is an influence and how someone reading your fiction would see it as being in a tradition with Conrad’s?
We: He gave me an insight into how things looked and felt. And also his view of life and his willingness to survive and prevail when he discovered that the universe is meaningless; it didn’t discourage him. He felt that he could add to nature. He felt that an artist—out of the chaos of nature and out of the capricious storms at sea that he went through—can make an orderly universe. Where God had failed, man can succeed. Conrad illustrated that. It becomes more and more evident that the universe is chaos and that it was made out of chaos. Absolute chaos. Order is only a temporary accident of the universe. But that didn’t discourage Conrad. He still went about his job of trying to create some order and beauty and meaning in a meaningless situation. And he found the symbols and characters that could create that order. Cezanne could do more with a landscape than nature could do. And I’m not disparaging nature. But Cezanne gives you another dimension, he adds something to it. You see it through the artist’s eyes. In Conrad you saw a voyage through the artist’s eyes.
JOB: But isn’t that just another manifestation of nature? Nature created the mind.
We: It’s what Conrad did with that mind that accounts for something that nature never dreamt of. That’s why writing cannot be taught, because nature cannot teach you what to do with the mind; it can only give it to you. I don’t think it fair to equate nature with God. God made a terrible mess of things but nature had done pretty well. The God we see through organized religion is a pretty despicable character, full of vengeance and killing and completely arbitrary. He’s toyed with the human psyche; you didn’t ask for life, but you’re condemned to death.
JOB: Let me ask again about Conrad and take a very naive view toward your citing him as an influence. He is not a comic writer, which you are. And he’s not American.
WE: But Faulkner was a comic writer and he came right out of Conrad. And Conrad had a great sense of irony.
JOB: Is that the line of descent, from Conrad through Faulkner?
WE: Yes, very directly.
JOB: I think of Conrad as so concerned with the psychological process in his characters, which is true of Faulkner too. But you don’t have that interest. Could you have been influenced by any other writer with the same vision, or are the style and characterization also part of the influence? I am having a difficult time imagining the similarity between you and Conrad when I think of a typical passage of his and a typical one of yours.
WE: I guess the influence came in my early work in the descriptive passages. The style, the irony. You must read something of Celine’s for attitude. There is no writer who didn’t come from somewhere. Every writer can be traced. All writing is plagiarism. And then someone adds something to the plagiarism. That’s true for painting and music too. No one does it alone. Certainly Hemingway came out of Stephen Crane. One passage of Hemingway’s in “The Sun Also Rises” is taken almost word for word from “The Red Badge of Courage.” It’s no accident that painting occurs at a certain place and a certain time. They’re all stealing from good people; they’re stealing from each other. We know where the French Impressionists, who have influenced me, came from; they came from each other. But Turner started it all in England and he came out of almost nothing, because if there’s any worse painting in the world, it’s British painting. Turner came from nowhere it seems, but if I were a good enough student, I could see where he came from. Another great puzzle is the poet Blake, the mystical nut. Where did he come from? Blake and Turner are puzzles because they came from very arid cultures. Whitman too is a problem. Faulkner I find easy to trace because of Conrad. Melville probably came out of the Bible.
JOB: Where and how did you meet Faulkner?
WE: Before I went into the army I was around Los Angeles and I ran into a group of literary people around a place called Stanley Rose’s Bookstore. Saroyan had left before I got there. Nathanael West and Steinbeck had been there before I got there. Stanley was Steinbeck’s and Saroyan’s agent; his fame as an agent was based on the fact that he had never read a book. He used to take these books to the studios, to his friends like Faulkner. He told me that he could get me a job for $200 a week writing for MGM and I told him that I wouldn’t write that shit for two million a week. I met Faulkner in Los Angeles, but I never would have had the courage to intrude on him. A painter friend of mine who was close to Faulkner insisted I look him up when I was doing an article in Mississippi on the Till case—one of the last of the Mississippi massacres of a black. Faulkner was generous and kind, and we had horses and good booze in common.
JOB: When was this?
WE: The early ’40s. They used to call me “kid.” I was so arrogant, so stupid. I ran into Dreiser in Hollywood and started talking to him. I met him at a place called The Book of the Day Shop, which was a Communist hang-out. I didn’t have the generosity and compassion that these fools had. They were all in it to help the human race. Dreiser was a Communist and he had all the authoritarian attitudes. He told me to come out to his place the next night. My attraction was that this was Hollywood and I was interested in what they wrote. But everybody else was interested in their political ideas. I was bored by Dreiser’s Communist diatribes and I didn’t want to be there alone to listen to them. And so I asked him if someone else would be there. And he said, “What the hell you think I am, a goddam queer?”
JOB: Did you answer his question?
WE: Maybe by tomorrow I’ll think of some witty thing I said.
JOB: One of the questions I wanted to ask you, and perhaps it in some way relates to Hollywood, is about your dialogue. There is a burlesque quality to it.
WE: I’m thinking of “The Long Naked Descent into Boston.” I have been through several wars, and war is chaotic. I can only see it through a surreal eye, the fact that on this small planet earth we’re killing each other periodically. People can’t behave this way; they’re a bunch of lunatics. There are sides of Washington, Hamilton, Jackson, and all of our great leaders which I think should be revealed and can only be understood with a surreal vision. They may have gotten into this war through a very reasonable appraisal of what was happening, but once the decision was made, it becomes a lunatic asylum. War has no place in rational behavior. And great movements have no place in rational behavior once they’re launched. So “Long Naked Descent” was written at the time of the Bicentennial when all the celebrating was going on, and I wanted to show the British point of view. That’s the only story I could come up with in order to make sense of the American Revolution. On both sides the people who are dying and being killed are children who don’t have the slightest idea of what’s going on. At one point during the American Revolution there was a battle fought in South Carolina in which most of the people on the British side had deserted from the American army and most of the people in the American army had deserted from the British side. That’s why I wrote the book the way I wrote it.
JOB: Ishmael Reed listed vaudeville and the Marx Brothers as having influenced his sense of dialogue, and I am reminded of that quality in your dialogue. Your dialogue does not, for example, come out of Conrad.
WE: No, definitely not. Probably out of my army experience. In thinking of Conrad, you have to go to my early books. And I suppose that the Marx Brothers did have some influence. And oddly enough, Horatio Alger. In Horatio Alger you had a very simple story. I find that most of our great writers, outside of Shakespeare, to be monuments to boredom. Tolstoy I find a big bore. It’s as though he had never read Horatio Alger. But I think that Shakespeare did. Tolstoy goes on for fifty pages about some aristocratic idiot. Tolstoy’s a Christer, a fake saint. But people imagine that he’s profound because he’s so obtuse. Gogol and Dostoevsky I like very much. Gogol told a very simple story, a very powerful story, and a very compassionate story. And so did Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky was what Tolstoy professed to be. Gogol and Dostoevsky both had a deep knowledge and concern for the people they wrote about. Dostoevsky was a genius with language while Tolstoy was not. Tolstoy depended entirely upon exposition and there ain’t no genius in exposition. All the great writers today are the children of French Impressionist painters. They show you something electric without all the details.
JOB: Would “Castle Keep” have been a very different kind of novel had you written it immediately after World War II instead of waiting almost twenty years? What I am referring to are the elements of myth, fairy tale, medieval romance, and the epic that you interweave with the war story.
WE: Your assumption is correct that I didn’t try writing it right after the war. I did not write it immediately after the war because I could not think of a way to handle and develop the experiences I had had. I used to tell my experiences to people but they didn’t seem to be directly connected to the war—experiences that I had had in a chateau in Belgium. So I had a great deal of time to think about it and to try to get an approach to it. There actually was this royalty that occupied a part of this chateau. The things that are difficult to believe in that novel were actually true. One of the owners of the chateau had at one time built a replica of Venice with canals and gondolas, the whole works; this was actually true. It seemed that the incredible parts of that novel were the true parts, and those parts that seemed real are what I made up. What I’m saying is that it took me time to get it organized in my mind. My final conclusion was to start out with what actually happened and then fictionalize it. So, yes, I did wait a long time. But yes, it was necessary. I had other books to write and I also had to learn how to write. From talking with my friends it seems to take from eight to ten years to learn how to write. Although I called myself a writer for a long time, I didn’t know how to write. And it takes eight to ten years of rejections.
JOB: I’m assuming that “Castle Keep” could have been a realistic war novel, but it isn’t; I’m also assuming that had you written a realistic novel you wouldn’t have come as close as you do to telling the truth about war. Photographic realism would have seemed false.
WE: I don’t think that that kind of novel would have added anything to our knowledge of the war because we get this in nonfiction. The artist must see the war with a unique vision. If he doesn’t, then he hasn’t added anything to our lives. We can pick up “Time” magazine and get that account of what happened, but what truly happened we must get from the artist. To me that war was a nightmare and it is best expressed in a surreal way. And that is why it is written in that style and in that attitude. War is a form of madness.
JOB: Did you first conceive the novel as surreal or did that develop after you tried to write about it realistically?
WE: I never did classify it in my mind. I dictated the novel and dictated it in no more than three or four months. Every incident was based upon a true experience; I knew all the people who were involved in it. I knew how they talked, how they sounded, what they looked like, and what they did. Although the book took me only three or four months to dictate, it took me quite a few years to write. But to put it down didn’t take too long. There was almost no rewriting at all. Some cutting.
JOB: Do you read reviews?
WE: Sometimes. I don’t subscribe to a review service. The problem is that if they praise the book, I’m embarrassed about it, and if they damn the book, than I am discouraged. So perhaps Bronte’s publisher was right when he forbade her to read any criticism. I’m surprised at times when a sympathetic reviewer points out things about the book that I never realized myself. That’s revealing. But generally when I read an old book of mine that has been out for quite a while, I don’t feel that I wrote it because I’m a different writer and a different person now. That is the value of writing continuously, of never quitting, and of accepting the discipline of your trade. It’s not a craft, it’s an art. I like to call it a trade because that implies work. But it isn’t a craft. We only have so much time in our life and we only have time for something that attempts to be a work of art. We don’t have time for books that are well-crafted. So discipline is important because what you can write today, you can never write again. A person constantly changes. Every time in an artist’s life has to be captured. Picasso could not have painted the pictures he did at different times in his life. He saw differently at different times in his life, which accounts for the changes in his style. If he had quit painting any time in there, he could never have painted those pictures later. And all of those periods were periods of his time. If you’re not of your time, you’re of no time. It’s not an accident that we have a renaissance of writing in Ireland at a particular time. It’s not an accident that the renaissance in painting occurred in Italy at a certain time. Let’s take the Impressionist’s time in Paris. They all painted in the same style. That’s very helpful. It gives you emotional support to know that you’re on the right track despite the fact that the galleries are turning you down. If you respect Cezanne’s work and are learning from it, that support is very important in the face of public rejection. It’s very important that in America we have always had masters that we could look up to. We’ve always had a great writer in each generation.
JOB: In comparing all three of your war novels, I’m wondering whether “The Bamboo Bed” presented problems that the Revolutionary War and World War II didn’t because in that novel you were writing about something that was so immediate to you.
WE: I don’t think so. I was ready to write that book at that time and I wrote it. Again it was surreal. It was based upon my impressions of Viet Nam, and it was impressionistic writing. I did have a feeling for the country and for the people, a feeling for the insanity of what was going on, the victims, the children that fought that war who didn’t know where they were, the Vietnamese people who didn’t know what the war was about. The only people who knew what they were doing were the Viet Cong. But my sympathies lay with the peasants and their beautiful villages, which were completely destroyed. One of the questions that I asked the VC was, “Don’t you realize that you’re accepting a totalitarian regime?” And they pretty universally would tell me, “We’ll worry about that when we get rid of you. One problem at a time.” They were mostly radical students who had joined the VC out of idealism. The Vietnamese are always fearful of their old enemy China, which has overrun them many times; they still have a border dispute today. We helped the side we shouldn’t have helped. In other words, we should have stayed out of it completely. I didn’t encounter any soldiers who had been there for a long time who thought that the war could be won, particularly after we took the same hill six times. So out of that limited experience there, as a novelist I had to write about it. And time will tell whether the book has any value. But I fulfilled my responsibility in trying. The writers we had in the Civil War had nothing to say about it. The biggest experience America ever had was our Civil War. Where was the artist? Twain had absolutely nothing to say, which is understandable because he signed up in the Confederate Army. Being an artist with insights and knowing what was going to happen, he resigned before the first battle. He had the imagination to realize that the other side had guns too. So he quit and had nothing to say about the Civil War. And that was a great loss. Whitman said very little and he had quite a bit of experience in the hospitals. The only novel we got out of there was in the next generation—Stephen Crane.
I. Who never fought.
WE: Who never saw a battle up to that time. I think “Red Badge of Courage” is a very moving novel. But that is why I wrote a novel about Viet Nam, so that someone could say that someone tried. It’s interesting that when Crane finally did get in a war in Cuba, he stood up when the bullets were flying one day and said to someone who didn’t know what he was talking about, “It’s exactly like I said it was.” The greatest compliment I ever got was when I was in Viet Nam and sending these things back to “The Nation;” the editor there later wrote me with the overgenerous comment “I haven’t read anything this good since Stephen Crane’s dispatches,” which only meant to me that I was not sending what I was told to at the “five o’clock follies,” which is what we called the American Army press briefings.
JOB: Some of your reviewers have complained that you are writing about things that are in themselves so unfunny that humor is inappropriate.
WE: If you don’t laugh in war, you cry. Your comrades are dying. I handle that part of it in the Vietnamese book—the death of an outfit that I was on the fringe of and that was wiped out. The tragedy is there. The compassion for the dead is there. In order to fight and in order to put up with this madness, soldiers have to laugh. There’s a great deal of humor in war, a great deal. In Viet Nam the soldiers were extremely funny under pressure. And original, creative humor. The situation is so impossible that you have to release that somehow. And you do it through obscenity and humor. When a machine gun gets so hot that it burns your hand when you touch it, you can’t say, “Oh, darn.” You can only say, “Fuck this war. Fuck this army. Fuck this machine.” Which is a complaint against civilians who got them into this goddam war. That’s why I have great difficulty reading Tolstoy because I know those soldiers swore like Marines. And I know they had a wild sense of humor in order to put up with death. There’s none of that in Tolstoy. Hemingway captured that. At the time he was writing he could not put in any of the obscenities but he knew about it and felt a lack in his books. Norman Mailer certainly knew about it but did not put it in his books. And when Tallulah Bankhead met Mailer, she said, “Oh, you’re the young man who can’t spell ‘fuck.’” That’s another advantage I had in waiting, in postponing “Castle Keep.” It was the first book published by a recognized publisher that was able to use the language of the soldier. In other words, it was the first honest war novel; in it one of my sergeants spoke as one of my sergeants did constantly. When he got before a group and had to give them a talk, he would use obscenities between syllables and would start everything with “gentle-fucking-men.” Without that it ain’t a war book. Any soldier could say, “Yes, this is the way that soldiers talk.” If you miss that, you miss everything, because it is the poetry. It’s a new language. And it is not obscene.
JOB: Why wasn’t “Castle Keep” censored?
WE: If they begin telling you that you can’t say certain things, you end up saying nothing. It never occurred to me when I was writing “Castle Keep” that there was anything obscene in it, though every other word was what “The New Yorker” would consider obscene. I don’t know what world I was living in when I wrote that book. But I took for granted that is how everyone spoke. It was honest and true. So it was the first war book ever written. And I think in time that all other war books written previously will sound phony. We have got to get rid of this Victorian attitude. Sex is one of the few things that we can hold on to and say that it is normal.
JOB: And yet “Castle Keep” is built around a conception of romance that is very old and Western.
WE: I suppose that’s something for the psychiatrist. The artist simply reveals, he doesn’t explain. Freud tried to figure this out because he felt it very important to understand what makes a creative person tick. And he said that he had failed. In other words, I don’t think that the artist is a scientist; he’s almost the antithesis of the scientist. He cannot explain, he can only state. He makes a poetic statement, and the psychiatrist figures out why that is a universal truth. The psychiatrist tells people why they behave the way they do; the artist tells how they behave.
JOB: You use the word “poetry” to describe prose and you use it to describe the way soldiers speak. What does “poetry” mean in relation to prose?
WE: Placing words well on a piece of paper. When a soldier makes a poetic statement, you get it right. Many of them have a feeling for language. And a feeling for the ridiculous and the crazy. And they say it extremely well. It’s saying something very simply with great economy. . . . To get to my Indian humor. The Indians are portrayed in most writers’ books as wooden Indians. They too have a wild sense of humor; they too have something unique to say about the white man. It is outrageous humor and it has insights into the white man that we can learn from. We dehumanize the Indian and either make him into a romantic anachronism or a stoic idiot, when in reality they are very verbal people. They have been involved with their war with the white man for several hundred years and it’s a continuing war which they are losing. But they have developed a sense of humor or have kept a sense of humor that we haven’t been able to destroy. And again, like the soldier, it’s a survival weapon. Anyone writing about the Indians who doesn’t put this in has not caught the true Indian who is quite verbal, quite angry, and very frustrated. Despite the overwhelming odds, they do resort to humor.
JOB: One of the reviews complained just that: that they are wooden Indians.
We: And I’m saying the opposite. Other people’s Indians are wooden and my Indians ain’t.
JOB: The reviewer complained that they should be treated tragically.
WE: Some of them are. Like anyone else, they have tragedies in their lives, but their lives are not all tragic. They see to that. They spice it with the humanity of humor.
JOB: You mentioned the girl who complained after one of your recent readings that there weren’t “enough” cliches in what you had just read. One reviewer of “Naked Descent” complained that there were too many cliches in it, as well as corny humor.
WE: Yes, that was purposely done. Newspaper people were, for example, using jargon and I thought their cliched jargon was funny. So I put it in. That’s all. In Viet Nam the journalists shouted this cliched jargon into the phones and I’m sure that the reporters in the Revolutionary War did the same thing. That accounts for that. I realized that those critics would say that when I was writing.
JOB: Have you thought about how cliches can be used in fiction? They certainly are as much a part of the language as anything else.
WE: I would say that if you are writing the book in the third person- writing it from God’s point of view—, then that which God says should not be a cliche. What one of your characters says is frequently a cliche. But that should be obvious to the writer and to the reader, but nothing seems to be obvious to the critic. You do have to watch it. In the book I’m writing now, “Ms. Marybelle’s Speed of Light Space Cirkus, Komedy and Magick Show,” it is written by a cowboy named Joe Gulliver, and I must constantly remind myself, “Would Joe Gulliver say this?” And the problem I face is that the first-person must remain in character. I wrote “Castle Keep” using seven different writers, seven writers writing in the first person, frequently about the same event. They were very easy to keep in character because I know these people. My hero in “Ms. Marybelle” has been to a community college and he likes big words, so there is a kind of dichotomy in writing him because occasionally the community college rubs off. He wants to use the kind of language that he learned at college. He went to the Eastern New Mexico College at Portales. That shouldn’t go to waste. So I have the problem of mixing his cowboy cliches with his community college cliches, and yet at the same time making him a sympathetic character, an understandable character, and a character who would talk like this. Each novel is unique. But there are guidelines and posts that you can recognize. If a person wants to write, all the secrets of writing are exposed in the work of a genius. You just have to go to a library and all the secrets are exposed about how to write a book. They are the great teachers. You are strongly influenced by those writers you appreciate, and those writers change as you grow.
JOB: Let’s take as an example the baker in “Castle Keep.” Someone could read that novel and object that bakers do not speak that way.
WE: He was a real person, a real baker. I didn’t make him up.
JOB: But if someone says to you that bakers don’t speak and think this way, what do you say?
WE: Well, you simply say that I’ve failed to convince you. Usually they are outraged at your outrageousness. They say that you have taken liberties but that’s the risk you take. You are not photographing these people, you are painting them. A photograph only gives a superficial glance at the person but the painter tries to find what’s going on inside. The painter gives you a look from every dimension, from the inside as well as the outside. I would say that a reader could not appreciate something that he’s not familiar with. He has looked at life the way you look at a photograph- superficially. It takes the writer’s imagination to see, and frequently it’s an outrageous imagination that offends people. The writer’s job is to organize that speech so that it communicates something to the reader. And I’m sure that Rossi, my baker in “Castle Keep,” would say after reading my book, “Well, I wish that I had said that.” Which gets back to something that actually happened. Whistler met Oscar Wilde on the steps of the London Museum, and Whistler said something very clever and Wilde said, ” I wish I had said that.” And Whistler said, “You will, Oscar, you will.” That’s the job of the writer, to catch those things. Frequently what a person says can be made into an artful statement if it’s just changed a bit. But nevertheless the person who said it is responsible for it, his attitude, his behavior. Rossi did some things so outrageous that I couldn’t say it because I seem to be going too far. Then the reader would say that he doesn’t believe that. But he actually did. That’s what the artist also has to sift out. He has to present a situation in a light that is part of the book, so that he doesn’t violate the book. In other word, you have to put in those things that fit and you frequently must transpose a situation. The imagination had to work on that war, to give it some form and some meaning because the average soldier gets no meaning from the war at all. Frequently people would tell me at the ranch, “I should write a book because I have been here all my life and my father was here. I’ve been with these mountains and I’ve been with these people.” But what they forget is that you don’t learn to write in New Mexico; you learn to write in Paris. You do not learn how to tell what the New Mexican landscape looks like when you’re in New Mexico. The Midwest is an impossible place in which to learn to write. I was horrified once because a very generous person sent me a book with paintings of New Mexico in it. I didn’t open the book for a month; I had no idea what to do with the damn thing. When I opened it, there were some pictures that were true art. Then I read the preface and it said that these are painters from the East who happened to be passing through New Mexico and painted it. They were the ones the editor had picked to depict New Mexico, not New Mexicans who painted “real” cowboys and “real” horses and would get everything exactly right. What I’m saying is that there is a sophistication to writing which you can only learn in the big city. You have to leave the chamber-of-commerce attitude of the Midwest or the Southwest, otherwise that’s regional writing and it’s greatly admired and sells well. But it ain’t writing. We forget that most of the Impressionists were painters living in Paris who had come from small towns. We must keep in mind that those books which are popular today will be forgotten tomorrow. We must remember that when Melville died there were no obituaries. We must remember that “Moby-Dick” was not reviewed by a paper in New York. We must remember that he was the only writer of merit that New York City ever produced; he was born there. I was reading a recent article in “Time” in which they said that Melville quit and it pointed out other writers who had quit. It was a mystery to them and they blamed these people for quitting. What they forget is that these critics today, if there were a Melville around, would treat him the same way. If they want to know why a writer quits, why do they castigate some writers, as they did Faulkner, and then praise their friends’ books? Melville too had a normal ego; Melville too thought that what he wrote had merit. The irresponsibility of the critics is what discouraged Melville, but that “Time” article didn’t point this out. Melville did write a few bitter things after “Moby-Dick.” I think that Melville said it very well when they asked Bartleby why he doesn’t do something; he said, “I prefer not to.” That was Melville saying why he didn’t continue writing: “I would prefer not to.” What I am saying is that in the creation of great music, painting, and writing, the audience has a responsibility not to read Harold Robbins. The critics have the responsibility not to review Harold Robbins.
JOB: But it’s not those readers and critics who would discourage a Melville. It’s the critics who should know better, the ones who go on endlessly about Mailer and Bellow and Updike. Those highbrow critics would not be caught dead reviewing Robbins, but they do review the Bellows.
WE: I agree. And “The New Yorker” writers. Do you realize that until recently “The New Yorker” airbrushed out the belly buttons in their $25,000 ads for perfume? Yes, that’s the kind of people who are editing that magazine. I don’t want to pick on the poor “New Yorker” because it’s universal with all well-paying magazines. They pretend to be literary magazines but they never helped an American genius. They never accepted anything of Hemingway’s, Faulkner’s, or Wolfe’s. They specialize in slick, big-word, academic writers, particularly if they have a Russian name like Nabokov. They have this fake sophistication. You’re right, Robbins is not passed off as literature. But Gore Vidal’s and Truman Capote’s homosexual ramblings are. It’s very corrupting because it’s generally very clever writing.
JOB: The critics were truly vicious with Faulkner.
WE: We forget that his critics were very hard on him. Typically a magazine like “Saturday Review” or “Time” would publish a criticism of Faulkner’s work by some failed second-rate writer who was envious of Faulkner, and he would justifiably point out Faulkner’s weaknesses and even take things out of context to make Faulkner look ridiculous. What the critics said was generally true. But next to the Faulkner review you would read another review of a novel by a woman with three names and it would be the “finest crafted book with heart-felt insights into life situations.” You would gather from reading these criticisms that Faulkner was the worst writer in the world and that this woman was the best. All that the critics had to say, if they wanted to point out the weaknesses that were there, is that this man is a genius but that these are the mistakes that he made. It’s very important to say that this woman is a third-rate writer who crafts well. What they said about her was true. What they said about Faulkner was true. But they didn’t say that she’s third-rate and that he’s a genius. That made Faulkner very bitter. I think that adage is true: if you believe the critics when they say your good, you’ll believe them when they say you’re bad. And that led Faulkner to Hollywood where he tried to make a living because, as he told me, he couldn’t make a living out of writing.
JOB: Why did you start writing?
WE: Since I have no skills of any kind and no schooling, there was nothing else for me to do with my life except to be a bum. Write, if you can’t do anything at all. Other people can spell or they can do things with their hands; they can be plumbers and make outrageous wages. I’m forced to write by circumstances, by economic circumstances if nothing else. People who can do something else would certainly not become writers in the first place. It’s only the hopeless people that end up as writers. You have a normal, healthy ego and if you fail at everything, as most writers do, you still want that girl to say, “I didn’t realize that Billy was a genius. He couldn’t zip up his fly, but he was a genius.” When you’re young you have the illusion that you’ll see your name in lights over Broadway or wherever the hell they put lights. And it’s easy, all you have to do is get paper and a pencil and go in a corner. But you don’t get along with people very well because you’re not cooperative. And you’re otherwise utterly talentless. But, you can write a book. Then the girl will say, “Oh, boy, Billy wrote a book.” Then you send it away and you’re famous overnight. That’s what I thought. It must have been unconscious, but I can’t think of any other reason why I did it. Instant fame. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to go to school, you don’t have to know anything, you don’t have to know how to fix a carburetor.
JOB: Do you come to a time in the midst of writing a book or finishing one when you are afraid that you have nothing left to say?
WE: Yes. And have said it badly. There is a loss of self-confidence, oh yes. Sometimes you live in a dream world and imagine that everything is right. But at other times you feel that it ain’t right. When you’re actually physically working on a book, it’s easy. You have no problems because everything seems to have been solved. But when you’re driving down the road and have skipped a day of work, you say, “Jesus Christ, is that the kind of book I’m writing? Who would read that? Who cares about Joe Gulliver’s travels?” Some people will say that the book is science fiction and they don’t like science fiction. And then the science fiction people will read it and say this isn’t science fiction and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
JOB: You said it’s of no interest to you whether people read and remember your books after you’re dead.
WE: It’s not important. When you’re alive you want to think that the book is good and that it will survive. My work appears in a lot of anthologies, and it seems that everyone else in there is dead. So I say, “They’re treating me as though I’m dead. I must be dead.” Students always ask me what makes a good writer. There’s one thing they all have in common—discipline. The youngster doesn’t want to be a professional because that means hard work, that means sacrifice, it means doing without, it means loneliness, it means rejection. They don’t want to punish themselves. So frequently the aberrant mind becomes a writer, the neurotic, the one with the unhappy childhood. He’s the one who rejects the middle-class values which the normal person accepts in order to survive. You tell the normal kid to go to war, and he goes to war. You tell him to go to church, and he goes to church. But the one who becomes a writer doesn’t fit and he’s mixed up. When Faulkner came back from the war, he had a cane and talked about shooting down the Red Baron. So they called him “Count No-Account.” He was a local joke. That’s the kind of people who are writers. If you read any biography of these people, it’s a terrible life. And they end as a drunk or a junkie. Even Tolstoy died trying to escape Yasnaya Polyana. Hemingway committed suicide. Fitzgerald tried to drink himself to death. Writing is not a good profession. Painters are different. I know a few painters. They do enough physical exercise in their work. And they can do a canvas and put it aside and get back to it some time when they are in the mood. But a writer has to continue on. He’s got a whole book to write. Painters can see the paint and smell it. More importantly, they have a comradery that writers don’t have. They know other painters and their studio is right next to another studio. There’s a community in which they can talk to each other.
JOB: Why doesn’t that happen among American writers?
WE: I think it’s universally true among writers. It’s a lonely occupation. When writers do meet, they don’t talk about writing. They talk about things that have nothing to do with writing. They talk about money and publishers and agents.
JOB: Why don’t you like exposition and is that dislike related to your impressionistic style?
WE: Exposition isn’t necessary. The Impressionist didn’t put in all the details and I don’t put in all the details in my books. I give you an impression of a physical scene, but not tell you about it in great detail. I give an impression of what someone looks like, not a detailed description. The dialogue must be cut to the bone so that it jumps out at you. The richness and the economy must overwhelm you. The basis of art is all in the Dordogne caves; that was real art. When they drew a buffalo they did it with a very few lines to suggest its sexuality and speed. It conveys much more to me than the buffalo that the Western artist draws. You give the illusion of exposition without exposition. The writer is a magician of illusions. They say, “It feels like a horse but it doesn’t look like a horse.” I want it to feel like a horse.
JOB: Is impressionism primarily a matter of style?
WE: It begins in style and style is its basis. You give a quick look in depth of what a person looks like rather than a detailed view of what that person looks like. You add something new. It’s a magic show with words. That’s why in my new book I call this worn out space vehicle The Magick Show, because they put on a magic show and startle the natives all over the universe. That is what the artist is doing; he’s startling the natives.
JOB: If there is one thing in your writing that you would call unique, is it your dialogue?
WE: I would think so. That, and some of the more rich passages of description of New Mexico. I think I caught something that no one ever caught, saw something that no one ever saw. And I wrote about it in a way that no one ever successfully did before. Lawrence spent a lot of time trying to do it. Most writers have ignored the West and avoided it because of its lack of sophistication. Twain spent time in the West but ignored it except in a few little things. I did try to write about it because I thought there was a niche there. And I think I succeeded. I can say this without arrogance because when I read it I feel as though somebody else wrote it.
JOB: Do you think you have lost readers because you have written so much about New Mexico? This question rests on the assumption that a reader must have some background or experience of the materials of a novel before he can fully appreciate it.
WE: I believe that writing is universal. If a Chinese person is sensitive, he will read a book about the Southwest and, if it is a work of genius, he will appreciate it without having been there. The work of all great writers has been about a place that they understood which very few people have ever been to. I would say that the artist fails when he cannot communicate to a person who is not familiar with that environment. The artist has failed if he cannot make that person believe it. If someone has had reasonable life experiences, through the imagination he can transpose what he reads to his own life, no matter how strange the book may be. I’ve never been in the slums of Chicago, but the successful passages in “The Man with the Golden Arm,” which I think is a very rich book, allow me to imagine it. So I am challenging what you are saying.
JOB: But certainly someone from England is at a great disadvantage in trying to read “The Great Gatsby.” Things that seem obvious to an American must be lost on someone from another country.
WE: A writer fails if he cannot communicate through the poetry of his language. When Thomas Wolfe writes about a butcher shop with the meat hanging outside, his poetry puts me there even though I’ve never been to this Southern town. To know a place and thus be familiar with it when a writer is talking about it is an added dimension but is not a true dimension. The true dimension is that poetic feeling.
JOB: How do you identify with bad writing?
WE: A critic should always put in a paragraph of the writing because then the poetry in the writing is always self-evident. The best poets today are prose writers. They don’t call it poetry. Poets are very lazy people who are usually found in academia. They write these little careless things between their alcoholic binges. A poet is simply a failed writer. They all, however, have a personality, which is improved by their drinking. Their poetry is so ambiguous and so vague that no one can say it’s bad because no one can say what they’re writing about. Poetry has to be one of two things; either it must be a statement of an emotion in very simple language, or it has to have the richness of our language. Our poets have neither. They’ve got a screwed-up head and they have no command of the English language. What I really resent is that they don’t have to work to produce this stuff while a prose writer must write a whole novel. A prose writer does more work in one day than a poet does in a lifetime. People say that the modern poets are fakes. They’re not fakes; they really are that stupid.
JOB: Do you outline books before you begin writing?
WE: Many people ask me if I outline a book, if I know what’s going to happen, if I know who these people are, or if I know the beginning and the end. And all I can say is that it depends on the book. Each book is different. Some I have outlined, rarely, but I have outlined a book. In other books I don’t have the slightest idea where I’m going; if I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t write the book because I’m curious to know what’s going to happen. So I write the book to find out. Incidentally, in that book which I outlined I stuck pretty closely to the outline. But I changed the ending, which was very different from the one I had conceptualized. That is the danger of taking advances on a specific book. You feel bound to stick to the outline. So I don’t take advances on a book until I’ve written it. In some books I have a vague idea of where it’s going and how it’s going to end and how it’s going to begin. But I don’t know what’s going to happen in between. I do know that it has to be about four hundred typewritten pages.
JOB: Do you ever get to a point in a novel, in “Castle Keep” for instance, where you want the castle to be preserved and yet the book requires that it not be?
WE: You puzzle with those questions as you go along and make decisions. Then you change those decisions. You don’t know until the last chapter what you’re going to abide by. If the book has been successfully written, the last chapter writes itself. The last chapter is inevitable. People who have great problems with the last chapter have written a bad book.
JOB: Was the real chateau destroyed?
WE: No. But in the legend of Hamlet he was not killed. Shakespeare decided he had to knock off the poor neurotic son of a bitch if the play was to make any sense at all. He had the courage to kill him. A lot of times I don’t have the courage. I try to save this person because I might want to write a book about him. I say I’ll keep that guy alive because he’ll be good material for another book.