A Conversation with William Gaddis
By John Kuehl and Steven Moore
When William Gaddis agreed to let us interview him, he elected the format favored by Vladimir Nabokov of written questions and answers. He also requested that the interview be "fairly brief," so we sent him only thirteen questions, accompanied by an invitation "to write as little or as much as you wish." Enclosed with his answers was a letter dated 12 January 1982, in which Mr. Gaddis mentioned the questions he had chosen not to answer. He said of the two treating his Harvard days, "I have little enthusiasm right now for reviving the Lampoon period, didn't know John Hawkes at College, believe I had an English survey course under Guerard but nothing beyond that." Queries like the one asking him to discuss the impact of "The Waste Land" on "The Recognitions" he had decided to "leave to the critics." Otherwise, his responses have been recorded below exactly as they were received. This is the first interview with Mr. Gaddis to be published in the United States; for that and other time-consuming courtesies, we are most grateful.
Q: There seems to be a noticeable undercurrent of autobiography in your fiction. Both Willie in "The Recognitions" and especially Thomas Eigen in "J R" bear more than a passing resemblance to their author. Yet you are also one of the most reticent of writers, avoiding publicity of any kind. What are your views on the place of autobiography in artistic creation and to what extent is Thomas Eigen a portrait of the artist?
WG: The question of autobiographical sources in fiction has always seemed to me one of the more tiresome going, usually what simply amounts to gossip and about as reliable, not that we don't all relish gossip. But it can be as inviting a trap for the bounty hunters as tracing down literary sources. A lot of it seems to spring from this urge to scrimp and ice the creative act, the creative personality, you get the extremes in nonsensically detailed questionnaires that show up in the mail, what is your favorite colour? on which side of the paper do you write? Because finally the work itself is going to stand or fall uniquely on its own. Does knowing Dreiser's intimate biographical details make his writing any the less clumsy? or knowing Butler’s finally have much to do with an appreciation of "The Way of All Flesh"? And how do you search out the "portrait of an artist" in a really great novel, is it Dmitri rather than Ivan? or Alyosha? even Smerdyakov? No, characters all draw on some contradictory level of their author’s life, as sure as Basil Seal lurked close as thieves under all that houndstooth suiting near to Tony Last.
Q: You said that you enjoy writing, but you have never discussed your writing habits. Do you keep a journal or notebooks? Do you have preferences as to when and where you work, etc?
WG: Have I said I enjoy writing? Some high moment and I probably did, but it’s nearer what Pascal, was it he? as I have it at second hand, said about no man differing more from another than he does from himself at another time. That incidentally may better explain a phenomenon like "The Brothers Karamazov." It certainly helps to explain my distaste for interviews, though this one may serve to set the record straight on a few points.
Q: It’s been said "The Recognitions" was edited down to its present size from a much longer manuscript. Is it true that you fundamentally agreed with the cuts suggested by your editors at Harcourt, Brace and World? How did the abandoned material differ from that in the final version? Have you come to regret any of the deletions? Did "J R" go through a similar process of editing? What part do revisions play in your compositional method?
WG: The story that "The Recognitions" was edited down to its present size from a much longer manuscript must have gained currency from a hasty review of my papers by someone who came across fragments there that I’d rejected myself. In a work of that length and time in the writing some of it was rewritten repeatedly, some scarcely at all, some cut, tossed out, recovered and placed elsewhere, some later inserted, some sequences worried at and tossed out entire. I suppose someday someone will really sit down and go through the whole heap of notes, queries, revisions, rewrites, corrected galleys, it’s nothing I’ve an appetite for. At any rate, to my best recollection once the finished manuscript was turned in to the publisher (which was, incidentally, Harcourt, Brace & Co., not Harcourt, Brace & World), editorial attentions to it had very little to do with its published length which may, in fact, with some of my last minute inserts have come out even longer. The only cutting suggestion I remember acceding to involved one long party too many, so I worked it into another party which I’m sure was an improvement. In the case of "J R" there was no editorial tampering at all.
Q: The pervasive and distinctive authorial voice of "The Recognitions" gives way in "J R" to a self-effacing voice that seems to serve only functional purposes. Also in J R there is an increased dependence on dialogue. For verisimilitude in "Lolita," Nabokov "travelled in school buses to listen to the talk of schoolgirls." Did you take any special measures to hear and note the speech patterns of any of the wide variety of people who speak in "J R"?
WG: Style and content must match, must be complementary, accounting in part for a difference between the two books, though the lack of a conventional narrative style had already jarred a good many readers of "The Recognitions" when it appeared, as its hapless reviews show. "J R" was started as a story which quickly proved unsatisfactory, inspired- here’s the legitimate gossip—by the postwar desecration of the Long Island village of Massapequa where my family had had property since around 1910, take a look at it now and you’ll see all the book’s worst hopes realized. In approaching "J R" as a novel, I was at pains to remove the author’s presence from the start as must be obvious. This was partly by way of what I mentioned earlier, obliging the thing to stand on own, take its own chances. But it was also by way of setting up a problem, a risk, in order to sustain my own interest, especially since the largely uninterrupted dialogue raised the further risk of presenting a convincing sense of real time without the conventional chapter breaks, white spaces, such narrative intrusions as "A week later . . ." How some of the writers I come across get through their books without dying of boredom is beyond me. As for what you call speech patterns, one is always listening and has got an ear or hasn’t, and without one, unless perhaps in dealing with an unfamiliar language and culture, no amount of your special measures like riding around on school buses will get you out of the swamp. Stanley Elkin for instance has an ear; C. P. Snow hadn’t. You see what I mean.
Q: A the time "J R" was published, it was reported that you had just finished a Western screenplay—a genre that seems to be worlds apart from your novels. What led you to write the screenplay? Was it ever filmed? Apart from the two, are there other pieces that you’ve written but have not published?
WG: That screenplay was an exercise and although the idea still intrigues me a good deal it’s on the shelf. So is what started as a Civil War novel and became a long cumbersome play called "Once At Antietam," which I put a year or two into at some point when I’d laid aside" J R" unfinished. And so is a long project that may never see more of the light than its opening pages in "J R" under the guise of Gibbs’ "Agape Agape," if anyone bothers to stitch them together. I’d like to think of it all, what’s eventually completed and what isn’t, in terms of Samuel Butler’s books "coming to him wanting to be written." It was also said of him that he wrote in order to have something to read in his old age and I’ve always rather liked that too.
Q: Your novels abound with literary allusions, and many who seem to be your favorite authors are mentioned and quoted. What authors do you read and admire that would not be obvious from your novels? Which writers, in or out of the American tradition, do you feel a kinship with?
WG: I imagine that some day I’ll sit down to try to sort out the writers whose work I’ve liked, or like, and why, and may have influenced mine, but right now it’s a distraction that serves no purpose of mine however much it might yours though I even wonder about that. So for all the queries about literary allusions, artistic creation, writing habits and the rest of it, I’d just leave you with Keats’ lines: "It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing."