So, truthfully, how did you come up with the questions you’re about to answer?
Well, here’s the thing. Every time I attempted to actually compose a self-interview, I ended up answering every question like a professional athlete—you know: It is what it is. Just trying to take it one game at a time. My understanding was that I was shooting B-12 into my ass. I play the percentages. So I did the one thing I know how to do in the face of sounding like a cheese dick: I asked people to give me questions to answer so that I wouldn’t sound like a cheese dick. And then, if I didn’t like their questions, I altered them to what I’d like them to be, essentially rewriting my own self interview. Kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure, but slightly less awesome. I also took some questions from transcripts I found online of Michael Silverblatt interviewing David Foster Wallace and Vikram Chandra. These questions are denoted with a handy asterisk.
What do you like better, puppies or unicorns?
Unicorns taste better and aren’t known as biters, but puppies tend to grow up into dogs and I love dogs, whereas unicorns are known to grow angry with age, like chimps, and I have a deep and abiding fear of chimps. Did you read that article in Esquire about those chimps that ate that guy’s face off? And his fingers? And pulled his genitalia off? Fully grown unicorns have been known to do the same thing (though only when cornered) and thus, all things being equal, I’m all about puppies.
If you were a sandwich, what kind of cheese would you have between your bread?
I’ve lately become very interested in horseradish cheddar cheese.
Well, what thrilled me about the book is that around two hundred pages in what I felt about it was that it just began to get better and better and better. I started to like it more and more, and look forward to going back to reading it and felt a kind of, I don’t know, tenderness toward it, toward both its characters and its narrator, because of the extraordinary effort that was going into writing it. It didn’t seem like difficulty for difficulty’s sake; it seemed like immense difficulty being expended because something important about how difficult it has become to be human needed to be said, and that there weren’t other ways to say that.*
Thank you, that’s very kind. I absolutely agree with you, though I’m not entirely certain you asked me a question. Did you have something else in mind?
Well it does seem to me that, unfortunately, if you haven’t encountered — if you can’t look at a jellyfish and see how miraculously complex it is — I don’t know why it is, but people seem to look at, say, a computer and say, “Well that’s the computer, I don’t know how it works, but it does–” you know, “–the silly job I give to it.” And so they don’t know how to look at prose, something man-made or something natural, and see that its beauty is in resolving complexity into a kind of organism — order.*
I look at a jellyfish and I feel like I know what it is, but that might be related to the fact that I must have 900 channels and at least half of them are the Discovery Channel and also because I really like that episode of Friends where Monica steps on a jellyfish and Joey and Chandler pee on her. So I get that. I agree that computers are very complex but I don’t feel like I give the computer a silly job per se. Downloading movies and music and updating my Facebook…that’s serious business, and I get that. But about my book, which I’m not entirely certain you’ve read, yeah, it’s totally a kind of organism-–-order. Whatever that means.
Five guilty pleasure pop songs?
First, pretty much anything Neil Diamond sang prior to “Heartlight”. Once he began singing songs about E.T., I began to suspect that Neil wasn’t entirely about creating great music. However, in his last two albums, both produced by Rick Rubin, he’s recaptured that old desire that created “Solitary Man”. Neil isn’t “pop” exactly, but he’s certainly a guilty pleasure. So, there’s Neil Diamond. Knowing that, my next four guilty pleasures, in no particular order:
“Rush, Rush” by Paula Abdul. This is a terrible song. I know that. But I always liked the video – Keanu’s finest role to date – and the chorus sticks in my head for days.
Most anything by Pink. Here’s the thing: I can’t name a single Pink song, but whenever I find myself nodding my head to some innocuous song on the radio and pondering how it is I’ve lived my entire life not knowing said song, I look down and my Sirius tells me it’s Pink. So I guess I’m pretty much her #1 fan.
“What Goes Around” by Justin Timberlake. I want to hate Justin Timberlake. I do. I should. I mean, when I was 16, I actually owned Minor Threat albums. Like, that spun around on a record player. So by all accounts, I should not like anything about Justin Timberlake. But, well, I fucking love this song. It comes up on random play on my Zune and I’m going to play it five times in a row, or until my wife comes into my office and asks me what the fuck is wrong, have I had some kind of seizure?
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. This really isn’t a guilty pleasure. It’s generally considered a pretty amazing song, but subsequent to Jackson dying, I keep hearing it and every time, it strikes me again how perfect it is as a pop song. Oh, and I also typically only wear a single silver glove when I’m at home alone, which, while frightening to my two dogs, makes me feel very free.
What about yourself now would surprise your 18-year-old self?
That I’m living in the greater Palm Springs area, for sure. As a kid, I hated it here but now, twenty years later, I find it very peaceful and rewarding to live a fairly quiet life on a golf course inside a gated community. It’s not the life I imagined, but it turns out it’s the life I wanted. I don’t think the 18 year old me would be surprised to find himself a writer—I’ve wanted that for as long as I can recall.
Now I’m curious. One of the heroes of that first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, is a typewriting monkey. And I know — I love a comment in a Louie Simpson poem. It’s a recent poem. He’s talking about the numbers of monkeys and typewriters that it would take to produce “Hamlet” and in the poem his wife says, “Well Shakespeare was the monkey who produced ‘Hamlet.’”*
I didn’t actually write Red Earth and Pouring Rain. That was Vikram Chandra. But what I can tell you is that there are days when I feel like that monkey, when I feel like I’m just pounding keys hoping to find some combination of words that means something. I’ve felt that way through entire stories (and a novel once, too, that has never seen the light of day) before and yet something drives me to complete them, even when I know intuitively that I’m writing myself into a corner that really doesn’t need to be explored. I guess part of being a writer is that desire to see the story through sometimes, to see just how dreadful the process can be so that when it really is working, you can recognize that, too.
But I did want to talk to you about that idea of randomness. Randomness in structure seemed to be the poles of that novel.*
It’s been the pole of several of my books and stories, really. I guess because I tend to write about people standing on a precipice where the choices are madness or, well, something slightly less than madness, but very rarely is that thing normalcy, I tend to explore the issues related to random events. Choices made or not made, the sudden appearance of violence or violent emotion; the moments in life where unusual inspiration or insurrection causes a person to do something they may later regret.
Who is the one writer you love that not enough people love?
Daniel Woodrell. I think he is an American original. He has a style that cannot be imitated. He writes novels that don’t pander to anything other than the story they must tell – if middle America doesn’t want to read a novel about Ozark people doing nefarious things, well, fuck ‘em, I say – and he takes big chances in all of his work. Go out today and buy Winter’s Bone or The Death of Sweet Mister and you will be changed, people.
On the page before the final page of Love and Longing in Bombay—what we call the penultimate page among those of us who are multi-syllabic—we learn for the first time the person’s name to whom these stories are being told and what interests me is that in the conventional way of structuring framed tales and stories, the frame is what’s defined first. Here, we learn on the last page what the outermost layer of narrative transmission is. A young man in Bombay is being told stories in a smoky bar by an older man. The young man is a computer programmer and it seems as if in an almost preternatural way, the older man is telling stories that are meant to heal him without our being told exactly what his problems are. The young man’s problems are suggested but not directly named. He seems to be, one, homesick; two, recovering from a relationship that’s gone awry; three, consequently suffering some kind of sexual confusion that may to do with the death of a sibling early on or at least a disappearance of a mirroring figure.*
First, none of the stories in Other Resort Cities take place in Bombay and only one or two has a scene anywhere near a bar. So maybe you didn’t read very closely. Fine. No problem. But I agree that these are stories about people who, periodically, find themselves homesick, but I think it’s really that they feel melancholy for a life they used to live – and not even a good one – vs. a place they used to live, though of course setting plays a big role here.
Relationships absolutely go awry and death and disappearance also occurs frequently. But I think that’s true in life: old people die, but so do young people, of course, and the people you love for long periods of time leave you suddenly, often for no other reason than that they decided they loved someone more than you. So these can be universal issues in fiction. I feel like what I’m doing in this book, more often than not, is that I’m dealing with the lasting impression of these things, the ghosts of these actions and how these ghosts tend to haunt the living for many, many year.
So you write these literary stories and novels and you also write Burn Notice novels. Isn’t that like an Israeli marrying a Palestinian?
Writing is writing and that I have had the unique opportunity to earn a living writing is all I could ever ask for—to make a life out of creating made up scenarios in my head is pretty amazing, really, and that I get to do it every day is particularly edifying for me. But look, here’s the thing: I use different muscles in everything I write—be it fiction or journalism or a lecture or a book review—and it all boils down to the fact that I’m doing what I love and no one can ever make me feel bad for doing that. It’s good to have several skills as a writer and if I can write literary fiction and commercial fiction equally well, that’s a bonus for me.
No, no, no. It seems to me — this is what I noticed, and maybe it’s not there. But it seems to me that on the one hand that in Infinite Jest, by my guest David Foster Wallace, there’s a very high-tech tennis academy bent on training prodigies. And prodigies can be trained and one might say that the result of such training in the novel might be a novel like LETTERS, by John Barth, and that there’s a lot of internal structure, a lot of complicated intertextual exchange, that brilliance is in a way the subject of that novel even while it attempts to blow itself up. It’s like the mad scientist who says, “I’m going to take everyone and all of my characters with me!” And then there’s another kind of school, it seems to me, that maybe up until around maybe 1973 it was perhaps important to be smart. But then suddenly you looked outside the universities, and you said, “Well these people in the university are not all that interesting, and these people outside the university speak an entirely different language, value entirely different things, and are being blown to bits not by the training to be prodigies, but by the hopelessness of having nothing but addictions to erect structures upon. And so what goes on in this book seems to be that there’s a second world, almost like a second chance, that one can be that kind of high performing tennis acrobat or you can completely fall apart and become someone who enters a different set of metaphors which all have to do with something called recovery, in which the book seems in some sense to believe. Am I way off here?*
Uh, yeah. Uhm. I really, uh, don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
Well in the final story, which is the most complicated in terms of its narrative structure or the most inversions occur, there is a story about the function of storytelling. A young man has come back to India and told about the bomb that has exploded in Japan. The children in the village are slowly experiencing cracks—hairline fractures that seem to extend and extend—and it’s not until a mother tells a praising story that the cracks begin to heal. So somehow or other growing up is presented as a process of fracturing and that modernity seems to be something that only increases the possibility of fracture: the bomb, computers, computer programs, forms of communication that are not face-to-face and that may be destructive or manipulated; and stories seem to be the mediating or healing possibility. Now I wonder do you really think that or is that a convenient metaphor?*
Actually, no, that’s not the last story. The last story is called “Rainmaker” and it’s about a college professor who also happens to grow and sell marijuana. It’s not very complex in terms of its narrative structure – I think that’s probably the story “Walls” you’re thinking of – but I think what’s interesting about “Rainmaker” is that it’s one of the few stories in the collection that spawned from something true. I was writing a story about sprinkler technology for a magazine and the whole time I kept thinking, Why the fuck am I writing this? This is the most boring story ever to be published in a magazine—I was writing it for a golf magazine—and anyone who stops to read this story is most likely suffering from some kind of brain injury. So when I finally finished this story I skulked around my house for a week, angry about what a crap job I did on the magazine piece, but also angry that I was writing stories about fucking sprinkler, when I suddenly discovered that I could use this absolutely meaningless sprinkler information I had – and I had pages and pages and pages of technical information about sprinklers, none of which ever made it into the original magazine article, mind you – in fiction. And slowly the genesis of the main character of “Rainmaker” started to formulate in my mind: an ex-sprinkler technology guru who ends up teaching college because he’s been blackballed out of the sprinkler business. And I was off.
It is what it is. I just gave 110% and put my faith in Jesus. Jesus totally supports my literary endeavors. He’s in my corner big time. Him and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction. Because I always ask myself: What Would Dave Navarro Do?