"Thought of you and our conversations this morning when I read David Shields' Riff column in the NYT Magazine. I get the sense that you're not particularly engaged with him one way or another, but I find him...appealingly vexing, I guess. I can never figure out if I think he's a genius, or completely full of shit."
Sometime last year, knowing nothing of the manuscript he was completing, I wrote to Ron Currie Jr. with a single question I had about a particular distinction that, at the time, I believed was important. I have never met Ron in person, and we only came into epistolary contact due to our first books featuring cover art drawn by Anders Nilsen. But, as the quote above and interview below reveals, he is an author uninterested in assuming any posture dishonest to his own. The following conversation grew from my initial question in the form of a google document that we picked for several weeks, and that I'm happy to have been part of.
How about let’s begin with a novel that you’ve read recently and enjoyed, even admired. I’d like you to say something the novel taught you not to do in your own work, either due to what you perceive as a weak point in that novel or a strength.
In kind of a departure for me, I read Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley recently, and I really enjoyed it after a slowish start. The slowish start was due to what I think of as Tom Robbins Syndrome--you know, where a writer says to himself, “Okay, now to sit down and write something quirky-funny,” and every third line is a punchline, and let’s face it, no one’s funny enough to make every one of those punchlines soar. So you encounter a bunch of duds mixed in with the genuinely good gags, duds that yank you out of the warm liquid suspension of disbelief that we’re all after when we read. In other words, the writer’s trying too hard, and in novels, as in life, someone who tries too hard is a big turn-off. Also, most writers who suffer from TRS tend not to be very good line-by-line writers. This is anecdotal, I realize, but that’s my experience. Either they’re just not capable of top-notch prose, or they believe (incorrectly, I think) that fancy sentences will burden what they wish to be a brisk and somewhat breezy story, and so they dumb down their language. I guess the lesson, if there is one, probably reads something like: don’t be so deterministic. Don’t force the funny. In fact, don’t force anything. All that said, Thank You For Smoking was a lot of fun to read, and ultimately I was able to get past the half-funny jokes and occasionally anemic prose. Took the novel on its own terms, and enjoyed the hell out of it, though the denouement didn’t work for me 100%. A side note: I resolved not too long ago to stop using the word “denouement” because I’m not sure how to pronounce it. And yet, there it is again.
I assume you asked that question because you’ve had a reading experience like that yourself lately?
Oh yes, all the time. But I’m interested to know how you read, though, because through your fiction I get a sense of a general positivity, not so much in subject matter or tone, or even spiritual outlook. But you strike me as someone who at least believes in humankind and our art, the kind of writer who learns by way of admiration more than frustration.
It’s actually pretty funny that you got the impression that I “believe in humankind,” when in fact I spend most of my days muttering under my breath, or else just muttering in my head, about how badly we all suck. Lately, at age 36, I’ve taken to contemplating with some chagrin how much of a curmudgeonly old man I’ve become, the kind who, on my worst days, will definitely not give you your ball back if it comes flying over my fence. I had a conversation about this a while ago with a friend whose own misanthropy rivals and sometimes exceeds mine, and the (somewhat convenient) conclusion we reached was that what people label misanthropy or cynicism is, in fact, a sort of frustrated idealism. That idealism is probably what you found in the books, probably what gave you the impression that I believe in people. And I really do think that a sort of militant and chronically disappointed idealism is what’s roiling in me. I don’t hate people, but they do let me down on a pretty regular basis. Keep in mind that I include myself when I say “people.”
But uh, yeah, I think I certainly have learned a lot about how to write by reading stuff that I’ve admired. Probably more than I’ve learned from reading stuff that I didn’t think was so hot, though there are certainly always lessons in that.
I wonder just what you think “success” means today, for a novelist.
1) Eating, for a while, with money one makes from writing. 2) Being satisfied with the improbable good fortune of publishing a couple of books, regardless of how they sell or how they’re received critically, and then maybe even setting the whole thing aside and getting on with the rest of one’s life, without regret. 3) Caring more for people than for words—making that choice and feeling genuinely good about it. I’m not trying to be cute when I say these things. Really. I’m not trying to be flip. Because I want quite desperately to succeed in any of these ways, and haven’t, yet. Except with the first one. I’ve done that for six years now. And it’s great, and it’s also horrifying. But no one wants to hear about the horrifying part. And good for them. I get it. I worked shitty jobs for a long time, too, and that version of me doesn’t want to hear about the existential woes of my older self, either. The younger me is too busy washing the day off himself, and lying to his landlord about when he’ll have the rent, to care much about how he’ll feel a decade later, with smooth hands and a decent bank account, no wife, no kids, and nothing to worry about aside from whether he’s writing good sentences. I mean, in this economy? Sentences? Books? Bah.
But now I guess I am being flip, or at least insincere. Naturally I do care about sentences and books, even in this economy. Especially in this economy.
I’m curious about that younger you, actually, and where you think the impulse toward narrative might have come from. My guess is that it was story over language that got you into this field. My other guess is that young Ron Currie wasn’t often found writing villanelles.
Interestingly, that younger me was a much better and more dedicated reader. He probably wouldn’t have had to look up “villanelle” on Wikipedia, for example. But your guess is accurate in a broad sense. Of course there are details and nuances and caveats—I mean, I love the language, love the way I can occasionally make it perform like a circus dog. I love how language continues to reveal itself as essentially math, which is weird because I had no great love for math while I was in school. But ultimately I am in this for story, and story was what made me want to write in the first place. My appreciation for story came, quite simply, from loneliness. I was a weird, lonely kid, and the stories I read helped mitigate that loneliness. Which I’d guess is the underlying reason we seek out narrative in all its forms, right? We watch television because we want to laugh, or to be moved in some way, but we also watch it simply because without the television on the house is very dark and quiet during the time after the dinner dishes have been washed and before we’re ready to turn our brains off for the night. Wallace described reading good fiction, quite accurately, as a way to feel less alone--maybe the only way to feel less alone. In that case he wasn’t talking about having agreeable made-up company, but about solipsism, and how the experience of genuine empathy can release us from the prison of our own brains, our own eyes and ears, our own singular and narrow and inaccurate apprehension of the world. So narrative—story—can and has done that for me.
Wallace is interesting, here, because now this description of his is being doubly abused. First by a school of writing that indulges the self’s loneliness as somehow primary, a group of emergent writers who view estrangement and solitude as genuine energetic sources for fiction. Secondly by a similar, even overlapping school, who have taken Wallace’s early maxims about sincerity as the basis for art. The argument being, well, in a world as obviously disingenuous and abraded by hypocrisy as ours, even the basic act of saying “I feel ____” and meaning it is a meaningful act, so stop right there and call it a day.
Considering how thematic honesty and attempts at true connectivity are in Everything Matters!, I’m curious how you take Wallace’s point now, fifteen or so years later.
For starters, I think taking Wallace’s early maxims, regarding sincerity and post-irony, as gospel itself constitutes a pretty obvious irony. Like most of us, Wallace was a much purer person in intent than in deed (the deed, in this case, being his writings). He knew that. That said, I do believe articulating how one feels without affect is, in today’s America, a courageous act, and possibly a subversive act, if not a revolutionary one. There’s actually a long passage in the book I’m working on now that addresses this. It begins, “In a world where people daily put on false indifference along with their deodorant and makeup,” and goes on for another page and a half in the same vein. This gives you an idea of where I’m at, with that. The truth is, I absolutely loathe irony as it’s usually wielded in literature. It’s rarely all that clever, first off, and stratospheric cleverness is the only thing that justifies its use, since irony and emotional forthrightness are often inversely proportional. But I’ve already gone too far, here, and am talking a little bit over my own head. Look, as with my writing, everything is gut-level for me, totally intuitive and therefore tough to articulate (how’s that for irony?), but I know that when I see someone smirking when they obviously want to cry, or laugh, or scream, it pisses me off. And I channeled that anger into the title of my second novel: Everything Matters!. Predictably, I got dinged for the title by a few members of the snark brigade. Which is fine, I get it. I sort of want to ding myself, sometimes.
People are always telling me, at least partially out of sympathy, that the second novel is the most difficult to write. Given that God is Dead sort of straddles the borderland between collection and novel, and the way Everything Matters! is clear in its novelness, what unique challenges did you encounter with Flimsy Plastic Miracles?
I automatically distrust all axioms, and “the second novel is the most difficult to write” strikes me as a sentiment that probably seems true until you try to write a third novel. That said, I always tell people that my second book was a walk in the park, but as time has gone on I’ve started to suspect that this may be a bit of revisionist personal history. For some reason the way I remember it is as this dulcet period of limitless creative inspiration, but a quick check of email correspondence from that period reveals that, as usual, I was carping about how tough the writing was, how uncertain I was of its merit, etc. The thing is, at the time my father was dying slowly, and I think I really dove into the writing of Everything Matters! as an escape from the daily dose of grief that came from watching him go. And maybe that’s why I remember the composition of the novel in such rosy hues. It looked pretty good by comparison with the other circumstances of my life at the time.
So fast-forward to the present day, with a nearly-finished third book in hand. It was an absolute slog to get here, with a whole other novel written and discarded, and a good deal of whatever artistic confidence I had lying eviscerated back there on the battlefield. At the same time, the process of thrashing my way to a third book has reconfigured everything that I do as a writer, and everything I aim for. You’ll notice, for example, that I’m sort of studiously referring to this third book as a “book” rather than a “novel”. This is an indication of how my philosophy, if I can really be said to have one (and I probably can’t, actually, who am I trying to kid) has changed. Looking back, it’s possible that the problems I had with writing a third book weren’t nearly as complex as we tend to make them out to be. Maybe I was just bored with the novel. Maybe subconsciously I’d become convinced that it was an archaic mode that didn’t really speak to my experience, or to the way I perceived the larger world. Maybe all I needed was a new target, a new form. I think I found it, but it cost me a quite a bit. Lots of smoldering rubble back there.
Tell me about the thing, or at the very least tell me about the nature of this boredom and what exactly has changed in the world outside the novel to render its form archaic.
Well I found myself more and more fascinated by our cultural obsession with “true” stories. With what we call reality. I found myself struggling to figure out why so many people hate the shit out of James Frey, and what made them think they were entitled to have their money refunded after buying his book. And in trying to suss out our fascination with “reality” through writing a book, I realized that I didn’t believe anymore in the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. What I mean is, I didn’t believe in it in the way I have to in order to write a novel well. So I wrote something else. This book exists in the DMZ between what is and is not factual, but I consider it a true story--at least as true as Eat Pray Love, “Real Housewives of Orange County,” or “Full Metal Jacket.” Let me ask you--have you read Reality Hunger? I should mention that I hadn’t read it until I was well on my way with this non-novel I keep talking about.
I think people feel the way they feel about James Frey, or some do, is because he presents himself as a raging and unapologetic asshole, and seems to revel in that presentation. Which for me is less hate-worthy than tiresome—I find both his schtick and his self-satisfaction with our ingratitude for that schtick to run precisely counter that point you made earlier, about narrative’s purpose and loneliness. Then there is Shields, who claims to be bored by contemporary novels. But that's tough because he also claims not to read them. My personal reaction was basically to nod along to certain parts and then find the rest repellent for its tone.
Which I suppose raises the next question: given how many new windows we have into the personal, non-authorial lives of authors, do you think it’s important, today, what kind of person an author is? I suppose Bret Easton Ellis comes to mind, along with a general curiosity for what would have happened if Norman Mailer was on twitter. Speaking specifically of narrative rather than experimental prose, can we trust public assholes to create characters who are not, or not just?
If I can backtrack a minute? Because I want to say something not related to the question: I know and concur that James Frey is a raging and unapologetic asshole. I’d even strike “unapologetic” and substitute “proud of his assholery” asshole. If there were any lingering doubt about this, the whole “fiction factory” thing put that doubt to rest. I guess my point is, assholery aside, I did not understand, and continue to not understand, why people believed (and a court concurred) that they were entitled to a huffy reclamation of the purchase price of A Million Little Pieces when it was revealed that Frey had made things up in the book. They felt they’d been lied to. Okay. But so what? I lie to people in my novels. You lie to people in your novels. Presumably both our readerships still harvest emotional and intellectual value from what we write, despite the fact that our novels are nothing but packages of lies. And besides that, think of how much of our daily allowance of media is presented as truth, as reality, when in fact even cursory fact-checking reveals that it is adulterated, airbrushed, modified to serve agendas, or else just outright lies. And then think about how willing and even eager we are, often, to accept those lies as the truth, because it makes us less afraid, or affirms our worldview, or turns us on. So why should it be any different for Frey, for the millions who read A Million Little Pieces and found fellowship, solace, affirmation, hope? Why does the fact that he only spent two nights in jail, rather than a couple of months, strip the book of its pertinence to these readers’ lives? The whole thing, in my mind, devolves into a pseudo-philosophical contemplation of what actually constitutes “reality” or “truth,” especially in today’s sociopolitical context, and I understand this isn’t a debate that most of Frey’s readers are interested in. But maybe they should be, is all I’m suggesting. Maybe they should have at least considered it, before they lit the torches and broke out the pitchforks.
Getting back to your question: I absolutely love the notion of Mailer on Twitter. Maybe we should start an account and try to channel the great man. As far as Ellis is concerned, you know, I’ve read most of his books, and I like them, generally. But I don’t like them for the usual reasons. In other words, I don’t experience any real empathy with the people who populate his stories, even in the darker parts of my being, which are numerous and pretty damn dark. I do consistently experience a creeping dread when I read his stuff, though, one that carries over into my days when I set the book down, like a nightmare that won’t quite recede even after you wake up and get out of bed. That’s probably an accomplishment of some kind, on his part. And I think he’s got balls, undeniably. I mean, I like to believe I write out-there books, but I don’t think I have the constitution to publish something like American Psycho with my name on the cover. My mother reads this stuff, after all. That said, he’s obviously an insincere prick, or at least likes to behave like one when the cameras are on, so to speak. He said something in an interview recently about how he loathed Wallace’s sincerity. Fair enough, but you’re kind of an asshole for thinking that way, dude.
Maybe this is a better, more relevant answer to your question: I am concerned, sometimes, about how much readers could “know” about me from going online, particularly from checking out my pages on social networking sites. Because that’s my real, warts-and-all self, mostly, and it’s intended for friends and family, and I do believe instinctively that as authors we need to retain a good deal of man-behind-the-curtain status for people to be able to read our books as we intend. Because I’m never as intelligent, or insightful, or compassionate, as I am on the page. I will inevitably disappoint. I have disappointed. People have expressed surprise, in person and to my face, that I am the person who wrote my books. I think they expected someone smarter, and maybe also crazier.
So is there a temptation to provide that for them? To me, the most interesting quality of the D’Aagata book is the character he creates by exaggerating what he seems to know is his uglier side. On the other hand, there’s a stirring explanation by David Daley at Salon that treated Franzen as an anti-persona, a complete if abhorrent presentation of his true self. So one solution seems to be some slightly savvy version of the true self that doesn’t skew so far to the savvy as to sacrifice whatever “self” currently means. Where do you stand regarding our new awareness of deliberate sharing?
There is a temptation, sure, especially with this book I just finished. I’ve given the protagonist my name, and he’s co-opted a shitload of my personality and circumstances, so the idea of playing with my own persona, insofar as anyone gives a shit, to accompany the book, just makes sense. But that maybe misses the point, because the whole point of the work itself, I think, of the books, is that I AM that smart, and also that crazy, but only in the work. That’s the place where the smart and crazy come to the fore, are given full expression. It’s a safe place to be smart and crazy without exploding my daily existence a la Bukowski. “Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you may be fierce and original in your work.” Right? And then, further, if we want to use the D’Agata example, if he and others have turned up the volume on the aspects of his personality that could cause people to describe him as an asshole, then isn’t he, to us, in effect, simply an asshole? Does it need to be any more complicated than that? If this book is my only meaningful interaction with him, as is likely to be the case, then can’t the asshole in the book be what he actually is, and can’t that be termed reality? My reality? After all, if for example I encounter someone at a bar, and for whatever reason that someone takes a swing at me, and this is the only meaningful experience I ever have with that person, then that’s all he’ll ever be to me: the asshole who punched me at the bar. And I won’t be interested in or swayed by character witnesses to the contrary. That was my experience; therefore that is my reality. I realize this probably seems self-evident, but whenever a book like D’Agata’s hits, the conversations always seem to be predicated on what is real and what isn’t—there’s the presumption that some sort of ruse or bait-and-switch is at work, that there’s a REAL John D’Agata lurking behind the construct in the book. We talk less, it seems to me, about the reality of what’s been presented to us. There’s always this discussion about greater compexity, but we don’t often assume that complexity in our everyday lives. If someone acts like a prick, they’re a prick. Why should this be any different? It’s just another mode of interaction, after all. Instead of having a beer with D’Agata, we’re having a read with him. So in that way, my read on D’Agata hews pretty close to the Salon piece on Franzen—though I think D’Agata and Franzen probably take different paths to authenticity.
So maybe this brings us all the way back to my discomfort about revealing too much of myself to readers. Maybe, in fact, fucking with people’s ideas about who I am (again, insofar as they care) is a way to keep the focus on the work itself, to pull the curtain closed again while simultaneously appearing to throw it open via Facebook, Twitter, et al.
And now that the non-novel is edited and prepared. Will you, or I suppose can you, return to fiction? Do you believe any more or less, now, in the distinction between fiction and non-? And if not, isn’t that a little, um, convenient?
My instinct here, my first thought, turned out to be sort of evasive, maybe even nonsensical when contrasted with what I said before. I was going to answer by saying that I’m not sure I’ve actually departed from fiction altogether. If I’m lucky there will be some discussion of that when the book comes out, and I’m sure some people will say that I’ve written a novel, that the book is, in fact, fiction. And they’ll have good reasons for that assertion, and evidence to back it up, though I will continue to disagree with them overall. The book is not true, strictly speaking—but in precisely the way that A Million Little Pieces is not true. The difference between me and Frey is that I admit this up front, and hope that it will become a lens through which readers view the book. I want the book’s not-trueness to serve as a kind of kaleidoscope, hopefully without being too meta- or otherwise precious. Also I want the book to work all on its own, simply as story, free of any literary gamesmanship or pseudo-philosophical constructs. It’s possible—maybe even likely—that I’m being naive in these hopes.
Anyway, I think the answers to your questions are: Yes, I can return to fiction, and probably will (in fact, part of the reason I’m so convinced that I haven’t written a novel, here, is because I feel the absence of the limitless freedom that true fiction provides—it aches like a phantom limb, and I want to get back to it, reclaim it). As far as what I believe re the distinction between fiction and non-, like a lot of what I believe, like the truth itself, it’s pretty fluid. It’s shifted a bit to the left or right just since we started this interview, really. I think the definition changes depending on what we’re talking about. There are different standards, aren’t there? The interpersonal standard that’s understood between friends, family, lovers: just the facts, ma’am. Straight journalism shares that standard, most people would agree. Then things get murky. Just ask Mike Daisey.
Maybe, how about, this: if there’s anything factual in what you’ve written, anything at all, then we cannot classify the whole as fiction. Because why can’t we turn that most strict of standards—the standard that says if anything is made up then the whole thing is false, the standard that James Frey was crucified for—on its head?