Curtis White: An Interview

conducted by Jeremy M. Davies and A D Jameson
as part of “Writing’s Dirty Secret”

WDS: Do you use specific materials when writing? And do you have any particular rituals?

CURTIS WHITE: For each work I have a different set of rituals and devices. In my mind at least. Mostly it has meant writing with a fountain pen on long yellow legal tablets. But once it meant writing on a small, portable, cheap typewriter and pretending I was playing the piano.

Which project was that?

My first story, “Mahler’s Last Symphony.”

Do you prefer a specific type of fountain pen?

I have a little harem of them. One is a stout, chrome Cross. It is tumescent in my hands. Two others are hand made by a local guy who harvests his own wood for the bodies. Lovely things. I love the skritch-skratchy feel of the fountain pen. Quite sensuous. And the way the ink flows. When it flows. When it isn’t driving you mad by emptying out in the middle of a sentence. I think my lengthy current project (see below) is just an excuse to write with a fountain pen.

How about computers? Do you use them?

I’m ashamed to say that my last book, The Barbaric Heart, was written entirely (almost) at my laptop. Much to my surprise, the prose was more fluid than usual.

My current work is being done in 10 case-bound, 8 ½ x 11 ruled notebooks. My plan is to fill all 10 (@2,000 pages) and then die. This will be the first time that I have included dying in the composition process.

Can you tell us anything about this new work? Is it fiction or nonfiction?

It’s everything done all at once. Kind of like trying to create the infinitely hot, dense dot that the universe banged out of.

The computer has been a big deal in one dramatic way: you don’t have to retype things if you make revisions. Endless revisions. The revising process is now infinitely richer because you can sit there and dream away, or find things and insert. Revision is now a joy comparable to the original act of creation. Okay, you got me to say something nice about computers. Happy?

Sure, although computers sometimes make revision too easy. Do you ever find that to be the case? Are the specific dangers?

No, I love sitting at the computer playing with the text. It has really freed me to get things exactly as I want them.

Is there a practical origin for your distaste for computers—that is, a way they’ve interfered with your work rather than aiding it?

Not really. It’s interfered with the publishing and promotion of my books, but that’s a familiar problem about the movement of book reviewing to blogging.

What other materials do you feel you need to have at hand in order to write? Do you prefer to have any favorite foods or drinks while writing?

Cappuccino. Mas café. And I sit in my 1880s Eastlake rocker with the pillows propping up my bulging cervical disc. My disc which was destroyed by spending too much time at the computer, craning forward, writing things like this. That feels better.

Each project seems to have its own set of fetishes. Some are constant (coffee), others change. I wrote The Middle Mind in a small arbor in my yard. That seemed to be the place for that book. Haven’t written there since.

Do you think these locations or sets of fetishes have any reflection in the finished book? Is that arbor anywhere in The Middle Mind? (Adam: I first read The Middle Mind while flying to Bangkok for the first time, and it’s now difficult for me to reread that book without thinking about that trip.)

Funny. I watched the first two season of The Wire sick in bed with the flu. Now I can’t think about let alone watch the series without feeling that I’m somehow sick. Your first question is too metaphysical for me. The fetishes are just part of the sensuality of writing.

How often do you write? Do you have a set schedule?

I’d like to write every day, but it seems as if I write intensively when I have an idea then I have longish breaks. Up to a year. When I am writing, it seems to flood easily and pleasurably. Like coming. I always write in the morning right after breakfast. First thing. Sometimes I revise in the afternoon or write in the evening if music has inspired me in some way. That is often work that I regret the next day. That’s why it’s good to have the “scratch out” option.

I’m only good for 1–2 hours. After that, I’m stupid. Might as well play tennis or ride my bike. I suppose I could write longer but it wouldn’t be as good and I wouldn’t take the strange erotic pleasure in it that I do. I’m all too Freudian. Sublimation of erotic energies from all those orgies I don’t have anymore. I say “anymore” because I know writers are supposed to be scoundrels and real swinging dicks. I don’t want to disappoint anyone.

Have you found it necessary to adopt, or develop, a certain persona in order to work? You’ve elsewhere said words to the effect that everyone is playing out some movie role in their head, or a mix of roles—is that something you do when writing? Is there someone you’re trying to be, or not to be?

In the fiction the persona making is all in the characters. I was surprised to find late in my development as a fiction writer that I had a real talent for creating very particular voices for characters. In the non-fiction the only persona is Me. The voice of the brilliantly cranky rebel who makes revolution through critique and humor. I have to admit, that’s a persona that is very close to me. I “hold him dear.”

What kind of environment do you prefer to work in?

I used to listen to music but now it’s just distracting. I always read something first, usually philosophy or history or biography, because I find that reading suggests things to me. I can always find a way to integrate what I’m reading into what I’m writing. That often makes me seem academic and pretentious, but it’s really just me being playful. Also it makes it easier to steal from people that I know are smart. Like Freud. He was smart. I’m stealing a lot from him at the moment.

As for adverse circumstances, I can write while my parrots are screaming. Try that.

Can you name some of the previous writers who were important for your earlier works? And do you think that there’s been a particular progression?

Nabokov. Nabokov. And Nabokov. A little James and Wallace Stevens. After the first book, though, I pretty much declared myself an autonomous and self-governing state. I think about books always, but I keep them at all cool distance from the real work of creation.

Do you keep a diary or any other kind of record of your thoughts during the writing process?

I keep a reading journal. Occasionally if things aren’t going well I’ll look there to see what I can steal or do a riff on. I only keep notes on really piquant stuff from the Great Books. Stealing from Tacitus feels better (to me) than stealing from some wet rag writing for an MLA audience. The literary criticism and most of the philosophy of the last 30 years should be burned. The MLA should be dissolved. AWP should be subjected to some sort of gulag. No Hyperboreans there (that’s stealing from Nietzsche).

The only things that I take notes for tend to be things that I never end up writing. Little idea pages in my reading journal. Almost as if it was interesting to have that idea but not interesting to do anything with it.

What do you think has changed over the past thirty years that has resulted in your finding contemporary work so uninteresting? (For instance, is it due to changes like the commercialization of publishing, the rise of small presses, the institutionalization of writing, lack of funding, etc.?)

Mostly it’s just that I got old and experienced and stopped finding anything new to learn especially from new work. I can admire and even be astonished by work without really learning much from it. So I’ve gravitated to reading mostly philosophy and history and listening to lots of music. Just discovered Benjamin Britten. Learning lots there. Too bad I’m not a musician.

Do you see your own work as happening in stages?

Varies. With America’s Magic Mountain, I began with a draft of paragraph by paragraph paraphrases of Mann. When that was done (first 150 or so pages), I went back and rewrote the whole thing without looking at Mann. All longhand drafts on yellow legal tablets. When that was done, I did the same thing again. There are at least three complete longhand versions of that book. Then I entered it on the computer and revised it again. Rewrote the whole thing. Finally, I couldn’t remember what bits were from Mann or not. Now if I look at Mann I’m honestly surprised to see language there that I thought was mine.

Adam: I read America’s Magic Mountain side by side with The Magic Mountain; it seemed to me necessary, as I’d never read Mann’s novel—or anything by Mann—before.

Jeremy: When you talk about language having migrating from the original Mountain to yours, are you talking about a particular translation?

Yes, I use the old Knopf Lowe-Porter. There was a new translation a few years back, but I prefer reading old books that I find in used bookstores. Again, sensuality.

Could you talk a little about the motivation behind such a committed involvement with another writer’s language (even at the remove of translation)? Does the process you describe above bear any relationship to your other work? Are any other projects of yours based on particular works of literature?

Yes, actually, I based two books—Requiem and America’s Magic Mountain—on David Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Infinite Jest. It was so good for me to be here at ISU with David. I was finally in a place where I had someone around me to challenge me to do better work. They weren’t so much influences on my style as opportunities to conversation. As if I were saying, here’s how I’d do that. It was a truth that sadly I was never able to talk to Dave about.

How long does it take you to finish a project?

Usually about two years. I always want them to last the rest of my life because I don’t really want to write more books because then I seem to get trapped into publishing them and that is usually a very dismal experience. I won’t go into the bitter details.

I never want another project, but then I don’t like the emptiness of my mornings, the putzing around with the bird feeders, and I don’t like not having the sensual pleasure of scratching paper with a fountain pen, so it’s rarely long. I’m usually working on something before the last thing has appeared in print.

We wouldn’t mind hearing some of those bitter details. Has publishing gotten worse over the past thirty years, or has it always been unpleasant for you?

All the sad stories about editors and agents and reviewers and rejection are beside the point. Every writer has a small basket of letters from editors and stupid reviews. But I think there is a bottom line.

It is still possible to write in good faith. When I’m sitting in God’s lap, that’s as it should be. Writing in bad faith is thinking about anything other than the work itself, especially thinking about “is this publishable?” How can I write this so that I’ll get lots of 5 stars on Amazon? You might as well say “Think I’ll go make some ideology. Think I’ll do some propaganda work for the status quo.” Bad faith. Unhappily, 95% of writers don’t know this. They just want to have success or even fame so that they can fill the hole in them. I have written in bad faith. You see the opportunity and you run with it as far as you can. In my case, commercial and mass publishing finally said, “What are we doing with this guy? Let’s stop. He’s too weird.” Which was fine with me. I’d always known that; in fact, in many cases I said, looking around at all the religion titles in my editor’s office at Harper’s San Francisco, “I don’t fit here. Why do you want me?” He said, “We’re going to change and you’re going to help us.” Of course, once their owner, Rupert Murdoch and HarperCollins, found out they said, “No you’re not going to change, and no you’re not going to publish any more of this guy’s crazy talk.”

But even under the best circumstances, when one rises from God’s lap, and sets out to publish, it is something completely alien from the writing process, if what you plan to do is publish in established venues (commercial, academic, magazine). There the writer finds herself a stranger in a strange land. She is suddenly confronted by the “ideological apparatus” genotype “literature.” You ask agents/editors/publishers to like what you do and they reply, “But it’s not like what we do.” Never mind that what they do is grotesque, self-serving, and a literature for slaves. Wanting to publish so that you become part of the NY driven national culture is to submit yourself to culture cops, the enforcers of what-can-be-said. It’s different with small presses where you have an intimate relationship with the editor and you share a world view. The problem there is that too is managed by the cops: you are in a ghetto. You try to break out, you maybe sell a whole thousand copies (if they’re not just sitting lost in an Amazon warehouse somewhere) and you call that a success. Once again, you have freedom of speech as long as it doesn’t matter.

For me, writing is beatitude. Publishing is fighting. In the end, like it or not, as Ishmael Reed said, “writin’ is fightin’.”

How much outside involvement do you prefer to have? Do you seek out comments from others?

No, I want that others should not say a word. I don’t want to know what others think. I accept suggestions from editors, and those suggestions are usually right on because I have had great editors. Ron Sukenick, John O’Brien, Gideon Weil at HarperCollins, Roger Hodge at Harper’s. When they say that there is something wrong, I work on it. The end result is always better.

I don’t ever think about readers. They have their own problems. As for my own reading, it is the same thing as writing. No difference.

Adam: I’m somewhat surprised to hear you say this, given how at other times you’ve described the author’s task as being to “design a reading machine”—that is, to take care to build a text that will keep the reader moving through it, page after page. Can you talk about that? Has your thinking here changed?

That’s what I say to my students. The only reader I think about is myself. Like John Hawkes, I just want to write books that I’d like to read. The places where I’m doing something that I think will please a “reading public” are always places where I disappoint myself. Usually when it’s too late to do anything about it.

What do you find to be the discomforts of writing? Has your writing practice had any discernible physical effects on you?

The thing that I find uncomfortable is the pain in my cervical disc from years of bad posture. Otherwise, my writing process is a form of beatitude. I hardly exist without it. God talks to me there, in my Eastlake rocking chair. He loves me there. So I stay there to please him. Apparently, it’s a good deal for both of us. And when I’m done, he says, “Go on now and play. You’ve earned it. Tennis, cycling, whatever. See you tomorrow.” Now if only he could do something about publishing. Like a download directly into the brains of the .01 percent of the population capable of enjoying what he and I produce. But no that’s unrealistic! And probably crazy of me to think that God is helping me with my little intellectual/artistic adventures. Fine. Whatever.

Otherwise, it’s freed me to be a beast of a man.

I don’t know how many real writers there are left. Writers who understand these questions. Who see them as something more than an opportunity for posturing. (“Ooh, this is how I do it.”) Sometimes I think that the real writers are buried now. Like corpses, murder victims that have been stashed around the lot. No one cares that they’re missing, no one seems to want to dig them up. Here’s a fuck poem in the name of those who like to scratch with their fountain pens, sitting in God’s lap, making things with more dignity than this bitch of a world deserves.

Fuck content providers,
Fuck bloggers,
Fuck search engines,
Fuck Wiki,
Fuck the faceless Facebooks,
Fuck social networking,
Fuck editorial boards,
Fuck dipshit reviews like Kirkus,
Fuck marketing,
Fuck book promoters,
Fuck Kindle,
Fuck free downloads,
Unless they come from ghosts,
Fuck wholesalers and
Fuck retailers,
Fuck writing programs and
Fuck their Associations,
Fuck Po-Biz,
Fuck front of store displays,
Fuck those nasty chain stores,
And Fuck the brainless independents,
Fuck open mikes,
Fuck the ugly dull “slam”,
Fuck wanting to be a writer,
Fuck MFAs,
Fuck NEA,
Fuck NRA, and AMA while I’m at it,
But oh boy especially fuck moral poetry, and
Fuck the poetry of social awareness.
“Poetry is damned from one end to the other.
I’ll write what I like when I like
And it will be good if the authentic spirit of change is upon it.”
Something like that,
I’m too lazy to look it up.
(Anyway, its WC Williams, bless him.)

Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent books are Requiem (Dalkey Archive Press) and The Barbaric Heart (PoliPointPress).