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).

Rosemarie Waldrop: An Interview

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

WDS: Do you write by hand, or do you use a typewriter or a computer?

ROSMARIE WALDROP: Used to write in longhand, but now compose directly on the computer

Do you have preferences as to certain materials?

No.

Has your approach to writing changed as new technologies have become available?

The computer may have played a role in my turning from verse to prose poems, but this turn also followed my novel, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. I suspect working on prose for the novel was much more of a factor.

Did you write that novel by hand or using a computer? And: If you used a computer, do you think that the computer helped enable this move to fiction/prose?

I must have begun it by hand or on my typewriter in the late 1970s, but at some point put it on the mainframe at Brown, in “Fress,” the language the Brown computer team had devised. I remember this because when The Hanky was finally to be published (1987), I took the saved reel back to the mainframe and got the message: “Fress is no longer supported. If you need help contact Reinhard Kuhn.” This was eerie: Reinhard Kuhn, head of the French Dpt., had died several years before!

What about your second novel, A Form/of Taking/It All, and other works where you utilize text from other sources? Do you transcribe directly onto the computer?

Yes.

What other materials do you need to have at hand in order to write?

A table with books on it. A window.

Does the way you write remain the same, or do your methods change from project to project?

It isn’t method so much as pace that changes. Some projects come in an intense, continuous manner, others in painfully slow dribbles.

For how long do you prefer to write?

I need long stretches because I need an inordinate amount of staring out the window or engaging in irrelevant little activities before I can settle into working.

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

I always thought it would be a good idea to have a set schedule, but I’ve never managed.

Have you attempted it at times?

Yes.

Do you write at different times of the day? If so, do you think that you write differently at different times? (Does it matter if the view outside the window is sunlit or moonlit?)

I certainly don’t think about any of this.

What kind of environment do you prefer to work in? Do you listen to music when you write?

I prefer having music, but once I really concentrate I don’t really hear it any more. I also work well with silence.

May we ask, what sort of music? A particular composer or player or genre?

Mostly classical, some jazz.

Can you work under adverse circumstances?

No.

Do you record information on your own writing? For example, do you make notes, or keep a diary?

No.

Do you begin by taking notes?

Sometimes.

Do you work from an outline or other kind of plan?

Not usually.

How often do you revise?

There is constant revising, but I often start another poem before I have finished revising the first. This is especially so when I work on a sequence.

How do you revise?

You might as well ask, how do I write.

Well, in a sense, we are! Looking past revisions, how long does it take you to finish a project?

Depends.

How do you know when you’re finished?

The energy has run out.

What do you do when you finish a project?

I set it aside to get distance on it.

How far aside? How long does distance take?

At least a month.

How long passes before you begin another project?

Depends. There are often translation projects that intervene. Or our small press needs all my attention for a while. If the interval between real writing projects gets too long I become very grumpy. Then I’m in “the Book of Torment,” as Edmond Jabès called it.

How many different projects do you work on at once?

I often start out with two projects, but after a while one always takes over and becomes the exclusive one.

What happens to the other one? Do you complete it, or is it more of a spur for the other?

I set it aside to go back to, later.

Do you discuss your work with others? Or is writing a more solitary process for you?

I have a wonderful in-house reader in Keith Waldrop, but I have learned not to show him the work until I think it is at least more or less finished. In the early days I tended to exhaust him by showing him too many drafts.

What do you find to be the discomforts of writing?

The anxiety—and sometimes despair.

If you could change any one thing about your writing process, what would it be?

Set a regular schedule.

How connected is the practice of reading to writing?

Totally. I cannot imagine writing without reading. I am always writing on a palimpsest of other texts, even when not quoting or stealing from them directly.

Your own texts, or others?

I took “reading” as referring to my own reading of other writers.

What about your own work?

I always read the poems out loud to myself while working. It is a way to catch problems, especially rhythmic ones. Reading out loud to an audience works even better.

When writing, do you think about reader’s physical experience with the work?

I do not think about the reader at all, except perhaps at the very end when I might consider if I need to clarify.

Has your writing practice had any discernible physical effects on you?

Not that I know of. The middle age spread would have happened even without sitting at my desk.




Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction came out from New Directions at the end of 2010. Other recent books of poetry are Curves to the Apple, Blindsight (both New Directions), Splitting Images (Zasterle), and Love, Like Pronouns (Omnidawn). Her Collected Essays, Dissonance (if you are interested), was published by University of Alabama Press in 2005. Two novels, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/of Taking/It All are available in one paperback (Northwestern UP, 2001). She has translated 14 volumes of Edmond Jabès’s work (her memoir, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, is out from Wesleyan UP) as well as books by Emmanuel Hocquard, Jacques Roubaud, and, from the German, Friederike Mayröcker, Elke Erb, Oskar Pastior, Gerhard Rühm, Ulf Stolterfoht. She lives in Providence, RI. where she co-edits Burning Deck books with Keith Waldrop.

The Devil and John Malkovich





THE PARATEXT


May 3

JM: There is something I’d like you to change in the interview. On page two there is my line, “I never watch my movies.” I’d like to change that to “I don’t watch all my movies.” I mean, I don’t come home on Sunday night and say let’s watch a movie with me, shall we? You don’t mind changing that, do you? Hello?
I: No, I don’t mind. I’m just a little surprised, that’s all. You said you never read your interviews.
JM: Well, yes. On the first page, when you mention the song, the title is Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais, not J’ai venu.
I: Sorry. I used to speak French before I moved to the States.
JM: What’s that supposed to mean?
I: Nothing.
JM: And, the last correction. On the last page, Jekyll says “There is a fraction in my soul…” Fraction not fracture. Pity about this one. Fracture does indeed sound better.

***

June 20

Memorandum
To: Investigators Utilizing Human Participants in Behavioral Research
From: Dr. Peter A. Lichtenberg, Chairman
Behavioral Investigation Committee
Subject:New Behavioral Investigation Committee Form

Enclosed are copies of the NEW BIC Forms. The BIC is a research review board and its mandate from the Federal Government is to review research proposals so that research participants will have their rights protected.

“But I don’t do behavioral research,” I tell the Graduate Director.
“I know.” He sighs and offers me a piece of candy. “Can you deal with it? Otherwise they won’t let you use the Malkovich interview in your dissertation.”
I leaf through the BIC form. It reads: “Collection of blood samples by venipuncture, in amounts not exceeding 450 milliliters; collection of both supra and subgingival dental plaque; collection of hair and nail clippings in a nondisfigural manner; collection of excreta and external secretion including sweat…”
“Are you sure this is for the English Department?”
“It’s for everybody,” the Graduate Director sighs.

***

July 16

Detroit, MI

Dear Mr. Malkovich,

I hope you’re in a good mood when you get this rather surreal document. In case you’re not prepared to sign the bit about the collection of blood, hair and nail clippings (I went easy on you, didn’t I?), please sign the enclosed Consent Form.

Thanks.

D.S.

P.S. I’m going to Chicago next week to see a play at the Steppenwolf.

INFORMED CONSENT RELEASE FORM
Over the past year, I conducted a series of phone interviews with John Malkovich. Prior to these conversations I informed Mr. Malkovich of my intention to use the material for my dissertation Death of the Reader: Theories of the Hypergenre, a project which deals with contemporary fiction and film. Mr. Malkovich agreed to answer my questions and was sent a transcript of our conversations which I had recorded with his consent.

***

July 31

United Artists Corporation LTD
The Man in the Iron Mask
Les Studios d’Arpajon
Les Cochets – 91180 St. Germain-les-Arpajon
Paris

Dear Dayana,

I was amused in all ways by reading your piece and I hope it does well for you and that I’ve proven to be a not too tiresome a subject. I look forward to meeting you sometime. Have a pleasant trip to Chicago.

Regards,

John Malkovich

***

September 5

I keep the signed copies of the Consent Form on my desk. Nobody has asked for them yet. I keep them to remind myself that soft-spoken villains are, at times, the most perfect of gentlemen. The play at the Steppenwolf was exceedingly bad.

September 6

I have reached the end of an intellectual adventure, a little frivolous, perhaps, a little self-indulgent, but mostly elegant and affectionate. I wonder if Malkovich is ever going to read the final version of this piece in his self-imposed exile, in another time zone, in his garden of freshly planted daffodils. Maybe not. But now I believe (together with Abel Tiffauges and Peter Greenaway) that things do happen for a reason, that Malkovich’s divorce from Hollywood was not an arbitrary gesture, that it had to happen for me to establish a connection between the life of Joseph Knecht, Master of the Glass Bead Game, and the career of this formidable actor who, like the Magister Ludi, has many lives to live and many deaths to conquer before the final and eternal swim.


THE INTERVIEW

It is therefore the game of the world that must be first thought, before attempting to understand all the forms of play in the world.

Jacques Derrida

Talking to John Malkovich is like having a private conversation with a chatty Devil. Anything is possible and everything is allowed in his world where God is not dead, but simply not interested.

Between the actor’s quick changes of mood and opinion and his characters’ suave duplicity, however, lies an uncharted territory, a safe and solitary space of clever speculation that defines politics as dogma and semiotics as narcissism.

Once inside the actor’s “studio,” I realized that our dialogue was taking place within the realm of that unnamable difference Derrida talk about, inside “the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.” True to the nature of that difference, the uncomfortable phone conversations undermined my carefully guarded affection and demanded excessive framing and infinite paratextual speculation. If there is no “reality” to our dialogue, no concreteness, no heart-felt exchange (despite the actor’s generosity and patience), it is not John Malkovich’s fault. It isn’t my fault either. We could, perhaps, blame Derrida for emphasizing the “game of the world” which Malkovich rejects while practicing.

Our discussions did not enhance the field of semiotic possibilities surrounding the actor’s films. They did, however, have an unexpected side effect: they sketched the portrait of a different kind of reader, the opposite of Quijote. As a despotic reader of things, John Malkovich is the absolute and transparent center of his busy intellectual empire. In his world of well-put contradictions, windmills are spotted and eliminated, not confused with dragons. Armed with formidable yet shifting insights and definitive truths, John Malkovich is the perfect Master of Ceremonies of Derrida’s “play,” the only Magister Ludi capable of paralyzing the signifier.

Consequently, what follows is not a dialogue but a framing of a Glass Bead Game of elegant articulations, a “trace” which could have been significant and touching, had it allowed for less precaution, if only for a moment.


THE GLASS BEAD GAME


A tentative sketch of the life and opinions of Magister Ludi John Malkovich

I.The Call

If we have, nevertheless, persisted in our endeavor to determine some of the facts about the life of Ludi Magister Josephus III, and at least to sketch the outlines of his character, we believe we have done so not out of any cult of personality, nor out of disobedience to the customs, but on the contrary, solely in the service of truth and scholarship.

The Glass Bead Game

Why are you writing a dissertation on movies?…Not to be critical, but I find it strange…kind of useless. But what do I know? I’m a poor boy from Illinois. For me acting is a job. That doesn’t mean I don’t do the best I can. Do you know that song, Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais? It’s something like that. Great song. You should listen to it sometime…I received your letter a while ago, but I was on my way to London. As a matter of fact, I took it with me, I don’t know why. I would be delighted to answer any questions you might have, although I don’t understand people’s fascination with movies…The Sheltering Sky? No, I don’t particularly like the book. I prefer Let It Come Down to The Sheltering Sky, but that’s Paul Bowles for you. He lacks humanity in a very primitive way. I think Paul acts as if feelings are foreign and messy, untidy, inelegant. Something to be ashamed of. There is a way to do a story very deeply, and The Sheltering Sky could have been that, maybe, but Paul is ashamed of emotions and keeps his distance from everyone and everything. When he published his autobiography called Without Stopping, William Burroughs suggested that, knowing Paul, the book should have been called Without Telling. The great writers never impose the distance you feel in Paul’s books. Faulkner, for example, never kept his distance. But Paul is wounded and damaged and, I think, that makes him unable to feel. The only time Paul was funny – he did not intend to be, it just happened – was one evening when I asked him when he realized that he no longer lived in America. And Paul said that he was still thinking about it. Bertolucci, on the other hand, is the life-affirming Italian: incredibly narcissistic, charming, funny, but quite afraid of death and emptiness. I think he was afraid of the material and that’s why he brought Paul in as the narrator of the film. It gave him a sense of security. The Sheltering Sky is about emptiness; about lonely people, unhappily married. The desert? No, it didn’t mean much, not to me, not then. It did not change anything. The Sheltering Sky is about these two people who think they need the other’s love to survive; they feel that’s what’s sheltering them, when in fact that’s what ultimately destroys them. And I remember Bernardo telling me he wanted to cut from the film the scene in which my character is dying, because it was too gruesome and too sad. And I said, “Bernardo, in my modest opinion that’s exactly what we’re here for; surely not to make a pleasant film about death.” So I guess the scene is back in the film now. I wouldn’t know. I don’t watch all my movies…I just made a film with the director of The Tin Drum, Volker Schlondorff. It’s called The Ogre and it’s about this guy who wants to become a good Nazi and fails. That movie, I saw more than once. I don’t think you’ll have a chance to see it. I don’t think it will come to America. Americans don’t want to know. It’s not that they don’t know: they don’t want to know. They’ll see The Ogre as a faintly pro-Nazi movie, and it’s not. But if they want to deal with the Nazis they’ll do it their own way: they’ll watch Schindler’s List. I told a journalist here, in France, that sometimes when I look in the mirror I see a Nazi. He didn’t know how to take that, it was a scandal. The character in The Ogre is fascinated by the Nazi order. He doesn’t know what they’re about, but they’re an alternative to chaos. He loves children and believes that Nazi schools are safe for them, so he brings the children to those schools…Yes, my characters share a certain duality. Living in the modern world, we should admit to a certain duality or we should not be living in the modern world, don’t you think? The ending of The Sheltering Sky doesn’t work. Why do you have to die? If I were to make that movie I would change the ending. I would like to think the contrary.

Where are you from?

My god, how odd you must feel living here.

That’s a long way from here.

I didn’t say that. I just said it was a long way from here.

I will call again. It was my pleasure. Take care.


II. In Office

A shudder came through Fritz when the Magister, for the first time, addressed him that way. From Knecht’s look, it was clear that this remoteness and objectivity were not pretense, but uncannily genuine, and the man before him with his matter-of-fact courtesy accompanied by intense intellectual awareness, was no longer his friend Joseph, but a teacher and examiner, entirely Master of the Glass Bead Game, enveloped and isolated by the gravity and austerity of his office.

The Glass Bead Game

Archival Notes (AN): John Malkovich interviewed by Paul Young, 1994, my italics. “I’d have to say that the only political act I’d ever be guilty of is curiosity. I mean, you’ll find over the course of my career that I’ve worked with just about every kind of person and I have just about every kind of person as a friend, and I have almost nothing political to say.”

Q: Your films and plays betray an acute interest in politics. I’m thinking of Heart of Darkness, Empire of the Sun, The Killing Fields, The Ogre, Libra – which you adapted for the stage and directed in 1994 at the Steppenwolf Theatre. The Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Imperialism, the Nazis…Even Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons and Jekyll and Hyde in Mary Reilly deal with certain political attitudes – sexual politics, but politics nevertheless. Still, you claim you have nothing political to say. How do you define politics, then?
A: How do I define it or what is it?
Q: How would you define it?
A: I would define politics as the art of problem solving. I think curiosity is a political act because curiosity is the beginning of understanding. Because if you can be curious about something then you can understand it, and if you can understand it, then chances are that you can solve whatever problem there is.

AN: Magister Ludi’s take on Curiosity mirrors a trend in postmodern British fiction which considers history, theatricality and curiosity irrevocably linked. The history professor in Graham Swift’s Waterland says: “Curiosity, which with other things, distinguishes us from the animal, is an ingredient of love “ (51); “History begins only at a point when things go wrong” (106); “Reality is when nothing happens. How many of the events of history have occurred, ask yourselves, for this or that reason, but for no other reason, fundamentally, than to make nothings happen? I present to you History, the fabrication, the diversion, the reality-obscuring drama. History, and its near relative, Histrionics” (40).

A (cont.): But what people think of politics generally falls under the heading of dogma. You know, it’s Marxist dogma or conservative dogma, or feminist dogma – some set of beliefs shaped and misshaped and pulled around to fit into a system of beliefs. I just don’t have that.
Q: A system of beliefs?
A: Yes, you can almost say I don’t have a system of beliefs. I certainly don’t have a system of dogmatic ones.

AN: Is contradiction a form of curiosity? If so, does it become political? Is the lack of a system a system in itself? If so, can we trace it throughout the Magister’s statements? Consider the following:
a.“Sometimes when I look in the mirror I see a Nazi.”
b.“People think it’s a pro-Nazi movie and it’s not.” (There’s a Nazi in all of us?)

c.“In my modest opinion, that’s what we’re here for; surely not to make a pleasant film about death.”
d.“But why do you have to die? If I were to make that movie, I’d change the ending, I’d like to think the contrary.”

Q: The parts you choose to play seem to represent various stages in the development of a single type of character: a dual, dark, fascinating personality like Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons, Gilbert Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, Jekyll and Hyde, the assassin from In the Line of Fire, to mention just a few. Are you attracted to these roles because of this duality? Is that how you choose them?
A: I don’t choose them, I am chosen.

AN: The film chooses its actor the same way the disease chooses its patients. See the cases presented in Mann’s Magic Mountain, Hamsun’s Hunger, Giono’s Horseman on the Roof, and so on. Cinema as quarantine. Movie theatres as giant sanatoriums. The connection between film and disease has already been established: “People who love movies are sick people” (Francois Truffaut).

A (cont.): The only film I’ve ever produced was The Accidental Tourist. I didn’t produce any of these other films, or write them or direct them. I’m chosen for some ability or quality [the people involved] believe I have.
Q: But you do agree to play these parts. You could refuse.
A: Yes, but then I wouldn’t work. I often do refuse. But I don’t choose things because they adhere to a specific set of guidelines, whether it would be about duality, light and dark, anything. There are things that, in fact, you are chosen for because the people who do the choosing believe you possess a certain quality they are looking for. I would agree that the quality they are looking for when they are employing me is a kind of duality, usually.
Q: What about Libra? That was a deliberate choice.
A: Absolutely. Don DeLillo is a friend of mine and Libra is a book I read a decade ago, on my way to China, a book I really loved. And this was around the time I was ready to produce The Accidental Tourist. I really thought about, and should have done, Libra then, long before Oliver Stone got this idea to do JFK which – offensive – was a kind of ripped off and intellectually bankrupt version of Libra reprise with all of Oliver’s Vietnam paranoias and things. But Libra, I think, is a great book. I don’t see it as political, though.

AN: Even the most casual survey of the history of thought shows that the great ages of culture have never been adequately explained by political conditions. Rather culture, or mind, or soul, has its own independent history – running parallel to what is generally called world history. Our Order deals only with this sanctified and secret history, not with “real,” brutal world history. It can never be our task to be continually taking soundings in political history, let alone to help shape it. (The Glass Bead Game)

A (cont.): It’s not a political book. In fact DeLillo says very well what it’s about, in the book. It’s about “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.” And that was my interest in it. Also for me…for me as a young child, that was the beginning of nihilism in the country because it gave you this intense realization that things really weren’t well; and no matter how rich you were, and how powerful, and what you’d achieved, and what you’d struggled to do, and how elegant you were, or how funny – things could be taken away from you in a second. And that was the beginning of nihilism in America which, as you know, is a much more European thing. I mean, the existentialists really didn’t fly here.

AN: If we consider the Ludi Magister’s statements from the inside of his (lack of a) system of beliefs:
a.“the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” (history and humiliation)
b.JFK (history and confabulation)
c.Nihilism
d.“no matter how rich you were…how elegant you were…” (theories of class, taste and individuality)
e.“everything could be taken away from you in a second” (the – borrowed – existentialist flight)

Then:

a.Does it follow that the (temporal) connection between JFK and the American nihilist philosophy is apolitical? Or is it, au contraire, acutely political, a result of curiosity?
b.If so, isn’t Oliver Stone’s version of Libra the result of (his) curiosity, a (fictional) solution to the problem at hand?
c.Should we recognize in the words of the Magister Ludi an American dimension we thought he lacked, a success story prefaced by an acknowledgment of his modest beginnings? (“I’m a poor boy from Illinois”)
d.Should we understand his fascination with the last spasms of the American century as an erasure of boundaries and categories?
e.Or should we read it as a foreshadowing of his restless travels, from Christopher, Illinois to Provence, through China, Tangiers, Los Angeles and London, while carrying, as a true Master of the Word, student letters in his pocket?

Maybe not.

Q: Existentialism brings me to the issue of the anti-hero. There is a tremendous difference between the American and the European anti-hero. The American anti-hero is a young man set for success who ends up failing miserably in all areas. The European anti-hero is Joseph K. An internal exile. Do you agree with this distinction and, if so, where do your characters belong?
A: It depends on which one you talk about. They’re all pretty different. The character in Of Mice and Men has a different goal than, say, the character in Death of a Salesman or either characters in Mary Reilly. Or in, say, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. They all operate from very different world views. So I couldn’t answer your question phrased like that because each character exists in a different place, I think. Many of them not even American. Would I say they are anti-heroes? Yes, sure. But they are very different. There are some who are incredibly nihilistic, some who are very existential, there are some terribly damaged, some who are quite malicious and narcissistic. There are some…What does the guy say in Mary Reilly? “There is a fraction in my soul…Something which left me with a taste for oblivion.” I think that’s pretty well put. And that’s certainly something I would say, in all humility and fairness, that I would share with those characters. Yes.

AN: In the eyes of the Magister Ludi, my inclination to talk about all his characters as variations on a theme is a degrading reduction of his work, a shameful and pointless generalization. But, whatever their goals and beliefs, can his characters not whisper at some point, together with Dostoyevsky, “I am a sick man; I am a lonely man; I am an unattractive man; I believe my liver is diseased?” And isn’t there great beauty to that?

Q: In Michel Tournier’s The Ogre, a sentence is repeated throughout the book: “All is sign.” How do you understand that?
A: All is sign. It’s a kind of failure in our film which I hope you get to see some day, because I think Volker…I think we did not go far enough. It needed to be more like a Herzog film…When the character in The Ogre says “all is sign” he believes, as most people do, that he has this incredible destiny that’s really rather important. And normal people, to me, rather idiotically, believe that everything happens for a reason…I don’t believe that at all. But the character, Abel Tiffauges, believes in that because he has such an inflated sense of his own destiny…that being in a way a metaphor for the Great France, which is what I think he is, in a way: a metaphor for his own country. He has these delusions that everything means something – he’ll meet someone and that, in his mind, has incredible repercussions. A ball rolls out in the street and for him that’s just an unbelievable happenstance of extraordinary importance.
Q: In a recent interview Tournier said he would like to rewrite the book, strip it off everything that does not refer directly to the character and the plot, and turn it into a children’s book.
A: He would have a better book if he did that. He’s the kind of Derrida-influenced French intellectual who has a lot of literary references and conceits that aren’t highly effective literature…Because in the end, literature is story-telling. The great ones can do a lot of other things, but they always take care of that first. And that isn’t fully taken care of in The Ogre, which is what keeps it from being a great book.
Q: Why, because it’s partly a fairy-tale?
A: No, no. Because it’s not enough of one.
Q: Could you make a comparison between Hesse and Tournier? I’m thinking about the system of signs in Demian and the University in The Glass Bead Game: the place where one plays with all the intellectual values…
A: I’m not a huge Hesse fan, despite the name of our theatre. Of course, I know the usual suspects, Steppenwolf and Siddartha and so on. Hesse wrote more simply and, obviously more metaphorically. They’re not dissimilar writers, though.
Q: It was not the Steppenwolf theatre that made me think of Hesse, but The Ogre. After reading it, I realized I hadn’t read such a profoundly semiotic book since Demian.
A: That’s probably very accurate. The character takes everything as a sign. But people who think they’re very important do, don’t they?
Q: Umberto Eco doesn’t.
A: Neither does Tournier, but his characters do. It can be something present in the books that is not necessarily present in the authors’ lives.

AN: I find a lengthy explanation of the Eco-system pointless. What should I tell the Magister, over the phone? That with Eco anything is possible? That sometimes character, narrative voice, Model Author and Empirical Author are one? (see the end chapter in Six Walks in The Fictional Woods). I believe Umberto Eco thinks he’s very important. I believe Umberto Eco doesn’t think he’s very important. Eco, the (Empirical) Author talks about Eco, the (Model) Reader. All the lines are blurred and everything is separable. As I have suspected, contradiction takes us nowhere.

Q: How did you play Abel?
A: Mostly like a character who tried to be a good Nazi and failed.
Q: But my impression was that Abel lives inside a Nazi world of his own making and realizes what is happening only at the end, when it’s too late.
A: Yes, as the world did, in a way. The Nazis seem to Abel rather interesting with their uniforms, and how well they’re organized, and how fantastic they are, like some sort of Teutonic Knights. And he becomes a fairy-tale ogre who’s running around kidnapping little children. And I played him…I played him as not very smart.
Q: I’d like to ask you something about Mary Reilly. In Stevenson’s book Hyde is described as “pure evil.” For me, at least, that means he’s better than Jekyll because Jekyll has something to hide, he’s not “pure.” On the other hand, you could say that Hyde’s purity, like that of Abel, is a sign of “malign inversion” – Tournier’s words, I believe.
A: We made a decision in Mary Reilly that may or may not have failed. I’m not a fan of Jekyll and Hyde, myself, but I thought that the conclusion we reached, that Jekyll was worse than Hyde, was more interesting than the original premise. In the novel and in Chris Hampton’s screenplay, Jekyll was always referred to as this sort of avuncular figure, gentle and kind and such. And somehow it came to Stephen Frears that, in a way, he’s worse than Hyde whom he manipulates and uses. I thought that was really interesting. I don’t know if it helps the film, in fact it may have ruined it, I really don’t have an opinion. If you got to do it on stage it would be just something that you tried one night to see if it worked, but when you do it as a film you kind of go through with it and that’s how it becomes frozen in time. I think Hyde was intended as evil but in the Victorian age that translated into “animal.” You know, he eats, he fucks, he kills. I mean, what’s wrong with that?
Q: For the Victorians? Everything.
A: No, I mean we say now, but you have to understand that’s a rather limited perspective. Whatever we’ve gained by saying “it’s wrong to say ‘he kills, he fucks, he eats, what’s wrong with that?’” we’ve also lost. I don’t think we can make a mistake about that. We’re not meant to be like we are, surely. I’m not making an argument for going back, I’m not a druid myself, but surely one can see that it’s not necessarily the best way. When we look at a character like Hyde we’re looking through a Victorian prism. Or a Victorian prison. And, of course, Stephen is saying that there are all these so-called dark things in our nature, well, I don’t think there are dark things in our nature, I think there are things in our nature. People kill people all the time. Today, yesterday, last week, 20,000 years ago. It’s not news. A character like that is more difficult to play now because the real life versions of him are everywhere. And they’re much more spectacular; it’s the great American quality: serial murder…our soul remaining the thing we still lead the world in…Now we have Jeffrey Dahmer, what do care about Hyde, really?
Q: When Hyde tells Mary at the end, “I always knew you’d be the death of us,” do you think he means that Mary Reilly, the character, is an intrusion in the world Stevenson created and, in a way, kills the story? Cherchez la femme?
A: Yeah…Yeah…Always. I mean, that’s the problem with girls, isn’t it?
Q: You should know…

(Pause)

A: It is, in a literal and figurative way, a story she doesn’t belong in. Which is something I don’t think we did well in the film. I defend the film a lot, but –

AN: Excerpt from a 1995 interview: “Mary Reilly was not a happy experience. There were problems with the story that were never solved. I’ve done better work because I’ve had better things to work with. The power has to be with the story, not with the actress or the director.”

A (cont.): I defend the film a lot, but it should have been a film more about her looking around the corner, not a film about what she sees when she looks around the corner.
Q: Part of the problem, I think, comes from the way Mary Reilly’s character is constructed. It makes you wonder where she gets her answers from. Everything she tells Jekyll is a bit too clever.
A: I really couldn’t comment on it. Not because I’m afraid to or something, but because it’s very hard. When you do a piece of work you do it with the person you do it with. In fact, I never imagine it with somebody else. If that person is terrible, let’s say, then that’s the reality of what you deal with, what your work is, what you’re faced with, what you’re blessed with, whatever the case may be – that’s all I know. It very well could be that it would be a better film with a different person performing that part, or a different person performing my part or anybody else’s. But I couldn’t say. Although I certainly wouldn’t say that that’s unlikely.

AN: “I have heard,” he said with seeming jocularity, “that you have become something of a diplomat. Not really a very nice occupation, but it seems our people are satisfied with you. Interpret that as you like. But if it doesn’t happen to be your ambition to stay in this occupation forever, then be on your guard, Joseph. I think they want to capture you for it. Defend yourself: you have the right to.” (The Glass Bead Game)

Q: Last time we talked you called Mary Reilly a fascinating failure. Why?
A: Because I would have made a film about a woman who’s where she is now, but who would have liked to have sex with her father.
Q: How would that have changed things?
A: It would have made her not a victim. It would have made her very strong and very sad. Because, you know, we’re not meant to have sex with our fathers. Otherwise one gets involved in this victim thing, don’t you think? But, again, that’s my opinion. There’s not necessarily any validity to it. It’s just a theory.
Q: I noticed that, throughout the movie, Hyde changes physically. For instance, at some point he doesn’t walk with a limp anymore. Is that because he is the stronger of the two and can now change his appearance?
A: Our opinion was this: that there was…
(Long pause. With reconsidered, and much appreciated honesty)
I was really weary of doing the kind of Spencer Tracy version where one fellow talks like this
(The Magister affects precious Oxbridge accent)
…and the other kinda’ talks like this,
(Nasal, furtive cockney)
you know, all the RSC bullshit. So Stephen and I saw it like this: there was a Jekyll, there was a Hyde, and there was a Jekyll and Hyde. So that in the end they’re mixed together. Let’s say, by the end.
Q: Speaking of the end…why did you end the film like that?
A: How did it end?
Q: With the special effects, Hyde turning into Jekyll under Mary Reilly’s eyes…
A: I don’t know. I think the last third of the movie doesn’t work. In the end she is, she remains, a victim. And we looked a lot at what she looked at, not at her looking. She is a victim up front, and I think once a movie becomes that obvious…
Q: One last observation about your characters. They seem to be best contained by certain spaces: the laboratory, or the desert, for instance. Spaces of the mind. They also are, for the most part, by themselves in films of their own. In the Line of Fire is a perfect example.
A: I think we’re all in little films of our own…so I find it natural.
Q: Once William Burroughs was asked if he needed the reader. To paraphrase: do you need the spectator?
A: No. Maybe on a primitive level, yes. In the theatre, trying to connect, in the company of strangers, surrounded by perfect darkness, maybe. They come up, and you commence this shared and collective voyage. As an actor you’re part of all that. But on another level, no. I do not need the spectator. No.

By the time you hear this it will be over…I wonder, did you kill me? Who won the game? Not that it matters. For, among friends like you and me, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game, and the game is done, and it’s time to get on with your life. But I worry you have no life to get on with. You’re a good man, and good men like you and me are destined to travel a lonely road. Good bye and good luck.

In the Line of Fire




Dayana Stetco’s plays have been produced in her native country, Romania, the U.S. and the UK. In 2001 she founded the interdisciplinary physical theatre ensemble, The Milena Group. Her book, Seducing Velasquez and Other Plays, was released by Ahadada Books in 2009. Her fiction has appeared in various journals including The Means, Emergency Almanac, mark(s), Interdisciplinary Humanities, Metrotimes, Gender(f), and Dispatch. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature and Film.