Eric Miles Williamson is the author of five critically acclaimed books: East Bay Grease (Picador, 1999), Two-Up (Texas Review Press, 2006), Oakland, Jack London, and Me (Texas Review Press, 2007), Welcome to Oakland (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2009), and the forthcoming 14 Fictional Positions (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2010). East Bay Grease, a PEN/Hemingway finalist, introduced a radically fresh voice in American fiction, dealing with the agonies of poor people without any failure of courage. Two-Up is a gut-wrenching book about the gory world of the gunite worker (once Williamson's own profession). Oakland, Jack London, and Me is unlike any other recent book of criticism--it is a raw personal response to how the reception of Jack London (always underestimated by critics) reveals more than we wish to know about our cultural blind spots. Williamson's best book to date is his novel, Welcome to Oakland, which picks up on T-Bird Murphy's travails in East Bay Grease, taking us to his early youth in the ghettoes and garbage dumps of Oakland. If readers have reason to complain that American fiction is too genteel, and generally only an academic exercise to feed bourgeois desires, then they need look no farther than Williamson's fiction for a bracing corrective.
Shivani: There are very few books about the real working class in American fiction, and this has always seemed to be the case, with the rare exception. Nearly all fiction addresses the comfortable middle class. Why is this so? Are there writers addressing themes of work and money at the lower socioeconomic levels that we aren't aware of? Is it a problem with publishers? Or is it a problem with writers?
Williamson: I'd say there have always been books about the American working class. What's Moby Dick if not a great working-class novel? A group of hardworking sailors enslaved by their position in life, working for the bossman Ahab. It'd be easy to see Huck Finn as a working-class novel as well, except Huck and Jim are even lower on the social ladder than workers, a white trash orphan and his runaway slave friend. Jack London's works surely count as working class, as do the works of Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Nelson Algren.
To be sure most American fiction addresses the middle class--and, for that matter, most fiction of the Western world addresses the middle class. After all, it's the middle class that usually reads and writes the books.
What's interesting is that these days, in the United States, our working-class fiction is increasingly written by minorities. As educational opportunities open up and as minorities become economically and educationally viable, they're telling their stories. Their works, however, are cast off into the category of "minority" fiction. They're stuck on the Literary Short Bus. Fine authors like Dagoberto Gilb, Mark Nesbitt, even Toni Morrison--they're not called great writers. They're labeled Minority Writers. The blue collar world is usually associated with white people, Irishmen and Italians and Jews and so forth--peoples who were discriminated against in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But we're not building railroads anymore, and if we ever do so again, it'll be Hispanics and Blacks doing the dirty work, and they'll be writing the novels about their travails.
There are plenty of authors writing what you call working-class fiction. Larry Fondation writes about the underbelly of Los Angeles. Dagoberto Gilb writes about working class Mexicans. Michael Gills's characters are poor white trash from the Ozarks, as are Marc Watkins'. There's Glenn Blake, who writes about people who work in used car lots and the oil refineries of East Texas. M. Glenn Taylor's books are set in the coal mine country of West Virginia. Paul Ruffin's characters are just regular working-class people.
There's actually been a resurgence of working class-authors in America, resulting from the cheapness of a university education for people who went to college before the Reagan administration. We got to college for practically nothing. This ain't so today. These poor kids have to shell out ten grand a year to go to a crappy state school. They won't have the luxury of writing books. They'll be too busy being corporate automatons, slaving away to pay back their student loans, America's version of indentured servitude. We'll be back to nothing but middle-class fiction in no time. For now, though, we'll have another 20 years of really good work by people who in the past wouldn't have been educated, and in the future won't be either. We're in the heyday right now.
It isn't the fault of publishers that our working-class authors aren't on the Wal-Mart bookshelves. Publishers are in business to make money, and working-class books don't sell. Because working-class people don't read. The sales of today, however, don't matter at all if the project is to create Art. Working-class writers are publishing on small presses, but history won't care where a book was originally published, and I venture that when the critics of the future look back at us, many of these writers will find their place in the canon.
Shivani: Tell us about the progression of themes from your first book, East Bay Grease, to your new book, Welcome to Oakland. How has the protagonist, T-Bird Murphy, changed? You make me see Oakland like I have never seen it before. You are never condescending to the people you grew up with. Who are these people, and what should we know about them?
Williamson: The difference between the T-Bird Murphy of East Bay Grease and the T-Bird Murphy of Welcome to Oakland is that T-Bird has aged, and, like the people around him, his life has not only not gotten any better, it has gotten demonstrably worse.
The life of a blue-collar worker is usually not characterized by the acquisition of property or capital, but by the accumulation of debt, by the steady decline of one's standard of living all the way till death, when relatives can't come up with the money for a casket or a funeral.
T-Bird has changed in that he's lost his optimism about the capitalist enterprise, and he no longer believes the world to be a just and good place. Rather he finds his solace in friendship and music and his capacity to find beauty amid squalor, a skill necessary for the poor, whose surroundings offer nothing but squalor, filth, and human degradation. If I make readers see Oakland, or, by extension most major American cities, differently, it's because the Oakland I grew up in doesn't usually produce writers. It produces murderers, suicides, crackheads, and workers whose souls are methodically ground into dust with each additional day on the job site.
I can't condescend to these people: I'm one of them, spawned and reared in the slums and welfare projects of Oakland. I'm now a professor, but just because I'm no longer living in a trailer or a welfare project doesn't mean I don't fear some accident of fate any instant will cast me back down into the social pit forever. Social class isn't defined for individuals by how much loot one has: it's defined by how far one can imagine oneself descending. I fear the pit.
Shivani: Welcome to Oakland has major scenes at a garbage dump, evocative of Nathanael West at his very best. How should American writers think of apocalypse? What about apocalypse in the ongoing present, not in some distant future, as most dystopian novels seem to approach it?
Williamson: Apocalypse of course is inevitable. When humanity became capable of unleashing the power of the atom, humanity announced its own death. We're doomed, and there's no way for anyone to argue otherwise. We'll be reduced to interstellar dust, and soon, and we all know it. So we ignore this fact. We have to. College students don't protest nuclear proliferation, or anything else, for that matter. Because, Who cares? What difference does it make if we're all going to be incinerated? One of the most difficult things for a writer today is coming up with a reason to write other than sheer narcissism. Unfortunately, in most cases, narcissism is the governing impulse behind today's art. I set much of Welcome to Oakland in a garbage dump because that's what we've made of our earth. Soon the survivors will be nothing more than doomed scavengers, as Cormac McCarthy depicts in The Road.
Shivani: Where are you planning to take T-Bird Murphy in the future?
Williamson: I have one more T-Bird novel to write, to complete the trilogy. Welcome to Oakland sets this up: the novel begins at the chronological end of T-Bird's tale, when T-Bird Murphy is hiding out in a shithole in Missouri after committing a heinous crime, evidently that of killing one of his ex-wives. The novel ends when he's about to get married to the first of his wives. What we haven't yet seen is the story of those marriages, of the nasty jobs he held while married, of the problems of trying to be a decent, upstanding man in a brutal and ugly world. It won't be as loud and angry as Welcome to Oakland, this third installment. Instead it will show the decline from optimism into ruin.
Shivani: You were a gunite worker, and wrote a book about it, your second novel, Two-Up. It is harrowing to read.
Williamson: It was a harrowing job. When I was a gunite construction worker I saw seven men die on the job in seven years. I saw more toes and fingers and hands and feet and appendages mangled or shorn off than I can honestly count. Those guys on the construction sites, when they get killed, it doesn't make the news. Just another job opening, is what.
Shivani: Are you working on The Great American Novel?
Williamson: No. I just finished re-reading it. It's called Moby Dick.
Shivani: Assess the state of American writing today in the broadest possible terms.
Williamson: American writing today is more beautifully pluralistic than it has ever been, and there's more of it going on, too. We're split into so many camps and ideologies and aesthetic and political and racial stances, and it's so easy to get a book published, and so very, very many books are published that it will take the writers and scholars of the future decades to figure out what was any good in our era.
I keep up on what's being published as best I can, but it's overwhelming how many books I get in the mail every week--maybe a hundred, often more than that. Ultimately, though, I spend much more time reading books in manuscript written by my friends than I do published books by contemporary American authors.
What I notice, though, is this: small presses increasingly publish far better literature than do large presses. Note Dalkey Archive Press, Archipelago Press, New Directions, the various wonderful university presses that now publish fiction as well as poetry and criticism. Doubters of the quality of American literature today should stop reading books published by major corporations and conglomerates and start reading small press books. That's where the action is.
Shivani: We lack today critics of great humanistic stature. In the absence of such broad-minded critics, how will we recognize good writing? What are the institutional reasons for the disappearance of such giants of criticism?
Williamson: The broad-minded critic has been shoved out of the public eye because of specialization in English departments at our nation's colleges and universities. A critic like Denis Donoghue, or even Harold Bloom, might have a difficult time getting tenure in these compartmentalized times. The tenured seat would more likely go to an ethnic specialist, a gender specialist, or a cultural studies-ist. Theory, in English departments, is far more important than judgment. Actually, it is almost to the point that if a professor says Shakespeare is a "better" writer than Aphra Behn, he's likely to have a sexual harassment lawsuit on his hands, because to judge the actual quality or worth of a work of literature implies a hierarchy, and in the academic mind every sniveling critic is just as important as Tolstoy, if not more so.
And then the writer/critics: they're more often than not cowards when they write literary criticism or book reviews. They don't want to anger or insult a writer who might get them a reading or residency at a university, who might line them up with a job, who might review their books. A notable exception is William Logan. Now there's a literary critic of talent and taste. Poets who've been reviewed by him say they've been "Loganized."
Shivani: You have been a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. What trends have you observed in American writing from your position there?
Williamson: American poetry is in a very bad state. Confessional poetry constitutes the bulk of published poetry, as if readers give a damn about someone's messed-up sexuality or their childhood traumas. Then there's the poetry of protest, usually someone complaining about how their special group is discriminated against--and this is poetry written by people who are usually college professors. And the other big category of poetry is jacking-off poetry, poetry that merely plays games with words, Gertrude Stein Light.
American fiction, on the big presses, is weak, self-enclosed and hermetic, unadventurous, and politically and socially safe. No chances are taken in form or content or language. Most of it is not worth reading. Might as well watch a good movie--you'd get more out of it.
Shivani: Why don't American writers take up political themes, as do the Europeans, the Latin Americans, the Africans, and certainly the Asians? We haven't lacked for political material in the last fifteen years, yet the political novel--really, the novel of ideas--seems to be shunned by writers, publishers, and critics alike.
Williamson: I've never personally known someone who tried to write what you're calling a political novel. There's certainly no shortage of JFK books out there. And Norman Mailer wrote political novels like Armies in the Night and Harlot's Ghost. Gaddis' JR strikes me as a political novel.
I agree that political novels and political themes are not the norm for American authors, but I also think that they're not necessary in America. Books don't change the political minds of Americans--movies do. If an American writer wants to convey a political theme, he's better off writing a screenplay or doing a documentary. Michael Moore. Super-Size Me.
Shivani: Was the last ten years of authoritarian turbulence in this country good or bad for writing?
Williamson: I don't see that the last ten years have been any different than the preceding 200, and I don't think they're going to prove any more authoritarian than the next 200 years, if the human race even exists 200 years from now. We'll only get worse as technology becomes ever more capable of tracking our every movement, perhaps even some day our moods and thoughts. Where I live cops don't give tickets for running red lights or speeding. That's taken care of by spy cameras.
But authoritarian regimes have always been around. The feudal system, the Catholic church, the monarchies, now the plutocracies. Writers will always make themselves heard, as will artists of all stripes. No system can strip humanity of its urgent need to create Art.
Shivani: What seem to you some of the very best books of the last decade?
Williamson: Good sir, this is going to sound like a cop-out, but I really can't answer this question. I can tell you some books I've thoroughly enjoyed, but I'd not presume to have the comprehensive knowledge necessary to name the "very best" books of the decade. Books I've liked, though: Steve Davenport's Uncontainable Noise, Paul Ruffin's Islands, Women, and God, Kevin Prufer's Fallen From a Chariot, Richard Burgin's short story collections, Dagoberto Gilb's The Flowers, M. Glenn Taylor's The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, Brian Allen Carr's Short Bus, Glenn Blake's Drowned Moon and Return Fire, George Williams' Degenerate, your own short story collection, Anatolia, Richard Lange's Dead Boys, William Logan's books of criticism, the fiction of Madison Smartt Bell, E.L. Doctorow--there's no one better. And Charlie Smith is a genius. Kevin McIlvoy's The Complete History of New Mexico, Why I Lie by Michael Gills, Jake Fuchs' Conrad in Beverly Hills, anything written by William Gass, the poetry of B.H. Fairchild, the poetry of Albert Goldbarth, Marc Watkins' short stories, the fiction of Larry Fondation, Barry Hannah's books. There's much out there to admire.
Shivani: What do you think of the work of small presses in promoting fiction and poetry? Is there a danger that this work can suffer from its own isolating obsessions, the mirror image of the major publishing houses?
Williamson: Small presses in America are superb. Especially university presses and presses that can claim non-profit status. They're not in the business for the money, and they aren't compelled by tax laws to remainder books in order to avoid paying taxes on unsold inventory. Mirroring major publishing houses? Only if they become too big for their own britches and attempt turning major profits. Small presses of course will follow their obsessions, some interesting and others not, but I don't see that major publishing houses follow any obsessions except making money. If a first-time author on a major house doesn't sell enough copies, for the rest of his career he'll find himself on the small presses. And this is good, because if the work is good, it will find a home and remain in print for the life of the small press.
Shivani: Which American writers should we be reading, who are not treated with enough respect or recognition in the mainstream press?
Williamson: What I tell my students is this: Don't read any living American writers. If you're going to read any American writers at all, only read dead ones. That way you can be sure you're not wasting your time. And before reading the dead American writers, people should have read everything else, starting with the Greeks. Yeah, I'm a hypocrite, perhaps. At the University of Texas, Pan American, where I'm a professor of English, I was hired to teach Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry, and that's what I do. But the first thing I tell my students is that they shouldn't be taking my course if they haven't made their way through the great writers of the past.
So how about this, in answer to your question: American writers who are neglected by both academia and the mainstream press--Erskine Caldwell, especially God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road. John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Jack London, especially The Sea Wolf, Martin Eden, The Road, and his essays. Frank Norris's The Octopus and McTeague. No one reads Nelson Algren, and they should. Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith, Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Work of Art. Ronald Sukenick's Narralogues, Mosaic Man, 98.6, and Out should be required reading, as should Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. Call it Sleep, by Henry Roth, is a neglected masterpiece. Henry Miller is routinely left off syllabi, and he may prove to be the most influential American novelist of the 20th century. No one ever mentions Sherwood Anderson, but his Winesburg, Ohio remains the most important American short story collection of the 20th century, as important to us as Dubliners is to the Brits.
How about the opposite? Contemporary American authors who do get treated with respect and recognition and shouldn't be: John Updike, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chuck Palahnuik. There's no shortage of famous authors who write drivel.
Shivani: Are you satisfied or worried that so many young Americans feel that they want to write? Increasingly, instead of composition, creative writing is being taught to undergraduates.
Williamson: I don't think creative writing should be taught at all at the university. Can you imagine what the students in a creative writing workshop would have said about Moby Dick? And then imagine Melville going back home, student and professor comments in hand, and whittling and carving away at his manuscript until there was nothing experimental or controversial or offensive left in the book, rewriting it so it had a better plot and more "rounded" characters? Or how about Tropic of Cancer? So called "creative writers" (are there "uncreative writers"?--I suppose so, on second thought!) need no more comment upon their works than that provided by the great books of the past. You want to know if your novel is any good? Read Dostoevsky. Read Nabokov. Read Flaubert. Read your goddamn Shakespeare. Then feel miserable and guilty and wretched while you grovel like a miserable servant before the masters of the past. Any student who takes a creative writing course is being ill-served if his intention is becoming a great writer, which is the only intention worthwhile. He's on his way to becoming a mediocre writer, an acceptable writer. And if the students and the professor like his work, if his work is universally approved of, then that writer should chop his fingers off and give up then and there.
Shivani: After teaching in Missouri for many years, you now teach at the University of Texas, Pan-American in the Rio Grande Valley. What do you observe about the students there? What does the more recent experience teach you about the state of the country?
Williamson: I live 13 miles from the Texas/Mexico border, 60 miles upriver from the mouth of the Rio Grande yonder in Boca Chica, by Brownsville. Nearly all the residents of the Rio Grande Valley are of Mexican ancestry. In Missouri, nearly all my students were from very modest backgrounds: they grew up in small towns that had less than a couple thousand people. They were culturally unaware in a way that was strange to me, since I grew up in the city. In a city even the poor have access to museums, to major public libraries, to culture-oriented radio stations. I had a student once who was shocked to discover that Jesus was not an American. Another student claimed that Jews could not practice their religion in America, since they could not perform human sacrifices here. Some of my Missouri students grew up without electricity or running water. Many were missing multiple teeth because they'd never been to a dentist. They'd never heard jazz or classical music--the NPR affiliate played pop music. Many had never even been to a city.
Life is hard in Missouri--the weather severe, floods wiping out entire regions periodically, tornadoes slicing through towns every year. The people of Missouri are tough and self-sufficient. No matter how hard the times, with stolid calmness they cope with poverty and calamity as if it's no big deal. People don't whine and complain in rural Missouri--they just take care of business. If everything went to complete economic shit in America, the people of Missouri would do just fine, farming, hunting, digging wells, building their own shelters out of the materials of nature.
The Rio Grande Valley is different. On the U.S. side of the river, there are about a million and a half people, and on the Mexican side, millions and millions live in the border cities like Matamoros and Reynosa. It's a major metropolitan area, this Rio Grande Valley. Monterrey, Mexico is only a couple hours away by car, and that's got another couple million people and it's a true cultural center. My students here at the University of Texas, Pan American, are savvy, cultured, and intelligent. They're not impoverished minorities: they're the majority down here, and their parents are as likely to be doctors and lawyers and businessmen as they would be at any other state university in a major metro area.
Living down here has been an eye-opener, though. There's a war going on just 13 miles from me, and it's real, and it has spilled over. Dead bodies wash up in the canal behind my house with regularity, and it's not uncommon for helicopters to circle above my neighborhood looking for murderers. Nearly every day there's a murder in the newspaper. And there are drugs everywhere here--the stuff the cartels couldn't get north of the checkpoint and into the interior of the U.S. It's a virtual police state, local police, state police, Texas Rangers, national guardsmen, border patrol officers, military convoys, armed fighter jets in the skies. Kidnappings are regular and not reported in the news, U.S. citizens taken across the border and held for ransom, unreported because if you report such a crime, the kidnappers kill your extended family. YouTube some of this stuff. It's a war, and it's real, and it's here in America, too.
Shivani: Why is book reviewing in such trouble? Do you feel sorry that newspaper book reviews have radically shrunk in space the last two years, or do you think that newspapers brought it on themselves in some respects?
Williamson: Book reviewing is indeed in trouble, and that's a good thing. Newspaper book review sections are in trouble because they function to serve capitalism, not art. Several times I've panned books when writing reviews for major newspapers, only to have the book review editors send the reviews back to me with instructions to lighten up, to write a more "positive" review. Reviews in newspapers sell advertising space, and that ad space is purchased by publishers. If a review rips on a rotten book, that publisher is less likely to buy ad space, and the newspaper loses money. As well, if a review is too intelligent or intellectual, it will be unreadable to the average idiot reading Harry Potter or Stephenie Meyer. I'll be glad to see the newspaper reviews close up shop.
An anecdote, since I know I'll never be reviewed in the New York Times again anyway. I knew three months in advance that my first novel, East Bay Grease, was going to be reviewed in the Times. I knew because my publisher, Picador USA, told me so. You see, the Times had called them and told them so. They'd asked Picador if they wanted to buy ad space, since my book was being reviewed.
I'll be happy to see that kind of thing buried under a mountain of bankruptcy papers.
The places where responsible, intelligent, thorough reviews appear are literary journals like Pleiades, The Georgia Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Southern Review, and the great slicks, Harper's and The Atlantic. Among the newspapers, The Washington Post strikes me as the best, though I, for the most part, gave up regularly reading the newspaper book review sections long ago. As did most Americans. For good reason.
Shivani: You were a student of Donald Barthelme's at the University of Houston in the 1980s. Tracy Daugherty recently published Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme (St. Martin's Press, 2009), the first complete biography of one of our most influential writing teachers. Can you share some memories of Barthelme with us?
Williamson: I have had the great fortune to have studied under many superior professors--Harold Bloom, Denis Donoghue, Kenneth Silverman and Jacques Derrida at NYU; Richard Howard, Robert Pinsky, Frank Kermode and Donald Barthelme at the University of Houston; Ronald Sukenick, Ed Dorn, Anselm Hollo and Steve Katz at the University of Colorado; Nestor Gonzalez and Robert Williams at California State University, Hayward.
Studying with Barthelme was a splendid thing. He was a great teacher of writing. What he taught was humility. He was not nice to awful writers. Quite the contrary: if a student's work was not up to snuff, he was brutal. He would shame the bad writers, run them out of the program, as is right and good.
But he was also extremely generous. On more than one occasion he took the entire class out for cocktails at a swanky bar called The Black Labrador. One time he left his credit card in my care to pay the tab run up by us students--fifteen writers drinking expensive drinks and drinking hard. The bill was over $1,500. If you took a course from Barthelme that required books, he bought the books. One of my friends got a girl pregnant, and Barthelme gave him a thousand bucks. Barthelme would hand-deliver student manuscripts to editors of literary journals and New York publishing houses.
I suppose I have modeled much of my teaching style after Don. I do not tolerate laziness in students, and I believe that if a student's work is not good, that student should be told so. A college classroom is not a group therapy session or a talk show. If a student wants to hear that his paper or story or novel excerpt is great, he should show it to his mother, not to me. It's my job to make students feel that their work is not great, is what it is: apprentice work. After much labor the work may become sufficiently accomplished to be published, at which time I go to bat for the student and ensure that the work is indeed published, just as Donald Barthelme used to do for us. The first step, though, is to teach students humility and shame, to teach them not to like, not to be satisfied with what they have written. Only then can they improve. And that's what Don did to and for his students.
I still can't write a sentence without feeling Barthelme's presence looking over my shoulder saying, "No. No, Mr. Williamson. That will not do."
Shivani: What are you reading now?
Williamson: Right now? I just received the advance reading copies of my newest book, a short story collection titled 14 Fictional Positions. I'm reading through it looking for typos and gaffes.
I'm in the middle of reading The Renaissance: Its Nature and Origins, by George Clarke Sellery, and yesterday I finished a book called Everyday Life in Renaissance Times. Last week I read Past and Present by Thomas Carlyle, and before that I read Frank O'Connor's A Short History of Irish Literature alongside The Portable Irish Reader, boning up on a serious gap in my English language literary studies. I'd never really read much Irish literature except the usual suspects, Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Synge, Swift, Wilde, George Moore, Goldsmith, Congreve. I'm adamant in my studies: if I ever want to be a better writer, I absolutely must devour the history of my chosen medium. Of course I'll never be as good as I want to be, but that's the point: to have an unattainable goal. What's the use of a goal if it's attainable? Might as well unplug toilets for a living.
Shivani: What are your writing methods? With a growing family, and a teaching load, not to mention your other obligations, how do you find enough time to write?
Williamson: I find enough time to write by not sleeping, by sleeping anywhere between two and four hours a day, and I've been doing this for 30 years now.
Methods. They vary according to what I'm writing. I'm not one of those writers like Hemingway or Jack London or Updike or you, Mr. Shivani, who writes every day. I personally don't think it's good for one's art.
When I was making my living as a professional jazz trumpeter I once met the great alto saxophonist Phil Woods. He's without compare as a soloist, better, in my opinion, than even Charlie Parker. Parker, if you study his solos, his improvisational patterns, falls into rote patterns, repeats himself, sometimes for up to three or four measures. And it's not a deliberate self-citation, either. It's that Charlie Parker, like so many artists, would find himself confronted with an artistic situation and respond with a statement he'd made before. I've done this myself in any number of essays I've written, and I've found myself, unfortunately, doing it in my fiction. This is to be avoided.
Phil Woods never makes this faux pas. Faulkner does, Miles Davis does, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, Picasso and Van Gogh and even Bach. Not Phil Woods.
So when I met him I asked him how he did it, how he managed never to play the same lick twice. He told me that every five years he took a year off from his alto sax and played a different instrument, like the flute, for a year. By playing a different axe, he was forced, because of the physical and tonal differences, to rewire not only his thinking, but his physical relationship to his artistic medium. So when he went back to his alto saxophone, it was an alien to him, new once again, something to explore and understand and through which he could express himself differently than he had before alienating himself from it.
I have always kept this lesson in mind. When I find myself, after a three or four year stint of writing nothing but fiction, falling into habits rather than surprising myself with what I've put on the page, I put whatever I'm working on aside and either switch to essay writing or to not writing at all. In the past ten years, I've only produced a handful of short stories. Sure, I've published two novels and a short story collection, but those novels are books written over a decade ago that I have revised. I made 20,000 edits on Two-Up after it was accepted for publication, and it's only a 60,000 word book. Similarly with Welcome to Oakland. But during those ten years I wrote and published over a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred pages of essays. That's a long break, but I'm gearing up to write two very big novels.
So what I do when I write. First, I write in a cave, the room cramped and dark, the only light the computer screen. Heavy curtains to keep the sun out so I don't note the passage of time. I smoke like a fiend, sometimes three packs during a day of writing, cigarette hanging out of my mouth and ashes falling on the keyboard. I have an industrial fan in the room turned on to the High position to block out noise, the sounds of sirens or my children playing or the doorbell ringing. I only exit the room to use the bathroom, as my coffee pot is in my cave. My copy of Shakespeare sits on my desk so I can remember that I suck, so that I feel bad about what I'm presuming to do. Every writer should feel like a failure. A writer who thinks he is a success is a bad writer.
Essays I write stone cold sober, plenty of coffee and classical music playing on my stereo. I write a paragraph or a page, print it out, and then red-pen it, and then I enter the edits and additions and do the same thing again. I forget to eat when I'm writing essays. I cannot be disturbed when I'm writing essays. I refuse to answer the phone, and if the house or apartment were to catch fire, I wouldn't notice. Truly. When I wrote Oakland, Jack London, and Me, it only took me 59 days. I wore a hat that I called my "Thinking Cap," and I would not let my then wife to speak to me and interrupt my train of thought. I am a complete asshole when I write essays, so involved in the project am I.
Fiction is a different story. I usually swap out the coffee for a beer, and instead of listening to classical music, which is very organized and ordered, symmetrical, I listen to jazz, bee-bop, improvisational music which can tend toward the chaotic and is certainly unpredictable. I pace a lot. I talk to myself as I write, reciting the words as I write them, making sure they sound right, making certain the rhythms and cadences are what I want them to be. For me the sound and rhythm of the words in sequence is at least as important, if not more important, than the ideas and images conjured by those words. Without music fiction is irrelevant. I've had the police called on me before when I've been too loud listening to music and talking to myself as I write.
And I never revise a story or novel until I am entirely done with the first draft. I don't even go back to fix typos. Fiction must have momentum as well as music, and if a writer thinks too much about what he's doing he is in danger of becoming a machine, an automaton, a John Updike, who, at his best, is no better than a machine, a computer. Fiction drains me like no other activity. I don't like writing it. The only reason I do is because I feel worse when I don't.
Shivani: Should American writers be complaining, or should we be grateful?
Williamson: American literary writers should be thanking the gods. American literary writers should thank the gods that no one reads our work. Because no one pays attention to what we're doing, we're free to write whatever we want to write without fear of censure, public outcry, or incarceration. We are absolutely irrelevant, superfluous, inconsequential in our own culture, and this is a privilege of rare order. Writers should not write for their times, because they are their times. Writers should write for the dead writers and the writers yet to be born, for only they are worthy of our labors.