By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
By Chris Parker
By Sam Levin
As for publicity, I would never compromise what I write or what my vision is. I do my books as an artist, but once it's done, I have no problem with going out before the public and wearing a funny jacket on the Letterman show and telling jokes. I enjoy it. I want to do it.
You're still in the thick of your career. Why put out The Collected Stories now?
This was the idea of my editor, who had wanted to do it for a couple of years. He wanted to do a selected stories and then a collected stories, because he felt that there's a lot of rich work that I've done there that most of my audience doesn't know about. Most people became aware of me with the last three novels -- The Road to Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain and Riven Rock. At first I resisted the idea. I thought that's the kind of thing you do at the end of your career. So it makes me a little nervous, you know (laughs)?
Has your approach to writing stories changed over the years?
No, but the stories themselves have changed a bit in that, if you look at the earlier ones, a lot of them are conceptual stories. I was much more interested in the design of a story and the aesthetics of it, what it looked like, than I was in character. Character was just incidental to me. Since I've written seven novels now, I think I've learned to work with character and to develop characters. So the new stories, especially the ones that will be in the next collection, are generally fuller, longer stories that use all the elements that the early ones do but also play with this new toy that I have of character. You can see in The Collected Stories a kind of movement toward that.
Was your tendency toward a more stylized type of story in your early work a function of having come out of a writers' program? Was that the sort of thing that was taught there?
No, I think the writing program didn't have that much to do with that. Everyone goes his own way in there. I don't know that I was even influenced that much by my teachers. I think it was mainly that I was just turned on by what was happening then. This was the early '70s, so I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Flannery O'Connor, the absurdist playwrights, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme -- a lot of stuff that's kind of funny, absurd, maybe that has a larger worldview than some of the stuff that came in the '80s, when it kind of shrank down and everybody was writing trailer-court stories. I parallel it to the '70s music getting kind of bloated and then punk coming in to strip it back down to the basics, and then it grows back up again. I think the same thing happened in our literature.
Because you're the product of a writing program and now teaching in one yourself, I'm guessing that means you believe writing, to a certain degree, can be taught?
Well, you can't teach someone to be good at an art if they don't have a gift for it. But -- I used to explain this to the Europeans all the time; they can't understand how you teach creative writing at a university. Well, it hasn't been done that long here, either. I'm the first writer they had at USC, and I started their undergraduate program. And I'm not that old. Flannery O'Connor was one of the first graduates of Iowa, so Iowa doesn't go back that far, either. But you know, if you have a music department where you have musicians teaching composing and violin and everything else, and you have an art department where people go in and learn to study sculpture and get coached by the masters there, well, why not another art like writing? So I don't think it's that strange a thing.
A lot of your stories, and especially the novels, use historical characters. What's the advantage of doing it that way rather than making everything up?
With Wellville, which has a couple of real characters from history, and Water Music and then Riven Rock, I guess I'm fascinated by the details of the original characters' story. There's much more invention of characters and situations in Wellville than in Riven Rock. Riven Rock is an anomaly, and it's good that it is, because I don't want to repeat myself. But the story is essentially true. No one knows what really happened behind closed doors, but I did a lot of research into this particular man, Stanley McCormick, and his problems, and it's accurate. And the most absurd things, as in Wellville, are the true things. The fun for me is in blending the two and making it seem credible to you. So then you don't know what I invented and what is ridiculous. In Riven Rock, the story is almost like a novel in itself. It's such a bizarre story that all I really needed to do was to tell it.
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