Charles Baxter Revisits Old Friends in Five Oaks
Dave Weich, Powells.com
Charles Baxter is a writer's writer. Mention his name in a crowd of authors and most will voice an appreciation for at least one of his books; many will simply rave. But it wasn't until Baxter's third novel that large numbers of mainstream readers discovered the joys of his writing. A 2001 National Book Award finalist, The Feast of Love "is as precise, as empathetic, as luminous as any of Baxter's past work," the New York Times cheered. "It is also rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing."
Speaking of his past work: In the eighties and nineties, alongside a pair of novels Baxter also published a book of poetry, a collection of essays on writing, and four story collections. Three stories from the bunch, written years apart, focused on a young married couple living in Five Oaks, Michigan: Saul and Patsy.
Who better to describe them than Saul's mother?
Does Saul and Patsy, the novel, continue the trajectory of those original stories? Yes and no. Baxter explains, "The trouble was that the three stories I had written about them were basically marriage stories, and I didn't want to write an entire book about a marriage." Instead, Baxter breaks the magic circle around his central characters. What results is the author's most piercing social commentary to date.
"It is rare that a novel, even a good one, manages to evoke contemporary life without being self-conscious about it," the New Yorker acknowledged. "But that is what Baxter achieves here."
A mild warning: The plot elements of Saul and Patsy discussed in this interview occur in the first of the new novel's four sections. Which isn't to say we don't give anything away, but only events in the early going.
Dave: I was introduced to your writing eight or nine years ago when I read Shadow Play. It was interesting to go back to it after reading Saul and Patsy. I'd forgotten that Five Oaks, Michigan, is the setting for Shadow Play, too.
Charles Baxter: Why would you remember?
Dave: Right. But then I went back to it, and I thought, Oh, right, the chemical plant.
Baxter: It's still there, still pumping out its particular poisons. Schwartzwalder is still at work.
It's nice having these other books with various backgrounds to fall back on. I got to a point in Saul and Patsy when I needed to think of a company that was still doing business in Five Oaks, and I thought, Well, WaldChem is still there. It started up in Shadow Play and it's still going.
Dave: In an interview with Tin House a few years ago, you said that you didn't know whether you had the imaginative energy left to finish a book about Saul and Patsy. What happened? How did you end up writing this novel?
Baxter: After The Feast of Love came out, my batteries were low. I thought of going back to Saul and Patsy, about whom I had written intermittently for some time the first of those stories came out twenty years ago but the trouble was that the three stories I had written about them were basically marriage stories, and I didn't want to write an entire book about a marriage. I didn't think that it would be interesting, and I didn't think I had the imaginative energy to carry through on a project like that.
What happened was that one writer, William Maxwell, who had read the third story, "Saul and Patsy Are in Labor," said to me, "You know, I don't think we've seen the end of Gordy Himmelman." I thought, All right. I'll write another chapter with him in it and see how far I can take it. I did two of those chapters or, it turned out to be three of them when, rather abruptly and somewhat to my surprise, Gordy killed himself.
I don't know whether when I was talking to Tin House I was referring to the problem of continuing a novel about a married couple or whether I was talking about what to do after one of your major characters kills himself. I spent about four months trying to figure out what I was going to do after that happened.
Every time I've finished a book, it feels to me as if the washrag has been rung out. Everything that I know, everything that I've observed or taken down, I've used. I feel that way now. I can't see what the next book will be. I don't have an endless supply of subjects. But I also think, I'm not a factory; I don't have to go into mass production. Productivity in and of itself is not a good thing. If there isn't another book, there's not another book.
Dave: Going back and forth between stories and novels, does that offer a release for you, to be able to change gears and work on a smaller canvas after spending so much time and energy on a novel?
Baxter: It used to. When I was a writer whose sales were respectable but kind of negligible, it didn't matter whether I wrote novels or stories, but then The Feast of Love sold quite a few copies. And it's not that I've got this expectation directly from my editors, but I think they would much prefer that I write novels.
I think what I do next is likely to be in the realm of the short story. It was always a release for me to be able to go back and forth. When I had characters who were feeling impulsive and who were not particularly conscious of making great plans, I'd put them into stories. And I've been thinking that I want to go back to that after writing this book and Feast of Love. It's about time I did another book of stories.
Dave: So you do consciously think about writing a book of stories. It's not a matter of, Now I've written twelve stories and I'll collect them together in a book.
Baxter: That's the way I used to be, but when I was working on the stories in Believers I was very conscious of working on a group of stories that were more or less about a similar theme, that is: people who are choosing to believe something or not, and whose belief would change the direction of the narrative. Now I'm more likely, if I write a short story, to think, What other short stories could I write that would have something to do with the story I've just written? I never used to think that way, but I do now.
Dave: The Feast of Love was the first novel you wrote in first-person, but you use six different voices to tell the story.
Dave: They're not self-standing stories, but they are distinctly different voices. In that respect, it's almost as if the novel emerges from a community, a little like a collection of stories. Like a chorus.
Baxter: I was thinking about those old narrative forms: The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, the sort of forms that Calvino was drawing upon in If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, a chorus of voices talking about similar subjects or one subject.
At one level, I thought, This is so literary. I don't know that I'm going to get any reader to believe. It's assumed that there's this guy Charlie who has insomnia and is wandering around Ann Arbor collecting stories about love from people he knows. It's preposterous in a way because people won't talk about their love lives most of the time to anybody, much less to someone they hardly know. But it was a way of writing a novel using different stories.
I love to break up the big arc with a lot of little arcs. I'm very comfortable doing that. The standard novel form doesn't interest me very much, the one that goes from A in a smooth arc full of suspense to its ending. I just don't care about books like that very much. I'm really interested in jazzing the form somehow, making readers think they actually don't know where the story is going.
Dave: In much of your fiction, certainly in Saul and Patsy, we'll see the same scene described from two different points of view, one after the other. One moment we're experiencing the scene with Saul, then you rewind and we're with Patsy. The narratives overlap.
I would imagine that develops in a later draft once you've worked out what's happening and now it's a matter of figuring out where to put the cameras.
Baxter: That's something that I've done for a long time. There are double-narrated scenes in First Light, and that book came out in 1987.
There's something about revisiting scenes from different points of view that I've always liked. It's given me the opportunity to do a Rashomon approach to narrative: everything depends on who's seeing it and from what angle.
I guess that arises in revisions and subsequent drafts, but it's so hard for me to reconstruct the writing of a book after I've written it that I couldn't actually tell you when I thought of, for example, Patsy arriving at home when Howie is in the living room; she's carrying Emmy and she's thinking, We've got to get out of this place. I have absolutely no recollection of how I decided or why I decided to do that particular scene twice. I just felt it was particularly important to do the scene from her point of view when she comes in the door and sees Howie and also to do it from Saul's point of view, when he's trying to deal with Howie and suddenly Patsy comes in.
Dave: Salman Rushdie was here about a year ago. We got to talking about what he called his "language project," how his writing style and interests have evolved. When he sits down to write now he has different objectives.
Do you see an evolution in your own work, in your fiction? How would you say that your vision has changed?
Baxter: I think it's getting darker. I've been surprised by some of the commentary about Saul and Patsy, as if it's this sun-drenched novel about a marriage because that was not the book I thought I was writing.
I don't think too much about what it is that I'm doing, though. I don't think that's necessarily very good for writers. You can talk about what you're interested in and the kinds of people that you're watching, the cluster of behaviors they're involved in; and as you get older, because you're aging, you're beginning to look at different things; because you're looking at different things, you're bound to become a different writer. But it's not as if it's willful for me. It's not an act of will. I don't say, Now I will write about the fate of the entrepreneur in America because it needs to be studied. I don't work that way. It's much more a matter of thinking that I need to write about this group of people whom I've been watching or whose behavior interests me.
I said half-facetiously to a reporter at the New York Times that I've gotten interested in psychopaths lately. And I got a horrified phone call from a writer friend of mine saying, "You're not serious." I said, "Well, no. They didn't get my tone." But I was serious, actually. I just don't let the will direct things. It's a matter of what I'm drawn to next.
Dave: Well, for example, how did you come to write The Feast of Love in the first-person instead of using the third-person, as you had in your previous novels?
Baxter: It was partly that I had seen my son in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I had the idea that if I was going to tell a love story, if I was going to write a book on that subject, it was important to get it in the voices of the people who were experiencing it. Like a play or, this time, a hybrid of a novel and a play.
I wanted to get the energy of colloquial language into it more directly than I would have been able to if I had done it even in a close third-person. So I decided just to try it and see how far I could get with it.
I started with Bradley. He was a hard character to get moving, but once Chloe came on the scene, I thought, Maybe this is going to work. That's why I did it. Mostly the energy. Just the energy of spoken discourse.
Dave: There's a quote from you on the back of Julie Orringer's book, How to Breathe Underwater, where you talk about the energy of her stories. I haven't been reading many story collections lately, in part for reasons you alluded to earlier: story collections don't have the marketability of novels; or, another way to put it is that the people who visit Powells.com aren't likely to care as much about a new story collection as they might a new novel. But I completely fell into Orringer's book. And I think you put your finger on the reason: It was something about the energy, the way the stories propel you forward. Where does that energy come from?
Baxter: This is a dumb way to answer it, but first of all it has to come from the writer; the writer has to feel it. But where does the writer get it?
There are a couple explanations, both really contingent, but you can argue that when a short story writer really makes a mark Grace Paley, Ray Carver, people who can write stories and almost can't write anything else it's because they've discovered a certain class of character and the way those characters sound that really fills the gas tank and gets the thing moving. Grace Paley's stories don't sound like anybody else's. Carver's didn't either. You felt when you were reading those stories that you were discovering a certain class of people: Carver's working class people who shop at Kmart and drink too much and are kind of going crazy over the weekends. So there's that.
There's also the sense of people who are really acting impulsively. That's what I think short stories are really good at. There's more impulsive behavior in short story collections. There's a lot of energy derived from observing people who aren't thinking about what they're doing. Julie's book has a lot of that, a lot of those characters.
I included one of her stories in Best New American Voices 2001, and in the introduction I said, "If you start reading this story it's almost impossible to stop because it's about young people who are just acting out one thing after another." I think that's where the energy comes from.
Dave: Have you recently read anything so good that it made you want to rush over to the table and start writing?
Baxter: That doesn't happen to me often anymore, but my former student, Michael Byers, wrote a beautiful book called Long for This World. I was going around button-holing people, saying, "You should read this book." I was buying copies of it because I thought it was so good.
A few months ago, by chance, I read Jenny Egan's book, Look at Me. I think that's an amazingly good book about a lot of different things. And those things that it happens to be about are important in the society that we seem to be building for ourselves. Have you read it?
Dave: I haven't.
Baxter: It's really, really good.
Siri Hustvedt's What I Loved is a very interesting book also. I still have these enthusiasms. Sometimes I'm reading books by my contemporaries or my former students out of sense of dutifulness, but sometimes it really blossoms into a big enthusiasm.
I noticed that Edward P. Jones has published a new novel [The Known World]. He is one of the best still-to-be-discovered writers in America. His book of stories, Lost in the City, is a great book. Imagine an African American Kafka. Imagine black people in Washington D.C. how Kafka might have seen them, caught up in various bureaucracies, and you'd have a sense of that book. I think it's just been reprinted now that his novel is out. That's a book I've recommended to a lot of people and they're just amazed when they read it.
Dave: As we were walking up the stairs you mentioned that you've written an essay for The Believer about the fact that novelists no longer describe their characters' faces. Can you expand upon that?
Baxter: If you're reading a novel by Dickens or Austen or Thomas Hardy, when a new character comes on, the character's face is going to be described and it's going to be used as an indication of what that person's character is like. In the twentieth century, it's very rare for writers to do that except when they have really grotesque characters they want to show you: Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Richard Wright… The characters that really get described are the ones that really look strange.
One of the last writers in North America who believes in a description of a character's face as an index to character is Saul Bellow. And in this essay I've spent part of the spring putting together I was trying to figure out why. Why doesn't anybody do this anymore?
People still describe facial reactions, but that's not quite the same thing. Paula Fox is great at facial reactions. In a book like The Widow's Children you always know how people are reacting to everybody else, but that's not as if you're going to get a sense of who they are.
I just got interested. And I started to think, given our recent political history: Whose faces we are being invited to look at and whose faces don't we see? I was really interested during the war how we weren't getting casualty counts of the Iraqis and how the photographs of the Iraqi population often showed people shouting and angry.
All of my essays come out of obsessions. They come out of nowhere, why I'm thinking these things.
Dave: I had fun reading through Burning Down the House. I was intrigued by the idea of not being afraid to overstate your case. You explain in the introduction, "The reader may notice that one of the means I employed to create such excitement was the wild claim. There are a number of wild claims here, an occasional manic swing toward the large statement."
We're featuring a new collection by Lester Bangs [Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste], and reading Burning Down the House reminded of something Greil Marcus said about Bangs's writing: "Lester was very, very good at not censoring himself. That's one of the hardest things for a writer: to figure out what you really want to say, then to say it not to say what will sound good and will reflect well on you."
Baxter: Gertrude Stein called this "the excitement of unsubstantiated generalities." When I was writing that book I just gave myself permission to say what I wanted to say. If the generalization seemed big, well, so what? It's my book. I thought I could say what I wanted to. If you disagree with me, or if you think I'm crazy or silly, all right.
I was trying to get some excitement back into literary criticism. There are books like Robert Hass's Twentieth Century Pleasures, a book of essays about twentieth century poetry, that had that same excitement for me. And I thought, I want to do something like that for fiction.
People sometimes get upset. I haven't heard the last of that "Against Epiphanies" essay or the one about dysfunctional narratives, "Mistakes Were Made." But with "Mistakes Were Made," I really felt I was on to something. I was watching Cheney yesterday on Face the Nation: complete disavowal of responsibility for all bad outcomes.
Dave: Politically, that's the norm today. The funny thing about reading "Mistakes Were Made" now is that you cite Nixon and Reagan and the first Bush. All of them, of course, begot Clinton.
Baxter: Right, right. We were just on the frontier of disavowals in those days. We hadn't seen anything compared to what we've gotten. It's amazing.
Dave: It's a bit unsettling to read that essay and, in retrospect, think, Well, yeah.
Baxter: Yeah. Stating the obvious. When the essay came out, it created a little bit of a stir. People had talked about dysfunctional narratives, but they hadn't actually tied this feature of victim literature to certain features of political rhetoric we were getting. I think maybe that was new.
Dave: The other essay you mentioned, "Against Epiphanies," I found interesting in the context of Saul and Patsy. One of the things that I found endearing about Saul is that he has epiphanies throughout the course of the book, but he knows they're not going to last. So they're not epiphanies in the traditional sense, but more like moments of ecstasy.
Baxter: They're not eternal verities; they're not going to last.
I had my little joke on the epiphanic moment when I was working on the second one of those stories, "Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant." At the end of that story, Saul grasps the entire secret of the universe, the meaning of everything, and he promptly forgets it. It doesn't get into the story. It's not an epiphany; it's about the feeling of understanding everything. It's just a feeling. Oh, yeah, that's what it is.
Dave: You've been doing interviews for a long time now. Is there something you're fascinated by that everyone seems to be missing?
Baxter: People in the book business, people who are in your position, are usually pretty smart. They've usually read what I've written fairly carefully. The only thing that's caught me at all by surprise lately, with this book, is that there have been a number of commentaries that have said that it's a marriage novel, it's about these Midwesterners, it's about innocence, it's about this essentially good couple…
What I thought I was writing about was the sense of being excluded from happiness. That's what I think this book is about. Saul feels as soon as the third chapter that the McPhees are living in this state of happiness and he has to stand outside of it, like the beggar at the bakery shop window. That whole sense of exclusion gets repeated with Gordy, who stands outside Saul and Patsy's house, looking inside. Then there's this whole army of kids who seem to have been deprived entry into the world that maybe somebody had suggested to them they might someday live in.
That's really the only thing that nobody ever asks me about. It's always seemed to me that a lot of my work has to do with somebody watching somebody else who is happy. For me, stories begin with a kind of displacement; they're not about people who are happy, but about the people who are watching others be happy and trying to figure out how to get there or what it was that those other people did to arrive in that state. It's all over my writing.
Charles Baxter visited Powell's City of Books on September 15, 2003.