You listed as your two earliest books as “The Lives of Saints” a book describing the patron saints of countries and various warrior saints, and a humorous poetry book called “Junk.” Then, you credited your fourth grade teacher for leading you to this “wonderful place called the library” and your world has never been the same since.
The list of influences you picked up after that time is quite impressive, starting with various works by Jack London, moving onto John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” (1939, which you read at age 13), Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969), and the short stories of Franz Kafka. Then, as you went to boarding school at age 14, you seemed to shift to the Russians with Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (1869) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” (1867). Then, besides Anton Chekhov’s works, you read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” (1942), before shifting to beat poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. You also got to meet Pulitzer laureate Carl Sandburg before he passed away in the summer of 1967.
This is quite a collection of influences for a teenager to digest, and of course quite a number of these are on the broody side. In what way do you imagine that they inspired your writing style? Is there anything they’ve done that you might have emulated in your own work?
Whom do I most emulate in my work? I think I most aspire to be like Steinbeck. Simply human characters dealing with their lives but with a real empathy and socio-political awareness. I think that the Beats have taught me that sexuality is necessarily part of those human stories. Perhaps it’s because of the change in society, but I feel that my novels are more frankly sexual than Steinbeck’s.
When I got to meet Sandburg the thing that most impressed me was his simple humanity. As an author, much as I want to be a great writer I also want to be a good and simple human. I think that informs my choice of characters. I don’t have pure characters but people struggling with who they are. Again, that sense of brooding.
When I was working on “Memoirs from the Asylum,” I didn’t want there to be any one purely good or evil character. Rather there is pain enough for all. I think that sense of the struggle of the human soul was something I learned from the Europeans, particularly Chekhov. I also see us humans as caught in a world beyond our capacity to control. In a sense the narrator of “Times To Try the Soul of Man” is an homage to Kafka. I think he is caught in the same inexplicable forces as Joseph K. Yet, he struggles on to find meaning and finally does in love.
I struggle a bit to understand what you mean by simple humanity. Humans are quite complex, particularly when you try to describe them. I get the sense that conveying someone in simple terms at times can be the most complicated thing that a person can do in writing. Could you clarify a bit of what you mean when you express admiration for portraying simple humanity in someone’s work?
Let me start by quoting Carl Sandburg:
The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.
Yes, we are complex creatures, we humans, but at the same time we hold fast by finding our roots and going on. Consider the wonderful characters created by Berthold Brecht, especially Mother Courage. Scheming, conniving, and skeptical yet also loving, honest, and trusting. Willing to go forward because there is no going back. Always at the root that connection that informs the end of “Grapes of Wrath,” the willingness to nurture one another.
That to me is simple humanity. Sometimes—perhaps often—it goes missing on us. But then again there it is, like a good penny. Growing up in Maine—although I spent more total time in Massachusetts, I have always felt that my actual growth took place in Maine—I was aware of the people there and their underlying strengths, their willingness to work hard, to come together in times of need, and their ability to carry spite and resentment and then to set those negatives aside. To me they were the essence of simple humanity because in the end it was about surviving, about being. No highfalutin expectations; how can there be when you’re using a privy?
Although I have a Ph.D. and a degree from a fancy college, I still admire those folks from my childhood. They spoke in words consistent with the unproductive soil and the walls of rocks gathered from requiting fields. Not only are their words found in “Broody New Englander” but those same words inform the way the characters in my other novels think and speak.
That’s as inspiring an endorsement as I’ve heard given to anyone living in a cold climate region. Do you suppose that these sorts of inhospitable lands attract a particular sort of person, or is it that they create the people who stay there?
It isn’t just the cold, it’s the glaciated terrain. At any rate, I think the people of Maine like the people of the Appalachians were the poor relatives who were shunted off from the richer pickings. I’ve always imagined that the people who left the Bay Colony and moved north to Maine, which was part of Massachusetts until 1820, did so because of religion. I don’t know that to be true, but it has always felt that way. Those communities were built around their churches. The way I describe the town in which the first two stories of “Broody New Englander” are set tells a lot:
“It is a town of little note, long memory, harsh judgment, and grudging acceptance. Over the years, 44 and more, Putnam has learned to care for it as one loves an old sweater—worn and full of holes yet giving warmth and comfort of a different sort.
“It is a hamlet, really nothing more, with no purpose left; but once it had been a place of refuge for a small group of friends who’d fled to find their own separate peace with God. Their blood now dilute with those who’ve come to farm, to log, or perhaps, as Putnam, to find tranquility—a quiet place to contemplate and to create, a refuge from cities to the south.
“Two churches, one congregant with graveyard’s history, the other Methodist—square, white with clarion bell; both are on the green where tourists come for local fairs.”
At any rate, having found their home, these people are surely shaped by it. Much of “Broody” is about the process by which that happens. Putnam and Jeannine, who have moved there, were certainly shaped during the years they lived in town.
Of course, struggle is the basis of any good story. Joseph Campbell tried to devise a formula of traditional adventure tales in his work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (1949). Do you think that maybe there is something of the “monomyth” or “hero’s journey” that appears when you describe the day-to-day struggles of your characters?
I’m not big on the idea of archetypes. Each of my characters has their own story, their own struggle. Sometimes they struggle with the thrown nature of the world, sometimes the battle is with their inner demons, and sometimes they are fighting social forces that are the creation of other people. Some of them grow towards resolution and some fall short never to reach a truly satisfying end to the race.
For me the thing that makes the stories of protagonists interesting are the denouements, the places in the story when something causes a character to change. I’ve always been fascinated by Brownian movement, watching specks of dust dance in the air. Yes, it is Lonely Cricket’s character that allows him to continue his journey to a resolution, but that entire journey was set off by events of which he knows nothing until the end of “Red and White.”
Mary’s journey into romance and reassessing her religious values makes for a powerful tale, but her Widow’s Walk can only begin when a home health aide points out to Sean that his electric wheelchair is left uncharged which means he has no capacity to have a life.
Then there is the berserk elephant in “Memoirs from the Asylum.” How can we deal with the sheer madness within, but seeing it mirrored in the madness without? Or is madness perhaps nothing but the pain of truth.
Perhaps part of my empathy for my characters is that I see them battered by events, tossed between the shadow and the light.
Perhaps it comes with treating real people for the emotional injuries that have left them in need of a good counselor?
I certainly think that my training helps me to have more sense of my characters and their pains. However, I also think that I became a shrink because of the empathy that is so much a part of my own character. That in turn was at least in part created by living with my parents’ madness, a madness that certainly informs my work, particularly “Memoirs from the Asylum” and the back stories on Cal and Ephraim, the central characters of “Tales from the Dew Drop Inne.” I guess it’s all one nice circular process. Hopefully as I go round and round in those concentric circles I don’t end up with my head firmly wedged.
That’s as good of a segue into my next question as any. The struggles depicted by Kafka are regarded as arch-typical in the field of writing. But you also mention authors whose characters live in their own nightmare worlds – Rodion Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment” comes particularly to mind. Is love always the path to salvation?
I’m not sure there is always salvation. Indeed, I think the journey is its own justification. Take “Hansom Dove,” the third piece in “Broody New Englander.” I don’t want to spoil what I consider a great story so I won’t say much beyond that I see it as a tale of the lie that is called salvation. If you read my Kindle book “Two Tales of Terror,” you’ll find a similarly dark short story, “Bella.” One of my stories that I have put up on YouTube is “In My Father’s House There Are Many Murders.” Again, there is no redemption, no good ending. Salvation: I don’t think so. As I suggest at the end of “Tales from the Dew Drop Inne” sometimes the best we can do is catch a bus to another town.
Does that mean I’m a nihilist? Not at all. I strongly believe that we find meaning for ourselves. I’m an existentialist. My journey has had its own complexities. I draw on them to tell stories. I am a teller of tales. Perhaps that is not salvation, but for me it is enough.
Perhaps the telling of tales is a way of learning how to deal with the things we haven’t figured out yet how to deal with?
For some of us unquestionably. That actually leads me to religion and particularly to God. Early in my life I read about Spinoza (ed: Benedito/Bento, or Baruch Spinoza, Sephardic Jewish Dutch philosopher) and was fascinated. I loved the idea that a Jew could be excommunicated. I wondered just how the rabbis could tell God who was no longer to be chosen.
At any rate, the more I thought about Spinoza’s idea of God, the more it made sense. For me, God is the word we use to define and delineate that which we don’t understand. “God knows,” becomes the ultimate wisdom because it helps us to recognize that we don’t.
I don’t write much about religion, but the topic does find its way into some of my books. I think “Widow’s Walk” is my most extensive investigation of the topic because Mary’s journey requires her to start thinking about the meaning of life and not simply how to follow the rules of her Church. Ultimately, the book hinges on the battle between her intellect and her superego. Then there is Max, a de-frocked priest dying of AIDS who tries to save Mary’s daughter Kathleen from the curse of moralism.
My other book in which God plays an important role is a Kindle short, “El Catrin.” Set on the Pacific coast of Mexico, the story is based on local theology, beliefs that are at odds with but derived from the teachings of the Catholic Church. Rooted in anthropology, “El Catrin centers” on the sibling rivalry between Jesus and Satan. Again, it is dark, humorous, and ironic.