Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Richard Bausch Takes the Fifth

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Photo by Daniel Libman

I first met Richard Bausch at a minor league baseball game in Beloit, Wisconsin. Richard was serving as Mackey Chair of Creative Writing at Beloit College and I had driven up from near Rockford, Illinois with my family to see the Snappers. A crowd of academics — undergrads and professors — hovered around the writer, who was as interested in talking about the prospects of the Snappers as he was about our families or literature or which vendors had the better brats. It was no surprise that at a recent AWP in the bowels of a Chicago mega-hotel, the line to speak to Richard at a signing table snaked endlessly down the aisle — also no surprise that this line moved glacially as Richard heard out anyone who came to talk for whatever length his interlocutor wanted, swapping book recommendations, perusing cell phone snapshots of kids, sharing old jokes. Maybe it’s because the characters in a Bausch story are immediately recognizable — they’re our neighbors, and family members, they’re us last week and probably us again tomorrow — that one feels an instant connection, a chumminess upon being in the writer’s orbit even the first time. You want to ask, “How did you know?”

Something of a departure for Taking the Fifth, this conversation was conducted solely through email, a free flowing, formless chat taking place over several months during the first half of 2012. Mr. Bausch is famously generous with his time and support, as these emails attest.

From FWJ: At AWP in Chicago you were on a panel purporting to be about humor in literature but ended up being a raucous joke-fest. I myself have trouble remembering jokes and tell them poorly, but I’ve been repeating (stealing) some of the ones you told, including the one about removing drunken Canadians from a swimming pool. Heard any good jokes lately?

From Richard Bausch: I just heard about a paranoid dyslexic who was afraid he was following someone.

Best,
R

From RB: I wish there was some clear answer to this; but the honest truth is that I don’t know. Professional comics use trial and error — they produce the material and then go try it out, to see if it works, or if they can discover a sharper way to make it work. Writing it, I put down what I hear people say, and then I try to make sure nothing is wasted in it, that each line is doing more than one thing, but beyond that, it’s all feel, all just trying to make it as sharp as you can, while still convincing a reader that it could happen to be said in the way that you hear it said. I know intellectually that all comedy involves incongruity, exaggeration, and surprise, and that the absurdity of our existence often produces all three elements. But I don’t really ever use any of this, and I doubt anyone who is working a comedic scene does, either — not even in revision. It’s all from the feel of it.

Best,
R

bauschFrom RB: When I said I write dialogue as I hear it, I meant as I hear it in my head, making it up. I have a pretty good ear for how people talk but I never took down anything I ever heard, nor did I ever intentionally ‘overhear’ anything. I do not believe in the writer as scientific observer of his fellows like some scientist from another world making notes. I hate that notion, as I hate the idea a lot of non-writers have that everything they say around me is being recorded for later use. I almost never consciously use models — in fact it has only happened three times in my writing life: 1.) My father for the grandfather in ‘What Feels Like The World’ (and that was just temperamental in that the character exhibits a tender gingerliness when dealing with his granddaughter’s grief and her personal life, exactly as my father always was with his children when it came to their private being); 2.) A dear friend of mine for the young man in “Police Dreams” who’s wife leaves him; and finally, with this new novel I’m working on, I’ve used aspects of my wife’s life in the world for my female protagonist; that is, her practical life, the travel and the schools, not the personal experience of the character, which is made up and is horrific.

In answer to the present question, my friend Richard Ford once said this in a joint interview we were doing, and I deeply concurred: “If you are another writer and you write a negative review of a book of mine, you have made an enemy for life.” I reviewed books for years, for several papers (The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Washington Post, Canada’s Globe and Mail), and with each of those editors I had an agreement, that they give me enough lead time to back off a book I didn’t like. I did this several times, with books by John Wideman, John Irving, William Trevor and others — each time with the observation that I was not the writer to review the book, that it should go to a reader who was more sympathetic to what was being attempted. I have always believed that silence is best in this arena, if you are another writer. A long time ago I read a quote — don’t remember the source: “The writers who survived are hungry; the ones who did not were delicious.” And as Ford said once in a letter and I think also in print, the writers of our particular generation have not wasted a lot of time pissing on each other’s shoes, the way the ones directly before us did. We are colleagues, and the woods are burning all around us, and there is no bitch goddess, to use Mailor’s phrase: there is only the work and the will to do it well, and nothing to protect except the time to do it in, and nobody anybody needs to be warned about, either.

Best,
R

From RB: I want to be reviewed promptly, and when I’m not I think it can do damage to the book’s sales, and it’s happened to me a couple of times, too. But I don’t think bad reviews hurt sales. Hell, the single most pilloried and ridiculed novel in the last fifty years was on the bestseller list for something like six years. I won’t say the name of it, but it had the word bridges in the title and believe me it is decidedly unmemorable. I don’t know what sells books other than word of mouth, and, say, an entire conglomerate juggernaut of public industries — television, newspapers, radio, the whole media complex, announcing its imminent arrival, a la the Potter books. Neither praise nor blame affects my writing; they can affect my life and my blood pressure. But they have no effect on the writing, and there is nothing I can learn from a review, which is mostly plot summary, and talking about matters I have been over so many times I can quote them. Reviews are for readers, and that really has to do more with subject matter than any qualifiers one finds in them. Regarding the last part of the question, no, I have never confronted a critic or another writer about anything they have said about my writing. I don’t read the reviews, in fact; I get them in a kind of one word summary: bad, mixed, good, rave, over the top rave. I want them, I want as many of them as there are papers that people still read, or organs of communication that people attend to, and I’d like them to be over the top, all of them. Most of them have been quite good (in the UK, with the publication of PEACE, they were apparently amazing, and I saw some paragraphs from them and they were deeply gratifying) but I’m still struggling with the same problems of seeing every way the prose lines fall short of my hopes for them, how much they keep sounding like the uninspired rattling of daily ME, and how much there still is to do. My advice to young writers is that they try to develop the habit of not reading the reviews — good or bad. Hemingway said “If you believe them when they say you’re good, you have to believe them when they say you’re bad.” I say, “If you pay attention only to the good ones, you’re no different than a cheap dictator demanding that only good news be brought to him.” So the best policy is the one that makes sense: since there’s nothing to learn from them —and there is truly nothing to learn from some stranger making a single reading of something you’ve been through nine thousand times — then leave them alone.

Best,
R

From RB: I never said it as something to do as a routine before work; I must not have been clear enough. What I meant was that if one can develop the habit of reading several books simultaneously, just going through the days, that this was a good thing. It’s a good thing mostly because you can get to more of what there is to read. That first. At least you get to taste more. Also, I believe it keeps you from being too imprinted by what you are reading when you try to write — or the flow, at least for me, seems better for all the voices gliding through. Presently, on my night stand: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ford’s Canada, Caro’s book on Lyndon Johnson, Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Styron’s Set This House on Fire, Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Gide’s The Counterfeiters, Welty’s Delta Wedding, Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, Mark Van Doren’s Great Poems of Western Literature, Vance Bourjaily’s The Hound of Earth, Mark Strand’s New Selected Poems, Peter Taylor’s Collected Stories, The Henry plays–IV 1 and 2; V; and VI 1, 2 and 3; Cesare Pavese’s Selected Works, and Ann Beattie’s Mrs. Nixon. Several of these I’m reading for a second or third time (the Tolstoy, Styron, Strout, Maxwell, O’Connor, Gide, Van Doren, Beattie — am reading them again because I enjoyed them so much in previous trips through. I read a little in each one of these at some point in each day, and as I finish them, I put them back on the shelf. (This winter I read all those Roth short novels, Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, and Nemesis.) Obviously I do not watch a lot of TV. Sporting events, occasionally — baseball if The Nationals are on; the last games of playoffs, like that. I watch movies — usually a lot of them in a year, sometimes one an evening. I also play guitar and harmonica and I will spend a while playing and singing, most days — will still go on the net to look at tablature and figure out how to play a song.

Best,
R

From RB: I’m always proud of and happy about the accomplishments of pals, but never feel that I wish I’d written any of it. It’s strange, I guess. I feel glad of it, glad it’s there. It validates the whole enterprise for me, and makes me happy to go about my own work. Especially when I know I have their respect. I think one of the big reasons I kept writing after those initial forays into pretense in my late teens early twenties, was the idea of gaining the good opinion of writers I knew of. As if we would all be in some beautiful contemporaneous place together. This sounds a bit overly romantic, but I was seventeen and eighteen and nineteen. Over time of course, the matter of it is simply collegial — colleagues. I have made many good and dear friends AFTER I came upon the work. Oh, many. And they are as dear to me as anyone on this earth.

We are this moment packing stuff in preparation for the packers from the moving company —who are due here tomorrow. Agh! So I may be out of touch for a few days. A lot of going around to come through July 4th. But I will be checking email when I can.

Best,
R

From RB: I am less interested in setting, really, than a lot of writers. For me, the landscape is often interior, the place is the psyche. I’ve set stories and novels in a lot of different locales, my fictional Virginia town POINT ROYAL is often the place where characters of mine live, but I have also set stories and novels in Duluth, Minnesota (Mr. Field’s Daughter), Africa, The Canary Islands, England, Virginia and Mississippi (Hello to the Cannibals), New York (”Once in a great Northern city there lived an old man…” The Last Good Time), Chicago (Violence), Wyoming (Rebel Powers), Memphis (seven of the stories in Something is Out There), and Italy (PEACE).

Best,
R

bausch-peaceFrom RB: The setting where I write is fortunately not really an issue. I trained myself unwittingly to be able to work anywhere because I HAD to be able to work in different settings (we lived in 13 places in 11 years at one point). So I need only a little room, with a table and plenty of pencils and paper, and a computer. Usually, too, now, I have a lot of books around me as well. In Orange, I’ll have a little separate building in the back yard, with electricity and an air conditioner in the window. I’ll put books in there and the table and the other things, and there may be room for a day bed, which I have had the last few years, mostly to throw stuff on and to prop up my guitar, so I can turn from the desk and play and sing a little for a break when I feel like a break.

It promises to be a good place for working. We’ll see. I have sometimes ended up sitting at the kitchen table of various houses, in a T-shirt, with bare feet, and a pad and pencil. Or my little netbook. And there have also been times when I worked on stories while lying in bed.

About our move. I’m in Vermont, at Vermont College of Fine Arts, doing a five-day residency. Everything we own is locked up in a truck on its way to Orange from Memphis. Lisa’s at the rental house setting up utilities and buying new kitchen table and chairs and sleeping on an air mattress. The truck is supposed to arrive tomorrow in the morning. I don’t get back to Orange until late Tuesday night.

See ya,
R

Something Is Out ThereFrom RB: I never gave signing books much thought. The only negative thing for me is always the names — people walk up who have a perfect right and reason to suppose that I will remember their names, and for some reason, the name will not rise in my mind. Just will not. I can quote large passages from Shakespeare and from other writers and poems in entirety — long poems — and I sing maybe 200 songs and know the lyrics for and sing for myself maybe another hundred, and I know just about every joke ever told — it is nearly impossible to tell me a joke I haven’t heard — and for some damn reason I cannot hold a name in my head. They go in and fall out the back. So there is always anxiety about that when I’m signing books. But I never mind signing them, and am always a little puzzled when people seem apologetic asking me to do so. So, if I had a protocol wish, it would be that people say their names as they come up. And of course this is too much to ask, since the recognition is clearly there with the face. But it is no burden at all signing books. Copy after copy being signed is also copy after copy being sold. And if you don’t sell the books the ones who publish them don’t keep publishing them. I have no set phrases signing — I say, “With Pleasure,” or “In Friendliness,” or “Gladly,” or “With good hopes,” sometimes “With Good hopes for your work and real life, too.” If I know the person, and know something about him/her, I will speak to that, whatever it is. Regarding the last part of the question, I don’t have any thoughts at all on what book owners owe me, or what I owe them. Nobody owes anybody anything in the exchange, except politeness, graciousness. What we all owe each other anyway.

And there’s nothing I can think of as an ideal question. I will say that I tire of my own voice in interviews. Which is probably healthy and good.

Best,
R

Richard Bausch’s website

*****

This interview appeared in the Fall 2012 Issue 11 of Fifth Wednesday Journal. To purchase a copy, please visit our Order page. Daniel Libman will be a co-editor for fiction with the spring 2013 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. His story collection Married But Looking was released from Livingston Press in 2012.

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