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August 1982: Bread Loaf Mountain, Vermont

"I'm not going to give a lecture about literature, because I'm not very interested in literature anymore. I'm not really very interested in writing anymore.

"I'm sort of interested in politics now. I think that's what all of us as writers should be interested in now."

John Gardner pauses, gently massaging the lectern. The black Harley Davidson T-shirt he has worn for the past two days protrudes unevenly from beneath his well-worn fisherman's sweater. His white hair, once shoulder-length and almost bright, is cropped short and seems somehow dull or glazed.

Before him – in a rustic, freestanding theater – sits the 57th annual Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, an exclusive two-week gathering of aspiring authors and celebrated faculty members. Gardner's rumpled appearance contrasts their studied L. L. Bean casualness as sharply as the awkward intensity of his message contrasts all that Bread Loaf seems to stand for: wooded Vermont scenery, informal (to say the least) student-teacher relationships, and an emphasis, intentional or otherwise, on technique over ethics.

Where his colleagues have read from carefully crafted manuscripts, Gardner speaks spontaneously and with distinct hesitations, well aware of the traditions he is bucking.

"This is my vision of America," he says, plaintive voice ghostlike as it echoes from a single speaker in the lectern. "America right now is Saks Fifth Avenue, with thousands of shirts and shoes and socks. . . . But they've decided they don't want to put anymore money into merchandise. They want six thousand security cops at every door."

As Gardner warms to his topic, an anxious silence spreads over the audience. Soon the author seems painfully yet unrepentantly alone at the front of the hall. It is a situation that Gardner appears to relish and dread at once — one he has created, in different ways and to different degrees, many times before.

The most obvious example is On Moral Fiction, his manifestic attack on the "tinniness" of much modern fiction. Published just four years ago, it has come to color – in the eyes of many in the literary community – all that Gardner has done before and since. Regardless of whether Gardner is "right" or "wrong" in this provocative book, his decision to attack the works of many of his contemporaries seems at once arrogant and gratuitously self-defeating.

To the Bread Loafers, Gardner is a source of both inspiration and gossip. He is the full-tilt author and scholar who brought his IBM Selectric to a conference where one is supposed to talk about writing but not actually do it. And he is the all-night drinker who made himself blood brothers to a female conferee by slitting their thumbs with a pen knife early one morning.

Such incidents aside, however, Gardner generally keeps to himself, absorbed in reading student papers--even manuscripts by fellow faculty members. (Among other things, he reviewed with Ron Hansen the typescript for what would become Hansen's second novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.) The room he shares with his fiancee, Susan Thornton, is stocked with half-empty tobacco tins and novels he has borrowed from the conference bookstore. On the desk in the corner sits his translation-in-progress of the Gilgamesh epic; on the carpet by the door is food for Teddy, his one-year-old German shepherd.

When Gardner does find the time to socialize, he walks to the barn-turned-lounge or to Treman House, the faculty's evening watering hole. There he holds court on the couch, pipe or gin in hand, always gregarious and opinionated. In his upstate New York high school, he says, it was "cool" to have a metal plate covering the bottom of your left boot. This meant you had worn away the sole from dragging it over the pavement while motorcycling.

He tells of his insistence on having the final say about creative issues involving his literary magazine, MSS. Still another night finds him well-soaked and sitting by the fire with Carol Knauss, the conference's eminently reserved and efficient secretary; as she listens in uncomfortable silence, Gardner ruminates on why there are no black writers at Bread Loaf.

Gardner also insists to the many who will ask that there is a difference between political writing and propaganda. His lecture will become, in fact, a kind of keynote address for the conference: some speakers will make joking reference to it; others, such as essayist Terrence Des Pres and poet Carolyn Forché, will reinforce the message; and students will debate just what Gardner means and whether he should have brought up the subject in the first place.

As he delivers the controversial address, however, Gardner seems more embarrassed than influential. He speaks like a man forced to explain the obvious, citing in disbelief statistics on world hunger and arms production, then abruptly adding, "I know this is boring, but just let me get through it."

Gardner apparently feels obligated to confront people with painful truths – truths he is sometimes alone in seeing – and to speak his mind at all costs. Yet he also seems plainly unsuited to the role, too fragile to endure the resentment his very public critiques create.

With his lecture drawing to a close, however, Gardner makes no more apologies for his subject matter, trying instead to bring his point nearer to home. "When you come to a place like Bread Loaf," he says, "you have in mind that you're going to become a great writer . . . ; and you think you're going to become a great writer because you're going to learn a different rhythm for a sentence, or a different point of view. But you cannot be a great writer unless you feel greatly."

Then, with 45 of his allotted 60 minutes still remaining, Gardner leaps to his conclusion. "You can't write cheap propaganda shit," he says. "But if you're not writing politically, you're not writing."

By the time the audience realizes Gardner has finished, he is halfway to the door. He does not stop to acknowledge their applause, but walks head down into the morning sunlight.

* * *

Sixteen Years Later

The following interview was conducted in two sessions at Bread Loaf that summer of '82: one after midnight on the last day of the conference, and the other later the same afternoon. Gardner died in a still-somewhat-mysterious motorcycle accident less than three weeks later.

Gardner spoke to me largely because he had agreed to an interview "sometime someplace" months earlier, and it took considerable persistence on my part to make it happen. Gardner also told me that this would be his last interview--a questionable assertion that, sadly, became fact. (There is another "last interview" with Gardner, by Bruce Beans, but the text indicates that it was conducted the month before Bread Loaf.)

This interview has been published in slightly different forms in both The Croton Review and U.S.C.'s Southern California newspaper. For this new version, I have retranscribed my original tape and edited it as little as possible; as Gardner's last interview, it reflects his state of mind at an important time, so I have left in sections that I would probably delete under different circumstances. (Also, there is no need to cut for space on the Internet.)

As those who have had the pleasure to hear him know, Gardner spoke quickly, almost breathlessly at times, and would utter complete sentences under his breath -- parenthetical thoughts and ideas. Combined with the decidedly amateurish quality of my recording equipment, this speaking style made transcribing our interview difficult, and in a few places even impossible. Where I am pretty certain of a word or phrase but still feel some doubt, I have placed that passage in brackets. The symbol [XXX] indicates that I don't feel comfortable venturing a guess on what Gardner is saying. Ellipses are used only to indicate a trailing-off sentence or statement; there are only a few places where I have cut for this version, and to distinguish them from trailing-off passages (which are much more numerous) would be laborious and confusing.

I wish to thank the late Ruth Lisa Schechter, editor of The Croton Review, for her help with this interview.

-- David Stanton

© 1983, 1998 David Stanton

Stanton: Since you are encouraging it so strongly here at Bread Loaf, could you define exactly what you consider to be "political writing"?

Gardner: I really do mean political writing. I know that there are going to be a lot of people who can't or don't want to write real political things, and who would like to expand the definition and say, "Well, anything about a husband and wife is political"; and that's OK.

The truth is that we need all kinds of writing, and political is only one; but it seems to me that this is a pretty important moment in history.

I certainly don't mean propagandistic writing, and that's of course the risk. And I don't mean writing that has no technique in it, that cares so much about changing the world that it doesn't hold aesthetically. If you write a strong political book, one that's strongly felt, and your technique is lousy, you will influence no one; it won't change the world a bit. They’ll just throw it out as more trash.

I really mean The Dean’s December, and I really mean Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I mean books that directly confront . . . well, Dean’s December is more direct than Mickelsson’s Ghosts, but it’s also true that I’m beyond the stage I was at when I was writing Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

I think that the United States has the capacity and is working up, sometimes, the will to destroy the world; and I think we’re Americans, too, and we can tell a different story. And that’s what I think we should do. I really don’t think everybody should be doing political writing, but I wasn’t worrying that when I was making my speeches in workshops and things. I think that if people aren’t writing politically and could be, then they should think about it; if they really can’t, then they should write that other kind of stuff.

I was talking to Karinthy Frigyes, the Hungarian Poet Laureate and a great, great writer – who writes very politically, I might add, and very anti-Communist; when Hungary was being invaded, he and all his friends--people who were really on the firing line--were sitting around the room singing Noel Coward songs. And that’s fine. The real place for comic or trivial writing is when you’re in prison, or when the Russians are coming. But until they come, we should be writing to keep them away.

Stanton: Do you think a political book would ever be distributed widely enough to have a real influence?

Gardner: I think good writing does sell. I think people are always hungry for good writing. Of course, if you’re famous, your book will be distributed whatever the reviews are. If you’re not famous, but you’re a really good writer, I think you’ll get distribution because you’re good.

Stanton: How does this relate to the stance you took in On Moral Fiction?

Gardner: Well, it is related, of course; it's just narrower.

What I was saying in On Moral Fiction is that, although I allow all schools of writing, and I recognize that they will continue, I don't want the academic world, or the publishing establishment – or any of the establishments – to think that what we ought to be doing is sort of whining "Ennui," a kind of thing that seems to me to happen too much.

So in On Moral Fiction, what I was arguing was that we should write fiction that leads to life instead of despair. I was arguing that a beautifully told, affirmative story is a good idea. I recognize the arguments against me, that you can't fake affirmation. If you feel nihilistic and despairing, then you're probably going to write that kind of book – and you probably should write that kind of book.

In my present stance, I'm going beyond that: not only should we be affirmative, not only should we write for life, but we should write with knowledge and with concern about the things that seem to be mounting against life, and in this country more than anyplace else.

We often think that it’s easy for the South Americans to write political fiction because the terrible evils are all around them: they can see what the fruit companies are doing, and what fascist states are doing, and what well-paid terrorists on the other side are doing. But even though it’s more dramatic - people cut people’s ears off – nothing that’s happening in the world is more important, I think, for the ultimate welfare of the world than what’s happening in the United States. The really big troubles start right here: the really big companies, the use of hunger as a big business.

I think that in On Moral Fiction I was asking for concerned writing and for affirmative writing, but now I’m asking that concern become directly involved with what we’re doing.

There's more to that answer, but I don't know if I can give it.

Stanton: What do you mean?

Gardner: I don't know. It’s hard to talk about, because I keep getting into traps. People keep thinking that I'm saying, "I don't care about technique." And that's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is, here at Bread Loaf, where technique has reached such a high level – I mean, I see story after story after story that’s publishable, and I don’t see one . . . well, that’s not true; I see very few stories that seem to me really important for the world as it is right this minute. I think that of course we’ve gotta have masterful technique, and of course we can’t have melodrama and sentimental cheapening.

The thing that Carolyn Forché does is she shows that the evil’s on every side in El Salvador. Some of us who are sort of more or less liberal would like to think that the fascists are the bad guys; some who are more conservative would like to think that the terrorists are the bad guys, or the other side. And it’s much more complicated than that. I mean, everybody's a bad guy, but you have to keep saying, "These are the bad guys this minute," naming them and dramatizing what's happening.

And here, in this country, it’s the same thing. I don't think the evils in America are either Liberal or Conservative. I don't think that people who want to build up our military budget at the cost of economic stability in the United States are either Conservative or Liberal. They're people who are beyond and outside of politics; they're money people.

Like, if no small business in America can borrow money – you know all this, but . . . – if no small business can borrow money because the government has already borrowed it all, and borrowed it all to make more and better bombs and germs and things like that, what’s going to happen is economic disaster. No matter how big our army is, if we are insolvent, if we’re bankrupt, we’re gonna get beat. So that, we're on a hell course; it seems to me that our situation is hopeless, and everything we fear is being brought upon us by ourselves.

If, on the other hand, we think about, "What are our strengths?" – like a football team figures out, "Who are our fast runners and our slow runners?" – we’re gonna have to say, number one, we are the food basket. We can make more food than anybody. We dump it in the oceans now; we should be selling it. If it costs too much to ship it, then the money that is going to all those bombs should be taken away from the bombs and be put into boats and trains to ship food.

And I think that if we make our present Third World enemies into friends, allies, by selling them or giving them or whatever we have to do, the goods that make it possible for them to stabilize their governments, that’s what we should do. I know that sounds politically naive, because one can say, "What if the army doesn’t let the food out?" And I say bomb it in; get the stuff there. And I know that that sounds politically naive, too, because you say, "Well, they’ll shoot down the planes" – but if we really used the massive powers we have to present the world with the goods the world needs, then we'd have a chance. And if we don’t, I think we don’t have a chance.


That’s a hard thing to talk about.

Stanton: Do you think the big-money people will allow you to get the circulation you need this message to have an effect?

Gardner: I don’t know; I think that their greed would save us. I think if you convince them that they can make more money by our all making more money, they’ll probably do it.

Unemployment is a big problem in this country; one reason it’s a big problem is that we’re into high technology and offshore drilling and all kinds of things that don’t employ people. There are only two guys on each of those derricks off California, and there are hundreds of Mexicans – "illegal aliens," so called – who could be working in fields if we decided that that was where we wanted to put our energy. If we fill our factories and farms with workers, with people who are actually earning a living and producing something that’s of use to the world, then I think we’re gonna make money.

The nuclear industry hasn’t been able to get any private capital for the last few years; private business says, "It’s not working. It’s too expensive." And so the nuclear industry is supported by the Federal government. That’s not completely true, obviously; one can say that the power companies are supporting the nuclear industry. But that’s not in fact the case, because a nuke – if it’s really, really well built – has got 20 some years, and then you have to bury it, everything in it. It costs a hundred million dollars to bury that nuke, and not one penny of the operating cost is coming from the business that set it up. All of that money has to come from taxes. You know how many nukes there are in this country; you multiply, and you see what’s going to happen to our economy. I think the nukes will just go away, in fact . . . I mean the peacetime nukes.

All this time, after all these promises, still 90% of the energy in this country is coming from fossil fuels – coal and oil and all that. It hasn’t made a dent, and when you factor in the kinds of energy alternative to nuke – not that they’ll ever take care of the problem – like wind and solar, nukes become less and less and less impressive. And the business people know that, and they’re not supporting it. The only reason that the nuke people can keep going is we can keep upping the ante and say, "We gotta have more bombs, more ships to deliver the bombs, special trained people to shoot nuclear bullets" – whatever comes next. And I think it’s time to factor it out completely, just shut it down. If we don’t, we’ll kill ourselves.

Stanton: What brought you to this political consciousness?

Gardner: Just . . . I don't know that; I don’t know the answer to that. Not any specific incident; not that one day I woke up . . .

As I was working on Mickelsson's Ghosts – and as I have been working on this other book that I've been doing for years and years, Shadows – I found the center of my emotion, which is the center of what makes the story, becoming more and more powerlessness – the powerlessness that people in America feel, voters feel. It shows up in all kinds of areas, like the Harris Polls on the ERA show that the American people really do want ERA. It's demonstrable, but we didn't get it. Gun-control laws – we know that the American people have consistently for the last thirty years voted 70% for gun control, and 90% in police departments; and we don’t get it. We still are in the hands of a very few people. And then when you think about what’s really scary – more scary certainly than any of those issues – the nuclear stuff: we know what the sentiment is, but we don’t get it. We know what the Harris polls and the Gallup polls and other polls say, and we know also what bills go to Congress and die on the table. And the scares, and the lies . . .

And as I've been writing these novels about people who want to change the world and find themselves blocked again and again, it's become more and more important to me to try to use whatever I have to unblock it. If I was a policeman, I’d do something different. If I was an Air Force pilot, I’d do something different; if I was an undertaker, I’d do something different. But since I’m a writer, I have to address it with the skills that I have. And so what I have to do is write fiction – I don’t know that everybody does, but what I have to do is write fiction that goes after this stuff.

And it’s true. The problem is that when you write fiction really seriously, serious fiction is confusing. You think about both sides of an issue, and all the things around those both sides, and by the time you're done, it's not as ringing as a manifesto. It's as powerful as you can make it without telling any lies. But if a whole generation of writers wrote moving, complicated fiction that didn't tell any lies, I really think we'd change things. That’s why I’ve been arguing for it here, because it’s the best forum I’ve got. I see more writers here than anyplace else, and if I could convince a great many of them to do those things, something would happen.

Whatever effect I have is just an effect that my voice is louder, because we already have Howard Kohn – Who Killed Karen Silkwood? – and Terrence [Des Pres], and Tim O’Brien, and Ron Hansen – one after another, people who are involved in this stuff. All I’m doing is calling attention to the fact that that is, in fact, what we’re doing; the writers who come here are already, in great numbers, doing this. And their students come to them to learn about point of view and all that kind of stuff, and what I want to say is, of course you have to learn point of view, but notice what these writers are really doing, and don’t think that you can be a great writer just because you can handle sentences well. You have to do something important with those sentences.

Another way of saying it is that every book, to be really good, has to be passionate; and the question is, "What is the passion of our time?" If you've just had a divorce, the passion you feel at that second is the passion of loss or betrayal, or whatever, and that can make a book. But if you keep getting the passion in fiction out of little things in your life, you're never going to get very much passion; you’re not ever going to get very great fiction. I think that we ought to be bigger – more biblical, if you like; we ought to be writing fiction that has the power of The Iliad, or War and Peace, all of that stuff.

Stanton: So you feel any hesitation about using influence that you've gained as a writer in an area where you did not earn that influence?

Gardner: No, I really don't, because the chief thing you learn as a writer is how to think past your own prejudices. You write down what you think about any situation, and then you revise it, and you look at it, and you study it; and you ask, "Is that really true? Is that sentimental? Is that oversimplified?" And I think ultimately, once you become good at your craft, you become the best judge in the world of when an argument is hollow or silly.

It's true that when I just talk my position, it is hollow and it is simplified; but when I write it, I get it right by the time it's published. And I think that that’s maybe true of all writers.

I think a writer is more likely to be completely honest about the big political issues than a politician is, because there's just too many things in the way of a politician's being honest. He's elected by a constituency that's asking for leadership and has very specific needs.

Stanton: How was Mickelsson's Ghosts specifically political?

Gardner: Well, it rants about the fascistic mind, the fascistic state, and the nature of fascism in a very deep and personal way.

The big poles in it are Luther and Nietzsche, both of whom have a lot of influence in the modern world: the sort of fundamental notion of Luther that nothing you do counts, which can lead to taking your hands off the wheel, because it doesn't matter; and Nietzsche's notion, on the other hand, that the only thing that counts is your works. And your works must be simple acts – at least as he's popularly interpreted – simple acts of spontaneous imagination. It's a powerful philosophy, and it gets you out of a lot of binds that older philosophies had, and it certainly answers Luther; but it can be turned, in the wrong hands, into a really dangerous philosophy. It can be turned into pragmatism, into never looking at the large issue; just do what feels right at the moment. "The philosopher [in] the open seas," as Nietzsche says.

There’s a lot in that book – and I hope it’s made emotionally powerful – about the polluting of American wilderness, about the nukes, about . . . I don’t know, all kinds of things. Above all, I guess, cultism – the blind obedience that you get in increasing doses in this country, from est to the Republican Party to whatever.

It's true that, if I had wanted to write a directly political book, I would have made him a congressman. But I was afraid I couldn't make the statements powerful that way; I was afraid I’d get caught up in something that was unsubtly political, and that would sort of destroy the whole aim.

Stanton: Do you feel the politics of the book are well integrated into the plot of it?

Gardner: Sure, of course I do. I think it's a really fine book. I have gotten some bad reviews for that book, but not from anybody that I like, not from anybody that I trust. The writers that I’ve talked to, or have gotten letters from, have all thought that it’s a really wonderful book, and that it’s totally integrated. And I think that’s true.

I think reviewers are not always in a position to understand a book because they have to write so fast, read so fast. Also, reviewers can tend to be . . . they read too many books, and they get a little jaded, and they don't give themselves to books the way other people do. Which is not to deny that many reviewers are real writers--it's also true that, of the many reviews I've gotten which are unfavorable, none are by real writers; and all of the reviews that I've gotten that are favorable are by people of the stature of Larry Woiwode, who are not only real, but great writers. So I don't have any problem with that. I think it’s a really good book, and I think it tells the truth.

I also sent it to a lot of friends that I trust, and whatever problems it had, I think they caught and I fixed.

Stanton: How do you feel about the possibility that this political stance might combine with the...

Gardner: (chuckling) The On Moral Fiction war.

Stanton: Yes ... Well, actually, why don't we talk about that first. How do you feel that On Moral Fiction has affected you?

Gardner: Well, it's true that ... a very large proportion of the hostile, and really sometimes vituperative, reviews I've gotten on Mickelsson's Ghosts begin beating on On Moral Fiction, whamming at it.

And there's no doubt that I offended a great many people with that book. I think I offended academics who devoted their careers and bet their lives on metafiction, say, or certain writers whom I would not primarily approve. I think a lot of academics have the feeling – conscious or unconscious – that, if I'm right, they're in Dutch; and so it's very important to them that I not be right.

Also, there are a great many people who really love those writers that I find trivial; and I hurt their feelings. Like, if you're eagerly waiting for the next novel of John Barth, and you love everything he does, and you think he's hilariously funny and interesting and smart, and he's the person you'd most like to take a book of to a desert island, then you're going to be cross when I say that what he's doing is far from central.

And I think I offended some people in the literary establishment – reviewers and publishers – who have also bet their money, if not their lives, on the kind of writers that I think are not central.

And when you get through adding up all the people I've offended, you've got a big army. I think there’s no question . . . well, if you read the [Mickelsson’s] reviews, almost all of them mention On Moral Fiction and hit me with it, talk about it.

It’s also true that, whatever the writing establishment is, and the reviewing establishment, people do tend to follow leaders, and if a wave starts saying that On Moral Fiction is really bad and stupid, a lot of people who might know better if they sat back and thought will follow it. A lot of the reviews that I've seen that begin attacking On Moral Fiction, then go on to throw out Mickelsson's Ghosts, are by real second-rate minds: people who are following bad first-rate minds – or misguided, or whatever you want to say. And certainly what I say about politics is going to make it worse for me.

Stanton: Why did you choose to make examples of so many contemporary writers in On Moral Fiction? Didn’t you know that something was going to come back at you?

Gardner: I considered, when I was writing it, giving no examples at all; and then I felt that my argument would be abstract. Everybody’s (nodding his head facetiously),"Oh, yeah; um-hmm" unless I mentioned specific people and said specific things.

As I look at the comments from reviewers and others on what I said, I’m always amazed at how much worse they think my comments are than, in fact, they are. I say that Saul Bellow is the greatest living American writer, and that the trouble with his books has been a tendency to lean his characters against the wall and preach for a while. And I say in the book that I absolutely approve of what he's preaching, but it's not dramatic – preaching is by its nature not dramatic; preaching has to come out of the events and the characters – and that he would be a much greater writer if he would get all that stuff into the fabric of the plot and characters. I think I treat him with great respect, but I am again and again cited as having said, "Saul Bellow leans his characters against the wall and preaches . . ."

I say a lot of really good things about Norman Mailer – I admire Norman Mailer immensely; and then I criticize him in what I consider very small ways, and suddenly that’s trotted out. I think, very often, people who are offended look through the index and find the names I've mentioned, then find the worst thing I’ve said about any one of them and stick it on [their] flag.

I really did think I had to mention people, and I thought that I was mentioning people so big and so well-loved that I wasn’t going to hurt them any. And I was, by using those examples, going to make clear my general argument.

I think one problem with that book is that I made mistakes. I made very few, in my opinion, but I made real mistakes. I forgot how Something Happened worked; I hadn't read it for a while, and I didn't re-read it. I didn't re-read any of that stuff. It was stuff that I thought I knew, and I was wrong about the plot of the book. That's pretty gross; that's what reviewers do that makes you mad, and I certainly apologize for having done that. But that also gives somebody a hook: "Gardner talked through his hat: he hasn't read the books."

Stanton: How did you let that happen?

Gardner: I was . . . just the same way Samuel Johnson did; I was presenting my argument, and I thought, "What’s a good example of that? Ah, yes!" I wasn’t interested in going back and making sure I had every detail right – because, of course, I was confident that I did have it right in my memory.

Stanton: How quickly did you write On Moral Fiction?

Gardner: Very fast.

Well, I started it in 1964, when I was a kid; and then, in 1974, when I got cross at the general movement of fiction in America, I got out the old manuscript and re-wrote it: took out the worst of the juvenile ranting. In 1964 I hadn't been published yet, and I had four books sitting in my study: Grendel and Wreckage of Agathon and Sunlight Dialogues and Resurrection – not to mention Nickel Mountain, which I thought then was a hopeless failure. Anyhow, at that time I was really mad, and part of the rewriting was updating the examples.

Anyway – I made those mistakes. I think they're not very important, but I think that they give ammunition to people who would like to say that what I was doing was wrong. [With renewed assertiveness:] What I was doing is right. What I say in On Moral Fiction is true; everybody knows it's true. Bill Gass and I – who are very, very close friends even though we’re on opposite sides of that particular debate – we were talking in Cincinnati, and at the end of the debate between us, somebody in the audience asked, "In a hundred years, which position – yours or Mr. Gardner’s – will prevail?" And Bill Gass said, "Mr. Gardner’s position will prevail, as it always has." I think it’s interesting: he’s not against my position; he just wants to be free to do something else.

And, of course, Bill Gass has written absolutely beautiful moral fiction. He fits the definition; I could have used him as an example. Like, Omensetter’s Luck makes you cry with affirmation at the end; it’s an amazing, powerful and sweet book. "The Pedersen Kid," which I first published in MSS and which was his first published story – powerful. And The Heart of the Heart of the Country – amazingly good novella. Order of Insects and Icicles – they’re all that.

Later, he began more and more to involve himself with word games, and I was mad at him for that. We debated it, we talked about it; we used to visit each other all the time and yell at each other about it. I mostly was mad at him because I thought he should have been the greatest writer we’ve ever had, if only he had held true to what his original feelings about writing were. I never was able to talk him out of his position; and, of course, the more philosophy he teaches, and the less "real" fiction – as I would call it – he writes, the more committed he becomes to that position.

Stanton: You’re asking for certain standards in On Moral Fiction – but aren’t they all a matter of judgment? Is On Moral Fiction slightly fascistic?

Gardner: I don’t think so. In On Moral Fiction I talk about the writing method, the process, and nothing could be more democratic than the process of writing, where you really let all the voices in your soul argue it out until you get the whole truth, instead of some simple, programmatic, or propagandistic truth. I don’t think it’s fascistic in that I say very clearly, although it’s not often heard, I’m not saying these other kinds of fiction are bad; I’m saying that these other kinds of fiction are not the main [tent]. Metafiction is interesting and has certain uses in the world; but when academics – and it is primarily academics I’m after – give seminars on Pynchon and would . . . well, and don’t on people I approve of more, something’s gone wrong.

I agree that we ought to be doing all kinds of writing. I was on the PEN Writers in Prison committee, and I was fighting for the rights of pornographers; I was fighting to get Flynt out of jail. I don’t agree with Flynt at all, but I believe he honestly believes what he says, and I don’t think you should put a guy in jail for that. What I do say is that if anybody begins to make it seem that Flynt’s writing is the most important writing in America, then somebody’s got to yell. In the same way, I think writing which is art for art’s sake, formalist theory – if that becomes the dominant mode and the thing that everybody celebrates, somebody’s got to yell. And people yell; I mean, people don’t buy those books.

Stanton: How is Shadows going to be political? Why don’t you talk about it – you’ve been working on it for so long.

Gardner: I can’t very well, because it’s an unfinished book. I mean, it’s really unfinished; it’s supposed to be about a thousand pages long, and I’ve only got 200 good pages.

It’s about a conspiracy of rich people, and about a drunken detective who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. It sounds like a John le Carré thriller, but I hope it’s going to be a sort of deeply psychological, character-centered, very long story; but since I’ve only got a little of it down, and since I may never finish it, I can’t really say much more. It’s certainly more directly involved [XXX].

Stanton: What sorts of stages has it gone through?

Gardner: I just write and tear up and write and tear up.

I’ve been working on other things, too. You can work on a thing only so long, and then suddenly you can’t see it anymore; you get too close to it. So I’ve been translating Gilgamesh, and writing essays, and doing this and that. But I expect I’ll eventually [XXX].

[[At about 1:15, Gardner’s fiancee, Susan Thornton, returns from a party, and he agrees to continue the discussion at another time. The next day, after spending the afternoon conferring with students in the lounge, Gardner, pipe in hand, resumes his place in his swiveling chair for a last session.]]

Gardner: I really wasted a lot of your time last night. I’m sorry. I just couldn't answer those questions.

Stanton: What do you mean?

Gardner: I just kept talking around it . . . I don’t know. I couldn’t get at it, that’s all. I was just apologizing.

Stanton: I think it was fine. I asked a lot of questions about On Moral Fiction because I thought that a lot of people know you from the bad rap you’ve gotten on that.

Gardner: Sure. Well, that won’t change.

Stanton: I want to ask you about the amount you use your personal life in your fiction. It seems to be increasing, and I think Mickelsson is perhaps your most personal piece, in terms of strictly plot. Do you find this necessary when you write?

Gardner: Well, first, I have to quick say "the disclaimer": I'm not Mickelsson. But it's certainly true that, the less you have to invent, the more you can really work. If you spend all your energy making up a plot, making up characters, you have no energy left for making it beautiful, making it serious, so on and so on.

I'm sort of trying to write fiction where – and that’s true of "Julius Caesar [and the Werewolf]" even – where I have to invent practically nothing. I just find the story – whether it’s my life or Psutonius – find the story that's already there and all I have to do is present it and get sort of the right words and the right emphases and the right sort of focus.

So, yeah, I've become much more autobiographical – even though, ultimately, it has nothing to do with me. Like, it's a bore to have to make up a house. In Mickelsson's Ghosts, it's very important that that man rebuild the house and then have to tear it apart; and since I live in that house, it saves me a lot of trouble. I know where the bedroom is. I can describe where the stairs are, and the door. In all the minor details, I'm using that as a source – but it’s so that I'm free to get at what I really want to get at, which is sort of energy, power. So, yeah. (chuckles)

Stanton: Do you find that it exorcises some personal ghosts for you to do that – say, talk about your divorce or your relationship with your kids?

Gardner: (pauses)

It's hard to tell what comes first. I guess the easy answer is "Yes," and probably the true answer is that I wouldn't have been writing that if I weren't already exorcising. Like, the writing maybe follows the exorcising. You think about it, you brood on it, and you come to a point where you can handle it -- and then you write about it. So, yes and no.

Stanton: What about "Redemption"?

Gardner: That was really exorcising. I was advised by a psychoanalyst to write that story. I had had a lot of trouble with my head: things like, as you know, I'm driving down the road, right, and I see this guilt scene, this old traumatic experience, so vividly that I can't see the road. As hard as I try to concentrate, I can't break out of the vision and see the road. That's very dangerous; I had to hit the brakes and pray. That had happened to me quite often. And this guy said, "Write the story"; and when he said it, [I wanted to] kill him. [How] terrifying it was -- immensely painful experience. And when you write a story, you have to see it in your mind over and over and over: copy it down, get the right details, take out the ones that are not important, and you finally get it. And it really did work.

I worked with Carolyn Schrodes in San Francisco, who was into bibliotherapy, and I always thought it was silliness, it was goofy. But it works; it’s amazing. You actually do see your way through it. You keep staring at it and staring at it, and copying down like a scientist. You're actually sort of like the vivisectionist and the frog; and when you're all done, you're OK.

That’s the only story I wrote that was really like that. Every story is partly biographical, and every story is partly dealing with pain; but that was the only one that was really directly.


The worst pains, though, aren't those things. The really, really worst pains are, sort of, the loss of childhood. Increasingly, you see that not only all those beautiful experiences you had as a child, a 20-year-old, a 30-year-old, a 40-year-old, whatever, are over forever; you'll never have them again. You always think, you know, "I’ll have it again," but you’re never gonna. But even everybody you loved, that you could have talked to about it, is dead – that’s the horror. That's a powerful incentive for writing, because you can capture it. Like the story that I wrote "Come On Back" – nobody's ever going to see that world again, ever. It's crazy. It's strange, because it’s a very beautiful world.

Stanton: Is your father's stroke particularly bothersome because of that?

Gardner: (ruefully) It makes you notice – makes you listen up. Sure. (pause)

Yeah, that's a funny thing, because he was my model--a really true thinker and poet--and that side of his mind is blown away. He has to learn to function – a man who has a gift, an incredible gift for language, and for a certain kind of left-brain thinking, and suddenly he's got no left brain left. That's really weird. He has to learn to cope with a life in which everything he valued most is lost forever. It's strange.

(long pause)

You survive, you know? You've got no choice.

Stanton: What does that make you want to do? Does that make you want to quit smoking . . . ?

Gardner: No. Heavens, no. God, no! (laughing) Smoke more! Drink more!

No, it makes me nervous. (pause) It makes me feel ... I never will be the poet my father was; but I'm what I am. And then there's my son, and then there's everybody else's son.

It makes me smoke hard and drink hard and teach hard. What I value in a father I have to translate now into a general ability, a gift that human beings have. I can't focus it anymore on one person. I'm not free to value it as one man's gift. I have to look around, see it everywhere, and then push it, and urge it.

I always knew that, but I didn't know it as dramatically as I do now. And I like what I do; I like the fact that I’m a teacher. I like the fact that, all those years when I could have made more money by not teaching, I, for reasons that I didn't understand, kept teaching. I value the fact that, all these years when I could have taught only graduate students, I always taught freshmen, many of whom are now famous. (pause)

Yeah, it makes you a mensch. (pause) What else?

Stanton: Do you feel like you wouldn’t write without the gin and tobacco?

Gardner: I don’t know. I am certain that, if all the tobacco in the world were burned, and all the gin in the world were thrown in the ocean, I would still write; and I'd probably write just as well. It would just take me a while to adjust.

I don't think my writing is dependent on my bad habits. I'm a little unstable, and I think I lean a little bit on crutches. And I'm sure ... I mean, I knew a woman once who could have cured me, except I got real scared, and "I don’t wanna get cured"; I prefer my bad habits to . . . well, to whatever. Probably be good if I didn’t smoke or drink.


I don't know if they have any effect on writing; I'm sure that I write differently. I think that, you know, man ist was man ess: you are what you eat. I'd probably write happy books for children instead of sad books for grown-ups.

Stanton: You said in On Moral Fiction that every writer works from a "wound." What does that mean for you? Is that too personal a question?

Gardner: No. It's a sense of inadequacy, guilt, whatever. ... I don't know what to say because it's hard to make that concrete.

I think that I’ve known so many people who are better than me: farmers, mechanics, airplane pilots. I've known so many incredibly beautiful people who are inarticulate, and I'm the spokesman. My gift is that I can defend them. It's not just a personal wound – [XXX]; it's more than that. It's a really deep sense of, excuse the expression, humility; like, knowing that there are these really beautiful people.

Like when you read Faulkner: just character after character comes up that you know Faulkner knows is better than him; and they would be gone forever, except he got ’em down. In a silly little story like "Shingles for the Lord," there's that old man who gets on that horse; and the way he gets on the horse -- just that image of this old man lifting his foot up that high and getting on this big old thoroughbred. He’s heavy; he’s eighty . . . there's a kind of deep admiration.

And Flags in the Dust, or Sartoris: that book is just full, it’s crammed, for all its 800 pages – I just made that up, I don’t know how big it is, but like that – it’s crammed with people, every one of them better than William Faulkner. That’s amazing.

Part of the wound is the wound of hypersensitivity. Those people wouldn't be better than Faulkner if they were as sensitive as Faulkner; they wouldn't have been able to do the things they did. So the wound’s more general. Maybe the wound, the artist's wound, begins in a specific trauma that makes him feel bad, guilty, whatever; but it ends up as something much, much greater. It's a consciousness that can never close again. It’s been opened up forever to the beauty of ...

Like, a guy like Thoreau who says all those awful things he says about the world. I can’t remember the great quotation, the famous one: "Most men live lives of . . . quiet misery," some shit like that? It’s not true; it's really deeply not true, and that’s why he’s only Thoreau.

"Quiet desperation" – there we go. Most people don't live lives of quiet desperation. Most people live real healthy lives of love, and loss, and happiness, and all that stuff. I think the wound is what opens you up to really seeing the healthy. Like, cripples understand how to walk better than anybody else. It sounds so rhetorical, but . . .

Stanton: Is there a need to explore that wound, or go past it, try to get behind it . . . ?

Gardner: It's all of that. It's, of course, a need to explore it, and I would be lying if I said that I don't enjoy picking at the scab. But also it’s a need to celebrate the unwounded. Like, you never know the value of what you had until you lost it. I think that what writers do is celebrate those who don't know what they've got to lose. Like, when you’re happy, you don’t look around. When you’re in a state of bliss, there is no time. It’s hard to say.

Stanton: Why don’t we get off of the heavy stuff for a while.

Gardner: (laughing) All right; let’s stop, then. Good.

Stanton: You said in another interview that you'd like to be known as "the world's greatest librettist"; and in Poems, you say that the poetry you wrote while you were doing some of your most popular fiction was almost more important to you than the prose. Did you say that?

Gardner: I did say that. The book is awful! My poetry is inexecrable, except – Jason and Medea, I think, is first-rate Walt Disney, but basically my poetry is unspeakably bad. I mean, I like doing it a lot. But, no, the fiction’s [better].

Stanton: Do you still want to be the world’s greatest librettist?

Gardner: Oh, yeah. Opera is absolutely the queen of the arts. Amazingly good. The only reason that Americans don't know it is there are so few good American operas. Like, if you were an Italian, and you heard La Boheme, you’d know. There’s no way Dante can beat that, with all his brain and with all his wisdom and with all his heart – he can’t touch it. And then La Boheme is nothing compared to the best of Verdi.

In America, we've only got a few operas that are any good, like Porgy and Bess — and like Rumpelstiltskin, he said modestly. [The libretto is Gardner’s own.] People who tell me they don’t like opera, I drag them to Rumpelstiltskin, and they cry and they laugh, and they become opera freaks. They'll even listen to Wagner. Once you've got it, man, you’ve got it; it's a terrible infection.

Opera's not the big art at this moment, but that's just this moment. Opera will be the big art; ever since it was born, it has been the big art. If you have the right examples in your language – that means both your words and your music – it’s simply unspeakably thrilling. Like, when Gershwin switches to banjoes – he does a part where Bess gets down on her knees so that she’ll be the same size as Porgy, which visually makes you cry, and Porgy sings, "Bess, you is my woman now." And then the banjoes hit: dead! I mean, you’re just wiped out. Nothing in literature can do that; nothing has that power. Beethoven doesn’t have that power!

If you take really great visual imagery – just Bess getting down – and great words and great music, and then the ultimate sort of twisting of music one step further, to folk: you can’t do that in a poem. Poems are wonderful, and pure music is wonderful, and pure words are wonderful, but nothing can touch opera.

Stanton: With all that said, do you ever have the desire to do that exclusively, or spend more time on opera?

Gardner: I spend a lot of time on opera. I’ve written a lot of librettoes, and a lot of the librettoes that I’ve written have been scored. I’m not too worried about the fact that they’re not produced; I mean, I know they’re good. Rumpelstiltskin is an annual Christmas opera in Philadelphia, and it’s the only one that’s been produced – well, aside from little sort of concert performances. But Verdi didn’t see his greatest operas produced; they just weren’t done. If it’s good enough, they’ll do it sooner or later.

You can only write so much at a time. Like, when you write a novel, you pour your whole life into that novel, and there’s no way you can write another novel – a real novel – for two, three, four, five years. There is nothing to say: you’ve exhausted all of your anecdotes, all of your loves, all of your hates – it’s all there.

Writing an opera libretto, trifling as it may seem – you pour every ounce of lyricism that you’ve got; you have no lyricism left. Like, if I wrote a libretto Tuesday – not that one can write a libretto on a Tuesday – but say I take two years writing a libretto, and then immediately I try to write another libretto. All I would do would be repeat the effects of the one just before, because you work so hard to get those sounds; knowing what music can do, that’s the secret of the librettist. That is, he has to be a good musician; he has to know what the voice can do, what the musicians can do. You could almost score it yourself, but you couldn’t get those surprises you get from a really great composer. Anyway, I write librettoes as often and fast as I can. I’ve written as many as I’m able to. So I do write opera librettoes full-time.

(At this point Thornton, with a group of kids tagging along, has entered the room.)

Maybe we should stop!

(Trying to figure out how to turn off the tape machine) I don’t know how! I don’t know how! . . . You know how.

© 1983, 1998 David Stanton

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last update 1 April 1999