All of the books you end up reading in your lifetime you end up carrying a kind of dialogue with. Kant once said the history of philosophy is different from philosophy; it can be confused with philosophy. The history of literature, to the extent of the books that we have read that have become a part of us, we end up having a dialogue with them and the authors who wrote them, the sensibilities that wrote them. So when we write something we are actually communicating on some level with these other people who have entered this same level, this same avenue for their own expressions. Through writing we form some relationship to those people, we’re commenting on what they brought to us, we’re taking from there, stealing from them, taking stuff that they gave us, and we’re making something out of it that can’t ever be considered entirely new because we’re always commenting on or departing from or saluting these giants of our literary past.
I never had a book signing, I never did a reading, ever. I’ve never done one. I didn’t know how those things are even arranged. I just wanted to keep writing.
Who are some of the giants of your literary past?
When I was a young man, I felt, when I found William Faulkner, that I had gone home. This guy was everything I wanted to be. When I was twenty, William Faulkner was the answer. [Laughs.] He absolutely had everything. I can remember reading him like it was just yesterday. I’d be reading this paragraph in Absalom, Absalom!, and he would put a word in there, and that word would have this certain kind of cognitive dissonance. “Why did you use that word? Why did you use that word?” And then I’d keep reading, and two pages later he’d using it again! And it would just be like, “I know you were paying attention if you got that,” and it just lit me up in terms of language and what it could do.
You were still a student when your first book was bought by Atlantic, Little-Brown, right?
Yeah. The Last Fair Deal Going Down was my thesis in the Workshop, but it had been accepted before I got out of there.
Well, it’s also very lucky. It just happened that Joe Kanon was working there and he liked the book and I worked some more on it under his direction. And I’ve always needed help from editors. It’s very hard for me to look at anything I’ve ever written and not change it. I haven’t read Rock Island Line in thirty-five years, and Milkweed wanted to republish it and I said, “Okay, I’ll only do that if I don’t change a word. Because it was written at a certain time, and if I look at it I’m going to want to change it because I’m a different person now.” And I had to agree with them and myself to keep it the way. It makes a certain statement and if you fiddle with it it’s not going to do the same thing anymore and it’s unfair to bring your new perspective in on that. But that was one of the most very intellectually painful things I’ve ever had to do was read that book without changing anything. I think my face never stopped being red for the three days it took to read that. I was so embarrassed because I could remember who I was and I remember that guy with some fondness.
What was your expectation for that first book—were you thinking, “Okay that’s it, this is exactly what I was going to do, and I’ve made it?”
Oh no, not at all. Even by then I realized that writing was something that I thought I was going to do the rest of my life. I was just as uncomfortable with any kind of attention then as I am now. I don’t know why that is. People can always blame the way they were raised. The way a lot of kids were raised at that point was that you should never give your kids too much attention and it always seemed to me like it was something a kid should shun. And I’ve done as much shunning as I felt like I could. I was very happy to be published. But at the same time I was so young and I’d never been rejected, I’d never submitted anything to anybody.
But somebody said come to this meeting, and the guy said, “Send me your book,” and I sent him the book, and they bought it. I didn’t have any experience with it so I didn’t know what it meant. And it was critically fairly well-received, but the sales were so miserable; it sold like fifteen copies. It seemed like it didn’t amount to anything. Never recovered the advance on it.
What was the advance?
It was two thousand dollars, and I thought I could live for a year or two years on that! [Laughs.] I could live on practically nothing at that time and I would’ve been happy to live under a tree reading Faulkner. That was all I needed. I never had a book signing, I never did a reading, ever. I’ve never done one. I didn’t know how those things are even arranged. I just wanted to keep writing.
What was it like when suddenly Lois calls you up and says there’s an editor looking for you?
Actually I got an e-mail from Lois. There was a filter that was going to discard that message. I was looking through the SPAM thing, and Edna was looking at it too and said, “Wait a minute!”
Your own agent ends up in your SPAM folder.
[Laughs.] Yes, so I opened it up and it said, you know, “I got a guy that’s interested.” And I said, “Sure, let’s talk.” And that was, of course, Ben Barnhart. It was real exciting, I mean, I had no idea anybody had ever…. Literally, I never felt that anybody had really read me at all, and the idea that somebody had, after all these years, I was just amazed. Totally unexpected. That was one of the things that was surprising in talking to Emily Cook [at Milkweed] recently. She was saying, “Well we’ve been talking to booksellers and they remember you.” “They do?” [Laughs.] I thought my books were just gathering dust in libraries somewhere, if they were there at all. Because that was a long time ago, and they never sold anything, very few copies, and so I just thought they dropped out of sight. That was my feeling—that they had just dropped out of sight.
What does it feel like now with the attention—an editor contacting you, even me coming and making you talk for so long—how does it feel?
I will always want to keep most of my life fairly private. That’s the kind of person I am. But I very much value the opportunity, like with yourself, to form relationships with people through my work, and if those relationships open up to be personal encounters, in some instances, I look forward to that—like meeting you—eagerly. Because I haven’t had very much of that at all. I haven’t had many relationship with other literary people. My relationships have been different. And that’s something that’s new for me, and so it seems exciting. The possibilities are exciting.