Interview with Gordon Lish

1. I’d like to start with Gertrude Stein. I love her as well, though not as much as I love you. What influence did she have on your writing?        

One is helpless but to be affected by one’s reading—in general, whenever read and whatever the character of what’s read. Yes, I read Stein, both her writing and what might be said of her activities. I was affected by both, mainly insofar as I expect I derived permission from Stein. I was in my mid-teens and “felt” myself under the sway of Stein, Joyce, Beckett’s novels, a good dozen other writers I took to be out of the ordinary run. Only Joyce then seemed supreme in my broadening and deepening idolatries. Curiously, or not so curiously at all, my involvement with Joyce had to do more with what was said of his life than with what he produced. That’s still true. With Stein and Beckett, it was the work.

But these parsings are absurd. What can I say of those early and profoundly “felt” days, now that I’m rounding on eighty-eight, can be thought accurately reported? When I was a trifle older I took up the usual philosophic roisterers—Certeau, Barthes, Eco, Agamben, Freud, Lingis, etc.—and my engagement with literature began to turn intense and exclusionary. My crude efforts to apply what I understood of the thinkers and their classifications and theories, to the act of writing, shifted me into self-consciously partisan posturings. I was a kid darting thither and yon to educate myself, or, rather to say, to portray myself (to my myself) as a fellow devoted to high seriousness. All this was, doubtless, delusional gadding-about—but I imagine the folly was a critical phase in my growth, or defeat.

2. Is it strange that strangers know some very intimate details about your personal life and yet you know nothing of theirs?

Strange? Hardly. Sounds like the everyday narcissistic experience. As for your feeling yourself under my sway, you’ll outgrow it. An affection for a good cheeseburger will surely sustain you and perdure in you longer.

3. What is your relationship to your own “legacy”?

Yeah, none, none, none—albeit sometimes, in my staggers, I have been duped into embrasure of the more reliable optics of the long view’s take on my labors, despite my knowing such a dependency is just another distraction, snare, promised payoff in compensatory disguise. On the other hand, a sense of oneself, the survival of worth, irrespective of the writer’s modest disclaimer thereto, matters when you’re young. Ad astra, et cetera, but such self-regard of prospects (a la prospecting for gold) is best kept to oneself, mixing my metaphors for your nosiness, or is it spelled noseyness?

If you get to be aged, perhaps your fatuity is forgiven and transmuted into recognition on just that account, old age, perhaps in the absence of virtually all else. You are quaint, are pitiably seized by the senility of the final asphyxiation brought on by hermeticism borne too long in the airless chamber of the eccentric profiting from genial collegial (theoretically speaking) relations sponsored by health-yielding foods undergirding survival against all odds.

Painters, filmmakers, tattoo artists are known for their success with this posture, especially if you make it to one hundred, for which exception they might be inclined to mint you a medal in your honor, one not too weighty lest it knock you over if worn at formal events. See, e.g., Louise Glück, for composition of the least injurious poesy pronounceable in English. Well, we may be pleased to note the Swedish Academy, if that’s what the fostering infestation is called, is, so far in this century, not yet in charge of the distribution of cruise missiles and drones.

4. The child in “The Death of Me” wants to be the very best at what he does. And for a moment he is the best. And God knows he’s the best. And everyone knows he’s the best. How has the hunger to be the very best at what you do influenced your life?

How? Made existence both bearable and unbearable, which split’s a pretty good deal.

5. In the “In September” short you get very personal. On a level I’m not used to seeing. You reminisce on your children and the house you grew up in. You say things like “I remember when my son was the most important thing to me in the world.” As you look back on your life, do you find yourself placing more importance on family and less importance on whatever career ambitions you have?

My guess is to project a fiction into the actual experience of the fiction writer is misguided.

6. When you’re editing your own writing, how do you distinguish between prose that will be thrown into the waste basket and prose you may want to publish?

Before I mount a snotty reaction to the question, let me, snottily, point out that editors edit, writers rewrite or revise. A writer is not an editor and an editor is not a writer, except in one infamous instance I can without the burden of thought think of. As for separating wheat from chaff, do as the farmer does: Keep tossing skyward pitchforkfuls of what the earth has yielded, then allot the rest of the process to the ceaseless motion of the currents of the day’s air. The air blowing overhead that given day, that is.

7. When Christine Schutt talks about your influence on her novel “Night Work”, she said you told her to lean into her discomfort and fear. One reason I so like the book is its deviance and normalizing of the taboo. In your opinion, what place does the taboo have in literature?

Oh boy, that would be a question for Ms. Schutt, wouldn’t it? Me, I would imagine saying what your inmost vision convinces you that you alone know to be the case and then articulating when it is your sense that solely you will do so, that this procedure creates the conditions for the production of what we call art. Ms. Dickinson does this. Mr. King doesn’t. Ms. Dickinson inquires of her heart. Maestro King polls his handlers. One is exalted on the cross of her difference. The other gets off on the rewards owed to him whose touchstone is commonly held, albeit in repose in readiness for payoff in his pocket.

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Gordon Lish