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The Wag Chats with
Charles Baxter

Fiction writer Charles Baxter discusses the benefits of framing devices and multiple narrators and tells us why writers expecting big paychecks should write for TV.

In The Feast of Love, you use interviews as a framing device, initiating many of the characters' narratives with questions from a fictional interviewer named Charles Baxter. It works wonderfully because the interviewer's voice is efficient and smooth enough to let the text slide into the narratives quickly (a logician, interested in taking the shortest route to achieve his ends, might call it 'elegant'). But it's the sort of device that might be considered, uncharitably, a crutch. Did you ever worry that using such a device would be considered a cheat, of sorts? And if so, when did you know it was going to work?

Baxter: I thought this device wouldn't work if I kept the "Charlie" character in the story for too long—if he became an integral part of the story. When I first started to write fiction, there was a great deal of self-conscious fiction around, and this fiction (Barth's, Barthelme's, among others) used those devices to great effect. You can find residual devices like this in Paul Auster's City of Glass trilogy, with a character named "Paul Auster." Auster is of my generation and probably read some of the same books I did. So I thought it might be time to deploy some of these techniques again, to remind the reader that we are, after all, in a fictional world, and then to immerse that reader in that world. There's the cake; and then you get to eat it, too.

WAG: Over the course of The Feast of Love, you introduce a half-dozen couples and have six different characters tell their stories in their own voices. Your earlier novels also have multiple narrators. Do you find this layered structure to be easier to work with than a traditional novel's structure, with fewer narrative voices and fewer subplots grouped around a central storyline? And if so, why?

Baxter: I like to have several points of view and several narrators because I am an impatient person and because I think the world is not uniform: i.e., it has multiple textures that are best reflected in multiple points of view. I like the idea of counterpointed characterizations, and even better, counterpointed dramatic scenes. Again, it's a kind of mixture of worlds: the mixture of the world of the novel with the world of the dramatic play on a stage, of sorts.

WAG: On a more technical note, how did you go about writing The Feast of Love? Did you use an outline, for instance, to keep track of how the deeper themes were to be advanced through the individual stories? Did you develop each new voice with character sketches? Or did it all flow smoothly without much fuss?

Baxter: I didn't use an outline. I just kept the themes in my head, but it did not flow smoothly, without a fuss. There was fuss aplenty. There was a character named "Jonah" who disappeared out of the novel because, as it turned out, he was too solemn, and he was pushing the novel too resolutely toward solemnity and pathos and obsession, and there was enough of that in the book already. I need someone like David, who is a bit of a dandy, who cannot make himself be serious about everything all the time.

WAG: The characters in The Feast of Love are drawn with remarkable clarity. Did you model anyone after individuals you know?

Baxter: No, for the most part, no. A few of the characters, such as Diana, are composites of people I have known.

WAG: Many writers (and publishers) lament that the short story has become merely a writing exercise. For better or worse, they say, it should be considered a stepping-stone on the (arduous) path to writing commercially viable novels. On the other hand, you've published four critically acclaimed short story collections. So I'm curious: what's your own take on the short story genre? Is it indeed commercially viable? And if it isn't, what advice would you give short story writers? (Should they simply tell themselves, for example, that commercial viability isn't the primary criterion by which the genre should be measured?)

Baxter: My feeling about short stories is that, as long there are writers around like Lorrie Moore and William Trevor and Alice Munro—as brilliant and as entertaining and passionate as that—the form will be commercially viable. When brilliant writers decide not to write short stories, then the form will die out. But in the meantime, it is the best literary form for young writers to use to concentrate their attention, to learn the demands of literary structure (it is less forgiving than the novel form), and to gain a sense of immediacy in characterization and plot. If all a writer wants to do is to make money, s/he should go into some other kind of writing. Movies, maybe, or TV.

WAG: You've also published a collection of poems. But one character in The Feast of Love says that poetry is "stone dead at the present time." Where do you personally think poetry stands today?

Baxter: It certainly is not "stone dead." That's that character speaking. The situation of poetry is best described by those actively involved in writing poetry, which I'm not. I'm an ex-poet. I quit while I was still behind.

WAG: What do you tell your students, when they ask about the writing market?

Baxter: I tell them to learn the craft, learn what their subjects are, learn what it is that they do best, and then to do it, and, with luck, the market will come to them, eventually.

WAG: Finally, two related questions. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected' writer—someone they think has been unfairly ignored by the general reading public. Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is the best under-appreciated writer working today?

Baxter: More people should be reading the fiction and poetry of Lars Gustafsson, which is extravagantly smart and beautiful. They should be reading the work of Javier Marais, of Sylvia Townsend Warner—especially her letters—and certainly they should be reading the work of William Maxwell, whose work in its quality and range of feeling would be a model for any writer.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted August 1, 2000


Photo Credit: Martha Baxter

Charles Baxter is the author of seven works of fiction (including The Feast of Love, Believers, Harmony of the World and Through the Safety Net), a book of poetry (Imaginary Paintings), and a collection of essays (Burning Down the House). He teaches at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor.



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