WAG: 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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
The characters in The Feast of Love are
drawn with remarkable clarity. Did you model anyone
after individuals you know?
No, for the most part, no. A few of the
characters, such as Diana, are composites of people
I have known.
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?)
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.
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?
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.
What do you tell your students, when they
ask about the writing market?
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.
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
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.