WAG: You've published short fiction (indeed,
your first published piece was a short story), but
for your first book, you chose nonfiction. What
motivated you to write a memoir?
I wanted to write a short piece about
my brother's death—maybe twenty pages—because
it had been haunting me for years. I ended up writing
about fifty pages. But what I came up with was sketchy
at best. As a fiction writer, I was confident I
could write a story, but I wasn't confident
I could write this story. Still, this seemed
to be a story I had to write, and one that would
suffer if I fictionalized it. To my mind, you fictionalize
something to make it more true. This story
was already plenty true enough.
A related question: One of the more intriguing
aspects of Phoenix is your awareness of how
overdetermined your text would read if it were labeled
a novel. Indeed, you write at one point that:
I couldn't have invented
a story like this—a guy who's pissed off
at the world for years, a guy who's burning up
inside, fetches up in a burn unit in Phoenix
of all places. The older brother doesn't talk,
and the younger brother chooses words as his vocation.
The older brother, the dying brother, is thirty-nine,
and very soon the younger brother will be holding
his first publication, the proof of his new life,
the thirty-ninth issue of the Mississippi Review.
I shook my head at the thought of Joanne's
Thunderbird—another name for a phoenix,
which as everybody knows is a bird that rises
from the ashes of a fire. Who would believe such
coincidences? Who would believe such a story?
If you had, in fact, decided
to tell your story as a novel, do you think you
would have felt compelled to leave out some of this
sort of unintended but tidy symbolism in order to
make it more believable as fiction?
Definitely. I would have cut two of my
three sisters. I would have set it someplace besides
Phoenix, Arizona—or I would have left it in
Phoenix but made the victim's wounds different.
And I would have given some strong, clear reason
for the brothers' difficulties (as Ken Kesey did
in Sometimes a Great Notion). In some ways,
it would have been a lot easier to write this as
Phoenix turns the dynamics
of your family inside out, for all to see. Did you
have qualms about writing such a revealing book?
I did, but not because I was worried
about exposing myself or my family. For me, the
scary part was to re-live those two weeks in Phoenix,
Arizona, when my brother was dying in a burn unit.
Of course, even as I was going through those difficult
memories, I was mining them for material—for
the book. As a writer, I knew I had to take risks,
both literary and personal, if I hoped to come up
with anything of lasting value.
How has your family reacted?
My mother and my aunts and uncles loved
the book. And my oldest sister loved it too. She
said at some point she got so involved in the story
that she forgot it was about us. I really liked
that. I'm not sure what my other two sisters thought—they
haven't shown up at my door with chainsaws or anything.
Oh, wait. There's the doorbell.
Most readers, I suspect, would think that
writing Phoenix was a cathartic experience
for you. Was it in fact cathartic—and if so,
was that the most rewarding aspect of writing it?
Yeah, it was cathartic, but often when
I'd remember some small detail: My brother used
to keep his spare change on top of his dresser,
and he often gave me the change. It was very rewarding
to discover these long-lost moments—especially
the one I finish the book with (my big brother catching
me in his arms).
It was also rewarding to tackle
and finish a book-length project. I'd been writing
for about fifteen years, but I hadn't managed to
write a sustained narrative. I'd tried before, but
I felt I had more at stake in this one. I was writing
this book for my brother, and I damn sure didn't
want to fail him, or myself, this time around.
Your own success aside, do you have misgivings
about the popularity of the all-revealing memoir
I'm of two minds about it. I think there
are a number of writers out there who've written
popular (and, yes, revealing) memoirs: Toby Wolff,
Mary Karr, Frank Conroy, Kathryn Harrison, Frank
McCort and others. The accessibility of those books
may have spurred more people to write memoirs, and
this might be a very positive development: people
can give voice to their feelings and maybe learn
something about literature and about themselves
in the process.
But those books I just mentioned
were all written by extraordinarily gifted writers
who've spent years developing their craft. They're
artists. Unfortunately, many people think the subject
matter of their lives is good material for book—and
it might be, if they'd bother to become writers
somewhere along the way. I don't imagine too many
people would say, "Hmmm, I've had an interesting
life...I think I'll turn it into an opera!"
There's more to writing a memoir than slitting a
vein and bleeding onto a page.
Would you write another memoir if the occasion
arose? (A picaresque account of your years in the
music industry would seem to be an obvious possibility,
for example.) While we're on that subject, what
is your next project?
I don't have any great urge to write
another memoir, and my years on the road in the
music business would be the last thing I'd
want to write about...although, I'm currently at
work on a novel, and I find myself setting parts
of it on the road. The novel is based on the life
of Ralph Greenleaf, who was perhaps the greatest
pool player of all time (the big debate is: Mosconi
or Greenleaf?). Greenleaf toured constantly in the
1920s and '30s—he made $2000 a week on the
vaudeville circuit, a fortune during the Depression.
He was very flashy and charismatic—and at
times very dark. An old friend of mine, Babe Cranfield
(world pocket billiard champion in 1964), actually
went on the road with Greenleaf. I've invented a
character who goes on the road with Greenleaf—who
was, by the way, a famous alcoholic. God knows I
worked with lots of substance abusers when I was
on the road. So maybe in some way I am writing
about those years.
Finally, two related questions we like to
pose to different writers, particularly those who
teach writing. Many writers have a favorite 'neglected'
writer—someone they think has been unfairly
ignored by the general reading public. Do you have
The late Andre Dubus.
And who do you think is the best under-appreciated
writer working today?