An Interview with Charles Baxter

21 Nov
Charles Baxter's most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper

Charles Baxter’s most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper.”

Charles Baxter is probably as well known for his essays on craft as he is for his novels and stories, which is impressive given that his short story “Gryphon” is required reading for many students and his novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and adapted as a film starring Morgan Freeman. His essays, though—especially the collection Burning Down the House—are a touchstone for almost everyone who has studied in a MFA program over the past 15 years.

Baxter’s most recent book of fiction is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which is now out in paperback.

In this interview, Baxter discusses entering the world of a wrongdoer, stumbling toward the write tone, and “rogue longings.”

(To read Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” and an exercise on raising the stakes in a story, click here.)

Michael Noll

The story is about a man who wants to be taken seriously, to be seen as someone with the potential to profoundly affect other people’s lives–essentially, to make his existence known and recognized. So, when he’s accused of being “harmless,” he sets out to prove that he isn’t. Here’s what I find fascinating about this story: The man wants to be recognized, but when he first walks into the police station to report the slip of paper he’s found, he chickens out. He fears that “if he showed what was in his pocket to the police he himself would become a prime suspect and an object of intense scrutiny, all privacy gone.” That’s a pretty serious contradiction. In some ways, it makes what follows seem less like a moral fable. The sequence of events is neatly laid out, but it’s less neat if we believe that the man at the center of it is unpredictable. Was this chickening out always part of the story?

Charles Baxter

Writers can’t always reconstruct what they were thinking while writing a story. Sometimes our thinking is so specific and so contextual and instinctive that we don’t know afterward why we did what we did. Anyway, here goes.

Many people in our society suffer from their own anonymity. This response is likely to occur in a culture built on celebrity, as ours is. Harry’s “harmlessness” is another word for a life that seems inconsequential, unimportant. But if you try to enter the world as a wrongdoer, or even someone who brings in the sign of wrongdoing (a slip of paper), you yourself may be judged, exposed. Think of Ted Kacynski. Notoriety is a double-edged sword. Everybody (or most people) carry around these contradictions in themselves. Fiction needs to point up those contradictions, to be honest to itself and its readers.

Michael Noll

After the man bristles at being called harmless, it’s not surprising that he acts out. But his preferred way to act out is unexpected. And then the scene proceeds through a series of unexpected moments: the kid’s guess at the drawing’s rendered location and the subsequent description of the kid as “slinky and warm, like a cat.” It would be so easy to write this scene toward what is expected, toward cliche: of course the societally-suffocated man is into boys. But in this case, the boy is not what we might expect, and the description is unexpectedly cuddly. Do you have, as you write, a kind of internal compass pointing you toward the unexpected, or do you stumble around a story, searching for the right detail?

Charles Baxter

Oh, I stumble. It’s all stumbling, all the time. But what you’re stumbling toward is a tone, an angle, that takes you by surprise. The slightly ‘wrong’ note in a scene is often the note that brings it to life. I keep listening for that note.

Michael Noll

I love this line of dialogue from the man’s wife: “You’re handsome and stable and you’re my sweetie, and I love you, and what else happened today?” The line clearly sets up the world that the man is acting out against. In other words, it’s a line that a literature teacher would pull out and read to students in order to illustrate the story’s theme, a word that probably makes makes most writers cringe. But it doesn’t seem theme-like on a first read because of the speed. Even on subsequent reads, it makes me laugh. I’m curious how you approached the line. Did you think, I need to have someone state the values of the world that the man is rebelling against–and then revise the line to achieve that speed? Or did it arise more accidentally?

Charles Baxter

I wasn’t thinking of the theme at all. I was just trying to imagine what Harry’s wife would say, in an effort to “normalize” everything within that marriage. Also, I like dialogue that changes direction within the same sentence–does a swerve–as that one did. So the line arose out of a combination of accident and calculation.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Tea Party politicians are shutting down the government and threatening to wreck the world’s economy so that the country will pay attention to them. In other words, they’re acting a bit like Harry Edmonds. The difference is that, unlike him, they’ve found a stage whose size is commensurate with the size of their fear of not being seen and heard. In your novels and stories, things generally don’t end well for these types of characters or for the people around them. Care to make any long-term predictions for our current set of characters? When people like Harry Edmonds begin to act out in order to be noticed–and when that need to be noticed stems from some internal deficit that can’t be filled with any amount of attention–are the only outcomes bad ones?

Charles Baxter

Someone, it may have been Christopher Lasch, once said that narcissists can’t negotiate. They suffer from insecurity and grandiosity simultaneously, a terrible combination. The other side of the Tea Party’s belligerence is fear, particularly a fear that the old world they knew is disappearing, and a world they don’t recognize is here. I didn’t think Harry Edmonds was a dangerous character, but just a guy who wanted to be more consequential than he actually was. Kafka would have recognized him. Standard married middle-class life is not enough for him. He has what I’d call “rogue subjectivity” or “rogue longings”–I think the Germans have a word for this: “sehnsucht.” Such people sometimes do free fall parachute jumping, or they do little protests against the settledness of their lives. You want a story to be “telling”–that is, to tell us about how people live now. And that was what I hoped that story would do.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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