August 7, 1997
Revelations of the unexpected in the course of mundane day-to-day reality, the fleeting moments that indelibly shape a life, the moral and emotional quandaries that besiege us all. These are the themes that Charles Baxter has made his own over the span of a distinguished writing career and continues to flesh out in his recent collection of short fiction, Believers. Of Baxter's fiction -- a taste of which can be had from his three short stories previously published in The Atlantic (available below) -- Ron Hanson wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "Baxter's stories are intelligent, original, gracefully written, always moving, frequently funny and -- the rarest of compliments -- wise."
Baxter's gifts, however, extend beyond his fiction. In addition to directing the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, he has also recently written his first book of nonfiction, Burning Down the House, a collection of essays on fiction that proceeds by posing provocative questions: Did Richard Nixon start a trend of dysfunctional narration that is now rife throughout American fiction? What happens to American fiction when our consumer culture relentlessly insists on happy endings? Why do we seem to have forgotten the true meaning of epiphany? Burning Down the House aims to inject a fresh voice into academic literary criticism.
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Short fiction by Charles Baxter published in The Atlantic:
Baxter is the author of three previous collections of stories, Harmony of
the World, Through the Safety Net, and Relative Strangers;
two novels, First Light and Shadow Play; and a book of poetry,
Imaginary Paintings. He has received grants from the National Endowment
for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation. Baxter resides in Ann Arbor with his wife and son.
Baxter recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Ryan Nally.
In your mesmerizing short story "Kiss Away," which begins your most recent collection of short stories, Believers, the mere idea of impending violence is as powerful as the act itself. This theme of the threat of violence seems to pop up in many of your short stories. Why does this interest you as a writer?
I think most fiction is about desire. So one of the interesting features about violence is that it's the meeting point of desire and destruction. It takes you to that boundary where respectability ends and darkness starts to fall, as desire gets out of hand. Also, it's no secret that most people are fascinated by violence in one form or another, especially in America, which is a much more violent country than, say, Canada or Sweden. We think about violence all the time here. At a distance, we love it and think it's beautiful. Why else would we continually go to see it in movies? What's strange is how respectable violence has become, as if it had turned into a weird norm and anyone without a gun and the ability to use it were somehow contemptible. Desire rules.
I don't usually write about real violence, because I don't know much about it and don't want to. Besides, the movies do actual violence very well. Furthermore, I'm a singularly placid person, actually. I do know something about the threat of violence though, having worked for years in Detroit, and I think that the threat is more interesting anyway. It creates a great charge of narrative suspense, taking you into a world of anxiety and possibilities, rather than inevitabilities.
About Believers you said, "In this book I write about the articles of faith you must have to get out of bed in the morning. And I write about the tendency of people to become fanatical." Nowhere is the intersection of these two themes more apparent than in the title novella. What is it about faith and fanaticism that fascinates you?
What interests me about faith and fanaticism is this: you have to believe that certain things are true just in order to get out of bed in the morning. For starters, you have to believe that your life is worth living and that doing some sort of work may be necessary. Love is, maybe, one form of belief. People who despair usually don't believe that anything good is about to happen; they've given up on a belief in the future, and they've given up on pleasure. Fanatics are the reverse image of those who despair. Fanaticism opposes despair in a very interesting way -- it has no room for despair or doubt. I think doubt is a good thing, but it hurts to have it. Furthermore, fanaticism is a form of belief that has become anti-social and violent. It shows how far people are willing to go for their beliefs. It's hard not to pay attention to that. You might not want to think about Nazi Germany, but it's hard not to.
A great deal of your writing is invested with a distinct, wry humor. Is humor an involuntary characteristic of your writing voice or is it something you employ deliberately?
Humorists probably work very hard on the comic touch that they use. I have never known how to do that without making my writing seem somewhat willful. At the same time I do think that when you are working at bringing strangers together -- as I like to do often in my fiction -- you get a kind of incongruity in the story that often gives rise to humor in one form or another. It's partly situational and partly your voice.
Burning Down the House, your recently published collection of essays on fiction, represents a new direction for you in a career spent writing short stories, novels, and poems. What prompted you to write these essays?
I wrote the essays in order to think through the storytelling of everyday life. The book is about the sorts of narratives we use all the time, not just in short stories: gossip, funeral eulogies, after-dinner speeches, jokes, bedtime stories. The essays were originally written as lectures to students at the M.F.A. program for writers at Warren Wilson College, but in the revision process they took off in other directions. They're not just craft talks anymore, and they don't tell you how to do anything. I hate how-to books.
In the preface to Burning Down the House you write, "The reader may notice that one of the means I employed to create excitement [in my essays] is the wild claim." For example, in one essay you write, "Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: the greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been Richard Nixon." Why did you choose this approach? Are there other essayists you admire who use similar tactics?
If you're going to write a book about stories, narratives, and writing, there's a certain ... weightiness associated with the topic, thanks to our friends the literary critics. I wanted the book to be interesting and provocative and maybe a bit weird. So I tried to make as many strange connections as I could, in the hope that some of the ideas would at least sound right, or resonate for a while in the reader's mind. Gertrude Stein was like that: imperturbable and strange and unafraid. If it doesn't read like professional literary criticism, that's fine with me. Above all, I didn't want the book to be dull.
It certainly wasn't that.
That was my hope. I was working on a kind of genre that doesn't fit into the category of literary criticism these days: something that is exciting and fun to read. John Harbison used to write a kind of art criticism that was full of manic generalizations. That's what I was after. I think sometimes it doesn't matter so much if you're absolutely right so much as whether you're generating some sparks and getting some real thought into the air.
James Joyce and Flannery O'Connor are two writers whom you focus on a great deal in your essays. What is it about their work that moves you?
The first and most shamelessly practical thing is that because I was writing for an audience of writers, I wanted to refer to a body of texts that most of that audience would be familiar with. Although the canon has fallen completely to pieces and nobody reads the same thing anymore, I thought I'd have some common ground with those two. But your question points in another direction that hadn't occurred to me until this very minute. Both writers were raised with Catholic world views, and both had strong imaginations that established the elect on one side and the lost on the other. Both writers had a lot of courage, which is sometimes forgotten since they're treated so often by academics. Also, they both loved loathsome, grotesque characters. I like that.
In your essay "Against Epiphanies" you argue that a "character's experiences in a story [don't] have to be validated by a conclusive insight or brilliant visionary stop-time moment" and go on to assert that "radiance, after a while, gets routine." Yet the characters in your short stories often do experience moments of startling revelation -- and, in fact, many critics identify your graceful use of epiphanies as one of your unique talents. How do you reconcile the thoughts expressed in your essay with instances of revelation in your fiction?
I can't reconcile them. Or maybe I'm like Huck Finn's father, who has perfected his denunciation of alcohol during the day and his back-alley binges at night. I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras but I am besotted by them -- can't get enough of them in life or elsewhere. So sue me. Seriously though, as a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I'm always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred. At the same time I know that when these moments are arranged -- particularly at the end of short stories -- they acquire an absolutely formulaic quality. I noticed it particularly a few years ago when I was reading an edition of Best American Short Stories and, just out of curiosity, I started skipping to the endings of all the short stories. It was an unsettling experience because in that edition I kept coming upon final pages in which there was a moment when a character stopped and looked off into the distance, and then a sentence the equivalent of "Suddenly she realized..." appeared.
Best American Epiphanies ...
Exactly. If you're trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven't found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides, as I wrote in the essay, I've had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I'm suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!
You were born and raised in Minnesota and have lived in Michigan for the majority of your adult life. All your short stories in Believers take place in the Midwest, and in one of your essays you confess a "persistent amazement" at the area. What is it about this part of the country that captivates you?
Here I am, a Midwestern writer in a postmodern age. That's supposed to be impossible. We're all supposed to be citizens of a global village. So what if I say that it still matters if you live in Minnesota or Michigan or North Dakota? If we really lived in a global village, people would be moving uncomplainingly to the Dakotas. But we don't live in any such village, and people haven't been moving to North Dakota in great numbers. They don't have the discipline for it. Where you live shapes you.
Midwesterners are a curious breed: laconic but talkative, forcibly modest. If it occurs to them, people apologize for living here. The lack of variety in the landscape here is our koan. You don't have the infinities of the oceans or the majesty of the Rockies or the historical mania and talkiness of the South or the beauties and pathologies of New England or the energies of the great cities, except in Chicago. You just have rolling fields and nondescript cities. Still, it's all lovable and mysterious. Alice Munro has her little parcel of Ontario. I have Michigan.
Mystery can be found anywhere, but there is a quality in the Midwest having to do both with the blandness of the landscape and the ways in which people here don't always talk about what's on their minds. The combination of those two things creates an interesting field of vision for writers. It's simply not an area that gives up its secrets easily. I would put Midwestern writers such as Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather against those of almost any area -- except maybe the South -- for the depth of their writing. If you write about the Midwest, you have to dig in order to find what motivates the characters you're writing about, the people you observe.
In a recent interview with Atlantic Unbound, Tess Gallagher remarked, "It's a great mystery to me how those writers who teach every year sustain their writing. I couldn't get to the deep water if I did it every year, all year. Sadly, universities don't help a writer protect the well they're drawing from." As a writer and a professor who directs an M.F.A. program, how does Gallagher's comment resonate with you?
She's probably correct. But what's the alternative? I'd like to know what professions do protect the well they're drawing from, at least as regards writing. You won't get a better deal from a law firm or a hospital or a construction site. Universities are the only institutions that have shown any interest in preserving a literary culture in our time. It's not an ideal set-up, and it would be better if we could all make livings from our writing, but we can't. Universities will habitually take everything that you have to give, so you have to learn how to develop a private life away from them. Also, you have to wean yourself from those places if you can. But in the meantime, they can help put food on the table.
The British novelist Graham Swift, asked recently if he has ever been tempted to write drama or film scripts, replied, "I haven't. I think that if you have a talent, then -- it may sound horribly moralistic -- you should try not to dissipate it but rather concentrate it. Diversification doesn't work with art." Your writing career, aside from a book of poetry, has focused on fiction. Does drama or screen writing interest you? If so, how do you react to Swift's statement?
Swift is right. Screenwriting interested me when I was in my twenties, which was a great time for the movies. I was in college when Bonnie and Clyde came out and Francis Ford Coppola was just getting started. It doesn't interest me so much anymore, and besides, I don't know enough to write a screenplay, and I'm not sure I want to learn. Of course by saying that, I condemn myself to living hand-to-mouth for the rest of my life.
In terms of your writing, what genre do you prefer working in?
Short stories by a long shot. I feel as if I'm in my family's house when I'm writing short stories since I know where everything is. I know the logic of them so well. The other thing I like about short stories is that they often depend on characters who act impulsively. Novels tend to get much more involved in time, memory, and history, which is fine of course, but temperamentally I'm drawn toward the wild behavior of characters within short stories. Also, when I was learning to write I began writing novels. I wrote three really bad novels over many long years. It burned me. So I now approach the form with great trepidation.
Do you have a certain "philosophy of the short story"?
It's not a philosophy but rather a set of instincts or rules of thumb that I can depend on. One of them is that when I'm writing a short story I like to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself. I put characters under stress until something rises to the surface. Some hidden thing or beautiful action or enactment of desire or frustration. I try to get these things working fairly fast. I've always thought that one way to achieve this is to use characters who are strangers -- they don't know anything more about themselves than the reader does, so the story has to move itself along from that point on. You can't write a little scene and then spend the rest of the story going into a history.
You've made Best American Short Stories five times. Do you ever find such success burdensome?
What any artist or athlete knows is that self-consciousness is a burden. If you're thinking about what you're doing and watching yourself doing it, you're in trouble. When I'm writing a new book or short story, I simply try to make it marginally different from what I've done before and to get involved in the subject matter. I try to let my writing carry me so that I don't feel as if I'm carrying myself. Nobody can totally do that, and it's what brings you down after awhile.
You're quite involved in the Writers' Harvest/Share Our Strength program in which writers band together to raise money to fight world hunger. What has this experience been like for you?
Writing is such a private occupation that I like doing what I can to make some difference in the public realm. The readings we do to benefit local hunger-relief agencies are a small gesture to reduce a big problem. I think it's a good idea for writers to get involved in such things -- it can reconnect them to a larger social world, if they need it. My work for SOS has been exhilarating, and I'm proud to have done it.
See another recent interview with Charles Baxter, conducted by the online cultural journal Beatrice.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.