GREG BOTTOMS: In the short story "Saint Augustine's Pigeon," your recurring character Muhlbach states: "Everywhere and always this theme recurs, spirit opposing flesh." In your novels set in contemporary AmericaóI'm thinking particularly of the Bridge novels and Diary of a Rapistóyour characters seem crushed by their own entrenched system of values, the fact that they are trying to live according to the "rules." The world built up around themóthe physical and mental landscapes of their livesóseems to have separated them from anything even resembling "the spirit," though clearly the Bridges and Earl Summerfield wouldn't see it this way. Do you see Muhlbach's statement as representative of your work? Do you view spiritual concerns as central to your art?
EVAN S. CONNELL: I doubt if Muhlbach's statement is representative, though his attitudes and convictions might be found in other stories. I don't focus on spiritual concerns, not deliberately. As to people crushed by their own system of values, yes. I'm certainly aware of that. I have a friendóvery Southernóto whom I offered a set of dishes I didn't need. He did need them because he had just bought an apartment, but he couldn't bring himself to say yes or no. He had been taught from childhood that one doesn't answer such questions directly. I'm limited in similar ways. All of us probably know the feeling.
GB: I recently reread Diary of a Rapist, which was published in 1966. It seems a formal masterpiece to me. That book, along with Paula Fox's Desperate Characters (1970) and maybe a couple of Stanley Elkin's novels of that period, struck me upon rereading as having a laser-sharp fix on the upheavals in America then, and how those upheavals changed individuals. It is relentlessly dark and seems almost portentous in relation to the conflagrations of the end of the '60s. I'm wondering about your situation and frame of mind when you composed it and how you were viewing the culture around you in San Francisco. Do you think of Diary as a social novel?
ESC: Diary of a Rapist left me dissatisfied. The book turned up in pornographic stores, so I've been told, and I imagine the customers felt swindled when they discovered it has very little to do with sex. It's about rage, which may be first cousin to sex. I never did like the title, but couldn't think of anything better. It started when I read in the newspaper about a beauty queen who had been raped on two different occasions by the same man. Both rapes occurred under almost identical circumstances, but after the second time he drove her home. He wanted to make sure she got home safely. And he thoughtóI am convincedóthat if she truly understood him, when she realized that he was a nice man, they could become properly acquainted, have lunch together, visit the zoo together, get married, and live happily ever after. I suspect that only in America could anyone be so deluded. Only in America, addled by the Puritan legacy. I went to the library card file and looked under "rape." There was The Rape of the Lock, The Rape of Lucrece, The Rape of the Sabines, but not much else. Today there would be plenty of instructive material, but this was some decades ago. In other words, I had to proceed intuitively, which is not always the best way. I thought at the time it was a good subject for a book, and still think so, but it never seemed quite right. As to my situation and state of mind, I knew what I was doingówriting a novel. Not everybody understood. Two old women who lived in a nearby apartment heard about it and quickly moved out. And I was told that a psychoanalyst who read the published book thought I was dangerous. Do I regard it as a "social" novel? No. The one social aspect might be that the rapist loses control and tries to experience a fantasy world because his wife has dominated him.
GB: Each of your books finds a completely new form. Diary is composed in the myopic form of a diary. The Bridge novels proceed episodically, building dramatically and emotionally, yet avoiding anything resembling plot. Your nonfiction book Son of the Morning Star feels almost circular, working its way all around the Battle of Little Bighorn. Deus lo Volt!, your novel about the Crusades, is narrated within cultural and historical limits wholly foreign to many readers. How does finding a form work for you? Does form grow organically from the subject matter, or is it something determined at the outset?
ESC: Form depends on the subject matter. A visceral sense of organic growth and deliberate, conscious analysis both contribute to the result. It's usually trial and error. Sometimes I've had to abandon a good idea because I didn't know what to do with it. Mrs. Bridge began as a conventional novel with perhaps fifteen chapters and a dramatic climax. However, I couldn't think of a dramatic climax. Those fictional people lived as most of us live. I believe it was Chekhov who said that people don't go to the North Pole, they eat cabbage soup and fall off stepladders. So, eventually, I told the story in dollops, vignettes, which seemed appropriate. In Son of the Morning Star I became fascinated by details that academic historians ignore, such as Reno's men wearing twenty-five-cent straw hats during that wild charge on the village, which explains the circuitous narrative, all the detours. In Deus lo Volt! I wanted to tell the whole storyótwo centuries of religious slaughteróin one volume, which is impossible. It couldn't be told in fifty volumes. I learned that Jean de Joinville's ancestors had participated in the early Crusades while he himself lived beyond the end of it. I've never combined history with fiction and didn't do so in Deusówith the tacit understanding that a historical figure, Joinville, is being employed as a narrative device. But everything he reports, everything, including monologues and dialogues, can be found in medieval documents.
GB: Looking at your essays in The Aztec Treasure House, I see some of the subject matter that later appears in your novels, particularly essays dealing with the Middle Agesóthe Crusades and alchemy. How closely linked are nonfiction and fiction in your writing process? Do you begin with research and essays and find your way to the fiction?
ESC: Research is never the beginning. A moment, an encounter, memory, something I've wondered aboutóI don't know how or why anything develops, nor am I conscious of a link between fiction and nonfiction. Very often a character or situation emerges from another writer's work, and I ask myself if I could use it. In other words, how could it be stolen? Thievery has a long if questionable pedigree. Scribblers from Shakespeare on down have borrowed, parodied, copied, paralleled, imitated. Sculptors and dancers and painters and guitarists probably do the same. Years ago I tried to analyze and calculate everything. Now I depend more on experience and, perhaps, intuition. If a beginning feels right, I continue. Maybe it will reach an identifiable destination, maybe it will wander toward the unknown, maybe it's a cul-de-sac.
GB: I read that you spent four years researching Son of the Morning Star. How long did you research Deus lo Volt? Do you consider this research into arcane and largely forgotten history a pleasure, a hobby?
ESC: I spent less than four years on Deus, though I didn't count the months. I had no idea that so many documents existed and were available in translation. Extraordinary incidents turned up. The Sultan's nephew floating down the Nile in an ox-hide "egg," only to be captured and brained by a Christian baker with a rolling pin. Who could imagine that? And what do academic historians do with such material? Nothing, because it seems irrelevant. I couldn't stop searching for these peculiar, long-forgotten moments. Joinville himself, mistaking King Louis for Philippe de Nemours until he noticed the emerald ring. All at once they came to life, these two, Joinville and the king. I went through dozens of libraries scanning thousands of pages, greedy for such incidents. Was this research a pleasure? Yes. A hobby, no.
GB: I've seen a few reviews of your books, particularly Son of the Morning Star, that painted you as a bit of a liberal crank, someone out to debunk or subvert what we've come to view as our history, our origins. Do you think of your impetus to write about history in the essays and novels as subversive at all? How blind are we as a culture to our true history?
ESC: "Liberal crank" isn't much of an epithet. Anyway, I've never decided to debunk or subvert, not unless that means pointing out lies and hypocrisy. Montesquieu said one must be truthful in all things, even when they concern one's own country. I do believe that. Our nineteenth-century campaign to suppress or exterminate Indian tribes, undertaken with the best of nineteenth-century intentions, was not altogether noble. We should understand this. Our esteemed ex-president Bush repeatedly said that he supported America, never mind the facts. I disrespectfully disagree. And surely Montesquieu's wisdom extends to religion. We should understand that crusaders invading the Middle East with God's name on their lips were not immaculate knights in gleaming armor.
GB: You've written several best-sellers and had two movies made from your work. Yet as much as any writer I can think of, you seem to willfully avoid even paying attention to popular taste, much less composing a book with it in mind. How do you account for the success of some of your booksórather difficult books, frankly?
ESC: I write about what interests me without regard to anything else. Of course I hope other people will be interested. Occasionally it happens. Years ago I thought I could learn to write popular stories if I studied popular magazines and wrote dreadful imitations of what they published. My agent at the time, Elizabeth McKee, explained that the most popular authors write trash without realizing it. She mentioned Philip Wylie as an exceptionóan intelligent man who could fake it. But you, Elizabeth said in so many words, don't know how to fake it. Well, that wasn't good news, but she was right. Since then, for better or worse, I've written what I wanted to write and hoped for the best.
GB: Art refuses the easy answers of ideology, the facile cures of therapeutic culture, and the intellectual and emotional emptiness of mass entertainment and media. Yet these forces seem to take up more and more space each day. I get the sense that your work has always implicitly railed against these things. Do you ever worry about the place of art, of serious, meaningful human discourse?
ESC: This country does seem more and more devoted to ephemera. I don't approve, but that's a minority opinion. Worrying about it is futile; one might as well fret about the course of a river. What most concerns me is the militant arrogance of this nation, the persistent belief in Manifest Destiny. These two, our conceit and the decline of thoughtful discourse, may not be unrelated.
GB: How has publishing, and literature in general, changed since you first began publishing short stories in the '50s?
ESC: I don't pay much attention to trends, although it's obvious that conglomerates are devouring independent publishers. Businessmen love money, so the result is inevitable. Less emphasis on quality, more on salability. As for short stories, few magazines now publish them, which I think is a great loss.
GB: What contemporary authors do you read? Admire?
ESC: "Admire" isn't in my vocabulary. It suggests worship, genuflection. I've read most of William Styron's work. He's authentic and he's willing to gambleóNat Turner, for instance. The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis is one of the most resonant short novels I can remember. I greatly like two other books she wrote: The Trial of Soren Qvist and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron. She never got the attention she deserved. So much contemporary fiction is transparent. You could poke a finger through most American novels. I would rather go back to substantial writers from the past.
Greg Bottoms is the author of Angelhead, a memoir recently published in paperback by Three Rivers Press, and Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (Context Books, 2001), a collection of stories.