By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Sometimes, I suppose, violence is a necessary tool in order to effect change in your culture. And when it’s necessary, it’s necessary. When you have to fight, you fight, and that’s just true. Certainly in the books I write, my characters sometimes have to fight and sometimes have to stand up for themselves. Everybody has to learn this in their lives. But when I look at America today — no matter how much I may be writing in the ’50s or the ’30s or the ’40s or the ’60s, I’m always writing about contemporary America — we have power in ourselves to effect change, without resorting to violence.
The problem, of course, is that we’ve been fooled and befuddled by a popular culture that’s backed up by big business, and somehow we’ve gotten to think that the notion of money and capitalism is synonymous with democracy, when really it has nothing to do with democracy. For us to get together, to make changes, for us to understand that poor whites in the rural South or North or Midwest have the same problems as blacks in the inner city, you can just look at it straightforward. And say, “Our problems are the same: We’re worried about our children, we’re worried about medical care, we’re worried about the government sticking its nose in our lives and making us miserable. So maybe we should vote on the issue. We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to deal with each other, we can just vote on the issue, and maybe our lives will get better, and maybe we’d understand more and have more, and our children will have more.” I’m not looking today at violent revolutions being a kind of an answer to problems. I think the most violent thing we can go through is a deep understanding of ourselves in this world.
InWorkin’ on the Chain Gang, you say that a writer is good at utopian thought because fiction writers in particular take ideas to their maximum. By the end of the book, you’re giving a presidential platform. It’s kind of ironic and funny, but at the same time it’s taking a utopian ideal to the limit. How does that shape your consciousness?
When I give my platform for the presidency, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time I think that everybody should be able to think, “Well, what would you do if you were the president, or a senator, or in the House of Representatives?” If you’re in a democracy, you don’t only vote but you have to be willing to serve. And it’s not just serve to go to the Army and fight and kill, but, you know, to serve to make your country do better, to make your lives better. I’m an American citizen, you see, and what I owe things to is the people, my fellow citizens, and I have to be able to work with them and for them.
Same thing we were talking about earlier with being a writer — when I write a book, I try my best to bring up dialogues. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, I’m not trying to say what’s right or wrong, I’m trying to say, “This is life. How do you perceive it, what do you think about it?” And you take it, and you go somewhere with it, everybody who reads the book. So I don’t see any conflict between sitting in my house reading or writing a book, or going out and making a political claim. You can’t be an expert on everything, but you have to have an opinion. I mean, 10,000 people a day are dying of AIDS in Africa, let’s have an opinion on this, right? [People say,] “Well, you can’t talk about this, you’re not an expert.” So I couldn’t talk about the Holocaust in Germany? I’m not an expert, so I should let them kill 6 million people?
One of my favorite things inWorkin’ is your suggestion that people make a list of things that they would like to see changed and carry it with them in their wallet. Now, for better or worse, a writer has to be an expert in all kinds of things that he doesn’t necessarily know. I once asked Elmore Leonard where he gets the language that he uses, and he said, “Well, I subscribe toPrison Corrections Weekly.”
That’s one place. [Laughs.] I kind of feel like my life is research, I really do. For me, and I think for many writers, we’re always watching, we’re always listening, we’re always wondering. I do a lot of watching of little children and how they react, because they’re so honest. Their reactions are still alive in adults, but they’re softened.
The other thing, of course, the reason I studied poetry for so long with Bill Matthews, is that the big thing about writing is what you add. Because if any event takes 10,000 different actions, 10,000 different things you describe in a room, what a person said, how they smelled, what they did, how they turned their eyes or their head or their hand, what they were wearing — you can choose out of these 10,000 things only 20, maybe 30, to describe the scene. So you have to be able to edit out all the things that are unnecessary and leave those things in that will allow the reader to re-form the scene. It’s like it’s completely dehydrated, really, and when the reader reads it, they’re pouring water on it and the whole scene re-occurs.