By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
But you’re writing a book taking place in the ’50s. You have a certain kind of man, a certain kind of woman, a certain kind of convict, and all three of them are carrying guns. How do you find out what kinds of guns each of these people could afford, would buy, would carry, would use?
I was very young in the ’50s, but I knew who was around me and how they talked about the kinds of guns they had. Someone like Mouse is going to carry heavy caliber, because he’s going to carry a big gun, you know. A .45 is a man’s gun; a woman would carry a .25, a .38. A woman is not going to be carrying a machine gun, because they don’t really do that, you know? I might do some reading on it, I might go out and look at guns. I did the other day, I was looking at pistols in pawnshops. But the biggest thing a writer has to worry about is the truth of the character telling the story. How real do they seem? In a novel like Fearless Jones, where it’s a first-person narrative, everything he sees reflects his vision of the world. It’s not a true vision, but it’s his vision.
A certain kind of writer, in order to let you know that he knows the world, is going to go into places where a reader doesn’t like to go. Your books contain what I call forbidden details. In several of the books, characters take each other to the bathroom. They’re practically sniffing each other’s butts, and there’s this sense that the world becomes real because the reader has been able to violate a code of discretion.
I didn’t learn a lot about fiction writing from fiction writers. It’s the storytelling you learn on your own, really. But one thing I learned was in a class I was taking from Edna O’Brien, and Edna was talking about sex. I had written a wild sex scene in Gone Fishin’ that I had presented to her class, and some of the people in the class said, “I don’t know anybody who does this . . . I didn’t like it, this didn’t . . .” Edna said, “Listen, the only true sex scene in life is the sex scene between two individuals. No one wants to be involved in somebody else’s sex scene. Whatever they’re doing that sounds exciting to them, to you some of it’s going to have to sound bad, unless you’re just creating some kind of Playboy thing, just titillation. You know, the way they smell each other or kiss each other or lick each other, or what they find exciting.” I took that, and I said, well, that’s true about everything. When you really get into people’s lives, the things they do and they feel that are real, that really define them in the world, you say, “Oh, god, what’s that?” But of course that’s what a novel’s about, a novel is supposed to take you not into a real life, but into a kind of a cartoon life, an ideal life.
Writing does allow for a lot of wish fulfillment, role creation, model making. Which of your characters are most expressive of aspects of yourself, and in what ways?
The character that has probably been the most expressive of me is Rufus Coombs, who was in a short story that I wrote for The New Yorker called “Pet Fly.” I had gotten tired of all these people writing stories about Wall Street — everybody snorting cocaine and making hundreds of thousands of dollars and having sex in their offices on these gigantic desks. I worked on Wall Street for a while, and my life was never like that, and I didn’t know anybody whose life was like that, and I didn’t know anybody who knew anybody whose life was like that. And so I decided to write about this biracial kid who is kind of isolated, living in Spanish Harlem, working this job, who falls in love with somebody, who doesn’t really know if he’s being held back, held down because of his race, or if that’s all just a fallacy. And he’s just not capable of doing things. It’s kind of a complex notion of experiences that I’ve had and feelings that I’ve had, although the character isn’t exactly me.
Many of the other characters are, for me, a celebration. I’m celebrating the language that I’ve learned, the language of my people, lives that have been relegated to some kind of unimportant file in people’s minds. Both of those I feel very strongly and am committed to, and it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m writing about me or I’m writing about you — I wouldn’t think that the character that reflected me was more important than the character that reflected you. All the characters have to have the same amount of importance in this piece of fiction. Otherwise, the fiction doesn’t hold up.
Michael Silverblatt is the host of KCRW’sBookworm, heard Thursdays at 2:30 p.m.
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