Stephen Koch

portrait Stephen Koch

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 83 ~ April, 2004

Stephen Koch taught in the MFA graduate writing program at Columbia University from 1977 to 1998, serving as Chairman of the program for eight of those years. His recent book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, published by Random House, has been hailed as one of the best books on writing.

Originally from Minnesota, Koch graduated from City College of New York in 1963, and took a master’s degree from Columbia in 19th century American Literature. He currently lives in Manhattan and is the author of two novels, Night Watch and The Bachelor’s Bride, both published by Marion Boyers Publishers.

Koch has also taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, at Princeton University, and in the School of the Arts at Columbia. He has written for a large number of publications, ranging from Esquire and Vogue to Partisan Review and the New York Times.

Koch’s book Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol, has long been recognized as a definitive portrait of Warhol’s invention of himself and a personality that changed the face of the art world during the 1960’s. His non-fiction book Double Lives — a highly controversial book about Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the seduction of the intellectuals, which has been widely translated and reviewed — has just been reissued by Enigma Books in a totally revised and updated paperback edition. Koch is currently at work on a book called The Breaking Point: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and the Murder of Jose Robies.

Derek Alger: The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop has been described as a practical and encouraging guide to the craft of fiction writing. How did the idea for such a book evolve?

Stephen Koch: Well, first I have to confess, with a blush, how it did not evolve. I taught at Columbia for twenty years, and during that time students came asking me virtually every week if there was some book I could recommend for guidance — other than my own precious wisdom, that is And I never had a good answer to such a sensible and obvious question. This was partly because I had really not explored the issue — there were good books out there, and now that I know them I have listed some in the Writer’s Workshop. But back then I didn’t really know of a good satisfactory book. So did I take the obvious next step, and write one? If I had one simple piece of advice for writers, I would say “write the book that you want to read,” and The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop is a book I would have dearly loved to read.

DA: When did you decide to write it?

SK: It popped up as a possibility only after I had left Columbia. I was having lunch with the editor Adam Bellow one day, and was holding forth on the scandalous paucity of good guides for young writers.

“Well,” he asked, eyebrow arched, “why not write one?”

“Me?” The thought had actually never occurred to me. Honest. Never.

“Of course you,” Adam said.

I sank back in the booth for a long startled moment, and the rest is history. I was at first assailed by doubt. Of course. My first doubt was that I couldn’t bring sufficient authority to the task. E.M. Forester could write about how to write. Not me. Then I reflected that I had spent my adult life fascinated by the vast literature of writers talking about writing, years soaking up what other writers have had to say on the subject in interviews and diaries and letters and in fact everywhere. So that became a resource: I would use their authority, their wisdom. The Writer’s Workshop is only partly about what Stephen Koch thinks about it. So here’s another piece of advice: Don’t ignore your doubts. Incorporate them.

DA: Reading the book, not only is your knowledge of literature apparent but one can tell that you are very encouraging in your approach to students and their writing.

SK: Listen, the number of people who really encourage young writers is very, very small. Most of the time, a young unpublished writer is facing not only her or his own self-doubt, but frozen indifference “out there” and a lot of nay saying from people up close. What on earth would be the point of adding my voice to this overwhelming negative chorus? We are looking at a big mean world, there is no danger that new writers will be unduly encouraged or coddled once they get out of school. My job is to stay calm, be clear, and do something helpful. There’s a funny story in the book about how I came to drop my standard lecture for students on how lousy the life of a writer can be. I remember the student who set me straight: “You’re wondering whose going to tell us how hard it is? Who’s going to warn us about failure? Everybody, that’s who.”

DA: You waste no time. I like the way you urge the reader to begin writing the minute he or she is done with the first paragraph of the book.

SK: Absolutely. Any writer has a great deal of work ahead, and she or he had better get to it promptly. Procrastination is fatal, and it goes by many beguiling false names. The rule is simple: Get writing! Now. Prepare for the work while you are doing it. Get over your nerves while you write. Do your research while you write.

DA: That was an excellent point in Modern Writer’s Workshop when you noted that writers aren’t stuck only writing about what they know. I don’t think I’ll ever forget your example that Kafka didn’t write about just insurance.

SK: That point was initially made by E.L. Doctorow, but I entirely agree with him. “Write what you know,” if taken literally, or even if taken too seriously, is simply fatal as a piece of advice. Any work of the imagination will show us that we all “know” fantasies and memories and dreams. We know possibilities. We “know” fears and “what ifs” and “if onlys.” Certainly we all know, within our imaginations, vastly more than what some narrow reading of our experience would suggest. The whole point of fiction is to expand and open up that narrow reading of experience and find what it suggests to the imagination, the writer’s and the reader’s both, and lay it out before us all. And yet there is nothing magical about the process: If you have ever been conked on the head with a rock, you probably have a pretty fair idea of what it felt like to be conked on the head with a rock in, say, 15th century France. So you’ve got a very concrete starting point for imagining something that happened in a very distant land.

DA: You say that The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop presents a loose intuitive consensus on the basics of the craft of fiction writing, but you do a great job of clarifying many terms that people grasp but don’t quite
understand.

SK: Well, thank you. I find little point in giving advice that isn’t crystal clear. It’s hard enough to write well, without having to first divine the meaning of some perplexing Delphic utterance from Stephen K. The entire field of what is called “creative” writing is littered with baffles and confusion and mental obstacles of every sort. If I can clear a few of them away, I will be delighted. Unexplained terminology is a big part of the problem. I find that teachers and editors and even other writers use basic terms as if everybody understood them perfectly. “Structure” for example. I cannot tell you how many highly intelligent and talented young people — people in their twenties and thirties, graduates of grand colleges, all with high GPA’s — have sat in my office working up the courage to ask, “Professor Koch, could you tell me what you . . mean by structure?” They felt they were supposed to know all about literary structure without asking. Such a simple term . . . any idiot ought to understand it. Right? Well, in fact nobody had ever explained it to them in any useful way, and in truth many of their teachers might have been mighty hard pressed to explain it at all.

DA: I think your example of using Hamlet to explain the difference between plot and story is one I will always remember.

SK: “Story” and “plot” may be the slipperiest terms of them all, and yet the concept of “story” is something that a fiction writer must understand better than anything else in art. Storytelling is the essence of the art, and it is fatal to take the workings of the phenomenon for granted. Meanwhile, I stand by my distinction: from the writer’s point of view, the terms “story” and “plot” refer to different aspects of the enterprise, and yes, I think it makes sense to illustrate the point with one of the sublime Ur-stories like Hamlet. Story is one of the profound human mysteries, a dangerously underestimated variety of human truth. The fiction writer’s job is to explore that mystery. It cannot be done carelessly or stupidly.

DA: You published your first novel, Night Watch, at a fairly young age. What  was that experience like, did you feel like you were on your way to mastering the craft of fiction writing?

SK: Not at all. I was a million miles from mastery, and still am, for that matter. It’s true I had been thinking about writing as long as I could remember; and I was already, at 26 or so, a quite widely published young fellow. But I had never written a novel, and I didn’t have a clue about how to do it. I simply found that one day I had the courage to plunge in. And I just kept going, relying on whatever courage — well, nerve, really — I could maintain. That, and dumb luck. When I got to something I didn’t know how to do, I skipped it, and plunged forward. If you look at that novel, you’ll see there is practically no dialogue in it at all. Why? Because I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to write dialogue.

After Night Watch, I fell into a classic error. Since the first novel seemed to have come to me through reckless luck and a kind of magic, I spent a lot of time waiting for luck and magic to give me a second one. Big mistake. Big, big mistake.

DA: Your narrative style in telling a story has served you well in capturing the life and milieu of vastly different individuals. Let’s start with Andy Warhol. How did the idea for the book Stargazer come about?

SK: Very simply I had been doing some writing for the back pages of The New Republic, and either the editor suggested I do a Warhol piece or I suggested it to him. I forget. In any case, the piece worked out to be about 1500 words. I have to say that for some reason it was probably the best piece of criticism I had written to date. It just worked out well. I’m not clear exactly how I got such a clear bead on Andy, but I did. And then Annette Michelson, the brilliant film critic and historian, who was then advising a publisher on books about independent filmmakers, approached me with the suggestion that I do a whole book. A book on Warhol’s films? I was far from sure I had anything more to say beyond the 1500 words I’d given The New Republic, but I finally said yes. Let me add that I had never met Warhol, and didn’t feel any special personal sympathy for his enterprise. I had seen him once at the New York Film Festival, doing a celebrity pass-through in the lobby of Lincoln Center, and the jolt — – the chill — of seeing him making his way through that chic crowd, surrounded by his minions, so passive, so effaced, so sickly-seeming, so bored . . . it all must have played some role in writing that first piece.

DA: Warhol and your book may have been ahead of the times in articulating the idea of being “famous for being famous” and dealing with the realization that Andy Warhol was pure image.

SK: Well, I certainly didn’t feel ahead of the times, but maybe nobody ever does. I do remember the moment — the exact moment; just where I was sitting, where my desk was — when I came up with the phrase “famous for being famous” and I remember thinking, “yes, yes, my lad, you’ve said something this time!” That is one of the few scraps from the original New Republic piece that made it into the finished book.

I do have many regrets about that book, though.

DA: What do you regret?

SK: It’s lack of ambition, most of all. A lack of daring. The book is quite smart about some things, and I did discover what I still view as the basic story, the deep narrative, of Andy’s career. And yet there is something a little academic about Stargazer, if I may be blunt. Right around the same time, Tom Wolfe had done The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, a very impressive book. So I had a model that was right there, staring at me. I should have gone forward and done with Andy and his world what Wolfe had just done with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Such a book would have had a shot at being really important. And I did think about maybe writing it. I had the basic material right at my fingertips. Yet I . . . backed down. I pulled up a million little reasons to rationalize what was essentially nothing but youthful timidity. The British essayist Paul Johnson ends a lovely little essay on the craft of writing with the most important piece of advice of all: Be daring! Especially when it comes to film.

DA: In considering Warhol’s films, as you do in depth in Stargazer, can you elaborate a bit more on the idea of film and the world of immediacy, making it never necessary to invent?

SK: Well, that’s a big subject. It has been thirty years since Stargazer appeared and in my opinion whatever the interest of Warhol’s kind of visual immediacy may be — and it is very real — his influence has now become so widespread and is so tainted with a certain empty academicism that it no longer has urgency. The art keeps its integrity, but there’s nothing fresh or new about these ideas any more. The last artist I would suggest young people to turn to now would be Andy. Especially when it comes to film.

DA: Why?

SK: Because the one gift Andy lacked as an artist, and he lacked it absolutely, was a narrative gift. Not only could he not tell a story, he had almost no idea what a story even was. Back in 1970, it was chic to say that “film was a visual and not a narrative art,” and for a while it was maybe rather interesting to see what might be done with that very highfalutin claim made in the face of the most potent narrative medium of the era. Because of course the statement was, and remains perfect nonsense. Yet nonsense can sometimes be productive in art, and in a couple of movies Andy did make it interesting. Sort of. But should that become a model for something? Certainly not.

DA: Forget about 15 minutes of fame, it seems that we’ve moved far ahead from Warhol’s role as solitary voyeur to mass voyeurism through recreated life in the media. Do you think Warhol was aware of this coming phenomenon?

SK: If I understand you rightly, you’re saying that there is even more vicarious living being offered by the media now than there was when Andy started out. And yes, I think Andy assumed that something of the sort would happen in the culture and as a man much given to vicarious living, I think he would have welcomed it. I should add that though he kept it secret — being a constant reader didn’t serve his image — Andy Warhol was exceptionally well and widely read: far more so than most visual artists, including many thought to be much brainier than he was. The first time I met him, I was astonished to discover that he had read my first novel Night Watch and had interesting things to say about it. That was a surprise! Believe me. Night Watch was not exactly on every coffee table in America.

Yet he had read it. It had been recommended to him by Jane Fonda!

DA: You aptly point out that Andy Warhol’s social role and art are inseparable.

SK: Well, I think they always are. And now that Andy has become, as Gertrude Stein might have put it, “historical,” it would be interesting to reconsider exactly what role Andy and his art have played in society over the long haul. There is a lot to say, but in my view much of what has been said so far does not amount to much.

DA: You certainly show your versatility as a writer by making the jump from Andy Warhol to the ruthless world of pre-World War Two Stalin in Double Lives.

SK: I have many interests. The same guy who was writing all day about Andy Warhol was putting himself to sleep at night reading books on the Cambridge spies, Burgess and MacLean, and being absorbed in the changing forces at work in what became the culture wars. My subjects feel consistent to me, but I know that seen from outside the leaps look . . . well, perplexing. Someone has suggested that in every book I write, I am exploring radicalism in some form or another. Quite true, though I’d never thought about it that way until it was pointed out.

DA: What compelled you to research and write such a compelling book about Stalin, Willi Munzenberg, and the Comintern’s co-option of liberal opinion between the wars?

SK: Well, I can only answer that question in retrospect, and only in part. First, the subject interested me. I was interested in the way that artists and intellectuals got sucked into these early variants of the culture wars. And I was more than interested, I was passionately concerned, with the great moral drama of the twentieth century, which was the rise and fall of totalitarianism and the deadly twin challenge of its war against liberal civilization. I can still put myself into a cold sweat thinking about how close we came to losing that war. Robert Harris has an excellent novel — a thriller — set in Europe where Hitler wins. And it’s credible. A lot of it is very credible. Finally, Munzenberg’s story, his life and his death, for some reason reached me. Moved me. At some level that I am at a loss to
explain.

DA: The book was quite controversial.

SK: Yes and I have to confess that I was surprised that it was controversial. Foolishly surprised. Sometimes a writer must maintain a certain laughable ignorance in order to get the book done. It never occurred to me that Double Lives would make people think I was some sort of bad guy, and I’m not sure I could have done it knowing how much anger it would arouse. I was warned that it would provoke a storm, and I brushed those warnings aside. I thought we were all beyond that sort of partisan hysteria. Wrong again.

DA: I guess I must plead guilty to “laughable ignorance” as well.

SK: The fact is that Double Lives is about the founding of the culture wars, and the culture wars make people mad. Ten years ago, when the book first appeared, this anger was polarized around left and right. It was the neo-conservatives against the “left” and my book got swept up in the fury of that argument. That’s not what I wanted, but that’s how it was. People were just pounding the table and shouting. For the first time in my career I read reviews that made me feel hated. I think it has a chance of a more balanced reception this time around.

DA: What made you decide it was necessary to completely revise and update it?

SK: First of all, I got the chance. Enigma Books set out to do a trade paperback, and they told me I could do what I wanted with the text. A miraculous gift! Just a wonderful opportunity! In the last ten years, I have learned more and understood more about these things, and so has every other student of the subject. And I have grasped my story much more firmly. My many critics were right about some things, and I was righter than I knew about many other things. Double Lives is a much better book now.

DA: That must have been an amazing experience getting to interview Munzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross.

SK: It was a wonderfully fortunate stroke of luck. Babette had cooly turned aside my first request for an interview, and it was only through the kind intervention of Peter Lubbe, a German scholar whom she took seriously, that I later got in the door She was a remarkable woman, and I was privileged to know her. She said two things that shaped my thinking. the first was a comment about the spooky subject of intentional and unintentional Comintern complicity in Hitler’s rise: “We wanted a revolution,” she said, “and we got one. Germany will never recover.” I sensed the truly dark power of unintended consequences.

The second remark came when I asked her if she had known the famous — the great — German-Soviet spy Richard Sorge. She paused a moment, smiled a little, and then said. “Yes, I knew him. I knew him when he was young and beautiful.” No gentleman would pursue that remark, but it gave me an irreplaceable sense of what life among these revolutionaries must have been like, seventy years ago.