Charles Baxter

portrait Charles Baxter

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 191 ~ April, 2013

Charles Baxter is the author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, released in paperback by Vintage Contemporaries in February of 2012, as well as five novels. His novels include The Feast of Love (2000), nominated for the National Book Award, The Soul Thief  (2008), Saul and Patsy (2003), Shadow Play (1993), and First Light (1987).

Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter

His previous story collections are Believers (1997), A Relative Stranger (1990), Through the Safety Net (1985). and Harmony of the World (1984), winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award. He is the author of the poetry collection, Imaginary Paintings (1989).

Baxter is also the author of Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997), and The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007), winner of the 2008 Minnesota Book Award for General Non-fiction. He served as editor for A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories and Appreciations (2004), Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life (2001), Best New American Voices 2001 (2001), and The Business of Memory (1999).

Baxter currently lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren William College. He previously, taught at Wayne State University in Detroit for several years, and in 1989, moved to teach in the English Department at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and its MFA program.

 

Derek Alger: You’re living proof that you can go home again.

Charles Baxter: On the contrary, I’m living proof that you can’t go home again. “Home” is more a word for children than for adults anyway. Minneapolis, the city I returned to, is not the same city from which I once departed, and in any case “home” has a different meaning for a late-middle-aged adult than it does for a child. “Home” gets more abstract, less warm-and-fuzzy, as you get older. Home becomes a way of being in the world, not a place. Teaching at the University of Minnesota is an altogether different experience from being a student (which I was) at Macalester College in the late 1960s. Almost nothing ties the two experiences together except location. I do like it here, however.

DA: What led to your return to Minnesota?

CB: I’d been offered a two or three-day residency here, and I happened to get an offer from the chair of the department, Kent Bales, for a position. It would be on a three-year contract and could be renewed every three years if they found me satisfactory and if I found them satisfactory. I’m still here.

DA: Were you raised in a literary household?

CB: Not really. My stepfather had a large library of leather-bound books, but they were mostly for show and had been purchased by the yard for display. I don’t remember seeing him reading those books (he was proud that many of their pages were uncut), and though my mother had cultivated several literary friendships — including Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren — I don’t remember her doing much reading, either. My stepfather loved T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and that of Robinson Jeffers, now that I think about it; he loved their misanthropy.

DA: One of your relatives has a claim to literary immortality.

CB: I wouldn’t call it that. It’s a footnote. My father’s sister, my Aunt Helen, once danced with F. Scott Fitzgerald at a party in St. Paul in the 1920s. When I asked her about it, she said that FSF was a very good dancer but that he was “too pretty.” His prettiness unnerved her. An interesting comment, I think.

DA: You experienced sudden change at an early age.

CB: Yes. My father died when I was eighteen months old. The house was in an uproar after that.

DA: Your home life as a kid deeply influenced your world view.

CB: Of course. Anyone’s home life as a child influences that person’s view of the world. After my father died, I still went upstairs every afternoon to the window facing the street to see him coming home — I couldn’t conceive that he was dead and gone, and no one could explain it to me. My mother quickly remarried, and we moved out to a remote suburb where my stepfather had forty acres and where he lived as he thought a gentleman should. He was a comical snob. But he had reserves of generosity. My brothers were shipped off to boarding school. We had no real neighbors. As a result, I became watchful and bookish, hyper-vigilant, as therapists say. I never believed, then or now, in the consistency of daily life. What I believed was that the rug will always be pulled out from under you.

DA: Did you know you’d become a writer when you first went to college?

CB: No. How can a person know such a thing at that age? You’d have to be delusional. But I liked writing and reading, and I was trying to develop my chops as a poet in those days. I didn’t take up fiction seriously until much later. You have to know something about life to write fiction, and I knew almost nothing about it. Poetry doesn’t require a knowledge of life, only of the self and its house of mirrors.

DA: How did you come to decide on attending the University of Buffalo for graduate school?

CB: Because I knew of, or had heard about, many of the faculty there: Leslie Fiedler, John Logan, Charles Olson, John Barth, among other luminaries. And once I got there, the program turned out to be better and more anarchic than I knew: Bob Hass was teaching the history of the English novel; John Coetzee was around; Michel Foucault and Hélène Cixous visited during the summer, as did James Wright. It was an intellectual wonderland. Everybody was there, or visited: Derrida, Norman O. Brown, everyone.

DA: How did you decide on your PhD thesis?

CB: I wrote a book on Djuna Barnes and Malcolm Lowry and Nathanael West. I had a particular idea about a strain in Modernism that I thought the three of them shared. It was probably a mediocre dissertation — in fact, I know it was — but it got me out of Buffalo and into my first academic job. My dissertation committee was very indulgent in their treatment of me.

DA: You got your start teaching high school.

CB: No, I didn’t. I taught elementary school in Pinconning, Michigan, after I graduated from college and before I went to Buffalo. I taught fourth grade. Fourth grade prepared me for graduate school in English literature. Elementary school teachers are heroes, I have since discovered. It was a terrible year, but I lived through it.

DA: And then you moved on to Wayne University in Detroit.

CB: Wayne State. When it was incorporated into the state system, it became Wayne State. That was after I got my Ph.D. at Buffalo. I moved to Michigan in 1974. Detroit was still in its long slow decline, though when I arrived, the downtown Hudson’s Department Store was still doing business. I was hired to do a nine course yearly load. The students were okay; many of the faculty members were in various forms of controlled mania. Philip Levine had been a student there years before I arrived. John Berryman had taught there. It turned out to be a good job in many ways. I had great colleagues, including Edward Hirsch.

DA: How did you find time to write?

CB: I had a lot of energy in those days. I was driven to write and could do it at any time of the day or night. But I wrote a lot of junk, including three bad novels that were never published. So I turned to short stories, from about 1978 until 1985, and my first two books were books of stories.

The only reason First Light got written was that I was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. I wrote that book with the time that the Guggenheim freed up.

DA: What was it like seeing your novel Feast of Love turned into a movie?

CB: It depends what mood I’m in; I only see it again if I’m with someone who wants to see it. It’s not my book; it’s a movie. Robert Benton is a fine director, and he’s largely responsible for the film’s specific qualities. For the most part, I think it moves too quickly through its various plots and subplots, with the result that after a while, it doesn’t always make the right emotional sense. And Greg Kinnear, who is a very good actor, is miscast as the main character, Bradley. Bradley has struck out with women down through the years, and he’s not particularly attractive; Greg Kinnear is — he’s quite handsome — so the role doesn’t convince you that this guy could go around offering love without having any takers. You’d need someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman. The two young people who play Chloe and Oscar are so devastatingly pretty that they don’t quite look real. Fred Ward, playing the Bat, doesn’t have enough screen time to make his part into something human. Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander are really good, however, and Radha Mitchell and Billy Burke are sensational together as David and Diana. They’re perfect. They tear into each other like animals.

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories

Gryphon: New and Selected Stories

DA: How did the idea of editing a book on William Maxwell come about?

CB: I think Carol Houck Smith at W. W. Norton suggested it. She, too, was a fine editor, as Maxwell had been. Edward Hirsch and Michael Collier and I agreed to do it together. Many people — wonderful writers — had loved and admired Maxwell, so it wasn’t hard to get contributions, including Alice Munro. I wrote the introduction to that book; I’m responsible for it. Maxwell and I were both transplanted Midwesterners; we seemed to have some other qualities in common. He once inscribed All the Days and Nights, his book of stories, to me with the words “From one good little boy to another.” A comically disingenuous remark.

DA: You were particularly moved by Maxwell’s novel, So Long See You Tomorrow.

CB: Well, it’s a beautiful novel, one of the greatest ones ever written to employ what I’d call “surrogate narratives.” The author removes himself from the stage of his own novel so that others can command the spotlight, even though the story has an autobiographical core. The autobiographical core is converted thematically into someone else’s story, an act of great selflessness. Furthermore, So Long, See You Tomorrow is almost unique in its structure. Almost no one had ever tried to write a novel like that before. I don’t think he had any models to work from. I’ve written all about this in my essay on Maxwell in A William Maxwell Portrait.

DA: In the introduction to Sudden Fiction International: 60 Short Stories you point out the shortest stories often have “to do with sudden crisis, in which the character does not act so much as react.”

CB: Well, short-short stories don’t have the time or the space to establish characters in detail; they can’t do the usual elaborations that we’re used to in big, fat novels where characters are first deciding this, then deciding that. Very short stories have to get something into motion quickly, which means that you don’t have time for elaborate portraiture, with the result that the situation is likely to be more powerful than the character who finds himself in that situation. And that set-up, in turn, means that the character will probably react impulsively instead of acting or deciding. It’s all built into the structure.

DA: You have also edited The Business of Memory about the art of remembering in an age of forgetting.

CB: I edited that book around the time that my brother died. My brother was a traveling salesman who never forgot a name or a face. I forget people’s names all the time. But books — those I can remember. My brother always thought my forgetfulness about faces was hilarious, and he used to flummox people by remembering who they were even when they couldn’t remember who he was, which was most of the time.

Anyway, I was interested in the way that memoirs were being merchandized at the same time that a general hysteria about Alzheimer’s was beginning to make itself evident. In a data society, during an era characterized by “data smog,” everybody starts worrying about forgetting, while at the same time, memory becomes a monstrous kind of commodity. You sell your memories. When you add in the distractions provided by screen culture, I thought we had a subject that would prove interesting for a collection of essays. After all, we’re now getting a literature of amnesia. Jonathan Lethem has edited a very interesting book on the subject, The Ecstasy of Influence.

DA: Any final thoughts on being a writer?

CB: What’s interesting to me is that the most valuable writing that I’ve done has been fiction — novels and short stories. I’ve written five novels and five books of short stories, but the editorial work that I’ve done, and the movie that was made from my book, is often what I’m asked about. I don’t mean to complain, but that’s the life of the writer in a culture dominated by screens and an interest in nonfiction. That’s the society we live in. Still, I consider myself lucky. Everybody knows that being a writer gives you a reasonably good life. You get to foist off your imaginings on other people, and then you get paid for it. Beats coal mining.

  • There have been a good many interviews with Baxter over the years that have focussed on the themes and craft of his fiction. It is good to hear his dour 2013 perspectives, and his responses here to questions about memoir, editing, and film. I love the connection between our interests in memoir and Altzeimers coinciding. You do a real service in highlighting Baxter’s breadth as a personality and a person of letters. The only question I might have added would be about his Presbyterian background; and whether it suggests his difference in vision from say Jewish or Catholic writers as they write about our culture?