Gordon Weaver is the author of four novels and nine story collections, including Four Decades: New and Selected Stories (University of Missouri Press, 1997) and Long Odds (
Weaver’s short story “Hog’s Heart” was selected as a Best American Short Story in 1980. Over his career, Weaver has published some 108 stories in 75 literary journals, including Agni, Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Confrontation, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Ploughshares, and Southwest Review.
His novels include Give Him a Stone (1975), Circling Byzantium (1980), and The Eight Corners of the World (1988). The 1991 movie Cadence starring Martin and Charlie Sheen, was based on Weaver’s first novel, Count a Lonely Cadence (1968).
Weaver’s short fiction collections include The Entombed Man of Thule (1972), Such Waltzing Was Not Easy (1975), Getting Serious (1980), Morality Play (1985), A World Quite Round (1986), Men Who Would Be Good (1991), The Way We Know in Dreams (1995).
Founding Editor of the Mississippi Review, Weaver was the Fiction Editor of Cimarron Review from 1975-86. He also served as Managing Editor of the AWP (Associated Writing Program) Award Series for Short Fiction 1977-79, and was the General Editor of the Twayne Studies in Short Fiction (Twayne Publishers, Boston/New York), a series of book length introductory critical studies in short fiction, with 64 titles devoted to the short stories of such writers as John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Malamud, John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger.
Weaver, who received a BA in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1961, earned a MA in English in 1962 from the
He served as Assistant Professor of English and Associate Professor of English and Director, Center for Writers,
Among the numerous awards Weaver has received are two national Endowment of the Arts Fellowships, the O. Henry Awards First Prize in 1979, and most recently a 2002 James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction (Christopher Isherwood Foundation). An accomplished poet, Weavers’ collection of poetry, Small Defeats, was published by the Texas Review Press in 1999.
Gordon Weaver: Kempe Dancing! is a novel project that I’ve struggled with for years. I suppose it originates, somehow, in my reading of Shakespeare over the years, from the time of my undergraduate days. I’ve always loved the plays and the poetry, but am far from a scholar on the subject.
DA: That makes two of us.
GW: Will Kempe was a partner with Shakespeare in the Globe Theater, and the resident comic actor in the company of players. He was definitely a slapstick comedian, and very famous and popular in his time. He’s best known as the actor who played Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You can see him dramatized as the actor who cavorts with the dog in the film Shakespeare in Love. In addition to acting in Shakespeare’s plays, he performed what was called “jigs,” comic sketches put on for the groundlings after a given play was over sort of like the cartoons they used to run alongside feature films in theaters years back. Kempe was most famous for a comic version of the classic Morris Dance he performed; apparently it broke the audience up to no end! We even have some music, by John Dowland, called “Kempe’s Jig.” Kempe sold his shares in the Globe in 1601, I think, and there is some thought that he and Shakespeare did not get along.
DA: Do you have any examples?
GW: In Hamlet, Hamlet’s advice to the players “don’t mug the audience, don’t ad lib, stay with the script, don’t saw the air with gestures” (don’t overact!) is felt to have been directed at the departed Kempe, who did just those things, I gather. It’s interesting, and a testimony to Shakespeare’s genius, that when Kempe left the players company, he was replaced by Robert Arnim, a much more witty comedian, and you get comic characters such as the Fool in Lear.
DA: What happened to Kempe after he left Shakespeare?
GW: Kempe went on to perform a marathon “Kempe dance,” his comic Morris, from
There’s some possibility, also, that he planned a marathon of even greater scope, dancing his Morris from
DA: It sounds fascinating, an Elizabethan daredevil. How do you present it as a novel?
GW: My novel is premised as a sort of memoir of Will Kempe, narrated by a wholly fictional character, one Pincus Perlmutter, who I cast as Kempe’s “agent,” say the first theatrical agent in history. An eastern European Jew, an old man as he tells the story of the relationship with the long-deceased Kempe, his voice resembles something of the “Yinglish” you find in fiction such as Bernard Malamud’s. The difficulty of the novel, for me, lies in the persona’s language. It’s a mix of Elizabethan usage and fractured Yinglish, clouded by Pincus’s (known to Kempe as “Pinky”) memories. This has me coping with Yiddish and what I’d call (for the English characters, Kempe et al) “mock Elizabethan,” which I derive from my reading of Shakespeare, making up what I don’t really know in this regard. Of course he’s as interested in telling his life story as he is that of the famous Kempe.
So the novel is as much about the complex frailty of human memory as anything else. But I also see it, or conceive of it, as a novel about “high” and “low” Art. Shakespeare, for our time, is largely an icon of High Art. Yet any reader of the plays will see how consistently the author descends to the vulgar and the obscene Low Art. Shakespeare is referred to often in the novel, but never appears. Kempe, I see, as a brilliant and vulgar comedian who, encouraged by his agent, comes to consider himself “too big” for Shakespeare, so moves on to his independent career — the Nine Days of Wonder — rather in the way contemporary TV actors leave a successful series to go on to, hopefully, bigger and better things. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
So Kempe, Dancing! is about Art, and memory, about fame and fortune, about language, a subject that is ever in my intentions, and the ephemeral nature of human experience on any scale. It’s not a novel about Shakespeare, or the Elizabethan era — that’s just context.
DA: When do anticipate finishing it?
GW: I have a good hundred pages to go on this, and it’s daunting, but I’m encouraged by the fact that four or five completed chapters have appeared in literary journals, so, like all my work, there seems to be an audience, however small. I pray a lot.
DA: A number of your peers have described your novel The Eight Corners of the World as your masterpiece.
GW: The Eight Corners of the World is certainly my most ambitious novel if one considers scope and complexity. It “covers” pre-WW II
DA: I see it’s complex. How did the idea for it come about?
GW: The novel’s origins go back to my movie-addiction as a kid in the late 40s and early 50s, watching
When I later discovered — and for the life of me can’t remember where — that the character was based on a historical character, Kazimaro “Buddy” Uno (I dedicate the novel in part to him; he did not survive WW II). Buddy Uno was a first-generation American born of Japanese descent. He grew up in
DA: What kind of role did he play in the war?
GW: At the surrender of American forces at Corregidor in 1942, Buddy Uno was there as an interpreter, and apparently angered a number of the Americans by his wisecracking about life in the states — was Betty Grable still married to Harry James, how were DiMaggio’s Yankees doing, etc. The Bataan Death march followed upon that surrender.
When the first Americans escaped captivity and reached
That’s a long story, but that’s how the novel came into being; it took me four years to write, received wonderful reviews, and sold in very small numbers. So it goes, which is something my Yosh would have said. A reader once called me from
DA: The novel is obviously based on a lot of sources.
GW: I put elements from my then-lifelong reading into that novel along with anecdotes picked up over the years, my experience of
And I’ll confess I thought, in 1988, when
DA: Your first novel, Count a Lonely Cadence, was eventually made into the movie Cadence starring Martin and Charlie Sheen. What was that experience like?
GW: Like, I would assume, any
At one point I read that Robert Blake, now a resident of Los Angeles County Jail, would star in and direct the film. Then Blake dropped out, I think, to take on his Baretta TV series. Later, it was on MGM’s pre-production list, and a director had been brought in from the east coast. That fell through the cracks also, I don’t know why. Later still, I learned Martin Sheen was interested; he was young enough at the time to play the role of Bean, the young soldier. By the time Shryack sold his script to Sheen, he was to make his directorial debut, and the co-stars were to be his son Charlie and Gary Busey. It was 1989 before they began, in
DA: Cadence Day in
GW: I was also to receive something like 2.5% of net profits but
DA: Like I said, Cadence Day in
GW: Gary Busey, I’m told (all my contact with the project was with Dennis Shryack), left the filming after four days, and Martin replaced him as co-star with his son. It was 1991 before the film opened in various cities (
DA: I was one of them. I can still hear Martin Sheen yelling out, “Bean!” when addressing his son’s character.
GW: I read some bad reviews, and some good ones, though fewer of these. I think maybe the popular press was beginning to sour on Charlie Sheen by that time.
DA: What did you think of the way they handled the film?
GW: I like the film — it’s a good movie, not a great one. It’s very true in focus and spirit to the novel, well acted all around. Of course, a novel always has more in it than any movie adaptation, but they certainly got to the novel’s center, the relationship of young Bean to the stockade sergeant, and his relationship with his black fellow stockade prisoners. The many years between writing the novel and seeing the movie had an interesting effect on me; when I wrote it, I identified with young Bean; when I view the film, I identify with the older
DA: You were obviously familiar with the subject matter.
GW: The novel came out of my time in the US Army (1955-58) of course, set in the mid-50s; the film updates that to the 60s, with reference to Vietnam, but I think it lost none of its relevance with respect to race relations and the “father-son” center of the story.
Since then I’ve had a couple nibbles about adapting other fictions of mine (Give Him a Stone, a novella called Under The World, in conjunction with yet another novella about the Vietnam War, The Interpreter), but they faded to nothing, like the snows of yesteryear (re. Villon’s poem). So I look at the whole event as a grand piece of luck, a one-time event, very grateful for it, not expecting its like to happen again.
DA: Give Him a Stone is another impressive work of yours which some have described as a truly American novel.
GW: I think I’d agree it’s a very “American” novel, in that it tries to portray the dehumanizing effects of the conventional American Dream, which is, of course, of riches, of material success. We’re a materialist culture, through and through. Perhaps the primary governmental, national response to 9/11 — all the media mourning aside — was keep buying!
I can see the novel’s central character, Buck Hansen, as within the American stereotype. He comes from rural midwestern stock, has talent and energy, and hits it big selling machine tools during WW II. The novel takes him up when that success has disappeared, turned to ashes. In the course of trying to resurrect his successes, and in flight from his creditors, he makes what I’d call a human effort, to bond with his youngest son, Oakar, the novel’s narrator. In the end, Buck fails in both regards. Somebody once likened him to Arthur Miller, a Willy Loman, and I can see that.
DA: What was the genesis of the novel?
GW: The genesis of that novel was my effort to both imagine and understand my father. In this sense it’s very autobiographical, though none of the events in the novel actually occurred. My father did not kidnap me, did not take me away from my mother, as Buck does Oakar Jr. in the novel. But Buck is drawn on my father, and is very like him.
My dad came out of northern
DA: So the novel was born out of major emotional conflict.
GW: Maybe the novel was my effort to come to grips with the enigma of my father. He was charming, talented, accomplished, and also egotistical, inconsiderate, and certainly seduced by money and what it can buy. Maybe I wrote the novel because I didn’t know him as one conventionally knows one’s father, the novel my effort to attain that knowledge via imagination?
In passing, my father’s nickname was “Buck,” after Buck Weaver, the
I think the novel’s still relevant with respect to American cultural materialism, and with respect to the disintegration, or decay, of the American family as a viable center of human feelings and relationships. Our families are now “extended,” divorce (which was rare when I was age 7) rampant.
DA: One would have to describe you as a steady and prolific writer over the years. Did you have an early interest in writing?
GW: I think my writing life goes back to my fairly early childhood. I learned — and I can’t remember doing it! — to read early, and read well. And reading was encouraged in my home; my mother was a constant reader, and it was conveyed to me, however subtly, that one was not wasting time when reading. It was approved behavior. This continued in school, of course. I recall that in the 4th grade, the state of
When I was in high school, someone loaned me a book of poems, Robert Service, Rhymes of Red Cross Man, rollicking stuff about WW I. For some reason this “took” with me; I started writing rhymed, metrically correct poems — mostly in honor of girls who paid me no attention! By the time I was in the Army, I had the idea that I wanted to write fiction, and began when I entered undergraduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1958. At UWM I was fortunate enough to run into Donald Emerson, who taught the only two courses in creative writing offered then. He had authority for me, had published fiction, and by virtue of his taking my student work seriously — he didn’t always praise it! — I was able to take myself as a writer seriously.
DA: Sounds like you were lucky to chance upon such a teacher.
GW: Except for shorter or longer periods when I’ve been lazy or felt blocked, I haven’t stopped writing, nor do I anticipate doing so.
DA: It seems that your military service played an important part in your development as not only a writer, but also in terms of the way you view the world.
GW: My three years in the US Army were probably the most educational experience of my life. When I think of that time I’m reminded of Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University. The army was a place that brought together a very diverse group of men from diverse backgrounds — all races, all levels of education (some with a couple years of college, some functionally illiterate — I used to read and write letters for a couple of platoon mates), all sorts of backgrounds. I served with a man who had served in WW I, with another who had served in the German Army in WW II, many WW II and Korean vets. The years from 18 to 21 for me were a period of substantial maturation. I grew up, about as much as I ever have, there. I also got to see a good deal of
I hated military life, officers and noncoms, then, but am suffused with nostalgia when I think back to it. Life’s like that: the “meaning” of an experience changes over time. What once hurt no longer does; what once delighted, no longer does. And, I guess, the older you get the “richer” your sensibility, because your consciousness is layer upon layer of experience, always viewed from a “wiser” vantage. I think I began to understand, in the army, that as different as we are, one from another, we share a common humanity, and that humanity is both expressed by and couched in language, the one thing we all share.
DA: In addition to writing, you have also had a distinguished career as a writing teacher. Do you have any special approach to teaching?
GW: I can’t count the number of times I have heard, or seen quoted, accomplished writers who also teach say you can’t teach creative writing. That’s absurd. Writing fiction, like language itself, is learned behavior. Schoolboys ten years of age wrote Latin poetry in Shakespeare’s time, because they were taught to.
So my teaching focused, or tried to focus, on matters of theory and craft. Fiction is a rhetorical art, and you can teach rhetoric. I never tried to impart “inspiration,” assuming students brought that with them to the table. I did teach voice and viewpoint and narrative and dialogue and the telling use of particulars. I also required students to read. Almost any student fiction will remind one of a published story or novel, and that student can be sent to read that fiction in order to see how what he or she is trying to do can be done to good effect.
DA: You were there to instruct, not hold hands.
GW: I was never interested in “touchie-feelie” activity in the classroom. I was not teaching character or personality or sensibility or consciousness — I was trying to teach fiction writing.
I also tried to discourage, or at least get students to recognize and set limits, to egos. Everyone has an ego, and writers, novice or experienced, have big ones. I suppose you need that in order to stay with
the craft, but you have to keep it in check or it can ruin you.
In the end I wanted my students to develop their own critical faculties, so that they could have some confidence that they knew when they were writing well, when they weren’t . A serious writer is someone who writes as well as he or she can as consistently as possible. And a serious writer is also his or her toughest critic; if you’re tough on yourself, you’ll likely pass muster with editors and other readers whose opinions count.
DA: I could have used a class with you, might have made things easier.
GW: I’m not so immodest to tout my success, but I’ve had a great number of students who went on to publish widely and well, and who now teach writing at colleges and universities across the land, former students who have published things I had written.
So I think I earned my keep at my day-job teaching; I always considered it what had to be done to feed the bulldog, keep the wolf from the door. You tolerate a lot of careless and indifferent students along the way, but that’s a small price to pay for the good ones you often learn something from as you teach them.
DA: You were general editor of the Twayne Studies in Short Fiction. It must have been an awesome but valuable undertaking, especially for the benefit of students and writers.
GW: It was an awesome undertaking, at least in retrospect. I was involved in more than sixty volumes in the series, which I think continues to this day.
I was responsible for recruiting writers, monitoring their progress, and line-editing each volume, seeing that each fit the series format. It didn’t seem all that formidable at the time — I guess I was eager to earn some money — but I wonder if I’d take something like that on again today?
I certainly learned a lot about the subject of each volume — each book devoted to the short story canon of a given writer, from classic figures (Poe, Hawthorne) to some contemporaries (J.D. Salinger, Robert Coover). I think they’re good books, valuable contributions to scholarship and certainly useful to any literature student taking on the short fiction of any writer covered in the series.
It was also the most lucrative literary endeavor I’ve ever been involved in; I continue to get royalties twice a year, and the series has of course outsold any of my fictions!
DA: You were the Founding Editor of the Mississippi Review, as well as the fiction editor for many years of the Cimarron Review. What did you look for in stories while you were wearing an editor’s hat?
GW: Editing a literary magazine is a labor of love — it certainly doesn’t pay. In academia, the powers that be don’t pay much attention to such projects, and certainly don’t back them at all adequately in terms of finances. Much of my work with both journals was scrounging for money, to pay printers, to pay authors (however minimally!), scrounging for subscribers.
The reward is in coming across excellent work, and especially publishing new writers beginning their careers. That’s what I looked for in the stories that came into the slush pile. Good writing. And beyond that, what seemed to me the ability to do a hard “take” on a given topic, not to go for easy effect. There’s a lot of competent writing out there, but not a lot that breaks through to something memorable, something that catches and holds you as a reader.
With both magazines, I’m proud of the fact that we published a wide variety of fictions, from the clearly traditional to the experimental. We were not influenced by “names” on the mss., nor did we have any taboos or ideological slants to be served. We did encourage some writers to revise, so did a little “teaching” now and then.
DA: That sounds very encouraging.
GW: I find it disappointing to realize that most writers don’t subscribe, thus support, the journals to which they submit their work. And I was always amused by poets — I didn’t make decisions about poetry, left that to other editors — who put the stamps on their return envelopes in the lower-right corner so they would not be canceled in the post office, so they could be steamed off and used for the next submission! Leave it to poets.
I’m glad I did this work — at least it made me appreciate what editors endured at journals where I submitted — the volume of submissions is overwhelming! And I’m glad I’m no longer doing it.
DA: Rejection is part of the process of writing, as most know only too well. One looks at your accomplishments and thinks of success. What’`s your experience been with rejection?
GW: All you can do with rejections is take them, endure them, suffer them. Be glad for the rejection that includes a note or comment on your work; consider that encouragement. I guess you have to grow scar tissues.
I used to save rejections early on in my writing life. When the envelope got filled to bursting, I burned them. And I simply forced myself to send the rejected mss. on to the next editor in the line on my list. One must be business-like in this respect, in-box, out-box. It’s easier now, you can run off a fresh copy on your computer — back in the Dark Ages of typewriters, retyping when a mss. got dog-eared in the mail was an ugly chore.
DA: I remember too well.
GW: My record for rejections is 44 for one story; I kept sending it out, and editor #45 bought it for $300 (at US Catholic).
On the other hand, I’ve pulled some stories from circulation because I decided editors were right, they weren’t of publishable quality. But I think of approximately 110 stories I’ve published, only a very few were accepted by the first place I sent them.
Everybody gets rejections, no matter how much they’ve published. Maybe — and I’m not at all sure about this! — you get a more careful reading if you have a track record?
But if you’re honestly convinced you’ve written a publishable story, send it out, and send it out again and again. I’ve known talented writers who gave up the craft because they couldn’t take rejections. Maybe that’s how you know you’re serious about the craft, you keep sending your work out in the face of repeated rejections.
And you can be amused when some editors give you flat, printed rejections, and another tells you it’s the greatest thing since velcro in response to the same story.
If it’s a lottery, you can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket (submitting your work), and just because you didn’t win the big money last week shouldn’t keep you from investing this week, right?
DA: Your most recent story collection, Long Odds, deals with a number of characters confronting loneliness and isolation, but with a determination not to give into despair. How do you come up with story ideas, if such a thing can be described?
GW: Ideas for fictions come from all over the map. Early on, quite naturally, I wrote about my own direct experience, family for instance. It’s what one feels confidant about, the material. But autobiographical sources for fiction can be a handicap.
DA: How do you mean?
GW: I grew up with three older brothers, the youngest of whom was nearly eleven years older than me. A crew of much older brothers is a mixed blessing; on one hand, there are magnificent male role models, on the other, a gang of tormentors. I wrote several stories about that fraternal relationship — a younger brother, his much older siblings. They didn’t go well, those stories. It took me a while to figure out that I wasn’t really interested in recording my family history, I was interested in the younger-older relationship, so I was able to stop writing about a box with three older brothers, get rid of two of them, and I had a fictional format that might work, getting at the essence of things, not the “facts.” Writing about one’s personal life can lead you to produce something like home movies, of interest only to those depicted, of no interest to a wider audience.
Later, when I’d had some success (getting published), I think I had developed both the facility and the confidence to go after experience quite foreign to my own. In part this is because I came to understand that, no matter how different “others” are, i share something with them, a common humanity that can be expressed in our common language. And so empathy becomes possible, and, in the act of fiction, the experience of those others becomes mine also.
DA: Empathy allowing you to imagine how certain characters would feel in certain specific situations.
GW: Write what you know about, says any number of pundits. Well, what I know is not just what happens with and to me. What I see, what I hear, what I imagine — all things I “know,” and can so write about.
Other people, other places, other times — these all interest me; that¹s why I’m so given to reading biographies and histories. That’s why I wrote about Japan in The Eight Corners of the World, why I wrote about black people in a story (my first published fiction) called “When Times Sit In,” why I¹m trying to write about Elizabethan England in the in-progress Kempe, Dancing!
As to my “themes,” my eldest daughter once referred to my work as “alienation and frustration.” I think that’s pretty much on the mark. I guess that’s just the way the world, the way life, strikes me. You work all day, I once heard, and at night it’s dark. But what else can you do but endure it, maybe with some dignity and grace? I’m with Thoreau, most lives are quietly desperate, but there’s something admirable in the fact that people live those lives despite the odds stacked against them (hence the title of my last collection, Long Odds). And once in a while, in a great while, the Good Guys do win; look at the story called “Imagining The Structure of Free Space on Pioneer Road” in that collection.
Hey, we live each day, start each day, as if we had an endless number stretching out ahead of us. We don’t, but that’s how one has to face the day, right? I see an analogy with writing fiction: the story at hand probably won’t come off well, and even if it does, it probably won¹t get published, but if it does there won’t be any payment for it — and even if there is, almost nobody will read it, and most who do won’t understand or like it. But you go ahead and write the story. What choices do you have? There’s always silence, but that won’t do for me.