portrait Peter Selgin

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 116 ~ January, 2007

Peter Selgin, author, has published essays and stories in numerous
literary journals and magazines, including Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, Northwest Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. His work has also appeared in anthologies such as Our Roots are Deep in Passion (Other Books), Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, 2003) and Best American Essays 2006. His upcoming book is entitled By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers.

In addition to teaching at Gotham Writers Workshop in Manhattan,
Montclair State University, and at the MFA Writing Program at Western
Connecticut State University, Selgin is also the editor of Alimentum: The Literature of Food.

Selgin’s children’s book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster, 1999), was a Scholastic Book Club selection and won the Lemme Award for Best Children’s Book, 2000. As a playwright, Selgin has won the Mill Mountain New Plays Competition and the Charlotte Repertory New Play Festival Competition, and his drama, God in the House, was staged at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Competition.

An accomplished artist, Selgin’s paintings and illustrations have
appeared in The New Yorker, Gourmet, Italian Food and Wine, and The Wall Street Journal. He has exhibited his work in galleries throughout the United States, including New York City, where he has been represented by the Frank Miele Gallery and by the Bridgewater/Lustberger in Soho.

Photo © Peter Selgin

Derek Alger: I should probably start by congratulating you on your book By
Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers
from Writers’ Digest Books.

Peter Selgin: Thank you. The book grew directly out of my teaching, and out
of the need for a book combining actionable advice with good prose. Most writing guides offer one or the other. John Gardner is readable and amusingly cranky, but often highfalutin and impractical. Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird is more intent on making readers laugh (which she does) than on dispensing technique. Then you have so-called “Nuts and Bolts” guides that are about as readable as the Honda owner’s manual in my glove compartment. The challenge was to get technical, yet remain readable.

And to give lots of examples; you can’t have too many examples in a book about

DA: Did you know from an early age you wanted to be a writer?

PS: I started out as a visual artist whose grasp of the world was almost purely sensuous.
I like telling of how in kindergarten, I’d present Mrs. Decker with crayon drawings of the Empire State Building lit-up at night, in appreciation of which she’d plant a kiss on my cheek. This, I like to think, launched me as an
artist, and I have been seeking more of those kisses ever since. But I didn’t
start writing until many years later.

DA: You initially went to art school?

PS: I went to Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn. I like to draw; I was good at it.
I had a prodigious grasp of perspective that let me render things photographically with devilish ease. I was like those autistic wunderkinds profiled by Dr. Oliver Sacks, who size up Winchester Cathedral at a glance and
replicate it in pen or pencil. Only I wasn’t autistic, I just had this
ability. Unfortunately, it was all about surfaces. Like Monet, I was “just an
eye.” One day in studio class, Mr. Blaustein, my painting instructor, put it to me straight. “Know what you are, Selgin?” he said as he stood behind me,
watching me paint. “You’re an artistic illiterate.” He had a heavy Bronx accent, so it sounded like “autistic illiterate.” I was offended, but he
was right. My paintings back then were all glib surface, eye-candy. Instant
gratification without depth or struggle.

DA: How did you make the transition to writing?

PS: Around the time Blaustein delivered his verdict, I happened to be in my
dorm watching my roommate’s little black and white portable, when suddenly Richard Burton’s face filled the screen. As the camera zoomed in for a tight close up, I heard him delivering, in that rich, sonorous Welsh accent of his, this monologue, something about drinking with a bunch of prep-school friends, and one of them ordering bergin, bergin and watah. I listened, mesmerized. Eventually I realized that I was watching an adaptation of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The next day, at the Pratt Library, I found a copy of the play, and located the speech about “bergin.” To see that speech which had so mesmerized reduced to a block of text on paper, these little magical glyphs that Burton’s cherubic lips had turned into spooky music, well, I just thought: that’s it. To hell with painting. Screw Blaustein! I’ll paint with words. So I started writing.

DA: We shouldn’t leave out the beginning. What sort of influence were your
parents on your artistic inclinations?

PS: My father was an inventor, an extremely gifted, egocentric and inwardly-driven man. He had his laboratory at the base of our driveway, and I would visit him there, where I was always welcomed. I’d watch him build these prototypes of machines from scratch, working at the drafting table, or standing behind his lathe, or the band saw, or soldering a circuit . . . That he could do all these things, well, at some point all boys think their fathers
are all-knowing gods, but I had more evidence than most to rest my belief on.

And he was a genius, certified. For a while, he belonged to a club of geniuses called Mensa. They may still exist. I remember once, at one of their picnic outings that my father brought me and my brother to, two geniuses arguing over whether or not a can of beans placed unopened on the barbecue grill would explode. As the two geniuses went at it, advancing their theories and arguments, gesticulating wildly as only geniuses can, suddenly there was an explosion, and the next thing you know, everyone’s picking baked beans out of their hair and clothes. I remember my father turning to me and muttering, “Idiots.”

DA: And your mother?

PS: Both of my parents were immigrants born in Italy. And yet they couldn’t
have been more different. My father came here for the first time in the late
twenties, when he was a very young man. I remember him telling me how the skyscrapers of Manhattan had impressed him at first, seen from aboard a ship at a distance, and how later, ashore, he saw the garbage and flying newspapers and was disenchanted and even disgusted.

I think this fairly well represents the kind of man my father was: an eternally disappointed idealist.

My mother was a completely different story. Provincial and beautiful;
she’s nearly eighty now, and still stunningly beautiful. My father met her on
a trip to Italy after he’d already been living in the States for some time; in fact, he’d already been divorced twice.

Anyway, they fell in love, and, following a series of romantic epistles, she came to America to marry him. According to legend, her first words to him on
disembarking from the Christopher Colombo or the Conte di Savoia or whatever
ship she’d come over on, were, “That tie, the one you’re wearing, I hate it!” Theirs was a rough marriage.

DA: I don’t know if it influenced your art or writing, but I should mention
you have a twin brother.

PS: I do, indeed. My mother hadn’t expected us. They didn’t do those sorts of
preliminary tests back then. When she awoke, she was informed that she was the
proud mother of two boys, which the hospital authorities had named “Selgin Boy-A” and “Selgin Boy-B.” I was Boy-B. George, that’s my brother. We were named not after saints, but after my mother’s Genovese cousins, Piero and Giorgio.

At first, George and I got along. We harmonized, literally, belting out
Beatles songs in the back of the school bus. But being good American capitalists, we soon learned to compete, and harmony turned into dissonance. To be brief: I wanted my brother dead. As far as I was concerned, he was a bad coin. Or, as the cowboy movies put it, “This town wasn’t big enough for the two of us.” Our fights were Spartacan. I remember the last one. Like a tornado, we roared through the house, razing everything in our path. We
stood panting and bleeding in the driveway. We knew that was it, that we’d
grown too strong to fight physically any more. It took a decade for the wounds to heal. Now we love each other very much.

DA: Like many writers, you took off and hit the road to begin an apprenticeship in living.

PS: I wanted to be a writer, but I had nothing to write about; well, I didn’t
think I had anything. I was greedy for experience, but also still highly susceptible to cliché, as most young writers are. So I succumbed to the “geography equals drama” cliché and “hit the road.” I crossed the country four times, and wound up at some point living in New Orleans, in the French Quarter, where I shared a Queen-sized bed with a homosexual drunk, Don, who lived fully to my notion of a “colorful character” –i.e, he, too, was a cliché.

One night, after I’d been drinking with Don for several months, a
melodramatic confrontation arose between me and his former roommate, a kid my
age, with tousled blond hair and a pretty face, but a jagged scar running across it. His name, believe it or not, was Sherman. Paired with Don, they were like the Laurel and Hardy of clichés, the aging drunk homosexual and his
Death in Venice. In my own cliched role, that of the stranger from out of town
who injects justice into a corrupt world, I tried to protect Don from what I
saw as his menace. My weapon of choice: a paring knife. Sherman drew up the
blouse of the Confederate Uniform he wore, exposing a washboard belly that he
pressed into the knife’s tip, daring me to stab him. “Gonna use that thing on
me? Go on, stick it, stick it!” It was all perfect fodder for a story that,
twenty-eight years later, I have yet to write successfully, because stories
don’t come ready-made; or they come too ready-made, as clichés.

DA: You also did a stint as an actor.

PS: A woman I’d known in Connecticut, where I grew up, ran into me in
Grand Central Terminal, learned of my dissolute existence, and insisted that I
come live with her in Greenwich Village. I’d acted in high school and community theaters, playing leads in the musicals Camelot and West Side Story.

On the basis of such flimsy evidence, this woman was determined to make a star
out of me. She might have added “even if it kills you,” as it nearly did.

Anyway, she set me up for auditions, got me an agent and a personal
manager, even bought me suits and paid for a fancy haircut. The results were
disastrous. I landed a few small parts in plays, and got lots of callbacks,
and I was cast in a Woody Allen picture.

But the woman, I’ll call her Victoria, considered these to be inadequate returns on her investment, and hostilities ensued. When Victoria learned that
I’d blown an audition for a singing waiter’s job (I’d sunk that low), she
ceremoniously threw my belongings out of her fifth-floor walk-up window, onto
the sidewalk of Cornelia Street. From there, things got uglier. Meanwhile, my
personal manager, a Teutonic old man named Sponholz, kept inviting me to men-only orgies on his Hudson River yacht. Somehow, my demurrals got back to
Victoria, who, incensed at my lack of graciousness, locked me out of her home.

I spent that and subsequent nights on the couch of a literary agent who’d been
hired to read my manuscripts.

Meanwhile I had started writing plays. All those cattle calls I’d been
in, half of them had playwrights at the other end. I thought: you’re at the
wrong end of the line, buddy.

DA: What about the Woody Allen movie?

PS: Oh, yes. It was called Stardust Memories. Remember the scene with the Happy Train and the Sad Train? I was to have been on the Happy Train: a bit of miscasting, given my state at the time. Anyway, I missed the shoot, got the date wrong in my head. You know that famous Woody Allen quip about how half of success is showing up? Well, I didn’t show up.

DA: One benefit of writing plays rather than acting was that you met your wife.

PS: Indeed. We belonged to a group called Drama Project made up of actors,
writers, directors. A lot of couplings of every sort came out of that group,
some of them lasting. The joke was that Drama Project produced more marriages
than plays. Paulette and I had a double bill at the Theater at St. Peter’s church, two one-acts. Hers was called “Jazzing” and mine was called “Playin.” We still share a billing.

DA: Recently, you and your wife combined two loves, food and writing.

PS: Paulette started Alimentum: The Literature of Food, a biannual literary journal whose contents all revolve around food. I say “revolve around” rather than “about” because we’re really not interested in “food stories,” such as one Gourmet or Saveur, though Gourmet is, of late, stealing some of our thunder. The journal is about great writing — poetry, prose, fiction — with food at its center as the sun is the center of the solar system and sheds light on all the planets. But what’s illuminated is human nature, is life. To my knowledge, there has never been a journal quite like it before, one that focuses on the best literary food writing, that is, literature as opposed to journalism or academic writing. That Paulette has a culinary degree and is a fearless cook enhances her love of the subject. But we’re not recipe-testing at Alimentum.

You can write a paean to SPAM, if you like. The quality of the writing — that’s what has to pass the test.

DA: This past June, you initiated an annual writing workshop in Vitorchiano,
Italy, a medieval village an hour or so from Rome.

PS: For better or worse, I love to teach, and I especially love to teach fiction writing in a workshop setting. Combine that with my love for almost
everything Italian, from olive groves to Crodino, and you’ve got the impetus
for my workshop in Vitorchiano, a walled medieval village perched high above a
deep gorge in Lazio, about an hour’s drive north of Rome, a half-hour from the
border of Umbia. The setting is stunning. And there are few tourists, and none from America.

DA: You must be looking forward to running the workshop again?

PS: I do. We take only twelve participants, and work intensely for three hours in the morning, with the rest of the days devoted to excursions and one-on-one meetings, and readings and side-dishes like cooking demonstrations.

And then, of course, there are the festive meals, with great platters of food,
conversation and gallons of wine flowing.

DA: You have published short stories extensively in literary journals and the
like, but you admitted that you love to teach fiction writing.

PS: Well said, I like to teach, but teaching does take time away from writing
and publishing, there’s no question about that. And if I had to choose, I’d have to give up teaching, because to teach writing and not write is hypocritical, and as it is, I suffer deeply from impostor syndrome, as most teachers and praetors do, at least those who are any good.

DA: You also recognize the value of essays as a creative art form.

PS: Essays are very popular now, part of the general movement against fiction
that is itself an extension of the public’s enthusiasm for what I call fact-mongering, which is itself an extension of materialism. We think of facts
as something we can use, even something we can “own” in the sense that we can
own “information,” whereas wisdom is less objective.

The makers of computers and other technocrats have sold us on information as effectively as Coca-Cola Company has sold us on its brown, fizzy tonic; but really, in both cases, there is more air and sugar than substance, and what you get on the internet is quantity over quality; an immense reservoir that anyone can drink from, but which anyone can also piss into. For me, the cult of “nonfiction” is one whose Emperor often has no clothes, as the “truth” is more likely to hide beneath facts than to be made of them. What great fiction does, what it’s supposed to do, is get at the meaningful essence of things; not through “facts” as much as through particulars, by describing specific yet universal and showing us, through vivid descriptions, in Flannery O’Connor’s words.

DA: Are you working on anything special now, or juggling many things at the
same time?

PS: I’m always juggling. I get up in the morning and say, “What can I do to
make this day a less-than total waste?” As Teddy Roosevelt said, “Do what you
can, with what you have, where you are.” Though I see no Panama Canal or its
equivalent in my future, this is on a less-grand scale my approach to each day
and to my life. Try to be doing something constructive at all times. That can
be writing, or it can be swimming, or watering the plants or enjoying a good
meal or conversation among friends. And then, there are all of the secretarial
chores that we less-obscure writers have to do for ourselves, submitting work,
writing letters, promoting our wares. It’s all part of the work. “Creative
procrastination,” my friend calls it. Yes, that’s a good term for life itself,
isn’t it?? May we all procrastinate creatively for as long as we can.