A Freaky Friday Excerpt from the Paris Review.
BY GEOFF DYER and MATTHEW SPECKTOR
There’s one week left to claim what may be the deal of a lifetime—a hybrid, price-slashed subscription to both McSweeney’s Quarterly and our dark-eyed, really very interesting sister to the East, the Paris Review. Early reports from readers who have signed up already tell of a redoubled sense of well-being, vivid dreams, improved digestion, and halved mile times—all this, before the first issues of 2014 have even shipped out! We hope you’ll join them while you still can—and today, to honor this undertaking, we’re giving over our website to an excerpt from the Paris Review’s next issue. Look below for an excerpt of their excellent Geoff Dyer interview, conducted by Matthew Specktor—and then visit their site for a first look at three very short stories from McSweeney’s 46. And then, lastly, before you call it a day, sign up for this subscription!.
The first thing I’d like–
Excuse me for interrupting, but—at the risk of sounding like some war criminal in the Hague who refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the court in which he’s being tried—I have to object to the parameters of this interview.
On what grounds?
It’s titled “The Art of Nonfiction.” Now I could whine, “What about the fiction?” but that would be to accept a distinction that’s not sustainable. Fiction, nonfiction—the two are bleeding into each other all the time.
You don’t distinguish between them at all?
I don’t think a reasonable assessment of what I’ve been up to in the last however many years is possible if one accepts segregation. That refusal is part of what the books are about. I think of all of them as, um, what’s the word? Ah, yes, books! I haven’t subjected it to scientific analysis, but if you look at the proportion of made-up stuff in the so-called novels versus the proportion of made-up stuff in the others, I would expect they’re pretty much the same. For example, I was doing a reading the other day where I read a bit from Out of Sheer Rage—it all sounds a bit meta!—about giving a lecture in Denmark.
The part where you claim to show up sick and unprepared?
Yes. That part is completely invented. My motto is always, “If you’re not overprepared you’re underprepared.” I’m a grammar-school boy, I do my homework. Likewise, in the fiction, so much of the stuff is drawn from real life. But that’s not the point really. The point is that the techniques are pretty much the same in fiction and nonfiction. It’s not like Susan Sontag, where there’s an easily recognizable division between the two. Sontag was always saying, Why don’t you adequately acknowledge the greatness of my fiction? Well, there are several possible responses to that, but the important thing is that she accepted a separation that I reject. It’s just a bunch of books. To go back to your earlier question, I think the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is less about “Did it really happen or was it made up?” than it is about form. And, more than form, it’s about the expectations that are brought to certain forms. According to how a book is presented, packaged, or identified, readers have certain expectations. Following from that they expect books within broadly identified categories to behave in certain ways. So people can find it quite disconcerting when a book isn’t doing what they think it’s meant to be doing, even if the book is completely fine on its own terms and has no desire to conform to some external set of expectations. My books are often disappointing in that regard. Maybe in other ways, too, but I am mercifully and necessarily oblivious on that score.
Yet certain of your books are more explicitly classified as novels. Paris Trance and Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi—they frame themselves as such in a way that, say, Zona and But Beautiful do not. Do you find one form more congenial than the other?
Nope, neither as reader nor writer. Though fiction does seem to bring one up against one’s absolute limits as a writer in quite interesting ways. My range as a writer, overall, is unusually broad. As a fiction writer it’s spectacularly limited. Group of friends, boy meets girl—that’s about it. But it’s of high quality, I maintain, rather Sontagishly.
You mention that you find writing fiction relatively difficult. You’re not suggesting your own books aren’t hard work, are you? Their style seems to me at times deceptively casual.
Ah, the reason for that is that quite often, after I’ve revised the prose— tightening it up—it comes out seeming too uptight, like it’s got a poker up its arse. So then, having done the tighten up, I do the loosen up, massaging the prose so that it’s lighter, more relaxed. It’s the Mingus ideal—tight and loose at the same time. More generally, writing is difficult—and gets more and more so. Beyond the effort and hours one puts in at the desk, I’m also aware that when I’ve written travel pieces, I’m out there wherever it happens to be, looking around, having to notice stuff, and I find that tiring, rather dread it, actually. A review of one of my books said what a great noticer I was. My wife laughed like crazy at that. She once said about my stuff, “I don’t know how you do it—you don’t notice anything but you can’t make anything up either.” Obviously that’s just husband-wife banter rather than a literary-critical response, but it’s true as well. I love not having to notice stuff—and, even more than not noticing, I love not having to articulate what I’ve not noticed. Whereas somebody like Updike seemed to live every day at an amazing level of noticingness. Novelists of a certain quality and longevity might have that in common—an inexhaustible quality to their noticing. To say nothing of the ability to write it all down. A book like The Corrections, say, is completely beyond me, the scale and substantialness of the experience that Franzen gives the reader. Even if I’d had the idea for the book and the talent to do it, I still wouldn’t have been able to put in the work required.
The writing gets more difficult with time?
For all sorts of reasons. First off, I’m conscious of all the wasted work that’s bound to be involved, just the inherent inefficiency of the process, or my writing process at any rate. There’s no way of getting around the fact that the first however many months are going to be no fun at all, and not much of that material is going to end up in print. In an ideal world you would skip those first three months and just start at month four or whatever, but you can’t. And I find it increasingly difficult to get started. When I was seventeen, if a teacher at school assigned an essay to do over the Christmas holidays, I’d do it either on the first Friday evening we had off or the next morning. Not because I liked writing, but because I so dreaded the prospect of having to do it that I wanted to get it over with. The strange thing for me, age fifty-four, midcareer and all that, is that I’m far less disciplined now than I was then.
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