Gabe Hudson: Thanks, I guess, for finally responding to this interview. If this thing were a class assignment, I’d give you an F for lateness.
Robert Coover: Interviewers have short memories. I figured if I put it off long enough you’d forget about it. Talking heads might like interviews, but no one else does. Not even politicians, who lunch on them. For writers, they’re simply redundant. There are only ten possible questions, and they’ve all been answered. You can look them up; you don’t have to bother the author. Homer got asked all of them, and what he said was, “Why are you asking me all these old questions? Go read the walls of Uruk. I’m an old man and I’m blind and I don’t have to do this anymore.”
GH: I’m not going to change your grade, my boy, if that’s what you’re driving at. But does your above excuse have something to do with why you’ve changed all my original questions? You basically hijacked my mouth here. The first thing I asked you was about your background and about your saying somewhere you were “raised” in Iowa, but you changed that to “Who is going to be in the 2004 World Series?”
RC: Can’t help it. My favorite literary biography is that of Shakespeare. Read it as a model. He never let it out that he was “raised” in Iowa, or wherever (though I am sure Iowans would be happy to claim him, and it would make complete sense to them)—he’s a giant in the author-interview field. We don’t even know if he wrote the plays attributed to him. For that matter, we don’t know if I’ve written the books attributed to me. I might just be another Joyce Carol Oates nom de plume, like half the rest of my generation. But to answer the question, which we can call “your” question now: it’ll be the Cardinals versus the Red Sox. Replay of the ’46 Series. I got promised this and I intend to see it happen.
GH: Thanks a lot. That’s really helpful. When I was a student and you told me I had “promise,” I didn’t realize you were talking about baseball.
RC: If you could get down for ground balls, Gabe, you’d make a good third baseman. I said it then, I say it now. Ditto, as a writer.
GH: You mean, if I could get down for ground balls, I’d make a good writer?
RC: That’s right. And learn to handle chaw and spit through your teeth. Skills are important. It’s not all just intuition and inspiration.
GH: Dude, this is making me a little uncomfortable. Like I’m suddenly back at your Brown workshops, all decked out in a rubber jumpsuit and strapped to your metal Narrative Machine. Those were pretty messy affairs, but to your credit, we did have some pretty hard-core workouts.
RC: That’s what writing instructors are for, Gabe, since you asked.
GH: Did I?
RC: You did. “Can you tell us what you think an instructor’s role is in the context of a fiction-writing class?” you asked. Like I say, interviewers have short memories.
GH: So, do you mean writing instructors are like baseball managers? Or umpires?
RC: No, more like third-base coaches. They pretty much let you go your own way, and if you make it that far around the bases on your own, they tell you when to go for it. Mostly, though, they don’t let you past third base, being that they’re often distracted or just want someone to talk to there. Whether they do or not, they’re wrong as often as they’re right, so good writers tend to ignore them and just run right past them. You also asked if I had any thoughts regarding the argument that creative-writing workshops are a disservice to our nation’s literature.
GH: I remember now. Sounds kinda stupid, like most of what I say, when people replay it back to me. My words in other people’s mouths is a bad idea.
RC: The very essence of interviews, Gabe. But the answer is that creative-writing workshops have absolutely nothing to do with our nation’s literature, though writers sometimes, more or less by chance, turn up in them, looking for an agent or romance or someone to start a new magazine with them. Creative-writing workshops mostly have to do with creating other creative-writing workshops. And this is all right, I suppose, because writing is good for people, or at least not seriously harmful. It teaches them to read, for one thing. We don’t need more writers, but we do need more readers. We need creative-reading workshops. Students would still have to write in them, but for nobler ends. And the self-proliferation of creative-reading workshops would be a less onerous thing. You asked me if teaching has enhanced my writing in any way, and I’d say mainly it has got in the way of it; might have made me a better reader, though.
GH: In your first class each semester, I remember, you used to tell us that, when it was our turn to have something critiqued, we could skip class that day, since whatever got said would be about the speakers’ own reading and writing problems, not about the writer supposedly being discussed. People talking about fiction is just basically people talking about themselves.
RC: Yes. As I recall, your first exercise in one of our workshops was to stand up in the front of the room and let everyone in the workshop throw water-filled condoms at you. What was this for? Your effort to understand a metaphor from the inside out? Overcome a writing block? Prepare for the day when you’d have to face reviewers? No, it had nothing to do with you. It was to give the other students some new reading tools. They didn’t even have to throw the things at you; just holding a water-filled condom in their hands, trying to get a grip on it, did them a lot of good.
GH: That didn’t go the way I planned, though. They weren’t supposed to hit me with those things, but they did. I don’t know why you let me suffer such humiliation. Even if it was my own idea.
RC: Humiliation? No George Bush euphemisms, Gabe. If it was torture, call it torture.
GH: That sweet American bullshaka. Now that I’m safely away from you, here’s a question: why the whips and chains, the cutting off of fingers and thumbs? Not a day goes by that I don’t regret having made the “ultimate sacrifice” in your class.
RC: Ah, well, writing, Gabe. It’s a tough life. I told you that before you got started. Don’t complain. You can learn to type with your stubs.
GH: And here’s another question you changed. You wanted me to ask you about the importance of Catalan cooking to world literature, but I’m going to ask my own question anyway—
RC: Wait a minute. Catalan cooking is important. In Don Quijote, our first great postmod novel—
GH: Hold up, homes. I’m not your student anymore. I want to know about this thing you have with fairy tales. Here comes Stepmother, right out of that old dark oral past. What’s the lure?
RC: Kid lit. Fairy tales, religious stories, national and family legends, games and sports, TV cartoons and movies, now video and computer games—it’s a metaphoric toy box we all share. Sometimes all this story stuff feels like the very essence of our mother tongue, embedded there before we’ve even learned it, so much a part of us that we forget it didn’t come with the language, but that someone made it up and put it there. The best way to expose that and free ourselves up is to get inside it and play with it and make it do new things.
GH: Like the Bible, you mean. Why has that book endured, despite the efforts of countless fiction writers to destroy it? What makes this one work of fiction so assault-proof against other works of fiction? Is it because the Bible is the blueprint for the extinction of humankind?
RC: It’s not assault-proof. A large part of the world’s population, alas, is reality-proof. Our lives are mostly too short and troubled. We don’t have time to stop and think about such things, and if we don’t read, as most don’t, we never even get the opportunity. Most people, frankly, don’t want the bother. It’s easier to go with the flow, even if it takes you up shit creek. The problem is that they try to take you up shit creek with them. And the Bible’s not the blueprint for anything. It’s a hodgepodge of folktales, bogus history, priestly fantasies and sophistries, repressive laws, and vengeful bellyaching which passes for prophecy. The only funny bits are in the first chapter. The rest, as Sam Beckett would say, is mortal tedium. Its only literary value is its antiquity and its status as a heavily promoted bestseller. It’s been in the toy box a long time and it takes up a lot of room and sometimes you can’t even get to the other toys without playing with it first.
GH: I guess that answers my question about your notion of writing as an underground act of provocation and liberation, which I didn’t even get to ask, damn you. Also, I wanted to ask about the Freedom to Write program you run at Brown, about your 3-D Cave Writing workshop (readers: it should be obvious by now that these are not my words, because I would never express interest in something called a 3-D Cave Writing workshop), and about underappreciated writers you might recommend we read, but instead, you want me to ask you, given the steep rise in prices, what some of the best wine values are.
RC: Good question, Gabe. I’m glad you asked it. It’s too late now for good buys on the classy Ribera del Duero reds from near Valladolid in Spain, but a few miles down the road there’s Rueda, where they make an excellent white table wine of that name that few have yet discovered. Try to get Rueda made from pure Verdejo grapes, if possible, though even those blended with Sauvignon Blanc are often quite good and very cheap. Italian Proseccos are still, in the world of bubbly, a genuine bargain, and from nearby in Valpolicella, they’re now offering “ripasso” wines, which are like gentle country cousins of the very pricey but massive Amarones. Finally, keep an eye out for lesser-growth Bordeaux clarets; there are many good growers who can’t break through the hype or who live outside the appellations controlled by the big chateaux, but who make delicious wines. Best found by doing a lot of tasting first. Which is, in general, being a tonic for the spirit, a good idea anyway.
GH: That’s great. A literary interview that’s actually useful. A first.
RC: Don’t be sarcastic, Gabe. It tells them all they need to know. It was also the only question Homer agreed to answer before telling his interviewers to go jump in the wine-dark sea.
GH: This is starting to get creepy. I’m outta here. I feel like you’re about to kill me and then write “The End.”
RC: On the contrary, Gabe, it’s clear to me you’ve made this whole thing up. I don’t think we’ve actually had an interview. I stopped using baseball metaphors back in the ‘60s. This must be one of your famous standup routines and I’m just here as some kind of fall guy. I may have to take legal action. Any more questions before I call my lawyer?
GH: Only one. Off the record. I’m looking for a teaching job. Any ideas?
RC: Well, one idea is to let your readers here know. Gabe Hudson is a funny writer, an innovative teacher, a reliable and generous colleague (or, a funny teacher, an innovative colleague, and a reliable and generous writer, etc.). Do yourself a big favor. Hire him.
Robert Coover is the author of eighteen to twenty books of fiction, and teaches at Brown University. He has always, on principle, refused tenure, and is probably the only chaired adjunct professor in America. He created the first-ever hyperfiction workshop in 1990-91, and two years ago, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, he moved his electronic writers into the immersive virtual reality of Brown’s 3-D Cave. He has run a series of Unspeakable Practices festivals at Brown, featuring scores of innovative writers, young and old. He also directs the International Writers Project at Brown, a freedom-to-write program for exiled, persecuted, or endangered writers, whose most recent fellow was the Iranian novelist Shahrnush Parsipur and whose current fellow is the Congolese playwright Pierre Mujomba. The New York Times referred to him as “a hero in creative-writing programs across the country,” and described him as “a risk taker … striving to tear literature out of the soil of the commonplace and in doing so to lure readers—in large part by giving them a good time—to confront their assumptions about reality and the way the mind works. Mr. Coover’s work has always been characterized by an enormous reverence for the power of the word and irreverence for convention.”