This interview was conducted by Eric Miles Williamson in the summer of 2003 and Robin Theiss in the summer of 2005. The Williamson portion first appeared in Volume 24:2 issue of the literary journal, Pleiades, 2004.
Williamson: You're both a composer and an author. How do these two arts intersect in your work?
In my novel, Ghost Quartet, the two protagonists are both composers and much of the novel takes place or deals with the classical music world of New York and Tanglewood. Other than that, music or musical objects don't occur an unusual amount in my fiction, although I recently wrote a story called “The Identity Club” in which one of the central characters is literally trying to live the life of Bill Evans - the great and regrettably deceased jazz pianist. As far as my music is concerned, after composing strictly piano pieces for many years, about four years ago I began writing songs and my CDs. In All of the World, House of Sun, and the CD I co-produced with Gloria Vanderbilt, Doll of Dreams, consist mostly of songs where I wrote both the music and lyrics. The final point is that when I'm doing music it keeps me from writing fiction as much as I could, and vice versa.
Theiss: Can you tell me something about how The Identity Club came into being, specifically why it consists of both 20 stories and 20 songs?
In early September of 2004, I received a warm and wonderful letter from Joyce Carol Oates in response to some music I'd recorded and sent to her - music that incidentally has just now been released as the CD Cold Ocean. Her enthusiastic reaction to the music was rewarding enough but in the course of her letter she suggested that Ontario Review Press of which her husband, Raymond Smith, is the publisher, would be interested in publishing a new and selected stories of mine and include in the book a CD of my selected songs and piano pieces, many of which I'd sent to them on tape over the years. Of course, I was flattered and thrilled at this opportunity - especially to have a CD of mine nationally distributed for the first time so I quickly accepted her generous offer.
Theiss: What is the relationship, if any, between the stories in the book and the songs on the CD?
There is no conscious or direct relationship. The songs and the pieces on the CD were composed over a period of years and were never a response or commentary or in any way related to the fiction I was writing at the same time. However, because I created both the stories and the music there is obviously an emotional, psychological and aesthetic relationship between them. How could there not be? On the book jacket of The Identity Club it says “The 20 songs of the accompanying CD, while not directly related to the stories, express many of the same moods and emotions found in The Identity Club from the darkly lyrical to the exultant.”
Theiss: Can you describe the kind of music you write?
The songs I write I'd call “accessible art songs.” They are alternately in a jazz, classical or popular idiom and sometimes they combine more than one idiom as well as more than one mood or tempo in the same song. I have also written a number of purely instrumental pieces. Many of my songs and all of my instrumentals have development sections and aren't just melody, chorus, melody, over and out. The piano pieces I write are either jazz or classical and sometimes contain elements of both.
Theiss: Who has influenced your music?
My piano music is influenced by a lot of people from Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk and Cecil Taylor to Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Debussy. My songs also have been influenced by many people from Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, Stevie Wonder and The Beatles to Mahler, Gershwin, Kurt Weil, and again, Evans and Monk.
Williamson: You're both a novelist and a short story writer. For you, what is the difference between the forms? How do you approach them differently?
Isaac Bashevis Singer, with whom I had the good fortune to do a book length interview, Conversations with Isaac Bashevis Singer, said a novel is a story, only longer and more complicated. He felt that the longer a book is the greater chance it has to have mistakes, that “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch” is a more perfect work than War and Peace. Jorge Luis Borges, with whom I also had the good fortune to do Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, also felt the story is a superior form to the novel. I think I have a higher opinion of the novel than Borges did and agree pretty much with Mr. Singer.
Williamson: Your stories and novels are loaded with people who are lonely and neurotic. Is this how you see the world? What do you have in common with your characters?
Of course I write about how I see the world. As far as the term neurotic - it is gradually or not so gradually becoming useless, being smudged out of existence from over use. Do I think people are troubled? - I should hope so - look at the world. My father once said to me, “It's impossible for a sensitive person to be happy in this world” and I basically agree with him. To be happy is to block out the suffering and cruelty of billions of other people.
This does not mean that joy and humor don't exist in the world or in my work. They do. I have chosen to especially explore fear in my work because I think it's an underrepresented emotion in literature. The human race is generally in denial about how afraid it is and how confused it is. My goal is and always has been to depict people as honestly as I know them, which means writing about their mistakes as well as their victories, their fear as well as their courage (the two are always mixed), their cruelty or selfishness as well as their kindness. There are many writers, great writers, like Celine, Bernhard, Beckett, West, Borges, Proust, Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams with visions as dark or darker than mine. They and many others form the literary tradition that inspires me.
Williamson: Tell us about your work habits. How do you write? Do you have writing rituals?
I usually work for one to two hours in the early morning before the phone starts ringing and I have to teach, work on Boulevard, or parent my 8-year-old son. I write longhand so I'm always looking for typists.
Williamson: Who are your literary influences? How, specifically, do these influences manifest themselves in your work?
The writers who have influenced my work the most are not necessarily the writers I think are the best. For example, I don't think Shakespeare has influenced me much, not Tolstoy, whom I regard as probably the greatest of all fiction writers. On the other hand, some writers who I do think are great have influenced me such as Dostoyevsky for his sense of conflict and his ability to dramatize ideas and “feel” them the way other writers “feel” characters. Also for the way he developed the monologue form, one that I've used a lot, in his masterful “Notes From the Underground,” probably the most influential story as far as modern and contemporary literature is concerned. I also love Dostoyevsky as a psychologist and his extreme sensitivity and peerless ability to express ambivalence, self destruction and alienation, the characteristic emotions of our time. What he did with all his anti-heroes in his novels was really an act of courage and genius. In him the two coincide. Come to think of it, Dostoyevsky has probably influenced me the most. I think fiction should have suspense and drama and Dostoyevsky's fiction has plenty of both. I also like ideas and sometimes try to dramatize them in my stories and novels as well. Dostoyevsky is a poet of ideas, as I said before.
I have a reading self and a writing self. My reading self looks at things more objectively. I can appreciate a much wider range of styles as a reader than I would want to or could practice as a writer, and I think that's true of most writers, and artists for that matter. The reading part of me says Tolstoy is about as good as it gets in fiction. That doesn't mean that he's going to personally influence me, because my soul is closer to Dostoyevsky's. We tend to be influenced by people who are our kindred spirits.
Other writers who have influenced me a lot such as Thomas Bernhard, Céline, Nathaniel West, I.B. Singer, Faulkner, even Beckett and Flannery O'Connor, have themselves been much influenced by Dostoyevsky - particularly Bernhard and West. He casts a huge and probably endless shadow.
The second biggest influence on my work may be Proust whose Remembrance of Things Past is probably the novel I love most. Of course, Proust has influenced my vision of time (as has Borges) and I consider him a social satirist without peer. There is also a lot of drama in Proust. The balance he maintains between psychology, philosophy, humor, and storytelling is inspiring. I think the two most hilarious novels I've ever read are Celine's Death on the Installment Plan and Proust's The Guermante's Way. I could answer this question much more fully, but then this would be a one-question interview so I better stop here.
Williamson: Guermante's Way, funny? In the middle of a 300-word sentence, it's hard for me to find a chuckle.
I can see how Proust would not be your “cup of tea,” shall we say. That doesn't surprise me. I, however, think Proust is wildly funny. Well into Guermante's Way there's about a 250-page scene of a high society party, and the satire is so brilliant and witty and sharp and observant - I've never read anything like it - funny and brilliant at the same time. Celine's humor is more slapstick, more street, more connected with his overwhelmingly strong idiosyncratic sensibility, the way he reacts to life, his pessimism. His humor is based on how he sees and reacts to things, which is often with utter revulsion. In Remembrance of Things Past, Proust is invisible. He lets the characters themselves reveal what idiots they are and in a funny, sophisticated way.
Williamson: When did you decide to become a writer and why?
At about the age of seven I started writing poems and little stories and also composing short piano pieces. I always loved music more than literature, but because both my parents were very successful classical musicians, I decided to write fiction. Though I am composing now and love to do it more than writing, I regard literature as my main art because I have a much greater command of the medium.
Williamson: You've lived in many places. How does where you're living affect your work?
It provides you with settings, situations, characters, and sometimes themes. If you're lucky enough to have lived in different parts of the world it can help provide variety too. My settings in a collection usually include New York, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Florida, and California - in all of which I've lived. Part of one novel I wrote takes place in Madrid, where I lived for six weeks and one of my favorite stories “Bodysurfing,” takes place in Costa Rica. I always think it's a good sign when you feel that a story has to take place in a particular place and nowhere else. That's how I felt about “Bodysurfing” and also about “Vivian and Sid in Maui.”