There was a lot of inherent cultural relativism in the science fiction I discovered then. It gave me the idea that you could question anything, that it was possible to question anything at all. You could question religion, you could question your own culture’s most basic assumptions. That was just unheard of—where else could I have gotten it? You know, to be thirteen years old and get your brain plugged directly into Philip K. Dick’s brain!
That wasn’t the way science fiction advertised itself, of course. The self-advertisement was: Technology! The world of the future! Educational! Learn about science! It didn’t tell you that it would jack your kid into this weird malcontent urban literary universe and serve as the gateway drug to J. G. Ballard.
And nobody knew. The people at the high school didn’t know, your parents didn’t know. Nobody knew that I had discovered this window into all kinds of alien ways of thinking that wouldn’t have been at all acceptable to the people who ran that little world I lived in.
On research and not being tooooo organized:
I’ve never had anything resembling a secretary or a research assistant. I don’t want those. Each time I type, it gives me another shot at it, another look at it. As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search.
I like to read my poems, but I don’t like to hear other people read theirs.
“Arguably literature’s basic charge is to describe being in the world—the Grainger catalog reveals just how extensively our writers have failed to document the varieties of work happening now, and the hyper-precise terminology surrounding that work.”
Neat piece on the specificity of words and the specificity of tools, materials, and devices found in this mammoth catalog. This was a highlight, in his discussion of item descriptions:
“If ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ counts as a story, then so, too, must ‘all-wood coffins store flat and assemble without tools. Can be stacked 3-high when assembled to maximize space in mass-casualty emergencies.’ Or: ‘High-visibility warning whips alert other vehicles of your presence.’ Or: ‘Stretch knit material covers head to protect from overspray.’
When I was in my twenties I had this plan to go to El Salvador and write about the experience. I had no money, didn’t speak Spanish, but this was “my dream.” I stopped by one day to see a friend of mine but found only his father home. I’d never spoken to this man before, not really. He was a truck driver, a father of eight, always went around in a white T-shirt and a pair of Buddy Holly glasses. But this day, we talked. I told him about my El Salvador plan, expecting him to find it indulgent. But instead he said, “You know what? You have to do it.”
“Yes,” I said, with the force of revelation. “I do. I really do.”
“And you know why?” he said. “Because you know who you’re going to blame if you don’t?”
I did know.
“Myself,” I said with a knowing smile.
“Bullshit,” he said. “You’ll blame your wife and kids.”
I often thought of this conversation when I was stealing time from Radian to write this book. If I didn’t, I told myself, I was going to become a bitter old-fart version of myself, blaming Paula and the girls.
So I stole like a mother. I wrote in the bathroom, I printed using the company printer, I turned away from my Kodak report to jot things down, I edited while waiting for an offsite groundwater remediation system to purge, I sometimes blew off a full afternoon when I was feeling ripe, although usually, when that happened, I’d take work home, just to be fair.
(Cf. Amy Poehler.)
It’s been a few years since I’ve read any Saunders, but I’m really excited about his new book.
My secret flaw is just not being very good, like everyone else.
Of course it’s a little strange if there’s another player that usually beats the best player ever. This debate is funny, and not just because it’s impossible to compare players across generations. It’s an attempt to make the present eternal.
We live in what is, but we find a thousand ways not to face it. Great theater strengthens our faculty to face it.
Great interview. McPhee says gathering facts and writing nonfiction (as opposed to more self-generated fiction stuff) is like going from the grocery store to the kitchen:
I always say to my classes that it’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out. […]
Once I’ve written the lead, I read the notes and then I read them again. I read them until they’re coming out my ears. Ideas occur, but what I’m doing, basically, is looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code—it’s like an airport code. If a topic is upstate New York, I’ll write UNY or something in the margin. When I get done, the mass of notes has some tiny code beside each note. And I write each code on an index card.
That’s laying it all out where he can look at it. It’s a technique he got from his high school writing teacher. One cool thing he found is that when you get the structure set, you can let the juxtapositions do some storytelling for you. In Encounters with the Archdruid, for example:
The whole book had thirty-six components. What I ended up with was thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with a code word. Some of these things are absolutely dictated by the story of the journey down the Colorado River. But the choices are interesting where it’s not dictated, like the facts of David Brower’s life.
I knew where I was going to start, but I didn’t know the body of the thing. I went into a seminar room here at the university, and I laid the thirty-six cards out on the table. I just looked and looked at them. After a while I was looking at two cards: Upset Rapid, which is a big-time rapid in the Colorado River, and Alpinist. In Upset Rapid, Brower doesn’t ride the rapid. Why doesn’t he ride the rapid? His answer to Floyd Dominy is, “Because I’m chicken.” That’s a pretty strong scene. What next? Well, there are more than seventy peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower, hanging by his fingernails on some cliff. “Because I’m chicken”? This juxtaposition is just loaded with irony, and by putting the Alpinist right after Upset Rapid, in the white space between those two sections there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I don’t have to say. It’s told by the structure. It’s all crackling along between those two things. So I put those two cards side by side. Now there are thirty-four other parts there on the table.
I think a young poet, or an old poet, for that matter, should try to produce something that pleases himself personally, not only when he’s written it but a couple of weeks later. Then he should see if it pleases anyone else, by sending it to the kind of magazine he likes reading. But if it doesn’t, he shouldn’t be discouraged. I mean, in the seventeenth century every educated man could turn a verse and play the lute. Supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn’t make Wimbledon? First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God.
You’re probably better off if you can tolerate, or even enjoy, your own mediocrity as long as it takes to get something made. What’s obvious to you could be amazing to others. And fortunately, whether it’s good or bad, joy’s soul lies in the doing.
Nowadays, while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns.