Charles Baxter is the author of five novels, five collections of short stories, three collections of poems, and two collections of essays. He’s the recipient of many awards and recognitions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His novel Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award. He currently teaches at the University of Minnesota.
Baxter is known for his humor and wit, for the empathy and generosity of spirit that permeates his writing, and for his sharply drawn characters and settings. I had the pleasure of interviewing him when he visited Vanderbilt University in September 2015, held an afternoon Q&A with students, and delivered a stunning reading that evening.
Interviewer: You just published a collection of linked short stories, There’s Something I Want You to Do. In collections where the stories aren’t connected at all, I sometimes feel sad when I get to the end of a great story and realize I’ll never see those characters again.
Charles Baxter: A friend of mine calls that the literary one-night stand problem: the feeling you have after reading a story and thinking, “This relationship is over. This is just like a one-night stand.”
It’s such a good feeling when a character from one story shows up in another story and you realize that whole collection is taking place in the same world. How did you come to conceive of There’s Something I Want You to Do as a collection of linked stories?
Partly it was the memory of my growing up. I had a very bossy mother, who, whenever I came home from school, would say, “There’s something I want you to do.” When this book came out, my brother, and a friend of mine from college who knew my mother, both said, “Are you quoting your mother? Because it sounds just like your mother.”
Also, I had a couple of old pages lying around that I hadn’t been able to use. One was the opening of “Loyalty.” I wrote that opening fifteen or twenty years ago, and I never knew what I should do with it. I don’t even think it was called “Loyalty” in those days. I also had the opening of “Bravery.” When I was thinking of titles for these stories, I thought, “Hmm. That’s very interesting, that I’m giving them the titles of virtues. Where’s this going to go?” So I just started following my own nose. I had seen this series on public television by Krzysztof Kieślowski called The Decalogue, and I had this crazy idea, to write a Decalogue–American stories with virtues and vices. Sometimes when you think of an odd idea, you’re really saying to yourself that you need to take a chance on it. To everybody else, such an attempt would seem stupid, unworkable. Or plain crazy.
So I started in on it, and then, because I had moved to the north loop of Minneapolis near the Mississippi, that area kept getting into the stories, and I kept putting in “there’s something I want you to do” everywhere because it was going through my head. So all these things started to go into the book. These weren’t exactly conscious decisions. They resembled the way a book announces itself to you, the way it wants to get itself written. Sounds like a really pretensioso way of putting it, but that’s how it came out.
In a linked collection, how do you make sure that each story can stand alone but also add something new to the rest of the stories?
You just keep paying attention to the action. You keep going until you find a resting place. In that book, “Chastity” was the story that was the hardest for me to find an ending for. I wrote and wrote and rewrote the ending for that story. The easiest one was “Forbearance,” because it was based on an anecdote I once heard from Miller Williams, who was a translator and had been translating the work of Giuseppe Belli. You just keep reading through what you’ve already put down, and if you come to the end of the story and if you think, that’s not over, if the voice in you says, “It’s not finished,” then you have to keep working at it. Or you just say, the truth of this story hasn’t emerged yet. It just isn’t there.
Do you feel like a book of linked stories is somewhere between a collection of disparate short stories and a novel?
I do. I’m interested in these sorts of books, the ones that reuse certain characters or that are located in a particular setting. We were just talking about Dubliners. Another book like that is Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, which is really located in Chicago with a particular cast of characters. They don’t all come up repeatedly, but the narrator seems to be usually the same guy. I like these sorts of books, the combination of the continuity and the discontinuity. You know you’re not completely out in the middle of nowhere with each new story. You’re somewhere that the general territory has been mapped out.
In There’s Something I Want You to Do, I felt so grounded in Minneapolis. What is your approach to capturing the feel of a place?
I think that many of us have a place that you would call “the imagination’s home.” William Maxwell always thought his was central Illinois, where he grew up. Let’s say you close your eyes and see a neighborhood outside Boston. That could be where you’ll put your characters, because you know the people there, and you know how they talk and act. You have that authority. Even if I lived in Nashville, I couldn’t write about it. I wouldn’t be able to be authoritative about the people who live here the way I could be about the people in Michigan or Minnesota. Something draws you to a place, and you think: I have an open field here that hasn’t been filled in. I could live in Brooklyn, but I don’t want to because everybody, all the writers in the world, live in Brooklyn. So they’re all writing about Brooklyn. It’s not that way in Minnesota, along the Mississippi. So I have these characters I can write about who are like and sort of unlike people everywhere.
The phrase, “there’s something I want you to do,” crops up throughout the collection and takes on new meaning with each instance. Sometimes it’s a character asking for something for him or herself and other times it’s supposedly on behalf of somebody else. It’s great to learn that the origin of this phrase is with your mother. Anything else to say on the significance of this phrase for you?
I felt I was making a great dramatic discovery. That sounds grandiose. In fact, I wasn’t making a great dramatic discovery, but it felt like one, because I could see that if I had a story in which two people were meeting on a commuter train and they start talking and one of them says, “There’s something I want you to do,” that it’s not especially interesting. They’re strangers, and they’ll never see each other again. The phrase matters only if there’s also a kind of social obligation, i.e., “If you love me, you’ll do this for me.” In this country now, social obligations are serious business. People are coming to blows in our culture right now about what we owe, if we owe anything, to those who are in need of help. One of the characters in my books says we have these spiritual obligations to the human ruins around us. That’s not an entirely popular view. It makes me sound like a Communist, or maybe a Christian.
Can you talk about the role of the dreams and visitations that crop up in an otherwise realist landscape?
That’s always been part of my thing. Kathryn Davis, and others, call places where you’re very close to another world, the world of spirits or dreams, a “thin place.” Fiction can take many forms, including a disturbed form of realism, and one of the most disturbed forms it may take is the visualization of spirits. I don’t think of spirits as being totally imaginary. After all, if you see them, they’re real. My novel Saul and Patsy has ghosts. The Feast of Love has a fortuneteller who’s accurate. My first novel, First Light, has a brother and sister who have a kind of psychic connection going on between the two of them. Shadow Play is terribly God-haunted. All my novels have thin places located within them.
I was stunned to hear before that that translator anecdote was true, because it was such a scathing response from the eminent translator.
Miller Williams was translating poems of Giuseppe Belli. There was this particular poem he couldn’t translate and he tried and tried and got nowhere. He went to bed and Giuseppe Belli appeared to him in a dream. Belli said, “You’re never going to get that right. This is the poem you should be translating.” And Miller Williams woke up and went to the book, and immediately translated it, no trouble at all. Years passed and he met Robert Fitzgerald, who had translated the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid, and he told the story to Robert Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald looked at him with amazement and then said, “Are you seriously telling me that that’s the first time that ever happened to you?”
It’s just stunning because you think that the look of amazement is because at first you think that Fitzgerald can’t believe that Williams has been visited by the spirit of the poet, but it’s just the opposite.
Right, he’s amazed by Miller Williams’ virginity. These visitations happen all the time to veteran translators, apparently.
Speaking of endings, I feel like the endings of your stories are satisfying, but not overly neat or determined. There’s still something unsettling lingering in the air.
It’s good when there’s a bit of the music still in the air, when there’s still something reverberating, when the story doesn’t shut like a box. I suppose “Avarice” closes like a box with that old woman arriving in heaven, but “Gluttony” ends with the doctor waving for his life. “Vanity” ends with the old man sending that guy a postcard saying, “Don’t kid yourself.”
That’s another cutting ending.
It’s always hard to find the right ending. Robert Bly used to say that it is a tendency of American puritanism to write past the ending and to editorialize, as if we were reading one of Aesop’s Fables. We need to stop editorializing and end the poem, end the story where it needs to end. When you’ve said exactly enough and you don’t need to say anymore, you stop.
Speaking of “Gluttony,” I love when Eiljah starts to reimagine himself as Gerald and then feels free to say and do things he’d never do. I wonder if you ever think of your characters that way, as alter egos.
You live imaginatively inside these hypothetical people. You don’t become them, exactly, any more than an actor becomes the role that she or he is playing. But you momentarily take on their way of seeing the world, their way of speaking. It’s more like a love affair. When these characters leave me, I’m bereft. I miss them. Even the bad ones are lovable. The openings of novels and stories are hard to find because I have to fall in love with the character. I have to be excited by the story I’m about to tell. Writer’s block is just a refusal to fall in love.
I love that line. That’s such a good way of thinking about it.
In A Feast of Love, I just loved Chloe. I liked Bradley fine. Diana was exciting to be around. I liked putting words in her mouth. It’s that way with all the characters, even the bad ones. In The Soul Thief, there’s this awful guy, Coolberg, but I really enjoyed being him, putting words in his mouth.
How do you approach writing from the perspective of characters who are very different from you in terms of race, gender or sexuality?
I was thinking tonight I would read part of “Avarice,” which is told by a fundamentalist Christian woman with breast cancer. I am not a fundamentalist Christian woman with breast cancer. I don’t know how I can project myself into her, but when I started writing it, I thought, “Oh, I know who she is.” And it was comfortable for me to put myself into her shoes, without mocking her.
I think all of us have a spectrum of people we can imagine being. For some writers, the spectrum is very wide. They can imagine themselves as anybody. I’m not like that. There are a lot of characters I don’t generally find myself trying to be or to imagine. A sniper in Iraq–I wouldn’t have the ghost of a clue how to do a character like that. Phil Klay can do it. I can’t. One of the things about becoming a writer is that you end up knowing who you can do and who you can’t.
I’m also a huge fan of your craft essays. The first time I read “Against Epiphanies,” it blew my mind. The stories I had been reading and writing till that point were very much organized about the moment of epiphany.
I was just saying you don’t have to manufacture epiphanies. You can, but you don’t have to.
Are you planning any more books of essays?
What are the current trends in fiction that you find yourself taking note of and wanting to explore?
I’ve gotten interested in lush styles and the way that they get used. Obviously there’s a lot of speculative fiction that’s getting written right now, and I’m interested in how and why that’s happening. I gave a talk this summer on dramatic images. Images are often the first thing we think of when we think of a story, but they’re often the last thing we think of putting into a story. Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative urgency and how to get it into a story, and I’ve been thinking about fugitive subjectivity, stories of uncanny hauntedness.
In the Art of series, Maud Casey just did an analysis of a novel in which a girl is beaten by her father. Over the course of the novel, her suffering gives her a kind of power to levitate. This reminded me of how Steven King’s character Carrie is abused in high school, and her suffering has some relation to her magical powers. And I wondered where this connection between suffering and magical power was coming from. When you’re an adolescent and people are mean to you, you may feel that you have a powerful inner life. We all wished when we were adolescents that this powerful inner life could do something. Anything! What it actually does is to turn some people, but not everybody, into artists.
When you’re writing your own fiction, do you think about craft or try to silence that part of your brain?
I try to silence it. If I get into a terrible jam, I’ll try to think my way out of it with some of the tools I’ve put in the toolbox. I’d rather work on instinct, but if I get stuck, I’ll use everything I know, from my reading and everything I’ve noticed that other writers have done.
How does teaching affect your writing?
It’s hard to say. If you’ve taught for many years, you see some of the same problems continually arise in students’ stories. I try to begin with a long description of what I think the work wants to be, and I do my best to describe it thematically and formally. This are the elements: first person, there are three scenes, there are x number of characters, the setting is not much used… I’ll just go through a description and then say, “It’s my sense that this piece wants to do x.” If a story stalls out, there are certain procedures you can employ to get it moving again. And I may apply that to my own work. I’m not afraid of being prescriptive with my students. I’ll make suggestions. They can ignore me. It’s a free country.
In a good workshop, you take on other people’s stories, and you treat them as your own and say, “How would I solve this problem?” That’s a good exercise. I don’t know if it’s good for you to do it year after year after year. I had a colleague at Michigan who was convinced that we would all have written many more novels if we weren’t teaching these creative writing classes. I don’t know if that’s true.
Last question: I love the humor in your fiction and essays. In your essay on rhyming action, I remember laughing out loud when I read the line about how poets write for half an hour a day, though I’m sure the poets replied indignantly.
They don’t like it when you say that the biggest problem poets have is what to do with the other 23 ½ hours of the day.
There are great moments like that in this collection too, like the line, “Scientists should remain calm, even if they become sanctified.” You have irony, but not the bitter kind. So how do you know when you’ve struck the right note in being funny?
You’re trying not to clown or make faces. You’re trying not to force the tone. If there’s something comic or humorous, it should come out of the truth of the situation. A friend of mine used to say it’s the difference between surface funny and deep funny.
We all have these circumstances when we’re in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the way life is. It’s funny. We shouldn’t have been in that place. It shouldn’t have happened that way, but it did. Or think of that moment when you blurt out exactly the wrong thing at Thanksgiving dinner. It just happened that way. Comedy can’t be forced. That’s why they are so few really good comic writers in this country. I think Charles Portis is a great comic writer. Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis, he’s a wonderful writer. Lorrie [Moore]’s writing is very witty, brilliant, but I wouldn’t describe it as comic by any means.
It’s humor as a defense mechanism.
Very much so. Many young women are armed only by their wit. That’s the one weapon they have to deal with the world.