On Writing What You Know, Playing with Language, and Teaching DeLillo
Joseph Salvatore in Conversation with Scott Cheshire
To see Joseph Salvatore and Scott Cheshire as great writers is to see them correctly; to see them as Don DeLillo obsessors is to see them a little too correctly. At the end of April, these two will be participating in a conference on DeLillo at the New School. We invited them to talk about their own work in the lead-up to the conference, so here they focus on the classic dictum “write what you know,” and how one should engage with that advice, as well as what language and grammar play can do for and to a story. If you would like to hear them talk more about DeLillo, check out the conference at the New School in NYC on April 28th and 29th, 2017.
Joseph Salvatore: I love your novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles, for a bunch of reasons, many of which I hope we can discuss a bit here. So let’s start at the beginning. I know some of this material is autobiographical. How did you manage to work with your own history while avoiding the pitfalls of controlling the story or hitting too hard on themes, etc.? Can you talk about what the writing process was like?
Scott Cheshire: Well, it was autobiographical in that I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness (I left more than twenty years ago), so my imagination can be an apocalyptic one. But I mean that more in the modern than the original sense. I’m interested in “end of the world” scenarios but I’m mostly taken with writing as a process that reveals. I guess I want the reading experience to be revelatory. My goal in the novel was to deliver a sort of religious experience for the reader, a build toward some emotional crest, and then a drop, or loss of faith. Who knows if it worked?
JS: When and where did it start?
SC: It started in a dream. Dreams used to be a powerful source for me, less so now, as my dreams are less vibrant.
JS: Was the “write what you know” dictum good or bad advice for you?
SC: I’ve always interpreted “write what you know” emotionally. I knew marriage, divorce, the longing for belief, and the loss of faith, and so I wrote those to the best of my knowledge. Incidentally, one of my favorite things about your collection is that question does not come to mind for me, but rather how did you do this? You can’t know what it is to be all of these people? And yet somehow you do!
JS: Please do dare to say “grammar-focused”! I’m so pleased by that term. My whole project in To Assume a Pleasing Shape was to consciously compose a language-driven collection of quasi-experimental short fiction, which is playful with respect to genre and form, and which deliberately complicates the use of grammar and syntax, just as it complicates traditional notions of narrative design and character development. (That’s all easy to type now after that fact, but while it was my goal, the results of such an ambition were often utter failures.)
SC: So is that the main thing that links these stories for you?
JS: I see the collection being linked by several themes enacted and dramatized by my characters, the most prominent of which being both the notion of visible physical textual shape—design, structure, even syntax (the shape of sentences)—and invisible psychic interiority (the shape of thoughts: digressive, obsessive, circular). I tried to explore and dramatize the struggle on the part of the characters—and their author—to find an aesthetic form—corporeally and textually—that could reveal precisely those things trying to be concealed—again, on the part of the characters and their author.
For example, body shame confronted and reconciled with body art and by body control is a theme of stories such as “Reduction” and “Man on Couch.” In “Reduction,” I was interested not in deconstructing narrative but in exploring the interiority of two characters: a heterosexual couple, both academics, caught in the snarls of post-modern self-consciousness a la Eco’s comment on the postmodern attitude.
In my story, the protagonist wants to have some control over her own body by electing to change her body by undergoing breast-reduction surgery, and her male partner wants to support her. But both struggle with conflicting thoughts and feelings whose sentimentality they have been trained to be suspicious of. The conflict is thus driven internally. And again I relied on grammar and syntax to help me create sentences whose labyrinthine form would enact these characters’ digressive cerebrations in a close-third-person point-of-view.
The story “Man on Couch” has a similar structure, which started for me initially in close-third, but quickly shifted to first-person. In the story, a gay Gulf War veteran is in denial of his sexuality, and he turns to self-destructive behavior as a way to cope. Physically he’s monstrous: a six-foot-seven-inch bodybuilder who, due to Gulf War Syndrome, has lost all the hair on his body, including eyelashes and eyebrows. The only external action in the story is his attempt to seduce a man on the couch across from him at a party they’re both attending. The story is a dramatic monologue that digresses vertiginously as the character tries not to admit his sexuality while sitting across from a man he desires. Language (or better put: grammar), yet again, was my way into this character and this story.
SC: So is there any aspect of “write what you know” in a story like “Man on Couch” then?
JS: In terms of “what I know,” the details do come from the world I live in. I know academics and veterans, for example; they’re my friends and colleagues. I even lived for a year with a guy who was in the first Gulf War, and who talked about a lot when we drank, which, alas, was often in those days. I heard those details and used them. But the dramatic incidents are all my own creation.
Going back to thinking through grammar, I’m curious about your grammar—or more specifically your style—in the opening section of your novel. You mentioned your interest in “end of the world” scenarios; the style sounded to my inner-reader’s ears as sermonic. Can you talk about the opening. It’s stunning and McCarthy-esque and scary and rapturous. How long did it take? Did it come early or late? Did you try to distance yourself from it as the novel went on? Did you feel you had to?
SC: “Sermonic” hits the nail on the head. And, of course, there are segments of actual sermons in the opening section and in the closing section, which provided an interesting challenge. At what point does it turn from a literary representation of sermon to an actual sermon? At what point am I merely giving a preacher a stage? When does it become church and not art? My editor was of great help here. We tried to take it as far as we could—which was a fascinating task, but also sort of frightening. I wanted to bring this particular subculture to life, as I had never seen it done before—not to my satisfaction anyway. But also it’s a culture I was no longer a part of, plus I was wrestling with my own notions of belief. Was I atheist? Was I agnostic? Did I believe in anything at all? I was facing these very questions while writing a character facing them, too. Maybe that’s how all books work, I don’t know. It seems to me, in some way, they do.
I should also say, I read aloud everything I write. Stories. Novels. I “perform” them, I guess, every page, alone, at home, until I’m comfortable with how they sound spoken, which means I guess I’m concerned with a kind of spoken grammar and that means I delivered each of those sermon sections in my apartment to an empty room—which sounds odd, now that I think about it. Do you read your writing aloud, to yourself?
JS: Yes, I read all my work aloud and under my breath and partially whispered and murmured and subvocalized. Simply said: I can’t move past a sentence to the next one until that sentence sounds and reads the way I want it to. This makes for horribly slow output. But despite its final form as a single sentence, the composition of “Practice Problem,” was never about the formal experiment of merely writing a long sentence. I find most of those experiments deadly dull. A long sentence written simply for the sake of writing a long sentence seems to me to be pursuing form over meaning. For me, the meaning creates the form.
I’m reminded of the bad advice teachers give students when they tell them to vary their sentences, which always implies a kind of random arbitrariness to sentence length. Often the long sentences don’t need to be long; they’re usually just a string of simple declaratives fused with commas or conjunctions. To me, meaning dictates the form. To say, “I think I’ll sprinkle a few short sentences here, a few long ones, here, a couple shorts, a few longs,” seems off to me. You can always tell when a writer doesn’t know where to go in a long sentence—he’s gotten himself into the sentence and doesn’t know how to get out. So he plods forward branching out further and further with cumulative structures, those highly mannered resumptive and summative modifiers.
It reminds me of the bad rhymed poetry you see where you can almost spot the first word the poet came up with, which he found interesting and didn’t want to cut and so then he has to use a less interesting word to rhyme with it because he’s now trapped in that form. But of course everything I just described is really about me: I’m that writer using all the stylistic tools in my toolbox trying to find the one that works best for me and my voice—and usually I can’t stand the results (which is why much ends up in drawers wastebaskets). But in the end, for me, that’s the pleasure of playing with words and sentences.
SC: I ask because I have had the pleasure of seeing you read, and once from a long story that is one very, very, wonderfully long sentence (”Practice Problem”) and you deliver it with such precision that I could not help but wonder if this kind of focused grammatically adventurous and challenging writing can be written without reading it aloud.
JS: That pleasure with words and sentences came late in the writing of “Practice Problem,” which is a story about a body-pierced and tattooed female college student who works at night as a cage dancer on Lansdowne Street in Boston. She is impregnated by a new lover while separated from her long-term male partner. Her only “character motivation” in the story is to write a letter to the new lover letting him know about his paternity. While waiting to get his response, she meets a third lover. In this way, the character keeps repeating a certain pattern in her romantic life. However, I was uncomfortable presenting a narrative of repeating romantic patterns, in a traditional linear form within a realistic literary genre. It felt like something I’ve seen a million times before. But I didn’t want to give up on it. So instead I took the random detail of the protagonist’s failing her geometry class as the point of departure and just for fun started structuring the piece as an extended practice problem, the kind a student (such as our protagonist, perhaps) might encounter at the end of a chapter in a math textbook (perhaps the very textbook our protagonist carries around with her). I then tried to get all playful with genre by asking the reader to help solve the very problem the reader is reading. I included a specific set of directions (the kind you might see on a geometry exam) for the reader to use “point P” as a locus and then to plot it on the diagram of the protagonist’s story. The locus of the story then becomes the effort to plot a set of points (or encounters) that create enough “random” events so that a pattern (or “shape” c.f. the book’s title) begins to emerge, whether intentionally designed by a “creator” or not.
But what nonsense! I thought. How was I supposed to show all this nonsense, to dramatize it? How to render all this cerebral mumbo-jumbo in a work of prose fiction that could maybe, just maybe, touch the reader’s heart, not only her head? I discovered the answers to these questions as I went along. Because, of course, none of what I just described was there when I began. All my earlier approaches to finding the story led to dead drafts, filled with myriad sentences of various length.
Around that time, I saw the film Slacker by director Richard Linklater. I was blown away by the freshness of this film. Though there was no real conventional narrative, the story blew me away by the artfulness of its making, the juxtaposition of unconnected events and characters in one smooth go. I set to work the next day on “Practice Problem” renewed. It still took me a long time to finish, but I had something I hadn’t had before—a new way of stripping down the dramatic structure, of recalibrating the “narrative tension.” The tension I was after now was in the deployment of grammar and syntax, of a precise connection of clauses and phrases and punctuation that would pull the reader along vertiginously, turning the pages not to find out what happened next, but to find out how it would be told, a language-driven fiction.
SC: How did it become one long sentence? When did that aspect enter into it? And how did that shape this experiment?
JS: I wanted to wink at the story’s resistance to and discomfort with traditional linear narrative, and inspired by Linklater’s continuous shots, I tried to replicate that in language. So the story became a non-stop circular narrative that is rendered entirely in one sentence composed of 3,229 words. If it works (which I’m never sure about) I wanted the relationship between a circle being an unbroken geometric line and the story’s form itself to enact structurally and aesthetically that intentionally circular “shape.” And so grammar and syntax became rhetorical tools for me as the fiction writer to complicate further the reader’s encounter with the work. Even names and symbols were chosen to better reveal the circularity trope: the nightclub where the protagonist’s long-term lover works is called “Zero Hour,” and the protagonist’s clock (a vintage “Sunbeam”) is described as a circle with arms (“rays”) that no longer work—for time has run out and paralysis has set in, a never-ending, no-escape gerbil wheel, a notion I hoped to reinforce with the grammar.
In thinking about Linklater’s influence in what I just described, I’m thinking of when you mentioned the sermon as both influence and content. Are there other art forms—secular or religious—that informed your work during the composition of the novel?
SC: Music has always been important to me while writing, but then again this is the case with lots of writers. In my case, two particular and powerful examples come to mind. For years, so many that I no longer do it, I wrote with the same exact record playing loudly in my headphones: Edible Flowers by guitarists Nels Cline and Devin Sarno. It’s one of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard, to my mind anyway, and sounds like some sort of unearthly interstellar recording. Abstract noisy guitar along guttural sub-bass lines. It’s completely absorbing, overwhelming, and beautiful. When I played it, the music completely blocked out the physical world—I played it on an endless loop—and allowed for marathon writing sessions. I love that record, and I’ve listened to it thousands of times. That said, I played it for a dear friend and she said it sounded like the hellish soundtrack from a nightmare. To each his own.
How did it affect my writing? This brings up the second example, which has had a profound affect on my writing—what I think of as the epiphanic solos of Nels Cline and John Coltrane. I say epiphanic because both seem to start from a place of not knowing where the music is going to land—this is especially true of Coltrane in his mid- to late-period, and of Cline mostly in his rock recordings—and ending in some revelatory place that serves almost necessarily as a kind of physical release. Cline has referred to them offhandedly as his “rev-ups.” They fill me with wonder, but as a writer they’ve made me reconsider the page, what I can do to render thought from the place of a character not knowing, and ending in a place of revelatory release, one that is physically (hopefully) felt in the reader. I want to rev up the reader, and let them drop. It’s something I tried in the opening and closing set pieces of the novel, but have experimented with more and more in my short fiction of late.
In fact, there’s another term and form that directly comes from music, I’m thinking still of guitar rock and jazz, that applies to my short fiction: the “riff.” I’m trying to use the form of the riff to develop a narrative idea, if that makes any sense. I let something thematically go its own way, and organically “play” it every which way but loose and see what happens. The hard part is trying to make a cohesive story out of said riffing. I’m reminded here, in thinking about riffing, of a favorite story from your collection, “Whatever, Forever,” and the rather vampiric goth girl protagonist of the story, Maya. I happen to know you have a special love for vampires, for monsters, for “genre” literature in general. I know the one time I wrote a story riffing on the idea of vampires (called “Monsters”), I found the field of intellectual possibility wide open. Does that form, and dare I say riffing on that form, relate to your own work? I know it relates to your reading and teaching life. How about writing? It must in some way, no?
JS: I came up in the 1970s and 80s, emerging from Catholic school every day into the post-industrial rubble and ash of a city south of Boston (abandoned warehouses, burned-out shells of leather factories and shoe manufactures), in Plymouth County, a broken-down city dominated by Catholic churches and Catholic cemeteries, amid the forgotten buildings and silent black smokestacks and railroad tracks, the gothic spires of my parish’s church visible from my bedroom window. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us and to whom I read the Bible every day after she was bedridden with several strokes, was born in the 19th century. My paternal grandmother was an orphan raised in a Catholic convent in Italy in the 19th century; her religious artifacts that survived from those days are now in my possession.
So that gothic imagery, for me, represented a kind of super-charged aesthetic, at once familiar and alien, replete with smoky incense and organ music and wounded and bleeding statuary. It was also an escape from the dismal surroundings, a mood-altering site of sexual taboos and guilt and body shame and blood and fire and demons and devils, saints and deities. In school we were taught by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth wearing full habit named after male saints. They read to us accounts of martyrs having their entrails pulled out by horses and then set afire and eaten by dogs; eyes gouged out, skin flayed, genitals sliced and stabbed and tossed to pigs. And other such tales. The monsters were us it seemed. The monsters were on earth and above and below it.
So when I read my mother’s copy of The Portable Poe, I discovered how you could talk about such feelings and states in language. The 1970s were the perfect decade for a kid like me: the classics of “satanic-panic” horror were offered in those days: The Omen, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist. These stories scared the shit out of me, but they also delivered a dose of crack in story form.
SC: You read my mind. I’ve been working for about a year on a novel about the “satanic-panic” of the 1980s. It’s such rich material. Horror is, too. I think it has something to do with that sense of physical release I’m taking about, but of course in a viewer rather than a reader. Monsters, violence, death. Aside from reading, scary movies might be as close as we can get to such things. Do you still think or write about monsters as much today as you did back then?
JS: I still enjoy monsters and monster theory. One of my favorite books is Skin Shows by Judith Halberstam. What I came to realize was that horror films are often playing—or “riffing” to use your word—with representations of gender. One of my courses at the New School: “Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture” considers the vampire as a figure of both literary culture and popular culture. In that class, we consider certain vampire texts through many thematic lenses, such as sexuality and gender. So in one class unit, we might investigate the motif of the vampire as a metaphor for, say, homosexuality. We analyze presentations of same-sex relationships in the work of writers from the Romantic era like Coleridge, Byron, and Polidori; and then we trace the evolution of that theme through later texts, such as the work of Victorian Era writers like Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker. Moving forward, we consider the work of contemporary writers like Anne Rice, who barely metaphorizes homoerotic relationships in her work. Rice’s work opened the door for more recent texts, such as Jewel Gomez’s explicitly lesbian The Gilda Stories and Alan Ball’s explicitly polysexual True Blood. Riffing on traditional forms and stories is what the genre does so well; and it’s something I’ve taken and tried to do in my own writing.
SC: Let’s finish by talking about another of your classes at the New School. You have a new course on the work of Don DeLillo, as well as an academic conference on DeLillo, which I’m helping you to coordinate. Can you talk about the course and the conference?
JS: The course and the conference share the same name: “The Body Artist.” That title does not refer specifically to DeLillo’s 2001 novel of the same name; rather, it refers to DeLillo himself as an artist dramatizing the plight of the individual in the face of overwhelming systems: the body always in peril of being swallowed by the machine. In 1999, DeLillo was the first American recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, an award given every two years to a writer whose body of work expresses the themes of the individual’s freedom in society. The award’s jury characterized his work as “an unrelenting struggle against even the most sophisticated forms of repression of individual and public freedom during the last half of the century.” DeLillo has said that “writers must oppose systems. It’s important to write against power, corporations, the state, and the whole system of consumption and of debilitating entertainments.” As critic John Duvall points out, DeLillo has spent a career challenging systems such as multinational capitalism and its manipulation of the image through media and advertising to construct first-world identity via the individual’s acts of consumption. The conference will consider DeLillo’s style and artistry primarily, from the perspective of other writers, but will also consider his themes, such as paranoia, underground conspiracies, global terrorism, post-apocalyptic satire, technology in the digital age, television and media, consumerism, language, celebrity, and the city of New York, in which the conference will take place.
All of his novels will be under discussion. This will be a conference with presentations not only by critics but most especially by fiction writers thinking about the author and his work, especially now, after this past November. We’re lucky to have as our keynote speaker, a writer and a critic who has written on DeLillo several times before, Vince Passaro. Other speakers include Albert Mobilio, Nick Ripatrazone, Fred Gardaphe, Andrea Scrima, David Winters, Matt Bell, Sunil Yapa, John Keene, Tracy O’Neill, Randy Laist, Anne Margaret Daniel, Ed Park, Carolyn Kellogg, John Domini, and Olivia Kate Cerrone. It will take place at the New School in NYC on April 28-29, kicking off with Vince Passaro’s keynote on Friday, April 28. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org.