Sunday, January 24, 2010

Read This Book: Dangerous Places by Perry Glasser

I first met Perry Glasser on Facebook. His book of stories, Dangerous Places, boasts blurbs from Bob Shacochis, Ron Hansen, Ron Carlson and more and he's the winner of the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction. I picked up his book and was thoroughly knocked out. His stories, about people on the edge of hope, are raw, gritty, extraordinary and unlike anything I have ever read before. It's literally the best short story collection I've read. So, of course, I grabbed Perry and insisted he let me ask him questions, and he was gracious enough to comply. Thanks, Perry.

You say that you write out of convictions no longer universally accepted, which instantly intrigues me. Can you expound on that?

The phrase is from an article I wrote for The North American Review, “How We Lost the Internet” (March, 2000). I was doing IT/business journalism with a front row seat at the revolution, and Robley Wilson, the NAR’s editor, gave me some space to write a series of essays we called Virtual View. In that particular essay, I musing as to why though the World Wide Web had been invented by academics, it was being dominated by commerce. The dramatic rise in bandwidth and convergence of telephony with computing makes my unease less acute today—music, video, self-publication, and such things as this literary blog are available to us. Green sprouts push through the pavement.

But the reasons I’d thought Moloch would own the Internet are still with us; academics are so embroiled in ideological warfare they overlook what Faulkner would have called the eternal verities, and too many writers who depend on academe for a livelihood still write out of convictions no longer universally accepted. The credo is in full at my website:

“I write out of certain convictions no longer universally accepted and, in some circles, under attack; that the purpose of the Arts is to illuminate and enrich the human experience; that however dark, unknown, changing and inchoate, a universal human experience exists; that human experience can and even must be communicated across the lines of our obvious physical differences; that the product of the Artist must be readily accessible to an audience; and that while the expression of the Artist embodies the essence of a time, the Artist speaks to and for an audience beyond that.”

Writers in academic settings make a pact with the Devil: life is easy, time plentiful, but the environment is toxic. Academics fragment human experience. They have to: fragmentation creates jobs, dissertations, grants, and textbooks, and not-so-incidentally manufactures academic prestige, which manifests itself in promotions and less teaching. That’s what endowed chairs are about, not to mention release time to edit yet another journal no one but other academics read. So English departments are hotbeds of politics where power and position are brokered, and the coin of the realm is identity and victimhood. What greater triumph for a young critic than to elevate to visibility what has hitherto been ignored? What easier claim than to say the obscure writer is obscure because of a hostile, larger culture? The issues are trivial; the intensity is overwhelming, the subject of any number of comic novels. Voices become shrill. Critical acceptance in such an environment requires conforming to ideological demands.
What could be more poisonous to a writer?

The best literature elevates the particular to the universal—think of Tolstoy or Austen—and that runs counter to the ideological demands that precipitate success English departments. Accidents of a writer’s DNA should not be a measure of quality, but open any copy of Poets & Writers or the AWP Chronicle and tally writing contests open only to writers of a certain age, gender, race, national origin, or sexual orientation. Note how many of those are sponsored by journals housed at universities whose editors are fulfilling a political agenda. The situation becomes acute with state and federal grants to the arts which are less about aesthetics than about redefining aesthetic standards to suit political necessities. Allegedly blind readings really never are: subject matter is telling.

When writers pervert their vision to align with such finagling, writers fail our culture. Mass audiences see no relevance to Art. It’s easy to claim that economic factors are why general magazines are abandoning fiction, but it’s more likely the economic factors are caused by “arty” fiction saying less and less to fewer and fewer people. I am old enough to recall when late night talk shows frequently hosted writers because writers were important people with important things to say who did not hold their audience in contempt for failing to see the importance of their work.

Human nature does not change: the hunger for wisdom and quality is still widespread. If that were not so, Oprah’s Book Club would not sell millions of copies for any anointed title. Oprah—God bless her and her staff—does not peddle junk.

The only conclusion possible is that many writers who are not producing software for film have abandoned their audience, not the other way around. Writers need to resist the artistic provincialism that makes English departments go round and round—not embrace it. Writers have to turn away from the identity politics that “demands” a readership motivated by guilt. Writers have to stop bemoaning the demise of quality literature because the larger culture is filled with brutes. Writers have to stop emulating critics because Art cannot be the handmaiden of politics. If we writers do not stop, we will continue to lose readers and our own souls. Tell stories that appeal to the heart, and leave causes to politicians.

What I loved about Dangerous Places was how no one is completely good or evil, the lines are pretty blurred, even as the world emerges as the title suggests, as a damn dangerous place. These stories are unsettling, because you make us understand every bit of bad, shocking behavior. There’s not a lot of redemption in your world, but there is a kind of connection and a blurry sort of hope. Do you feel that’s really all we have?

Wow. It’s always nice to make a long-distance call and have the phone picked up by a grown-up. Thanks. Real people are seldom saints and most of us sin in one way or another. Bad shocking behavior, short of persecution, is how we share our humanity. Morality is simple to understand but hard to live by; kids in nursery schools all know right behavior from wrong. The rules are simple enough: don’t tell lies for advantage and protect the weak. But knowledge of evil and the desire to be good still does not stop kids in nursery schools from aggression. I suppose the people I want to write about are the ones who struggle to make right what they have screwed up. They just do not know how.

Purely evil characters are the staple of comic books and bad movies where some psychotic is intent on hacking apart twenty-something blonde women who wear only scanty underwear and always investigate odd noises in dark places alone. Psychotics need not be explained, just presented. After that, back to the action and pass the popcorn. It’s an important point. To make a silly, extreme example, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment commit similar crimes, but Dostoevsky’s character is far more interesting because Dostoevsky holds out the possibility of redemption; it’s not a novel that studies evil, and the murder is done 40 or so pages in. Here is an ax-murderer who struggles to understand his own motives, and he can’t. Better yet, the novel is pre-Freud, so there is no easy equation to unpleasant childhood trauma to explain away evil, and the fevered dreams afflicting Raskolnikov are free of some pre-determined symbolic system. “Ah, that axe in your hand, Rodya? Why are you hacking at the moneylender with your phallus?” There IS a character in the novel purely evil: Svidrigailov kills himself, not out of guilt for his amazing depravity, but because his life is too boring to endure.

So, yes, I do think the world is a dangerous place. The noblest chapters of human history are about our striving to overcome disease, starvation, and predators, but in America in the 21st century, we are feeling complacent enough that people can afford to embrace some Rousseau-like myth about noble savages and civilization being the cause of our ills. But the importance of struggle lurks in our genes. We go out and seek danger.

I am amazed at that, including the propensity in myself. Who among us has not had that crisis in the heart when at 3 am when we ask ourselves, “What was I thinking?” Well, of course, we weren’t thinking, and that’s probably glorious. The only thing that might be more boring and predictable than pure evil is pure good. Who’d want to have lunch with a saint?

Why does driving at 85 mile per hour with the radio blasting make me feel free? When did adrenaline lose its evolutionary advantage? That’s the underlying question in The Veldt, a story in which bad, shocking behavior, is committed by an out-of-work leadership trainer whose wife lies to a mall cop for him, but I give the final meditation on the nature of survival to the mammal that is probably a rabbit living in a burrow in their garden. I’d be lying if I said such a story was planned—the themes were discovered. Maybe connection—as between Samson and Lillian Levy in The Veldt—is the most redemption we can hope for.

Dangerous Places is as wildly funny as it is horrific (a patient calls his therapist to tell her he has his parents tied up and is going to kill them when the ballgame is over, a mother mentions that she doesn’t like carrying her children because she’s not some goddamned gorilla). There’s one astonishing sentence, too, which spells out the lives of a couple, from divorce, remarriage, blood pressure meds and more. You take a lot of risks in your writing. Are you always consciously pushing the envelope? Can you talk a bit about process?

The physical part of writer process used to be calculated by counting revisions. A manuscript was a tangible thing that occupied space. You could store it, and when done, if asked, humbly note, “Ah, yes, that story went through twelve revisions.” But technology, for me, has changed that, and with that change, I think the cognitive process has changed as well.

I used to write with a #2 pencil on yellow pads. They had to be yellow. I’d read about Hemingway’s habits and was pretty sure there was magic in a Ticonderoga pencil. If I could have found one, I’d have bought a desk that allowed me to write standing up. I purchased my first computer because someone told me it had the capacity to cut and paste and would automagically renumber. My heart swooned. I’d done that with scissors and tape, renumbering in ink. Who knew that Bill Gates occupied a perch on Parnassus?

These days, I compose directly on a computer. I choose Courier New as a font because that’s what my typewriters used, and everything else looks like print in a book, far too solid to change. But composing on a computer yields no physical sense of feedback about length or proportion. I wonder if Kerouac and that piano roll on which On the Road was composed felt that way. The older I get, the more I prattle on like your kindly but enfeebled Great Uncle. In the days of the yellow pads, I had to consider my words carefully because the labor of typing each day’s copy on my Smith-Corona lay before me; I also noted that if a scene that ran ten pages was followed by a scene that ran a mere two, I probably had been writing into fatigue and had taken too many shortcuts. Laziness made me a far more careful writer. Now I just prattle on and on and on, fully aware I am writing like pig on amphetamines, but reassured that I can with a few keystrokes fix it later. I require the shape of the story, first, by which I man to have all the elements in the manuscript; then I can sculpt a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

There comes a time late in the process where I need tactile feedback, especially in work of some length, such as the novellas in Dangerous Places or the novel I am just completing. With physical pages, all those self-indulgent words glare, and I grow frustrated with myself at the many places where my imagination failed to match what the moment deserved. Stephen King has observed that the road to Hell is paved with adverbs, and if that is the case, my drafts have definitely, certainly, unequivocally been the equivalent of the Interstate system. I do a lot of that work in Starbucks, where an overdose of caffeine makes me bug-eyed and able to note that the passage on page 12 is pretty much the same as the passage on page 27, a fact impossible for me to notice on a computer’s one-page-at-a-time screen.

There is also a moment when, for important passages, often endings, when I am going for more than the right details in the right order in the most efficient language I can muster. I have to feel the words on my lips, so I read them aloud. It’s a test of rhythms; if my tongue stumbles, the words have to be wrong. This exercise is also conducted in Starbucks, where any number of yuppie-types are either schizoid or talking into their ear-piece cellphones, and the site of a middle-aged man babbling to himself raises few eyebrows. I am thinking of buying a faux earpiece.

That said, there is the underlying question of non-physical process: where do the stories come from? I am, alas, not always sure, but usually there is an autobiographical element in my work, something from the recent or distant past. I try not to exploit people I’ve known, but no writer imagines characters whole cloth. I believe odd moments stay with us for years and years, sometimes perfectly ordinary moments, as well, and what writers do when not physically typing is cultivate the habit of resurrecting the past in such a way that it emulates a fully realized dream, complete with sensory details, the kind that awakens you and your pulse is elevated. I couple that with what I have come to call retrograde plotting.

Those imagined, half remembered moments for me are almost never fictional beginnings. That makes composing something like planning a journey on a map. If I want to drive to Indianapolis, I don’t place my marker on my starting place in Haverhill, Massachusetts, but I place it on Indianapolis to trace a path backward. To beat this metaphor like a rug, once I am in the car, actually leaving Haverhill, as likely or not I am going to find out that the little side-trip to Cleveland is just the thing, and the temptation to drive the circular bypass around Columbus is a mistake—I’ll need to drive directly through downtown, like it or not. I may even learn I never wanted to get to Indianapolis at all.

An Age of Marvels and Wonders was composed in this way. I am a professor, and I am diabetic, terrified of going blind. I asked my ophthalmologist to recommend a condition that would have a character gradually go blind, but it could not be diabetes so I would not scare my family to death if the story was published. He recommended macular degeneration, which I had never heard of. Add to that the fact that about a bazillion years ago, I was trapped in a grocery store checkout line behind a woman who could not afford to pay, which I offered to do, not from altruism, but because I was in a hurry. She needed about $2.00. She near cut my lungs out for daring to make the offer. I never saw her again. Fantasizing the moment, much older now, I decided they should have an affair—so I set out for Indianapolis. But along the way, discovered I was just indulging myself, that getting them romantically involved was too stupid even for me, and so instead of abandoning the story because I needed to wrestle with my demons about blindness, I “saw” their connection could be an entrepreneurial venture. I was retrograde plotting. I required her to insist on paying him back; I required her to only be able to do so by cleaning his place. I required her to read to her children so she could read to Bob, and so I required a book on his table for her to notice and misunderstand the title, The Magic Mountain. The story began to come together, Raylene had to be smart without being educated; Bob knows all I know about management from my time as a business journalist. I needed a villain t get this beyond Modern Success Stories, and the narrative challenge became how to have an enfeebled, near blind, older man best that guy. I put Bob in the house I’d rented in Des Moines, Iowa, where I once banged up my car fender because the driveway was too narrow. My favorite moment in the novella is when Raylene says, “Why ain’t you never tried nothing funny with me?” and Bob says, “I don’t think of you that way,” and she says, “You are so full of shit,” which in some ways is a dialogue that reconciles my initial base impulse for the story that I like to think wound up in a far better place. Why drive to Indianapolis in winter if you can wind up in New York City’s Central Park in May?

I’m curious how you feel teaching impacts your writing?

I was a high school teacher in an inner-city all girls public school in Brooklyn, New York, for a decade. It was the second most formative experience of my life, the first having been a single parent to a daughter. The kids did not have easy lives. Women coming of age in America is frequently “my” subject, and I think I manage cross-gendered writing reasonably well. A few years ago, I was honored to have work in an anthology called Our Mutual Room where in the alphabetic table of contents my name was between Erdrich and Godwin. Saying my subject is young women makes me sound like some sort of ageing degenerate, but I have been an adolescent boy, and being a girl is, barring extraordinary circumstance, far more perilous. Women in America are prepared for fluid identities, for example, and while fewer and fewer married women change their names, most still do, and while more and more men do things like dye their hair, changing and controlling appearance is more central to a young woman’s life than a young man’s. Guys will lift weights, but that just is not in the same league as learning to put on a daily face or the eating disorders that plague white, middle-class young women. I am not saying this is a great thing about America or that the status quo is desirable—I like to think I raised my daughter to evade most of those self-image traps—but as a writer I know drama is about trouble and the changes trouble cause; both the novellas in Dangerous Places need to be novellas because the strategies the women in those stories need to confront what bedevils them are complicated. Their resources need to be far more subtle than the resources young men have.

As a teacher, I spend a lot of time answering questions about craft and thinking about what I do and what writers do. This is what students want to know, at least the ones who have figured out that writing is more complicated than making a macaroni necklace. There is, unfortunately, a lot of writing instruction that is just so much pasta. Slide word number one next to word number two and repeat. I am teaching a class called Telling the Take this semester, and I hope to separate storytelling from writing.

But I also find that teaching makes me very self-conscious of what I am about as I write. I am very aware, maybe too much so, and I realize the “rules” my students want to hear or perhaps have heard, or that I am generating for them, are destructive to creativity. I used to say that writing from the point of view of a dead person was dreadful—all those moralistic tales my high school students wrote about drinking and driving: it’s a good thing Alice Sebold was not in my classroom. So from time to time in my short fiction, there are elements of what used to be called meta-fiction, a nod and a wink from the writer to the reader about the story before them. Lighted Windows has some of that. The hope is that near direct address to the reader allows for aesthetic effects otherwise not possible, a kind of collaboration.

Also, perhaps because I teach, I give myself permission to take minor risks with language when I see some advantage to it: the long sentences summarizing lifetimes in Danger, for example, but I think those are inexpensive risks. The sentences are crafted for rhythm as much as for content and information. They have rolling cadences and are fun for me to read aloud. Similarly for the first paragraph of the section in Jody’s Run called “In the Arms of Men.” She’s a young woman being snatched off the street by three thugs, so the run-on sentence matches her panic, her psychology in the moment has her recalling being in the arms of men at other times and other places, most especially the desertion trauma she suffered at her mother’s death when she was four, the fact of her life that propels the entire novella. Her disorientation matches the language, and when writing such stuff I think of my students having been told by well-meaning Ms. Grundys that a paragraph should always have at least three sentences, essays five paragraphs, and that topic sentences have to appear in every paragraph, preferably at the beginning. Take that Grundy!

The ubiquitous question: What are you working on now and why is it obsessing you?

What I am working on is getting an agent to represent the novel I have just finished. I am at the point where I am moving commas, so it is either done and worthless, or someone needs to publish Riverton Noir, but that needs a good editorial eye to make the decision because I am no longer able to see it clearly. I started it two years ago to keep myself amused, and it was a mean and spiteful little parody, and then the damned thing got good on me and I had to rise above being a nasty little boy with a nasty little imagination. I made myself rewrite exclusively for pace and kept the language in the Noir tradition—Tony Soprano would blush. But I think it profound, funny, and profane, a kind of cross between Mickey Spillane, Jorge Luis Borges, and Philip K. Dick. And now I am done writing my own review….

I also am completing a new collection of short fiction, unifying the stories in the same way danger unifies Dangerous Places. All these stories have already been published, a few won awards, but alas, my name does not have the cachet that has a publisher camped at my front door. The most recently published story in the group is I-95 Southbound, which won an award from Gival Press and is online at The citation makes me blush.

I’ve given up trying to publish my collection of memoirs entitled antimemoirs, (lower case intended, Caroline) because while almost all have been published in literary journals like The Antioch Review and Boulevard, I cannot get publisher interest. The memoirs trace my story from my adolescence to being 50 when my second wife and I reluctantly split because her sexual orientation changed. They all have baby boomer music titles. I hope they have resonance beyond narcissism, and many have that meta-fictional self-awareness I mentioned above. For example, Norwegian Wood mentions the Beatles tune in the context of an episode in a Brooklyn poolroom when I was 17, but the piece is really about ambiguity in art—dunno, did I have the girl, or did she have me? The song titles are more than labels, though; the lyrics inform the pieces. Gimme Shelter is about growing up Jewish in America, comparing the story of my US-born parents to the story of my first wife’s Holocaust refugee parents, to the story of how my first wife and I met, and how the seeds of our failed marriage were actually sewn before we were born. The final tale about my second divorce is named for the Jefferson Airplane song, Somebody to Love. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies …” Works for me, but my query letters to publishers small and large don’t get answered; if you say “memoir” to an agent, you’d better be a celebrity; and nonfiction book contests give awards to tales of victimization that cover 300 pages, not collections of short takes that offer up conundrums and insights in 7 to 25 pages.

Enough whining.

I try not to get obsessed anymore. I just keep working and wish I had someone to market for me so I could spend more time writing and less time packing envelopes, monitoring email, and wondering why a writer with three collections in print and a number of awards can’t get people to find the time to click Reply and send an email that says, “No, but thanks for asking.”

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