Fiction is a fickle fellow; one prone to taking on
a life of its own. Case in point: Charles Baxter's forthcoming novel,
Saul and Patsy. Baxter's follow up to his National Book Award
finalist, Feast of Love, has its roots in two intriguing characters
the author first put to paper nearly two decades ago. Being the subject
of three previous short stories, Saul and Patsy, the young married couple
in question, survived an apparent early death, got pregnant, and brought
a child into the the made-up and mundane world of Fair Oaks, Michigan.
But the whole story had yet to be told, until now.
Recently, Baxter allowed failbetter
to ask him just how this all came about, and why...
We know youve been asked this question about
a billion times before, but for our readers sake
Saul and Patsy come to recover from their apparent demise at the end
of the "Saul and Patsy Are Living Comfortably in Michigan"???
When you wrote the end of that story did you think, at the time, that
the fate of these two characters was forever sealed?
Yes, I thought their lives were over. I was a young
writer and made a particularly egregious mistake: I thought that formally
one could end the lives the main characters at the conclusion of a story.
Perhaps some writers can manage that, but if you try to end their lives
in an automobile accident, the architecture of the story will seem contrived,
and their deaths won't seem accidental but arranged. That was what happened
in "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan." Several
readers protested; one did so in public, physically, grabbing my lapel.
So I decided that what I had done, I could undo. The story's final moment
could be, not rewritten, but de-emphasized.
You once confessed that when you started writing
fiction many of your fictional characters were based upon on the sort
of people youd meet during your 20s and 30s
nearly 20 years since Saul and Patsy made their first appearance, can
you even recall where the inspiration for these characters came from?
Oh, certainly. I remember them very well, a married
couple whom I knew in Pinconning, Michigan. I still have photographs
of them. They were really not like Saul and Patsy, however. The imagination
often takes over, begins to fill in, and then creates new outlines.
Did you feel any new kind of pressure to follow
up the success of your previous novel, Feast of Love? I understand
that you were under no advance contract deadline when writing Feast
of Love. Was this also the case with the new book? If not, did tapping
into two already well-established characters help alleviate the natural
compulsion to meet such a deadline? Or, did it have just the opposite
I always try to ignore contracts and deadlines. If
I have something to say, I'll say it whether I have a contract for it
or not. Sometimes a contract will goad me into writing, though that's
not the best circumstance for writing a book. But, yes, I had a contract
for this one, and by using Saul and Patsy, I had a set of characters
whom I already knew, though I also recognized that I couldn't just coast
along on their charm. Something had to happen.
In terms of format, what we have here is definitely
a novel, but given the original source, did you ever consider a collection
of intertwined stories like Sherman Andersons Winesburg, Ohio
or Tim OBriens The Things They Carried as a possible
means to tell the entire Saul and Patsy saga?
No, because I didn't know what the Saul and Patsy
saga was. I simply didn't know what their particular story would
be. It starts out with their assimilation to small-city America, proceeds
to Saul's unhappiness with his chronic unhappiness as a condition, then
leads into their parenthood. But that's not much of a story. American
nerves are frayed more than that, these days. It didn't have enough
weight for a novel, or urgency, and I didn't want the book to seem episodic,
which is usually a failure of technique. So I had to re-cast the entire
Youve incorporated the original three S&P
short stories so effectively within the new novel, but was this you
intention from the start? Did you ever consider having the novel start
before the established timeline of the first S&P story? Or maybe
simply picking up where you left off at the end of "Saul and Patsy
Are in Labor"?
It was always my intention to use those three stories
as the cornerstones for the novel. They gave me a place to start from.
I figured that if I elaborated their lives for a novel, I'd have to
concoct something for their earlier lives as backstory, and that's what
The new novel not only expands upon the S&P
characters, but also upon the troubled teen, Gordy Himmelman. In the
wake of Columbine and other such incidents, did you find it difficult
to describe/use such a character without running the risk of sensationalizing
the issue itself, or making him merely a symbol of a current ill in
This is a hard question to answer. Gordy is troubled,
and there is an episode of violence, but the novel does not provide
a reason for its occurrence. All I did was to show it, not explain it.
There is something in the air in American culture these days ("Something
is happening to our children, and we don't know what it is"--that's
a paraphrase for a character's outburst in Rick Russo's Empire Falls).
You don't sensationalize an event like this if you're careful not to
over-write it. The reader can't be allowed to enjoy the spectacle of
the violence, either. Anyway, much of the novel is about the aftermath
and about how members of the community cope with an event whose meaning
seems always to be receding.
So much of your fiction utilizes the backdrop of
a seemingly mundane Midwestern life -- your fictional town of Fair Oaks
almost epitomizes this idea. In reality, after a lengthy and productive
decade in Michigan, you have recently returned to your home state of
Minnesota. Is there much difference in your daily life within these
two states? If there was a Fair Oaks, Minnesota, would it be that much
different than Fair Oaks, Michigan? And is it safe to say that, "Charlie
Baxter is Living Happily-Ever-After In Minnesota"?
There is a difference. We're living in a city, Minneapolis--St.Paul,
which is considerably larger than Ann Arbor. There is more to do in
the evening. I think, though, that once a writer sets him/herself up
as a writer, it may not make all that much difference where s/he lives.
I'm not particular about where I live. My imagination's home is the
Midwest, though what I write about shouldn't be construed as provincial,
though I don't really mind if that's what readers think of it. William
Maxwell once told me that after living for fifty years in New York City,
he still wasn't a New Yorker. As for happily-ever-after, is there such
Before we let you go, I have
to ask: is this the last well hear for Saul and Patsy? Or do you
think you may have inadvertently started the Midwest equivalent of Updikes
Yes, that's the end of Saul and Patsy. I won't go
back to them. Whatever
is next, it's more likely to be veer in the direction of Saul's sociopathic
brother, Howie. Saul is a 20th century American. Howie is an American
for the 21st century.