Much has been made of your frequent use of troubled characters and troubled lives, but let's face it, trouble makes for a good story, or in the case of your forthcoming definitive collection, The Stories of Richard Bausch, forty-two great stories. Even the opening story of this collection, "Nobody in Hollywood" utilizes images of violence and pain. In your opinion, is trouble/conflict the only manner to reveal "the truth" in fiction?
The truth in fiction is felt life. And life, as we know, is trouble, and really only interesting in terms of trouble. We are such a consistent species about it that when we don't have it, we make it up. The essence of all competition, all games, all the various recreations (including, um, war, which simply must be considered as some weirdly macabre human recreation, since we are always and ever engaging in it)-all these things are couched in terms of trouble, strife, something to work through and against, a struggle. We're all built for it psychically, if not physically. I know this sounds pompous, and I'm only saying it slightly tongue-in-cheek, so if the charge sticks, so be it. I think it contains a little of the sorrowful truth. But as I said, the real truth in fiction is felt life-emotional truth, as I heard my brilliant pal Jill McCorkle describe it recently. If you can reach down into the emotional truth of a thing, then it will stand, and always be true. It will have the stuff to last. We still feel the pang when, in The Iliad, Hector removes his helmet so his frightened boy can recognize him, and that was created 2700 years ago. The mind that thought it up was dust almost a thousand years before Christ walked the earth. But the truth in his poem stands. And when you go to Greece and Rome and look at those great fallen-down stone monuments to politics and power, you realize that it is only in our words that we can really withstand the storms of the ages. Open your hymnals to page
The concluding line of the final story in the book, "The Last Day of Summer," seems to perfectly sum-up the sentiment of the entire collection: ("Things could happen so fast, and if you take your eyes away even for a second, you might not be able to react in time if something went wrong.") What was your thinking/rationale behind the organization of the stories for this collection?
I wanted to make it as much as possible like a collection itself-not chronological, though some of that ended up creeping in anyway (the last seven stories are new ones)-so, for instance, I put a couple of companion stories that appeared in different volumes together, so they could be read consecutively. And I put "Nobody in Hollywood" first because it's a funny story, and I hope will sustain something of itself through some of the darks to follow. The stories from Spirits are particularly about darkness and failure, probably more so than the others. I don't know why this is. They were all written during the happiest times. Oh, such lovely times.
You mention that you are fond of all the stories in the new book (and those you are not so fond of, you never let out of the house.) Can the author's appreciation of a story be different than a reader's?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. And we are not always the best judge after or up to a certain point. I remember that I discarded a story called "Letter To The Lady of the House" that I thought didn't work. My agent kept it. And eventually the New Yorker bought it; it helped win them the National Magazine Award, and was selected for Best American Short Stories and New Stories from the South, and has in fact been more widely anthologized than anything else I've ever done. WBEZ in Chicago plays it every Valentine's Day on This American Life. It has been performed brilliantly in Stories on Stage by Howard Witt, and that's on the net. And I don't know. I didn't think it worked. I didn't much like it. But mostly, with me anyway, when something doesn't work, it really doesn't-is dead for one reason or another, and I know it.
When discussing your most recent novel, Hello to the Cannibals, you said that you did not choose the characters, but rather, they chose you. Generally, do you find this to be true with the characters that come to life within the limited pages of your short stories?
Yes, and in fact if it doesn't happen I don't trust it. I never have any idea, or never much of one, when I begin. Something sets off a spark, or drops down in me like a stone in a pond, and then the part of me that is a writer begins making a story out of it with all the obsessive unconscious steadiness of an oyster making a pearl. I write the story to find out what the story is. But then-and this is what so many writers forget to mention when talking about writing stories-once I have found out what it is, I go back through it all and back through it all, over and over, knowingly, shrewdly, calculatedly, like a surgeon looking at an X-ray. And when I'm fairly certain of the story, then I am looking again and again at the writing. Is it clear? Is it concrete? Is it mellifluous and seemingly effortless? Are the lines, as many of them as possible, accomplishing more than one thing? Are the emotions expressed as much as possible in things, and in the reactions to things? Is it visible? Palpable? My ambition, my hope, is to disappear into the writing, so that one reads a story and is incused by it, moved without quite knowing how or why, and with no idea at all what my opinions are about anything at all, much less anything in the story.
In the last novel one of your main characters, Mary Kingsley, was a real life person. You seem to be a writer who relies upon the imagination to get inside a character's head, but in terms of sources for your stories, do you find real life to be excellent fodder for your fiction?
I rely upon my imagination to get inside a character's whole body, really. The whole physical being and the whole history, even if I don't, in the end, put all of it in. At least that's what I'm striving for. I trust the subconscious to supply me with what I need in almost every single case, and that is why I am often making all of it up-the rooms, the landscape, the places and the people, all of it. I wrote Hello To The Cannibals about two women, one of whom, as you say was a real life character. But Mary Kingsley is the perfect biographical character for a writer like me, because so much of her life is simply facts about where she was at a given time. I could therefore put her in those places and make it all up, the people and the sights and the sounds, using what I could find out about what West Africa was like in those days. And what Paris was like. And The Canary Islands. I made up ALL of Mary's Paris adventure, and all of her Canary Island time, including a place called The English Quarters, and a custom that it was forbidden for women to walk about unaccompanied (I have no idea if that was so; it felt like it might have been given the time, and so I established this rule of law in a faraway place and nobody questioned it); and I made up a man named Marco, a native of the Islands, who insists on accompanying Mary under that law. I made up all of what happens to her in Paris; I made up her conversations, and I imagined what it must have been in that house when news of what happened at Little Big Horn came in, several days after a letter in which Mary's father said he was going to join Custer in an expedition against the Indians. I made all that up in context, which is what the whole exercise of writing fiction is about: you put people into a context involving the struggles that life presents us with, and you try to be faithful to how your subconscious tells you they react to those struggles, and then you go over and over and over it trying to be sure you've been clear and the prose isn't too wooden or deadening and the whole thing, the whole experience, is as palpable as you can make it.
Regarding the making up of things: if you invent a room, then what occurs to you to say about that room in context will probably have to do with that story that is forming itself in your subconscious precisely because it occurs to you to say it. If you are remembering a room, then you have the problem of selection and the whole subconscious process can be interrupted by meaningless questions involving reality. It ain't reality, any more than Bernini's statues are reality; it's fiction. Flannery O'Connor said a good story is literal in the same sense that a child's drawing is literal. She is speaking a literal truth when she says it. When you are first creating the story, making it up whole cloth, you are that child making that drawing and the truths in it (involving felt life/emotional truth) will be true because they come from the subconscious, the innocent and non-judgmental seer that exists in our dreams and that all good fiction comes from and, when at last finished and polished, is actually addressing.
As an author of nine novels and six short story collections, you clearly enjoy creating both the long and shorter formats of fiction. In the preface of the new collection, you touch upon the idea of time as one easy distinction between the demands of the two forms. I believe it took you the better part of 5 years to complete your most recent novel and the forthcoming short story collection likely represents over two decades of work. Could you elaborate on the idea of time as it relates to both the novel and the short story?
Well, it is all so relative, isn't it? Our memories know only that time which we impose on them. Everything we experience is in contemporaneous time, all happening at once, in our memories. We impose time on it all, we may even know intellectually how much time separates one event from another; but we do not experience it that way in memory-it is all right there, just happening. It's what Faulkner meant when he said "The past is never dead; it isn't even past." For me, fictional time can be a rather arbitrary thing in terms of defining forms: if you say the passage of time in a story or novel determines the form, what do you do with, say, Ulysses, which is 700+ pages about a single day in Dublin; and Updike's "Made in Heaven" a short story about a thirty-five year marriage? If you say that treatment determines it, that is, how much is covered, again there's a problem-"Made in Heaven" covers that 35 years, no kidding. So does another great story by Mr. Updike called "Brother Grasshopper." I don't know. It usually takes longer to write a novel, but that hasn't always been the case with me; as I say in that forward, I had a story take seven years, and I wrote two of my novels in a matter of months. I have said that in four cases I thought I was writing a story and it turned out to be a novel. Thank the good Christ that it only happened to me once the other way around, where I thought I had a novel and it turned out to be only a short story. I trust I have made myself obscure.
You once said that, as a child, you went around with a sneaking suspicion that you were a writer like "some kids go around suspecting they were adopted." Given the frustrations of the profession, over the years have you ever come close to saying, "OK, enough of this!" Moreover, what other career/life endeavor could you envision yourself doing? Hell, now that the reading public will soon have the "definitive" collection of your short stories, what else is there to do?
I'll take the last part of that one first: I hope to write another 42 stories, if given the time (Lord). I cannot envision myself doing much else-maybe playing guitar and singing in a pub, for drinks. I started that way, and if I have to finish that way, well, I've already been given more than anybody has a right to ask for. I said once, early (it was while I was at Iowa) that I thought I should quit. My wife, Karen, said "What're you going to do, change your nature?" And I haven't thought about it since, really. It's what I do. I'm pretty good at it. It's afforded me a good living and a nice house and a happy family and some of the best friends there are or ever were, anywhere.