I have found that I'm unable to write about the people I've been closer to romantically. Some of them may come out “unconsciously” in my writing but I've never been able to use them as models, so to speak. I have been able to write about my family and friends, but never my lovers, so I don't even try anymore and haven't for years. Normally, my fiction works best when 50% or less comes from my life and the rest is imagined. My best work is a blend of imagination and experience with imagination having the starring role and experience being the supporting actor.
Williamson: Are there things you would change in your published works if you had the chance?
No, I don't think so. I rarely reread them, so when they're done they're done. I might change an occasional phrase or sentence.
Williamson: Which of your works are your favorites and why?
I like my novel Ghost Quartet and think that of my five published collections The Identity Club is the best followed by Fear of Blue Skies and The Spirit Returns. As individual stories go, my favorites are “The Spirit of New York,” “The Spirit Returns,” a long one called “The Usher Twins,” “Ghost Parks” a new one called “The Identity Club,” “The Urn,” “Vacation,” “The Horror Conference,” “My Black Rachmaninoff,” and the four that won Pushcarts: “Miles,” “Bodysurfing,” “The Victims” and “Notes on Mrs. Slaughter.”
Williamson: How do you think an author's youth plays in his work?
Isaac Bashevis Singer said in my interview book, “There is something about writers - the first fifteen years of their life is never lost to them. It is like a well which is never exhausted.” I agree with him. Some of my more successful stories deal with my youth like “The Victims,” “Psycho in Buckingham Palace,” “My Sister's House,” “Man Without Memory,” or “The Ignorant Girl.” The people who are the really deepest influences, not only on writers but on everyone's life, are one's parents and family, and our most important years are our childhood. Though it's become a national pseudo-sport to make fun of him, Freud was actually a pioneer and genius who discovered many things I believe to be true about the human mind and human destiny and the importance of our childhood in shaping us.
Williamson: What contemporary authors are your favorites and why?
As a practicing editor for half of my life you can't expect me to fully answer this question. I admire every writer I've published in Boulevard. Let me restrict myself then to those writers I've never published. Among those contemporary writers I most revere are William Trevor, John Fowles, Aharon Appelfield, and Alice Munro. Herbert Morris, who died less than a year ago, I regard as a truly major and unjustly neglected poet. Two other fiction writers I especially admire are the Dutch writer Adrian Dis and the Canadian writer David Gilmour.
Williamson: What authors “of note” do you think aren't deserving of their reputations?
Quite a number, but I'll not identify the ones who are living. Happily and perhaps predictably, few dead authors have inflated reputations. Time tends to clarify these things, and if time doesn't, then more time will.
Williamson: Who do you consider your peers? Who are your literary friends? How do your literary associations affect the work you produce?
I don't have many literary friends. I think it's difficult, particularly if you work in the same genre. For it to work there has to be real mutual respect and trust and an absence of jealousy if one becomes more “successful” than the other. As I said, it's very difficult. With lovers it's even more difficult. I've dated very few writers in my life. As a rule I'm not attracted to them.
Williamson: What has been your greatest success?
I've had 17 stories honored by the Pushcart Prize Anthology - what I regard as the nation's most important literary anthology. Thirteen were listed as among the year's best and four others were reprinted. To date, that is what I'm most proud of as a writer and what you are most proud of is your greatest success.
Williamson: Different authors have different prose priorities - for some authors it's style, for others plot, character, didactic intention, intellectual flexing. The easy answer is all of the above, of course. Discuss, however, how you'd prioritize the aspects of fiction. For you what are the most important aspects of writing?
Do you know that painting of Matisse's called The Dance, where the four figures have joined hands and dance in a circle? That's how I feel about character, plot, theme and atmosphere. They really are equal partners and no one of them can succeed unless the other three do also. Their fate is really inextricably bound up with each other.
Williamson: How have you tried to explore the form, structure, and content of the short story?
I began by writing novels and had to struggle to say things in a relatively few pages, consequently many of my stories have a novelistic feel to them. That is, a lot of time passes, many things happen, and my characters often evolve. This is quite unusual in the short story. Another facet I've explored is point of view. I've written a number of stories from the first person, female point of view which definitely goes against the grain of what you're supposed to do in a short story; moreover, close to half of my stories have multiple narrators and multiple points of view. I've only read one other story in my life with multiple points of view and that's Robert Coover's “The Baby Sitter.” It's often been pointed out that I write about dark, neurotic people including prostitutes, pedophiles, incest victims, drug addicts, etc., but it's rarely mentioned that I consistently experiment with multiple points of view and multiple narrators in my short stories.
Williamson: Can you tell us something about what it is like to collaborate (something you've done a fair amount of in your life) and what it was like to collaborate with Gloria Vanderbilt, specifically?
Most of my life is collaboration. All work is, but so are lovemaking and parenting and editing a magazine. When I created my CDs I had to work with an arranger, and various performing musicians. I've always enjoyed working with other people maybe because so much of writing is lonely and isolated. To Sartre's adage “Hell is other people” I would add “sometimes. But so is Heaven.”
Working with the immensely talented Joe Fitzmarrin on my CDs was an extremely rewarding experience, as was working with Gloria Vanderbilt on our book Stories and Dreamboxes, which combined her art with three of my stories, and my CD that I co-produced with her called, Doll of Dreams that accompanies a doll she designed. Other experiences with other people weren't as pleasant. As in any relationship the key is working for the common good not for your personal gain - not an easy thing to do - especially since no one is right all the time and one needs to compromise a lot, although it's in the nature of artists to think they are right all the time and to hate to compromise. When collaborations work you get the Beatles. When they don't work you get the breakup of the Beatles.
Williamson: Can you compare the experience of working with Borges and Singer and tell us something of the nature of these two great writers?
Jorge Luis Borges is the most intelligent human being I have ever met and probably the only genius I have ever known. He is also one of the most gracious and modest people I've known. I was only a 20-year-old senior at Brandeis University when I tape recorded my interviews with him - a mere six hours on tape so I had to make everything count. He trusted me and never involved himself in the publication process. I will never deny that Isaac Bashevis Singer is a great writer, but he could be an unpredictable and sometimes difficult human being. He was somewhat distrustful, controlling and precious to himself and at one point tried to get out of finishing the book after we'd already spent five or so years on it. What began in 1977 was not published until 1985 (although I will say it's a better book than the Borges one), but the emotional cost for me was huge. It was as difficult to work with him and his sometimes dark and tempestuous moods as it was easy to work with Borges, with whom I finished the book in half a year.
Williamson: Why did you found Boulevard and how has the journal affected your career?
For most of my life I've edited literary magazines. I was the editor of my high school and college literary magazines and then I started (and for one issued edited) Boston Arts Review, whose title eventually changed to Boston Review. I'm kind of proud that I founded that tabloid magazine back in 1975 and that all these years later it's still going strong and has a number of paid employees. After that, I found and edited New York Arts Journal, which lasted six years, and a few years later started Boulevard, which is just beginning its twenty-first consecutive year of publication. I've always enjoyed making things and so it seemed natural enough to “invent” a magazine the same way one creates a song or story. The main difference is you can't desert it but have to sustain it for its lifetime - it's almost like having a child. In my case I had the additional motivation of needing to do things in publishing to help get and keep a teaching job since I never got my PhD.
I would say, in terms of my writing career, Boulevard has been a mixed blessing. It's taken up a lot of time on one hand and opened up a number of doors on the other. Being editor of a major literary journal gets your work read. Unfortunately we live in a country of specialists and people think you can't do more than one thing well and if you even try it's suspicious behavior. Thus some people conclude that if you're an editor you can't really be a writer although almost every literary magazine editor is a writer. This silly bias is also hard to overcome. It's the same kind of bias there sometimes is against writers who teach. It has to do with the capitalist bent of America: people judge you by how you make your money. If you make your money teaching or editing, you can't really be a writer.
Williamson: As editor of Boulevard, you're privy to thousands of manuscripts that don't see publication, and many of them eventually do. What do you see as the current trends in poetry and fiction among younger writers, the writers who will eventually be the old guard?
To generalize - I see evidence of a certain kind of craft but I don't see enough risk taking. There are many types of risk takers. Some people take risk in their subject matter, some in their language. Some, like Proust, take risks in every conceivable way. Proust takes risks in his language, his philosophy, the outrageous length of his book, in his subject matter - he was one of the first literary writers to write of homosexuality and sado-masochism so pervasively. Risk takers don't censure themselves. They don't write politically correct books.
My suspicion, especially of many MFA writers, is that they are writing what they think will get published and are not sufficiently interested in exploring the form. I feel they often read the “successful” writers who publish stories in big, slick magazines or who win major awards or get their books made into films but don't sufficiently read the major innovators in literary history like Cervantes, James, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Celine, Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, Borges, Beckett, Bernhard, Nabokov, and O'Connor. I also feel that because they are in too big a hurry to publish they haven't lived enough to have much to write about. In Boulevard's slush pile, I find very little experimentation in form and structure. The stuff is tame. I see very little experimentation in point of view, in language. The subject matter is generally politically correct. Political correctness is the most noxious disease and enemy of the literary artist of our current time. It has affected the entire publishing industry in terms of what gets written, what gets published, what gets praised, what gets taught. Were it written today, Othello would never be produced. It would be condemned as both racist and sexist.
Fifty or 100 years from now when we finally get over this dreadful stage in our national development, our time will probably be remembered as a kind of Literary Dark Age. I once thought there'd be a backlash against it but now I no longer think things will change in our lifetime. It's a shame, but compared to other problems in the world these literary matters are ultimately rather unimportant.
Theiss: What future books or CDs do you have planned?
I've just finished a new collection of stories tentatively called The Conference on Beautiful Moments,” and as I said I've also just finished the CD of more extended, mostly jazz works called Cold Ocean. I definitely plan to do another CD of songs, maybe ones that fit more easily into the pop music genre, and also a CD of my piano music. For years I've also been planning a Best of Boulevard anthology either of the best stories from Boulevard or a kind of Boulevard Reader featuring the best stories, poems and essays we've published over the years. But my number one priority is a novel I'm 250 pages into - that will probably dominate my next year of work.
Theiss: According to T.S. Eliot, all of art is "an attack upon the inarticulate." This seems, to me, to be especially true in your male protagonists who seem to be intensely struggling against an invisible social constraint. Several of your male characters long for a child. Others are secretly compelled to protect a child from the possibility of a threat that is never confirmed. Some seek reconciliation or a connection with a woman who does not respond; others meet prostitutes and try to develop relationships with them. The darker, sometimes chilling aspects of some of your males' personalities seem rooted in a need to validate a power that no one else seems to acknowledge. In a few stories, the males have interesting transcendent experiences that, on the surface, seem terrifying, but they are nevertheless a form of release from the social order, aren't they? To what extent are your stories wrestling with “the deep inarticulate?”
That quote by Eliot is a good one. The artist has to attack the inarticulate because as Eliot says in his Four Quartets “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Part of my job, and every other writer's, is to force people to confront the world they are unaware of, or inarticulate about. Have you ever noticed that people are often quite insightful and articulate in discussing the problems of other people while at the same time they continue to make the same mistakes in their own lives because of weaknesses in their personalities and characters of which they're quite unaware? I think the main reason we are in such collective denial about so many things -- death, infinity, the passage of time, fear, human selfishness and greed, not to mention the nefarious doings of our government and other so called leaders of society is that it's too terrifying to face the truth. The artist has to excavate the truth as it were from all the hidden places where it's been buried and shine a light on it. Or to put it more realistically, the hidden places that the artist knows about which will always, only be a tiny percentage of all the places that there are.
Theiss: Do you see a difference between the “deep inarticulate” for males and females? Does it seem true to you, for instance, that females are the more articulate of the sexes?
I guess the conventional wisdom is that women are more articulate about their feelings and in describing relationships in general and men are more articulate about abstract philosophical or metaphysical concepts. There may be some truth in that generalization, I'm not sure, but when it comes to the origin, purpose and future of the universe we are all equally blind, deaf and dumb and of course, pervasively inarticulate.
The Conference on Beautiful Moments
Click below to see The Conference on Beautiful Moments on the publisher's website: