Kristjana Gunnars, “Interview with Greg Hollingshead,” Prairie Fire, 17:2 (Summer 1996), 6-18
Greg Hollingshead is the author of four books: Famous Players, Spin Dry, White Buick, and The Roaring Girl. He won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction for this last book, a collection of short stories. He teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
KG. Greg, thanks for agreeing to this interview. First, I want to say I really think The Roaring Girl, your latest book, is a fine book.
GH. Thank you.
KG. I want to ask you something about what I think are the most important things about that book. But first, do you think this last book of yours is different from the others? Is there anything in your mind that distinguishes The Roaring Girl from your other titles, which Include two other collections of short stories and a novel?
GH. I think it was a matter, for me, of readjusting the levels, the primary levels being realism and credibility — sort of a truth value — and the comedy. I think there’s too much realism, if that’s possible, in White Buick, and there’s too much comedy in Spin Dry. I was just trying to get them in balance. It’s the same sensibility, but it’s adjusted differently.
KG. That’s really interesting, because what I think has happened between White Buick and Roaring Girl is that you’ve departed from realism to a greater extent, and I think you’ve done that through the timing. Some of the stories in Roaring Girl are older. Did you rewrite them for this book? Did you re-edit them? What happened in the editing process?
GH. It was complicated. The only story that I really completely went back to and rewrote was the oldest story, “The Naked Man.” A few of the stories I rewrote because of the demands of my editor. I didn’t think I needed to do it, but after I started doing it, it seemed he was right and they did need to be rewritten. Those stories were “How Happy They Were” and “The Death of Brulé.” The stories all went through my usual revision process, so they were already in the right league for the book. They felt right for the book. It was primarily just a matter of surface revision.
KG. When I’m reading these two books side by side, it seems to me the major difference is that you’ve foreshortened things. You’ve clipped your prose. You’ve paced things so that less is said, the pace is faster, you jump more radically from one thought to another or one scene to another. The pacing itself is different and it’s more clipped, so one has this real sense of craftsmanship.
GH. Thank you, that’s nice of you to say. I do have a feeling in reading White Buick that there’s a little bit of fullness there. As if I have to cover the ground of something. And it’s true, I don’t feel that same kind of obligation now. I don’t feel it any more at all.
KG. Obligation to what?
GH. To cover the ground. To sort of speak it out. To lay it forth. I was working more obliquely in Roaring Girl.
KG. What is your revising process like?
GH. Funny you should ask. The writing process is the same as the revision process. For me it’s really just a matter of going over the material again and again and again, hundreds and hundreds of times, until all the things that have continued to bother me begin to really bother me and I’m able to do something about them. Until I’ve discovered in the text the hints and clues that will tell me what needs to be done. What the possibilities are in it. Until I’m happy with it and it has the feel of a properly aesthetic object. The other way I think about it is that my initial, my early drafts are pretty close to — I see them as –a succession of clichés, and the revision process is really finding ways of excavating those clichés in a way that will provide something new. Something more artful in a genuine sense, as opposed to a kind of formulaic sense. At the same time of course, I’m trying to get a sense of naturalness, not in the sense of the mundane, but something that is unartful. It’s an interesting and difficult process, and it tends to take me a long, long time to get a story feeling as though it doesn’t have a lot of artificiality in it.
KG. That whole idea of being perched between cliché and surprise is really interesting. How do you excavate a cliché to make it new?
GH. Well you deform it, really. You start by deforming it. You kind of interrogate it, because there’s always some kernel of truth that caused it to come up in the writing circumstance. It’s really a matter of finding out what germ of truth it’s continued to hold for me and seeing if I can say it a little better. It comes down to deformation. You deform it enough, you twist it, twist and turn it around. You do it long enough. It’s not a matter of doing it long enough in your head. You do it in many drafts. The twisting and contorting happens in the drafts. So you do it thirty-six, you do it seventy-five times, and eventually it ends up in a form that seems to be more true or fresh. more natural. But you began with something old.
KG. If you’re writing a paragraph seventy-five times, how do you know when to stop? How do you know you shouldn’t write it seventy-eight times?
GH. That’s one of the things that took me a long time to learn. It’s really an intuitive matter. It’s almost a meditative matter. It’s a perceptual matter. There is a kind of plateau that I reach after a while, when I realize that I just have to stop this now. I have to leave it in a certain form and come back to it after some time. Maybe a month or two, maybe six months. That this particular process is at the end of its line and I need to be more of a different person than I am the next morning or when I am less tired or more fresh the next day. The whole thing comes down to trying to teach yourself the difference between an arbitrary judgement and a felt judgement. I’m sure that’s true for any artist. You’re trying to teach yourself the quality of difference between those two modes of responding.
KG. I love the idea of deforming a thought or a cliché several times. I wanted to ask you about your use of language. With the exception of a few stories where the narrator’s excitement is mirrored in the language and the language becomes run-on or continuous or jagged, for the most part you stick to standard, authoritative English. I wanted your thoughts about language as art. How do you see it working in your stories? At what point does language itself become doubtful? The characters are there, but they’re actually doubtful characters in the sense that you don’t know if you can actually trust them. For the most part perhaps you can, it’s just their perceptions are so strange at times. How does this happen in language? So that the meaning that language carries becomes less certain? I ask this because your writing gives the impression that you have a lot of confidence in the language you’re using, and the ability of the language we use to actually carry substantial meaning.
GH. Boy, that’s a good question, and it’s not one I’ve tried to answer before. I’ll take stabs at it. Let’s see. One of the things I’m trying to do in The Roaring Girl is address states of uncertainty and ineffableness of a certain kind, of vagueness and confusion, with precise language. Why am I trying to do that? Partly because of the old-fashioned impulse to convey the experience as clearly as I can; partly out of an old bias against a certain kind of impressionism. A certain style of impressionism in language that I resist as a reader. But there’s something else here I can’t quite put my finger on, to do with the way I conceive the characters. I think one of the subassumptions I have is that there is a primary ground of personal perception, or personal understanding, that deserves or requires respect. That doesn’t mean that the person isn’t self-deceived or anything, but it does mean that the character has an understanding that’s real, or in some sense substantial. I think part of my motivation to use standard, authoritative language s to convey that.
KG. It’s the same as when you have so much uncertainty going on in a story, you would lose the whole thing if your language was also uncertain. Then we’d be nowhere.
GH. We’d be nowhere, that’s true.
KG. In a sense I see it as being necessary. But nonetheless your choice of that language is a deliberate choice, it’s how you wish to make these stories proceed.
GH. I do have a sense of frustration with it, because I look at someone like Alice Monro and I see that there’s so much more flexibility in her language. It’s not nearly as hard as mine. Relatively, mine is kind of hard and quite unsupple. It’s also a simple matter of a lack of ability. Lack of ability, that’s it. I lean towards a kind of maleness, as a way of–it’s not a compensation for a lack of suppleness in the language, but it’s a way of giving it a reason for being. But I would advise suppleness.
KG. Alice Monro, Mavis Gallant, yes, their English is very fluid. Even Margaret Atwood in her fiction carries on, moves on, from one sentence to another. It flows. You do do that in White Buick, to a large extent, which is why I think White Buick is a good read. You sit down and read a story, you’ve really read a story. You’ve been entertained, you might even be unable to put it down till it’s done and so forth. But with The Roaring Girl, it’s much sharper linguistically. It’s more jagged, more abrupt, and consequently harder.
GH. Harder in the sense of more difficult or just more edgy or brittle?
KG. more brittle, more edgy, but not more difficult. You still have a good read, it’s just a different sense of the language and its rhythms.
GH. That’s interesting. The stories in both books were written simultaneously, it’s just a different culling. I’m more conscious of the comic. The comic usually involves a certain amount of disjunction, because it’s the disjunction between people or levels of understanding that creates the anxiety that gives rise to the laughter or the amusement. There’s more left out, more gaps, more disjunctions for that effect in The Roaring Girl. White Buick is more dedicated to covering, the ground.
KG. Along with the whole matter of pacing and timing, I find The Roaring Girl remarkable for its sense of restraint. That is, you propose a scene, you mention some of its loony or weird aspects, and then you go on as if those are quite natural. Or you’ll treat something highly unusual as if it were quite normal. You hold back and you leave the whole scene, in many cases, up to the reader’s imagination. For example, that story where the boy keeps clamoring for his mother, the father, so ‘had to go back and untie her.’ You just leave it there. You hold the whole thing back. The suggestion is that a lot of things are going on in that bedroom, and we don’t know all about it. Is there any particular influence for you in this sort of aesthetic maneuver?
GH. There must be. One person who comes immediately to mind is a writer not many people know about, whom I like quite a lot, and that’s Mary Robison, an American novelist and short story writer. She teaches writing at Harvard, or did. She hasn’t published for a while, as far as I know. She’s a wonderful gap-maker, step-taker, in texts. I like her a lot. Beyond that, it’s done a lot these days, really. To try to answer it another way, I’m easily bored, myself, when reading, to be told things I can infer easily enough myself, so I just have decided to leave all those things out. I think the more you leave out, if you leave the right things out, the more space there is for the reader to enter into the text imaginatively. It’s just a matter of learning how to select. But it’s a common modernist procedure. Linda Svendsen is very good at it. Carver, of course. Pynchon is very good.
KG. In your case, what led to the question is that this is not as obvious a feature in White Buick and Famous Players, this kind of restraint. Just to go on to another subject, if I were asked to characterize your work, especially this last book, I would say you are writing on the edge of comic satire. I think the comic part is to some degree black humor, but not entirely. Do you see the world satirically, or is this an aesthetic strategy for a special purpose?
GH. Do you mean the far edge or the near edge of the comic? I’ve thought about this a bit because I’ve been made aware that my characters don’t behave the way people do in much of fiction. I became aware of this as a problem because of the kinds of problems I’ve had in writing novels. I certainly think of Spin Dry as a satire more than a normal novel. The problem may be that most fiction, if you think of your regular novel, tends to be character-oriented in a certain way. The character has a set of problems that come to the foreground as a result of something the character is up against, and then it’s a question of watching to see how that works out, whether they fail or succeed and why. I don’t approach character that way, for the most part. Maybe that’s the reason I’ve had more success to this point with stories. The focus isn’t with the character, in that traditional fictional way. My characters tend to have very many layers of problems and it’s not quite clear what it is they’re up against, or what it is they want. The thing about satire, certain kinds, particularly Menippean satire, is that characters are seen in terms of their obsessions. In terms of their madnesses. In terms of their habits of mind as a result of the kind of work they do. In terms of their professions. In terms of their philosophical convictions; their intellect, in other words. As opposed to in terms of their immediate social relations being the primary ground, in an emotional sense. I think there are traces of that kind of thinking, and I think that’s how the satire comes in. I’m talking about it in terms of character now. The people are seen as victims of their own minds in a sense, and that’s a satiric attitude. It’s rather different from the way in which more traditional or ordinary, more novel-type fiction tends to work. There’s always the assumption there’s a kind of self there that could somehow finally triumph or fail. I don’t think that way. I don’t think that way about anything.
KG. You see people in terms of their obsessions, then?
GH. No, I see people as largely collations or compilations of their thought processes. It’s almost as if I see them being thought by a larger process. I don’t particularly see them as selves.
KG. That’s a very interesting view of human nature. It may go a long way inexplaining … well, in answering my next question, which is about character. After reading your work for a while, I begin to look for a character who is not clued-out. And I fail to find one. Even in your narrators I see that. They’re maybe non-selves, in the sense that they will allow things to go on until you become desperate as the reader: ‘would you say no to that person, please; would you not let that person into your house, it can’t be good for you’…and so a lot of irony is developed in that gap, where a helpless reader is watching a clueless narrator and his or her family being worked on by other people who are equally clued-out, and you watch this show progress in its weird way. It’s as if there’s a cog, or maybe several cogs, missing in their brains somehow. There is something very important they all seem to be missing. That’s my impression as your reader. Why do you draw such creatures?
GH. I think the thing is that I see all of us as fundamentally split. Not just doubly, but multiply. I think that’s the source of our problems and I guess the complication is that I think we’re split and at the same time we’re assuming we’re not. We’re assuming there’s a kind of a central actor there. Now, it’s not as if I think integrity is something that can be achieved, exactly. It’s not going to be achieved by putting the parts together, because I don’t think the parts go together, but I think it can be achieved by being sufficiently conscious of the process, the operation, which involves a kind of humility and a kind of attention to what is actually going on in one’s life. So, you’re right. Along with the verisimilitude of White Buick and the kind of satire you’re suggesting is in The Roaring Girl and Spin Dry, really all those characters are more or less in this state of splitness. We haven’t moved on to the next stage yet. But the next stage is not quite as simple as one might assume. At least not in my mind, which is probably why I haven’t moved on there yet. Because this splitness business is, I think, fundamental to being human.
KG. Well, I would read the splitness, as you call it, the clued-outness, as I call it, or whatever, the inability to form a character informed by some sort of personal integrity or some kind of idea of the self that we have an ideal — as being Western, rather than being human.
GH. Yes. The problem is not so much the splitness, which I think is the reality, but the absence of awareness of it. That’s what constitutes blindness, or clued-outness. The inability to act effectively. The inappropriateness of the emotional responses. And it is the Western disease, really. The Western illness. That’s one way of formulating it, anyway.
KG. That’s how I read it. And this is the level at which I agree with your work. One is amazed at times by Western civilization and people acting things out that are odd. I have a sense of recognition in reading your work, of ‘yes indeed’. That sort of thing. But ideologically, I would say that you’re reporting Western dementia, in some way. There are of course gradations to this, but your characters often seem slightly demented somehow. And you don’t give the full picture of why people are behaving the way they are. I did want your reaction to this kind of flat statement about your work.
GH. Yes, I think that’s it. As for not really indicating why they’re behaving as they are, I’m not sure about that. Normally when people say that, what they want is a political reason, and I don’t think you’re saying that.
KG. Just to be specific, let’s take for example the story “The People of the Sudan.” Here is a couple that takes a box from another couple they’re visiting, whom they don’t like. They take this box and are supposed to phone somebody to pick it up. They don’t phone for the longest time. They put the box on the dryer. They never investigate what’s in it. The woman is doing her laundry and things around this box, it’s in the way. Finally many months later she decides to try to get rid of it. First of all, why do they take this box? Second of all, why do they put it on their dryer where it’s in the way? Why don’t they phone the people who are supposed to get it? Of course when they finally do and don’t get any satisfaction, they give it to charity, without ever looking at what’s inside. This is very odd. Then it gets stranger as it goes on. We don’t have any notion why these people, who seem perfectly reasonable on the surface, are letting these weird things happen to them, and letting this guy come in and start showing slides and do stuff that normally you simply wouldn’t do if you had any brains.
GH. That’s funny, cause that’s the story booksellers tell me most people point out is their favourite story. The one they can most identify with. I can kind of relate to that woman. The primary problem she’s got is that she’s conflicted about her relationship with Big Elspeth,
and that, as I understand it, is contaminating all her actions. The box is related at some level in her unconscious with Big Elspeth. Since she hasn’t resolved things with Big Elspeth, since she doesn’t have the courage to say to Big Elspeth ‘get out of my life’, everything becomes problematic about the box. So she doesn’t behave in any coherent or effective way. It’s a good example, actually. That’s how I understand it. I think the implication of the story –or that’s how I meant it to be –is that is the logic. Beyond that, just in terms of their verisimilitude, people say ‘yeah, I know what that’s Iike’. You’ve got something to do, you have it on your list and you put it off for months. Somehow it never gets done and it becomes harder and harder to look at it. You know.
KG. There are so many places in your stories where people are sort of invaded. You have a sense of the invasion of privacy, and the inability of your characters to draw boundaries. For example “The Naked Man,” when this young guy, this fellow, comes home and there are people all over his parents’ house. For me as a reader, these kinds of stories strike fear into me. There is something really sinister about this. But again, we really don’t know why this is happening in those households.
GH. In the case of “The Naked Man,” I wanted to address that … my understanding of the parents is that they’re the kind of people who don’t really have boundaries, so they’re always opening up their home and they’re always encroaching on other people’s rights. And then I wanted to put that together with that adolescent sense I think we’ve all had that we are not the center of our families. That there’s a sense in which we’re replaceable in our families. That one’s parents may well close ranks after one leaves. That feeling of lost innocence, really. So I wanted to put those two things together. more than that, I’m not sure.
KG. How about a story like “Rose Cottage,” where you can understand this guy Alex, his behaviour, most of the time. He has some feeling for this old woman who he can see is being abused. He even feels enough for her to come back a lot later to see how she is. She’s of course dead, so he meets her son and comes into the house. He’s in a perfect stranger’s house. They have English tea. They’ve never met before, and the host decides to pay him back for his good deed for his mother by crouching in front of his chair and giving him fellatio. It’s not certain that he actually does, but it seems that he does. In any case, you don’t get any hint of resistance on Alex’s part. This seems to me to be very strange, in terms of the character whom you thought you understood.
GH. Well, he’s conflicted about the whole thing. It doesn’t help him to resist. The fact that he’s conflicted is what renders resistance very difficult for him. I wanted to write a story about someone who was ineffectual, who wasn’t able to do enough, and maybe it’s debatable whether he could ever have done enough. Whether he could have fought the trust company. I wanted that to be debatable. But the fact is he didn’t feel right about his failure. He didn’t feel he had done enough, and that’s what comes to his mind. That’s really why he can’t refuse the fellatio. Because he’s so confused. It’s like the woman with the box. It’s like he’s so confused about the whole thing of whether he did enough for that guy’s mother that he can’t put an end to this thing that he doesn’t really want. But then of course, like being able to walk away from the old woman, he can walk away from this act relatively unscathed. I mean, he will be scathed because he knows that it’s not an advisable thing to be doing. You know, he has been violated in a sense. But still he’s got this mixture of feelings. There’s a kind of triumph in being able to be once again free, though he’s once again been further damaged. I think it’s there. I wanted fellatio to be quite a striking thing, because I wanted to dramatize the seriousness, for him as a person, of his having felt that he just walked away from that old woman.
KG. This is all related to what is partly missing. When I say that you don’t give a full picture of what makes your characters behave the way they do, I don’t mean they’re not filled out. They are in their own way rounded enough for the purposes of your story. They work fully. Sometimes we even have some background on their childhood. But all in all there is to me, in The Roaring Girl in particular, a strange absence of the past in the stories. Where there might be the influence of history, there is a strange silence. In one of your stories in White Buick, for example, this woman on the beach in Spain accuses the protagonist of being too concerned with the past. This is an ironic statement for the reader. I just wanted to know why you’ve chosen this ahistorical position.
GH. I remember a character in Roaring Girl accusing the narrator of being too concerned with the past. It’s in “How Happy They Were,” the one who’s joined the order says to the one who’s studying history that he’s too attached to the past.
KG. I’m thinking of the first story in White Buick about the man who goes to Spain and gets this woman to follow after, and it turns out she’s completely inappropriate to the new surroundings. The reader wonders what these people are doing. Why are they even together. They make decisions that seem to be non-decisions. But before she gets there, he ends up spending the night with this other woman on the beach. The thing about this story is that those people on the beach are completely dedicated to the unconnected lifestyle. The protagonist is sort of disconnecting while he’s doing all this; at the same time, he has to go back home.
GH. Let’s see. History. We’re talking about history. I guess what it comes down to is this. In a way it relates to the business of the sense of authority of the individual perception. But I do feel quite strongly-sort of strongly–quite strongly, that we tend to exaggerate the extent to which the individual is fated to be a certain way as a result of history, whether national history or personal history. It’s certainly true that the individual is the product of all that, all those forces and all that history, intimately a product and nothing more, but I don’t think it’s appropriate–it’s part of the Western dementia if you like–to take the next step and say that somehow it is an impossible or a necessarily arduous process to find transcendence from that. It’s history that’s split us. You know, it’s the components of history that we are. But one is not for that reason determined as an individual by that. By the content of that. So I have quite an ambivalent attitude towards history, as we might gather here. I’m very conscious of it when she says to him in “How Happy They Were,” after she’s joined the cult and he’s telling her he can’t relate to the decision she’s made, she tells him ‘your problem is, you’re too attached to the past’. And it’s a way of saying, ‘you’re trying to reach out to what you thought we had.’ And it’s also coming back at him for his work, which she always had problems with because she didn’t have anything at that point, when he was going and studying history at the library. There’s a sense in which at that point, what he’s saying there is that you study history because there are always things to be learned from history. What she is saying is quite ahistorical. She’s saying ‘if you can’t feel the problem, then there’s no problem.’ And he’s saying ‘well, you can go and discover it.’ She’s indicating that’s a waste of time. I can certainly sympathize very strongly with both positions. It’s the difference between history as the past and as the presence of the past. That’s what the men are talking about in The Appraisal.” The presence of the past–you know, the image of the gills, the gill–structure remnants in human physiology. That’s what we are. Yes, it’s a rich field.
It is what we are. It’s everything. And yet we’re not chained to it. We don’t have to be psychologically chained to it. It’s more like a very rich field for investigation. So it’s an ambivalence. Good point.
KG. In some cases you can see it there, but it’s you the reader who sees it there. The characters don’t. Any connectedness there might be. So somehow in terms of people being victims of history, maybe what I’m seeing is that they don’t know that is so. It doesn’t come up in their conversation.
GH. The blindness. That’s the blindness, yes. I want the reader to be able to see it, but without making the characters seem diminished, in the sense of without laying too much irony on them. It’s better for them to be credibly blind and the reader to have the opportunity to be self-informed.
KG. You do have one story in White Buick where this is apparently not the case at all. It’s “Your God is Finished.” That gives a very fine picture of the old man, and you do get a strong sense of the narrator’s home background. What you don’t get is whether any of this has actually affected the narrator, because he tells it in such a blunt way and you know nothing about the narrator’s life. So here you’ve given all the background, and the reader is left without a clue as to what kind of life the narrator is leading.
GH. Yes, well that’s a story where I was intrigued by the generational thing, all right, and I wanted to have the narrator writing about his grandfalher through his father’s text, and I was careful to indicate the kind of echo that the grandfather’s style and life and character had in the life of the father. Beyond that, I just hoped that there would be a kind of sadness in the sense of disconnection in the quality of the narrative, that would be sufficient to carry that echo through. To the narrator’s generation. But it seemed too complex to try to incorporate the narrator’s life, aside from the image of him looking at the grandfather’s funeral through the window as his father had looked through a window at his sister’s wedding. I was just hoping to do it by tone. In the kind of sadness in the story.
KG. Can you talk about influences. What writers have influenced you along the way?
GH. Let me think, now. Samuel Beckett’s fiction, early on, was very important to me. I think he was extremely fine. He’s just amazing. Then less defensibly, I guess, I’ve always had a taste or enjoyment for William Burroughs. Style, sensibility. It’s not so much individual works as just the whole endeavour. The sense of humour. It’s obviously quite dark and wild. I just have a weakness for Burroughs. And he does continue to impress me in various ways. He’s always enjoyable. I was greatly impressed by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow when I read it in the 1970’s. I spent a long time with it and I find it amazing. It’s just like a technical treasure box. I think Spin Dry is written verry much in the shadow of Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. Alice Monro. That suppleness, the intelligence, the complexity of her stories, the concisions, the humanity, the language. It’s so un-edgy, and yet it’s so complex. I really do think Monro is extraordinary in a major way. Lately I’ve gone through a phase of Cormack McCarthy. Again, it’s like Burroughs. It’s kind of a period. I’m sure it’ll pass. But he’s also gone through some interesting developments as a writer, and he’s become increasingly rhetorical in his later stuff. His earlier stuff is more poetic; not a strong narrative, but the language is really something. It’s very male. It’s Faulkner, post-Faulkner. There’s a kind of emptiness. It’s Romance. Maybe I’m attracted to it also because, like Burroughs, it’s not fiction in the normal way. There are others. There’s Flannery O’Connor, of course. There’s Mavis Gallant. There’s Raymond Carver.
KG. I guess I can see Burroughs. But for me, I just thought of Raymond Carver when I read The Roaring Girl. I think there are some obvious reasons why. I think that the direction of your technique in that book is getting closer to Carver. I think it’s because Carver also produces insane characters who seem to belong to an insane and empty bourgeoisie, and they carry on without questioning anything. They’re sort of bourgeois people without a conscience, without a spiritual dimension. They’re just there and they do stuff and you don’t know why.
GH. I think there’s a class difference. I think Carver is working with the working class sensibility. I think mine are middle class stories, mainly. I have to go to the country, to a rural context, to get that effect. He’s able to do it in the urban setting. So there’s that. That kind of fatedness that’s so strong in his stuff, is more, for me, like the White Buick, approach rather than the Roaring Girl approach, because of that comic element: he’s not comic really, Carver. I think he’s excellent, really good. Especially the later stories. The last three quarters of the body of his work. There’s a sense of an emotional depth to them that one would always kind of aspire to. I think he’s got feeling in a way that only a writer of that stature, or a writer like Monro, is able to match. I guess that’s it.
KG. Is it because you wish not to become emotional or too sentimental or kitschy, that you refuse, or seem to refuse, to enter the realm of human emotion in any sympathetic way? People have feelings in your stories, but they’re often inappropriate, as you put it. But they don’t really ring after a while. Even in the story “Walking on the Moon,” he’s on the roof and he suddenly feels overwhelming love for his son. Just for a moment. One of the few moments of straight-out feeling. But even then, you swerve away from it so quickly the reader almost misses it. That whole element of emotion, why you don’t enter it, could you talk about that?
GH. It’s back to the characters as split and as manifestations of the dementia. In order to have relevant and coherent emotion, and sustained and strong emotion, you need to be grounded. They’re not particularly grounded. I feel emotion myself when I’m writing certain parts of all my books, and even rereading them, so I suspect there is a kind of obliqueness to my own constitution as well. It comes back to this business that I’m not particularly interested in straight-ahead characters, together characters. So the emotions aren’t going to be quite appropriate. The other part of this is that I would hope that there would be … I think of emotion as the reader’s realm, rather than mine as the actual text-maker. So what I’m always trying to do is create structures for emotion to inhabit. So maybe they aren’t enough. Maybe the moment on the roof, which I feel very strongly, maybe for the reader, there isn’t enough space there to get it. Maybe that’s a technical problem. But I’m not conscious of avoiding it. I’m trying to make these moments of connection, but my habit is to not make them where you’d expect to find them. So either it’s not working or it’s a technical problem or it’s my problem or it depends on the reader. Reader to reader. I don’t know.
KG. Yes. This may not be a fair question to ask the author–there are some things one ought to figure out for oneself in the reading—but I think this has something to do with what I regard as the dementia, the Western condition, and what you’re saying about the characters, that they’re not grounded. That would go a long way. Again, this is not a question one ought to ask an author, but where do these people come from?
GH. They come from real life. They come from the fives of people I know. They come from newspaper articles. They’re all pretty real. The details are all real. I make up very little, really. I’m not very good at imagining things. I don’t really believe in imagination. I find imagination, at least mine, quite unsatisfactory. Not nearly as interesting as what actually happens. So I really just gather. I collect and compile. I pick and choose.
KG. Do you pick and choose your plot lines as well from incidents that happen?
GH. Yes, pretty well. Increasingly so, in fact, with both my fast two books of stories. Not so much with Spin Dry, which is more an imagined thing. But the last two books, most of the pretty extensive plots have a kind of strangeness to them that’s from life. I’m just coming up with the parts that are necessary to make it either credible or complete. I mean I do feel strongly that the guy who said that truth is stranger than fiction was saying something very very obvious. That fiction is really just a kind of normalizing. It’s doing what is necessary to make things believable. It’s making something conventional which is inherently strange. Reality is. I’m just around doing an editorial function. I find the distinction useful between imagination and invention. The Romantic idea of imagination, of creating out of nothing, I think is false and is a misguided notion of what artists do. Invention in the old sense–in the eighteenth-century sense–of a process of first a recognition in experience of what is germane to a work, and then selection and incorporation. It’s more a sense of perceiving and taking and using. That’s more like what happens, rather than this Romantic idea of making out of nothing, which is obviously not what we do. We pick and choose and compile and move things around until they are, we hope, compelling in some way. Invention is a better word for that.
KG. There is one more thing I want to know about. I know the element of dream and dream analysis has been important to you in the past. Your novel Spin Dry is also concerned with these matters very directly. Perhaps what I see as ahistorical, empty, and slightly demented in your fiction is really a kind of surrealism. To me, there is an element of the surreal running through all your work: the bizarre image, the strange scene, the inexplicable plot line. Could you tell me something about the surreal in your fiction, and the relationship of dream to your fiction?
GH. How much do you want? You’re right, I have spent a lot of time on making conscious the dream experience. What I have learned doing that, to put it simply, is that all the elements, in my dreams anyway, and I of course want to generalize about all of us, all the elements in my dreams, every single element, has an emotional significance to it. The emotional significance relates to a moment in our waking experience that has been for neurotic or fatigue or distraction reasons, suppressed. So it’s emotion that has not been fully experienced. So dreams– for all their kind of surface delight, or surface emotion tone– I think tend to have a lot of poignancy underlying them. There’s a substratum of lost pain or of displaced pain under them. And I suspect there’s a sense in which that’s what my fiction is doing. The kind of mode I’m in. Without consciously trying to, I’ve come into, in my fiction, making a kind of a clear or–how shall I say it–a clearly depicted surface that goes together in a slightly disjunctive way, in this dream-like way, with implications that are more painful. It’s certainly the way I find myself living. You know, the primary ground of my consciousness, that stream of thought is very dream-like. Again, I’m not just saying this about me. I think it’s the kinds of things that come up, which are so familiar to us, so normalized, and yet obviously odd. I think the dream flow really has underlying it the significant emotion of our lives—and to the extent that that is unexamined, our lives continue kind of off-course and drifting.
KG. Do you ever draw directly from your own dreams for your fiction?
GH. Rarely. I may have done it early on. I can’t think of examples, but very rarely. Very rarely. No.
KG. Not even emotionally?
GH. Well, my dreams aren’t particularly interesting. No I don’t think so. The complication here is that years ago I trained myself to–l trained the dreamer to–make a kind of note as to the images that came up and their sources. So the dream process for me isn’t exactly unconscious. I am almost as conscious dreaming as I am in waking life. The barrier between the two got broken down at some point by just the investigation, possibly.
KG. I think that’s a good place to end, because the feeling I have in reading your fiction, is that there’s a dream-like quality there, and yet it’s not. It is and it isn’t. I’m not sure your stories propose any difference between them. So thanks Greg. I appreciate your taking the time to come and talk.