Saturday, December 4, 2021

William H. Gass: a lost 1973 interview

Months ago, alerted by Catherine Gass, I came across a tweet by Dara Wier. In 1973, she and Robin Bergstrom made a literary magazine called The Penny Dreadful, which they sold on street corners for 25 cents. In the second issue, May 1973, Wier interviewed William H. Gass (pp. 1-5). Apparently it's not easy getting hold of copies, but I immediately realized I had to acquire it. I think it stands as an important historical document since it’s one of Gass’ earliest interviews that I know of. Joe David Bellamy’s The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers (1974) contains a 1971 interview by Carole Spearin McCauley. This interview is also collected in Theodore G. Ammon’s Conversations with William H. Gass (2003), which also has a 1972 interview by Gary Mullinax. All other interviews in Conversations, as well as in Stephen Schenkenberg’s admirable website The Ear’s Mouth Must Move: Essential Interviews of William H. Gass, took place after that date. So for those fascinated by Gass’ outlook on fiction and writing, I hope that the Wier interview can add one more piece of information to their understanding of this magnificent writer.

I transcribed the interview as is, and reread it for typos, but I welcome corrections.

Dora Wier, “An Interview With William H. Gass”, The Penny Dreadful, number 2, May 1973:


   William Gass is a fiction writer. He is also a philosopher. When he was at Bowling Green State University the following interview was taped.

   Gass is currently professor of philosophy at Washington University, St. Louis. His published works are Omensetter’s Luck (NAL, 1966), In The Heart Of The Heart Of The Country (story collection, Harper, 1968), Fiction and The Figures of Life (critical essays, Knopf, 197), and Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (Tri-quarterly, 1968, and Knopf, 1971). The Tunnel has been seven years in the making; he expects to complete it in three more years.


   Interviewer: Do you think that there’s any kind of correlation between doing something else and being just, quote, a writer? Do you believe that there is such a thing as someone who is just a writer, or do you think there is a necessity for doing something else?

   Gass: Well, there’s all kinds of necessities. I mean, there are the necessities of life and economics: if you are a serious writer you have to figure that you’re not going to live on it and you’d better have some other way of making a living. There’s that kind of necessity.

   As far as the necessity of improving your art by doing something else, I think it helps me a little; but not so much in actual style, at the word level, there, I think, in fact, it’s harmful. A philosophical use of language in that sense is quite different. The kinds of things you tend to be reading are very different, aiming at different things, and you sort of have to cut it off. But at the conceptual level, I think it’s very useful because it sharpens your sense of precision about the use of concepts and the organization of ideas. And in that sense, both the writer and the philosopher are dealing with the same things: concepts. Now, the writer is using particular words that are standing for these concepts in the sense that he is interested in those words more than the philosopher is; plus, we’re (philosophers) using language in order to get at these ideas. I think it’s helped me in that sense.

   Philosophical systems are huge conceptual structures. Some of them are quite fictional, I think, and have a good deal of beauty and give you some clues as to how you might organize a work of deliberate fiction. I think it’s useful in this way, too.

   But as to whether it’s useful or not I wouldn’t want to generalize; because I think certain kinds of activities – philosophy or something else, some other interest, Bellow’s interest in anthropology, for instance – might be useful for them and not useful for somebody else. A lot depends on the individual and how he responds to things and what he can make use of. I certainly wouldn’t want to generalize; I think it varies too much.

   And then there’s always the terrible price you pay for doing anything else. I know that the price I pay for just doing anything else is being fifteen years behind where I should be if I were just a plain writer. Whether because I’m doing these other things I’m writing any better, even though I’m slower in out-put, you can never tell because you can never live your life both ways.

   Interviewer: Do you think your philosophical background has harmed or has a tendency to harm some of the things you do? For instance, this book you’re working on now, The Tunnel, do you find that it grows more and more labyrinthian because of your philosophical background?

   Gass: I don’t know if it’s the philosophical or just the way my mind works. It does happen, and the philosophy does spin it out in certain directions. But I don’t know that if I were doing something else, not philosophy, that I wouldn’t be spinning it out in some funny way somehow. Everything you do is useful and harmful in certain ways, like everything you eat. You get all these side effects that are very hard to know, like what’s working and what isn’t and where are you really being hurt by a particular thing rather than just your own character.

   Interviewer: You were saying that you’ve been writing The Tunnel since 1966, and you say it won’t be done for some time yet. What keeps you going? Is it that you know what’s going to happen, in a fictional sense, I mean?

   Gass: No. Because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have to constantly go back to what has already been done to find out what comes next. That’s how I know it’s a long piece. I start with a page, say, or not even a page, a paragraph of something – and of course you have some sort of general thing in mind, but it’s so vague and useless, really – you keep, then, looking at this until it tells you the next sentence, the next thing. Now if it doesn’t tell you the next thing, then there’s not enough in it; so, you have to rewrite it and pour more into it, so that finally the next sentence comes out. And that goes on page after page. My work gets bigger mostly by my looking at something and saying, “There’s not enough there; I don’t know what’s happening.” So, I put more in and it’s bigger because I’ve made it bigger. In that, it grows.

   In The Tunnel I keep going to the material that I’ve done and try to make it dictate the way the book will go. And I have a sense of it going right when I feel that it’s making that happen. And when I draw a blank, I know that I have to go back, that I’ve not put enough in there, and it’s not right. I really don’t know why, in fact, but I just sort of fiddle around until it seems right somehow. And that goes on and on.

   Every once in a while I get a little panicky, saying, “You’ve got to know what you’re doing, you’ve got to have some goal, you’ve got to direct this.” So, I spend a day making out a little thing, and I immediately sigh and relax and say, “Well, that’s that; that’s where I’m going.” But then I forget it; I ignore it.

   I really don’t know. The only reason I say it’s a long way off is that all my stuff is always a long way off. Now, I know I’ve got this great big lump of stuff and still a lot has to come out of it, otherwise it’s just an undigested lump and it will never succeed – and that may be what will happen: it just never will come to anything.

   Interviewer: Do you think because of your discipline you work at things doggedly, that you don’t let them go? For instance, as opposed to Joyce Carol Oates, who produces a vast amount of material?

   Gass: Yes, sure. The thing is though, that… that’s just the point: you can’t change your character. That’s the way you are and you’ve got to get used to it and live with it. These habits and attitudes and so on, they cause trouble and you try to compensate for that; but you can’t say, “I’ll start writing fast.” It just isn’t going to do that. It would be very nice if that could happen; I wouldn’t mind it at all.

   Interviewer: It also seems that certain people who write have the feeling that everything they write should be at a certain level of what they could consider finished. And then again there seem to be those who write without regard for this finished aspect.

   Gass: Yes. And again, I think that’s a matter of character. Sure, there’s going to be levels of quality, but I don’t want it that way. I’m very upset when the quality varies, and I try to avoid it. Other people don’t seem to be bothered by that, and I don’t say that they’re wrong. It’s just that I can’t do anything about the way I work. For example, it really bothers me that material which I’m never going to publish, which will never come to anything, exists. I know it’s bad and it bothers me; it’s thrown away, but it bothers me that it exists. That’s why I keep constantly working things over, not letting go of them, trying to make them just right. And there’s a compulsion and insecurity about this. And I know it and tell myself, “Never mind! Let’s get on and finish this damn chapter!” And though I say this, it still doesn’t work. I think that this kind of thing is just the way people are, and it’s a terrible mistake to try to change it. It’s hard enough to write; it’s even harder to change your nature.”

   Interviewer: Do you think that contemporary fiction has to mean, or is it enough that it just exists? And what about the question of “serious moral purpose” in writing?

   Gass: When I sit down I don’t sit down to write with any serious moral purpose, in that sense. That’s far too high sounding. It’s all very mundane. You’re actually sitting down to write because you’ve already written something and you’ve got something that’s just bugging you. I’m sort of suspicious of people, and I don’t really believe them when they say that they do write with a high moral purpose. But it’s just like everything else, though. When you’re talking about, “Do you regard what you’re doing as something important?” Sure! But you don’t carry that in your actual work, where you sit down, saying, “Now I’m going to do something worthwhile.” That’s all very odd, I think. It’s afterwards that you begin to find reasons for why you should be doing what you would’ve done anyhow.

   Now, if I’m doing a theory about it, then I talk about these things. And I suppose, though I hate to phrase it like “serious moral purpose”, I try to defend the value of literature in certain ways – in particular, in a way that tends to stress the creation of this kind of being or presence that’s to be valued for its own sake, the creation of intrinsic value in a certain medium which consists largely of embedding consciousness in a medium. But that’s all high-tone philosophical theorizing, which is a lot of fun, I enjoy doing it, but which I don’t pay too much attention to when I’m working. And I’m very suspicious of writers who do, and usually it gets in the way of their work. There’s almost nothing more crippling for a writer to be big with “moral purpose”, because then he begins to bend the material to suit that rather than what he’s really got. The danger very frequently with someone interested in theory is that you get a theory about art and then try to write in accordance with it. I think there are two games going. There’s the game of aesthetics, where you make theories, and it’s fun, and I would do it even if I knew, which I often suspect, that it has nothing to do with anything. Then there’s the other activity, and I think there I’m pretty free. I don’t allow theories; I just forget them. Theories aren’t important, and I think that very few things are done with “high moral purpose.” I think that’s a nice way of saying certain things, but people’s motives are much more greedy and personal than that.

   Interviewer: What’s the story behind Omensetter’s Luck being stolen?

   Gass: That was an odd kind of thing. I guess I have still what some people call a death wish about things like that, because I don’t make copies of my material much…

   But I had worked on Omensetter’s Luck for about a year or so, and I was on that last chapter and the last chapter was only about three pages long, so really I was almost done. I had a habit of carrying the manuscript around in my brief case and putting it on my desk; and since it was at that point, I was making only little corrections here and there on the page, small things, pondering a little problem, and so on. Well, I had it on my desk, and I went off to teach. The office was open; in fact, it was a shared office with several others. I came back, and the manuscript was gone.

   Of course, the first thing you think of is that you did something that you don’t remember. Then, after a while when you can’t find it, you think: “You just think you brought it today; you’ve been bringing it so regularly, and you know it’s very clear in your mind that you were correcting it just before you went to class, but you’ve confused days... But no, it’s gone, it’s really gone.” Then you think: “You rode your bicycle to campus today, and it bounced out of the bike.” You know, you think all kinds of crazy things.

   Well, I did all this advertising for it, but nothing came of it. The funny thing though, that at the same time, as soon as it was gone, I had this kind of suspicion about a colleague of mine. He wasn’t in the Philosophy Department; he was in the English Department. And he was a good friend. My first thought was, “that son-of-a-bitch took my manuscript!” And then I felt terrible, because there was no reason for me, except some deep thing, to suspect him. He was very sympathetic and he came and was just very upset and very kind and had all this feeling, and I really felt awful.

   It didn’t turn up, of course. I had some roughs, but I had to rewrite. I was in a kind of panic and I knew that I had to do it right away. And so, I just started; I rewrote the book, worked day and night in fact, and had all kinds of odd things happen. I was in a funny state of mind and very tired and half not there – and I have a very poor memory, can’t memorize anything – but I found that I’d be sitting there typing, and whole pages would just be coming back, and I knew they were all back the way they were. But I also changed it, and so forth, and when I got through I realized that I had a better book, and in that sense, it had worked out all right.

   Then I left Purdue. I was going to the University of Illinois visiting, and it was then I discovered that the guy had tried to publish parts of the novel changing things only slightly, names, for instance, Omensetter became Hopewell, that kind of thing, and this was spotted. The guy, of course, meanwhile had left the campus.

   He had also played all kinds of other games. He had done this dissertation on Katherine Ann Porter, and he knew her, and he said, “I’m doing a book for her publisher of essays and things about her to coincide with the appearance of her novel Ship of Fools,” which in fact didn’t appear for several years, but it seemed imminent, of course. This all seemed reasonable. Well, he said, “I would like you to write an essay on Katherine Ann Porter.” He told me how much it would pay, and at that time I had only published a very little, and with the chance to get paid… so I wrote the essay and gave it to him. Well, he took that with him and published it in the Southwestern Quarterly. I saw it years later.

   I think the worst part of the whole thing was that after I’d done all this, and had the book back and congratulated myself because I thought it was better, then I went to Illinois and didn’t look at it for about six months. Then I read it and it was rotten. So I had to start all over again. That was the lowest moment; to have made all this great effort, and then to get it back and it was still no good.

   Interviewer: So it was written three times?

   Gass: Well, I’d written it, you know, over eight years already.

   Interviewer: Do you work with carbons now?

   Gass: No. I make so many versions, and so many things, that doing a carbon would be a madness. I’d have so many pieces of paper floating around, and it’s bad enough as it is. So, no, I don’t. But now, I’ll get a section of a novel ready and I’ll xerox it. I have, at least, learned that much.

   But this guy had published about, I’d say a hundred or so articles, every one of which had been swiped or plagiarized.

   Interviewer: Is he still teaching?

   Gass: I don’t know. He’s completely dropped out of sight as far as I know. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. And, I don’t want to know.

   Interviewer: Omensetter’s Luck is out of print now, isn’t it?

   Gass: Yes. They have promised me to put it back, but actually they don’t really want to put it back in print. What happened was that, you know, there’s a contract, and it says that if a book goes out of print for six months, then the rights revert to the author. Well, it had been out of print. So, I thought, fine, I don’t want to be with NAL; it’s a lousy outfit anyway. And I was ready to re-do it, and to re-do it in hard cover as well as paperback. But then they wouldn’t let go of it. They said, “We’re re-issuing it, and we’re going to re-do it in paperback.” And that was two and a half months ago. They said it would be out now; supposed to be in Signet paperback. In fact, the editor wrote me a letter saying that he was sending me ten copies. That was six weeks ago. I don’t believe them; I believe they lie like mad. They will do anything. So, I’m hoping they’re lying. I don’t want them to re-print it; I want someone else to do it.

   Interviewer: All that re-writing is somehow very frightening. How many good Omensetter’s Luck were there? I mean, perhaps there are five Omensetter’s Luck that were all right. It’s like painting: you’re painting and you’re looking at it, and you’re saying, “It’s fine; it’s really finished.” But at the same time you know that that is the basis of yet another painting, and you have to destroy that painting to get to the final panting; and you’ve actually six things that are o.k., but you have to destroy the first ones in order to get to that final one.

   Gass: Yes, that can happen. But I never worry about that, because I never feel that what I’ve got there is it.

   Interviewer: It seems that the way you work is different from the way some others work. Other people write ten separate books, learning from each book; but to me it seems you write ten books into one, building the book on itself instead of building it on the first nine books.

   Gass: Yes. And the result is often unfortunate –

   Interviewer: You end up with only one book?

   Gass: Well, not only that; but you can see the levels, you know the layers. It’s like geological levels that come in and build up, and you can see them. The best example of that, I think is in Lowry, Under the Volcano, because he did just that. He worked on it for a very long time and he built it up and re-wrote, and so forth, and a lot of his problem was that since he was a better writer four years after he’d started it than he was when he began, he had to go back and take those early pages and lift them up to the level of what he’d been doing lately. Well, you can never quite do it. And so you can see all that goes into the book; and I think it’s really fun to examine it from that point of view. But that means, of course, that you know the book is that kind of thing. It also means that you loose (sic) practice in large forms, because you’ve only done one thing instead of several.

   Interviewer: Don’t you also lose practice in the ability to finish?

   Gass: Oh, yes, yes. And in the ability o see wholes.

   Interviewer: Do you think there’s any effect or danger – in terms of say, styles, or themes, or experiments in styling, or this business we talk about of writing becoming very self-conscious – any correlation between writing and writers now working in universities?

   Gass: Oh, yes. I think there’s a very close relationship. There it’s talking about what you’re doing every day, and then in getting away from it. It’s perfectly natural. For example, if a guy is driving a truck and writing a book, he’s liable to write a book about driving a truck. And if you’re teaching writing for instance, you’re going to end up where all that stuff you’ve been talking about, mumbling over stories, and so on, is going to get in your work. Well, fine, any material can be made to be successful if you’re good enough and work at it properly.

   But increasingly the most important experiences – and this goes back, of course, not only to me but to Flaubert and people like that – the most important experiences a writer has in his life, especially if he’s in the academic world, the most intense are: sitting at his desk writing and sitting in a chair reading. More and more he’s in Borges’ library.

   And American literature has gotten increasingly more intellectual in this sense, traditionally not being that way, increasingly self-conscious; and this is particularly due, accelerated by, the fact that practically the only patrons of the Arts left are the universities. You’re around people who are talking books, you’re expected to talk books, self-conscious about it, and so on. So, then you try to turn it to account; you try to do Lost in the Funhouse. Or, for instance, the new book by Barth is about other books; that is, about literary traditions – Greek literary tradition, for example. Coover is the same way. Coover is always dealing with myths and stories and certain forms of this sort which he has experienced through literature.

   So increasingly writing is response to writing. This produces sometimes a very exciting thing – but it’s obviously very dangerous and can become completely empty, very rarefied. And, of course, this means too that there’s more and more writers writing, and writers writing for other writers, and they’re the same ones who are reading it. And thus the specialty gets very, very much this way. It’s perfectly natural, because you’re not writing for an audience. You don’t have an audience for the novel anymore, really, not the serious novel. So, yes, there’s that kind of tendency today, sure.

   I’m not of the opinion, though, that it doesn’t matter where there are dangers. The problem is that the good writers get around them somehow. And all the other stuff is bad in one way or another. Maybe it’s just bad, dirtish, Marxist literature, you know, or maybe it’s bad Seventish, academic, self-conscious; but there are the good novels of each period, and that’s one of the things that distinguishes the good writer from all the others: he somehow gets around the problem that he faces sufficiently to get a good book done. It’s the people who are really the second-raters who are affected by the evils. And you can see it in their work. The thing is, of course, not to be one of those, if you can help it.