“Interview With an Umpire”
What would you like to talk about?
Okay. Are there any recurring themes or motifs in your work?
I have a joke that, every once in awhile, one of my characters starts to tell. It’s about a llama and a Methodist preacher. So far, it has never been told.
What’s the joke?
I’m not telling you.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve ever had as a writer?
Outside of giving a reading to two bookstore clerks one night in Portland, Maine, it would have to be the story that was rejected nine years after it was submitted. Or maybe it’s the Pushcart Prize I won that I found out about seventeen years after I won it.
Any really good, juicy pet peeves?
Really? Why is that?
The purpose of education is to inspire you to go out in the world and kick some ass. Writing programs only encourage you to kick other writers. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a job teaching young writers how to kick other writers. More than that, though, higher education is pretty boring, as are most of its practitioners, particularly in relation to how much it costs, and new writers need to limit the amount of boredom they expose themselves to. Pedagogically speaking, too, I’ve always been curious as to just what “fine art” it is you’re a master of once you’ve bought your MFA.
So, do you have an MFA?
I do not.
Do you have any college-level degrees?
I have a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a Ph. D. None of them have anything to do with writing. But they were great time-fillers as I was learning how to write and they helped me make money once I realized that no one makes a living writing.
Any advice for publishers?
They need to tell the CEO’s of the conglomerates that have bought them that they, the CEO’s, don’t understand anything about writing and publishing. I’m not optimistic that they’ll do that, which is why the New York Times best seller list contains mostly unreadable drivel. Oh, and bring back the copy editors you fired so that you could impress that CEO with your bottom line. The freelancers just aren’t doing the job with the result that today’s books are increasingly littered with errors.
If you were suddenly to become a book publisher, what would be your first directive?
I’d impose a fifty-year moratorium on any books of any sort set in, or about, or having anything to do with New York City.
What kind of car do you drive?
I have a twenty-year old Honda Civic.
Any advice for new writers?
Floss daily, and learn how to do quarterly income tax returns. Don’t be afraid to take any job you can get. Then tell people that someday when you’re famous they’ll be ashamed they made fun of you or that they were horrified to learn you wanted to marry their son or daughter. Don’t ever submit anything to a magazine or book publisher who tells you it will take six months for them to make a decision, and don’t ever self-publish a book.
Do you think writers should join writing groups?
Writing is a lot like life: you come into it alone, you endure it alone, and you leave it alone. Writing groups tend to distort your vision and make you think that success is a function of a popular vote. Success in writing comes when you write what you want to write and it’s good because you think it’s good. With luck you’ll find an editor who shares that opinion. Don’t ever underestimate the value of luck. As a writer, you’ll need more luck than the most dedicated casino player.
How tall are you?
Tall enough so that my legs reach the floor. Always. That’s important.
Do you think writers who teach should be awarded tenure?
No. First, I don’t think writers should teach. They should write. Trying to be a writer and a teacher is like assuming a double priesthood in two different religions. You can’t serve both without pissing off a god somewhere in the process. You’ll also confuse your Muse, and a confused Muse, like the rest of us, always takes the easy way out, which is to say she’ll devote her energies toward making you an inspired teacher, not an inspired writer, because teaching is easier than writing. Second, tenure is to the writer what fleece sheets are to a cold winter night – marvelously comfortable. Writers should never be comfortable, though I don’t have any problem if they want to buy fleece sheets.
What’s your opinion of literary theory?
What’s my theory about literary theory? I had one once. I think it had something to do with the British philosopher, R. G. Collingwood. Then I forgot it, and that’s about when I started to write really good stuff. I think Collingwood would understand, though I still can’t remember what his views were.
Any thoughts on the way technological advances influence how writers write and readers read?
We all bear an incredibly short witness to an incredibly confusing phenomenon. Call it life. Whether it’s a conversation around a campfire or a walk through the Library of Congress, we also seem to have an insatiable curiosity as to how others are coping or have coped with this brief visit. How we get into another’s experience or how we’re able to share our own, whether through talk, song, shouting, writing, dancing, reading, is nowhere near as important as that we do it. Thus, the medium isn’t at all the message. Only the message opens up that secret cauldron of what we are. So I don’t have any problem with changes in the media, whether it’s an iPod replacing a vinyl record or a Kindle replacing a bound book, provided we don’t lose sight of what the real purpose of our outpourings is: Here’s how it is for me. How is it for you? Of course, we’re all children of our time, so there will always be those who don’t so much fear new media as simply feel that they aren’t as effective as “the old ways.” I, for example, like the feel and the heft and the smell of a bound book. I also like that it doesn’t need batteries.
Do you ever write in your pajamas?
I don’t own any pajamas.
Have you ever had an agent?
I’ve had two agents, one of whom did a fine job, while the other did nothing. My biggest complaint about agents has to do with the way they’ve blocked writers from having access to publishers. It’s hugely difficult getting an agent, but, with the exception of the very small presses, there’s virtually no access to publishers without one.
What’s the most fun you’ve ever had as a writer?
Seriously? Fun? As a writer? I guess two things come to mind. One was doing a reading at the KGB Bar in New York City, and the other was being on the faculty of The Gettysburg Review Conference for Writers. We writers do know how to ramp it up, but it might not always look that way.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
As writers, we’re a lot like photographers. Our primary job is to witness and then to pull something out of that witnessing that’s unique, interesting, beautiful, poignant, enlightening, scary, or funny. It doesn’t matter if it’s a great novel, a single poem, or a wonderful cookbook. It’s a way of saying, Hey, look what I saw! Did you miss it?
Why did you call this an “Interview With An Umpire?”
It’s all about judgement, isn’t it? As writers, we’re the ones who make the call, the ones who lay down what’s important and what isn’t, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what goes on into the future and what doesn’t, and who, in the end, wins or loses.