Oh, you and that Don Swaim routine.
What? He was a really good interviewer—or maybe not a really good interviewer, but an insightful reader who asked good questions about books. Anyway, you still listen to archives.
I do. I love the one with Carver. And Toni Morrison’s. Joyce Carol Oates has a good one, from 1987, I think?
No. I just looked it up. 1990.
Think of how many thousands of books she’s published. I started Mudwoman—what, a year ago?
And while Mudwoman languishes, two thirds read, on my coffee table, there have probably been five or six new books of hers.
I’ll check that count. [Slaps and tickles iPhone for a minute.] Goddamn it, I think the WiFi went out. Did you pay the RCN bill?
I thought you said you would. Well, we can’t find out now, if the Internet is dead.
Without the Internet, nobody would find out anything anymore. Seriously, where would you be if you didn’t have me to Google everything for you?
I appreciate it. You know I like factual accuracy. I like to get it right, as Hemingway would say. Or Carver would say.
We just saw this new novel about Carver.
I remember like it was yesterday. Actually, it was yesterday. It’s called Scissors. It appears to be something in the Hemingway and The Paris Wife tradition of fictionalizing biography.
Do you know anything about this Stéphane Michaka?
Other than that it took you three returns to your beloved Google to spell his name correctly? No.
What were we talking about?
I don’t know. Carver? You got through the entire Library of America collected stories, right?
I’m rather proud of that achievement. I read pretty slowly, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, so it took something like six months? But I can now say I read all of Carver. That’s good for cocktail party banter. Not really.
You read the poetry too?
Fuck. No. I guess I haven’t read all of Carver. Why can’t I get into poetry, really?
You spend too much time at cocktail parties?
I’m serious! It’s weird. It’s like my brain can’t process lines if they’re not in prose. I try to remind myself about enjambment and things like that, but it’s never the same sort of Eminem lose yourself experience like it is with fiction.
People used to say you were really good with dialogue.
Yeah, I can’t see that.
Neither can I. [Pause.] I think it’s interesting how you don’t think of “fiction” as meaning false. Can you talk about that?
Sure. Fiction is a mode of telling. A mode of telling by way of direct and indirect presentation and dramatized scene. Just like creative nonfiction. Whether reader or writer perceives the content as true or false (whatever those words mean) is irrelevant to me. I think both fiction and nonfiction (as we know it from the book aisle at the grocery store or our Poets & Writers profile) draw from the same sources: experience (not necessarily limited to our own) and invention. And really it’s hard to dichotomize those terms, too. I think autobiographical fiction, which this new novel [Vintage Attraction] is and isn’t, is the closest we come to true genre transcendence. These genre distinctions really have nothing to do with the work but with marketing. Why are you fucking around with the phone again? This is turning into one of those cocktail party conversations in which you quickly regret you asked the question and hope I’ll stop talking so you have a polite opportunity to leave. Meanwhile, you check your Twitter, not so surreptitiously, and wonder where the spinach dip is.
I hate dips. I prefer spreads.
Those words are both ugly. But obviously I agree.
Why, still, all the misunderstanding about fiction and nonfiction, this ceaseless cultural desire—by which I probably mean American desire—to polarize genre? Didn’t anybody read The Art of Friction, the anthology you co-edited?
I have no idea. My co-editor, memoirist Jill Talbot, and I were worried when we sold the proposal in 2005 that by the time the book emerged in 2008, the entire problem would have been solved. Fortunately for us, it’s 2013 and people fetishize nonfiction—the illusion of proximity to experience for both writer and reader—even more than before.
So why didn’t you capitalize on the craze and turn Vintage Attraction into a memoir?
I thought about it from time to time. A former agent or two recommended doing it. The most compelling argument against it for me was that memoir just wasn’t my medium. You know? I imagined it would feel like putting on somebody else’s clothes. And, perhaps more important, it wasn’t the medium that the story needed. I don’t believe every story can and should be told in every art form. A lot of prose I read should have been a documentary. A celebrity chef memoir or two would have made a much better DVD (or book-length interview with the questions removed, which I suspect a lot of them, via ghostwriters, are). Now that you have me thinking about it, I wish I’d been a little daring and tried sending it around as a memoir. Worst-case scenario, I would have gotten Freyed in the media. Nasdijjed.
I saw Nasdijj in the acknowledgments.
Sherman Alexie’s takedown bothered me. It seemed too easy—too sanctimonious of an argument to be a literary one—and the reaction to it appropriately disingenuous. Here was this guy, Nasdijj, who had written something absolutely brilliant [The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams], and everybody loved it, but then, oh, no, now we hate it, because he’s not actually a Navajo, and so it must be destroyed. It seems parochial thinking to me. It’s this kind of deification of the (purportedly) true that makes it so hard for fiction, I think. Now. But obviously at certain moments in history, fiction has been well regarded for its veracity, its verisimilitude. But Faulkner was never a dead woman (as far as we know—maybe you should Google it?) and Jennifer Egan never a music producer. Why are they allowed to write compelling characters with impunity? Oh, because they called it fiction first? [Pauses to reach for the glass of Picpoul de Pinet on the proverbial mantle.] Mmm. Don’t ask why Jennifer Egan came to mind.
I liked A Visit to the Goon Squad. I didn’t love it as much as everyone else did. I don’t really remember anything about it. You, on the other hand, recall more of Nasdijj’s first book years after reading it.
Yeah, I do. I still think it holds up as excellent fiction or nonfiction. Jill teaches a Native American lit course, in which she used to teach Nasdijj and still teaches Sherman Alexie, and I wanted her to have the students read a chapter of Nasdijj alongside one of Alexie’s and see which told a better story. The students, of course, would have no idea who Nasdijj was, since students Google everything else except for details about a reading on the syllabus. She never tried it, but I have a feeling Nasdijj would have won. And after the vote, Jill could reveal Nasdijj’s true identity (whatever that means) to the class at the end, which would cause them to reconsider their adherence to arbitrary notions. [Pause.] We’d actually selected a new essay of his for the anthology. This was before the controversy—the fact of which was actually helpful in pitching the anthology—but we were still planning on including him after it. Ultimately, we had to make some cuts to the manuscript based on how well certain pieces fit. (I.e., how well the university press editorial board felt certain pieces fit.) Ironic, I guess, that we’d have to lose Nasdijj, because his work, to my mind, is the epitome of friction. He wasn’t pleased we’d had to cut him. But he and I continued to correspond periodically, and at one point he read parts of Vintage Attraction that I’d been struggling with and offered pretty useful and supportive feedback.
What have you read recently that you loved?
I’ve read many things I’ve liked, none of which I can think of right now. But Alissa Nutting’s Tampa I loved. In addition to being such a provocative story, there were so many hilarious lines. And, though not recently, a collection of Tama Janowitz’s essays called Area Code 212.
I remember you actually annoying someone else in the room with your incessant laughter while reading the Janowitz book. Vintage Attraction is a comedy. A rom-com, as they say.
Why do you say it like that? Why is “romantic comedy” a bad term? I do think the novel is a comedy, in the ancient Greek sense. The hero (I hate that term) gets what he wants. I mean . . . maybe gets what he wants? Did I give away too much?
You’re into humor now?
I mean, I can’t even think of the last serious and depressing novel I read. I don’t really watch dramas on TV. I don’t watch much TV. I guess a lot of what I’ve read recently you wouldn’t call serious books. But you read (and watch) what it is you want to write (and get right while writing), and I’ve spent the last few years revising this new novel, which I’d largely come to see as entertainment, so the texts that surrounded me were more lighthearted, I guess. I think a lot of the revision process for me was trying to figure out how to get the work not to take itself too seriously.
What TV shows do you watch?
Mostly Barefoot Contessa, on Food Network, which perhaps is strange, especially considering I don’t know how to cook.
Sweet or savory?
Red or white?
Both! Is this the speed round?
Rachael Ray or Guy Fieri?
What’s the difference?
Handwrite or type?
I don’t know. Both?
Old 90210 or new 90210?
Why don’t I just buy the ten-season boxed set of the former already? I’ve missed having two episodes each day since SOAPnet vanished. Four of the five seasons of the latter are on my streaming Netflix, which I’ve been working through. I’m up to episode 74.
Favorite pizza place in Chicago? Thin crust or deep dish? Toppings?
Why do you care? Are you asking me out? And shouldn’t you know this?
I do. You’re a fan of garbage pizza from the Medici. Mainly because the term amuses you, and the pizza reminds you of your childhood.
What do you think about it?
About what? Garbage pizza?
No. What do you think about the new book?
I told you I liked it. I think it’s your best work to date, Grover.
Ding. Kicking and Screaming. Is this entire interview one endless, circuitous inside joke? You’re obviously being hyperbolic, but I’ll take the compliment. Did you even read this book?
Yes! No. I’ll order a copy on Amazon right now. Will that make you happy?
I wouldn’t object.
CHARLES BLACKSTONE is the author of the novels Vintage Attraction and The Week You Weren’t Here and the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together, an anthology. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire‘s Napkin Fiction Project (the piece was also selected for the &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Fiction anthology), Lewis University’s Jet Fuel Review, and the University of Maine’s Stolen Island. His short plays have been produced by Victory Gardens and Lifeline Theaters. In 2011, Blackstone was named Managing Editor of Bookslut.
Blackstone holds degrees from University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Colorado, where he directed the Graduate Reading Series and received a Barker Award for fiction. Blackstone has taught at Colorado, Wright College, The University of Chicago’s Graham School, and Shimer College. He lives in Chicago with Alpana Singh, a master sommelier, and Haruki Murakami, a pug.