Allan Gurganus: Mysterious Algebra
Author: William Johnson
September 28, 2013
“I think humanity and empathy are the real watchwords of fiction. I see very little of that in contemporary writing. I see a lot of detachment from the characters. I see a lot of irony. I see a lot of design and distancing.”
Celebrated writer Allan Gurganus, author of the bestselling novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, recently released a new collection titled Local Souls. The collection, composed of three novellas, provides a lyrical snapshot of the foibles and passions of the denizens of a particular contemporary American South—a South of large turned-out estates, anointed country clubs, and often deeply felt, but repressed, desire. With both pathos and humor, Gurganus mines these characters’ lives, along with hot button topics such as adultery, incest, and same-sex desire.
Gurganus recently spoke with Lambda Literary Review about writing Local Souls, the new South, and the unquantifiable importance of empathy.
It’s been almost a decade since your last book. What have you been up to?
I have been writing this book and two more. I just changed publishers from Knopf to Liveright [an imprint of Norton]. After this book, Liveright will bring out a collection of twenty stories that have never been put between covers before, and after that, a long novel that is a companion piece to Oldest Living Confederate Widow.
I get up and work every day. I get up around six in the morning and work till two in the afternoon. I have stories stacked up in my house. Clearly, I make a distinction between writing and publishing (laughs).
I think writing is essential. It’s in my life’s blood. It’s like dreaming; I can’t stop doing it. It is just a necessary part of my existence. Publishing is secondary for me and I sometimes forget to harvest.
I published Oldest Living Confederate Widow when I was forty-two. That was my first book. So I am a prodigy that is also a late bloomer. I am also very conscious of not wanting to publish something that is not first-rate or the best that I can possibly do.
Were you hesitant to present your new collection of novellas to your editor? Did you feel it was ready?
I felt they were pretty close. And my editor really feels that novellas are of interest to the reading public right now. It used to be that novellas and short stories were the red-headed step-children of the publishing world; they were always secondary to the long novel.
More and more people are realizing that the short-story, as invented by Edgar Allan Poe, is as much of an American invention as jazz and tap-dancing and that it is uniquely suited for the way we live now. Peter Taylor said, “It is a form that can be picked up after dinner and finished by bedtime.” I think it is ideal, for better or worse, for the stop and start way we currently live.
What do you feel the short story and novella can do that is not possible in other literary forms?
I am particularly interested in the subject of obsession. I feel that all three novellas [in Local Souls] are about obsessive loves and obsessive relationships. The streamlining that the novella makes possible is that you can eliminate the second and third tier characters and simply concentrate on an overarching theme like obsession, from beginning to end. I really think it makes for a great reading experience.
I wanted to ask you about the tone of these stories—and you can correct me if I am wrong. They seem at once slightly satirical and very humane. These two aesthetics seem to be running side-by-side. The stories contain some humorous critiques of the “New South,” but they are all infused with a real sense of empathy.
I would say there is a comic vision. I think satire is a lower form of humor than what I practice. Satire is all about sending up fallible forms and making fun of pretension or opacity. Comedy, on the other hand, is an acknowledgement that existence is a kind of unified fallible dance, a kind of lyrical ridiculous dance. Comedy is based on the word “komos,” which means a village ritual or pageant. A comic vision is, in a way, a choreographer’s vision, which is to say we are all “head to toe” in some kind of humorous dancing relationship with each other.
I think humanity and empathy are the real watchwords of fiction. I see very little of that in contemporary writing. I see a lot of detachment from the characters. I see a lot of irony. I see a lot of design and distancing.
I’m the eldest of four sons. I am very much the eldest child who feels responsible for other people no matter if they like it or not. I think one of the reasons many of us write fiction is so that we can invent people that we can then take care of. I am dedicated to being a fair landlord and creator to my fictional characters.
In this collection you really investigate the lives of a certain “New South” white upper class—full of handsome adored doctors, Jane Austen book clubs, and cocktail mixers. Is this a world you are part of? Or were you coming at as an outsider looking in?
Those are my people. That is the world I was born into. It is an easy class to make fun of but my challenge, as a writer, is to explore what’s new in this world and show the reader, and myself, how urgent and emotional life can be even with a little margin of comfort. I think the fact that a doctor went to Yale does not make his dying patients any easier to bear.
It’s a fascinating realm because white folks are better at keeping their secrets than almost anybody else. White Protestants have code names and firewalls built between them and the kind of reality they are secretly facing. If you, as a writer, can break through that wall and break that code then you hit some amazing territory. That is what I am trying do in this collection.
And this collection exclusively features contemporary characters. There are no stories from the 19th century this time around.
Yes, I have worked happily in the 19th century, but I am fascinated by how people live now. The Internet very much plays a role in all these stories. How people take all their secrets and problems to the web and try to find help there. It was fascinating for me, having tried to be a poet of the 19th century South, how the new South is unlike or like the [old South].
Things have obviously changed, but other mores and attitudes…not so much.
It’s very continuous with the original patterns. But you certainly find people online pretending to be members of other genders and people getting guns, and dildos, and all sort of things mailed to them in brown paper bags –with Amazon, no shipping charges (laughs). I think it enriches the mix rather than stopping the old patterns.
Can you talk a little bit about “Decoy,” a story in this collection about male love that only hints at homoerotic desire?
I was very interested in how male friendship has been underrepresented in fiction. I was also very interested in creating a male character who is deeply in love with another man, but can’t quite ever fully express those feeling till the end of his life. This story is a strange instance of hero worship and dependency because the one character with these feelings, Bill, is dependent on the object of his feelings, Doc Roper, for his life’s blood. It’s a sort of a heartsick lovelorn relationship. Bill is literately imperiled by a heart disease that only the doctor can seem to stave off. I think the story achieves a kind of mysterious lyrical quality that could have been ruined by an overt hand on the genitals or hand on the leg. I think one lives in relation to people that they love without ever having full sexual contact and yet those relationships can have tremendous gravity and have a central importance in one’s life.
What is your writing process like? Do you spend a lot of time mapping out your story arcs?
John Cheever, my old fiction teacher, used to say, “Fiction is a force of memory improperly understood.” So when you are writing something on full cylinders it does not feel that you are making things up; it feels like you are uncovering things, like the way an archaeologist uses a fine camelhair brush to brush sand off a tomb inscription, for instance. It’s very cryptic and mysterious. The longer I write the more faith I have in the unconscious.
Does the writing get easier for you as you get older?
I would not say it is easier. I am more assured. I would say it’s like a woodcutter—you know where the axe is going and how to most effectively chop the log, even as your back strength may be weakened by time. You do know the texture of the work better. Writing remains extremely suspenseful, entertaining, and surprising and that is what keeps me coming back. I mean, it is such a difficult thing—to take twenty-six letters of the English alphabet and turn them into something that will make people laugh and cry, or get hungry, or feel sick, or get horny, or whatever. I want to do all those things in every story. It is kind of like a mysterious algebra that language can still do that to us.
We recently interviewed the gay historian Martin Duberman and he pointed out that gay people need to acknowledge that our outsider status has really shaped our perception, in terms of how we view the world, the church, power structures, and our aesthetics. Do you feel your gayness has influenced your aesthetics and world view?
Absolutely, it is tremendously important. In terms of the church, which I grew up in, I have preachers on both sides of my family–my father was a lay minster. The shaming of gay people, and not just of homosexual people but of sexual people, is outrageous. Whenever I see these photos of beautiful kids who have been bullied at school and have committed suicide I always imagine the role that the church has had in these situations. I am very cognizant of the role the church plays in encouraging other kids to ostracize and crucify these gay youth. It makes me sad and sick.
How has gayness shaped your aesthetics—in terms of your writing?
Beauty is extraordinarily important. For someone who does not believe in a curatorial God who is looking after us, I have taken the responsibility to shape my own ethics, and those ethics include making something that is beautiful and admirable. With my writing, I am really trying to create something that is admirable. I am really trying to create a thing of beauty.
Photo: Allan Gurganus
Photo credit: Roger Haile