Susan Settlemyre Williams: This is Susan Williams. I am in the MFA program in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University. It's Thursday, March 14, 2002, I'm in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I'm talking with George Garrett.
In your book, The King of Babylon Shall Not Come Against You, one of the characters, Moe Katz, says, ". . . to be a cynic implies that there is some standard of truth (however camouflaged and hidden) against which the validity and viability of images must be tried and tested. To believe that there is anything, any core, behind and within the superficial appearance of a given image is, de facto, a confession of folly" [p. 181]. Is this a way of saying that cynicism is at heart a sort of disappointed idealism?
George Garrett: Well, that's on my mind. You know, about the time that I wrote thatthis has just suddenly come to me in a way, because I hadn't really thought about that particular passage in a whilebut I do know that more than one speaker who came to the University of Virginia during the period that I was working on this book had the statement that there was too much cynicism in America today. We must stamp it out, and this would be part of the educational process, etc. And I listened to this several times, and then I ended up on a panel with one of these people, it was a Washington Post guy, very nice fellow, but he started in on the necessity of fighting back against cynicism. Cynicism was the great enemy of all things. And I heard myself defending it: We didn't have enough cynicism, that what we needed was more, a more acute sensitivity; and I guess I let some of that get into Moe Katz's defense of the cynical attitude toward things, that it does imply that things should be better, if you're cynical about them. And it implies an acceptance of things as they are, I think, if you are not, if you feel that, as he said, that there is no core. So I think your question is a very good one, because it's insoluble situation; but if we did not have an ideal, then there would be no such thing as something being cynical.
SSW: The question of whether there is a standard of truth, camouflaged and hidden however it may be, seems to come up often in your writing. Would you say that this is an important issue for you? Would you say that you are, as a writer, a seeker after that standard, as some of your characters seem to be?
GG: I'll have to look back at that. That's what interests me about characters, anyway, is their relationship to, not only the inner truth of themselves, but the outward and visible truth of the world that they deal with, and that we live in an age in which much in both areas is truncated and suppressed. I've just been reading a book that's a bestseller right nowit's a nonfiction book. I'm sorry to say that it's not very terrifically good, it's not very well-written but the content is rather interesting. It's called Bias, by this fellow who worked forBernard Goldberg, who worked for CBS News for quite a while and then has become cynical about it and has written this. But it's quite clear to me, for example, that it's impossible . . . Here we are living in the Information Age, and exemplary of that is the very equipment that we're using right now, with that kind of really fancy little digital tape recorder and a microphone, all of these things . . . We are in the Information Age. But what if the information isn't any good? I've been wondering about that. Just as I do . . . Let's use the computer to look up everything on cynicism. But what if they didn't put everything on there? We're used to the fact that our information comes to us in various forms; but, if it comes from television, it comes in a sound bite. And that doesn't take us anywhere. If it takes more than aas all these people, Mr. Goldberg reminds us tooif it takes more than a minute, one minute, to deal with, it's too complicated for television anyway. So it's never gonna be on there.
SSW: That was one of Jimmy Carter's problems.
GG: Absolutely, I think. And he never did accept the notion, for which we can be gratefulbut he never did accept the notion the whole world is a series of sound bites and misquotations.
SSW: I wonder if it's getting worse now with the Internet, because, so often when you surf the Web, you have no notion of the bona fides of what you find.
GG: It seems a very hard way to find new information, because obviously anything that ends up, as it were, stored on the computer and accessible has got to be old information that someone has typed in and put into the machines. What about the things that are not? In the discovery of truth we need to be finding what's not readily accessible and available and what may be more complicated than requiring one minute.
SSW: Another question I had is that many of your narrators express a strong sense of irony, even sarcasm. That's certainly true for the narrator of "Empty Bed Blues." As a reader, I'm tempted to give slightly more credence to a clearly ironic narrator, maybe because he seems smarter than a naïve narrator. How do you see sarcasm working in your stories?
GG: Maybe one of the first things to say is that the sarcasm isn't necessarily what I meant; they frequently take a sarcastic stance vis-à-vis something. And I think what I'm really interested in isand maybe this comes to your point, the point that a sarcastic narrator is not necessarily an unreliable narrator. Sarcasm is a rhetorical device. We know when other people are being sarcastic with us most of the time. It is usually considered, in social intercourse and relations, a sign of being slow of wit not to know when someone is being sarcastic with you. On the other hand, to be too sensitive to the sarcasm of others is to be paranoid. Nevertheless, it's out there. But in no case is a sarcastic narrator or speaker, in a social situation, necessarily an untruthful one or an unreliable one.
SSW: I guess that's my question. If he's sarcastic, I recognize his sarcasm.
GG: You trust the narrator more than you might, and I've been fascinated by this technically and in reading the work of other people a lot, how narrators establish themselves as being worthwhile or worth listening to and the extent to which we trust them. They have that "reliability." Lots of people, when we start with a first-person narratorand this is not necessarily true in any other formbut when we do an "I" story, almost always, as a reader, we are willing to give the narrator and also the author, the benefit of the doubt at the outset. Just as when we meet somebody for the first time, we have a first impression, but we're not necessarilyunless we are a little crazycompletely judgmental at the outset. We withhold judgment and tend to give them, the first-person narrator, the benefit of the doubt. The first-person narrator proves thenand this comes up against experienceand may prove to be untrustworthy, unreliable, or just not capable of dealing with the experience. So it has to be-it gets testedand we can change. We are slow.
You know, with first-person narratorsand this has always interested methat in the nineteenth century, ghost stories are mostly first-person. Because we believe it if an "I" narrator says it. And anything that pushes or stretches credulity becomes probably more acceptable from a first-person narrator than the third-person narrator whom we see walking along perceiving this.
SSW: Some of your stories are collages.
GG: It's just a stance that I take. I remember a friend of mine belonged to Walker Percy's book club; they had a book club, and they would meet and discuss serious things. On one occasion, my friend said, "Next week one of the stories we're going to talk about is a story of yours." I said, "Great, let me know how it turned out." I've always liked Mr. Percy personally, but I've never had any idea of what his attitude is. Well, this was a story in whichit's a relatively simple onewhere you start with a truck driver at the wheel is the point of view, third-person. And he has picked up a man who's hitchhiking. He has to let him off, and the man doesn't want to get off, but he's not going the right direction at this point. So you leave the truck driverhe more or less pushes the man out of the truck and he drives off, headed to Knoxville or somewhere. The man that was in the truck is left stamping up and down, being annoyed, andit's at nightwaiting for another ride to come along. And you have just some sense you're in his consciousness. And the third person is the salesman that picks the guy up an hour or so later and has a different take on the whole thing and ultimately drops him off in a town because he too is nervous about him in a different way. And you're left with a final point of view which also is a revelation of who he is and what he's been up to, of the man who had been the rider in both cases. Basically it's like a baton in a race; they keep passing this point of view to each other. It's a little bit like movie-shooting; in other words, you stay with where the camera is. The camera is on the truck driver, the rider, the salesman, the rider, and then this is where it ends.
Well, he said that in the course of the discussion about this, Percy pointed out that you are absolutely forbidden to do this. He said what's wrong with this story is that you can't do that, you're not allowed to change in third-person from one point of view to another. And I realized, in a way he's right, but my own thing was to try to get away with it. And it was really about the story, I suppose, now that we've really been talking about these things, about how little you can know with a stranger that you pick up or vice versa. How little you can know of the truth of the other person. The reader always knows a little more than the people involved.
SSW: Did you choose the third-person because of that?
GG: I think I started out to write it all in the first-person, but it sort of revealed the problems of the hitchhiker quicker than I intended to do, and finally that became the whole story: for the reader to discern what had really happened and what was going on. Why this person was on the road, what was driving him. Something I've never done reallya little bitjust lately I've been reading in both fiction and nonfiction, which gets to be kind of interesting since it's a fictional techniquethird-person point of view in which the point of view is not the author's but is not . . . it slips into something very close to first-person, sort of in the middle of things. It'll start out withit's a little bit like what Virginia Woolf does, there, with Mrs. Dalloway, where she's walking along, and all of sudden it still is a narratorsomebody is putting this story togetherbut without ever saying, "This is what she thought," the very narrative represents her mental process.
What was exciting to see this in nonfiction was people like . . . I've just been doing a piece on three prominent women writers who had collections of essays outJoan Didion, Renata Adler, and Susan Sontagand all three of them do this thing in the nonfiction. They'll be talking about Gordon Liddy or Nixon orthey're all political essays or artistic things in the case of Susan Sontag this timebut in almost every case, they don't really slip in like the fellow who did the biography of Reagan, pretend to be there or anything, but they do suddenlysuddenly you're in the mental pattern as if that person is writing this. As if G. Gordon Liddy were writing the rest of this paragraph. I remembered having seen two writers in my lifetime who did this very well, but I've sort of forgotten it in the interim. One was D. H. Lawrence. Understanding that makes his work a little easier to accept; it sounds like he's blowing his horn for all kinds of irrelevantto the story lineideas. But actually he's giving you the thought process of his characters in third-person. Similarly, James Gould Cozzens wrote about professions, about law and doctoring, even one about an Episcopal minister; and in every case he uses the language and the thought process that they would use to tell the stories. He's picked it up as author.
SSW: It makes it problematic, I think, with nonfiction.
GG: Yeah, it does, very much with nonfiction
SSW: The unreliable narrator is a pretty familiar character in your novels and short stories, including "Empty Bed Blues." Some of the novels are a sort of mosaic of scenes and episodes told by a succession of unreliable characters. I'm curious, when you use this technique as often as you do, are you saying something about the nature of truth and perception or the nature of storytelling or something else altogether?
GG: Well, it may be something else altogether. I guess the first two things you said are the elements that interest me the most. Inevitably, all of these figures or narrators, reliable or unreliable or to whatever extent reliable, are limited and isolated in their view of what is, in fact, true. They perceive things but are not necessarily good reporters of what they perceive and also don't necessarily understand what it is that they perceive.
SSW: As a follow-up, when you come to the end of one of your works, do you want the careful reader to be saying, "Now I know what really happened"?
GG: But there's not one version. I tend to thinkmaybe that it comes across more clearly in that novel you were talking about, because it's kind of evolved out of a lot of other stories and novels written earlier. So everything comes together that I've been interested inin narrative technique in that oneand in time. I was particularly interested in fooling around with time. My thought on this was that there is no single version of what happened; or, on a larger scale, the implication is, I guess, that 'way out in the nation or in the world the same thing applies to what was happening in this little town, that there is no absolute version: this is the way it went. There are all these [versions], and they all have to be taken together with the ones that we don't see.
SSW: So that was why so much of Martin Luther King's assassination was worked in and out?
GG: Right. As an event in itself, it partakes of the similar. Now I honestly don't know whether I was saying, in the book or to myself or whatever, that that's a characteristic peculiar to our age. I don't know that. It could be that it's a characteristic peculiar to our age, that all events are more matters ofpublic events and then this is affected privatelyare matters of image rather than "reality." That there is no "reality."
SSW: I wouldn't consider your writing to be exactly Postmodern, but the slipperiness of events does make the reader aware that she or he is being manipulated and therefore calls attention to the writing itself, in something of the same metafictional way as the Postmodernists are doing. I'm quoting here from my class notes on a course on Thomas Pynchon, terms like "problematized narrative voice," "contradictory characters," "ambiguity," "violation of the boundaries between fiction and reality." Those seem to describe your work to some extent as well. So how do you see yourself in relation?
GG: That I don't really know the answer to. I'm conscious that lots of writers, going all the way back to Chaucer and then to the Classical writers, did some of these same things that have been around a long time, that are discovered in the more obvious use of some of these devices by brilliant writers like Pynchon orone I think of is John Barth, who is very good at this too and a lot of fun. However, they are not by any means the first. The history of literary events and influences is not a matter of progressive, Darwinian time. There are a couple of thingsand this I was fooling around with, in a way, in that novel, in a different way: All past time, looked at in one way, from one point of view, all past time is simultaneous, not progressive, not developing. The Elizabethan idea that we're decaying rather than progressing has a sound scientific basis, if you wanted to accept that notion. We're wearing out, we're polluting, destroying, and coming to the end of things another million years down the line if not helped along earlier. So, there's that to consider.
SSW: How about one more question, since I'm in an MFA program and you taught writing for a long time? What do you think about the teaching of writing?
GG: One of the big questions that they've been asking for as long as I can remember, and it's an old, tired, cliché question, but they keep asking everybody connected with creative writing: "Yes, but can writing be taught?" You must've run into that all your life.
GG: I have too, and I don't know why they keep asking that question. In answering it, sometimes we get some interesting ideas to kick around.
SSW: They don't ask that about art classes.
GG: Very, very few peopleperhaps, I have no idea, I meanbut certainly with musical instruments and other things, just pick up a cello and become a cellist and end up playing in Carnegie Hallthat just doesn't happen. They, first of all, don't think that what we're doing is the same thing. They think of us not so much as an art but some kind of a habit, a bad habit too, a wasteful one like golf or something. It's really kind of pointless and golf would be better. You spend your time better doing it. They do think that way about it. They also don't realize how many cello players, thousands in the United States right now and only a small number of them. . . . We are, I gather, incidentally speaking of music, filling up the orchestras around the world with young American musicians. They're in the Frankfurt Symphony and Vienna, and our musicians are everywhere. But thousands who learn because of nice programs in school, in high school and junior high school, and playing the flute, playing the trombone.. . .
My granddaughter, it ended upshe's in a little public middle school, and in middle school they lined up and handed out instruments. "You're going be a trombonist. You're going to play the flute. You're playing the drums." And she had fun, so forth and so on. She's going to be a better person with a better understanding of music. There's nothing to help you understand it so much, music or any of the other arts, as having tried your hand at it. They don't understand, the people who question the value of teaching reading and writing on the level that we do, they simply don't understand that a valuable thing need not necessarily lead to stardom, fame, or major contributions to American literature. We were just talking about this, but they don't see the need to defend learning to play the trombone in the high school band when you're not going to go and be a famous trombonist, that it's still part of the education. So we start with a base of that kind, and then I think we get much more interested in the things we were talking about, really fascinating things about writing. How to make things work, tell a story in the best possible way.
SSW: Thank you very much for talking with me today.