Interview with: William Giraldi
When did you realize you wanted to write?
I was a teenager when writing decided to choose me. My family tells me I was writing little stories about the death of animals when I was a small child. I wish I had had some say in what I turned out to be because I would have chosen musician or sports hero or military man or something sexy. I never made a decision to write: why would I? It’s an awful life: alone in a room, rejection letters in the mailbox every day, no money to speak of. Plus it’s difficult to do well, and frustrating, and time consuming, and I mostly hate everything about it. But some of us don’t have a choice in what we are. I continue to do it because I’m at the point now where I can make extra money every year writing for different magazines and journals, and a handful of editors and readers seem to think I’m pretty okay at it. Plus I don’t know how to do anything else. I wish I did.
Have you ever attempted to write fiction? If so, how is the writing of nonfiction different from the writing of fiction?
Yes indeed, half of my work is fiction. My first book, coming out next year from W.W. Norton, is a novel called Busy Monsters. The difference between writing fiction and creative nonfiction is that in fiction you have to tell the truth and in creative nonfiction you have to lie. I’m serious.
Where do you get your ideas?
I don’t have any real ideas, sadly. I have shameful feelings and ruined emotions, and I go from there. I have characters who are in trouble and I let them try to work it out on the page, let them bleed a little. Any ideas that a reader might gleam from my fiction and creative nonfiction are purely coincidental. My critical nonfiction, however, is driven by ideas, yes: ideas I get from the literature I study, the books that inform my life. Half of my publications are critical essays on books or writers or some aspect of literature. I’m just a reader who writes, someone who needs to have a conversation in print about Homer and Milton and Hopkins.
Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, what do you do?
Lord, no. I wish I did. I’d go on vacation or do something fun. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to write the stories and essays I have stored in my ribcage. If I were ever stricken with writer’s block and absolutely needed to get a project done, I’d probably just chain myself to my desk and pound the keys like a chimp until something coherent came out. If you have an active enough engagement with the world, and aren’t suffering from a mental illness that prevents clarity or coherence, you shouldn’t be blocked. Easy for me to say, of course. I’ve never had it.
How would you describe your writing process?
The process differs from project to project, whether I’m writing a story or a novel, a memoir or a personal essay, a book review or a long critical evaluation. (And of course the process has become even more erratic since our son arrived on earth last July. He tries to climb up my chair.) Actually, the shifting process might keep me from getting bored. For example, I just finished an essay about the birth of my son, Ethan, and I wrote it at night, after his bedtime, for about 20 or 30 minutes at a stretch, and after several months it was finished. The essay ended up being about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and John Stuart Mill, oddly enough, although Ethan is there too. Weird thing. But I recently revised the novel for my editor at Norton and I did those revisions in the mornings when my wife would take Ethan out for several hours: to the museum, to the bookstore, to a gallery, running errands, what have you. The two pieces I recently did for the New York Times Book Review I did in the afternoons on weekends. That seemed to work fine. But maybe by “process” you don’t mean time of day. Well, my approach to any given project differs, yes. If I’m working on a critical assessment of a single writer— for example I recently published a long piece on the Southern writer William Gay in Southern Review—then I do nothing but immerse myself in that writer for months. My attention is easily diverted, so I need focus. Plus I’m lazy, so I need to force the discipline.
How do you choose what to write about?
The themes or subjects choose me, actually. I’ve written only about those situations or thinkers or problems that have climbed into my heart and head when I wasn’t looking and then set up shop there, where they proceeded to bang pots and light fires. The only way I can get them to vacate the premises of my heart and head is to write about them, spit them out. The death of my father, for instance: he was killed in a motorcycle crash when I was twenty-five years old, and the only way I managed to survive that hell was to start writing: first I wrote a not-very-good story called “Bootlaces,” and then I began writing a very long essay that ended up in The Believer, the first piece I did for them, called “Let There Be Darkness: In Defense of Depressing Literature,” an examination of inner darkness from the Greeks on up.
Tell me about your revision process.
I’ll tell you that I hate it. For me, the miniscule bliss found in writing is found in the initial “happiness of getting it down,” to use either Frank O’Connor’s or William Maxwell’s phrase, I forget—The Happiness of Getting it Down Right is the title of their correspondence, an indispensable volume for anyone who cares about language. Revision for me is work, and since I have chronic indolence, work does not sound very nice to me. Right now I have sitting here on my desk an essay I did on the writer George Singleton for Georgia Review, and it has the editor’s suggestions and demands all over it, and it’s been sitting here for days and days because I’m too lazy to make all those rearrangements and deletions, until I force myself with something like a Herculean will. Actually, I quite enjoyed revising my novel for my editor but only because the revisions were not changes but additions, and I can make additions easily enough. I just hate to rewrite what is already there, or rearrange what is already there. Why? Because when the words don’t fall properly, when they don’t come out right, then what happens is the opposite of happiness. And who doesn’t always try to avoid the opposite of happiness?
What themes or concepts keep reoccurring in your writing?
The crucified Christ. I’m not kidding. I’m a lapsed Catholic, and as I’ve written elsewhere, a lapsed Catholic is the most ardent Catholic of all. Almost everything about me can be explained by Christ’s crucified flesh. That sounds awfully dramatic for a lazy guy.
What is your inspiration or motivation to keep writing?
I never feel inspired or motivated really, not in the way you mean, unless I’m motivated by a paycheck because an editor has offered to pay me $800 for an essay, and Ethan spends my money like you wouldn’t believe. He’s only eight months old and he already spends my money like it gives him great pleasure. Dr. Johnson said only a fool writes for anything other than money, and although he himself was too awkward to have a family, he was speaking about family men and women. I’ll tell you why I don’t feel inspiration: because it’s a terribly Romantic feeling, one that presupposes that writing is holy and transformative, and I don’t believe that anymore. I used to, when I began this gig at nineteen years old, but over a decade in the world of literature has disabused me of any fanciful notions connected to writing. I no longer believe that one’s writing can alter civilization, that it is possible to become a Shakespeare or a Goethe. I can only hope to reach a handful of generous people who don’t mind my running on at the mouth, and that hope doesn’t take inspiration. It takes free time.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
I would like to say, Do yourself a favor and take up badminton instead. Or basket weaving. Anything but this. As Sartre said of atheism, writing is a cruel and long-term affair. But maybe the best advice I can give is: read. Read the best of everything written, from every century of recorded history. Educate yourself in the classics, build your foundation, and most of all, be kind to your fellow humans. If you are not kind then you must be bitter, and bitterness will ruin your writing the way a prostitute ruins a wedding.
What is the most useful and least useful writing advice you ever received?
The most useful advice has always come from the diaries and letters and journals of great writers. Rilke’s letters were pivotal for me. Hemingway’s too. I learned from them that one must have audacity and resilience to become a writer, and also a little bit of pigheadedness in concert with a healthy ego. The most useless advice: write every day. For me, writing every day can be like checking my face in the mirror every hour, and some days I look too heinous to do that.
How often do you write?
A few times a week, for maybe a total of eight or ten hours. Remember I teach fulltime and have fifty new students each semester. My students are maybe the reason I don’t write more: they take up a ton of my time, in the classroom, at my office, on campus, on email and the telephone. And I wouldn’t have it any other way: pardon the cliché, but they keep me young (by which I mean interested: they keep me interested in the world, keep me from becoming an exhausted old man, even though they are themselves exhausting for me).
Whose writing do you admire most?
The greats, always the greats. My range is really limited. I’m spottily read after the nineteenth century, and I’m trying to change that. But I find myself going back to the same writers and thinkers again and again because I’m desperate to understand everything about them: Homer and Freud, Donne and Wordsworth, Hopkins and Byron, Augustine and Sade. For some reason I think I’ll find something valuable in them about myself if I keep at it, keep turning those pages. Sometimes I do, and when I do, I start over and try again. I have a hermetic life. I don’t mind it at all.
Where do you write?
Right here, at my desk, in my library, in my home, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Where else? Starbucks? If you put me in a Starbucks and gave me seven days and nights to come up with a single coherent sentence I would emerge having disappointed you terribly.
What influenced you to write “This Kingdom”?
A really destructive relationship with a woman who had two young children. I was gruesomely depressed during that relationship and when it ended I was unstrung. My time with her was what people call a rebound, because I had just come out of a five-year relationship with a woman I thought I would marry, and when she left me I moved back home to New Jersey from Boston. The black bile coursing through me was so thick I didn’t think I would survive it. I jumped into a new relationship and the two young children made me feel as if I had purpose again, but it was a ruse, a sick comedy, because I was in no condition to play father when pieces of me were shattered. The essay came from that: from wreckage. What else? Always the wreckage.
What did you want your readers to take from the story?
Heal thyself. Don’t pretend. Don’t mask. Put the broken pieces of you on the table and begin to reassemble them. Don’t bring other people into your mess until that mess is a hell of a lot less messy.
In the story you say “to me my mother’s departure felt very much like death.” Could you explain?
My mother abandoned my father and my siblings and me when I was just a child, and for a child to lose his mother to a different life with a different man, a man who is not his father, then that child is going to feel unhinged, broken in a dozen regions. She was there one day, and then she wasn’t. Death isn’t always about a body in a grave. As Hopkins said of Christ, death plays in ten thousand places. When my mother died recently, by suicide, if affected me almost not at all, because she had been dead to me for decades.
How did your upbringing mold you into the person you are today?
My upbringing molded me the same way yours molded you, the same way as with everyone: we do not escape our childhoods. We try, and we con ourselves into thinking we are our own people, but no one can outpace his childhood. The seeds of our future are planted in those early years. Freud said give me the child until he is six and I will give you the man. I believe that, and not because I feel it to be true, but because I see it every day in my own life. I want people to like me, to accept me, and maybe even to praise me, and that’s an awful way to be because I often end up being very disappointed indeed. It hurts my feelings when someone isn’t fond of me, and so I try to be kind and fair, but it’s not always possible.
You mention the “cocaine-like internet” and the “mind-numbing video games,” do you regret not growing up with those things?
Lord, no. I fear for the youth of today and their lack of love for books. I’m still naïve enough to believe that literature makes better people, that a life of reading books is superior to a life of illuminated screens. Literature is about emotional truths, about increasing the capacity of your heart and mind and allowing you a greater empathy for your fellow humans. My son Ethan will be a reader, I hope. He mightn’t have a choice, what with a house full of books. I pray he doesn’t turn into a writer, but I would love to see him become a musician or stage actor. My wife and I are going to try our best.
In “This Kingdom” you said you kept a book on the nightstand “as if the information would be magically transported into my cranium while I slept.” Do you still find yourself doing that?
Every day. I sit in my library once a day and look at the walls of books, thousands of books, and sometimes I touch them and smell them, as if, yes, the information in their pages will enter me and heal me. Of course I have to read them, I know, but I love the book as an object, the way it feels in my hands, its shape and scent and weight. It’s a perfect invention. What’s better than a book?
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