The Rumpus Interview with Frederick Barthelme
His newest characters get to make Miley Cyrus allusions and talk about Scandinavian television you can stream on Netflix. But as always, everything is closely observed: used car lots, emails from the home owners association, the difference between women’s and men’s T-shirts, those pain-shocker gadgets, the way no one says “Hey now!” anymore (except those who do). All of this is filtered through the perspective of Wallace Webster, a middle-aged architect who manages both an ironic detachment and a stronger-than-expected emotional connection to these bits of American life.
When the novel begins, Webster has been let go from his job (at Point Blank, one of the many funny and appropriate names and titles in this book) and is now living in a condo in a development called Forgetful Bay. He finds himself and the community suddenly slammed with crises: car crashes, madcap art project attacks with blue paint, acquaintances that become criminals, apparent suicides, and a mysterious disappearance. The mysteries and chaotic events in this novel are recounted with the same interest given to the buttering of Wallace’s Premium Saltines. All of this is woven in with clever conversations with friends, ex-wives, girlfriends, and daughters about art, architecture, pop culture, and the news. The entire work ends in a crescendo that reminds us of where all of this reality we experience is heading.
There Must Be Some Mistake follows eleven other Barthelme novels (including Second Marriage, Natural Selection, The Brothers, Bob the Gambler, and Elroy Nights), four short story collections, and a memoir (Double Down, co-written with his brother Steven). This is the first novel he has published since moving to Florida, where he edits the online magazine New World Writing. Until 2010, he taught at and directed the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. This is where we met him, fifteen years or so ago, when we were tiny.
At some point before we got there, Rick created the now-famous list for students called “The 39 Steps” that captured his approach to writing, including, “We can’t care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself.” He emphasized genuineness at the expense of cleverness, and suggested that we insert the unexpected turns and oddball detail that life offers. (“Make up a story, screw around with it, paste junk on it, needle the characters, make them say queer stuff, go bad places, insert new people at inopportune moments, do some drive-bys.”)
Conducting the interview that follows, after all these years, felt a little like being back in graduate school. There were jokes, there was teasing, we felt young again, we were scolded because our questions were wrong and had to be redirected appropriately. But ultimately, we got what we needed.
The Rumpus: We imagine TV shows had some influence on There Must Be Some Mistake. Some of them are mentioned by name. There’s a line about the police stuff in this book being “oddly reassuring. Like your life imitating television.” It seemed like these characters were aching to be on a TV show, but they never quite get it. Would this novel, or these characters, be the same without the existence of post-Sopranos television?
Frederick Barthelme: The TV’s running all the time, isn’t it? Closed captions, sound off. We “read” TV. I’ve watched my share of “real-life” mysteries, so I suppose that figures in. It’s gruesome and breathtaking, what goes on in this world. You wonder what people are thinking. But these characters really don’t want to be on television; it’s just the way they connect with a world they don’t really live in. They mock, ridicule, parody—it’s how they measure how far they are from the world the television represents. They are entertained, even enthralled by it, but it’s a bank shot, almost always.
Rumpus: Is the same true for any kind of art? Tinker, the daughter of Wallace’s love interest, is an artist. What about her stuff? When Wallace enjoys Van Morrison in the car, is there irony involved?
Barthelme: Do you mean “Is it possible to view some things without irony?” I would say certainly, and among them, art that either employs or does not employ irony. Tinker’s work in the book is meant to be a charming parody of certain ideas about the plastic arts, ideas that I was once enamored of but am less enamored of nowadays. Yet they still have their charms. Van Morrison is another matter. I figure it’s somehow “outside” of irony, that is, it has passed through irony and re-established itself as first order experience. Something like that. When Wallace enjoys Van Morrison he is enjoying it fully, including the irony of enjoying it fully.
Rumpus: The human life cycle: enjoying “Brown-Eyed Girl” sincerely, thinking “Brown-Eyed” girl is horrible, enjoying “Brown-Eyed Girl” ironically, and enjoying your ironic enjoyment blended with the genuine love you had for it initially. This also works for “Wild Nights.”
Barthelme: I believe you have it there.
Rumpus: When Wallace says, “I thought I’d get tired of the tacky crap, the minigolf and souvenirs and franchise restaurants but I never did… I looked at what I figured was overlooked—lumber, seasonings on dive tables, wall colors, electric light. I thought you might be able to build junk for people and make it work,” is this a commentary on your own work? Making art out of what other artists have overlooked—what critics have dubbed K-Mart Realism? Never getting tired of it?
Barthelme: I would not call it a commentary, but it is something of a description. And I don’t think other artists have overlooked the tacky and glum necessarily, though many imagine they are engaged in a higher order pursuit, dealing with the great overarching themes of the day, like, well, whatever they are or might be. I just don’t find the great overarching themes of the day, when they’re posited as great overarching themes, all that fascinating. I mean, unless we’re talking about “How did I get here?” which seems like a real interesting great overarching theme, and thanks to what’s-’is-face for distilling it to that. Mostly I’m about small ball, close focus, ordinary life. It’s possible to be amused and moved by how oafish we really are, even in our best Sunday go-to-meeting finery, and I tend to study that, and the part of the world that I limp around in—suburbs, coastal towns, university towns.
Rumpus: In your interview with Gary Percesepe about the “Junk Town” chapter, you said, “I wonder about people who hate the junk we fill our physical world with. What are they complaining about?” Is that why you’ve included the Olive Garden interlude in the novel? It feels mostly like complaining—the food that’s “greasy, sloppy, misshapen, lukewarm, and inedible.” It’s almost hard to believe Wallace when he clarifies that the food is “execrable in the best possible way.”
Barthelme: There’s something perfectly American about Olive Garden. It embodies the argument. The folks are there, eating. They savor the wretched food, embrace its shortcomings and its station in the Temple of Foods. This is sow’s ear into silk purse stuff. Argues that it is often possible, with many kinds of experience, to find a way to love, honor, and obey. We believe it is a good idea to learn this little bit of sleight of hand, the better to accommodate life on this planet.
Rumpus: Well, you can make a meal off the salad and breadsticks alone.
Barthelme: If you must. But you wouldn’t want to with all that gruel on offer.
Rumpus: Is all the chaos in suburbia a kind of wish fulfillment? Suburbanites don’t truly want their neighbors to die, but we all know the excitement of a snake loose in the neighborhood or finding out the teenager down the street pushed her dad off a stepladder.
Barthelme: In the book, as in life, I’d say it is not so much wish fulfillment as it is what seems to be the case, what happens, what inevitably happens. The neighbor gets arrested for selling coke, or he kills his wife and child, or he’s caught in flagrante delicto with the neighbor on the other side. It’s the apparent increase in “real” tragedies, of the kind television both mimics and lionizes, that gets interesting to me. It seems grotesque crap is everywhere, is accumulating, is becoming more commonplace, and, as a result, stuff you remember is reinforced, the drug dealer who got shotgunned in the face when he (and you) were twenty, and who was more or less forgotten for years thereafter, comes back to haunt, to link up with all the other tragic crap that has swamped you in subsequent years, and suddenly life is a minefield, even in suburbia. After a while you’re hauling around a disproportionately large bag of deaths. It wears on you.
Rumpus: Jen from The Brothers and Painted Desert chronicles even more extreme chaos. She appears (in conversation anyway) in the book, which means that she lives in the same narrative universe as the characters in this novel. Do you imagine that they all live in the same fictional world?
Barthelme: In a broad sense, sure. And it’s referential play, a little extra something for anyone who knows the earlier books. But Tinker is a reprise of Jen, like playing a tune again, sometime after it was first played, but now it sounds different, means different. I have the feeling that all my characters are in the same fictional world, changed by time, of course. It’s a world very much like ours, but flatter. It doesn’t have a lot of picturesque highs and lows of the kind that pack movies or TV shows. People just deal with what’s right in front of them, they know there’s no real alternative, they persist, they try to find richness, satisfaction, comfort, pleasure in whatever they can. I’d like to take all of my books and all the stories and write them all together into one very long excruciating novel, thousands of pages, lots of redundancy, the same stuff happening in six different ways—just like life.
Rumpus: Jen and Tinker feel like reincarnation, but where the reincarnated get to live side-by-side. Jen and Tinker get to know each other.
Barthelme: Sure. They could be best buds. They could be gay and get married in this new world, get jobs in the art department at some slugabed college, radicalize the citizenry. Huzzah!
Rumpus: On the subject of tattooed ladies, Wallace describes the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo movies as going for “feel” rather than story, and his former co-worker Jilly says, “That’s a pretty negative attitude toward narrative in film.” Do you agree with her, that it’s negative? Is “feel” enough? Would you rather have story or feel in your own fiction?
Barthelme: I’d like a little of both, please. Jilly’s remark is part of the private language she and Wallace share with each other, a kind of offhand commentary on themselves and others and things in the world. I don’t think she really thinks it’s “a pretty negative” attitude, I think she’s making a joke about the kinds of things people say when they pretend to be talking seriously, the point of which might be to call into question Wallace’s assertion, or to suggest that generalizations are best left to folks who need to grind things down to their TV versions. Finally, Wallace and Jilly are just messing about. Wallace is trying on this idea and I’m pretty sure Jilly doesn’t give a hoot about it. As to the story or feel question, I think the feel of something, the flow, the character and tenor, the atmosphere, the whole fabric of a narrative is really more the heart of the work than the story, though in some cases the story can be so lovely that it mimics and includes all the foregoing. In the best case, that’s probably the case.
Rumpus: Most reviewers focus on your characters, your quirky dialogue, or your commentary on American life. What about your approach to plot?
Barthelme: It’s a troubled subject for me. What I can say is I don’t want to know my story before I get there, so I’ve always avoided the kind of planning you hear about some writers doing. I may take this to an extreme, in the sense that I’m continually subverting plot events that leap to mind, dodging them, trying to foil the drift of things, the better to keep the overall “story” open ended. In this book I had no idea where we were going. I didn’t even have any idea about the characters until they sort of appeared on the pages. Eventually I had ideas about the characters, some ideas about where they were, what the world around them was like, what kinds of things would happen in their world, but as to what would happen to each of them, their individual “stories,” I had no clue. You posit a creature, give it a name, and lo! It begins speaking. You learn a lot from there forward. When Chantal was introduced she wasn’t who she ended up being, and I had no idea what was to happen to her eventually. Ditto Webster, Cal, Jilly, Morgan, Diane, Tinker—the whole Tinker sub-story sort of came from nowhere, a reconstruction of a previous book proposal that had, at one point, been rendered as a short story. I had that Velodrome restaurant-bar-apartment-Airstream already in mind. There’s a bar outside of Bay St. Louis that looks something like that, on a smaller scale and minus the Airstream. And the velodrome itself was central to a prior book that never quite took off. Plot, for me, is something that materializes in the writing, or the rewriting, something that fashions itself in the process. It emerges and eventually abides.
Rumpus: In our graduate writing workshop, you used to talk about taking varied bits of actual life, smashing them together, re-purposing them, changing details when needed, and giving them shape. It sounds like you’re touching on that with the bar in Bay St. Louis that became the Velodrome. We also notice Webster, Wallace’s last name, and Raleigh, his brother, are the names of two of your dogs. You make a joke about Hans Jürgen-Jürgen from Wiesbaden, which is a mutation of the name and home of your former student, the fiction writer and film critic Jürgen Fauth. Early in Elroy Nights, Edward Works has some interests and habits that seemed to be based on Rusty. Can you talk about that approach to writing: the playful reshaping of reality? How much of this is for your own pleasure?
Barthelme: I think you never steal from students’ stories, but you occasionally steal from students’ lives, so Rusty may be present. Ditto Carrie, and Jürgen, and who knows how many others. With Edward Works there were lots of precedents in my life, he also shares some aspects with Jen and Tinker, and other characters in other books. As to the reshaping part of the question, that’s the way I tend to work, nailing stuff together and then sanding until it matches. The actual bar in Bay St. Louis is heartbreaking. A dirty giant imitation rock at the back of a shell lot on a thin finger of water miles from the beach. I mean, it’s not standard issue. It’s like, plaster gone wild. I think it is plaster, too, on chicken wire. I think I researched that many years ago. Anyway, it’s not the usual, almost corporate architectural fantasy like the upside down building in Panama City Beach, which is itself charming in another way. So that’s why the rock building is in the book, because I “liked,” in the Facebook sense, the one in Bay St. Louis, and because it conjures certain images and a certain setting in the imagination, and some suggestions about the people who are in and around it, and, eventually, about all of us and our world. The dog names are a little hello to Webster and Raleigh themselves, dearly missed, and one of the many personal nods and waves I like shoehorning into the work. A little bit of seasoning that very few people will taste.
Rumpus: You’re like Carol Burnett wiggling her earlobe.
Barthelme: The cruelest cut of all.
Rumpus: Your characters usually have a set of women around them. Wallace hangs out with his ex-wife Diane; his daughter Morgan; his former co-worker and not-quite-girlfriend Jilly; his neighbor and short-term lover Chantal; Chantal’s daughter, Tinker. Can you talk about your interest in writing women?
Barthelme: This is probably an obvious psychological problem, but the long and short is I’m not fond of men, generally speaking. Present company, etc. And I’m almost always fond of women. They just seem more interesting to me. A lot of men are sort of knuckle-draggers, I fear, whereas almost all women are elusive, daring, surprising. I see that this is sexist, for which I apologize.
Rumpus: Apology accepted.
Barthelme: Let me add that reviewers once said my women characters weren’t much like real women, and that pissed me off. I mean, they’re a lot like women I’ve known over the years, so I feel comfortable writing them. Maybe I have sort of a feminine sensibility? No, maybe not. That’s wishful thinking. I guess women are more powerful than men, usually, which probably comes from having been subordinated for so long. They’re wicked and clever and capable of magic.
Rumpus: The men here certainly seem like the knuckle-draggers you describe. Chantal is “roughed up” by her former husband. Her daughter Tinker is almost raped by Pascal. Jilly’s ex, Cal, is described as “a tough piece of business” and somebody who was “hard to shake.” He ends up in jail for having sex with a minor. Is that why the main characters don’t have close male friendships?
Barthelme: Men know too much about other men to have many close friendships. I’ve had a few, but only a few. Mayo Thompson and I got along well, my brother Don and I were close, as are my brother Steve and myself, my agent and I were close for years though we never met, a guy in architecture school was a close friend for a while. Couple of others. I guess it’s not in the fabric of my experience for men to have a lot of close male friends. I think I’m interested in close relationships, but those seem more available with women where there are lots of options—you can be friends, lovers, partners, intimates. Not so much with men.
Rumpus: On the subject of relationships, you recently left Hattiesburg for Florida and left close friends behind. Now that you’re no longer teaching, you also don’t have everyday interaction with students, something Elroy, in Elroy Nights, says is refreshing and lifts him out of his age. This is the first novel you’ve published since these changes. Did they impact your writing at all?
Barthelme: Yes, absolutely. I loved teaching, spending time in the classroom looking at stories with students, loved the interplay, loved watching them work and the work they produced. I’m not one of the idiots who complains about writing programs. I don’t know that I ever had a student that I actively disliked—okay, I can think of one. Two. Some were difficult, of course, but almost all of them were serious, complex, talented in various degrees, forthcoming, clever, funny—I mean, I could go on with this list of students’ virtues. Aside from the guy with the plate in his head who threatened me elaborately in pidgin English, and the one who plagiarized rather more of his thesis than is generally thought to be good form, I liked them all. Working with the students was among the richest experiences of my life so far, and from where I sit it does not seem likely to be displaced. I didn’t write at all for years after I left teaching. As to the influence on this book I hadn’t thought about that much. I don’t think the work changes that readily. The life changed a lot, and that took some getting used to, not having people around, not having things to do, responsibilities, chances to build something. I suppose I could have continued teaching there for a while, or elsewhere, there were opportunities, but the mess was just too unpleasant, and the other offers were kind but just short of compelling.
Rumpus: You ran a writing program that refused a lot of the disingenuousness that one experiences in adult life. After five years, it was difficult for us to leave, unable to speak the language we created in those classes. For us, it was so much fun that we became useless in the real world.
Barthelme: As I recall you were already useless in the real world. Blessedly. The pair of you.
Rumpus: That reminds us: this is maybe the second or third time that one of your novels’ characters has threatened to go to church. Do you think they would find anything real there—more than the effect of going through the car wash seven times, as Wallace does?
Barthelme: Seven is the great church number, of course. Seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys. How did they decide on this number? But church has always interested me. I was raised Catholic and like all Catholics of a certain age I loved the old church, the Latin Liturgy, incense, High Mass, the choir, the confessional, the whole deal, so there’s nostalgia there. My thanks to the Council of Trent. But there’s also the interesting thing that the idea of religion is bewitching and seductive, that “wouldn’t it be lovely” thing, the suggestion that our lives are, or could be, better than we are in fact. In practice, of course, religion is usually another thing entirely, likely why many folks leave their religions as soon as they are able to escape. But I have the troubling feeling that religion could be a remarkable and uplifting thing, in fact I have the memory of it being that, from time to time, when I was a young person. Later I had less access to that feeling, but I still have the nagging recollection. The truth might be that we want to be better than we are but we rarely get there. I think I’m always looking for that in a book, that elation, that moment of transcendence, or for a series of such moments. In this book there are dozens of bits where I get the feeling of something being just right, perfectly balanced, true in some strong way. You get it in lines here and there, moments between characters, asides, bits of business, remarks, gestures, descriptions, scenes. The whole game for me is a search for those experiences. You’re working on this eighty thousand word painting that has all these parts and you’re keeping all those together and in mind, and at the same time reaching moments of singular richness, stunning things, laugh out loud recognitions, things that almost make you human. That’s what you’re after in the end, those feelings, and I guess that’s why we write, to be in a game that allows the sublime stuff to show up for once.