An Interview with Richard Bausch, by Courtney Maum
July 15, 2013
An acknowledged master of the short story form, Richard Bausch has published work in such magazines as Esquire, Harper’s, the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly. A Georgia native, he is the author of eleven novels and eight story collections. Among his numerous accolades, Bausch has won two National Magazine Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In the summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to meet Bausch at the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. This interview took place via email in the months after the conference.
Your fiction often explores the architecture of unsuccessful lives. By all accounts, you have a successful life. What gives?
I don’t agree with the idea of “unsuccessful lives.” In fact I can’t say with any confidence what that means. I’m interested in the truth. Not philosophical or political or even social truth, but truth. The truth of felt life, of experience. How it feels on the skin. Life. How it is to be alive in a time and place and to be unavoidably subject to all the complications that exist from that fact. And of course I’m interested always, as any writer is, in all those things in life which challenge and brand us, if they do not kill us. Life, as we know, is full of all kinds of trouble. And therefore, so is fiction—necessarily and in fact by definition, by its very nature, since fiction is about life, and if the fiction is any good at all, it has life in it. I’d say, in fact, that if there is no trouble in a piece of writing, it is not, then, fiction, whatever it claims to be. I might also suggest that if life were not full of all kinds of trouble, fiction would not exist, since it most likely does belong to the province of result rather than cause. That is, it comes from our response as a species to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Would you really want to read a detailed account of my happy days getting up and having a drink of coffee and taking a shower and getting dressed and reading for a while and then writing, which takes us roughly to the noon hour? Would you really want to hear about all those happy Christmases and holidays and the baseball games, and loving passes, in detail? My characters are in trouble all right, but most of them are fairly successful in finding a path through it to some kind of hope, some kind of perdurable sense of the worth of the struggle; and, now and then, they even find a kind of redemption.
I purposely wanted this interview to fall in the gilded chasm of mid-December—a period of time sandwiched between two holidays—to highlight another theme in your work: the fragility of families. There is a section in Violence that I want to use as a springboard for this conversation:
He hadn’t been with his mother five minutes before the old irritations began to work in him: the sensation that his life must be lived in secret, that he was a stranger, that something in him might perish for lack of air, for the suffocating necessity to behave as if nothing were ever wrong.
This obsession with a euphemistic life—the tendency to act as if nothing is wrong—strikes me as particularly American. Would you agree?
I think it’s human. Those members of the Russian intelligentsia dancing while Napoleon was coming into Moscow were all acting as if nothing was wrong, and the city was burning down around them from fires set by their own generals. I see all human life as fragile, and I see family life as one of the matters of living that we have as a hedge against the dark, the thing that envelops the world by half every single day. The problem with Charles’s mother in that book is not a paradigm, though; it is not a statement from me about American society or anything like that. It is an aspect of her character, and goes some to explain how she could allow the kind of brutality Charles suffered at the hands of his father; it is why she doesn’t want to face it when he finally confronts her with it. She wants to pretend it never happened, and when it was happening she also wanted to pretend it wasn’t because she was in love with her husband, and was frightened of being alone. But all of this is an element of that story, that novel, and if it has meaning beyond that, well, all right, people can take from it what they will. But it did not start there in the writing of the novel. It never does with me. I’m a storyteller. And my hope is to give forth a sense of the truth of experience, not in terms of the intellect, but in terms of the nerve-endings, the viscera. Again, what it feels like on the skin. Because I’m an artist, not a philosopher. On the front matter of my storybook Rare & Endangered Species, Stories and a Novella there is this author’s note:
There has been a tendency on the part of certain schools of so-called critical theory to make sociological and political constructs out of fictional characters. I wish to say here that concerning the characters in these stories, any resemblance to such constructs is entirely coincidental and all resemblances to actual persons—that is, to recognizable, complicated human beings caught in their time and place—are exactly, wholly, and lovingly intended, even though I have imagined them all.
I was very struck by something you said in an interview published in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction: “It is an absurdity to put writing before the life you have to lead . . . no arduousness in the craft should ever occupy one second of the time you are supposed to be spending with your family.” Personally, writing out of sight from my family helps me survive them, so I’m not sure I agree with this. But I’m also interested in this statement because so many of your characters stand by passively while their relationships unravel—they spend time with their families without being emotionally present. I’m thinking specifically of Bill, in the short story “Evening,” or the disaffected bystanders who people the stories in Someone to Watch Over Me.
Well, the one is just something from the original letter to a young writer. I’ve always felt that people who say they can’t be there for their children or their family because of their “art” are either fools or pretentious to the point of absurdity. About my characters “standing by passively” while their relationships unravel—well, I don’t agree with that assessment of it at all. Those characters are rattling back and forth against the walls of themselves, battering and ramming things and stamping in their inward stalls trying to save themselves. There’s not an ounce of passivity in any of them. Many of them bring about their own catastrophes—or are suffering through having done so. As so many of the world’s fictional people do or have done. Bill, for instance, is not slightly passive—he’s thinking of killing himself. He’s fighting despair, with all his strength. And in the end, he takes the step away from it, forcing the smile, trying again. That is not remotely passive. And there ain’t no “disaffected bystanders” either, in those stories. Everybody’s affected, and some of them are quite radically changed, for good or ill.
Unlike many of your characters, you have a happy marriage. Your own parents were married for fifty-five years. When do you think a marriage actually starts?
Forgive me, but that’s a question I would be a fool to believe I could answer. I know when it began for me, twice. And where it ended once. I don’t want to go through that part again.
Many of your characters recognize hopeful moments, but seem to lack the stamina to deliver on the hope therein. Might you define failure as emotional impotence?
There are so many different kinds of failure, including all the failure you have to go through in order to write truly and well. Joyce said it’s really learning how to “fail better.” As a writer, I’m not at all interested in concocting happy endings or hopeful moments that pan out to some sort of salve to the soul. That’s for priests—maybe.
You have a twin brother, who is also a writer. What in the world is that like?
It’s fun. It’s the best luck imaginable—in all things, and being writers is just one of them.
Many of your secondary characters are widows or widowers. Is there any specific reason why widowed characters interest you?
No. And I don’t know that they interest me any more than other things. I’d bet sometimes it’s just that I want to get at the one character, and it’s too much trouble to add the extra one if he/she doesn’t figure into things.
This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 11 of Slice. To purchase issue 11 and read the full interview, click here.
Author photo by Mark Weber.
Richard Bausch currently serves as The Moss Chair of Excellence at The University of Memphis. He is the author of eleven novels and eight collections of stories. An acknowledged master of the short story form, he has won two National Magazine Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund Writer’s Award, the Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the 2004 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, and, for peace, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Courtney Maum is a fiction writer based in between the Berkshires of Massachusetts and New York City. A humor columnist for Electric Literature, she has published work online in Tin House, Blip, the Rumpus, Slice, Anderbo, and others. She’s a frequent reader at NY-based series and a Literary Death Match champion. Find her on Twitter at @cmaum.