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Off the Page: Charles Baxter

With Charles Baxter
Novelist and Short Story Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2003; 1:00 PM

Charles Baxter is the quintessential writer's writer. When his previous novel, The Feast of Love, was nominated in 2000 for the National Book Award, I was hopeful he might win not only the prize but the wider recognition he so deserves. He lost to Susan Sontag, and told me he was relieved: it would have too much disrupted his life. The thing about Baxter is, he meant it.

Baxter is both a storyteller and a craftsman. The Feast of Love propels the reader through its separate but connected tales of love lost and love gained. Yet one must remember to slow down for the wisdom and unadorned Midwestern beauty of his prose.

Charles Baxter (washingtonpost.com)

_____Post Reviews of Baxter_____
Novel: 'The Feast of Love'
Short Stories: 'Believers'
Novel: 'Shadow Play'
Short Stories: 'A Relative Stranger'
Novel: 'First Light'
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His new novel and eighth work of fiction, Saul and Patsy, expands on two characters featured in three pieces from his highly praised short story collections. They are recognizably Baxter characters: intelligent, thoughtful and just the slightest bit loopy. Even when his writing is heart-breaking, it's always fun to read.

Baxter was online Thursday, Oct. 16 to discuss his work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns, a news producer at washingtonpost.com, is also a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. She's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello book lovers, and welcome to "Off the Page." We have a literary feast today with Charles Baxter, one of the few fiction writers these days who dares to tackle emotions. Among writers, Baxter is also known for his keen understanding of the craft of fiction. Welcome, Charlie! Let's get right to the first question.

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Washington, D.C.: Please tell the wonderful story of how you were influenced by readers -- one in particular -- to give us further adventures of Saul and Patsy.

Carole Burns: A friend who was at your reading last week at Politics & Prose mentioned this to me. Yes, it's that good a story!

Charles Baxter: When I first wrote "Saul and Patsy Are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" in 1983 I ended the story with an automobile accident. (It was an amateurish way to end a story--you can't end a short story with an accident because it never looks accidental; it looks arranged by the writer.) A month or so after the story appeared, a large woman at a Detroit literary soir?e came up to me, grabbed my lapel, and started shaking me. "You have your nerve," she said, "killing off that nice couple like that." I said, "They're not dead!" I suppose she had intimidated me and caused me to see the error of my ways. In any case, I told her that you could roll a car in Michigan without anything happening to you--it's very flat--and in the next Saul and Patsy story, I had the two of them crawling out of the car and walking to a nearby house, to call for help. That was the beginning of the series, and I decided to turn the whole thing into a novel when an older writer said to me, "I don't think we've seen the end of Gordy Himmelman." He was right; we hadn't. It was Gordy who took us the rest of the way into the novel.

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Lyme, CT.: What are your currently working on? How far along are you? How much will you tell us about the plot or characters of current or even future ideas of your writings?

Charles Baxter: It's interesting: I don't have any idea of what my next book will be. I feel a bit wrung-out, like a washrag. I'll have to daydream my way into my next project, whatever it will be. I'm editing a book on William Maxwell, but so far no new book has appeared on my imagination's horizon.

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Augusta, Ga.: Are you or have you ever been a bit of an insomniac? If not, how did you learn to write about insomnia so well?

Carole Burns: The narrator who opens Feast of Love, and one of the central characters, Bradley, both have insomnia.

Charles Baxter: I certainly was, and am. I suffer from the particular kind of insomnia that allows you to fall asleep but then causes you to wake up in the middle of the night, wide awake. I thought I would put it to use in The Feast of Love, and set up Charlie Baxter as a sort of sleepless collector-of-stories. That entire book is haunted by moonlight, in any case. Insomnia seemed to fit its contours very nicely.

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Carole Burns: One of the most beguiling aspects of Feast of Love were the voices of the characters who told their stories--so sharply distinct, especially Chloe. Did you know, setting out, how the novel would be structured? And do you remember any one moment at which Chloe came to life?

Charles Baxter: I had been to a middle-school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, and it occurred to me that it might be possible to write a book in something of a hybrid form: a novel of voices, a novel that was halfway to being a play. I started by writing the voices of Diana and a character named Jonah, who dropped out of the story. It began as a rather dark and grim narrative, and I wasn't happy about the way it was going until Chloe entered it. She provided the humor--and the bawdy quality of romantic/sexual life--that I thought the story really needed. Her humor seemed to attach itself to Bradley, who became a bit more funny himself. Chloe came to life, for me, almost from the moment she appeared on the page, when Oscar tells her she's "underpierced." She's quite certain of herself, and she had (for me) a sharp, smart, and sometimes loud voice. I miss her.

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Washington, DC: First, I have to admit to my bias, since I am an alum of the University of Michigan and you taught writing to a good friend of mine who is now the TV/culture writer for TIME.

But, being familiar with you from Ann Arbor, I suggested to my book club that we read The Feast of Love. A few people had read your short stories but most hadn't read anything by you. Everyone loved The Feast of Love. It was one of the best discussions we'd had and everyone thanked me for introducing them to your writing.

So kudos to you from our book group, and I look forward to reading Saul and Patsy.

Carole Burns: While it's hard to analyze your own work, do you have any theory on why Feast of Love is greeted in just this way? Is there any common theme in what readers tell you?

Charles Baxter: Yes, I remember the TV/culture writer; I'm happy to see his by-line in the magazine.
The response to The Feast of Love has sometimes taken me by surprise. A week ago, a young couple came up to me in a bookstore and said that they had included a section of the novel in their marriage ceremony. I suppose that the book has struck a nerve in part because it treats romantic love as a kind of fever, a madness, and yet at the same time treats that fever quite seriously. In our era, the madness of romantic love can seem so old-fashioned or odd that novels often simply don't want to deal with it. When readers don't like the book, it's usually because they feel that romantic love is pass? or somehow needs more irony (ck. Laura Kipnis' Against Love for a counterview).
At first, women seemed to like the book better than men did, but I've been hearing recently from men's groups that they've been reading it, and, for the most part, liking it, so apparently the novel does not divide people along gender lines in quite the way I thought it might.
The truth is that I'm never sure how any of my books will be received, and because I can be thin-skinned, I try not to read too many reviews when a book first comes out.

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Washington, DC: Tell us more about your editing project on the William Maxwell book. And do you do a lot of editing? Do you edit for the Michigan Quarterly Review?

Charles Baxter: After William Maxwell died, some of us who knew him felt that a tribute-book containing memoirs about him and some commentaries on his beautiful books might be in order. So Michael Collier, Edward Hirsch, and I devised this book, which will be called A William Maxwell Portrait, and we persuaded the good people at W. W. Norton to take a chance on it. The book will contain essays on Maxwell by Alice Munro, Paula Fox, Alec Wilkinson, Donna Tartt, and many others.
I do some editing. I edited a book of essays about memory, memoir, writing, and forgetting for Graywolf Press; it was called The Business of Memory. (I was interested in the commercialization of the memoir, and about recent anxieties over memory-loss.) I've also edited a book of literary essays, with Peter Turchi, called Bringing the Devil to His Knees. It was published by the University of Michigan Press. But I don't edit for the Michigan Quarterly Review, as much as I admire that fine publication.

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Fairfax, VA:
Hi - I see in the introduction to today's chat that you were nominated for the National Book Award. How important are awards for writers? Are you comfortable with the process used to select the winners? Isn't judging novels a very subjective activity?

Thanks!

Charles Baxter: Well, it's better to be nominated for awards than not to be nominated for them, but of course to some degree such awards are always subjective. And yet they point to an enthusiasm that the judges have had and can defend. The second part is the important one: I have certain indefensible enthusiasms, but the ones I *can* defend are the ones to pay attention to. When you can be articulate about some book you've liked, your enthusiasm really counts. As long as you have reasonably fair-minded judges on the panel (and the Nat'l Book Awards almost always has had them), I'm relatively comfortable with it. The year I was nominated, I lost to Susan Sontag, and I didn't mind at all. Really. But literature is not a sack race. There aren't real winners and losers in the Republic of Letters, not in that way.
I was pleased that Edward P. Jones was nominated this year for his novel The Known World. He's a brilliant writer with touches of genius in his book of stories, Lost in the Center. He deserves all the attention, and the nomination should win him more readers.

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Carole Burns: We're having Edward P. Jones online in a few weeks, so watch for that!

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Arlington, VA: What are you currently reading?

Charles Baxter: I just finished a novel from 1923, Zona Gale's Faint Perfume. I was curious about her work and wanted to dig in to the book to see if I could persuade some press to reprint it. As it happens, the style seemed more old-fashioned than I had expected, and the book's structure was fairly weak. I was a bit disappointed. Let's see: I'm reading Jim Crace's Quarantine and have Howard Norman's recent novel waiting. There's a new biography of Alfred Hitchcock that I read a week or so ago.

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Carole Burns: I suppose writing about romantic love risks being labeled "sentimental." How does a writer write about sentiment, without being sentimental? And how do you do it?

Charles Baxter: It all depends on what you mean by "romantic love"--all I meant by it was a form of obsessive yearning that doesn't quite submit itself to reason. It's a close relative of infatuation. Occasionally readers would complain that in a book called The Feast of Love there were no mature adult relationships, but that wasn't the sort of book I wanted to write. The obsessional quality was the one I was doing my best to get at, dramatically, and so all the characters, young and old, necessarily had a lovelorn disposition, even Harry Ginsberg, who obsesses about his son.
Sentiment is simply an emotion raised to a higher pitch than is customary in ordinary life. Sentimentality, I think, is the manipulative practice of an art that's meant to coerce the reader into having a particular emotion, forcibly. You see this in Dickens now and then, in The Old Curiosity Shop and in other writers I probably shouldn't name. But it's my feeling that any writer can get an emotion into a story without being sentimental as long as the emotion is dealt with honestly, with sufficient clarity, and detail.

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Chevy Chase, MD: Do you still write poetry? Do you miss it? And how is it that you are able to do both? Poets and writers seem to have such different creative urges, such different means of expression.

Charles Baxter: I still write poetry sometimes, but usually for the desk drawer. After my last book of poems, Imaginary Paintings, came out around 1993, I decided not to write poetry for publication anymore. I do miss it sometimes, but I came to feel that I was writing crypto-stories in the poems, which were filled with narrative and characterization that would be better served in prose.
Denis Johnson wrote both poetry and fiction, but he seems to have stopped writing poetry. Maura Stanton writes both; Thomas Hardy, of course, did both. Given my disposition, I like narrative poems or ones that have a meditational quality, such as B. H. Fairchild's Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest. A beautiful book, published in 2003. There are many poets whose work I admire, and I draw sustenance from their work.

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Washington, DC: Can you tell us a bit about writing short stories v. novels? Do you have a preference? And it's interesting to me that you wrote a novel about two characters that were in a short story nearly twenty years ago ...

Charles Baxter: I learned how to write fiction by writing stories. The short story form is so concentrated, so unforgiving toward mistakes, that when I made a mistake, when writing a story, I knew it almost instantly. That's often not the case--it wasn't the case with me--in writing novels. I wrote three unpublished novels that were rather bad, though I didn't realize how bad, or why, until long after I had finished them. For that reason, I feel quite at home writing short stories but nervous and anxious when writing novels, as if that bad time of consecutive failures might arise again.
I prefer short stories, but publishers would, of course, rather that writers produce novels, since novels are still more commercially viable.
Short story characters, mine anyway, are usually driven by impulse, not so much by their histories and the choices that they have to make. In order to adapt Saul and Patsy to the new novel, I had to make them both less impulse-driven, and more responsive to their own histories. Saul, for example, now has a father (he never did in the short stories) and he now has a brother, whom I invented for the purposes of the novel's development.

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Washington D.C.:

Please talk about your wonderful collection of essays on writing, Burning Down the House. Were they developed from lesson plans or lectures you gave? Did you write them for yourself first? ("Against Epiphanies" is my personal favorite.)

Charles Baxter: Nearly all of those essays were the result of deadlines: I was a faculty member at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, and I had to come up with a lecture every six month or so. I didn't want to write how-to lectures. Instead, I wanted to connect the storytelling of everyday life to the storytelling of the literary variety. It seemed to me that there was a kind of criticism that almost no one wrote anymore, which could give off a kind of intellectual and emotional fire that might keep readers warm, and it would be fierce and opinionated and sometimes funny and inspiriting. Readers might get ideas for their own writing from the essays, more by association than from direct instruction. I don't actually like the John Gardner essays on writing. They seem rather dour and duty-bound to me. I'm glad that you liked the essay against epiphanies. Some readers have hated it. Someone once asked me--in public!--whether I was surprised that the book had sold so many copies, considering how mean-spirited it was. I wasn't being mean-spirited, I don't think; I was being polemical, which is an altogether different thing.

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Washington, D.C. : Who are your favorite writers, and why?

Charles Baxter: Such a hard question. Maybe I can start by saying which writers *aren't* my favorites: Trollope and the rest of those English realist novelists, excluding Jane Austen, who always seems to be up to something else. I have a limited patience for Dickens. Well, enough of this negativity.
Favorites: the Russians, particularly Tolstoy and Chekhov and Bulgakov. Always Flaubert . . . no, the more I try to answer this question, the more I find it unanswerable, because it turns into a laundry list, a list that is always being revised. I always like to say, however, that I have learned more from Katherine Anne Porter's story "Noon Wine" than I have from almost any other literary source.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the best piece of writing you've read in the last year? And how often does something really knock your socks off?

Charles Baxter: I've been reading the Spanish writer Javier Marias, and I thought his stories in Dark Back of Time were terrific; the socks were knocked off with that one. But perhaps for sheer sock-knocking, I'd probably nominate two or three texts: Jenny Egan's Look at Me, a fascinating novel about the conversion of American infrastructures from the manufacturing of objects to the manufacturing of imagery; Louise Gluck's poem "Prism" in The New Yorker; and . . . well, that's probably enough.

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Lenexa, Kan.: I really liked Saul and Patsy and think it would make a fun movie. Has the movie rights been sold? thanks.

Charles Baxter: I'm glad you liked Saul and Patsy, but the movie rights have not been sold. My West Coast agent tells me that the movie people consider the story too "small" and the book itself too "dark."

But the climax of the novel is a blessing! Well, you can't win with those guys.

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Carole Burns: You must tell us -- what did you learn from "Noon Wine?"

Charles Baxter: If you read my story "Kiss Away," in Believers, you'll see how I adapted the structure of "Noon Wine" for my own purposes, including the arrival, two-thirds of the way through, of a stranger whose motives are suspect and perhaps dangerous. There's more, but I need to keep my professional honor intact.

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Carole Burns: "Kiss Away" is one of my favorite stories. And now, it has mystery, too.

Thanks so much to Charlie for being online today - and thanks for all your questions. Be sure to join us next week for "Off the Page," when we have Joyce Carol Oates discussing her new book, The Faith of a Writer: Life Craft, Art. Next week's special time: Friday, 1 p.m. ET.

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