GEORGE MILLS is Stanley Elkin's sixth novel. Six is a symbolic, a celebrational number, and the pull of his previous books was finally bringing the flag up for him; but I had mislaid the galleys (either that or some lover of literature had snitched them), and Stanley was teasing me a bit about it. "That's all right," he said, "from you I don't need another blurb." Now I had a hard-cover copy in hand, but since we were going to talk the book out of its stall toward the public the way, in the novel, the earliest George Mills talks to horses in order to keep them at their tasks, I had to swallow his rich prose hurriedly, like someone forced to leave a feast to catch a plane, and I was still woozy with his words when I walked the few blocks to his house, received from his wife, Joan, a literal drink I clung to like a pole on a rocking bus, and we sat down to talk at the end of what was, in every other way, a thoroughly rotten day. Indeed, I had taken notes, neatly arranged like the teeth on a saw; I had written out a few policeman's questions; but before leaving for his house I had slowly, ritually, torn the sheet into useless strips. The gesture, itself, deserved to be torn up.
WILLIAM GASS: Considering the circumstances, I thought I'd ask you, Stanley, just how dangerous you think the writing life is?
STANLEY ELKIN: We both know we're talking bad news: that we just learned about John Gardner's death by motorcycle. John was a special case. He was a guy who worried death the way a kid might worry a loose tooth. At this point, of course, neither of us knows the circumstances surrounding what may, in fact, have been the consequence of his willingness to die. All you had to do was see John this summer at Bread Loaf (writers' conference) to be able to say -- and certainly not in a gloating way -- "I told you so." Maybe he moved from accident to accident -- went from that primal (childhood) accident which killed his brother to his own.
WG: Yes, right.
SE: It's common enough to speak of the writer as if he were walking or riding a tightrope. But it's a matter of temperament, finally. If I had to walk one, God knows, I'd do an awful wobble of it. There'd be only my cane to catch me. So I'm safe, you see. There's no way in the world I'm going to fall off the potty, no way in the world I'd even reach for the high wire. It will be death by natural causes: multiple sclerosis, pneumonia, stuffing the stomach.
WG: The namesake of your novel, George Mills, says: "I'm safe. I'm so safe I'm saved."
WG: Nothing more can happen to you?
SE: Well, that's the essence of George's salvation; that's his state of grace, his notion that he has achieved it, not through any particular holiness of his own, but simply through the conviction that there's nothing, good or bad, that can happen to him any more. The certainty that George Mills reaches is the conviction that he is only George Mills--son of George Mills -- who in turn was the son of still another George Mills, and so on. I mean he's shtupped with his own history. And since none of these folks ever amounted to much, he finally cuts his losses and announces his salvation. I don't believe that anything can happen to me, either. I believe I'm in that sort of state of grace.
WG: The patient is out of danger.
SE: Writing lets desire escape like steam. Imagination saves.
WG: Okay, but isn't not writing, then, the dangerous thing?
SE: It's not like not riding a motorcycle.
WG: I'm thinking of the moment, while writing, when you realize you're not writing, really; that moment, driving a fast car fast, say, when you realize you're not driving any more. You are experiencing a kind of driverless momentum.
SE: That's true in a lot of teachers' lives, too. That's true in a lot of doctors' lives. That's true in a lot of lawyers' lives. Burnout is a condition of man, a Station of the Cross. For a time, this summer, it was true in my life, when I was working on a new book called The Magic Kingdom, and not really paying attention. I would come in and turn on the bubble machine that I play with -- this Lexitron (word processor) -- open my store, and punch out my words for the day; but I really wasn't concentrating. What writing takes is absolute concentration. I caught myself in time. I didn't say, "Hey, you better concentrate more." I simply stopped. Now I'm at work again, and the attention is back, it's there; but if you let your mind float off like a piece of fluff, if you start thinking of anything else at all, you're in trouble whether you're a restaurateur or a writer. There is a danger in doing anything so well you can call yourself a professional, because there comes a time when you stop believing in the particular profession you're supposed to be professing.
WG: Most professions have retirement plans -- built-in phase-outs. At a certain point the surgeon's hands won't cease shaking. With writing there's no such point.
SE: Sure there is. There is.
WG: Can you retire . . . ?
SE: When you have plumbed your imagination, then you go on to something else.
WG: Carpentry, maybe?
SE: Well, what I told myself was that if I couldn't write any more novels after George Mills, I was going to write films; I was going to write plays. I determined to do what Picasso said one ought to do: never turn anything down. If someone asked him to make candles, he'd make candles. If someone --
WG: -- smear a shape on a plate --
SE: Right. He'd smear a shape on a plate. And I saw myself becoming a hack, wanting to be a hack, like a limo turning into a taxi, because I thought writing George Mills would take it all out of me. That's not a feeling I remember having before. When I was writing The Franchiser I could still think: when this is done, I'll write another. WhennI was writing The Dick Gibson Show, I thought, well, I'll write another . . . and another . . . till I get the thing right. In a way, though, this time, I think maybe I did get it right with George Mills.
WG: It has the tone of a completely finished statement, I think; it is the culmination of all the themes you've been working on.
SE: You mean you want me to stop trying, do you?
WG: No, no, no. What I was particularly referring to is the dazzling release of language in George Mills . . . like a sudden flight of doves.
SE: Birds . . . yeah.
WG: George Mills liberates our language more completely and continuously than even your previous books have. And I think this freedom is something you've been after right along.
SE: Before I finished the book . . . long about -- oh, I don't know, the spring of '80, maybe -- I was sitting at my word processor, doing my job, writing, and it suddenly occurred to me -- and I swear to God, I'd never had this feeling before -- it suddenly occurred to me that I was a novelist, that anything I say is a part of this novel is a part of this novel.
WG: You are saved, Stanley.
SE: It's not a feeling I ever had before, but it's a feeling I continue to have, now that I can concentrate again on The Magic Kingdom. So maybe I'm just beginning as a writer.
WG: That's one of the themes of George Mills, isn't it? It's an absence of such confidence that's kept a thousand years of Millses blue-collar guys.
SE: People have asked me -- someone always asks -- who do you write for? who's your audience? who do you have in mind? And the conventional answer is: I write for myself.
WG: And strangers, yes.
SE: And of course the conventional answer is always true, in a way. But in an even more important way, it wasn't true, not for me. The truth was, I was thinking: what will Bill Gass think of this? will this show old X up? is this going to make a difference in Y's life? Now I don't wonder what Bill Gass will think.
WG: Oh dear.
SE: I really believe now -- for the first time -- what I've been saying quite conventionally for years: I'm writing for myself in the sense that I feel I own a kind of control that was temperamentally missing before.
WG: George Mills is so incredibly and continuously inventive. There is the moment, for instance, when the Mills family encounters a chain gang picking up litter in a Florida park. It's during the Depression. And suddenly George Mills goes up to them in this supplicating way -- he panhandles a chain gang, for God's sake.
SE: They give him oranges.
WG: He sad-songs them. They give him oranges. Yeah. And that scene is so essentially you, Stanley, so poetically, so metaphysically perverse. No one writing fiction today could have imagined it. And these amazing turns take place throughout George Mills. To read you is like watching a dervish. The quality I'm trying to get at -- that quality can be found even in the phrasing, in the structure of the sentences, in the speeches you give your characters. If I pronounce them to myself, I really find I have another's mouth. You can place yourself inside these people, particularly the dispossessed, the old, the out of luck.
SE: What else have I got to do?
WG: How does George Mills demonstrate the fact that he's saved? He says he's saved. Yet he's just a jerk in the pay of a worse one -- there's that wonderful word of yours that names the job -- he's an evicters-helper and he carries the furniture of people being evicted out of their house.
SE: "Evicters-helper"? That's my wonderful word?
WG: No. You say it's "unemployment-related work" -- a beautifully backhanded euphemism. Now you've made me forget what I was going to --
SE: Why don't you go back to "wonderful" and start over?
SE: "Wonderful" would bring it back.
WG: "Wonderful" did do it. How does George Mills show he's saved? That was it. Nothing can happen to George. He's a white guy in a bad black neighborhood, and he's lugging the furniture of black people out into the street --
SE: He walks all over them; he calls them names.
WG: And these are real tough dudes. They just look at him as though he were crazy; they just stand aside.
SE: That's right. The Reverend Raymond Coule is there. Mills turns to him and says, "And you don't think I'm saved?"
WG: The scene may not be wonderful, but it's certainly perfect. It's a completely characteristic invention of yours. How the hell do you do it?
SE: You have a swimming pool. You can do it too.
WG: You get all of your ideas while swimming? Only thing my pool could teach me is how to drown.
SE: Writing is just logic. That's all writing really is. Imagination is just logic.
WG: You follow the consequences which flow from certain situations?
SE: That's right. If a guy is prematurely senile, or prematurely old, you think of the old, you go to the old. What do the old do? Well, they get cranky, and they get forgetful. In my new book, The Magic Kingdom, which is about seven terminally ill kids --
WG: Oh, terrific.
SE: -- there's this senile 9-year-old, and he says, "I remember everything up until the time I was two years old as if it was yesterday." And somebody says, "What about yesterday?" "Yesterday?" the kid says, "I don't remember yesterday." So all you're doing is crossing over. You're loading up a situation with values from another situation; you're putting groceries in the manure spreader. That's why I said that writing is simply logic. That idea takes us back to an earlier question: is writing dangerous? Well, it's logically dangerous. You can make a mistake in reasoning.
WG: But it isn't quite a pure logic. It's an emotional logic. It's a rightness that goes beyond consequences of a formal sort or even causal effects. It's a kind of complete reasonableness, I think, that you're talking about.
SE: I am?
WG: Still, George Mills wouldn't be the book it is if the language, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, weren't extraordinary.
SE: It took me seven years to write the damn book.
WG: And a slow seven. One phrase I remember can serve as an example, anyway. You are describing a tapestry -- an antique wall-hanging. There are numerous hues. There's a blue like distant foliage. Then you sum it up: Everything the shade of clumsy weather. There are a thousand lines like that one. Is there any finer poetry being written --
SE: I want to be sure this gets on the tape.
WG: -- than the poetry being written by you and a few other novelists?
SE: Name names.
WG: But the effect is often lost. The poetry is passed over. Reviewers reduce the density of your lines to the single comic shot. You become, for them, a rapid-fire funnyman. The comedy is there, of course, but so is zero on the thermometer. Zero isn't the whole scale. Scene after scene of George Mills is surreal, bizarre, and very far past funny. For instance, George and his wife, Louise, are visiting her aged father when the meals-on- wheels man arrives.
WG: And the father dies with a plastic fork and a piece of pie in his mouth. It's --
SE: Pumpkin pecan.
WG: Pumpkin pecan. The plastic spoon. The entire situation. Perfect. But mere comedy doesn't hurt like this does -- doesn't astonish -- doesn't terrify.
SE: I've never understood my classification as a comic writer.
WG: But to take seven years. You don't write fast enough to be funny.
SE: I work all day to squeeze out a page, and that's if I'm lucky. And if I've had my shot, which I'm permitted to have once a week, my shot of ACTH, then I can do two pages sometimes.
WG: That's the alphabet you get in your behind?
SE: It eases everything.
WG: I had a whole list of questions -- embarrassing, personal, forceful -- I meant to ask, but when I heard about John's death I ripped up the paper.
SE: The evening's gone on. John's still dead.
WG: A nice collection of your sentences, too. They went into the wastebasket.
SE: One day I'd like to write a page that has at least seven book titles on it, like one of Shakespeare's sonnets -- seven Bartlett's.
WG: I think you have, Stanley.
SE: Fourteen, then. Fourteen titles.