Q: What were you doing when you wrote your first book, "The Sterile Cuckoo"?
A: I was living in New York City. I was still in college. After I got out of college I spent a year in Spain. I came back to this country, in June of 1963, and started taking (it) around to various publishers. I'd hand carry it, and leave it at the desk of the secretary. I'd pick publishers out of The New York Times Book Review and I'd put a postcard in the manuscript, and ask them to send me a postcard, and I would come and pick it up. Spent very little money. The subway cost only 15. I was living on $800 a year and $500 of it was rent. Those were the days. I was also trying to earn a living playing my guitar in the little cafes in Greenwich Village. Not doing very well there. Selling cartoons, pen-and-ink drawings. Mostly of naked ladies.
Q: So you were living the romantic life of the artist?
A: It wasn't real romantic because I was living in a very small apartment, and $42 a month even then didn't get you a whole lot in New York. I lived real alone. I did not have a girlfriend. I did not go out, go drinking with the guys. I was working. I wrote incessantly. "The Sterile Cuckoo" was the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh novel. I wrote my first novel when I was 16 and wrote a novel a year in college.
Q: How do you explain that obsession that you had, of writing that early? Mother, father, anybody?
A: There was a lot of writing (in my) family. Our great-grandfather on my mother's side, Anatole Le Braz, was a famous French writer in Brittany. But mostly, I was about 13 when I started writing gangster stories, after Damon Runyon. I remember the summer my dad got divorced. I lived with my father and he was gone a lot at the time. He was working with the CIA in Washington. I stayed at home every day. I wrote a lot, trying to kill time.
I used to have a friend and we'd come to each other's houses, and our idea of spending an evening together was we'd each try to write a short story. We'd just sit there and try and write it, and then we'd give it to each other to read.
I did a lot of things. I was a big jock. I played three varsity sports every year. I acted in plays. I had a lot of energy.
Q: What college was this?
A: Hamilton. Upstate New York. Eight hundred men. Eight hundred horny men. Isolated. Now, its co-ed.
I remember between my junior and senior year in college. I went to New York City. An aunt of mine allowed me to use her penthouse on Sutton Square. I sat in a little room in the middle of New York every day and wrote this novel. When I wasn't writing, I was reading. I remember reading "Look Homeward Angel" at one sitting. It lasted about 21/2 days.
Q: How many hours a day were you putting into writing?
A: I used to write 30 hours straight and then sleep for 10 hours. I would just sit there and write and write and write, stop after about 6 hours, play my guitar, and write, write, write, and then I would take a walk around Greenwich Village, come back, and write, write, write.
Q: How were you existing financially?
A: I didn't have it hard for very long. My grandmother in Spain gave me $500 twice or three times a year. When I left college, she offered me free room and board at her apartment in Barcelona, and I wrote the first drafts of "The Sterile Cuckoo" there. I also taught school at the Institute de Americana, English to Spanish-speaking people. I arrived at New York with maybe $300, $200 in my pocket. I would eat the same food every day. For dinner I would have one pork chop. I just played it tight to the vest.
Q: In the material you were writing, was it just a power of playing around with characters?
A: No, I was real self-conscious. Most of the stuff I wrote is very derivative. I imitated and copied. I wrote things like Hemingway, and they all took place in Spain. I wrote about bullfights before I ever saw a bullfight.
I grew up really loving the language. Any kind of language. I used to have newspaper collections from around the world. I would save up my allowance and buy 'em. When I was a kid, somebody would give me one, I'd treasure it. It would be in Arabic, or French. I couldn't read 'em, but I'd stare at them.
I always liked to talk. I picked up accents, any new slang coming down the pipe. When be-bop language came in the '50s, "Hey man, daddy- o, that's real cool," I would pick it up and use it make it a part of me.
Q: What makes a story work?
A: Oh, I don't know. I'm not real good at articulating the mechanics of doing things. I do things instinctively. By ear. I play a guitar and a piano. I cannot read music. I almost flunked out of college my freshman year, because I could not do grammar. What I've learned about how to tell a story is mostly I read and read and read and I pick up a real sense of rhythm. That's the only way I can tell a story. I cannot plan how to make a story work. I can only feel how I make it work.
Q: So when you get to the bigger ones, like "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "Nirvana" and "The Magic Journey" you're not -- .
A: I write those big books the way I write the little books. The most important thing is the first draft -- I try and write it, 10, 15, 20 pages a day nonstop, start to finish. I don't worry about the writing. I don't worry about the grammar. I don't worry about using words. I just worry about the momentum and rhythm. The most important thing is to be able to drag a reader from page one to page 300. The first draft of "The Magic Journey" probably took me three months. The book took me four years. I do a lot of books real wrong. I've written 25 or 30 books; I've published eight.
Q: So that's a long process?
A: It's a real awkward process. I wish that I could think more before I put down a sentence. When my great-grandfather wrote, he would walk up and down the room and pace until he had the exact sentence in his head, and then he would sit down and put it down, right, and that was it. It was finished. He did every sentence like that in the book.
Q: Do you think if you had stayed in New York, you would've been in a different position?
A: If you work within the literary society. If you go to the effort to make the connections. Literature is like any other business. People really need connections in order to make it big publicly, if you're concerned about that.
I have a second or third cousin, named Richard Eberhart, well- known poet. And cousin Dick, I mean, that guy's just a professional at making all the connections, writing 12,000 people, going to all the proper places and knowing everybody, so that when he does something, all his friends will review it, talk about it. I made a decision that that wasn't particularly important to me. The important thing for me is to do the work. It's a little arrogant because I still try to force the business to pay me a living for doing exactly what I want to do, and not playing the game.
I don't feel very comfortable getting real repetitive, and I like the stories that I write to count for something. I don't want to keep rewriting "The Milagro Beanfield War." When I wrote "The Sterile Cuckoo," everybody wants you to repeat it. "Son of Sterile Cuckoo." "Sterile Cuckoo Meets Godzilla."
Q: When did you move to New Mexico?
A: I moved from New York in 1969. I'd been out here in 1957 once for summer, in the Chiricahua mountains in southeastern Arizona. My mother was in anthropology and she came out here in the '30s and went to all the pueblos and stuff like that. She was really into Indians. I came to Taos for a week, and then I went down to the southwest research station which was an arm of the Museum of National History, where my grandfather worked for 35, 40 years as the curator of fishes. I wound up working for my room and board. And then immediately started fighting forest fires. And had lots of adventures.
In fact, the first novel I wrote when I got back was set in the Southwest. It was about a mestizo (mixed-blood) kid, half Chicano, half Indian, who leads his blind grandfather, an Indian, up into the mountains. I read some legend that if youre blind you can't get into the afterlife, the happy hunting ground. The grandfather wanted the kid to lead him, as close as he could get to that kind of nirvana up in the hills.
Q: What did you live on those first years?
A: Not a whole lot. I remember 1970, or 1971, my total income was about $241 from the Japanese translation rights to "The Sterile Cuckoo." That year, (then-wife) Ruby had an aunt who died, and left her about $4,500. We lived on that. We just lived cheap. Real cheap.
I had real problems dealing with literature for a while there. I thought it was useless and not political and that really I should be an organizer on the barricades. I wasn't doing a good job politically because I always wanted to write. I wasn't doing a good job writing because I was always thinking about doing other things that were more necessary -- propaganda writing, or organizing. I finally said, whether you like it or not, look at all the time you've invested. Look at all the writing you've done since the age of 13 or 14. That apparently is your schtick. Why don't you accept it? Do it, get back into it, start thinking about the craft as well as the content. Commit your life to it. And you know, when you do something like that it also means you're not going to do other things.
Q: What can you tell me about the (non-fiction) book you're working on now?
A: I don't know. "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl that dies -- ." Ha! Don't you wish that you thought of that first sentence? So far I'm just calling it "On the Mesa." I have plans to force somebody to publish it. I started going out to the mesa with my camera and my tripod, four of five times a week, just trying to calm down. I lay down on my back, about 5, 4 in the afternoon. I just waited for the stars to come out. I lay there about an hour and a half. I got interested in the universe, the cosmos, the earth, the planet, the solar system. I hadn't thought about any of that stuff. We live our lives without really thinking about our place even in our own town, let alone the cosmos. We never really think what's happening.
Q: You are the kind of writer that survives on the bare essentials.
A: I either earn 130 grand, or I earn $5, I'm going to live the same. I give away a lot of money. I don't like the fact I can earn 40, 50, 60, 80 grand, and my neighbor, who works 10 times harder than I do scrubbing toilets, only earns 3 grand. I believe in the equal distribution of wealth and therefore I redistribute. The poor in Taos are extraordinary poor. And the rich are very rich. So, the nature of just how class struggle works in this country is real open. It's not as if you live in Evanston, Ill. -- (where) everybody is kinda the same.
I bent over backwards in "Milagro" to try and write something that would just function as an entertainment. Because I was pretty much slitting my own throat with the literature I was writing -- which was so polemical, so angry, so bitter. It wasn't working on esthetics ground. It wasn't working on just literature. I bent over backwards just trying to recapture literature, a sense of humor. Was it Emma Goldman who said, "I don't want to be a part of the revolution if I can't dance?"
Q: Have you ever been happy with a book you wrote?
A: I'm happy that I tried to do what I tried to do. I (have been) working on a script for Louis Malle now (based on "The Magic Journey"). I can't read the book over, because I got a clutch in my stomach. I read the first page, and there's 20 things I would change and I get sick at heart.
Q: What about the writer's life? I don't want to romanticize it -- .
A: What's romantic? The writer's life that I have, theoretically, could be very romantic because I earn a living from it. Which means that I have theoretically an extraordinary amount of freedom compared to many writers, most of whom have to hold down other jobs. The average income for the professional writer in this country is $4,400 a year. My income the last two years and the year before that it was about 25 Gs and in '81 it was $130,000, and then in '82 it was $86,000. It's going rapidly back down, because I'm going to get it there. All that earning a lot of money meant to me was a lot more headaches, problems. Like I say, I live the same at either level so I think I'll choose a lower, a much lower level.
Q: Have you ever felt any guilt along that line, living the crazy life of the writer?
A: No. My life isn't very crazy. My writer's life is, basically, I sit at my kitchen table and I type. Its not an exciting, drama-filled life, full of crazy adventures. I live a lot of my life vicariously through books. I learn a lot about what's happening in the world through books.
Q: Why do writers have such a bad record as far as a personal life?
A: Worse than other people? One out of every two marriages in the whole country winds up in divorce. I did read somewhere that writers had the shortest life span of any professional group in America, and that writers had the most alcoholism. That may say something about the nature of the business for a lot of people. A lot of writers buy the myth, the cult of self-destruction. A lot of writers think its real important to down a bottle of bourbon a day, cause geez, you know, didn't Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Dylan Thomas? My life is fairly boring.