Beginning in fourth grade I found the magic of books. I mostly loved fantasy, magic, spells, wizards and warriors, noble knights and vicious dragons. I couldn’t get enough of it. An amazing escape for me to be taken away to a world where anything was possible. The weavers of these tales were magicians to me; I was astounded by their creativity with stories that could take me away to such places. Authors like Tolkien and Piers Anthony, Hickman and Weis; transporting me to worlds that were captivating with heroic sacrifices and amazing cliffhangery chapter breaks. Far more interesting than the middle-school years that were cruel, crushing, and frankly awful.
I inadvertently put these authors in the superhero category. To spin yarns and create worlds, pantheons of Gods, redemption and songs of old battles lost only to win again in generations that followed.
I manifested a reality that these novelists impossible feats of world building and novel writing was an accomplishment that no mortal could fathom without supernatural powers.
I feel this is why it was so difficult for me to send out my own writing. I would tell myself stories, “you don’t belong on the shelf next to these masters. The hubris to think I could possibly compare?” It is one of my limitations I now realize that I put people up on a pedestal. My parents, my friends, family, artists - certainly my wife and my brother. It comes with pros and cons to imbue prodigiousness in others. The pros are basically a beginners mind - to know there is always more to learn and to push myself to better myself. To listen to those that express and share with incredulity their unique talents and passions that seem Godlike. The cons have a long list - mainly that they are human and not Gods, they bleed, they make mistakes - and eventually they reveal the same mortality and fall off their pedestal - fall from grace.
As a writer I struggled with believing in my work, my uniqueness and my ability to create captivating stories that people will enjoy. Especially in the wake of believing that authors with books on the shelf have something that the rest of us don’t have - they were born with a Writer Gene. This changed when I found the author interviews the Paris Review published. For those of you reading this that have never read the Paris Review - each issue includes an interview with an author, poet, editor, filmmaker, etc. They have been collecting these interview since the 50’s when they first started publishing monthly. The list of authors the PR has interviewed is quite amazing - including: Capote, Hemingway, Faulkner, Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Saul Bellow, William Burroughs, Simone De Beauvoir, Jack Kerouac, John Updike, John Cheever, Joan Didion, John Gardner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, James Baldwin, Raymond Carver, the list continues and of course this is a sample of authors that for me - stood out.
What I learned was transformative.
I learned how Capote believed in rhythm and still believed he hadn’t mastered it yet and how voracious a reader he was devouring five books a week; and how Dorothy Parker is down to earth and so willing to speak her truth, I love the last line of her interview, “It’s not the tragedies that kill us, it’s the messes. I can’t stand messes. I’m not a smart cracker. You know I’m not when you meet me - don’t you, honey?” In the first volume of the Paris Review interviews Hemingway impacted me the most - his process and the idea of his daily ritual is unique - it reminds me of a baseball player and his superstitions. And that he read Shakespeare’s King Lear every year, again and again. I loved how Saul Bellow said, “I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos,” and how his words seem so simple and yet the profundity will take a lifetime to prove true or false and oh so subjective. When I reached Kurt Vonnegut I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up the same way it happened when I first read Steven Pressfield's War of Art, after reading Vonnegut's interview - I went and tore through everything I could get my hands on: his speeches, his fiction, his nonfiction and after reading his work - his voice began to speak to me on the page - his writing felt more visceral - more real, as if it was written for me and me alone and the universe was carving a path in stone for me to inbibe all of it! Joseph Heller’s interview led me to Bob Gottlieb’s interview which led me to read Gottlieb’s biography Avid Reader and well of course this led me back to Heller's Catch-22 which I’d started at least on two separate occasions - one when I was younger than 20 and my maturity was just not evolved enough yet the words just seem to fizzle in my mind like dry ice, and then again when I was 25 and I was just too busy trying to figure out what the hell I was doing let alone sitting for long to give it the attention it deserved. Gardner’s interview led me to his famed writing text The Art of Fiction and without even trying led me to Charles Johnson a protege of Gardner's - who happens to be the current interview in this month’s Paris Review and what prompted me to write this blog post. I could go on and on how these interviews inspired action and most importantly though, the work of these became the catalyst or thrust that changed my view of making art forever - I realized that adversity, humanness, the Godlike became mortal and I could read their words on paper and imagine them speaking them directly to the interviewer - unadulterated, unabridged words that were spoken from their hearts - and I could see how human they were - they are! They fell from a God’s spectrum into the playing field of the rest of us. It was amazing, I couldn’t stop - I wanted to learn more about their lives, their loves, their process, their mistakes, the sympathetic regularity from one author to another - what do they all have in common? How are they unique? How they didn’t like that which turned out to be their most popular, or how they struggled in elementary school only to become some of the most provocative and legendary writers in the history of American (mostly) literature.
It was two year’s ago this September when I found another source of interviews that altered my perception and grounded the artist as human. Brad Listi in Los Angeles hosts a podcast and for over six years and over 500 episodes of interviews with authors. Now, instead of reading their words on paper I get to hear their voice, their laugh, and learn a little bit of what makes them - well, them. Brad Listi is a master interviewer - they come to his LA home or he speaks to them on Skype - and rarely does the conversation have anything to do with the book they are pushing, pitching, press releasing. The interviews are exactly what I am looking for - conversations about: where they grew up; when did they know they wanted to be a writer; what were their parents like, are they religious, what do they think of politics (he loves to talk about the canker sore of our political climate).
What do I learn when I read and listen to these interviews? I learned that we are all just doing whatever we can to find our way. Sure, some of us are privileged - absolutely, and many others are far from it, none of us, no one escapes heartache, we are all human with flaws and mistakes and striving to figure out how to figure it out. The playing field has been raked and the lines are all but straight with the chalk from home plate to the wall - and here I am cutting words between middle school drops-offs and elementary pick ups and between conference calls and long nights trying to balance the budget. Just like everyone else, right? It donned on me that they are all just like us - they are human. They are creative. They are artists choosing to take the risk of exposing their flaws, their wounds, their art made real with pen and paper.
These artists - these authors are empowerd and heroes - that’s for sure. Maybe born with talent, or like so many of us, carve talent out of hours and hours of writing like a piano player dents her keys with fingers of skin and bone as does the scupltor’s countless cups and busts and assemblages and the trumpet player’s firkin of spit. We are all human which means we are creative. And their isn’t a single better way to feel the blood in our veins and dab the tears from our faces then to share our passion and love and yawp into the river of creativty. Cause the universe can’t see us if we don’t light ourselves up.
The Paris Review Interviews Vol 1. New York. Picador. 2006. Print.