William H. Gass: Interviewed by Michael Silverblatt, 1995

Conducted by Michael Silverblatt, 1995; Broadcast on “Bookworm,” 1995


The following interview was recorded in March 1995 in the studios of KCRW, in Santa Monica, California. The program’s description of the show was as follows: “Author William H. Gass discusses the evolution and style of his thirty-years-in-the-making new novel, finally published this month.” You can listen to the audio here.

Michael Silverblatt: Today my guest is William H. Gass, the author of The Tunnel, published by Alfred Knopf. This book is a 653-page book, composed over a period of 30 years. It’s been being written since I was eight years old, and I feel like I’ve been reading it virtually since then. The narrator of this book, William Kohler, is a professor of history. He has studied modern Germany and sees in the rise of the Reich a model that is replicated in the arguments he’s been having with his wife and his family. Now he comes to understand what is referred to in the novel as “the fascism of the heart.” The book is a kind of domestic epic. And what we see is a kind of symbolic replication of the multiplication of angry selves, in a way. How does one go about structuring such a book? The first thing I know is that it used to be called The Tunnel in 12 Phillipics.

William H. Gass: Well, I took out the ‘Philippics’ as being too pointed. The book is trying to be a number of things, but one thing it’s trying to be—and why it’s called The Tunnel—is the inside of history. I chose a historian who’s just finishing a standard, objective kind of narration, with the kind of expectation you get in history, where the arrangement of narrative events will be explanatory. When you come away from that text, you will presumably understand what went on and why. And usually the things that get left out of history are the very things that undermine it. Among other things, the first thing is the historian himself. His nature, or her nature. And the kind of aims and ambitions, frustrations and problems they have. So my metaphor for that was to have Kohler hide the pages of this book between the pages of the objective history. That’s to symbolize the fact that inside those objective events are the private events. The objective things that are accounted for do not account for the inner life, on the whole, and we have to remember also that while we’re talking about the grand things—and historians love wars and changes of political regime—even mass murderers have home lives. It’s true that some people have blamed the German home family relationship—the patriarchal father, etc.—for the behavior of the people of the Third Reich. What I’m trying to do is not only reduce history to localism—particularly domestic—but also put it inside the head, where I think it belongs. Because really what counts in history, to me, is what happens to human consciousness; not just what happens—the piles of bodies—but what was lost when you piled up bodies; what was gained when you decided not to.

Silverblatt: You suggest that this tunnel is the inside of the mind. And the inside of the mind has its wrinkled passages—it, too, is replicated in the bowel. So we’ve got this book—a tunnel under the house; a tunnel inside the head; and a digestive tunnel—

Gass: That’s right—

Silverblatt: —that’s processing.

Gass: Every tunnel.

Silverblatt: But as a result, everything is happening in every world. In the world, in the mind, and in the body.

Gass: Yes, and in other activities as well. That is, not only in those kinds of tunnels. Tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels—you dig for ore, you dig for gold. So some of what presumably you might come out with is something rare and valuable as well. You have to add on all these different levels in the construction.

Silverblatt: But what I’m trying to suggest is that in this book, at least structurally, metaphors—if a literal tunnel, head, heart, bowel, are tunnels—become superimposed, in a sense, on one another. So certain scenes in this book take place in three places at once.

A page of Gass’ The Tunnel. Courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Gass: That’s right. In quite a number of places. This made the writing difficult. It’s not unlike having a concept, an extended metaphor, which then grows and develops as has its own sort of suburbs. So then you have to constantly be in touch with all the elements of the image at one time, as it gets increasingly complex.

Silverblatt: The amazed reader of The Tunnel is going to find immediately fairly unusual things. There is on its title page a model of this tunnel itself. In other words, there’s a structural model, both of the plot of the book as well as the prose of the book and the shape of the book. And the first thing we notice is that there are three attempts to start the The Tunnel. The Tunnel begins with the attempt of the narrator to dig into earth that, I guess, is too hard to be penetrated. So the opening chapter is a starting over and over again and reaching impediment.

Gass: Yes. Again, as in everything here, it’s functioning in several ways. There are repeated attempts to get started. And then finally we arrive at the section “Today I Began to Dig.” But those repeated false starts also hide the beginning of the book the way a tunnel—if it’s an escape tunnel—would be hidden from the jailers. So that you don’t start this book for some time any more than the narrator gets his tunnel started right away.

Silverblatt: Now I want to ask you this, because I think—and I’ve tested this—there are sections of this book that I’ve read aloud, both to people who love literature and also to non-readers. A very close friend heard your description of Kohler bringing together his soldiers and jars and toys to create an ultimate war with marbles rained from above. And my friend said, “I could read this forever.” I think even for people who don’t read, I think it’s absolutely true that its language—perhaps because its representational, perhaps because it comes from childhood frustrations—is very seductive. And then for readers of sophistication—which I mean literally to mean readers who jump to conclusions, to false conclusions—there are great enjoyable tracts of false logic, in which undeniable and horrible conclusions are reached. And yet for all this, you’ve begun the book with ninety pages which will frustrate and baffle even your most persistent reader. When I came on the opening of this book, it stuck me three, four, five times.

Gass: I think this is a standard modernist thing. What it is is to make sure that the person who gets into the book is ready and deserves to be there. It’s a kind of test of competency. To discover that the book is not only the narrator’s problem, or the writer’s problem—as I’m trying to find out what the heck is going on, too—but also the reader’s problem. It’s also I think essential to establish very early the kind of range of reference, of demand, that the book is going to make of the reader. That’s just fair. You could of course just start out with, ‘We’re all going to see grandmother in the woods with our basket…’ and suddenly alter the game down the road. I think this would be more unfair then saying, right from the start, ‘If you want to go on with this….’

Silverblatt: Yes, I see what you mean, because Kohler is in the tunnel even before he starts to dig.

Gass: Oh, yes.

Silverblatt: The tunnel is everywhere.

Gass: That’s right. In one sense, Kohler’s digging his tunnel to try and get out of the very mess he’s in. He never succeeds, really, but he is trapped. As the opening puts it, “Life in a Chair.” And here he is, stuck.

Silverblatt: Ah, so that’s why the wheelchair—Because it reminds him of an invalid. And that is like another kind of life in a chair.

Gass: Yes. And it’s the ‘Chair’ of history he’s been appointed. And he’s had, of course, his professor who taught him in Germany—he’s brought over his swivel chair, and he’s now sitting in Mages Tabor’s chair. And it’s a chair which Tabor says, ‘I can swivel and change my position anytime I want.’

Silverblatt: To go back to our amazed reader, who is making his way into William H. Gass’ The Tunnel, he turns the page from this diagram of the tunnel, drawn it seems in chalk on a board, and finds a page of color. These are two pennants of passive attitudes and emotions. But in fact, if he looks closely, it’s the same pennant—the pennant’s been turned, like a page—and suddenly the black stripe which stood for bigotry, now stands for vindictiveness; the red of long suffering is, on its reverse side, pettiness. And it begins to suggest to me that as we turn the pages of this book, the meanings will change, too. Even though what looked like oppositions finally amount to the same thing.

Gass: Yes, that of course is standard technique of modernism, too. The notion, of course, that as you proceed through a book, just as you proceed through a sentence from its subject to its conclusion, what you arrive at alters the meaning that you began with. So the whole text is constantly reverberating back on its beginning. And altering the original. And then starting out over and over again, in a circular Joyceian fashion, these alternations, these oppositions, begin to get cozier and cozier, the way you get in a good stew. There’s a flavor coming out of the interaction of the ingredients.

Silverblatt: If that set of pennants stands for oppositions that are in fact not oppositions, in the next set of pages we get a page of acknowledgments, which begins, “The author wishes to thank…” But when we flip over the page, we discover a picture drawn by hand, the first doodle, a medal for ingratitude. So every “Thank you” is matched by a “No, thank you—I don’t care”—

Gass: That’s right. Isn’t that like life?

Silverblatt: That’s what’s exciting about this book. People expect novels to be unitary and shudder when they start contradicting themselves. But we know that it’s not just thinkers who are able to hold opposing thoughts in succeeding seconds. This is the nature of life—every thought establishes its opposition, and what we love one moment we dread the next.

Gass; Or simultaneously, eventually.

Silverblatt: At a certain point when I was reading this book, I called you on the phone to say, “Time has started running backwards, hasn’t it?” In this book, which seems in a sense to be shaped as an hourglass, or at least like an ‘X,’ suddenly, time starts moving backward. We get these strange images, as if at the crook of the hourglass, or the hook of the ‘X,’ time stopped and everything fused. That words are becoming the scenery. That the ice that holds things together is part of the whole of things. Then suddenly the book dives backward into childhood, further and further back, until the book seems to be saying, the very disappointment in life is a birthday that didn’t work, a Santa who wasn’t there. How can you expect a life full of anything but disappointments, when its ontological promises, from the very beginning, was a creature Santa bearing gifts who isn’t real? And the gifts are empty boxes under an aunt’s bed. There’s nothing inside them but other boxes, and other boxes, and other boxes. And the terrible promise of a box that will someday have a gift brought by a gift by a Santa who isn’t.

Gass: Yes, that’s based on a notion that earlier experiences are merely replicated, and become model experiences. Not only failures or disappointments, but successes as well. And so the idea that all of the early experiences become archetypal, and assume a kind of dominance that means that every, say, birthday party afterwards is this same birthday party.

Silverblatt: I must ask you—and it’s external to the novel, but I think in a way part of it, of course. Several sections in this book appeared in their original form over the course of thirty years. And being a bookworm I went and checked—there aren’t very many changes in them.

Gass: No. The main changes are breaking up some of the pieces that appeared originally in a sort of unitary thing have been cut up. But there aren’t many changes otherwise.

Silverblatt: Some critics have pointed out, the thirty years of The Tunnel amounts to approximately two paragraphs per week—and this suggests great sedulousness. The things that appear, appear whole, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. So there does seem to be an interesting collaboration between care and extreme attention on the one hand and inspiration on the other. As if truly the poles of the novel were the years on the one hand that Joyce spent composing Finnegans Wake, and on the other the sudden appearance to Rilke of the late poems. He had been silent, and suddenly, he tells us, the angels arrived. I wonder if you can talk about that process of creation.

Gass: I’m not sure I’d call it inspiration—it must just be chaos. But I think that what you’re talking about is something very true in a way. Certainly it was true in Rilke’s case because when he wrote his first ‘Elegies,’ he didn’t complete them until 20 years later. He knew they were the first of ten. He knew that he was writing fragments of the third and the fifth and so on without having them. So there was somewhere in him a kind of frame, a structure, a kind of place where things could start filling in in secret, without his knowing, and then coming forth eventually. And of course while I wouldn’t compare my work at all to that, it is also true that while it took all this time to write it, the last 600 pages of my manuscript, which was about 1,200 pages in typescript, were written in a year. So you get the conclusion, the ending at the finishing up of the book, in a big hurry, compared to the long gestational period. It suggests to me that once you set up this kind of obsession, everything that happens feeds into it and sticks in there some place, even if you’re not thinking about it.

Silverblatt: For years, I’ve asked you questions and you’ve answered, “Yes, you’re right, but it’s not as planned as that. It’s much more intuitive. I didn’t think that, but you are correct.” What interests me is that people often accuse books like The Tunnel of being over-intellectualized and over-internalized. These are of course, in terms of the internality, the intensions of this particular book. But what fascinates me here is the sense of a writing athlete who’s developed and trained for years so that at the moment of the prose, say the last year of its composition, the very trained mind is prepared for a blinding process of intuition.

Gass: Well, it just comes out. Partly that’s due to my method of composition all along. For a long work that I should never embark on anyway, the work that I’ve done on it has to tell me what comes next. I don’t know. I don’t have any plan thrown out ahead. The organizations of the thing come later, when I begin to see what in fact is happening. And then to tidy it up, and fill it in a little bit. But it took such a long time to figure out, for myself, what I was trying to do. So that finally I got to a point where the work I had already done simply wrote the rest of it. I had no blockages. I just went and wrote every day. It came out—and that’s because the previous text was doing it. Now that means of course that it’s going to come out formed in a certain way, because that’s what’s happening in the book. I’m a totally intuitive writer. I really don’t know what I’m doing. I have to be told by what I’ve done, and I have to look in it. That means that when I get blocked, I have to rewrite until it tells me something.

Silverblatt: A final question,or speculation, or rant. I know that Gertrude Stein has been a big influence. And when I think of Stein’s essays, I think of these extraordinary, seminal things and any given sentence providing, up to a point, an explanation for the Stein text. It’s no surprise that she writes the essay “Composition as Explanation.” But at a certain point she stops writing essays, and we get, to my mind, texts that are entirely strange. No more explanation. And we are going to have to regard them as a hieroglyph, and to try and say, ‘There’s no meaning, we just love the sound.” But never again to know, to have the instruction of the author. Now you’ve been a writer who’s composed essays, hand in hand, with fictions. And in many cases you’ve been the banister that I’ve held onto while wandering lost through The Tunnel. Is there a point at which explanation completely stops?

Gass: Oh, yes. I think in fact the explanations are merely aids for taking the trip. The trip is what counts. Not a lot of explanations. Sometimes, in order to take the trip, you have to know certain things. In order to know how to read. But literature is made to be experienced. It helps to explain things sometimes in order to enable to get the experience. But I’ve always been suspicious of theoretical explanations of passages and so on. And when I’m tempted to do that in my own work, I know that my passage is no good. And I’m looking for rationalizations which can always be found—why it’s okay and why it should be left there. Because if it doesn’t move, if it doesn’t, in Rilkean terminology, sing—if it hasn’t got that kind of power—it’s just not doing anything. When you get the power, as often happens when reading—let’s say you read a poem by Paul Celine—you don’t know what’s going on. But you don’t have to. You get punched. It hits you. You know you’re dealing with greatness, and that’s all you need to know.

Silverblatt: Well I did experience this book in a very physical way. There are certain physicalities that are considered okay for novels. Crying, which along with protracted reading, which results in red-eye, are linked. Laughter is thought to be okay. But I sneezed over this book, and farted, and there are bits of food stain on it. So the book, in a way, becomes a record for each reader of his passage through the tunnel. It seems like a book meant to be lived in, and to invoke responses that are visceral and non-literary.

Gass: Ideally I would love to have it that way. Whether it succeeds in doing that I don’t know. But certainly one of the problems, as I was mentioning earlier, of literature in general, is to reach the material. We envy, as Rilke did, Rodin’s having his hands in it. And of course the sculptor says, “I want ideas.” And so he has to reach out from the material to mind and literature, which is so conceptual. He has to reach for the world, in the most immediate and telling way.