William H. Gass: Interviewed by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2009

Not previously published

Stephen Schenkenberg
May 4, 2014 · 31 min read

The following interview took place in William H. Gass’ home on a late afternoon in October 2009. Over the course of two hours, Gass spoke about subjects I had either not heard him speak about at all or not with the depth that I was interested in: his early family life; his identity as a literary figure within a philosophy department; the provenance of On Being Blue and Reading Rilke; American politics; and the TV or movies he watches when he’s not reading books. We spoke in his second-floor study, where he keeps the ‘literature in English’ portion of his library. Though the room is small, the volumes number 4,000.

Stephen Schenkenberg: My first question has to do with something I was reading in the early part of H.L. Hix’s book, Understanding William H. Gass, where he was talking about you growing up, and your mother and father. I’ve heard you speak to me, but also in the Lannan talk, about the bigotry and righteousness that could be present in your father. I think the odds are good that someone growing up in that environment would perpetuate those characteristics, rather than be able to overcome them and turn them into work, the way you have. But that’s clearly not how you are as a person. I’m wondering if there’s anything that comes to mind that helped you be able to use that in your work and overcome the examples you were seeing in life.

William H. Gass: Well, I wasn’t inclined—I mean, do you mean how much would I likely have grown up to be a Republican? I was an opponent of my father as early as I can remember. Mainly because he was a fault-finder. We were antagonists very early, and I think it was because I was such a different person than he was. And what he did well. He could play baseball and run in track; he could box. He was a little Cagney figure—he was short and wiry and could be very tough. Not physically—ever. But we were always sort of at odds. He hated Notre Dame. And he came from a Catholic background, though there was no religious influence. But he just—who knows why. Well, I supported Notre Dame. I was in favor of free trade, but I didn’t know what free trade was. That situation just carried on. If I had a habit to break, it would be my opposition to my father, rather than the other way around.

Schenkenberg: Was it just the three of you? Did you have brothers and sisters?

Gass: No, I had no brothers or sisters. There was an aunt who lived with us. Then, my grandmother, the Swedish woman. Poor thing. As she got older, she lost her English. And nobody in the family knew Swedish. It was weird. But my father had a lot of good qualities, which I haven’t used in my books much, because it just wasn’t appropriate, exactly. But he was good at what he did—he was a good teacher. He was meticulous. He taught me drafting and a lot about architecture.

Schenkenberg: That certainly stayed an interested of yours.

Gass: It did. He wasn’t a good architect, but he had a lot of the work habits of an architect. He was a little tight with money, but it was the Depression. And I never wanted for anything. I never was beaten—I was just balled out. They remained almost militantly ignorant of my interests that were foreign to them. That is, if I wanted toy soldiers for Christmas, I usually got them. But if I wanted books… They once did give me a Chemistry text and said, “Here’s a book.” Books didn’t enter the house; they were magazine readers.

Schenkenberg: But books were something you sought out in your own time and space.

Gass: I tried, yes. I didn’t exactly have an allowance, which was common for kids at that time to have, but I had my buck to spend on a Saturday, and I always spent 25 cents of it on a pocket book.

Schenkenberg: Did you go to the high school where he taught?

Gass: Yes, and I was in one of his classes. That’s how I know how he handled classes. It was an integrated school, and it was a steel town that had a lot of problem kids, and he had them put in his classes, mainly because he could keep order. He’d keep them out of trouble. They would from time to time really act up. Those were days when you could use physicality. Well, I don’t know if you could—he did. And he would stare down the toughest, biggest kid in class. They saw that he was really—you know, no foolin’. And he could be fierce in that sense. But he was an old coach. And so I was just this strange creature from outer space. My mother was quite different. She liked that side of me. And she was very close, and worked with me as a kid in school. During those first years, she was an ideal mom. Except she was a lousy cook. But she was still cooking with her instincts then, before she got to just be a drunk, you know. But she was … My childhood was not as awful as some people have written about it. So many people had it a lot worse than I did.

Schenkenberg: How’d you end up at Kenyon College?

Gass: I wanted to go to Kenyon, where John Crowe Ransom and certain poets were. It had a reputation which reached even me about its literary background. That’s one reason.

Schenkenberg: One of the pieces I was re-reading recently in the Review of Contemporary Fiction was Richard Watson’s tribute to you. Watson talked about the hiring of you at Washington University, including how you had a reputation as a writer while your PhD was actually in philosophy. He wrote that Jarvis Thurston had spoken to the chair of the department on your behalf.

Gass: Yeah.

Schenkenberg: The way Watson puts it is that the two most distinguished professors in the philosophy department had objected. What was it like getting hired into this position? Were you aware of what you were getting into?

Gass: No, I wasn’t. Because the chair was Dick Rudner, and Rudner had been at Cornell when I was at Cornell as a student. He had been an instructor, so he was somebody who also knew me. So when Jarvis came to him with this suggestion, he was in a position to have a judgment. And apparently, he had liked me well enough. In fact, I had gone to his house several times. His wife was a really good cook. And he was very genial and pleasant. I never had a course from him while I was there, but there was a personal connection. But no, I didn’t know anything about any oppositions.

Schenkenberg: You were in the philosophy department, and yet you had a very serious reputation on the literary side of things, which later included your decade with the International Writers Center. Was this an unusual structure you had created? Did most people seem to get it? Was there animosity on the English Department side of things?

Gass: Well, there was someone in the English Department, who thought apparently I was competing with them. But in the philosophy department, no. It was not unusual for people in the philosophy department to get sick and tired of some of the people in that department, who were bullies. People who had not performed well in the philosophical world, but who’d spent most of their time with the graduate students and had a lot of clout—because they had a lot of graduate students. One was a guy in Ethics who had a tremendous interest in the law. He had a law degree and ended up in the Law School. He shifted over. He finally just got out of there cause he was so pissed off about it. And I was just as pissed off, but I was able, as soon as I had a chance—and one dropped in my lap. This wasn’t something I instigated at all. Many people in the English Department didn’t care for it, but not all of them. For the writers, it was no problem.

Schenkenberg: What are you referring to that dropped in your lap?

Gass: The Distinguished Professorship. I didn’t understand it at the time. It was stupid of me, I suppose. But I was interviewed at Buffalo for a Distinguished New York State professorship. This was a very fat thing. And it involved sums of money for which you could bring it people to stimulate you. This was done several places in the country—it never worked out; it was dumb. And I never used this as a competitive-bid kind of thing, because I don’t approve of that. But I felt obliged to interview for it, because it was a distinguished chair, and it would have been in effect arrogant and rude not to. I told people here I was going, but I did not think at all that I was going to take this. And as soon as I came back from Buffalo—and really they did everything right. Lovely; they showed Mary and I all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses—

Schenkenberg: They did their job.

Gass: They did. And it was loaded with great people. I mean [John] Barth was there. His name escapes me, but one of the major poets was there. Somebody important in theater was there. A famous critic—this critic was a nut. But it was loaded with stars. But one reason I chose not to go is because I felt that this mix couldn’t stay together. And it didn’t.

Schenkenberg: So was this the late 1980s?

Gass: Yeah. So, as a result, I said “No.” And somebody proposed to the Chancellor that this international center be set up. And it was sort of a model, a program that would give me some money to bring people in. I had my own little bailiwick.

Schenkenberg: So when that all happened, your identity within the philosophy department changed.

Gass: Yes. I became non-existent except that I taught classes. And they were perfectly happy, I think, because I had a lot of students. Classes tended to be heavily enrolled. So as long as I was doing that, and I wasn’t pushing my way around in the department, I don’t think…I’m sure they just wrote me off.

Schenkenberg: Did that mean far fewer interminable department meetings?

Gass: Yes, I got out of those meetings. They were crazy. I wrote a very scandalous poem about department meetings. We used to have graduate students who attended these, and what they thought of their instructors after watching us make fools of ourselves. Red Watson, of course, would get very angry at everybody because they were idiots. But he would also, you know, throw his chair back and walk out of the room and slam the door. We had a professor who would bang on the table—it was covered with glass then. And he cracked it.

Schenkenberg: You’ve talked about the smoking, too—that someone would be able to make a point by putting out their cigarette at an opportune moment.

Gass: Oh, yes. All kinds of things like that. We had a department that would allow people to just produce. Now, my god, it’s changed. It’s huge: 14 people in the philosophy department. That’s because it’s really a science. It’s a good department; it’s beyond me.

Schenkenberg: One of the other passages from Watson’s tribute was his wondering if it’s true that you once gave the assignment of designing an aesthetically excellent gas oven for the Third Reich. He went on to say, No matter whether it’s true or not, it makes the point—of course it’s possible. Is that story true?

Gass: Oh, yeah.

Schenkenberg: What class was that?

Gass: Philosophy of Architecture. One of the projects was the tomb for the absolute; another was the national headquarters of gay rights; and another was redesigning Auschwitz, because it was alarming the Jews when they came and saw—to make things work out better. I didn’t expect anybody to take that particular project, but I wanted them to recognize the fact that architects built these things.

Schenkenberg: I’m sorry, I may have misunderstood. The end result was to improve the Jewish post-Holocaust visitors’ experience of visiting the camp, and not the actual Third Reich’s?

Gass: No, it was to change the places so they would look better. And in fact of course they had some camps—they actually did design some camps to look like model camps. So they would take visitors through the camps and say, ‘See? The camps are not the things you’ve heard rumors about.’ And I wanted the students to confront the fact that designing a building for a public space involved moral issues—and fundamental ones. I got in trouble with a colleague named Schwarzkopf, who was a rabbi. And offbeat—because he was not an Israeli supporter at all. No Zionist, he. Boy. But he was furious about this.

Schenkenberg: Did you have to change anything? Did you get scolded?

Gass: No, no. I didn’t change anything. And we eventually got on. After he cooled down, he began to understand, because I gave him the exam. I said, ‘Here, this is what we’re doing. I’ll keep you apprised of it. We’re going to have a review, like what is done in an architecture course. You’re welcome to come and see what happens and what they say.’ He didn’t come. So we got on okay afterward.

Schenkenberg: Do you think you’d be able to do that assignment now, today?

Gass: At Wash. U., yeah.

Schenkenberg: I’d like to talk about On Being Blue. This was published in 1976, I believe.

Gass: I have no idea.

Schenkenberg: I don’t know of another book like it. When I was interviewing the printmaker Ken Botnick recently for a story I was writing, he had said he often gives the book to students or assigns it to them. And one of your admirers who taught at Rhode Island School of Design said she had assigned it, too. So it’s got an interesting life after publication. The back flap even has a blurb from Time. And yet it’s this very unusual, slim volume, not a best-seller type. How did it come about as a full-length book, and how does it fit into your oeuvre?

“So Gaddis called me—called me the day he died, and I missed the phone call. I had immense respect for his work. I’m very arrogant about my tastes, and I knew this guy was just fantastic, and that these books were, you know, what they were.”

Schenkenberg: Was this person an editor? An academic?

Gass: An academic, and I first gave the lecture at Purdue. And then I was asked to give it a couple of other places. And each time I rewrote it and it became a little larger. But it was basically about blue language. But then I got interested in the word itself. So I kept adding onto it, rearranging. Suddenly I was invited to give part of it at the University of Texas. And that actually got me an offer at Texas. But I wasn’t going to go to Texas—even if Austin is a nice place.

Schenkenberg: So was there a publisher when you had a final version of this essay?

Gass: No, I think my agent handled it. The publisher David Godine, for some reason, got a hold of it and really wanted it. Most people didn’t show any interest. And then of course he put out the original edition. It was really handsome—the quality of workmanship the best I ever had. It was tastefully done, and it was just simple. Beautiful paper, great type set very well. Nothing extravagant.

Schenkenberg: How has its reception seemed to you, when you hear about these people teaching it or assigning it?

Gass: Well, it’s odd. I think it’s because it was regarded, for a while, as scandalous. It was also the very thing that annoyed me about Godine that after we got this thing and saw it in print, subtitled “A Philosophical Inquiry”—I had never said that. I don’t regard it as “A Philosophical Inquiry” at all. I couldn’t stop it, really. But then people tried to make it out to be one. And there were a bunch of people who said, “That’s the way philosophy should be done!” They liked it for reasons like that. But then it had bad words in it, you know… People are funny, because in my work there’s no sex to speak of. But there are words—the words are there but the sex isn’t there. And here was a case of the words were there. But to have this called ‘a philosophical inquiry’ — I had to inform my colleagues of my problem there. But there were some who said, “Yeah, it’s about time that philosophy became.. not this cold thing, and so forth, … Gooey is what we want!” So it’s had a kind of underground life. And it’s sold more copies than any book of mine. That’s not a great lot—25,000 to 30,000 over the years.

Schenkenberg: When did Reading Rilke become a book for you—when did you know it was going to be a book project?

Gass: Oh, it was after many years. I had just formulated my translations over the years, because I taught him so much. I was often unhappy with some of the translations, partly because in my classes I had an angle that I wanted to stress. It’s not the whole picture at all, but I always felt Rilke had been done a great deal of harm by interpretations of his aesthetic and philosophical points of view, which were really dumb. And that there was more to it, and that it was this way rather than that, and so forth. And so when I was teaching him, I concentrated on that, and so my translations were heavier on the idea side. And also clearer than he was, because I wanted the students to get it. I tried to expunge some of that, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back—when I got serious about publishing them—and make it vaguer. Then I published a few, here and there, of the Elegies. This was over thirty, thirty-five years, or more. And then I got some communication—one was the guy at the University of Michigan, in the German department, who sent me this nice notice, he was reviewing other people’s translations, and he had a little footnote. And he said, “These are the best translations, and I hope the author will continue.” And I thought, Gee, someone in the German Department… I got several of those sorts of things: encouragements. I’d been giving these lectures for years, and I finally put them together—there were a lot of things I left out—but I put them together and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll use the stuff I’ve translated as illustrations in the text instead of quoting other people. But I’ll put all the Elegies in the back. And sort of downplay it, because I’m an amateur.’ Heidi Ziegler came over, and spent a whole semester over here, and we went over them—she never changed or suggested a single change. We discussed the issues of meaning in every idea. She did wonderfully. And she had not been fond particularly of Rilke, and had not studied him. She was an Americanist, but she knew German, and all the echoes and little allusions, and so forth. The history of words in German. So she went over with me the whole bit. It was an enormous help. But she didn’t do the translations. She wouldn’t touch it, actually. But it was immense help. So the book was really the only book of mine that grew out of lectures.

Schenkenberg: And you continued writing about Rilke for years.

Gass: Well, he never leaves me. Sometimes I think it’s the only book I’ve ever read. Or books. Because when I want to illustrate a point, he comes to the fore. It’s not always good. He had his shortcomings.

At the Great Wall of China, 1984. Photo by Mary Gass, courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Schenkenberg: When I interviewed you and Lorin Cuoco in 2007, you very briefly touched on your international trips—to Germany, for example, and to China. And I was intrigued by your piece in A Temple of Texts called “Gaddis Gets Read To.” Was that a trip to Russia that the two of you and your families were on?

Gass: No, it was a group. It was our second trip.

Schenkenberg: Yours and Mary’s?

Gass: Yes. Both by the same group. Now, I’m not going to remember his name, but he was a former editor at The Saturday Review. Wrote a lot of self-help stuff. And he had gotten money from a computer guy to finance a trip to the Soviet Union. The idea was there would be a bunch of writers going to discuss common problems with first the Soviets; and then, as time went on, with the Chinese. This group was then in part to be available later when the Russians sent a group to us—and similarly with the Chinese. I was asked to go, along with Arthur Miller, Gaddis the second time, Allen Ginsberg, Harrison Salisbury, who was the journalist from The New York Times who had the China and the Russian beat—a very distinguished, smart journalist.

Schenkenberg: When was this?

Gass: It was in the early ’80s. And there were more of us than that. Names will float up to me. Our first trip was to Vilnius; we stayed there a time and then went to Moscow. The meetings were all held in Vilnius. But of course that was Russian territory, then. And we went around and got the treatment, went to a collective farm, went to a school. There were some very interesting stories and fun that came out of all that. And then I went to China on the same kind of thing, with another group. Harrison headed it up again. Toni Morrison, and Allen Ginsberg again, Francine du Plessix Gray, and people of that sort.

With William Gaddis at 73rd Street Books, New York, 1984. Photo by Mary Gass, courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Schenkenberg: Was William Gaddis somebody you were closest to among all those people?

Gass: I had met Gaddis only because I had been a juror on the National Book Awards when JR came out. And I met him at the Awards Banquet thing for the first time. Then I saw him because we happened to be at the same conference in Florida. That lasted almost a week, so I got to know him rather well. And that happened before we went to Russia together.

Schenkenberg: And the piece that followed “Gaddis Gets Read To” in A Temple of Texts—was that your memorial to Gaddis?

Gass: Yes. So he called me—called me the day he died, and I missed the phone call. I had immense respect for his work. I’m very arrogant about my tastes, and I knew this guy was just fantastic, and that these books were, you know, what they were. And my certainty about that was clearly visible. He didn’t need to be told they were good, but he did need to be told they were good by somebody who was in the same world of work. Who was so certain of it. We all need this sort of thing. And somebody he could trust. He was very suspicious. But in part rightly so, because so many of the people around him—not Saul Steinberg, and his friends in other fields—but were always after something. And wanted something… So he was a very difficult man to reach that way. And he also had a very low opinion of academics, not being one. But I, at least, was—there was nothing for me to gain. So his initial sympathies were, ‘This guy helped give me a prize,’ and blah blah, and I was on the good side, but I didn’t have any axe to grind. And I think that allowed us an intimacy that he wouldn’t ordinarily give. We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.

Schenkenberg: It’s interesting to hear you make that point about your take on Gaddis’ work being something that he could accept freely without being skeptical of or suspicious of—someone who’s in that world.

Gass: Right.

Schenkenberg: Has there been someone for you, conversely, who has registered a certain quality in your work that you knew was coming from a level of taste, and not somebody who was cozying up to you?

Gass: Well, no… It was usually me coming to Barth, or to Hawkes, or Paul West, or all the other people who I got to know and like so much. But I was the working critic, too, and they weren’t really. And it’s partly because I was philosophy, too, and the academic world. I had help in philosophy in that way—encouragement—but not in writing. And for many years, no encouragement from anything. It was a long time.

Schenkenberg: Looking over Temple of Texts the other night, looking at the works that—at least as of 1990—you said were inspirational to you. One of them was Virginia Woolf’s Complete Diaries. Has diary-keeping or journal-keeping been anything you’ve done?

Gass: I did, but I should go back one step, because I did get—we were never close—but I did get early support from Donald Barthelme. I don’t want to forget that. And John Gardner. More than anybody else. But he was just another person out of the blue, and we got to be very close friends. I recently did a preface for Nickel Mountain in a reprint edition by New Directions. People took me as an enemy of his for a long time. I think that’s subsided. Now…

Schenkenberg: Diaries and journals.

Gass: I did when I first started out because I thought, ‘That is what writers are supposed to do.’ And I did keep a journal, and I wrote things in it, and finally I realized that anything I wrote in the damn diary or the journal, I never used. I never went back and looked at it. Instead of saving it, or something, I was dumping it. So after the first couple years, I stopped.

Schenkenberg: I’m interested in talking about technology with you, as you’re someone who is very much actively writing in 2009 and in his 80s. I know that when you went to the Getty in 1991, when you were able to finish The Tunnel, that may have been your first instance of using a computer.

Gass: Yeah.

Schenkenberg: I’m partly interested in hearing anything about how technology has informed or shaped not just your writing, your composition, but your life in general. With email, for example, are you able to maintain relationships with people all over the world?

Gass: Yeah, much much better now. It’s been huge for me. Because it goes back to the very beginning, when I was working. I always worked on a typewriter. And I had that typewriter for a long time, and when I finally had to change to another typewriter, I got a typewriter with a longer barrel or whatever they call it. And that meant I could write on different-sized paper. And it changed some of the things I immediately wanted to do. And then I got a typewriter that had four colors. And that was instrumental in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. As soon as I got it. And then I got an electric typewriter, and I could change fonts. And so, you know, each time, the computer—I worked with students on computer-generated stories. I was never good enough to follow that, but I did learn a lot from Coover. And went into his famous Plato’s Cave—kind of virtual reality stuff. I wouldn’t say that I got deeply into it, because I’m incapable of it, but I certainly was influenced by it. And yes, e-mail has changed—I never answered letters because it became a writing problem. It became a literary problem. And then I was toiling over the letter. And now, with email, I’ve been able to detach myself, and I just write whatever. But with the letter, it was suddenly a formal thing. I didn’t like that, but I got caught in it. I think that was one of the problems with the journal, too. I couldn’t get myself away from, ‘I am André Gide writing in my journal!

Schenkenberg: I’ve seen a couple people wonder, in print, about how the move to print will change how writers’ lives are documented. Your papers are at Wash U, and there’s a record of all that stuff. The question is whether or not today’s most prominent writers who are zapping emails back and forth are in fact leaving a trail, and if not whether or not that has any repercussions.

Gass: Well, I think it probably will. I have this back-up thing now that records all the versions of what I’m writing. While I don’t want anybody looking over my shoulder now, after…. you know… I was always interested in this. There was a book published in the 60s, I think, about Conrad’s changes—really good book—and I was fascinated by it. And then you go to a Yeats, and watch what he’s doing, and you think, ‘Yeah.’ We have the Beckett manuscripts in St. Louis. I was just looking at—I was about to put it back on the shelf [getting up]… This is what the Wash. U. library put out. This was an exhibit they had, and here are the manuscripts for a piece that influenced my way of looking at Beckett. Because I saw that he really wanted you to form the silences. And you really had to do it. And they reproduced some of the pages. Here’s Ping. It’s about eight pages long, but it takes about twenty minutes, if you read it right. You really did a performance. And held the silences. It becomes almost agonizing. Wonderful. Anyway, I’m really fascinated by all of that. It started with Joyce, in a way, or Mallarmé—treating more and more of the actual physical character of the book as a part of the text. When I was working, on collaborations with Peter Eisenman. We had a project he wanted to do, and we wanted to do. It had a text about one of his houses, and he was going to design the book, and the book would start in the middle, because the house had no front door—just an entrance, in the middle of the structure. And the structure built itself by logical operations on the first main space. God, it was a beautiful building.

Schenkenberg: I recently interviewed the Washington University biologist Ursula Goodenough, and something I talked with her about was having a pretty prestigious career and still be very happy about being married and having a family. I wondered about with your workload, very productive publishing schedule, and international travel, what was your approach to being a part of a family, raising kids as well.

Gass: Well, when I was younger, I didn’t want children. And then I ended up having three because my wife wanted them. So we had them. It was a lot of work. Back-breaking. Because she had some illnesses at the same time, at first. I had a huge workload. It was sort of grim and wearing at first. But of course when the second marriage took place, and we, to our surprise, had twins—I would never have initiated children. I would not have said, ‘Oh, let’s have…’ I’m not interested in what most people who say that seem to want, and that is, Somebody they can call theirs. I had enough of that. My whole impulse was freedom from the family. Relatives are a pain. Then I had to be, not the father, but the mother—we had two mothers in this house, with the two kids. I liked it a lot better, being the mother. And it wasn’t hard at all. It was easier raising two, because they entertain themselves. And if one was bawling, the other never needed to. I didn’t mind it all. But my rule was, Every child costs you a book. I took that from .. what writer… Somebody else said it before me. And my kids don’t call me ‘Dad’ or ‘Father.’

Schenkenberg: What do they call you?

Gass: ‘Bill.’ They do now, but I’m a grandpa, a great grandpa. They have fun with it. I don’t want to be their father. They make up their minds, and they live their lives. I’m happy to applaud them from the sidelines and all that. Family get-togethers are what I regard as trials. Even though they’re usually quite pleasant. It’s not an area…. I think a family is a decaying institution, and the sooner we get rid of it the better. I wouldn’t go so far as Swedish socialism, where you take the child away from the parent. But I remember Plato saying, you know, these dumb ideas get transferred, handed on, through the family.

Schenkenberg: That goes back to my first question today, about growing up with parents whose qualities you weren’t perpetuating…

Gass: Well, I’m certainly aware of the negative view of the family as a place where stupid ideas and vile prejudices are perpetuated. It’s the job of the child, at all costs to break free, so they can make choices and… When we had our own kids, we never—of course, you do set examples, by your behavior in several ways, and all that—but we never talked religion or even politics with them. Decency of manner was about it. I just don’t believe in that stuff at all. And I know I’m extreme about all that, and I joke about it myself. But I have a strong opinion, still, nevertheless. And for women in particular. Being childless, is to me a positive. It’s so hard for them to achieve another life. If a woman wants just to become a mother, fine, you know. But it’s a very difficult, a very difficult choice. Women have it very bad. I always said that I have great sympathy for their situation in the family. Which for many years was just some rude sow, or something. Screwed ’em till they fell dead. Died of bed-sickness. Awful. So, I look upon the institution as… Well, it has positives. The raising of children is a huge undertaking, and it changes your life. I wouldn’t do again, even though the kids turned out fine. You’re lucky if you turn out five kids, and one of them at least isn’t in jail.

“I’m not reading for pleasure.
That went out a long time ago. And it’s a great loss.”

Gass: It’s less and less. Mary’s the one who reads in our family now. She hasn’t read all these things, and there’s a tremendous lot. I’m good at gutting a book; I could speed read, once upon a time. It’s hard for me. I don’t want to read anything that isn’t good. I’m tired. I’ve waded through too much junk, being a judge or something… But when I’m reading something good, I’m constantly stopped by, ‘Oh, look how this is done…’ I remember when I was reading—this was back in the ’50s—when I was first reading Ford Maddox Ford. And I just was so overcome by the technical brilliance of Some Do Not… or The Good Soldier or The Fifth Queen. And I’d just get these passages, and I’d just walk around the room just muttering, over and over. I couldn’t proceed. Well it gets like that. That still happens to me—thank heavens, it’s wonderful. I’m usually working on some text. So while I’m working on that text, I’m reading all the time, and I’m not reading for pleasure. That went out a long time ago. And it’s a great loss. I know I’ll never get it back either. Once in a while, I’ll read a biography. For junk pleasure, or just real relaxation. Or I like to read books by booksellers or antiquarians. There’s some really good biographies. My focus is mostly not on how they do it, but what’s happening in the life of the person.

Schenkenberg: There’s a part in a Lannan Foundation interview you gave in 2004 that I’ve been thinking a lot about. It ended very gloomily, but terrifically. I think she had asked about ‘the fascism of the heart’ in The Tunnel, and you started talking about growing up in the Depression, and you’d seen this level of resentment. And you’d said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘I think that this sort of Depression is coming. And these things like pensions and middle-class wealth could be greatly affected and—we now have a population that feels like the things they have and the level of status they have they have as a right.’ You were saying this in 2004, a time when much of what we’ve been dealing with in 2008 and 2009 wasn’t happening. I did a blog post recently called, “William Gass, Economist”—

Gass: Oh, really?

Schenkenberg: Because you were talking in this literary interview about this coming Depression. I’m not sure if we’ve had a capital-D Depression, but a very large and significant recession. Five years after that interview, I’m interested in your general take on where things are. Because we’ve had this very big recession, but we’ve had a change in administrations, from one both you and the woman interviewing you were reacting to.

Gass: Yes, but… It’s on the verge of disaster, I think. The opposition, and indeed the liberal Democrats—so-called—are lacking any gumption. Not that we should expect it, because they should have gotten up and stopped the damn war in the first place. The Iraq War. But they were all scared. Hateful people. And so we have suddenly the guy whom they’re really taking to the woodshed, and I don’t think he’s—he’s certainly sincere. I admire him and all that. And I was very happy when he was elected. But: I wish we would have somebody like him in charge who was also Johnson.

Schenkenberg: What do you mean by that?

Gass: Who knew how to manipulate. Johnson got that by years of service in Congress. And the situation’s so corrupt, because you’ve got so many outside pressures and groups who are interested only in their profits. Including the Association for Retired People—one of the worst groups in America; I put them second, right behind Rifles. Then there’s the medical groups, and the pharmacies, and Wall Street. There isn’t a good person to be found! I just don’t think he’s—he’s too decent a person. I think he’s just too nice. I think he wants us—he wants to be able to treat the enemy fairly, and understand their point of view. Well their point of view is vicious. That’s the trouble. And anyway—I think we’re in a Depression—because, as has been pointed out by a lot of people, the bankers are still making money, but the workers are not. And that’s going to continue. And if it keeps continuing, I think the shit’s hitting the fan. I have had a few people, including Patrick Lannan, say, “The Tunnel’s coming true.” We’ve been through these things before, but there’s always been that strain. And I suppose it is everywhere, it’s not confined to us. The Brits are really trying to get through it. They’re worse off than we are.

Schenkenberg: I do get that sense that Obama wants to listen to all sides.

Gass: And that’s all very nice, to have people of good will. People of good will can disagree. And you Quakerize the situation. Imagining all of these people have relatively the same I.Q. and educational background and understand situations, and that a point will be taken. That somebody can say, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.’ But all these people are interested in is making as much and exercising as much power as possible. The power’s necessary to protect the money. And the money is simply this transcendental stuff. It’s all we believe in. Because it’s all based on faith—people lose faith in the money, and it just collapses. But it’s the last religion. And they will exercise their power as the rich people. But you have these rich artificial bodies, like—you know who’s really prescient is Hobbes: these artificial bodies that do things. And nobody knows quite who did them. And then the awful part comes, I think, when that money spent by the government really doesn’t reach the people. What happens then? And we have a country ready to split off, and the people who have the advantage are the already organized nut cases. As it usually is. I went through that again recently reviewing Knut Hamsun, who has a perfect semi-Darwinian, ‘the strong shall survive’ myth of the sturdy farmer, who’s close to nature. Now they actually despise those people, but they don’t make any trouble. You can have your baronial estate where you have a lot of serfs, that’s what he did, too. He came from that: Get away from them! The whole course of his mental tyranny. When you find yourself very much smarter and aware of the world than anyone else, and you’ve got to get out of it, so you go from the farm to the city. It’s just perfect. You enjoy the flushpots. And you try to mix, and you get screwed. You’re the hick. You’ve made a fool of yourself. So then you run away from that, and you can’t. And so forth. It’s interesting. That makes him looking for a leader. And of course he finds it in Adolf, who had a similar background and program. One of the things that’s so incredible about Hamsun: When he won the Nobel Prize, he gave the prize as a gift to Goebbels.

Schenkenberg: I didn’t know any of this.

Gass: Oh, he’s a peach. I mean he has everything: He’s a misogynist. He hates human beings. He hates everything. Except a few strong people. And of course he thinks he knows what Nietzsche said, and all that.

“I love musicals. I love when the action stops
so that the language can take over.”

Gass: Oh, I use the movies as a drug. It doesn’t put on any weight.

Schenkenberg: How do you choose?

Gass: Turner Classics. I pick out things, but usually through a big catalog, just because it looks like it might be interesting. But I really avoid art movies. Pretentious, mostly. That means I miss a lot. And the problem is that I think Ran, for example, the Kurosawa film, is one of the greatest things I ever saw. I loved every minute of it. But it was painful, it took attention—it was like reading a good book, a really marvelous work. And it’s not like looking at a great Cézanne, say, because you can blink. You can turn your back. You can go out for a coffee. You don’t stand there for two hours and look at it! And it’s not something I want at the end of the day. But when I’m watching, nevertheless, it’s sort of fun to watch the cheapo movies. To see some of the things that were done in the ’30s, things that were important. But I’m not providing any history, I’m not doing a critique.

Schenkenberg: How about TV?

Gass: I don’t watch any of the sports programs or news. But there’s no—we stopped carrying HBO, there’s nothing there anymore, as far we’re concerned. We don’t use it. We use it to show movies. I love musicals. I love when the action stops so that the language can take over. And that’s one reason why I love Deadwood. They have soliloquies. My God! But Topsy Turvy was my favorite: love it.

Schenkenberg: Oh, that was made in the 90s, or early 2000s.

Gass: Yeah, and Cabaret. Cabaret I think is a great movie. Topsy Turvy—it’s not a great work of art. It’s a hugely entertaining movie, but it’s also a very revealing look at the whole artistic world. And they carried it out very well, because the singers are good. Then Cabaret, which I have great fondness for. I think it’s a great movie. I like The Music Man, too. Because that opening scene is revolutionary in movies.

I’m working on this book, a little book, on Baroque prose. And the Baroque is where opera started. And opera tried to work with the musicality of language. Which is sort of an interesting line—it’s why I loved opera. And in a musical comedy it’s similar. These moments when they’re talking, and suddenly one of them starts to sing! What’day mean?! What happens then, you know: The whole narrative stops. And you have the soliloquy.

And then Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers end up on roller skates! It’s nuts! But it works.

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by…

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by Michael Eastman

Stephen Schenkenberg

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Live in St. Louis. Married to @tschenkenberg. Editor, www.readinggass.org. More, www.stephenschenkenberg.com.

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by Michael Eastman