An Interview with Charles Baxter

BaxterHeader2by Brian Gebhart
June 1, 2011


“And suddenly we’re on Mars.”

BaxterInisdeCharles Baxter is the kind of writer who’s difficult to pigeonhole. Reviewers and interviewers still try, of course. Most often, he’s referred to as a writer of the Midwest or as “a writer’s writer.” Baxter seems to have made peace with these labels. He was, after all, born in Minneapolis, and much of his work is set in Michigan and Minnesota. And he is certainly admired by many writers, whether as a result of his consistently well-wrought fiction, or his reputation as an insightful and dedicated teacher, or his two celebrated books on the craft of fiction writing. His output has been similarly impressive, with a career that includes five short story collections, five novels (including The Feast of Love, which was nominated for a National Book Award), the two books on craft, and a collection of poetry. Most recently, Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, appeared earlier this year.

Reading what others have written about him, you might get the impression that Baxter’s fiction offers only quiet, Midwestern scenes and traditional narratives. And while some of his work fits this characterization, his stories just as often shock or confound. As he put it in our interview, his stories usually “start from the recognizable. ‘Here’s where we are. We all know what this place is.’ Then the rocket ship takes off, and suddenly we’re on Mars.” His characters’ live are filled with chaos and confusion, even if this fact is not always advertised in the way they speak and act (they are often Midwesterners). A list of common themes would have to include: violence, grief, class conflict, sex, pop culture, and all the many forms of self-destructive behavior. This is not a writer who deals only in the quiet and the prosaic.

Baxter spent much of his early career writing poetry and experimental fiction. Perhaps as a result of this history, Baxter’s advice to writers often encourages striking out in a new direction. Most of his essays in Burning Down the House take aim at some long-accepted dogma of traditional fiction, whether he’s pointing out the standardized nature of epiphanies or questioning our aversion to stillness or, paradoxically, melodrama. And he often urges his students to see odd or unruly books as giving permission to break the mold of traditional fiction. He’s certainly taken this advice in his own writing, producing a body of work far more strange, surprising, and entertaining than any jacket copy might suggest.

I interviewed Baxter this spring, while Minneapolis was still blanketed in snow. We discussed a variety of topics, including the heroic figure “Captain Happen,” the books Baxter considers his own “permission givers,” and why he thinks it’s a good thing that many readers didn’t like The Soul Thief.

The Fiddleback: You’ve recently published Gryphon: New and Collected Stories. Looking back over your stories, has your opinion of them changed over the years? Do you notice things about them now that you didn’t when you were writing them or when they were first published?

Charles Baxter: In some of my creative writing classes, I talk about the sort of person in a short story who’s volatile and makes things happen. I’ve called this person “Captain Happen,” a unisex figure. I’ve tended to rely on characters like that from the beginning—someone who breaks out of the usual patterns and upsets various apple carts and blurts things out and acts impulsively. Captain Happen is a story-generator, and s/he appears more frequently now in the recent work. When I began writing fiction, I was working intuitively and tried not to think too much about what I was doing, and to some degree I still try to work that way, at least in the early drafts. The themes and images and characters should suggest themselves; I try not to force them into existence. Possibly my protagonists in the more recent stories are more morally compromised than they were in the earlier stories; you get older, and your view of human nature gets darker. Much darker.

The Fiddleback: One of my favorite stories, “Stained Glass,” didn’t make it into the collection. It’s okay—I’ll get over it. But I’m curious about how you went about the process of selecting the stories. Were you looking to represent certain themes or styles? What were the most difficult decisions?

CB: I asked friends to help me out with the selections. I tried for a general variety of stories, with some range, and I left out some of the weirder ones. “Stained Glass” is quite weird, and I was never entirely satisfied with its ending, which has a noisy crescendo cut-off. “The Old Fascist in Retirement” didn’t make it in either. I’m proud of that story, but it’s very hard going for most readers, full of arcane Modernist ideas. “Gershwin’s Second Prelude” was too much like “Harmony of the World.” Their subject-matter is similar. I left out the cutesy stories. I wanted to have a book about adults.

The Fiddleback: You’ve said that you prefer writing short stories to writing novels, but you’ve had considerable success with both. Do you feel the two forms require a different skill set? And what is it about the short story that appeals to you more than the novel?

CB: Novels tend to require—how’s this for a generalization?—the ability on the part of the writer to create historical complications that the characters create or live through down through extended periods of time. These complications arise from decisions that the characters are making or have made: good or bad decisions, it doesn’t matter, though bad decisions are often better for the story’s arc. Short stories have greater compression and (I’m convinced) a cast of characters who are impulsive, for the most part. I love impulsive characters. I love watching them. And I love writing about them. Decisions are much less interesting to me.

Violence is in our culture…You’d have to be blind not to notice. Personally, I don’t like violence, but it’s part of the air we breathe. We breathe violent air.

The Fiddleback: In much of your work, there’s a strong undercurrent of violence. Often, the threat of violence lingers in the story, piling up tension but never materializing, a time-bomb that keeps ticking but never explodes. Can you talk about how you achieve this effect?

CB: You build up a need or a tension that can’t be released through a single action. It just can’t be. It’s chronic. Here’s that old distinction between chronic tensions and acute tensions: the chronic tension goes on and on, and its source is somewhere in the past but the acute tension arose from something that happened this morning. Chronic tensions create a kind of hysteria. Besides, I’m an American. Violence is in our culture. We have a violence-loving culture. You’d have to be blind not to notice. Personally, I don’t like violence, but it’s part of the air we breathe. We breathe violent air.

The Fiddleback: Many of your stories—particularly the ones from Believers, like “Flood Show” or “The Cures for Love”—end with an image seemingly unconnected to the main thrust of the narrative. Does this have to do with your general mistrust of epiphanies or is it more specific than that?

CB: I always thought that those stories ended with suggestive dramatic images: in “Flood Show,” a house—domesticity—that blocks the protagonist’s forward progress, and in “The Cures for Love,” a sight that takes the protagonist’s attention away from her own troubles, at last. The connection is there, but it’s through the imagery, through suggestion, like poetry.

The Fiddleback: When asked whether you consider yourself a Midwestern writer, you’ve frequently cited William Maxwell’s description of Illinois as his “imagination’s home.” Do you think there are writers whose imaginations are homeless? Or does everyone have an inherent territory?

CB: It’s a good question. Many of the Modernists and post-Modernists and post-avants have tried to be homeless, but Joyce and Beckett seemed tied ineradicably to Ireland, and Donald Barthelme seemed quite at home in Texas and Manhattan. Delillo: NYC and its boroughs. Lorrie Moore: the Midwest, viewed rather acidly. Paul Auster: Brooklyn. It’s just possible that now in the age of the Internet and the web that we’ll have some writing that is truly homeless. Possibly Kelly Link and George Saunders and Aimee Bender are going in that direction.

The Fiddleback: You’ve said that when you began writing fiction, you set out to do work in the more experimental vein of someone like Donald Barthelme. What led you to turn away from that mode? Are there ways in which you still draw on that mode in your work?

CB: What led me away from that mode was that I failed at it, probably. And I became more interested in human character than in ideas. But those modes still turn up. The Soul Thief seemed rather out there to me while I was writing it, and it still seems pleasingly weird to me. Often, readers don’t like it, which is a good sign.

The Fiddleback: That’s pretty counter-intuitive. Why do you see it as a good sign?

CB: There’s probably a point in any working artist’s career or life when the most important feature about a work is not its popularity but its ability to get people upset. For a long time, I seem to have been typed as a sort of nice guy writing sort of nice fiction. You can’t say that after reading The Soul Thief. It’s not an available opinion.

The Fiddleback: You’ve often told students to think of certain books as “permission-givers” to try out unusual forms and styles. What have been your own permission-givers, the books that inspired you to try something different or outside your comfort zone?

CB: So many: Timothy Findley, The Wars. Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities. Katherine Anne Porter, “Noon Wine.” Paula Fox, The Widow’s Children. Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge. Chekhov, “In the Ravine.” Raymond Carver’s stories. So many others. We’re all inter-dependent.

The Fiddleback: Your stories tend to begin with a character in fairly ordinary circumstances and then introduce an element of the unexpected, the chaotic, or the bizarre. Do you feel your stories most often arise from the ordinary or the unexpected?

CB: They start from the recognizable. “Here’s where we are. We all know what this place is.” Then the rocket ship takes off, and suddenly we’re on Mars. I like that trajectory. From the home place, straight to the place where everything is strange all over again. To quote Lorrie Moore, isn’t that “like life”?

The Fiddleback: In the first essay from Burning Down the House, you describe how the American political scene of the late twentieth century led to “dysfunctional narratives” where people no longer take responsibility for their own actions. Does it seem to you (as it does to me) that this trend has only accelerated in recent years? More broadly, how have the past ten years’ political developments influenced your work?

CB: Well, I’m an Obama supporter, and I think he’s tried his best to take responsibility for what has happened under his watch. But he inherited a terrible mess from W., as we all know. And W. was, for me, the disavower to end all other disavowers. He never thought anything through. He didn’t even raise taxes to pay for the war he himself started. He tried to hide the war’s expenses by taking them off the books. In Gryphon, there’s a story called “The Winner” about the obtuseness of the wealthy, about the way they have come to see themselves. How do you get contemporary circumstances into fiction without hectoring everybody? Good luck! Last night I was being driven around by a guy who told me that in Hell, every day you get a new skin so that God can burn it off and cause you fresh pain. Fresh pain! He was a Muslim. He was instructing me.

The Fiddleback: “The Winner” involves the main character, a writer, telling a story to a wealthy man (and his family) who he’d come there to interview. And this story—invented on the spot, yet full of painful, wrenching detail—seems calculated to make the family uncomfortable, to force them to look at human suffering. Do you see this as the duty of writers?

CB: Well, yes and no. Writers don’t have any duties, or if they do, the only duty they have is to write well. I don’t believe in political polemicists who say that the writer’s duty is to (fill in the blank). We must change society, etc. At its worst, such demands turn to Stalinism, socialist realism, praise of the state, or, as in Plato’s Republic, praise of our rulers. In “The Winner,” the story that Krumholtz tells is punitively sentimental, aggressively maudlin. It’s an expression of his rage toward all the Mallards. They get blindsided, and they have it coming, but the story he tells is as sentimental as I could make it. To me, the ending is an example of comic kitsch.

The Fiddleback: As a prolific writer who’s also renowned as a teacher of creative writing, how do you feel teaching affects your work? Are there ways in which the two tasks can strengthen—and not weaken—one another?

CB: What you learn about the writing of fiction is useful in revision but not in the first drafts. In the first drafts, you’re still the intuitive writer you always were. But when you start revising, you can ask yourself the questions we all ask in these workshops: what do these characters want? What are they afraid of? What’s at stake in this story? What’s the arc of the narrative? Where’s the interesting trouble? Where’s the ticking clock? Where’s Captain Happen?

The Fiddleback: Mindful of the fact that this interview will be published online, I’m wondering what you think about the effects the internet is having on writers and on the world of writing in general. Do you see it as a blessing or a curse?

CB: I don’t know where fiction is going. I just know where it’s been. I do think that the subject of the moment is probably distraction, that is, how our attention is being deflected in a hundred different ways every day. But beyond that, I don’t know. Richard Bausch says the publishing industry is dead and done for. I don’t think anyone really knows. But the instinct to tell stories will go on in some form. It’s just part of who we are.