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"Good Creative Nonfiction Begins in Good Reporting"

A Conversation with Steven Barthelme

This interview is the sixth in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd.


Steven Barthelme has two books of non-fiction, the memoir, Double Down, co-authored with his brother, and the essay collection The Early Posthumous Work. Earlier stories were collected in And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story, and a new collection titled Hush Hush appeared in October 2012.


Redd: You come from a family of writers, all of whom specialize in a different form, from advertisement to novel writing. You’re the most practiced at personal nonfiction writing. Do you see yourself as the family chronicler?

Barthelme: Not really. Rick and I did write a lot about the family in Double Down. One thing that happens if you get your name in the newspapers is that they get everything wrong, sometimes on purpose, usually just from slovenliness. So you want your side of it in print as well. A writer from the New York Times called me when the legal case against us was thrown out, looking for a comment. He had already written one error-ridden and prejudicial story about it. I told him, “Well, the publicity has certainly been very damaging.” Which appeared in the Times as: “Steven Barthelme said the case has been hurtful.”

Redd: You have justifiable beef with bad reporting. Still, in “Not as I recall,” you cherish a potentially inaccurate memory of your uncle. What are some distinctions you might draw between good reporting and good creative nonfiction?

Barthelme: In terms of accuracy, I don’t see a distinction. Seems to me good “creative non-fiction” begins in good reporting, depends absolutely on reporting that’s as honest and accurate as we can make it. The essay about my uncle is not praising playing fast and loose with the facts; it ends with a line that says, “I don’t know who he was, I only know who he is” meaning that the illusion of him is more precious to me. But there’s no pretense that it’s not an illusion.

Redd: You wrote Double Down with your brother Frederick, in which you two use a unified voice. Writing is usually thought of as a solitary profession. Would you describe the experience of co-writing a book? How can we tell what writing is yours and what is Rick’s, if we can at all?

Barthelme: It was easier than I expected. Rick wrote about half of it and I wrote the other half, then we each rewrote each other’s parts. Sometimes I would give him half a chapter and he would amplify or double it, sometimes the reverse. Sometimes he or I would give the other a full chapter and then we would revise the whole chapter. There were lots of compromises. But the basic view of the world and personal language are largely shared, not only between Rick and me but the family--it’s the language of my parents and Don, Joan, Pete. The family was a sort of Jim Jones experience, with a more benign bent. Writing a book jointly was not a problem, as it turned out.

Redd: Why’d you name your recent book of essays The Early Posthumous Work?

Barthelme: Because some of the work was written when I was young, and because I wasn’t (quite) dead yet. I liked the joke. I like language that looks like, or seems like it should fit in the brain, but doesn’t.

Redd: I’m drawn to your preoccupation of patching things together. I think of some of the furniture in your house, a couple of pieces of plywood fitted together into a table, and of your father piecing together your family’s house, down to the rug made out of three carpets. Each distinct essay in The Early Posthumous Work fits with the others to build a picture of your life.

Barthelme: My life’s not really interesting enough to merit a picture. But writing itself seems like an endless process of patching, repair, with luck, improving. “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned,” a remark variously attributed to da Vinci, Forster, Mallarme, Valery. (First time I heard it, it was attributed to Willem de Kooning.) Patching fascinates me because I originally, when I was young, didn’t understand that nothing ever really gets fixed, in the pure sense, in the sense of “good as new.” The opposed feeling is also a prominent one in my psychology--“Heaven, you think, is a place where there’s nothing to fix,” as one of those pieces says.

Redd: Many of your short stories seem to bear some relation to your own life. “Stoner’s Lament,” for instance, seems as if you might have developed the idea for the story when you brought your Triumph to a mechanic. How do you approach essays differently than short fiction?

Barthelme: This is a good question, but I don’t have a good answer. They both originate in some edge in the world which captures your imagination, and they both share techniques (image-making, scene, etc.) and values (vividness, clarity, force, etc.). But a story is shaded toward something felt, an essay shaded toward something thought. If you can’t get an interesting feeling, the story fails; if you can’t get an interesting thought, the essay fails. “Interesting,” of course, is the devil there.

Redd: John Barth said your stories were “rich in laid-back realism.” How would you define this term, and do you think your recent stories in Hush, Hush fit neatly into this category?

Barthelme: I think Jack just meant I was from Texas--“laid back” and all that. I can’t define the term “realism” any better than (or as well as) many others have already defined it. Recent stories fit in that category, except the ones that don’t. I have always been more than a little schizophrenic in prose style; for 45 years or so, I have written both realist and irrealist pieces, extending even to non-fiction. I once published a couple of horoscopes in which all the predictions were exact, or definitive--“On the 14th, Veruschka sees you in Kennedy Airport and she has to have you. She invites you for a cup of coffee, but you misunderstand, because she is speaking German (kaffee),” that sort of thing--because I felt that the essential flaw in horoscopes was not so much that they were wrong as that they were vague.

Redd: Your comments on psychic readings make me think of the story “Telephone,” which seems somewhat of an extension of this longing for a specific prediction. Would you comment on what goes into making this type of hypothetical narrative effectively “shade toward something felt?”

Barthelme: The “Telephone” story is supposed to be a 3 page incantation which the speaker is trying to use as armor against what he knows is coming, imagining it to protect himself from it, psychically. In that story, the shading is supposed to be in the tone, the sentences are being thrown at you one after the other, supposed to reproduce a kind of anxiety, like pushing all the furniture up against the door. Maybe it doesn’t work.

Redd: You are willing to experiment with the form of a story. I’m thinking of “Good Parts.” What goes into deciding whether a story warrants a break from traditional narrative form?

Barthelme: This I can’t answer, probably because “deciding” is a psychological problem for me. A restaurant menu is a horror. I don’t decide, I close my eyes and point. Or ask my wife. As a consequence where indecision appears in literature, I’m very fond of it--the Barth novel where the guy is paralyzed with indecision, End of the Road, or the introduction to Olivier’s film of Hamlet, where he says in voiceover, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” In that wonderful Laurence Olivier voice. You think, if I could just talk like that, all my problems would be over.

Redd: I love the endings of the stories in Hush, Hush. Two of my favorites are “Acquaintance” and “In the Rain.” Would you comment on what considerations and decisions you make when constructing an ending to a story?

Barthelme: The end of the “Acquaintance” story was one of those moments when the writer discovers something, what the story was about, in the moment of writing--“Oh,” you think, “That’s it.” In teaching story writing, it eventually becomes clear that the ending of a story is almost never the main problem. There are instances in which a student writes a story past its ending, and in that case it’s often simple to find the most interesting or resonant sentence in the final ten or twenty-five lines and suggest it be cut there. But more often, when you feel that the ending is wrong, it’s because the beginning and middle aren’t built well. The problem is almost never the ending; shape the story well enough in the beginning and middle, the ending will almost write itself.


A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize for the short story, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Penwood Review, Steel Toe Review and Prairie Schooner's Briefly Noted.