Interview by Carter Foster
Nicholson Baker has written a good many books. Not a Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates amount of books, but enough that it no longer seems relevant to attach a number to them. Rather, it is best to talk about them as if they (i.e. the books) have carved out, within his catalogue of book writing, categories. Chief among these categories—chronologically speaking—are thin volumes of post-modern fiction characterized by the flighty, yet detailed, observations of the everyday life of their narrators—titles would include The Mezzanine, Room Temperature and Box of Matches. Another category would be what Baker himself calls his “dirty books”—which include Vox, The Fermata and House of Holes. A third category, of essayistic non-fiction, arises—U and I, The Size of Thoughts and The Way the World Works. And a fourth of polemical non-fiction—Double Fold and Human Smoke. And even with all of this, we have not managed to fit four—a child-like tale of wonderment and primary school, The Everlasting Story of Nory; a fictive political dialogue, Checkpoint; and two connected novels of love, poetry, song-making, a hysterectomy and a collapsing barn, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler.
In 2001 Baker received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and in 2014 he was awarded the International Hermann Hesse Prize. He has been a visiting writer at universities across the United States and abroad and even subs for local elementary schools from time to time. In the spring of 2015 Baker was a visiting professor at the University of New Hampshire’s MFA program. That May, we spoke at his home in Maine.
Barnstorm: I’ll start by saying that I feel you’ve often been misread or mischaracterized as being an obsessive writer. One second with you will reveal that you are not obsessed in any recognizable way. And I also don’t see obsession in the prose. I think maybe because your prose is heavily detailed this gives the impression that your narrators are obsessing over these things.
Nicholson Baker: Well, thank you. “Obsessive” implies that one is doggedly working or chewing over some dead, sterile bone, fanatically and single-mindedly, to the exclusion of everything else. I'm not a single-minded person, actually. I'm easily distracted, easily bored, and I hop around. When I get interested in something, I try to think my way through its complexities, and sometimes that takes a while. But the world is big and there's lots to ponder and you have to keep moving. I'm always trying to get at everything via anything at all.
B: I was reading your first story in The New Yorker last night, “Snorkeling.” What strikes me about it is that even though it is an early piece of your writing, it shares commonalities with your later work in that the tensions of the piece are rather small. Do you decide not to have anything big or dramatic happen in your work, or does it just seem to come out that way?
NB: It comes out that way. When I had the idea for "Snorkeling," I was living in New York City and I'd just quit my job. I was sitting at a circular table in my apartment, and I wanted more than anything to write a publishable story. It was the beginning of the eighties. I had an idea. What if a man could charge sleep—hire other people to do his sleeping for him? What would happen? Well, he'd probably go through a sort of manic phase. He'd run up a huge sleep debt and to repay it he'd have to sleep on behalf of others. That seems like a fairly traditional sci-fi plot. But The Mezzanine, my first novel, has no big life problems—the plot is an errand to buy shoelaces that involves an escalator ride, that's it.
B: I’ve read you as being a writer “writing about the minutia of life.” But this, mistakenly, gives the impression that your narrators think the things being discussed are trivial. But the attention given to them is obviously the opposite. Your writing, to me at least, seems to call attention to the importance of our own, individualized observations of objects in our world. And because of the lack of tension, your writing seems to rely on its narrators’ observations and moments of joy and misconnection and confusion and arousal—that these observations, in and of themselves, are instructive and hold truth about the world.
NB: I've always wondered about that first line in Tolstoy, how all happy families are alike. I don't think it's true. While I was writing Room Temperature, I was in some kind of trance of happiness. I was delighted to be married and to have had a part to play in the creation of a tiny newborn human being. It was that most intense moment, when you say, "Look, we've just created this new conscious life." I tried to write about that moment truthfully, in all of its manifold, turbulent glory—with the partial aim of disproving Tolstoy's contention. My happiness is my happiness. Your happiness is your happiness. It's different for everyone. I wanted to write a novel about the inner structure of a specific state of happiness—to cup my hands and say, "This is what I have to offer."
B: I think that is brave and really requires trust that your reader will be satisfied with what you have to say rather than trying to solve a problem. Do you feel that trust when writing your novels?
NB: I try not to worry about it too much when I'm writing—but of course I'm besieged by the usual doubts and worries. Is this going to be any good? Do I have something to say that other people will want to hear? Is this particular sentence worth leaving in this paragraph? These are the questions that all writers struggle with. What I can't do—what I've never been able to do—is to say to myself, Okay, I have this little grouping of things to say over here, and I will glue them like ornaments onto an armature of a story that has some big reversal or conflict in it. It comes down to what I can tolerate moment by moment while writing prose. I get a physically sick feeling of discomfort in my chest when I tell myself that I must have something big happen—a crash, an argument, a death, something like that. Here is a blank page, and of all the things I could do, I'm going to conjure up an injury? A death? Why would I do that, when there is so much real injury and death in the world that I'm not party to? I like reading suspense novels—especially in the middle of the night—but I can only write two and a half paragraph of suspense before I put it aside. Maybe that will change—I hope so.
B: Your non-fiction, I’m thinking of Human Smoke, does however deal with larger issues. In that book you’re dealing with the Second World War.
NB: Yes, nonfiction is about things that really happened, about actual people who lived and died. My job then is to put those events and those lives in some kind of order, which feels very different than making up some variety of trauma for fictional characters to live through. Human Smoke is about the biggest trauma in modern history. I don't have to make anything up—it's all right there.
B: I was about to say that your non-fiction, not only in content, but also in form, is different than your fiction. But that is not true. Human Smoke is composed of actual news stories, memoirs, journals, and dispatches, pieced together. So formally it has the fractured feeling of receiving the information gradually, as if it is happening. But in terms of content, you did not do any real interpretive writing. It was predominantly writing in quotations.
NB: I love reading diaries and newspaper articles, and I love quoting eyewitnesses. Quoting is an art, and it took me a while to learn how to do it. Ellipses, those dot-dot-dots that historians use, are death to a good quotation—they're like static. You have to find the revealing nuggets and set them against a plain background so that they will speak. I was watching a lot of documentaries when I was writing Human Smoke—I thought of myself as a film editor.
B: That makes total sense, because while you’re adopting this non-traditional form of writing about history—outside of deciding what to include or what not to include in the book, the only judgment you make is at the end of the book.
NB: Yes, and what confused me was when reviewers would talk about the "argument" that the book was trying to make. There was no argument. The book was opposed to argument. It said, Here are many things to think about. I was trying to educate myself about what had happened, in the order that it happened. It's certainly true that I found myself more often to be in agreement with some of the pacifists I was quoting than with people like Winston Churchill, who seemed genuinely crazy. The British pacifists were asking the right questions, it seemed to me: Who is actually in trouble and how can we help them? Obviously, millions of Jews were in trouble, and the proper response was to help as many of them as possible get out of Hitler's reach. So the pacifists set up escape routes, and saved lives. Whereas Churchill's response was to say we must build as many weapons as possible and have as long a war as possible because we want "unconditional surrender" from a country run by a suicidal madman, who obviously was never going to surrender. Churchill's approach guaranteed that we would have a long war in which millions perished. At any stage of the war, even as late as 1944, a negotiated armistice might have allowed for the dethronement of Hitler and the rescue of civilians—but Churchill and Roosevelt refused to consider an armistice as an option. They were indifferent to the possibility of rescue—they only wanted victory.
B: I came across a review of Human Smoke by Christopher Hitchens, and he, too, thought the book had an argument, which he felt wasn’t made. How do you take criticism of your work, especially by well-known figures?
NB: Well, any writer wants the whole world to like his or her book—that’s the hope, that's the dream. But it never happens. Every book I've published has had people who like it and people who can't stand it. That's just a fact of life. I think we're better off now than we were, say, fifteen or twenty years ago, when a book got a handful of reviews and that was it. Now there are zillions of reactions—blogs and tweets and people on Goodreads and Amazon and everywhere reacting as individuals. We know that there is going to be an enormous spectrum of responses. Which is a long way of saying that of course when somebody rips into me and reviews me badly it hurts and I don't like it.
B: Do you typically read reviews?
NB: Sure, I test them out. I look at the beginning, and I jump around to get a flavor of what the reviewer is saying. If it looks like a good review, I often don't read it for a little while, because I feel abashed—I have that twisty sensation that you get when someone writes, say, a glowing letter of recommendation. Sometimes, superstitiously, I won't read a really good review until months or years have gone by and the book is safely in the past. The basic fact is that I really like writing, and I'm lucky to be able to publish some of what I write and to have any reviews at all, bad or good.
B: With The Fermata, you received a lot of criticism for the premise.
Yes, well, honestly, stopping the universe in order to take people's clothes off is not a good thing for a narrator to be doing with his free time. The premise of The Fermata was an embarrassing adolescent fantasy of mine. The note of disgust and reproach in reviews of the book made some sense to me at the time. Ten years went by and some people started telling me they thought it was my best book. Who can say? Sometimes it takes a long time for things to settle out. There are good reasons why sex is embarrassing, actually—it should be embarrassing. Embarrassment is part of its power.
B: With the erotic novels, there is a break from your typical fiction, though, because something can happen, which is that the characters can have sex. And that brings all kinds of tensions to the fore.
NB: There’s nothing more interesting than two people having sex. Even though there are a billion versions of it, it’s just interesting.
B: Do you feel the difference when writing House of Holes, say, than when writing The Anthologist?
NB: Yes, of course—The Anthologist was my attempt to put everything I knew and loved about poetry into a novel, and House of Holes, on the other hand, is a state of controlled, middle-aged, hypersexual insanity. It reminds me of the psychedelic cats painted by Louis Wain, the Victorian artist whose mind gradually descended into advanced schizophrenia—except that I was laughing, too. I had a good time writing the book and I made it as cheerfully pornographic as I could. The book isn't for everyone—in fact, it turns some people off. The Anthologist is a better book, I think—but who cares?
B: One way I would characterize your project, if I can see your books as a unifying project, is as facing embarrassment head-on, in search of the truth or revelation that comes from experiencing this embarrassment. The urinal scene in The Mezzanine, the song writing of Paul Chowder, are a few examples, but most directly this is explored in U and I, in which you allow yourself the freedom to misremember quotes from Updike, and then have to revise yourself on the page. It brings a real human touch to a work of criticism.
NB: I'm glad you think I have a unifying project! I've always been interested in states of imperfect knowledge, or working knowledge—where you proceed without knowing everything you need to know. That's what I did with the Updike book. Most of the time, life is like that—we’re coming up with opinions and conclusions on the fly, without enough knowledge to go on. The capriciousness and mixedness and mixed-up-edness of consciousness is endlessly interesting. Often it's a kind of weirdly ahistorical mixture—you’ve just seen a particular TV show and you're in the middle of reading a nineteenth century literary essay and also happen to be excited about a new kind of internal combustion engine—plus you're upset by some bit of political news---so you're carrying around an odd collage of fleeting awarenesses, one of which may possibly be a phrase remembered from an old Updike book review or short story. Out of this randomness we manage to find and make use of the things we need. We lash together a life-raft out of the flotsam and float into the sunset.
I was scared when I was writing U and I—scared in a good way, because I knew that Updike would probably see the book. I wanted to tell the truth, but I didn't want him to be made too unhappy by it.
B: I read that he inscribed a book to you. Was that the first reaction of his that you received?
NB: He wrote me and said that U and I was just the size and shape of book he liked—and he also wrote an anonymous review of it in The New Yorker. I knew the review was by him because Roger Angell called up and said, "You know, Updike's written a review of your book." That put me in an awkward position, because if I ignored Updike's review I'd seem rude. So I wrote him a letter saying I'd seen the review, and he wrote back asking how I knew it was him. Later he sent me one of his novels, Memories of the Ford Administration, with a really lovely inscription: "To Nicholson Baker, who made me famous."
B: Though your work is often described as discursive, I found in your novels the seemingly tangential strings of narration actually end up resurfacing or tying into other narrative strings. E.M. Forster noticed the same thing in Virginia Woolf and Lawrence Sterne—he said of their work, “[They] are both fantasists. They start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again.”
NB: I like the idea of being a fantasist—a fantasist of the given and inescapable, maybe. You start with an idea and have a flight of the bumblebee and then you're back where you started. Maybe that's why I like loopy line artists like Saul Steinberg and Rowland Emmett, and improvisers like Debussy. I've never been able to read much Lawrence Sterne—my big eighteenth-century influence was Boswell's Johnson, which is a fascinating book, completely disordered, full of affection. Boswell will say, "I'll just insert something here—I don't have any other place to put it, so I'll just write it now." I loved that. There are long footnotes in Boswell's Johnson—and it was reading that book on my lunch hours that lead to the footnotes in The Mezzanine. That and that I'd written a footnoting program for a piece of word-processing software when I was working as a typist. The motto of The Mezzanine is a little slogan taped up by one of the secretaries: "If you can't get out of it, get into it."
B: Authenticity plays a large role in your work, at least as I see it. I think this is how your work is responding to high modernism, and what makes your work so valuable and interesting to me. What I mean to say, is that Beckett and Barthelme are high ironists. And Sterne, a writer that is discursive in a similar way to you, uses the digressions ironically, as if he cannot help himself, when in fact he can and knows he can, but is indulging himself for some other sardonic purpose. Your narrators, on the other hand, truly cannot help themselves and are very earnest and sincere about that inability to stay focused. They are, like you said, capricious.
NB: Barthelme was a genius, sometimes, but I've never understood the idea of high irony. I guess I know what irony is—when someone says something and they've got a little twinkle in their eye. But irony as a controlling, overarching idea in a whole long book doesn't make any sense to me. Actually Barthelme once said that all true artists are realists. Unless there's some essential push of sincerity and urgency, the art won't work. With Beckett, he wears you out, and he's so darn bleak. Joyce has moments of incredible poetry, and then he'll give you a massive exhausting clump of pages that are a parody of a certain kind of mediocre journalistic prose. High irony, if I understand it correctly—and I probably don’t—suffers from the fallacy of hierarchic uniformity: a huge book can't all be a joke, because jokes only work when they're short.
Artists, when they're doing their best work, are always trying to tell the truth somehow. Telling the truth isn't necessarily a hostile act—it can be a loving act, motived by a simple burst of enthusiasm. Some artists are truly under a dark cloud and are permanently sad, and beautiful things can come out of that sadness—but I don't seem have that cloud over me.
When I was in kindergarten, the teacher taught us how to make art by drawing a set of random loops on the page. You draw the loops and they become the shapes that you must color in, perhaps with solid colors, or maybe with stripes and polka dots. Your job becomes finding the colors that will make that will make a given set of loops work in a way that would be interesting to the five-year-old eye. I think that was one of the most influential pieces of artistic teaching I ever had—besides when my mother taught me to imagine and then draw the inside of a pillow.