You now have three books (Gris Oakland, Noir Beton, and Bienvenue a Oakland) published in France. Are we late compared to the United States?
My novels have published in a very timely manner. I have been fortunate to have splendid and supportive editors in Lilas Seewald and Patrick Raynal. I have, however, written three other books, the essay collections Oakland, Jack London, and Me and Say It Hot: Essays on American Writers Living, Dying, and Dead, and the short story collection, 14 Fictional Positions. I am a bit surprised that these books have not yet been published in France, especially considering that all three have received major notices in the United States. The story collection, 14 Fictional Positions, won a major national award, the PEN/Oakland award, a prize formerly bestowed upon major authors such as Norman Mailer. I am also surprised that Say It Hot and my Jack London book have not been published in France, since the essays in Say It Hot come primarily from my Transfuge column, which ran for two years and was widely read, and since Jack London is a major world figure. I suppose that in time they will be picked up and translated into French. But the novels—my publishers have indeed done a splendid job of getting them translated and into print in a more than timely manner.
You are a real success in France. I don’t know if it’s a commercial success or a critical success. Are you surprised by this?
If I were a more polite man than I am, or a less truthful man than I am, my answer here would be very different. I’m supposed to feign modesty here, right? I’m supposed to say, “Oh, mon dieu! I am so surprised! I never imagined that I’d have so much success with my writing! I am delighted that so many people like my work, and I don’t know if I’m deserving of such praise and attention. Of course it’s flattering, since there are so many wonderful writers other than me. I suppose luck had something to do with it.”
That’s what I’d say if I were a liar, like most writers. Remember, however, that fiction writers lie for a living. Fiction writers are professional liars. But I’m not a liar, and it always gets me in trouble with the literary establishment, because I tell people things I’m not supposed to reveal about writers and the profession. I reveal the dirty lies that underpin the entire bogus scam of what is contemporary literature, at least in America. And so I’ll say this:
Any writer worth a shit, any writer worthy of considering himself a member of the Great Tradition, any writer who dares put his pen to paper and then impose his work on humanity, must think, from the very beginning, when he is a young man, must absolutely believe that he will someday in the future be considered the greatest author who ever walked the face of this spinning hairball we call Earth. If a writer does not think he will outwrite Shakespeare, Dante, Homer, Milton, Cervantes, Kafka, Proust, Nietzsche, then he shouldn’t be writing. What’s the use of writing if one doesn’t think will one day be considered the best? Why drop a piece of shit into the bookstores and libraries which are already plugged up with shit and need a celestial plumber to cram the shit into the sewers of history? Joyce Carol Oates should be ashamed of herself for writing so many mediocre books. The same with Richard Ford, Rick Moody, Frederick Barthelme, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, and John Updike. None of these hacks has ever written a great book, only highly competent and mediocre wastes of time. And as far as I can tell, none of them will ever write a great book, especially John Updike, since he’s dead. At least Philip Roth, most of whose books are grand failures, wrote the sublime and magnificent Portnoy’s Complaint. It only takes one great book to be considered by history a great writer. Proust is remembered for A la recherche du temps perdu, and Malcolm Lowry is remembered for Under the Volcano, Dante for The Divine Comedy, Milton for Paradise Lost, Cervantes for Don Quixote.
So of course I am not surprised to be a success in France. I expected nothing less of myself from the beginning, when I first started writing when I was 21 years old. I always thought I’d have a Nobel Prize by now. I started back then keeping journals and writing three letters to people each day, thinking that some day the literary biographers, the students, the readers, the scholars of the future would want to delve into my papers. Is that supreme egotism? Of course it is. Without supreme egotism and narcissism no writer would dare write a sentence. How pompus to think the world needs to know what one insignificant person has to say!
Being the pompous ass I am, however, if the French like my books, it’s because they have good taste in literature.
The main character in Gris Oakland and Bienvenue a Oakland is recurrent. Are we going to see him in the next book, or does he die in the garage he rents ?
The main character of those two books, T-Bird Murphy, has one more story to tell. It’s the story of how he flees Oakland because his ex-wife is murdered and he’s the prime suspect. He leaves Oakland and takes up residence in the Rio Grande Valley, on the Texas/Mexico border. There he hides from the law, lives the life of a fugitive. He becomes a smuggler of both illegal drugs and illegal aliens, living as a recluse in hiding, making his living outside of society, the life of a criminal. The novel, right now called Out of Oakland, will tell the story of his two failed marriages—the first marriage a hasty romantic venture, the second marriage T-Bird’s attempt to enter proper society by marrying an upper-middle-class woman. It will end with his having to leave Texas and Mexico to hide in rural Missouri. But there are many surprises I won’t reveal in this interview—you can count on that.
You present the usual charge against society, but you go further: you recommend revolution, and a bloody one at that in your last book, Bienvenue a Oakland. Are you more and more angry ?
You must remember that I am not the main character of my novels. When I write in the first person as T-Bird Murphy, I assume his persona. I am a college professor now, not a dump truck driver or a criminal hiding from the law in Missouri. T-Bird wants a revolution, to be sure, and a bloody one, a grand revolution with guillotenes and public hangings. The irony is that it will never happen in America. T-Bird hopes for it, but we as readers know it is a hope in vain. Americans are too stupid to fight for what is right, because they all harbor the fantasy that they’ll be the next rich person, the next one to win the lottery, the next one to be “discovered” and become a wealthy movie star. Me personally? I’d like to see the economy entirely crash, another Great Depression. Only when we’ve hit rock bottom will the average people of America reconsider their priorities. Only then can we wipe out the rampant, unchecked, unregulated capitalism that has eaten the souls out of our people. We need to be poor again so that we can enrich our spirits. I’d like to see the Wall Street brokers and the lawyers starving in the streets, all the while those they scorn, like poor farmers, getting by raising their own food and drawing waters from wells. It’s a fantasy I hope some day comes true.
I’ve always had a secret fantasy. Let’s imagine that America has gone to economic shit. There are no jobs. There is no economy. There is no law enforcement. Anarchy rules the day, gangs roaming the streets like dogs. We are in ruin.
I fantasize about being at the end of a dark alley at night. At the other end of the alley is another man, a man who was a lawyer, or a doctor, or maybe a CEO of a major corporation. We’re both starving, because everyone is starving. In the middle of the alley is a loaf of bread. Remember there is no law. If that formerly rich fucker calls for the police, there will be no answer. He can’t sue me, because there are no public institutions.
We make a dash for the bread.
I can sure as shit tell you who’s going to get it.
I laughed at the verbal attacks against some authors (such as Thomas Pynchon). Have you met them? Did they react to your attacks?
I have met, at one time or another, most of America’s prominent authors and many of our supposedly minor authors, many of whom are much more talented than the writers who get the attention in my country, but I haven’t met Pynchon: he’s a very private person, you know, for obvious reasons. He’s one of the great writers in American history. When T-Bird attacks him, it’s because Pynchon is not the kind of author a worker—a dump truck driver or construction worker—would be able to read. Pynchon is a writer for educated people, and there’s nothing wrong with that (I can say that only because I am an educated person with a PhD from NYU). If I attack a great writer, either through a persona or personally, it’s because I acknowledge that that person is a great writer, just not one who satisfies all my criteria, which are many. There are very few authors I consider beyond reproach. Actually, no authors are beyond reproach. Have you ever tried to read Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays? They’re terrible, unreadable. But Shakespeare also wrote Lear, Hamlet, Henry IV, and so many other great works. He wouldn’t be so great if he had always succeeded. All great writers fail, because they aspire to the Platonic Ideal: most of William Burroughs’ books suck ass, but Naked Lunch is a masterpiece. Most of Kerouac is schlock, but he wrote On the Road. Henry Miller is a genius, but his Rosy Crucifixion is unreadable. Norman Mailer’s great books are beyond genius, but most of his books aren’t worth reading, and the same goes for my hero, Jack London.
An attack from me should be considered a compliment. It means that I took the author seriously enough to spend my time writing something about him. The supposedly “major” authors who should feel insulted are the ones I have not bothered to insult.
Do you go into the field, in the old fashioned way, gonzo style, or hobo style?
I don’t have to, as you say, “go into the field” like a hobo. I’ve done it, and I don’t want to do it again. I grew up in the ghettos of Oakland, California, fighting for my life, literally. Survival, as a Caucasion in a neighborhood that was mostly Negroes and Mexicans, was all that mattered, and unless I beat the shit out of those who would do me harm, they beat the shit out of me. Every day was a war to live, to not be knifed, shot, or murdered. The man who brought me up was a bankrupt ex-convict who pumped gasoline and fixed truck tires at a gas station for a living. My mother rode with the Hell’s Angels. One of my brothers ended up a mercinary, killing people for a living with the sanction of the US government, the other a con-man and thief, a criminal. Most of the children I grew up with did not know who their fathers were, myself included. When I graduated from high school I was kicked out of the house and lived homeless for nearly a year, working odd jobs and traveling around the country, sleeping my car or in fields, stealing food out of dumpsters when I had to. It’s something I never want to go back to.
William Vollmann has written a couple of books about being poor, but it’s always as an outsider, because (and he admits it) he’s wealthy. He knows that when he’s done with his experiments at being a poor person or a hobo he can always go home. When he’s jumping trains and riding the rails, if he runs out of food he can always go to a bank machine and pull out some money. He’s a great writer, and it’s wonderful that he’s even interested in the underbelly of America. But, as he would himself admit, he’s a Tourist with a Typewriter.
I’m not, and I’m here to tell you there’s nothing romantic about being homeless. It sucks dick, and if I can help it, I’ll never be homeless again. I don’t need to imagine being poor and homeless, and I don’t need to re-live it. I can just use my memory, which never fades.
The experience will never leave me, and I live in continual fear that I’ll end up on the road again, sleeping on park benches and begging for food.
In France, culture is still a domain full of men of letters and money. What about the USA?
In the United States it’s different. Here we have different tiers. Of course we have the rich, healthy, complacent, happy rich people who run what people might call “culture.” They run the publishing houses in New York, editors working for less than $30,000 a year because they can afford to do so because they’re wealthy and their parents have given them or left them millions of dollars. These sniveling brats publish books about themselves, basically, books about the complacent and for the complacent. Art galleries are of course run by the rich, and it sure as shit ain’t the poor that fund operas or performances of classical music. Entrance into this elite class is forbidden, absolutely, no matter how talented or educated a person is.
The same caste system obtains in universities: only the rich can afford private education, and only private education is respected. Inferior people with private educations teach at private universities, while superior people with public educations wallow away in the shitholes of our country, teaching in ghettoes, in vile rural backwaters, on the savage and barbarian and vile US/Mexico border dodging bullets.
At the public universities, at least in English departments and the humanities (Art, History, Philosophy, Music, Theater), jobs are allocated according to race and gender, preference given to Negroes, Mexicans, Women, Asians, and anyone who is not a white male, and the job advertisements testify to this absolute fact. A white male with six books would be passed over for a Negro with no books. I’ve seen it repeatedly. And so what happens is this: at the good state universities, you end up with faculties rife with incompetent professors who fit the desirable racial and gender categories, and at the hellhole state universities in the swamps and deserts and ghettoes, underfunded and dilapidated institutions, you end up with publically educated white males who, if there were such a thing as a meritocracy, would be supplanting incompetents at both the private universities and the major public universities. It’s terrible for those underemployed, underutilized publically educated white men, but I suppose it’s nifty for their students to be getting better educations than they would at something consider a “better” institution.
This same kind of segregation occurs in our publishing industry. Since the editors of the major New York publishing houses are from wealth and publish their own nearly exclusively (excepting, of course, token minorities and women), the best non-wealthy writers, authors like Ron Cooper, Patrick Michael Finn, Larry Fondation, Michael Gills and Paul Ruffin), publish their books on small and university presses.
History will take care of this, because a hundred years from now no one will give a shit about where the book was published. What will matter will be how good the book is. Of this I’m certain. People will be reading Ruffin, Finn, Fondation, and Cooper long after Franzen’s and Eugenides’ piles of shit have turned to dust.
Are there some writers or musicians who are close to your frame of mind or T-Bird’s frame of mind, or some friends you would like to write about?
I just mentioned some of them in my previous answer. French readers should be on the lookout for Ron Cooper, Patrick Michael Finn, Larry Fondation, Paul Ruffin, and Richard Burgin (both Ruffin and Burgin are published in France by 13e Note). Other writers who need to be read by the French are George Williams, Glenn Blake, Marc Watkins, Michael Gills, Brian Allen Carr, Chris Offutt, Barry Hannah, and Joseph Haske. These writers all qualify for what I call “American Meta-Realism,” a brand of fiction I defined in Transfuge a couple of years ago. With the exception of Burgin and George Williams, we’re all from modest backgrounds, if not poverty, and we’ve all gotten ourselves educated, and we’re all making a big impression here in the US and now in France, thanks to 13e Note and Gallimard and Fayard. 13e Note recently anthologized many of us in France in their book, Le Livre des Fêlures: 31 Histoires Cousues de Fil Noir (2010).
We’re writing the stories and novels that New York is afraid to publish. What we write is dangerous. What we write is not politically correct. What we write is what that 99% knows as reality, whereas what we get published by the prudes is fiction made to please, to jack off the masses so they don’t realize how much they’re getting fucked.
Larry Fondation :
Is there a soundtrack for your books besides the sound of a massacre?
I’d like to think a reader could hear a combination of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Mahler’s Symphony Number 2, Tower of Power’s East Bay Grease, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and a military band of Scottish bagpipes playing war marches.
Do you still remain hopeful? Your books are hopeless.
Of course I’m hopeful. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t write books. I’d stick a double-barrel shotgun in my mouth, blow the back of my head off, and be done with it. The only thing that counteracts the constant pain that is life is hope.
And you seem to be mis-reading my books, too. They are decidedly not hopeless. They are cautionary tales. All tales of despair and misery are cautionary. Waiting for Godot is not a tale of the meaninglessness of life: rather, it is a warning that in a godless world, devoid of meaning, man must create his own existential raison d’être, as Sartre recommends. If T-Bird and Broadstreet (of Noir Beton) are doomed, it’s my recommendation, as an author, that readers do not follow the paths they have chosen. We are the summation of our choices. T-Bird and Broadstreet have chosen poorly.
What do you think about “Occupy Wall Street”? As far as I’m concerned everything is too feeble. Now we must take the offensive. You write as if you believe we should. Do you really wish to take action?
Fuck the “Occupy Wall Street” assholes. A bunch of rich babies. How can they possibly afford to not be at work? A gaggle of rich little shits who have so little to worry about that they can take time off work to bang on drums and chant and piss on the streets without worrying about making bail if they get taken to jail. I was in New York City a few days before the “movement” began. I go to New York about four times a year, and I’ve never had a problem finding a hotel. This time, I had to pay over $300 bucks a night for a tiny room. Why? Because these supposed martyrs had booked all the rooms in the city. How much money do those fuckers have, anyway? I loathe them. I’d wager that none of the protesters has ever possessed a union card, and none of them has ever worked on a construction site or in a factory. They’re a bunch of kids protesting their parents, even as their parents let them mooch off of society on their trust funds. Rich little hippy wannabees with no purpose in life, no problems in life, that are sadly imitating the tribulations of the 1960’s, pretending to be troubled and concerned with society. You don’t see any of those fuckers giving their money away, do you? You know what is missing from the “Occupy Wall Street” charade? The people who are actually working. Watch the video footage: you don’t see Negroes and Mexicans in the crowd, just a bunch of pasty-faced crackers. The Negroes and Mexicans are too busy working for a living, trying to keep their families from going bankrupt and starving. What I want to tell the “Occupy Wall Street” poseurs? Get a fucking job, assholes. If you want to complain, organize a general strike, and when the government intervenes, fight back with clubs and fire.
What is your future regarding books?
I intend to read as many worthwhile books as I can. And I intend, of course, to some day be recognized as the greatest writer who ever lived.
Thank you Mr Williamson for you answers, thank you Lilas Seewald for having make this interview possible.