[LESTER GORAN was born in Pittsburgh in 1928. In 1960, reviewing The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, the New Yorker declared Goran had “the vitality and true perspective of a born novelist… [his] first novel gives reason for rejoicing.” As of 2012, Goran has published eight novels, a memoir, and three short story collections including Tales From The Irish Club, a New York Times Notable Book of 1996.
In September 2008 I travelled to the University of Miami in Coral Gables where Goran is a Professor of English. I had the opportunity to observe his weekly creative writing class. From 1978 to 1988 he taught this class with Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. Goran also translated many of the stories to be found in Singer’s late collections The Image (1985) and The Death of Methuselah (1988). Goran memorialised their sometimes strained friendship in The Bright Streets of Surfside (1994).
The following interview was the first to canvas Goran’s entire body of work. It was the result of two days of taped conversation in a hotel lobby close to the University campus. We endured piped-in muzak in order to luxuriate in air-conditioned comfort. In the months after our meeting I prepared an edited transcript and then gave Goran the opportunity to revise his answers, Paris Review-style.
I began by asking Goran about his childhood in the slums of Pittsburgh.
– Matthew Asprey]
GORAN: This isn’t the story about a guy who worked his way up from a government housing project. I often have to explain this to my friends. “Say what a story this is! A guy coming from a government housing project and teaching college and writing all these books…” Wait. The government housing project was the happy ending to where I came from.
ASPREY: I see.
GORAN: I came from a place called the Hill District. It’s a ward in the city of Pittsburgh, known in its time as a famous crime area. The percentage of blacks every year became greater as the white families moved away. After a while there weren’t any real number of white families that were a coherent, distinct family unit anybody could identify with. Most of the families left there were pretty dysfunctional. As a matter of fact dysfunctionality would probably be about four steps up from where they were, because many of them were mad enough to be incarcerated. These were some crazy white people left in yards and left in cellars.
It would be a very dramatic story to tell you that we were the last to go. We weren’t. There were three or four more disorganised people left behind. For all I know they’re still there. But while everybody else was moving on to some kind of almost suburban area, we moved sideways. We moved three streets over into another ghetto house. We packed up our pathetic truck owned by my uncle with broken lamps and boxes that were never meant to carry anything. Matthew, it was the lowest moment that you can ever imagine.
ASPREY: What are some of the distinctive things that come to mind about your childhood in Pittsburgh?
GORAN: Mostly being sick. I had rickets, which I hear described as a condition of malnutrition. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. Growing up with my mother endlessly obsessed with me taking cod liver oil and drinking milk…
I remember this enormous fear when I was a child because my father was often not home and people would prowl our house while we were in bed. I would see them. They were burly black guys—maybe in my imagination they were burlier than they were—but they would just walk across a roof, open up a window, and come into that first ghetto house that we lived in. There’s something to think about. What the hell were they looking for? I mean there’s poverty, a third floor family living there. They didn’t care, they were looking for a towel or something like that, and then they’d leave. My mother would always name a friend of mine that she said was there. That was a big mystery of my youth. Why did my friends creep around the house in the middle of night like that?
My father just wasn’t home, and sometimes it was so awful in that house that my mother would wrap me up in scarves and run out into the street and we’d go nowhere. We’d just run down one dark street, up another dark street until there would be some lights, and we’d pass through there, and then run down another dark street until the people on the first floor came home.
They sold moonshine on that first floor. They didn’t make the moonshine but they sold the moonshine. They would bring to our house the moonshine in these big vats and they’d sell it for five cents a glass. And if you wanted it colored so that it looked like something in a bottle you paid ten cents a glass for it. They had a big side door and there was banging on that side door up until around 1 o’clock in the morning. People crying and screaming and fighting. The landlady was a tough old bird. She would scare them off.
ASPREY: Was Sobaski’s Stairway, the setting of your first novel The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue, a real neighbourhood in Pittsburgh?
GORAN: No, I made the name Sobaski up. There were a lot of stairways in Pittsburgh. Endless stairways there. I called it Sobaski’s Stairway rather than the Hill District because I didn’t want the book attached to me. The characters in that book were not my mother and father. They just weren’t. They were an amalgam of a certain kind of underclass life that I was aware of because I grew up around it. I didn’t want to call it the Hill District. It’s just as well because at the time the book came out people in Pittsburgh were just furious about it, “It’s a city of renaissance” and all the rest…
ASPREY: It’s interesting because in your more recent writings about Pittsburgh, the story collections and Bing Crosby’s Last Song (1998), you use real place names.
GORAN: Yes, more or less. I mean if you knew the neighbourhood you’d have a pretty good idea of who was being ridiculed, who was being praised. But I’d moved from the underclass. I’d moved from—I can’t say the working class—I simply moved from a people without any kind of distinctive connection to their neighbourhood. That was where I grew up. There was no connection. You just lived there and you got out of there and moved somewhere else. But the neighbourhood that I wrote about in my last four books, Oakland, was a neighbourhood that was as solid as a cathedral. These were Irish Catholics who believed in a purpose of life that was going to be fulfilled by adherence to certain ways of looking and thinking about things. One of the great things about writing about them was the fact that they were so easily jarred out of their illusions by the realities of what other people were like or what they were like themselves. A person in the first neighbourhood I lived in would never be startled by what they were capable of. They would just want to forget it. There would be no guilt, nothing, they just would forget about it. But in Oakland this was a people for whom memory was a very, very important part of coping with life.
ASPREY: Obviously at some point you found books. Tell me about your early reading and how it related to your experience.
GORAN: I didn’t think that the street writers, the city writers, ever got it right because they usually had people living in the neighbourhood that were not like what I knew.
ASPREY: Which writers are you talking about?
GORAN: James T. Farrell. When I was a kid I loved him. He wrote about things the way they were. He did a good job. But I didn’t like his endless insistence on the meaning of some kind of left wing play that was going on, trying to show there’s a communist for this and a communist for that. I saw the left wing in play where I was but it was like everything else in the world: nothing was to be trusted. I was pretty young for that kind of thing but the leftist dramas that went through the place never really affected me to the degree that I ever thought it had anything for me as a writer or as a person. I was always amused by the pretentiousness of the left wing savior who had come to redeem us, a person of such mystery, a person of such quality and worth. I think even in that early youth I had no heroes.
ASPREY: What else did you read? Jewish fiction?
GORAN: I read Jews Without Money by Michael Gold. That was a strange series of sketches about poor Jews and all the rest of it. Later I read Israel Zangwill’s Children of the Ghetto. Zangwill didn’t have that political twist, that Marxist twist that Gold had. But I liked what he did, too. I liked all the atmospheres.
But I’ve never had any real interest in writing about Jews because I just don’t know anything about it. They’ve never expressed themselves to me. They’ve never revealed themselves to me in the way that the Irish did in all those years of drinking. I had a pretty good idea of who the Irish were. I lived right there in the middle of all of it and I felt very, very welcomed. The Irish accepted me for a number of reasons: they like a volatile sort of person, they like somebody who’s pugnacious, and I was a basketball player at the time. I felt very comfortable there. In fact when I go back I meet guys that I knew and they all pick up with me as if I were 18. They all talk to me the same way. They’re liable to say to me, “Are you still playing basketball?”
ASPREY: How often do you go to Pittsburgh now?
GORAN: I haven’t been there for about ten years. The last time I went to Pittsburgh it had become so different and so many people had died that I just didn’t find anything of any interest. Pittsburgh started to wear perfume in a way and has prettified itself until it looks like a thousand different cities. You drop yourself off in the centre of Pittsburgh and you don’t know you’re in Pittsburgh anymore.
But I never have belonged even in Pittsburgh. A ghetto called the Hill in the fifth ward, then I moved into the third ward, and then into the fourth ward, the government housing project. What the hell kind of belonging is that? Even then I knew that I was skirting what was the life of most people.
ASPREY: Are there any Pittsburgh writers you like?
GORAN: I like Harry Mark Petrakis. He lived in Pittsburgh. If anything he’s more unknown than I am. I don’t mean to be cold about it but as far as Pittsburgh writers are concerned, people use Pittsburgh but they’re not Pittsburgh writers. They go to Pitt, they write a novel that has something about Pittsburgh in it. The big writer in Pittsburgh is August Wilson, the playwright.
ASPREY: He writes about the black experience.
GORAN: In the very neighbourhood that I grew up in. I worked in a pawn shop across the street from where he lived.
ASPREY: Do you find his work interesting and an accurate representation of life in that area?
GORAN: I haven’t read enough of it. I think it’s more literary than attempting to capture the kind of emotions in life. Very often he sounds like Eugene O’Neill to me.
ASPREY: You seem to have a great loyalty to writing about Pittsburgh.
GORAN: I do, I do.
ASPREY: Increasingly so in the last four works of fiction.
GORAN: I can’t tell you the reason for that except…I think it’s Keats who talks about the in-gathering as you get older. You try to take all your resources and pull them together and you don’t try to reach out to anything beyond that. Pulling things together for a last stand. I don’t know whether I’m making a last stand or not but I want to say a few things that I haven’t said. I’ll probably be around until a hundred like my brother, writing the same books, this nuance of character and that nuance of action…
ASPREY: So much to write about…
GORAN: I’m going to write about a street character named Kalafootski. They called him Kalafootski because he had this leg wrapped in a huge bandage. The rumour spread that that’s where he kept all his money. I needn’t tell you people decided to test what was in there. They took it off and just destroyed his leg. Something was holding his leg together, he had it wrapped in something, and they just left him for dead in the street.
He had an attachment to me. He would see me across the street and shout to me, “Hey, maniac!” I remember him doing this with me all the time. I felt so odd when he was so brutalized because I had some connection with him. Of course, he didn’t know me from Adam.
I was just shocked when I heard he died. I thought to myself how proportionate: live a life of absolute helplessness walking with a crutch, and the last thing that will happen to you is they will rip you apart and leave you on the street. Well, that sounds like something that’s really going to get published! That’s really a wonderful thing to enlighten. But I have to write it. I haven’t written it up until now. It has to be part of a memoir. It can’t be fiction because if it’s fiction you have to live with the sense of a mind that’s too dark to be allowed to come to dinner. Because if you’re going to write this kind of thing what kind of mind do you have? I have a mind that remembers. I don’t have a mind that invents. I swear to you, I’ve never in my life invented a horror. Most of what I write about has been part of the folklore of where I come from and who I am as much as anything.
ASPREY: You did a thesis at the University of Pittsburgh on Henry James…
GORAN: ‘The Fraudulent Artist’. One of the reasons I like James is his eye was so cold. I always liked the idea that I was here and James was there—intellectualism, a certain kind of American aristocracy—and yet we both saw the world very much the same way: greed, manipulation.
In Outlaws of the Purple Cow  I think I shot myself in the foot because I was as complicated there as I was in my Jamesian thesis at the University of Pittsburgh. I don’t think Henry James and my subjects pick up that well but it’s what I want to do. It’s what I tried to do from the beginning.
ASPREY: The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue was the first book you published, but was it the first book you wrote?
GORAN: I wrote two other books. I wrote a book as an undergraduate in Pittsburgh. It had a good title and I may use it yet: The Streets Are Made of Stone. That didn’t get anywhere. Then I wrote a second one called The Travelers to September about a summer camp and that didn’t get anywhere. But I like that, The Streets Are Made of…, and I use it in a memoir that I’m still working on. I have a section of it called ‘The Streets Are Made of Stories’. I kind of like that. I’m holding on to an idea that’s 50 years old. I don’t know that I can get rid of it because I haven’t advanced very far in my thinking about things.
ASPREY: In Paratrooper we witness the demolition of the neighbourhood, the reclamation, as the novel progresses. And these characters have such an organic connection to the place they live in. Their consciousness is in a sense constructed by the place.
GORAN: I think there’s an enormous sense of the infinite smallness of the mind, the ego. “You’ve taken everything that’s a definition of myself and removed it here I loved, here I hated, here I walked, here I sang and you’ve made it a pile of rubble.” Now, the pile of rubble obviously is not something the Pittsburgh Authority or the University of Pittsburgh destroys, the pile of rubble is simply the way life is demonstrated to us. Galaxies and universes are being destroyed. We can’t do much with all the burning heat and dark stars, but here are our dark stars, here is a vortex, something black pulling us into it. My house is gone, my steps are gone, my mother used to sit on that porch. “Oh, big deal, your mother sat on the porch.” But all I have is my mother. I mean, I have no other point of reference. My mother’s gone and my aunt is gone and my uncle is gone, we’re all gone. A huge, merciless ball is cracking into these places where I did secret things and I knew secret thoughts. I lived a complete life that was not even known to the people I was living with. Mercilessly I remembered it all.
ASPREY: Did you have trouble getting Paratrooper published?
GORAN: No. As these things go I didn’t have trouble. Lawrence Lee, who was my creative writing teacher at Pitt, called a few of us after I graduated and told us that Craig Wiley from Houghton Miflin was going to be at a big hotel in Pittsburgh, the Schenley Hotel, and that he wanted to meet people interested in writing. I came with 30 pages and the line was huge. I waited for my time to talk to Craig Wiley, and I heard Lawrence Lee say to him, “He spends all of his time writing, he’s written millions of words and a lot of those things are going to get published.” And Craig Wiley was very nice. He looked at the 30 pages of The Paratrooper of Mechanic Avenue and he said, “We’ll publish it.” This is like a movie, except it’s not like a movie as it turns out.
Later, when the book was done, he said to me, “I’m sorry, you’ve done everything I’ve asked you but I can’t publish the book.” So much for “we’ll publish it”. That’s the way the movie goes. He wrote me a long and (I thought) honest letter telling me what the book was lacking. “Why does the father drop out of the book? Why does this happen? You don’t show me anything with the father and the son…” I took his letter and I made index cards of it and inserted the changes into the book and I told him, “Will you look at this, see what you think.” And then I contacted Henry Volkening, the most famous name in American agents, who happened to be speaking at the University of Pittsburgh. I liked him very much. He was a funny man, witty. He was Saul Bellow’s agent. I wrote him and I told him, “Craig Wiley has been holding my book for about a month and a half. Could I tell him that you were handling the book for me and that we wanted an answer?” He said, “Yeah, go ahead. But I’m not promising you I’m going to carry the book if he doesn’t want it.” So I wrote him and got a telegram back from Craig Wiley: “We’ll give you an answer in a week, it’s at the executive committee.” And sure enough a week later he called me up. They were going to publish it. Henry Volkening’s power was that great.
ASPREY: At this stage did you envisage a career for yourself as a writer?
GORAN: Not at all. I didn’t think at all about it. I didn’t think of going to Hollywood and working in the studios. I didn’t think of being a celebrity. I didn’t think of winning any awards.
ASPREY: Saul Bellow wrote to you after Paratrooper was published?
GORAN: He asked me to write for a periodical he had called The Noble Savage and I was much flattered that he had liked The Paratrooper and wanted me to write for them. I just never responded because the truth is I didn’t think that I was at the level of the guys who were writing it.
ASPREY: Did he ask for a short story?
GORAN: No, memoirs, essays on literature and other things. They weren’t really fiction. I didn’t have any memoir juices running in me at the time.
ASPREY: And Bellow nominated you for a Guggenheim Fellowship.
GORAN: It isn’t some apocryphal story. But I listed some strange referees, and the board were, as I can see from their point of view, probably insulted that I thought so little of it.
ASPREY: Because you put down as your referee the ward chairman in Pittsburgh…
GORAN: Yes. At this point I don’t think I am nearly as clever as I did then. At this point I think to myself it was kind of a wise guy thing to do that in a sense violated Bellow’s good wishes for me. But I didn’t know any better. Truly, I thought I was going to get it. I’d never heard of it, you see, and I thought I was going to get it so I just put down two names.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2.
Interview © 2010-2012 Matthew Asprey
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
This interview originally appeared at the blog Honey for the Bears in 2010