from issue #1: ‘The Magic Streets of Pittsburgh: An Interview With Lester Goran’ (Part 2 of 3)

 PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

ASPREY: At the University of Miami you ran into a little-known pulp writer named Charles Willeford.

GORAN: Hell yeah, I knew Charlie. We were office mates for two or three years. He’d read me things he’d been working on when I came to work at nine or so. He’d be there grinding away at things for the Alfred Hitchcock mag or some such, including Westerns, and when, an admirer, I’d say, ‘Charlie, write something serious,’ he’d say, ‘This is serious’. He could make a cowboy saddling a horse Tolstoyan. He’d been in the cavalry as well as a lot of other places. Willeford used to smoke cigarettes in a cigarette holder and had a mustache curled up at the ends, rather too exotic for our simple tastes here. Bright blue eyes and an actor’s voice. We stayed friends until a lot of years later when he died after a false alarm or two. Miss him, rare friend.

ASPREY: Your second novel Maria Light (1962) came out pretty quickly after the first.

GORAN: All those books came out very quickly. I have a lot of ideas for a lot of things. Is there a danger that I’m talking about things that I’ve talked about before and just repackaging them? It’s a danger with everybody, whether you’re a Faulkner or Hemingway or whoever.

ASPREY: It’s interesting that, beginning with the character of Maria Light, you’ve written several times from a female point of view.

GORAN: I think it’s easier to get books from a female point of view published. So many of the editors are women, publishers are women. I think the readers are women. I think men have always faced this problem. I don’t think it’s exactly a challenge to demonstrate your capabilities of moving back and forth with a voice that can embody other things. I think it is something that writers are attracted to. I think they do it all the time.

At the time Maria Light came out most of the women that I knew said that it was remarkably accurate about the way women feel. I don’t know what they would say today.

ASPREY: There is an Irish Club-like setting.

GORAN: Yes. I wasn’t ready yet to talk about the Irish Club exactly as itself. I think I called it the Emerald Club or something like that.

ASPREY: Can we talk about The Candy Butcher’s Farewell (1964)? I take it you worked in a burlesque show in Atlantic City.

GORAN: Sure.

ASPREY: It’s the first novel you wrote that wasn’t really set in Pittsburgh. I think it’s a great book and should be rediscovered.

GORAN: My heart was broken on that book. I thought I was about to get a large readership. In fact so many people wanted to run extracts from it, and give me a whole lot of space, but it just never came through. I had a movie option on it, somebody was going to do it…I don’t know why that book didn’t become popular.

I’d like to write another book about burlesque but I don’t want to make it comic in the same way. I want it to be comic but there’s a kind of wise guy comedy that I think I’ve put behind me. I’d like it to be, instead of a kid in burlesque, a kid and his mother. She’s a burlesque dancer and she’s coming to the end of her days because burlesque is ending. The question is: what does she become now? She’s really not much of a dancer either and the kid is watching her decline. As she declines with these various guys who take her downhill, she eventually gets to the point…I know how I’m going to end the book. He sees her picture and she’s one of the victims of the Green River killer up in Seattle who killed something like forty women, prostitutes mostly. They found their bodies floating in the Green River. He’d been killing women for about twenty years and the thing that was astonishing is that most of these women were so anonymous nobody even knew that they were gone.

ASPREY: The world of burlesque seems to be rich subject matter. There’s not a lot of humour to be found in the first two novels but suddenly you have this very boisterous, amusing, wise-cracking narrator in Henry Sneffer, Jr, the Candy Butcher. Still, there is a dark side with the uncle who torches his properties for the insurance and kills his poor tenants. Here’s something interesting that Henry says:

“I also kept one of Uncle Jonas’ rent lists, thirty-six gray names, thinking I would one day write a story about every gray name behind every one of Uncle Jonas’s gray doors. I lost the names with a collection of Unknown Worlds and Amazing Stories, science fiction that Aunt Alma sent to a trash collector for the worth of the paper. I’m sure that, except in the aggregate, none of those 36 names would make anything but bad news as they hanged themselves or slashed with a razor their own image in someone else. They would probably have made…a failure of a book for any young writer dumb enough to try them.”

I think that is an interesting passage in relation to your career at that point, because you had written two books about similar gray names…

GORAN: Prophesizing my own demise as a writer. Well, I don’t know, writers are often saying goodbye to life at thirty-three. “Oh well, I’ve done it all, I’ve seen it all.” And I suppose there’s a combination here of taking on an attitude of world weariness at the same time as what used to be called kidding on the square. See you’re joking but there’s some truth to what you’re saying. But on the other hand you’re taking on a kind of unearned melancholy. Who the hell asked you to decide what people aren’t going to read? “There will be a failure of a book.” What I meant was if you tell the truth about the way people really function, cut out the masks and layers, you’re not going to have an audience. We don’t want to hear about how we act. We want to hear about how we ought to act. I don’t mean how we ought to act in life but how we ought to act in a book. You see, people in a book have to act a certain way. We can’t deal with people doing life.

ASPREY: Let’s move through the novels you published in the late sixties and early seventies. In The Stranger in the Snow (1966) Harry Myers returns to Oakland after World War II. He is haunted by a ghost. In Anzio Harry switched dog tags with Wilson, a dead corporal, to avoid being identified as a Jew by the Nazis. But Wilson wasn’t completely dead.

GORAN: Harry commits this preposterous crime and finds that he has to bear the burdens for all of mankind because he’s let somebody else die for him. Wilson comes back, having died on that frozen field in Italy. Harry has to redeem himself. So Harry takes care of Wilson’s child. I’ve become aware—I’m not sure that anybody’s ever said it to me or I read it in a review—that people would take it as sentimental that he raises the child of the man who died for him. After all what kind of metaphor is that? Jesus didn’t have any children to raise. But I think that my essential final point is a good one in that there’s an enormous release even when we don’t care for being good. Being good has its own justifications.

ASPREY: And O. C. “Catfish” Gedunsky from Paratrooper comes back?

GORAN: Gedunsky sort of moves in and out of my work. I like to write more about him now. I still like to write about him because I see him in my mind.

ASPREY: The Demon in the Sun Parlor (1968) concerns a family living in Miami in the late thirties. Everything falls apart when Eric, the artistic son, is accused of murder. There is a sinister quality to the setting that comes across very effectively. The big house with the sun parlor—was that based on a real place?

GORAN: No, but Crandon Park used to be a place where there was a zoo. I always thought it was a creepy place to set a house like that. I had all sorts of metaphors running in my mind: the mandrill as a statement of a kind of preternatural evil. That’s where tribespeople got the idea of painting up their faces to be terrifying—the mandrill’s face. And to have the mandrill’s presence there meant for me a kind of ancient evil that wouldn’t leave. No matter how beautiful things went, there still was at the core of this beautiful world a darkness that was going to make its own claims.

And I was thinking of the Vietnam War. I was thinking of a war in which we were such a good people until we discovered the mandrill on our side and went there and fought. We discovered certain truths about our American soldiers and about the American public’s relationship to those soldiers. It didn’t happen with Abu Ghraib in Iraq. We sort of understand that these people at Abu Ghraib were psychotic, nuts, they’re not like us. But in the Vietnam War we wondered. Those people were very much like us. Lieutenant Calley wasn’t crazy.

A review or two seemed to understand what I had in mind. In fact the guy who took the movie option said to me, “This is just like the Vietnam War.” And then his partner looked at him like, “What the hell are you talking about? I thought we were buying this because it was about…”

ASPREY: There was a director interested in Demon?

GORAN: These guys like it because they can get it cheap. So they get it cheap and then they can’t raise the rest of the money. The guy who bought The Demon in the Sun Parlor also bought the rights to certain Flannery O’Connor works, so I could see a consistency in his taste. I think my short stories have something in common with Flannery O’Connor. But I’m not a critic of my own work. I really don’t care to get involved in it because I did almost hundreds of book reviews and you have to talk a certain way and I don’t want to think or talk about my own work in that way.

ASPREY: I was very impressed with The Keeper of Secrets (1971). I think it’s an unjustly ignored comic achievement.

GORAN: I tell you there never will be enough time for all of it, but I’d like to do a sequel to that.

ASPREY: That would be wonderful. Keeper of Secrets is a comic novel and, like most of Candy Butcher and all of Demon, not a Pittsburgh book. Where did Shimen, the disaster of a human being who may wind up winning the Nobel Prize, come from?

GORAN: I don’t know. I always had a King Lear sort of guy on my mind raging against some kind of storms. It always struck me that he would have a kind of eloquence that would almost drown the substance of what he was talking about. And I wanted to deal with the fact that the writer draws the conclusions to all of the uncorrelated parts of experience that are moving in so many directions. The writer becomes the catalyst for things making some kind of sense. He puts a sense on them in the same way I thought Bobby Kennedy was doing in a political way and I thought Lewis and Clarke did in geography. I don’t know how successful I was but I know I said it the way I wanted to say it and the book did come to that kind of conclusion: that there’s always a confluence of the hot and the cold currents off North Carolina, off Cape Hatteras, just as there is a confluence of men and geography with Lewis and Clarke walking westward, and Bobby Kennedy suddenly having a vision of uniting the United States, pulling it together. Every novelist always pulls things together out of all the elements that the politician uses, that the explorers use, and that nature itself uses in places like Hatteras where the hot and the cold climates come together. It’s a book of bringing together contradictions because there’s so many contradictions in Shimen’s spirit. On the one hand he’s absolutely reckless and can’t be counted on to do things that make much sense for longer than a day or two. On the other hand he has an extraordinarily perceptive eye for the things that everybody else misses. He’s a kind of demon child. I know this is a kind of ancient idea about the poets. It’s not an idea about novelists, nobody thinks that novelists are demon-possessed, but I think that there are some demonically-possessed novelists.

It seemed to me a good place to exercise whatever lyrical abilities I have in language because most of what I write about doesn’t allow for that. I can’t go past my characters. I can go past them a little, in a sort of omniscient phrase here and there, but for the most part I’m limited in the kind of voice that my work has. It’s a kind of earnest expression of the consciousness that my characters are capable of.

ASPREY: It’s interesting the way you drift in between third and first person with Shimen.

GORAN: Well, my idea was that when he starts to describe himself in the third person he takes on an ideal persona, just a wonderful guy—dapper, clean, resolute, entirely admirable—but when he starts to talk in the first person you suddenly realize that he’s a forest fire, as he says, he’s raging, out of control. He puts himself into the third person because he has a novelistic ability to objectify himself as he objectifies reality. I know that this is a hackneyed way to do things, first and third, but I don’t know that many people have done it for the reasons that I wanted to do it. The reason that I wanted to do it was to make sure that it became apparent that Shimen was a pretty good novelist, that he was not just a lunatic pleased with himself.

ASPREY: Was it a discovery that you could do it this way? Did it—

GORAN: It was discovery that people would publish it.

ASPREY: Joyce did that kind of thing, Bellow’s done it.

GORAN: I liked to do it. It was fun because it had a rationale.

ASPREY: Mrs Beautiful (1985) marked your return to the serious novel after a long hiatus and two “hack novels” in the early 1980s. The book focuses on the bloody industrial action in McKees Rocks.

GORAN: I was messing around in the periodical section of the library on a cold day. I picked up a book I don’t even remember what kind of book it was—and a pamphlet fell out. It was a pamphlet from 1908. The pamphlet was from a church asking the strikers to assemble there. I was astonished. A Catholic church on the side of the strikers, fighting the company? So I started to read about it and I saw that it was a completely different world than I understood. In the sixties, of course, the Catholic Church moved in another direction. But I didn’t think anybody who was trying to start a union in 1908 would look to the church to give them any comfort. I went from there to reading about the Industrial Workers of the World. As early as 1904 they were holding meetings in places in Louisiana that accommodated blacks and whites and I thought there was a lot of guts there. I thought: how can I embody this in a story that’s going to be worth telling?

ASPREY: The novel is built on extensive research.

GORAN: A student said to me, “What do we do if we weren’t fortunate enough to have been in Pittsburgh in 1909?” I said, “Do you think I was there?”

The research that I did to write Mrs Beautiful wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. This was one of the most horrendous encounters maybe ever on the planet between people. The ugliness, the bitterness. If there were four factions you couldn’t trust any one of the four factions. All four factions were out for their own devious ends. I have some of the stuff in the book and some of it’s horrible—the blacks being held captive in these bunks—but it was crazier than that. It was like hell spilled over. As recently as the time the book was coming out I went over to McKees Rocks. I saw the mound in which they discovered all these bodies. A person would die and they would just throw them in the junk heap, then pile it up with scrap! McKees Rocks is not a bad place to live today, kind of clean, nice. People sweep the sidewalk in front of their house. But 1908 was the day of immigrants and the Pressed Steel Car Company bought in blacks to take the immigrants’ jobs. They locked them in, chained them to their bunks.

ASPREY: Scab labor.

GORAN: They set the scabs on fire and the scabs ran through the barbed wire—first time barbed wire had ever been used to incarcerate human beings in 1908—they ran out of there and the strikers beat them to death or mutilated them. It was the first case of slavery brought against any kind of a company since the Emancipation Proclamation.

ASPREY: You had these dramatic historical events. How did you come up with the story of Roxanne Bartlett, aka Mrs Beautiful, who encounters Diamond Jim Brady in Pittsburgh, and sells corsets to the women of McKees Rocks?

GORAN: I’d been thinking for a long time about the capacity of the artist to create a magic beyond his own abilities. Magic happens when you practise your art and then you look in the mirror and you say, “There’s nothing magic about me. What happens?” And Mrs Beautiful thinks about that. “Why is there magic happening?” She’s the magician. Of course the belief in the Mrs Beautiful corset astonishes her as much as anybody else. She thinks it’s a fluke until the end of the book when she realizes that she’s the only agency for these people to pass into transcendence.

ASPREY: Did people in those days attribute a magical power to something like a corset?

GORAN: No, that’s a conceit of mine. Although take a look today at what women think makes them beautiful. And what men think makes them beautiful!


Interview © 2010-2012 Matthew Asprey
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
This interview originally appeared at the blog Honey for the Bears in 2010