ASPREY: Where do you see your books in the scheme of things?
GORAN: I think if a writer vanishes he or she may be the last person who gets the news. I think it’s a matter of courting visibility by means of measuring ourselves against other people. But, you know, they have their problems and joys and we have ours.
GORAN: And I’m not at all concerned about the fact that it doesn’t exist today. Who am I going to compete with today? Philip Roth isn’t doing what I was doing. Saul Bellow is a phenomenon, he just writes so beautifully, he’s just incredible but Bellow’s more a creator of wise guys than real street guys. I mean, I’m sure they exist on some level in Chicago but the guys that I knew weren’t like that. They weren’t like guys in Philip Roth. They were guys who were so inward. There wasn’t any of them who were Delphic expressionistic people who would talk beautifully in a kind of Bellow language about things. This is not to say I’m condemning Bellow for it. He’s an artist, he’s created a whole world in himself. But it doesn’t really, from my point of view, any more than Roth, have anything to do with the way life is lived or the way life is understood by the people even that they’re writing about.
Roth, it seems to me, is obsessed by a certain kind of European sense of sexual connection that his characters have to have or they’re undefined. I read enough to know that he really is a wonderful W.C. Fields-type, keeping all the balls in the air, but there’s just nothing there for me because it just speaks to an endless…I sound as if I’m some kind of proletarian but I’m not. It just doesn’t go inside with what I understand.
For example, I know about that guy [Goran refers to a janitor who was helpful when we asked him to turn down the muzak in the lobby]. I care about him in a way that I don’t think most writers know how to care about him. He’s an immigrant from somewhere and if he’s Cuban he’s going to call himself an exile. He’s probably supporting some woman somewhere that’s got him out there doing what he’s doing. His daughter may be going to Miami Dade Community College. He’s a perfectly decent guy who gets together with his friends and talks dirty but he’s here cleaning out ashtrays. If he were filled with bad will he would have pretended he didn’t understand what you were saying and not done anything with it. But I think about him and the clinics that he goes to for his maladies, the fact that he won’t get himself sent to a hospital because he doesn’t trust the hospitals, he thinks they will kill him. He thinks you and I are across a bridge that he’s never going to be able to understand. He has a lot of folk myths, he has a lot of intense beliefs and, while they’re not Latins, there are people like that in Pittsburgh. Same thing. They go to college but they always remember that they’re Polish guys who lived in a certain Polish neighbourhood and they know things that non-Polish people don’t. I’m sure Roth is intelligent enough to take it in this direction, but he just doesn’t care about it. What he cares about are private entanglements and the narcissistic person who gets himself involved in it. I can’t read some of his later stuff because he is just so obsessed.
Isaac Singer thought that he really didn’t touch people either. See, Isaac was a remarkable example of a man who felt an extraordinary difference between himself and ordinary people, really thought himself superior, gifted, maybe a representative of God or something like that. But he saw in Roth a kind of masculine selfishness that wants all the sun to shine on you.
Singer and I were eating at Danny’s, a place down on Miami Beach, and Roth was there. Roth was there doing the red carpet with another guy. He was standing tall, nice-looking, laughing, you know: “we’ve got it and you don’t!” Remember that old Chevy Chase thing, “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not!”? That’s what Philip Roth seemed to be doing. I thought to myself, I’d like to meet him. I said to Isaac, “Let me tell him we’re here”. Isaac said, “No! no! no!” He was just annoyed at the whole idea.
On Sunday mornings we weren’t to be interrupted, Singer and I, and any time I ever brought anybody else to breakfast he would get very, very angry and be rude. James Michener worked on me to introduce him to Isaac and I set up a meeting between the two of them. I also had a student who asked me whether I was ever going to introduce her to Isaac. “This would be a good time,” I said, “Because right about the time you arrive Singer and Michener will run out of things to talk about. They’re probably going to talk about 10 minutes and then just sit there in solemn disapproval of each other.” She came and Singer never let me forget it. “Who was that girl?” he said. “You were rude to her”, I said, “and you were rude to James Michener.” He said, “What is he? What is he?”.
When I’d bring one of my kids or my wife he would be very nice to them, he’d be polite, there would be no threat there. But Michener was a stranger. I mean, he would say things like, “That man you brought, you remember that man? That man.” I said, “Isaac, you know the man’s name!” This was Isaac Singer, professed not to remember names. “The President, what’s his name?” He professed not to know the President’s name.
Singer was an important part of my wanting to cut out for myself some kind of connection to a world that I own. Because I loved Singer’s world, I loved the way he wrote and I loved the turns of his mind. It wasn’t a kind of conscious thing but I knew in talking to Singer so much of the time that his lack of comprehension of who I was and what I was all about meant that I did have an area to write about that was going to have some kind of validity. I’d been on the track right from the beginning, despite the fact that Isaac didn’t like it. Isaac didn’t like anybody’s writing. Didn’t like anybody at all. If somebody had written a good review he became Singer’s great friend for a week. One week he hated the person, the next week he loved them and praised them to the skies. But mostly Isaac liked European naturalists of the pre ‘20s years. He liked the strangest kind of people. He liked Knut Hansen.
GORAN: Yes. And he liked a writer that only he and I know, a Nobel Prize winner named Wladyslaw Reymont. He had a four volume series of books called Peasants which was very good.
ASPREY: You say in your memoir that Singer didn’t like Bellow. Yet Bellow translated—
GORAN: ‘Gimpel the Fool’.
ASPREY: ‘Gimpel the Fool’, which is a wonderful story, and a wonderful translation, too.
GORAN: Yes, Bellow put his heart and soul into it. He was anxious for the world to acknowledge Singer in the same way as he had. But Singer’s distaste for Bellow was as primitive as it could be. He was scared—with me too—that people would say, “This is not Singer’s writing, this is Saul Bellow’s writing…”
ASPREY: You’ve said that Singer was insistent that you take a translator credit even if you didn’t consider yourself a translator so much as a kind of assistant.
GORAN: This was on Isaac’s part a kind of favor that he did. Mostly he did it with women. He would be trying to get connected to some woman somewhere and he would call her a ‘translator’ and the thing wouldn’t get published because she would mess it up grammatically. He felt I was a miracle worker at the beginning. He had ten stories published in a row and he hadn’t really been hitting that well, even before the Nobel Prize, and the same thing after. We did okay.
Mostly during Isaac’s time with me he wouldn’t want me to have my name on it as a translator but he didn’t really mind me on there as a translator because I was nobody. Not like Bellow. With me it was sort of, “Nah, he’s not going anywhere.” You can see my book starts off with that sham prophesy of his that I was going to win the Nobel Prize. I put it in there because that’s what he said. But the choice of me ultimately came down to the fact that I was no threat. Even demanding money. He could never understand why I didn’t make an issue of him cheating me here, cheating me there, but it really didn’t matter. The sums were so small.
The truth is in his own weird way I loved him. Not because he was loveable. I loved him because he was so Isaac Singer. He was a complete relic of a certain kind of life and certain kind of ambition and a certain kind of chicanery. He would tell me about this great book that he and I were going to write together. He took me on board to tell me the truth about himself. “I’m a charlatan.” And I said, “Isaac, do you think people don’t know that already? You’re not a charlatan. You’re a gifted man who thinks he’s far trickier than he is. You are not that tricky, Isaac. You have not dealt with the people that I’ve dealt with over the years where a charlatan is concerned.”
As we would work together he would look at me and say, “You like that! I can see by your eyes!” Who’s the charlatan? I’m thinking about lines here. You’re the great Isaac Singer and I’m playing games here with your work translating it into some kind of effective English and all that might exist is an old man, like in that Evelyn Waugh story ‘The Man Who Loved Dickens’. I often felt like I was being held prisoner by Isaac. We would finish up and I would be stunned. My ears would be ringing with boredom. “We had a good day today?” he’d say. “We had a good day today?”
Isaac Singer turned out to be an extension of some of my own zaniness. I always thought to myself, as I say in the book, I fit into his crazy world. Isaac managed to fit into my world which isn’t quite what it seems like, either.
ASPREY: You did not publish short stories in the early days, but turned to the form in the later part of your career. Did translating Singer’s short stories influence the decision to move into that mode?
GORAN: Maybe. I don’t know. I believe that I’m getting on and I have a lot of things I want to talk about and to commit myself to a three or four or five hundred page novel is going to take two to five years and maybe I won’t get it published. Kind of an exercise in futility when you get past a certain age. Do I want to write one last great novel, maybe two because I’m in good health? Or do I want to tell all those little stories that I have? I chose both. I’m working on both of those things.
ASPREY: Do you write with a word processor now?
GORAN: I write with one finger, not two. Most people are coordinated enough to write with two. I write with one finger very quickly.
ASPREY: Tell me about the process. Do you draft by hand and then type things up or do you start—
GORAN: No, with some of my books I used to fill up legal pads. I used to take legal pad pages and scotch tape them together and in my back room set them up from this rather high ceiling. I set them up in lines and then like Michelangelo—I never saw that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy —but I would move with a picnic bench, taking out a phrase here, a phrase there, which is of course what you do with a computer. So I actually was very comfortable with a computer because that’s the way I work.
ASPREY: And you do a lot of drafts?
GORAN: Yes. On The Paratrooper I’m sure that I rewrote it sixty times at least, over and over, shifting things around. I still do a lot of that.
ASPREY: Tell me about your memoir of your friendship with Singer, The Bright Streets of Surfside.
GORAN: In 1993 I connected with Kent State University Press. They liked it. I did that on my own without an agent and, although they’d never published any fiction before that, they immediately published three collections of short stories [Tales From The Irish Club (1996), She Loved Me Once (1997) and Outlaws of the Purple Cow].
ASPREY: The stories revolve around the Pittsburghers who drink at the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division No.9. When did you start going to the Irish Club?
GORAN: I guess when I was about sixteen I started drinking there. For years after Tales From the Irish Club I got letters from people asking me about some Irish friend of theirs in Pittsburgh. There was one who asked me, “Did you ever know so and so? I was married to him for so and so and he turned out to be another lout, and you have described him exactly. Is that who you had in mind?” And I wrote her back to tell her the truth. “That’s who I had in mind!” This is a guy on the street with another seventy guys like that and I had described Jack exactly how he was. She never wrote me back. I guess she was hoping I would say something like, “Oh, no, there’s a lot of men with those characteristics in that neighbourhood”.
ASPREY: I take it that Tales From The Irish Club did quite well for a short story collection?
GORAN: Yes, and the other two were carried along. The other two did not do as well as the first one but they did pretty well.
ASPREY: How did Bing Crosby’s Last Song evolve from the short story ‘Evenings with Right Racklin’ in She Loved Me Once?
GORAN: I started off with Daly Racklin. I’d heard an anecdote. I used that and I started to build around it a story about a good man who is always being harassed by other people throwing their burdens on him. He just can’t assume the obligation for all of them. I wanted to create a character I really trusted, liked and who wouldn’t betray me by turning out to have feet of clay or to be in some way disreputable. His problem would be that he’s simply too burdened by the problems of other people. I thought I would write a novel about the choices he makes knowing that he has just a few months to live.
ASPREY: Did somebody suggest you write the novel because of the strength of the story in She Loved Me Once?
GORAN: No. I talked to people I trust and asked—because I have such a shabby moral sense of things—“What do good people do? How do you define what’s a good person?” And they all seemed to say the same sort of thing: concern with the welfare of others. That sort of wrote the book for me: create a series of situations where, no matter how misunderstood Daly Racklin is, his gallantry and his moral purposiveness would come through.
ASPREY: Do you have a lot of unpublished work, a lot of manuscripts in the drawer?
GORAN: Oh, sure, sure.
ASPREY: Are you writing a novel at the moment?
GORAN: I’m in the middle of twenty novels. “That’s the problem!” [Goran laughs]. No, no, no. I don’t moralize over it because whatever rules there are about novels, I’m as much the rule as anything. What I do is what novelists do. And after a while, when you understand that, you relax a little. That’s not the way he does it, that’s not the way she does it, this is the way you do it. “Yeah, but you’re not meeting with any great success.” What are you calling success? I mean, I think I wrote some books I liked. Maybe I’ll write some more interesting ones.
Interview © 2010-2012 Matthew Asprey
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
This interview originally appeared at the blog Honey for the Bears in 2010