from Issue #6: An Interview with Judith Beveridge

Image: Devadatta's Hirelings, Jamalgarhi (CC) Photo Dharma @ Flickr

Image: Devadatta’s Hirelings, Jamalgarhi – Photo (CC) Dharma @ Flickr

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‘PATIENCE IS A KEY INGREDIENT’

An interview with Judith Beveridge

Theodore Ell

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JUDITH BEVERIDGE was born in London in 1956 and moved to Australia with her family as a child. She grew up and studied in Sydney, where she still lives. After having worked in diverse jobs in offices, adult education and bush conservation, since 2002 she has taught poetry in the postgraduate creative writing program at the University of Sydney. She is poetry editor of the literary journal Meanjin.

Beveridge has published five collections of poetry: The Domesticity of Giraffes (1987), Accidental Grace (1996), Wolf Notes (2003), Storm and Honey (2009) and most recently Devadatta’s Poems (2014). Her work has appeared in many anthologies and has won numerous awards, including the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, The New South Wales and Victorian Premiers’ Poetry Prizes (the latter twice) and the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal.

Devadatta’s Poems is Beveridge’s first collection focused on a single subject. It extends themes that have increasingly absorbed her attention across several collections: the life and spiritual quest of the Buddha and the wider dramas that unfolded among those around him. Beveridge’s first Buddha Cycle of narrative poems appeared in Accidental Grace and was followed by Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree in Wolf Notes. These sequences depicted the wanderings of Siddhattha Gotama across India before his attainment of enlightenment. Devadatta’s Poems takes place after he has become the Buddha and is written from the point of view of Devadatta, Siddhattha’s envious and power-hungry cousin, who joins the new monastic order so as to bring the Buddha down. Devadatta even tries to murder him several times. The new sequence strikes many contrasts with the earlier poems ‘spoken’ by Siddhattha – the calculating versus the contemplative, the sensual versus the ascetic, lust versus renunciation, violence versus tranquillity – but both cousins are bound, ironically, by their longing for Yasodhara, Siddhatha’s wife, whom both have had to leave behind in their distant home city.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2014 in the weeks after the launch of the new book and was reviewed by both interviewer and interviewee before publication.

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ELL: Devadatta’s Poems is your first book written only in one voice, telling one story. In the past you have placed narrative sequences among other work on varying subjects. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree was one of those cases. What was it that led you to set Devadatta apart in this way?

BEVERIDGE: I wanted to give myself the challenge of writing a book-length sequence. I’ve always loved Dorothy Porter’s book Akhenaten and Geoffrey Lehmann’s Nero’s Poems and I felt with Devadatta that there was enough narrative material to do an extended sequence. The trick was in trying to work out how long or short the book needed to be, whether or not I would do a more extensive book. In the end I opted for a shorter book, throwing out quite a number of poems I had initially thought I might include. I opted for a tighter focus.

ELL: In the poem “Dawn” in Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, Siddhattha reflects, ‘Not yet / am I a sorrowful man. Not yet.’ Was there a sense then that there would be more to tell, that after Siddhattha’s enlightenment there would be new trials?

BEVERIDGE: When I was writing Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree, which traces Siddhattha Gotama’s journey over north India before he became the Buddha, I came across Devadatta, the Buddha’s cousin and thought at the time how that would be a great story to explore. Devadatta caused the Buddha a great deal of trouble and grief by trying to take over the Buddhist Order and by trying to murder him three times, so, yes, in a sense that line can be seen as alluding to future strife for the Buddha, though when I wrote that line I didn’t consciously have that specific conflict in mind.

ELL: Siddhattha’s reflections in the earlier sequence are not all contented – he is, after all, struggling to revise his whole way of living – but his motivation is essentially humane. The new sequence turns that on its head. What did it take to shape the inner life of a speaker whose motives are so much blacker, even murderous?

BEVERIDGE: At the centre of Devadatta’s Poems there’s jealousy, hatred, ambition, lust, cruelty. It’s always easier, I think, to write about flawed characters, mainly because our language for these emotions is so much richer, and because these emotions are so much more dramatic and more embedded in our literary, cultural, social and political history. Every day these emotions make the news and so inhabit our minds and imaginations very frequently, so it wasn’t that hard to depict a flawed and corrupt character. However, I didn’t want to make him so terrible that readers would be entirely repulsed by him.

ELL: Devadatta’s antagonism towards Siddhattha is quite clear (‘Some nights… all I do is scheme / to give Siddhattha schism, infighting, dissonance’) yet both cousins, in your depictions, define themselves, to themselves and to us, in quite similar ways. They are constantly searching in the details of the world about them for some kind of solace or confirmation, and both are quite lucid and self-controlled in describing what troubles them. Did you envisage a family resemblance? How did you approach contemplating that same setting from a new point of view?

BEVERIDGE: The difference lies in the fact that Siddhattha after years of struggle finds inner peace and the path to wisdom. I knew I could never write about Siddhattha after he had achieved enlightenment because it would be fraudulent of me to try and imagine what an enlightened mind might experience. Devadatta is still caught up in all the illusions, in suffering, in the mental traps, and so resembles Siddhattha in those years before he became enlightened. Devadatta too is searching for something, but does not have the discipline to let go of craving or aversion, so he seemed like a good candidate to continue on with. It would be so hard to do justice to the character of the Buddha after enlightenment.

ELL: You mentioned having to ‘throw out’ a number of poems you originally thought of including, for the sake of a tighter focus. What was in those poems that seemed to distract from that? Could you use them elsewhere?

BEVERIDGE: No, I’d never use the poems elsewhere. The poems I threw out were poems which didn’t seem to be strong enough, or that were simply going over ground I had already covered, or they were tonally similar to other poems and weren’t adding a great deal to the narrative. There are a few of those discarded poems I do like, but they will simply have to be forever part of the reject pile. I have hundreds and hundreds of poems like that from previous books.

ELL: The drama of both sequences seems to be almost all internal, with Siddhattha and Devadatta reflecting on events after the fact, in the spaces between the ‘moves’ of their lives. We’re not often inside their minds while they are in action. I’m wondering about the source of that reflective distance from events. Is it a result of how you see the personalities of these figures? Or is it more to do with finding a way into a poem?

BEVERIDGE: It’s probably a reflection of the kind of poet I am. I write reflectively and meditatively and I’m mainly concerned with human emotions. There’s certainly very little action in Devadatta’s poems. It’s mostly thought processes and Devadatta’s plotting and planning how to kill Siddhattha. This was one of the problems I had when writing the sequence: I didn’t want it to become an endless treadmill of thoughts and I was constantly worrying about how to progress the narrative, because in a way the story doesn’t go anywhere much in terms of plot. It’s more a psychological investigation. One of the most challenging elements in writing the sequence was to try to give a sense of movement in a story that essentially has little action. I’m not sure how well I’ve succeeded in creating this movement, however.

ELL: The main exceptions to that sense of distance are the poems in which both cousins long for Yasodhara – Siddhattha’s wife, whom he leaves behind, and who is the object of Devadatta’s lust. What did it take to depict this side of both their natures, this thought that overrides everything else?

BEVERIDGE: Human longing and desire are emotions that most of us feel most of the time, whether it’s longing for a person, a place, a lost time, a lost opportunity or whatever, so all I had to do was tap into that feeling. The hardest part was finding the right language and images. You might have noticed I have used Yasodhara’s hair as an element that represents her beauty, especially in Devadatta’s poems. This was one way I was able to evoke the emotions and give focus to the mood.

ELL: Is Yasodhara a character whose story you’d consider telling, from her point of view?

BEVERIDGE: It has crossed my mind to do so. I’ve not really tried a woman’s voice before, but if I do write it, it probably won’t be for a while. I’ve also thought of writing the story from Rahula’s point of view. He was Siddhattha’s and Yasodhara’s son, so there are still some options and possibilities.

ELL: What is it that draws you back to this drama, to elaborate the various sides of the story? You published the first Buddha Cycle in the mid-90s and the world that it opened up seems to have occupied you a great deal ever since.

BEVERIDGE: It’s true I’ve always been captivated by the Buddha’s story, ever since I was a child. It certainly has a much better ending than the story of Jesus. Eastern religions seem very sensible and attractive to me. I could never accept the Christian idea of original sin, but I’ve always thought that the idea of things being related on a deep level to ring true. I dislike the hierarchical structure of Christianity and find in Buddhism a more harmonious and integrated view that includes a non-exploitative attitude towards nature and animals.

ELL: Can you describe the effect that visiting India has had on you and your work? Have you written much while there, or do you tend to reflect on details after the fact?

BEVERIDGE: I visited India on two occasions, though not for any research or religious purposes. I was married to an Indian and we took our young son to meet his family. I didn’t write a word while I was there, but I tried to absorb as much as I could. I was lucky in as much as I got to experience an Indian family first hand, so I wasn’t a tourist as such, but was able to observe things on a more domestic and intimate day-to-day level.

ELL: How far has your reading taken you? The Siddhattha-Devadatta sequences look to very ancient texts. Are there any Indian writers in particular, ancient or modern, whose work has offered inspiration?

BEVERIDGE: I have read many books on Buddhism and on the Buddha and on life in ancient India, but I don’t like to know too much about a subject because I find it shuts down my imagination. I like to have imaginative room to move, so in the Devadatta sequence, there are quite a few things which are not historically accurate, and most of the scenarios I have simply invented in order to dramatise something about Devadatta’s character. I usually find that something very small, some almost trivial detail might start a poem, such as the existence of ox-toads. I have read some Indian poetry. I am especially fond of the work of AK Ramanujan.

ELL: What is it about his work that appeals to you?

BEVERIDGE: It’s a while since I’ve read him, but I’ve always enjoyed his insights and his precise use of language. He was born in South India, but wrote mainly in English and probed his culture mainly for an English-speaking audience. He died in Chicago in 1993 and there’s part of one obituary I think rings true: ‘In the quiet yet affable wit known best to his extended family of students, colleagues and friends, Ramanujan would observe that he was the hyphen in the phrase “Indo-American”. But to everyone who knew him and the passionate brilliance of his language, he and his poetry were rather a richly evocative metaphor for the human experience wherever it might be found. He was as much at home with Yeats and Tagore as he was with the classical literatures of India.’

ELL: It’s interesting that you should say you prefer not to know too much about a subject, as your range of subjects is so broad. As well as the Buddha sequences there is Driftgrounds: Three Fishermen in Storm and Honey. And in that sequence the poem “The Book” reams off the most bizarre species of fish – hardyhead, toothy flathead, rhinoceros file fish, robust pygmy star-gazer – before the speaker admits he hasn’t found ‘the right one’ to throw back at his fishing-mate when he calls him sweetlips. Is there a sense that your character’s casting about, his gathering-in of names and effects, reflects your own?

BEVERIDGE: Yes, absolutely. I love names for things and part of my interest and love of writing poetry is that you do get to name things. The thesaurus is great for this: it has long-lists of names in all sorts of categories. I am always casting around in my poems for the right word.

ELL: What is it that draws you to such varied subjects? What gave rise to Driftgrounds, for instance?

BEVERIDGE: I am always searching around for subjects, and as I don’t like to write about myself, I cast around constantly for possible characters and scenarios to write about. I think most writers are very curious people and they often have broad interests and obsessions. One of my obsessions is water, so I wrote Driftgrounds partly to indulge my love of seascapes and riverscapes and also to try to explore the brutal subject of fishing and how character and place affect each other. I like using characters in poems as they give you a way into material not your own.

ELL: Your previous collections have usually included both longer sequences, like Driftgrounds or the Buddha poems, and sets of diverse ‘single’ poems, but it seems to me that with each collection the sequences have been growing longer. Between the Palace and the Bodhi Tree made up a large portion of Wolf Notes and Devadatta’s Poems is, of course, a single book. Has ‘narrative’ been occupying you more than the writing of ‘single’ poems recently?

BEVERIDGE: Certainly for the last couple of books it has. I find that having a larger project to work on helps me generate poems more easily because I can slot into the character or ready-made narrative, not every single poem has to be begun from scratch because of the established setting or mood. However, for my next book, I am deliberately going back to single, unrelated poems as I want to have the challenge again of a broader range of subjects and forcing myself to start from the blank page with each new poem. It’s uncomfortable, but I don’t want to fall into easy habits.

ELL: What is it about a narrative sequence of poems that attracts you, as opposed to rendering the same story as a novel?

BEVERIDGE: I just love writing poetry. Writing prose doesn’t especially interest me because I like the fine detail and focus that a poem demands and I enjoy working with sound and rhythm and metaphor and texture of language. This is not to say that novelists don’t also work with these things, but they don’t work with the line or the line break and I love working with lines, finding out what they can achieve. I also love the intensity that a single poem can have and a poem can often say in a few words what it might take several sentences to say in prose.

ELL: Another trait one can sense in your work is that often once you’ve settled on a subject, you draw image after image out of it, elaborating the possibilities into long chains. “How to love bats” is one example: you tell the reader to ‘Begin in a cave’ and ‘listen to the floor boil with rodents, insects,’ but before long the poem has brought those sensations into the human world: ‘Visit op shops. Hide in their closets. / Breathe in the scales and dust / of clothes left hanging.’ You use the same technique of elaboration in Devadatta’s Poems as well, especially in conveying Devadatta’s dreams of Yasodhara. I’m wondering to what extent this ‘cataloguing’ and elaborating reflects the way you shape a poem. Do you list different attributes or qualities first and then build them into a shape, or do they trigger and grow from one another, while you are writing verse?

BEVERIDGE: Definitely the latter. For me writing is always a process of discovery inasmuch as I don’t really know what it is I am going to say before I write. I discover as I go along. One thing I do consciously is to try to push my material as far as I can imaginatively. I like poems that have imaginative reach. This means my poems go through many, many drafts before they are finished, as I often take wrong turns or produce material that I end up scrapping before I can discover the true or meaningful poem. But I like this. It makes for hard work, but it gives me a strong sense of vocation when I’m writing, a sense that the poems are quite often hard won, as I believe they should be.

ELL: Is there a sense in which you are also attempting to win over yourself in writing poems? The discomfort you mention in relation to writing about your own life calls to mind another much earlier poem of yours, “Fox in a Tree Stump,” in which the speaker of the poem recounts being forced into flushing out and killing a fox, and recalls, ‘I was nine years old. All my life / I’d stuck close to my yelled name.’ Your work has travelled away from the brutality described in that poem, but it seems to me that ideas of threats to oneself, and of oneself as a threat, have persisted, especially in the case of Devadatta. I’m wondering how you negotiate your degree of involvement with characters. How complete do you think they can be as masks?

BEVERIDGE: There is a paradoxical relationship between myself and the characters I use because they are both masks and not masks. They are masks in the sense that the emotions I give my characters are all emotions I have experienced, and I imagine most human beings have experienced, as they are the usual ones. What I change are the settings and the circumstances and this allows me a distance and perspective I wouldn’t get if I were writing directly from my own life. But I love the idea that I can move away from my own particular experiences and enter them in a more universal way. So, yes, I am attempting to ‘win myself over’ in my poems by trying to understand my own emotions through a more general lens. And what I get from this process is a sense of shared humanity.

ELL: With all your varying characters and subjects, is there a centre to your poetry, something that will set you writing where something else may not?

BEVERIDGE: Always the motivating and centralising factor for me is language. My poems always start with a desire to play with language. It’s the hardest thing in writing, to get the language right. It’s easy to have ideas for poems, but getting, as Adrienne Rich said, ‘the language that’s adequate to experience’ right in a poem is always a challenge. I don’t mean that I play with language in a postmodern sense, such as in L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry, where the intention is to leave the meaning up to the reader, or that I break down syntax, because I do essentially want to communicate and I want to communicate emotion. I still believe the lyric has a lot to offer and still has relevance for the reader and writer, and that inflecting emotion into a poem is a serious task.

ELL: Has your recent turn back to single, unrelated poems altered your working habits?

BEVERIDGE: My working habits have always been pretty much the same, no matter what I’m working on. I need long stretches of time before me. Six or seven hours is a typical stretch for me to get anything done. I’m painfully slow and plodding. I’ve never been able to work at white-hot speed, like some poets. And I do enjoy those long stretches. They give me a strong sense of vocation, that I’ve worked hard.

ELL: How far off may your next collection be?

BEVERIDGE: Hard to say. I think my next book will be a New and Selected Poems, so my intention is to write the ‘new’ section, which is why I’ve chosen to work on miscellaneous poems, rather than a coherent project. But I’ll take my time. Patience is a key ingredient, I think. I’d rather produce a work I’m happy with than rush into publication.

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

Here again is the first part of Matthew Asprey’s extensive interview with the late American novelist Lester Goran (you can click on through all three parts). The interview appeared in Contrappasso issue #1 (August 2012) alongside an unpublished Goran story, ‘Don’t I Know You?’. Contrappasso was honoured to publish two further pieces by Goran – a short story called ‘1908: The King of a Rainy Country’ in issue #3 (August 2013), and his memoir of Charles Willeford in the special Noir Issue just two months ago. The Willeford piece was the last published work to appear during Goran’s lifetime.

Contrappasso Magazine: International Writing

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

[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…

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Contrappasso at the LARB: An Interview with Clive Sinclair

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Clive Sinclair

Our friends at the Los Angeles Review of Books have taken first dibs on the online publication of ‘El Hombre Valeroso’, our expansive interview with British author Clive Sinclair.

The interview, conducted by Matthew Asprey, originally appeared in Contrappasso issue #2. The LARB had this to say:

ONE OF THE GREAT PLEASURES for us at Los Angeles Review of Books has been the opportunity afforded for serial discovery. In this case, of the extraordinary English writer Clive Sinclair, whose bibliography betrays the influence of everyone from Nabokov to John Ford, but also of the splendid quarterly Contrappasso, a periodical that — like Sinclair — moves restlessly, thrillingly among its interests and concerns. From neglected masters like Floyd Salas and James Crumley, to less-neglected ones like David Thomson and Elmore Leonard, the Sydney-based Contrappasso publishes international writing of the highest order. We are pleased to present Contrappasso editor Matthew Asprey’s interview with Clive Sinclair, below, and encourage you to visit contrappassomag.wordpress.com to discover more.

‘El Hombre Valeroso’ begins:

CLIVE SINCLAIR was born in England in 1948. He is a recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, the Jewish Quarterly Prize, and the PEN Silver Pen Award for Fiction. He holds a doctorate from the University of East Anglia and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Sinclair’s novels include Blood Libels (1985), Cosmetic Effects (1989), and Meet the Wife (2002); his stories have been collected in Hearts of Gold (1979), Bedbugs (1982), and The Lady with the Laptop (1996). Sinclair’s most recent book is True Tales of the Wild West (2008), an experiment in the new genre of “dodgy realism.”

The following interview is based on a transcript of a conversation I had with Sinclair at his home in London in early 2011. More than a year later, the raw transcript was edited and restructured, supplemented by further questions and answers by email, and finally revised by interviewer and interviewee.

MATTHEW ASPREY: Your first book, Bibliosexuality (1973), is a very obscure title. I’ve never seen a copy. Do you want to tell me anything about it?

CLIVE SINCLAIR: I’d rather not but, since I can see the thumbscrews bulging in your pockets, I’ll oblige. The title is a neologism, of which I remain rather proud, and look forward to one day seeing housed in the OED. Bibliosexuality describes a disorder of the senses in which a perverse relationship with a book is not only desired, but also achieved. In short, the novel offered the world of letters as a substitute for the real thing. The main influence on it would be my time at the University of East Anglia, where I encountered the likes of Malcolm Bradbury, Angus Wilson, Jonathan Raban, and the Sages — Lorna and Victor. I had no idea what I was getting into. I went there in a completely arbitrary fashion and as a complete innocent. The aforementioned practiced what was then called New Criticism, which insisted that the text be examined as an artifact entire unto itself. The very opposite of structuralism, unknown (at least to me) at the time. You — the critic — ask about the author’s intentions and intentionality. For example, that yellow vase on the shelf. Why yellow? You assume everything is there for an artistic purpose. The book that I produced as a consequence was immensely self-conscious. Of course it was heavily influenced by Nabokov. It was full of linguistic resonance and also the sex element, to put it roughly. Portnoy’s Complaint had just come out in 1969. So it was a mishmash of influences. It could have been brilliant. It wasn’t, but it could have been.

MA: How old were you?

CS: Twenty-one when I wrote it….

LARB

Read the complete interview at the Los Angeles Review of Books

or in issue 2 of Contrappasso Magazine, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.

from issue #1: ‘An Interview with James Crumley’

ALWAYS LOOKIN’ FOR A BOOK, LOOKIN’ FOR A TITLE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMES CRUMLEY

Noel King

Missoula, Montana
21st September 2005

KING: Could you say something while I check the sound level is OK and I’m getting it clearly?

CRUMLEY: It’s September 21st, the last day of summer in Missoula, Montana, and I can see the snow in the future!

KING: Your latest book, The Right Madness (2005), takes its title from a Richard Hugo poem, “The Right Madness on Skye,” and a much earlier book, The Last Good Kiss (1978) took its title from some lines in another Hugo poem, “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.”

CRUMLEY: I get all my good titles from Hugo poems.

KING: Was there any particular reason for you to return to Hugo poetry references after thirty-some years?

CRUMLEY: The Right Madness is a book I started back in 1975, somewhere back in there, and I was looking for a title. You know, I’m always lookin’ for a book, lookin’ for a title. And I was goin’ through my Hugo collection and somehow that last stanza of “The Right Madness on Skye,” where the poet plays dead, somehow that stanza and the idea that in my book the shrink was going to play dead, got the book going for me. I started the book so long ago that I was still playin’ Flag football instead of softball! I always think it’s a kind of homage to use somebody’s line of poetry or a line from a book as a title. I already had my own voice when I met Dick, because I had half of my first novel done, but I’m sure that the way he handled language and his approach to poetry influenced my approach somewhat. You can’t deny influences. And I love “Skye.”

KING: Did you make a research trip to Scotland for this novel?

CRUMLEY: No. I went to see Dick on Skye when The Wrong Case (1975) came out, and I went back seventeen years later, after Dick was dead, just to go. I didn’t know then that I was going to write this book. I never know when I’m going to write a book! Skye is just one of those places that helps you understand why some of the Celtic twilight myths are like they are. Some of that shit makes you think about magic. So long as you don’t have to believe in it, I guess it’s OK.

KING: Hugo says he started his mystery novel, Death and the Good Life, on Skye, so that’s a nice overlap.

In the prefatory section for The Right Madness you explain that you had a heart operation while writing the book, and thank medical staff, your wife Martha, and other friends for helping you come through it. How far into the novel were you when you had the heart operation?

CRUMLEY: I was about half way through and Martha was out of town, away at a conference. I was mostly layin’ around the house, watching TV and reading. I hadn’t been out much, hadn’t been carousing, and I noticed when I was taking a shower that I was suddenly short of breath. And getting in the car turned out to be a job. I got to the airport to collect Martha and as I was walking back to the car I told her something was wrong. She told me I should go to the doctor immediately, so I went the next day, a Monday, and I guess it was another week and I went into hospital. They couldn’t get the fluid out of my system. My heart and lungs were completely full of fluid and by the time I did go to the hospital the CO2 in my blood was like 70%, which is supposed to drive you insane. There was this wonderful charge nurse in the ER who said, well Mr Crumley, I might have to put you on a ventilator. And I said, what if I don’t want to be on a ventilator? And she said, well, in two or three hours you’re gonna turn blue, and two or three days later you’ll be dead. So I said, OK! It was kind of an unsatisfactory experience because they never found out what really happened. And also, this whole notion of cutting a hole in my heart sheath to let the fluid drip out struck me as silly. In hospital, the nurses are the ones who keep you alive. The hardest part was getting over the paralytics they give you to keep you still when you’re getting the ventilator put in. Those paralytics are tremendously raucous drugs, and they gave me some of the wildest hallucinations I’ve ever had. But a lot of people stood up and helped me at that time, took care of things, because we were on benefit money for about eight months or so.

KING: With The Right Madness you moved from Mysterious Press to Viking. What kind of deal is it?

CRUMLEY: It’s just a couple book deal.

KING: You have your two successful, much-loved characters, Milo and Sughrue, in their separate series, and together in Bordersnakes. How do you know if you are into a Milo or a Sughrue book?

CRUMLEY: I pretty much let the book decide, whichever voice comes up. The Final Country had to be a Milo book. I wanted Milo to go to Texas. And this one, The Right Madness, was always a Sughrue book, I don’t know why. It’s not always clear cut, it usually takes me 100 pages to figure out what the hell’s going on and whether I’m going to finish a book.

KING: Can you provide some time-line information here? The Crumley fan buys a book in 2001, The Final Country, which derives from a much earlier time. You once referred to The Muddy Fork as ‘the endless Texas book I never finished’. How long had The Final Country, been gestating, bumping around in there?

CRUMLEY: A long time! But this process goes way back. At one time The Last Good Kiss was a Milo book, the go-back-to-Texas book. At that time I wanted out of my teaching job and my agent said, ‘this book is more movieable than any of your others.’ And so it became a Sughrue book.

KING: I gather in part that has to do with ownership of the character once a book is sold to Hollywood. You mentioned that you have now given the movie option on The Last Good Kiss to a young person.

CRUMLEY: It’s with this kid, Justin, who worked for Jerry Bruckheimer for years, doing all this stuff, like running a hockey tournament. His father was a student up here, and he gave him a copy of The Last Good Kiss, and by using Bruckheimer’s name Justin was able to get into the files at Warner’s, which not even my agent could get into! And he found out that the rights to The Last Good Kiss had reverted to me in 1998 or 1999. And he said, ‘Let me flog this around, see what I can do.’ So I gave it to him for a dollar. I guess it was two and one-half years later he found someone who said he was tired of seeing John Woo movies, and said this looked like a movie movie. It just seemed like a better chance for it to be made into a movie instead of a piece of Hollywood shit.

KING: You’ve had a lot of dealings with Hollywood over the years, ranging from stalled adaptations of your own books—I’m thinking of the myriad detours of Dancing Bear which saw it go from Tim Hunter to eventually wind up with Robert Towne—and you have also written screenplays. What opinions have you formed about Hollywood after these many years of contact?

CRUMLEY: If you back up into a room in Hollywood with your britches down and something odd happens to you, it’s not their fault!

KING: That’s a nice modification on Raymond Chandler’s comment that one should always wear one’s second best suit in Hollywood. You’ve moved it along to not wearing any trousers!

CRUMLEY: I don’t know how to live in a world where there are people who will sign contracts and then say, ‘I didn’t mean that at all.’ I signed a contract with a guy to do a script from a book I really liked, Yellowfish, about smuggling Chinese. The contract had gone between lawyers and agents and been signed and suddenly, not only does this guy not call me but his office phone has been disconnected. Using some of my less reputable friends I discovered where the guy is. He’s staying with somebody out in Malibu and I called the number and he happened to pick up. And I said, ‘look dipshit, I don’t mind you lying to me, I’m a writer, writers lie all the time, but you also lied to my agent and he’s my friend. So if you don’t call him up this afternoon and apologise I’m going to be on the next plane to LA and break your goddamn legs.’ And he believed me! So he called up my agent and apologised. So that part’s right, it’s fixed up.

Six years later I meet the guy in a bar at Chateau Marmont and he acts like we’re old buddies. So I have to take him aside and say, ‘remember I’m the guy who said he would break your legs, I might have killed you. You have to remember that I meant that and I still mean that, so you’d better get away from me.’ Greed is an ugly emotion. I can’t believe there are people who are like that. They do it all the time in Hollywood. I’ve gotten so I won’t eat with them any more. Every dinner meeting is the same. First you talk about how radical you were in the 60s. Then you get to the part where the cake and coffee are gone and then you talk about the deal. I won’t do any of that. I won’t take breakfast, I won’t take lunch, I won’t take dinner. Do it in the office. It’s a business, and if the chances are good, your lawyer ought to be there too.

KING: Montana now has a fair number of film people living in it, full-time or on a regular basis. I think Wim Wenders shot some of Don’t Come Knocking (2005) in Montana.

CRUMLEY: There’s enough crew in Montana to mount a $25 million movie in a weekend, with just a Montana crew. But I think people who live in Montana live here because they’re attracted to this kind of life, not that kind of life. Jim Cottsdale lives down in Hamilton and Jake Eberts, who produced A River Runs Through It, still lives in Livingston. A long time ago somebody said, everything in America would be better if it weren’t centred in one place. Publishing would be better if it weren’t all in New York, automobile manufacturing would be better if it were all over the country, instead of only in Detroit. I think that’s fair. At least in Montana when you start whining about the movie business you can usually find someone to commiserate with you.

KING: You were mentioning the book tour for The Right Madness. What cities did that involve?

CRUMLEY: It was two nights in San Francisco, and one night in LA, mostly in traffic jams, thirty-six hours in Mississippi, Phoenix, Arizona when it was 109 degrees, and Denver and Boulder in Colorado.

KING: Do you like doing book tours?

CRUMLEY: Nobody likes doing them, you just do them. I took my wife Martha along. We had a good time, we got to eat well, and saw old friends. The last night, in Denver, we sort of wandered into a restaurant in the street down from our hotel, and ran into an old friend of mine who makes low budget movies. So we had a nice meal, a $100 bottle of wine, the waiter joined us! He wanted to be a stand-up comic. That part of it is always fun. It’s just that I’m too old for this stuff. I was always too old.

KING: ‘You were born old,’ as they say of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.

CRUMLEY: I was born with a moustache.

KING: Last time we spoke you mentioned that you had enjoyed a book tour of England, going to London and Manchester and other cities. You didn’t tour England with this book?

CRUMLEY: When I went last time I split the expenses with the publisher. It was mostly just an excuse to go to England. Whoever did The Final Country in England, this time Harper Collins beat them by a thousand per cent, so I figured it was time to move on.

KING: When we last talked we mentioned the French documentary made on you, and the publication of a corrected French translation of The Last Good Kiss, which fixed up an earlier version called The Drunken Dog.

CRUMLEY: That first translation was so bad that a ‘topless bar’ became a ‘bar without a roof.’

KING: What other languages are you translated into? Have you been translated into German?

CRUMLEY: They’re not too interested in me. The only time I’ve been in an overseas best-seller list was when The Last Good Kiss was retranslated and published in Italy. It had a pink cover with a broad in a bikini on the front and it was number 5 on the list of best-selling translated novels. The Right Madness is coming out in Italian.

KING: In part I was asking because we now have presses like Europa, Bitter Lemon, Serpent’s Tail, Harvill, all busily translating into English crime fiction from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, South America and so on. I was wondering about movement the other way.

CRUMLEY: Most of my books are in Greek, and in Finnish.

KING: Maybe Aki Kaurismaki or his brother Mika will film one of your books!

CRUMLEY: One of the great sculptures in Montana is by a Finn, a guy named Rudy Autio, from Butte, who Peter Voulkes and the other guy found in the brickyards. So he goes to Finland quite often, and he does things like tiled walls for Japanese people who send over a 747 to pick the stuff up; they truck it to Spokane.

KING: You have mentioned that you enjoy the play with literary language as a crucial part of delivering your crime fictions.

CRUMLEY: If the language isn’t any fun, there’s no sense in writing the book. Stories come and stories go, but good language lasts forever.

KING: You have also said you enjoy working playful and flamboyant dialogue into some of your screenwriting work.

CRUMLEY: I have two favourite lines in this last movie I worked on. “I’d rather suck a wino’s sock than eat a lizard,” and “I’d sure hate killing you but I wouldn’t mind blowing your toes off.” I could have had a lot more fun like that if the producer and director had left me alone. They were just idiots. It was a rich girl wantin’ to make a movie for her friends, it was a dead deal from the start.

KING: I see you have continued to blurb some book that you like or some books by people you like. I enjoyed what you said about Daniel Woodrell’s Woe To Live On – “Woodrell knows wonderful and funny and degenerate things that speak to the best of the human soul in the worst of circumstances.”

CRUMLEY: I figure that when someone does you a nice favour when you are a kid, you don’t owe them back the favour, you owe it to the next kid who comes along. So I take time over those things. The last book I blurbed was a book about a soldier in Baghdad, a memoir about a kid who kept getting deployed, and  deployed. It’s called The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, and it’s a book with no bullshit about it, no heroics, just about doin’ the job, and the true toll that George Bush Jr’s little fuckin’ misadventure is costing our kids. This last book I blurbed came about because my editor has an editor friend at the same conglomerate, I think it’s Riverhead Press, and so it came in the mail, and I was overpowered by it. When I really like a book I take some time and try to come up with something right, I try to figure out what the essence of the book is and then I try to say something that means something.

KING: So how do Scott Phillips, Craig Holden and Daniel Woodrell come to be blurbed by you?

CRUMLEY: I’ve known Scott for a long time…

KING: Not like you knew Craig Holden, who says he used to mow your lawn.

CRUMLEY: Craig was a graduate student here. He used to house-sit for me. His first book was really terrific.

KING: The River Sorrow. I thought it was really good, and I didn’t understand why Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, also a very good book which became a good Sam Raimi film, would be so readily adapted by Hollywood and The River Sorrow ignored. At that time I think Hollywood was trying not to depict drugs explicitly in its films so maybe The River Sorrow fell by the wayside for that reason. It was around that time that Bright Lights, Big City was adapted and it had problems with working out how to depict cocaine addiction in a restrained, acceptable manner. But you blurbed Craig’s next book, The Last Sanctuary.

CRUMLEY: About the religious people. I didn’t think anybody else understood that book. Again, I thought it was a terrific book. It’s not work to blurb terrific books. But mostly, my blurbing, it’s just accidental stuff. I’m not sure how I came to blurb Pelecanos, maybe it was because his editor was trying to get him to have a cross-over book. George is one of my favourite people and I just love those books of his. I got to interview George in the Bahamas once, and I liked what he said about Shoedog. It was written to be the kind of book a working man could put in his pocket and read in his lunch hour. He has all the great titles. Down by the River Where the Dead Men Go! George is a terrific guy and I just love those books, all that information about music and cars! I’m the kind of pinhead who likes the cytology chapter of Moby Dick, I like information. So I’ve been reading George steadily since I first discovered him. Maybe it was Dennis (McMillan) who put me on to him.

KING: Well, Pelecanos returned the blurb favour with a beautiful, and true, description of The Final Country. How did you and Scott Phillips come to meet?

CRUMLEY: I met Scott when I was working in L.A., staying at The Sportsman’s Lodge in the Valley. Scott was trying to break into the screenwriting business, and he was staying with his aunt who lived not too far away. We met in a bar at The Sportsman’s Lodge and spent some time together. Then he went back to Paris and I saw him in Paris several times. I’d never seen anything he’d written until The Ice Harvest.

There’s a guy over there (in The Depot), Mike Lancaster, sitting in the corner, I’ve known for five years or so. He came up the other day and said he’d finished a novel, would I take a look at it. I said yes. You see, I have a deal in this town, for a six pack of beer, I will read 20 pages, as long as I don’t have to take it home. I won’t put it on my desk, I won’t keep it, I’ll read it and tell you what I think. It’s amazing how few people take me up on it!

KING: Well, in the posthumous Hugo collection The Real West Marginal Way, Bill Kittredge says he had a friend who used to demand, in the 1970s, that he get at least $5.95 for a poem because that was then the price of a bottle of Jim Beam, and a poem had to be worth as much as that.

CRUMLEY: The other thing is, I won’t read anyone’s novel, friends excluded, for less than $5,000, and it’s $10,000 if I say anything about it. I don’t want to spend my time doing that, I didn’t get into this business to be a teacher, although I enjoyed that when I did it for a while. I used to tell my students that if you write seriously, and you take it seriously, and even if you fail, you will walk differently the rest of your life. And if you have any luck you will know those people in your head better than you know your mother and father, your sister, children, wife. Those people live in your head.

KING: As Milo and Sughrue have been in yours for thirty years now, and you are letting them grow old across the books, and sometimes have quite inventive sex as they age!

CRUMLEY: Sex is just for fun. What the hell, old people get to rock! That reminds me of a friend who had a wonderful poem about leaving old people alone so they could fuck. With Milo and Sughrue, I know it’s not the usual way it happens in a lot of crime fiction, but I let the guys grow old. I always think of Milo as the best part of myself and Sughrue as the mean redneck part of myself. In my head, they’re two distinct characters and I happen to know them better than the other fifteen thousand characters that live in my head. With their aging, well, unfortunately it’s a lot like life, the outcome is often unpleasant, you get old and die, and disappear. That’s such a frightening prospect that millions of people spend millions of hours trying to make up some kind of version of life where you get out of it alive! But that’s not true, you don’t get out alive so you might as well try to have some fun this time because there ain’t gonna be no next time.

KING: You only get to go around once…

CRUMLEY: Isn’t that a Schlitz commercial!? I’m not kidding about having those characters in my head. I sit here (at the Depot) in this chair and watch people walk past, and look at their shoes. I never write about shoes, but shoes help create character. When I was first writing I used to do fifty pages of extensive notes to get a character to come to life. But it’s  just the luck of the draw. I’ve always had a knack for the organisation of the written word, and a knack for character, mostly because I’m a psychotic! Most people like me would be institutionalised. I haven’t been institutionalised for many years. I went into therapy about twenty years ago. It was a terrific experience and what I know about therapy is that nobody actually knows why it works. This nice middle-aged woman somehow magically, it seemed like magic, in the space of six to eight months, stopped this endless anger that I’d had for so many years. I used to hate bein’ smart. Into my 30s I would still get drunk and feel bad and beat my head on the board. Luckily I have big bones so I never hurt myself. I hated being smart as a kid, I’d get picked on, and that’s how I learned to kick ass and take names. That’s why I like living in Missoula. It’s so much easier to live in a town with smart people. I read a wonderful essay recently by this Harvard professor, “Democracy and Anti-Intellectualism in America”, and it’s a really wonderful description of why rednecks hate us. We take shit seriously that they don’t think about and we laugh at shit that they take seriously, that’s a bad crib but it’s a wonderful essay.

KING: On you and Texas, there seems to be a long, continuing ambivalence on your part.

CRUMLEY: When I was a kid it was in the constitution that you couldn’t speak Spanish in school, except in Spanish class. Now what does that tell the 65% Mexican Spanish speaking populace of my hometown? It tells you you’re a second class citizen. We hear a lot of idiot talk about freedom but this is a tremendously racist country, always has been.

KING: You were saying that you start the day by reading The Guardian online, as I do. I like it for lots of reasons but one is that it offers perspectives on international issues one doesn’t always find in Australian, or US journalism. I like the London Review of Books for similar reasons.

CRUMLEY: I read The Guardian every day. I don’t know how somebody starts with my background and decides there’s something European about them! This started really early on. I remember coming back from the Philippines and arguing with my dad’s bosses about idiotic religious shit. That’s when I thought I was an agnostic, or more a committed atheist. Back around 1955 I played in one of the first integrated football games in the state of Texas, the reason being that we were playing at the Corpus Christi College Academy, which was the Catholic school, and they couldn’t play on Friday, they had to play on Thursday. We had only integrated because the county had run out of money to run the bus for black kids. This was also during the “one riot, one ranger” line in Cleburne, Texas, a riot about integration. Texas still is not a pleasant place in all of its nooks and crannies. As for writing, something happened to me somewhere along the way, I don’t know exactly what it was. My folks didn’t read but I always read books. I never imagined writing one until I was about twenty-five, I guess.

KING: And you just happened to get into the best creative writing program in the country.

CRUMLEY: They’d let anybody in! I couldn’t get in now! So much of it is luck, but first you have to be talented and then you have to be willing to work really hard. That’s one of the things where I really had an advantage. I was the kind of kid who would keep rewriting, I would rewrite until I felt I liked it. For me, that’s when the good things happen, in the rewrites. You go back to a scene and discover a thing that you missed. Maybe it’s just an aside or maybe it’s just another way to look at it, but for me rewriting has always been the good part. But it’s also the hard part and it’s also one of the reasons I’m such a slow writer.

KING: And many contemporary publishers are keen to have writers deliver books every couple of years.

CRUMLEY: A local writer wrote very tight, readable books, and then she got married, had a baby and moved to North Carolina. She said, “I don’t want to write a book every two years,” and I thought, what a good, brave woman she is!

KING: You have been around the publishing industry for almost forty years now. Do you have any comments on how it is at the moment?

CRUMLEY: I never knew how to deal with publishers until I worked in Hollywood. I treat New York publishers exactly like I treat Hollywood executives. I have no respect for them, it’s all in the cheque, let me see the goddamn money, money talks, bullshit walks. Just in the last two to three years I’ve watched Jon Jackson, Neil McMann, George Pelecanos and they’ve all lost their publishers, they’re orphaned, gone, they didn’t sell enough books. The only reason I’ve managed to avoid that is because I have a reputation, it’s not because of sales. I found out, sort of by accident, that I was the only genre book that my editor was doing last year. She’s new to me, Molly Hollister at Viking, we’ve never met, she’s terrifically hard-working, and it’s quite nice to see an editor who works hard. It would have been better if we had known one another, face to face, that kind of thing. The relationship between you and your editor is a bit like a marriage in that there has to be some give and take and there have to be some places beyond which you cannot go.

KING: Have your experiences of being edited by different people across all your books over the years yielded any ideas about what is constant and what changes?

CRUMLEY: Each has been different. When I finished my first novel (One to Count Cadence) they wanted to cut 160 pages out of it. You know, that’s just not right. I won that one. You have to be willing to listen, you have to deal with these people, they have to deal with their group. I mean, you want your editor to be on your side at the meetings because that’s what it takes to get a book into a salesman’s hands, because the salesman are just salesman, they’re not necessarily book readers. You just have to know when to bow your neck and resist, and when to say, OK, I’ll take another look at it. I’ve always thought that because editors have never had to teach creative writing, they don’t know how to talk to writers about what maybe should happen next. They just know that something’s wrong and they want to fix it. They don’t necessarily know how to fix it.

KING: So you trust their sense that something isn’t working?

CRUMLEY: You trust it to some extent, you have to be willing to look at it again. I always run into this shit because I don’t explain things. I’m difficult to edit but I can be edited.

KING: Does Martha read the works in progress?

CRUMLEY: She can spell, I can’t spell.

KING: Well, they say Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t spell and Hemingway could spell a little better.

CRUMLEY: That’s what Hemingway said! Martha is a good writer and a poet and I trust her judgment. Like I was saying earlier about the Texas book, Martha was the one who talked me out of killing Milo. For some reason it was going to be the Milo book when he died and it wasn’t like, ‘oh honey, here’s a beer, could you think of not killing Milo,’ it was more, ‘maybe you don’t have to decide right now.’ I heard this story about Philip Roth years ago in graduate school who would take whatever he’d written that day, and read it to his wife, and then read it to his mistress. This is not what we do! Martha reads my stuff. Anyone who’s got the guts to marry me, at my age, my fifth time, at her age… She’s also a smartass.

KING: Well, keep those characters alive for a while yet. Your readers love them and want them to continue about their business. Don’t kill them off for a while.

CRUMLEY: Well, in the screenplay for The Last Good Kiss, the dog does not die. The last shot is the poet going out the door, he steps over the dog’s foot, and Fireball has hold of Trahearne’s pants as he’s trying to get away.

KING: Can you say something about how you are finding Missoula now? You have lived here for over thirty years and have seen it grow and change.

CRUMLEY: Well, this is my home. It’s doubled in size since I moved here. You walk past the pawn shops and see what seems like acres of drills and saws, the stuff that shit is made out of, and it’s all in the pawn shops because there’s no basic industry which brings everything together. There’s mining and timber, the motherfuckers would cut down every goddamn tree and blow up every hill. I mean, a football field of rock run through acid will turn up enough gold for a wedding ring. If they’re prepared to do that, there’s something very wrong. This isn’t cattle country, even though I like the way the cattle tastes out here better than back in cattle country. They grow more cows in Georgia than they do in the seven western states, they grow more trees in Georgia than they harvest in the seven western states. The scenery is lovely here and the people are great. We played Vermont or New Hampshire in the playoffs last year and some woman said, the scenery is spectacular and the people are ridiculously polite. In that way it’s kind of a southern town. It’s a very good town to live in, and there are so many writers here. It’s not just the people I know, my personal friends, it’s like there’s another whole body of writers here that nobody knows, but who work here.

KING: What are you reading at the moment?

CRUMLEY: I’m 66 next month and what has happened this last year is that I can no longer read without my glasses on. This has been a terrible discovery. It’s really bitten into my reading. What used to take me three days now takes me three weeks, so I don’t read like I used to. I mostly read what people tell me they like, and I read a lot of history, mostly because I know people are always lyin’ about the history.

* * * * *

Works Cited

In Richard Hugo, Making Certain it Goes On: The Collected Poems  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1991); “The Right Madness on Skye”; “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.”

In Richard Hugo, The Real West Marginal Way: A Poet’s Autobiography ed. Ripley S. Hugo, Lois Welch and James Welch  (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1986) Hugo says, “Also got a mystery novel out of it (going to Skye) because I wrote the first drafts of the mystery novel there.” (258)

A transcript of Noel King’s 1996 interview with James Crumley is at Day Labor, the official blog of Crime Factory magazine.

© 2012 Noel King

from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012

James Crumley in conversation (exclusive audio)

Here are three never-before-heard audio clips from Noel King’s 2005 interview with crime writer James Crumley in which he discusses his relationship to editors, the Hollywood jungle, and his respect for writer George Pelecanos.

The full interview transcript will appear here tomorrow, and is also available in Issue #1 of Contrappasso Magazine in paperback or ebook. Enjoy.