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 The interview appeared in Contrappasso issue #1 (August 2012) alongside an unpublished Goran story, ‘Don’t I Know You?’.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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from issue #1: ‘The Magic Streets of Pittsburgh: An Interview With Lester Goran’ (Part 3 of 3)

 

 

 

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3

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.

ASPREY: Right.

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.

Issac Bashevis Singer, 1975 © Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

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.

ASPREY: Really?

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

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!

TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART 3

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

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

Lester Goran, 2008. Photograph by Matthew Asprey.

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 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.

Pittsburgh c. 1940

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.

James T. Farrell

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 [1999] 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.

Saul Bellow

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

It’s Lester Goran Week at Contrappasso

‘Don’t I Know You?’, a long extract from Lester Goran‘s unpublished new novel Unnatural Expectations, appears exclusively in the premiere print and ebook issue of Contrappasso. Unnatural Expectations is the sequel to Goran’s 1971 comic novel The Keeper of Secrets.

This coming week at Contrappasso.com we will be celebrating the work of this contemporary American writer. Watch out for our career-ranging interview and other Goran-themed posts.

Contrappasso Issue 1: Paperback and Ebook formats available

The premiere issue of Contrappasso Magazine is now available for purchase as a PAPERBACK at Amazon.com for US$10, a KINDLE ebook for $US5, or in other ebook formats at Smashwords.com for $US5.

Contents

Introduction: Instead of a Manifesto

MEMOIR
Darkness Come Down / Floyd Salas
Band T-Shirt / Vanessa Berry

FICTION
The Smockey Bar / Mimi Lipson
Don’t I Know You? / Lester Goran
Hot Dogs, Cold War / Peter Doyle

INTERVIEWS
Lester Goran by Matthew Asprey
James Scott Linville by Matthew Asprey
James Crumley by Noel King

POETRY
Elias Greig, Pip Muratore, Lindsay Tuggle, Tessa Lunney, Chris Oakey, Fiona Yardley, and Paolo Totaro

Stay tuned to this blog for excerpts and multimedia material.