George Garrett is a storyteller and has been since his age was measured in single digits. It was then that Garrett says he decided he wanted to be a writer, even though he had no clue, at the time, what it meant to be one.
Today, after more than 60 years practicing his craft, Garrett has learned something about creating stories. In the introduction to his 1998 book, Bad Man’s Blues, Garrett writes that the "intricate, subtle, and shifty relationship between fact and fiction" is a puzzle that has always piqued his interest; it underlies much of his creative work.
Garrett’s life and work have been versatile and prolific. He is an athlete, soldier, scholar, writer and teacher; he’s written fiction, essays, plays, literary criticisms and Hollywood scripts, everything from four-line poems to a trilogy of historical novels that took 30 years to complete. In August, Garrett was selected by Virginia’s General Assembly as the Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth, and he’s currently the Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at UVA.
Garrett says he never figured out exactly where fact meets fiction, but he’s never been the kind of writer who needs a finish line. To Garrett, the most important thing is always the act of spinning history and imagination into stories that impart us something. Last week, he talked to C-VILLE Senior Staff Writer John Borgmeyer about writing, war, boozing it up at UVA, and his brief career as an African-American writer. An edited transcript of that interview follows.
John Borgmeyer: How has the writing scene changed since your career began?
George Garrett: Young writers always see themselves as a continuation of the old generation, when in fact, the world is always changing. I don’t know where things are going, but one of the facts about the scene is that creative writing programs are springing up all over the country. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of American poets are employed by colleges and universities, community colleges and, more and more, high schools. So they’re almost all teachers. Nobody knows if this is good or bad. We don’t know yet. Certainly, to my mind it duplicates an ancient situation where monasteries were the sources for poetry through the Middle Ages and on up through the Renaissance.
If you look at literary history, there have only been a few very short periods of time when it was possible for writers——at least the kind we’re talking about——to make a living. For example, in the Victorian age both poets and novelists became quite well-to-do. Books were like movies and television are these days. Today John Grisham or Stephen King might make out OK, but you have to figure that an advance for a Grisham book is probably five times the total lifetime earnings of William Faulkner. There are probably about a dozen writers right now whose salaries are approximately that of a junior executive, so it’s not a highly profitable thing. But it never has been, except for these little windows of time.
A lot of people think it might be a good idea for writers to dissociate themselves a little bit more from institutions. The question is: How much freedom do writers give up for the security of being involved with a university? But in the meantime, for the first time in recent history these writers aren’t starving to death.
Academic creative writing has been absolutely positive for the students. I’ve noticed the kids never really understand how much work they’re doing, because it seems like fun reading other students’ manuscripts. Some may become great American novelists; most won’t, but they’re learning, reading, writing——that’s worthwhile.
How did you get involved with UVA?
I went to Princeton on the GI Bill. I had no clear, confident plan. When I got out, I was just drifting. I must have had 15 different academic jobs, moving from one thing to another. The longest were the two times I’ve been here at UVA. I came here in 1962, ostensibly to start the first creative writing department. When I got here I discovered people had been teaching what we call creative writing in disguise for years, in what was called Advanced Composition. But the students wanted more, and there was no place for them to go. Students were leaving here at that time to go places that gave credit for creative writing. So they hired me to start the beginning of a program.
How has UVA changed since the 1960s?
I was here from 1962 until 1967, then I was gone until 1984. During that gap I was running all around the country. When I came back, the University had changed considerably in certain ways. For example, it was co-educational. The one thing that did was raise the level of academics. You can’t make points with the opposite sex by being dumb in class, so all of a sudden it was OK to be interested in the subjects, and in fact it was a better way for you to make friends.
Before co-education, the big thing was the "Gentleman’s C." Your classes weren’t supposed to interfere with real life, which was on the front porch sipping a julep or crawling around in the Mad Bowl. So the co-educational thing turned out to be a wonderful benefit for the University. It got much more serious.
I think UVA is a much more academic institution than it was. But I don’t think its totally escaped the long shadow of a party school. You know, it didn’t surprise me when they had that big dope bust three or four years ago. What was funny about that was the pressure from the administration. Several guys from our program worked in the information office, and they were under pressure to come up with a story that will get us in The New York Times. So the day of the drug arrest they sure enough got on the front page of the Times.
A thing happened to me when I came back here. I had not been in Charlottesville for 17 years, and when we came from Michigan, where I was teaching, I rented a house on Fendall Avenue from a friend. I have this dog, a big hound, and when I arrived the first thing I did was take him for a quick walk. So I’m walking along with the dog on Winston Road, where I lived in the ‘60s, and a guy comes out on his porch with a drink in his hand——a drink as dark as iced tea——he sips that thing, looks at me and then he says "Hiya George. I haven’t seen you around for a while." I didn’t have a clue who he was. Seventeen years, and he hasn’t seen me around for a while.
Charlottesville is changing and unchanging. The night before I left Charlottesville in 1967, we had some big party and got totally sloshed. On the way home I insisted on stealing a traffic cone. The next day, we left and I put the cone behind the house, right by the fence. Seventeen years later, I come back, and that thing was still there. That figures. Whoever owned the house must have thought if they moved it the whole thing would fall down.
Then there are the traditional things. The football team is always spooked. Every year we have the same sort of season. Its always "two years from now, we’re gonna be a power," meanwhile we’re likely to lose to Wake Forest.
You’ve written a lot about the intellectual constraints of political correctness, especially in universities. Do you see that sort of thought-policing at work in the current conversations about war?
Yes. I have the advantage of having been alive and alert during World War II. It’s shocking all the aspects of what you might call military censorship that were in place. One small example is that it was almost the end of the war before we found out any of the facts about what happened at Pearl Harbor. They sank the whole Pacific Fleet that day, except for the aircraft carriers, but we didn’t know that. Thinking about it now, I don’t know what the reaction of the American public at that time would have been. They might have said, "Hey, fuck it, let’s get out of here. Let’s make a deal, let the Japs have the Philippines if they want it." So with great deliberation the leaders of the government from both parties did not tell the American public what happened. And, when Pearl Harbor happened, we had 30,000 American soldiers in the Phillipines and they were just written off. There was no way to supply them, no way to reach them and most of them died. Today we would have The Washington Post discussing what to do about those 30,000.
For better or worse, World War II was fought in almost total ignorance. That’s a very great difference from now. You’ve got people talking, everybody’s a military expert. So it’s quite a bit different. I don’t know if it was better or worse; it may inhibit the military quite a bit——which could be good or bad.
But you know, they did the same thing early on in the Afghan thing. The press was crying for footage, so they had a whole lot of footage of guys dropping in and parachuting on an airstrip. Ranger action where they landed and shot up the place a little bit and then left. A little bit later, they discovered that the major operations were going on someplace else. I mean, it was nothing. The real action was going on way across the country somewhere, where they dropped in Special Forces and nobody knew about it until now. I think the press has more power now than then, and they’re more intensely skeptical and critical than they used to be in World War II. A lot has happened since then.
What do you see as the duty of a writer?
Pretty simple from my point of view. The writer is to tell the truth as accurately and honestly as he can, which is a little tricky.
What’s happening more and more is that in the last 20 years or so, American writing has been dodging some of the big problems and settling in on very safe problems, where the issues have pretty much been resolved. You get lots of domestic drama and dysfunctional problems. That’s all well and good, but American writers are ignoring some of the really big and basic problems.
What are the big and basic problems, as you see them?
Well, if you were reading novels about America you would not be aware, for example, except in some kind of slapstick version, of the huge nature of white collar and corporate crime, and the gap between rich and poor that is seriously compromising the plausibility of a democratic government. Our votes don’t count very much, yours and mine. Right now I don’t see any writers where this topic appears in their fiction. It’s too hot a topic. And you’ve got agents and publishers who don’t want anything too controversial——or they want it safely controversial. You know, in half these novels people don’t even go to work. So there’s something lacking.
Who are some of your favorites right now?
I’m interested in writers who haven’t received a lot of attention, former students. There’s a wonderful black writer, a young guy, Percival Everett, who teaches at the University of Southern California. In one of his novels, Eraser, the hero is this black writer who’s been accused of never being black enough. So he goes, "Well, I’m going to remedy that. I’m going to move to the urban ghetto and really learn my stuff." So the hero writes this novel that’s really crap, full of bogus rhetoric and stuff, but he becomes a big success, and the next thing you know he’s a national hero. It’s very funny. Everett can get away with that better than you and I could, but he’s still considered very daring.
We’re in an era without any big stars. That’s good, I think. It’s not a horse race, and it shouldn’t be. Everybody tries to make it into a horse race, the whole Oscar and Emmy syndrome. We can do without that in literature.
Are there any particular works that you go back to when you need inspiration?
I guess I could give you the standard answer William Faulkner always gave. He used to say he liked to spend his time with the old masters, and people would very seldom ask, "Like what?"
I keep going back to Chaucer and Shakespeare and Swift. What I try to do now is, if I’m working on a novel of prose, I mostly try not to read novels. And if I’m working on poetry, it’s probably not a good idea to be reading it all the time, because you pick up all the other poets’ habits.
Is it to your advantage as a writer to be accomplished in a variety of forms?
No, it’s not. It’s slightly disadvantageous as a matter of fact, because, as in everything else, a brand name figures in. They always want to know what’s most important to you, so you can be categorized as a poet who happens to write fiction or a fiction writer who happens to write essays. But that’s boring. I’ve been trying to do the maximum. It’s probably foolish, but it’s been more of a pleasure for me.
When you sit down to write, what kind of process do you go through? Do you have a point or a structure in mind first, or is it more improvised?
You know, it varies completely. The only thing that has been a rule in my life is that I want to try everything at least once to see if I can do it. It’s probably ridiculous, but the one thing I’ve done is I’ve tried not to repeat myself. Faulkner did 25 novels or so, and no two of them were alike in structure or strategy, all completely new, very rich in voices.
You always give yourself a challenge. That’s a peculiar American thing that I think comes out of a democratic country. There are fabulous writers in Great Britain, but those guys all sound exactly alike. They all went to the same school, probably learned from the same teacher how to do a sentence and they can’t escape that. Whereas we in the States have so much language variety you can never catch up with it all. You can never really master American speech. Ever since Mark Twain made it possible to use American speech, it’s been a whole different kind of literature.
You’ve been labeled as a Southern writer. What does that mean to you?
I don’t buy into that. We’re all part of one country. Especially now, with all the creative writing schools, there are Northern writers who come to live in the South and Southern writers who go North. It’s not an easy category the way it was, say, in the 1930s where you wouldn’t confuse Faulkner as being anything but a Southern writer. People of that generation didn’t move around anywhere near as much as they do now. There are anthologies out there that have writers with no connection to the South, other than they’ve written a story that takes place in Georgia, listed as Southern writers. I’ve been listed as a black writer twice by mistake, because I had a story about a knife fight in a public school. It was something out of my experience that I had witnessed, so it never occurred to me to mention race at all. I got a letter from two African-American writers in Chicago saying, "We read your story and we want this for our anthology of African American literature." They assumed anyone who talked and acted like the characters in my story was a black guy, that they would be the only ones fighting with knives. I didn’t ask any questions. I had a brief career as a non-black black writer.
What sacrifices have you made for your art?
None that I know of. I sincerely believe everything is a trade-off, so I don’t anticipate things being different than they are. What I don’t think people have the right to do, and I’d rather not do it if I can help it, is drag others into sacrificing for your art, like dragging your kids and family through some miserable life so Daddy can write another half-decent book. They might take a dim view of that. Self-sacrifice is a choice. There’s an awful lot of writers who created some wonderful stuff, but a lot of them have hurt people around them. The question would be, "Was it worth it?" I don’t think so.
Do you think about how you want to be remembered?
I think of my books as my children, so I tend to favor the ones who’ve had a tougher time of it. The wounded child is the one who needs attention. I would like to do better, keep growing, keep learning until I cash it in, which is getting closer now than I used to think. I always remember what Groucho Marx said: "What did posterity ever do for me?" I’m not sitting on any one accomplishment; I would rather not repeat myself. I’m going to try new things.
What advice do you have for young writers?
Persistence. Some writers, particularly the young ones, feel that it’s somehow not right to know the rules of the road and how the game is played. They sort of expect to do the work and have somebody else take it from there, but there isn’t anybody else. I think they owe it to their talent to know as much as they can about the whole literary scene, so it won’t baffle and defeat them.
By the same token, young writers should develop the possibilities of a day job somewhere to support this habit. I’ve never thought that it’s a good idea to say I’ll give myself three years, and if nothing happens I’ll become a brain surgeon. I think you have to give your life to it, and take whatever comes to you. Writing is not for a living, it’s for a lifetime. Luck has a lot to do with it, but you can get to a place where you transcend luck. If you can live with good luck and bad luck, if you can forget it and get on with your work and not become a slave to fortune, you’re home free.
Do you ever have moments of self-doubt?
That’s something I encounter every day. I think it goes with the territory. When you sit down at the desk you feel there’s a very good chance you’re wasting your life because there are other things you could be doing. Being in the Peace Corps in Africa would probably be more helpful, so there’s a lot going against you. You have to overcome that every day by some kind of hypnosis, whatever you can summon up. You’ve got every good reason to doubt, and that’s real, and it can be heavy. There is not enough reward and acknowledgment to change that. I’m sure that if I woke up tomorrow and the Swedes called me up and said, "You’ve just won the Nobel Prize," within 15 minutes I’d think, "They’ve made a terrible mistake. Who the fuck am I?"
Does it matter if the work is relevant? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think the urgency or value of fiction or poetry is determined by the number of people who may or may not read the work. If you think about it, reading is an interchange between two people. You’re hoping to reach a reader——singular——and if you reach thousands, that’s all well and good. But to understand writing in terms of "how many" is to put it in competition with "Ally McBeal."
Ideally, do you think there should be a clear line between art and commerce?
No. At the time Shakespeare was writing, the drama he was writing was not considered a high art form. Art changes with fashion. The things that were high art in Shakespeare’stime——things he would have loved to have done——were pastoral poems, pages and pages long. They’re not around anymore, but it was the top of the heap then. Mediums change, and time changes the status of mediums. You can’t let that worry you. You’ve got to have certain things you love to do. If you happen to have the talent to write great movie scripts, you’ll make a good living. The good movies are probably the great literary art form of our time, because they can do things in terms of color, sound, action, words, that can’t be done in novels or short stories. The work of a few passionate souls is considered high art, but then a lot of it is crap and highly commercial.
What’s the most important skill you think a writer should have?
Writers can learn by trial and error what their weaknesses are. The temptation is to stick with your strengths and dodge the weaknesses. But I think what you’re aiming for is to have everything balanced, so an outsider can’t tell what’s hard and what’s easy for you.
One of the key things is to exercise your imagination, so you can imagine what it’s like to wear other shoes. In terms of history, one of the biggest mistakes is judging people in the past on the basis of modern thinking. It takes a little effort, but if you can imagine what it’s like to be a character different than yourself, that’s the beginning of a kind of wisdom as a writer. And it helps for certain practical things. I spent some time in class last year on how to send out a manuscript, and I discovered that very few of them imagined what it was like to be an editor at the other end. It’s practical, but it’s also very vital——the ability to cultivate the understanding of the other persons’ point of view. It’s a great liberation. Art and writing should be liberating, not inhibiting. Anything that serves to inhibit your life and art is the enemy of what you’re trying to do.
In The Right Thing to Do at the Time, you write about your father taking on the Ku Klux Klan as a lawyer in Kissimmee, Florida. In the last lines, your father says, "If they want to stop me now, they’ll have to kill me. And I don’t think they’ve got the guts for it."
Then the narrator writes, "Then he laughed out loud. And so did I, not because it was funny, but because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
Somehow that speaks to our situation today, where there are so many reasons to be fearful and pessimistic. Where do you find laughter?
In surprising places, I think. I was out of town at the time, in Maine, when C-VILLE published two little poems of mine. Somebody wrote in that I was homophobic because I use the word "sissies." I thought that had to be some kind of joke, because the more you think about it, the dumber that is.