Can you tell me how you feel your writing fits into American literature in terms of style, narrative and form, and perhaps who has most influenced you?
—Geoffrey Metcalf, Arundel, West Sussex, England
I’ve almost wondered if I should answer this question in terms of how I don’t fit into American literature, Geoff. I’ve obviously never been part of a specific geographical group of writers such as the well known Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren and William Faulkner, or an ethnic group like the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, James Wright most prominent in fiction, or the group of Jewish writers, Saul Bellow their star, who had such an important place in American letters in the mid- to latter-part of the twentieth century. Nor am I someone who has been influenced by academic theories such as postmodernism that have helped shape the work of writers from John Barth and Donald Barthelme to Nicole Krauss. While some American fiction writers do fall into schools or camps in the way that poets and painters often do, I think they’re more usually divided in broader ways. Their work tends to be either narrative-driven or narrative-shattering, with language, in the latter case, poking at itself in various ways and in various experiments. Or maybe we could say that the work is traditional or experimental.
I think my work has moved more toward the narrative in recent years, but with a major caveat. Though one of my writing goals over time has been to make my writing more accessible, I have never wanted to achieve that purpose by sacrificing an intimate look at the interior lives of my characters. I feel fiction should be important in that way, revealing not just the face a character shows the world but the impact of thought and feeling on actions. When work has this interior cast, it can at times feel more experimental than not as it shows the hiccoughs and wander of language. But I never write to be about the process of writing and innovating. I do want to put things in a way that feels fresh, but I want the way I express something to feel organic to whatever story I am telling. What I think I can say is that my writing tends to straddle the line between traditional and experimental with language and character and place far more important than intricacy of plot or exploration of idea.
The American writers I probably stared at most early on were the ex-patriates of the World War I Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. They caught my imagination when I was a young writer—even when I was just young and not a writer. I was drawn to the well-crafted lyricism of their language and their large, romantic view of life, which was very much about love and disappointment, tragedy. Dreams. I’m not certain of this, but I think I may have developed my awareness of rhythm in prose from reading Hemingway. Still, I should be clear about this. They’re not my very favorite writers and not writers I directly emulated. They simply got my attention at a formative period.
The other two American writers who attracted me in my formative writing years were Henry James—and I still claim him for our side—and William Faulkner. I really responded to their work. I love the way James proceeds so logically, spinning out his sentences to any impossible length, yet always maintaining control of them and the direction of his story, always explaining and both showing and hiding as he does. It’s a tighter and more precise use of language than we’re used to now, but it is still so revelatory, equally adept at creating innocence or cynical sophistication. I respond to the intellectual quality of his work and the way he seems to elevate the reader with him as he tells a story in his particular way.
Faulkner, of course, is also a man of long sentences, his probably easier to get lost in because of the thickets of language and allusion and stream of thought. But there is an uncanny power in Faulkner as he creates his characters and tells their stories, anchoring them in such rich and vivid worlds. Both men are masters and the challenge for me, in admiring them, was not to attempt what they do. For me to try to ape James would certainly have sent me off in long explorations of ideas that would fall away from the story; to ape Faulkner would have meant letting the language take over and become about itself. Even if I had their ability, I would not be the right match for their styles. But I do think to be stirred by writing means wanting to capture something of what you’ve felt as a reader in your own writing, so there is a degree of influence.
And to a lesser extent, there was John Updike who, along with other writers with strong lyrical gifts, made me really want to use language in that kind of evocative way. I try to hold back on it some, but a degree of lyricism is certainly part of my style, which you asked about—that and a mix of the colloquial and more formal in terms of voice. But form? I can’t think of anyone who has been a particular influence. I’m always about trying to wrestle the structure and story together until it’s a good fit. There are probably people I could have emulated, but it’s seemed a very personal struggle.
I am feeling a little uncomfortable in realizing how male-centric these comments are. I think I need to say that most of the serious writers I read as a young writer were men because that’s who there was to read, particularly in American letters. There have been many wonderful American women writers in more recent years, Toni Morrison most notable among them, but I think women have had to develop their distinctive voices as writers by combining the kinds of stories they’ve heard, such as Louise Erdrich has done, with the kinds of stories they’ve read. It is a work in progress for all of us, and fortunately an exciting one.
There is one key thing I haven’t touched on. To be American is, of course, to be part of an eclectic tradition. We have not only our many distinctive regions, but our immigrant past and present with the eye it means we turn back to Europe or Africa or Asia. We have our more southern neighbors in our hemisphere who often write in styles that jog our own. If I’m to talk about influences, I can’t limit them to North Americans at all. I have to make a nod in so many directions—Ireland, England, Russia, Germany, France, Colombia. And that is just to begin. I have sometimes thought that my strength as a writer is the same strength I have in other areas of my life. I’m good at looking around and putting unexpected things together in a way that means they’re compatible. This may be a personal trait. It also may be American. As a country, we have so much to choose from.