JM: Had you spent much time in New York City or in the vicinity?
In that area, and in Westchester, you have quite a few writers and poets: Billy Collins lives up in Northern Westchester, and I lived up there for a few
WH: And Billy was a friend of Eamons, and he was the editor at that
time of the Mid Atlantic Review, which published several of my poems, so
that was nice. I didnt know much about New York when I came but quickly
learned what it was like. I went to readings and so forth but mainly went for
the bookstoresand also for just the ambiance.
JM: Did you ever attend St. Marks?
WH: Yeah. In fact, one summer I stayed in New York right near St.
Marks in the East Village. I spent a whole summer down there and hung around.
I was part of a workshop at the New School run by Stanley Diamond. People were
drawn from all different disciplines. That was an interesting, stimulating
thing. I did another one of those NEH seminars up in Amherst one
summerContemporary Lit, with Benjamin DeMott. At that time Robert Stone was
up at Amherst, and thats where I first met him. I dropped in on his house one
evening and said, "I really admire your work," and we spent a nice
evening talking. I later brought him to Vassar to give a reading.
JM: How long were you at Vassar?
WH: Five years.
JM: Five years. So you had quite an exposure
then to that area?
JM: Next, you went to Spain?
WH: Right. Then I was a Fulbright in Spain for two years. I was at the
University of Seville, and Seville is one of the really beautiful places of the
world, so I had a posh place to hang out. I lived in the old city in Bario de
Santa Cruz, which is the tourist place. Its the old Jewish ghetto and has all
the narrow streets. . . . The other three Fulbrightsactually two Fulbrights
and the husband of the other Fulbrightwere all poets, and we convinced the
State Department that we were good poets, and they sent us on a poetry reading
tour of Spain. Jimmy Nolan was one of the poets. Hes published two or three
books of poems, at least. And James Hall was the other one. Hes now famous as
a writer of crime fiction, but he had written several books of poems. And
AaronI forget Aarons last namehe was the other poet. Anyway, we had a
great time. We gave readings all over Spain at the major universities and hopped
in the car and got to tour the countryside. That was a wonderful experience.
And, again, you know, it certainly kept my hand in as a writer and gave me
reinforcement as a writer. Thats a priceless experience I wouldnt trade.
We got to travel elsewhere, too.
JM: But, after Spain you began to shift toward fiction away from poetry.
WH: Right. I wrote Devil Dancer in
this little town called Maro on the Costa Del Sol in Southern Spain. Almost all
of Costa Del Sol was high-rises and so forth, and then theres this little
town called Maro, near Nerja. Its remained in its pristine pueblo state,
surrounded by fields, and there are no high-rises or anything.
Maro, Spain (click
here for larger image)
Anyway, someone had told me that the southern coast was interesting, so I
went down there and apartment-hunted and got the upper floor of a normal
familys house there. I spent the whole day writing, then wed go to the
local bar, El Guapo ("the handsome one"), and Id have my meals
there, then go back and write some more. Its very hot there, of course, but
it does cool off. We were on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean, and in the
evenings Id walk down to Nerja, which is two or three miles downhill to have
dinner and then walk back up at night, which is sort of spooky sometimes because
youre way out in this sort of nowhere, walking a dark roadthere are no
lights or anything. But that was sort of fun, in its own way. One of the
interesting things is that because it was hot, the kids often werent allowed
out to play until midnight. So about midnight when youd think everyones
going to bed, all the kids go out in the street and run around for an hour or
two because its cool enough for them to be out and play.
JM: So a lot of things must have taken you by
storm, not only as an American, but as a writer. Did you discover any writing
customs that were different in Spain?
WH: Spanish literature is marvelous. My own Spanish isnt good
enough to take advantage of that very much, although Ive read some things in
Spanish in translation. I actually chose Spain as a Fulbright because of Paul
Blackburn. He was the first really good poet to have some influence on me. And
Paul Blackburn had spent a lot of time in Barcelona. The other poet I admire a
lot who lived in Barcelona and loved that area is Phil Levine. I wanted to get
out of the country and go do something else, and the obvious place for me to
head was Spain, if I thought of myself as a poet, because thats where
Blackburn and Levine had gone. Barcelona was their place.... The poet in the
Spanish-speaking world who really wiped me out at that time was Neruda. I just
thought his stuff was amazingly goodand still do, the best of it.
JM: Did you have a favorite among translators?
WH: I did. Is it Alastair Reid?
JM: Yeah. And then there was some Merwin
WH: I liked his a lot, though, you know, I havent made a close
study of it. One of the sequences in Neruda that I liked best are the elemental
odes, though various people have taken their shots at those. The book that I had
in Spain of the translations of his odes I didnt think were translated well.
Periodically, I would try to retranslate those, put a lot of energy into that.
So Ive never actually done a complete translation of a Neruda poem, but
Ive fussed with it. I did do a whole book of translations of Catullus
works just for fun
JM: Just for fun?
WH: Which I thought worked out pretty good, and Painted Bride
Quarterly did about thirteen in an issue. Thomas Berger, whos another
writer I got to know in those days, was a great fan of those Catullus
translations. He used to say he really liked those a lot. So Ive published a
few more of them, sixteen or seventeen.
JM: Do you intend to collect some translations?
WH: Well, if I ever wrote some more poems, then it might make sense at
some point. You know, if I live long enough to come out with a selected
poemsthat would be some of The Walking Man
plus what Ive written since, plus translations, plus I also have this book of
childrens poems called Let Me Say A Secret,
and three of those are in The Walking Man.
Thats another sort of remarkable sequence, I think. When I was at Vassar, I
came across a manuscript in the Education Department that a teacher had kept
since sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. They had kindergarten and younger kids
there, and there was this bright little kid named Stewart. He used to walk
around the classroom doing monologues, and the teacher suddenly realized these
are remarkable things this kid is saying. So the teacher began to write them
down verbatim, and she typed all these up at one point, and they were stored in
the Education Department. Someone for some reason showed them to me one day, and
I began to read and say, "This is great found poetry. I think Ill pull
out segments and break them into lines, and see how many poems I can get out of
this." And I think I ended up with a whole book of like 40 poems, just
based on these prose monologues of Stewart. All I did was figure out where to
start, where to stop, and how to cut the lines. I didnt add or subtract
anything from the meat of it. I think theyre absolutely remarkable poems, in
their own way, because this kid is a walking genius at four. Hes the epitome
of cummings line "and down they forgot as up they grew." This kid
had the poetic mind like you wouldnt believe. You wonder what ever happened
JM: Yeah, that was my next question.
WH: His parents, I believe, were Jewish, and they had survived the
Holocaust. The Holocaust was very much on their mind. And so Stewart overhears
his parents talk about World War II and the Holocaust and is haunted by some big
questions that you wouldnt think a four-year-old is haunted by. Some of the
ones I include in The Walking Man are
Stewart brooding on the nature of war and death and injustice, but in this
amazing way. Anyway, I would want to include more of those, too.
Itd be nice to pull a Robert Penn Warren. You know, Robert Penn Warren
started out as a poet then had this long career of novels. Then, at the end of
his life, he went back to poetry and wrote a very good series of books of poetry
in his 70s, I think. It would be nice to do that. If that happens to me, then
maybe well get a selected poems. Otherwise, Ive got The
Walking Man as sort of the memorial for what I did over those 15
But anyway, I wrote Devil Dancer in
Spain, then came back and rewrote it. I went to Bread Loaf a couple times,
hoping to get somebody interested in it, and Stanley Elkin worked with me and
was very impressed with what he saw. He featured one of the chapters from it in
his workshop, sort of as a "how to." He saw that it was a very
unconventional book and that I was going to have a monster of a time getting it
published. Some other people at Bread Loaf helped me with it, and I got an
agent, actually, for it back in the early 1970s. And in those naïve days, you
thought, "If Ive got an agent, then Im home free." So I started
telling her, you know, what to do with the movie rights and so forth, and she
said, "Look, Buster, this is really good writing, but Im going to have a
monster of a time selling this thing." She more or less warned me.
And thats what happened. It got rejected fairly roundly at the time
because its an absolutely unconventional detective novel. I mean, it has the
format of a detective novel, but its about the shooting of a race horse
called Devil Dancer, and the crime, at least as it was put together at that
time, is never solved. The book is much more about the detective and his
problems than about solving the crime, and more about the underworld of
Lexington and how it plays against the fancy world of horse farms. The crime was
an excuse to do a bunch of other things. In a way, its a book about how you
dont get what you look foryou get something else. And your life is
determined by how you respond to that something else. Its sort of existential
and philosophical, which means they cant market it as a crime novel because
it doesnt fit the genre, and they cant market it as a literary novel.
Ive written the perfectly unpublishable novel.
But anyway, so I put that aside, finally, realizing that ship wasnt going
to sail. Then I turned to writing The
Children Bob Moses Led in the early 1980s. Took me about 10 years
in all. Took me about six or seven years to research and write it and a couple
more years to get it published. I always get agents fairly readily, but getting
published in the present world is very tricky. Anyway, it got rejected fairly
roundly in New York. The closest we camethis is sort of a model for whats
happening now in the writing worldI was in Spain, and I got a call from my
agent, who said that the editor at Morrow really loves the book, and the other
people whove read it at Morrow are really enthused. Weve really got
something going here because everyone whos read it loves it. And I said,
"Great. Lets do the movie," and she said, "Well, its not
quite a done deal yet." Morrow was owned by the Hearst Corporation at the
timemaybe they still areand what that means is that you have to go in to
the Hearst money man and make your pitch. So these editors went to the Hearst
money man and made their pitch, and apparently he told them, "The last two
books we published that had anything to do with civil rights didnt sell, and
so I dont think you can look me in the eyes and guarantee me that this will
sell 10,000 or 20,000 copies of a first novel." They had to say, "No,
I dont think we can honestly guarantee you that," and he says,
"Then sink it."
More and more the literature decisions in publishing houses are being made by
the money manager of the larger corporation who owns them, who isnt a book
person and wants the larger margin of profit than the books business
traditionally has sustained. And what thats meant in the grand scheme of
things is that what used to be called the "midlist author"the good
author that a publishing house stays with book after book because he or she
keeps getting better, and eventually they build a reputation and it all pays off
after 30 years of faiththats gone with the wind. No author gets that
treatment anymore. So someone like a Wright Morris, who could have a whole
career without having a bestseller, or even someone like an Anne Tylershes
my age, but she got started before all this happened to a degreeits not
until her seventh or eighth book that John Updike reviews it and says,
"Shes wickedly good." Suddenly theyve got the right gimmick to
get her a readership. Now shes still not a guaranteed bestseller, but she is
certainly a guaranteed sale, so that now her publisher is reaping some money for
her. But she didnt start out as a blockbuster author. She started out as a
quiet author with her own voice and vision, and it took her a bunch of books for
that to catch on. Publishers arent willing to play that game anymore. They
want their money quick and up front, and the more serious writers almost never
fit that image of what the writer should be.
JM: What do you plan to write after you finish
withor are you finished with Devil Dancer?
WH: I hope Im finished with Devil Dancer.
JM: Does it ever end?
WH: Well, theres a sequel in mind to it even though as the book
originally was written, the reader could assume that the detective dies of a
heart attack. I now make it clear in this latest rewrite that he has a heart
attack but he doesnt die. And so the last chapter is in the hospital where he
has to deal with what he knows and so forth. So he could come back if I needed
him to, but actually my plan was to have him come back in a sequel novel as a
minor character. I thought that would be an interesting twistthat he sort of
has a bit part in the second novel.
Actually, the person, at present, if I write a sequel to that book, who would
be featured would be Tom Morton again, who is the narrator of The
Children Bob Moses Led, one of the two, along with Moses. He is
mentioned very briefly in Devil Dancer,
but you dont realize it. Theres a picture of a guy looking into a
used-bookstore window with long hair and an Indian headband and wearing a
T-shirt that says "Minor Kentucky Poet," and later we learn that
thats Tom Morton, who now teaches at Transylvania. At the end of the Moses
book theres a reference that Tom Morton is now teaching at Transylvania. The
afterward is written in 1972, which is when Devil
Dancer picks up. I had planned, in the grand scheme of things, to
come back to Tom Morton and situate him in Lexington in the 1970s around the
most famous unsolved murder case in Lexington. Its called the Betty Gail
The most famous drug case related to Lexington involved a guy named Drew
Thorton, who parachuted to his death in Knoxville trying to smuggle cocaine in
from the Caribbean. He was part of the horse-farm world. If I revisit Lexington,
its going to be to do variations on those true-crime stories and get Tom
Morton in the middle of it somehow. I think hes going to be a college
professor at Transy who falls in love with the Betty Gail Brown character, who
is then strangled, and hes blamed for it. He wont be guilty of it, but the
evidence will point toward him, so hell be caught in that kind of dilemma. At
the same time, there will be this drug scene going on in the horse-farm world.
The Betty Gail Brown character will be the daughter of a horse farmer, and so
the horse farm again will play in with the sleazy underworld, and at the same
time the world of Transy will get into it. Obviously that stuff is still
swirling, but the ingredients will come out of that.
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