JM: Bob Moseswhat was he like?
He has literally what I would call prophetic aura. He has this charisma, this
magnetism, this sense of spiritual depth, this seriousness and at the same time
a kind of tenderness and care that goes with your image of a certain type of
guru figurea spiritual leader. And his face conveys that as well. Hes got
these very dark eyebrows and very deep eyes, and you have the feeling that theres
something absolutely penetrating about his gaze both into you and into the
larger picture of things. This is a guy with levels, with depths within depths.
Thats very intriguing, and its very rare. Most of the heroes of the Civil
Rights Movement were men of action and bravado and were sort of doing, "Im
tired of taking this shit, and now Im going to fight back." Certainly,
Moses had those feelings too, but you had the feeling that this is a guy who is
looking way down the road and planning his moves way in advance.
For me, that was what was so interesting, that he had this sort of depth of
soul that you rarely find. The rap on Americans is that theyre superficial
and innocent and naïve and sort of frivolous, and often thats all too true.
Yet heres a guy whos the counterpoint of that. This guy is solid in a way
thats very, very impressive. And his style of leadership was in some ways the
polar opposite of Martin Luther Kings. King was one of the great orators of
our time, and the Civil Rights Movement knew that and decided to make him the
media hero. And so wherever King went, the media went, and crowds gathered in
big numbers. King would go to the church and give his big sermon, and everyone
would shout and sing, and then King would say, "Lets march here,"
or "Lets do that," and everyone would do it. But then the next day,
King gets on his plane, and the media goes with him, and the community is left
feeling drained and directionless. Moses idea was to unobtrusively come into
town and organize the leadership of that town so that they defined their own
goals and their own leaders and became a self-motivated and self-perpetuating
system. Much of the history of the Civil Rights Movement is not of following
Kings charismatic path but of looking at all these local people who did
courageous things in their local communities. The best history book on
Mississippi in this period is by John Dittmer and is called Local
People [University of Illinois Press].
Thats really the storyits the story of local people. And Moses was
at the core of this notion, that local people will be the story and that we can
make them make a difference. The catch is this contradiction between the fact
that heres this guy who holds this prophetic aura trying to be unobtrusive.
People picked up on the fact that wow, this is not your normal guy; this is
someone who has spiritual vision. Moses would encourage people to have town
meetings and discuss their problems and stay in the back and be quiet, but
before the evenings out they might say, "Bob, what do you think?"
And he might just whisper a few words, but everyone would say, "Yeah!"
He ended up being more of a leader than he wanted to be, in effect. Toward the
endI allude to this in the afterward of my novelafter the Democratic
Convention, Moses changed his name because he felt that the power of his
spiritual charisma plus the name of "Moses" among these Southern
blacks with such strong religious faithI mean that was a knockout. He also
said to another guy in the Civil Rights Movement, "No one will call me a
son-of-a-bitch. Everyone respects me so much they wont talk back to me. And,
you know, I dont feel like a normal guy among normal guys under that
circumstance." So he actually changed his name to Robert Paris, which was
his mothers maiden name.
Anyway, the reason I called the novel The
Children Bob Moses Led was to dramatize this issue of leadership,
sort of the "King style" versus the "Moses style," and what
does it mean to be a leader, what does it mean to be a follower, and what the
consequences are of a certain kind of leadership and a certain kind of "followership,"
if thats the word. In a sense, Moses is the leader and Morton is the
follower; Moses is the hero and Tom is the neophyte, and you play back their two
versions of what the Civil Rights Movement meant through their two voices and
their two sensibilities. And then of course all the other characters add further
counterpoints and further variations.
JM: Had you thought about having an omniscient
narrator, as opposed to having Moses and Tom Morton narrate sections of the
WH: A major decision every novelist has to make is what your point of
view is going to be. I guess the major motivation was that I very much wanted to
create a sense of immediacy, a kind of "you are there" feeling. The
Civil Rights Movement is getting lost to our collective memory, the history
books are too concerned with generalities to recreate it in a nitty-gritty
experiential sense, and the TV is all sort of hackneyed and clichéd, so the
trick is: Can you create a novel that brings it all back? The general sense was
that first person, if you do it well, creates a sense of immediacy and a
JM: You attended the march on Washingtonis
that where the seed was planted?
WH: I suppose so. I sort of wandered into the march on Washington
without design. I had been teaching tennis up at a tennis camp in the
Adirondacks and had come down to visit a friend of mine in Washington, and he
had been planning to go and was more into Civil Rights than I was. But the real
appeal for us was Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, and Joan Baezall our
favorite folk singers would be there. We really went for that reasona free
concert, in effectbut, nonetheless, here we were taking part in one of those
great moments in history. So when we got back to schoolthis was in very late
in Augustwe had the status on campus as the "Civil Rights Gods,"
you know. [Laughs] I guess I got an identity as someone active in Civil
Rights for a free afternoon in Washington listening to rock music. In a way, you
feel you have fraudulent credentials, although I was concerned with Civil Rights
and took part in some minor stuff. I worked on the Carl Stokes campaign in
Cleveland, who was the first black mayor elected in 1973. I canvassed in
Kentucky for various candidates. I was actually more politically active than I
am now, in the sense of hitting the streets and knocking on doors and trying to
get some things done.
JM: Wed spoken earlier about people who write
for a little group of true believers, who see themselves as having a special
notion of what the novel should be. What about poetry? Do you think a lot of
poetry does that?
WH: Theres a real tendency to do that. With poetry its trickier.
You ask the poet to go off in strange little places. The poet does not have that
same obligation to write the history in the real world, the dialog and all the
rest. But certainly you can overdo it. Theres that wonderful poem by Edward
Fielddo you know him?he writes sort of prosy poems, really witty, where he
says, "Save me, O God, from poets head, that dread disease." [Laughs]
"Poets head"oh, I know what that is! Its like, "People,
I am a poet. Anything I say is poetry. Watch me roll." Its a kind of
mental illness. I mean, it can be a charming mental illness, or the guy can be
the most obnoxious person on the planet.
JM: Over time the pleasures we derive from
writing change. How have they changed for you?
WH: One of the tricks is that as you get older you do become more
critical of yourself. We were talking about how I think I screwed myself up as a
poet by setting my standards too high at certain points, so I suddenly stopped
writing. I think all writers have to be schizophrenic in a certain senseyour
first inspirations have to be uncensored. You have to sort of let it pour out,
tap into the Dionysian or whatever and get it out on the page and get expressed.
Then once you have that initial enthusiasm or inspiration, then this prim little
school marm has to come in with a red pencil and chop it all up. And its very
hard for writers to combine those two personalities. I mean, you have to be
Dionysian in the morning and Apollonian in the afternoon. You have to be this
crazy visionary for a few hours and then this prim little proofreader, and to
have the ability to combine those two things is very tricky. Probably the reason
most poets write well when they are young, is that the Dionysian comes out more
easily when youre young. You can always come back when youre older and
revise the stuff and sharpen it, but its probably harder to tap into that
stuff if you have too many censors already out there saying, "That wont
work. That wont fly. Thats trite." If youre too self-conscious
about that it can dampen your creativity. I think thats part of the problemkeeping
those two selves in balance, the inspirational self and the craftsman who comes
in and wants it all perfect and wont forgive you for a misplaced comma.
JM: The muse wont leave you with a particular
feeling of a poem that long anyway. Even with some of our best works it just
leaves you, and you cant really go back later
WH: And pick it up and that whole biz. We were talking about
"poets head." People with poets head are often people who have
the first half of being a poet but not the second half. They love letting it all
out, but they dont love sorting it all out and putting it into shape
JM: Being the
WH: Right, and making it actually make aesthetic sense. But you can
get away with that on your average Poetry Night.
JM: I guess that all gets sorted out to some
extent in workshops, although I dont want to put myself as a purist.... But Ive
never actually approached poetry from any kind of academic sense, so I have
never actually been a part of the whole workshop phenomenon. My revision just
simply comes from wanting to be as good as what I read, you know, or in that
WH: Sure. And I think that makes good sense. I sometimes bemoan the
fact, though its probably also good luck, that I never had creative-writing
teachers because I never took creative-writing classes. Im not a disciple of
this writer or that writer who kept fixing my work until it was like his work.
You pay a price both ways, because you can be very naïve about what youre
still doing wrong. Sometimes a professional can say, "No, get rid of
that." But at the same time, so many people come out of this workshop
systemits a strange phenomenonwe must have 100,000 people studying
creative writing, and were not coming up with 100,000 great creative writers
every year. Somehow this isnt quite working.
JM: Somewhere along the line youre turning
out decent craftspeople without the muse, or youre turning out a lot of
people with the muse who cant get the craft down.
WH: Right, or whatever. Theres that famous quote from Flannery OConnor
when she was asked if creative-writing classes stifled writers, and she said,
"I dont think they stifle enough of them." [Laughs] There is
probably a need for some people to stop and to drop by the wayside. I think one
of the big problems is that theres poets head and theres novels
head, and you get so infatuated with your own work that you lose the ability to
actually judge it and to appreciate people who are doing it better. Theres a
great quote by Milan Kundera where he says, "Were being drowned out by
the noise of human certainties, and everyone eventually will see themselves as
an artist," which means that everyone babbles away without listening to
anyone else. And thats the death of civilization.
JM: You know, you take a magazine like Poetry,
which receives 80,000 submissions a year. Obviously Poetry doesnt have
80,000 subscribersthat makes you worry.
WH: Thats one of the ironiesthere are more people circulating
manuscripts than are reading anything of worth. And of course if youre not
reading anything of worth, how can you possibly improve your own work. You
should be spending more time reading and less time writing, and trying to figure
out whats good and then trying to figure out something good that you can do,
JM: When I speak with my contemporaries, whom
are also writers, I find a surprising ignorance of the living poets. Ill just
pull a name out of a hatR. T. Smith, who is from the area, or Greg Djanikian.
You see that ignorance, and maybe thats a strong word, but that seems to be
the problem is that theyre not aware of who the living writers are.
WH: Right. They havent even checked out the competition. I mean, in
basketball you can get all these people who can give you an exact discussion of
the 10 best power forwards in the league and why this ones better than that
one, but in literature its difficult to find anyone who can make fine-tuned
discriminations about this writer versus that writer because weve lost that
ability to really read well and set high standards and figure out how you sort
it out. Its sort of like were all playing a game, and there are no umpires
anymore, no score-keepers. In a way, we want it that way because then everyone
can have their own little ego game, but on the other hand you lose that sense of
your nation. We need more writers who are, as Joyce said, "Creating the
uncreated consciousness of the race," you know, expanding our sensibility
and our awareness of what the world is about. And we have to be right in our
judgments of that because if youre modeling yourself after writers who arent
very bright and arent very insightful, then youre not that bright, youre
not very insightful. We already have this problem with mass culture, which is
persistently dumbing us down, and we have the in-turn problem that if we misread
our elite culture, if we worship the wrong gods and follow the wrong leaders, we
run the risk on the other end, of outsmarting ourselves on the negative end,
admiring what we shouldnt admire and adopting styles we shouldnt adopt. I
think all these things matter, but its very difficult to do this kind of
JM: Thom Gunn had a poem called "Jamesian,"
which was about two lines long, on the New York City Transit System.
WH: Yeah, New York City had a program for poetry in the busses and so
forth. [Poetry in Motion Ed.] That was really fun, but you wonder how
much difference it made.
JM: Gunn related a story about his poem "Jamesian,"
which appeared in one of those adverts. The poem goes like this: "Their
relationship consisted/In discussing if it existed." And apparently,
someone had written a piece of literary criticism on it, which read, "And I
didnt get no [expletive deleted] either." [Both laugh]
Weve talked about the popularity of poetry, but what
about the popularity and impact of literary fiction. What do you see happening
to literary fiction in the future?
WH: What seems to be happening, in general, is that mass-culture
fiction is swamping serious fiction, and fewer people seem willing to make an
effort to point out that what passes for fiction these days is usually not the
real thing. If one were to divide the novels published today into categories and
percentages, it would quickly become apparent that the vast majority of fiction
published is formulaic escapist fantasy. This, in turn, breaks down into male
and female genres, with the men reading thrillers and sci-fi and women reading
soap operas and romances. Now since the cultural arbiter nowadays is the media
journalist, you will never see anyone, say, on television, point out the fact
that the writer being interviewed that day writes, essentially, crap. Instead,
Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Stephen King, to name only the most famous, get
treated as if they were real writers of genius, instead of hacks who happen to
have a fantasy life on a par with the average American page-turner.
On the other hand, there is a tendency in the small niche reserved for
serious fiction to settle for brand names with no serious attempt at literary
evaluation. And so a lot of pretty bad books by pretty well-known authors again
get treated as though they were masterpieces, while some pretty good books by
some basically unknown authors get totally ignored. There hasnt been a
serious attempt to evaluate contemporary American fiction in thirty years! I
think the last book to even come close was Tony Tanners City
of Words, published in the 1970s, and his book is guilty of
leaving out some major figuresThomas Berger, for exampleand spending too
much space on lesser figures.
In sum, we have a mass culture that continues to dumb us down and a
dysfunctional elite culture that often outsmarts itself and puts all its money
on the wrong horses. I dont know that there are a lot of great writers among
us these days. I rather doubt it. But I do know there are a lot of very talented
people making a very serious effort to write good fiction and that this culture
has lost interest in keeping track of who our good writers are and what books
are truly worth reading. Obviously, I think all this matters enormously. I would
like to think that someone looking back on our time period from the next century
would not have to conclude that we were all fools and scoundrels infatuated with
pseudo-writers and pseudo-books.
Interview with William Heath
TCR 1999 July Feature
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