After the fact—since during the process the “fact” was excruciating—I, at least, am grateful for the mechanical breakdown which forced this conversation to take the eccentric, twisty course it took, a course more or less faithfully reproduced here. Having returned from the Palmer River Riding Club, where Hawkes takes lessons, we had a couple of hours before dinner to sit down and (to be honest) get the interview out of the way. Maybe it was the muscadet—an entire bottle of which we consumed—but the conversation seemed to us exceptional. When I rewound the tape, however, the “fact” presented itself. The batteries failed twenty minutes into the interview. Persistent if depressed, we used the half hour before the dinner guests—Robert and Pilar Coover, Mary Caponegro and Sheffield Van Buren—were to arrive, to try to recover some of the best materials from the Lost Conversation. It was useless.
Coover brought fresh batteries and Albert Pic chablis, or Mercurie, and somehow during dinner collaborative spirit seized everyone while Jack flew off into an inspired monologue about how he wanted to be—yes—a swamp. Only a crude Manhattanite could contemplate putting a recorder in the middle of a dinner table in Providence, but given the quality and even mystery of Jack’s visionary flight against the fact that we had lost so much that afternoon, I couldn’t help myself. I would like to apologize in public and on record to all present at that dinner for having shown such bad manners; the results are transcribed here. The next morning, Hawkes and I did sit down to attempt a more formal interview. That conversation is also here.
After reading the proofs, Pilar Coover; in the same impromptu spirit she showed that evening at dinner; made a needle-on-canvas image, “The Swamp and the Rock.” The embroidery is reproduced at the end of the interview I only wish we could have reproduced Pilar’s piquant, turbinated Catalan accent—the spirit in her rolled Rs (“rrrrrhock—”) was of higher proof than even all the good wine consumed at the Hawkes’s table.
Friday Afternoon, Beginning of “Lost Conversation”
BRADFORD MORROW: In your new novel Whistlejacket, the narrator Michael is a photographer whose great compulsion at the beginning of the book is in working through the etymology of several words, an interest which seems to disappear as the novel progresses. I was wondering whether the novel began to formulate itself for you within the context of certain words, and what the connection might be between that and his saying, “I am a carnivorous watcher and I pursue them all,” his obsession with seeing.
JOHN HAWKES: The novel begins with Mike’s concern for words, mainly with corgi because in his boyhood the little dog was constantly with Virgie, and was suggestive of an erotic world that was denied to Michael since he considered Virgie his sister, therefore inaccessible. The dog followed them everywhere.
MORROW: Sexually inaccessible?
HAWKES: Yes. Prohibited. As a child, Virgie was constantly thrusting herself on him; he felt that she was dangerous because she was an incestuous creature—although it’s not put in those terms—and so he came to hate the dog as suggestive of, or identified with, Virgie’s pursuit of him.
MORROW: What does “corgi” mean?
HAWKES: Dwarf, in Welsh. It’s a Welsh dog, a squat thing with legs like sausages, black and white—
MORROW: They were bred to go down holes, I think.
HAWKES: I’m not sure, Brad—with very long ears, it’s a strange looking, pathetic little dog and I myself am attracted to the strange and pathetic. But for Michael the dog is an image of obscenity He knows that it means dwarf. And that’s exactly what he wants it to mean.
MORROW: How did you get from the word “corgi” to obscenity when you were first working on the book?
HAWKES: The dog is either like an adumbrated penis, a sort of walking sausage, stunted, marred by long ears, or it’s a dwarfed dog walking on partial phalluses. It’s a grotesque rendering of male sexuality and all its power and horror By the way Whistlejacket derives to some extent from my books The Lime Twig and Travesty like The Lime Twig, it has a killer horse, a dangerous, unusual, fabulous horse. At one moment in Travesty the narrator says, “I love the dark night. Through the thick green lens of the night I see only the brightest light.” Whistlejacket begins by repeating the same idea, except that the narrator substitutes a camera’s lens for the dark night: “Through the thick transparent lens of my camera—cameras I mean to say but one will do for the metaphor—I see woman. Not women. Woman. Although I see both.” For me, every act of seeing in Whistlejacket reflects the night of Travesty.
MORROW: Are there other origins of Whistlejacket?
HAWKES: The book grew out of Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract. That film is set in the eighteenth century and involves a wife and her daughter who murder the husband-father and a draughtsman who makes drawings of the house they live in. I loved that film and began to be obsessed by it, which hadn’t happened to me before and hasn’t since. It was my editor who suggested that my next novel after Adventure in the Alaskan Skin Trade also be set in America. l didn’t think that I wanted to set any more fiction in America—
MORROW: Why not?
HAWKES: I’m not very excited by American landscapes.
MORROW: What do you mean by landscapes?
HAWKES: Places, sounds of language. I simply don’t know America very well. It rarely occurs to me that I’m American. I am, of course. But if I think about it, I consider myself an alien in the country, someone born here but not assimilated into the culture. I was born in Connecticut, lived in New York, didn’t go to school at all, except to St. Agnes School on 91st Street where I went just long enough to be humiliated by having to play Jack in “Jack Jumps Over the Candlestick.” In 1934 my mother and I ended up with my grandmother in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, at that time called Sound Beach, when my father went off to Alaska to investigate the possibilities in coal mining there. He came back a year later and took my mother and myself up to Juneau. We stayed five years, until I was fifteen. Then came the war. I went to school in New York City for about a year (my father was still in Alaska), then my mother, who was afraid New York would be bombed, moved us up to Pawling. I attended the high school in Pawling for a year and a half, went to Harvard and failed Chemistry and German. At this point I joined the army but was discharged for asthma after six weeks. Then I drove an American Field Service ambulance in Italy and Germany By the end of the war I was back at Harvard. But my nine months in the war gave me a life that had nothing to do with America. I don’t know anything about baseball, as a child I never collected baseball cards. At best I was mystified by Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy.
MORROW: All the landscapes you’ve lived in, though, are obviously American.
HAWKES: They didn’t seem to matter. I was never able to swim, never able to participate in sports. We moved around just enough to prevent me from being “from” anywhere. I had more than the usual distaste for school, for gymnasiums, for gym teachers, and so on.
MORROW: How would you define America, or American?
HAWKES: Mainly as knowing its language—dialects, jokes, slang, comic strips, speech as heard on radio and television—which I never did understand. Now, at sixty-two, I take at best a negative interest in America. I could never write about this country its politics, its history Except for The Beetle Leg and Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade and half of Second Skin, it had never occurred to me to set any of my fiction in America. I was so moved by and really obsessed with Europe in the mere nine months I spent in Italy and Germany seeing a glimpse of Holland and France, all of it ravaged during the war—and in its semidestroyed state it was horrifyingly compelling; I felt erotically drawn to the unknown, and to languages I didn’t know, couldn’t speak.
MORROW: Eroticism is always the central component or aspect to your reaction to something, isn’t it? And you don’t think that America, in all its chaos of detail, reveals itself, finally as erotic?
HAWKES: It’s a chaos of valueless amorality. Most cult figures in the United States are bores, and rather unpleasant and disgusting.
MORROW: Whistlejacket has an interior landscape that seems to be anywhere, and this has been the case before. Travesty is set in a car There is a workable interior setting that myth requires, myth being again crucial as you pointed out in a recording that was made of one of your readings at Stanford. Enclosure seems to be a place in which you work well, where tension is heightened by the very field it is working within.
HAWKES: Travesty was a pleasure to write because it was so limited. Being immobile inside a speeding car at night allows the narrator to make the invisible daylight world “visible” while he talks, while he drives. For me, Whistlejacket is an American book, through and through. I think now that the connection between the novel and the film is nebulous. I doubt that anyone having seen that film and having read this book would actually see the connection. My novel does not have, never could achieve, the same sense of mystery that is in the film, partly because of the veiling art of the camera. The film’s obscure, I wanted a clear plot. I think of Mike as another version of the artist— he’s even more remote, less connected with life, less able to have personal commitments than any such character I’ve created yet.
MORROW: Does that make him more American to you?
HAWKES: I hadn’t thought of it that way and perhaps his identity as a New York fashion photographer is incidental to his unusual personality Perhaps not. At any rate, for somebody to whom, as he says, the image is more important than the act, an actual sexual experience is no more personal than taking a photograph—or of no more “value.” Women he hardly knows turn up in his bed, yet he doesn’t bother to turn on the light. Not a national attitude, I suppose. Yet I like to associate that mind with New York.
MORROW: How did this personality emerge just now in your work?
HAWKES: I’m not sure. But a few years ago I first saw David Salle’s paintings and felt an immediate rapport with his “dead passion”—a phrase from Travesty. Often he creates a tone of muted eroticism, and I wonder if the tone and even subject matter of Whistlejacket mightn’t owe at least something to the glimpses I’ve had of Salle’s sexual still lifes, as I like to think of them. I wasn’t able to write about a painter, or about the artist in The Draughtsman’s Contract. But a photographer—at least a fashion photographer like my narrator—is a version of the visual artist. Of course my main interest has always been in the visual imagination and an intensity of language which in itself is erotic …
Friday Night, Dinner
HAWKES: I was just trying to prove that I’m a feminist. I said “erotic,” Pilar, not “the rock.”
PILAR COOVER: There’s little fossils inside the rock.
HAWKES: You know where they come from? They come from a swamp.
PILAR COOVER: I like the swamp in the rock stage.
ROBERT COOVER: That’s right, the petrified swamp.
HAWKES: Well, I’ll tell you what. I think the tree would have a bloody hard time surviving in a petrified swamp.
SOPHIE HAWKES: But Jack, there are petrified trees as well.
HAWKES: They’re rock, they’re not alive anymore, they’re dead as doornails. Swamps are all rimmed in moss.
PILAR COOVER: But they’re full of mosquitoes and typhus.
HAWKES: I tell you what, Pilar. I have never heard a woman, especially a woman who exemplifies—
ROBERT COOVER: The swamp.
HAWKES: Exactly. Like Pilar. How can she talk the way she does? Since in the way she looks, in her cooking, she exemplifies what I’m talking about, which is eroticism. I mean you, Pilar. The woman embodies the swamp, the glorious swamp.
PILAR COOVER: The swamp drinks up rocks.
HAWKES: There’s no winning this argument, no sirree.
ROBERT COOVER: You’re a bloody tree trying to argue with a swamp and that’s what you get.
PILAR COOVER: Yeah, nice try.
HAWKES: A talks to B and B says Z, not a rock but a fossil—no, this is not going to work. Well, you know, if anybody else would try to explain what I mean, people would say “Oh sure, isn’t that interesting that man wants to be identified with a swamp.”
SOPHIE HAWKES: Pilar’s very convincing, too.
HAWKES: Rocks? I don’t want any rocks around me right now, I can tell you that.
MORROW: Where did the trees go? How did we get to rocks? I thought the choice was a tree or a swamp.
ROBERT COOVER: Jack offered a simple choice, but no swamp would ever accept a simple choice.
HAWKES: Pilar, you had to go and introduce a third element, the rock, what can you do with a rock except sit on it? I don’t want to sit on a rock, too sharp, too pointed. A rock has nothing to do with anything. A tree grows up. A swamp grows wide and it grows deep.
PILAR COOVER: And a rock stays put.
HAWKES: Exactly the rock stays put, you can’t say it any better. A rock is just a rock, it’s dull. You know what we do? We tie rocks around our necks and jump into swamps.
PILAR COOVER: It’s my Catholic upbringing, everything’s built up around rocks in the Catholic church. The rock is the symbol of growth.
HAWKES: Come on, you’re emancipated. You don’t believe in that anymore, you don’t believe in that stuff.
PILAR COOVER: I took it with the bottle, with my mother’s milk, all these rocks.
HAWKES: Yes, yes, you’ve been drinking from Bob Coover’s wine bottles for years.
PILAR COOVER: All the Catholic growth is based on it. The Church is the pillar, all is rocks, all the virgins are on top of pillars.
HAWKES: Pilar, why did you wreck my little argument?
ROBERT COOVER: In fact, the Virgin of the Pillar which she’s named after is on the top of a rock, a piece of stone.
HAWKES: Really The Virgin and a piece of stone. There we have it. We’re not talking about virgins, we’re talking about swamps. The pillared Virgin: it doesn’t make a bit of difference, she doesn’t feel a thing, she has nothing to do with anything, it’s a horrifying image, I think of it as the pilloried Virgin. It’s a little bit too much like the medieval executions with the pointed stakes.
PILAR COOVER: I thought you wanted to be a tree?
ROBERT COOVER: No, he doesn’t, he’s a swamp.
HAWKES: Well, I’d rather be the tree that grows through the Virgin than the Virgin who’s gotta sit on the tree till it comes out the top of her head, I’ll tell you. Any old day. No, but I don’t want to be either one.
PILAR COOVER: No tree and no swamp.
HAWKES: No Virgin. No tree, no Virgin, no stake coming out the top of the head. I only want to be a swamp.
PILAR COOVER: Honestly wouldn’t you like right now to be a virgin again? Start it all over—
COOVER: You’re not tempting him at all with that.
HAWKES: And she’s not tempting you either Pilar, maybe if you were understanding me more, you’d be more sympathetic, you’d see the glories of the swamp again. Mosquitoes? I tell you what, mosquitoes only buzz around the saddest of swamps, they’re old swamps, they’re swamps that are drying up. My swamp is fresh, luscious, lovely full of color, peaceful, yellowish. It’s all slime.
PILAR COOVER: Slime?
HAWKES: Slime. Slime. It’s a swamp full of slime. The most beautiful word in the English language is slime. Think of what it suggests. Saliva. Salacious. Sin.
SOPHIE HAWKES: Sex.
HAWKES: Sly slippery Slime, though, is a word different from all the ones we’ve just said, supreme in its own right—lubricious, it’s the ultimate lubrication, it’s slime.
MORROW: But did you ever say exactly why you wanted to be the swamp?
HAWKES: Because it’s so complicated, never in stasis, always moving, always in movement. And because its definition is always changing. The lips, its perimeter, is there and not there. It has powerful definition but it’s elusive. It changes all the time. The mystery of its depths is unique. What else? The labyrinth. The slime, the sea shell, the vagina are all related to the labyrinth. It doesn’t matter that the labyrinth tends to be rather fixed, say in its definition to the swamp. The swamp is a kind of slimy labyrinth or the swamp is a more elusive labyrinth because it is ever-shifting.
MORROW: It’s both digestive and reproductive.
HAWKES: Yes, and out of its digestion comes reproduction. It’s the colors, it’s that I like moisture that’s not water As opposed to solid, as opposed to water, you have what’s in between. That moisturized substance is warm of course, in fact hot, body temperature and more.
ROBERT COOVER: How does this relate to putting words on a page?
HAWKES: Well, tangentially. We were talking about—well I don’t know what we were talking about that brought up the whole idea of this.
MORROW: We were talking about voyeurism.
ROBERT COOVER: It’s a metaphor for fertility and for generating imagery and new ideas.
HAWKES: I think that Brad and I were actually talking about being tremendously isolated. It has to do with voyeurism, tremendous isolation and what happens in isolation. When we were young, if we were really isolated, did we or did we not imagine, try to get beyond where we were, try to conceive of the forbidden sight, the forbidden vision because if you can get there you can get to another one, and beyond and beyond, always trying to escape some horrible limitation, whether it’s my puny eight-year-old asthmatic self, or children in Alaska who literally couldn’t move beyond certain limitations.
ROBERT COOVER: So the swamp isn’t just a bubbly oozy stuff that suggests eroticism, but also a dark, private, withdrawn space, so it’s not like the tree sitting up in the middle of everybody
MORROW: The model we’d worked out was that the isolation of Jack’s childhood stimulated his imagination, and as a reaction the imagination acted as a kind of defense mechanism the organism could rely on. This led to the discovery of voyeurism and eroticism, combining those two as a way of escape.
ROBERT COOVER: I’m trying to link all this to the swamp. How did Jack find the swamp as an image for all that?
HAWKES: I suppose the swamp came years later. Recently in fact.
ROBERT COOVER: But it does sound to me like a childhood image too, being in this lonely isolated muck.
HAWKES: Well, now wait, don’t you know it’s pink.
MORROW: This is a very vaginal swamp.
ROBERT COOVER: When you offered me a choice, you didn’t say pink tree or a pink swamp.
HAWKES: I’ll tell you why. It’s a shabby old shorn black tree or a pink swamp. Pinks, pearls, of neutral colors, translucent, transparent and slimy.
ROBERT COOVER: Okay you’ve convinced me. I’ll take the black tree. Swamps get paved over. That’s what parking lots are made out of. They’re used mostly for dumping garbage.
MORROW: Don’t threaten Jack’s swamp. It’s a good swamp.
HAWKES: Yeah, Bob, I’m supposed to be the pessimist and you’re supposed to be the eternal life-bringer. Will you stop covering my swamp with macadam, for Christ’s sake, or garbage? There is no garbage in the swamp we ’re talking about. We’re talking about pure woman. And I don’t mean pure. I mean absolute woman, concentrated woman, woman as woman. Uninhibited, real swamp. And I think that the way we’ve been talking about swamp is essentially seeing the swamp. We haven’t been swimming in it, we haven’t been diving down into it or submerging ourselves in it.
ROBERT COOVER: Though sort of smelling it actually.
HAWKES: That’s what you do with photographs, you smell photographs. When you see, all the other senses get activated, all you have to do is see. The flame we begin to smell, the oil that’s burning or being consumed, the fire. All the senses become activated. The swamp is a visual image, so we see it. I was talking about seeing as a way of getting myself beyond the prison of a limited town, Juneau, a seven-thousand population town, a thousand miles up into southeastern Alaska, or just locked into ourselves as children with no other children, nobody else, no books, hardly parents at all, nothing, nothing except the dark, the dark and you wheeze and you hear a few horses kicking.
MORROW: And as you were saying in our lost conversation, you would look at your Sears Roebuck catalogue and in it find images that were useful to your imaging.
ROBERT COOVER: Did you make stories out of those catalogues or what? I mean, how did you look at them? Were they purely erotic imaginings? Or did you invent stuff out of them?
HAWKES: No, that’s for you, you looked in them and saw stories. I didn’t see any stories.
PILAR COOVER: Did you cut out the ladies in their underwear?
HAWKES: I didn’t cut them out, I was looking at them. We were just talking about seeing. You don’t do anything, you just look. Looking is a marvelous experience.
MORROW: What Bob was saying is interesting, though: what’s the transition point from just wanting to see to wanting to use a pencil or a pen on paper, begin to scratch, and build?
HAWKES: Probably there is a leap when one is not even aware of seeing at all; simply for one reason or another you’re in a situation and you start using the pen, the pencil, the typewriter, whatever it is, and you start using words to hear. But in my case, when you start using words, you do see. Bill Gass argues that he never sees anything when he writes. If he writes about table, he said once, it’s all just concept of table. Table to him means essence of table. I don’t know what essence is and I don’t care. Table is something I can see, more or less. From spindly seventeenth-century ones to some massive, scarred wooden thing in a country kitchen.
ROBERT COOVER: I’m curious though, Jack, how you moved from your isolation, from a fascination with certain images which may have been erotic and so on—it’s difficult for children at any age to look at these things—and how you wanted then to make words express those things, and what it was you were trying to express. Did you feel there was something you wanted to make words describe so that you could hold it? Or was it something you wanted to make move somehow? I’m thinking of the difference between story and lyric. Calvino had a similar experience. He also grew up with a feeling of being isolated. He was born in Cuba because his parents were over there doing scientific research. They had a very secular scientific attitude toward life so he grew up in a home which rejected a lot of traditional stuff. There were no storybooks, for example. And as a little kid, before he was even reading— and he learned to read slowly—he got his stories out of comic strips. He would see these pictures in the comic strips and look at them and try to figure out what might be going on. They were all comic strips borrowed from America with the balloons taken out, replaced by doggerel verse he couldn’t read anyhow. His approach then was: a story is there, I’ve got to see the story of it, see why this leads to that—
HAWKES: Why this leads to that. A child looking at comic strips—and there are no words—has to make up the words, so he makes up the words. He not only makes up the narrative—this happened, that happened—he makes up the cause and effect. He’s already in a camp over there, which is the cerebral camp, the conceptual camp. It’s fiction dealing totally with ideas. I’m over here. There is no narrative at all. The only thing that’s happening is a kind of stunned relationship with an image that one knows nothing about.
ROBERT COOVER: Like a woman in a girdle.
HAWKES: Yes, and you haven’t the faintest idea what a girdle is, God knows what a woman is, and all of a sudden you’re ten years old in Alaska, the rain’s pouring down, the place smells of fish, nothing but fish and pine trees, steep mountains, nothing but water, cold bitter black water, miners coming down from their mountainside with all these horrible candles glowing, the smell of carbon lamps, and here’s an image of a woman—no narrative, no conceptualizing, no “what story’s involved?” Who cares? I’m not interested in any story I was only interested in mystery. However I made the leap from poetry to prose is just an accident.
MORROW: What about the leap from youth to poetry?
HAWKES: I don’t think there was any I was writing at a young age and I thought words were something like photographs. And there I was telling stories at ten. I was writing bear stories, or about treasures lost in old gold mines in Alaska. And I think it was an effort at that time to emulate my extraordinary father, my 6’4" father who was a bear hunter, an adventurer and an Alaskan miner, not a miner; a—
ROBERT COOVER: A prospector.
HAWKES: He wasn’t a prospector. Those are old shriveled guys who shake their pans in creeks. My father wasn’t that. At any rate, I was small, underweight—seventy-six pounds of asthmatic boyhood, isolated in this place, had never read a book, never even saw a comic strip. I was telling Brad I had nothing whatsoever to do with the United States. I hate comic strips because I had nothing to do with them. I heard Jack Armstrong on the radio and I was just baffled. At any rate, trying to make the leap from image to word, the word is the best approximation, it’s all I had. I wasn’t a photographer, so I would start with images. But when I began to write fiction, I had an idea of sorts, well not an idea, but a set of figures, Sophie’s parents in mind, and I made fun of them. That was the first, a highly sophomoric work. Embedded in it are moments of strong visualizing with a lot of sensory experience conveyed through words. Always visual.
ROBERT COOVER: Like stills rather than moving things.
HAWKES: Or slow moving pictures. Always trying to see beyond, see the next figure at the turn of the corner, the next hand that protrudes, the next finger that comes into focus, and that’s all. It went on and on. I have never been interested in cause and effect, why or why not, or anything else. I am not interested in concepts or ideas. I see and that’s all. But since the age of about fifty-five, I’ve become more interested in narrative.
ROBERT COOVER: It’s what one does usually at age thirteen.
HAWKES: You got interested in narrative at age thirteen. Not me. I was a little more interested in narrative at fifty because Barth finally took me to task at Buffalo one time. We were with some of his students. “Oh Jack,” he said, “You must stop making these awful remarks about plot, character; setting and theme as the true enemies of fiction. Plot is not the enemy of fiction, and you should learn that.” Ever since, I’ve been trying to learn a bit about plot. It’s difficult. I’ll continue to struggle with it. But we should move to the fire.
MORROW: You mentioned yesterday that there were no books in your childhood and that your education was erratic. The life your parents led must have contributed to that since books are heavy and hard to carry around in trunks and boxes. Did your mother teach you how to read?
HAWKES: I think so. I remember my mother reading some Uncle Wiggley stories to me, and a strange fairy tale called “Otto of the Silver Hand” which I used in The Passion Artist. Otto is a prince who has an artificial hand of silver, a rather ornate, elegant castration, it seems to me. In Alaska we had five years of permanency and I did finally go to school. My mother had tried to teach me and I resisted every single moment. I argued, I remember, that the sums in arithmetic were arbitrary. I would say, “Why must two and two be four, why can’t they add up to five?” I don’t know how she stood those afternoons of lessons. At any rate, in Alaska I was unread and innocent, the isolation was overwhelming. Juneau had mountains on three sides’ a dark and ugly channel on the fourth, where the ship came in from Seattle. Wiley Post and Will Rogers died in a seaplane that crashed against a piling on a take-off in that channel. Fog, rain at least three hundred days a year; overgrown, dank; we lived on the edge of the woods. Actually I liked the place in some strange way Long after; I thought it was like growing up in The Lord of the Rings. There were marvelous dark secrets to discover in Juneau’s mountains.
MORROW: Enclosure and interiority again seem to be the constant defining aspect of setting; in Virginie and Innocence in Extremis we are in closed estate landscapes. Family and a few friends, perhaps, react to each other within a closed circuit, generally of crisis.
HAWKES: It’s true. In Second Skin there’s the same idea. Donne of course wrote that no man is an island. But I think that every man is an island. We can’t get onto each other’s shores either.
MORROW: These enclosures either provoke or make possible the dynamic of voyeurism as the only way one can try to communicate in or through these texts.
HAWKES: This developed first in Connecticut when I was eight, when trying to earn fifty cents to take a half-hour riding lesson at the stable behind my grandmother’s. I worked in a garden, so I’d be wearing my jodhpurs and kneeling in the dry earth on a hot dusty day trying to plant something, which I hated because only a few yards away was a stable with its dark interior filled with giant, strange, beautiful animals that I would hear at night kicking and snorting, because our house was that close. One day a young woman came trotting by on a gigantic chestnut—that’s a reddish-brown horse—and I saw the girl’s body in combination with the horse itself, the way her seat rose and fell, and was trim, tight, and how it fit to the saddle every moment or two. She was a remote figure, a momentary illusion, a mythical girl. I’m sure my fiction started there, and I’ve been pursuing that image ever since, the image of eroticism and aestheticism fused, perfection in a life source.
MORROW: She is probably alive and out there somewhere now doing her dressage, completely unaware of what she catalyzed all those years ago.
HAWKES: No wonder I’m still taking lessons in basic dressage. But what were we talking about?
MORROW: Your interest in voyeurism.
HAWKES: I remember first the young woman on her chestnut, then a day in Juneau when I happened to see in a shop window a magazine called Film Fun—which did have something to do with Hollywood and films, but existed mainly in order to portray women in bathing suits—I was overwhelmed at the sight and managed to make myself go back to the shop and buy the magazine. I smuggled it into my room. We lived high on the third floor of an old house belonging to Judge Wickersham, an illustrious Alaskan, the first to bring law to the Klondike. It pleases me now to think of myself and that magazine in the old judge’s attic. Both the photographed women of Film Fun and the elegant young woman rider were part of the genesis of my fiction. No image is more arousing than the fleeting image. Blurred travesties of Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura. Yet just as idealistic.
MORROW: In the lost conversation we talked about the books which were important to you, but mostly about what you didn’t read. You went to Harvard something of a virgin in that sense.
HAWKES: The first Harvard courses that meant anything to me were Music I, where I learned the rudiments of music, and a course on Jacobean drama and—to my great good fortune—Chaucer.
MORROW: What kind of music interested you?
HAWKES: I don’t remember anything from that course except the Landini cadence. And I don’t remember anyone offering a course on Shakespeare, which was the great loss of my life. When I first taught here at Brown I read Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello. But in 1943 I had read nothing. When I first got to Cambridge I lived in Adams House, near the Grolier Bookshop where I saw a copy of Joyce’s Pomes Pennyeach and bought it, read it, loved it. I was first influenced, I think, by those few Joyce poems.
MORROW: Joyce was an influence on your first published work, Fiasco Hall?
HAWKES: I meant an influence on my early fiction. I wrote the poems in Fiasco Hall when I was in high school.
MORROW: How did you know what a poem was?
HAWKES: I’ve no idea. I hadn’t read any that I know of.
MORROW: Never even read the Alaskan poet laureate, Robert Service?
HAWKES: Never heard of him, I didn’t know anything about poetry. When I went to Harvard in the summer of 1943, I took my poems to Robert Hillyer. He picked twelve or fourteen from a hundred, I think, and I had them privately printed. That’s as far as my poetry went. I took poetry writing classes with Theodore Spencer; John Ashbery was in one of them. But my real moment came when I returned for my last two years to Harvard. Sophie and I had met; and a few months later; in September of 1947, we were married in Montana, where her father was stationed with the Army Engineers at the Fort Peck Dam. That September; back in Cambridge, I met Albert Guerard and got into his fiction writing class. I’d started writing fiction in Fort Peck the summer before; I had athlete’s foot and had to sit with my feet in a bucket of potassium permanganate. Since I couldn’t move, Sophie gave me a novel to read. I didn’t like it and said I could do better She gave me a pad and pencil, a child’s ruled pad—I’ve written on them ever since—and began my first short novel Charivari. Because of it, Guerard took me into his class. So I had a friend and mentor from then on.
MORROW: Joyce aside, you can’t look to any author and say this work has had an influence on me?
HAWKES: Not that I know of. I was thinking last night, harking back to the idea of not feeling American, of how I went up to Harvard from a rural town that I had nothing to do with, marked for the kind of person I was by my brown-and-white saddle shoes. One of my strongest early Harvard memories is of being ridiculed by a seventeen-year-old Polish count who lived in the adjoining suite and who used to go around in patent leather dancing shoes and an old jacket out at the sleeves. In the American Field Service during the war; I was with a group of Americans who were all outsiders. A midget, an epileptic, a seventy-some-odd-year-old painter; several alcoholics. All of us had problems. Every once in a while we would be near other Americans—mainly flyers—and I remember them stomping around, dancing, and I was simply in awe of them, appalled that young men could have such an American esprit. Certainly I didn’t share it. Whereas the English and Irish troops we were with were so alone, shabby, homely, isolated, deracinated, so dead yet admirable that I felt I was more British than American. On the other hand, long ago Bernard Malamud became a friend and on one occasion—it was on the phone—he reacted against those, including myself, who identified my work more as European than American. Bern was angry and said I was the sort of American who belonged with Melville, Hawthorne, Poe. He insisted that my fiction was purely and deeply American.
MORROW: You still don’t agree with that, or do you?
HAWKES: Malamud made that remark in connection with Second Skin. He couldn’t have been more sustaining, and in the sense he meant, yes, I’m American. I finally read Moby Dick, Billy Budd, The Confidence Man and so on, at Harvard, under Guerard I began to read fiction.
MORROW: Who do you look on, among your contemporaries, as having affinities with your work?
HAWKES: I feel close to Barth, Gass, Barthelme, Coover. We know each other, they write what I most admire. Last fall, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Edmund White, in a review of Robert Coover’s A Night at the Movies, compared those five of us as myth-makers in our various ways. I happen to like grafitti, and a few weeks ago, in the men’s room at a local cinema, I saw written above the urinal—it was one of those old vertical urinals that look like wet porcelain mummy cases—this grafitto: Power to Imagination! That’s my credo.
MORROW: One of the greatest losses in yesterday’s “lost conversation” was about Michael’s meditation on buttocks and the word, buttock, in Whistlejacket.
HAWKES: I’ll get a dictionary. In the opening pages of Whistlejacket, Michael is obsessed with the word corgi; near the end of the book, suddenly in connection with one of his photographs, he returns to image and language by thinking of the painter Boucher and the word buttock, which comes, it says here, probably from the Old English, buttuc, and means strip of land, ridge, rump, also called nates. Strip of land, ridge. Landscape, the great landscape, the greatest landscape of all. Buttocks. Let’s try this dictionary It says, Middle English, buttok, more at butt, the back of a hip that forms one of the fleshy parts on which a person sits, seat of the body rump. This is the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, which is a less interesting dictionary than the other one. But we were struggling to discover why that portion of the woman’s body is so striking, appealing. Why is it that we are forever looking at the woman’s seat, or buttocks? First, there is shape itself just as any rounded surface has its appeal, as in the hardboiled egg in its slick and white pristine state. Then there is the concept of the existence of what does not exist, as expressed in Keats’ “unheard music” and most succinctly for me, in Georges Braque’s “The vase gives shape to space, music to silence. In the case of buttocks, two curves come together, curve into each other, and disappear into a depth that doesn’t exist—to the eye at least. The anal area is kissing cousin to the vaginal area, and they keep energizing and adding to the nature of each other.
MORROW: They’re diptychal, like your work structures.
HAWKES: A nice thought. Michael complains about the inadequacy of the word buttock, and in so doing tries to lend it euphony. The visual image I want to find is lyrical.
MORROW: You’re about to retire after teaching at Brown for thirty years. What do you have in mind to write next?
HAWKES: I’d like to finish the life of Uncle Jake, who is based on my father; of course. We have his childhood in Innocence in Extremis and his adult years and death in Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade. Still to be written is his early manhood in the Great War, which he spent searching for his dead brother, a pilot who had crashed in France. It’s alluded to in three pages in Alaskan Skin Trade, and I’d like to expand those pages into a novel in which Uncle Jake finally revisits his old grandfather who at ninety years old is still on his horse while troops are bivouacked in his fields around his chateau, and all France is at war. Also, I plan to write a novel called Monks in Shadow. Sophie was talking to our daughter on the phone and I heard her say “Oh, monks in shadow,” and she mentioned the exhibition of the Spanish painter Zurbaran, who made some gorgeous paintings of monks in their cowls, high-peaked, some of them quite sinister, guilty furtive, in shadow. As soon as I heard the phrase, “Monks in shadow,” I knew I had to write something about monks. Eroticism and a monastic order—it might be one more way to pursue the kind of innocence I’m drawn to. I’m still trying to write fiction that the reader wants to eat. This is the way a woman writing in the French magazine Elle described Innocence in Extremis. Another French reviewer compared my work to Watteau’s painting. France is my landscape of the imagination.
Interview by Bradford Morrow
Interview by Bradford Morrow
John Hawkes (1925–1998) was the author of The Lime Twig, The Blood Oranges, Travesty (all New Directions), The Passion Artist (Harper & Row), and Sweet William: A Memoir of Old Horse (Simon & Schuster), among other works. He was a recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Academy Award and the Lannan Literary Award.
Bradford Morrow is the founding editor of Conjunctions. He is the author of ten books of fiction, including Trinity Fields, Giovanni’s Gift, The Forgers, and The Prague Sonata. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction, an Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Nora Magid Award for excellence in editing a literary journal. A Bard Center Fellow and professor of literature at Bard College, he lives in New York City.