The following interview is the result of a long, informal conversation recorded during one drizzly day while strolling from Ninth Street to a gallery on Washington Square East—where an exhibition of monotypes by Marlena Dieppe, based on William Gass’s book On Being Blue, was opening that evening—and then finally arriving, thoroughly damp, at the Grand Ticino restaurant on Thompson Street, where we had lunch late into the overcast afternoon.
BRADFORD MORROW: What’s the prognosis of your novel in progress, The Tunnel?
WILLIAM H. GASS: I think I’m close enough now to say that in a couple of years I’ll be done. That is, with the first draft, at any rate. I have a breadth that’s basically forty or fifty pages, even if it’s an essay, and the novel is a thousand pages now. I don’t know, I think I can hold it together, it’s going in twelve different directions, but maybe I can’t. I’ll have to wait and see when I’m finished.
MORROW: It is a departure from the Omensetter’s Luck style?
GASS: It’s a departure—an adaptation of the monologue in Omensetter in the Furber mode. So it’s in first person. It also elaborates the structure of the story in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country: It’s in sections roughly seventy pages long, instead of paragraphs. These are musically organized. There are sections within sections: It’s sectioned up like an insect or a worm.
MORROW: Based on an internal design you’ve worked out over the years?
GASS: Yes, there’s a complex structure now. It was slow in evolving. Each section is now a part of the tunnel. The character is digging one in the basement of his own house. He is also burrowing through language in order to escape from the word, and through history to get back to his past. I am exploiting the image of the tunnel in at least these three ways. The main character is a middle-aged history professor whose specialty is Nazi Germany, and he has just finished his long work, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. That book, it is suggested throughout the text, is more apologetic to the Germans than one would normally expect. He finishes it and wants to sit down to write the preface. It is supposed to be an aggressive and self-important preface, and he finds himself unable to write it. He begins instead to write anything that comes to hand, ending with a book I write for him. Not a book really. Just things he has written down on all kinds of pieces of paper. A section just finished was written on a grocery sack: It has to do with getting the sack from his girlfriend. There are images which go all the way through the book like a smell through the house. There are pieces of paper that have been crumpled in anger, stepped on in the street, and so forth.
MORROW: Stanley Elkin’s new novel, George Mills, uses a number of little images like that, to bind it together, as well as the obvious bloodline, the name, that ranges over a thousand years.
GASS: Yes. I’ve got to use everything from the most concrete up to the most abstract or general. The pages that my character is writing are intensely personal; they don’t have any structure. He has just finished a work of history which is thoughtful, organized, full of facts. Then he begins writing this other stuff, intensely personal, lyrical, splenetic. He doesn’t want his wife to see it, and he knows she’ll never read his scholarly book, so he hides the pages of the book I’m writing in between the pages of the history he has written. A book you never see must be imagined covering up the book you read.
MORROW: Is any of the history book shown?
GASS: The first page and the concluding page—the first paragraph and the last paragraph—are quoted in the book, and that’s it. So these pages are in a sense dirt from the tunnel he is hiding, as you would if you were escaping from a concentration camp, or a prisoner of war camp. The book is built like a tunnel. That means it really has three problems (see, I talk as if I knew, now, after fifteen years, what it’s all about). There has to be the emptiness that constitutes the tunnel, the void, the absence. Then there is the dirt that’s taken out, of course, which must be hidden. Finally, there is the structure, which has to be supportive. So the book is three things. The debris, then the negation—the hollow—and the hand that holds the hollow. So the book in a way has to have no structure, has to represent antistructure. Only my structure, the supportive structure, has to be very intense to hold the mess it’s presumably binding together.
MORROW: With that image, the tunnel, it seems that you can play with all kinds of contradictions, fused contradictories. The tunnel being something defined really by its nothingness.
GASS: In the Uncle Balt passage there is a lot of that. The whirlwind, the well, tunnels. It appears in the plague part of the book. I’ve published a section of it, called “We Have not Lived the Right Life.” It’s really the opening of the novel. But since a tunnel has to be disguised, the actual opening has to be hidden. So there is a first chapter, then a second section, and you’re about a hundred and fifty pages into the book before the novel actually begins. Disguised entrance, and all that, fronted by a seventy-five-page invocation to the muse. Since he isn’t really invoking the muse, since he doesn’t really know what he’s doing—well—it’s endless!
MORROW: One very obvious difference between Omensetter’s Luck andThe Tunnel is this presence of an intellectual, or at least a pseudo-intellectual, who is capable of playing with data, and history.
GASS: That really has been rather easy for me, because I’ve read a good deal about the period, also because the book he has written (but which you don’t see) is full of data, while this book, in a sense, doesn’t contain facts at all. Every “fact” gets undercut. That is, the reader can’t be sure whether the narrator is digging a tunnel in his basement or not, though I am going to write certain scenes as if he were. Nothing the narrator says is to be trusted precisely because everything he puts down is nonhistorical, everything is in a different world. The text is constantly canceling itself. On the other hand, you can’t leave the reader so mistrustful he has nowhere to go. You’ve got to be able to build a character that is firmer than fog. So I have to labor at several levels, and by now I have a fairly good idea of the structure of the whole book. I hope not so good an idea that I start superficially filling out a form, because I’m no good at filling out forms. It’s a complex problem I’ve given myself, alas. The novel really deals with somebody who has a fundamentally fascist mind.
MORROW: How did you start writing it?
GASS: I didn’t know I had started to write it when I wrote the first pages back in 1965. They were the first pages, but not the first pages, of course, which turned out to be the actual first pages of the book. It was years before I even knew I had a novel going, because I know I’m not a novelist in the ordinary sense of the word. And this is not a novel actually. Distinctly not. There are clear sections, very confused and mixed-up sections, lots of graphics—dirt, water, mud.
MORROW: It’s not a novel in the sense that it has no straightforward narrative structure?
GASS: Yes, it has no normal narrative structure, though many areas consist of normal narrative. It has no continuous style. There are continuous shifts of style. It refused to place its people even, and some of the characters are caricatures, as Uncle Balt is in Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being (published in Conjunctions:2). That piece is the first of two caricature studies in the novel. The other I have just finished. It’s about a guy who is doing a limerical history of the human race. The limerical pun man is one of the colleagues of my narrator. But, again, each of his so-called colleagues is an expression, an aspect of himself, anyway. So it’s never clear if they are actual people, inventions, or personalities of Kohler, the narrator.
MORROW: It seems that most novels shouldn’t, can’t be written anymore with a straight narrative structure, since lives aren’t lived that way anymore. If form should echo lives lived, then an angular, even jerky structure would be the only possible, honest way to set things out.
GASS: Well, it’s the only way I’ve been able to work things out. It’s aggravating not to know for so many years where you’re going, and to take so long, and to fuss around like a cat who can’t decide to lie down. And of course I’ve had to do other things like live while writing it. Life takes you away from the point of life like a bad guide. I need to be immersed in a fiction in order to get any momentum going. That’s hard to accomplish—that benevolent drowning. And I don’t know whether I shall ever do many of the things I want to do with the book. There is a serious notation problem, for instance. I’m trying to treat the page as a person, a place, a particular. You see, with this narrator, since he’s not writing a novel, it’s the page he’s increasingly working on, wiping himself with. Sometimes what he does is no more than a doodle. Still, the page has an increasing integrity of its own. It is a field of words. The numbering, the consecutiveness of the pages, is cast in doubt. I’m doubtful about some of the devices I’m using, and of course one is always in doubt about whether the style is going to be good enough to carry all the luggage you’ve packed for the journey. Because I have put all this time into The Tunnel, like the narrator himself, I better have made a good book—one worth reading—or I’ve really screwed things up.
MORROW: This is really the only fiction you’ve been working on since 1965 then?
GASS: Yes. I’ve published twelve to fifteen sections of it. But I also have a number of short stories in outline, so I’d love to get the novel out of the way so I can get back and do short stories. I know Stanley Elkin said at one point in an interview I had with him about George Mills that what he found, at a certain point in his work, was that anything he put into George Mills became a part of the book. I don’t know whether that is true or not. I think he was referring to something I once said about Proust: that Proust had achieved a kind of machinery for his novel that allowed him to put in an essay about art—a disquisition on sex—you know, anything—and it became Proust, it became a part of this book. What I want to do is to get a structure that will allow me to develop within it all kinds of forms and styles, a multiplicity of approach and attitude. And the critical thing is—is my obsession strong enough? As William Gaddis says, you must be obsessed! Is my obsession strong enough so that it will really behave like superglue and hold the whole globe at the end of the pen?
MORROW: One thing that distinguishes your work is the music of your voice, the musicality of the language. It seems to act in and of itself as a binding force.
GASS: I’m actually using, very directly, some musical forms in this book. Its whole conception is musical. It develops in terms of certain themes and variations and harmonies and recursive loops. I’ve repeated certain symbols and ideas in a dozen different forms. There are a few set themes which are almost like twelve tones, central notes struck. In the progression of the book, each one of my major themes has its hour in the light before it recedes to play a more subordinate role again. Then a new theme will emerge to dominate its day, only to be reabsorbed in a fresh reorganization, where a constantly altering relationship of all the various themes takes place. Of course, you really can’t call the novel musical, in any literal sense. I’m looking for a structure—not just the sound to the language—but all organization and juxtaposition of elements of persons, symbols, and events as well, which will be close to the way one works with musical material. I have to work with a Schoenbergian kind of row, sometime in retrograde, then in inversion, in repetitions and all the rest—with a play of symbols which doesn’t remain a gimmick but reaches through structure, sound, and shape, some emotion.
MORROW: The tonal row seems to be an attractive analogue to anyone who’s interested in breaking down tired narrative structure. I know a poet who is interested in vowel sounds this way, vowel sounds primarily in developing predisposed vowel rows.
GASS: God, I want to stay away from that! But I do have a few pages which are fugueish. It is the closest I come to an identifiable musical structure. I do run my sound around like a bike about the block, but one will see immediately their distance from the real thing: You can’t write a real fugue, obviously, but you can arrange your sentences so that they take on a fugal feel. Most of the time my musical play is much more remote and metaphorical. One thing, though, that’s interesting about Schoenberg is that what you work with is a tonal row with, in effect, what logicians would call a transformational operator in front of it. Perhaps the transform says “invert” or “mirror.” We do similar things all the time with propositions in logic, and one can do the same things with propositions in ordinary language. Some of the inversion operators are purely mechanical, and they don’t interest me as much—the “mirror image” effect, for instance. The kind of transformation operators that I find interesting are epistemological ones. Take an ordinary sentence like “He went to the market.” Then put the operator “He dreamed” in front. It alters the significance of the proposition without changing its verbal nature at all. That’s how I use the image of a tunnel. Kohler’s digging a tunnel. It’s all simple, and at the same time, so involved. I’ve got to have my basic proposition: Kohler’s digging a tunnel, as odd as it is, there like a basement to a barnyard. Damn it, the dumb shit is down there digging a tunnel and he has to hide the dirt from his wife, doesn’t he, like an escapee. But why is he digging a tunnel out of his own house? Is he insane? What’s going on? Well, reader, you tell me. Henry James, that dear soul of the tunneling sentence, was, of course, a tremendous transformer. He adds on epistemological operators like a checkout clerk. James doesn’t say: “Fred went to the market.” He says: “Ruth believed Frank dreamed Fred went to the market.” That’s the master! And that’s what I’m doing in my fool’s way, arranging themes, symbols, in a sort of row, and transforming them with various operations. The idea is, ultimately, to have a composition that makes sense out of the senseless, music out of cacophony. The relations of those themes create a kind of melodic line. Eventually these connections have to center about one and only one controlling idea. In this case, it is the metaphor of the tunnel, which I make the symbolic subject of the novel. Every sentence is about that image, builds and belabors it.
MORROW: Displacement would seem to be a theme here, too. A tunnel is created by displacing something to create something else—by leaving nothing there. This is again the fusion of seeming contradictories. The tunnel is something composed of a cylindrical void—nothingness. Then too the human body is made of tunnels, cylinders.
GASS: Oh, yes, of course there is all the sexual imagery, there always is. I’m staying away from it to a certain extent, because it can be so oppressive and obvious. Then, of course, there’s the tunnel which one uses to escape. There’s the tunnel which allows you to get through hills and other obstacles. There’s the positive and negative sense of tunnels. There are endless possibilities. Realizing them has so far been an endless project.
MORROW: You are at work on another book, aren’t you? An architecture book.
GASS: Yes. I began it with Peter Eisenman, an architect of considerable, though perhaps perverse, genius. Peter is to architecture what some of us like to think we are to writing. I met him because I once did a review of one of his houses, and we got along very well, I thought. He suggested that we do a collaboration, and although I’m not a collaborator, the idea seemed exciting. I have written a text which deals with one of his houses, called House VI. He numbers his houses. He has these numerical superstitions like Schoenberg had for thirteen. But for him, it’s twelve. I think he’s now up to 11B. Most of his houses have never been built, but this one I saw, House VI, has. So I wrote about sixty pages. I attempt to establish a relationship between the structure of fiction—the structure of literature—and the structure of architecture. I did this particularly because Peter was interested in Chomsky, and was searching, in his projects, for architecture’s deep structure. Perhaps silly, but it got his mind going, and there was something about the expression “deep structure” which stimulated him and yet had nothing to do with Chomsky’s views. Peter pursued his chimera, and good things came of it, because he is a really very gifted architect. His projects are profoundly original. He was to have designed the book to suggest the structure of House VI itself.
GASS: No, no pop-ups, but the arrangement of the text and pictures was to resemble the nature of House VI’s composition. Since House VI has no entrance—that is, it has no entrance in the formal sense—the house really begins in the middle. It is based on model logic: It has fundamental shapes and principles, then uses operators which generate the house.
MORROW: It sounds very pure, very historically grounded: the hearth at the heart of the house.
GASS: Peter’s a purified modernist. There is no significant social concern , none of Corbusier’s utopianism. But he’s of the Corbusier, Terragni, the Italian rationalist school if he belongs to any. He’s written the book on that whole Como school, but it isn’t published yet, and that is his problem. He starts many projects, but finishes few. Our book is a case in point. The text got completed but the design didn’t. So I’m redoing the book, on soberer lines, with my wife’s help. She is an architect too.
MORROW: You teach a philosophy of literature course at Washington University. How did this evolve?
GASS: First of all I taught at Purdue for many years. I taught Greek philosophy: never philosophy of literature. And when I came to Washington University there was such a course in the catalogue. It was suggested I try it, so I did. When I gave the students only philosophy I found they knew no literature. Now I only give them literature to read, and teach the appropriate philosophy in the classroom. Most of the things we study are contemporary or nearly so. This semester John Hawkes is coming, so they’ll read Virginie. I did Walter Abish’s How German Is It last year. Thomas Bernhard’s Corrections mysteriously went out of print in the year of its publication, so I couldn’t use it, but I’m doing Carlos Fuentes’s new book Distant Relations, also Juan Goytisolo’s Makbara. I think Goytisolo is terrific. And I teach these novels to a 200-level class, sophomores.
MORROW: How are the philosophical texts, or notions, tied in?
GASS: Well, when I teach Handke, or Bernhard, I talk about Wittgenstein, because Handke and Bernhard and Wittgenstein constitute the Austrian Connection. What I concentrate on are the philosophical implications of the form of the work, not the manifest ideas or the ideological propaganda. For instance, when we did Walter we worked with the concept of the familiar among others. With Hawkes we will examine the idea of innocence.
MORROW: Form is the idea, it seems, if you’ll agree the tale of the tribe is always the same.
GASS: For me it is. So I always approach the philosophical implications of the structures. Of course, the content is implied, I don’t like the distinction. I show students other ways of looking at the problem, too, in order that they realize how my way is only one of many.
MORROW: Sounds like a good way to get philosophy students interested in the contemporary novel. Readers of the contemporary novel are usually already interested in philosophy to some degree, so a course like this evens the odds.
GASS: When I was in Egypt, people were asking me, Isn’t the novel dead in America? There’s no audience anymore for the serious novel, is there? And I said, That’s true. And they said, Isn’t that a shame. And I said, No, because now only the people who really want to expend the energy, who care, are reading. We got rid of all the ruck.
MORROW: It sounds elitist but it’s not. It will always be a small group, unwilling to loiter, though. It is really another minority group.
GASS: In Egypt the situation is so political, the social situation is so desperate, that the writers are all politicized. Except the best ones. Mahfouz is not. He really should have the Nobel one day, but he won’t get it, probably, because of politics. Anyway, they kept saying, Why do you write? And whatever I’d tell them, they’d say, Yes, but why do you write? Why, when there’s no audience? And I said, There are two kinds of audience. There’s this audience out here in the marketplace all together for your newspapers and entertainment magazines, an audience which has to be renewed, like the sun, every day. Maybe they’ll come back to read the next thing you write, but they’ll never read the thing you wrote yesterday again. Then, on the other hand, there’s this vertical audience, where you’re writing for a small group now, then another small group tomorrow, then another small group in the future. It’s to be nickel-and-dimed into immortality. One of the more leftist writers then said, Oh you mean like the pharaohs. And it was a good remark. And I said, Oh yeah. People can visit my books, but they’re going to have to ride on a camel and have their picture taken first. It’s funny but the Egyptians are so antihistorical. It takes a bunch of Germans and English rushing around Cairo forming associations to throw their bodies down before some thousand-year-old mosque to save relics whose religion they don’t believe in anyway. It’s amazing—the place is full of things like that. Everything in Egypt is either twenty-five minutes old or twenty-five hundred years old. And a lot of the things minutes old look years.
MORROW: I would think that that kind of crazy, disjointed environment would produce more creative art.
GASS: I think it may be. I’ve read some Egyptian writers who belong to the older generation and now, too, there is lots of ferment, lots of interest, there are many exciting people. In fact, Egyptians are really quite wonderful. It very well may be that there is a large number of excellent writers working there now. What I’d like to do, and I don’t know how to do it, is to get more translating done. It is a difficult problem, though. The people who tend to do the translating are scholars, colonialists, teachers who’ve been teaching in girls’ schools, or whatever. You can imagine the pattern, the result, and it’s appalling. I’ve been reading three Egyptian writers: All of them are my age or older. They’re not the young people. The three I’ve been reading are world-class writers, there’s no question about it. I met two of them. Naguib Mahfouz is so old that you meet him but it doesn’t matter. I did have a two-hour conversation with Yusuf Idris, who is a novelist, short story writer, playwright. His play, which was banned by Nasser, is now on the boards in Cairo and it’s a big hit. The first time I met Idris he was high on something, and his gaze went around my head like a stream around a rock. He said, I can’t talk to you today, I have a cold. The second time we had a very nice chat. Tewfik al Hakim, who wrote Fate of a Cockroach, is impressive. I’ve agreed to do an introduction to The Thief and the Dogs, which is probably—everybody in Egypt tells me—the best Mahfouz novel. He’s the only Egyptian who’s regularly nominated for a Nobel. I’ve read several of his books. He is that good. A bit old-fashioned for us perhaps. But he needs a translator: The translations are flat.
MORROW: Perhaps someone who is a writer, English or American, could work together with an academic translator to bring it into the language.
GASS: Yes, it’s a possibility.
MORROW: Who did you read before you wrote Omensetter’s Luck? Who influenced your work?
GASS: All sorts. Early Joyce was incredible to me. A bad influence in the sense that he was so overwhelming. And Faulkner too, of course, was an influence in the same way. The conscious influences, the ones that I used purposefully (Henry James was another like Joyce, on that overwhelming, waterfall level) were Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, people a little on the periphery. Gertrude Stein probably had the greatest influence on me, the greatest impact from a conscious point of view.
MORROW: Musically, primarily?
GASS: Theoretically, as well. I think she’s the best theoretician we’ve ever had. Not a hell of a lot of people tried very hard to work through her theoretical material. Or tried to grasp the implications of it. The alarming loveliness of all those essays. She was concentrating on trying to figure out what the sentence was all about. Gertrude Stein was trained in philosophy; she had a clear theoretical mind; she had a hard abstract intelligence. People usually talk about her style as abstract, but what she was interested in—that really got me—was trying to figure out what the fundamental unit of composition of a work of literature was. It is typical of Gertrude to go back through William James all the way back to Hume. What was the atom? What was the impression, the basic unit, the building unit? And she decided that the basic unit of construction was the sentence. The basic unit of composition was the paragraph, because it was the only thing that had a significant emotional effect. These were not mere formal descriptive properties because a sentence could be—could function—as a paragraph. So she was trying to get at some sort of functional unit. And then she explored the structure of the sentence, and the way a paragraph was built of them, better than anybody I know. She also pioneered in the phenomenology of reading—an area I’m interested in. And when I started writing I spent two years writing sentences: contextless sentences, homeless linguines, trying to figure out what the artistic element in them was. I studied philosophy, the logic of structure, and the grammatical structure of sentences, and the form that made them work. But to get a sense of what was beautiful in a sentence, to see what its aesthetic form was, and what its connection with all these other, larger, rhetorical forms was, took me a long time. Anyway, Gertrude Stein was absolutely essential to all of that vagrant activity. I haven’t got it right yet.
MORROW: Do you build by paragraphs?
GASS: I build by paragraphs.
MORROW: It would seem to be most obvious in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, where the paragraphs are the obvious building blocks, each with its own subtitle, sort of celebratory of each small unit of construction. Donald Barthelme, in some of his stories, is another writer who works this way, with paragraphs. And it is evident in some of Walter Abish’s short fictions.
GASS: Don Barthelme is, of course, a Gertrude Stein fanatic too. When I first knew his work, or when he and I came into recognition of each other’s work, he was editing the University of Houston magazine, Forum—years ago. He was one of the first people who printed my work, and was interested in my interest in Gertrude Stein. Don is very much in Stein’s debt, I think. But he is more interested, also, in the collage process than I am. I’m interested in juxtapositions but ones which are actually syntactical. Don puts together to pull apart. I do the opposite.
MORROW: How do you set out to build a paragraph?
GASS: Apron, hammer, and nails. It’s all intuition, based on what you hope is careful experience. One of the things I’m interested in as a critic is developing a notation for aesthetic form the way logicians have a symbolism for logical form. The problem is that there is no element in logic that takes care of the quality of a proposition. When you put sentences together to get an argument you can say, this argument is valid, which is a qualitative judgment. And maybe the character of being well formed is a quality.
MORROW: Validity has nothing to do with beauty, in other words.
GASS: Right. There are things going on in sentences that elude our quantitative concerns. That is what the architecture book is all about: It’s about the architecture of sentences as much as the architecture of a house. It is a metaphor. Sentences are containers, paragraphs contain sentences. The images of logic are always of spatially organized containers: Classes are contained within classes. From Aristotle on, spatial imagery has dominated every area of Western logic. So I am trying to find a notation that won’t rely on the simply spatial, to define the connections that are artistic, because the spatial images are of cattle pens. Because when cattle are in a pen the pen merely encloses them. Nothing beyond that happens to either. So we need a different imagery, more like chewed beef in the stomach.
MORROW: How does Barth build?
GASS: I think he builds inward from the widest walls of his narrative. The whole frame tale, the device within the device, is his mode. Barth is a logician, has a passion for literary logic. His disconnections are a logician’s, too.
MORROW: Do you feel you are not a logical writer?
GASS: I’m an intuitive writer. I never know what I’m doing. Afterward, I may make up reasons. But only afterward, not during the process: I leave theory aside when I’m writing fiction. Philosophy fascinates me separately. Barth is a completely different type. He works analytically, it seems to me. He builds a train: He puts the track together piece by piece, and then his passion has to get the electricity through it. He knows from the first—I’m speaking relatively—how the track’s going to go. The whole book is laid out and then he goes along and builds it. But his own passion, when he succeeds (and I think there are moments—only moments—when the passion doesn’t get through) is wonderful. There is then always that hot rail. I think it is part of his nature: He cannot send his passion except though channels of form he has constructed.
MORROW: You are not a preconstructor, then, at all?
GASS: I wish I were. One wishes one were when one is foundering around. Barth is amazing that way. He looks like his work, he acts like his work. He has a precise mind, witty, passionate, strong. It’s the passion that makes his novels come alive, otherwise they would be contrivances. When I read Walter Abish’s early stuff that is what I missed, I wasn’t getting it—the feeling. But I think I was missing something. Walter used to send me his books. You know, you get a lot of books, but I was always intrigued, yet somehow dissatisfied, but when How German Is It came up for the PEN/Faulkner, I was having a terrible time. Nothing was any good. And I thought, this will be really interesting to read, because this is an intelligent writer. Now, I’ve looked back and found the earlier books much more exciting than I thought they were. He’s a smart man, and a person who’s been through a hell of a lot. Ninety percent of the time when you get a prize like the National Book Award nothing happens. (William Gaddis gets the National Book Award and nothing happens, Willy just disappears. Though now the MacArthur has descended like a holy cloud upon him.) This is less the case with Walter. Partly, in Europe, it is because of the subject matter. It didn’t take off in the United States quite the same way as it did in Europe, where Walter is a big success. But Walker Percy went through the same thing with The Moviegoer.
MORROW: When did you start reading?
GASS: I was a slow reader. That is, I was slow getting to be fast. I remember having a hell of a lot of trouble reading in the third grade. I learned how to read in the fifth grade, I think it was. But that’s puzzling, because, although I remember having a lot of trouble when I was in school because I couldn’t read, I also remember that I was reading Malory’s Morte d’Arthur with love and astonishment then. It was the first book I read that I remember with absolute clarity. Yet that was before I officially “learned to read.” By the time I was in the seventh grade I was a speed-reader. I became a member of a speed-reading team. Speed-reading teams were at that time fairly common. Our high school had a team of readers, and you went out and read against other schools, and then did these comprehension tests. One year I was the speed-reading champ of the state of Ohio. I read slowly now. I learned to slow down, and read properly, when I started reading philosophy seriously, and, as a consequence, finally learned to read poetry properly too. Now I’m practically a lip reader again, although I can still go like hell if I have to.
MORROW: When did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
GASS: The only reason I know the answer to this is because there is in the family archives a letter written when I was eight years old announcing my dedication to the writing career. I wrote poetry all the way through school, I wrote an awful lot as a journalist in high school. I had a commentary column in the newspaper. But a lot of poetry, awful stuff. I suppose all those columns are somewhere in some high school morgue.
MORROW: Has it ever turned up?
GASS: No. I know who took it. It was taken by a colleague in the English department. The reason I know that is because he tried to change some of it and peddle it as a play, and it was recognized. He was a professional thief of manuscripts and published a lot of things, including a piece of mine about Katherine Anne Porter, which I’ve never really acknowledged or gone back to retrieve or reclaim. But I can prove my authorship. It was in the Southwest Quarterly, and it’s been reprinted in a number of anthologies. He changed a little of the Katherine Anne Porter piece—partly because he showed it to her—he’d done his dissertation on her. He showed it to her and she made some criticisms, and he wanted to be sure to stay on her good side, so he made a few minor changes, but by and large it’s mine, word for word. Anyway, he took the manuscript of the novel. I had notes, but no other copy. Everybody has a story of a manuscript disaster. Either you left it on the train, or it got burned up by the maid … mine is the theft of the first version.
MORROW: Then you rewrote it.
GASS: I rewrote it in a state of psychic shock. I spent about six to nine months in a state of stupid intensity. At that time I had only published a few things, hardly anything, so my sense of the value of the manuscript was only this private one. I’d spent many years on it, I was very upset. When I got into a state of fatigue, since I’d spent so much time on it, many of the pages came back word for word. I have a bad memory, and if I’d deliberately tried to remember I would have failed. But I also rewrote as I went along, and when I finished it was a much better book. I recaptured it, if you will, in a short period of time compared to the time it took to write it in the first place. I knew the book very well, obviously. When I finished I congratulated myself. I had, as they say, overcome. By that time I had published my first pieces in Accent magazine, and I was invited to go to Illinois to teach. I accepted a visiting lectureship there, and took the manuscript of the reestablished book with me. At this time I didn’t know who had stolen it. Though I had a deep suspicion, I had no proof at all. So I went to Illinois, and left the manuscript in my drawer, as is my habit, for about six months. I intended to put the finishing touches on it and send it out to the admiring world, you know. But it was terrible. It was awful. It was a pile of garbage. And I realized what I had rescued—and improved—was no good. So I had to start all over. That was the really low point. To give you an idea of how much different the final version is from the original, the Furber character hardly functioned in the first two versions. That’s how much it changed. I learned something from all that. Namely, that every rejection and problem you run into is a possible advantage. But among low points, that was a very low point. And then, when I finally redid the whole bid and sent it off, it was of course rejected and rejected and rejected. New American Library finally took it. They printed fifteen hundred copies in their first edition. Three thousand sold in six years, maybe. The dust jacket is blue-green, the design sort of vaguely like a roulette wheel. Vaguely like a dish of sickness.
MORROW: And In the Heart of the Heart of the Country was being written about this time?
GASS: The stories were contemporary with the beginning of the novel. That’s what happens with me: I have a lot of things going at once. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country—the title story—was done in the sixties. Nineteen sixty-three or so. I finished it in about 1966. So when the novel finally came out in 1966 all these other things were done. When you work as slowly as I do, books tend to come out in spurts: I have several books going at once and then they come out in one splat, then there is nothing for a long time. I have a couple of more years to go onThe Tunnel and I have a book of stories in rough. One story I started in 1954. When I’m working on long projects I have to be immersed, so any distraction from the outside just stops me. When I’m teaching with no time off, as I was for many years, the only way I could get anything done was to write against deadline, and to write shorter things, nonfiction. The only things people wanted from me, and still want from me, are essays: lectures and essays. So I started doing a lot of them because I knew that otherwise I’d never get ahead, I would never get any time to work. All the breaks I’ve gotten in the field have been due to the essays, not the fiction. And I’m interested in the essays. But I write essays and reviews because that’s the only way to squeeze words through time’s tight slats. For the last few years I’ve had a chair, and that has given me one semester off each year. That’s why I could go to Egypt, since I teach only in the spring. Alas, I get lured away by possibilities, like “You want to go to Egypt?” Yes, I want to go to Egypt! “Borneo? The North Pole?” Sure. That’s the problem with me. Somebody says, “You want to write an essay on hydrostatics in grass?” And I say, “Yeah, that would be a good subject.” That’s my problem. Everything interests me. Except economics.