“I generally don’t use tape recorders. I take notes and work from memory. You can use the tape recorder as an aide-memoire, but I can tell you that I have been doing this for thirty years, and I’ve never had anyone challenge a quote. And I never quote what people have actually said. I quote what people remember having said. I try to create a fair rendition of the point they were making in the spirit in which it was recounted.”
Weschler portrait by David Hockney.
Lawrence Weschler is widely regarded, alongside John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, and William Langewiesche, as one of our foremost practitioners of literary nonfiction. He was a staff writer at The New Yorker for twenty years, retiring in 2001 to direct the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. His books include Vermeer in Bosnia, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Boggs: A Biography, Calamities of Exile, and, most recently, Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences.
MINOR: Do you mind if I record you?
WESCHLER: Sure, but I don’t like using a tape recorder. A straight transcript of a conversation invariably falsifies what happens in two ways. First, every reporter knows that all the good stuff happens after you turn off the tape recorder, so there is obviously something that happens when the tape is running that does not when it’s off. But beyond that, the transcript only records the words. There is a whole subset of communication—gestures, the language of the body, facial expressions—taking place that is not words, and when you take that away, you have in fact falsified what has taken place. You might have had a very interesting, articulate conversation with someone, but when you read the transcript, what you find is not at all articulate.
MINOR: So how does one record information?
WESCHLER: I generally don’t use tape recorders. I take notes and work from memory. You can use the tape recorder as an aide-memoire, but I can tell you that I have been doing this for thirty years, and I’ve never had anyone challenge a quote. And I never quote what people have actually said. I quote what people remember having said. I try to create a fair rendition of the point they were making in the spirit in which it was recounted.
MINOR: The bigger issue, I suppose, is how one convinces other people to reveal information about themselves.
WESCHLER: Way back in college I had a marine biology teacher who learned I was just floundering on this big, amorphous topic, and I told him I was struggling, that I didn’t know what I was doing. And he said, “When you’re doing a big essay, it’s like you’re walking on the beach and you come upon a dead sea walrus and you’re curious about how he died. You can do one of two things. You can pick up that piece of driftwood over there and start bashing the flank. And all you are going to do is make blubber and hash of him. Or you can pick up that driftwood, go sit down on a boulder, pick up a rock and start sharpening the driftwood. It will take all afternoon, but by the end you’ll have a blade. Then you can do the autopsy, and in five minutes you’ll know what happened.” So when you’re dealing with a huge, amorphous subject, it’s best not to ask huge, amorphous questions. Better to spend ninety percent of your time honing the questions, and after awhile the subject will open up.
MINOR: In Vermeer in Bosnia, you write, “It’s one of the great things about great works of art that they can bear—and, indeed, that they invite—a superplenitude of possible readings, some of them contradictory.” Could the same be said of your own work, or of the literature of nonfiction in general?
WESCHLER: I want to get rid of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. The class I teach at NYU is called “The Fiction of Nonfiction”, and it is less a class about reporting methods than it is about the fictional methods that can be applied to nonfictional writing. It presupposes that the writer will try to be fair, but also acknowledges that there is no such thing as objectivity, and revels in that fact. Then we get down to business and talk about all the stuff that’s interesting: form, freedom, irony, voice, tone, structure. We are looking at masters—Ian Frazier, Jane Kramer, John McPhee, A. J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell—and if you look at their books, absolutely they are works of literature. What drives me crazy is that my books are spread all over the bookstore. My Boggs is in Economics, my A Miracle, A Universe is in Latin America. This book here (holds up a copy of Vermeer in Bosnia), who the hell knows where they’re gonna put this. I was in a Barnes & Noble somewhere and looked for Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders and found it in New Age Psychedelics. And it’s not just me; the same is true of Ian Frazier and Jane Kramer and so forth. The point is that they should be in alphabetical order, in Literature. It’s not just that my books have a superplenitude of meanings, but that they are designed to illuminate each other. Boggs and Mr. Wilson, for example, even have the same type face, the same trim size. They’re meant to be read side-by-side, but no one ever knows that.
MINOR: What kinds of things do your books say about each other?
WESCHLER: I’m interested in people or places that were moseying along in the everydayness of their lives, and they suddenly caught fire, and their lives became different than they thought they would be. That’s not only interesting on an artistic level, but also on a political level. When it happens in individual lives—Dave Wilson, Harold Shapinski—it’s almost comical. When it happens to a whole country, when a whole polity catches fire, it’s enthralling. When it happened in Poland, people said that Solidarity was the embodiment of the subjectivity of the Polish people. People who throughout history had been content to be treated as objects suddenly demanded to be treated as subjects. Repression consists of taking people who had been treated like subjects and turning them into objects, and the resistance was that refusal to be turned back into objects. So what is pervasive across my body of work is an interest in objects becoming subjects and what is involved in asserting that, or in the case of Vermeer, inventing that, dealing with all the forces that mitigate against that intention. And what becomes interesting, then, is an awareness of the workings of grace. You work and you work and you work, and then it is as though whatever happens, it happens by itself. It never would have happened without all that prior work, that preparation, but that prior work did not make it happen.
MINOR: What are some examples of these workings of grace?
WESCHLER: Solidarity is a good example. All the activists who spent the years of the Seventies in jail—all those years preparing for Solidarity—when August 1980 happened, it blew their minds. They had no idea why it happened. They acknowledged that it would not have happened without the prior work, but that the prior work did not make it happen. It was that plus something else. On the artistic level—you know this from your own writing—you work at something and it’s not working, it’s not working, it’s not working—and then suddenly it works. You’re in the zone. And that’s all very mysterious and very interesting to me. There’s something important going on there, and it’s unclear exactly what it is. The word grace comes from gratis: for free.
I’m very interested in Socratic artists, people who make you say, “Wait a minute. What’s going on here? How is it that we are able to fly at all?” I love artists who can throw you into that state of perplex. In the case of the Mr. Wilson book, I endeavored to replicate the experience of going to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where you’re reading the captions (beneath exhibits), where after awhile you ask yourself, “What the hell is going on here?” There’s that sense of slippage across media that’s very interesting to me.
MINOR: Vermeer in Bosnia ends with a short piece—something you call a convergence—in which you put a poem (Wislawa Szymborska’s “Maybe All This”) into conversation with a painting (Vermeer’s Lacemaker), and this ending also seems like a beginning, as you have published many more convergences since the book was released. Is the convergence a new literary form, and if so, what does it offer the reader and the writer?
WESCHLER: I offered that piece to a lot of places—The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s—and no one wanted it. But I’ve come to see it as sort of a natural form, something haiku-like, and I would love to see other people try it. It’s not a form original to me. When I published the first one, I was sure to give credit where credit is due, to John Berger. After Che Guevara was killed, Berger wrote an essay that began with that famous photograph of the general. He said that we all know where this photograph came from. It’s based on Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, a painting which is hotwired into everyone’s brain. That painting taught the general where to stand, the photographer what angle to take the picture from. The subtext—Che as Christ, as resurrection; the corpse of the thief in Rembrandt alludes to the corpse of Christ—taught me something. That was a huge, formative event for me. I think that’s how we tend to think anyway, but our thoughts are muffled by so much noise.
MINOR: You often deal with calamities and atrocities, but there always seems to be an almost corresponding awareness of wonder in the things you write. Are you conscious of that?
WESCHLER: I’m not unaware of it, and occasionally I am intent on it. I would say that I experience things at the two poles. Wonder and horror.
David Hockney [an artist about whom Weschler has written frequently] is an inspiration in this regard, having survived probably more than the rest of us—the AIDS crisis, and the whole devastation of his entire cohort of friends. That would have turned anyone else into a raving, howling shade of themselves, but Hockney refuses to let that happen. His response is to celebrate life all the more. I admire that choice. If you spend part of your time thinking about the horrors, as I think you must if you are a citizen, you can either go stark, raving crazy, or you can commit to the other side. So they are of a piece to me, wonder and horror, and I don’t think I’m all that unusual in that regard. Perhaps as a writer you have to express it more.
MINOR: You tell a story in Vermeer in Bosnia about the Italian jurist Antonio Cassese, who was presiding over the preliminary hearings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He spent his days hearing about the cruelest rapes and murders and tortures humans can devise to inflict upon each other, and you asked him, “how, regularly obliged to gaze into such an appalling abyss, he had kept from going mad himself?” His response was that he kept sane by going to the Mauritshuis museum and looking at Vermeer paintings.
WESCHLER: He said that, and I had been doing it also, and I don’t think either one of us was aware that the other had been doing it. It’s not that surprising when you consider that Mauritshuis housed The Anatomy Lesson right next door to the room containing the Vermeers. It’s a pretty amazing museum.
The trail of epiphanies there, the chain of pearls, was his saying that all of Europe was Bosnia when Vermeer was doing his paintings, and in fact, that’s what those paintings were about. The way that Vermeer was inventing his pieces was the very invention of subjectivity.
That’s pretty much how it happened. I won’t pretend that it happens that way with all my writing. I pride myself on sometimes giving a fictive account of how things happen in terms of ordering matters so they can be more clearly understood. Not (a fictive account) in the actual reporting, but in the reporting of how the insight is happening.
MINOR: An earlier book, Calamities of Exile, collects three nonfiction novellas, and that tripartite pattern repeats itself through much of your work. In Vermeer in Bosnia, for example, the reader is offered “A Balkan Triptych”, “Three Polish Survivor Stories”, “Three L.A. Pieces”, and “Three Portraits of Artists”. What do you mean to do when organizing your work in this way?
WESCHLER: Triptychs work very nicely. A single piece by itself is whatever it is. Two pieces side by side set up artificial priorities. With a triptych you get all kinds of nice resonances. Flaubert says if you’re a fiction writer, if you’re setting a new scene, you need to mention three objects in the room, and that will pop the scene into three-dimensional reality.
I’ve just been reading this incredible essay by Walter Murch, the film editor, at transom.org, where he talks about a principle he calls Two-and-a-Half. If you have one conversation, people can hear it. If you have two overlapping conversations, people can keep track of both. You could even have a half of another conversation, perhaps a mild, uninteresting conversation, and people can hear that. If you add another conversation, people can’t hear it; it becomes noise.
MINOR: You’ve started a new literary journal.
WESCHLER: Omnivore. It’s hopeless.
MINOR: I haven’t been able to find the prototype issue anywhere.
WESCHLER: There’s one place you can buy it. The bookstore at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
One of the reasons I quit The New Yorker and took this job at the NYU Institute was to put up or shut up. I keep complaining about the fate of magazines, and I wanted to take a chance and show what I mean.
MINOR: Is the magazine going to happen in any regular way?
WESCHLER: On any given day, it looks like it might, but then it doesn’t, and it’s very frustrating. There is not a patronage system in America for general interest magazines like there is for ballet, for opera.
There was a moment when Newhouse was taking over The New Yorker, and a bunch of us went up to William Shawn, the editor—Alistair Reed was in the lead—and we said, “Why don’t we all just leave and start our own magazine?” And Mr. Shawn said, “Mr. Reed, you don’t understand. Writers don’t found magazines. Millionaires found magazines.”
MINOR: What is it that you would hope to do with such a magazine?
WESCHLER: It seems to me that the great crisis in this country is a media environment which is attention-squeezed, hate-driven, ink-blotted, sound-bit. Basically neo-Pavlovian, treating you like a salivating dog. Stimulate, jolt, salivate. You find that you are treated as a consumer, not as a citizen, not as someone capable of absorption and marvel and wonder.
I write books, but what really turns me on, what really captivates my thinking, is magazine culture. That’s a difficult thing, because magazine culture is in big trouble. If I write a book, it gets read by ten thousand people, if I write a magazine article it gets exposed to a hundred thousand people who are reading about something they didn’t know they had any interest in. The kind of writing I love comes at things from the side, and it relishes narrative itself. You find yourself reading, and about halfway along, you realize that what you’re reading is the most important thing in the world.