The Rumpus Interview with William Giraldi

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In a few days, Norton will publish Busy Monsters, the debut novel by William Giraldi. The book has received three starred reviews and a blurb from Harold Bloom. It is being touted (already) as a contender for various literary awards. All this is good and right.

But it’s not why you should read the book. You should read the book because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever read before. That’s not blurbspeak from a pal. It’s stone-cold truth. The sentences are dazzling and distressed, driven along by the addled rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the absurd insights of Barry Hannah. They made me laugh for many weeks.

Billy’s a pal, so I’m not going to pretend I’m an impartial source. But he’s a guy worth listening to, then reading. You’ll see.

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The Rumpus: So you gave me a draft of Busy Monsters, what, three years ago?  And I can remember reading the first paragraph and saying: “Holy shit! He’s done it!”  I said this out loud, though I didn’t know I was saying it outloud, because my wife said, “Who’s done it?”  The point is, I could tell from the first hundred words that you were writing in this insane, ecstatic voice, that you’d finally let the madman out of the cage.  What’s so strange to me is that you didn’t seem to understand how good the book was.

William Giraldi: When I showed you that draft I was terrified because I had spent four years working on it in secret and suspected that I had composed something slightly unholy and hellbent, and often one’s first impulse upon being confronted by something like that is to quash it.  I feared it was a spider on the wall that would surely get flattened, and my feelings are so easily hurt, so easily trespassed upon, I was just too afraid to show you or anyone else.  When I began the story, I remembered reading an essay by the great Austrian writer Karl Kraus in which he writes, “My language is the universal whore I must make a virgin,” and the wisdom of that line really speared me, so when I sat down to begin Busy, I knew that I wanted to wield English in a way that was unusual, both barbarian and virginal.

I also tried to heed your call for me to unshackle myself from the influences of Hemingway and Carver because you didn’t believe they permitted the full range of my personality to flourish on the page.  That was hard.  I wanted to be as emotionally raw and truthful as some of your own stories—“The Body in Extremis,” say—while crooning in this daimonic, Dionysian voice that made me feel possessed.  Creating that carnival of characters in Busy Monsters required a hell-for-leather inhibition that I was never capable of before because I think I was just too fearful of revealing the ecstatic madness in me.  Novelists fail if they’re afraid on the page.

But it wasn’t clear to me that I might have succeeded in my aims because I was just too full of doubt and trepidation, as most writers are, or should be, I think. I knew that the effusive language and ecstatic vision were going either to get readers excited or else make them very angry. And I feel grateful that I have any readers at all, that the reaction to Busy so far seems to be the former and not the latter.

Rumpus: There’s a contradiction in what you’re saying here, but a fascinating one. Writers do have to be fearless. But they also have to be in touch with their self-doubt, able to sniff out their own evasions and indulgences. That’s the basic balancing act between masturbatory prose and writer’s block. What impresses me about you, frankly, is that you’re able to use reading as your ballast. You connect so deeply to the minds of other writers, and to use their words for your creative guidance. You’re the most voracious and devout reader I know. I think that’s what keeps you humble.

Giraldi: You and I both know writers, in Boston and elsewhere, who are truly solipsistic. Anyone can spot them a mile off, because they have nickels where their hearts should be, eyes for only themselves.  One of the major blemishes I see in first novels by youngish writers is a stylish nihilism they mistake for ironic or satirical depth.  Solipsism and nihilism are always indicators of moral myopia, and a novelist with no moral center is like a planet with no sun: not a pleasant place to visit.  Of course we writers are interested in our own selves, but we must also be interested in others with equal or greater gravity, because human communion is the business of every storyteller.  Even a deeply interior, solitary, and ostensibly misanthropic novel such as Ivan Goncharov’s masterpiece Oblomov, in which the protagonist chooses “suicide by sofa,” is intimately concerned with human relationships.  Literature is an avenue to enlargement, to other experiences.  We read for pleasure, yes, but also for wisdom, for the chance to glimpse other minds and hearts, and for a possible hint about how to live our own lives in the midst of so much madness.

I’m often baffled and inexplicably depressed, and I’ve always suspected that betterment is to be found in books.  Harold Bloom insists that literature doesn’t make better people, and I agree with him that Matthew Arnold’s notion of literature as social corrective and surrogate for religion is a flawed notion indeed, but personally speaking, I read because I want to be better—a better writer, teacher, father, husband, human—and somewhere, in some important book, I’m going to find out how to begin to do it.

Rumpus: See, this is what I love about how you discuss books. You’re always focused on the book itself, and how its words enlarge the human conversation. One of the perversities of our age is this incessant focus on the author rather than the book.  It’s the by-product of a culture that doesn’t have the patience, the degree of attention, required for reading.  Most folks would rather gossip about a writer than talk about a book.  Some years ago, you’ll remember, that sweet jackass blogger spent a few hundred words insulting me. What amazed me about this guy—who passes himself off as a passionate advocate for literature—is that he had nothing to say about my work.  He hadn’t read any of my books. To me, that’s the real insult. I’m not saying that writers aren’t allowed to call each other out.  But it has to be about the work, and it has to be an honest disappointment in the quality of the work, not some fucked up grievance masquerading as an aesthetic complaint.

A few months ago, for instance, I reviewed a novel by a promising young writer, a guy whose work I’d read and enjoyed in the past. It was deeply disappointing.  By which I mean: he never developed the characters into real people. They spent most of their time alone. From time to time, they spouted dogma at each other. Occasionally they had sex, but not the kind that makes you feel anything. I spent the last half of the book frantically searching for some glint of genuine emotion, something I could praise.  So writers, and writer/critics, are allowed to dislike work.  But they have an obligation to say how and why the work fails, and to be explicit.  You and I have a difference of opinion here, but I feel any critic who levels an accusation against another writer’s work should provide a fair sampling of the prose to back it up. I hate feeling that I’m having to trust some critic, whose motives I don’t know. I’d rather trust the reader to make her own judgment.

Giraldi: We don’t disagree at all about the necessity of critics providing examples to support their claims, but I do dislike a critical essay or review that is just a smattering of quotes flanked by summary.  I think where you and I might disagree a bit on this is in my somewhat stubborn belief that one doesn’t really have any business writing professionally about books unless one’s business is books, because of course a novel or story collection isn’t composed in a vacuum but rather is a luminous or lackluster addition to a vast mosaic, has predecessors informing it, guiding it whether or not the author is aware of the influence, the anxiety of that influence.  This view might be unabashedly Bloomian but I think it happens to be true in most cases.

Some reviews in major venues are mere book reports, no better than what you see on Amazon, and reading reviews on Amazon is rather like looking for relationship advice on the wall of a public bathroom.  I won’t bemoan the current state of literary criticism or book reviewing because that’s painfully predictable and has been done by lots of critics in every era after Aristotle, and besides, I don’t believe criticism is in serious peril: wonderful critics are writing beautifully in important papers, magazines, and journals.  Meaningful intellectual and emotional engagement with the work should be the goal, I think—you’re right: the writer as a personality doesn’t matter—and I hope I always attempt that meaningful engagement, a placing of the book onto the mosaic.  Gore Vidal was my first American model for this.  I read his mammoth collection United States when I was nineteen and knew immediately that I wanted to learn to do something similarly dynamic with the literary essay.  I’m still learning.

But that word you used, “trust,” that’s the key, because the best critics and reviewers establish their authority in their prose and in their assertions and make it possible for you to trust them even when you don’t fully agree.  I don’t always see eye to eye with Hazlitt or Trilling or Kazin, but I always trust that they are being fair, that they have thought long and deep about what they are asserting, because I know that literature is their lives.  Those people you mention, those who gossip about writers: they are merely weekend readers, tourists in the land of literature, quasi-scribes with no authentic appreciation or love for the literary.  One of the smartest sentences ever written is another by Karl Kraus: “So many people write because they don’t have the character not to.”

Rumpus: I love that you keep quoting Karl Kraus.  We were lovers before the war.  Okay, one last question, and it has to do with Busy Monsters.  I think it’s a masterpiece, and I think a lot of people are going to agree with me.  You’re making the language new, in the manner of your heroes, from Barry Hannah to Hemingway to Hopkins.  And I think a lot of younger readers are going to read it and feel the thrilling yank of literature. But what I want to know is: are you freaking out, man?  Because I tend to freak out when things are going well, especially around my work.

Giraldi: Well, my son just turned two, and Katie is expecting our second child, so I’m not freaking out too much over Busy because I’m freaking out over how properly to raise this little hurricane I live with, and where we’ll put our new baby—our condo is a cubby—and trying to save money, etc.  Like you, I’m a father and husband before I’m a writer, and so my family keeps me grounded, keeps me from getting sucked down the publishing world’s rabbit hole.  But I’m immensely grateful for the good luck Busy has enjoyed thus far, for all the hard work Norton has done on its behalf.  One writes a novel nowadays and expects it to register not at all, so I feel very fortunate and, yes, even a little blessed.


Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →