The Rumpus Interview with McSweeney’s Publisher Oscar Villalon


Villalon: I would say because someone like a Coover would say, “I’ll make it just interesting enough for you to want to try and tackle this.” Because it can’t just be difficult; there’s gotta be some sort of gloss on it, some sort of glitter attraction to make you want to stick with it.

Gaddis, I was reading him in that Paris Review book, the interviews, the second volume, there’s a big thing of Gaddis, and he says he goes out of his way to try to make it accessible. He says, “You gotta work, and I’m gonna leave stuff purposely, yes, ambiguous. And the reason I leave it ambiguous is because it is ambiguous, and I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not gonna spoon feed you anything.” But what Gaddis is very, very cognizant of, as he says in this interview, is, “I am gonna try to make this entertaining. I’m gonna try to make this worth your while as a reader, and I’m gonna put a lot of effort into it while at the same time trying to realize my vision of what I want this book to be.”

But Gaddis is also very upfront in saying I know it’s not for everybody. That’s why, in fact, when his first book came out, for the recognitions, it did awful. And he talks about that in the Paris Review, he talks about how he had to deal with that, and he thought when he came out with that book, “That’s it, I’m gonna take the world by storm, they’re gonna be kissing my feet, they will know that an immortal walks among them,” and when it sold something like a scant hundred copies or whatever, he was crushed. But you know, he grew up and said, “The people have spoken. I’m gonna get a job in PR for a corporation.” That’s how it goes. Fine. See there’s a smart guy; there’s a guy who realizes that this is not about, again, the whole thing of fulfillment. He wrote that book because he was compelled to write it, but then after he realized it wasn’t gonna work, he realized, “Hey, I got a family, I gotta eat. I’m joining the real world.” But in a way, it’s not a step down, it’s working.

Rumpus: I can hear that that practicality speaks to you in a very real way, in the sense that William Carlos Williams was a physician his whole life. He never looked at his poetry as a way to kind of parachute out of the rest of the world.

Villalon: Henry Green, the British author, was a fantastic businessman. And he also wrote some pretty good novels. In fact, this goes back to the disconnect we’re talking about before, about the idea that if you read books you don’t do anything else in the popular culture. The same thing could probably be said for writing, where apparently if you write, you can just only write, and you have to be like an abbott, and you never come out of your little room up there somewhere in a tower that you just work, work, work, work, and never get – don’t want to get – sullied by the everyday world. These things, writing and reading, are never, I don’t think were ever, ever meant to be exclusive from anything else. I think they were always meant to be part of the grand fabric of life. You should be able to be a doctor and if you want to write, write.

Rumpus: Chekov did.

Villalon: That’s right. But Chekhov was famous, he still practiced medicine all that great stuff on top of his complete genius. He never saw any sort of separation. He could have easily said, “No, no, I’m not doing that anymore, I’m just gonna write.” Well, he wrote as much as he did because it paid so damn well, because he had such a facility for it, but he never separated himself from the rest of life.

Kevin Smokler is the CEO of and a writer living in San Francisco. More from this author →