Luc Sante is perhaps best known for his sprawling, meticulously researched nonfiction book Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, about subterranean life among the dregs in 19th century Manhattan. More recently, Sante put out a collection of his reportage, essays and criticism called Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces, 1990–2005, with an introduction by Greil Marcus. The Rumpus ran into New York City’s underground documentarian at the Jim Jarmusch-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Kutsher’s Country Club in upstate New York, where Sante did a reading with Samantha Hunt, the author of The Invention of Everything Else. Sante read a fascinating piece of autobiographical fiction that charted a history through forgotten record labels and a tumultuous New York relationship.
The Rumpus: How did you end up doing a reading out here at this small indie rock festival being held at this rundown Borscht Belt resort?
Luc Sante: Jim Jarmusch did the line-up and we’ve been friends for 37 years. I don’t know if it was his suggestion or the organizers, but they decided to have a book club. Music, I’m not always good at keeping up with, but I am always interested. This is only the second festival I’ve ever been to. The first one was when I was assigned by a magazine to cover Woodstock ’99. One of the reasons I didn’t go to rock festivals is because, partially, there were none—between ’72 with Altamont and the hippie gatherings and 1990 there were no festivals. They were not a function of my youth. It’s kind of incredible to be here at this weird combination of festival/convention/sleepaway camp/sinking cruise ship.
Rumpus: Were you involved in the downtown New York punk scene?
Sante: I was there. I played very briefly in a few bands.
Rumpus: You’re primarily known for your nonfiction and criticism. Do you do nonfiction for work and prefer to write fiction in your free time? Do you see reportage, fiction, nonfiction, music criticism, poetry in a kind of hierarchy?
Sante: Form follows function. I see the line between fiction and nonfiction to be pretty porous. Yes, reportage needs to be scrupulously true, but in so many other ways it doesn’t really matter. It really depends—if you stare at it long enough, the subject will tell you how to write it. How to frame it, whether it leans towards fiction or nonfiction, depends on the subject and circumstances. I don’t publish that much fiction but I’ve been writing it thirty-five years at least.
Rumpus: Do you have any novelistic ambitions?
Sante: I’ve written a couple of bad novels that the world will never see. I have something I’ve been working on. I won’t be able to talk about until I’m finished.
Rumpus: What was the response like to your rather critical review of David Shields’ book Reality Hunger?
Sante: When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book. Some people blamed me for things that Shields said that I don’t necessarily subscribe to. Reality Hunger is an interesting book because a lot of it I buy—like I was telling you, the porousness of fiction and nonfiction. But I don’t buy into a lot of his more rigid pronouncements about how “the novel is over.” There are things that nonfiction can’t do. He doesn’t allow much for imagination or pleasure. I don’t know him but he’s kind of a hard-ass. There’s a kind of censorious Puritanism about him.
Rumpus: Do you enjoy writing book reviews?
Sante: I used to make a lot of my living from reviewing books. The thrill went away a long time ago. But sometimes I have to jump in and respond.
Rumpus: If you could see any band playing any record, past present or future, what would it be?
Sante: I’d like to see Young Marble Giants do Colossal Youth again.
Rumpus: Who are your kindred spirits? Who do you like?
Geoff Dyer. And a French writer whose book I just reviewed for The New York Review of Books. His name is Eric Hazan and his book is called The Invention of Paris. It’s really fantastic.