The Rumpus Interview with David Shields and Caleb Powell

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This last fall I found myself treating the galley of I Think You’re Totally Wrong as a companion, reading it with hunger if in the most nonsequential way possible, one passage over and over, or another chosen at random. The intimacy of these two strangely familiar men arguing—each deep and engaged, each with different vectors of superiority, but always in each other’s face—made me feel like a privileged voyeur on a very male scene, as if I were watching two men grappling nude by the fire in Ken Russell’s version of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Men arguing: where else have we seen it if not on the pages of every history book? And yet the book wasn’t as gendered as the above suggests. Rather, I Think You’re Totally Wrong helped make sense of the strange rigors of life as I know it—the balancing of art, work, motherhood, along with enough time to have those moments of adventure or inspiration so that the pleasure of art still feels filled with life, a sort of Proust versus Conrad question many writers or artists know.

I’d been a fan of David Shields’s work since, years ago, I stumbled across Remote, following him through Reality Hunger and the more recent How Literature Saved My Life. A West Coast sportswriter who liked both our work suggested I would find Shields simpatico, and so began a conversation that included the galley of I Think You’re Totally Wrong.

This last fall, in a class on moral fiction, I taught Reality Hunger to a bunch of graduate students who entertained a very mixed range of reaction to it, a few finding it to be already dated, which surprised me. My later thought was that Reality Hunger may have altered some portion of our current cultural conversation without their cognizance, the book helping to articulate whatever hypertextual reality unfolds now. Whenever I encountered Shields’s work, I felt relief, recognizing in his sensibility a hope and angst many involved in writing and reading in this period might know. Even if I didn’t always agree with his stance, Shields seemed a significant reader, prescient and romantically committed to authenticity in a time of masks.

Powell and Shields’s book is out now, while a film based on it, directed by James Franco, premieres in April, at the DOXA documentary festival in Vancouver. The premise of the book is similar to films like The Trip or My Dinner with André or any dialogic engagement all the way back to Socrates and Plato in the Dialogues. The vulnerability and candor can shock: Shields sought out his former student Powell in order to challenge himself. Early in both book and film, Shields says Powell contains something of the hornet-like essence of every bad review, every familial criticism, and every nemesis he has ever had. Powell is rich with life experience and a sense of his own moral compass, showing respect and yet also coming at Shields with an intensity that does not fail to be returned. The book’s arc is seamless, deceptive, effective: by its close, the reader feels an antinarrative resolution, a sense that everyone leaves a bit more alive from the exchange.

Perhaps the book’s resolution may not be what the two authors imagined at the outset, the true crossing of power dynamic as in the moment they cite, early on, during the road trip of David Foster Wallace with David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, when Wallace pushes the tape recorder over to Lipsky’s side. Nonetheless, you leave the book questioning yourself a bit more readily, carrying with you Powell’s insistence, Shields’s self-revelation, and all that erudite intimacy, whether civil or not. Meanwhile, the film lets you become more visually intimate with the exchange: two highly engaged writers whose conversation on art versus life will most often resemble your favorite fire, out to burn.

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The Rumpus: What was your initial impression of each other? The initial spark or anti-spark?

David Shields: I met Caleb more than twenty-five years ago—fall of 1988. I thought he was somewhat belligerent, full of himself, emotionally and intellectually volatile, psychically violent. That impression was mitigated or qualified over the next fifteen to twenty years, as I got to know Caleb a bit more—through trading emails, having him “interview” (interrogate) me, write hostile or semi-hostile reviews of my work. His antipathy and rage fascinated me.

Caleb Powell: Right, first class in fall of ’88, last class in spring of ’91. David and I didn’t hit it off. I thought David had a strict linear view of fiction—pushed the class to read Updike, Barth, Beattie, Cheever, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. H​e even recommended Irving’s Garp. Nothing wrong with any of that, but since then he’s done a one-eighty. Fair enough. He came across as pompous and unhappy, not just with writing but life. His smiles and polite manners seemed forced. No writing satisfied him, especially mine, but in some ways I considered this a virtue. I respected and even liked/like the challenge. I kept taking his classes, which you had to provide a writing sample for, and he kept letting me in.

Rumpus: What inspired the project of a weekend away with a tape recorder and each other?

Shields: In a way, I was weary of the sound of my own voice. I was tired of the thoughts I ​was steering by, to paraphrase David Wojahn. I’ve always loved the form of the dialogue book/debate book, from Plato’s Dialogues to The Trip. And I wanted someone to try to undermine my aesthetic and undermine my art-focused life. I tried a few other people, none of whom I could get any traction with. Then it hit me—Caleb!

Powell: David, from the start, wanted to do a My Dinner with André project with homoerotic tension. So that was odd. But, for David, he’d been looking to demolish the question-​and​-​answer form with someone. And we’d had borderline hostile back​-​and​-​forth correspondence. Catalysts, if you will. My arguments are different than his, but I certainly could fit into the proposed matrix.

Rumpus: What curatorial genius informed which material you included or excluded from the transcript?

Shields: We tried to say everything over four days; wound up with around 300,000 words. Caleb transcribed it, edited out the redundancies, got it down further. I edited the hell out of it so that it was tightly focused on life and art. Caleb kept wanting to add more monologues in which he endlessly rehearsed how politically committed—pure delusion—he is. I kept taking them out, and we spent probably a year or more editing it to within an inch of its life. I love the paradoxes of the process of writing the book. If it’s good, it’s because of the wasted motions in it, and yet for a book about life/art, it was crucial that we transformed it hugely from the initial chitchat.

Powell: As far as politics, David’s far more delusional than me. As to the process, for six months after our October weekend,​ I transcribed and edited the manuscript to about 100,000 words. David was busy teaching and had other projects, so he didn’t see it until the end of April. He then came back with about a 70,000 word manuscript, and then we went back and forth, finally getting a 65,000 word manuscript. Throughout, we each had control over our lines, and made editorial suggestions for the other. We collaborated well on this and then his/our agent demanded heavy edits, and in the course of a weekend David panicked and took out over 10,000 words. I was surprised that David caved so easily. He deleted a critical scene ending with “this guy fucked that girl and that girl fucked this guy; who gives a shit? You have to cut to the fucking chase: what’s the point?” Crucial, because this scene fundamentally nails the different way we see art and life. It had to be back in, and David agreed, but most everything else stayed out, to my chagrin. But this was the first time we had a clash over collaboration.

Rumpus: What was lost by the omission of that scene?

Shields: This whole rant of his is echt-Caleb, full of self-righteous self-congratulation built on complete misunderstanding and uncomprehension. Unlike Caleb, I’m open to others’ suggestions. My then-agent thought Caleb’s endless political diatribes badly hamstrung the manuscript, and I agreed, so I cut the manuscript down by 10,000 words. I don’t take marching orders from agents and editors, but I try to be open to their suggestions. It’s one of the ironies of the book and film, for me, especially the film. Caleb pretends to be open to life, but he’s actually lashed in concrete. I pretend to be imprisoned in the cathedral of art, but I’m actually more impressionable to life than he is.

Powell: Pure nonsense. I didn’t claim it was omitted; I claimed David edited it out. I had to fight for the line and scene to stay. And the endless “political diatribes” are a figment of David’s imagination. I even quoted William Gass, “Politics . . . for all those not in love.” No political diatribes were deleted, just stories from my overseas travels, and one when I worked at Fort Lewis and stayed at a dive motel outside the base. The scene in question was about a love square, if you will, where twice a guy had a pregnant girlfriend unsure of paternity. And David wasn’t interested in the story or the people, ’cause that’s how David rolls; art trumps people. But it was a true story, and I was just telling it to him. David’s point, which I’ll concede is an important one, was that it can’t just be a story; it must examine a bigger idea. The better story does push deeper.

Rumpus: Early in the book, you touch on the nature of writers exploring stories potentially exhausted in the popular imagination. How or why does a writer enter any obliterated public discourse? Is there any space in the collective imagination for writing fiction on Michael Jackson or Tonya Harding? In relation to this, Shields cites DeLillo’s quotation about the great freedom to be had in writing in the margins of a dying art, especially once terrorists have co-opted the main narrative, and the two of you briefly bat around whether a project centered on a semi-exhausted topic matters. Which leads your reader to wonder: how do you define the significance of any project?

Shields: To me, probably just for me, that moment has passed. The Max Apple/Robert Coover stories about Walt Disney and Richard Nixon—that seemed interesting and exciting as part of a pop-art gesture in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, it seems to me we process those narratives so completely at the time that the novel, written three years later, about, say, Columbine is unlikely to gain new access to the psychic residue of the material. It might. I’d love to be proven wrong. I’m not seeing examples that prove me wrong. This is DeLillo’s brilliant point, articulated forty years ago—that terror is the narrative. Where is the 9/11 novel? 9/11 was the novel. Our narratives are now multiple, constant, fragmented. Seems naïve and antediluvian to pretend otherwise. I keep thinking about a guy or gal who might work for TSA as a baggage-checker. I don’t want him or her to write a novel about his experience as a baggage-checker. I want him to think really hard about his interactions with people, write really well about these moments, and then order these observations into a stunning Letters to Wendy’s sequence that tells us everything about himself and everything about the world. That’s the book I want to read and write and teach. How to define if something matters, for me? It undermines the writer’s sense of who he is/thought he was, and you can feel it in every line, and the metaphor rotates outward for the reader: “It must go further still: that soul must become its own betrayer, its own deliverer, the one activity, the mirror turn lamp.”

Powell: Should the dramatic and sensational aspects of life be dramatized and part of literary culture? Of course. Michael Jackson or Tonya Harding or Tyler Clementi or Columbine can either become Law and Order commercial entertainment, or they can become art, depending. There can be tabloid overkill or a careful rendering that creates a transformative narrative. The holocausts and upheavals of history, or compelling individual lives, will always be a topic of art.

Rumpus: Your shared and radical project of self-disclosure goes far beyond Gordon Lish’s dictum regarding writing one’s wound on the page. What pleasures and stakes have you discovered at this stage in your life, and how do they differ from some prior moment?

Shields: Did you ever study with Lish, Edie? I feel like I did, even though I never formally studied with him. I would occasionally see him in the hallway when he worked at Knopf, and he’d say a single sentence that would completely undermine me—in that way, it was a mini course. Of late I’ve been doing a lot of collaboration on books and films, though I’m presently weary of that. I want to get back to my own, individual work. The stakes to me are to make sure that I’m expanding on myself and my work and not contracting. Caleb helped remind me of this.

Rumpus: How do you want to impress each other? What image of yourself would you like the other to have?

Shields: The main thing I tried to convey to Caleb in book and film, and what I don’t think he ever got/gets, is—see above—how outward-looking my work is. My books are about race, mortality, celebrity, “reality,” art, language, morality, vicariousness, et cetera, et cetera. As any personal essayist has done, from Montaigne to Didion, I use myself as the organizing lens, the fulcrum, the central intelligence agency.

Powell: This interview changed after David launched a provocation my way but then demanded I delete my rebuttal for various reasons; thus we did, but to do so we had to take out the back and forth leading up to our now off-page argument. In a way, this interview replicates our dynamic. Our film covered similar territory, where David started to divulge secrets I didn’t want out or I wanted to control, then James Franco inserted himself and pushed us to explore, and this came alive on camera.

Rumpus: The film premieres at the DOXA documentary film festival in Vancouver in April. To your eye and sensibility, how does the finished film relate to the book? What lasts for you as a great and memorable pleasure of making the film?

Shields: Caleb and I wrote a screenplay, which is pretty much the book compressed to half its length. But on the first or second day of filming, a real-life, real-time argument (about what could or couldn’t be used from our real lives in the film) broke out. Franco wisely refocused the film to follow the very real and raw fallout from that, and so the book is a wide-ranging meditation on life and art, whereas the film uses an exact instance to get at the endlessly vexed relation (between life and art). I like the film, to my astonishment, and I mainly like how every hour of the filming we had to make up our lines. In many ways, I feel like some of the best “writing” I’ve ever done was thinking about how to make up the movie hour by hour.

Rumpus: It seems perhaps fair to say the film is the result of an improvised departure from a script—is that correct? In which case: how quarrelsome are the two of you when together away from all eyes? Did you try, for the film especially, to crank up all disagreements? Another way of asking this might be to explore how faithful the dialogue is to your usual mode of conversation. And how much does that first teacher-student dynamic still influence you?

Shields: Yes, I think that’s right—the film is improvised, substantially. I think when we’re together on a plane or train, we sometimes get along for hours or days at a time, but then we don’t. We get plunged back into this odd antagonism. I think that’s a good point—the professor/student thing is still there. Caleb still wants to capsize me, and I still sometimes pull rank, I suppose. I.e., I do seem to want to have final edit, push come to shove, which strikes me as fair.

Powell: We crank way up, definitely. In the public sphere, it’s theater. One on one, over a beer or coffee, we’re cool. But over email or media, a few times we haven’t seen eye to eye. That article in the University of Washington student paper, for example, where I pointed out how he wasted time on certain books in class. I didn’t think twice afterward, and David sent some mad vitriol my way. After my “David Shields Riding the Mower” YouTube video, which I thought was funny, David went berserk; he calmed down the next day, but wow. Same thing, different provocation, led to our “Quarrel on a Ferris Wheel” video. I think David’s critical filter has a defect, which is why he accuses me of being full of “antipathy and rage,” yet seems unaware of his own. Of course, I’m argumentative, but in a passionate sense, I enjoy the rush. I mean, maybe I shouldn’t do it, but he exaggerates how angry I make him, so I jab at him, and this sometimes gets us into new territory. But he’s the raging cannon in the relationship. The most angry I’ve been at him, I think, was on screen with James Franco, when David started to blab secrets we’d agreed to keep secret.

Rumpus: In the film and book, you talk in and around the idea of the homoerotic. Discuss?

Shields: In the book, Caleb has a couple of sexual encounters with transsexuals. In the film, we talk about homoerotic tension, which Caleb keeps calling “homoerotic attention.” To me, it’s pretty much of a MacGuffin—something that is just there to be briefly raised/toyed with/dismissed, and retired, lest the book or film get undergirded by this. I’d be open to being open about any sexual ambiguity that is within me, but I’m not aware of any such, in any active or manifest way.

Powell: David raised the idea. I thought he might reveal an awkward “Kinsey scale” truth about himself, take an actual risk. When I asked him, he seemed evasive.

Rumpus: Do you feel changed for the better or worse by your exchange with each other? Was any horizon expanded? Or do you find yourselves more entrenched, with the poles of your thinking, as well as the overlap between the two of you, merely defined with greater specificity?

Shields: I would say the exchange (especially the film) has substantially deepened and complicated my thoughts and feelings. I want to make sure that my work is always practicing and not just theorizing risk; also that the work is always ultimately about the reader and not myself (forthcoming books are about war photography, the limit of human understanding, and the nature of human unhappiness), and also that I never take another four-day retreat with Caleb.

Powell: As far as our work and what I’ve learned, going forward, David’s ideas have been powerful and instructive. Engaging with him has been a pleasure. Despite having greater doubt about everything, as contradictory as it sounds, I came out thinking that I’m totally right. And in a way, David is, too.


Edie Meidav is the author of Kingdom of the Young, a collection of short fiction with a nonfiction coda, and novels, the most recent being Lola, California. Learn more at her website. More from this author →