The Rumpus Interview with Bill Clegg


I love people who have messy lives and don’t retreat. And I love the way lives take shape after we’ve fallen and the sultry art that arises when risking exposure in the process of becoming. When a writer writes from this place it makes feel more alive.

Bill Clegg writes from this place. And this is exactly why I want to interview him.

I finish Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family while sitting in my car waiting in line to take the ferry home to Orcas Island. I feel dazed. Not bad dazed but a welcoming dazed that happens when a stunning book jolts me from everything that happened earlier in the day, making me forget what I am supposed to be doing later in the day. It’s a complete halt. I just want to live in that moment and linger in the experience of stillness. And yes, this feeling I have after reading Clegg’s book is why I begin telling friends about a novel that is coming out in the fall that they need to read.

A question stays with me as I think about interviewing Clegg—I want to ask him this, “I’m wondering if you were wrestling with any ghosts that found their way into your full-bodied characters.” I scratch this question because it’s none of my business and it brings on a bigger question. What am I after in my desire to interview Bill Clegg? What do I want to know about him and his book and his writing process and why do I think whatever I am after will be of importance to readers? I don’t know the answer but I trust something will emerge in the process of a back and forth in what is called an interview.

I try for weeks to be all crafty in my attempt to write a short intro to this interview. Here’s what’s in the running: No question mark is needed in the title of Bill Clegg’s debut novel. Six words. Did You Ever Have A Family, not actually a question, more like a statement. Summoning us. Words shaping a story filled with tragedy, loss, and the various ways all of us, in one way or another, struggle with not feeling comfortable in our own skin.

I realize I am hiding behind these words. What I want to say is this: Bill Clegg wrote a book about life. See, that’s not very helpful either. So after reading many pre-reviews of Clegg’s novel I am smitten with this one:

Yet the true subject of the book is consolation, the scraps of comfort people manage to find and share with one another, from a thermos of pea soup to a missing piece of information to the sound of the waves outside the Moonstone Motel.

An attempt to map how the unbearable is borne, elegantly written and bravely imagined.

—Kirkus Review

Beautiful. Now that is perfect. Thank you, Kirkus Review.

So here is the Rumpus interview with Bill Clegg.


Bill Clegg: How about one question at a time? Like a conversation? Somehow I think it’s all I can manage. Sorry to be such a pain in the ass.

The Rumpus: Okay. A conversation. Let’s start. First thing that comes to mind—you were just nominated for the Man Booker Prize, your novel is on the springboard, and I am sure you are swamped with your regular agency details, so I am wondering this: Given the themes of loss and complicated grieving in your novel, what is it like to be on the verge of your book tour while dealing with the recent death of your dad? Bill, keep in mind I do not want this interview to be a burden for you.

CoverClegg: Before my father’s death I had never experienced someone close to me dying. For the novel, I just imagined into that experience as best I could. Now that the real thing has arrived it’s clear I had no idea. Everything that follows the unshackled cry (a state that left as swiftly as it arrived) feels like a betrayal. Talking about it, answering questions about it, all of it seems like a betrayal. And yet I don’t know how to answer a question as simple as How are you? without talking about my dad. Because not to talk about it seems like a moving on and I’m not ready to. So the book coming out and the Booker stuff, which are of course wonderful and lucky things, create opportunities like this one where I don’t know how to how to respond without feeling either inauthentic, ungrateful, or disloyal.

Rumpus: The not knowing how to respond is the response. Nothing more and nothing less—just what you said. I read your email before I went for my run this morning and I was thinking—my asking you questions as an interviewer makes me feel extremely intrusive. Especially when I read your response to my question. It got me thinking—what on earth is an interviewer after?

As a literary agent who helps birth books into the world and a writer yourself, you must wonder—what is a writer writing for?

And what does it mean to read a magazine or blog or website and want to get to know a writer—what exactly do we want to know? As an analyst who writes I guess I have an unending desire to know what makes someone human.

I believe the different characters you created all display what happens during grief—the universal and the idiosyncratic. Your characters give us an intimate glimpse into the private world of grieving. In fact, I am thinking I would love to pair your novel with Freud’s 1917 paper “Mourning and Melancholia” for my next class.

So my question for you is this—how do you protect and balance your private internal world with the external demands of interviewers—like me—who are wanting to get up close to your essence?

Clegg: Good question and maybe I haven’t done a very good job. Part of this comes from the fact that I approach the publishing and publicity stuff with a sense of obligation and gratitude. I am all too aware of how few spots there are on publishers’ lists and the time and energy and resources that go each title. So it’s hard for me to say no to interview requests, etc. And then if the interviewer has actually read the book and has intelligent questions (if invasive) I have a hard time answering in a sideways way that skirts the guts of whatever is being asked. But my private life, the intimacies I share with friends and family and my husband, are inaccessible. And my clients are off limits. These are what make up the most important parts of my life—that and whatever creative fumblings are happening—so whatever I say about a book that I finished a year ago feels on some level like a report from another time and very far away from an immediate inner word. The timing of my father’s death with interviews like this one is awkward and no doubt someone with better self-esteem would do a more careful job than I’m doing.

Rumpus: I want to be respectful with my questions because as you said it does feel awkward to be doing this interview.

I think it’s good that you adhere to your immediate experience—one second at a time.

I want to share with you something Carole Maso wrote—perhaps my own need to create privacy for you.

A leaping and staying in place at the same time. Paradoxically what is closest and most personal is also turned into the universal, outside and removed from the self. Abstract and concrete at the same time.

Staying in the present—my question: I am imagining you in New York City and wondering if there are any places that are bringing you flashes of comfort.

Clegg: Pretty much any New York City street, and the fields behind our house upstate.

Music (which is not a place but sort of is). Listening mainly to LaMontagne, Deb Talan, and Dawn Landes. All three are super sad soul-cry singer-poets and I’ve wallowed from one to another and back again since April.

Rumpus: Oh my goodness, Deb Talan. Saw her twice when I lived in NYC at a little place off Stanton Street. I still cannot listen to “Darkest Season” or “World Spins Madly On” (The Weepies) without a flood of memories and tears pouring out. As for staying in the present, a few years ago Deb Talan had breast cancer (she is fine now) and she said in an interview that her oldest son dealt with her diagnosis by digging into reading.

As I think about your book, I am wondering which character you could imagine spending time with and being able to talk to him and/or her about how you are feeling during your own grieving—why this person?

One more thing. I am having an afterthought about interviews. It occurs to me, doesn’t it seem somewhat unbalanced that an interview is one-sided? So here you are being asked questions by me—or interviews that have happened or are about to occur, and what about you being able to ask a question of the interviewer. Seems only fair. Anything you would like to ask me about your novel or anything else since I am asking you questions and engaging in this conversation with you?

Clegg: Hmmm. Feels like there is no way to ask you a question about the book that doesn’t have the subtitle: Did you like it?

Rumpus: And how could that not be your subtitle? I loved it.

When I read the New York Times article in January that you were coming out with your first novel I was really excited. I read your two memoirs and was moved by the way you described your life. The details, the telling of the details. Not dissimilar from the way your characters get described in Did You Ever Have A Family.

Is it corny to tell you one of my favorite parts of your book? Well, I am not actually going to wait for your answer—my asking is a formality.

When your character Dale is describing the relationship with his wife Mimi he says, “We talk less now. There are car rides and Sunday mornings and entire meals when Mimi and I don’t speak a word to each other. Not out of anger or punishment, but we’ve learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.”

For me, literature affords the opportunity to have moments of feeling, of being connected to ourselves and the world. And when Dale (you) talks about the loudness of grief I thought to myself, yes, I know that loudness.

Portrait of an AddictClegg: Oh thank god.

Dale’s son Will is the one I’d like to spend time with. In the writing of the book I realized at one point I was writing the son I’d hope to have and also the person I’d like to be more like in life. Open, gutsy, kind, curious—more interested in the well-being of others than his own. His unlikely friendship with Cissy is the kind of relationship I’m most grateful for—beyond the border of what I thought friendships would look like, outside whatever tribe I thought I’d identified.

Rumpus: How do you know or have you been to the area of Grays Harbor where you placed the Moonstone—a character in itself?

Clegg: I’ve only ever once been to that particular part of the West Coast. When I was in rehab outside Portland over a decade ago, in the third or fourth week my roommate and I were allowed off campus to go into the city. We rented a car and went in a few times and hung out at Powell’s and went to recovery meetings and drank gallons of coffee (which was forbidden at the rehab). Once, when his girlfriend came up from LA, we drove up the coast, past Astoria and as far up as Aberdeen. It was only one road trip but I was struck by how lonely those beaches seemed, how empty and moody with fog. The towns that hunched at their edges seemed haunted.  At one point in the writing I started planning a trip where I could go and write for a few weeks. I looked up small beach hotels and found the Moonstone in Moclips and before I made the trip the fictional version of the place had become so real to me that I didn’t go for fear the actual place would somehow unspool what I’d made. So I’ve never been to Moclips or the Moonstone though of course given how much I’ve thought about both I feel like I have.

Rumpus: Yes, those beaches are lonely.

Portland has such a huge writing community—it keeps growing. Do you know the work of Tom Spanbauer and his Dangerous Writing group? Somehow I think you would like him. Complicated lives and characters show up in his books—especially his new one, I Loved You More.

Anyhow, back to you.

I read Alexandra Schwartz’s review of your book in Glamour magazine and clearly she liked it. What do you think of her comment, “Now, we wouldn’t be editors if we didn’t have a few qualms: Lolly’s letter to her mother felt slightly too easy because closure like that is rarely so cut and dry.”

What are your thoughts about Schwartz’s qualm? I know you wrote this a while ago—but do you feel this is a letter about closure?

Clegg: I haven’t read Tom Spanbauer. But I am aware that Portland is teeming with great writers—Amanda Coplin, Jon Raymond, Matthew Dickman, Pauls Toutonghi—and those are just the writers I represent.

As for Alexandra Schwartz’s quibble about the letter in the novel, fair enough. I can see how an arrival like that would seem unearned if writing unsent letters wasn’t as familiar territory as it is to me. My notebooks (and drafts file of my email account) are filled with letters and emails I’ve never sent. Someone a long time ago recommended that when I felt any kind of urgency to communicate with someone (usually in anger, but sometimes in affection or contrition) to get it all out, write it all down, and wait a night before doing anything with it. If after reviewing the note the next day I still felt the same way, then by all means send. Maybe one in a hundred of those ever got sent and none in the initial form. Lolly’s relationship to June is heavy with resentment and blame, and communication between them booby-trapped by their history, so Lolly’s almost-forgiveness, her on-paper pantomime of it before it’s possible, seemed likely given what I knew about her and about writing things and not saying them.

Rumpus: Ah, more new authors for me to check out. Thanks.

I love your answer. You acknowledge Schwartz’s point yet you are able to put forth your own reasons why Lolly’s letter to June makes sense. It’s not at all a tidy closure but a personal working through in the form of a letter. It’s in her personal notebook where unedited thoughts should flow.

In the letter Lolly writes how Will advocates questioning steadfast beliefs, “he suggested that whenever I was resistant to a differing opinion about anything I should try this out.” (I’m thinking hmmm, good idea for all of us.)

It seems you structure your book in the same way that you answered my question. You create protagonists and there are plenty of them in your book, who through their actions show us how all humans are riddled with conflict and opposing desires. I did not detect a hint of judgement in your entire story. How refreshing.

In an early section titled “June” you describe an experience at summer camp when June was cruel to her childhood friend Annette. Of Annette’s experience you write,

She looked at June as if she were regarding a complete stranger. It was not anger or hurt that registered on her pale blank face. It was horror June had in that instant transformed into someone she didn’t know.

Was there a personal experience that you drew from to create that scene of childhood cruelty?

Clegg: I went to camp with a few friends from my hometown and I remember the first summer there was at first a kind of us-against-them solidarity which dissolved quickly in the melee of establishing a summer-long social pecking order. No one moved cabins as in June’s experience, but there were some bruised feelings. In my story I was both betrayer and betrayed. I remember Christopher Cross’s song “Sailing” played constantly on one of the camp counselor’s radio that summer and a blonde girl from Long Island wore a white Jordache sweatshirt with a horse logo on it. Shocking how thirty-five years ago can feel like yesterday.

Rumpus: It is shocking—sometimes great and sometimes unsettling—how details of our lives can arrive unbidden. I was driving to Seattle last week and all of a sudden heard myself singing a summer camp song from when I was at Camp Kalmia in Blairstown, New Jersey forty-six years ago.

Betrayer and betrayed. Your awareness that you have been both, that we all in some ways are both, carries over into many characters in your novel.

I see that you are giving a reading with Darin Strauss (read Half a Life back in 2010 in one sitting—completely blown away) in Brooklyn and it looks like September and October are packed with readings. And travelling.

Clearly you are very generous with you time—just a little digging reveals you have done a ton of interviews—and your answers are not trite.

What do you find nourishing and what helps sustain you as a writer and agent?

Clegg: As an agent: my four assistants (Chris, Jillian, Drew, and Henry) are what sustain me. I’ve never seen four people work with each other as respectfully and collaboratively as they do. Also, their energy seems limitless. Also: faith from clients. And mainly: the brilliant and surprising work from the writers we work with. There is something every day that stops me in my tracks and reminds me how lucky I am to do what I do.

As a writer: music, my kitchen table upstate, mornings, coffee, and my husband.

Rumpus: I see that one of your writers is Mark Doty. I remember the first time I encountered his poem “Mercy on Broadway.” The words entered me touching something that needed to be released. A forceful yet delicate poem.

The reason I mention this is because your writing in Did You Ever Have A Family has a similar effect on me—the way you create your story, the suspense that builds, the descriptions of randomness that shape lives—your writing feels like explosive gems, brilliantly creating openings.

For example, in a section toward the end of the book titled “Cissy”:

The world’s magic sneaks up on you in secret, settles next to you when you have your head turned. It can appear as a tall boy who smells like fish who pulls your braid one night in a bar and asks you to marry him. Or it can be a kid who shows up on your doorstep.

In your own writing—past, present, the not yet or right this second—what sneaks up on you in secret?

Ninety DaysClegg: I love Mark’s poem, too. The sneaking up in that poem is the line “Somebody’s going to live through this.” New hats, hair, words, clothes, clubs, sex, lovely, sunny, New York City, all that. And then: Somebody’s going to live through this. BAM! Reminds me of something else he wrote in an essay on sex he wrote for Granta about coming of age and into his own and remembering his lovers, many who had died of AIDS or faded from his life one way or another. Toward the very end, he writes, Oh my dears, with what I imagine as affection and sadness and a long eye over all the bodies and memories. I remember where I was when I read that line—on the roof of my building, the end of an ordinary day. And in that instant the weight of everyone he and I had both loved, the beauty and sadness of people together—for a few minutes, for years—and then not. Mark is a master of what you call sneaking up. And thank god.

As for me and my writing, hmmm. It all kind of sneaks up on me and is a surprise. When I’m working on something, for a long time I won’t think about any of it and then something I see or hear or read will kick some aspect of it to life and I’ll write a message to myself and send it by email to my personal account. Most of the time I forget I sent it which is why I always write BOOK in the subject line and before a writing period I print up everything I find there. Most of it’s useless bit and bobs of nothing. But once in a while there will be something. The character of Cissy in the novel started with an email like that. And something she says late in the book about being in love or lost happened in one of those emails too. I’m not sure if that answers your questions but all of it—Mark, his essay, Cissy—was nice to remember.

Rumpus: I feel a bit sad knowing our conversation is winding down. I am also appreciative that we have been able to engage in this emergent interview that grows out of our back and forth.

Mark C. Taylor (professor at Columbia) who wrote Erring: A Postmodern a/theology says, “There/this is no conclusion. We must ‘end’ wherever we are, and the thought of the trace has already taught us that it is impossible to justify a point of ending absolutely.” He goes on to say, “Instead of a conclusion, we are left with an Interlude, which, it appears, is always already playing.”

I thought of this because I know that music sustains you and the idea of an interlude seems fitting for our interview.

My question, in an early section of the book marked “Kelly,” the opening sentence is: “It’s a relief to finally find where you’re meant to be.” How does this statement apply to you right this moment as you read this question?

Clegg: That line is one that I want to identify with but am cautious about because (as the passage from Mark Taylor’s book describes well), there is no finish line before the final finish line and expecting some kind of arrival at sustained happiness or peace or satisfaction is a good way to ensure disappointment. Still, there are pieces of a life that open up and become possible—either for the first time, or again. For me, it’s this place of possibility that I try and keep as the North Star, to arrive at that place where what was out of reach, unmanageable, or what was lost—sobriety, work, marriage, a creative life, relationship to parents, family, friends—become possible again, or for the first time.

Rachel Newcombe is a psychoanalyst in the San Juan Islands and Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Contemporary Psychoanalysis,The Psychoanalytic Review, Psychoanalytic Perspectives, Fort Da and other psychoanalytic publications. More from this author →