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Interview with Charles Baxter

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Last month, as part of the Crazyhorse Reading Series at the College of Charleston, novelist and story writer Charles Baxter read from his newest collection, There’s Something I Need You to Do (Pantheon Books). To commemorate his visit—he spoke to the collected graduating seniors in creative writing, and then read to a packed house in historic Randolph Hall—Crazyhorse is honored to post the mini-interview below.

Mr. Baxter, one of the premiere writers of fiction in the country, and one of our all-time favorite writers, period, gives us in this newest book a collection of ten stories, the first five of which are titled by virtues (“Bravery,” Chastity,” and etc.), the second five for vices (“Lust,” “Avarice,” and etc.). The stories are, as ever, beautifully written resonant one to the next, and feature a cast of recurring characters who appear with both virtue and vice. As with all his work, he tells in each story many stories at once, heading in places one cannot divine at its outset, but which, because the prose is so strong, so sure, and because the characters are so compellingly drawn, you’re willing to follow; at each story’s end, you understand you’ve arrived somewhere important, somewhere meaningful and filled with wonder, but definitely somewhere other. This is why his work is so very much celebrated, and so very valuable. Of the work, the Washington Post has written, “Charles Baxter’s sixth book of short fiction . . . shows him as a master of the genre and highlights what finely crafted short stories can accomplish better than any art form.” We couldn’t agree more.

CH: While here at the College, you talked about how, when you were a couple stories in, you saw that this book could be a “decalogue,” a very specific word rife with moral associations. How many stories had you written—and especially what about those stories—gave you to know this was the word by which you could see this becoming a complete book?

CB: I had thought of The Decalogue, a brilliant series made for Polish television by that genius, Krzysztof Kieślowski. I bought DVDs of the series and watched them over and over again, and I had also admired the “moral tales,” (also movies) of Eric Rohmer, such as Claire’s Knee. Kieslowski’s Poland was obviously a Catholic country, but his views were remarkably complex and by no means orthodox. What interested me was the possibility of moral tales without moralism or didacticism. Moral tales have almost disappeared from American writing because so many writers are worried about preachiness. But you can write about how people live, and what they decide to do at critical moments, without making judgments about them while still enclosing them in a moral landscape; you can leave all the judging to the reader. I knew I had a book after I had written two or three such stories. After that it was easy.

CH: As with The Feast of Love, you have characters in this collection of discrete stories whose lives brush up against one another now and again, both tangentially and sometimes straight on. Was this originally a part of the plan going into the collection, or did characters simply arise on their own terms? And to what do you attribute this willingness to let characters swoop in and out as you do so deftly?

CB: I had indeed used that technique in The Feast of Love and then promptly forgot that I had done so once the book was published. I didn’t think of having the same characters pass back-and-forth between the virtues and the vices–a kind of ecology of characters–until someone suggested the possibility to me. This “someone” was an undergraduate at Penn State, Erie, and he was in attendance at my reading there. After I read “Loyalty,” there was a Q&A, and I was talking to the students about what I had in mind for the book, and this kid, Kyle Kerr, said, “You should have the same characters in the vices that you had in the virtues.” And it was as if a light went on. Bingo! Thank you, Kyle Kerr, wherever you are. I like the mixture of randomness and fate that you get when you have the same set of characters brushing up against each other in story after story. It can create a beautiful effect.

CH: At the reading you gave here at the College, you chose to let us hear a section (a very funny one) from the story “Chastity” that in fact did not appear in the book. The audience enjoyed the piece a great deal, but can you tell us what led to its being excised, and how it feels to say goodbye to what you know is a fine passage of your own work?

CB: There’s that old phrase, “Kill your darlings.” Self-love, or pride in your work, can’t excuse putting in a scene or a passage into a novel or a story if it doesn’t belong there. In the case of the scene that I read at the College of Charleston, the tone was wrong. The story “Chastity” is actually very serious, although the central female character is a joker; her would-be lover is constantly rebuffed by her irony and jokiness. The story is the darkest one in the book, the one that took the most out of me, the one with the most sweat and blood. The trouble with the passage that I eliminated from the story was that it was too light-hearted, and the tone didn’t mix properly with the rest of the story. You don’t need to have an absolute uniformity of tone in a story, but a story can’t do eight different things at once.

CH: Which of the stories proved to be the easiest to write, the one that (if indeed there was one) seemed to come to you all on its own, and what was that experience like? What was the one that proved most difficult, and well, what was that like?

CB: “Chastity,” as I just noted, was a terribly difficult story to write. I invested my own heartbroken longings into it. Behind it, deeply shadowed, were several episodes from my own life that were converted beyond recognition and put to use in that story. “Avarice,” which I’m quite proud of (and which is narrated by a woman), was possibly the easiest of the stories to write. All I had to do was show up faithfully at the desk each morning for several days in a row. The story just wrote itself. I felt I was taking dictation from that woman.

CH: And of course, the obligatory last question: What are you working on now?

CB: I have some ideas, but I’m really just trying to recover and regroup after my book tour. I’m not complaining, but those tours take a lot out of you. Besides, I don’t think writers have to start something new immediately after their previous book is published. Productivity may be a good thing for factories, but for artists it’s absolutely secondary to quality. You have to wait patiently for the angel to descend. If the angel doesn’t descend, you eventually go to work anyway. There are always paths, if you can find them; there is always something to do.

Something I Need You to Do
Pantheon Books

$24.00

 

Crazyshorts! Broadsides for AWP

If you’re going to be at AWP in Minneapolis, be sure to stop by the Crazyhorse table, #533. We’ll be giving away broadsides we made for the Crazyshorts! winner and runners-up.

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43 Years Later: Looking back at Updike’s “Living with a Wife”

We’re pleased to celebrate John Updike’s birthday, March 18, by revisiting his poem, “Living With a Wife,” which first appeared in Crazyhorse #10, in March, 1972. Updike, who died in 2009, would have been 83 years old today.

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Although Updike was less well known as a poet than as a novelist, short story writer, and essayist, readers of Updike will recognize many of the themes and preoccupations of his prose in this five-part poem: a desire to give ordinary life a larger due; a view of marriage as a mystery never quite to be solved; the search for the universal in the domestic; and the ongoing difficulty of knowing those around us, no matter how much “data” we collect about them.

The poem closes on a minor note of defeat, perhaps, with the speaker still unable to reconcile his wife’s presence in his life, despite his best efforts. But the poem doesn’t yield to easy despair; instead, these five glimpses into marriage say yes to the world in all its particulars, from the wife playing Mozart barefoot in a ski sweater, to the underpants left soaking in the sink basin. The same wondering consciousness that informs Updike’s best work, from the Olinger stories to the Rabbit novels, is very much present in “Living With a Wife,” as well as Updike’s signature precision, wit, and gift for metaphor. It is an honor to have published this work back in 1972, and a pleasure to revisit it now.

MFA in Creative Writing Program Will Launch in Fall 2016

The School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Department of English are proud to announce the establishment of the Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at the College of Charleston.

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Crazyhorse Editors/Creative Writing faculty (left to right): Anthony Varallo, Jonathan Bohr Heinen, Malinda McCollum, Gary Jackson, Bret Lott (standing), Emily Rosko. Photo by Leslie McKellar.

Beginning in the fall of 2016, the College of Charleston will open its doors to graduate study in both poetry and fiction, and for good reason: the College is home not only to a cadre of nationally and internationally recognized writing faculty—Bret Lott, Gary Jackson, Emily Rosko and Anthony Varallo—but also houses one of the country’s premiere literary journals, Crazyhorse, published since 1960 and consistently ranked as among the top publishing venues in the nation. Undergraduate students have for years reaped the benefits of a creative writing concentration within the Department of English, but now, with the MFA, graduate students from across the country will be afforded the opportunity to study writing, literature, publishing and the arts at large on our campus. Given the city of Charleston’s literary heritage and its inherent ties to the arts, the program is sure to become one of the most significant homes for the study of writing in the country.

The MFA in Creative Writing, a two-year program of study, will feature separate Studio and Arts Management tracks, and will offer not only advanced degree training in the writing of poetry and fiction, but also opportunities to assist in the production of Crazyhorse. The backbone of the program will be workshops taught by writing faculty in the two genres, as well as training in the history and traditions associated with writing, theoretical and formal approaches to the craft, and intensive peer and faculty feedback. Students in both the Studio and Arts Management tracks will also gain reading, writing, and critical thinking skills valuable to such humanities-based industries as editing, publicity, marketing, and promotion in publishing and the arts; the Arts Management track will emphasize management, organization, decision-making, and problem-solving skills in preparation for jobs within the creative economy.

And all students, no matter the track, will be writing, and writing, and writing, seeking to find and hone the voice and vision that will see their work into print, and into the larger world of letters.456163_10151159021244182_832432169_o

Stay tuned—we’ll have more on the program as we grow closer to our first class of writers! For questions about the program, contact Bret Lott. More information about the English department at the College of Charleston can be found here.

(This article was first published in the HSS Spring 2015 newsletter.)

Crazyhorse’s First Experiment with Letterpress Broadsides

Jonathan Bohr Heinen (CH Managing Editor) and Brien Beidler (master bookbinder and former CofC student) designed and made three limited edition letterpress broadsides for the Tongues Aflame Reading Series at Halsey Art Institute. The broadsides feature poems by Ted Pope, Jillian Weise, and Samuel Amadon. [Click “Read Full Story” to see pics]

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Poet John A. Nieves wins book prize

Congratulations to Crazyhorse Issue 82 contributor John A. Nieves, whose first book, Curio, won the Elixir Press Annual Poetry Award Judge’s Prize! His book will be published in early 2014.