"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The numbers always vary, but most contemporary writers don’t publish in the double digits — let alone the triple digits, like Joyce Carol Oates. She writes under her own name as well as pseudonyms (including suspense novels by Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), and the amount of work she has produced so far, at 74 years old, is astounding.
Yet what’s even more admirable is how strong-willed she is. It comes across in her work, in her attention to characters who are often stuck in terrible situations. It absolutely comes across in her most recent collection of short stories, “Black Dahlia & White Rose,” where Oates often translates the ordinariness of everyday life into a psychological drama.
And it was on display in our recent interview, over email, in which she called Mitt Romney “ghastly,” questioned whether there’s a “glass ceiling” for women writers and said while she regrets nothing, she does wish she hadn’t written so many critical reviews of other writers early in her career.
I’d like to talk about your writing process in general. I’ve read that you still write your drafts by hand. Why is that?
I always sketch out material “by hand.” Why is this so unusual? Every writer has written “by hand” until relatively recent times. Writing is a consequence of thinking, planning, dreaming — this is the process that results in “writing,” rather than the way in which the writing is recorded.
I came across a quote from you in USA Weekend in 2001. You were asked: Do you ever do summer beach reading? And you had a strong opinion about that: “I’d rather take poison, I’d rather chew ground glass.” I have to wonder: What are your reading habits like? Do you ever read just for enjoyment?
I wouldn’t enjoy “summer beach reading” — whatever that is. The books I read I do enjoy, very much; otherwise I wouldn’t read them. Most of them are for review, for the New York Review of Books, and substantial.
You’ve written genre fiction in addition to literary fiction. Oftentimes genre fiction is overlooked by the literary world.
Some of the greatest works in literature are related to genre — “Crime and Punishment,” for instance, “The Turn of the Screw,” “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.” It’s a rare story or novel of mine that doesn’t involve a crime of some kind, often a long-buried secret. Mystery is close to the heart of our experience as human beings: We are always trying to figure things out, to comprehend why.
In 1981 you wrote a short essay for the New York Times in response to so many readers asking you why your writing is violent. You said: “Since it is commonly understood that serious writers, as distinct from entertainers or propagandists, take for their natural subjects the complexity of the world, its evils as well as its goods, it is always an insulting question; and it is always sexist.”
I agree with you, and I have to wonder: Over 30 years later, do you still get asked that same question?
Yes! It’s such a silly, naive question. There is the pretense that history hasn’t been a sequence of bloody wars and that it’s an aberration of some sort in a writer or artist who perceives the obvious fact that there is indeed “violence” in the world — which is to say, in the human heart. Worse, there is the pretense that women are so delicate, so hypersensitive, so feminine, that we can’t confront adult subjects like war, politics, exploration, science, the law …
In “Black Dahlia & White Rose” you address a lot of familiar themes: the ramifications of violence, disintegrating or complicated relationships, familial tensions, and transformation — both on a metaphorical and literal level. There’s an urgency in all of your stories, and the characters often are on the brink of danger or causing trouble themselves. Would you say there’s one common thread?
What is “at the heart of all of my stories”? The phenomenon of story.
These are tales told in language. Sometimes the language is more pointedly surreal, poetic or stylized than at other times, but it is always “language” that is the primary material.
Obviously, I’m attracted to individuals who have adventures of various kinds — who may endure traumatic experiences, but survive them, and triumph over them. Sometimes there is the revelation of an unexpected depth of love — the love of the mother for her “unattractive” daughter in the story “Deceit,” for instance; and the sensual, primeval desire of the well-to-do suburban wife and her long-ago university science instructor, who returns to her in a bestial — and irresistible — form, in “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance.”
In the title story, the “white rose” is Marilyn Monroe, who is intended to be the victim of a sexual psychopath, but whose place is taken by the “black dahlia,” that’s to say Elizabeth Short, whose brutal murder in Los Angeles in 1947 has never been solved, though it remains a fascination to true-crime readers. The reader is privileged to see how whimsical “fate” is — how one beautiful (blond) girl becomes the most famous movie star of the 20th century while her roommate, a beautiful (dark-haired) girl becomes the tragic Black Dahlia of tabloid fame.
In one of your short stories, “The Good Samaritan,” a young college student is a composer whose passion is poetry set to music. At one point she says: “Alone, I was engaged with this other world, and did not feel lonely; I felt most lonely when I was with other people, with whom I struggled to feel a meaningful connection, or suffered wondering what they felt for me.”
Many writers spend a tremendous amount of time alone — they have to isolate themselves in order to concentrate. Is isolation necessary for you in order to create?
Probably nothing serious or worthwhile can be accomplished without one’s willingness to be alone for sustained periods of time, which is not to say that one must live alone, obsessively. Ultimately, any art is intended for an audience — a community. In this way, the artist/writer is linked to the community and is only temporarily “alone.”
Can we talk about basic carnal instincts in your writing? At one point in your short story “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance,” you say “For all of biology — all of life — was about sex: sexual attraction, sexual intercourse, reproduction of the species. That was all that life was.”
I can’t think of any work of fiction except perhaps children’s books that don’t involve “sexuality” of some kind. One doesn’t have to be a Darwinian evolutionary theorist to confirm that sexuality is central to our lives, as it is necessary for reproduction; without reproduction, the species becomes extinct.
In much fiction, the raw theme of sexuality is transmogrified as romance of one kind or another, or even, in a much-altered way, aggression, and a desire to “triumph.”
Most of your writing could be described as dark, and dealing with tough subjects. What is your opinion on books that deal with heavy themes? Are dark books the best books? I ask this as a bookseller who often is asked to recommend a happy book, and I always have trouble coming up with something.
A story or novel properly executed is not “depressing” — it should be thrilling, that a poignant, profound and truthful aspect of life has been considered seriously. The primary theme of literature and art is that, fundamentally, human lives matter — this is always exhilarating. In actual life, millions of people die cruel and heedless deaths, and there is no one to record their myriad, unique stories, but art singles out individuals for scrupulous attention. (The mystery-detective novel is particularly attuned to this attentiveness.) “King Lear” is a transcendent experience because it is about a single, very foolish but ultimately transformed individual. What is most significant is that the elderly king and his beloved daughter Cordelia matter.
In 2011, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts released a survey examining “the rates of publication between women and men in many of our writing world’s most respect literary outlets” in 2010. They analyzed this data again in 2011. What they discovered, of course, is that women are still largely underrepresented in all outlets: The New Yorker, The New York Times, etc. Do you feel like you’ve always had to fight extra hard as a female writer for recognition in the literary establishment?
Since I’ve never not been a woman writer, I can’t really answer this. I can’t think that, if I’d been born a man, I might not have worked quite as hard, or felt the need to — that’s difficult to speculate.
It might simply be that there are more men writing, and trying to publish, than there are women. And the somber story is that for most people, whether male, or female, it is very difficult to “make a career” out of art – only a relatively few succeed, who garner all the attention.
What is your advice for young female writers who are trying to break through that glass ceiling?
What is the “glass ceiling”? Did Mary McCarthy break through it? Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, Toni Morrison? You’d have to be a very, very good writer to surpass these writers, whether or not they broke through a mythical ceiling.
Most male writers/artists don’t break through this ceiling, either. And a male artist/writer doesn’t have the excuse of being female.
In 2007 you were presented with the Humanist of the Year Award, and you said in your acceptance speech: “As a novelist I tend to be sympathetic with persons who are religious, though I can’t share in their convictions. It has always been something of a mystery to me that intelligent, educated men and women — as well as the uneducated — can ‘have faith’ in an invisible and nonexistent God.” Is this a viewpoint you’ve always had, or something you’ve refined over the years?
I inherited what I think is a healthy skepticism from my father, which was confirmed and strengthened by my early reading of Henry David Thoreau. I just find it difficult to “believe” things that are obviously unbelievable. Even before I knew what wish-fulfillment meant, I could sense that that was the underpinning of religion.
How does that viewpoint manifest itself in your work?
Very likely, this viewpoint is suffused through all of my writing. As I’d said — I don’t scorn religion, and have often written sympathetically about people who “believe,” and find their beliefs put to the test. “We Were the Mulvaneys” is, in part, a dialogue among believers and nonbelievers; ideally the novel is so objective, a reader would not necessarily know what the author’s position was. My most recent novel “Mudwoman” is about a highly educated woman, the president of an Ivy League university, who has inherited Quaker beliefs in which , strictly speaking, she doesn’t “believe” — yet these beliefs are so deeply ingrained in her, they cause her to behave in “heroic” ways that are not compatible with being a university president for whom a certain degree of politicking and compromise is necessary.
Is there anything you regret about your writing career?
That’s a very good question. Offhand, I don’t think that I “regret” much, or anything, in my life … Even unpleasant experiences have a way of evolving into material or fiction, or at least “wisdom.”
I think I would not have written as many critical reviews as I’d done, years ago. Now, I concentrate on worthwhile books, and write nearly always highly positive reviews. The late John Leonard once said, “No one has to tell Americans not to buy a book.”
How much does politics influence what you write about? What is the obligation of a writer when it comes to politics?
No writer or artist is “obliged” to do anything — we are all free. We don’t need to be propagandists for any political perspective, and those who are, are quickly forgotten. Obviously, I am immersed in politics as in the “culture” of the American scene about which I write, but politics per se isn’t of much interest to me. Our deeply, seemingly irrevocably politicized American culture is unfortunate — nothing is so ephemeral and fleeting as power. We can barely recall the procession of fairly ghastly Republican candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — yet these names and faces were in the media constantly. (Now, we have only one of the ghastly candidates remaining — that’s enough!) I am probably more interested in the politics of the past, which can be considered as history, in depth and with retrospective knowledge.
Since you’ve written so many books, many readers can be overwhelmed and not know where to start. What are your personal favorites that you’d recommend to someone who has never read you before?
I would recommend “Blonde” if one is interested in the life of Norma Jeane Baker who was made into “Marilyn Monroe” — and if one likes long, imbricated novels. I would recommend “Rape: A Love Story” or “A Fair Maiden” if one prefers novella-length. And there is a short novella titled “Patricide,” my first e-book, for readers who are interested in the not-so-private life of a celebrated Jewish-American writer with a fatal penchant for womanizing.
I would recommend my memoir “A Widow’s Story” if an exploration of the first several months after a spouse’s death— the raw, unmediated grief that is almost beyond comprehension — is of special interest to a reader.
Last question: short stories vs. novels vs. mysteries vs. nonfiction — what comes the easiest to you?
None of these come “easily.” Each has its own challenges, frustrations and rewards. And each work is distinct — to the writer, it’s a daunting problem that presents itself to be solved after much experimentation.
Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publicationsMore Michele Filgate.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)