"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)
After years of writerly girlcrush, I finally met Karen Russell at the Philadelphia Free Library, a few blocks from her home in downtown Philly. Some karmic voodoo had Amity Gaige and I reading with Russell that evening, the birthday of Russell’s third book, the gutsy and glittering story collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove.”
A few days prior, our mutual heroine, Joy Williams (we cooed her name together) wrote in the New York Times, that a “grim, stupendous, unfavorable magic is at work in these stories.”
Deep within the Free Library’s lime-hued innards, Russell, the surrealist wunderkind, giddily clutched a stack of other people’s books and a half-gone diet A&W root beer, which seemed like a detail from one of her own off-kilter and perfectly true stories. She was a powder keg of energy, and yet somehow completely at ease.
We discussed “book tour PTSD,” cosmic smite, and a period when everyone around her assumed “Swamplandia!” a stillborn. It would, of course, go one to be a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
Claire Vaye Watkins: I wanted to interview you but I’ve never even done an interview before. This was just my scheme to get to hang out with you.
Karen Russell: I’m so glad!
‘I’ll tell her publicist that I’m a … journalist. Because I got this galley and it says ‘for interview email Sara’ and I was like, ‘Anyone could do this! I could do this.’So it’s a scam.
We should write a story about that. Where we just call that number—
You can get to anyone with their publicist.
It’s like some weird hostage situation with Shakira, where we’re like, ‘Shakira, bad news: We’re not journalists. We’ve never been and now we’re gonna hang with you in Uruguay for a weird week.’
That sounds like a Jennifer Egan story.
It does, doesn’t it?
I fear she’s already done it, somewhere, you know?
I frequently think when I do interviews, ‘What would Jennifer Egan say?’ Because you know it would be coherent, first of all. It would be in our language. It would have a grammar. Do you read stuff that you yourself have said in interviews and it’s like, ‘What a stunning and humbling encapsulation of the problem: my perception of that conversation was that we were two lucid adults basically understanding one another, but now it’s been revealed to me…’
Yes! The very first time I was ever interviewed was on a whim. Stephen Elliott interviewed me. He was interviewing people he met on the road, as part of his tour. I was an MFA student and I hosted him. And he did this same thing, he put the recorder down and we had breakfast and then he transcribed it and put it online. And one of my teachers wrote to him and was like, ‘How dare you lampoon her and make her look like an idiot!’ And it was a word for word transcription. And I had to be like, ‘Thank you, but I actually said all of that. There’s no omissions, no rearranging, no doctoring of the script whatsoever. I sound like that.’
It’ll also be these kinds of misinterpretations that no one follows up on, which will indicate to you that you must appear as a madwoman. I had one with the kindest guy, but I think I said writing a novel is like trying to grow a Chia Pet, which isn’t particularly insightful or funny, but makes more sense than what they transcribed, which was, ‘Writing a novel is like trying to grow a sheep’s head.’ [Laughter] And the thing is, it’s kind of better. It’s just as impossible, as weird, as trying to grow a big sheep’s head, with the horns curling out of it, sure. But that’s mad! Why did no one say, ‘Is this what you meant?’ It’s the omission. Like I’m a demented grandpa and everyone’s just like, ‘Grandpa’s prattling away again.’
Yeah, so that’s what’s really interesting, the way that your public persona is like this frozen avatar of the way at least one other person saw you. As a rattly grandpa who was growing a sheep’s head.
They’re like fossilized impressions of whatever you happen to be, and it’s not so flattering most of the time.
That’s so crazy that you think that, because you were talking about Jennifer Egan and I’m always like, ‘What would Karen Russell say? I mean she’s so coherent and beautiful, imagistic…’
Oh dear. It’s all ‘likes’ and ellipses. Really I was reading one today where I’m like, ‘And I was all—dang!’ It’s like this Mad Libs where I’m just waiting for Jenny Egan or Philip Roth or someone to just come in an add a noun.
I think I know what you mean. Um, so I have a bunch of notes and–
This is so nice of you to want to do this. I also think we should be friends in real life. Don’t put it in the interview but—
I’m gonna put it in the interview. This is the whole reason I’m doing it is to look cool and if you say, ‘We have to be friends in real life…’
This is like a Very Special “People’s Court.” ‘It wasn’t real beer it was root beer but I was not in my right mind and I said a lot of things.’
Exactly, and that’s why I have to have a record of it. So, I’m sorry. Okay, I’m gonna ask you all these questions—seriously. I have this list. I’m so prepared, I haven’t been this prepared for anything in a long time.
So I have basically three types of questions. You can see the color coding. The pink are questions about your professional life and the public life of a writer, and the yellow are writing questions about your actual work, and then the blue ones are like, inappropriate personal questions that are unprofessional and that I just want to know.
Okay. Trivial Pursuit style.
What is the most insightful thing you’ve learned about your work from someone else? Either a journalist or a reviewer or a teacher…
I have two. One is more general, it’s about everybody’s work, but it was from my first professor, Stephen O’Connor. I will never forget this because it was the first day of school at MFA which is weird Charlie Brown world where everyone—on the calendar they’re an adults but they’ve still got those first-day-of-school jitters. And he said, ‘Good writing should be surprising and true.’ Which felt like a really beautifully condensed definition and sounds a little, now that I’m saying it to you, like some Successories mug. [Laughter] But actually it just really hit all of us, I think. That good writing should be surprising and true. You can do one or the other. You can be kind of gimmicky and shocking and it’ll be insincere and it will feel false. Or you can write a really boring realist tale that resembles life as we know it and feels true but feels kind of dead in the water. So I liked that.
And then I guess about my own work. Ben Marcus was another professor who must have been my version of your Chris Coake, where he was just able to magnetize in this wordless way—it had less to do with what he said and more to do with his presence, which was this strange ingot that drew everybody’s best work out of them somehow. But he did say—and this was such a simple thing—he said, ‘I think one thing you should remember about your work is that blue doesn’t stand out on blue.’ We were just talking about the relationship of some fantastic elements to the naturalistic elements in a story. So that sounds kind of goofy I guess, but it made me more conscious of the way contrasts were working, on the level of the line but then also in the general parameters of a story. How to tell strange stuff in a matter-of-fact way and also where the ruptures were gonna be. You know, I just think it made me more awake as I was drafting, about some of those choices.
Blue doesn’t stand out on blue.
Right? It’s a nice way to think about what you’re juxtaposing or what you’re trying to oppose or put into conflict.
Yes. Indeed. Do you feel like critics or scholars or reviewers can better articulate the ambition of your work than you can? Are there other people who know your work better than you do?
You know, it’s so funny that you say that because I’ve been doing a lot of interviews now, for this new book, and they’re just so shameful and I always feel fraudulent at their conclusion. Do you know that Gary Lutz story, “People Shouldn’t Have to Be the Ones…”? It’s sort of this fabulist story, but I was just thinking, Man, writers shouldn’t have to be the ones. You know? Writers shouldn’t have to be the ones. I just don’t think that we’re necessarily the best authorities on our work and part of the problem is that we really can’t experience it the way a reader does. You know? My friend had a good one on that. He’s such a sweetheart. Stefan Merrill Block? Do you know this guy? He’s wonderful. And he said that the experience of writing his novel was he felt like he constructed this house and then locked himself out of it. And at best he could kind of watch people through the windows as they moved through it, but he was never going to have this direct experience of it. Because you can’t. So, I guess in that sense I do think probably that there’s this way that any reader’s gonna have a clearer idea—or a more genuine experience—of the story as a story than we likely can as the makers of that thing.
And I also think that if you self-selected into this insane thing that we’re both trying to do, where you want to be alone and continually revise words on a page, maybe that doesn’t always necessarily translate into a lot of skill about talking what you’re doing. I felt this way with your work in a major way. That a lot of the propulsion is imagistic and sonic and really intuitive. I don’t know. I love the idea of the auguring, because that sounds so goofy-mystical but writing can feel like that, too. It’s like the good déjà vu, where it feels inevitable as you’re working forward. But I don’t really know how to talk about that without sounding like an asshole. I just think you’re kind of doomed in either direction.
So when you said before that when you leave an interview you feel shameful and false, why?
Well, I think probably that those are my defaults. I was saying something along those lines to a friend and he said, ‘When do you not feel that way? When you go to the Whole Foods you feel that way.’ I think part of it is just because you’re trying to give an honest account of how a story came to be. The origins, they’re pretty mysterious sometimes, for all the writers I know, anyway. There is this irreducibly mysterious part that’s hard to talk about. And I also think that the thing that you are in the world, the self that you move around in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the world, is so different than the person who sits down to write anything. That might just be my own experience of the thing.
No. The reason I have another question about that is it’s been my experience, too. So see, my question, which proves that you’re not alone in this world in thinking that, is: what is the relationship between the Macy’s Day parade Karen Russell and the home one or the real one, the IRL version of you? Are there any aspects of your public self that surprise or frighten or embarrass or elate you?
That’s a great question. Okay, I’m going to try to answer it without turning our featureless interview room into some kind of twelve-step overshare therapy session.
No, please do. That would be great for me.
But I’m glad that you asked that because that’s been really acute for me lately. And I’m interested always in seeing the way other writers work this out. How their public self gets constructed and to what degree it seems to be defending them. Or how they stay kind of even keel. […] I think that the trip that I’m trying to work out is that my impulse is always to be really deprecating, to tell bad jokes. And at a certain point I realized that trashing my own stories made the others uncomfortable. Like, this is maybe unnecessary and it’s making everybody else uncomfortable.
Uh-huh. And also my publicist is mad at me.
Or your editor, right? Who really worked so hard in this completely egoless way to help get this book out there. She’s not excited if you’re going around going—
‘Oh, you wouldn’t really like it. Don’t worry about it. Don’t bother with my book.’
And then I went through this other stage which was to confess that you have an ambition for a novel or a story then you just give everybody—this is like a sixth grade defense, I think—but it’s like, ‘Why try?’ It’s my same approach to fashion in grades six through twelve, where I just sought to be inoffensive and have no ambitions. Somehow I felt that to say, ‘This is my ambition for this story’ seemed sort of pretentious, and also then gives ammunition to anybody who wants to say, ‘Well this is the way it failed to meet that ambition.’ I don’t know, it gets really kind of…
Yeah! …I think there’s a kind of confidence I often feel when I’m writing that I don’t feel when I’m in the world, I guess. I feel a different kind of conviction about my choices. I feel much more insecure and awkward in the world, somehow, than I do when I’m writing.
In the world, like situations like this?
Nah, I feel good now.
Because I’ve got a good vibe, right?
Like bracketed: The girls rattle their OxyContin. ‘No, I’m feeling great now!’
In my dream version of this interview I did performance art where I just said, “Laughter, laughter,” into the recorder, as though I thought that that’s what the brackets meant. When you read ‘em, you know? [Laughter] Laughter. Laughter.
See, look, this is the kind of fraudulent thing, because as soon as I said that I’m like, ‘I don’t feel particularly confident when I’m writing. What am I talking about?’ I think some people are really good at talking about their process and the origins of their ideas and constellating their own work in the Pantheon of influences. And I’m just not great at that part.
But is that not that you are lying but that there are many versions, many answers coexisting, and when someone asks you a question about your work you have to choose one. So they’re like, ‘Where did this story come from?’ And you’re like, ‘I overheard a friend say this.’ When actually it came from 20 places.
Right, and strange sub-conscious confluences that your really don’t even know about. Right? Like something so secret it’s even a secret from you. But then I’m like, ‘You know what? Everybody else is in their private world of worry and doesn’t care too much.’ But I do think it’s interesting. Did you have that with “Battleborn”going on the road? I was thinking too how weird it is to be alone with these characters for so long and then have strangers have a relationship to them and have them assembled out of some psychic material that you have no access to, right? Like somebody else is using their brother to make the brothers in the Forty-Niners [story].
I think I found what surprised me about when other people talked about “Battleborn” is, like, I didn’t care. I’d be like, ‘Okay, that sounds pretty good.’ It wasn’t in a condescending way—I hope. I wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, whatever you think.’ It was more like, ‘Sure. I release these things, and whatever you’re doing with them, that sounds great.’ So I don’t think I give a great interview at all partly because someone will say, ‘Here’s my really smart read of this and you’re pulling in this and you’re interested in this.’ And I’m like—
Yeah, ‘That’s good.’ Even though maybe I would never have pulled that out in a million years, but I’m just like, ‘It’s sort of yours to do with now.’ But you’re supposed to still have ownership and care and tell them where they came from or what they mean or at least where to situate it in the Pantheon.
It’s so funny. I’m living two blocks away from this library—and I don’t know why I was so elated about this—but I’m in my mesh jogging shorts in the elevator and I saw that my book “Swamplandia!”was their book club selection. And I was over the moon. Because nobody knows that I’m living in that building and to be honest Philly is a little—I was New Yorker for many years, so Philly feels like I’m living in a weird elevator or something. So I just thought about what would happen if came in some kind of black raincoat and sat in on the book club meeting and then was like, ‘You’re all wrong!’
But the beauty of that is they would be like, ‘Who are you?’
They don’t care. But I would never do that because, like you’re saying, it’s amazing that anyone’s reading that stuff and now it’s theirs to interpret and embroider. So that’s another thing about going around and talking about influences and impulses and things, which I am happy to do, but sometimes I sort of worry that people who’re asking those questions—occasionally, right? I get the sense that there’s this anxiety that they don’t want to misinterpret something, or maybe there’s some sort of moralistic reading that they’re not getting, or whatever. And I hate that because you want to get your big head down so people can see the movie. You don’t want to have your giant silhouette with a hat on in front of all these people in the theatre.
Like Francine Prose, in that essay, “What Makes A Short Story?”, she says the best answer to that is the short story itself.
That’s my thing. But you don’t wanna seem like some sort of Forrest Gumpy idiot savant who just threw paint at the wall. Especially because there is this aspect of it that is so conscious and meticulous. Eh, it’s a tricky thing.
How tapped in are you to the contemporary culture of books? Are you reading reviews a lot? And blogs?
I try not to, but I’ve been going a poor job this week because this thing [Vampires in the Lemon Grove"is just born. I envy the writers who are so Zen and they don’t read reviews at all. I’m still at the stage where I will.
Do you have the Google alert?
I don’t have a Google alert because there’s so many other Karen Russells. Do you do the Google alert? Don’t do it.
I have it. I have it. I know. But you know, I’m glad I do because I don’t wonder what’s out there. I got it because clearly my publicists have it and they forward it to me so I was like, ‘You know what I should just get it and then I won’t be wondering and I won’t waste a lot of time or go to the dark parts like the Goodreads comments or the Amazon comments.’
It’s like ‘Scott’s Thoughts.’ [Laughter] ‘What’s Scott been thinking about? Oh, he thinks I suck.’ Scott’s thoughts turn dark as well. What grimmer place could there be than when you find yourself consulting Scott’s Thoughts?
About your self.
I know. It’s a kind of witchy knowledge that should be denied us. I’m trying to do less of that, but I think that’s exactly the problem. I have a catastrophic list to all thinking. For example, I had to go do an event and I saw that this review had come in and I was just, ‘I’m not strong enough to read it. It will demolish me. But then I was like, ‘Everybody else is gonna see and then it will be this weird thing where it’s like some kind of reverse ‘Emperor’s New Clothes,’ or something. Where everyone is like, ‘Uh, we can see your doodle. You’re definitely not wearing clothes’. That’s the horrible, horrible ego pinball part. But there are parts of New York literary scene that I love. A lot of my friends from graduate school are still around there, a lot of my pals, and it’s always nice to see my professors. Doesn’t that feel just cheering and great?
I think one of the best parts still of having anything come out is getting an email from a professor. I’m sure there is some specific German word for that exact joy. The paternal approval of a professor. And it’s nice to…why can’t I think of a better phrase than ‘see how the sausage us made’? That’s the part people hate. That’s gross. That’s what makes people vegetarians. If you spend so much of your time doing this endeavor that seems doomed and insane and you’re doing it in stained sweatpants and you have no real colleagues… I showed this book to my doorman in this new building because I think he thinks I’m this dowager. Some kind of young widow or something, because I’m always around. So I like New York for that, because you do meet these other self-selecting weirdos who are trying to do this isolating thing. I think the tough part for me about New York is I’m sort of anxious, and while this event that we’re about to do is going to be fun—they’re always fun, right? But I get a little anxious in the wind up.
It might not always be this way but I have book tour PTSD or something, where so much of my life became centered around these events that were very anxiety-provoking for me. It’s nice to be in Philly. It’s just a little quieter.
Just walk over to the library.
Yeah, just walk over to the library. Get a sammie at the Wawa. I feel like Heidi in the mountaintops or something, just convalescing a little.
I get worked up before readings, too.
The rest of the tape is just going to be our Lamaze breathing.
Probably the most uniform thing I can say about having published a book is everything I thought I would love, I am at least ambivalent about if I don’t outright hate. Which is weird because I spent so much of my adult life dreaming about doing a reading and now I’m just sort of like, ‘My tummy hurts.’ You said you have book tour PTSD. What’s going on in your head? Is it, ‘What if they don’t like the reading?’ Or, ‘What if nobody comes?’
The funny thing is if you’re the kind of control freak that wanted to design a universe and live there in the first place—let’s just assume that many writers have a hard time with real time. Because the whole joy of reading and writing is to step outside the stream of time for a little bit. So that’s a vestigial one. But even something as completely low stress as the Barnes and Noble reading where you’re interrupting the sleep of the homeless, and yet it will still feel like, to me, somewhere in some basement place, ‘I can ruin my career.’ Less and less and less so, but especially in the early days. You know, I think there was this sense that is also connected to the dreamy improbability of getting to do a reading and getting to be a writer at all. Doesn’t it feel like that, like the power of the jinx?
I have a question about jinxes! Because I’m, I’m into jinxes. I mean, I’m not into them—I’m against them. But I know that they’re real. And hexes, too. which it seems like you know about, hexes—
Can I tell you a crazy thing, because I’ll forget?
I’m reading “The Diggings.” There was this nuts-o story, and I didn’t put it into this collection because it felt too similar in some ways to the silkworm girls story [“Reeling for the Empire”]. But it was these chicks who use these rattlesnakes as dowsing rods for shadows and it’s set in Nevada and they find this weird community with Quonset huts called the diggings! Anyway, if we’re going to go into a magic and hexes zone—it was so cool! …It was so exciting because it was like we were panning for gold in the same psychic waters.
No, we really are! Because the book I’m working on now is about dowsers, sort of, and hexes and I don’t really know… But I wish I had come up with that rattlesnake thing. That’s great!
It’s pretty phallic, to have little girls doing that with these stiff taxidermied snakes. But in any case, it was an uncanny reading experience, like seeing your own footprints.
Tell me what other kinds of superstitions you have.
Oh, that’s great. I would lie about this with anyone else. But I won’t since I’m with a kindred. I think part of it that I’m trying to get over is connected to the sense that this dream that I always had really did happen. So that seems impossible. It feels pretty ancient, that one. Not calling the gods’ wrath down upon you. Not attracting too much notice, so you’re smote.
Like not naming a child for its first year.
That’s it! That’s right. Our dad is really superstitious. It used to be the kind of superstition that would then expose us to greater danger. We’d be driving to school and a black cat would run in front of the car and then we’d swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid its path. You know, the basic ones, I guess. Bad things come in threes.
My dad was really big on that, bad things come in threes. And that was some kind of weird mesh with my childhood anxiety and OCD. So if I saw three birds or something I’d be like, ‘Better stay inside for a time.’ But that doesn’t totally align with the professional life where you have commitments.
There are three readers tonight!
Oh no! [Both knock on the table. Laughter.] Salt. That used to really embarrass my high school boyfriend. ‘Please stop throwing salt over your shoulder.’
Right. Me, too. And with writing? When you were talking about that thing with your dad I was thinking, ‘That’s crazy.’ But then I was thinking about how sometimes when I have to delete something that I really like—even if I have to delete almost anything. Okay, when I have to delete any word or any letters, I feel in a part of my brain like I am killing them so I say, “I’m sorry.’ ‘Rest in Peace,’ or something. Do you have any writing craziness?
We should do some kind of interview in the interest of completely freaking everybody out. Wouldn’t it be fun? Because that’s a question that you could answer in ways that could completely alter your public persona, right? If I was just like, ‘Actually, I just put on my tiger stripped face paint and…’ We could really weird out.
But you’d have to do it like, ‘Oh no, not really. I’m pretty traditional. I just wake up every morning, I take my urine bath and then I’m at the computer for two to three hours a day. It’s boring around my house. ’
‘Just really disciplined.’
‘It’s work, work, work. Writing is rewriting. And urine baths.’
So let me ask you about language. You’ve said that all your pleasure’s on the level of the line. Anyone can see that, when they read your work. It’s this rolling around in sound and language. I thought of it almost as this adolescent glee in language—in a high compliment way. The way when you just start to say curse words or dirty phrases and you say them—
And they have such power, right?
Yeah, they have power and of course part of the excitement is they’re transgressive. But they also feel. You have lines like the ‘their mascot was an oblong custard-looking thing, the spumy top-layer of which Nal guessed was meant to represent the gifted.’ That feels good. Do you have a sense of words like that, on an intuitive level?
That’s so funny. So now I’m going to pay you a compliment back, because when I was reading “Battleborn” I was like, ‘I think Claire must have some of that—Nabokov, you know? Whatever that special kind of synesthesia he had where words were materials beyond their content. Where letters had magnetic resonance and color for him. I was like, ‘This girl must have this relationship to language, because there’s a way that she’s ordering these sentences that is completely material to the plot and does all the things that good stories do and there’s character development.’ I was jealous because so much is happening. There’s so much suspense, but also there’s this inevitable feeling. We were saying that writing should be surprising and true and it felt just completely surprising but inevitable, on the level of the line, sentence to sentence. I was jealous in the best way. Like, ‘I think Claire must be some kind of spooky witch.’ [Laughter] Who has some kind of intuitive sense of what the next letter should be or what the next word should be.
My favorite classes were always dumb nerdy vocabulary. I remember writing these terrible poems when I was like nine and discovered alliteration. Just ‘cause that friction was so fun. It did feel powerful. Like a game, but also powerful. You were talking about taboos and violation and language as transgression. I was raised Catholic and one of my favorite times of year was right after Lent, Easter Sunday, when you can say ‘Hallelujah’ again. I don’t know if any other kid felt the famine of Hallelujahs. I don’t know that they were necessarily hurting from the lack of Hallelujahs. But there was something about it. Everybody would burst out like song.
My friend Wells Tower was saying this and I thought, ‘Wow, what a good answer. I’ll just steal that.’ Because you know, people start putting a lot of spin on the ball when they answer these kinds of questions about how you became a writer. He quoted some artist who had said, ‘I just liked the smell and feel of paint.’ Which was really kind of charming and humble [of Wells]. But there’s that materiality of it, too. The crunch and the joy of it. I thought poetry was so great for that because even eons before I really had any clue what was going on content-wise in a poem, you could hear it and you be moved by the sound of it. I mean moved by the sound of it. You could be knocked into a new emotional space. Long before I had any idea about any sophisticated or nuanced signification.
I’ve read that some of your stories starting as failed poems—“St. Lucy’s [Home for Girls Raised by Wolves]”—
Were you a poet at some point?
I have always wanted to be a poet. But I’m failed.
I don’t believe it.
And you said also that you think you would be a lousy screenwriter. I think you would be, too. [Laughter] What other arts—
Have I failed at? It’s funny I just had this conversation with a friend. We were trying to name actual sums of money for skills we could acquire. Like in some evil capitalist dystopia, some Gary Shteyngart world. And you couldn’t put a price on what I would be willing to pay to be able to dance.
Why? Why dancing?
I don’t know. That’s a good question. Is it just as vain as I want to go to a wedding and have people be like, ‘Damn, Karen can really dance’? It might be as simple as that.
How many weddings do you get invited to?
>Well, I’m gonna have to go to a lot more weddings when I purchase this power. Because where else? It’s like a really bad Mentos commercial from the Eighties. Everyone’s like turning to one another and they’re like, ‘Damn, Karen can really dance!’ But when I do it, it’s not smug. Others want to dance. That’s how I envision it going down. It’s not like off-puttingly arrogant.
Like you get it started?
Yeah, I get it started! And there’s so much joie de vivre or whatever in what I’m doing that my talent extends to all.
Anyway. That’s the worst answer in the history of answers. But one of the reasons writing appealed to me was I was such an anxious kid and not at all at ease in my body. So to be that unselfconscious in movement and in joy, it seems good. … Will you tell me yours?
Are you a secret painter? You are!
Well, I am sort of getting into watercolors right now.
It’s cool to suck and not care that you suck.
Did you see those George W. Bush paintings?
Did your heart ache? Somebody I guess hacked into his account and discovered these. Whatever, they’re not that bad! That’s one mysterious thing. But something about them is heart-rending. I think just that anyone would find your secret art. Like a grainy video of me dancing to Tears for Fears. You just don’t want that ever to surface.
That seems like a major violation. Yes.
But yeah, sucking at something.
And it being okay. Because it’s not, for me, okay if my writing is sucky. And it’s the only thing that I feel that way about. Except for maybe some of my personal relationships. Many of them, if they suck I’m like, ‘I’ll make peace with that…’ But you know, feeling like it’s okay to suck at it, to just let it be. To say, I made a thing and it sucks and who cares?
Oh, sure. Right, James Wood isn’t gonna come in and be like, ‘Claire, is that a flower or an orangutan? What the hell is that? Did you intend for it to suck?’
It appeals to my slacker ways. In all things I’m very much a slacker, except for writing. And that’s hard, to not be able to be like, ‘Fuck it.’ I can never say fuck it.
And it’s hard, for people to perceive you to be a slacker. I remember with Swamplandia!
Why? What do you mean?
I think just because it took me so long to write it. Come year two… Are you working on a novel now?
Yes. I’m in year two. Maybe three. Three, it’s three.
So people are still asking about it right? They’re still excited?
Sort of, yeah.
But that might change soon. And it’s good when it changes because it gives you more quiet space. You’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve already failed for them.’
So it’s all gravy from here on out.
It’s kind of a nice parentheses to be in, where everyone has quietly decided that your novel is stillborn. How did I get way over here? Cancer… Sucking… It’s hard… Shoot, I’m sorry.
That’s okay. It was a good riff. A really good riff.
It’s difficult that we can’t be laissez-faire… Oh, that’s what I was going to say! People would then say, ‘Just finish it, finish it! Put it our there, who cares?’ And you can’t really have that attitude. I can’t, anyway.
But you could have published a stinker. You’d get away with one. People do it. Your career goes on. You never thought, ‘You know what? B squad. This is gonna be my B string novel.’ You just couldn’t live with that?
I think that book likely is a stinker, to many. But there were definitely versions of that that I think I could have pushed through sooner. Right? But you couldn’t. That would never be the thing, probably for either for us, that you would wave the white flag on. But it’s funny because I don’t really have that with anything else either. Definitely most entrees I make I’m like, ‘This could be so much better, but we’re gonna eat it now. This could be infinitely better.’ It would never occur to me to dump that in the trash and start again. We’re gonna eat it.
It seems like people say either, ‘Writing is great, the writing life is wonderful, it nourishes your mind, it makes you a better person.’ Or maybe more people even say, ‘It’s rotten, it’s failure, it’s constant self-humiliation, it’s lonely.’ There are these poles. What is writing to you? Are you in one of those camps?
That’s so accurate. I remember in college we had a professor who said, ‘How many of you consider yourselves to be happy people?’ And because we were all tipsy and it was spring, seventy-five percent of us raised our hands. And he basically insinuated that we would not be writers then. That we were just water beetles skittering along the surface of some deeper relationship to reality. And I remember thinking at the time that that was so horrifying. Let’s do our superstitious thing again. [Knocks on the table.] Because I feel lucky. The scariest and hardest part for me was moving from stories to the novel, because that’s just a weird transition to try to make and I think that was when I felt most acutely this fear that I’d been given an opportunity and that I wouldn’t be equal to it. It was such a rare thing to get to even try to do a novel and know I would have a home for it that I was just, ‘Oh no. It all will be taken from me.’ I think most people probably are familiar with that, but it felt very acute during those years when I was working on the novel. And so that book came out and since then anything else that’s happened—it’s been a little choppy and there’s been some ego whiplash and this and this—but I just feel less, ‘Oh my God, they could takes this away from me.’ And more, ‘Maybe this could be something I can do for…’ I hate even saying it… [Both knock.] I think that would be amazing. What if we really got to just do this? What if we really got to write stories? That would be the best thing. I still feel like saying that out loud is inviting some…
Olympic power smiting. So I guess I’m more shifted lately towards the pole that says, ‘Shhhh. Keep quiet.’ It’s good but keep your belly to the grass and keep shimmying forward. Don’t make a lot of noise, Claire.
Okay. I hear a lot of people say, ‘I don’t know why short stories aren’t more popular these days, because this is the age of truncated attention spans and Twitter.’ And that logic always seems a little bit flimsy to me, because a short story is clearly so much more difficult than a tweet or an episode of television. Do you that think it is more difficult than a novel, for a reader?
Rats. This is such a good question and now I’m not going to be able to give—because I’ll throw some answer like that out there too, you know? ‘For today’s modern girl! A short story!’ Please. Claire and I don’t want to be paralegals. Just read the short story. A little self-interest there. I think they’re arguably as difficult to write as novels. I think the density, for example, the novella in your collection—that is like a shrunken head of a trilogy. That really has so much psychic weight and history inside of it. And it’s a lot easier to read a Newsweek article or a ‘Top 10’ Redbook list than something like that, even if it’s the same word count. It’s always gonna be much easier in so far as you can do it mindlessly and starting from a world that you know. So much less is required of you.
And ending in a world you know, too. Certain forms reflect your stuff back to you and certain absorb it and go, ‘No, you don’t get to know what’s coming next. You don’t get to makes sense of every image. You don’t get to have a neat, tidy epiphany.’
We were talking earlier about this weird hunger that readers sometimes have for the author to paraphrase out ‘The Meaning.’ I have a friend who’s a photographer and she started doing this thing where she’ll have a photo that’s untitled and then in parentheses she’ll have the title. And I said, ‘Leslie, isn’t that kind of passive aggressive?’ And she said, ‘No. I just hate when I title something and it’s finished for the reader.’ It’s done in their minds. Too often they think, Oh I ‘get it.’ Some pall falls over their eyes and they’re not seeing it anymore. And I think she really wants to leave people with this oscillating number of potential meanings. Haunted. She wants them to go away haunted. Not putting a nail in the coffin and then moving on. But she wants to give a nudge, too, so that’s why she does the parentheses.
She wants you haunted, but by certain specific ghosts. A handful of ghosts. Not the whole cemetery.
Not All Souls Day. I think my favorite stories do that, too. And that’s why they can be discomfiting to some readers, and that’s why they maybe arguably—I don’t know if they’re more difficult than a novel. But sometimes I think the resolution a novel can deliver is different. People will complain about how abrupt any story feels. Because you don’t put down stakes for so long. You go in knowing you’re only gonna know these characters for twelve more pages, eighteen more pages. It’s a different relationship. And what’s promised is different. There’s this Lorrie Moore image, I forget what story it’s from: a broken off bone, air rushing through a broken off bone. Doesn’t that kind of feel like a short story in this weird way? It’s a vessel for something, you can hear it or feel its vibrations, it’s gonna contain it but not completely, and very briefly, and then release it again.
It continues although we won’t continue along with it. A broken-off bone is more vivid and shocking because it used to be a whole bone, and the story is like, ‘Cunk. I’m gonna amputate right here.’
Right. There is this uncanny, unsettled exit. I think some readers kind of hate that.
Sometimes they’re like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why would you do that to me?’
‘Are you lazy?’ I’m sure I’ve said this somewhere else so forgive me, but you’ll like it. My grandfather, who was just the sweetest most supportive man. Very quiet. He thought I was an insane person, and also self-published. Until his dying day he was really concerned and kept begging me to be a teacher of a nurse or some female profession he recognized.
Yeah, exactly, geisha. He gave me up for a spinster at nineteen. Like, ‘Well… teacher?’
You seem to get that a lot.
He was reading “Accident Brief,” a story from the first collection ["St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves"] on the website. And he called me as was like, ‘Those sneaky bastards. If you wanna find out what happens you gotta buy the article.’ And I was like, ‘Papa, it’s over.’ And there was this weird silence and he’s like, ‘It’s done? But you don’t know if they get down from the glacier!’ …He had been so respectful of their business decision to withhold the ending, you know?
Papa just nailed the publishing industry conundrum on the head. ‘Yeah, that’s smart,’ and you’re like, ‘No, they just gave up the whole thing,’ and he’s like, ‘This industry!’
‘Giving away a crappy story with no ending! Why would they do that?’ And that was when he knew about the death of print media.
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)