"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)
Booklist had this to say about “All the Dead Yale Men”:
‘Long-awaited’ is an overused phrase in publishers’ promotional blurbs, but Nova’s follow-up to his acclaimed 1982 novel “The Good Son” merits that description as much as any recent fiction, and it has been well worth the lengthy wait. Nova now brings forward more than one full generation his account of the Mackinnon family…[their] roots are in a richly described Delaware Valley, but this dark saga is also set in a seamy New England familiar to readers of George V. Higgins’ classic “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” or Geoffrey Wolff’s “Providence.”
Nova, meanwhile, has a lot to say about a writer’s obligations, and how he and the world have changed since “The Good Son” came out.
Why did these characters haunt you for so many years?
This, of course, comes right up against the mystery of what it means to be a writer. Often, I will write a book, publish it, and never think about the characters in it again, and, in fact, I have had the experience of looking at a book I published 10 years ago and being surprised that some of the characters were even there. But that’s not the case here. Not by a long shot.
First of all, many of the stories here were inspired by my father-in-law, a man I spent a lot of time with, a man who had been a pursuit pilot in World War II who’d been shot down and who spent three years in a German prison camp, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, and who was one of the most charming and exasperating human beings I have ever met. Of course, I loved him. But he used to drive me crazy with his excesses (his drinking, his ongoing attitude that he was still a recent graduate of Yale who was on his way to Europe as a fighter pilot, his absolute fearlessness about most things).
Of course he loved to tell me stories, and so, after he died, I was left with a haunting memory of him, in the modern age. The first book, “The Good Son,” was set right after the war, that is, WWII, but the new book is set right now. I wondered what happened or did happen to those characters in the first book when they hit the modern age like a, well, a motorcyclist hitting a cement embankment. I think that more changes in American society have taken place in the last 30 years than at any other time in our history, and that takes in a lot, and I mean a lot of territory. Even 10 years ago seems like ancient history.
What is the future of the novel?
Now, in the modern age, the novel is the way we discover what we really believe. If we tell a story, and it seems true and the characters seem real, and the resolution is correct, we are able to say that we are certain, or more certain than before about what we think is true. The novel in the modern age is the answer or the response to a line in Camus’ notebook, which is, “That wild human longing for clarity….” It is this wild longing that the novel satisfies, and as long as it does that, and as along as a novelist is honest about what it is like to be human, it will not only survive, but thrive. It will become the method by which we judge our morality.
In “The Good Son,” to which “All the Dead Yale Men” is a sequel, the character who was driving the action was a young man. Now it is a young woman. What has happened?
This is precisely what I mean when I say that things have changed. When I was writing “The Good Son,” I was looking into how a young man determines who he is and what he believes and how power moves from one generation to another.
But since then I have had daughters, now grown up, and the feminine or young woman’s experience has been so much a part of my own, that I simply could not avoid writing a book from that perspective. My experience along these lines comes from the fact that I was very close to my daughters when they were growing up and have watched them in the modern age. They are unlike earlier generations. They take what is theirs, and they refuse to let people jerk them around. A healthy development.
But, in a family, the struggle between parents and children is a constant. And, for a father, the thing that must be understood is that if a father loves his daughter, he will do anything, just about anything, not to be reduced in her eyes.
In fact, the struggle between father and daughter in “All the Dead Yale Men” is more intense than that between father and son, if only because of the care which the loving father will exercise. In this case, because the blow-up between father and daughter comes at just the wrong time, the struggle spills into the criminal world. The father, in “All the Dead Yale Men” is a prosecutor.
What do you really believe as a novelist? Do you have any moral obligations as a writer, and if so what are they?
I believe, and I really do, that a novelist is that last line of defense against bullshit. In the modern age, we are up to our necks in this substance, and so, as described above, the novelist’s job is to discover what he or she thinks is true and to have the courage to stick to it. Orwell says someplace that all we really ask of a writer is to say what he or she really thinks. Mostly, in the modern age, writers are afraid. They can be so easily accused. But it is this fear that a writer has to stand up to. It is the moral imperative of being a novelist: What do I really believe, how do I know it to be true, and what are the implications. And how can I tell this as a compelling story. For a novelist the story is not everything. It is the only thing.
What books most influenced you?
I read an interview with William Maxwell in the Paris Review. Maxwell, of course, was an editor for fiction writers at the New Yorker for years and was also one of best novelists of the last 50 years. “So Long, See You Tomorrow” is just a lovely, haunting, moving book.
In his interview with the Paris Review, Maxwell said that his most definite influence, Virginia Woolf, is in almost everything he wrote, but, of course, no one even noticed. I think this is the way that influences work: They allow you to find and use your own material.
Specifically, I read two writers when I am having trouble. Alice Munro, who is the new Chekhov, and Ford Maddox Ford. No one moves around in time the way Ford Maddox Ford does. Of course, I read the work of friends, too, and I often ask them about things. For instance, from John Irving I learned how a book can have a musical quality, that is, the writer can set up more than one tone (funny, sad, ominous, frightening, etc.) and then move from one to the other, in the same way that a musician plays a piece of music.
Why do you write?
I wish I knew. Sometimes it feels so good that I am amazed that I get to feel this. At other times it is not like that at all, and I wish, with a sort of intensity that is hard to believe, that I had taken up something else. The truth is that if you are a surgeon, after 20 years, you will think like a surgeon. If you are a lawyer, after 20 years you will think like a lawyer. If you are a second-story man, after 20 years you will think like a second-story man. By now, I think like a novelist, which means, of course, that I am always looking for stories and, the deeper layer as Melville liked to say, a pattern underneath these stories. But, still, I write out of pleasure, which comes at the price of the horror that I have gotten myself into this.
In “All the Dead Yale Men” the father of one of the main characters is a spook. What is the relationship between Yale and the CIA?
Close. I think it starts with the secret societies, and the fact that it is hard to imagine a mole beginning to go to work at, say, 19. My father-in-law, who everyone thought was a spook, and probably was, was in a secret society at Yale, but I think the spying part started when he was in prison camp. All the pilots were given small Bibles, which they used as a book code to write letters home. Of course, in a prison camp, if you learn German, as my father-in-law did, you pick up valuable information, which my father sent back using the book code. These letters were supposed to be written to his girlfriend, and, of course, he wrote them as though they were to a woman he loved, and “she” wrote back (very salacious letters, as I understand it), but it turned out he was really corresponding with a roommate of his from Yale, who worked then in what was known as the War Department.
How have things changed between the time you wrote “The Good Son” and now?
I think it might be better to ask what hasn’t changed, since we are beginning in many ways, personally, to take advantage of the freedoms that a few years ago were only dreamed of. Women have taken what is theirs. Gay men and women are fighting for what is theirs. We have tried, and tried genuinely, I think, to address the many outrages of the past. We all know what they are.
Then, of course, we have the technological revolution, which, while having great advantages, has some profound difficulties, too. The loss of privacy. Spying. The fact that many jobs are sent overseas. A culture that is at once keenly sexualized and profoundly uptight. The modern angst is one of conflicting impulses and an odd, free-floating repression.
What is the most important item for a novel to have?
Actually, it is like real estate. If in real estate, the most important items are location, location and location, in a novel it is story, story and story. With a trustworthy set of beliefs that are usually unstated. For instance, in the background of “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald is working with the brutality of the American class system, but it is never mentioned. It is just there, in the story.
You have published 14 novels. What have you learned about writing in doing this?
Wow. This is one of those things that is so large as to require a sort of haiku. And so I am going to try that:
1) Remember that you must never lose a sense of delight in the story you are telling, in the surprises that you will come across. This delight is what makes a book work.
2) Praise and damnation are usually short term and not always trustworthy. You will have admirers and detractors, but I think you have to tell the best story you can. The instant you feel you are pandering, you should stop.
3) Publishers are scared. The novelist’s job, in many ways, is to be certain enough and successful enough in telling a story to reassure them. Can you imagine what it would be like to be a publisher now?
4) Writing is an up and down proposition, and the truth is that you are either on the way up or the way down. I don’t know how you can avoid this, but the bottom always seems like it will last forever, just as the good times, the easy times seem like they will go on forever, too. They don’t.
The modern novel seems to be in the doldrums. Why is this and what have you done about it?
I think this is because novelists are afraid. They don’t tell the stories they really want to tell, or if they do, they are always looking over a shoulder to make sure they are not making an error that will cause them to be accused of one of the basic modern sins. Or, to put it another way, novelists have become afraid of reality and they are trying to write, to be novelists, and somehow disguise what they know. It leads to a kind of dullness.
So, as I say, the solution is not to be afraid and to take a chance. How about publishing a novel, a sequel to a book that was published years ago, but the idea is to shake things up and to tell a dramatic and true story about how things have changed. No bullshit. Tell the truth. Discover what is compelling in the story. Don’t be afraid of your influences, and don’t try to second-guess, say, the New York Times. That’s a mug’s game.
You were raised in Southern California, and given the cultural milieu of those times, how did you begin to aspire to a writer’s life? Were you in any fashion influenced by your parents? How then did these contribute to the materials of your novels?
My most fond memory of my father is of him sitting on the sofa in the living room of the house where I grew up in Hollywood, California. He was drinking a glass of beer, eating a piece of smoked herring, and reading “War and Peace.”
Also, when I was about 17, I moved in with the family of a friend of mine. The father of this family was a writer by the name of Mel Levy. He was a screenwriter, although he had started as a novelist. We talked about books, and he had a library, a wonderful one, filled with good books, and he let me start at the upper-right section and work right around the room, from Homer to Karl Kapek, from Anatole France to J.D. Salinger. He was very patient with me when I gave him my adolescent ideas about writing. And now, years later, I think of his advice with great admiration and profound respect.
Oscar Hijuelos, the son of Cuban immigrants, is a recipient of the Rome Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. His seven novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in New York City and spends part of the year in Durham, North Carolina, where he teaches at Duke University.More Oscar Hijuelos.
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)