"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)
Joyce Carol Oates isn’t interested in talking about her legendary productivity. “I’ve had these comments almost since I began writing,” she told Salon. “So this was a sort of dirge of complaints that have accompanied me my whole life.”
And yet it’s impossible to ignore just how often Oates publishes; some months after her last tome, “The Accursed,” hit shelves, the legendary novelist is back with “Carthage,” a pitch-dark look at grieving and the quest for justice in Western New York.
These are themes, and this is a location, to which Oates has returned time and again. Fans of hers will find much to recognize in “Carthage,” with its portrayal of a family torn asunder by the disappearance of the young and symbolically named Cressida. But those fans have not gone hungry, either, and not merely because of the volume of prose Oates turns out. In a conversation ranging over various of her recent novels as well as controversies over the literary merit of popular fiction by women and her fascination with lynch mobs, Salon asked her about her famous Twitter feed, one that’s consistently stirred controversy as she’s shared opinions on Islam or the recent killing of a giraffe in a Denmark zoo, which she compared to Nazism. “I could easily just quit right now and never look at it ever again, never think of it again,” she said, admitting that she often wants to quit the social network.
Not that it’s a distraction. The novelist manages to squeeze in writing, tweeting and teaching; she spoke to Salon on a snowy day from Manhattan, after she’d, under protest, canceled her plans to travel to Princeton for her writing workshop. Little can derail this indefatigable author, and especially not any reviews: She says she doesn’t read them. We expect the next novel shortly.
Is “Carthage” in line with themes from the rest of your work — and what themes do you find yourself returning to?
Well, it’s set in the same part of New York state that “Mudwoman” is set, which is a previous novel from a few years ago, and it’s also set in the same part of the state that “Little Bird of Heaven” is set. They’re somewhat fictitious towns — I mean, they are based on real towns in upstate New York, sort of west of the Adirondacks and that area, which I know quite well. So I’ve set a number of my novels and short stories in that area and also more and more in West New York and that general area ,which is where I’ve lived and I know very well. Also, a family is usually exemplary, and representative of the area.
What about tearing that exemplary family apart appeals to you?
Well, because, maybe, then there can be reconstituting in some different way. Like at the end of “The Accursed” there is this commune in upstate New Jersey that these people who are interested in socialism, kind of idealistic young people, have kind of reconvened so they have a different family. And at the end of “We Were the Mulvaneys,” for instance, it’s a slightly new family —t he father’s missing but everybody else is there. Maybe it’s almost an unconscious thinking.
Does it happen often that you find yourself working out unconscious things in your writing?
It’s probably true of most writers. I know my young student writers at Princeton are astonished when I have them hand a portfolio in at the end of the semester and arrange it like a book with a title and a cover, and they discover that they have many themes that prevail even though they think they are writing very differently and that may be the case with most writers.
Do you find your productivity meaningful, neutral or meaningless?
I’ve had these comments almost since I began writing. People started to complain immediately that I wrote too much, and this was maybe 30 years ago. So this was a sort of dirge of complaints that have accompanied me my whole life.
It doesn’t bother you?
Well, it’s hard to say — because the more we are beleaguered or hurt or disappointed or wounded, those are the very feelings that engender a person to create art. We don’t think that van Gogh was painting because he was deliriously happy. So the more you’re rejected or repudiated or criticized, I think, the more one is pressed to work out these feelings in different ways.
I’ve always felt that I’ve identified with people who have been victimized in different ways. I just feel that I sympathize with them. I understand what it’s like. And because I often am attacked myself it sort of confirms my sense of what it feels like. In other words, I haven’t had an easy career or an easy life. It would seem strange if I continued to write about these themes if I’m enormously successful or whatever. So, it’s more or less that I write about things that are very close to my heart, emotionally, and I identify with people who are sometimes held in contempt or ostracized or isolated. I just feel a natural identification with people like that.
It’s been said that women writers of what is sometimes called genre fiction aren’t afforded the same respect as male writers of similar fiction. I wonder if that is something you have felt?
[The term] “genre fiction” itself is sort of an insult. Jane Austen wrote genre romance, but if you look at her novels, they are wonderful and brilliant novels, but they all turn on the marriage plot. You know, they are basically romances. “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” are brilliant variants of the marriage plot. This is just something that recurs, but you wouldn’t call that genre fiction.
The one genre that I never read and literally know nothing about is romance, which is the big best-seller. I mean, it is enormously successful just in terms of sales. I have not read a romance novel, you know, genre [romance], no. But I would guess that maybe the average genre romance novel is not that distinctive that one would review it the way you would review Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison or something. It may just be that genre fiction is not written — maybe deliberately not written — in a way that makes it unique or original or literary. So what would you be reviewing exactly?
Has coming to be respected been an uphill climb for you as a woman?
Well, yes. The early reviews are almost unbelievable. I remember a review in a review of literature which hasn’t been published for many years. The review said that I should leave the big themes to people like Norman Mailer. That I should concentrate on family life. Women are supposed to be the experts in family life and men write about other things. So I do remember it was actually amazing because the name Norman Mailer was used to sort of hit me on the head. Like, Norman Mailer could write about these things but we don’t want you to write about this.
And Mailer has such over-the-top masculinity, which has nothing specifically to do with being a writer.
It was very funny. I just read … You know, I read these things, especially in the past, as if they were written almost about somebody else. Now I have to say I don’t read many of my reviews. I mean, I can be told that I have a very nice review in the New York Times Book Review. People will congratulate me. But I don’t read the review. My husband is really surprised. He’ll say, “Well, why don’t you read this review?” And I’ll say “Well, thank you. Thank you. I’d probably rather not.” Somehow, reading about yourself when you have to go work that morning makes a person too self-conscious. Woody Allen never read his reviews. And I wonder if, in all this scandal now, whether he doesn’t read the things that are said about him. It’s this kind of obliviousness that you need if you’re working every day.
It can be tempting or it can also hold you back …
I think there is when one is younger. Now my friend Richard Ford, a very close friend, he never read reviews either, but that’s because he did read reviews when he was younger. And I believe Jhumpa Lahiri does not read reviews and may not even read reviews about other people. Now you can be a writer or an artist without being connected to this world of people’s opinions. That’s sort of a different world. Certainly, if I were Jhumpa Lahiri, I would be delighted to read the reviews that she receives, but from her point of view she doesn’t really want to read them. She would say, “Thank you. That’s nice of you to say but I’d rather not.” But I have another friend, my dear friend Edmund White, who has gotten every kind of review there is. I mean, really, really every kind. And he’s one who memorizes the bad reviews. He’s very funny. He can rattle them off and people laugh. You know, he’s being amusing. But at the same time he’s actually memorized some of these things, so that’s one extreme.
Who do you view not as a friend but as an influence?
The great influences that came into my life when I was in my 20s, I suppose. James Joyce is a great influence in many ways. The Joycean sentence, the way Joyce combines different senses, the way he looked at the world. Oddly enough, Joyce never wrote, as you know, about violence in any way. He said he abhorred violence. He never wrote about that. But there is a kind of domestic violence in Joyce’s writing. So Joyce is certainly an influence. Kafka was a strong influence and Lewis Carroll — “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” — the sensibility I really identified very much with Lewis Carroll. The sense of the absurd, a sort of comic absurd.
Do you read contemporary novelists at all?
Oh sure! I read a lot. Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m very good friends with Russell Banks and Ed Doctorow and I read just about everything they write. And I mentioned Richard Ford.
You’re so productive consequent to not reading your reviews — but is having the ability to see when people tweet at you a new experience? Is it a positive experience for you?
I have to say often I don’t read the tweets either. And then in the beginning I really didn’t want to do Twitter. I said that I didn’t want to do it and my publisher set up an account. I think they do that with a number of writers and they want you to announce when you’re going to do a book reading or visit a college and so forth so I started doing that. Then I was following a number of people. I follow about 40 people. Steve Martin was one of the first people I followed. He’s so funny. And I started, not emulating Steve, because one can’t do that, but sort of writing a different kind of tweet. It wasn’t just about what I was doing but observations on life. And then sometimes I would read and respond to other tweets. Sometimes I don’t.
But it’s just one of these phenomena, you know, it may be gone in a few years. I think everyone who does Twitter whom I know is always thinking about quitting. I could easily just quit right now and never look at it ever again, never think of it again. But taking a picture, for instance ,of a snowy West Broadway and Houston, which I did this morning. It’s sort of fun to post something like that because here’s this really busy part of New York City which is always busy — like at 2 in the morning it’s very busy — and here there was nothing there. The streets were just sort of empty at 9 a.m. except maybe for one snow plow. You know, it’s kind of amazing. That’s the sort of thing you might put on Twitter but you couldn’t do that with anywhere else. You can write an article in the New York Times, but there’s just nothing you can do with little tiny straight thoughts and fragments that go on Twitter and are sort of lost, you couldn’t do anything else with.
You have tweeted some things that have gotten you in hot water. I wonder if you are ever nervous about the public, how they react to things or overreact to things?
I don’t consider that I really said anything that I don’t feel and I think that sometimes the crowd is not necessarily correct. You know, Kierkegaard said, “The crowd is a lie.” The sort of lynch mob mentality among some people on Twitter and they rush after somebody — they rush in this direction; they rush over here; they’re kind of rushing around the landscape of the news — and this goes on a lot on Twitter. Not necessarily that I’m watching, but I know it goes on elsewhere. When I first started there was a lot in the news about gun control so I was tweeting about that and I got these amazing tweets from these complete strangers who just hated me and what do I know about guns, that I know nothing. I’m this liberal person. And really some of these things I was really astonished. But then I just stopped reading them because I still feel there should be gun control. I don’t care if a million people think I’m wrong. I just think there should be gun control. So basically you react by withdrawing. Many people on Twitter who I follow, like Bill Maher, who is very outspoken. So I imagine he just doesn’t read all the negative tweets. He must care. Somebody called the @TheTweetofGod … ever see that?
No, I haven’t.
Well, he’s very irreverent. He’s very, very much an atheist and he’s making fun of God and Jesus and so forth. I imagine he probably gets a lot of negative tweets but he probably just doesn’t read them and so on. But I don’t really say anything that I don’t mean. It’s just that maybe I’m popular. But it may only be that I’m popular in certain quarters. I mean, other people may think that I’m right. When you have an opinion, probably somebody would agree with you and some people wouldn’t. But if it’s your own opinion … it is a free country.
Has it gotten harder for you over time — as you’ve found yourself saddled with more demands outside of writing — to write novels?
No. I don’t do as many of those things as I used to. I think there were some peak years where I did a lot of visiting campuses and giving talks and I actually turned down most of those. And many of my interviews are just email. So it’s very easy for me to do it.
Tell me a little about your students. Do you think they are more addled by technology than students in past years?
Addled? No. I don’t think so. My students are really wonderful. At Princeton, they have really excellent undergraduates. No, I think they are really amazingly idealistic. I taught at U.C. Berkeley last spring and the students there are quite different because it’s a big state university and they are slightly older than Princeton undergraduates. And they were very interesting and very energetic. My students at NYU are graduate writing students, and I’ve really just started teaching here. But these are not undergraduates. These students go into into their 40s. It’s just different for different students.
Do you ever go back and reread work that you wrote when you were young?
I don’t know. I might if it was for some specific reason. I mean, I wouldn’t ordinarily do it, but there might be some reason for it.
Do you feel as though you’ve changed as a writer?
No. The most gradual — the most definite — change in my writing, which I think has been gradual, is that I don’t narrate as much as I did. My first few books had a narrative voice. Now I’m much more likely to do mediated voices where I get into the consciousness of the character like Cressida. When I’m writing from Cressida’s point of view in my novel “Carthage,” the language is shaped by her consciousness. And when I’m writing from Zeno’s point of view, it’s chasing his consciousness. So I didn’t really do that when I started writing. I had one narrative voice that would tell the story. But over the years, I’m much more interested in people’s voices. So I might write a whole novel in first person or write a short story in first person voice which I didn’t do much when I started writing.
You mentioned what you called a lynch mob mentality in the world. Do you feel as though people who fall victim to this lynch mob are actually suffering similar consequences to people who are lynched?
It’s an interesting phenomenon. One would have to maybe do a study or maybe write a whole essay on the subject. The phenomena of the lynch mob is obviously something in human nature that a pack of people — of individuals — if somebody stands up and tells us that their neighbors, the Jews, are evil and wicked and they should be killed. And some of them immediately believe it. Like, they rush out and kill Jews or they kill gypsies or something. Now some of them don’t believe it and they hold back. But eventually they will have to join in with their neighbors or they, themselves, would be attacked, you know, the way that Germans, good Germans, were. So why does this happen? If somebody stands up and says, “The people you’ve been living with all these decades are actually evil,” and all around the world, you can see it right now in Africa, they sort of rise up against their neighbors. Why that’s a phenomenon of human nature I don’t know.
It’s maybe something that you have been able to explore and can continue to explore in your written work.
Well, it’s obviously with us a lot. There are scapegoats who are like symbols. They become like a poster or a flapping flag. There may be a real problem but this person is only one person and this person’s not to blame. But there have been a lot of studies, I think, by psychologists on this phenomenon of turning against some portion of the population. There are books on lynchings, you know, in the South. Ever seen these big books and photographs?
I have seen that they exist. I have not read them myself.
So we have, at home, books [about lynching]. African-American studies programs put them out. So you look at this huge book of photographs and there’s footage of these lynchings in the United States and you see a black figure here, that could be a woman, who has been lynched. You’ll see a crowd around the figure and they’re all ages, they’re grinning, and they’ve got picnic lunches. It’s almost unbelievable. I mean African-American studies programs want this material to be seen because otherwise people don’t believe it, that this is happening in the United States not that very long ago. So everyone in the crowd, say there are 30 or 3,000 people in the crowd, really everyone in the crowd is probably not a monster. There probably were some nice Christian people in the crowd and yet they were there, you know … So when the lynch mob starts rushing and you sort of have to go along with it, I guess, psychologically, or else they will turn on you. And yet not everybody could have really wanted to do that. But it happens in other ways, too. People just sort of turn on somebody.
You go to such dark places in your writing. Do you feel that there is anything that is off limits that a writer shouldn’t be able to put into print or to say? Or is that the freedom of being a writer and the freedom of speech?
Well, would there be a code somewhere where someone could look it up?
I don’t know, I’m asking you.
I certainly don’t think there is a code anywhere that you look up to see whether you can write something or not. I mean, who would draw it up? It’s sort of like censorship. I mean, who are the censors? They’re usually people who are not even interested in literature or art. They’re usually people that look for obscene words in a book and they find 12 obscene words in the book, but they haven’t read the book. That’s sort of the censor’s mentality. And most artists are just not at all concerned about that. I think one doesn’t think about it. That somehow if you’re Picasso or Francis Bacon you’re not thinking about are you violating some taboo or if somebody’s offended by your art. It seems to come from a deeper place.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_More Daniel D'Addario.
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)