Interveiw by Hilary Jacqmin, Assistant Manuscript Editor
We continue our conversation with Tracy Daugherty, author of the new collection of short stories, Empire of the Dead.
This book is very much a post-9/11 creation. Some of the stories take place before 2001—The Magnitudes, most significantly, deals in a very personal way with the Oklahoma City bombing and Timothy McVeigh’s execution, two events that also play pointedly off 9/11—and the collection as a whole is heavily weighted with the multiple consequences of terrorism: physical, emotional, architectural, and even philosophical. Was this a conscious choice? Why did 9/11 resonate so much for you?
9-11, coinciding as it did with the beginning of a new century, and thus—unfortunately—setting the tone for this period, was a turning point in our national life. As individuals, we may or may not have been touched by the event, but the fact is that ever since, the United States has been in a perpetual state of war and the battleground is the entire planet, including our own cities. Whether we know it or not, this affects all of us, and the ramifications of the pursuit of endless war are still unfolding. We find ourselves in a new world, trapped in old ways of thinking. And contemporary terrorism is bound up with the new technologies that are shaping modern life, for better or worse—at the moment, no one uses social media more effectively than ISIS.
I have no desire to write directly about 9-11 or terrorism—for one thing, there’s the risk of exploiting tragedy for the sake of your story, which is not just offensive, it’s bad art. But in the same way that language changes over time—the word “gay,” for example, has quite different connotations now than it did sixty years ago—cultures change as a result of history, and these changes can’t be ignored in the textures of a story. I would argue that every American story written now is a post-9-11 story, whether the author likes it or not—even if it’s a simple piece about, say, a cat in a kitchen in Nebraska, or a historical novel set in the California Gold Rush.
The Oklahoma City bombing felt very personal to me—not only do I have strong family ties to Oklahoma, but my grandfather, an Oklahoma politician, used to tour me around government buildings in Oklahoma City when I was a child, and taught me to respect these symbols of the public good: architecture embodying our cherished democratic ideals! And I’ve spoken to survivors of the bombing, over the years, and tried to tell some of their stories in writing.
Ralph Ellison, you know, grew up in Oklahoma City. He used to listen to the stirring oratory of the legislators in the Senate chambers and then he’d go down to the capitol basement and listen to the janitors’ stories and jokes: the richness of American language is born of this wild mix of the High and the Low, and public spaces are necessary sites of discourse and debate. Among the many things that terrorism seeks to destroy is our language: directly or indirectly, every writer is engaged in this fight.
Although these stories are not religious per se, the characters grapple with questions of spirituality and the soul (sometimes as embodied in buildings or spaces), which intersect with musings on Dante, saint candles, and churches like “mysterious groves… forests encased in stone, hiding secret rituals.” I’m interested as well in Bern’s own occasional recollections of his childhood experiences with Judaism. As a Jew myself, I think I’m always intrigued by the Jewish experience in the South, which always seems somewhat unusual. Have your own personal religious experiences influenced your work?
Initially, in college, I was a religion major and thought I might be headed for the Christian ministry. The more I studied world religions (their histories as well as their primary texts), the more my thinking expanded and diversified. I’d put it this way: I became less interested in religion and drawn more deeply to spirituality. The spiritual realm seems to me as vast and ultimately unknowable as the physical universe. This is one reason I love Dante so: at the end of his long spiritual journey, he admits that language utterly fails him. And that’s why he’s a great poet!
To return to our earlier terms: if spirituality is Paradise, then that crude wooden chair we’ve built is religion, made to approximate it. It’s shabby and rickety and not terribly comfortable, but it tends to serve its purpose. Or it can. Religion, of course, is also implicated in many of the terrorist acts we’re witnessing worldwide, and that we’ve seen throughout history. Spirituality is something else: as simple as the fluttering you feel in your belly when you see something is not right in the world, as profound as a dream of your dead mother that feels like something much more than a dream.
Your reference to the “Jewish experience in the South” is intriguing and suggests another reason why religion can be a rich subject in fiction. The mix of faith, politics, and cultural tics can be explosive, funny, revealing, and very powerful. My wife is Jewish—what she calls “cultural Judaism,” which, on the surface at least, has less to do with faith (though she’s a very spiritual woman) than it has to do with childhood memories, family rituals, and community-building.
At some point, as a kid visiting my grandfather in Oklahoma, I realized that a lot of the poetic diction in his political speeches came straight out of black churches: the rhetoric of his oratory was spiced with the King James Bible set to the rhythms of African drums as altered by the pace of work in a cotton field in the American South: what Ralph Ellison calls a “mammy-made” language. Nothing—not religion, politics, or poetry—is ever pure. And that’s a blessing for a writer. What a peppery stew for us to stir our spoons in!
You’ve written five short story collections and four novels, as well as several critical works. How has your writing style changed over the years? What questions, themes, and techniques engage you these days? What writers (and artists of all kinds) do you find influencing your work?
Many writing teachers give young writers the mantra “Show, don’t tell,” and as a general rule of thumb, it’s useful advice: rather than saying, flatly and dully, “Michael was sad,” it’s more effective to create a visual picture on the page, using detail: “Michael straggled along the curb with his head lowered, moaning, and carrying two empty bottles of Boone’s Farm in each hand.” But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I do have a great deal to tell, directly and insistently, and I’m less shy about including discursive writing in my fiction than I used to be (probably as a result of writing non-fiction, where direct narrative intrusions are not only more tolerated by readers, they’re sort of expected).
William Maxwell is an inspiring model in this regard: in novel after novel, over the course of many decades, he wrote about the death of his mother when he was a child. The early novels are in the mold of “Show, don’t tell,” with lots of dramatic detail about the child’s suffering, but by the end of his career he’d stopped futzing around and got right to the point. The direct telling about the loss of his mother is infinitely more powerful than any of the earlier dramatizations. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a very discursive novel, and it’s one of the best works of fiction ever written by an American.
In writing biographies, I’ve been learning how to tell an individual’s story within a broad cultural context—trying to do for contemporary America what Dickens did for London in his long, sweeping novels. As for questions, themes, and techniques, you’ve nicely identified the major ones. The linked-story form has been a delight—using the gaps and silences between stories as part of the narrative design.
And oh my yes, the other arts are essential! The jazz drummers and visual artists you mentioned earlier are all very important to me. I’m a ragged amateur drummer; this has taught me that rhythm and music are crucial in writing. Paul Motian can lighten the mood of a song by moving from the tom toms to the crown of the ride cymbal—writers have a great deal to learn from that sort of artistry. Joseph Cornell is one of my personal saints, not only for what he shows us about the power and playfulness of collage, but for his ambition of enclosing the entire universe (in the form of a star chart) inside a small box: a nice metaphor for short story writing.
Reading habits change with time. These days, my reading tends to be eclectic and tied to particular subjects I’m working on, but there are a couple of ongoing projects right now in American literature to which we should all pay close attention: Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of novels, Gilead, Home, and Lila, an exploration of the American soul, and Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, the finest explication of American political power ever written.
I see that you’ve got a biography of Joan Didion coming out this summer. What else are you working on at the moment? And how do you approach the process of researching and writing a biography, as opposed to writing fiction?
In addition to the new Bern stories I’ve got a finished novella and a couple of biographical projects at the research stage, still somewhat undefined as to scope. One of them concerns a Victorian-era British woman who aspired to be an astronomer and who wound up sitting in a hilltop observatory in India writing about Dante.
Biography and fiction are finally not so different, I’ve discovered. It’s all about constructing an engaging narrative. Here’s one difference, perhaps: in a short story about Bern, I hope to condense and embody certain aspects of American culture within his character; in a biography about Joan Didion, I hope to use Didion as a vehicle to carry me into the heart of those cultural realms. A question of emphasis and direction.
Why (and/or how) did you become a writer?
I mentioned my grandfather earlier. I was named after him and the first time I saw “Tracy Daugherty” in print, it was on a campaign poster advertising a speech he was going to give. I liked seeing my name in cold, hard type! And my first brushes with crafted language were through my grandfather’s oratory—language in service of humane values and social justice. He showed me that trying to make a good sentence could be a noble way to spend a life.
What kind of writing process or schedule do you have?
I try to write every day, in the same place at roughly the same time—I believe in habit, ritual, and work rather than inspiration. I’m more of a marathoner than a sprinter: long hours of concentration. I’m keenly aware that time is short (no matter how much time there is). I have more projects in my head than I’ll ever be able to complete—not that the world will care, but working this way, out of sight, on the edges, confers a blessed freedom.
Tracy Daugherty is the author of five short story collections, four novels, a book of personal essays, and three biographies, including the forthcoming The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. He has been a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.