Interviewed by Trevor Crown
TC: Your one-page piece in Subtropics 19 explores the idea of wanting to accomplish something before death. How do you as a writer define accomplishment, and what do you seek to accomplish?
SB: The narrator’s ambition isn’t defined. It’s just something, anything. He wants to justify himself to himself, or perhaps to an unseen arbiter. I don’t know how different that is from my drive to write.
Writing is a something that a person can make an attempt at, a big thing, an exciting thing, not like the actually really difficult, unglamorous work of going to a responsible job every day or of raising a family, and all the compromises and disappointments and accommodations with the self that those types of endeavors require. Nor does writing, unlike opera singing or gymnastics, require any obviously presenting talent; words are our common property, we all use them. I think most of us narrate our lives to ourselves every day. Maybe there are some lucky people who don’t.
So that’s a fear I have about what it is I want to accomplish in writing (that it’s simply a manifestation of my desire to accomplish anything at all, or a way to assert my own specialness that doesn’t require an obvious, Mozartian gift).
In other moments, ones I think of as being more centered or more virtuous moments, I think that what I want to accomplish is to share what I know about being a human being. But imagine you are at a cocktail party, or at a Natural Light party, and you meet someone and they tell you, “I’ve thought of an interesting conversation for us to have. It will be all about what it is like to be me. In length this conversation is approximately equivalent to two-hundred typewritten pages.” Is this a conversation into which you wish to enter? Is your interlocutor really being as generous as he believes himself to be?
TC: While we’re on the subject of how difficult it is to feel fulfilled or accomplished as a writer, are there any other career paths you wish you had taken?
SB: A few times, thanks, I think, merely to showing up to the appointed place at the appointed time and hand-combing my hair prior to arrival, I was offered jobs that, had I taken them, would possibly have put me in a much better position than the position I am in now, in certain respects. Though I admit that I have difficulty imagining that other self, the stockbroker, except superficially. I can see the suit and the apartment and my parents’ approving smiles. My hair, for some reason, is fuller.
I have difficulty imagining my inner world being different. That could just be my own narcissism though—this bizarre sense that whatever I am at this moment in time is of such immense value that any prior deviation off this course would have represented some kind of terrible loss (to the world?), having led to a different self.
I’ll note that if I had made several more clearheaded decisions along the way, I would not have met my wife. And nothing better has ever happened to me than meeting my wife.
Or maybe I would have met her in New York instead of Gainesville, and my suit would have been gleaming and my hair radiant, or the other way around—whichever sounds better.
TC: You recently married a fellow fiction writer. First of all, congratulations. Second of all, do you two compete at all in writing, whether openly or secretly?
SB: We are quite different in how open we are about our writing. Having spent many of my adult years living with my parents, I have a natural, I think, secretiveness about my work, my ambitions, my thoughts, and my fears (in general but especially as regard writing). So my progress on a project or lack thereof is something that has to be hidden from others. That there is even a project at all has to be hidden because it disappoints the parents that I wish to be a writer; if there is progress it has to be hidden because I cannot share what I am working on with the parents as they would disapprove of the content; and if, as is more common, there is no progress, that too needs to be hidden because any failure only justifies the parents’ own anxiety about the writing project and their fears in general for their wayward son.
That all, thankfully, is in the past, well in the past. (I sound, I think, like Norman Bates.)
My wife is much healthier. When she writes something and she particularly likes what she has written, she reads it to me.
I don’t compete with my wife but I wouldn’t mind having several lines of hers for my own. But that’s another strange thing, because it isn’t quite true. I want to write my own lines that are as good as the lines that I like. It’s no good for me to have someone else’s great lines. That’s a sort of perversion, no? I should be content with all the other great lines that have been written. This gets back to the first question.
TC: It’s been a big spring for you: in addition to getting married, you also graduated from the University of Florida’s MFA program. Did you feel competitive with your fellow MFA candidates while at UF?
SB: I didn’t feel competitive with my classmates while we were in workshop together—we were fellow petitioners then—but now that the program is done I recognize that I will have to keep tabs on these people for the rest of my life. What’s particularly ominous to me is that the competition between us seeded here will never end, not even in death; the lead horse can change at any moment. A great early success for one of us might become a cataclysmic reversal.
Yes, the more I think about it, the more I hope just to be able to stay in the respectable middle of the pack, and get my satisfaction (or claim to get it) from other things, the “inner successes” that elude Jakob van Gunten.
TC: Do you have any advice for prospective MFA students, or any insight that most prospective MFA candidates might not know about before entering the experience?
SB: I think the usual advice is to go to a fully funded program. That still seems sound to me. Beyond that, if you get into a program, you should of course try to write as much as you possibly can while you are there, keeping in mind that you will probably have to do something unpleasant or return to something unpleasant when you leave. Don’t forget about the prior unpleasantness and fear that led you to the MFA program! Also, I suggest that you try to insinuate yourself into your professors’ lives as much as you can, just up to the limit of what is actionable.
TC: You write in a tone that I want to call “earnestly absurd.” You detail absurd events with straight-faced sincerity. Which authors most inform your writing style along those lines?
SB: I love Kafka, especially the Kafka of “The Burrow” or “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” or of The Castle.
I like that turning over and over again of the same subject matter, the same mystery. I think that’s why I also like Thomas Bernhard so much, and in comparison to Kafka, Bernhard seems to me easier to imitate or to allow oneself to be influenced by.
I recently read Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is a very Bernhardian book (and consciously so), but I think Dyer has to make an effort to drive himself into the rages that come so naturally to Bernhard. It’s strange to think that Dyer’s secret equanimity (?) might count against him in some ways. I could be wrong about that though.
The last book I read was Gert Hofmann’s Luck, which is a totally beautiful and, to my experience, original book that turns over the same subject matter again and again, but always in interesting ways, like one long complaint or lament or exercise in self-abasement. It’s despair but it’s despair that doesn’t shut up, and I like that, I think that’s part of me also. You have to be earnest about things because you might die at any moment and this is all so awful, even though it’s a gift, and it’s even more awful because you don’t appreciate the gift, but the more earnest you get the more ridiculous you sound even to yourself, and sometimes that’s funny, even if the funniness is unintentional.
TC: What are you working on now?
SB: I’ve been working on just getting out of bed in the morning and being a productive, respectable person, like my father, for decades now. I have had only occasional success in this regard, but I remain stunningly optimistic.