An Interview with David Gates

Brian Gresko

Reading David Gates led me to take one of his seminars, with the hope—not unusual for a novice writer—that he might impart some secret to his skill. Writing mostly in the first person, Gates's antihero protagonists are rude and disaffected, erudite and funny—not-so-distant relatives, one imagines, of Holden Caulfield. Like that iconic character, they come across as flawed yet likable, or at least sympathetic, revealing sordid aspects of the human condition with brutal honesty and wicked humor. Gates's debut novel, Jernigan (1991), was short listed for the Pulitzer Prize. His follow-up novel, Preston Falls (1998), and his short story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World (1999) both received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The syllabus for Gates's seminar covered a broad range of works, from classics by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving to contemporary pieces by Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson. He arrived to class with numerous notes scribbled in the margins of the stories, and would, without preamble, jump in to close, intimate readings, dissecting paragraphs sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. Gates has brought these same critical faculties to bear in his many book reviews for Newsweek magazine, where he served as senior arts writer, and also for The New York Times.

I mimicked what I saw as Gates's approach, trying to learn how to write by re-teaching myself how to read with a minute attention to craft. Curious to know more about this from the man himself, I discussed reading, writing, and how a writer develops an original voice with Gates over e-mail. Much to my surprise, I found that David Gates the reader and David Gates the writer approach the page very differently.

BG: Who are some of the authors, or what are some of the works, that you have turned to as a sources of form or for problem solving when writing?

DG: I hate to say it, but I don’t really turn to other writers for ways to solve problems in my own work, even though I recommend them to my students. It’s true that in some writers’ work I’ve seen brilliant solutions to problems—one example I cite over and over again is near the end of John Cheever’s “The Sorrows of Gin,” where there’s a wonderful jump cut—but I can only apply such achievements to my own work in the most general ways. It mostly amounts to “Be smarter.” This may be because I read so much before I ever became a writer myself, and never went to a writing program or even took a writing workshop (except for a couple of weeks when I was in high school), and was never taught, and never became accustomed, to look at other writers’ work as a specific resource rather than a general inspiration. I’d like to be as concise and disciplined as Amy Hempel, say, or as intense and brilliant and analytical as Samuel Beckett, or as wildly imaginative as Dickens.  But these writers, and others I admire, are never in my head when I’m actually writing.

BG: Have you ever been motivated to take your work in new directions based on your changing and growing tastes as a reader, or have you sought out reading material that feeds the direction you’ve decided to move as a writer? Or have you returned to the same touchstones again and again, always drawing something new from them?

DG: This sort of influence—which is what you’re talking about—takes place far under the surface for me. I know that part of my idea of what writing is comes from Beckett, part from Ann Beattie (to whom I was married), from Donald Barthelme (though I write nothing like him), from Raymond Carver, from Amy Hempel, and from John Cheever. That’s the approximate order of my discovering them.

Jane Austen came to me somewhat later, and probably I was past the age of being strongly influenced. But I was aware, in reading her, of how well she shows her characters’ motivations and agendas, and how they come into conflict with the agendas of other characters. It’s something to which every writer of realistic fiction should pay attention, and certain scenes of hers stick in my head as touchstones: the two encounters between Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, the Sotherton episode in Mansfield Park. But I can’t say that I sit and study them. I love and appreciate them, and I hope to be able to do something comparable. But when I’m sitting at my own work, other writers’ work really doesn’t enter my mind—probably because, when things are going right, I think of my characters and their situation as real, not literary. It’s really just me and them.

BG: How do you keep yourself from duplicating or copying the voice of the texts you return to?

DG: I do have to watch myself. I once caught myself inadvertently plagiarizing a line from a story I greatly admired. I had no idea I was doing it, and thank God I recognized in time that this brilliant line of “mine” actually had a source. I don’t know that there’s any foolproof way to prevent this, except to be scrupulously honest in your own writing. That is, if you take pains to say the thing that only you can say in the way only you can say it—which is the whole idea—then you have less chance of  echoing something you’ve read somewhere.

BG: Do you clue the reader in to your influences somehow, or leave crumbs in the text leading to the works you used as models? Or is this a private practice that informs your craft but doesn’t directly make it onto the page?

DG: I certainly leave clues to things that I’ve either stolen outright or been inspired by. “The Wonders of the Invisible World” is a title I stole from Cotton Mather, and my story by that title makes this clear. Part of the idea for my novel Preston Falls came from a Hawthorne story called “Wakefield,” and in the novel, the town next to the fictional Preston Falls is the fictional Wakefield. And sometimes I’ll just give a little tip of the hat to writers I admire—I think it’s Willis in Preston Falls who calls his penis “the Unnamable” [in reference to the Beckett novel]. Or, again in Preston Falls, there’s a town called Chesterton, though there’s nothing particularly Chesterton-like in my work, as far as I can see, except perhaps my covert (is it even covert?) religiosity.

BG: Many of the short stories in The Wonders of the Invisible World are told from the first person by narrators with distinctive voices that engage the reader from the first line. The narrators tell their stories very honestly, and the reader is very close to their thoughts and feelings. Are there particular authors you look to for guidance or inspiration in regards to narrative voice?

DG: Again, I don’t necessary “look to” anyone, because my tastes were pretty fully formed before I ever started writing. Perhaps I should explain that I’m somewhat atypical: it never occurred to me to write fiction until I was about thirty-three, and before that I was a graduate student in English, so I absorbed and internalized a lot of writing without any thought that I would ever make use of it in fiction of my own. My (abortive) PhD dissertation was on Beckett. So it’s not that I studied Beckett, or Barthelme, or Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Chaucer, or whoever, for the sake of my own writing. They formed my idea of what writing was before I ever thought of writing myself. Hemingway, Carver, Beckett—they’re all superlative at creating voice, as are Dickens, Shakespeare, of course, and—maybe this will surprise you—Austen, who has such distinct voices for her characters.

BG: You’re making me want to go back and re-read Austen.  She's one of the authors who, I think, has suffered from her place on the high school curriculum and her association with PBS melodramas. Most have read her, but I don't think many young writers would place her among their greatest hits. We read several short stories from "classic" American writers in your class—Hawthorne, Melville, Irving. Even though these names are familiar ones, do you think they're under-read by your writing students? Do you find students generally receptive to reading them?

DG: I think you're right that Austen might be a bit devalued because of her popularity—but that's always been the case with her. Long before PBS, people used to complain about “Janeites,” readers who uncritically admired her for writing a “charming,” “witty” version of what we'd now call "chick lit." I think that's okay—people should admire what they admire, for whatever reasons—and I suspect some more sophisticated readers will find her somehow, as they always have. Students have certainly been receptive to Austen, and a lot of them have read her previously, even if some of them may not have taken her as seriously as I do.  

Your class is the only group to whom I've ever taught Hawthorne, Melville, etc., so I can't generalize about how they're received. I don't have a very accurate sense of what people are made to read in high school and undergraduate school anymore, but I suspect most of them have read at least The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick (or know they should have read the latter), and “Bartleby” is a pretty well-known story. A lot of people still seem to have read Poe in their teens, but they probably would have had to have taken a fairly serious American literature survey to have read many of Hawthorne's stories. I think students will be receptive to anything that really is worth reading, though sometimes it helps to have a teacher make the case.

BG: The work of Charles Dickens recurs in your oeuvre. You’ve written the introduction to two Dickens novels; in Preston Falls, Doug Willis is working his way through Dickens’s work; and in the story “The Bad Thing,” Steven’s wife finds him reading The Pickwick Papers and says he goes on Dickens binges. What is it about Charles Dickens's work that you love, and how has his work influenced yours?

DG: I’m not sure his work has influenced mine—in fact, it may be so idiosyncratic that it would be hard to point to anybody he’s influenced. “Binge” is the word: Dickens is for me what television is to other people, a totally absorbing world that makes the real world go away. There are things writers could learn from him: the way his characters dramatize themselves, the way each of them is certain that he or she is the protagonist of the novel. In a way, he’s like Austen—in his creation of conflicting subjectivities—but he’s big, loud, and surreal, while Austen is controlled and distanced. Another thing that’s noteworthy is his utter belief in his world and its people—to the extent that he truly gets angry at characters that he himself has created.  

He had an amazing imaginative gift, and while that’s something other writers could envy, it’s not really something you could “learn” from—how could you “learn” to be carried away by your private visions? I even love Dickens when he’s sentimental, silly, wrongheaded, cloying, preachy, hectoring. He seemed to have had no filters, and even though we know he sometimes doubted his powers and his inspiration, he seems never to have doubted himself. I don’t know if that absolute confidence is available to writers anymore—maybe Philip Roth comes close—but I find it wonderful to be in its presence, even though I would never, ever want to write like Dickens at his (not infrequent) worst.

BG: In the Malcolm Gladwell article “Late Bloomers” (the New Yorker, October 20, 2008), Jonathan Safran Foer said he didn't read much as a youth and that he took up writing "sort of on a whim." Foer is described as being "puzzled" by writers who work to hone their craft over years and years; he said, "How [can] you learn the craft of being original?" Do you agree with this? Does great writing just come out of the blue and hit you like a lightning bolt? Can it be learned or taught?

DG: Well, it's complicated. No, I don't think originality can be taught. But how would you know what's original unless you've read a lot? The problem with most beginning fiction is that it's trite, clichéd, conventional—it's reinventing the wheel. And Foer's being slippery when he talks about “the craft of being original”: craft and originality are different things. I don't think he's seriously arguing that the most original writing is writing that's free of all craftsmanship—i.e., basic competence. I think his point might be that craft isn't everything, which is true. 

But I certainly don't believe that in most cases great writing comes out of the blue.  Most great writers didn't start out great—it took them a while to find their voices, even their subjects.  Read some very early Beckett, or some very early Cheever.  Some very early Shakespeare, for that matter.  Certainly there are exceptions.  And there are also instances, a lot of them, in which writers have done their best work relatively early in their careers—but that isn't to say it didn't take them time and effort to get to that good early work.  You could argue, for instance, that my own first novel is the best I ever wrote, but I was learning how to write for eleven years before it came out.

BG: Do you, or have you ever, kept a reading journal of any sort? Or, less formally, have you ever found it helpful to write about something that you’ve read in order to better process the work or understand the author’s craft?

DG: No, I’ve never kept a reading journal, and I never even write in the margins of books. Except—and this is a large exception—when I’m writing about them or teaching them. My situation is again a little atypical, perhaps, because I’ve spent so many years reviewing books, which is, in effect, writing about something I’ve read in order to process it. It’s not anything I’d do, however, unless I were paid to do it or thought I could get a publishable piece of criticism out of it.

BG: What is your ideal for critical writing? When you sit back and say "this is a good review," what specifically does that mean?

DG: For me, a good piece of critical writing needs, above all, to be honest—an accurate description or account of the work in question, and an accurate report of the critic's reaction to it. That's harder than it might seem, just to look at the thing squarely and say what you really think. (As opposed, say, to what you think you're supposed to think, or what everybody else thinks.) In addition to that, a good critic needs to have a lot of information (for instance, familiarity with other literature, which will help put the piece in question in some kind of context), intelligence, and insight. The ability just to pay attention and notice what's there. As in any other kind of writing, it also helps to be original and fresh—in what you're saying or how you're saying it, and preferably both. And it doesn't hurt to be entertaining—Johnson and Auden and Kirn and Harold Bloom (and Pound) all have a sense of humor in addition to their insight and their expertise. This not only makes the reading more pleasant, but it gets the reader on the critic's side; how can I not trust someone who's making this so much fun for me? But even when good critics aren't being funny, they give a sense of talking to the reader—they're reader-friendly in the best way.

BG: Are there critics that you’ve read as models for form, or tone, or approach in these areas? Are you a fan of any particular reviewers, and have you studied or learned from their work how to write about and critique a book?

DG: Well, there are critics who I think have helped form my taste and my tone. Samuel Johnson, W.H. Auden, probably Pauline Kael (though I rarely write about movies), my old mentor from the University of Connecticut, J.D. O’Hara, surely Ezra Pound (now there’s a voice), George Orwell (read him on Dickens), and there must be many more I’m forgetting about. I like old-school Shakespeare critics like A.C. Bradley, R.W. Chambers, or Harley Granville-Barker. These days, I’m a great fan of Walter Kirn’s reviews, and I think Mary Gaitskill is a wonderful critic, though I don’t see her reviews that often. James Wood, of course, is hugely smart and learned, and Wyatt Mason is brilliant and rigorously honest.

Brian Gresko is a fiction writer and essayist based in Brooklyn.