Interview conducted by Justin Chandler
Chris Bachelder is the author of four novels: Bear vs. Shark, U.S.!, Abbott Awaits, and The Throwback Special, which was serialized in The Paris Review and will be published in the Spring of 2016 through W.W. Norton. He currently lives in Cincinnati, and teaches at the University of Cincinnati. In early October, Bachelder led an intensive, four-day Sprint course, titled “A Slow Sprint: A Study of Patience and Pacing,” for students in the graduate fiction workshop here at Miami.
You’ve lived in Ohio for 5 years, and this is your third time visiting Miami for a Sprint Week. Other than the outrageous amount of money, what keeps you coming back?
The students are always eager, gracious, and talented, a real pleasure to work with. I like the combination of brevity and intensity, and I find especially appealing the rigorous focus on reading and craft. As a bonus, I get to spend time with Professor Luongo, an old friend, and Professor Bates, a new one.
How much of an effect does place, the place of a writer in an actual, physical environment (Ohio as opposed to Florida as opposed to Massachusetts), have on a writer and a writer’s interests? We think of age, life events, the passage of time, as having an effect, but what about physical space—does it have an effect?
Most certainly it does, both in ways we can articulate and ways we cannot. I take it as a given that our worldviews and predilections and habits of mind are substantially shaped by the landscape we grew up in. I’m not talking politics or culture. I’m talking about how our minds work, and what we think and expect of the world—it must be unique for the person who grows up in the shadow of a 14-000-foot mountain, or at the edge of an ocean, or on the plains, or nestled in some valley.
Having said that, however, I haven’t to this point in my career been very interested in, or focused on, setting. It’s not what brings me to writing, and I’ve not written carefully about a certain place I’ve lived. The truth is, I’ve moved all over the place, and I suppose I don’t feel a real attachment to any one place. In my first two novels, the setting might be described as “America”—a satirical and cartoonish version of America. And lately I’ve been most interested in occupying the mind and the domestic space. My forthcoming book is set in a chain hotel.
Your “style,” if that word means something, has certainly shifted over the course of your career. Without trying to load a question, I wonder if you might speak to that: what do you see as a development or movement in your own writing, novel to novel?
It’s convenient, and I suppose fairly accurate, to split my career thus far in half and say that my first two books differ significantly from my last two. My early books used ostentatious formal experimentation and a kind of manic elaboration of an absurd satirical premise. In their movement the books were restless and antic, and in their premises they were conceptual or idea-driven. The canvas was large. My recent books are quieter and much more interior. The concerns are not overtly political or cultural but rather domestic. I’ve become interested in the radical expansion of small moments. The forms and premises are not conventional, but there are fewer structural and formal experiments, fewer flourishes and gags. I think the more recent work is more immersive, thoughtful, and character-driven, less jittery. The canvas has gotten small, and concepts have receded. The split occurred essentially when I had children, and you can make of that what you will. There are certain constants, though, chief among them a fundamentally comic sensibility.
Implicit in changing style is a sense of, maybe, a newer appreciation for what the novel can or ought to do, and a recognition of what it may be incapable of accomplishing. In hindsight, do you see your earlier work as failing to achieve something, or misguided, or is it just different?
For many years I was afflicted with my sense of what the novel ought to do. I thought it should—it must—take on the big world, respond to injustice or stupidity, be politically and culturally engaged. My first two novels grew out of this sense of obligation. I’m proud of the books—I don’t see them as failures or follies. I certainly admire their energy, but I guess I think they are somewhat limited in their effects. They strain for gravity beneath the disjunctive structure. Part of that is just being a young writer who is figuring out a lot on the fly. And part of it is the strain of wanting the novel to be and do a certain thing. For whatever reason, I don’t have the same sense of obligation anymore. My political beliefs have not changed significantly, but I haven’t felt the need to prove it on the page. If anything, my current mode is to find significance where someone would least expect to find it. I hesitate to call this progress or improvement or development. It’s just the way I’ve changed. The work is certainly less edgy and engaged and righteous, but I also think it’s more dense, attentive, psychologically astute, and tonally complicated. You could frame that as a loss or a gain.
Is this mode, for you, still political? That could be either generally—in the sense that everything is always, inevitably political, or in a specific sense of this mode offering unique rewards for the writer and the reader.
It might be true that everything is political, as some say, but then it would also be true that the category ceases to be very interesting. I couldn’t really make a case for this mode being explicitly political or engaged, but I’ve just come to find such delight and value in small-canvas work that is genuinely attentive to the world. Lydia Davis has a little chapbook called “The Cows.” It’s 37 pages of careful observation and speculation about three cows in a field. Is that political work? I don’t know. It’s work that assigns value to the act of watching, and to creatures you could easily drive right past without a thought.
We’ve spent all week talking about taking time, letting the story breathe. What about patience as an approach to writing do you find so valuable?
Well, I think patient writing tends to be convincing writing. It convinces readers that the world is real. And I think when writers move patiently through a story, they see more, they are more attentive. They surprise themselves, and thus surprise readers. Patient writing invests objects with power and meaning—a kind of glow or hum. The tired old stuff of the world is redeemed when it is carefully observed. I find that everyday objects, even what we would think of as trash, can be tender or moving when writers pay close attention. An old boot, a stained popsicle stick, a chewed pencil. Also, we talk often about mood or atmosphere in fiction, but it’s not always evident how those abstract qualities are achieved. I would speculate that mood and atmosphere are created and developed largely through pacing.
You’ve read and been talking about graduate fiction all week with us in conferences. The editors of OxMag have recently started posting, on the blog, statements on what they look for when they read, a sort of template for writers considering submitting to OxMag. I’ve found them pretty enlightening. I was wondering if you could take some time to answer that same question—what do you look for when you’re reading fiction? What’s a piece have to have, or be doing, for you to say Yes?
That’s a good question. What I tend to fall for are qualities of syntax and style. I value precision, rhythm, control, agility, as well as indirection and restraint. Wit. Vividness. A peculiar angle of vision. I vastly prefer the genuinely peculiar to the merely zany. I don’t necessarily want a big voice, but I want a distinctive and authoritative voice. I want to enjoy what’s happening on the page, and I care less about what might happen next. As I said the other night in the Q&A, I read primarily to be arrested, not propelled.
The culture in which we write offers unique difficulties. In some ways, American culture today seems averse to the kind of time and attention it requires to devote to long facebook posts, let alone novels. To what extent does this influence you as a writer? And if it doesn’t, how do you cultivate the ability to disregard those sorts of outside concerns?
I struggle to give and sustain my attention. I feel it drifting off and splintering. Compared to ten or fifteen years ago, I feel far less capable of reading a long book or reading for hours at a time. It certainly affects my reading and writing, and yet I believe that reading and writing are the best antidotes. Because our minds tend to flit all over the place, I’ve found literary value in going against the current, in bearing down on small moments.
If you could interview one author, who would it be, and if you only had the chance to ask one question, what would it be?
I would ask Paula Fox about a mouse that runs across the kitchen floor in the middle of the night while her characters sleep in the novel Desperate Characters. It’s page 143. I’ve always loved that mouse, that moment. It’s an astonishing moment of narration and point of view and observation. The novel was published 45 years ago. I would be curious to know if she remembered that mouse, if it meant anything to her at all.
That’s an awesomely specific answer. Care to elaborate?
Just thinking about point of view, it’s incredible that a writer would keep the camera rolling, so to speak, after her characters fall asleep. It’s fierce evidence of the reality of this world. When our characters are unconscious, the universe doesn’t just fall away or cease to exist. That’s especially true and important in this particular novel, in which the outside world is ominous and threatening. I just love that Fox narrates a quiet house at night. It seems both menacing and tender, and it makes her characters seem so vulnerable.
Was there ever a moment when you weren’t sure whether you would continue writing? If so, what was it, and how did you move past it?
Between projects I always have my doubts about whether I’ll be able to enter something deeply again, or whether I can find a way to bring something alive. But it’s not as if I’ve ever thought it isn’t a worthwhile thing to do, and it’s not as if I’ve ever considered quitting. I go periods of time without writing, and I have plenty of worries about it, but up to now I haven’t felt the urge to give it up.
I think a lot of readers wonder about how writers wake up and put word after word on the page day after day. What motivates you?
I just like making things. If I weren’t a writer, I would want to be a carpenter or a woodworker. I like putting things together to make something solid. The process of making—the demands of precision and accuracy and wit and rhythm—is as important to me as any subject I might choose. I’m not someone who just has so many stories I need to tell. I just want to build things that have a certain heft and elegance.