Interview with Fred Chappell
By Dave Hoffman and Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt
Conducted September 2004, in Conjunction with the
Appalachian Heritage Writer-in-Residence Project at
is a delightful disdain for critics expressed in your writing; what has been
your experience with literary critics, the academy, and folks interpreting your
“disdain” for critics you note is mere teasing, for the most part. Honest
knowledgeable criticism is invaluable—and hard to write. I speak as one who is guilty of way too much
of it that has been too often unknowledgeable, though
I wrote as honestly as I decently could. Critics are easy targets because of the position
a critic has to take—that of a judge, even though
he or she is but a poor and fallible human being just like the unhappy sod who
is the target of the critic. But the greatest critics, the ones we still
read and enjoy after decades and centuries, were also poets and writers
themselves—Ben Jonson, Dryden, Dr.
Sam Johnson, Coleridge, Plato, etal. So they knew the game from both sides.
D&S: Much has been written about the humor and whimsy that appear in your writing—the
influence of Twain and Western humor, as the critics say.
To what in your own background and nature do you credit this wonderful literary
trait— characteristic of writers like Austen to Woolf? Is this a family characteristic or one you’ve
FC: I enjoy
writing humor because it is hard to do. I have all the respect in the world for the
tragic view of life; its nobility and reverence for courage, its call for
stately language and proper comportment, its unending but victorious struggle
with despair—all these qualities draw one’s deepest appreciation. But for me
it is less “true,” or at least a less valid, view than the comic one which
feasts on our stupidities, our senseless contradictory nature, our foibles and
the fact that we repeat our darkest mistakes endlessly. Tragedy is in the end rather hopeful because
it posits that death brings a noble end to an episode. In comedy, we arise tomorrow morning and do
the same dreadful things all over again. This side of insanity, the only meaningful
response is laughter.
D&S: Your work is quite diverse, yet a few critics have mistakenly said that
the early, existential novels are disconnected to your later work. Do you see your work as a whole?
FC: I see my
work as a whole in that the later stuff is set in deliberate contrast to the
earlier. I made a conscious choice to write in a more
cheerful mood than in my first three novels and in some of the earlier poetry. But the
themes are, by and large, very similar if they are not identical. Two ways of
looking at the same thing. A third way is romance, as in As You Like It and The Tempest. That mode is valid also—and worth pursuing.
D&S: You don't appear to enjoy being categorized, unhappy with such
nomenclatures as "metafictional" and "magic realism." Would you comment?
FC: You are correct. I don’t enjoy being categorized. Who
does? Labels are constrictive on the one
hand and meaningless on the other. They can serve to constrict an audience’s reaction
if the label is foreknown. One expects to find certain things in metafiction
and magic realism; if those things are not present, someone will unfailingly
say the work is deficient—or even that it has failed—without knowing what the
author was up to. It is just as bad in politics: “liberal” and
conservative” are mere buzz words that have long outlived any usefulness they
might have had. “Perverse,”
“idiotic,” and “deleterious,” however, remain useful political descriptive
D&S: After creating such a vivid fictional world in the Kirkman novels and in
Midquest (and really having come full circle in creating a body of work
that deals with the problems associated with will and appetite, the dilemma of
human existence in a fallen world, and the artist's function in revealing to us
strategies for survival in that precarious world), what will you now turn your
attention to? What intrigues you now in the literary landscape?
FC: At present
I am working, unsteadily, on a group of essays about southern women poets and
have a vague notion that these might be collected into a book. So far I’ve
written on Betty Adcock, Eleanor
Ross Taylor, and Ellen Byrant Voigt. I am
gathering material for an essay on Kathryn Stripling Byer just now and after
this one is done, I shall try to think about Kelly Cherry and Heather Ross Miller
and maybe Catherine Savage Brosnan. It would be good to go back in time and look
at Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ poetry
and maybe do a roundup of newer poets who don’t have a huge body of work yet. I do have
fiction and poetry projects foggily in mind, but I’m too superstitious to talk
about them yet.
D&S: You write about the composition of Midquest, saying that you
"never experienced such unalloyed joy" in the act of writing. What else that you've written has given you
particular pleasure? Particular discomfort?
composition of the existential horror novel, Dagon, was immensely difficult and I’m not sure of all the reasons
It wasn’t meant to be a personal story in any sense and in its details
it is not. But upon some darker personal level that I
don’t understand and don’t care to understand, it was personal and it cost me
unhappy labor and grief. For the fun of it, two late books of poetry, Family Gathering and Companion Volume have actually been
nifty to write. Hard, tricky fun. The former is a group of caricatures of
character types; the latter is partly made up of portrayals of the cats of
those individuals—but then there are lots of other “independent” cats in it too. Companion Volume is just now being
released one copy at a time. It is being published by Yonno Press in Greensboro on paper that
incorporates fur from two of our favorite felines, Chloe and Marti, now, alas,
deceased. It is illustrated by the wonderful Viennese
artist and book illustrator, Fritz Janschka, and if there are any copies
available, it can be yours for a mere $300 per.
How would you characterize the influence of the Romantics on your work,
particularly Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron and, of course, Blake?
FC: I love the
Romantic poets, especially Blake, Keats, and Byron, and Shelley. Shelley was
my high school heart throb. I used to love to read his work by the yard,
never understanding a word of it. I didn’t care—it was Poetry with a capital
Keats is simply magnificent, unsurpassable. Blake is—well, Blake.
There is nothing remotely like him in the rest of literature. Byron I
grew to love for his humor and Don Juan
is a work I’d love to read about once every two years but never have
opportunity. I am remiss with my Wordsworth; I’ve read The Prelude and the anthology favorites
but haven’t given him the study he deserves and that I know I’d enjoy. Wordsworth:
One of the many large holes in my education
Music is an important source of
solace in your stories for the vicissitudes of life.
What is your musical experience (besides trombone playing)? What kind of
music brings you pleasure? Why have you placed music, as an art form, on
such a high plane?
FC: My musical
experience is passive—if that’s what listening and enjoying can be called. I have no
real training, though I have read a
fair amount of musical history, biography, criticism, and so forth. I can read
music fairly well but have not all that much occasion to. I use music in a number of ways—to organize
poems and stories by rough analogy. (I know the fallacies associated with this
silly practice, but I still find the ploy useful.) And as Walter Pater remarked, all art aspires
to the condition of music—that is, the other arts envy its totality of expressiveness,
its immediacy, its direct access to
emotion, and its purity of expression. What it lacks is definable content—which is
the advantage that words have over both music and plastic art.
D&S: The Kirkman novels leave us with a clearer understanding of the human
condition and appear to provide a philosophic framework informed
by both Zeno and perhaps Epictetus. Why do you find the “philosopher's stone” in
these seemingly disparate points of view—stoicism and Epicureanism?
FC: I don’t
wish to espouse any particular philosophic schools in the Kirkman novels, or at
least not any of the classical ethical schools of thought,
though it is true that those novels
emphasize and celebrate communal spirit. To that degree, they may take on some
tincture from Aristotle’s Politics. But I was
much more concerned with the theory and philosophy of narrative which is
directly related to a theme I seem obsessed by: the dialectic between “reality”
D&S: Like Browning, you seem intrigued by the
“holes and corners” of literary history.
enough, I like the byways and less traveled paths of literature and
history—especially of the history of science, an area that is fairly new for
literary exploration, though the
last few decades have seen more interest in it than formerly for writers.
We're intrigued with your portrayal of women (and sure that you've been asked
10,000 times about it). Though certainly there are portraits of as many sorry
females in your writing as sorry males, there appears a healthy attitude toward
women. You also have an
uncanny ability to write from the perspective of a woman.
Will you comment on this and the place of prominence you give to women in your
FC: The use of
the female perspective is helpful to me for any number of reasons. I find the
psychologies of women more various and often more subtle than those of men. Men seem to
have perforce to concentrate on a limited number of areas of experience;
professionalism demands it of them, though
of course there are an almost infinite number of exceptions to this rule (if it
were a rule). But women are multitaskers, as we say these
days—home, family, children, profession, and other activities seem to give them
more variety of interest. And the tasks with which they are engaged,
especially those of family, link them more closely often than men with
community. I will not say they are more perceptive than
males; in fact, they are sometimes much ore obtuse. But they often have more opportunity for
perception, simply in the nature of our circumstances. I suppose I can count on getting into trouble
with these remarks. Selah.
D&S: Being Poet Laureate required you to write for
occasions that were distinctly different from any of your previous writing. Did you
find it difficult to write on command of the occasion?
occasional poems was usually challenging—yes indeed. Some of them were almost impossible to come
up with, not because of the nature of the subjects, though. The
retirement of a local librarian is just as important a subject, as far as the
art of poetry is concerned, as the fall of the Hapsburgs. The main trouble was lack of time. The folks
that put together programs of celebration, of memorial, of welcoming, etc., often feel that there is one something missing
from their plans and they can’t quite say what it is. When “A poem!” occurs to them, it is
generally pretty late in the process and they think that a rhymester can just
whip out an ode on command in record-breaking time. Worst experience: Being interviewed by some
local or other TV reporter, she said, “So—make up a poem for us.” Like an
idiot, I mumbled out some jumble or other. She said, “Well, that’s not very good.” (She was correct.) I countered, “Now make up a news story for us.” But that
part was cut from the interview. Natch.
D&S: You once said that “Poetry has the intensity of
walking through the woods, and fiction has the doggedness of riding a bicycle
uphill." As you
continue to be prolific in both genres, how do you keep up your momentum?
FC: I write
both poetry and prose for two reasons: requests and to relieve the stress of
writing poetry. Just now I am working on a short story
requested by the editor of a forthcoming anthology of stories in which Edgar Allan Poe is featured as a character. He (the
editor—not EAP) has offered me
modest money to write the story—so I shall.
(And it should be fun at some point. At this point, it’s not.) I write poetry because that is what my
physiology requires for me to do. Lately my phys has been lazy about requiring.
D&S: Your humor and satire in Backsass seem to speak to so many and allow your readers to
remember what it’s like to smile about the world. Did you have a specific influence or reason
for writing this particular collection?
FC: I wrote Backsass because the volume was requested
by my editor, Mfr. Leslie Phillabaum
of Louisiana State University
Press. He was retiring from his position and wanted
to bring out one final volume under his aegis of about a dozen poets he had
published regularly over the years. Since I had no serious poetry underway at the
time, I decided to improvise—though
I had been thinking about putting out a book of Satires & Epistles for a long time. My literary background is 18th
Century, after all, and I’m always fiddling about amateurishly with Latin poets. So I did
the easy thing. It turned out to be REAL
D&S: You’ve said that at times the writing process (with the exception of
composing Dagon) has been a decisive, measured experience, coming to you
in conception complete and finished in a matter of weeks.
Share some of your experiences and advice to young writers about the writing
FC: When I
described my writing process as measured and decisive that must have been quite
a while back. These days it comes in fits and starts—more
fits than starts. I would find it difficult to describe my
writing process. It differs with almost every new project I
start up—with the exception of critical or scholarly writing—where the process
begins with careful study of the materials under consideration. I keep a
kind of journal or commonplace book in which I jot down all kinds of stuff and
sometimes I go to it and try to puzzle out what those scribbles might have
signified. Other times I am haunted by a sound, a
phrase, an image, a memory or more likely a partial memory and these will
trigger the idea of writing something. Now and then I am possessed with an idea for a poem or story. That is
dangerous because it means the intellectual process is more directly involved
from the beginning than the sensual and emotional and it is hard to keep the
life of the words animate. But I have no rote process, except when
working on long projects. Then I set up a schedule—another difficult
thing to do. The world is too much with us / Late and soon