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 Shepherd University

 

D&S: There is a delightful disdain for critics expressed in your writing; what has been your experience with literary critics, the academy, and folks interpreting your work?

FC:  The “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 cultivated? 

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 terms.

  

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?

FC:  The composition of the existential horror novel, Dagon, was immensely difficult and I’m not sure of all the reasons why.  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.

 

D&SL:  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 Poe.  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

 

D&SL :  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” and “imagination.

 

D&S:  Like Browning, you seem intrigued by the “holes and corners” of literary history. 

FC:  True 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.

 

D&S:  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 fiction?

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?

 

FC:  Writing 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 hard.

 

 

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 process.

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 . . .