Jaimy Gordon took the reading world by surprise when she won the 2010 National Book Award for Lord of Misrule. The novel, which chronicles the colorful life at a bottom-level horse racetrack, was published by a tiny press after being rejected by the big publishing houses. Gordon’s work had always been critically respected but was never widely read. In her sixties, she feared that the breakthrough she had imagined would never come after all. And then, as she says in this interview, “the gods of mischief decided to turn everything upside down for me with the National Book Award.” Her previous works include She Drove Without Stopping; The Bend, The Lip, The Kid; Bogeywoman; and the underground fantasy classic Shamp of the City-Solo.
Gordon earned her BA from Antioch College and her MA in English and Doctor of Arts in Creative Writing, both from Brown University. She currently teaches in the MFA program at Western Michigan University. She has been awarded three National Endowment for the Arts grants and a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among other awards.
Writing of Gordon in the LA Times, Susan Salter Reynolds noted that, “In her novels, stories and poetry, Gordon has pushed the limits of style — explored the empty places in her articulate characters and works — so that language drags meaning behind it like a fur coat trailing blood. Her language is so textured that her pages seem three-dimensional.”
Are you ready to answer some questions about your yore?
Yes, I remember how awful it was to be twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four and feeling like a committed artist but needing to take regular jobs because I really didn’t have any money, and wondering if I would ever have a publication, wondering if anything would ever become of me.
I read in an interview that you felt that already at nineteen you were starting to write with what you considered your mature voice, which is very early indeed and seems to suggest quite a bit of confidence. I am wondering: At nineteen, how were you thinking about your writing?
I was writing a story that was later published, although saying it was like my adult oeuvre is going a little far. But I think what I had from the start was confidence that I could write an interesting sentence. And that was the first time I was working on a story where the basic project was one that I still think about. I was just in Philadelphia reading with Karen Russell and Jennifer Egan—
I love both of them, I just have to say.
Right now, to be reading with those two— that’s feeling like an arrived writer.
Yes. For sure.
But I was remembering that I had set my very first story in Camden, which is really greater Philadelphia. Why did I do that? It looks like Baltimore, it was always Philadelphia’s run-down outlying section, and it had these tall, skinny row houses like Baltimore. The melancholy of those buildings, the urge to describe them was one of the main incentives for writing that story.
The reason I know that I was nineteen when I wrote it was that it was during the Kennedy assassination. As I was sitting at the table— and this is characteristic of me to this day: I always fix a very nice desk, a very nice study, I’ll put months into getting my workspace exactly right, and then I’ll work at the kitchen table.
Oh, that sounds familiar…
[Laughs.] A fortune teller once said of me that I like to be near my source of food and drink and it couldn’t have been truer.
So anyway, I remember that I was sitting at the table when the news came on the radio that Kennedy had been shot. So I know exactly when that was: November, 1963.
When you’re nineteen years old at the kitchen table— did you have set writing habits already then?
I had inclinations more than a habit of industry. I only have a habit of industry when I am working on a particular piece. But I am not a writer, to this day, who works every single day. Because I still really have time management problems, and I am always behind in my obligations to other people, which include letters of recommendation, interviews that I’m actually writing rather than speaking— things that I procrastinate shamelessly on. I often find myself at the computer but doing other things besides working on my fiction.
So, in that sense, it sounds like your habits haven’t changed that much over time?
No! I hate to say it, but I think I’m much the same person. The only thing is that at nineteen, I wouldn’t have been sure that I’d ever be able to finish a novel. I mean, how do you know before you’ve done it? It seemed a monumental task.
I actually find that, as I said, once I’m in involved in a project, having a regular work schedule on it comes naturally to me. But if I didn’t finish novels I wouldn’t write much, because I don’t think of stories, I think up novels. I turn the complex project that will be a future novel over in my mind for years before I ever sit down and work. Or I spend an awful lot of time when I don’t appear to be working, thinking about it and working it out in detail.
I’ve always had a dog, ever since I was twenty-four. And I spend an awful lot of time on my feet, walking a dog. It is just part of my routine.
I bet you work through a lot of things while you walk.
I do. This habit I’ve actually had since childhood. I often carry a text with me when I walk. I know it sounds dangerous, but I feel where I’m going better when I’m actually reading something. I think because of a lifetime habit of reading and walking in a place where there was really quite a bit of traffic, in Baltimore. [Laughs.] I rarely walk my dog without something to read. I use one of those headlamps at night.
The writer David Grossman actually told me something similar. He walks all the time when he is working.
Well, he is certainly a writer I’d like to be doing something the same as. One way or another, I usually make notes too. I usually have a pen with me.
That is some high-level multi-tasking.
Yes! It is very much part of my routine.
You were talking about writing a story set in Camden because it was like Baltimore. Let’s backtrack a little: What was it like to grow up in Baltimore? Were there a lot of books in your home growing up?
Yes, I was really very lucky that way. Like a lot of people, I feel like my parents should have loved me more. If my parents had thought I could do no wrong I delude myself that I wouldn’t be so hypercritical and so slow in the process. I am so unnecessarily rigid about revising and far too self critical to really be a prolific writer. I kid myself, I even say it proverbially to students: “Well, I guess your parents thought you could do no wrong.”
My parents certainly thought I could do everything 100% wrong. But one thing they did for me was have a very large library and I was allowed to read anything at any time. As far as books were concerned, there was a kind of benign neglect. It was considered good to be reading no matter what I was reading and I read all the time!
What’s more, I didn’t drive until I was nineteen and I went to college when I was sixteen. So, I was in college for three years before I even had a car. And Baltimore has never had a particularly efficient pubic transportation system, but it had those buses. I spent my childhood riding on buses: Slow, flatulent, crowded, urban buses. And I loved that, actually. They made a huge impression on me. I learned an awful lot about the working class population of Baltimore by riding buses all the time. And you know, in Kalamazoo, which doesn’t have a very developed public transportation system, every now and then I ride the buses and I think, Wow, if you really want to know a town, you have to ride the public transportation that the poor use, to find out about places you never knew existed. Sometimes, honestly, it’s places that you wouldn’t ever see otherwise. So I spent an awful lot of time in Baltimore taking buses and that showed me neighborhood and industrial dumps, industrial waste places, and that kind of urban wilderness that cities like Baltimore are prone to.
And it made an impression on you.
I used to love to walk in factory districts where it occurred to me that the music of machinery— especially when I would hear the machinery of one factory and the machinery of another factory right next to it, superimposed on each other— it’s a kind of music that we know, because we know machines, and when you’re in a solitary state and you’re listening to these machines, they seem to be alive and feeling down-strandedness, feeling their own solitude in some way. That made a huge impression on me as a kid.
I really felt that this kind of city, this kind of run-down city, was my natural place. And after school I would often wander by myself down to the harbor and walk along the waterfront where the sailor’s bars were. I was aware that this was a bad part of town where there were prostitutes and sailors haunts of various kinds, the sea wall would have cigarette butts washing up against it and it was filthy…and I loved it! I really felt, in some way, inspired by that.
I think that if you had questioned me I would have known even then that the biggest difference between me and most of the people I would meet on my wanderings was that I was saturated with text. I was reading all the time. The greatest source of language I was receiving that was of any significance to me was certainly books. I was also aware that the language for those for whom books and text were not the intermediary was alive in a way that my language, my spoken language, would never be. I was fascinated by that and I couldn’t wait, in some way, to get closer to that. Even though it was a sense of approaching the forbidden. It was being around people who didn’t speak proper English, who didn’t speak an English informed by texts. For me that was the biggest step towards learning about the things that I’ve often written about.
Even as a child and as a teenager, I chose to spend a lot of time alone. In my senior year of high school, when I was sixteen, I really didn’t have a best friend outside of the family.
But you have several siblings.
Yes, I have four siblings and one sister whom I’m extremely close with. Extremely close with. In fact, it is really her story…I think I can tell this now. I used to not really discuss any relation that Bogeywoman might have to me or my life. I didn’t think I dared. But it was the shape of my younger sister’s life that I borrowed for Bogeywoman.
So, if she is Ursie, alias the Bogeywoman, you are in fact Maggie, the telepathic older sister who swoops in…
Exactly. And that is really how it was with us. There was a period there when she was estranged from everybody in the family, panicked. When she was fifteen or sixteen years old she was so freaked out by realizing that she was gay, understanding what that was— and it had happened to her when she was at a beloved summer camp that we had gone to— that she willingly went into a hospital. But it was not a state hospital, it was a very expensive, private psychiatric hospital. I don’t think a public hospital would’ve kept her for even a week. But as long as my parents were willing to foot the bill, she lived in that hospital for years. Literally! She went to high school from the hospital.
Her life wasn’t exactly like the Bogeywoman’s, but it was strikingly similar in certain respects. And, like the Bogeywoman, what made her decide that she could brave the world was that she had an affair with a hospital employee, as Ursie does. Which broke every rule of psychotherapy. You can’t but be horrified when you hear this story from the aspect of what’s proper in therapy. And she herself is a psychotherapist now, and she would never cross that line. But, nonetheless, I was so struck by that paradox. That in some way this radical inversion of the rules was what helped her make the decision that she wanted to live and that she could manage the world on her own terms.
Anyway, I just really wanted to tell that story.
Thank you for telling it to me. I love that character, Ursie. I wasn’t sure who she was, but it was clear to me that she had a very strong relationship to her creator. Back to you. You went to college at sixteen. That is quite early.
In Baltimore there was always an accelerated course for junior high school, anybody with an IQ over a certain level could do it. It wasn’t all that high because I would say that maybe 15% of students were given the opportunity to do this. My mother did it, my older sister did it, I did it. It was just available. So I did seventh, eighth and ninth grades in two years. And then I was a July baby. I went to Antioch College, which had a five-year program because you went to school half the year and worked half the year. And you could start in the summer, right after regular school let out. Basically, I couldn’t wait to get out of my family home— that is what it amounted to— so I graduated high school in June and started college in the end of June. So, just by a fluke, I was still sixteen instead of seventeen when I started college.
What was your college experience like? Did you write a lot in college?
I didn’t really do anything in an orderly way for two years— I was far too young to be in school, especially the kind of school that sets you on your own responsibility as much as Antioch does— that is their whole thing, to entrust you with the responsibility for your life and to show you what it is like work on the street, organize your business affairs, and have an existence in the real world all while you are in school.
That’s a lot for a sixteen year-old to deal with.
You ain’t kidding. I was a child! On the other hand, if you’d asked me at that age, I felt more adult than ever! I always had this front of a tough chick, a tough babe. That was really very much the picture that I tried to show the world at that age. So I don’t think it was easy to detect, but I was completely lost as far as really knowing how to look after myself, my property, and when my safety was concerned.
I still had that fascination with the other side and I think that, for better or for worse— and I can say this as long as I’ve survived it— that footloose habit that I had, that refusal to be cautious, say if it was two o’clock in the morning and I wanted to trot downtown to get something, I would just do it— I am still like that. But at least now I know I have to have a dog with me! That’s one of the main reasons why I have a dog. If you have a dog with you, your chances of not being molested in some way are a whole lot better than if you’re by yourself.
But your sixteen, seventeen year-old self made it, after all.
And now I can say that it paid off for me in a way. I often tell people that one of the reasons it took so long for me to finish Lord of Misrule was that I had written about that reckless young woman in The Bend, The Lip, The Kid, She Drove Without Stopping, and Bogeywoman. And when I sat down to write Lord of Misrule, I was going to write a social novel about the racetrack and about the typical people who work at the racetrack. I didn’t want that lost college girl in there this time, and she sneaked in anyway and became an important character.
And so I had an aversion to finishing that book. Six or seven years before I finally brought myself to finish Lord of Misrule, I felt that she just hadn’t paid off for me, she hadn’t panned out. I thought I was a fascinating character when I was in my twenties. By the time I was thirty I realized I was just like everybody else! But I thought she was fascinating, or at least she was all I had to work with. That was my experience.
Everything that I had written about her hadn’t caught on, really. Now people say Maggie is a terrific character, and it is very gratifying, I feel more forgiving [toward her]. But there was this interim where I thought, I’ve written about myself at that age and it’s just not that interesting to people. In fact, it’s embarrassing because she was so without regard for her own safety, without any practical sense, or reasonable wariness of men. If it doesn’t make good fiction, then it’s just embarrassing!
It may not be that it doesn’t make good fiction. I was speaking with the writer Binnie Kirshenbaum and she said she gets frustrated because she writes complicated female characters, just like you write complicated female characters, and there is an aversion in the publishing world, and to some extent to the public reader, at least the way books are marketed to readers— there is no tolerance for female characters who are complicated in the way that we have tolerance for, say, an Alexander Portnoy and his hysteria. There is an archetype for a hysterical male but there is no permission for female characters who have all these eccentricities.
It is very interesting that you say that, because at a certain point She Drove Without Stopping was under contract with Delacorte, and a very well-known editor at that time named Seymour Lawrence had bought it. It was exactly because he was hoping for a female Philip Roth that he was interested in my work. But when he got the manuscript, he ran like hell! Because I think you are exactly right, the market wasn’t ready for that. It looks different when it is a woman. A woman’s sexual indiscretions make people uncomfortable.
Exactly. I certainly hope you don’t stop writing those characters, they are my favorite type of characters. And hopefully there will be more room for them in the future.
Well, winning the National Book Award for a book that has a character like that in it goes a long way in correcting any lingering prejudices you might have.
Let’s hope so! I’d love to hear more of the practical reality of your life in your twenties. You graduated from college and then you went to get your master’s degree. But in-between there were some years. What was your first move after college?
The first thing I did was follow a boyfriend out to Los Angeles. Actually, I should say, I had gotten into Syracuse, one of the earliest writing programs out there, and I thought I was going to go— I even arrived at Syracuse with that in mind. But then I realized I just didn’t feel like being in an academic program yet, I felt like having an adventure.
My boyfriend, named James Aitchison, who is still a very good friend of mine and has done illustrations for a few of my books, had gone out to Los Angeles to try to start art school. He was another case in point of my being attracted to somebody who was an autodidact. He had never gone to college. He had lived a pretty rough life. He just showed up in Yellow Springs one day and I couldn’t get involved with him fast enough! We ended up living in Los Angeles, but it was a trajectory back and forth in and out of the desert all the time.
Where were you living in Los Angeles?
Most of the time I was living in the apartment that was described in She Drove Without Stopping, I might even have put the address into the book. It was kind of a beautiful old building with hardwood floors. It was in what might once have been a nice neighborhood but which was now, between Vermont and Hoover, in the neighborhood around USC that had become a very bad neighborhood. Just like Jane in that book, my landlord was this great, big Native American guy who ran a fly-by-night construction company. My then-boyfriend, the painter, and I lived in this building that was very easily penetrated. A would-be rapist once entered the building, just like in She Drove Without Stopping. All those things that are described in the book actually happened to me.
I lived that life for two years, definitely narrated to some extent in She Drove Without Stopping. “Now Jane was really lost,” that is a line at some point [in the book].
What kinds of jobs did you have?
I always worked places as a waitress and as a bartender but the first job that I had that I really count was that I taught English as a second language to foreign students, mostly Persian students actually, in a private school in Hollywood. I had great fun doing that, although I had no idea what I was doing— it was very irresponsible of them to hire me!
Then I worked at the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health as an intake worker at a psychiatric clinic. And that job, which lasted about a year and half, taught me so much, I mean, I am still using what I learned. Basically, every person who came into care in that clinic, whether it was for marital dysfunction or schizophrenia, passed through my office. So I got to talk to an awful lot of people in extreme or disturbed mental states of one kind of another. And there are a lot of people like that in my books! Boy, if you get to choose your jobs, you couldn’t have a better job for a young writer.
You must have gotten a lot of great character studies.
I mean, the first time you talk to someone who is hearing voices right in front of you…there’s nothing like it.
Any good stories from that job?
I remember talking to a woman who had been busted for prostitution. And therefore she had just been released from a hospital for the criminally insane in Los Angeles. You just roll your eyes at the injustice of it. She was a gentle person who was just psychotic, you know? She was the first person who I knew was seeing and hearing other things than what I was seeing and hearing. But at the same time, she was enough in the world to be having a conversation with you.
She said she was hearing voices and I said, “What are they saying to you?” She said, “They’re saying ‘I love you.’” So I said— believe me, I wasn’t following the rulebook for what questions to ask as an intake worker!— “That’s not so terribly bad, is it?” And she said, “No, but it gets on your nerves, you know?” It was such a touching conversation.
What happened after your California years?
When I first left California I went back to Baltimore where I was from. I didn’t want to live there, but I didn’t have any money. Not having any money was such an important condition of my twenties that almost all my books could be studied from the point of view of the miniscule economy of them. Like, for instance, if you took every single dollar that comes into the reckless female character in the book, it would always be under one thousand dollars. [Laughs.] And usually closer to 250, tops.
Of course she is preoccupied with money, because she doesn’t have any, but this doesn’t prevail on her enough to make practical decisions.
And was this true of you too?
It is very much a portrait. Just to give you an idea of the difference between real life and invention, there is a scene in She Drove Witout Stopping when a rapist is in Jane’s house and Jane has managed to hide herself in the wall, but one step more and the guy is going to come across all the money that she has made so that she would be able to survive the summer. So she makes a noise inside the wall and the reader will have to draw his or her own conclusions about whether she would rather be raped by this guy or at least risk her life, than lose her 286 dollar bank roll, or whatever the sum was, that allows her to live this reckless life out in this country. So, she does in fact get raped by this guy.
Now, there was never exactly a scene like that, but I thought it was symbolically so like the way I was living then that it was just the right thing to have happen. It is part of being a reckless young woman and not having a secure place to live that you encounter danger a lot. That certainly happened to me. I was in situations with rapists or would-be rapists any number of times and some of those occasions didn’t go the way I wished. But I survived them all.
One of the most important formulations of She Drove Without Stopping is that for a young woman who goes into the world to make something happen, what is going to happen is that things will happen to her. She will not be in perfect control of the situation. That’s what happens when you’re a young woman. If you are reckless, things happen to you. It’s not that you make things happen, things happen to you, it’s inevitable. How well you come through that, how much you make that your own experience, whether you take that as a victim or as the price of freedom, that is up to you. I certainly never felt like a victim because I knew it was so much my own free will that I put myself where I was.
An important part of that California episode is that I drove along across the country, both ways. Learning how to drive was hugely important to me, it was part of being a fully realized, reckless young woman. Now I could go places! I drove back [East] across the country in a 1954 Blue Chevrolet pick-up truck.
Then I moved out to the country, just like Maggie in Lord of Misrule. Just like Maggie, I was working for a small town paper, as a food editor. I was also the education, society and reaction editor, and it was a dinky small town paper so someone who really didn’t know anything about journalism could come in and do that job overnight. But I loved writing about food! Just like Maggie, I met a racetracker and was purloined away from my proper employment.
You started to work on a horse racetrack.
I became a small-time racetracker, that’s right, and lived in a trailer, just like Maggie.
And how do you look back on those young reckless years now?
As I said, as recently as the past five years, when I thought of that reckless young girl, I would smile riley, shake my head in despair and compare myself to some of my friends who made good enough marriages in their twenties to have good enough children to look after them in their old age, and also to be the family of their middle age and aging years— I don’t have any of that. And some of those decisions were beginning to scare me.
As I said, she [the reckless young woman] hadn’t paid off for me. Now she has paid off for me, but I still don’t have kids to look after me. By the time I wrote Lord of Misrule, I was identifying more with Medicine Ed and Two-Tie than I did with Maggie anymore. They are two characters who are looking at friendless old ages, maybe without even a secure place to live. And definitely I was beginning to worry about that, about the final price that you pay for having made those footloose decisions in your youth. But now it is okay with me again.
Is that because of the success of Lord of Misrule and the recognition that came with winning the National Book Award?
That’s right. Now that Jane, now that Maggie has paid off, I feel much more forgiving towards her, much less embarrassed by her.
That’s interesting. Lord of Misrule had a very long journey to reach the National Book Award. It took years for you to write it, you put it aside many times, then it was published by a very small press before it was acknowledged and now it is out in paperback with a big house…So it seems that, though you always had this core confidence in your own ability, reception and recognition is very important to you; that the reckless woman has paid off because now she is recognized.
I really felt that my obscurity— I mean, it’s not like I’d never had any recognition, I’d had three National Endowment for the Arts grants, and a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and I had been a fellow of the Radcliffe Institue— I mean, my resume looked pretty good for someone who had only had three novels by the time she was sixty. But at the same time, the average reader on the street would not have heard of me. Very few book clubs would have read Bogeywoman in its old avatar. And I do think that, I didn’t really see it coming, but all of a sudden I started to feel like, Wow, I missed it; I missed the boat. I thought I was going to be a writer whom people would remember. That at least was the promise I made to myself. Because I did feel— even when I was nineteen and first started writing that story I told you about— that I had something special on the sentence level. That I had a gift and that it was my obligation and privilege to use it. And then I was getting into my late fifties, getting close to sixty, and I thought, Wow, I have to face it: Maybe it’s not going to happen. In fact, it’s more likely that it’s not going to happen than that it does if it hasn’t happened yet.
Handing Lord of Misrule over to a small press, once I’d finished it the first time, back in 2003 or 2004…I thought I had the book with the greatest possibility of a popular success of any that I’d written. When it didn’t happen, then I found it extremely hard to sum up the energy to peddle that book. What happened to me was what happens to writers in their fifties and sixties. My parents died, one after the other, in lingering, difficult illnesses, and I was involved in their care. Then another family member had a brain tumor. It was just a terrible, terrible time and every part of it was a reminder of my own mortality. Because once that generation is gone, I’m next, right? And I began seeing that if I wasn’t successful by now, I probably wouldn’t be successful.
And then you had the question: Well, what has it all been for? I had six file cabinets full of letters and papers and drafts and work by other people that interested me…all the kinds of paper that a writer accumulates. What would happen to all that? Who would be interested? Would I leave it to my family to go through all that? I could feel privately that I had written some good things, but it was getting harder to make that argument. I realized I had to start facing the F, as in failure.
Now I feel much better about all that than I did a year ago. When I became a finalist for the National Book Award, all that had changed overnight. Someone would want my papers, someone would be interested in the rather raggedy shape of my life, the interesting story of a genuine writer who amounted to something. Before that, I wasn’t so sure.
My first book had one central obsession, and that is: The idea of getting famous. The central character feels that if he doesn’t become famous, he will get swallowed up in oblivion and it will be as though he has never lived. I was preoccupied, if you can believe it, from when I was eight, nine, ten years old, from when I first realized that I was going to die one day. Already, I had this romantic obsession with making some kind of impression on the world with creative work. Otherwise I would disappear and it would be as though I had never lived.
Do you think that desire for longevity, for making an impression, that you had at an early age is what drove you to be a writer?
Yes! Absolutely. The main thing that made me want to be a writer was that I loved narrative, I loved books, I loved reading, I loved hearing stories. It was so much the main thing that I did that I never really considered doing anything else.
But there was this other concern too…I don’t think I ever saw myself having children; even if I liked kids, I never really pictured myself as a woman with children. So, the critical problem— how would I leave something behind me, how would I make an impression on future generations of the world, what would pass for my contribution to the world?— was there from a really early age. And that’s in fact exactly the problem I was back to as I was coming into my sixties: What was going to happen to my stuff? Who would know my name?
Then the gods of mischief decided to turn everything upside down for me with the National Book Award.
What you do and have done for a long time now— teaching at a writing program— is what a lot of writers do to support themselves and still be in a literary context.
In the fall of 1980 I went to teach at Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri and that was my first academic job. And it is very interesting when you think about it…Every book I’ve worked on up till now— I am working on a book right now that departs from this model— but every book until now draws from my twenties, from my wild life before I had an academic job. As I was saying to you before, you live the kind of life that I lived and a lot of things happen to you. When you have an academic life and security, in some sense nothing happens to you! You might have your family and you make a contribution to your field in a certain way and I’ve taught some very wonderful writers who I feel very invested in…But I really stopped having material that I would consider my kind of material once I started to have an academic job.
As a teacher, you are a mentor to a lot of young writers. Do you have any advice for young writers who are reading this?
It is a very different world now from the one I went to school in. I feel so sorry for my students who graduate deeply in debt and who really had no choice, because it is part of the economic structure of the university now; it is expected that students will graduate in debt. The premise is that a college education is worth so much money that it is fair to put students into that much debt because they can pay it off after a lifetime of working, quite easily. But if they’re young artists, to have that obligation— it’s terrible!
One of the reasons I was able to live that reckless way, for better or worse….If I had been in serious debt I would probably have had to have a serious job much earlier in order to service the debt. It would have been a different thing. What I was able to do until I became an academic was to keep a job for a little while, live on as little money as possible. I could live on 200 dollars a month, and that was not a great accomplishment— everybody could! A graduate student could easily live on a stipend of 20,000 dollars when I went to school. And those days are just gone. Most undergraduates have credit cards in their pockets now, and that just didn’t exist. Students are coping with something that I did not have to cope with which is debt. My advice to young artists and writers is: Stay out of debt as much as you possibly can! If you want to have your twenties and thirties as a period of freedom and experimentation, to be able to have different kinds of jobs just to make a few nickels and get by.
And also, this is even more important, doing that [having other kinds of jobs] teaches you something about the world from the perspectives of people who do things other than just write. That is tremendously important, I think, to the sense of vision, perspective, and knowledge of the world that young artists need. And it is harder and harder for my students to do it because they are saddled by debt, they are really scared, and they live in a society that is clamoring to put them into debt. Just to have the basic operating system that most undergraduates need requires them to have a telephone, a car, a computer, a printer, and all that kind of stuff.
I don’t know what I would have done. What I did do was work as a waitress all the time. That put enough money in my pocket to pay rent and buy cigarettes. And that was all I needed.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Peter Blickle