Charles Baxter is the author of five novels, five short story collections, three poetry collections, and two books about literature and writing. Among his awards are a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. His third novel, The Feast of Love, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His two books about literature and writing—Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, and The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot—are coveted references on analysis and craft.
Baxter’s fiction places readers in the distinctly Midwestern yet wholly recognizable psychological landscape that his characters inhabit: in love, in doubt, in transition and contradiction, in wry self-awareness, and in the semi-buoyant mire of their private regrets and equally private hopes. As the novelist and critic Claire Messud put it in praising his 2011 book, Gryphon: New and Collected Stories, Baxter “presents us to ourselves simultaneously as we would wish to be and as we fear we may in fact be.”
He is an expert storyteller, a highly regarded teacher and speaker, and one of the most thoughtful people you could hope to have a conversation with on a winter afternoon. The Days of Yore met with Baxter in a coffeehouse in Minneapolis’s warehouse district, across the river a ways from where he teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota. We sat near a window, through which Baxter occasionally inspected the street as he paused to reflect on a question or comment on a passing car.
Let’s start off with failure. Specifically, early failures and what comes out of them. You’ve said that in your twenties and early thirties, you completed three novels before ever publishing one.
Three or four, depending on what you count. One of them I revised so much, it really qualifies as a different book, but it still didn’t sell. My first book wasn’t accepted until I was thirty-seven years old.
Those early books didn’t sell as novels, but you later salvaged parts of them in stories?
I did. But that’s the second act, the part I didn’t know was coming.
What did you learn to do in that first act of attempts that put you in motion toward such a lovely and successful second act?
One of the things I did was stop writing novels, because each novel was taking a year or two out of my life. I discovered that if you make a big mistake writing a novel, chances are you’re going to go weeks or months or maybe even finish the novel without realizing the mistake that you’ve made. If you make a mistake writing a story, you’re not going to lose a year of your life and you may well be able to figure out what the mistake is right away.
I had to teach myself a lot of this because I hadn’t been in a creative writing program. What I had been in was a Ph.D. program, and that’s very different. There’s another part to your question, though, and that is: What keeps you going when everybody tells you that they hate your work?
Right. So what did keep you going, when even people who were supposed to be aligned with you—like your first agent—told you they hated your work? Was there a point when you thought you might stop writing?
Sure. I was a teacher, and I thought I could go on teaching. I was writing criticism, and I thought I could go on doing that, even though in those days, I didn’t much enjoy it. I do enjoy it now, but I didn’t then. But I had this kind of irrational conviction that I was—that I could be, wanted to be—a fiction writer. I couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do more than that. And I thought I could actually be good at it. Or that I was good at it. I didn’t believe it when people told me the stuff was no good. My second novel, even my wife didn’t finish it.
Didn’t finish it? Ouch.
So you have to be a little crazy. I used to tell my graduate students that you have to cultivate a certain kind of “fuck you” attitude. “You don’t like it? Fuck you. This is what I do.” Sooner or later, if nobody ever likes it, you don’t continue. There’s a point where depression and despair will become stronger than you are. I was getting pretty close to that point. But then I wrote a story that channeled a lot of these feelings. It was called “Harmony of the World”, and that story had a bit of a life. I thought, “Well, maybe I should be writing stories,” so that’s what I did. But I was really burned, and it was hard to go back to writing novels. To me, it feels like a cursed genre.
In your story “Poor Devil”, which came out in 2005, the narrator receives these hateful postcards from a stranger, telling him that his work and life are a disaster and that he should be remorseful. In your essay “Full of It,” in the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer, you mention that there had been a real-life postcard writer who sent you similar anonymous messages earlier in your career. Had you somehow steeled yourself against that kind of irrational anonymous criticism, and how?
That guy. There were only one or two postcards. This was when I was working in Detroit, and Detroit has a lot of crazy people in it, and he was one of them, the postcard writer, Karl Wenclas. But the real topic of your question is: What do you do when the world seems against you?
Because I hadn’t been in an M.F.A. program, I was not used to having people reading my work regularly. I didn’t have to go through the transition that M.F.A.’ers go through when they graduate and suddenly there’s no automatic audience for their work. I had to start imagining an audience for whom I was writing.
You have to get out of your head the angry, hostile people in the world, and you have to try to imagine somebody who’s actually going to like what you write. That’s what I started to do. Who might like this? What would a sympathetic audience member look like? I tried to picture that person. I’d sit down at the typewriter—I really was working at a typewriter in those days—and I would try to hold in my head somebody who was reading it and who was interested in what I was writing.
What sort of creative community did you have around you at that time?
I didn’t have one.
Not at all?
Not much. When I was working in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, I had a friend in Michigan named Janet Kauffman, and she lived on a farm in Jackson and was teaching at a community college. Her stories were appearing in The New Yorker, and Gordon Lish was her editor at Knopf. She writes very differently than I do, but we were showing each other our work. I can’t remember showing it to many other people. After my first book, Harmony of the World, appeared, I finally had an agent. But that was 1984, two or three years after my first story came out. So the answer to your question about community is, more or less, that I didn’t have one.
How did you get an agent?
It was through Janet. Janet and Jim Shepard, whom I also knew because he had spent a year in Ann Arbor, Michigan, though I think we only met once or twice when he was there. But my agent and Janet’s agent was the same person. She and Jim recommended me to her.
A minute ago, you said that you learned earlier in your career that you could figure out your mistakes more quickly in a story than a novel. How do you know when you’ve made a mistake in your writing? Can you share a wrong turn that you made in one of your stories or novels, and the way that you corrected course?
Of course, you don’t always know when you’ve made a mistake. That’s why it takes so long to discover it. I wrote a chapter for the Feast of Love that I dropped because the tone was all wrong; it was too somber, too early in the book. The tone is often the hardest feature of a piece of writing to modulate properly.
In your family, what did people do for work?
On my father’s side, my great-grandfather emigrated from Wales to Wisconsin and was a farmer, and my grandfather grew up on the farm and went to Ripon College and Williams College and then worked in insurance. That’s what my father did, too. My mother’s family were mostly farmers and lawyers.
Did your mother work?
Not much. When she got out of college, she worked as a librarian on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner.
A librarian on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner! Fantastic. I didn’t know that was a job.
Yeah, all those ocean liners had little libraries. People would come in, seasick, and she would give them a book. And she worked in commercials and continuity down at WCCO Radio for a while. But all the time I was growing up, she never did a lick of work except for, you know, the real work of raising us.
Were your parents supportive of your being a writer?
They weren’t hostile to the idea of my writing. I published these little poetry books in the ‘70s, and they were okay with that. My mother did worry that I was going to rent an upstairs garret and sit up there and write and eat cottage cheese and ketchup. She worried about that terribly and was amazed when I was actually hired somewhere. But if you’re talking about encouragement from family members, absolutely not. My sister-in-law said, “Why do you write about these terrible people with pathetic little lives?”
What about your siblings?
I have a brother. I had another brother who passed away. That brother, Tom, was supportive, but then he would say things like, “Why don’t you ever write a book that people actually want to read?” [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Did you say, “Good idea, I’m trying to”?
[Laughs.] Yeah, “I would like to.” No, he always thought I should write bestsellers. I don’t feel sorry for myself or feel as if I was unlucky. This is just the way it played out.
You mentioned that your mother worried that you would eat cottage cheese and ketchup. What did you subsist on early in your career? How did you pay the bills?
I was teaching at Wayne State in Detroit. I was an assistant professor there. So we were broke much of the time. My wife’s parents and my parents would help with the mortgage and the taxes. We got by. It was okay.
Did you have housing provided by the university, or what sorts of places were you living in?
Wayne State didn’t have anything like that. I had a rental in Ann Arbor when I met my wife, and later we got a mortgage to buy a house. I think we borrowed some money from my stepfather, or he may have given us a gift to help us buy a house, just a little place. Basically, we supported ourselves with my teaching and, in those days, my wife was working in a psychiatric hospital.
It shouldn’t matter to a writer what it is that you do to earn money, to feed yourself. I mean, somebody who works in a coffeehouse is probably better when she gets off work than someone who works as an editor or an assistant to an editor. Because in those jobs, during the day you’ve been reading other people’s work, and often you come home and you have to still go on reading other people’s work. It gets to be 5 or 6 p.m. and you have a good case of word-nausea. All of the energy you would have for your own work is gone. I don’t recommend that people get jobs in publishing houses. I think that’s a terrible thing for a writer to do.
How does teaching writing differ from that?
It doesn’t differ that much.
You work with grad students now, but early in your career, you taught for one year at public school—
I taught fourth grade.
How did that come about?
The government wanted me in Vietnam, and I thought it was a terrible war. I thought it was unjust, imperialistic madness. In those days, if you were willing to teach public school in a state with a teacher shortage, you would get what was called an occupational deferment. That’s what I got. My classmate, or almost classmate, Tim O’Brien—we both went to Macalester at the same time—he went off to Vietnam. And look what happened.
But that’s why I taught elementary school. And I was living in the middle of nowhere; the school was in rural Michigan. It ended up being a great gift. The story “Gryphon” wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t done that. The Saul and Patsy book wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t done that. Life happens to you, and you store up these things. It becomes part of what you write about.
In the essay “Full of It,” you wrote about characters becoming internalized and then pushing out of you through sort of an extrusion process. Was that something that occurred early on for you? How did it begin to happen?
I don’t think so. I remember as a young writer, writing those first bad novels and first stories, being very excited by the idea of a story or the idea of a character. I would think, “I want to write a story about this sort of person,” but in those days I don’t think I had internalized characters. I just loved spinning out stories.
What helps most is to be comfortable with solitude, to be the sort of person who doesn’t mind spending time by him or herself. But you’re not thinking about yourself—you’re thinking about somebody else who slowly but surely becomes as real to you as you are to yourself.
This particular process really didn’t begin to come home to me until I wrote The Feast of Love, which has a lot of first-person narrators. What I discovered about all those first-person narrators was that if I was going to make them sound different from one another, they had to be here. [Points to himself.] They had to be inside, and I had to squeeze them out the way you squeeze toothpaste out of the tube. I would think, “We have to get back to Chloe,” or “We have to get back to Bradley, or to Harry Ginsberg,” and I would just sit there until I heard that voice. Then I would start.
Did you write the chapters of The Feast of Love in the order they appear?
Mmm-hmm. Yes. I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t know that Oscar was going to die until Chloe put her head down on his chest and heard his heart. I was in terrible trouble with the plot, because it was just a collection of episodes. When I realized that Oscar was going to die, I was very happy, because it meant I would have a through-line, that all of these people were going to have to cluster around Chloe to start looking after her.
I talk to my students a lot about writing stories in which time is going to run out. If your characters have all the time in the world to do what they need to do, it reduces the urgency in the narrative. But if there’s a clock ticking and they have to do something by a certain time, it produces a sense of urgency. Hamlet and Macbeth and King Lear all begin with a request moment. Somebody says to somebody else, “There’s something I want you to do—” and often that comes with a deadline: “—And I want you to do it by tomorrow.”
Speaking loosely of time, how did you—and how do you—manage to find time and solitude to write?
Often when you’re in your twenties and thirties, maybe even your early forties, you have enough energy for that. You make time. You get up earlier, you stay up later. You just do it. It’s when you get into your forties that you have to start being careful about not agreeing to do too many other things, because you’re not going to have that kind of energy. You have to stop being agreeable.
It’s not a bad idea to learn to be disagreeable in your twenties and thirties, so that you get used to the idea that some people are not going to think that you’re nice. When somebody asks you to do something, you say, “No, I can’t do it.” “Why can’t you do it?” “I’m writing.” “Well,” they’ll say, “That’s not very nice.” And you just have to say, “Too bad. I’m sorry. That’s what I do.”
Have there been periods when you couldn’t write at all, either because of circumstance or because you felt blocked?
Sure. Oh yeah. You go through dry periods, and you think either it’s your fault or it’s the fault of the life you’re living. You also think, “I need to go out in the world and see more than I have. I need to have more to write about than I’ve got.” And any one of those things may be true. I think, though, that sometimes those feelings can arise simply because there’s a voice in your head that says, “You can’t do it.” It’s a very punishing voice.
The internalized postcard-writer voice?
The internalized bad parent. The internalized authority figure. The internalized superego. Call it anything you want to. It’s constantly saying to you, “Who do you think you are? Where do you get this idea that you’re a real writer?” You have to fight that. It takes so much energy to fight it. It’s an ongoing battle.
That’s when you bring out the fuck-you battle hymn that you’ve hopefully written for yourself?
Exactly. Or you try to imagine a better audience, as I did, or you think, “This isn’t about me; this is about the story I’m telling. This is not an ego battle. This is my effort to tell the story of these characters at this point in cultural history.” And also, yeah, fuck you. I’ve always been prone to those voices, and most of the writers I know suffer from them. People with many published books worry, “Is my work any good?” or, “I’m not famous enough,” or, “I haven’t gotten enough reviews.” It never goes away.
And what happens when you do begin to publish widely and get reviews and win awards? You’ve won a number of significant awards, some of them in fairly rapid succession. Does that both stoke the arrogance and amp up the insecurity? Like, “Oh God, now I have to keep this up?”
You’ve answered the question. You have to remember, also, that American culture is very competitive and fashion-conscious. It’s not much interested in what happened a few years ago; it’s interested in what’s happening now. People are thrown on the heap all the time, so you have to cultivate an inner security, to say, “This is what I do.” Somebody is always going to do better than you’re doing. But why should that matter?
If you’re living in someplace like New York, it’s wonderful because there are a lot of writers around, but it can also be hard because everybody is so conscious of who’s doing well and who’s not and where everybody is on the food chain. You have to learn not to pay attention to that.
You’ve lived in the Midwest pretty much your entire life. How has that affected your sensibility and your practice as a writer? Did you think of going elsewhere?
Oh, sure. I thought of moving to the coasts, to New York or San Francisco. But this life suits me. The pace is a little slower, a little quieter. It’s not a big project just to get your clothes to the laundry. And it’s easy enough to get to New York if there’s a show you want to see at the Museum of Modern Art or whatever. I write reviews for The New York Review of Books. I get to the city.
For somebody like me, it’s better to be away from New York, but I think it’s often good for people in their twenties, thirties, and early forties to be there. Most of my graduate students go to Chicago or New York after they leave the program here, and when they start to have families or partners, the hard decisions begin about whether they’re going to stay.
What is the hardest decision you’ve had to make as a writer?
That’s a good question. [A pause.] I think I’ve simply had to decide whether I would write about the things that I cared about, or the things that I thought other people cared about. In a sense, it’s a decision about what kind of materials you’re going to stick to, or whether—in a small or big way—you’re going to try to sell out and try to write something that’s going to get a big audience. A lot of my friends have written thrillers in an effort to get a bigger audience. Some of my students have published books of stories or novels and haven’t been happy about the way they’ve sold, and they’ve gone to work in the television industry.
There may be other decisions that have been tougher. To some degree, I’ve also had to decide whether I should keep writing when I didn’t have any particularly good ideas. There are some writers who say, “You’ve got to sit down at the desk every day and put in two or three hours. You’re a writer; you should write.” Dick Bausch says this. I don’t do that.
When do you write?
When I have an idea, or a set of situations or characters that I care about and want to write about. When I’m feeling jazzed up. It used to feel as if I had this kind of burning that I had to get out.
And now it feels different?
You get older. It doesn’t burn so much. There’s a story of mine called “The Cures for Love” that I thought about for a long time. Ovid, the classical poet, wrote a book, The Cures for Love, saying, “You’ve had a bad love relationship? Well, here’s the cure for it.” I thought, “How do I use that in a story? How do you cure yourself of a relationship, and how can you turn that into a story?” I carried it around for a while, and finally when I was ready, I wrote it.
What do people not ask you that you feel they ought to?
As a writer, if you go into an undergraduate class or even a high school class, kids will ask, “Why do you write?” It seems puzzling to them, as if you had been given an assignment. Whenever they ask that, I say, “It just seems perfectly natural to me. It always has.” As an activity, it seems like something I’m suited for, the way it seems natural to a musician to play the piano. Nobody has ever said, “Does it seem natural to you to write?” because, I think, for most people it doesn’t.
We’re in a culture where a lot of people don’t even like to read, so it seems even weirder to them that somebody would not only want to write, but feel comfortable doing it. But that’s the other thing that sustains you in your twenties and thirties, that feeling of, “This is something I can do, something I’m really good at.” Even if a publisher doesn’t buy it or you don’t land an agent right away, you still think, “Well, I think I’m good at this.”
We started out talking about early failures and what came out of them. I want to end by asking about your first successes. How did they affect you?
They made me happy.
[Laughs.] Okay! Well, then we’re done here!
[Laughs.] They made me happy! Somebody gave me awards, somebody liked my work, great! You go on for a few days, maybe a week or two, and you think, “Somebody liked what I did!”
It’s almost better to get letters. Somebody writes to you and says, “I read something of yours and I really liked it.” That counts for a lot, that somebody would take the trouble of reading something and write to you about it. I just got an email today from a musician and writer named Richard Hell.
No, I’m not kidding. You know this guy?
Well, not personally. But yeah.
I did a review on Don DeLillo, which The New York Review of Books published. It took me forever to write, but I’ve gotten a lot of nice feedback from it. This morning there was an email from Richard Hell, who said that the review reduced him to tears. And he said that he had published a couple of novels, but he didn’t mention his—
His punk rock stardom?
[Laughs.] His punk rock stardom. But I wrote back and said, “Well, of course I know who you are!” And then I wrote about some of the things that he had written to me about in the review. It’s nice when people do that.
I have a friend who is such an admirer of your books that—and you have to trust me that this is a compliment—she named her dog Baxter.
Well, don’t tell her this, but that’s not the first time that’s happened. There’s at least one other Baxter dog that I know.
It’s an odd accolade.
It’s all very nice, but it’s better for you as a writer if you can let things kind of flow through you. Don’t be overpowered by worries, and don’t get blocked by your ego.
Interview by Harvest Henderson
Photo by Keri Pickett