The Throwback Special
(W.W. Norton & Company, 2016)
I keep trying to think of some clever way to introduce Chris Bachelder’s new book, but the first instinct remains best: Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special is the best book of 2016, and the dream scenario for this year includes Bachelder being recognized and heralded, as it sure seems like he‘s been moving toward throughout his whole career. Throwback, his fifth novel, is the hilarious and sad American story of a group of twenty-two men who, over a weekend each fall, get together to reenact the play in which Lawrence Taylor crushed Theismann, his leg, his career. They get together each year at a mid-level (two-and-a-half star) hotel off the highway, and engage in deep rituals both strange (having ping pong balls with their names on them drawn randomly by which they choose which player they‘ll be in this year’s reenactment) and entirely banal (having conversations in which they’ll be be frustrated by their struggle or failure to make themselves understood or clear, surfing broad sweeps of nostalgia, etc.). The play they re-enact comes in the book’s last dozen pages and lasts five seconds; I’m giving away nothing by noting that both a) the play itself ends up reading like the smallest denouement ever and b) you’re likely to be moved at novel’s end to cheer, though not for the football. Chris Bachelder has written the most spectacularly incisive novel of I don’t know how long. By mostly eschewing the drumbeat of the plot, The Throwback Special instead packs oomph through the sort of carefully, almost obsessively noted details that leave you feeling less as if you’re reading something and more as if you’re witnessing something. And what you’re witnessing, in this novel, feels phenomenally close to the bone of most American existences I know of: the abstract longings that seem unfulfillable, the strange unshakeable certainty that things were once more solid or more clear and the ways in which we attempt to rediscover that clarity. It’s worth noting, too, that while football offers itself as a fairly obvious vector for masculine fervency, Bachelder festoons almost everything but the actual football play with significance, such that you end up feeling more moved and shaken by the way these men select and eat their continental breakfasts than by how they move on field.
Again, this is Bachelder’s fifth novel, and while his earlier work all merits close and good attention (particularly his most recent, Abbott Awaits), it’s hard to read The Throwback Special without feeling as if he’s a writer who has suddenly jumped valence levels and found the topic and characters his talents have been primed for and moving toward for years.
Weston Cutter (Rail): In the broadest way, can you talk a little about tenderness in fiction, either in your work specifically or as something larger? This comes up because, at the reading I saw you at, a friend of mine asked you a question, and you answered with a story about a writing teacher who told her students to write something tender, and I’ve been thinking about it since. That said, The Throwback Special (even more than Abbott Awaits, I think) reads as tender. If there’s no sense in starting here—if this question leads to nothing—that’s totally fine.
Chris Bachelder: Tenderness is always a great place to begin, though as soon as I start thinking about it, I realize how nebulous the term is in relation to fiction. If we say a book is tender, I think we are talking simultaneously about qualities of the book and the feelings it produces in us as readers. If you say a book is poignant or moving or funny, you are talking primarily about evocation. If you say a book is smart or sentimental, you’re taking about the book intrinsically (or perhaps by extension its author). But tender somehow speaks to the work—its attentiveness or its gentle exploration of vulnerability, perhaps—while it also suggests that a reader is touched. And what is the nature of the touch? I associate it with a kind of gentle ache or pang, a wave or a rush. It’s not sharp and it’s not wrenching; it makes no huge claim upon us. It doesn’t overwhelm. A book or movie or song with extraordinarily high emotional stakes can’t be called tender. In its emotional ambition it vaults tenderness for something more powerful and overwhelming and passionate. Tenderness is not about passion.
My wife just walked downstairs to make some tea. I told her what I was thinking about and she said, “Well, the first thing I think of is the relationship between tenderness and ageing.” (“I like that!” I said. “Wait, don’t leave! Stay downstairs! Where are you?”) I think this is a great point. If our younger adult years are about the passions, perhaps middle age becomes an era of tenderness (and certainly we could connect tenderness to nostalgia, which is a central element in The Throwback Special). If an author feels tenderness toward her characters, or if a reader feels tenderness toward those characters, there is an implied detachment or acceptance, perhaps even resignation. I feel the feeling—perhaps a vague and private wave of associations—but it seems to originate, distantly, from the thing itself. It’s not coming after me. It’s not even really meeting me halfway, if that makes any sense at all.
The example you refer to in your question is about a writing teacher who asked her students to write something tender. That was the assignment—a brilliant one. The best responses to the exercise, she found, were very simple and very descriptive. You can’t go at tenderness head on—you’ll chase it away. The most memorable exercise was a description of an old boot. The writer just paid very, very close attention to a boot—not making any overt moves toward the evocation of emotion—and the result was tenderness. As a reader, I appreciate the author’s attention (like a child playing with a toy) and I suddenly appreciate the mateless old creased boot (so indirectly suggestive of human travail) that I hadn’t taken the time to really look at before. The tenderness that I feel somehow resides in the boot. Well, I have latched onto that boot anecdote like a life raft. As a writer, I just have to trust that paying very close attention to the world—even, or especially, the junky or rundown American landscape—will create tenderness. Steven Millhauser is one of my favorite writers. He goes about his business with an obsessive attention to objects, and what I feel most is tenderness, the profound and dispassionate generosity of his attention. I don’t talk in writing classes about tenderness, but I talk a lot about patience and precision and observation, which is perhaps a way of getting at tenderness. I’m convinced for the time being that tenderness (as well as mood and atmosphere) can be achieved by moving quite slowly and by really watching with care.
Tenderness is perhaps the emotional ceiling for a work of art with pretty low stakes. And perhaps tenderness pairs well with irony and comedy, which also require a detached view. If I tell you that my book is about a group of men that gathers to reenact a football play, it’s pretty clear that this is not a wrenching emotional tour de force with a shattering climax. Tenderness is about pacing and observation—some gentle probing. Tenderness can exist in small gestures, small objects, small dialogue. The task I try to set for myself is not to be alternately comic and tender, but to instill the comic with tenderness. Ultimately, what I most appreciate about the idea of tenderness is that it is by definition irreducibly complex in tone. There are a lot of ingredients here: appreciation, affection, pleasure, melancholy, wonder, detachment, nostalgia.
Rail: If this isn’t fair or any of my business, feel free to tell me to buzz off, but, to this reader, it sure feels like your work’s grown increasingly, not autobiographical, but more real. Urgent—about essential emotional matters instead of the satirism you started doing. This, to me, feels strange but also wonderful: your first two novels seem, great writing aside, built. They feel like constructions (in ways even Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography doesn’t, though maybe that’s me). Maybe this is all ridiculous. All I’d like to posithere and seek a response on this one reader’s sense that your first two novels were much more satirical, and that then there’s this beautifully strange third one in second person, which is somehow edged not with satire but the general cultural knowing that existed in the first two. Then there’s the quiet of Abbott, and now there’s The Throwback Special. As a reader/critic/whatever, it seems like there’s been a shift—a break and change. Do you feel that? If so, how did it come about? How has it deepened? I know this is already too big a question.
Bachelder: Your sense of this shift or break is absolutely fair and correct. I don’t think it grew out of a conscious decision or epiphany. There were many factors involved. First, I grew weary of the stance of satire, and I pushed it as far as I could take it in U.S.!, which is, I think, more complicated tonally than Bear v. Shark, but still limited in what it could accomplish. I had read and taken very much to heart Wallace’s essay on TV and irony, and I was troubled by the idea that fiction that responds satirically to a superficial and soulless culture runs the risk of being superficial and soulless. I made some adjustments from one satire to the next, but I didn’t think I could keep going with it.
Second, those are youthful books—they’re angry, exuberant, passionate. I was still figuring out very basic things about writing, and I was relying primarily on comic and structural energy, rather than any kind of insight. If I thought of a joke, I put it in. There was little sense of restraint, which is a quality I have come to admire. Those are restless, antic books, and the wildness is tempered by formal constraint—that’s your sense, which is correct, that they are “constructions.” They are certainly more cerebral, less tender. It’s the only way I knew how to proceed. Also, I was certainly hampered by a conviction that fiction ought to do certain things, or that I ought to write a certain kind of book. I really felt obligated to write something politically and culturally engaged, to fight the good fight. Writing is hard enough as it is, but it’s especially hard when you have a relatively narrow idea of what you are obligated to do as an artist U.S.! ended up being less a political novel (though I think it has a clear and forceful point of view) than a novel about how difficult it is to write a good political novel. I didn’t get traction until I admitted my own ambivalence. When I finished it, I really felt I had emptied my cup as a leftist political writer. My set of values and beliefs haven’t shifted, but I haven’t felt inspired or obligated to write another large-canvas, engaged work. That voice in my head got much quieter.
(An aside: This will sound strange, but I think I was lucky that neither of those satires did particularly well, commercially speaking. If they had really taken off, or if there was a movie or something, I might really have felt the pressure to keep doing it. I could have been the fighting animal guy my whole career, cynically pitting two more creatures against each other for decades. As it was, the books got published and received enough attention to encourage me as a writer, but not so much that I freaked out. That seems an ideal situation for a young writer trying to figure out what he’s doing.)
Having children, however, is undoubtedly the biggest factor. You can pretty much plot the shift on a timeline—my books pre-children and post-children. I was probably heading toward a smaller canvas anyway for all of the reasons stated above, but children in their early years tend to be real canvas-shrinkers. At the same time, though, they expand your spiritual capacity and open you up to a tonally rich emotional landscape of contradiction and paradox, the stuff of good fiction. I just got more interested in bewilderment than in righteous indignation. I discovered that I didn’t need to go hunting for big, ambitious American conceits—there were plenty of really interesting things in my head and in my house. I’ll probably always be primarily a comic writer—I don’t think that has shifted—but I started to figure out some ways to make the humor more complicated and layered. And I guess what I discovered is that I prefer a vertical mode—a kind of deep burrowing into consciousness and scene—rather than a zany, horizontal, channel-surfing mode. The key, though, is that there must be some radical incongruity or friction between the subject matter (mundane, domestic) and the method (rigorous, convoluted, logical, grave). So these last two books are, though in different ways, pretty circumscribed and contained. In both books there is a faintly ticking clock—an implied sense that we are moving somewhere—that the narrative has a back wall. The circumscription, the quiet but palpable clock, and the lack of strong plot gives me the license to observe and to track the movement of thought in a comically rigorous way. I love the world that opens up when writers move slowly. (My God, how many wonderful pages does it take for Tommy Wilhelm to sit down for breakfast in Seize the Day?) I like urgency that originates not from the machinery of plot but from the writer’s level of involvement. The urgency comes from the “how,” not the “what.” It has to do with conviction. So it’s interesting, for example, that you would say that The Throwback Special, with its relatively small stakes, feels more urgent than the satires, which are about the decline of American civilization. It must be the case that urgency derives not from premise or idea but from style and that burrowing movement. Lydia Davis and Nicholson Baker are writers who, through the power of their attention, bring a sense of urgency to non-urgent subjects.
Rail: This might be unfair or impossible, but it feels worth it: what were you trying to do with The Throwback Special?—as large or as small as you’d like. (If it matters: I ask because it’s one of my favorite books, the one I’ve pressed on the most people in the last several months and will continue to do so in the coming months, but it’s a book that, when I’m asked, I don’t know how to talk about. I keep saying it’s incredibly funny and incredibly sad, and that if it’s “about” anything it’s somehow about temporariness, about trying to find that sort of nostalgic magic lots of us seek out, but even as I write that, I know somebody’s going to love it because it’s a smart football book, or because it’s one of the best depictions of middle-aged male friendship.)
Bachelder: I don’t think I knew quite what I was doing when I started out, and the book is probably much better for it. For a couple of years I knew I wanted to do something with the Theismann injury—I don’t think I could have quite said why—but I couldn’t figure out if it should be fiction or nonfiction, book-length or short. I could imagine, as if someone else had written it, a really interesting and meandering and thoughtful meditation on watching and re-watching the five-second replay of the play in which Theismann was injured. That was a book that I wish existed, and that’s a good reason to write a book, but I never wrote a page. I watched the replay a lot and I remained committed to writing about it. At some point I made this imaginative leap and got the idea of men who gathered to reenact the play. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think it could have happened because I watched the replay so often that the players’s actions began to seem scripted, rehearsed. It was as if all the players on the field were moving together perfectly to create this injury, which was an absolute fluke. (Injury in football is certainly no fluke, but Theismann’s injury was unusually horrific.) The play on YouTube is a kind of replay of replays, and the whole thing perhaps began to feel like a reenactment.
So then I wrote a thirty-page story, set mainly in a hotel room, that did not work at all, at which point I made the perverse decision to try it as a novel. This bad thirty-page thing might be good if I expand it! But as it expanded, an interesting thing happened. I quickly realized that these men, who have been doing this for years, would not realistically get together and talk about football or the Theismann injury. They wouldn’t address it directly; it’s background, not foreground. The injury was now the context of the novel, not the subject. So I had to figure out the foreground, which was just these men and their disappointments and their bewilderment and their attempts at intimacy. I just started writing these little episodes and interactions. So when I started, I knew the book would end with the reenactment and I knew a few ritual-related things would happen along the way, but other than that, I just had men arriving at a hotel. There was no reason to rush because the book was only going to cover thirty-six hours or so. In fact, I knew I needed to move slowly because I just didn’t have that much dramatic material. The commitment to slow pacing, in a sense, created the material for the book. I made a few attempts to introduce more plot and conflict and external urgency, but every time I did I realized that these elements became too prominent and precluded me from doing what I most wanted to do, which is just watch these men interact. My primary impulse in the novel was perhaps ethnographic. The word anthropological occurred to me fairly early on, and that approach was kind of a guide to the work.
I guess I almost had to trick myself into writing the book, which is often the case. I would never set out to write a book about masculinity and intimacy and ritual—that sounds dreadful. But by following the obsession with the Theismann injury I wound up somewhere that interested me and that allowed me to keep going. There’s also a kind of strange parallel here between me as author and the men in the book. I think that the men in the book don’t really know why they come every year. They think it’s because of the reenactment, but it’s not really about the play. The weekend is meeting other needs that they are only dimly aware of. Similarly, I was showing up at the hotel each day, thinking for a time I was writing about the Theismann injury, but I was really there for other reasons, just like the men. As I wrote, it became less about football, and I started to feel a spiritual dimension to the book. I know this is a stretch, but I really think the ritual is a kind of religious activity. Maybe a kind of primitive religion.
In terms of technique, I wanted to try an omniscient point of view. Structurally, I wanted to work in longer chapters, not in collage or small units. (I love the opening chapter of Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children—sixty-odd pages in a hotel room with multiple characters.) I wanted to find a tone that was funny but not quite satirical. I like these men, and it seems unsporting to create characters only to ridicule them. Some of them are ridiculous, but I feel for them affection, not scorn. I worked episode by episode, trying to keep my head down. I tend to be drawn to various forms of excess, and I liked the challenge of so many characters without a single protagonist. But my ambitions were not grand. As I worked, I wasn’t quite sure what I had, though I did think, without much judgment at all, that it was odd and obscure. (I think perhaps it’s much less so than I thought.) I just hoped that the whole would be more than the sum of its parts, and I had to trust that my interest in the Theismann injury—my unarticulated sense that the memory contained meaning and feeling—would resonate similarly with others.
Rail: Can you talk a little about “the junky or rundown American landscape”—I feel it deeply in your work, this almost reverence for it. Without sounding highfalutin, does your interest in the junky and/or rundown America (I know we’re overtly talking landscape, but your fondness for that aspect/realm seems, to me, much broader than the landscape—it seems to be about dialects, about interests, about jobs [no book has ever done a more decent job of making a pizza guy seem amazing than does Throwback]) having to do with simply loving it or in trying to understand it, bring it to new light? Maybe that’s a dumb question. Is there, in your attention to the junky/rundown America, some salvific/restorative attempt going on, or is it simply to witness it (I feel like this is a dumb question in that your description of paying attention to things ultimately includes restorative/salvific/almost-worshipful dimensions/aspects/qualities, so maybe this whole thing’s an idiot wash).
Bachelder: I guess it’s a kind of currency, something that most of us share, for better and worse. We don’t read the same books, watch the same television shows, listen to the same music, but most of us know very well the heating and cooling unit beneath the window in a hotel room. Or the bland spread of a continental breakfast. As a reader, I find that recognition is powerful. I find it pleasing when a writer draws my attention—with precision—to something familiar and recognizable but easily overlooked. It’s pleasing that it gets named, that it gets seen, that it gets treated with syntactic care. It gets elevated in a sense, drawn into a charged context. It’s not quite that I think the plastic croissant tongs are beautiful. But they’re real and perhaps even comforting in their familiarity, and as a writer I want to notice them. Perhaps it’s a kind of small bridge to a reader’s consciousness. Also, I think the unsettling but exhilarating thesis of Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life—that life on Earth is the result of radical contingency, and that any “replay” of history would likely lead to profoundly different results—is somehow tied up in my general approach. It creates a more cosmic and perhaps comic stance. There is nothing inevitable or ordained about that raspberry Danish! I’m just talking about de-familiarization here, which is curious because I began by talking about recognition and familiarity.
Also, mere admiration and mere scorn are not very interesting, literarily. The great thing about the standard American landscape is that it is going to be humming with ambivalence. Hotels, billboards, breakfast cereals—absurd, ugly, unhealthful, comforting, familiar, safe, nourishing.
I’m not someone who feels very rooted to a place. I won’t spend my career writing about my hometown. I’ve moved around a lot, but I don’t think I’ve had an extraordinary life. I’ve lived many places, but I haven’t really traveled much, so I’m not drawing on exotic landscapes and remarkable experiences. I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose my choice of setting and approach reflects a desire to make something out of the ubiquitously American scene. At the same time that I want to make a ludicrous premise seem ordinary, I want to make the ordinary stuff of life seem extraordinary.
Rail: And just because it’s popped up here and in another interview you’ve done: can you talk about religion at all? Not just here but also in Abbott. I find Throwback deeply religious. Not spiritual, I don’t think, but actually religious as in something practiced: you do the proscribed movements, and you say the directed things, and something eventually happens within. There’s a glory or freedom that comes from the deeply-practiced. I don’t know. All I know is that when Trent kneels at the fountain and washes his jersey, something feels incredible, almost holy. Maybe this is total silliness.
Bachelder: I was planning to begin by saying that I’m not at all a religious person, but that’s a ridiculous thing to say when these books so clearly suggest otherwise. Perhaps I’m deeply religious after all, as I suspect that many lovers of literature are. It’s about indirect or metaphorical access to the profound and ineffable. Or something. Abbott didn’t have a name until several drafts had been completed. I thought he wasn’t going to have a name at all, but several good readers thought maybe I should consider giving him one. I struggled with it for a while, but then “Abbott” came to me out of the blue and I felt it was right. The thing I liked about it was its religious connotation. The cloistered association. And perhaps a relationship to mystery or wonder. With Throwback, I knew halfway through that the book had a strong religious impulse. Perhaps the late-night scene with Trent is when I first realized it, and you can see that I really pushed the reader toward that idea. It’s pretty explicit. It’s not very subtle, but maybe I thought I could emphasize it here, in this small, one-off scene, in a way that I couldn’t elsewhere. But of course the men’s central ritual is deeply religious, and synecdochic. It is both an attempt to control “evil” forces of chaos or entropy, and it is also an admission that they have no control over those forces. Maybe it’s a kind of supplication. And as we say in the context of infants, it’s a “self-soothing” practice, as perhaps all religious behavior is.
Rail: Can you describe your process at all? You’ve described this book (and, in another interview, the last several books) as starting with a failed short story, and that this one began with the Theismann injury, but I think I’m trying to get at some sense here of what the process is for how you ID and then center in on your quarry. This might not be something you can or wish to talk about, but I’m deeply curious. Do you revise bunches? How many days/weeks/hours of tinkering is involved before you believe you’ve landed on the necessary tone? I know I’m ultimately asking an impossible question—I’m asking how do you fucking do it?—with the “it” being to make sentences/paragraphs that pack such oomph. Again: possibly impossible.
Bachelder: Very early on, I feel as if I’m facing a wicked problem with too many variables. Maybe I have a sense of premise, but not of point of view or voice or narrative stance or form or time or scope. One of the things I’m searching for is containment, circumscription. I want to fence myself in a bit so I can feel the liberation of constraint. So I’ll start running different combinations of elements, seeing what I get. I’m not someone who writes a hundred pages to see if I can bring the thing to life. If it’s dead on the page, I know it fairly soon—I can feel it—and I won’t try to work my way out of it. Perhaps I quit on things too early, but I’ve always thought it was a generally good thing that I recognize when the prose is lifeless and refuse to follow it. I go back to the beginning and create a different set of variables. I really think that there is a “correct” set of elements, that successful books find the point of view they require, the voice and style they require, the setting and tone, etc. Everything has to be right for the whole to work. And until I find the right mix, it’s all dead. It’s not as if it gets closer and closer. This is a demoralizing part of my process because I begin to think it will never work. But I guess it’s like finding that last number on a combination lock—when I finally combine the elements correctly, I can open it up. The thing suddenly has life. It doesn’t gradually come into being—it’s suddenly there and it’s my job to write it so that it comes as close as possible to the potential I imagine. It suddenly doesn’t read like someone making up a story. (Lorin Stein talks about hearing the keyboard keys as he reads certain stories.) There’s some authority, some force of conviction.
After I wrote Throwback as a not quite successful story, I took some time off before trying it as a novel. In my first morning of work, I wrote, “Robert was the first of the men to arrive at the hotel, a two-and-a-half star chain recognized in online reviews for its excellent service, atrocious service, pretty fountain, and bedbugs.” (I didn’t look that sentence up; I just typed it from memory, which is not something I could do with very many sentences.) As it turns out, that sentence didn’t remain the first sentence, but it’s still in the book. There was something about the sentence that allowed me to keep going, that established the stance, tone, distance, and scope. I think you can see the DNA of the novel. We’re close to a character, but we’re far away. He fills the frame but is also reduced by his context. There’s digression here, and there’s a kind of impassive, deadpan delivery, an irony that is more gentle than savage. If I couldn’t find that kind of sentence, I just couldn’t keep going. It’s not as if the “what” is all that crucial. I’m not doing much with event. So it’s all about the “how” of style, tone, and point of view. That’s what gets me through.
Once I start, I tend to write fairly quickly. I can get through a draft of a short novel in a year or so. Tone and voice come fairly naturally, as does dialogue. I read my writing out loud, and I revise sentences and scenes for rhythm and precision. My wife is a terrific reader who has a good eye for my bad habits and indulgences. I revised based on her comments, and then revised again with my amazing editor, Matt Weiland. Revision is often a matter of cutting or replacing episodes that just don’t have enough power or resonance. Sometimes I dread going back into the draft, but it’s always true that good things happen in revision. Once I cut material, I am immediately relieved it’s gone. And some of my favorite touches in Throwback were added quite late.
Rail: On page 109 in the galley there’s this section in which the narration goes to Q+A, and I remember originally being knocked over by it and then sort of stumbling on it recently again and being blown away anew. I don’t even remember—this voice or method might happen elsewhere in the book and I simply don’t recall. But I guess the question’s multipart: A. Did you wrestle at all with the impulse to jump to that method in terms of the narration, or have you written enough that, when such an impulse/idea hits, you just trust it?
Bachelder: It’s funny you bring up this exact scene because it was added in revision, after the draft was complete. I hadn’t done anything like that elsewhere in the book and I’m not quite sure why I decided to try it here. I know I wanted a more indirect way of handling Fat Michael, who is actually in terrific shape and is having a hard time with the idea of playing Theismann in the reenactment. Originally I had him in the workout center, alone, on a treadmill, wearing the Theismann helmet. (This “scene” got radically condensed and moved elsewhere.) It wasn’t much of a scene, and I was trying to create power with very few dramatic materials. It was basically sentimental; I was trying to evoke strong feeling without really earning it, and without creating an episode that had any ability to surprise a reader or, importantly, to surprise me. My wife said it wasn’t working very well, and I agreed, but it seemed important to address Fat Michael. If he wasn’t, at that moment, in the workout center, where was he? So I just started with the question that I was asking myself, “And where was Fat Michael?” I wrote that question into that draft and just kept going with this interview format. The formal oddness seemed to be a way to avoid sentimentality. Again, it’s a way to get close to the men but also to create real distance. Honestly, I didn’t expect that the scene would make it past anyone. The move was quick and impulsive, but when I had finished the scene, I wasn’t necessarily confident or convinced. There was a time when my work was based almost entirely on this kind of trick, but gradually I’ve learned more restraint. I’m more skeptical of the impulse now.
Rail: How much do you think about the trust you put in the reader? Even something as simple (meaning: not headache-inducingly hard) as the page-109 narration, and I wonder if part of the tenderness your books offer has to do with how much you trust the reader to carry something (I’m one-hundred percent with you on tenderness not being binary, and we as readers having to move toward it instead of it coming for us).
Bachelder: While I don’t think much about it, it’s certainly true that I trust the reader to bring feeling and to read carefully. In writers that I admire, there is a feeling that I am somehow completing the wit. It’s satisfying and it feels private somehow. With this book, especially, I think I have really put faith in readers. If they don’t bring some of their own gravity and ache, I fear that the novel will be reduced to a thin, episodic farce.
Rail: I don’t want to give stuff away for the reader, but can you talk about how you arrived at the book’s ending? It felt to me tremendously sweet and sad, almost as if something not-quite-redeemed, not-quite-made-beautiful (or maybe impossible to make beautiful) was being passed along; it felt the equivalent of a neighbor turning eighteen and heading to college and giving the nerdy neighbor kid his guitar or something because the college-bound guy’d switched entirely over to studying math or tinkering with his computer. It’s a tremendously sweet, tremendously sad ending.
Bachelder: I think George Saunders says somewhere that most of us are tremendously sentimental, and much of writing fiction is trying to figure out ways to get away with it. I’ve found that to be true. I also think that too often I’ll go too hard for a kind of melancholy effect, and that can feel as artificial and forced as sweetness. So ideally, the sweetness and the sadness exist to license one another, and to create a broader, more complicated effect. And here I have to give enormous credit to my editor, Matt Weiland. Matt felt the need for a stronger ending and he really helped me find it. I don’t want to get too specific about the ending, but I’ll just say that I had not really utilized some of the elements that I had included, and I hadn’t found a way to pan out or move away from the men, the room. I had given myself the raw material to do it—that’s almost always the case—but I hadn’t used it. What’s most interesting to me now is the way that I invented Prestige Vista Solutions as a gag and a way to solve an early problem, only to end up using PVS in a fairly substantial way at the end.
There’s this great Vonnegut lecture in which he says that in a lot of good literature we don’t even know if what happens is good or bad. This kind of uncertainty is not a mark of shoddy drama or a morally confused dramatist. It just so happens to be true that humans don’t really know whether many of the things that happen to us are good or bad. It’s such a simple and devastatingly humbling fact about our species, isn’t it? So I think this kind of natural ambiguity is not a bad goal for an ending. I’m not saying I pulled it off, but I’m saying I ended up thinking about it in these terms: Was this a remarkable and glorious and joyful day? Yes. Was this a wretched and inexpressibly sad day? Yes. And again, if the ending works at all, it’s in large part to Matt’s insights and vision.
Rail: This should’ve been a much earlier quesetion: what got you into writing to begin with? You’ve noted some influences—Vonnegut, Saunders, Paula Fox, Steven Millhauser—and we talked about Padgett Powell as well, but I just realized I never even asked how this whole thing started for you. Why writing, and who got you falling in love with it? Why not television announcer or mattress salesman?
Bachelder: In college and after I worked as a newspaper writer and editor, but I didn’t turn to fiction until my mid-to-late twenties. I was a terrible journalist and reporter because all I cared about was the writing. I just liked putting words together, turning phrases, trying to make a solid thing. There are so many stories you can tell about your life, how things turned out a certain way, but I think this version is as true as any I could tell: I was in grad school in English (but not in fiction writing) and Padgett Powell came to read in October of 1996. A weird guy in the program had loaned me Padgett’s first collection of stories and I read them with a sense of astonishment and exhilaration. I was so drawn to the energy, wit, precision, control. Then Padgett’s reading (from “All Along the Watchtower” in Aliens of Affection) just floored me. I had never seen or heard anything like that—the humor, pathos, invention, digression, and wild but perfectly controlled sentences. The disregard for narrative convention. “The spoilbank of broken hearts”! It’s not a stretch to say that Padgett made me want to be a writer. I ended up dropping out of that grad program and working odd jobs and writing fiction. A few years later, I was ready to apply to MFA programs and I knew my top choice would be Florida. One night I came home and had a message from Padgett on my answering machine. He was accepting me into the program. He said, “Why don’t you come to Gainesville and show us the rest of this novel?” When I got to Florida (in the fall of 2000), he helped me get my work in front of agents and editors. So I really can’t overstate how important he was to my writing career, from inspiration to publication. There have been many other important people, writers, teachers, and books along the way, but none as important as Padgett.
Rail: What’s the view out your window?
Bachelder: Birds at a squirrel-proof bird feeder. Glorious activity. Birds go about their eating like they go about everything else, with such industry and purpose. It’s a busy, high-energy situation out there, and I like it. I find it motivational, a nice antidote to writerly torpor. There’s really no torpor in the bird world.