Caring for the Underdog: JEROME CHARYN with Alex Dueben
A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century
(Bellevue Literary Press, 2016)
Today many literary figures regularly jump between forms and genres with ease but Jerome Charyn has been doing that throughout his long career. His first story was published in Commentary when he was a young man and he’s gone on to write more than fifty books including crime novels, history, graphic novels, biography, and short story collections. Charyn was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many other awards. In recent years much of his focus has been a series of historical novels including I Am Abraham and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, to Johnny One-Eye, a novel about the American Revolution that is also a tribute to the 18th century novel.
Charyn is also one of the great writers of New York City. In fiction and nonfiction, he’s written about the city over a period of centuries, but particularly in the fiction he’s written set in the city from the 1950s to the present, he manages to capture the changing city in a way that few writers have been able to. He writes about immigrants and ethnic enclaves, the down and out living on the streets, people in power, and has empathy for all of them. Charyn has spent many years living in Paris but recently returned to New York City after retiring from the American University of Paris.
Last year saw the publication of Bitter Bronx, a new collection of thirteen short stories, and the reissue of his award-winning graphic novel The Magician’s Wife (1987). This year will see the reissue of two more graphic novels originally published in France, and a nonfiction book: A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. We spoke about the differences between literary culture in the U.S. and France, trying to understand Emily Dickinson, and how this nonfiction book is a kind of sequel to his earlier novel.
Alex Dueben (Rail): I really loved A Loaded Gun and I’m curious where it started because you wrote a novel about Emily Dickinson less than a decade ago.
Jerome Charyn: I wrote The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson after discovering her letters. I’d read the poems before and the letters were a revelation. They were as startling and as confusing as anything she ever wrote. I found a kind of music there, but I felt that there was more to say. I couldn’t let go of the voice. I discovered Rebecca Patterson’s book The riddle of Emily Dickinson, but what really prompted me was the newly-discovered daguerreotype, taken around 1859, where suddenly she no longer looks like a young tubercular woman, almost elf-like, but has this enormous sexual power. Whatever the provenance of the new “dag,” it does suggest a very different Emily Dickinson.
There are three absolutely vital scholars, Martha Nell Smith, Susan Howe, and Marta Werner. Marta was the one who “unlocked” Emily Dickinson for me. She talks about radical scatters, the idea that there’s no real center to Dickinson’s work, that it’s more like a scattering of shots. Then it all began to make sense to me. We’re looking for one thing and it’s not really there. Scholars are writing books about themes that exist in some ghost universe, and the ghost has gone away.
Rail: A Loaded Gun is about Dickinson and her poetry, but it’s also about the limitations of biography to understand her work.
Charyn: It’s the limitation of trying to understand anyone’s body of work, particularly hers. Remember, if we go back and look at what happened, she never really wanted to publish these poems. She wrote them for herself. She’s akin to Franz Kafka, who was writing fables coming out of nowhere, with a fire under him that you don’t see in any other writer.
I was also curious about Dickinson’s dog. I felt that so much of her life depended on Carlo. She lived with this dog for fourteen years and yet we call her a recluse; she walked the dog every day—and she stopped wandering about Amherst once Carlo died. Also, Carlo appears in several of the poems. I looked through all the biographies about Dickinson and I thought Carlo was much more important than scholars had led us to believe.
Rail: I kept thinking about how Shakespearean scholars struggle in the same way to explain his work through his life.
Charyn: It’s pretty much the same. We don’t know a damn thing about Shakespeare. We talk about whether he knew Latin—who cares! There’s no way of explaining how that man wrote his plays and his sonnets. To me what is most mystifying about Shakespeare is that he suddenly stops writing. How could the man who wrote Hamlet and King Lear stop writing? It doesn’t make sense to me. We don’t know a damn thing about him and we know even less about Dickinson, even though she’s much closer to our time.
Rail: Part of that is simply because she was not trying to be known, she wasn’t living a public life.
Charyn: We can say that, but of course this was the fate of many women in the 19th century. They didn’t have public lives. She came from the upper middle class, so she didn’t have to worry about money, but she had little money of her own. If she wanted to buy a pencil she had to get the money from her father, and later on, from her brother. She was a penniless aristocrat, which is a strange contradiction.
Rail: I don’t know if you read Kate Bolick’s recent book, but she talks about four women from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Edith Wharton, and how they had to be unconventional and shape their own lives to have a creative life.
Charyn: I think that any writer—male or female—has to do that. I think for a male it’s probably as unconventional, but in a very different way. Would it have been possible for Dickinson to have had a husband and children, and also to have been able to write? We don’t know. Those are questions that one really can’t answer. This is why Rebecca Patterson’s book is so interesting. It was reviled when it first appeared in the 1950s, and has suddenly been rediscovered. When we rethink of Dickinson as a bisexual woman, a lot of her life makes sense. Her life was masked because she was sexually masked. Suddenly we have another key to decode who Dickinson might have been.
Rail: Reading her poetry today, the way she used language, fragments it, organizes it, it’s easier for us to read her than for her contemporaries.
Charyn: Certainly. Her contemporaries were in no way prepared to understand her slant rhymes or her lightning transitions. Remember when her poems were first published, they were neutered. Her punctuation was ripped out and replaced, and she was made much more conventional, like some reclusive doll. There’s no way we could have read her in the 19th century. It seems to me that she’s one of the few writers who becomes more and more modern. It’s very rare when that happens. We read her today and wow! She’s the most modern of all writers, male or female. You can’t even think of her gender anymore, because it’s not really pertinent. Yes, she was a woman and she suffered as a woman, and she writes, often, from a woman’s point of view, but it’s much more complex than that.
Rail: As you point out, in many poems she plays with subject and object, she changes approaches. The reader is always trying to make sense of what’s happening.
Charyn: Yes. Who is the speaker, who is narrating the poem? Sometimes she writes from a ghost’s point of view, about coming back from the grave. She can be Cleopatra or a goblin, often in the same poem, as the speaker shifts from line to line.
I always like to think of her as being an apprentice all her life, of rediscovering language, of becoming her own lexicon. Shakespeare is the only other writer who has the same complexity and the same kind of lightning. Melville is a great writer, but to some degree, I can understand where he came from. It’s not obscure. We know that Melville went to sea, and a lot of the language is sea language, not entirely the language of a sailor, but we can still see the lines of his life in his work. I don’t understand where Dickinson came from. It’s a complete mystery how she developed. You can say she read certain books, but there are no lines to her life. She went to Mount Holyoke for one year and returned home. She went to Cambridge two or three times because of her eyes. We still don’t know what problems she had with her eyes. We don’t even know what she died of—people say Bright’s Disease. I think she had a series of strokes; she had high blood pressure, but we’ll never know.
Rail: After reading A Loaded Gun, I read The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and I couldn’t help but think that one reason you had so many fictional characters was that was the only way you could get at her as a character.
Charyn: Yeah, I had to put her in some kind of milieu. She loved circuses and she had this tempestuous relationship with her sister-in-law, but of course I made up Tom the Handyman, and he’s a character who’s threaded throughout the entire novel. If I had read Rebecca Patterson’s book and seen the second daguerreotype, I might have written a very different novel. You can only work with the resources that you have. I wasn’t going to rewrite the novel, but you could almost say that A Loaded Gun is a sequel to The Secret life of Emily Dickinson.
Rail: Was it those two things that so completely changed your thinking of Dickinson?
Charyn: Also Marta Werner. I think she is one of the key Dickinson scholars. Without Marta Werner, you really can’t explain these poems and the fragments. For me, she is the first scholar who was able to creep inside Dickinson’s head. She’s a kind of proto-poet, although she doesn’t write poetry. I think that her revelations about the work existing at the edges rather than at the center was critical for me. I couldn’t have articulated it any better than she did. Originally, I wanted to write a chapter about Emily Dickinson coming back in the 21st century as a CIA analyst. The manuscript’s first readers went crazy. ‘You can’t write about Zero Dark Thirty. You can’t write about torture.’ I think I was absolutely right—she would have been great at putting all those dots together on a CIA analyst’s map. [Laughter]
Rail: She could have seen the patterns.
Charyn: Exactly. She would have seen the patterns.
Rail: You’ve written a lot of historical novels in recent years.
Charyn: I did earlier, too. I wrote a baseball novel called The Seventh Babe, which takes place in the 1920s, and is about a white third baseman on the Boston Red Sox who’s thrown out of the major leagues and plays in the Negro Leagues. That was great fun to write. I also wrote a novel about Wild Bill Hickok. I have written historical fiction, but never with this kind of complexity. Who but a crazy person would ever write a novel in Lincoln’s own voice? You have to be a little bit insane. Now I’m writing about Teddy Roosevelt. I always thought he was a kind of sainted fool, but the more I read about him, the more extraordinary he becomes. He was one of the great Presidents of all time. He fought the big Trusts. We’d never have had all this land conserved without him. He was a great, great President.
Rail: True, but in the past decade you’ve written three big historical novels, plus some of the stories in your recent collection are set in the past. Was there something that prompted this?
Charyn: I’m not good at futuristic things. I wish I could write science fiction but I can’t, so for me it’s either the present or the past. The past is imbedded in the present, so you’re always going back into the past. Also, there’s great sadness in the past. I did a novel about the Japanese internment camps during the Second World War, and those camps represent one of the saddest events in all of our history because we locked up American citizens. People don’t realize that. It’s a fact that’s fairly hidden, but it’s true.
RAIL: You’ve written more than fifty books over your career of every stripe.
Charyn: I’ve also written graphic novels that are now being published in the United States. That’s a wonderful form, the graphic novel.
Rail: I was going to mention that. I’m a great admirer of The Magician’s Wife, the 1986 graphic novel by you and François Boucq, which was acclaimed in France and was republished here last year.
Charyn: It was in advance of its time, I think. I love that form. I started out as an artist, but I have no talent at all. All I can do is write the scripts, but as a kid who grew up with comic books, I know how to move from panel to panel with a kind of whiplash. It’s very relaxing for me to write something and imagine the artist drawing it. When I see my scenarios turned into art, it’s better than any kind of magic.
Rail: Your other book with Boucq, Billy Budd KGB (1991), will be published here by Dover later this year.
Charyn: I’ve written a third one with Boucq that was successful in Europe and will soon be published here. It’s called Little tulip. It’s about a young artist in the gulag. Boucq is a magician. The sense of movement that he has is incredible, it’s like a dream.
Rail: You’re living in New York again but you lived in Paris for a long time. Graphic novels are one difference between the countries and their sense of literature, but what are the differences in literary culture between France and the U.S., or Paris and New York?
Charyn: One could say that France has a literary culture and we have none. I think that would be one reason why things worked so well for me in France, at least during the time I lived there. The French understood the “form” of crime novels. They understood the genre, whereas Americans consider crime novels as a kind of bargain basement literature. I would be writing crime novels such as Blue Eyes, and the French were fascinated. For them, it was literature in the form of a crime novel. Those books were really read by everyone, I even got a fan letter from President Chirac. You entered into the culture. On the other hand, you’re not hearing your own language. For a long time I didn’t understand why I wasn’t able to write. I’m pretty clever about other people, but pretty stupid about myself. When I began to come back more and more often to America I suddenly was able to write again.
Rail: Were you fluent in French? Was it just a question of not speaking English and hearing it?
Charyn: I was fluent in literary French, which meant I could give interviews, but I didn’t have a real sense of the colloquial. I didn’t want to speak French. I wanted to listen in silence to my own language. I taught film at the American University of Paris. That took up a lot of time, but I loved it.
Rail: So many of the stories in your recent collection Bitter Bronx could be described as crime stories.
Charyn: Oh, absolutely. They are about crime—as a matter of fact one of them was published in Ellery Queen. If you think about it, all literature is crime fiction. There isn’t any other subject anymore. It’s about how one group of people fleeces another group of people. It’s as simple as that. I go back to Flannery O’Connor, whom I absolutely adore—her stories are also crime stories.
Rail: In the time you’ve been away, do you think that American literary culture has come to encompass more work, to take crime fiction a little more seriously?
Charyn: I don’t feel there is a real literary culture here. Literature plays a much more important role in Europe than it does here. You can’t imagine Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or Joyce Carol Oates going on the evening news and talking about politics, whereas if they were writing in France, each one would be talking about the American election every day of the week. French writers have a kind of place in culture that they don’t have here because this is a culture based almost exclusively on success. You can be a great writer, so long as you’re successful. If you’re not, it doesn’t really matter. We don’t have the same sense of values, which is sad because one works in a kind of vacuum, or an echo chamber that leads to oblivion.
Rail: In France and a lot of other countries, they define themselves as a nation and a culture through literature in a way that we don’t here.
Charyn: Definitely. Here’s an example: my crime novels—there are twelve of them—are all being republished in Germany over one year as a literary event. That would not be possible here. Who would care? [Laughter] It’s a non-event to begin with, but the written word has an importance there. Here we have Facebook and we have Twitter—which is fine. I don’t have anything against that, but to me that’s electricity, it’s not culture.
Rail: I bring up how things have changed because now there are writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem who write fiction and nonfiction and comics, and that’s become something much more common.
Charyn: One hopes that younger writers will read your work and will understand what you’re trying to do because it is a kind of love letter to the reader. You want the reader to fall in love. Michael Chabon said that he was at Yaddo about to write a crime novel and discovered my crime novels and said, “wow, I’ve never read anything like this.” That’s what you hope for.
Rail: You moved back to New York permanently a few years ago and I’m curious what changed from your perspective—was it a shock?
Charyn: I can only talk about the shock in terms of basketball. When I went away there was a completely different vocabulary. One didn’t talk about being “in the paint.” Suddenly words were used that I’d never heard before. I was always a great basketball addict. I was here during the great years of the Knicks when they won two championships. Without knowing it, I really missed the rhythm of basketball. That was a shock. I lost a lot during the 90s when I wasn’t here. I was here when the Bronx was burning, and suddenly the Bronx wasn’t burning anymore. It’s a kind of cultural amnesia, and I began to see how important it was to come back. So even though I was teaching full time in France, I was able to come back more and more often.
Rail: Coming back to New York, you could get away from the French language.
Charyn: It was my own language that was the real problem. I had lost my ear for the music. I didn’t have it while I was living in Paris. I would sit there all summer long and I could barely write a sentence and I didn’t know why. I thought there was something wrong with me. Then I began coming back here more often; the music came back, and when I returned to France I was able to keep the music with me. So you lose, but on the other hand, you define yourself through loss. Maybe I couldn’t have written Johnny One-Eye or I Am Abraham without having spent all that time away.
Rail: What was it like writing Johnny One-Eye?
Charyn: There’s a kind of clarity in the 18th century. Look at Jonathan Swift, who’s one of the great writers of all time. I really love the kind of clarity that the 18th century had and I love to find melodies of other times and other cultures. Finding Johnny One-Eye’s voice, his song—because to me novels are really songs on the page—was exhilarating.
Rail: What was it like rediscovering New York while living here full time, and investigating 18th century Manhattan?
Charyn: I knew a lot about 18th century Manhattan, but it was a great deal of pleasure writing about New York. I looked at maps from that particular time because even though I wanted to invent as much as possible, I also wanted to be accurate if I could. New York is incredibly important, often the “main character” in my work. I’ve written nonfiction books about New York. Metropolis was about the eighties, and I also did a book about the 1920s, Gangsters and Gold Diggers. We New Yorkers are very singular creatures. There’s a sense of caring for the underdog that I grew up with, and it remains with me today—to care about people who are in pain. We seem to have lost this sense of caring. “Socialism” has almost become a dirty word.
Rail: In your story collection, Bitter Bronx, you have three stories about a corporate lawyer named Marla Silk.
Charyn: I love her.
Rail: I love her too, and I wonder if you have more plans for her.
Charyn: I will either do more Marla stories or I’ll do a Marla novel. I really liked her as a character and I do want to write more about her. Stories are very, very hard to write, almost as hard as writing poetry. So it’s not so strange that I should have fallen in love with Emily Dickinson—perhaps her own writing is a novel in disguise.
Rail: You’re primarily a novelist, but you’ve written stories throughout your career.
Charyn: My first published work was a story. That was in the sixties when Commentary published the early work of Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Bernard Malamud, among others. Commentary was once a great magazine for fiction writers and that’s where my first story was published. I didn’t have an agent and I didn’t know anything about literary politics. I was lucky, and one needs a certain element of luck. Without that you can remain invisible all your life. I started out as a playground director where I worked in a park shed from 9 to 5, and there were no children in the playground until three o’clock. From nine to three I had nothing to do, so I began writing. I thought I would remain there all my life, but things changed. Things always change. There’s no predictability about anything. I felt that you needed a long time to absorb what writing is and also to absorb the sense of your own music. That’s very, very difficult.
Rail: And now you’re writing a new novel with Teddy Roosevelt you mentioned?
Charyn: It’s about Teddy Roosevelt and his daughter Alice. She was very famous during his presidency. She was called Princess Alice. She was the only daughter of his first wife, who died when she was twenty-two. Alice was adopted by his father’s new family but always felt like an orphan. I want to do a novel about the tension between Teddy and Alice. He made this wonderful remark while he was in the White House: “I can either run the country or attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.” [Laughter]
The main thing is that you have a good time while you’re doing the writing. That’s all there is. I know it’s important to see your work published, but the real excitement occurs during the writing.
Rail: Emily Dickinson clearly loved to write, but she had no interest in anything else, which is fascinating.
Charyn: Yes, she had her lexicon, her dictionary, her favorite writers. She was a reader, but I’m not sure that her own writing comes out of what she read. It seems to me that it comes out of something else. There’s a lot of legal language in her writing. Her father and her brother were both lawyers. She absorbed what was around her and I think the absorption of her culture was really her reading list. That was critical to her. Also, the one year she spent at Mount Holyoke. Even though she dismissed this period, she did meet other young women and she had a kind of relationship with them that she would not have later on. She was in a society, a “culture” she would never have again.
Rail: Could you talk about the book’s subtitle “Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century?”
Charyn: It’s a reinterpretation of Emily Dickinson as a modernist poet who was bisexual and wasn’t reclusive at all, and it centers around one poem. “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun” which is an impossible poem to interpret because it’s from the point of view of a loaded gun. So many scholars in talking about her poetry, and in talking about her life have persistently seen her as a recluse who was also slightly mad, but I don’t think she was a recluse at all. I think she needed to be reclusive in order to write. I wanted to show her as a very powerful woman who had a real sexual life, whether it was subterranean or not—something that has rarely been articulated.
Rail: As writers we need time alone to work, but whenever confronted with Dickinson or Joseph Cornell—who you talk about in the book—the assumption seems to be that they must have been mentally ill, because who would spend so much time alone?
Charyn: Cornell was considered to be very reclusive, but on the other hand, he gave parties. He was a strange man, but those boxes of his are unbelievable. They are works of art that we never saw before and we’ll never see again. There was a relationship between Cornell and Dickinson, not only because he devoted a series of boxes to her but because their art is about the unknown and about the limitless within limits. His limits were the actual physical box and hers were the limits of language, and yet they were beyond any kind of limit at all. It’s very perverse.
ALEX DUEBEN has written for many publications including The Believer, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Comics Journal.