(Soho Press, 2018)
“What couldn’t we stop ourselves from doing? What were we destined to do?”
In Dale Peck’s novel, Night Soil, Judas plows through men, his mother, and his family’s past to unearth his own identity from the disintegration of truth found in his mother’s pots, his grandfather’s legacy, nature preserves, and the mine that financed it all on the backs of slaves. Part mystery plot, parable, and philosophical inquiry, the novel asks the reader to investigate their own legacy of beliefs while exploring Judas’s.
This is a novel that won’t let the reader alone, demanding an inquisitive mind and engagement with issues of moral compass and the eternal questions of humanity.
Dale Peck writes in many genres, including fiction, non-fiction, YA, articles and criticism. He is the author of thirteen books, and the editor of the Evergreen Review. He’s received the Lambda Literary Award, O’Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He teaches at the New School in the Graduate Writing Program.
Our interview was conducted by phone, linking New York City and Savannah, GA. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
Christine Sang (Rail): Night Soil begins as if it’s a simple telling of the awakening of a young boy, Judas, who lives with his mother, a famous artist. Then clues begin to drop in, to be parsed about his mother:
“Close the Aeneid after Dido “calls it marriage” and she and Aeneas stay together forever, if you never crack the cover again, if you can convince yourself that the story belongs not to posterity but to you.”
A page later, as Judas fails at painting:
“They filled our heads with a lot of nonsense at the Academy, outdated, esoteric, idealistic notions that now seem as remote to me as the school itself, but one lesson that’s been hard to shake is the idea that the world doesn’t exist to elucidate you: you are the world’s elucidation, the only proof of its existence you will ever truly know.”
The reader starts an inquiry. What’s the Academy? Why this lesson? Who’s his mother? What’s beyond this story?
Dale, you slowly reveal information, while raising more questions, like a mystery pulling us in deeper. Why did you choose to craft the story this way?
Dale Peck: It’s a couple of different things. By layering the narrative rather than revealing it in a straightforward manner, the formal presentation is a way of counterbalancing what is, on the face of it, an incredibly histrionic story. “Slave owner kills 239 slaves in an explosion; sister and brother having sex; crazy boy with crazy tattoo having weird filthy sex in a dirty restroom.” All these personal details of the story are semi-operatic, if not maudlin. I’ve been always drawn to the melodramatic, and the Grand Guignol, which are excessively explosive events. For me, it’s important to find something that counterbalances that, so it doesn’t slip into purple prose and so the structure works. Probably, this novel is an homage to The Walking Tour, by Kathryn Davis, which is one of my favorite books of all time. An incredibly dense, layered, slow reveal that uses mystery and suspense in what is otherwise a deeply literary, erudite form.
This structure has a way of bringing in a different kind of reader. There’s a certain kind of literary reader who will respond to the material, but there is also a slightly less literary reader who likes things more plot oriented, who will respond. There is mystery in this book. There is a question of what the hell is actually going on here. As some secrets are revealed, you get the idea that more secrets are going to be revealed.
Another model for me is The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. Here is this world and you think it is one thing but it turns out to be something very, different. It’s something I began working on formally with my fourth published novel, The Garden of Lost and Found. I think I did a good job in that book, but there are some rough spots. I think I got more of what I wanted this time in Night Soil. It’s a way of making sure that the reader isn’t absorbing information passively, that she has to pay attention, and is constantly forced to re-evaluate what’s in her head based on the revelations.
Rail: The questioning and information given accrues throughout Part I. When I read Part II, “Parable of the Man Lost in the Snow,” I realized your method shows us how to read the parable in the same way your Academy students are led by their master. Is this a style you’ve used before?
Peck: Part of the structure is one big part and one small part that follows it. In the book I wrote about my father (originally published as What We Lost, but when it was reprinted I changed the title back to Greenville) there is a relatively short novel, and then a non-fiction piece—a memoir piece—except it may not be memoir, it may be fictional, because the entire episode is recounted from the eyes of a third person, although everything that happened in the episode is quite true. Then I used it in my last book, Visions and Revisions. There’s a substantial portion of memoir and then there’s a small prose poem that closes the end, which is a meditation on the idea of the construct of the soul. Then there’s this book, Night Soil. On all three of those books, I’ll say it wasn’t like a structure I set out with at the beginning. It was a structure they all fell into. I think to some degree all three books would have been a single piece, but to me as a single piece, it never entirely satisfied. I wanted to add a second piece to complicate your relationship to the first piece.
I wrote the first three chapters of Night Soil, and then I put it down for a very long time. Later, I got the idea for the parable. Initially the parable was its own story: but I realized if I reflected it through the idea of a student at the Academy, it made more sense. I wrote the second half of the book with the idea that it would lead up to the parable I had in mind from that point. Obviously, there was revision as well. The first part was changed to reflect that.
These books are all a two-part structure, but they’re all different. With this book, I was contracted to write a trilogy for a TV producer. I wrote the first one and it didn’t sell, so when they canceled the contract, I expected to get a big payout. I thought this is going to be nice, I’m going to sit back and write a book that’s as weird as I want it to be. As it happened, I got no payout whatsoever, so I had to set it aside to make some money. But I fell in love with the book. I don’t want to say with deliberate difficulty, but I do want to say it's a very formally structured book. I love a book like that, as long as I feel that my attention has paid off. Secretly, Night Soil is the kind of book I would always write if I could live in a little cave and never have to worry about selling any copies.
Rail: Your other books include a group of seven that you were working on called Gospel Harmonies. You’ve published four.
Peck: There are three that are all in the planning stages. Gospel Harmonies is a project I began just after I finished my first novel, Martin and John, which I’d started in college. I had the idea of my second novel, The Law of Enclosures, but I couldn’t find a way to start it, until suddenly I made certain connections between that novel and my first novel. Some of the connections were literal and some postmodern. Having that conviction made it easier for me to continue.
It became like a game for me. I’m always afraid to finish a book because I’m sure I’ll never write another. I’m a very anxious person. “I’m going to get hit by car, I’m going to die in a plane crash,” and people will say, “It’s a good thing he died because he was only getting worse.” So I play this game with myself that I won’t actually finish, “I’d only written the first four parts of the Gospel Harmonies and really there’s three parts to go and it’s not done yet and I have to keep going on it.” I haven’t started on book five, although I have 20-30 pages I’ve accumulated here and there, and super extensive notes. It’s probably more like Night Soil, or maybe Visions and Revisions, than some of my previous books are. It’s a very layered book in terms of narrative and point of view; seven points of view characters in it; there are language games going on. It’s meant to be my take on very high 1970s post-modernism, so there’s puzzle-making involved. The nice thing is that I’ve had twenty-seven years of note-taking, so I have material with which to write it.
Rail: Your process is to create an enormous amount of notes for yourself? Then what happens?
Peck: It depends on the book. Some books come to me at the right moment. For my fourth novel, Greenville, I was on vacation with my father. For the first and only time in my life I sleep-walked. We were sleeping in the basement of my uncle’s house, and there were five of us lined up on cots. In my dream I was in a dairy barn; each of the cots was a stall and, instead of my family members, they were all dairy cows. Earlier that day, my father and I had visited the dairy farm where he lived as a child. I was trying to make my way upstairs out of the basement, still asleep—while not being able to figure out where I was—when I actually woke up and realized what was going on. I went back to bed and started writing the book, and I wrote it straight out.
Night Soil was, in a way, like one of those books. Two years ago I picked it up again and started working on it, after a period of seven to eight years. At that point I’d accumulated a fair number of notes. It was really necessary for this book because Judas as the main character is both smarter than me, and much better educated than me. To put on a character like him, it was important that I do some research and have an idea of how to make my character sound as erudite as possible. Having that knowledge was a good thing.
Rail: Yes, I looked up so many of the references! “Magic Mountains,” “White Woman,” “American Transcendentalism,” an unknown John Cage work among other ingenuity, and the use of Latin.
Peck: I don’t speak any Latin whatsoever. All of the Latin I spent hours pouring over Wikipedia, and then doing research on the origin, trying to sound clever, using whatever. The poem, “Catullus Carmen 16”—the really filthy one—I don’t know if you looked that up but I’m sure every Latin scholar knows exactly what it is. It’s a famous poem, “I fuck you in the ass and jizz up your face to prove that I’m a better poet than you are.” Private school boys back in the day would tell it to each other. Oh, Latin, it’s fun. I never heard it before I was researching this book. I am not as smart as this book may make you think.
Rail: Judas is vastly intelligent. By the end of the book, has he become a master? Is he looking back?
Peck: With Judas, I have a very specific idea of where he is, about 15 years after the events take place, but I’m going to keep it to myself. I’m more interested in where readers think he is now rather than where I’ve actually placed him.
Rail: The knowledge he has in the novel transcends what the Academy could have taught him. He’s accumulated other information because he goes through experiences that the other Academy boys don’t have.
Peck: The Academy curriculum, for all its sort of scholarship is limited. The date that the Masters pretend history stops at is 1896, [March 32, a.k.a. April 1], yet Judas is dropping references to movies and various other things. On the one hand, I want to say, yes, Judas has led a life apart from his experiences at the Academy and the things the Masters have exposed him to, but then it’s true of the other novices. When you finally meet Lovett [Reid] at the end, you realize he’s living in a house, the house has a TV, he’s got a car, and although he’s a townie, and while not typical of most of the novices, he’s going to school with them. They’re all living in the modern world and they can’t help but be exposed to that.
One of the questions I wanted you to ask of yourself, and especially after reading the parable is whether or not the Masters are acknowledging the fact that history continues and students would be familiar with modern things. That they somehow undertook this consideration in the way they presented the curriculum from 1896 and coached the students in their interactions with the outside world.
Rail: Dale, you’re asking questions for the reader to contemplate at the end of the book, and yet, asking questions, especially of what one believes, is what the entire book does.
The group of novices ask questions of the Master in order to elicit more of the parable about the man lost in a snowfall. You write, “[the group learns its] task is not to pass judgment on the man, nor to attempt to figure out what he should do when he realizes he is trapped in a trench worn by his own passage. Only what he will do.” At another point the man realizes he’s going to die unless he keeps moving because he hears his dead father talk to him. This event leads outside the factual responses of the Masters and their Socratic questioning methodology. Will you talk about why this moment works?
Peck: I only hope that it works. I don’t know, for me, when I started working on the book, it was definitely this interrogation into an almost hopeless miasmas of class, race, gender and sexuality, that is American history. We’re so tortured and mired in these artificial binaries and distinctions that can feel arbitrary but also feel inescapable, and obviously are still causing us these problems. I wanted it to be rooted in this hyper-specificity, as it were, which is why I worked so hard to create an incredibly detailed portrait of the Academy, the Stammers family fortune and legacy, and of Judas’s birthmark. All of this I wanted to be super concrete to dramatize this, but in a stark, symbolic manner. Then the parable came to me out of the blue, and I realized, as I was working on it, that this was the abstract version of the whole thing. In the end, there’s the eternal question, “Is consciousness the same thing as soul, and the other way around.” Some people will see the question in spiritual and metaphysical terms, and other people will see the questions as zeros and ones; dots and dashes.
Honestly, it’s one of those questions of my entire life. I don’t know where I stand on that. I’m a deeply agnostic person. I wish that there were proof of some other order in the world but I have a sense at the same time; human history and consciousness is deeply fatalistic, an almost programmed endeavor that we can never ever really escape. I wanted something that would allow for different kinds of readers to approach that material in their own way. For some to see it as rational, even philosophical, and for other people to see it as a kind of surrender to some kind of higher metaphysics. I wouldn’t want to pin it down more as one or the other. I hope, quite honestly, that it is a question I wrestle with, in and out of my work, for the rest of my life.
I like where I’ve landed with it in this particular book, but I hope to articulate it more concretely than I did in anything except for the metaphysical prose poem that comes at the end of Visions and Revisions. Although that book itself was only published a couple of years ago, the prose poem was something I wrote back in the mid-90s. This is the best I’ve done in about twenty-two or twenty-three years on the subject. I’m curious to see where I’ll land in twenty-two, twenty-three years from now when I’m presumably looking at the last stretch of life.
Rail: The parable doesn’t give us answers but leads us to seek them out with more questions. In one section, the novices ask the master:
“Q: Which arrow?
A: Which arrow?
Q: Was it the arrow he had stabbed in the side of the trench? Or was it his lucky arrow?
A: Why does it matter?
Q: If it was his lucky arrow, it could be a sign.
A: A sign of?
The novice falls silent. He cannot bring himself to invoke providence.
A: It was not his lucky arrow.”
It seems the master is forming the idea for the novice rather than allowing the novice to create the question.
Peck: I think one of the things the parable does—if we take the master at his word that the story is shaped in response to the sorts of questions the novices are asking—is not always the same thing every time. One thing the masters are doing is educating the students for the past seven-eight-nine-ten years in an absolute reference to the material for the quantifiable. That is, the entirety of their daily lives is spent solely with things that can be handled, can be touched. I think what they’re doing is leading them to look for something else, to look for something immaterial. In the parable, the word “providence” is used. He’s invoking providence when he says, “Is it the special arrow?” It could be a sign.” The masters are daring them to finally invoke that.
Because you know for all the insane level of mercuriality of the Academy, there’s no humanity without the immaterial. It permeates human history; it permeates our interaction with the world and in the way we form associations, aversions, and likings for various things. This is the first time the masters have encouraged the novices to engage with it because of the weird circumstances in which the novices live, having been scooped up from orphanages around the country and now living in this cloistered little town. It might be their first formal engagement with it. I would imagine to the novices, it would be fairly eye-opening. As Judas says at one point, he thinks his mother’s brother’s experience with the parable is what made him run away soon after.
Rail: As in an outcome’s inevitability? The final image of the book starts with:
“A: Imagine a wall of bricks made of ice, each of which contains a light that turns on when a pebble of coal strikes it. It is nighttime. Nothing is visible. You throw a pebble. A light comes on.”
This evocative metaphor of thoughts-as-brick-lights continues for a page and a half, in which you’re building the room Judas earlier builds out of his father’s books. It ends with:
“Now: ask yourself why you threw that first pebble.”
By now the book has led me to ask, “Why bother even asking questions if you only going to find out what you already know? Is it even possible to have a question?”
Peck: Why did we ask the first question though? That’s the difference between people and other animals. Why do we ask these questions? We ask these questions often when there’s no reason to ask these questions. Our species seemed to get along perfectly fine for a hundred thousand years right before we learned how to talk or had to talk. We got along fine, you know, in a very animalistic fashion . . . hunting, gathering, living in caves, mostly a warm environment, not having clothes, and then at some point, someone asked a question, or at some point, this cultural activity coalesced into a kind of question.
One question led us to where we are now: “Is that a good thing or a bad thing or not, what happens in the 2018 election?” For me, it’s why did we ask that first question? Why did we first throw this pebble into the darkness to see what would happen?
Rail: In the world of this novel you write concrete, extensive descriptions and lists upon lists of what defines the characters. Some are metaphors layered over more metaphors, such as Judas’s mother, Dixie Stammers, being consumed by her own art, by family, by the land, by nature. A few sentences about opening the door of a shed that Judas and Dixie come across:
“I fetched a small crowbar and, working with the patience of a philatelist, shimmied the door loose, which, after a half hour of ignoring my advances, sighed free from its frame and fell into my arms like an anorexic cheerleader.”
“My mother and I stared into the aqueous, ageless chamber for perhaps seven or eight seconds, and then, with a sigh and a twist, like a little girl in a pinafore spinning down to the floor, the shed spiraled in on itself and collapsed to the ground, as if only its vacuum seal had held it up all these years.”
The writing brings up emotion, even though it’s about a shed, because prior to this moment you’ve laid in the importance of nature contrasted with the murder of people, and land by coal mining done in the area, as directed by Judas’s ancestors. Why is this moment important to you?
Peck: It’s like the Nathaniel Hawthorne story, “The Birth-Mark,” where the wife is beautiful, but she has this one little birthmark on her face. The husband is obsessed with removing it. When he finally removes it, she’s so perfect that she dies. It’s the human urge to see something in its pristine state, then to want to get inside of it, and yet somehow that collapse itself is kind of beautiful. My work has always been filled with these sorts of images. In my third novel, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, there are things that I invented called bellystones. No one knows if they were fossils or human made relics. In the novel, they were discovered in an American Native cave in Kansas. They’re basically small, round balls and there was always something inside of them, usually something prehistoric. There was the question of whether it was formed like an oyster around sand irritants or whether people had made them. There were only fifty or sixty of them left. People broke all of them open to see what was inside. At which point, there are no more bellystones. There are these two half-things and the object that was inside. This was one of those moments for me. It was funny, it was one of the last things I wrote for the book. I already knew that the second set of Dixie’s pots would disintegrate after she died. I didn’t even make the connection between those two images—of the shed collapsing when Judas pries it open, and all the pots disintegrating after Dixie dies. It makes me think that, in a way, the shed was something that endured because there was some gardener who took the time to close the door and seal it up properly a hundred years ago. When someone finally pried it open, the gardener’s last act was finally nullified and the shed—which was being sustained by an act of will by a person long gone—collapsed.
Rail: Judas writes of his artist-mother, Dixie, “She knew, for example, that for thousands of years of early human development visual art approximated the role that writing later came into play . . . and that some forms of writing developed out of the visual, that is to say, mimetic representations of the world.” You’ve included two drawings in the book. Suddenly there’s a drawing! Why?
Peck: My editor said, when he got to the first drawing, “Thank you for this. Because I couldn’t tell what you were describing!” Literally, it was just for the sake of clarity, especially the drawing of the Flemish bond. You can describe it very simply, very concretely, but unless you are familiar with it, the description will probably make no sense to you. Sometimes a drawing is far more efficient way to communicating the information. There is one other drawing in the book. The little white circle on top of the black circle, from the magazine “Eclipse.” I thought it was important to have that symbol floating through. I had at one point played with this idea that the inside of the pots were going to have writing on them that no one had ever discovered. But I ultimately did not put it in.
Rail: More thoughts on the idea of “mimetic?”
Peck: My friend, Jim Lewis, who was one of the early readers of the book, said, “You realize this entire book is written in diegesis.” I was like, “As a matter of fact, I do realize it was written in diegesis” Mimesis being what we call “showing” in literary form, diegesis is telling. Virtually the entire story is told until the scene in the men’s room, the rest area.
Rail: You broke the rules and it worked.
Peck: Do you know Rachel Cusk? I’m reading the first novel of the trilogy right now and it’s a kind of diegesis. Technically you can call it mimesis because there are scenes, but really all the characters are talking heads. They give long narratives in the same voice. It’s impressively done. It reminds me of Sebald as well, the way he liked to talk his way through his books. In spite of [my] book’s incredible denseness—that people are reading it that way—I want the book to be pleasurable. I’m not one of those writers who, when he puts on his literary hat, thinks that the reader is engaged in a sort of literary self improvement, pleasure be damned.
I like to think that there are different layers; that there is pleasure in reading the sentences, and the headiness of some of the ideas. The frame of the ideas is so very personal and rooted in Judas’s experience. His struggle to grapple with these ideas will make them much warmer, much more human than if you’d encountered them simply though a dry philosophical tract.
I also had this idea that I was going to write a novella. I give this speech in workshop all the time: When a reader picks up a book and she feels how long it is, she already knows some things. If you pick up a book and it seems a little dense and a little hard, but it feels pretty short, you think, “Okay, I can deal with this for this length of time.” When I pick up Gravity’s Rainbow—and it’s a big, heavy, honking book—and I start it, and within a half a page I’m already re-reading sentences because they're so dense, I ask, “Am I ready for this?” It took me a long time to say, “Okay, for the next two months I’m going to read Gravity’s Rainbow,” because I have to summon the mental energy and the free time to do so. Hopefully, Night Soil isn’t as arduous or scary for readers.
Rail: When you write about Judas’s sexuality ...
Peck: Oh god. Poor Judas ...
Rail: As you said, you wanted to be detailed and concrete so we really understand these characters. What does it mean when Judas goes from an experience in what he, himself, describes as shit, literally, into a relationship where he starts to feel someone is kind to him, and there’s a change in him, although he’s still hard on himself. Will you talk about his growth through his sexuality?
Peck: I recently had an extensive Facebook exchange about Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Dylan Farrow, and Moses Farrow. Moses Farrow wrote this long letter defending Woody Allen, basically detailing, in his point of view, Mia Farrow’s long list of crimes against the family in the way she tortured, brainwashed, and otherwise emotionally scarred her children. Obviously we’ve seen from Dylan’s point of view and from Ronan Farrow’s point of view, similar allegations about the way Woody treated the family. To me it’s that “intellectual wild card primal force” that, on the one hand, you have this idea that Dixie Stammers is responding to the strange intellectual emotional weight of her family history, which leads her to begin her own artistic projects. On the other hand, here’s a teenage girl who wants to have sex with her twin brother, and basically escapes from that by his disappearance, but not before conceiving a child together, who turns out to be Judas. Although Judas doesn’t know it, the emotional weight of that kind of behavior, the stuff that Moses Farrow was talking about, that Ronan and Dylan Farrow had talked about in their own open descriptions of their family, seep into your children’s psyche and warp them in funny ways. When you throw on top of that the fact that Judas has a disfiguring birthmark that most people are going to judge him very harshly for, his sex life is going to go in very strange and weird directions. When he finally has his encounter with Lovett, I don’t know if it’s good for him or bad for him in the long run, honestly. Lovett has such an antipathic relationship to everything at the Academy. It’s hard to tell if he is hate-fucking Judas, or is genuinely curious about the boy. I think Judas is so emotionally immature, especially when it comes to these kinds of relationships. He has no way of asking Lovett questions about what he feels or what he wants, or those kind of things. He takes everything Lovett does on its face value, and when Lovett says, “go,” Judas just leaves.
Rail: You’re also wrapping this up in the Transcendentalists. Your inscription quotes Thoreau, “... Is the form in which the founder thinks he casts it more essential than the constitution of it and of himself?” Why this philosophy?
Peck: One of the germs for this book was the Sanborn School. It’s always fascinated me. Judas mentions it in passing at the very end of chapter one. It’s a famous school where the children of John Brown, Emerson, and Henry James, were in this school, together. I’ve wanted to write a historical play about those seven children and the monumental weight of the familial genius. Many of them went on to become geniuses, in and of themselves.
For me, race, more than all of the many other prejudices, is our great shame, and our great problem. We are baby steps beyond slavery. It’s very important to me that I not pretend to speak for people of color in this debate. It’s also very important to me that I not pretend that white peoples’ experience of racism is more important than black peoples’ experience of racism. So, this was one of my attempts to grapple with that in this institutional form. To show how the weight of racist philosophy of just one white person’s perception of the world makes it all but impossible to see black people as individuals in the same way as they can see white people as individuals. I initially had a more abstract epigram for the novel, and then Porochista Khakpour, who is one of the editors I work with at The Evergreen Review, mentioned this speech that Thoreau had given. This was blowing my mind, given the resonance in the novel. I decided to use the quote from the speech to give the book slightly a more political, poignantly political context in this moment in history. Maybe if I’d published the book in 2015, I might have stuck with a more abstract epigram but I seemed to want something to make sure readers are in that particular context.
Rail: How do you incorporate inclusivity when writing characters of races other than your own?
Peck: It’s something that I’ve been dealing with for most of my career. My first book had one black character in it. The character wasn’t actually identified as black. There was a passing reference to his brown skin, which could have easily been a tan. I thought that it was enough that I interrogated white people. In my second book, I thought it was enough that I interrogated white people in a white context, more self-consciously. But that felt very privileged to me, this idea that because I’m white I should write about white people even if I’m going to shake my finger at them. As a gay writer, I often wrote about straight people, sometimes quite sympathetically, and sometimes accusatorially. Finally, with my third novel I took the plunge with a large cast of characters, at least half of them who are black.
The story, itself, is about the struggle in a town literally divided by the white half and the black half. I guessed that I was going to get charges of appropriation and some did come. As a white writer, that’s a risk that you should take, lumps that you should take. When black readers find one of my characters is a racist stereotype I never say, “No, you’re wrong.” I say, “I’m sorry that it offended you.” I don’t take it back; I put it out there. I try very hard in my books—when I write black characters—to make sure that readers understand that this is coming from the point of view of a white person, so that if they want to view it in that light they can. I think the alternative is not to engage with other cultures that are different from yours, or other identities that are different from yours. That strikes me as reinforced ghetto thinking on all sides. It’s not going to help anybody. I tell my students all the time, you have to be prepared. Whenever they’re writing a character outside of their particular identity, there’s going to be someone who calls you sexist, there’s going to be someone who calls you racist, there’s going to be someone who calls you homophobic. That is okay. It’s not pleasant. And if enough of them say it, you should really stop and think about what you’re putting on the page. That’s one of the risks that you incur when you write outside of your own identity.
I still remember when Samuel Delany called me out on my third novel. He’s a writer I really respect. My first impulse, of course, was to go to that place of white fragility, to be like, “No, no, no, you’re wrong.” I was going to pen him a long letter. Then I realized, what the hell am I doing? Samuel Delany is black and he’s experienced racism in a far more personal way than I have. I need to listen to what he has to say and see if there is a way I can avoid offending him in the future. It doesn’t even matter that there are other black readers who like the same character that he found to be racist.
This is what you have to accept—that individual readers will have individual responses and you can’t control them all. You certainly shouldn’t try to convince the reader that they’re wrong, especially on matters like that.
Rail: In another moment, Judas says, “ ... and the most venerated prophets often doubt their own message, if they don’t just make it up.” Are you referencing yourself as a writer or a thought-maker in that moment?
Peck: I hope not? I was thinking about the complicated things that we know about people like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, the founding fathers, some religious leaders as well. Basically, being almost two people. You look at all this level of examination of Alexander Hamilton right now. On the one hand, he was creatively forward thinking and wide reaching in his many interests, and then, on the other hand, almost retrograde with this weird level of authority and discipline. You think he was looking for a hero to step in and be king, and in the absence of a hero he had to help invent a democracy. Or, he seems to have loved his wife very much but then seems to have slept around constantly during the course of his marriage. It seems for people like that, you live a life almost for posterity, but meanwhile you’re a flesh and blood person, with flesh and blood temptation, which is a very different thing. God forbid, I don’t want to minimize anything, but you see some of the stories of the #MeToo movement which involves otherwise liberal men. In the public life that they lead they are honorable and doing great things for women, but privately it seems that they are entirely different people who objectify and victimize women. It’s very hard to reconcile, unless you think that there’s a mode of “being” that’s available, especially in Western Society, where we encourage intelligent people to create this alter ego that—in service to history, or in service to the state, or to an idea—is very distinct from the person they are in private. That person is usually much more flawed or much more prone to human foible.
Rail: It is a resonant theme in the book, and how people are accepting of it.
Peck: I think that’s why these people have been able to get away with it for as long as they have, because that’s been our social attitude. “Well, this person needs to do terrible things to women in order to be creative and in order to be strong in public,” and we’ve internalized that message. Look at history. Look at the models of emperors of Rome who had done wonderful things for the state, but were usually monsters in private. It carries through. It would be nice to think that going forward, one of the long term consequences of the #MeToo movement, is that we begin to create a new generation of leaders able to reconcile, in and out of life, both the public and private, so they can be happy and responsible individuals as well as do great things in the world.
Rail: In some ways Judas seems innocent in the way he approaches the world and the characters he encounters or lives with. He doesn’t seem to think of them as being horrible. Your thoughts?
Peck: I think that he thinks of them as horrible in a familial sense. In the most straightforward sense, he is engaged in this Oedipal struggle with his mother in a way that it’s so banally obvious that he can’t even notice it. He’s been trained to think of himself as a deeply complex figure, so he’s another kid who hates his mom because his Mom doesn’t pay enough attention to him, but at the same time he finds his mom alluring and powerful and wants to possess her, that, to him, would be too easy, even though it’s the most obvious or the most accurate description of who he is.
There’s a large part of him that needs the Academy, especially after it’s gone. He resents it nostalgically in that he’s able to see that his ancestor, who was a card carrying Ku Klux Klan member, nevertheless paradoxically created an institution that became very empowering for many generations of black people. It’s the legacy of a racist America in that black people have consistently shown their ability to survive and thrive “under these circumstances.”
Rail: Are some of what Judas says coming from you wanting him to voice your beliefs, or are these coming completely from Judas’s mouth? For example, Judas writes about his Great Grandpa Marcus,
“Wondered if he’d treated nature as the gangue from which he extracted the ore of his experience—of his consciousness, of his self—when the truth is nature mines us. That, far from being perfectible, nature is by definition (by nature, duh) unchangeable, while civilization—culture itself—rather than humanity’s greatest achievement, is, in nature’s absence, so much deracinated goaf. The things we do in an effort to change the world only change us.”
“But Academy pedagogy was steeped in Marcus’s mines, or more accurately Marcus’s miner’s soul, which, like the soul of the critic (as opposed to the soul of the artist) seeks to reveal rather than invent, to amass rather than create.”
Peck: The first quote, in general, seems to be one of the reasons for why writers write books, right? So they can have characters who say, what maybe they believe and maybe they don’t. Maybe they want to hedge their bets, and maybe they want to see what people think. There’s definitely a lot of me in Judas. There’s definitely a lot of Judas that is radically different than me. Most of the time I know the difference. Some of the time I probably don’t. But, probably, I would never clarify which things are Judas’ and which are me, even if I knew. Maybe I don’t want to be pinned down in that way, or maybe I don’t want to endorse a certain reading of the novel.
The second quote, about the critic and the writer, probably has a little bit more to do with me. I’ve written so much criticism. There are different goals for criticism, as opposed to fiction. There is tremendous pleasure in inventing something and having absolute control over it so that it can be whatever you want. There’s another kind of pleasure in looking at something that someone else has made, and finding things in it the creator didn’t know tthey put there, or even if the creator knew that they put it there, wanted someone to find—secrets. Both are really fun. It strikes me as complementary but different. ... Criticism is a way of making a book your own.
Rail: You mention the secrets of a book. The manner of reveals in your book. You don’t want to tell us, but rather find our own experience, but—is there something you want your reader to investigate or find?
Peck: Honestly, I’m curious to whether or not readers like Judas or not. Whether Judas strikes them as some kind of monster or whether he’s a deeply empathetic being. I know that I have a great fondness for him, but I’m also kind of a Svengali, in that I like creating monsters and then I like the monsters. I’m hoping people are divided on him. But in essence, I’d like people to ask themselves who they think Judas really is. And whether or not he’s a good person or a bad person. Over and above that, I want people to think about what a work of art is, and, what it is to make a work of art. Especially vis-à-vis, Dixie’s pots and Marcus’s mountains, and maybe this book’s parable. And then I want people to interrogate their ideas of the American construction of race and what they think about it.
Rail: And your secret?
Peck: I did insert one final word into the manuscript the week before it went to the printer. I discovered that there is a word—I discovered it through a crossword puzzle—the clue was literally, “the science of mountain building.” It was so funny, what is this word? I knew I had to use it. I was going to cheat and look it up, but I figured it out. “Orology.” I added the word, “orological,” because I saw it in a crossword puzzle. I’m not going to say the knowledge in the book was acquired esoterically, but there are a number of things.