What else about Faulkner's approach to his work,
or his beliefs about literature, have influenced your
own writing life?
AM: His language-the
permission he gives us to let language be lush but not
wasteful, the passion for language contained in each
sentence. And the idea that there are many ways to tell
a story. You don't have to have a rising action and
DO: Your own books,
certainly, don't depend on that kind of structure, or
even on a logical chronology.
AM: But in all honesty,
I don't proceed with any literary theory in mind. All
I have is a guess about what the story requires. There's
something Eudora Welty said, about how when you're writing
well you hear the sound of the next sentence before
you know what the words are. In some ways there's that
same sense in the structuring of a novel: before you
even know exactly what the next step is, you have a
full sense of what the next step needs to be. That's
not to say that your instincts are always exactly right;
finally it has to come down to what the work requires.
So I would never say, "Well, I don't like chronological
narratives," or "I will never write a chronological
narrative." I would love to write a chronological
narrative; I love reading them. But the stories I've
told thus far have demanded something else of me.
DO: One of the other
challenges you enjoy creating for yourself is taking
stock characters and making them fresh and surprising.
How did you first become interested in this? And what
were some of the special challenges of reimagining the
two stereotypes at the center of Charming Billy
and That Night-Billy, the kindly Irish-American
alcoholic, and Cheryl and Rick, the alienated teenagers
AM: I think my initial
interest in stereotypes had a lot to do with contrariness.
I have this reluctance to write about a character who
sounds really interesting, and a reluctance to write
a novel about anything that I can summarize in three
or four lines. But to stay with a character over the
course of time it takes to write a novel requires more
than just contrariness. The ability to individualize
a character, to know another life as intimately as we
know ourselves, is one of the marvelous gifts that fiction
Billy was a big part of my initial impulse for the
book, because there seems to be just such a stock character
in so many extended Irish-American families. But the
challenge that appealed to me was not taking someone
who appears to be a stereotype and revealing him to
be much more complex, or ironically, quite the opposite,
of what he seems. To me, the challenge was to take a
character who is deep in his soul all the things you
would assume him to be, and still to make him an individual,
and to make clear the very particular and important
role he plays for the other people in his life.
As for Cheryl, the fact that she is stereotypical in
her description and circumstances gave me the courage
to make her more complex in her personality. The fact
that she is outwardly stereotypical frees her to be
something else, to have a quasi-spiritual inner life
that is completely separate from the way she appears.
I liked the odd, unexpected strength of someone who
conforms in that way to ensure her privacy. And it makes
her that much more appealing to Rick, the single person
that spiritual life is revealed to. But Rick is more
like Billy. The stereotype goes deeper; he's more what
he appears to be. And yet he recognizes that thing in
Cheryl that's unique and scary and fascinating, and
it makes her that much more appealing to him.
DO: Many readers assume
that your novels are autobiographical, so let me ask
you this on their behalf: To what degree is your fiction
shaped by your own experiences?
AM: You know, I had
a great experience in a bookstore in La Jolla, California,
when I was doing a reading to promote At Weddings
and Wakes. On one side of the bookstore, a guy raised
his hand and said, "Is this your family?"
And from the other side of the bookstore a woman yelled
out, "No, it's mine!" And I have to confess
that I like fooling people into thinking I write about
my family, but in fact I don't write about my own immediate
experiences. Certainly, I write about what I guess you
could say I know, as far as setting goes. And certainly
I write out of my experience of hearing how people talk
to one another, and seeing how people deal with each
other. So I don't write characters who are totally detached
from myself and from my own experience.
Actually, my students and I talked about this just
this past year, and we came to the conclusion that really
what writers want is the aura of autobiography.
You want the reader to have a sense that you know these
characters so well you must know them in your own life.
I think a lot of us who write fiction are probably reformed
liars, because the impulse to lie is awfully close to
the impulse to tell stories. And any good liar knows
that you always mix up something that really happened
into the story of something that didn't happen because
it gives your lie authenticity. I couldn't write anything
that actually happened because the impulse to change
it would be too severe. That's why I write fiction,
because fiction is a way of ordering the world, and
in making the world orderly you have to change it, because
it is not orderly on its own. Fiction is art, and the
demands of art don't allow for anything to be taken
whole cloth from real life. The color of a character's
blouse and the wave of her hair and the shape of her
cheek are not arbitrary decisions. They're part of the
author's intentions for the entire work, so each detail
must be chosen with those intentions in mind. If a book
is any good, there can't be any irrelevant detail anywhere-and
life is full of irrelevant details.
DO: They may not be
inspired by your own relationships, but I think it's
fair to say that your characters reflect your own interest
in what it means to be part of a family. What is it
that attracts you to that theme?
AM: Well, I suppose
that writing about Irish Catholics in New York is writing
about material at hand; I don't have to consult with
anyone to find out what jokes they would tell each other
at somebody's funeral. So in some ways, writing about
family is the same. I know something about families.
But I have no inherent interest in Irish Catholic families
in New York as such. I think the great drama of most
of our lives takes place in families, and my interests
as a writer really come down to how we live, how we
deal with one another, how we make sense of our brief
lives. And one way to begin to write about that is to
write about an Irish Catholic family in New York.
DO: As Dennis points
out in Charming Billy, "It's hard to be
a liar and a believer at the same time," and all
of your novels, in one way or another, address the difficulties
of finding and sustaining religious faith. How have
your own attitudes toward faith come to shape your work?
AM: I think there
comes a point in your writing life-and it comes again
and again-when you're able to divest yourself of all
other concerns about your career, your readers, your
publisher, about paying the bills, and you understand
that the work is the only thing that matters. It follows
very quickly that since the work is the only thing that
counts, you must write about the truest things you know.
And time and time again what it comes down to for me
is that faith-our need for it, our struggle with it-is
the most important thing. But as I say, it's not something
that you decide once, nor is it something that you're
sure to achieve again and again. You never have the
sense that, "Ah, I have now said the truest thing.
And I'm going to go and say it again." It's more
like, "I'm attempting to say the truest thing I
know about us, about our existence, about life, and
I'm attempting to do it in the best way I know through
language. And of course I haven't done it yet."
Understanding the value of literature, and taking on
a vocation of trying to add some small piece to its
value, has helped me to understand my own faith. Recognizing
the things that make literature a work of art-its essential
truths-has made me a Catholic, or made me a Christian,
in a way that being raised as a Catholic and a Christian
was never able to do. That's just a personal outcome,
but I think it says something about the value of art
that when we're able to recognize its truth, it speaks
to the things that make this short and often annoying
This goes back to what we started out talking about,
Wuthering Heights and Absalom and the
impulse to tell the story. Because I'm interested in
that impulse, I've come to regard it as something more
than a kind of personality tic among humans. I'm loath
to put it into language, because it sounds a little
bit too touchy-feely even for me to bear, but the impulse
to make art, to use language to offer our experiences
to one another through fiction, and the almost breathless,
passionate desire we have to tell and retell a story,
says something to me about how we have been provided
with the means of our own redemption. There is an answer
to our cries into the darkness of "What is this
all about, and why are we here?" Art is an answer.
And literature is an answer. Not a blatant one, and
certainly not a simple one, but an answer.