2010 National Book Award Winner,
Lord of Misrule
McPherson & Co.
Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston
Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on Lord of Misrule being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. This is your sixth book. How did the writing of this novel compare to the work you’d done previously?
Jaimy Gordon: One odd thing about Lord of Misrule: a fairly advanced draft of the novel lay disused on my work table for about 10 years. To be perfectly honest, it had migrated off the work table to the bottom of a pile of low-priority manuscripts from other people, like the wartime letters of my father’s first law partner and his wife, and a colleague’s translation of Paavo Haavikko’s epic, The Iron-Age.
Something like six of those years went to slow deaths in my family, but the biggest obstruction was self-allergy. Of the previous five books you mention, three concerned wild and reckless young women. I emphatically did not want to write a fourth of that kind, but as it turned out, when I had the first finished draft of Lord of Misrule in hand, another plucky 25-year old with bad judgment was grinning out at me. Then, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t rewrite it: I had an aversion even to reading it that lasted, obviously, for years. My very old friend and first publisher Bruce McPherson, of McPherson and Company, had read the manuscript early on, and I seem to have promised him that he could have the book if I hadn’t sold it to a trade press by such-and-such a date. By such-and-such a date, towards the end of last summer, I hadn’t even looked at the book. Bruce therefore, without another word, sent me the unrevised draft in unbound galleys.
After I recovered from my shock, I read the thing. The reckless young woman was still there, but to my relief she didn’t dominate the book, and in the meantime I had become more and more like two other major characters in Lord of Misrule, Medicine Ed and Two-Tie, lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protections of family. It took me by surprise how much I liked Lord of Misrule when I read it again, just as if somebody else had written it. I even cried twice —that was when I thought I probably had something. The manuscript still needed some work, but I easily saw how to fix it.
BAJ: Do you have a reader in mind as you write?
JG: Probably not, but once I read Lord of Misrule again I could see who the ideal audience would be: myself, homesick for the racetrack and 10 years older.
BAJ: In the fiction category this year, each of the novels seems heavily researched. What role does research play in your writing process?
JG: Doing far more textual research than I need is one of my favorite ways of avoiding writing, and so, for Medicine Ed, I read what I could find on root-working and spells. As for horse racing, I had worked as a groom at half-mile racetracks from 1967 until 1970, but I did do some field research for Lord of Misrule at Pimlico. Robert Meyerhoff, owner of Broad Brush among other fine horses, arranged for me to talk to his trainer, Richard Small. I told Dick Small that I would like to talk to elderly black grooms who had been on the racetrack forever, and he sent me to Bubbles Riley, born in 1914, now age 96, one of the people to whom Lord of Misrule is dedicated. Bubbles had done much more than rub horses in his day, at West Virginia tracks as well as Pimlico, and he is far too foxy, worldly, gregarious, savvy in business, and downright postmodern to have been the model for Medicine Ed, but he told me hundreds of things I needed to know in the course of writing Lord of Misrule, and he still does.
BAJ: Horseracing itself is arguably one of the most complex characters in Lord of Misrule. What was it about the enterprise that captivated and inspired you?
JG: I’ll give you the short answer to this, since Lord of Misrule, and the way all its main characters ruminate on luck, is the long answer. When I hear the first few bars of Handel’s Israel in Egypt or Shishkov’s tale in Janácek’s opera From the House of the Dead (just to seize the first two instances that come to mind) I’ll weep a little, without any sadness. The same thing happens when I’m standing at the rail of a horse race and the horses go by, especially if I’m watching some late closer make his move from many lengths back, or if a stalker slips into the lead in the stretch. It’s just visceral. I come from a family of horseplayers on my mother’s side, and both of my sisters have my weakness. One of them actually breeds racehorses—harness horses—and is very good at what she does. I know all that’s wrong with horseracing and I still have this weakness, even for a cheap claiming race if some old miler is running his race.
BAJ: Do you remember your original idea for Lord of Misrule? How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?
JG: As I was suggesting earlier, I didn’t want Lord of Misrule to be another female picaresque from a single point of view but rather a social novel about a group of equally dominant characters inside a community (however disreputable) that is a world unto itself.
I was a friend of the late Malcolm Braly—can you say “the late” of someone who died in a car wreck in 1980, at the age of 54?—who wrote a great social novel, the Middlemarch of prison novels, about San Quentin. On the Yard begins with a long look at a character named Society Red, hanging out in the prison courtyard of the title and considering his life. Red is neither good nor bad; he’s amiable and in some ways poignant but above all jailwise. He’s the one whom jail has made, who will be there at the end no matter what else happens. I start Lord of Misrule with Medicine Ed, an elderly black groom who has been on the racetrack since time was. He knows everything about the track except how to free himself of it, and he is doing something as common on the racetrack as lounging on the yard is in prison, namely, walking a horse round and round the dirt track that rings every barn or shedrow. The opening of Lord of Misrule hasn’t changed much since the first day I went to work on the book. Society Red, Medicine Ed: this was both a private homage to Malcolm Braly and a shameless looting of his opening.
Moreover, prison, like the racetrack, is one of the great incubators of slang, and Malcolm Braly was a master of dialect-inflected dialogue as well as thought, i.e., those third person interior passages that are sometimes called indirect free discourse. I always find it amusing, not in a good way, when multiple points of view inside one novel think in much the same voice. Braly had the gift of channeling into his fiction a whole society of voices far, far different from his own, and in that regard too I aspired, in Lord of Misrule, to write a book like On the Yard.
I began the novel at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where I spent a month as a returning fellow in—I think—1997, and providentially my old teacher at Brown, John Hawkes, was there as well, just a year before he died, as a senior visiting writer. We shared a passion for racehorses, especially the old and battle scarred. He told me to make sure the horses were real characters in my book, and although mine don’t talk (or think in words) as often as Hawkes’ do, I did try to honor his advice.
BAJ: The novel is set in West Virginia. What role does setting play in your writing?
JG: Although Lord of Misrule certainly makes use of what I know about the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia along the Ohio River between Wheeling and New Martinsville, where one of my sisters still lives and I have a kind of second home—the rags of fog from the river, the fragile, chocolatey earth and red dust and the close-packed hills—the real setting of Lord of Misrule is the seedy half-mile racetrack itself, Indian Mound Downs. That little track never existed, but its backside probably has more in common with that of the long defunct Green Mountain Park Racetrack in Pownal, Vermont, than any West Virginia track.
BAJ: How much of the story do you know before you start? Is your imagination liberated by parameters—such as writing toward a specific ending or knowing you’re exploring a particular theme—or is it fueled by a lack of stricture and the act of discovery? These aren’t mutually exclusive positions, but I wonder if you find yourself on one side more often than the other.
JG: I don’t know much of the story before I start. I’ve got the characters and their rich interiorities, which always share, unbeknownst to them, certain patterns of preoccupation and language. I twist them together into some kind of plot, and I do believe deeply in plot, or rather in whatever attribute it is of novels that makes a reader need to know what happens in the end. Stuart Dybek, who blurbed Lord of Misrule for me, called my style “profligate.” In Lord of Misrule I stuff linguistic extravagance into a fairly tight formal corset. I use a shape for the novel that I have always liked, a narrative design that moves the characters forward, from early on in the book, towards some planned but morally neutral future event that all of them, carrying their baggage with them, are bound to attend. My prototype is Père Goriot, in which everyone in the novel is headed for Madame de Beauséant’s ball, even the moneylender Gobseck, who isn’t invited, of course, but who is financing the attire of many. It just now occurs to me that there’s something of Gobseck about my character Two-Tie, who calls himself euphemistically a “racetrack financier.” He’s the instigator of the special race, written just for the badly damaged old stakes horse Lord of Misrule, which constitutes the future destination for all the characters in my novel, both human and equine, although Two Tie won’t be present at the race himself.
BAJ: This is the 61st year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about Lord of Misrule being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?
JG: Looking back at the historical list of National Book Award winners, I’m amazed to see how many books of importance to me at various times in my life are on that list—Updike’s The Centaur, Bellow’s Herzog and the stories of Katherine Anne Porter just when I was deciding to try to make a life of writing; Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, which was tonic and clarifying for me in the crazy seventies. I had forgotten that Thomas Williams’ The Hair of Harold Roux had won a National Book Award; I learned a lot from that book. It’s wonderful that DeLillo, Gaddis, Charles Johnson, Mary Lee Settle, Andrea Barrett, Ellen Gilchrist, and Shirley Hazzard are all here—all important writers for me at crucial times, as different from one another as they are. I just taught John Barth’s Chimera in a forms class this year. Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater was a thrilling novel to read when I began to see age up ahead of me. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor are indispensable to me at every age. It’s a great list.
Anthony Johnston is the author of the internationally
acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of
Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative
Writer. He is director of creative writing at Harvard.
For more information, visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.