Author Q&A with William McPherson

William McPherson is a quintessential man of letters. He founded The Washington Post’s “Book World” and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for literary criticism. Then he swung around to the other side of the desk to write two beautiful and well received novels, Testing the Current (1984) and To the Sargasso Sea (1987).


Photo Credit: Matt Roth

William McPherson is a quintessential man of letters. He founded The Washington Post’s “Book World” and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 for literary criticism. Then he swung around to the other side of the desk to write two beautiful and well received novels, Testing the Current (1984) and To the Sargasso Sea (1987). McPherson has also been a front-line journalist in Romania and wrote about political turmoil there for Granta, The Washington Post and the Wilson Quarterly. (Full disclosure: he also got me my first good job as an editorial assistant at G.P. Putnam’s in New York in 1985.)

Testing the Current has just been reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics. We spoke over lunch last summer and most recently this January.

Q&A with William McPherson

Let’s get this question out of the way first.

I know what’s coming, but yes, fire away.

People have said Testing the Current is really a memoir. Is it? In what sense is the novel autobiographical?

 

Well, I’m glad you said “the novel” because it is a novel and not an account of what I did the summer I was 7 or 8. When I was asked that question the first time the book was published — and I was asked it a lot — I was a bit offended because I thought the question diminished the work in some way. But it’s a legitimate question, even if it did make me uncomfortable. I didn’t find it easy exposing the woman people assumed was my mother as an adulteress (love that word). Even my mother, who didn’t say much about the book, but she must have liked it because she bought a lot of copies for her friends, even my mother said, “Well, I do wish you hadn’t made your mother an adulteress.” So I had to explain, “Mo-ther, that is not you!” (Parents can so easily reduce one to a whining adolescent.) “That’s somebody I made up.” Which, in fact, it was, but I created Emma in my imagination, my imagination playing with a mother who shared some characteristics with my own mother but who was the mother of Tommy, the boy in the book, and I am no more Tommy than my own mother is Emma. And yet I am, and so is she. It’s a conundrum.

Not long after the book was published I got a call from a woman who used to take care of me sometimes when I was a boy around Tommy’s age. I probably hadn’t seen her since then. “I remember the explosion in the plant,” she said. “The explosion in the plant?” I asked her. “Yes, I remember it as if it were yesterday.” I was a little bemused, in a way I was flattered, but there was no explosion in the plant. Never, as far as I know, and the three men who were killed in it, died only in my imagination. I was flattered because part of my imagined world had become a memory in her real world. More than flattered, I was awed.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory, time, the world as we see it, which is the world as we imagine it, and the world as it is — the “real” world. The world of Testing the Current is a world that I imagined, a world that I created from my imagination playing on memory. I am not the Tommy of this book, this is not a memoir or the story of my childhood; Grande Rivière in the book is not the Sault Sainte Marie where I was born. The city where I was born and lived the first 18years of my life no longer exists, only in my mind. The irony — and as far as I’m concerned, the beautiful irony — is that the Sault Sainte Marie of my childhood does not exist while the fictional Grande Rivière does, and not only in my mind but in the minds of others. In a sense, the fictional Grande Rivière is what remains of the city of Sault Sainte Marie of that time. There’s something amazing and wonderful about that.

What novelist do you think has been the most overlooked in the past 50 years? And, if you dare, who’s been the most overrated?

Harold Brodkey’s Stories in an Almost Classical Mode is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius (thank you, Dave Eggers). Harold was a brilliant, outrageous, charming, impossible, larger-than-life man, rather a genius, in fact, which he had no problem in telling you. I had read the publicity, much of it self-generated, so when I picked up that collection of stories I was prepared to be skeptical. Then I started reading them. The skepticism vanished and the admiration began. His ego may have been monumental, but that was largely the self he presented to the world, his protective armor. Maybe he needed it to mask whatever doubts he held in secret. In any case, it got him a lot of publicity. He liked that. He loved being the center of attention. He loved literary gossip. Maybe I’ve made him sound insufferable. He wasn’t. Off stage and in person he was funny and warm, and generous in his praise of writers he respected, like Don DeLillo.

After I reviewed Studies in an Almost Classical Mode in The Washington Post in 1988, Harold came to Olsson’s, which was a book and music store at Dupont Circle. I rarely, if ever, stood in line clutching my review copy for the author’s signature, but I did this time and I’m glad I did. I admired and respected Harold’s work before I met him; after that I also liked him, him and his novelist wife Ellen Schwam, who kept the Great Man glued together. I liked him a lot. He may have been everything that anyone said of him — and plenty was said, God knows. But for me, Harold was a brave man, a great writer and a generous friend. He was also very funny. He made me laugh. I miss him.

I’m sure there are lots of underrated writers out there — maybe Shirley Hazzard falls into that category. I was so bowled over by The Transit of Venus that I wrote her a note — the long-distance equivalent of standing in line at a signing, I suppose. But “underrated” may not be the right word. Maybe “undervalued”? “Under-read,” definitely. She is in every way an exquisite writer. Elizabeth Hardwick deserves a closer look. Those who’ve read her don’t undervalue her, but she is under-read. She had a delightful Kentucky accent and a delightfully coquettish air about her. We served on the National Book Critics Circle board together. She had a mind like a diamond. It could cut glass and destroy any literary phoniness. Quite ruthlessly, too. Thinking about her now makes me want to re-read her last novel, Sleepless Nights, which I reviewed when it came out, her short stories and her brilliant essays. New York Review Books Classics publishes some of them. And Elizabeth — I could never call her “Lizzie,” it seemed too intimate somehow, any more than I could call Robert Lowell “Cal” — Elizabeth reminds me of Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a novel that Elizabeth admired and so did I. It wasn’t my intention to promote NYRB Classics, which I just noticed publishes Adler as well, but they do publish good books. It’s a true honor for me to be on their list.

But to name the one writer who’s been the most overlooked? I couldn’t name the one because I probably overlooked him or her, too. And I think I’ll skip the most overrated, as well. Writers do that well enough for themselves. I once heard a famous and wildly successful novelist ask, “What’s the difference between me and Henry James?” Talent, maybe? But I’m not knocking popular novelists. They satisfy a universal need for narrative, I think. I grew to hate — not too strong a word — The DaVinci Code, but the author made me turn the page. I was at a summer house for a weekend and the book was on the shelf. It was at the height of its popularity. I picked it up and started reading. Great beginning, very short chapters that left you hanging, and in the end I felt like that television commercial: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” Dan Brown has had a baleful influence on writers who want to do what he did; that is, write a best-seller for some quick bucks. So they try to imitate him. When I was in the book business I met a few mega-sellers. All of them believed in what they were doing, in the same way that better, more sophisticated writers do. You can’t fake it.

And I haven’t even gotten to poets.

Gore Vidal once remarked that he read Montaigne when he was discouraged or down. Are there any authors you turn to in the same way? What is it about them that lifts your spirit?

I don’t look to literature to lift my spirits. Chemicals do it better. Fill my spirit, maybe. But I don’t have a reading list for bad days — or, for that matter, good days.

Let’s do some free association. I’m going to name a few authors, and I’d like you to give me your top-of-mind impressions of them in a few words or phrases.

 

Ernest Hemingway

His short stories are his best work, I think. They are masterful. A Clean Well-Lighted Place? The Michigan Stories? I read them all. I read all the novels, too — maybe I skipped the Venice novel that read like a parody of a once-great writer. I read The Old Man and the Sea when it came out in Life magazine. My uncle had given me a subscription. I was in high school then and those giant marlins got to me. When I was in high school I also read the other novels, though I’d read For Whom the Bell Tolls earlier. Maybe that’s the best time to read them. The short stories are better read later. God knows, his style was contagious. Every kid in a writing course in college in the 1950s tried to sound like Hemingway. But there was only one Hemingway. Hemingway’s tragedy, in my opinion, was that he knew the well was empty, he knew he had nothing more to say, but he had to keep pretending in order to satisfy the voracious maw of the Papa Hemingway machine he had created. Finally, he couldn’t continue and he shot himself. Philip Roth brought down the curtain on his writing in a better way.

James Joyce

Well, if we weren’t trying to sound like Hemingway, we were trying to sound like Joyce, the Joyce of the lyrical final lines of “The Dead.” I didn’t do much writing in college. I think I took a couple of “creative writing” courses. I wrote my “Hemingway story” and my “Joyce story” and then I sort of drifted away from class. But what can you say about Joyce other than that he was a genius? I studied Portrait and Dubliners and Ulysses. I made a couple of stabs at Finnegans Wake, but gave up. If I remember correctly, he took 17 years to write it; it would have taken me that long to read it. Joyce was asking more than I was willing to give. Something that fascinates me still about FW is it starts in the middle of a sentence that begins in the last words of the book. Completing the circle, as it were.

I’m peering at your list. You’ve got a lot of authors there. If I commented on each one I’d end up droning on and putting you to sleep, because I can’t say in a word or a sentence anything worth saying about Saul Bellow, Joan Didion, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Truman Capote and so on. They’re unique, and each one has his own claim to greatness — although I once wrote in a review of a collection of Vidal’s essays that “he’s the brightest rhinestone around.” He remembered it, too. I’ve probably got anecdotes about most of these people, since I met or was acquainted with most of them to one degree or another. But this isn’t the place for them.

So I’ll do what the politicians on television do and answer a question you didn’t ask. I’ll tell you about my early reading instead. When I was a kid I read omnivorously and indiscriminately. I read everything I could get my hands on, from the “Tell Me, Doctor” column in the Ladies’ Home Journal, where I tried to figure out the grand mystery of sex (probably better places to learn), to the Hardy Boys, the Don Sturdy Books, Tom Swift and, when I was old enough to walk to the library, Agatha Christie. Once the librarian called my mother to ask if it was okay for me to take out books like Appointment With Death and Death on the Nile. Since my mother sometimes read them, too, she couldn’t very well deny them to me. I read popular biographies of Eugene Debs and Vincent van Gogh, the Book of Knowledge, Lands and Peoples, Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels. We’re not talking high literature here, but I learned a lot,  and some of the books — the Debs biography, for instance — opened up my view of the world. It was my father who kept the Index of Prohibited Books. He saw me pull Anthony Adverse  off the shelf — that was a novel the size of Gone With the Wind (read that, too), popular in the 1930s — and told me to put it back. I was too young to read it. That was all I needed. I devoured the book, searching for the secrets that I was supposed to be too young to know. I think there was a scene where the young hero discovers masturbation, but since I hadn’t, I didn’t quite get what was going on, but it seemed interesting and apparently it felt good. For Whom the Bell Tolls was also on the proscribed list, but by the time I got to that (immediately after it made the list), I think I’d figured our what was making the earth move. The best way to get children to read is to tell them they can’t read something because they’re not old enough.

After years as a critic, you wrote your first novel, Testing the Current, in your 40s. It received almost unanimously positive reviews. New York Review Books Classics is now republishing it in January, almost 29 years later. How does that make you feel?

The short answer is, good. Very, very good. But really, it’s more complicated than that and hard to explain. When Edwin Frank — he’s the editor of NYRB Classics — called to tell me he’d like to publish Testing the Current I was … what — flabbergasted? I was sitting at my desk, probably brooding about (or avoiding) this book I’ve been trying to write for a long time now, when the telephone rang. Just like that. I can picture it, clearly. Anyway, I never expected to see TTC in print again. I knew that I’d written the best book I was capable of writing, and I believed it was a good book, but it had been out of print for years. I knew how publishing worked. I’d been an editor at a publishing house in New York; I was editor of The Washington Post “Book World”; I knew how many books were published each year and that most of them have a short shelf life. I wasn’t naïve about publishing. So I was truly astonished by Edwin Frank’s phone call, and gratified. It took a while from that call to this beautiful edition with the extraordinary photograph by Carol Betsch on the cover. I am embarrassed to tell you how long. The delay was due almost entirely to my own mental quirks. Others might have less charitable but perhaps more accurate words to describe my paralysis in the face of the best thing to have happened to me in a long time. Anyway, pushed by my daughter and helped immensely by my son-in-law, Jon Jefferson, who got the process started again, and the patience and enthusiasm of Edwin Frank, here it is. And it’s very, very nice. I’m awed, I’m humbled and I’m grateful. It’s given the book a new life and me a new life, too, now that I’m approaching the end of it.

What was your inspiration for Testing the Current? When did you know you were writing a novel?

The inspiration — I guess you’d call it an inspiration — was a woman on a golf course on a summer morning, taking her practice swing. There was dew on the grass, a river flowing in the distance, leaves rustling in the elms. Only there was no woman, no golf course, no dew on the grass: the only place they were was in my head. That vision of a fresh summer morning occurred on a brilliant but bitterly cold winter morning between Christmas and New Year’s, 1977, at the corner of 18th and Q Streets [in Washington]. I was walking to work. The scene hit me with such force that I sat down on the curb. It was so vivid; I saw it with such clarity and intensity that I couldn’t get it out of my head. At home in my office that night I decided I should describe what I had seen. I should write it down. I wrote very fast and furiously that night and the next, ending up with 12 single-spaced pages entirely covered with words — the smallest of margins left and right, top and bottom. The third night I started over, but the first paragraph of Testing the Current as it now stands is virtually identical to the first paragraph I wrote then.

So I guess that’s the inspiration — not an event, not a person, not even a story, but a picture, a tableau vivant that began to move, then slowly faded, and I continued on my way to work. The story came later, it unfolded, as it were, and it took me almost five and a half years to tell it. I’m not a fast writer, but fortunately, my first draft is usually pretty close to my final.

When did I realize that this piece I was working on might be a novel? Well, I’m not really sure, but it wasn’t immediately. My daughter said my troubles began when I stopped referring to it as my piece and started referring to it as my book.

Michael Causey is a journalist and fledgling fiction writer. He worked with Bill McPherson in the mid-1980s, mostly bringing coffee to him and others on The Washington Post’s Editorial Page. Causey’s father is the former author of the Post’s “Federal Diary” columnt, Mike Causey.

 


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