Thursday, January 20, 2011
Interview with Brian Doyle
Brian Doyle is the fourth interview at The Fine Delight--so excited to share his ideas. This interview was conducted via e-mail: back and forth, morning and night, Oregon to New Jersey. Photo credit goes to Jerry Hart. A bio note, as well as links to Brian's books, follow the interview. A pleasure, Brian!
1. "Joyas Voladoras" made me cry at a public library, and each time I read the essay to my students I have to fight back tears. You're able to create such authentic sentiment in the piece. Could you discuss the genesis and composition of this essay?
Waaaal – it’s part of a book called The Wet Engine, about hearts, and how they work and don’t work, and how our species began fiddling with them with knives and medicines and such, written out of roaring terror for one of my sons, who was born missing a chamber in his heart (bit of a logistical problem that), and who was saved by many people especially a terrific cardiologist whom I came to greatly admire, and the book is also very much a celebration of him and his quiet wife, brave and gracious and complex souls. So ‘Joyas’ started as my maniacal notes about all sorts and sizes and shapes of hearts – I don’t know about other writers, but I tend to collect lots of pieces and stories and facts and shreds and tales and bits and then sort of mill them with my fingers and heart to see what might happen – and what happened was a sudden burst of an essay. I mean, that’s how I appear to write nonfiction books, essay by essay, almost – brief passages that tend to be essayshapely because I think I am an essayist in my bones – but ‘Joyas’ spun up and away from the facts into something else. I well remember sitting here at my desk sobbing as I was typing the end of it – the end coming as a great heaving surprise to me. One of the sweetest hardest things about being a writer, I think, is that you are often startled at what comes gushing out of you, given the chance, given the channel, given the craft preparation to give it a chance – sometimes hilarious and odd, but also sometimes painful and bruising….
2. I like your idea of the surprising in writing occurring "given the craft preparation." In terms of essay craft, what do you think is more essential: drafting or revision?
O, drafting, by a mile. If you never start you never get to tinker. Starting is the thing – seeds, shreds, notes, first lines – “taking a line out for a walk,” as essayists say, quoting the painter Paul Klee. To begin is everything. That first burst – after that you can revise and tinker and add and cut and move around and graft – after the start you get the carpenter’s joy of editing and tinkering and tuning, listening for music, making sure there’s bone and joy and snarling…
3. You seem to really appreciate language: words, phrases, sentences, sounds, and more. Your essays refresh and revive English. Do you think there is a connection between your Catholicism and how you approach language?
Lovely question. That’s never occurred to me – I have always thought that my addiction to cadence and swing and rhythm and alliteration and long sprinting runs of words and sounds like arrows of flashing trout in a river were probably more due to being American of Irish descent – a certain predilection to music and tall tale and humor and fast sliding joyous language – Gaelic, you know, is a very musical language spoken, I think, and I love the American language, its blunt laughter and bony wit and slangish ease. But to have been so soaked in Catholicism maybe played, come to think of it – chant and the rhythms of ritual language – one of the subtle pleasures of the Mass and much Catholic sacramental language is the rising and falling repetition of it – to say the rosary for example with others in concert is really to fall into a meditative call and response thing ancient beyond imagination. So yes, I suppose that’s true about Catholicism and language. I have always thought, as Bruce Springsteen has said (good Catholic boy as a youth, you know, Saint Rose of Lima Parish in New Jersey) that to grow up Catholic is to be especially lucky as an artist, because you are soaked in miracle and mystery and symbol and smoke and the confident assertion that every moment is pregnant with miracle and possibility and stuffed with holiness like a turducken; but I suppose it’s true of language also. I dearly love playing with the linguistic tools we are given, and love wrenching it this way and that, seeing what it might do if you let it loose – I am sure, as I have often been accused, that sometimes I can be so headlong and thrilled by the racing horse that it’s hard to read my pieces, but I can also say with high glee that I bet no one ever had as much sheer fun writing prose as me. To slam a sentence into ninth gear and hold on for the ride, your spectacles rattling on the fist of your face… and sometimes when you let your mind and your fingers loose a little more than usual, the prose punches down deeper than you knew you could go.
4. Although so many elements of Catholicism can appear in literature, many of your essays feel concerned with representing a sense of "grace" in a tangible way. One such essay is "The Meteorites" (which was, in fact, one of your essays I first read, enjoyed, and taught). What do you think about grace in the faith, and in your writing?
[Check-out "Grace Notes" at the above tab!] Ah, now, that’s such a huuuuge question, and idea, and mystery, that I cannot easily answer it, and can only come sideways at it with, of course, an essay. Attached. Good thing you are running this as a site so you can let people hit it. This was one of the first times I was forced to write a mosaic piece, by the way, because I realized that I couldn’t write a regular essay – the topic was too vast and labyrinthine, and I could only chase it glancingly, you know? Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, as that great insurance agent Wallace Stevens says.
5. Early in "Grace Notes" you briefly dramatize the powerful character of a selfless priest. What led to that representation? What, for you, are the roles and traits of a "great" priest?
Being a good priest, let alone a great one – what a tough job. And for all that everyone immediately thinks of celibacy, my friends who are priests tell me it’s more the weight of receiving pain and being wary of loneliness; good priests, I notice, have lots of friends, so many that they really create clans of cousins, nieces, nephews. Hard job – like being a doctor for ills and diseases that are very hard to see and mostly impossible to heal, I bet. And you never get an off-day. In a sense a priest, nun, brother is like a walking antennae for pain and troubles, you know? Rather Christ-like, the way we load our troubles on the professionals, and God forbid if they betray the slightest weakness or loneliness or lack of faith. Tough job – part performance, part deliberate act of crazy faith in something that can never be proved. Brave job. I admire the great ones, and the ones who raped children, who protected the rapists, I’d hang them by their nuts from a tall tree. Bernard Law, for example: criminal. To answer the question, great priests seem to me to be humble and liable to humor. They are alert to everything except their own egos, seems to me. I have met a lot of good priests (more good nuns, interestingly, who don’t seem as susceptible to pomp and power) and I really admire them and am awfully glad they have the courage and grace to be who they are.
6. I love that you mention humor as an essential trait for the best religious. I agree with that observation. Your work feels suffused with humor--and that humor creates energetic prose. What makes humor so essential to writing (and, perhaps, to being Catholic)?
O, lovely question. More and more as the years pass I think that spiritual substance and honesty and egolessness and real vision is flagged by humor – it’s no accident, seems to me, that the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu, and Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Merton, and John Paul II, for examples, are all liable to humor, whereas all of your most foul vile twisted squirming murderers and evil agents are the most grim stuff-shirt humorless bastards imaginable – can you conceive bin Laden, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot ever laughing? All they ever managed was a cackle over a particularly devious murder, I bet. And humor, in both the spiritual and literary arenas, seems freeing to me, a sign of wonder and humility somehow – everything’s so muddled and difficult that you have to laugh. It’s also a great disarming tool; the best way to get a message across, to say something real, is to use yourself as the resident doofus; and as I learned from the great spiritual writer (and hilarious dude) David James Duncan, humor relaxes readers and listeners – if you get everyone laughing, you can more easily slip in the poignant dagger. Plus humor is a lovely tool for writers because it traffics in odd juxtaposition of image, you know? We laugh because we are startled, sort of – and what a great way to dream and imagine things that might be. Such an endless sea, what might be. For example I wrote a poem recently in which all the owls in the world are W.H. Auden nuts, mumbling Auden to themselves all day long. It could be.
7. We have a mutual appreciation for basketball. I loved your musings on the (literary) element of the game at Oregon Live. Other writers have lamented the lack of more great imaginative writing about basketball; Edward Hirsch has pointed toward the more pastoral nature of football and baseball as being a possible reason. What do you love about the game? Could you point us toward any of your own writing about basketball?
[Check-out "An Exquisite Geometry" at the above tab!] O dear yes. Here’s a piece I did for a book of lots of writers celebrating the 1977 Portland Trailblazers NBA title, in which I tried to get at the speed and joy and flow and fluidity and generosity of the game, the sinuous quicksilver riverine webbed creativity of it – I do think it’s the greatest game, because while it is stylized war, like all sports, it pushes toward the most creativity, I think – you sprint and cut, use your hands, invent new angles, share the ball, need teammates, never get rained out, are penalized for violence and temper (unlike in football where you get paid more for inflicting injury); you are not disguised like robots as in hockey and football; there’s an ocean of points, unlike soccer; and everyone gets the ball, unlike baseball. The only game I have seen that comes close to basketball for these virtues is Australian football, which I have come to love. It does sadden me a little that hoop hasn’t produced great writing, like cricket and baseball and golf has – does make you wonder if grass is necessary for good ink, eh?
8. I needed little prompting to order Mink River (my copy is on its way right now). Your novel was released last year by Oregon State University Press, and the synopsis is so appealing: "In a small town on the Oregon coast there are love affairs and almost-love-affairs, mystery and hilarity, bears and tears, brawls and boats, a garrulous logger and a silent doctor, rain and pain, Irish immigrants and Salish stories, mud and laughter. There’s a Department of Public Works that gives haircuts and counts insects, a policeman addicted to Puccini, a philosophizing crow, beer and berries. An expedition is mounted, a crime committed, and there’s an unbelievably huge picnic on the football field. Babies are born. A car is cut in half with a saw. A river confesses what it’s thinking. . ."
Could you discuss your approach toward writing the book? Its history as an idea or story, how you tackled the novel as a form, any potential novels as influences, etc.
O, that could take a week. The short version is that it started as a story, many years ago, which I published, and thought that was the end of things. But the characters kept talking, really and truly – I could hear and see them, especially hear them, their salty amused voices, the strain of their courage under duress; I tried to write the novel but skewed all over the road and gave up; and then finally went back to it, over the last five years, and went wild, slowly. I’d write every day, a piece a day, sometimes earning a paragraph, sometimes a page. I probably cut 100 pages too; the great lesson I learned was that something has to happen, and it was a great pleasure for me to discover with my fingers what was going to happen next. In a sense I think I couldn’t have written a novel that was any good until I had learned my craft as an essayist, much of which is what to leave out, and how to be free and open and wild and passionate while remaining clear and communicative; art that does not connect is terrible art, I think, which is why I think books like Naked Lunch and Finnegan’s Wake are awful, not to mention a lot of elusive allusive poetry, which should generally be slid cheerfully under the parakeet, or used in the mudroom so boots can dry properly. It was a huge pleasure to just finish the novel, partly to see what was going to happen to the characters, for whom I have a lot of affection and respect, even while they often did things I disapprove of. I felt very paternal. And now to see the book traveling out there on its own, hitting hearts in ways that my essays do not; sweeeeeeet. The letters I got as an essayist – the ones that didn’t begin Dear Idiot – were generally ‘your arrow landed’ letters; with the novel though the letters are more like ‘I lived in that world, thank you for opening the door to that world,’ which is really cool. I cannot call myself a Novelist, partly because I love the phrase Essayist so, but writing a novel was very freeing and fun and interesting as education and avocation. I used to think everyone should commit one, like a venial sin, but now I think maybe I will commit more. Such a sinner am I.
Brian Doyle … is a hirsute shambling shuffling mumbling grumbling muttering muddled maundering meandering male being who edits Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, in Oregon – the best university magazine in America, according to Newsweek, and “the best spiritual magazine in the country,” according to author Annie Dillard, clearly a woman of surpassing taste and discernment.
Doyle is the author of ten books: five collections of essays, two nonfiction books (The Grail, about a year in an Oregon vineyard, and The Wet Engine, about the “muddles & musics of the heart”), two collections of “proems,” most recently Thirsty for the Joy: Australian & American Voices (published in Australia); and the sprawling novel Mink River, just published by Oregon State University Press.
Doyle’s books have four times been finalists for the Oregon Book Award, and his essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion, The American Scholar, and in newspapers and magazines around the world. His essays have also been reprinted in the annual Best American Essays, Best American Science & Nature Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. Among various honors for his work is a Catholic Book Award, two Pushcart Prizes, and, mysteriously, a 2008 Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, this last particularly amazing, because previous recipients include Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Mary Oliver, and wouldn’t that be a great dinner table, you know?
His greatest accomplishments are that a riveting woman said yup when he mumbled a marriage proposal, that the Coherent Mercy then sent them three lanky snotty sneery testy sweet brilliant nutty muttering children in skin boats from the sea of the stars, and that he once made the all-star team in a Boston men’s basketball league that was a really tough league, guys drove the lane in that league they lost fingers, man, one time a guy drove to the basket and got hit so hard his right arm fell off but he was lefty and hit both free throws, so there you go.
Posted by Nick Ripatrazone at 1:00 AM