by: Joshua Campbell, Assistant Managing Editor & Elizabeth Foster, Online Publications Intern
WHEN TRYING TO FIND A WAY TO EMBODY THE EFFECT THAT MILLHAUSER'S WORK HAD ON US, NOT ONLY AS READERS, BUT ALSO AS WRITERS, ONE THING CAME TO MIND. The only way that we see appropriate is to use the metaphor of the movie theater, one that, as you will later see, Millhauser uses often in his work. The main idea is the act of immersion. When reading the work of Millhauser, one is taken from his or her sunny, comfortable perception of reality and led into the unknown, the darkness. As we walk deeper into the story that is being presented to us, we realize that we are aware of many things, but not entirely certain of anything.
If the immersion of reading into the work itself is the heavy darkness of the theater, then the lighted screen is Millhauser's vision. It illuminates the reader and ushers them into a world into which they have not been before. As we sit in the velvety-lush symbolism and thick themes, we become aware of the ever unfolding furrowed curtains of characterization. We become present in this new consciousness, in this new lightness.
This was our experience when engaging the work of Steven Millhauser for the first time.
It wasn’t until this Our Stories interview with him was set that we did some poking around to get a better sense of him. This is what we found. As a literary fiction writer—best known for his both novels and short stories—and man, Steven Millhauser by and large does not do interviews, but rather, as a 1997 New York Times article title puts it, announcing his Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel ''Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, “Shy Author Likes to Live And Work In Obscurity.” You are in for a treat.
Mirrored below, when we asked about his how winning a Pulitzer might have affected his writing, his terse response was “Not at all. Not even faintly. Sorry.” A teacher of creative writing, too, he shares the secret to surviving the often-continuous disappointment of a young writer with Our Stories: “A young writer needs to understand very quickly, and very seriously, that the main test is how much disappointment you can stand.” He goes on to add, “If this thought isn’t disheartening, if it’s somehow interesting and even exhilarating, then you’re a writer.” This comment was particularly salient to us, given the origins of Our Stories Literary Journal, and our commitment to honoring the labors of the beginning writer.
There is something profoundly special about Millauser as a writer. It is evident when reading the interview that Millhauser is the kind of person who leaves his ego at the door, despite his evident success. Won’t you please join us in this darkened room, on this luminous screen, for a rare viewing of Mr. Steven Millhauser: Enter the Magician of Wor(l)ds.
Our Stories Interview with a Master – Steven Millhauser: Enter the Magician of Wor(l)ds
Welcome, Steven. Thanks for taking some time to talk with us here at Our Stories. Our staff and readers are thrilled to have you.
Even though it is always less black-and-white than this, it seems that certain writers may become known for a particular style or have a primary literary label attributed to their work. “Surrealist,” “fabulist,” “illusionist” and “magical realist” have all popped up near your name. Are these labels apt? Fair? When regarding serious literary work, is it useful to apply such categorizations to writers—or, rather, is it important to read each piece within the context of its own created world?
Terms like “fabulist” and “magic realist” make me very uneasy. They imply a world in which literature is neatly divided into two types: realism, and everything else. But everything else is automatically the realm of the un-real, the non-real, which means that we aren’t required to take it seriously. We may, of course, pretend to take it seriously. Or we can pinch its rosy cheek. How fabulous! How magical! Just like a child! It’s enough to make you want to set your baby carriage on fire.
What, then, do you say about a piece of fiction that refuses to adhere to the conventions of realism? One thing you can say is that the serious impulse to oppose realism always comes from within realism itself. It’s possible to feel that so-called “realistic” fiction is in fact not realistic in a meaningful way, that what it’s doing is imitating the worn-out conventions of an earlier time. Such “realistic” fiction may seem to engage the urgent problems of the day, but is nothing more than an imitation of a dead form.
In my view, serious anti-realism always takes place in the name of realism. My argument amounts to saying that fabulism is a particular form of realism – a form that’s necessary because the conventions of realism forbid access to crucial kinds of truth.
How would you describe your work?
You use what is described as magical realism in some of your short stories, particularly those in The Barnum Museum, which can be compared to Ray Bradbury’s work. Was Bradbury an influence on you, in this sense? If not, who are some of your influences? Borges? Calvino?
Difficult to say what constitutes an influence. Some writers who appear to be influences are simply kindred spirits. That’s how I tend to think of Borges or Calvino. Bradbury has nothing to do with me. As a young writer I was obsessed with Joyce, Kafka, Mann – their influence is real, but subterranean. I revere the great realist writers of the nineteenth century – writers like Chekhov and Maupassant and Turgenev – and love reading the work of contemporary American realists. I read them and ask: Why not do it that way? Why on earth not? My answer is the fiction I write.
Do you think that by incanting these liminal, illusory, or dream states you are able to write about certain subjects that you could not or would not otherwise?
That’s it exactly. But it isn’t a question of writing about mysterious, vague states because normal human emotions don’t interest me. The push toward something else – toward the inexpressible – is an effort to enter realms of human experience that are real but unavailable to the conventions that are called realistic.
In other interviews you have commented on the amount of light and darkness in a work of fiction. Do you think that when you write about childhood, or from the point of view of a child, that there is a certain amount of “darkness” or obscurity involved as a way for certain realities to establish themselves more clearly, as they often do during this time in one's own life?
I’m reluctant to make a special case for childhood, or to say that darkness operates in childhood more than in adolescence or adulthood.
This question is in reference to your fiction in which you write from the perspective of a female character—but “A Protest Against the Sun” in particular. You write from the point of view of the female main character, Elizabeth, with much conviction and even touch upon certain social standards that she finds herself held up to. Does any sort of significant experience ever occur for you when writing from the perspective of a female character? What are you forced to be aware of, if anything, when writing from the perspective of a female character over the years?
I sometimes like to get rid of myself – to dis-inhabit myself – by imagining my way into characters who are as remote from me as possible, such as Don Juan, or a nineteenth-century entrepreneur, or a woman. But whenever I do this, I gradually discover that the character permits me to express something that feels buried in my own nature. I am Don Juan, I am a teenage girl, I am a woman whose husband has cheated on her. Being a female character makes me aware of men in a different way: men as dangerous judges, men as careless, men as opaque.
Is it more difficult, as a writer, than assuming the perspective of any other “other?”
The question of difficulty is – well – difficult. I’m not aware that imagining myself as a female character is more difficult than imagining myself as Kaspar Hauser or a balloonist in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Then again, difficulty attracts me so powerfully that I think of it as desirable, as necessary, so that it gradually changes into its opposite.
You use movie theaters often in your work and also in interviews, more specifically you talk about being a child in a movie theater. What is it about this setting that has acted as a rich vein of nostalgia or inspiration that you continue to tap into?
I find everything about movie theaters seductive, especially the neighborhood movie theater of my childhood. I love the stages of immersion: the sunny summer day, the artificial brightness of the lobby, the dimly lit theater itself, the darkening of the lights. It’s as if you’re being lured gradually away from brightness into a dark world, where anything might happen. But the darkness is merely a preparation for a new brightness, a rival of the sun: the ferocious brightness of the screen. And while all this is going on, something else is happening that’s strange and wonderful: you’re alone with a newly created world, but you’re also part of a community of watchers. The peculiar combination of solitude and community, in a dark place that is dazzling bright, is deeply satisfying.
Having written novellas, novels, and—of course—short stories (and in Enchanted Night, something like flash-fiction vignettes that seem to hang in the air in front of the reader like those moments or visions, seen clearly, that won’t leave your head), do you have a distinct process for writing each? If not, at which point do you know the direction that the sentences hitting paper will take?
The process of writing is always the same: you induce in yourself a condition of waking dream, and then write down what you see. Exactly how one induces this condition, exactly what constitutes a “waking dream,” and exactly what happens when images are turned into words, is elusive and finally mysterious. I welcome the mystery – welcome, in a sense, my own ignorance.
One thing I can tell you: I do a great deal of mental shaping -- of dreaming, if you like – before I permit myself to begin writing. When I do begin, I have a strong sense of the whole. I know whether it’s going to be short or long, though not how short or how long. I know whether it will be composed as a series of vignettes, or as a single flow. There are writers who claim proudly that they know nothing before they begin work, or that they start with one image. As Gertrude Stein would put it: Interesting, if true.
In your short stories you often contrast the main character with a personified crowd or a collective outside group of people. Do you feel that this reflects the way you feel towards your role in society as a writer? Is this an element of your writing that you were conscious of from the start or did it take a while for you to notice its appearance?
The “we” that draws attention to itself in some of my stories is there for far less exalted reasons. What attracts me to “we” is that it’s an escape from the oppressive familiarity of “I” and “he” and “she.” I wish there were a dozen pronouns in English – I’d explore them all. One advantage of “we” is that it permits exactly the kind of contrast you mention: a crowd in opposition to something else -- a small group, an institution, a single character. I’m drawn to the drama of that contrast. But I’m drawn to many other things as well – for instance, the way in which statements by “we” quickly become questionable, since a large group rarely thinks exactly the same way about complex things. But the overwhelming seductiveness of a plural narrator is that it liberates me from over-familiar pronouns.
Our Stories is unique because we give thoughtful feedback to all writers who submit their work to the journal. This ethic of feedback and revision is intended to help committed writers to grow from the review process. If their piece is not ready for publication, the author walks away with useful advice intended to move that story—and perhaps writer—along. We would like to know your thoughts on this unusual journal submission process. How do you select where you choose to send your stories?
I think it’s very generous, very exhausting.
As for me, it’s simple: I send stories to my agent, who decides what to do with them. I advise young writers all the time about what to do with stories, how to submit them, and so on, but I’d rather jump off the Brooklyn Bridge than enter again that grim world of endless submission, endless rejection.
What advice do you have for young writers?
A young writer needs to understand very quickly, and very seriously, that the main test is how much disappointment you can stand. If this thought isn’t disheartening, if it’s somehow interesting and even exhilarating, then you’re a writer.
Which books do you keep at an arm’s reach? Who do you read while you are writing—do you read other writers for inspiration or voice or cadence while you approach your own work? Or do you feel reading the words of others intrusive to your own voice?
For reasons obscure to me, the writers I often return to are not ones that anyone would associate with my work: Chekhov, Henry James, Thomas Mann. Boring old masters, if you will. It’s also true that I read widely, indiscriminately. When I write, I banish any voice that might interfere with my own rhythms, my own vision.
Are there any writers under 40 that you are reading? Do you think it is important to access the future of writing—in what is coming out right now—paired against the steadfast classics upon which we may lean back?
I read many writers under 40. I also read many writers under 30, and many, many writers under 20 (my students). But I don’t read everyone, I don’t care about fashions, and I don’t begin to accept the assumption that young writers are more exciting than not-young writers. I also have trouble thinking of a writer under 40 as somehow “young” -- Moby Dick was published when the author was 32, The Sound and the Fury when the author was 34, Madame Bovary when the author was 35-- though contemporary Americans like to think of themselves as young even when they’re 45.What interests me most about a young writer isn’t usually the work itself. It’s what he or she will become.
How did winning a Pulitzer affect your writing?
Not at all. Not even faintly. Sorry.
What’s next on your desk that you're working on? What is in the dream-chute hopper for your readers to look forward to?
At the moment I’m going over the pages of a book that will appear in September –New and Selected Stories. It’s a little like working on your own tombstone.
Thank you, Steven, for being with us.