Q & A: Author, Robert Bausch
1. What inspired you to become a writer?
Mostly reading. And storytelling. My family was big into storytelling. IN fact, all of my brothers and sisters are wonderful storytellers. Our gatherings are a blast because we sit around and tell and re-tell funny stories. My father was the best storyteller I ever saw. He acted out all the parts, remembered whole conversations and just kept everybody laughing.
I wrote my first novel--one I never published--when I was 14. I was in the eighth grade. It was a novel about the Civil War. That's all I read about. I read no fiction at all to speak of. I remember the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, The Bobbsie Twins. I loved a book called The Wahoo Bobcat, and one about a cougar called "Yellow Eyes." I read "The Call of the Wild," and "White Fang." But mostly I read nonfiction: Douglas Southall Freeman's four volume biography R. E. Lee, Henry Steele Commager's History of the Civil War, Shelby Foote's The Civil War: a Narrative. I read all of Bruce Caton's books: Glory Road, Mr. Lincoln's Army, A Stillness at Appomatox. The list is longer than I can include in this e-mail. If it was about the Civil War, and it was published between 1957 and 1963, I read it. My grades went deeper and deeper into the alphabet, but my parents didn't overreact to that--as long as I was passionate about something, and devoting my time to it, they let me fail in school. Not failure that made it so I'd have to repeat a year or anything, but they didn't make a big fuss when I brought home 'D's instead of 'A's. In the 9th grade, my English teachers convinced me pretty quickly that I had nothing of any value whatever to say, and I didn't start writing again (except for a few long letters to my mother) until I was 26 years old and just out of the military. My English teachers meant well, but they did not respond to anything I had to say. They simply corrected what I wrote, graded it and gave it back. I'd get a 'C' because I didn't use commas' correctly (I still don't) or because I had one sentence paragraphs.
I thought that was tone of voice. I thought it was clever to say something that everybody believed, then have a one sentence paragraph that identified clearly how I felt about that idea, and then a new paragraph presenting an alternate idea. I remember my teacher telling me it was both a sentence fragment, and a one sentence paragraph and taking off twenty points. I had read enough by then--remember I loved reading and I'd read lots of histories and such--that I KNEW she was wrong, but I didn't argue with her. I just stopped listening. My grades, all the way through school were bad. I barely made it. I like to tell my students that my report card read like a guy who stutters trying to say Dog.
2. What is your process for beginning a new novel? Can you explain your writing habits?
I write, or try to, every day. When I begin a novel, I start with a character—somebody I have a vague notion about, and I put her or him in a situation and see what happens. Sometimes it develops nicely and I keep at it. Other times I go back and change the situation. Or tweak the character. Whatever happens in the book I am writing should happen because of something in my character’s make up—in who she is, or who he is. What kind of person have I created? I don’t want anything happening in the plot to serve the story or my attitudes or my spleen or any of my appetites. I want what happens to happen because of the character. If the writing isn’t going well, and I can’t think of the next thing I want to say, I’ll turn off the monitor and write blindly, looking at my reflection in the monitor. If I’m using a laptop, I’ll put a piece of cardboard between me and the screen. If I can’t SEE what I’m writing, I can’t judge it, or edit it, or in any way let the critical side of things interfere with creation. I have to let the creation take place first. I need that critical side though, because one of the worst things you can develop as a writer is allegiance to earlier drafts. You have to be willing to let go, to have the critic come back and with a savage pen, DO something with the dross produced in the creation. I believe ANY day I write, whether or not it goes well, is a GOOD day. And days when I DON’T write are anxious and frightful and not very much fun, unless I have planned and chosen a day off. I like those. I do not like any day I plan to write and don’t. It is always five o’clock on a damp November day in my soul when that happens.
3. How do you balance being a full-time college English professor with your writing career?
I don’t get a lot of sleep. I work on Saturdays, Sundays, Fridays—Monday afternoons, Wednesday mornings; almost never on Tuesday or Thursday because I teach all day, both days and Tuesday nights. I think I’m a better teacher of writing when I’m writing. I don’t often borrow from one to pay the other, but it has happened. I’ve had to stall things in a class because of where I am in a novel—near the end, comes to mind; or editing for publication. Those things can take away from the teaching, but I really do work hard not to let that happen. When I have grading to do, late in the semester, I almost never work on Wednesdays, Saturdays or Sundays. Those days are reserved for grading. Sometimes I’ll do both. I’m never, ever bored, or sitting around wondering what to do. I live every day as though sleep is the wrong thing to do; I never go to sleep until I can’t possibly stay awake any longer. I get up, usually, with the sun. I like mornings for the fresh coffee and the Washington Post. I am a champion napper. I can lay down on the couch, close my eyes and be sound asleep in seconds. Sleep for an hour or so and then I’m ready to go late into the night and early morning.
4. Can you discuss a few projects that you are currently working on?
I’m in the last stages of a novel called As Far as the Eye Can See. That is to say, I’m polishing the third draft and will read it one more time and tweak it one more time before I send it anywhere. Last summer I finished a novel called The Legend of Jesse Smoke. It is with my agent now, and he’s trying to place it with a publisher. I have another book I wrote two years ago called, The Strange Case of the Silent Girl. Or, In The Fall They Come Back. I haven’t made up my mind about its title. I have not been able to place it, so I’m waiting to sell one of the others so I can then perhaps get that book into print. Right now I’m in the worst place a writer can be: My last book, Out of Season, did not do well. In fact, it sold so poorly, they cancelled the paperback on it. Those numbers are what publishers look at. So, the reality is, I may have published my last novel while I’m alive. It is heartbreaking sometimes to think about it, but that’s where I am. The first thing a prospective publisher does these days is go on his computer banks and he can find out how many books I have sold; if they don’t like what they see, they don’t really care how good the book is. They won’t buy it. But I am going to keep writing them, by God. It’s who I am.
5. What would you consider to be your best work and why?
That’s really a hard question to answer. It’s like trying to decide who your favorite child is. I don’t really have a favorite child. I’m proud of all of them, and I guess I have to say I’m proud of all my books and stories. There’s not much I’d do differently, to tell the truth. What’s out there is out there, and has to stand on its own. I can tell you that A Hole in the Earth really surprised me for how well it did. And I think The Gypsy Man was perhaps the most intricately engineered work I’ve ever done. But as I said, I can’t pick a best work.
6. Explain how you create your characters. Are they mostly imagined or do they come from personal interactions?
I am proud to imagine and create characters. Perhaps they are composites of folks I have known, I don’t know; I’ve been as keen an observer of people as my limited insight and intelligence will allow. But mostly I like to invent. Create people from images and dreams and just thinking when I first see them, or when they first come into a work. I’ll change sometimes later in the drafting, but usually the characters I create remain who they are all the way through the work.
7. What is your most valuable piece of advice for someone about to embark on a writing career?
Read. Read as much and as often as possible. Read poetry, lots of poetry—it helps with descriptive metaphor, figurative language, economy, precision. Read history, biography; read the history of ideas; philosophy. Read the great novels, short stories and plays of the Russians, the French, the English, the Americans, the Latin Americans, the Spanish. You have to know the world; the more you know, the more you will have at your disposal when you’re trying to write. Read more than one book at a time. I read six or seven. Sometimes even more. I read IN each book, each day. Reading all those different voices will keep you from sounding like other writers; you’ll sound like yourself and only yourself. And it’s not hard to do—after all, we know many different people and if we see them everyday, we don’t have to be reminded about what is going on in their lives. It’s the same thing with reading several different books at once. If you do it every day, you have no trouble keeping up with what’s going on in each of them. If you want to be a writer, you have to read more than you write, more than you watch TV, more than you do almost anything. The more you see the language in print, the more you can navigate its extraordinary mixture of sounds and the beauty of its ideas in your own writing.
8. How do you get touch with your creative self?
I lower my standards and just produce a text. That’s what happens when I turn off the monitor or cover the screen. Other times, when it’s going well, I don’t need to do anything but show up at the keyboard, with a hot cup of coffee.
9. What was the inspiration behind a few of your novels?
Almighty Me was inspired by a conversation with my brother in law. We used to go to a fishing camp in Canada every year, and one night, sitting by the fire, smoking my pipe and drinking whiskey, I wondered out loud if Christ trimmed his beard. In all the likenesses of him his beard is perfectly quaffed. He was GOD. Certainly he knew about air conditioning, and plaque, and how to avoid ever having a tooth ache. In fact, couldn’t he insure that he would suffer none of the horrific inconveniences of the Middle East in 30 A. D.? My brother in law wrote a poem called “Christ Trims his Beard,” and I went home and started thinking about what would happen if a man got God’s power now—if we had another go at a Christ. Would HE trim his beard? I had a ball writing that book. It was originally titled Spanking the World. At first I had Christ himself coming back. He was terrified when he saw all the folks wearing crucifixes, the churches with crosses. He thought he’d come to a place that hated him completely—sort of like what it would do to Abraham Lincoln if he came back and everybody was wearing a small derringer around their necks, and churches had big pistols on top of them; or if John Kennedy came back and all the churches had high powered rifles on their roofs and folks wore little symbols of that around their necks. But eventually it worked out that it was a man, and automobile salesman no less, who is GIVEN god’s power.
My first novel, On the Way Home was inspired by a student of mine who had been captured by the Viet Cong during the Viet Nam War. They kept him underground and tortured him mercilessly. He asked me what he could possibly do with his hate. I wrote a short story about his experiences and when Harpers magazine rejected it, the editor there told me that I had not dealt with my “veteran’s pain” in the story. So I used that story as chapter one, put a piece of paper in the typewriter and began chapter two. That became my first novel and what it developed into was the problems my character has adjusting to new life with his mother and father in Florida. It becomes about love and not hate at all. It’s also about fear.
Most of my novels, though, have been inspired by, merely, the desire to produce another one. It’s like a new car. You like it for a while, but then, after some time, your admiration wanes. It doesn’t smell new anymore. The thrill of driving it is gone. It’s just your car. It may stay that way for years, but you always look forward to buying another new one. It’s the same with a novel. Eventually, you gotta have a new one.
10. Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
My brother Richard Bausch, George Garrett, Alan Wier, James Dickey, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren, Anne Beattie, Howard Norman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Maynard, Elinor Lippmann, Jane Hamilton, James Jones, William Maxwell, Ron Rash, Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Tom McGuane, Kaye Gibbon, Alan Gurganis, Flannery O’connor, Richard Dillard, --oh, the list is endless. I love the work of all of these writers. I have left off as many as are on this list. I could write a brief essay about each one and why I love his or her work. And this is only the fiction list. I loved Shelby Foote, Henry Steele Commager, Bruce Catton, David Halberstam, Walter Isaacson, Nathaniel Philbrick.. it’s a long list. I love the philosophy of David Hume, and Voltaire; the work of John Paul Sartre.
I know this list is long, but truly, if I had to go to a desert island, I could not take any less than these guys and their books with me.
I hope all this hasn’t bored you too awful much.