John Casey interviewed by Chelsea T. Hicks
When I started reading “Dogma and Anti-dogma,” the first of the essays in John Casey’s Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction, a feeling the narrator describes as being lost in the woods or caught in a vortex overtook me. I was sitting on a dusty concrete patio in central San Francisco with mosquitoes biting at my legs and I felt the need to get away. So I went on a long walk. Little did I know that “long walks” are Casey’s recommendation for unlocking the subconscious and entering the semi-trance necessary for producing art—including fiction.
After the walk, the book was different for me. It was pure trickery, an incantation of Casey’s lilting mutation of lit crit, which moves not on the military halt and stomp of academic logic but runs on, as he puts it, “low vaudeville cunning.“ The prose flows on currents from Casey’s forty years of experience getting good prose out of people; and the writing makes for a clean presentation of distilled wisdom in eloquent musings. But the trickery is in how Casey can make the reader feel while flicking his writerly wrists.
Casey confesses, “I’m rarely happily conscious of being a writer. While I’m writing, I’m self-forgetful. But I’m happily conscious of being a reader.” Well, like all readers, I’d wanted the act of writing to be equal and opposite to the feeling and force of my own reading: feverous, glowing, absorptive—gluttonous in the way books are to teenagers first falling in love with them. But on the last page, Casey acknowledges that Beyond the First Draft is a collection of essays, carefully crafted, agonized and published over a span of time that amounts to many emerging writers’ lifespans.
That’s the truest revelation of Beyond the First Draft: though young writers yearn for the act of writing to be as breathtaking as their first read, the mature voice comes through years of patient craft, the dirty exactitude of puzzling with words.
—Chelsea T. Hicks
I. BE A GOOD DATE!
THE BELIEVER: You talked about “being yourself” in “Dogma and Anti-dogma,” and compared writing to being on a good date. Tell us, what are you like on a date, and what was your most memorable date ever?
JOHN CASEY: Let’s see. Vonnegut used to say something like, “C’mon you guys, your stories, sometimes they’re just too impactive and dense. You’ve got to be a good date!” So I thought about that for a while, and then I thought about the “write about what you know” thing and I thought, none of my friends—if I were going on a date—would ever say “Well, be yourself, but don’t talk about rowing!” So then I went and wrote a book called Room for Improvement. And about a fourth of it is about rowing.
BLVR: So you, the writer, did the one thing you were never supposed to do on a date: talk about rowing.
JC: I tried to make it occasionally thrilling, but more often funny. I hope that it turned out that way.
BLVR: The line that you have, “Prick a finger, write a word,” is meant to be funny, but I wonder if writing Beyond the First Draft and Room for Improvement were different for you than writing fiction?
JC: Sometimes, yes. One of the things I wrote very much in that semi-trance was a fairly short essay called “In Other Words.”
It’s on translation and it’s got a lot of funny stuff about translating, getting it right, getting it wrong, talking with the Italian woman whose novel I was translating, and there was a Russian poem [by Alexander Blok] that I had just been fascinated with. I took Russian classes in college and I don’t remember a lot of it, but I remember enough to read it sometimes and I was trying, trying, and trying to translate the poem. The sounds of it, I never got it right.
I mean, it’s a gorgeous sort of quatrain, but the last line is, “I stála bespahshcháhadna yásna zhizn ooshoomyéla i ooshlá.” I love the sound: it’s like a wave coming up on a beach and pulling back. Translated, it means, literally, “And it became indefensibly clear that life had noised away and left,” which doesn’t get anywhere in English.
I have a little cabin on the banks of the Upper Delaware and the bank is twenty feet high. And one day the Delaware River rose twenty-six feet. The river ran through it and left all this silt. The silt in my hand put something in mind, I thought both, “Oh God, I need to get a new pump for the well,” but it also set off something within me: a sense of Blok’s poem that I had never been able to translate, a sense of things being swept away and disappearing and the bleakness afterward. That got me to go back the house that my dead father-in-law and mother-in-law had built, with the red tiles in the front hall that had never fully set.
I went and I looked at the garden I’d had there—it was all weeds—and I saw the twin beds that my daughters had slept in, and it was a jolt. I got to the front hall and everything was quiet and then I brushed the tiles and saw that they were at last perfectly set. My father-in-law was dead, all four of his children had gotten divorced—I mean everything was gone, gone. That I was not prepared for. I just began to sob. I mean, everything was gone from that house that I had loved, all at once.
Then there’s that last line. Sometimes there is a solid link between a word and what it means, but sometimes you don’t know what the word means until it comes back like a ghost and howls silently inside you.
Writing that part, a part that I almost don’t dare read out loud because I begin to sniffle—I wanted every word to be just right. So that required a certain amount of sticking a pin in my finger, writing a word, sticking a pin, writing a word. In any case, some non-fiction writing, if you’re telling a true story, it’s just as hard as telling a story in fiction; but the other thing is the Room for Improvement stuff, the funny stuff, writing things that are funny you have to be really careful because every word has to be in just the right place. So that requires the same kind of concentration as doing a fictional scene. That is that concentration, and the concentration you need that’s not a trance, but a bit of a semi-trance.
II. ERUDITION AND BUSINESS SENSE
BLVR: You reveal yourself in your essays as having earned a reputation by, as you say, “arguing with smart people,” and then maybe I can also infer: studying the ancients, competing as an amateur in sports—and you choose to surround yourself with people who challenge you, and try to learn something new for the benefit of it. Do you think that trying to better yourself by placing yourself in uncomfortable situations makes you a better writer?
JC: There’s an essay in that book, “Mentors in General, Peter Taylor in Particular,” which is hardly funny, because, in it, there’s an old guy talking to an eager young writer and she has the idea of “show me how,” and in the essay, I tell her about animals that I’ve seen in the woods and stuff like that, and she says, “Look, I don’t want to write for Animal Planet. Let’s get back to the business side of things.” And I say, “Look, I wouldn’t write if I didn’t read a lot, but I also wouldn’t write if I didn’t bump into the physical world in surprising ways.”
That’s where I get some of this stuff: in the woods. And I’ve actually discovered things about myself by competing, either running or in crew. This other guy and I were partners in a double scull for nine years and we got to know each other very, very well and that was fascinating, because you learn about the other person from how they row. A coach of mine once said that after the first 1,000 meters of a race, if the question of quitting doesn’t cross your mind, then you’re not trying hard enough. Getting into where you think, “God, I can’t do another thing!” helps you find something that enables you to keep going.
BLVR: Beyond the First Draft reads sort of like how sitting in your fiction class feels: there’s the witty stuff, some dutifully followed rabbit trails, applied acting metaphors, various facts, and a conversational tone. Sometimes you’ll even change your mind mid-sentence rather than edit it. Did you intend a similarity between reading the book and taking a course in fiction with John Casey? What do you hope the reader’s experience to be like?
JC: There is a conversational tone that signals the one thing I do want to avoid: being dogmatic. If showing that any suggestions that I’m making are put forward in, not a tentative way, but certainly slyly enough to see if the person hearing it, or reading it will think, “Well, maybe, maybe. OK.” So in that sense it’s meant to be an offering rather than an instruction all in bold-face caps. Yes, I think that that must have been on my mind or at the back of my mind, certainly.
BLVR: Much of your adult life has centered on literary education, from studying at Iowa to teaching at the University of Virginia MFA program. I wonder what you thought about the MFA vs. NYC debate launched by one of UVA’s own, Chad Harbach.
JC: I can’t remember what he said, exactly. I’m quite fond of him.
BLVR: He basically pits the MFA against the idea that what you really need to do is go to New York and make connections, be on the scene. I think most people’s reaction is that you might have to do both, but he really lacerates the idea of the MFA as always working on its own.
JC: He showed up with a very good work in progress, and then he kind of hit a wall in his book The Art of Fielding, which is really very, very good, and selling like mad. He may have thought that the MFA was getting in his way, but he got a certain amount of pressure from Chris Tilghman and me, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, you can do it!” But he left before he was finished and went to New York, where he was one of the founding editors of N+1. So, he took his own advice, but I think he got some help and certainly encouragement during the time he was here. Although living in New York is so expensive. I would suggest living in Queens or New Jersey, because you don’t really need to be on the scene all the time. Go to readings, and you have friends and whatnot, that’s part of it too, although, as James Joyce said to himself, “I need silence, exile and cunning.”
III. ACCESSING THE SUBCONSCIOUS AND OTHER TRICKS
BLVR: The dogma section in The Art of Fiction has some how-to that’s helpful and similar to things I’ve heard you say in workshop, but what I didn’t hear much about in the book or in classes is one particular thing you mention: sometimes when you’re writing, you access the subconscious and its buried memories. I wonder if you have any advice for writers who are trying to “access their subconscious.”
JC: I can’t remember whether I put this in the book, or said it sometime in class or put it in an as-yet-unpublished essay. I had a wonderful dog for many years and I would walk him from eleven at night to midnight and the next day I would go and write very cheerfully. After he died, I couldn’t get started in the morning. It would take me a long time. I would clean all my bikes and walk around in circles and what I realized was that the idle musing as I walked the dog, as he would go and sniff and then mark a bush, I would be humming to myself, and I was actually doing work in that: just letting things roll around.
I wasn’t in a trance but I was in a form of meditation, and that helped when I would get to my desk the next morning. I think anything that unlocks semi-consciousness is helpful because you know much more than you think you know. It’s down there, and sometimes it comes up because something stirs it up. Or sometimes you just have to relax enough to sink down into it a little bit. Those things often are very useful.
BLVR: You discuss method acting a lot in these essays. Do you have experience with acting?
JC: I had a terrible stutter as a child. That’s loosened up some, but by chance, I had a roommate who was putting on a play and he said, “Just read this part,” and I got into it. He said, “You know, you could play the part.” I said, “God, no, I’d get up there on stage and I mean, you know how I am.” And he said, “Well, let’s give it a whirl. We’ll start rehearsals and see how it goes.”
I was somebody else. It wasn’t me. I thought about the character and I imagined all sorts of things and I sort of got into a voice and a kind of all that stuff that Stanislavski talks about, and it worked. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a preening for thinking of details that bring a character to life, which of course is very useful when you’re writing a story. I learned that by chance.
Here’s another odd thing. At a huge party one time, I ran into James Earl Jones and we began to talk and he stuttered a little bit, and I stuttered back, and we both laughed. I said, “So you actually stutter?” He said, “Yeah, in daily life I do often enough.” And I said, “But not when you act.” And we sort of had a little bond there about that, we talked about short story writing and whatnot. I said, “So, tell me something, does it get better as you get older?” He looked at me sternly and said, “I believe you are older than I am.” And he scowled! I was terrified, but then he laughed and we went on. There are, curiously enough, actors who stutter in daily life but not when they are on stage, in character.
David Mitchell has a novel called Black Swan Green in which there is a description of a schoolboy stuttering in school. It was so accurate in catching the feeling. In fact, I think the boy is on his way to school when he says, “I had no idea whether today would be one of those days when the hangmen came,” meaning, to put a noose around his throat. I thought, “This guy knows.” A graduate student of mine found an essay that Mitchell wrote on stuttering and he nails it. The self-consciousness about words, about speech. I’m going to put a little list together [of writers who stutter.] Elizabeth Bowen stuttered, and I only learned that when my editor at The New Yorker one time—a very, very sweet man now, alas, dead—said, “Oh, that slight stutter you have reminds me exactly of Elizabeth Bowen.”
It comes and goes. I don’t stutter when I give a reading and I’ve rehearsed it enough so that it becomes like acting. I stutter a little bit in class, but it doesn’t bother me that much.
But the one thing that will get to me still is when there’s a board meeting or department meeting or something like that and whoever’s in charge says, “Let’s just go around a little bit and say our name,” and it brings me back to this moment in law school. I was taking a seminar with a very bright and frightening professor who wouldn’t bother to learn anyone’s name until you asked a question that stumped him. I sat back in the corner and took my notes and whatnot, and then one day he said something that I can’t remember exactly, but I put my hand up and I said, “Well, really, the term really isn’t the same thing as what Jeremy was talking about,” and I went on a bit, and he said, “Oh, well, wait a second, there’s an easy answer to that, it’s, hmm…wait a second. What is your name?” And I thought, “I’ll say Mr. Casey.” And I said, “Mmmmmmm—”. And then I thought, “Well, I’ll say Casey,” and I said, “Ccccc—”. Then I thought, “I’ll say John Casey,” and I said, “John Casey!” And he said, “Chiang Kai-shek!?” And everyone laughed like crazy and I can’t remember what happened after that, but I liked the course and I got an A. So there we are. That was my last year in law school. That memory comes back to me years later and I turn it over and over and I still haven’t found a way to say it.
In the first novel I published there was a very smart character, a woman who wants to meet some guy who she’s seen around, and so she mimeographs a questionnaire and mails it out with a $5 bill in it, to the guy, and says, “Do not put your name on this, this is an anonymous questionnaire.” And she knows him well enough to know that if he’s got the five bucks he’ll stamp the envelope and send it in. She asks him a ton of questions and he reveals enormous amounts about himself.
After writing it, I thought it was clever and slightly mean and sly in a way that it’s not something that would have occurred to me, but it occurred to the character. So I was doing enough, I was into her character enough to have that prank come up. Curiously enough, someone has asked me since then, “Do you ever use people you know as characters?” And the answer is you use a piece, and then you add other things, so most people usually can tell. But in this case, this woman who’s bright has lots of thoughts and I actually took a lot of them from a male, very good friend of mine who teaches law. After he read the novel, he said, “I love Anya. I would marry Anya.” I said, “You know, those ideas that she has are yours,” and he said, “Yeah. I’d still marry her.”
And so if you want to conceal someone you just change the sex and they’re very unlikely to guess. And the idea is that there are some thoughts that only men can have and only women can have, whereas men and women a lot of the time think alike. Sometimes not, but just being smart, they sure do.
Chelsea T. Hicks is a prose writer who pens aerospace news by day, and fronts indie band Osage by night. Chelsea met John Casey in one of his fiction workshops at the University of Virginia, where she also held the Double Hoo Grant for research in poetry and creative writing. You can find her recent work in Kindred Magazine, and online at Rasasvada and Dead Beats.