Third part of the interview with Rusty Barnes, editor of the literary journal Night Train.
Wayne: Why do you think your reading and writing interests tend towards realism? You were instrumental in turning me on to the writing of Andre Dubus. Why does he resonate with you (is it something in the geography of your upbringing)?
Rusty Barnes: I’m glad you like Dubus. The more people I can turn on to him the better.
Realism made sense to me, when I discovered it, in a way other writing didn’t. It has much to do with my early experience in graduate school. First, I barely got into graduate school. I applied to seven MFA programs and was a conditional acceptance at Emerson. I shudder to think of how naïve I was about the entire process—I wish I could find my application essay; it was a howler, in retrospect— but someone on the admissions committee saw something, because I did get in. Once there, I met with the then-chair of the Emerson WLP department, DeWitt Henry, and two things happened: first, he advised me, given my background, to enroll in a course called Fabulist Fiction, which was good advice I didn’t take. I registered for it, but never attended, dropping it in favor of 19th C. American Novel instead. I learned in that class that I was not as smart or well-read as I thought I was, which is a great lesson I wish I’d gotten a little earlier. I realized how much work I needed to do, how much more I had to learn and read, and how in over my head I was. It was classic small-town-boy-goes-to-big-city syndrome. I had always thought of myself as the smartest guy around, and that class was the beginning of learning I wasn’t even close, which made me much humbler and nicer and more willing to swallow my ego and learn.
Second, he advised me to take Christopher Tilghman’s writing workshop. Chris’s first book, In A Father’s Place, had been out for a while then, and I bought it and read it and loved it. I inhaled the book, actually, in about a night, and since that was his only book at the time, I was lost to find similar material. It was completely out of the realm of my experience. Even now, I tend to find writers I like and immediately read, or try to read, everything they’ve published, and get frustrated when I can’t. So anyway. I was lost for similar material, and he happened to mention in class that he was in a Thursday night writing group led by a great writer, Andre Dubus, and I ought to check him out. I walked down Charles Street to the Lauriat’s and picked up Adultery and Other Stories, and my writing-head exploded when I read the title story standing there in the aisle. I bought it and walked down the street to the Paramount Café and read it all in the company of a huge turkey club and several glasses of Coke they were loath to sell me. They didn’t like students camping out there.
From then on, I hit the library at Emerson, and the Boston Public Library, and went blurb-searching and associate-seeking. I read all the writers who blurbed these books, if I could find them. I read over a hundred books that semester outside of class assignments, wrote two hundred pages of fiction, and began the rest of my real life. I read all the Dubus I could find, then Ted Weesner, also on the Emerson faculty, and from back issues of Ploughshares learned about Richard Yates and his connection to them as their teacher, and began to trace all these writers outward from their associates and found my way through them to the entire diet of contemporary fiction. I had begun reading realism. I had found in Dubus, and to a lesser extent in Weesner, fictional people similar to those I had grown up with, and was tremendously moved and excited by the possibility that I could tell stories about my home and family and friends, people like the people I knew.
Wayne: What does "realism" mean to you? You also mentioned "mimetic" writing; what do you mean?
Rusty: Realism is writing that approximates the world we lived in five minutes ago; even if it purports to show you what’s current, it really can’t. Mimetic writing literally means imitative writing. I think I read it first in Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction. I’ve seen it used mostly in the pejorative sense, usually in essays by people describing how their fictional mode is better, but I think it’s the way most (many?) people view fiction. It resembles and tries to describe a shared reality, which is why there are many different kinds of realism, if there is such a thing as realism at all. I’m heading into dangerous territory here. I’m no critic, but one of the things I read a few years ago made a great deal of sense to me, and Sven Birkerts (who edits Agni now) will have to forgive me if I murder what he meant, but I’ve now appropriated it as part of what I believe. He wrote in an essay once that he didn’t find a lot to excite him in contemporary realism, that there were few if any novels that took on the true breadth of day-to-day experience as we know it.
I’d qualify my own response here. I write mostly realistic fiction still, and likely will continue, but am struggling with this knowledge of what is lacking, with something like what Birkerts describes in his intro to the most recent issue of Agni: what is it about this fiction (mine or others) that makes it interesting, how is it that what I have to say is new and ought to be read?
Most fiction I read is essentially nostalgic. It reinforces what we think we know about the world, and readers are comforted by this reinforcement in the face of massive change in the way they go about their lives. I think this accounts for the preponderance of historical and quasi-historical fiction these days. Really, though, how much more nostalgia do we need, retellings and reinterpretations of things we’ve seen, even if filtered through the differing lenses of our own various experience? I mean, we ought to be able to do something else, we writers, and most of us don’t.
I’m looking for ways to make my work more vital in this way, and have been. I find the greatest kinship lately in presses like FC2 and Soft Skull, that are willing to show exactly how distressing the world is. I was told by an agent recently, don’t focus on the dark side. It will turn editors off. No happy endings necessarily, but some measure of hope. From his perspective, that’s good advice, which I hasten to say I was happy to get, as a writer who doesn’t get much business-advice. I don’t need to tell you though, that for me, whose work cannot be called exactly uplifting, that advice was so distressing. Hope is often far away. But he’s right. I know this from bookselling for years, as well as from my instincts. People, by and large, might say they admire a dark story or novel, but don’t buy it. Who wants a depressing book around, you know? The skewed or out-of-mainstream perspective, the writer who’s using all the familiar tools of the realist, but might be preoccupied with sex and violence and tawdriness, that might be too much, and let’s not talk about the formally inventive book or story, which is even harder to publish, I imagine. That’s more depressing than my fiction. Art is supposed to have room for all kinds, but mainstream publishing and the marketplace doesn’t seem to agree, and so what we get is nostalgia. It makes me want to take up knitting. At least my kids will be warm.
I don’t want to sound too dire, though. This is where the internet and self-publishing as well as the potential democratizing force of print-on-demand technology will become even more important. If you can’t find your place in the publishing world, you can make your own.
Wayne: How do we see Dubus and Larry Brown in your writing?
Rusty: I think in my focus on small-town life, certainly. I found people I recognized in their work, which gave me license to write some stories I might not have been able to otherwise. From Dubus, I get the luxury of the long rhythmic sentence for sure, and a certain fatalism which, unlike him, I have never been able to temper with much hope.
Brown’s influence is more on the abstract level, of permission. At certain points in a writer’s career he or she seeks out other more experienced writers to give them permission to go on, to feel that what they have to say is of value and that they’re capable of saying it as well. I have been blessed with lots of in-person help on this count, with Chris Tilghman and DeWitt Henry serving as prime motivators, writers who kept me going when I had lots of reasons to give up. More importantly, sometimes, there are writers you read—Brown, for me, among others, Dubus, Harry Crews, Graham Greene, Anne Sexton— who give you support and permission to say the things you want to say, who you identify so strongly with that they become part of your inner monologue, the way your writing ear bends to the words as you type, mentally comparing the sinuosity of line or the explicit dramatic intention to what you’ve seen in these writer’s works. They are at the core of your aesthetic. In my case, nestled somewhere next to my writing motor are Larry Brown’s stories and novels.
Wayne: How has editing Night Train opened and closed different outlooks on writing for you? In other words, how has editing shaped your current biases as a writer?
Rusty: I’m well aware of how often stories begin to sound the same, so I try to have some sort of music to my prose, unless I’m avoiding that entirely or the piece doesn’t seem to lend itself well to that kind of approach.
Editing has also opened things up in that I see what I want to do and don’t want to do more clearly. I can’t always explain my reasoning, but my instincts are good. I like what we publish—I think we do it well—and on most days, I like what I’m writing, and those twin engines carry me through a lot of dark days.
I have to say that editing has made me look more actively for stories outside the dominant realistic mode, and has definitely made me less patient as a reader. I can usually tell whether something is acceptable or not within a page, and read through only to try to help the writer know why I’ve rejected the piece, or to see if the writer has sustained it throughout well enough for me to want to publish it.
Wayne: What can you say about your novel-in-progress? What kind of trials and tribulations are you hitting in its writing so far? You have an excerpt in Smokelong: what are the benefits and drawbacks to composting the novel in this way?
Rusty: My novel-in-progress is the bane of my writing existence. It’s very difficult for me to sustain consistent work on it with kids and family and the journal, and if I’ve learned anything with aborting three previous novels it’s that they cannot be left alone for long or they start to fade. The ideas for this one are so strong in my head they haven’t left yet, so I hope I can pound out a draft in sufficient time. I’ve tried writing a novel six or seven different ways, none of which have worked. I need to produce consistent word counts; I know that, but that’s the trouble. I have too many competing interests and duties, and the novel is not my first priority. If I could convince myself it was worth the time, I feel as if I could finish it in a month or two of sustained work, but all that effort given the way I would have to structure my life to do it has not yet been worth the sacrifice, so I piece at it, five hundred words every couple weeks or so, and hope that it will gel and gain the momentum which has so far eluded me. It’s a shitty methodology. I don’t recommend it. But it’s what I have been able to do so far.