Chris Bachelder is the author of Bear v. Shark (Scribner, 2001), U. S.! (Bloomsbury USA, 2006), Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography (McSweeney’s e-book, 2004), and recently, Abbott Awaits (LSU Press, 2011). His stories and essays have appeared in The Believer, The Oxford American, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among many others. This interview took place at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky in front of an audience of primarily students and faculty.
Daniel T. Smith: I’d like to ask generally about your novels chronologically, and then I’ll open it up to student questions. I’ll start by asking you about Bear v. Shark that came out in 2001. It was your first novel. It covers a lot of ground, it seems. It’s a satirical work. Of course you probably get tired of the term satirist, or maybe you don’t.
Chris Bachelder: I do. I did it to myself, though.
DS: What was the target in Bear v. Shark? What were you attempting to do with this novel?
CB: Well, it’s a book about who would win if a bear got into a fight with a shark. It imagines a huge pay-per-view event in Las Vegas, which has seceded from the union to form its own sovereign nation based on entertainment and fun. And a family wins tickets through an essay contest to go to Bear v. Shark II, the Sequel, and they drive to Vegas to see it. It’s a hundred chapters. It’s a road novel about this American family traveling to the Darwin Dome to see these two animals fight [laughter from the audience]. If it sounds silly, it’s because it is a little bit silly. But it’s a hundred chapters, and they’re all very short. So it’s this 250-page book, but a hundred chapters so it’s moving fast, and it’s a satirical book. You asked about the target of the satire. Of course satire targets something, makes fun of something. I’d say American culture in general. The sort of entertainment culture where entertainment is the most important thing, and it overtakes all other things. So you have entertainment in this corner of your life, but also now school has to be entertaining. College has to be entertaining. Church has to be entertaining. Your family should be pretty fun. News. Your information should also be entertaining. So it’s this context of entertainment that takes over everything. So I was having my fun with bears and sharks, but I was also showing this dystopian, mildly futuristic, American society that is absolutely obsessed with who would win in a fight between a bear and a shark. At the expense of everything else important: their family or about the state of the country. So I think it’s a satire of entertainment and information practices in culture.
DS: It was Curtis Norman who won the essay contest to win the tickets.
CB: Curtis. Young Curtis. Don’t tell me writing’s not important. Young Curtis wrote an essay on what Bear v. Shark meant to him and won the family tickets.
DS: But Chris Bachelder also wrote an essay that did not win.
CB: Right. I submitted one as well, but I didn’t win.
DS: Chris Bachelder appears under several different names in the novel. Does this implicate you in this American culture as well? Does it implicate perhaps all of us?
CB: Yeah, this trick of including yourself in your books, it’s a youthful trick. I put myself in the middle part of the book. I’m doing play-by-play commentary about the family’s trip as they go to Vegas. So I’m in there. My strategy was not just to try to be coy and clever, but also to give a sense of a grounding, emotional sense to the work. The character that is me and is called in to do the play-by-play is sort of rooting for something to happen. Passionately rooting for something to happen that doesn’t happen. I mean I’m in it to have some heart because I think satire is most successful when there’s a sort of animating emotion—anger or sadness or disappointment—that you find in the best satirists, that you find in Kurt Vonnegut or something. There’s a strong sense of emotion at the core of the work.
I had a student the other day, a young graduate student, he’s just out of college, twenty-two or twenty-three, and he turned in a really interesting but repetitive satirical piece for workshop in class. It was twenty pages long, and it was relentlessly satirizing somebody dumb, like a dumb person writing a paper. Not just dumb, but offensively dumb. Writing a paper about international affairs. About Africa. And it just went on and on and on with the jokes. So the target of the satire is a dumb college student, but you got the sense as you read that the author was just having a lot of fun making jokes about this. Workshop came up and we all said, “Well … I don’t know.” He came to my office afterwards distraught and said, “This might sound funny, but are you angry?” He didn’t mean at him, he meant in general. Are you an angry person? He had read some of my satirical work, and he was fashioning himself as a satirist. He said, “Are you angry?” And I said, “You know, a little bit. And a little bit sad and a little bit disappointed about the way things are going and have turned out.” Most satirists believe things could be better; otherwise you wouldn’t make fun of it in the first place. His point was, “I don’t feel angry. I just like to make people laugh. I just want to have a good time. I just want to entertain” And the poor guy, I think he has just grown up in a period of satire and irony, and that’s the mode. He’s accepted this mode; he’s going to make fun. That’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to make fun. But there was no strong feeling animating him, and you could feel it when you read his story. Bear v. Shark was an initial attempt, but I think there’s some center of strong feeling there. I think I got a little better as I went, but it was important to me to have. And not just to be clever, but I put myself in there to try to break through to that emotion.
DS: The novel came out at a difficult time. Can you tell us a little about the reception of Bear v. Shark?
CB: It was published in October, 2001. Right after 9/11. Not the best time to publish a satire of American culture in general. People think that has a lot to do with it, but the fiction market today … There’s a million books published today, and nobody reads. The fiction market is just odd. You have a lot of books that don’t sell a lot. This sold some, and it had sort of a passionate fan base who cared about bears and sharks. But it did not get a movie deal, did not sell hundreds of thousands of copies. That’s fine. It’s part of the career, and I’m fine with that, but my concerns about it later are that it had an ephemeral quality. You know, it’s a hundred chapters and it’s fun, but it’s critiquing the entertainment culture. The danger is when you’re doing that, you’re just doing something as empty as the thing you’re criticizing. That’s my concern looking back on it. A lot has happened since then, culturally, and a lot has happened to me—growing up and having a family and all that. My concern looking back is it is what it’s critiquing. Does that make sense? It ends up being as shallow as the things I was making fun of. That’s always the danger of a good mimic or a good satirist, that all you’re doing is the thing you’re railing against.
DS: A lot of people in here have read “My Beard, Reviewed” that came out in McSweeney’s. Was that 2002?
CB: That sounds about right.
DS: I have to imagine after seeing your first novel come out and getting the always-insightful reviews on Amazon.com, that this piece was a response to that, yes?
CB: Yeah, well, maybe it’s my revenge. At the time, I had a real so-so beard though, I have to say. That was the spirit of Bear v. Shark, too, this really sort of tepid idea of democracy that we have. Where everybody speaks. Everybody speaks at the same time. It’s a loud book. I had read Don DeLillo’s White Noise—which you should read instead of Bear v. Shark—which was brilliant and which made me want to write it, and I wrote it in my way. And that’s what first books do a lot; they grow out of other books. And that’s just a loud book, a noisy book. I wanted to write my own noisy book. It’s everyone talking at once, but not necessarily very well informed. Everybody gets to log on and vote, everybody gets to text message your vote. This really watered down idea of what it means to be a citizen. I was playing around with that.
DS: I was going to ask, but it sounds like I can guess the answer to this, the reception of Bear v. Shark, coming out at this difficult time, and your second book, U. S.! is more pointedly political. Is that a response, or is that reaching too much?
CB: It’s not a response. I just think it’s maturation. I had written this book, and I didn’t want to write Bear v. Shark II, the Sequel. I didn’t want to write Squirrel v. Monkey. I didn’t want to keep doing that. I think I could have. It’s just this joke machine. It just churns out jokes. It’s a book that’s funny, and I’m proud of that, but it’s not complicated. I wanted to write a more complicated book. So I was working with U. S.!, and it didn’t really start working—and this is a novel about Upton Sinclair getting repeatedly assassinated and brought back to life. Muckraker Upton Sinclair. Has anyone, does anyone still read The Jungle? About the meat packing industry in the early 20th century? It’s a disgusting book. And Sinclair wrote ninety books, and this is the one that people remember. He was this tireless social reformer and a bad writer. So I bring him back to life and kill him and bring him back to life and kill him in a way that is silly and that sounds as silly as Bear v. Shark. But I think tonally it is much more complicated. And the reason I say this is because I am completely of two minds about Upton Sinclair as a person. I wasn’t of two minds about Bear v. Shark. It was sort of this railing, borderline comic, borderline angry book about what I saw as the stupidity of mass culture. Not stupidity of people, but stupidity of mass culture. You know, you log on to CNN and there’s the war right next to Britney. I mean, right next. There’s no context for anything. All of these things coming at you that are placed side by side. Of equal importance. It’s a leveling. And in U. S.! I thought, ok, I admire Upton Sinclair, but also, he drives me crazy. I can’t stand him, and I admire him at the same time. I thought if I wrote out of this sense of confusion, I could make a more complicated book. It’s satirical, but I was hoping to write, tonally, a more complicated book. If I was confused, I thought readers might be drawn into that confusion, and I think that good art—not that this is good art—can grow out of confusion. It doesn’t have to answer questions. It doesn’t have to be a pamphlet or an essay. It can grow out of ambivalence.
DS: The form of the novel is interesting. There are two hundred pages of a sort of cultural collage. We get book reviews, we get songs, we get snippets of scenes, we get transcripts from phone lines. Then the second part of the book is a straight hundred page narrative, then there’s a short part three. The longer narrative about the Greenville Anti-Socialists League seems to be out of keeping with what you’ve done in the past. What was your intention with breaking the novel into those three parts?
CB: Yeah, part one is just a bunch of pieces. Some stories, but they’re like eBay stuff. And the most plot-driven thing I’ve ever written is that part two. Very, very plotty. Sort of a convergence plot where a bunch of people are coming to the same place, but they don’t know why each other are there. Chaos ensues. As I figured it out, I think I wanted part one to open up, in a way, even if the material’s dark, there’s a spirit, a revolutionary spirit. A continual starting over just as Upton starts over and is killed, starts over and is killed. A continual starting over. A proliferation of forms. A real energy, sort of like Upton’s energy. Then part two I meant, in a really dark way, to shut down. So it opens up, then I wanted it to shut down as they all convene on this place. With tiny part three being, again, an opening back up. I wanted the book to suggest the renewal, death, renewal that I think is the form of hope, in a way. The way that hope can do this, go down and up. The way that I felt hope. Mark Edmundson has a book called Why Read?, and he says forms of literature are the way that writers communicate emotion. So apart from the words on the page, the form, the very container, the sphere, the thing that holds the book, is the emotional essence of the book. I think that’s interesting to think about. So, I wanted the form of U. S.! to feel like that. The cyclical emotion of hope and despair, hope and despair. That’s, anyway, what I’m saying now. And you are never to believe what writers say about their own work, ‘cause we don’t know. You guys know how it is when you write—you’re just working your way through it. Left foot, right foot, head down, and you figure things out and justify things later.
DS: Of all the heroes you could have picked—if hero is the right thing to call Sinclair—if you wanted a revolutionary, maybe Woody Guthrie, if you wanted someone who wrote tomes you could have resurrected Henry James or any number of other novelists. Why Sinclair?
CB: Guthrie and James and others, those were real artists, real craftspeople. Sinclair was kind of a hack, you know? He really was. The Jungle is his best book, but it’s not good. It’s about two-thirds good. But it’s not artful in the way we think about artfulness when you study literature and read literature. He was a ferocious, and absolutely indefatigable figure. Everybody hated him, everybody tried to mow him down, and he got up every day and he wrote and wrote and wrote. He cranked out these books, and his hope never diminished—his hope for a better society. He ran for governor of California during the Depression and got close to 900,000 votes. Really made a good run. So he struck me as the most visible of a bygone generation of writers who were very politically involved. American writing since that time, over the last hundred years, has become less and less and less overtly political. He was a very political writer, but not a great artist, and that struck me as an interesting combination. There were a bunch of writers like him, but nobody remembers any of them. People barely remember Sinclair, so I thought he has some cultural association with him.
DS: Sinclair was trying to call people to action. As you say in the book, “what’s the point of good literature if not more tasty sausages?” Are you calling people to action with this novel? Is this a political move on your part?
CB: If it has that effect, I guess that’s an ok byproduct. I think we read novels and write novels for other reasons than to create action that directly. You want to create an experience, and you want the confusion to settle into a reader’s mind. One of the characters in the book, a young kid, does have his whole universe rearranged by a book. So it is in some ways about the power of books, but, on a practical level, if you want to change the world, don’t write a novel. I mean, nobody cares. Nobody’s reading the novel. And the other thing is, if you want to change the world, and you want to write, then an essay’s probably better. Or a tract or a treatise or something like that. It’s an uneasy mix, to say “I have a social or political agenda, and I also want to create complicated art.” Those things mix uneasily, and that’s what the book’s about. The uneasy mix. I wanted to create an experience, but it’s not as simple as saying I want people to stop being apathetic, but maybe in some way to think more carefully about cycles of hope and despair. Ultimately, I think and I hope Sinclair’s a sympathetic character, because he just doesn’t give up. Just doesn’t give up.
DS: He speaks at one point in the novel at a 1989 high school graduation in Virginia. I know you said autobiography is a young writer’s trick. This seems to be, perhaps, your own graduation. I’m assuming Sinclair didn’t come talk at your graduation.
CB: No, a resurrected Sinclair did not speak at my graduation. I did attend a small high school in Virginia, near the date 1989. You guys know how it is, you use stuff from your life, and then it gets changed and shifted all around.
DS: The novel that you’re completing now [Abbott Awaits], this seems to be—from what I’ve heard about it—fairly autobiographical. It’s about an assistant professor, with a young child—
CB: And one on the way.
DS: Written by an assistant professor with a young child and one on the way.
CB: Well, the second one’s already arrived, so it’s clearly not me. Living in western Massachusetts, right? Home during the summer. It was called The Assistant Professor, and it takes place during the summer so the guy’s home. Losing his mind. This is a hard one because of course it’s taken directly from my life, so it’s easy to say, “Ok, you equal this guy, the guy’s wife is your wife, the guy’s kid is your kid.” Even chapters that were taken out of things that really happened, and certainly they weren’t all that way. Some are purely invented. I have no trouble calling this a novel or calling it fiction, and I don’t think I’m just dodging the question—even the chapters that were taken from my life pretty specifically. In fiction you’re trying to create an effect. You don’t have any obligation to be fair. In nonfiction, you have an obligation to truth and to fairness. And in fiction you don’t because you’re trying to create an effect. So you’re taking something and you’re squeezing it through a rhetorical lens to create a certain effect. So in this case there’s an exaggerated emotional effect that probably wasn’t the case in real life, but I want to create something through art. It’s always the case even in nonfiction—you’re shaping, you’re presenting, you’re selecting certain details and leaving certain others out. But in nonfiction I still think you have a responsibility to give a full, fair picture to everybody involved. In fiction you don’t have to be fair. You’re just trying to create an effect.
DS: Did you really see painted hermit crabs at the pet store?
CB: I did. That was the first chapter of this book. I went to a pet store and saw painted crabs. And that hurt me. You can’t walk around this world vulnerable. You can’t walk around emotionally vulnerable because you’ll have your heart broken every day. But if you’re a writer you need to be able to have your heart broken. I went with my daughter and I saw painted crabs. C’mon, you know? You just shouldn’t paint crabs. Nobody should paint these animals. They just looked pathetic and really embarrassed in the aquarium. To be painted. Maybe they couldn’t see their own paint, but they could look over and see their neighbor’s paint. Like sparkly paint, you know? Zig-zags and stuff like that. So we painted these animals, and that just seemed wrong, and it hurt me. So that was the beginning of this book, when I thought the book was about something completely different. When you write you’re so dumb. When you read, you’re so smart, but when you write, you’re so dumb. I thought the book was about something else, but I was somehow able to write it and shift it and turn it into what it is now.
DS: This is new for you, writing a domestic novel. Had you started out, in the early stages, wanting to write a domestic novel?
CB: I think I had to trick myself into doing it. I thought, “I don’t want to be a domestic novelist.” I’m inventing these big worlds, bears and sharks fighting, Upton coming back. These big canvas American scenes with craziness going on, and the last thing I wanted to do was write this quiet, American domestic novel about childcare and marriage in the American ranch home. In the suburbs. So I had to fool myself into doing it. I thought it was about something else. I actually thought the book was about satire. That is so dumb. I can’t even tell you how dumb that is. But luckily my wife understood what it was, and she’s a good reader. She was pushing, pushing, pushing in certain directions. Not even pushing, but saying, “Look. Look on the page. You created it. Look what it is. It’s not what you think it is.” That’s how drafting goes. So I ultimately said this is a domestic novel. There’s no way around it. It’s time for me to write one.
DS: The list can go on of people who have written domestic novels before. Were you worried at all about aping these things that have been done—been done very well—many times? That maybe you’d be kind of an also-ran, or that this novel may cover ground that’s already been covered?
CB: Sure. There’s tremendous pressure to make it new, to be original, to be unique. But it can be a trap if you say I’m not going to do anything that’s ever been done before. It doesn’t leave much. After Shakespeare, I mean, there’s nothing. Everybody has unique experiences, and there are ways to capture this. And there’s a tremendous pleasure in reading somebody articulate something that you feel but have never quite articulated. By bearing down, I hope there are moments of recognition that I love as a reader, and I’m hoping to achieve it through writing by bearing down on the domestic. I will also say this is the first generation of fathers who—people my age—our fathers could be great fathers, but they generally weren’t involved in the day to day. Just really involved in the day-to-day childcare. And then this generation, my generation, it seems like there’s been a real shift, and fathers are really involved in the day-to-day. And they want to be, but there are no models. They don’t have a model for it. There’s a lot of frustration and angst and anxiety wrapped up in this. I won’t say it’s original but I would say it belongs to a shelf that’s not a grand tradition, but a smaller shelf of fatherhood books, of young children. That sounds boring. I just had a view of that on the jacket flap. That sounded bad, but you’ll see. I might read from it tonight and you’ll see what I’m up to. It’s completely plotless, there’s no plot. It just takes place in the summer and the third trimester of a wife’s pregnancy. That’s a good sell too, when I say it’s plotless. If you turn down a certain element of your fiction—like plot, which is a huge one, which is why we come to writing and reading in the first place—if you turn down one element, you’d better compensate. You’d better turn up other elements. I hope this has compensatory virtue by deep immersion into a way of thinking. Deep, deep, deep immersion into this self-conscious guy … who’s not me.
DS: You know, they have people who write that flap copy for you.
CB: I know, I know. But I was starting to sound like them—that’s what I was worried about.
DS: What is that experience like? I’ve always wondered what that’s like when you read the back of your novel, and someone, very nicely, in two paragraphs lets us all know what it’s about. That’s got to be horrifying.
CB: It is. [Imitating] “In a world where bears and sharks are…” It is horrifying, but I don’t want to be the one to write it either. What’s your book about? We’ve seen how I’ve done about describing my own books today. I don’t want to hear it.
DS: I could ask you many more questions, but let’s turn it over to you [the audience]. You have questions, I’m sure.
#1: I don’t want to overstate the Christian elements in U. S.! but I was wondering if there was any significance in the character of Paul. As in, possibly somebody who would carry the message of Upton Sinclair to other places, sort of like Paul from the Bible.
CB: Keep coming with that. I like that. Keep coming with that, with how Paul functions in the book.
#1: I don’t know. I’ve had Religion 110, so I don’t really know that much. But I do know that essentially what he did was put the belief structure out there and spread it to everybody. But Paul as a character, I doubted his ability to do that. I almost saw him as Upton Sinclair’s babysitter.
CB: When you started that question, I immediately thought of Upton as Jesus and the resurrection and all that which, believe it or not, I was well into the book before I even imagined that sort of parallel. But Paul … the wheels are spinning and I’m trying to think of some sort of cool authorial way to say what I was up to, but I had not even thought about that at all. But I like it. I like it. One thing that can happen is—not to be mystic about it—but when you’re deep into a project, certain things happen. I don’t want to go too far down that road because I don’t like that mist-enshrouded, mystic writer who says everything’s in there for a reason, even if you didn’t mean it. But I think you can get deep into a project and things just come out of a subconscious place. With Paul, I had not thought that through. That question got way harder than I thought it was going to.
#2: I love how you said when you re-read your first novel you’ll see influences from authors you enjoy. I went on your web site and I thought “My Beard, Reviewed” was very funny, very satirical. I was wondering, some of my favorite authors, including Stephenie Meyer, have been influenced by many different authors with different types of writing. Are there any [writers] that you read and thought, “that’s interesting, I’d like to build off of that”?
CB: It’s a great question. It’s about the creation of a voice, too. There’s something that happens sometimes to young writers, and this happened to me, where you read somebody, and then when you go down to write, it’s pretty clearly growing right out of that book. And that’s a problem. More generally, nobody’s going to have read and cherished the same twelve books that you cherish. We might have some, in a Venn diagram kind of way, but the creation of voice comes out of really different places and really different experiences. That’s a heartening thing, that you’re going to be unique if you keep at it. You’re just going to be unique because of a) life experiences, but b) the people you emulate. It could be a strange group. This is good and bad, because I read different things, and I think, “Why don’t I do that?” or “I could do that.” I’m a great admirer of an experimental tradition of literature, formally experimental, like in U. S.! and Bear v. Shark with all these chapters. I’m coming in and doing things, this sort of meta-fiction or ironic stuff. I like that tradition, but I’m also increasingly fond of the straight up realist tradition. William Trevor is this guy who writes these beautifully controlled and mannered stories where nothing crazy happens, and I have grown to appreciate the artistry of that. Paula Fox. Or recently I’ve been going back and reading Melville and Hawthorne a lot. So it’s all over the place, but it started with the post-World War II experimental tradition that got me excited about writing and creating. I though, “Oh, I’ve never seen that. I’d like to try that.”
#2: When I read some of your short stories, it seemed like you have a voice in one that I read, “Blue Knights Bounced.” I thought that voice was really cool, and then I read, “My Beard, Reviewed” and I could see a different voice. I thought that you don’t have one single voice, you sometimes go all over. I was wondering where you got that.
CB: I think it comes because of reading, and I read widely. When I read I tend to appreciate, to read very openly. What’s going on here? What can I learn from this? And when I teach, I teach the same thing. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea here, but what can you learn from this? Part of it is just casting around when you’re young. It’s an apprenticeship thing. Who am I? Who am I as an artist? You figure that out. But I admire artists whose books are radically different from one another. You do have plenty of careers where you see that one voice, right out of the gate. I think of somebody like Grace Paley. Three books of stories, and it’s the same voice, but it’s a fierce, wonderful, generous, humane, smart, crazy voice that I would read forever and wish there were six books and not three. Every time I read something I think, “Maybe that.”
#3: This is kind of a double question. I was reading one of your stories, the one called “Pecker,” and with the other things I’ve read so far, there always seemed to be some kind of strong media imitation, whether it was like things from eBay. I started to wonder how you feel you’re influenced by electronic media. How it affects the style of your writing. As opposed to just mocking it, do you feel like you’re really strongly influenced by the images and those things around you? And then, “Pecker” deals with a guy who is trying to figure out a way to describe a funny noise he’s hearing in his house, and it led me to think, how do you, when you’re running short of words, those strong emotions or the descriptions. What do you do to get out of that trap?
CB: I am interested in the narrative possibility of non-narrative form. So you take a non-narrative form like an Amazon review or an eBay listing, as I’ve done in the novel. Transcripts of phone calls. And this is not just me making stuff up, I’m tapping into what’s been done by other people. This is not me being an original. The sports writer article some of you might have read—I was a sports writer for a while. I thought what would happen if you plug it in to a sports story, then see you if you can tell a larger story from within its constraints. That always interests me. I think it interests me more on the level of creation than necessarily of technological forms. I like the constraint. Constraints are possibilities too. You say, this has to be a sports story. It’s sometimes comforting to have constraints as a writer rather than just facing a white page. That can be difficult. But if you say, this has to be a sports story, how can I break out and tell a larger narrative within that? That’s always interested me. And the voice in the back of my head says, “All right, knock it off, though. You’ve done it. Tell a story the other way without these formal constraints.” Because it’s also a crutch. It’s fun, but it’s a crutch. It’s terrifying to open it up to a larger idea of just telling a story about a person. It’s harder. But no doubt, I came of age with what we have now. There’s a split screen on TV and then there’s a banner and then there’s stock prices and then beneath it there’s something scrolling. This is our informational world. The novel may be dead in terms of nobody reads it anymore, but the novel will never die because the novel’s a great stealer of forms. The novel has no form of its own. If you see a sonnet, you say, “Oh, it’s a sonnet.” Fourteen lines, that’s how it works. But the novel just pillages. It takes whatever it wants. When we invent email, there’s going to be an email novel. When we invent any sort of form, fiction’s going to take it and use it for its own purposes. And that interests me about fiction. It’s a vampire in a way. Now, you’re second question. About ways of description? There’s no easy answer I can give you other than not letting myself use the easiest phrase that comes to mind. If a phrase or a word or a sentence comes right off a shelf, if you find yourself taking it down, this is called cliché, but it’s also just tired language. I think if I use a phrase and I type that phrase into Google and it’s going to have 500,000 entries, that’s not the right phrase. It’s too worn. Cliché is the death of thought. You’re not asking a writer to engage with your language at all. I force myself to try not to say something in a way that it’s always said. Now, you can go too far the other way, and it looks like you’ve grabbed a thesaurus, and it’s awkward. You have to find a balance between fresh utterance, but not overly authorial. Look at me with my words.
DS: I’d like to ask, based on that first question. The first part of that question had to do with our electronic media and how we’re bombarded with it. I haven’t heard too many people talk with you about Lessons in Virtual tour Photography. Did that start off as an e-novel? I’m curious as to why it’s not published as a traditional novel?
CB: I am so curious, too, why that thing’s not published as a novel. I wrote a second book, the difficult second book, worked at it, worked at it, worked at it, and tried to go the normal route with publication, and didn’t have any luck with it. I like this book, but I can understand why it didn’t work in that format. So I tried different things, then in conversation with people at McSweeney’s they said, why don’t we try this e-book. And I thought, why not, let’s try it. And then we talked for about five seconds about whether to charge anything for it. There’s something weird about that. If you have a book on a shelf at a store and it’s twenty-three dollars, well, that’s ok. I don’t mind that. But there’s something about having to log on and put your credit card in so Chris Bachelder can make some dough. Even if I say two dollars. Even, say, fifty cents. Any amount you charge is going to look venal and wrong. We said, let’s do it for free. So it’s out there, and it’s for free. I like how it turned out, and the form in this case is right for the book, I think. It’s about technology, about being a virtual tour photographer. You ever see those virtual tours that spin all the way around? Yeah, well, I know how they’re created. I was a virtual tour photographer. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. Lessons in Virtual Tour Photography is a manual. It’s second person; this is how you become a virtual tour photographer. But it’s a novel in the form of an employee manual. It’s available online, and when you do that online, nobody reviews it, it doesn’t come out in paperback, it doesn’t have a life. It’s just there. And from time to time I’ll hear somebody say, “Oh, yeah, that thing.” But when you log on to a book, online, and it’s 160 pages, you minimize, and you check … whatever. You check the score of the west coast ballgame, and you are done. Who wants to read 160 pages on their computer?
DS: I printed it.
CB: That’s the way to go. You’ve got to print it. I think it was an interesting experiment, but that’s what happened.
#4: You talked about when you’re writing, and your wife tells you that’s not what she thought about it. What is the principle difference between thinking about it and writing it?
CB: The difference between writing it and thinking about writing it? I think I know what you mean. Writers work differently, so you can’t say, get up at five and face east and sharpen your pencils. Writers work differently. I think too much at the start of a project, and I’m trying not to. Because you can’t plan. If you’re writing a short story and you know the end, that’s not the end. Don’t do it. When I read, I know. This happened the other day in workshop. I read a story, and I knew that ending had been written toward. I just knew it. There was no surprise. The writer hadn’t surprised himself going there, so I’m not surprised either. I feel it. You can overthink. With a novel, you need to have some idea of what you’re doing. I really think you need some map. But thinking about what kind of writer you are and what kind of novel this is and what novels should do, I do that and it’s dumb. It’s a waste of time. I thought I had this book about satire. I really thought this book was about satire, and I started writing, and this dumb idea allowed me to create some workable domestic chapters. It wasn’t my wife strong-arming me and saying, “This is what the book should be.” She’s saying, “Look, this is what it is. This is what it is, you just have to see it.” The draft talks back to you, in a way. Again, I don’t like this mystical talk. I get a little uncomfortable when writers say, “I invented the characters and the characters start talking to me.” You know? And they’re your best friends and they start hanging around? That gets away from writing. I think there’s a comforting thing of writing as carpentry. It’s a craft. If you work at it and work at it and work at it, you can get better. But there is something weird that happens when you write. The draft does sort of give you feedback on itself, saying, I’m not what you thought I was. And you have to listen to that. And that’s part of what growing up as a writer is. The temptation is to say, “No, no. Shut up, draft. Shut up because I’m in charge.” But you’re not. The draft’s in charge. Let’s light some incense, man, because that sounds … I talk more and more like this. This is what happens. But I think you do have to get away from your plan for the book.
#5: How did you get from a point where you were interested in creative writing to where you are now? What inspired you to continue on with writing? It’s very difficult to be a writer, to actually make money as a writer.
CB: Nobody said anything about making money.
#5: You’re still fairly young, and you’ve done a lot so far. Is this what you see yourself doing for the rest of your life
CB: The answer to that second part of the question is yes, definitely. In that I feel lucky and I know that’s what I want to do. The life of making art is not for everybody, but it’s a great life. It’s a weird life. It’s sunny and there’s a lot going on, and you’re inside. Typing. And cursing. And having a terrible time. Writing’s not fun. It’s never fun, and it’s never easy. And it never gets easy. You have good days and bad days, but it’s always a drag. It’s a strange life, but it’s satisfying to try to articulate something that’s difficult to articulate. To go down deep into something is satisfying. There are not many people who can do it exclusively, to make money. My day job is teaching, and I like doing that a lot. I feel so fortunate to be doing exactly what I want to be doing. That part’s easy. I’m never going to get tired of finishing a book and then starting to think about the next one. I’m never going to get tired of that, I don’t think. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’m going to suddenly want to do something else. First question, how do you get from A to B. You have to really, really want to do it. If there’s something you’d rather be doing, just do it, because writing is too hard. Creating any kind of art is too hard. Somebody else will write the book—you don’t have to write it. There are a lot of books out there. The last thing the world needs is another one. You have to love doing it, and you have to have this faith—with no reason for that faith—that you’re going to do it. I was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, living in Houston in this crappy apartment and working as a virtual tour photographer. Driving around in my Plymouth Reliant that squeaked really bad. It was hot. And I was setting up and taking these three-sixty pictures and uploading them to the Russians. Things were not going well. This is not what I thought things were going to be like at that stage. And then you meet people and they say, “What do you do?” “Well, I’m a writer.” “What have you written?” “Well, I have some things on my hard drive. Maybe you want to come over and see?” You’re a writer. Oh, another writer. My waiter last night at dinner is a writer. So, that’s answer A, which is a horrible answer. I still hate that answer. Now, on like an airplane, people say, “What do you do?” I say, “I teach.” Answer B is, “I’m a caterer,” which I was also doing. Less glamorous than virtual tour photographer. So that’s a terrible answer, too. I cater. Not that it’s not an honorable profession. In other words, you’ve got to have this faith that what you’re doing is going to work out. And that is hard. There was an article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell about forms of creativity. He’s comparing Jonathan Safran Foer who’s nineteen-years-old at Princeton when he finishes his first novel. It’s published as Everything Is Illuminated. Movie deal with Liev Schrieber and all this. He’s maybe twenty-four, twenty-five when the second book comes out. He’s not even thirty yet. A million dollars for the paperback rights alone. He wrote the book in four months or something like that. Versus this guy Ben Fountain who quit his job as a lawyer in 1988. Had his first book published in 2006. Eighteen years he sat at the kitchen table. Eighteen years. He had a job as a lawyer and he said, “No, I don’t want to be a lawyer. I want to be a writer.” His wife was a lawyer and she said, “All right I’ll keep my job.” There are some beautiful people in the world, right? Patrons. Beautiful, beautiful people who support artists. He sat at his table for eighteen years and figured it out. Some kind of crazy faith. And he did it. That’s the thing: he did it. And if you try hard enough to be good at something, it may not mean you have this wild success or you’re famous or anything like that, but you can learn to do it. But you have to think you can when you have no reason to think you can at all. It’s almost a religious quandary.
#5: We read “Blue Knights Bounced From the CVD Tourney” which is similar to a sports article, and we read “My Beard, Reviewed,” the internet remarks. And then I also read “Enriched Uranium: What Every Parent Should Know,” which was sort of a public service announcement. Currently, are there any types of media or other writings that you’re working on where you tweak these things?
CB: For better and worse, I think I’ve moved away from that kind of short comic writing that’s satirical and funny. I think it has to do with being married and having two kids, and it feels like a young person’s game. It’s not necessarily a good thing, but I think I’ve moved away from that.
#6: When you’re writing, are you thinking of your audience as empowering or as an impediment to the process?
CB: Different people answer that one differently. I heard an interview recently with two women novelists who have known each other for seventeen years, who have traded drafts for seventeen years, and each of them said that they’re just thinking about that other woman. In fact, they’re anticipating what that woman would say about this draft, and correcting as they go based on the phantom criticism of that person. That’s how well they know each other. They are each other’s own audience. It sounds so bizarre to me, but that’s how a lot of writers work, and that’s helpful if you can internalize another person’s voice. My wife’s a writer and our writing’s a lot different, so we’re good editors for each other, in a way. We curb each other’s worst habits. There’s an internalized things that’s happening. I think it can be empowering in a way. A little bit frustrating, because it pops up there as you work—you hear that voice. But it allows you to go farther on your own because you’re anticipating it and correcting. But in general, I’m really not thinking too much about a specific person. And I know writers say different things about this, but I’m generally not.
#7: This is kind of like what was just asked, but you talked about how you seem to have a lot of varied influence from other writers, but you also say that you delve really deeply into what you’re writing to find your way. Do you think, while you’re writing, about your place in the greater scheme of things? When you’re writing do you think, “This is in the tradition of political satire? I’m the new and improved version of the satirist?” Or are you never thinking about that?
CB: It’s a good question. I sort of alternate between large and small canvas. I wrote Bear v. Shark, then I wrote this Lessons in Virtual tour Photography, which is more about a guy. Then U. S.! which is this big canvas American work, then I wrote this other book [Abbott Awaits]. One of the things that happens is this back and forth between character-driven fiction and big, circus-driven fiction. That wasn’t your question at all. One thing that happens is the bigger books tend to be highly allusive. They are alluding to other works. Like U. S.! has a riff on Dos Passos’ U. S. A. trilogy. In that way, it’s hard not to think about the tradition. I hope not in the way of , “Oh, I’m as good as Dos Passos, or Vonnegut or other heroes.” It’s a fluke when a book takes off and does well. You don’t do this or get into this because you’re going to sell a lot of books or be famous or make money. You have these moments—I’m using second person so it doesn’t sound like I’m vain—where you think you’re good. Where you think, “Well, what if this could catch on, maybe? The timing’s good on this one, maybe some people will read this.” George Saunders is a writer I like a lot and he said in an interview, most writers have on one hand, this desire to be famous, rich, important. You want to dominate others with your talent. You want to make everybody else submit before the talent of you. And then, the second half is, you committed your life to art. Every day you get to go down deep into some important place and try to figure stuff out. If you can stay in that latter zone, that “I’m an artist and isn’t this interesting” zone, he says it’s instant karma. It’s going to pay you back right away. Versus the first one, the karma there isn’t instant. It’s rare, and actually, I’ve heard—because I don’t know—when it does come, it isn’t satisfying. You think, “Oh, if I could just be famous, I’d be happy.” It’s a terrible thing, David Foster Wallace committed suicide a while ago, and he spent his career—his too-short career—thinking about things like that. He had early success. And he located this in the young American psyche, too; if I could just do this, if I could just do that. If I could just be the best tennis player, if I could be the best writer, I could make a lot of money. I’d be happy. But it doesn’t really work like that. So if you can stay in the other zone, and say, “Aren’t I lucky to be doing this thing, whether anybody actually reads it or not,” then it’s instantly fulfilling. But it’s hard.
DS: Chris, thank you so much for being with us.
CB: Thank you, it was a real pleasure.