Novelist JOHN GARDNER; 'Everybody is a giant'

The literary lion waits, crouched in the shadowy cave of a dark-beamed French restaurant. His silver-white lion's mane gleams, the only brightness in the deep brown corner where he sits. There will be no "Sunlight Dialogues" today with John Gardner, the author of that novel and six others. This is a room for screts about the dark art of mining words, for whispers about the quarrying of fiction.

Like many sons of the Welsh, he has been down in the mine a long time. He wrote novels for 15 years before a single one was published -- "The Resurrection." He had begun his first novel, "Nickel Mountain," at 19, and rewritten it for years until its publication in 1973. By the time the National Book Critics Circle called his "October Light" the best novel of 1976, he had already pick-axed out a career in another field -- medievalist, as he calls himself. Educator, as "Who's Who" calls him -- before author.

He sits in the shadows, talking about those 15 years of waiting to see his fiction in print: "I was furious. You know, I'd read novels by people I thought were awful compared to me. And I'd read my rejection slips. . . . But I was stubborn. And I covered myself. I became a medievalist. I wrote many articles and translations so that I knew I'd be safe all my life, and then I wrote [ fiction]. If people asked me what I was I'd say 'I'm a writer,' because the next question was 'What have you published?' And I'd be embarrassed. . . ."

He's not embarrassed now, with six novels on the shelves, is new novel "Freddy's Book" stirring up a storm, another one just finished ("Nicholson's Ghost"), and one in progress ("Shadows"). It is "Nicholson's Ghost" that has brought him into town to talk with editor Robert Gottlieb of Alfred A. Knopf, his publisher. He's in New York to iron out the crinkles in the book which neither of them is satisfied with, and to do a rare interview or two.

In Gardner's newest novel, "Freddy's Book," a medieval Swedish bishop speaks of "evil as the closing of the heart, the refusal to communicate." There is no closing of the heart, no refusal to communicate in this man who has a total of 22 books published in 19 years, including scholarly works on Chaucer and his controversial blast at the literary establishment. "On Moral Fiction." He has also done seven unpublished novels, countless stories that fill bureau drawers, has written several film scripts, poems, opera librettos, children's books.

Unlike some authors, he is articulate off the typewriter, too, lecturing around the country and teaching creative writing -- currently at the state university in Binghamton, N.Y.

Even when he does an interview like this one, it does not consist of a few choice phrases sandwiched between soup and dessert. John Gardner sits down in a restaurant for an interview at high noon and talks, almost nonstop, about writing and other arts like marriage, for an hour and a half. Then he orders lunch. When the cold bass with anchovy mayonnaise and cucumber salad arrive, he talks right through it. A semicolon later, a chocolate mousse intrigues him momentarily. He orders it. He pauses briefly to decide it tastes faintly like Ovaltine, although we agree its Frenchm Ovaltine, then sweeps on through several more paragraphs until the interview tape runs out at two hours.

The transcribed interview runs 35 pages -- a sneeze compared to his "Sunlight Dialogues," which weighs in at 746 pages. You can understand why his publisher originally said cut it by a third if you want it in print. He didn't.

John Gardner seems to move in a cloud of words. There is so much he wants to say, to share, to teach, to paint, to evoke. It is as though he doesn't have space enough and time to write it on the air, on paper. And in person, it is all said in the same storyteller's manner that draws you along, curious, through the dense forests of his fiction, wondering what will happen behind the next tree.

Like any good storyteller, he likes to talk about his craft. He is asked whether there is any litmus test for writers, any way to tell whether someone is a true writer or not.

"Let's only talk about the true artist, the writer," he says. "That writer is able to get people down by their gestures and speech without talking about them. In fact, if a writer tends to go for gesture and dialogue, instead of explanations, that is probably a real writer. I think a real writer is somebody who loves books. It may not be someboy who reads a lot of books, it may be two books over and over, or with slow intensity. But a lot of people who want to be writers think there's some kind of glory in it, like there's glory in being a rock star. They think, but they don't really care, about books. You don't pick them up, like, in a drugstore. That's not a writer. A writer is someone who reads for pleasure.

"A great many people read because they think it's good for them, and they've been taught in college that you should. And that kind of person is never a writer. . . . People who don't really like books, they'll probably never write good ones.

"Bigotry makes it impossible to be a real writer. There are pop writers like Ayn Rand [author of "The Fountain-head"] who are bigots and who are successful. But for a real writer, you simply have to follow the story and the characters. And if the writer has too many fierce opinions he'll never be fair to the story, easy snap judgment kinds of things and deep prejudices. You really have to like people from the outside. . . . If you don't care about people, you have no experience but your own to go on, and you start repeating yourself horribly. . . ."

Gardner takes on about 20 students a class at Binghamton, noting rather glumly that out of the 20 he may find one real writer. The rest are wonderful people, he explains, but they will be good lawyers or good engineers or good teachers, not writers.

"When you get a good student who's a real writer, it's worth it all," he smiles. Still, there's much wasted time with the nonwriters; he treats them all , writers and nonwriters, alike, lavishing time and effort on them. He's rather like the piano teacher you remember from childhood, going over and over it until you get the scales right. Not always patiently, either.

He sees each student solo at least an hour a week, "and I begrudge a lot of those hours, because the kid's not prepared, or he's faking, and I'm furious. Sometimes I say awful things: "Get out of here! You're like gnats around my head!'"

But he says he searched so long trying to find someone who could really teach him about writing that when he found one, he had to pass it along. "I just can't notm each," he says. "I see what creative writers' teachers, who don't know what they're doing, do. Mostly they drive good writers out, embitter them, and so on. I get enraged when I think of what's happening to young writers in writing classes."

In his own classes, "I tell the kids that what a sculptor does is, he takes a piece of marble and finds the figure in the stone. What a writer does is, first he createsm a piece of marble, then he finds the figure in the stone."

The most important part of finding the figure in the stone he suggests, is rewriting. Does he, like many writers, loathe rewriting?

"No. I like it very much. It's my favorite part. I rewrite all the time. That's my main technique."

How many rewrites did he do on "Freddy's Book"?

"You really can't count them. Because what I do is, I type the thing out on legal-sized paper, single-spaced, because that's the fastest way to get it down. Then I go through and cross things out and insert things in balloons till I can't read the page. Then I retype it on 8 1/2-by-11 pages double-spaced, and then go over that and revise till I can't read it any more and then I retype. Then that [page] turns into five pages, or else it's cut out completely.

"And I do that over and over until it's finished. You can't really tell. I may do 30 readings on a single draft, changing it. But I'm absolutely convinced that the whole art of fiction is rewrites."

In addition to rewriting prodigiously, he also plans carefully when he's writing a novel. He has almost 10,000 pages of notes for "Shadows," the novel he's working on now. And so far, only 250 or 300 pages of story. The novel, begun in 1974, is the biggest thing he's ever tackled.

"I have no idea whether it works or not," he says, dropping hints that it's not a love story, as other interviews have suggested, but a mystery, perhaps a metaphysical mystery.

"It may never be finished," he says with the voice of someone pushing a boulder uphill with a teaspoon. "You know how painters take one square inch of Rembrandt and blow it up to 6 feet by 6 feet and study it? Well, that's what I'm doing with the mystery story."

The "shadows" of the title suggest thosse on the wall in Plato's allegory of the cave in "The Republic," in which man in his unlearned state is chained in a world of shadows. Plato says that man can leave the shadows for the sun, the symbol of the highest good, through dialectic or philosophical dialogue. And that theme seems implicit in much of Gardner's writing, most noticeably in "The Sunlight Dialogues."

The real question in "Shadows," says Gardner, "is how do you get back, once you get off into the world of shadows, the demonic world, the opposite of the Platonic world. . . ? How do you find your way back. . . ?"

Gardner says he hasn't touched "Shadows" since last August, though he's read it through once. This is part of his technique as a writer: "For me, its necessary to break up a big book. I have to stand back from it once in a while, put it away for a few months, not because you're lazy or anything else, but because you just simply can't see it clearly. . . . So when I'm working on a big book, I get away from that to something less serious. I always cut away from that to a critical piece or a children's book."

It's the antidote to his compulsiveness as a novelist. "I work all the time. I usually work so late at night that I don't get up early in the morning, usually till 3 or 4, and get up at 9 o'clock or 10. . . . And I take naps, like an old lion," he says, glowering out from under his silver mane.

Gardner writes, he says, to find out what he thinks. "It's certainly true that artists are the people who professionally study what it is they think." In "Freddy's Book," he has used the device of a story within a story to find out what hhe thinks, as he did in "October Light," his Vermont Gothic tale of an elderly brother and sister locked in mortal combat.

In "Freddy's Book," Freddy is an eight-foot "monster," an enormous, overgrown pulpy giant, the son of a college history professor who keeps him protected from society and society from him. When a visiting professor is invited to meet the monster, he discovers that Freddy has written a brilliant novel about the conflict pitting religious faith and democracy against the devil and tyranny in 16th century Scandinavia. In Freddy's book, the hero, an idealistic Swedish knight named Lars-Goren, ultimately kills the devil. After reading Freddy's novel, you know that he's ready to go out in the world, bringing it a gift.

"Everybody is a giant, spiritually, as long as he's willing to take responsibility for his giantism," says Gardner. He explains: "Everybody thinks -- ideally, each person thinks -- that he's individually valuable, you know, a little lower than the angels. He can have that beaten out of him, he can be crushed and enslaved, in which case he turns monstrous, but helplessly monstrous.

"If it isn't crushed out of him, then that person has to be responsible in the sense of his own worth. He can't become tyrannical in his powers, his sense of self-love. It has to extend to other people, recognizing other people are like him however different superficially."

Gardner brings that compassion that delves below the surface to all his characters. He does it whether his hero is literally a monster, as in "Grendel, " the version of "Beowulf" he wrote from the monster's viewpoint; the sunlight man, the wild, quixotic and psychic character search by life in "The Sunlight Dialogues"; the professor going home to battle death in Batavia, N.Y., in "The Resurrection," or the Vermont farmer waging civil war against his sister, in "October Light."

Gardner uses the word "religiosity" when talking about fiction. Is it an important word to him? "Yes. To every writer. Absolutely. That's what it has to be, that's what it's all about. The sense of holiness. You ask me what special religiosity, then I'm very nervous. . . . Religiosity, when not used in a bad sense, means simply that you have an absolute profound sense of God in the world. . . .

"I wouldn't say that artists are the only holy men in any real sense, because I think that every person in the world is one. I really do. I don't know about professional killers. I think I draw the line there. But the garbage man who isn't made bitter by his life is as holy a man as one can imagine."

When John Gardner was a little boy growing up on his parents' dairy farm in Batavia, N.Y., he sometimes played preacher in the kitchen, giving a Presbyterian sermon for a congregation that included a cousin or two, his mother , and her ironing board. His novels are characterized by a rich, loamy delight in the earthy, in nature, and at the same time a sighing, questioning search for answers to man's purpose and being.

Often his novels are shot with philosophical dialogues as thick and palpable as plots. His best novel on the subject of the quest so far is "Freddy's Book," which, in its giant's tale, has the austere, mystical beauty of an Igmar Bergman film.

Gardner's mix of the earthy and sublime may have its roots in the moments from his childhood he often mentions. He'd be out in the barn of their dairy farm, squinched down in the hay, while his father milked the cows by hand, and he'd listen to his mother reading Shakespeare or his father reciting whole chapters of the Bible. Their favorites, "Macbeth," "King Lear," and the Book of Job, were nourishing squirts of rich words for a boy who would grow up to be a writer.

He listened by the hour, too, to his father's Welsh "Jack Tales" about giants , and read the illustrated classics -- Dickens, Scott, Stevenson -- which inspired him to insist on illustrations for his own novels.

During his childhood, too, he witnessed a tragedy -- the death of his little brother, which apparently left a deep imprint on his life and writing. His mother remembers, "John was driving the tractor and Gilbert [his younger brother ] was riding the crossbar on the back of the tractor, in front of the cultipacker. The tractor ran out of gas and jerked, and no doubt Gilbert, who was 6, had let go and not hung on or been careful. John has always insisted he was to blame, but he was coming downhill and nothing could have stopped them. He couldn't possibly have prevented or stopped [the accident]."

The helplessness which Gardner took to himself as guilt has surfaced in his work several times as a theme, Mrs. Gardner points out, in stories in which an older brother feels responsible for a younger brother's death. Gardner wrote specifically about such a fictional incident in a bleak but powerful short story , "Redemption," published in the Atlantic.

Knowing about this childhood tragedy gives special poignancy to a passage in his book "On Moral Fiction": "Art begins in a wound, an imperfection -- a wound inherent in the nature of life itself -- and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it." Among the wounds he mentions are doubt, fear , trauma, alienation.

In a larger sense, Mrs. Gardner suggests, the loss of his brother may have been responsible for his prodigious output as novelist, critic, medievalist, lecturer, teacher.

"It does seem as if he's living two or three lives," she says, wondering whether he may be trying to live one for his lost brother, too.

Mrs. Gardner is a fan of the "certain beautiful, subtle things" in her son's novels and says that each time one is published, "I run through it the first time with motherly concern, then go back to reread it and soak it up." A former high school literature teacher, she and her husband together give a course called "The Gardners" at Genesee Community College in upstate New York near Batavia. It includes their favorite poems, passages from Shakespeare and the Bible, and selected excerpts from their son's writings with explications of their own.

John Gardner has also written a 40-page, one-woman play for his mother, "Days of Vengeance," which she describes as a "hilariously funny" drama about the very serious problem of old age and independence. She's performed it in 15 towns in her area, and speaks of her own play as one of the most touching gifts a son could give to a mother.

Did she and her husband encourage him to be a writer? Not particularly.

She never told him "I want you to grow up to be a writer, you have great talent."

But she points to something much more important in a tribute he wrote to her: "One of the most important things that happened to me as a child was that you never made fun of my writings or drawings. Because it's very difficult to take seriously in later life what you've had laughed at as a child."

Mrs. Gardner continues, "I always pass that along. It's very important not to make fun of your child: I always found something in it; I paid attention; I looked."

As a child, he'd scribbled stories, but he'd also painted well and played the French horn superbly, so no one was sure which path he'd take. Even when he'd decided it was writing, it was by the other road of teaching (medieval literature and creative writing) to earn his living that he reached it. He did it armed with a BA from Washington University, and an MA and PhD from Iowa State University. Along the way he has taught at: Oberlin College, Chico State (Calif.), San Francisco State, Southern Illinois University, Bennington, Skidmore, williams, and George Mason university.

His good friend Edmund Epstein, who shared an office with him for years at Southern Illinois University, describes Gardner as "fervent, kind, curious, or questing. . . . And brave. . . . He's driven to understand himself. He's constantly exploring in his internal wilderness or jungle." Gardner has dedicated more than one book to Epstein, who is a literature professor at Queens College in New York.

The flint and steel of Gardner's critical views on today's novel ring out in his book "On Moral Fiction." He wrote in 1965, but it wasn't published until 1977. After he revised it, it created a donnybrook in the literary world. In this slim, scarlet-covered book Gardner says "most contemporary writers are hesitant to speak of Truth and Beauty, not to mention God -- hesitant to speak of the goodness of man, or the future of the world. . . ."

In maintaining that true art is moral, he lashes out at the world -- at the lack of heroes providing a noble image to inspire men in today's fiction; at writers who lack compassion or caring for their characters, who concentrate on textures and surfaces rather than substance.

His rallying cry that "almost all modern art is tinny, commercial, and immoral" created a civil war in the world of the contemporary novel. Other novelists, William Gass foremost among them, struck back in angry dialogues like one at a fiction festival at the University of Cincinnati, and the battle was joined.

In a report on that battle in the New York Times Magazine last July, writer Stephen Singular said that Gardner is on the attack again in a new book to be published by Knopf called "The Art of Fiction." Gardner denies it. He says he uses a set of papers in writing class which he calls "The Art of Fiction" or "The Black Book." But he suggests that the Times wouldn't have published Singular's article unless he had an angle.

"So he claimed I've written a new book, The Art of Fiction' in which I am on the warpath again attacking others writers [John Barth, John Updike, Gass, Donald Barthelme, among others]. Absolutely no truth in it," he says firmly. "It was really embarrassing. I had spent all this time mending fences after having hurt the feelings of my fellow artists who are writers. . . . I hate to look like the hit man of the literary establishment."

Also, he adds, he wrote "On Moral Fiction" to encourage those who believe, as he does, in fiction that seeks to improve life, not to debase it, and that holds up models of decent behavior.

"I thought it was important," he says, "because I have so many students, friends who don't want to write a cynical, nihilistic book and feel sort of pressured by the literary establishment to do it."

His own heroes and heroines in fiction include Tolstoy, Melville, Jane Austen ("Emma" is his favorite novel), and, among contemporary American writers, Joyce Carol Oates. He uses his favorite word of praise for them, "wonm -derful," accenting the first syllable in his faintly dreamy, burly storyteller's voice.

Gardner spins ideas and stories out like Rumpelstiltskin, even intimate ideas about his own two marriages. His first marriage, to his second cousin, Joan, a musician, lasted nearly a quarter of a century. He and the first Mrs. Gardner have two children -- Joel, 20, and Lucy, 18. Gardner lives in Lanesboro, Pa., with his second wife, Liz Rosenberg, who was a student in his creative writing course at Bennington when they met. A writer, she now teaches at State University of New York, Binghamton. She refuses to discuss him.

When he is asked if his first marriage is always there, with him like the wallpaper in his second marriage, he answers:

"I think so. I don't know if everybody does, but I know the first time I worked in a factory, the factory was clearer and brighter, and the smells were more interesting. And the first person that you love enough to marry and live with -- in my case 23 years -- obviously is somebody that you in some ways love profoundly.

"You never recapture childhood intensities. You get other things perhaps more valuable. You may be able to love more deeply. But there's no substitute for romance. Pure, innocent romance happens once. I think what happens afterward is even better, but there's an element of romance [that is different] with the second wife. . . . There's something like, if she's in danger, your heart aches. . . .

"There are obviously things in the first romance that are not repeatable. There are obviously things in the first romance that should have been there but weren't because we were young and stupid, that you can put there now, and that's what makes it thrilling. I'm not less excited by my second wife than my first wife, and our life is simply wonm -derful. She's a lot more like me. She's a writer and a wonm -derful critic, teacher. We can talk about things. My first wife and I could never talk about things because for one reason or another we were always on opposite sides. . . ."

The secret of a good marriage, he believes, is fairness.

And he adds, "I think it helps a lot if you love the person: Sometimes one loves what a person represents. That was never a problem with me. I loved my first wife and I do. And I love my second wife. But with my first wife I was never fair. She was not very fair either, but she had good reason. It took me a long time to be grown up enough to be marriageable."

Like most novelists, Gardner is always rummaging through life looking for new characters. Acknowledgments in his novels list some of the real people he's used as models. So there is a point in the interview at which he suddenly turns the pale searchlights of his eyes on the interviewer and asks the questions. His eyes are light but intense, a skittery shade of blue-green which he calls "bluish." His features are strong and regular in a weathered face framed with that almost phosphorescently silver hair that glows in the shadows of the room.He hunches slightly over his ideas and his lunch, his shoulders broad in a suit black as a preacher's, worn with a white shirt, red paisley tie, and brown suede shoes. When he stands up to leave, he is a man of medium height.

But he walks like a big man, carrying his shoulders as though they were a burden. The final glimpse, as he turns left at a tree on East 49th Street, is of that long, white hair, blowing like a prophet's in the wind.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.