David Gates started writing fiction when he was thirty-three, on a commuter train from Connecticut to New York. He wrote two long novels and some short stories, but wasn’t published until he finished Jernigan, a blackly comic novel about a single alcoholic father. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Jernigan started Gates on a string of books about dissenting antiheroes, including Preston Falls and the story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World, both of which were nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards.
In all of his books, Gates has a distinctive gift of convincing readers to like characters who in reality would be considered rude, intellectually arrogant, and aggressively opinionated (especially when it comes to country music). He actually manipulates the reader with his pitch-perfect voice, smooth-talking us with highbrow jokes about Dickens, and then charming us with his backwoods good-old-boy slang. Like Beckett (whom Gates wrote his dissertation on) his characters’ interior voices infiltrate the reader’s mind and alter the rhythms in which we think.
Dividing his time between a Manhattan apartment and a weathered upstate New York farmhouse, Gates has worked at Newsweek magazine for the last twenty-eight years, mostly writing about music and books. He’s one of the most enthusiastic music-loving journalists around, a fine guitarist, and can sing a mean, foot-stompin’ version of “John Henry.” He also teaches fiction writing at the Bennington MFA program in a workshop with Amy Hempel.
Though this interview was conducted via email, Gates’s cowboy boots and Einsteinian haircut loomed throughout.
I. “I FELL IN LOVE WITH HIP-HOP AT FORTY BECAUSE I’D FALLEN IN LOVE WITH JAMES BROWN AT EIGHTEEN.”
THE BELIEVER: In addition to writing, you’ve spent a lot of time as a bluegrass musician. Is that right? Can you talk a little about your background with bluegrass? DAVID GATES: I don’t want to get too techy about this, but I’m not really a bluegrass player. I do play guitar and banjo, and a little mandolin, but the stuff I’ve done for most of my life is what’s called old-time music—a term I dislike because it sounds cutesy and condescending,but we’re stuck with it now.It’s the Southern stringband music that flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, before bluegrass came along, in 1945. (You can actually be this precise about it: that’s the year Bill Monroe hired Earl Scruggs to play banjo in his band.) I’ve never been able to master Scruggs-style banjo, much as I love to listen to it. Old-time banjo styles are plainer, more stark, though to my ears they’re equally exciting. It’s more of an ensemble music than bluegrass—few if any improvised solos during which the rest of the band lays back. The fiddle is the usual lead instrument, and the banjo often underlines the fiddle part with the same melody, or a simplified version of it. The square-dance tunes, which form a large part of the repertoire, are trance music. They repeat over and over, with minimal variation, and their power comes from the architecture of the tunes and the intensity of the players. I did play some straight bluegrass when I was in high school—I started out when I was fifteen or sixteen— but I took the other fork in the road.
BLVR: I’m just going to be honest here: I’ve never attended any sort of square dance. Can you set the scene for a typical evening of square dance? I have the vague impression that square dancing has to be more organized than other types of dancing. Is there any truth to this?
DG: Oh, yeah.You dance with a partner, you need to know some basic figures (allemande left, grand right and left, and so on), and there’s a caller up there chanting the figures you’re to perform and when you [are to] perform them, so that the whole set (i.e., four couples in a square) will be doing coordinated moves that form a pleasing, flowing whole. I hasten to add that I’ve never done this, since I don’t like being ordered around. A wide range of folks go to these things—from old people to kids, from fifties lefties to young post-hippies; you’ll sometimes see a young guy with a beard dancing in a skirt. In the South, you’ll probably still see more socially conservative people from a country background, but I don’t see it much up here, where it’s a selfconsciously Folk thing to do. (The exception is organized Western square-dance groups—the ones where the women wear fifty petticoats, and everybody gussies up in dude-cowboy clothes. They don’t care much about live bands; often it’s just recorded music and a live caller. I think I’ve only played once for such a crowd, and it was no fun.) They throw these dances wherever—church basements, grange halls, school gyms. For maybe the last fifteen or twenty years, I’ve played far fewer square dances and far more contra dances: this is a New England dance form, in which (to oversimplify) couples face off in lines rather than forming a square. Contra dancers prefer tunes from New England, French Canada, and Ireland, instead of the Southern tunes you hear at square dances. I much prefer the Southern tunes—they’re funkier and less stiff—but a good band can make ’em rock.
BLVR: Were you interested in music before you became involved with writing?
DG: Yes, I was. I always had little impulses toward writing, and in high school did the usual impersonation of a Beat poet (heavily influenced by the one page of Finnegans Wake I was able to get through). I read a lot, but didn’t really write a lot—I was more interested in being a writer than in writing. Music really seized me early on—crazy about listening to it, thrilled when we went to Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut, to hear a Western band called the Down Homers. My father taught me some chords on the ukulele when I was around six, and when I discovered how three or four chords went together to play about every song I knew, I was off to the races.
BLVR: What music have you been listening to recently?
DG: Bob Dylan above all. But I still listen a lot to what I was obsessed with in high school: bluegrass— especially the Stanley Brothers and the subsequent recordings by Ralph Stanley—old-time white country music (Tommy Jarrell, the Skillet Lickers, the Carter Brothers and Son, Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs), black country blues (Robert Johnson, Son House, Charley Patton, Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Bukka White), and jazz, particularly Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, Ellington, Ornette, Monk, Louis, and Billie Holiday. Chicago blues, especially Elmore James, Howlin’Wolf and Little Walter.Albert King. A lot of straight country: Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell,George Jones,the Louvin Brothers, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams, Buck Owens—and on and on. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.Today’s country moves me not at all but every once in a while, I’ll take a shine to some new music.
BLVR: Why do you think that newer country “moves you not at all”?
DG: It’s polite of you not to ask if I’m just getting old. You probably develop your tastes in music between the ages of, roughly, ten to thirty; after that, you can fall in love with new music, but most likely you’ll be most drawn to music that makes sense to you because of the tastes you’ve already established. I fell in love with hiphop at forty because I’d fallen in love with James Brown at eighteen.With older music, you’ve already got a map: you know what’s considered to be the good, time-tested stuff, which means that (a) you ought to give Mozart or Hank Williams or Louis Armstrong some attention,and (b) you also know what’s been neglected, so you can move from the canonical stuff to their contemporaries who’ve been neglected. So you discover Salieri (Cecilia Bartoli makes a good case for him) or Carl Smith or Red Allen. Contemporary music is mapless—you have to find your own way around it, and that takes time: you really have to care. Mainstream radio stations are mostly useless for finding good new music, and even if you come across something, chances are they won’t tell you what you just heard. The first time I heard both Beck and Biggie Smalls, I had to go asking around—Hey, do you have any idea what that song is where these women go “Biggie Biggie Biggie”? In any era, you have to listen through a bunch of tedious product to find the few good things. This isn’t so appealing when you know you can just explore around in Revenant’s Charley Patton box, or in Alan Lomax’s field recordings, or in the four decades of Duke Ellington records, and find something you’d neglected that will reward your attention. And finally— God, I hate to say this—these days I just don’t hear a whole lot of fresh ideas. So much new music is recycled or reactive; so much of it is about striking trendy attitudes, positioning yourself. It gets wearisome.
BLVR: Would you say that music and literature go in waves of ideas? Would you say there have been any periods (other than right now) in the last hundred years where creativity has been lower than other periods? Or do you think everyone in every time period feels more underwhelmed by fresh ideas, simply because, as you said, you have to listen through a bunch of tedious product to find the few good things?
DG: It gets tricky when you try to identify cultural waves. I don’t think waves sweep over the arts, raising all boats. I think it’s more that you get one (or several) revolutionary geniuses, from whom a larger number of people take inspiration. In rock and roll, it was first Elvis, then Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. It’s mind-boggling when you consider that there were only ten years between Elvis’s “That’s All Right” or “Mystery Train” to “Like a Rolling Stone.” That’s a hell of a lot of development in ten years—surely more than in, say, the ten years between 1990 and 2000. That doesn’t mean there’s necessarily less creativity. Some wonderful music almost always gets done. It just means there’s less innovation—nothing as revolutionary as rock and roll, disco, or hip-hop. Seems to me there’s a shade of difference between creativity and innovation. You bring up a good question about whether people in every era find it hard to sift through new music without a map showing where the treasure is buried. What’s different about today is that just about everything from every previous era and every part of the world is immediately available—in addition to vast amounts of new stuff being released every day. It’s more overwhelming than underwhelming
II. “BECKETT IS TO JOYCE AS MILES IS TO CHARLIE PARKER.”
BLVR: Before, you said that you have been listening to “Bob Dylan above all.” Would you say, as many other people have said, that Dylan is one of the greatest lyricists of all time?
DG: Well, the word lyricist suggests to me someone like Yip Harburg or Ira Gershwin—wonderful writers within the genre of American popular song, who somehow managed to combine the simplicity you need to be popular with sophisticated wordplay. But what genre does Dylan belong to? The old descriptors—protest song, folk rock, rock pure and simple—now sound quaint and off the mark. (It’s bizarre to hear “Like a Rolling Stone” on a “classic rock” station among all that tired crap that sounds like Led Zeppelin.) A better analogy might be the art song; in his memoir, he writes about the impact Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” had on him. But (and I know it’s unfair) this sounds to me like the very definition of No Fun, and Dylan can make you laugh out loud. Like the high-modernist poets (“Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower”) he’s a high-low guy, but he wasn’t a scholar up in that tower, looking down on vernacular culture.He was of that culture,where high-school kids, raised on TV, movies, and popular music—which in those days included both Frank Sinatra and Chuck Berry—discovered Shakespeare and Rimbaud (and Allen Ginsberg), but felt no call to renounce all things pop in favor of high-culture monasticism. Dylan really believed, still believes, that certain obscure musicians from the Southern mountains and the Mississippi Delta were geniuses. (So do I. See above.) But Dylan’s not really a poet, either—despite Christopher Ricks’s silly book—which he’s taken pains to point out, and not from false modesty. I think his work is something that’s never been seen before, and on which I hope they never succeed in hanging a name. I also think—and this may sound preposterous—that he’s a figure to put beside Shakespeare, and almost nobody else. Since he’s still with us, playing all those gigs every year, it’s hard to see the true breadth and amplitude of his work.
BLVR: Since we’re talking about “lyricists,” I’m curious what you think about hip-hop lyricism. How would you say it fits into the whole Gershwin/Weill/“obscure musicians from the Southern mountains” history of blending words with music? Is hip-hop closer to poetry than Dylan?
DG: No closer, no farther away. It’s not poetry (or light verse, or doggerel) set to some producer’s tracks. I think of it as music with rhymed storytelling/boasting/dissing—which is a more primal and more demotic form than poetry, despite the sophisticated wordplay and the Ogden Nash rhymes—and neither dominates the other. A hip-hop piece isn’t exactly a song: It’s not sung, though of course the Jamaican dance-hall rappers pay more attention to melody, or at least tonality, than the Americans do. Maybe it’s roughly analogous to classical sprechstimme—an analogy that would surely make most rappers gag. I’d love to know what Yip Harburg or Cole Porter would’ve thought of some of this stuff. If the delivery and the musical repetiveness—this too is trance music—and the delivery didn’t put them off,they couldn’t help but be impressed.
BLVR: Have you ever tried writing lyrics yourself? I’ve tried a few times and failed miserably. It almost seems like words and music barely fit together.
DG: I did, probably thirty years ago, and I had the same experience. I suppose I could’ve gotten better, but there are already so many wonderful songs in the world that you wouldn’t live long enough to sing them all. (I’ve finally gotten borderline comfortable singing a couple of Dylan songs, but mostly I feel like a fraud. I have no such problem with anybody else I admire—except perhaps David Byrne.) My inability to write songs doesn’t have as much to do with technique as just basic incapacity. I can’t for the life of me imagine what I myself would sing: I don’t hear my experience or my feelings as singable. I have a similar problem with poetry, which I’ve dabbled in. (It’s all unpublished and unpublishable.) I read a fair amount of poetry, but it’s not a mode of utterance that’s natural to me—it’s just not how my experience organizes itself. To the extent that it organizes itself. Tell you one thing, if I were ever to write lyrics, I wouldn’t be the one to sing them.
BLVR: What about when you’re writing? Can you listen to music when you write?
DG: Not Dylan, that’s for sure.When I first started writing, I’d sometimes put on chaotic late Coltrane, I guess in a naive attempt to free up my imagination by proxy. But it’s been years now since I could listen to anything. I toy sometimes with the idea of putting on orchestral classical music: some big, rich symphony by Mahler, say—to make my writing more Tolstoyan or something? Or something meditative, like Morton Feldman. But I don’t think I’ve ever been fool enough to do it. I certainly couldn’t write to any music with words.
BLVR: Here’s a game. If Tolstoy’s writing is a Mahler symphony and Dylan’s music is Shakespeare, what is late Coltrane? What about Earl Scruggs? Leadbelly? Haggard? Anyone else?
DG: Sure, I’ll play. Late Coltrane: Joyce. Miles Davis: Beckett. (Beckett is to Joyce as Miles is to Charlie Parker: the early acolyte, confronted with maximum outgoingness and technical competence, does a 180 into inwardness and what Beckett called “impotence, ignorance.”) Beyond them, I’d get even more silly. And repetitive: Morton Feldman is also Beckett’s alter ego.
BLVR: What would be the musical equivalent of your writing?
DG: You’re asking me to flatter myself. I’ll just say that there are times when I’m afraid I’m P.D.Q. Bach.
III. “CAVE DWELLERS PROBABLY ARGUED ABOUT WHO PLAYED DRUM THE BEST.”
BLVR: Webb Pierce, Wagner, Mahler, Billie Holiday: I’ve read all these names in your fiction a few times. Usually, one of your narrators is mincing over the details of their music, expressing some very strong opinion about a fact that most people would call arcane. Normally I wouldn’t ask the “autobiographical” question, but I’m pretty curious: would you say that you express a lot of your strong opinions through your narrators?
DG: Yeah, I bet you’ve read ’em. I think I’ve gotten better about inflicting my own obsessions on the reader. I don’t want my fiction to be any excuse for riding my personal hobbyhorses, or, God help us, to have the sneaky purpose of educating the reader’s taste. Some of the characters who share my obsessions are awful people, like the clarinet-playing hero of the story “The Wonders of the Invisible World.” I had a minor breakthrough in Jernigan,where I made the hero more ignorant than I am about the guitar, and a major breakthrough in Preston Falls, when I was able to make the wife a Dylan-hater. I think she made a pretty good case against him, and I believed every word as I was writing it.
BLVR: Considering that your characters hold so many of your opinions,would you say your characters are usually as intelligent as you?
DG: Absolutely.Or at least that’s often my aim.I don’t see the point of spending a lot of time with characters you look down on.And the ones with less sophistication and book-learning than a Peter Jernigan or a Doug Willis can find themselves overmastered by people with less intellect and more honesty and conviction, or with more willingness. I try not to look down on these folks, either. Sometimes I try to write characters who are smarter than I am, which I think is really the way to go. Or at least they’re quicker on their feet. The snap-snap-snap repartee, where characters bounce allusions, wordplay, and sometimescruel insights back and forth—I hope that sounds real,but it might take me an hour to come up with the riposte of my characters launches in half a second. I love 1930s movie comedy, and I like to think some of my dialogue sounds like that—with characters who read Wallace Stevens. I used to watch The Man Who Came to Dinner, with Monty Woolley and Bette Davis, every year with my father—it was a Christmas tradition with us—and I imagine that, as much as any observation of real life, had a lot to do with my conception of how smart people talk.
BLVR: I remember, at some point, reading something like: “The only type of character a writer cannot create is one who is smarter than the writer himself.” It was probably in one of those how-to-write books. Maybe it was John Gardner.I’m guessing you don’t agree with this.
DG: I don’t know, maybe it’s horseshit. Obviously it all comes out of you. Do you know the story of Samuel Johnson waking up humiliated from a dream in which he was having a conversation in which his antagonist had him on the ropes the way Johnson did with everybody else? It took a second for him to recognize that this person was a creation of his own brain. I do think, though, that our unconscious can be smarter than our conscious minds.Think of those dreams that seem wacky and random before you see how rigorously organized they are.
BLVR: So, we’ve sort of established that your fiction has an element of criticism in it. Or, more accurately, I guess you could call it “fictional criticism.”By that I mean to say that your characters express fictional opinions about reallife artists.Would you say that there are any other strains of literature that function in this way? Any books that merge fiction and criticism in a significant way? Any books that have influenced you? Older literature?
DG: Don’t a lot of writers have express opinions about books, music, movies, painting, and so on? Television? How could you not? People of every class and every level of education level express aesthetic opinions all the time, and I’d imagine always have. Cave dwellers probably argued about who played drum the best. Look at Hamlet instructing the actors, or Theseus laughing at the rude mechanicals’ play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The matter of Marianne Dashwood’s literary tastes in Sense and Sensibility. Stephen Dedalus’s Shakespeare crit. The “irony and pity” riff in The Sun Also Rises. Humbert Humbert’s unsurprisingly Nabokovian opinionating. This might be a stronger strain in my work, because it’s so central in my life, but hardly unique.
BLVR: How does rhythm play into your work? All your punctuation and phrasing dictates a specific pacing to the sentences. Is it completely intuitive? Do you ever purposely use rhythmic dissonance or patterns in your writing?
DG: I’m lucky that way. I labor over those effects, but only in an intuitive way.It might have to do with my love of music; it might also have to do with my love of certain writers who have a strong sense of rhythm.Samuel Beckett. Samuel Johnson. Shakespeare, of course, both in prose and verse. A good rhythmic cadence (which technically boils down to word placement, punctuation, and an awareness of where the stresses fall) can sell the most banal content. Over the years, I’ve learned to identify things I do as “techniques” or “devices,” like putting the “he said” at a natural pause in the character’s speech rather than at the end. But I can’t explain this with anything more reasoned-out than “sounds right.” I take great pleasure in doing that sort of work on my pieces, both fiction and nonfiction: trying to get rhythms that satisfy me. But it’s case by case; I don’t have general principles.
BLVR: Have you ever noticed any rhythmic patterns or rhythmic nuances in people’s speech? For instance, in conversation, people rarely use sentences that can’t be expressed in a single breath. Do you think this is true? Or is it just stupid to try and simplify the spoken language into simple rules?
DG: You can’t help but notice, though they seldom sink in for me unless I can read them over and over. For instance, in transcripts of the [spoken] interviews that I do, or in such oral histories as Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times and its successors, Donald Honig’s Baseball When the Grass Was Real—check out Lefty O’Doul’s bit—and Baseball Between the Lines. Or the way players speak in Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. I don’t go around noticing the rhythms in the conversations I have or overhear. Do spoken sentences usually take place in a single breath? I’d never thought about it, so give me a second. OK, maybe. But isn’t it common for speakers to draw breath in midsentence to create suspense, or a pause for emphasis, or simply to plan the rest of the sentence? “The single greatest thing about Bob Dylan [in-breath; then, at the end of the outbreath] is the way he keeps changing his hair.” You also have to remember that actual spoken language is often less coherent than its plausible imitation on the page.You couldn’t read dialogue that left in all the uhs and you knows, and all the sentences people leave incomplete, relying on the listener to fill in the rest. Those mannerisms create rhythms, but they’re not necessarily rhythms you want to re-create on the page.Written dialogue is artifice, to the end of making it seem unartificial. (Speaking of the stupidity of laying down categorical rules.)
IV. “FICTION IS TO JOURNALISM AS FISH IS TO BICYCLE.”
BLVR: Can you talk a little about your experience at Newsweek? At some point, I heard you mention your “double life” as a critic and a fiction writer.
DG: I’ve never understood how much the one mode of writing plays into the other. I’ve got something like my fictional voice into my journalism, and the range of information I’ve picked up doing journalism often feeds the fiction. The rigorous editing I’ve gotten at Newsweek has carried over into the fiction: early on my editors taught me that every word has to do a job or it has to go. People in MFA programs—I never went to one myself—pay to learn what I was paid to learn. On the other hand, these two modes feel completely different: fiction is to journalism as fish is to bicycle.That’s probably why I don’t find it jarring to go from one to the other, as long as I’ve got a half-hour-or-so buffer between them—a subway ride will do it. And I might add that having a day job has freed me not to worry at all about making a living from fiction. The downside is that I haven’t been terrified into productivity. Which is also the upside: I can afford to pay attention only to my own demands.And one more thing: How else would I have gotten to interview Dylan? Not because of the wonderfulness of Jernigan, babe.
BLVR: Ever consider writing a book of nonfiction?
DG: Years ago, before I’d written Jernigan. I’d somehow gotten an agent on the “strength” of my short stories—takes you back, doesn’t it—and I proposed a nonfiction book about music. The proposal got shopped around a bit. I thought of it as a moneymaker that would support my fiction. Then I realized that I’d most likely spend all my advance traveling here and there to interview people, and that seemed crazy—it would have been a years-long dead end. Understandably, the agent wasn’t happy that I pulled the proposal. (And it certainly made me look like a flake and a diva.) We parted company soon afterward. Since then, no. Maybe someday. Maybe. But considering my track record (just three books since 1991), it’s going to be a short shelf of books at best, and I’d much prefer that they be novels or stories.
BLVR: I’ve heard some rumors that your readings can be somewhat controversial. Is there any truth to this? Maybe these rumors are way off the mark, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Has anyone ever left a reading?
DG: Fuck, I knew this would come up. Of course you’re talking about that reading where three hundred people from Focus on the Family rushed the stage with baseball bats. Actually, I’d love to hear the rumors, and I hope you’ll spread ’em around—I could use a higher profile. I’ve seen a few people walk out, apparently because of rough language or gamy sex, but every writer who trafficks in RLGS must have that happen. Or maybe the stuff was just too depressing, or I wasn’t close enough to the mic, or somebody just didn’t like the cut of my jib. If I spot kids in the crowd—the crowd? that’s giving myself airs—I’ll often give a parental advisory before I start slinging Fs around. I’d like to think I’m a walking hot-button, but I can’t quite believe it. Or am I just oblivious? Now tell me the rumors.