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An Interview with Merrill Gilfillan

[Writer]
by Martin Riker
April 18th, 2019

“A demagogue’s words sound considerably more hollow on a hilltop in South Dakota than in a New York conference room. To ‘be small in the world’ (a phrase from Creeley) can be liberating, even heady.”


Non-exhaustive list of what inspires Merrill Gilfillan:
Sudden immersion in the Great Plains
The works of naturalist W.H. Hudson
All stories that could be carelessly labeled “small.”

I first think to say that Merrill Gilfillan is one of our literature’s most brilliant landscape painters, but when I press myself on this statement, I realize that it is not only the spaces of the American Plains that his stories evoke, but also their sound, which is quiet. Silence is an absence of sound, but quiet is something else altogether.

The stories in Talk Across Water—thirty-five stories written during a period Gilfillan spent exploring different parts of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas—are quiet in every meaningful sense I can think of. The lands they inhabit are full of life but often sparsely populated. The characters speak with deliberation, or just don’t talk at all. The prose is—not delicate, but it handles itself with ease, attending to the world of humans and the world outside of humans in about equal measure.

It is for his prose that Gilfillan is best known, the prose of a lifelong poet—“thoughtful, lyrical, and majestic” is how Lucia Berlin described it; “carved and dangerous” says the New York Times. But it seems to me the radical element of his writing is his fundamental commitment to the unassuming side of reality, a kind of extreme realism that downplays the heavy drama most “Realism” relies on in favor of atmosphere, the texture of a place or the particularity of a moment. 

Born in 1945, Gilfillan is the author of over a dozen volumes of poetry and numerous essay and fiction collections. I interviewed him by email in March.

—Martin Riker

THE BELIEVER: Can you tell me a little about how you came to write these stories? You started off as a poet?

MERRILL GILFILLAN: I became interested in poetry during high school years and by the time I was twenty, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, I had committed, “taken the vow,” as they say. I wrote nothing but poetry till the age of forty, when, in good part because I moved to the West (Colorado), I felt the need to work in a more direct, open-armed genre to deal with and digest that new landscape and its implications: first through nonfiction, as in Magpie Rising, and later in stories.

I supported myself largely doing freelance editorial work—proofreading and copy editing—in order to keep time plentiful for exploring the Great Plains and tapping into the remarkable exhilaration of those sumptuous back roads.

Eventually I found an equilibrium between prose and poetry, fiction and non, that proved rich and durable. The relations between the literal “I” of the nonfiction essays and the fictional “I” of many stories are always fascinating and often symbiotic.

BLVR: The stories cover a vast area of varied populations—especially Native American populations—and landscapes. Why this particular area, these particular people?

MG: I was sharply taken with Native American presence and cultures, taken with the notion of alternative parallel life ways, by the time I was six years old. I became enamored of the short story by the time I was twelve. But it wasn’t until I was thirty-five or so and found myself on the western plains that the two intertwined. The combination of an engaging landscape (i.e., theater) peopled with human groups I had always esteemed enabled me to think about writing short stories for the first time. It was a catalytic blend of history and timelessness, affection and wonder.

So I began to penetrate the plains, their peoples and rivers, in a more thorough way, taken with their various beauty and great geologic repose. In terms of writing and aesthetics, I sensed the grand spaces were working on my deepest point of view, and I began recalling a basic distinction I had considered far back in college years: the contrasts between the “story” and the “tale.” As in, tales employ a leisurely, soft-edged voice, while stories are more aggressive. Tales convert lengthy far-ranging action into briefer, teller’s-time spans; stories exhibit quicker, present-time close-ups. Tales provide a broad philosophic sense of revelation; stories a climactic, enforced “dramatic” resolution. Tales have one foot in the primal telling tradition where Place is more important than Time. That sort of thing.

BLVR: Oh, I like the tales/stories distinction. It’s one I’ve been interested in but have never put in quite those terms. I suppose it turns back also on the speaker: a tale has a teller while a story has a, what, a crafter? I wonder if your interest in tales is also a choice of the sort of person you wish to spend your time being.

MG: I don’t know… maybe the tale/story distinctions are most useful as adjectives: tale-like or storyful. Both have shady reputations. I rarely think of them while writing or sharpening my pencil.

Most persistent writers eventually strike a balance with their fundamental temperaments, metabolisms, hippocampi, and maybe a very deep world view with roots in their subconscious. Perhaps less by choice than by erosion; or a little of each. The resulting range of efflorescence—Charles Lamb, Bukowski, Celine, James Baldwin, Sarah Orne Jewett… whether they are wishful fantasy-scapes, I guess I’m not the one to ask.

A background in poetry no doubt played a part in my own approach to fiction. I always turned to poetry as an overture, an entrada, to the world. Rather than a tightening of the epistemological screws—Creeley comes to mind again. I suppose a kind of language-pleasure must carry over from poems to stories.

BLVR: What strikes me most forcefully in these stories is your commitment, not necessarily to realism, but to the real. These stories inhabit different characters and lives but rarely do they make either the dramatic or the explicitly imaginative sorts of gestures that we’ve come to expect of contemporary fiction. What is your relationship, here, to the idea of fiction, or more simply to the imagination?

MG: One of the self-imposed strictures I brought to fiction was to write as far as possible from actual referents, as opposed to imposing a sort of heedless invention. This, to be sure, allows for the grafting of details/events/characters from years or decades and hundreds of miles apart—so long as the human grounding is true. It springs from the conviction that stories are gifts, givens, that require a certain receptivity allowing them to take root and grow. It also serves as antidote to certain presumptuous intrusiveness that authors often feel obligated to bring on board.

BLVR: One form of that intrusiveness would I suppose be romanticization, and something that impresses me in these stories is how your keen sense of narrative shape and close attention to the landscape doesn’t give way to sweeping romantic visions. There’s a very palpable (to me) literary ethics at work here, and I wondered if you could talk about what you set to do, as a writer, for this world that fascinates you.

MG: The bird’s eye view is always present in great expanses; it makes for what I call the great Visibility of the grassland spaces. I sometimes drove those byways so long that words gave out and the ineffable took charge. I soon began stopping at frequent intervals to pull out my colored pencils and draw any given river snaking down below.

Perspective is, to put it mildly, humbling to both the residents and the writer, in the end. If there is an ethic involved, it derives from that sense of human size. For example, a demagogue’s words sound considerably more hollow on a hilltop in South Dakota than in a New York conference room. To “be small in the world” (a phrase from Creeley) can be liberating, even heady.

What I would like “to do” in fiction…? I believe engaging any place and/or human situation can call attention to the life-saving intricacies of the world, pay homage to the fertile complexities. I often remember Walter Pater commenting on Leonardo’s casual drawings of human passersby, how they created a sort of intuition through which “one becomes aware of the subtler forces of nature, and the modes of their action, all that is magnetic in it, all these finer conditions wherein material things rise to that subtlety of operation which constitutes the spiritual.”

BLVR: It’s interesting that you quote Pater because I was thinking about your relationship to certain kinds of Modernism, in particular Virginia Woolf, who inherited quite a lot from Pater, but also a later writer like Georges Perec, who shares Woolf’s interest in “what is commonly thought small” but does not share much of her prose style.

MG: I have never seen myself as part of any school or movement whatsoever (even during my seven years in New York). Although Die Brucke and Fauvism must have been a lot of fun.

“Modernism” has always seemed the most crazily slippery term, essentially drained by its vapid name and its built-in endlessly flashing expiration date… Many favorite authors wrote during the first quarter of the 20th century, but I have trouble considering them a related phalanx. We all did share the astonishing acceleration of the century, planes overhead, and the hideous upscale wars. The formal and attitudinal reforms they brought about–that is a continual on-going process. Dada is probably the most durable, time-free strain of “newness” that was born with Modernism. In short, I love Proust more than Woolf, I love Poulenc and the contemplative side of Satie, and I have always considered my brief story “Near Michaelmas” a quick live-Dada documentary.

Deep precedents are always working on and for artists, regardless of their categorization. I have often been struck by the way a particular poem (maybe one of “The Hotel Wentley Poems”) or a single story—its scope and acoustics—can be a primary source of inspiration and mode, can open entire networks, frequencies, and set a writer on long-term course. Maupassant’s “La Mere Sauvage,” Calvino’s “A Goatherd at Luncheon,” Chekhov’s wonderful “Heartache” (all stories that could be carelessly labeled “small”) are works that taught me enormous things simply by raising the hair on my nape. That really is the way it works. A small seed in warm soil.

BLVR: I think I read that your father was a naturalist. I imagine that nature, open land, interested you from an early age. Are there particular writers or books that formed your sense of what the literature of open spaces might look like?

MG: Yes, I was raised in a family that honored the non-human world and explored its details. It is great training for both eye and ear.

Birds especially became a major accompaniment to both my daily life and my imaginative one. A sort of pleasant “chorus” perhaps.

The naturalist W. H. Hudson’s books of trudging around rural England in the early 1900s, encountering fields and fens and plenty of human nature, were wonderful inspirations and guides for the art of “nosing about”—for any non-fiction or fictional canvas. Patiently learning to connect the eye and the heart.

When I began to work with the short story I studied the obvious masters, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Lawrence. Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, with their lovely wanderings. Gradually moving from Chekhov’s well-known urban stories to his countryside tales was a discovery and an inspiration, I am sure. People at large in a solid landscape.

I read stories from anywhere, in the same way I listen to all sorts of music. Any work that “catches” the world, gathers the pollen and brings it to the would-be Commons.

BLVR: I read that you lived in NYC for about a decade. Have you written about city life as well? Do you have (as a writer or as a reader) a sense of there being distinct literature, a literature of the city and another of the rural or the natural world?

MG: I’ve always thought of moving from the provinces (in my case the eastern Midwest) to New York City as a classic migration right out of Balzac. I wrote many poems in NYC, but I never was tempted to write with great authority about the endless city. So prose seemed to appear when I left town about 1976.

As I mentioned, a sudden immersion in the Great Plains set off a good bit of prose writing (and after a year or two, poems also began to thrive in that ecosystem).  But thereafter, I turned to another quite different North American feature I had always admired, the southern Appalachians. I had known those softer mountains on occasion over the years, and finally decided to pay them a bit of homage and began investigating their lesser highways and roads. That led to Burnt House to Paw Paw, another book of domestic travel sketches. The point being, I suppose, that when a subject attracts you the imaginative attention can readily shift. In the case of the Appalachians, I soon learned the days of writing at the wheel on a legal pad along prairie straightaways were over, and I needed a small cassette recorder to make notes on the twisty mountain roads.

Stories are everywhere and anywhere, anywhere a writer is caught and moved to write them down—”caught” in the sense that Native American singers use the phrase “to catch a song”: to sense it, overhear it on an abstract or literal level, then bring it into being. That is the function of the imagination: to see, recognize, value, and render. It is all a matter of what sets the chemistry in motion for any individual artist.

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