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Monday, March 9, 2009

Interview with Ted Pelton — Fiction Writer

Ted Pelton might be best known as the publisher of the fine small-press, Starcherone. However, he is also a writer in his own right. Click here to see his web page. What follows is an interview about his first collection of stories, Endorsed by Jack Chapeau (Starcherone). It has come out in two different editions. I will also post interviews with Ted on his novel, Malcolm and Jack (Spuyten Duvel), and also on his Woodchuck Series stories which have recently appeared in a variety of web journals.

ENDORSED BY JACK CHAPEAU 1 had a very different sort of 'endoresment', written by the fictional pseudonym, than did number 2. In number 1 Chapeau discusses 'P's, that's Ted Pelton's, appearance on Larry King Live and his candiddacy for president. In number 2, Chapeau becomes an army general, and he offers a memo that focuses mostly on the interrelationship of war and television. First, what is the purpose behind the ficitonal endorsement? Why did you change the endorsement? Also, #2 featues, in addition to the endorsement, an ad written in a very archaic style. What was your thinking behind this?

Pelton: I wrote the first endorsement. I asked Geoffrey Gatza to write the second, so that accounts for the difference in tone. GG picked up on the war & television theme perhaps to the exclusion of some of the other stuff; I don’t know if he had seen all the later stories when he wrote that. It was kind of a goof. But I guess I then took on another persona myself, having given up being Jack Chapeau – I became the nameless publisher-hawker whom, you are right, gives an advertisement for the text, reminiscent of the early days of the novel. I liked that voice, the fun of writing “in his inimitable stile of address,” etc. Maybe the fun of doing the second version got a little too giddy at that point. Funnily enough, I then felt sheepish about promoting that book – a product of Starcherone, now a nonprofit, as if I shouldn’t be using public funds to promote myself. “Start your own” is how the press got started, but once it became something I felt I directed in the public trust, certified by the IRS, I didn’t want to feel anyone could accuse me of just being out for myself. “Public trust” is also something of an exaggeration – we have been such a small budget operation, and a lot of my own funds have gone into it, for years.

I would like to focus on a few of the stories. "No Thanks, Norton, Mine's Already Lit" is an ingenious story that uses author's names as various other parts of speech, such as a verb, noun, or adjective. The following is just one of a number of examples I could choose from: "He had bunyans on his euripedes and burns on his hobbes and at night he would nashe his keats, menchen about the ferlinghetti days of his youth." This is of course a comic story. I see it as going beyond mere laughs. Do you? Or is it a kind of comic relief without wider significance?

Pelton: Yes, I see it going beyond mere laughs, but I wouldn’t claim a great deal of seriousness for it as literature either. Then, again, maybe literature isn’t all that serious. But truly, I was in some sense imitating forms I’ve seen for years of jokey writing, throw-off magazine or newspaper sports or other kind of journalism, which loves to play with puns. I remember seeing a comic piece in Sports Illustrated, as a kid, that did something similar: a narrative of American history comprised out of sports franchise nicknames, starting with the Dutch founding New York in their Knickerbockers, etc. It’s about love of language, how you can break language open, pulling it away from its normal uses, and find jewels inside. Then there’s all sorts of little puns in there about literary history, like “he could Creeley see the approach of Dorn” (i.e., dawn). It was fun to write – and I actually wrote this piece just as a pure relief. I wrote it while studying for my PhD orals, like blowing off steam.

"Friendly Fire," for me, is quite rich and very moving. In it you collage a number of different discourses (Dr. Seuss, The Lone Ranger, a heterosexual sex scene conveyed using Stein-like repetition, reflections on the American hetero male, Emily Dickinson, personal history, statistics, the repetitive 'soundbite' phrases offered by the T.V., raw capitlist entrenepeurship, to say the least. This story was obviously based on the first Gulf War. How does it transcend that subject?

Pelton: I was worried that it would be dated when Jack Chapeau was published; this was a collage piece about the first Gulf War. Who was going to remember that, I thought, in 2000? And then George the 2nd supplied us with a new Iraq War, so I was relevant again! I was very angry when I wrote that piece, in 1991, and I think the excitement of the form reflects that anger, that bitterness that after all this time, we are still putting stock in war to solve problems. What could be stupider? Really, what? Who can have so much certainty about themselves and their truths as to kill other people, simply for control of resources? And the first Gulf War was the one that changed how we look at wars today, sans reporters on the ground, showing us what’s really going on. Gulf War 1 was about information control, as much as it was about anything – and now we are very far from even remembering to be critical of what we are told is happening in combat areas. In essence, Dubya and his administration gave us a gift in being so stupid and incompetent in how he managed the wars; his father had figured out how to do brutal, illegal, moneymaking things very quietly. Sorry, I realize I’m getting off on a political tangent – but it remains a political story for me. I am a pacifist, and it feels like this position has lost years of progress. Now, even Obama feels it’s OK to launch missile strikes into countries we are not at war with, and kill people we feel are guilty of crimes without charging them or having to produce evidence. And that leaves out the children and neighbors of the bad people, who also die, because missiles are a little less precise than lethal injection. It’s a crime to be in certain neighborhoods, evidently, and the crime is punishable by mass, summary executions, which are sometimes administered mistakenly. Oops!

I am angry about similar things in Malcolm & Jack, which examines the 1940s and the roots of American Empire by looking at drop-outs from it. The arrogance of how we have come to look at the world; more specifically, how our narratives have come to be powerful, persuasive, and deadly.

Repetition here becomes almost diabolical— "Support the Troops, "Another Hitler," "Saddam Hussein". Is it fair to say that you've used some of the repetitive techniques of Gertrude Stein not to put them in the service of a type of knowlege, as she sometimes does, but as a techological trap?

Pelton: Yes, most definitely. Stein was an American after all. I was touched by how, as I say in the story, Stein died just as television was being introduced. Both used repetition – and Stein was very conscious of how words created strange effetcs on the mind through repetition – and isn’t this what advertising strives for, that irrational response conditioned by repetition. I’m not suggesting Stein used her power to nefarious advantage, but she anticipating this kind of use of language – I mean, “scrubbing bubbles, scrubbing bubbles, scrubbing bubbles” – is that Stein or TV; or how about “we baked pearls made of denture material in this blueberry pie." "I’m Dan Rather I’ll see you tomorrow night. I’m Dan Rather I’ll see you tomorrow night.” It also rang consistent with Dr. Seuss, who was the poet of my childhood; Stein’s rhymes are also frequently child-like. It all became a kind of nexus of seductive, repetitious language for me.

The juxtaposition between the woman who wanted to volunteer her time to get yellow ribbons out and the entrepreuner who profited from it is fascinating.

Pelton: Thanks. Yeah, you know, the people who just make a living, or do things to find meaning in their lives. They pick up roles in the master narratives.

I don't view your work this simply, but I know some might. It seems useful to get your response to this objection to these two stories: in both of them you assume an audience familiar with the English canon and the workings of academia. In the latter case, you discuss 'going to a conference to deliver a paper'. Many people would not understand exactly what you are talking about. Do you think you are limiting your audience? What are your thoughts on this matter?

Pelton: I remember Ron Sukenick saying to us in a workshop when I was at Colorado-Boulder, you shouldn’t feel a need to disguise who you are. Why not write about who you are, exactly where you are? Now I’m not writing academic satires, mind you – not engaging in an already frequented form. But I’m much more offended by, for instance, a kind of realism that was very big when I began writing fiction in the 1980s, minimalist realism, which in some ways has never lost its hegemony as the dominant type of fiction – I’m more offended by people who affect a familiarity with characters in settings they don’t really know. There’s something downright cruel in the grad-school-educated writer’s story about the failings of working class characters; I very much dislike writers who deal with characters for whom they don’t have respect.

As far as limiting my audience, I actually try not to limit my audience – I have long tried to keep writing for an audience that isn’t just specialists. I was actually the first in my family to go to college – the first on my father’s side, and the third, perhaps, on my mother’s side, extending it out to cousins, aunts and uncles. I try to remain aware of that. I think that’s why I am a fiction writer instead of a poet, too – it seems more approachable, at least from where I come from. I also think that why in my most recent work (Woodchuck stories, mostly in Brooklyn Rail, to date) I’ve been drawn to folktales, the most elemental forms of narrative. I really want to have these things be very basic, intelligible on the street, as it were. But this is probably somewhat disingenuous – I do go in for a fair amount of difficulty, and I am a PhD, after all. But I still try to keep a writer like Kurt Vonnegut in mind, someone who was able to do terrific, inventive things with form, yet stay democratic and in the common vernacular.

"From Combaria" is a series of vignettes or, perhaps, parables. One, 'On the Danger of Knowing,' struck me because in it a government scientist's findings are completely altered in the name of public relations and politics. This appeared in the first edition of Chapeau, published in 2000. I take it that you wrote the 'parable' before the second Bush presidency. When you wrote it did you think that it could be more than satire, that it could actually be predicting real events?

Pelton: Like I said, the way Bush followed what I wrote about politics in this book is scary. Actually, I wrote the parables in “From Combaria” in the 1980s, originally, watching the long-forgotten horrors of the Reagan administration in Nicaragua and El Salvador. The control of information, the programmatic lying, the invention of astonishing pretexts for violence – so incredible you more or less had to believe them – it was all there well before Bush. But Bush was spectacular vindication of these observations. I think what also gives them their prescient quality is the strange, denatured, matter-of-fact tone of these, “We’ve come to expect the various projects of governments to be lies. This is especially true of militaristic governments…,” where it slowly becomes clear that YOUR government is the militaristic government being discussed. That is a sense one finds in Kafka, in his parables, whose tone I picked up from in these.

But the one you mention, about the government scientist – it’s almost word-for-word what I heard a scientist say on a radio news report one day. I thought, what must it be like to be him? To know something and then when you have reported it, to see it deliberately made to mean something else, in fact, its opposite. The main thing I changed was to make what was actually a male scientist into a woman.

You write a lot of political satire. What are some of the sub-genre's purposes and uses?

Pelton: I don’t really like the term “satire” because it feels like a discrediting formal designation – oh, it’s just satire, we don’t have to take its claims seriously. I’m writing about life and death in these pieces. I guess that’s all I really have to say about that.

The story that haunts me the most is "Geek," and it happens to be the one rendered with the details associated with realism, with delineated characters, and clear, classic plotline. It follows the lives of three people from their high school years into young adulthood and parenting. Two are a couple — the star football player Ken and the beautiful cheerleader Karen. They actually call their friend "geek." The story traces the way cruelty — subtle and prolonged — can make the sufferer deluded about the pain they cause others. It is about clashing belief systems. And this is just the beginning. What does the realist story allow you to do as a writer that various types of experimental narrative structures do not?

Pelton: I don’t know that a realist story allows me anything that experimental narratives don’t, though I appreciate the good things you have to say about that piece. There’s so many varieties of experiment, and I keep trying to do different things in my writing, I think I felt when I wrote “Geek” almost as if I was experimenting with writing a realist story. I did resist it for a long time, like I wanted to fuck it up in some way. And some would say I did fuck it up – that ending, with Geek becoming a spokesman for one of those fringe interest groups that frequently gets time on TV talk shows, with the ridiculous 1-800 number, 1-800-SPERM-OK – that was not liked by a lot of people who read the story. I just go with what seems organically to make sense, with any piece of fiction, with any character. I don’t want to lapse into cliché, and that’s what kills realism for me most of the time, the feeling I’ve seen something before, or heard a particular way of introducing a character, or a type of descriptive sentence a million times. I frequently will pick up a book and not be able to get past the first few sentences.

Stories with three characters are good structures, because they can naturally lead to a very interesting kind of conflict, where each is looking for something from the others, and they all misunderstand each other; it’s always wedges, two against one, and one against two. Another story like that is my more recent Woodchuck story, “Elk Sleeps with his Own Wife by Mistake.” So I’m not saying that you are wrong, but just that I didn’t look at it that way, that I was enabled by realism. I think realism is really hard to do – it’s such a frequented mode, how do not sound like everybody else?

In "Republicans and Erectile Dysfunction" you have a sentence that I must quote: "Like Bush with Iraq, the man suffering from erectile dysfunction does not want to talk about it, but has the most urgent with to simply be able to act in a direct and uncomplicated way. In this way, President Bush's preemptive war policy enacts every flaccid man's most dearly held fantasy." Do want to add anything to that?

Pelton: What I was trying to do in that piece was take the idea of war as virile and peace as somehow effeminate and stand it on its head. And watch football yourself, there’s a lot of erectile dysfunction commercials. It’s all there – football, war, beer, and not being able to get it up. The piece practically wrote itself.

And Abu Ghraib showed that Iraq was about sexual humiliation, and President Bush so liked to dress up in the early days of that war that he was practically his own Village People. I just drew some lines from absurdity to absurdity. Nothing I said was more astonishing than the stupidity of that war itself.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great interview! Lots of fun to read, and very informative.

    Thanks for sharing it!