The Secret History of John Crowley
Interview by Gavin J. Grant
John Crowley has long been a favorite of booksellers, so it's not surprising that he is the featured author in the latest Book Sense 76. His latest novel is The Translator (read an excerpt), which is set in 1962 in an unnamed mid-Western college town. The Translator tells the story of two writers, Russian poet Innokenti Falin, and his sometime translator, student poet Kit Malone. Two more titles by Crowley are featured in the Book Sense 76, Otherwise, a collection of three early novels, and perhaps his best-known work to date, Little, Big -- a truly engrossing story. His other major work is a four-volume novel which began with Aegypt and continued in Love & Sleep and Daemonomania.
Crowley has been a professional writer for many years -- see below for more details of his days writing catalog copy for wine and underwear companies! He talked to us by phone from his home in Massachusetts.
BookSense.com: The Translator is very different from your other novels. Is this the beginning of a new stage in your writing?
John Crowley: I don't think so. I certainly think of it as an expansion. It may presage a different way of working. The ideas that I seem to be coming up are short and self-contained. The last volume of the four-volume novel that started with Aegypt is in the works and, when it comes out, will put the end to a project that began 20 years ago. I guess anything that follows that would have to be considered a new direction or a fresh start! [Laughs]
This last book is going to be short, too. It's almost like an afterpiece or an epilogue to the story. Much that was left hanging in the air will be seen in new lights. The series is a large undertaking, and I have no problem with it taking a long time to establish itself. With The Translator I did hope to go in new directions and attract new readers.
Were you always a writer?
Yes. I can just barely remember when I couldn't read or write, but I can't remember a time after that that I didn't write stories. I embarked on my first novel -- in collaboration with one of my four sisters -- when I was about eight. It had a great premise: it was a story about how in a large city -- I lived deep in the country -- on certain nights, the image of a huge bloody knife would appear in the sky. Then, the next day it would be found that horrible deeds had been done all over the city. Of course, the book was to be called The Bloody Knife. I could never work out what could possible resolve this situation [Laughs], so I gave it up. I did a drawing of the knife floating in the sky...
Did you write the poetry in The Translator? Have you written or published poetry before?
I have not written or published poetry since college literary magazines. There was a semester or two in college when I wrote a lot of poetry. I hold no brief for it, or for myself as poet. I would describe the poetry in The Translator as an image of poetry, rather than actual poetry, since it is obviously conceived as the poetry of people who I'm not -- but you can't always separate to that degree. I tried to make it as effective and poetical as I could, given its function. I'm not Vladimir Nabokov, who could write a whole thousand line poem that was supposedly written by somebody else, or Pasternak who wrote the poems of Dr. Zhivago in his novel. I don't pretend to that kind of facility at all.
When I started thinking about this book I was talking to a friend of mine, Tom Disch -- who is a poet and writes a lot about poetry -- and he pointed out that the difficulty in writing a novel about poetry is that you have to come up with great poetry. It's the same difficulty that novelists have writing about great painters -- but you don't have to show any paintings. Not that that makes them any more convincing, usually they're not! It's hard to write about geniuses, but it's particularly hard if you're under a compunction to actually produce some of the writing.
But Disch said, "Well, of course, this is very easy if you're writing about a poet whose great poems are written in a language other than English, because all you have to do is produce the translations. The translations could be intriguing and suggestive but don't need to be great works of poetry!" I thought this was such a marvelous thing to try to do: to write the translations of poems that don't exist. At one point I thought maybe I should get one of these translated back into Russian, but that would be ludicrous -- unless it was translated by a great Russian poet, and I don't happen to know any great Russian poets! I did have the book read by Tatyana Buzina, a Slavic Studies scholar at Brandeis; I thanked her in the end note of the book. She corrected my errors and was flattering enough to say that it sounded like it had been written by a Russian! [Laughs] I was very pleased at that.
You seem interested in writing from points of view very different from your own and whose voices are not usually heard; either because they do not want them to be, or because they are given no place to speak. What is it about these characters that appeals to you?
I'm drawn to characters who seem to perceive the secret history of the world, or see a world-story proceeding, and don't trust themselves -- and don't believe that they could know such a thing -- but are drawn to it anyway. That's been a consistent direction all my writing has taken. I can think of people whose minds are active in that way in almost all the books I've written.
Do you feel as if there are people living that way in the real world?
Oh yes, certainly I do. I don't necessarily think that I'm one. But I am somehow able to participate in the vision of the people who do feel like that. The only people that I tend to shy away from are those that are sure they have discovered the secret of the world. In novels, if one of my characters were to perceive a secret history of the world, I can either supply that secret or not. The world that I'm creating can either have a secret history, or not. That's not the case with the common world we all share. [Laughs] I think a certain modesty about whether or not those secret histories really are the case, or whether there is a spiritual reality which we can connect to, is the only stance that's reasonable.
I wrote a long novel about fairies and their existence, and was frequently either asked by people or had it assumed by people that I believed in fairies. I had to say, "No, I'm sorry, I don't believe in fairies." It's a book, a story! Subsequently writing a book about this history of magic, I get asked the same again.
William Butler Yeats, who may have believed in fairies, took down a lot of directions and instructions from angelic visitors. But they came in the end to tell him that what they had actually given him were metaphors for poetry. In a certain sense I believe that's so. The worlds that I construct, the realms of spiritual realms, the sources of spiritual power that I construct books are metaphors. Metaphors for what -- I couldn't say.
Did you base Kit's college on your own college experience?
Yes, I did. I went to Indiana University from 1960-4. I was there at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. There was a large airforce base nearby -- not a missile site. For the novel I shifted that university somewhat to the west, further into the prairie than Indiana.
Were you a college radical?
No, but I did know and hang out with the radicals. I managed to get myself on some kind of blacklist and found it hard to get student jobs.
Kit is warned that her future may be jeopardized if she involves herself with radicals. Did you know people who later regretted their own college stances -- or anyone who it was used against?
I was a very naive person, especially about political realities of the time -- almost as naive as Kit. I would not have been able to know that there were people who had been harmed by their older associations with left wing causes and stuff like that, that were able to be compromised and blackmailed and forced to do things. But I certainly know now. And I know that I met them at the time.
Did the blackmail and compromises last beyond the 1960s?
Oh yes. The liberation that happened in the later 1960s and '70s when Kit first figures out how she might be able to write poetry and dares to bring out her translations of Falin's poems, that liberation came out because everyone could greet each other and say, "Yes, I know too! I have that experience of having power used against me. We're not alone. If we just all get together and stand up, at the very least we can make power unmask itself. Even if we can't do it in, we can force these revelations and unmaskings: it doesn't have to be secret anymore."
Somehow the conspiracy had gone on for a very long time in which nobody said anything. There's a moment in The Translator in which Kit talks about coming from the age of not saying things: it was about sex, personal responsibility, politics, race, it was about many things -- you just didn't talk about it. The idea was that if you talked about it, you were putting yourself at risk.
That's a central theme of the book. Of course, the analogy to the Soviet Union at the same time is obvious. There it was even more extreme. It was the same silences, but older, far more permanent and frozen, and far more dangerous to break. At least so it seemed to us looking at them.
The novel covers the period of the Cuban missile crisis and John F. Kennedy's assassination. Was it difficult to write without having them overbalance the story?
We live in more than one universe. We live in an ordinary, commonplace, shared world where things are amenable to reason and in which John Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Kruschev are ordinary people who have gotten into positions of power and are subject to historical forces. But, at the same time, we live in mythic universes in which these people take on symbolic import that we can't entirely control and that we summon up when we mention their names. The same way that we summon up mythic power when we mention King Arthur or characters of that kind.
Whenever you use material like that in a book you are at once touching on both. What I hoped to be able to do was to reference their mythical manifestations while altering those slightly for my own purposes. I don't put myself in this class, but Nabokov said that all great novels of the realist tradition are great fairy tales really: Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina -- they create worlds of their own and beings of power and beauty and angelic appearance who move among us. To a much smaller degree, that's what I was up to. It was a way of telling of telling a fairy tale within our shared world. I think there are certain people who are able to apprehend that alternate reality -- and to whom it comes -- and it comes back out of them as poems.
If "the time when a poet could carry a nation's soul with him" has passed, is there a simple replacement? One form, one art?
I think that any art is capable of it, even poetry, but right now there is not the popular investment in poets to carry it.
For our nation to invest in artists as carriers of the soul of the nation -- whatever that could exactly mean -- I think the nation itself has to be in a period of intense need. Russia was in need of someone to act that way from the end of the 1920s to the end of the Soviet Union. They needed someone to carry that precious burden so that they wouldn't be lost entirely in those horrors, lies, and self-destructions that they engaged in. I don't know that this country is in that circumstance right now, so I don't know that we can look to any art form or any individual artist to do that for us.
It may be that sometime in the past the art of the film certainly did it. It carried 'the soul of this nation' all around the world: it could be seen and apprehended by everybody as this 'America made of light and sound.' And that was a really amazing thing. I'm not so sure that it's the case any more.
Like Frank Capra films or Ray Bradbury writing his stories about Laurel and Hardy.
It created strange hopes and fears and dreams and images in everybody's minds: the thought that the U.S. was this amazing place of giants doing, killing, striving, getting fabulously rich...and there was love, and these gigantic night-time cities, and vast trains going off into the west, and so on and so on.
The fact that it was largely fictitious somehow doesn't destroy it. The Russian poets of that 80-year period had simplicity, honesty, and truthfulness, and preserved that in a world that was wholely factitious and run by the jailers, and in which people had to continually reaffirm lies they didn't believe in. In the U.S. we affirm an awful lot of lies in our popular culture, but they are lies we thought were harmless, or kind of wonderful. Whereas in the Soviet Union, even by the 1960s, the majority of the Russian population had stopped believing in the things they affirmed all day long -- which is a terrible, terrible situation to be in. The only thing you can rely on then is someone you can trust to have a mode and a way of telling only a personal truth -- and a personal truth which is everyone's truth -- which is what they counted on their writers to do.
In your other writing career, you're a successful documentary writer.
It's a small niche but I have made a success of writing historical documentaries; films made up of compilations of older material. I've written many of those and I'm very proud of some of them. Some of them seem documentary entirely are, in a certain kind of sense, quasi-fictions. One in particular, "No Place to Hide," was about the bomb-shelter craze of the 1950s and '60s. It's the world in which Kit grows up. Some of the things she sees on TV are things that I saw in the work of making this movie -- and, of course, that I saw when she saw them, back when we were both young together! It's a beautifully made and edited film.
The possibilities are very poetic when making archival documentaries because this old stuff was never meant to go together. In effect you create your own kinds of metaphors by putting moments together that had no connection with one another and make a connection out of them. It's just a wonderful occupation and I really enjoy doing it. I also really enjoy watching the past. I like watching old footage of real people really doing things like walking in the street, riding in cars, and cheering at political meetings. I also enjoy watching them pretend to do these things in fictitious documentaries created for various purposes, which pretend to show a world that's real but which isn't quite. To combine and mix them together into general pictures of how people not only lived, but how they saw the world at a particular moment, is really great.
I've done depression in the U.S. ("America Lost and Found"), and a really interesting one about the 1939 World Fair called "The World of Tomorrow." They've mostly been shown on public television. I almost never initiate the projects. I've worked for a long time with two producers at the American Studies Film Center. I worked with my wife about the history of practices of physical fitness in the U.S., called "Fit: Episodes in the History of the Body."
Years ago I used to write anything I could get paid to write. I wrote a sales show for Maidenforms Bras with actors and singing. It had an outer space science fiction theme, lots of talk about heavenly bodies. [Laughs] How did I get these jobs? I don't remember! I wrote a catalog for a wine distribution company describing all their Rheislings and Cabernets -- and they didn't give me the wines to drink!
I'm glad to know that catalog copy is as trustworthy as it seems!
Well, I am a fiction writer! It's seemed to me that when you do this sort of work, you pretend to be the sort of person that you could imagine writing this kind of stuff; then you write what he would write.
Have you read anything good recently?
I really like David Lodge. I've been reading not only his new books, but also his older ones, like Paradise News -- he's a remarkable writer for how much he grows from book to book. His early books are good, but his later ones just get more and more interesting. I tend to be drawn to British writers. I read John Banville, he's wonderful -- he got himself in trouble by writing a trilogy each book of which had fewer readers than the one previously.
Another British writer I've just discovered is Jim Crace, he's remarkable. He's the sort of person you call a writer's writer. John Banville is, too. But of course I'm a writer, so that's exactly the kind of writer that I might be drawn to: whether the writer will succeed in bringing off the fictional enterprises they're engaged on is just as much a part of the enjoyment of reading the book as the subject and the drama that it contains.
I've heard you referred to as a writer's writer.
You don't want to be restricted to being a writer's writer because writers don't form a large enough audience! [Laughs] I wouldn't want to suffer the fate that Terry Southern assigned to Henry Green, he said, "Henry Green? He's a writer's writer's writer!"
Do you have a good local bookshop?
Yes, Atticus in Amherst is great bookstore. Broadside in Northampton is another great one. The other one I like is only semi-local, The Book Store in Lennox. It's a great store. I used to live in Lennox and became good friends with the owner who was one of those wonderful booksellers such a rare and wonderful breed.
 Atticus Bookstore, 8 Main Street, Amherst, MA -- 413-256-1547
 Broadside Bookshop 247 Main Street Northampton, MA 01060 -- 413-586-4235
 The Book Store, 9 Housatonic St., Lenox, MA 01240 -- 413-637-3390