1. Before the Interview
Donald Antrim and I exchanged our first set of messages in early November 2013 and arranged to speak the following week. Nine months passed, and forty-one emails. Things happened—flus and mishaps and book edits and general tumult. A few months in, I began to assume epistolary characteristics almost befitting an early Antrim hero, checking in periodically with insane salutations like, “I hope this message finds you hale and hearty!” I had dreams where Donald Antrim was my English teacher, or my father, or my lover, or a sort of combination of the three. Once he wrote, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to do it! I’m not going to forget you.” And I believed, but I also pondered the essay I might write if we never managed to speak. There’s a John Prine song, “Donald and Lydia,” about an imaginary romance–“Lydia hid her thoughts like a cat/ Behind her small eyes sunk deep in her fat./ She read romance magazines up in her room/ And felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon.” That’s what I was going to call the piece.
Ever since I read Picador’s re-release of his three published novels in 2012 (and wrote about them here), I have considered Donald Antrim to be one of the great bright lights of American letters. When he received the MacArthur Genius grant in 2013, I said “Yes” aloud and pumped my fist at my desk, one of the few times I have really cared about a good thing happening to a person I don’t know at all. It seemed like such a just thing to have happened; I challenge you to read one of Antrim’s long, deranged opening sentences and come away thinking the genius label misapplied.
Antrim’s new collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air, opens with one of these sentences, setting the scene for “An Actor Prepares” (a story, like all the stories in this collection, first published in The New Yorker):
Lee Strasberg, a founder of the Group Theatre and the great teacher of the American Method, famously advised his students never to “use”—for generating tears, etc., in a dramatic scene—personal/historical material less than seven years in the personal/historical past; otherwise, the Emotion Memory (the death of a loved one or some like event in the actor’s life that can, when evoked through recall and substitution, hurl open the floodgates, as they say, right on cue, night after night, even during a long run)—this material, being too close, as it were, might overwhelm the artist and compromise the total control required to act the part or, more to the point, act it well; might, in fact, destabilize the play; if, for instance, at the moment in a scene when it becomes necessary for Nina or Gertrude or Macduff to wipe away tears and get on with life; if, at that moment, it becomes impossible for a wailing performer to pull it together; if, in other words, the performer remains trapped in affect long after the character has moved on to dinner or the battlefield—when this happens, then you can be sure that delirious theatrical mayhem will follow.
Readers who know and love Antrim’s three novels—Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993), The Hundred Brothers (1997), and The Verificationist (2000)—will feel right at home in this sentence, which is somehow emblematic of all the novels’ salient characteristics: an erudite, possibly hysteric, possibly mad narrator (or one, at least, who inhabits a mad world); an elaborate scaffolding of culture; a closed system of belief; the practice of an arcane science. Aesthetically it’s a match too, a demonstration of an almost sinister architectural dexterity with language—language that, like the world of the narrator, like the plot, will flow forward from itself, driven by its own occult logic.
Read on in the collection, though, and fans of the novels will find something different. The Emerald Light in the Air, comprising seven stories published between 1999 and 2014, is no cobbling-together of old material to capitalize on a biographical event. It’s a landmark, almost cartographic document, showing a profound recalibration of style, voice, and form—a working-toward-something. The collection continues chronologically, and the first-person narrators disappear—those lovable, terrible men whose “good intentions and hard-won insights,” in Antrim’s words, “cannot repair their neurotic wretchedness.” Gone is the elaborate scaffolding of culture, the Hogarth and Shakespeare and medieval torture and psychoanalysis and Morris Dancing that propped up the worlds of his novels. What remains is interiority, interaction, a new kind of domesticity, and, somehow, roominess. But the worlds are still touched here and there with that fundamental Antrim strangeness—the emerald light in the air.
In “Solace,” wounded and impecunious lovers get together in the borrowed dwellings of their more stable friends and co-workers. The hero of “Another Manhattan,” between mental breakdowns, tries to buy his wife a tremendous floral bouquet they cannot afford. In “Ever Since,” a man journeys through a book party to find a cigarette for a lady. For people who fell in love with Antrim’s novels and haven’t seen the stories—for people who have control issues or fear change—the stories may initially be distressing in their deviation from the finely-wrought, highly-strung artifice of the novels. But we should all work to embrace change. Whatever they are, these stories indicate a new direction for Donald Antrim. And we should always say yes to genius, yes to that emerald light in the air.
People who do obsessively track Antrim’s fiction and memoir contributions to The New Yorker, who have read his wonderful memoir, The Afterlife—these people may have worried about Donald Antrim over the last decade, as he has hinted at or spoken outright about his own periods of serious psychic stress. The Afterlife began with a half-comic, half-alarming account of searching for the proper bed. In “Fed,” Antrim expressed gratitude for the diner that supplied his meals in the aftermath of a breakdown. Before our conversation, I had the ignoble instinct to try and work out a timeline for myself, to look for cause-and-effect between the mental health turmoil and the work collected now. I read in a 2012 interview that Antrim had begun Elect Mr. Robinson after “trying, for years, to write stories that I thought would fit in with the era, sort of realistic, calmly-told family and other kind of stories in which narrators had epiphanies. I was trying to do that and do that and it was just driving me into the ground. So I gave it up for a while and walked around in a depression.” I speculated, erroneously, that the published stories represented a return to those early efforts, since, on first glance, they appeared to me to be realistic, and calmly-told, with protagonists who have small (very small) epiphanies, as here in “Ever Since”: “The moon was bright and the sky was starless. Buildings rose above them. He put his arm around her shoulder.” Were these stories the minimalist fruits of nervous breakdown? I wondered, presumptuously. I allowed my imagination to romp, even, toward causation. Had working in this new style had a deleterious effect on Antrim’s psyche? Emphatically not, I learned from the interview.
Because one day, it happened. We set a time, and Donald Antrim called me on the telephone and proceeded to speak at length and with stunning generosity and openness about his new work, his old work, his teaching, his mentors, and what the MacArthur has meant to him after 30 years of hard work, privation, anxiety, and crisis.
2. The Interview
The Millions: You mentioned that part of the reason for the long lead-up to this interview is that you had “gone to ground” with a new book. Is that the novel I’ve seen referred to as “Must I Now Read All of Wittgenstein”?
Donald Antrim: No, actually. What I meant was that I was in a little bit of a hiding space because of the short story collection coming out—I was in a moment of waiting. I will be going back to that novel, which has been this thing I’ve carried with me for more than ten years now. Maybe now I can write it—I wasn’t able to before. I think I’ll be able to do something with it. I’ve been writing stories, and I’ve felt very locked in to that. I feel attached to the form, and I feel like I’m getting kind of a new relationship to things through it.
But yes, I had gone to ground. For years I lived in a lot of anxiety—there was a lot of struggle. Books didn’t really open things up for me professionally for a long time, so over the last year with the MacArthur and a sense of security and a sense that I can breathe more deeply, I’ve had a kind of coming back around to the spirit of the enterprise. Because I was losing, frankly, a lot of the time. I was having to talk myself into doing something that I was afraid of, that I was afraid had really damaged my life. And there was damage. But I’m still here and I’m feeling—you know I’m 55 now—I’m not young, but I’m not really old. I’m in this point in which I really have been working for 30 years.
I never intended it to be my version of some kind of romantic garret or anything like that. It wasn’t romantic. But you keep doing it and you acquire a certain amount of technical apparatus and then you can do more and more. Right now, with about 75 to 90 percent of my anxiety of basically 30 years removed, I can see more of why I’m doing what I’m doing—I can feel more of it. I’m at a point now where I’m not so inside the ambivalence over writing, or so exhausted from the effort to bring myself to it. Because I didn’t want to be doing it. I was really at war with it. Or felt its victim to some degree.
But as I said, that’s dissipated, and I feel myself to be in this place of very, very intense privilege. I’m trying to reckon with this feeling, I’m trying to enjoy it, but also it has for me a kind of solemn aspect. A recapturing of what I would call my initial impulse to do this. And those impulses are complicated, but when you finally start doing something that engages you in that way, and that much, and asks that much of you—I didn’t really understand that when I started. I thought it would be—I didn’t really feel fit for anything else. I didn’t really feel like I’d be good at other things, and I didn’t really know that I’d be good at this. But I thought that at least I could feel in doing it, that for those hours, I was in it. Now I think that I’m going to have to learn to approach a lot of new, really serious, difficult things. And that’s really thrilling in a way. Because finally it turns out that the feeling I had all the way back then was going to be a persistent thing, and I didn’t really know that then.
But for that reason too it was probably hard for me to just pick up the phone and do an interview.
TM: In a previous interview you talked about the early years of your writing, before you had written your novels, as a time when you were working on “the realistic, calmly told family and other kinds of stories,” in which “narrators had epiphanies.” I don’t want to suggest that you have returned to some old mode, but the style of your stories—it’s a really striking contrast with the novels. Is part of the shift that you now feel able to go back to those earlier efforts?
DA: No, it’s not so much that I feel free to go back to those things, it’s more that I found that writing the novels was very challenging. They were technically very challenging for all kinds of different reasons. I made up a lot of rules for myself and I worked with the fantastic, and I knew that I was trying to get some kind of mechanics and movement and speed. Those novels were also built out of concepts–well, not concepts exactly, but out of starting guns that initiated the fantastic in some form or another right away. And then you’re inside a realm that you’re building through a logic that you make while you are building it. And that’s true for everything—it’s true for the stories—but the novels were in the first person. And with those first-person narrators there was a permission for the author to go off, not exactly tangentially, but there was opportunity for confusion. And I wasn’t happy—I didn’t know it, but I think I wasn’t exactly happy with the constraints of building these worlds, which had to be positive again and again and again. But in writing the memoir (which is another thing I never thought I would do or would want to do but which I found at the time was the only thing I could do), I found myself telling stories about other people. The first-person narrator could begin to inhabit a different kind of consciousness. And I wanted to do that.
And even in the stories—for example “An Actor Prepares” sets up a set of clearly comic, absurd premises very early–that’s in the first person. The movement into the third person quiets the writer down, and maybe gives the writer more access to a more complex relational field, so that the world of the story might be experienced not so much as one narrator’s perceptual dispositions, but through a more generously complicated psychological interplay. For me anyway, that’s how it feels–I don’t know if that’s actually true but that’s what it feels like. Then it becomes a structural proposition, it becomes more theatrical in some sense. I’ve noticed that in the stories, the movement has become—it’s predominantly blocking, like a play. And these stories, they’re not particularly ruminative; they don’t use ruminations as comic opportunities really. My ambition is to disappear entirely, as much as I can, from a reader’s awareness, as a writer.
The new novel—the one that’s not written yet—is more connected in some ways to those earlier novels, but I wanted to do that other thing, to work on the stories. They informed for me a different kind of relationship, not to voice, but to a narrative consciousness. I was working with Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker. And that was really my foundation for a long time—I didn’t do that much because I go kind of slow, and like I said I was in a lot of anxiety. But doing that work kind of held me together psychologically during many years when things were just to and fro; she was teaching me how to do a lot of what I was trying to do. I had to learn speed and certain kinds of concrete precision–concreteness. And I feel now like I’ve begun to understand what I’m trying to do. It’s a vast open feeling that I have when I think about writing stories.
TM: It’s helpful to hear you articulate it this way. I initially read them and just thought, “These are different! These are different than the novels!” And I’ve thought a lot since then about the ways that they are different.
DA: It’s not an aesthetic preference exactly. It wasn’t as if I was thinking “I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t want to do that.” I think it’s something that was going on over many years and which forced me to overcome a lot of resistance. Let’s just say I had a lot of resistance to many things. And working this way has given me a greater awarenesses of limitations and a greater sense of power–not power in the sense of control, but of access. Then there’s also a real sense of a different kind of powerlessness. I couldn’t rely anymore on a narrator—it’s a different kind of building. And I really think it’s crucial that no matter what I do with the material or with experiences or feelings or situations from my own life, to me what matters is that whatever’s gone into making the thing is a real ride—is a real good immersion, that it communicates emotion or feeling, that it makes pleasure. That’s a goal that I’ve always had, but one that I never had a chance to articulate except as an aesthetic proposition. And now I feel looking back that I was trying to articulate it to myself in directions that I couldn’t really—I had to pick and choose. The desire to move toward a disappearance of the writer is a real challenge.
TM: The novels, they’re kind of festooned with cultural scaffolding, both the content and the style.
DA: Festooned would be exactly the right word.
TM: And the stories have been stripped down.
DA: I think now I’m trying to build worlds, and not so much write worlds, if that makes any sense.
TM: When you say that you’ve been working with Deborah Treisman, what does that process look like exactly? You have ideas and you talk about them, or you come to her with finished work?
DA: I’m really talking about memoir pieces and short stories. These were things that I would show her when I thought it was time. I don’t really have any ideas—I never talk about ideas. That’s what I mean by concreteness. All of the stories and all of the novels have a starting point and are built from there. It’s never a novel or story about a thing—it’s never that I have an idea. The idea thing is elusive to me. But what she would do, and what I think she does with many of her writers—she has strong relationships with all of us—is very close thinking and looking and shifting and speeding up, and then there’s a back-and-forth and that can go 15 or 20 times. And then you have that full experience of things changing because of other things changing—that’s editing. It’s not fixing a story so much as making it more of itself and what it could be. Sometimes it feels like a very different thing in the end than what I brought in. But eventually I come to realize that it’s not a very different thing, it just feels that way. It’s really about the story, and about getting this thing into really good form, or as good as it can be.
TM: So you’ve been going through this intense learning process over a decade or more—I’m wondering about your teaching during these years. What is teaching like when you are wrestling with these things yourself?
DA: I’ve only taught for about six years. I didn’t want to do it, at first. I grew up in an academic household. I didn’t go to graduate school pretty much entirely for that reason; not because I didn’t want to go, but because I didn’t want to walk back on campus. I think I was afraid of it. Also I think for a long time I didn’t really know what I would be doing there. I felt pretty lost at sea with what I was doing and I felt like I didn’t really have that much to offer. I began teaching finally because I needed a job. And then I really liked it.
I’ve been off since the winter, and I go back soon, and I’m dreading it because it’s a lot. But it’s been a very good part of my life. It’s exhausting—I wind up caring about what happens with the students and how their work is going, and it’s important. That said, I need my time off too. So I’m trying to get a little geared up for going back in the fall. But I’m really glad to be doing it, and it’s helped me, I think, during some of the harder years, when I was really kind of in the land, as it were. I’m sure that it was stabilizing. I think there’s a lot that one can teach. I’ve been taught, by writers, by teachers, by readers, by editors. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve gotten to work with very, very good people, and they’ve been able to teach me a lot. And I’m very, very lucky to be alive, and surprised that I am, after years of real mayhem and a lot of all-the-kings-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men. I have come out at a point where I can actually look forward to something that isn’t terror, and teaching has been part of that.
I’ve gotten to the point now that I’m very calm when I go into the room to teach. I think that when we talk about concreteness in writing, or when we talk about the fantastic, or we talk about rules and logic, or the dangers of the pathetic fallacy, or the dangers of distraction and ruminative philosophizing and forgetting where you were on the page–when we talk about the difference between the conception of voice, the difference between the way that the character sounds as opposed to who you are as a writer—when we talk about those things we’re really doing something. That’s work. You see students come into more control and more awareness and a more direct access to something. It’s really exciting. You’re excited for the writer, you’re excited for the moment. I will come home from teaching in a state of stuporous exhilaration and I won’t leave the house for a day and a half. It’ll be like jetlag from an intercontinental flight. And that’s not just from working hard in the classroom. That’s from feeling the transmission and communication back and forth and seeing the effects. That’s what’s really very powerful. The struggle and also the recognition of something coming through that. If I didn’t have to teach, would I? I think I would. I would do it. Also because I think it’s a reciprocation. Because people did teach me. I didn’t go to graduate school but people did teach me. I showed no promise as a writer when I began.
DA: No! This isn’t romantic. I really showed no promise as a writer when I began. And people told me that, although they didn’t tell me that in terribly destructive ways. I just understood that I wasn’t writing anything that anyone could or would want to read. So I finally took a class. It was at the 63rd street Y, and this was in 1987, with Allan Gurganus, who wrote Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and is a phenomenal teacher. He had been a student of some other phenomenal teachers. There are all kinds of ways in which you can feel yourself holding hands for a minute inside that tradition. And by tradition I don’t mean aesthetic tradition—I just mean the feeling of being connected to the people above you in some way. And I think I also feel a kind of American, mid-twentieth-century civic responsibility. My grandfather was a junior high school principal and he was in Rotary, and they did stuff for people. You reciprocate. So whether I like it or not on a given day, or whether I’d rather be somewhere else writing, teaching and being in that tradition is something that I can do, and it matters that I do it.
TM: Your students are lucky that you feel that way.
DA: We have good semesters. I’m pretty dedicated once I get going. Of course that really eats up your time and your energy. And it’s not writing. But it’s a reminder in some way of the writing that you are trying to do, and what you are thinking about. In the end, it can have its own kind of spiritual resonance. And I think it’s important.
TM: You’ve mentioned Deborah Treisman and Allan Gurganus. Who else helped as you came from being “a writer who showed no promise”? Do you have other readers you’re always going back to, or teachers, or gurus, as it were?
DA: I’d say there have been certain people who have really been ongoing presences. Readers, not teachers in the sense of being in the classroom. I’ve talked to David Means a lot, for example. But there have also been teachers who have never actively or wittingly been my teachers or my readers. I don’t really know Roger Angell—we’ve never worked together, we say hello when we see each other. But I’m coming to realize that Roger Angell is someone I’ve learned from—I’ve read his baseball pieces and I’ve read his memoir pieces and letters with Donald Barthelme, and when I read his writing I feel that there’s something there that I aspire to. There are a number of writers who you’re learning from over years and years and years. You’re not just appreciating or admiring or wishing you could somehow rise to their level, you’re actually learning more and more. Probably that’s very useful to me in teaching, and in particular in teaching the fantastic, which is a very concrete operation. There are the English novelists from Fielding on, and the Anglo-American short story tradition—where does it end? So yeah, there have been too many people. And add to the list the doctors and the nurses. That’s part of it too.
I would say that at this point [agents] Andrew Wylie and Rebecca Nagel and [FSG Editor] Mitzi Angel and Deborah Treisman and The New Yorker editors—we’ve all known each other for a long time now. Suddenly I turn around and I’ve been in a bunch of hospitals—not a bunch, I’ve been in a couple times, but it felt like a bunch—and really run myself into the ground with anxiety and dread over what I’ve written. And it turns out that these relationships have stood up. Whether it’s Deborah with the short stories or Mitzi Angel with a book—these are solid relationships. With Deborah I’m 20 years into this—who saw that coming?
What I’m trying to say is that I have relied on and still rely on a field of people I know—not a set group, necessarily, but a kind of realm of people that I can talk to. That can change over the years. You’re not always doing the same show, your whole life. Things are changing that you can’t control, and that includes your relationships. But at the same time you are always doing the same show. A lot of people have had to hand me off or I don’t know what would have happened.
TM: I don’t want to get into your anxiety issues at length if it’s not comfortable, but you mentioned that 70-90 percent of your previous anxiety has lifted. What has gotten you to this good point? Obviously you’ve had the professional mental health interventions—going to the hospitals in those crisis periods. What about something like the MacArthur, other situational stuff? What’s the proportion?
DA: The crisis—the massive breakdown—is something that I haven’t written about in any real way, but it’s starting to work its way into what I write, and I’m not going to stop it. It’s also, incidentally, a supremely challenging proposition to describe and articulate in physical and concrete terms—concrete is the word that keeps coming up for me—to try and describe the experience of that kind of physical psychosis. If you’re looking for something to try and do in your life and your writing, try that, and you’ve really got something going.
But the crisis which sort of swirled around writing the memoir about my mother, that was a while ago now. That severe stuff came later in life and I think that we won’t be seeing more of that. So much of that was generated by financial anxiety and the constant fear that the floor was going to fall out from under me. That went on for so many years—I think I struggled to feel that I had any real place in this. I didn’t feel that I had much in the way of a comfortable future or a future that I wouldn’t be scared in, and I was always trying to figure out how I was going to manage that. It interfered with my relationships. I’m not married–I was much too jumpy a character. I had relationships, but it was very difficult for me to sort of function as a man in the world, because my existence was marginal. I wasn’t in abject poverty but I wasn’t thriving. And some of those years I was basically poor. It didn’t feel that way a lot of the time because I had this thing in my life.
But when the concrete support of the MacArthur, when that came—I really felt about 30 years of weight just go off. I didn’t know I was carrying it. But I had been and it’s been going more and more ever since. I’m not any longer in that crisis of approach and retreat when it comes to writing or when it comes to everything almost—all the anxiety that would make it so difficult to come to the thing that I wanted to do the most. I don’t feel rewarded by the grant—it’s not an achievement award so much as it is a kind of opening of the gate or a door to a different kind of room. For me, that means a calmer room. But it also means one in which I can sit down for longer and I can come to what I’m doing with less trepidation. I can think a little better, and I think I have a little more running in the channel. It’s a good feeling—a really good feeling. I don’t know what I’m going to be able to do with it—I don’t know what I’m going to be able to write. But I feel similarly about that the way I do about teaching. I reciprocate by trying to do what I do, or started out to do all those years ago, and trying to do it really, really well. We’ll see how that goes. I feel very much that I’m able now to be concentrated and consolidated in a way that I simply hadn’t been able to before. A way I hadn’t been able, not just to wish for, but even to know about.
And now this collection is coming out, and the collection does represent a kind of arc in some way. I didn’t write those stories to be a collection—I wrote those stories because it was the only kind of framework I could hold for a long time. And I wrote one about every year and a half. I wasn’t exactly—I wasn’t getting a lot out. I wrote those things because I could—that was what I could think about and come back to and not feel overwhelmed by. I wasn’t thinking that they might represent what was, as it turns out, about a twenty-year movement. So that’s really nice to see.
I just feel like I have a—maybe I have a little more self-esteem than I used to, or a little more faith in all this than I used to. Because I didn’t for a long time. I really didn’t. I couldn’t get it. But at this moment, with the book coming together and coming out, and with talking this way, instead of being quite as guarded as I would have been because I was very worried about everything… I want to write in some way that whatever I use–in the Donald Winnicott sense, in the good sense, in the sense of growth–whatever I use of myself in doing it, I want to make the story not be about me, and to be about that other experience, of reading. So that’s what I can say today. I’ve come to know this or feel this over a long, long, period of time. Not long in the history of the world. But long for a lifetime. You don’t really get to build it all in one day and you certainly don’t get to see what you’re building when you start. I built a lot of stuff that I couldn’t live in and so now I’m finding that I’m able to build in a different way. And the MacArthur has everything to do with that.
TM: I think you’ve just delivered the greatest possible endorsement of the MacArthur and things like it, what they can do.
DA: I’ve had institutional support before—when I didn’t know where to go I went to MacDowell and they took care of me. There really has been support at different times. Sometimes just barely enough, but enough.
Now, this moment has got its fears but it’s really very joyous. I don’t mean celebratory, but in that solemn way. I’m not as scared. I’m not trying to write out of fear or through fear or with fear. I still live where I lived for all those years, and I still rent. I don’t live a big life, but the quality of it in some ways has really gone up. So I feel like I’m a really fortunate recipient. And I don’t know how long I would have held it together and really been able to feel productive. Because I’d just gotten to a point where it was hard for me to connect to desire. Slowly that’s changing.
That’s where I’m at today. I’m sure that in the next month or two or three I’ll have to publish a book and I’ll be teaching and I’ll have more clear and simpler and briefer ways of talking about this. I’m still trying to work it out, what I mean or how this feeling is, but I have to say that it’s a very deep and powerful feeling. I feel like I have a little more structure around me, that I’m not as exposed to the elements.
Image: MacArthur Foundation