An interview with Nicholson Baker
by Alexander Laurence and David Strauss
Alexander Laurence: So you studied music in school. You were a musician for a while. What instruments did you study?
Nicholson Baker: I originally wanted to be a composer--I played the bassoon at the Eastman school of music. I was an applied music major and I was briefly the utility bassoonist for a philharmonic orchestra which meant that if they had a huge Mahler concert, they would hire me as a fourth bassoon. By that time I was half-serious about it all. I spent hours at the piano trying to write piano sonatas. I realized that I didn't have the hardware to be a composer. Eventually it became clear that I would have to pick a different art.
AL: Is there any period of music that interests you?
NB: I went through a big Bartok phase. I like Brahms. I listen now to pop music. While I was writing The Fermata, I listened to Suzanne Vega a lot.
David Strauss: Many musicians turned writers such as Harry Mathews, Paul Bowles, and Thomas Bernhard are also interested in the concept of time.
NB: I got interested in time in the 4th grade. I had the discovery that you could split up the present moment infinitely. There's no present. But it's a very thin topic. If you just stick to the idea of time, there's just not enough grit to make a novel out of it. As a musician, I used to love the fermata. I loved the chords that you could sustain it with. It's a nice looking symbol with a nice name. It sits on top of a chord and just looks at you. Very evocative. It just means "stop." I've forgotten what it's like to be a musician to tell you the truth. I sold my bassoon a long time ago: 1978. I don't play anymore.
DS: The question was not so much "time" as a subject. You use a lot of realist detail in your books. At the same time, you're really into playing with the time in which this occurs. You do divide up those seconds in The Mezzanine.
NB: The Mezzanine was an attempt to stop time by expanding the length of the paragraph by using the footnote as a kind of fermata. So that you would feel a stop in the middle of a sentence, and then have a whole secondary thought that balloons down the side of a page. The Fermata is taking that idea and giving it a supernatural twist. It really isn't enough to write a footnote about a pair of shoelaces. What you want to do is stop the world and allow your own prose to catch up with whatever it is you want to describe.
DS: You get the feeling in The Mezzanine that there was a lot of information there that you wanted to get out to the world.
NB: I felt that I had been mistaken in the way I'd been going about trying to write novels. I would start with a hero who was in a certain setting, and then the plot would crank into motion. All of a sudden, all the things that I was interested in would be marginalized. Eventually I gave up on the plot part. I just had him go through his lunch hour because that seemed the most efficient way to say the things I had saved up to say. The plot has to be very tiny for me to pay any attention to it for some reason. As soon as my narrators focus on something, they seem to lose track of the fact that they're supposed to be part of some momentous chain of events.
DS: Information with an implied meaninglessness affects us, whether the emanator knows it or not. An advertisement will haunt us for the rest of our lives.
NB: Yeah. There's the big things that happen: marriage, death, and divorce. That sort of thing. Then there are things we think about every day. It's much more likely that we're going to come up with TV movie of the week responses about the big things because we haven't had practice with them. I write about the little things because we've usually come to some interesting conclusions about them, we've recycled them around so many times.
AL: In The Mezzanine and The Fermata you have focused on the lives of office workers. What is the interest there?
NB:In Vox too, I would say that they're professionals of some kind, with office jobs. To say something about "Temps."--the notion of a person who is part of a situation but isn't engaged the way everyone else in it is, linked up for me the theme of the book. When you have the power to drop into the fold or create a fermata, you can be part of a situation, that isn't going on at all. You can think about it at the same time as it's suspended in the state of almost happening. Of course the temp is the lowest on the totem pole, the least promising character, the one with the least amount of power; he is the equivalent of the earplug or the shoelace. It turns out that he has all these thoughts, disturbing and objectionable.
AL: Stylistically, you altered the form of your novels: one is written with footnotes, another is a dialogue. Why did you do that?
NB: I like to have a different texture with each book because it helps me stay entertained as I'm writing. I don't know if the books are about different things or the same thing, or the same texture. The Fermata is the most fictional. The whole thing is physically impossible. It's clearly a work of fiction.
DS: It's metaphorical. And when you're writing about masturbation there's a certain connection with the process. Writing is isolating yet involving. Time is distended just in the process of putting things down.
AL: Writing and reading are actually not living.
NB: It can feel that way when you're in the middle of writing a book. You really feel as if the rest of the world is shut down. The only thing that is working, that's in motion, is whatever object or social situation it is you're trying to describe.
AL: You talk about the character being two years in the fold. That's the time it takes to write a novel.
DS: And, of course, the novel is about writing a book.
NB: Yeah. But it's meant not to be too highfalutin about it. Arno Strine is not "a writer," in the sense of a serious fiction writer. There's so many bad meta-novels that are out there. The Fermata is, I hope, making fun of that. This guy is writing rot. He's this amateur pornographer. What he wants to do is write things and watch people read them. Every writer wants to see how a reader reacts to his stuff.
AL: Is all art trying to preserve the moment and trying to stop time?
NB: Yeah, certainly. It's funny because out of all my novels The Fermata covers the most amount of time, the longest duration, yet it's all about honing in on specific moments, and doing sneaky things in them. The Mezzanine was essentially one lunch hour. Room Temperature was also a very short amount of time. The Fermata is a rangery book, a looser book in a way, even though it has these moments where everything stops.
DS: There's a sense of isolation in all your books.
NB: When you're reading a book, you're in a state of enforced solitude. I always liked reading books about solitary people because I like witnessing their thinking. So I guess I write books about solitary people for the same reason. I don't think that any of my heroes are kind of Hero Isolates. They're not solitary in the French sense, of really being "alone," and filled with ennui, and oppressed by objects. They just happen to be solitary at the moment. Arno is a special case. He's been screwed up by this wonderful ability. His personality has been stunted by the things he could do. If you had the power of the fermata, what would you do?
DS: You know. World peace. That sort of thing.
NB: What I did when I was writing the book was I'd ask people "What would you do?" The problem with Arno's trick is that he still ages even though time has stopped. The longer he spends in the fold, the more he gets out of sync with his actual age. This book is a kind of fermata in the sense it's trying to take some fragments of reality and subject them to a hypothetical torque, and come up with this chord that hangs together that is playing the whole time you're reading the book. Some people were repulsed by the idea. Some people were interested and as I asked more questions, they backed off. Most of the men said what essentially the men said in the book, like go straight to the locker room of the women's basketball team, and check it out.
AL: I guess it's the most obvious adolescent dream.
NB: This is based on something that is a true adolescent fantasy. What's wrong with things being sophomoric once in a while? The sophomore year has been given a bad rap. This is definitely sophomoric in some ways. I hope it does something new with the traditional fantasies. All the fantasies like having x-ray vision or being invisible or stopping time. The genesis of the book was an idea I had in 4th grade, very much like the one described in the book. I had this idea that I wanted to switch time off and look really closely at the chalkboard. And then I thought that I could incidentally take the teacher's clothes off. That's what started the book. Judging from the reaction to the book, I put in more than enough sordidness for most reviewer's taste. I got some really outraged reactions. For instance, my wife wasn't wild about the idea, when I tried it out on her. I tried it out on her before I wrote the book because I was worried about it. When she read the finished book, she liked it more than she expected, although she wanted the guy to get punished badly. But certainly, I haven't gotten any hate mail. I've gotten hate reviews. I've gotten some of the harshest reviews I've ever seen a literary novelist get. I feel that I've been unfairly slammed by some people because they were treating the book as if it was a position paper on the way I thought men ought to act. What I was trying to do was look at it, and take a piece of the male mind and exaggerate it.
AL: What sort of preparations did you do for this novel?
NB: I was working as a temp in 1983, and suddenly remembered this 4th grade thing. It seemed like a good idea for a novel. So I played around with it and tried to think of different plots that would work with it and I couldn't. I was scared of it I guess. I wrote a few other books, then came back to it a few years ago. I asked people what they would do and I got many interesting responses. There have been some TV versions of this fantasy: The Wild, Wild West, Get Smart, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie. They were all rather limited. TV doesn't have the miraculous powers of the novel to explore. None of these TV versions of stopping time were true to the answers that I was getting when I would pose the question. It seemed to me that the truer kind of book to write would be one that stuck very close to the adolescent male fantasy. It would not be robbing a bank, but it would be simply seeing women without clothes on. This book has alienated some people who liked some of my earlier books. It's weird though because you write a book in a certain mood, and you submit to the mood. I almost believed at some point during the book that I would develop the power myself to stop time. I wouldn't use it the same way as he did. The book was an act of magic. Then you're finished with it, and a year goes by, and you're in a completely different mental and emotional state. I was interested in the confused state where you're not sure whether something is supposed to be funny or is supposed to turn you on.
AL: So there's this so-called "serious literature", high-brow language texts, Updikean word-massages, but there's also "erotica", which is not taken as seriously. Ever since Raymond Carver, there's no sex in writing. That's the paradigm for current writing: no one has sex, and it's never described.
DS: Suffering without sex -- it seems ridiculous!
NB: It's an utterly confused time to write about sex because it's not going to shock anybody. I've stopped worrying about whether I was being taken seriously or not, at some point. I wrote a book that ignored all the grand themes that the novel is supposed to take up. That was in The Mezzanine. The only thing that I object to is when my two sexual books are criticized as being sell-outs. I had some things to say about sex, strangely enough. I felt that I had exhausted the shoelace and literary ambition in this one. It took two books to cover the topic of sex completely for me. It wasn't a cynical attempt to sell-out at all. In fact, The Fermata has obviously harmed me. If I was thinking of my career, I wouldn't have written it. It was so much fun to write, so what the hell?
AL: So, you're here to tell us that you're definitely not a sell-out and your next book is going to be over a thousand pages and heavily researched...
DS: ... taking place all over Latin America?
NB: Now, that's a sell-out! Long books really sell!
AL: Some of these hang-ups that your characters have are very interesting. Do you share any of them? For instance, in The Mezzanine, the guy suffers from not being able to urinate in the company of others, especially in those large urinals.
NB: That's a serious problem with me. That continues to be a problem, even after five books. I try to resort to any ploy. Anything that will help. Nothing is foolproof. I think it's a subset of shyness. I just dropped off a suitcase of urine at Merris Health. I'm having a kidney test done. You have to pee into this little vinyl suitcase for 24 hours. It's quite an experience. You have to store it in a refrigerator.
AL: Urine is a major theme for you?
NB: Today it is. That's definitely autobiographical. It's straight from the heart. After a movie, it's hell.
AL: You never thought about doing a Fermata in mid-stream, have you? That's what I would do. Surround myself with 20 urinators in a circular urinal. They turn off while I keep going. Sort of a revenge.
NB: It's so clear. It's waiting to be done. You were avoiding my question before, but now I have your answer.
DS: Someone like William Vollmann can write about how he has fucks all these Thai prostitutes, and women will flock to him. Then you make it a little less impersonal...
NB: The reason Arno is really disturbing is that he isn't a psychopath. He's a recognizable colleague. He's similar to things in yourself that you might not want others to know. Definitely, I think that women don't really want to know some of these things about men. It's depressing to them, but they should know the worst before they get involved. It just turns out that I'm not a controversialist, and I don't really want the book to be used to make any other point than itself.
DS: One of the criticisms of Vox, although I don't agree with it, was that the two characters seem very much alike.
NB: One of the things that happens when you hit it off with somebody, is that there's a certain amount of chiming that goes on when you first meet. You're sitting at a cafe and there's a repeating of phrase patterns and agreement. But I thought that she told stories differently than he did, and he had to learn how to tell a story. One of the things that the book was about was that he had to go through a fast apprenticeship in the art of being sexual and verbal at the same time. She helped him out with that, but it was a collaboration. One of the reasons people thought they were similar was because it's not a common thing for a story to be told antiphonally like that.
DS: Like Richardson's Clarissa?
NB: Vox is an epistolary romance much like Richardson's Clarissa, although I haven't read it. I suppose that it is.
DS: Why do you think that so many educated, intelligent readers can't tell the difference between the writer and his or her protagonist, and confuse viewpoints expressed with the viewpoints of the author?
NB: Well, they're right, in a sense, to be confused like that. There was this whole tradition of new criticism that swept across the 20th century. The poem was kept utterly distinct from the writer's life. Biographical considerations were kept out completely. That's complete crap. Of course the fact that Coleridge had a laudanum habit is germane to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." So, to a certain extent, readers are right. Readers are right when they read a book like Lolita and think "Well, Nabokov must have had a thing for little girls." How could he have written 300-some pages with lovingly obsessive descriptions about downy hair on Lolita's arm, if it wasn't something that really got to him? You can take that a little too far. What Nabokov was doing was maybe taking one tiny chip of himself and then putting it under the highest powered microscope that he had and then subjecting it to many different strange sidelights and coming up with a whole book. To make an equal sign between that tiny chip and how he was as a person is a mistake. The Mezzanine is about 87% myself. Room Temperature is a little bit more. But The Fermata is purely fictional and not like me at all.
AL: You mentioned that you wrote The Fermata in a very short period. Six months. Could you talk about your writerly habits and how you schedule yourself?
NB: I tend to write better in the fall. There needs to be a hormonal something in order to engage in continuous effort. August; I start to ramp up production. September; I make a few false starts. Towards the end of September I click in gear and write the first chapter. October is the big month for me. I write short stories year round. I write every day. It's just that the writing is not so hot some times during the year. I have an office five blocks away from where I live in Berkeley. I've been doing some short journalistic things. I have something in this week's New Yorker about the destruction of card catalogues. Very racy stuff. All across the country they're throwing away these card catalogues. They have these on-line systems, but they're not keeping the cards. They're all being denatured. I wrote something about the movie projector for The New Yorker's movie issue. I'm just writing essays now, for a while. Got to cool down, clean up my act.
AL: You use a computer and e-mail. It seems that The Mezzanine was a precursor to the hypertext, a story where you can choose your own path.
NB: The footnote is the poor man's hypertext. It's not fancy. You don't need any software at all. All it takes is a little number, a little asterisk, and smaller type. It's great. You can choose. Do you want to go into the subroutine of the footnote and follow it out and move back, or do you want to skip it? So you have that branch. It's very interactive. I've heard people read every imaginable way you could do it. Skipping the text. Reading the footnotes first. I wanted it to be optional. Some people are less interested in the flotational aspects of the straw. I was very proud of one of my footnotes that went on for four pages with only three lines at the top. It was about skate blades and the grooves in a record. Oh, those were the days. I was innocent then. I was a nice guy.
AL: Are there any writers you like?
NB; There's Allan Hollinghurst, a gay novelist. I like Samuel Johnson. I like certain poets: Howard Moss, Stanley Kunitz. I'm reading Ronald Firbank right now. Flann O'Brien. I'm a terrible reader. Usually if I actually get to a point of reading a book, there's enough stuff that I'll like. I buy novels for the cover. Beautiful covers are like buying candy.
DS: Which writers do you hate?
NB: Name some names, maybe I'll hate them. My hatred doesn't last. I have these little passing irritations, but I tend to be constitutionally too cheerful to harbor any disgust for contemporary writers.
AL: How do you feel about self-publishing? You only get 10% of the profits, right?
NB: The Fermata is entirely about self-publishing. Arno writes these things, types them out and puts them in a plastic bag and buries them so the woman will dig them up. Writing is all about getting what's in your mind into someone else's mind. The tendency is finally to eliminate the middleman and do everything yourself.
DS: I'm assuming that at the end of The Fermata that Arno has stopped time and put the book into our hands.
NB: Right. Some of the people who read the book kind of believed it. They weren't sure if I had the ability or not. And I do. Maybe I'm two years older than I actually am.
DS: Joyce accepts the whole thing with Arno quite amiably at the end of the novel.
NB: Then she thinks "Oh..."