News & Events

Elisabetta Pagini Interviews Allan Gurganus for La Stampa, September 2015

EP: “Saints Have Mothers” is going to be published in Italy in September and “Saint Monster” to be republished then, too. Both have saints in the title. And some sort of saint in the plot. Why are you so interested in holiness, goodness? Do you feel a bit of a saint?

AG: Only sinners like me find saints fascinating. I have the sort of criminal mind that aspires to canonization even while planning bank robberies. So much of contemporary literature has given up the idea of virtue. Ours is a secular culture; the church itself has seen to that. I write about the very people who get into terrible trouble precisely by being good. “No Good Deed Went Unpunished” will be my epitaph, probably misspelled! I am the eldest of four sons and I felt responsible for every one of my brother’s bicycle accidents and bee stings. I invented a private kind of magic, trying to protect them. They never knew. For me, writing about bad people doing worse things is unengaging. I can read about those folks in any newspaper every day. Instead, I feel fascinated by those rare citizens who bypassed the whirlpool of sexual desire, who sacrifice their choicest energies by literally putting others first. (The true saints are often the mothers or husbands of the famous martyrs). Their struggles are heroic and therefore full of lessons. Mother Teresa’s diaries prove she’d given up on communicating with God. And yet, her work among the poor continued with even greater fervor. Because we live in a fallen age, tales of thwarted Virtue have the most to say. I am lucky to have a modern mind and a religious (mediaeval) imagination. This means my vision moves from image to idea. Not vice versa. Which would have left me as only a college professor.

EP: Another recurrent topic of your novellas is beauty. Lots of characters are described as really, really beautiful. Is it a (or the only) strong value of our time, or what?

AG: I encourage my writing students to put something funny on every page, and something beautiful on every other one. I am as interested in singularly ugly people as I am in those ideally beautiful. Between the poles of physical perfection and physical deformity, a concept like “Prettiness” means very little. I want my every work to chronicle some battle of extremes. As a child, I made puppets and they all seemed to turn out as witches or princes. It is hard to make a puppet that is visually recognizable as “The Brother-in-Law.” There should be some memorable Punch and Judy energy in every character’s described appearance.

EP: In “Saints Have Mothers” you write that these are the years when it’s fantastic to be a woman. Why do you think so?

AG: Birth control, not nuclear power, was the signal human achievement of the twentieth century. Choices are still narrow but they have so widened for women. But, me? I’d rather be a man. My penis is the stupid passport to a world of daily privileges I hardly notice. Since fiction is always about an emotionally-detailed tournament, and since underdogs win at least in fiction, many of my works are told in the voice of some observant funny woman and from a seemingly sidelined perspective. Men have far more to learn from women than the other way around. One of feminism’s great kindnesses to men has been involving them more completely in their own children’s care. In the year 2000, the NY Times asked a group of writers to name one object that best summed up the waning century. I chose the baby-diaper-changing station now in every airport men’s room. This proves how much we men have, however belatedly—at least started to radically imagine women.

EP: One of your books was criticized because of its sexual atmosphere and scenes. Is sex still a taboo?

AG: In the Calvinist US, certainly. But when critics call my books too sexual, they do me a great favor. Sales soar. What nay-sayers find scary is simply that I present all my characters as sexual beings. I stand accused. Whether I show the protagonists busy in bed or not, I need to know what each would like to do there, if allowed. I need to know what all my characters eat and how much money they have saved. So, I can hardly leave out the great life-force sex gives us every day. Walt Whitman wrote, “We are all of us utterly lost without the sexual texture of things.”

EP: I read you had a good family and a good childhood, but your books are full of conflicts among families. Mothers crushed by their roles, envy for their daughters. Daughters that try to kill them. Weak fathers. Incestuous scenes. What is family to you now? And who is your family? (I read you have six sons?)

AG: Family! You can’t live with it and can’t get born without one. I love most of mine, of course. But Family represents both the best of our hopes and the most incestuous and personal of punishments. My father was a good provider, a widely respected churchman. But his religion told him to physically discipline his sons. Too often. That humiliation shaped my own sense of justice (meaning In-justice). I have three brothers whom I love. Since I donated sperm—one way to support myself when young—I am technically the father of six children. But they have never contacted me. The records of who they might now be were all destroyed. I still hope to hear from some thirty year old son or daughter. Fiction is hardly possible without the family unit. And I consider “family resemblance” one of the most fascinating studies on earth. Better than bird-watching. At vacation beaches, I love to trace nose-length and hair-color from grandparents to parents to grandkids. —I am the godfather to six, from the ages of thirty five to six months. They are my stake in the next generation and I feel very close to, very proud of them.

EP: Is family the potential volcano of all kind of violence?

AG: Yes, from Oedipus to Else Ferrante, for drama there is no place like home. I look to Italy for an especially keen understanding of the binds and elation that family offers. Lampedusa’s “Leopard” maps one sort of claustrophobic family grandeur. Fellini, Rossellini, and Visconti are masters of differing milieus. These artists are gods to me. I also love Elsa Morante’s novel “History” for how it visits world events on an ordinary household and its animals. Yes, without family as a subject, nothing would be left of our world but busy internet dating-sites! Very bleak, indeed.

EP: Just a curiosity. Scrolling photos of you, you always appear in a hat. Is it a fetish?

AG: My hair was my fetish, till I turned thirty five. When it thinned, I lost interest but hope that, if discreetly covered, it might sprout back even thicker. I am still waiting. Until that happens, hats remain a fetish.

EP: You chose to live in a small city, how is life there? Reading your book the reader has the idea that you almost don’t need to walk around the world, because everything is also happening in a small provincial city. Is every life worthy to be told in a novel?

AG: Everything that overtook the ancient Greeks happens daily in the world’s ignored villages. William Blake saw “the universe in a grain of sand.” Grand passions surprise nobody in Grand Opera. But, in minor towns, such romantic attachments and huge obsessions simply mean more.

EP: I saw a photo of your studio, a joyful mess. What can you tell me about your writing habits?

AG: Have you seen pictures of Giacometti’s work-space? In a sculptor’s studio, expect clay and metal. In a writer’s, a veritable Rome made of pages. My desk is both a cemetery and a nursery. Great ideas falter as new ones kick to life. Books bear family resemblances, yet each one means a fresh start. My favorite writing hours are between 4:30 and 8:00 AM. By the time lights go on in the world’s offices, my burglar’s hours are done. I have either broken into something valuable, or not.

EP: The NY Times put you in a short list of great writers with Faulkner, Munro and Carver. Do you agree?

AG: On the good days I feel my best work is before me. I think the life of a novelist begins at forty. And, by that count, I am merely twenty eight. I try to make my books in the way any craftsman carves his chairs. Too much “Is it art yet?” can spoil things, like sudden conversation during sexual intercourse. All my works have stayed in print. Most have been translated. I am especially grateful to my enthusiastic publisher, Andrea Bergamini, and my skilled loyal Italian translators, Maria Baiocchi and Anna Taglavini. I get heartening letters weekly. One recently came from a mother who, while her infant daughter underwent brain surgery, held onto a copy of my novel as her guardian against harm. The child survived but I take no literary credit. Mainly I just get up in the morning and go to my shop like any honest tradesman. Reputations are fickle, subject to quick reversals. Of this I’m sure: I never write about people I don’t know and care about to the point of loving. That sounds simple, but in the way I wish to be.

EP: After the slaughter in Charleston (9 black people killed in a church), the discussion about the difference and divisions between the north and the south of the US came up again. Some southern states still fly the Confederate flag? What do you think about it?

AG: The Charleston massacre has caused widespread soul searching, even among the right wing. Gun-nuts value church and hospitality, and the white-boy murderer besmirched both. Now the Confederate battle flag is coming down. It is finally being seen as the racist emblem it’s become. But there is a crazy streak, a violence and paranoia, straight through the middle of the American character. Our wild land was settled by debtors, prisoners, second sons, fundamentalist zealot, nothing-left-to-lose adventurers. They needed guns to clear the native population and to hunt food. Those guns have never left the family. All this makes for a dark Faulknerian legacy that pumps forth continuous loners, lunatics, and excellent fiction.

EP: So much news about American concerns white cops killing black men. Does Obama’s presidency change anything in the US, and what? For 2016 we see candidates like Hillary Clinton, and for the Republicans there’s lots of discussion about Trump. What’s your desire for the US’s near future?

AG: Electing a black President made many of us think we had achieved a long-postponed parity and justice. But Obama was so articulate and dignified, his very visible presence became a galling daily challenge to diehard racists. They questioned his nationality, his Christianity, his credentials. Every human fever reaches a crisis when the patient either improves or dies. It’s my hope for my country that our crucible has passed, that our capacity for empathy stands deepened, that our acceptance of each other has been magically widened. The Bible claims the poor will always be with us. And, alas, in the case of my beloved America, so will the armed religious assassins. It is an accursed tax on both our brawny energy and our fatal weakness for quick expedient answers.

EP: Just one more question about “Decoy”, to be published in 2017, and about your next novel: are you writing one? What can you tell us?

AG: Yes, I am always working. Writing daily is like dreaming nightly, a bonus and a psychic necessity, a form of absolute health. My work-in-progress concerns faith, healing and community. It is called “The Erotic History of a County Baptist Church.” I’ve enjoyed our conversation.