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An Interview-in-Excerpts with Norman Lock

Norman Lock’s recent books are The Boy and His Winter and Love Among the Particles (Bellevue Literary Press), In the Time of Rat (Ravenna Press), Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Three Plays (Noemi Press), and Grim Tales (Mud Luscious Press/Dzanc). The House of Correction (Broadway Play Publishing) played recently in Istanbul, Athens, and Torun, Poland. Mounting Panic was broadcast by WDR Germany, in 2013. Lock has won The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for Fiction and writing fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

An excerpt from his novel, The Boy in His Winter, appeared in Issue Fifty-Eight of The Collagist.

Here, he answers questions "in the form of excerpts"—with further excerpts from The Boy in his Winter. Enjoy!

What is writing like?

No doubt writing, like anything else, is different for every man and woman who practices it. How could it not be? For some, it may be akin to love or making love; for others, to music, or breathing, or walking through the woods at the hour when the light falls softly onto the backs of the leaves, making them shine, or, at that same hour, by the sea when water and sky seem all one pale and luminous color. For me, writing is often what a lesser god must feel during the creation of a fallen world: joy, disturbance, some fear, perhaps, and doubt as to its usefulness.

For a long time—thirty years and more—writing for me was the production of words, assembled by patience and the love of words into sentences that, in their incremental deposits, built up worlds that had little to do with what’s called real. They were games to be played, circuses, realms, paradises, killing fields—universes governed by the laws of chance, necessity (the game’s own), or the almost limitless imagination that scoffs at probability, even possibility. Not that my fictions—serious, tragic, comic, melodramatic—were without humanity; to the contrary, they were, more often than not, concerned with the most significant questions of our age: identity, the instability of things, the anxiety that comes of living, for none knows how long, in a place and at a time when we, any one of us, can vanish. In that work, I registered my guilt for being only obliquely engaged with the actual world of men and women living in time; but mostly the stories, brief fictions, poems, and plays tended to exclude them in favor of metaphysics and metafictional conceits. I came of age at a time when language was “foregrounded.” Like Borges, like Beckett, like Calvino, like all those writers with whom I have an affinity of interest, I have been in love with ideas and with words.

With the writing of The Boy in His Winter, I resolved to enter the world (just as my Huck Finn does once Hurricane Katrina has blown him out of the mythic time of American literature into time, the true meaning of which is consciousness). In this novel and in American Meteor (due from Bellevue Literary Press in 2015), I have applied my powers of imagination to social and political questions, as well as to the continuing investigation of the vexed and vexing questions of being in the world and telling stories about it.

You want to know what my point is in all this?

I’m not sure. You see I am, at least, honest. But I think “all this” has to do with ideas of time and the secret confluences by which we arrive at points in our own histories. But because I do not wish to be remembered (if I will be remembered) as a self-indulgent fantasist, I’ll skip the purple patch for now, however much I wish to write it. I need to make amends for my indifference, for having turned my back on the world in favor of the beauties of the way. I’ll try to study cruelty (I regret my own) and render it in more familiar terms. But something of Mark Twain’s playfulness, his habit of fantasizing and exaggerating must have rubbed off on me. How could it be otherwise? So this account of my life must be impure: a mixture of high-minded tragedy and lowborn comedy (The Boy in His Winter, 36-7).


What isn’t writing like?

Writing—my writing—is not like realism. Influenced as it was and continues to be by my many years of writing poetry and an even longer time writing stage and radio plays, the work is not like most prose. Compression, lyricism, theatrical or cinematic structure aside, the stories and less definable fictions I’ve produced have their progenitors: Borges, Calvino, Barthelme, Kenneth Koch, Hildesheimer, Kafka, Vonnegut, Bruno Schulz, Landolfi, Mrozek—I would count Stephen Millhauser among them if I had not come to his marvelous fictions late in my career.

The Boy in His Winter is the beginning of something new for me: a divide—not a stylistic one, nor a structural one, nor even one of feelings to be expressed. The new novel announced to me an intention, unconscious at first, but soon enough deliberate, to acknowledge the outside world as well as the innermost one and to speak to things in the visible universe that have to do with issues that are the meat and drink of literary realism and Naturalism: inequality in all its varied guises—social, political, economic, sexual.

Storytelling is all about well-timed revelations. But I’m annoyed by writers who manipulate me, parceling out information as though they were dealing dope. To hell with narrative strategy! The moment seems right to me—now that I’ve shown how inadequate a gaff boy and deckhand I was—to reveal the reason for my being on board. The brothers used me as window dressing, in case the Coast Guard boarded us. With me leaning on a gaff, like a shepherd in a Christmas play, we were likely to be taken for a party of sportsmen instead of marijuana smugglers. For days, the brothers had been conditioning me to call them “Uncle.” (James was always James.)

The stinking meat and the dog? Edgar’s idea. He reasoned they’d throw a drug-sniffing hound off the scent. He had a subtle intelligence for a former garage mechanic, waterman, and roustabout. Edmund’s career was checkered with sojourns in reformatory and the county jail. What he did when he was at large involved—in their seasons—crab traps, a pick and shovel, supplying raw material to the proprietors of whiskey stills in the Louisiana backwoods. I don’t know what this book is about, but it feels like it might have something to do with the embarrassing notion of goodness. And its apparent scarcity.

Do I believe in it?

I’m still undecided. A boy, I did not judge people as I do now, according to a complicated Hammurabi’s code constructed of absolutes mitigated by fear, doubt, self-interest, and that “golden rule,” the quid pro quo. A boy, I judged as the sponge or oyster does the water it imbibes: by recoil and painful shock or a vague sense of well-being. Children are unconscious of good and evil and remain that way until they reach the age of self-regard. The adolescent discovers a tiny universe of the self with his first pimple and plunges headlong into a lifetime of dubious ethical transaction with the wider world (128-9).

I hope from here on in to write stories that have to do with moral problems rather than confining myself to the remote concerns of philosophers and the more precious ones of the aesthetes, though I will continue, helplessly, to write about metaphysical and aesthetic ideas, too. Ideas and words—these have always been my chief preoccupations and must continue to shape my fiction and plays even as they become more socially conscious.

… and …

(Goodness is a problem, isn’t it? How are we to be good in this world, in this age, and not seem laughable and absurd? [105])

While emerging from and grounded in nineteenth-century American history and that of its literature, The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor are neither history nor historical fiction; they use those histories, inflected by memory and the imagination, as a lens through which life in contemporary America can be observed and critiqued.

I dawdled in the streets of Little Mexico, drinking cervezas or Mexican sodas on the corners with people whose faces looked as if they’d been shaped from red clay and earth. I loved them, though I suspect they merely humored me. They called me Señor Alberto, and the young women flirted because they found me comical. I did so myself. There were no rivers left for me, and I came no nearer to the ocean than the end of Santa Monica Pier, which I visited at night to be still amid a moving crowd, listening to tender words or unkind ones, or to the popular music of the time as I had, in an earlier age, to the songs of Stephen Foster or the shameful tunes of minstrelsy. I stood at the end of the pier, like Rupert at the edge of the world, and watched fishermen dream of once more lifting into the gaudy light Pacific mackerel, bonito, halibut, and thornbacks—banished sadly and forever from the animal kingdom (184).

When you do it, why?

I’m helpless not to, regardless of the toll it takes, regardless of how I might have been happier having done something else in my life. Writing is a joy and also an affliction. The voice, like the Mississippi River, which seems, throughout The Boy in His Winter, to have shaped Huck’s journey and consciousness—the voice in my head is unstaunchable and ungainsayable.

The storytelling impulse was unstoppable once it had seized and fired my brain. I’ve never identified its origin—whether the gift of some muse that might be a spirit residing in the ferment of barley and hops or else in a more radiant atmosphere such as Swedenborg or Blake imbibed (103).

… and …

Jim and I were no longer aimless, although it could be argued that we were never so, having borrowed, unconsciously, the river’s own ineluctable end: steadfastly south to the broad Delta and to the Gulf and from there to the world’s far ends in space and also in time. I think now that we had been all along at the service of time, whose perfect materialization in history was the Mississippi, the great river, the father of waters. For good or ill, like it or not, it colored our thoughts and shaped our consciousness to its own unfathomable purpose (60).

When you don’t, why?

I have always written compulsively—helpless against the irresistible voice in my head. During my working life, only the demands of work and family could stop me in what felt like a headlong pursuit of something that might have been beauty (as I see it) and, too, might have been the need to be heard in order to prove my existence and was, also and most assuredly, simple ambition. (Is ambition or vanity ever simple?) Now that I am retired, there is very little to stop me except physical and mental exhaustion.

This seems a good place to stop before lighting out for the Territory. I’ve had my say, and I’ve packed this book with life, knowing full well that life is always elsewhere.

You want to know how to finish this comedy—with what parting words.

With the same ones Mark Twain used to finish his, damn him!



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