Fiction and the Art of Richard Grayson

An Interview

Richard Grayson was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1951. A graduate of Brooklyn College and its MFA program in Creative Writing, he has taught English at the City University of New York, Long Island University, the School of Visual Arts, Broward Community College and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. His fiction has appeared in over 150 magazines, including: Shenandoah, Epoch, Texas Quarterly, California Quarterly, The Carleton Miscellany, Transatlantic Review, Confrontation, Apalachee Quarterly, Panache, Interstate, Lowlands Review, Snakeroots, Writ, Zone, Calvert Review, Washington Review, Paris Voices, Iron, Gargoyle, The Bellingham Review, Ataraxia, Star-Web Paper, the Fiction Collective anthology Statements 2, and Mudborn Press's First-Person Intense anthology. In 1977 he was a Bread Loaf Scholar, and in 1980 a MacDowell Fellow. Two story collections have been published: Disjointed Fictions (X, a journal of the arts, 1978), and With Hitler in New York (Taplinger Publ. Co., 1979). His new collection is forthcoming from White Ewe Press.

Interviewer: You're one of the most widely published young fiction writers in the US today, yet not exactly a household name. Most of your pieces have been published in the small press and not the slicks or larger circulation magazines. What are your feelings about that kind of exposure? If you had it to do over again would you go the agent route and try to get published in Esquire, Playboy, etc.?

Grayson: Of course I'd like to be well-known, and even more than that, I'd like to make some money from my writing. But the way things are, that seems impossible. See, I was pretty hard-headed about the chances of my getting published in the slicks. Even before I started writing seriously. I knew they weren't exactly hospitable to young, unknown writers, so I rarely bothered sending out to The New Yorker or Playboy and instead I concentrated on little magazines. I think that's the smartest thing I did. Some of my friends who were also just beginning laughed at me--"Where'd you find these crazy mags?" they'd say-and disdained getting published anywhere but in Esquire or places like that. They soon found out that it was nearly impossible to be published there, and some of them gave up sending out. I kept getting encouraged with each acceptance; no matter how small the magazine, at least I was being published, and that was important to me.

Interviewer: I understand that Taplinger recently pulped your book and has no plans for a paperback edition. You wrote of your experiences and discoveries regarding promotion in the Sept./Oct. 1980 issue of Poets and Writers, in an article called "Fiction Writer as Publicist." Can you briefly capsulize what you've learned from your N.Y. publishing experience?

Grayson: I'm not sure if Taplinger has actually pulped my book, but in any case, that would be a business decision. The recent Thor tax ruling complicated matters for publishers since they can no longer write off their inventory. As for Taplinger not doing a paperback of Hitler, again it's a business decision and probably a wise one, from their point of view. The sales figures of the hardcover don't justify a paperback edition. If I learned anything about New York publishing, it's that it's a business--more of a business now than it ever was. Taplinger's president, Louis Strick, was good enough to publish my book even though he knew it would lose money: there aren't many publishers like him around anymore. In fact, I told him that if I were in his position, with my business dependent upon staying in the black, I probably wouldn't have published Hitler. I had a hell of a good time promoting my book and I enjoyed getting a lot of newspaper and magazine reviews that a small press publication never would have received. I began to read Publishers Weekly regularly and I think I've got a good grasp of how the industry works. Anyway, I was very lucky with my book. The fact that its publication didn't really change my life in a big way sort of depressed me for a while, but now I realize that I did pretty well with the book--given the circumstances of publishing today, when it has less and less to do with literature and more and more to do with advertising, public relations, and media tie-ins.

Interviewer: You've developed a style, what can only be termed the Richard Grayson story. How conscious was this development? Who are your models?

Grayson: Everyone develops her or his own style after writing long enough. Maybe what you mean is that you can recognize a story by me because of its style. I dislike reading anthologies of fiction in which every story sounds like it was written by the same person. Models? Barthelme and Vonnegut, for the rhythm of their sentences. I didn't consciously try to develop a style, though. What you, call my "style" is probably just a result of constant writing and my own weird personality.

Interviewer: Could the techniques you've made use of in your stories--the fragmentation of experience, the isolation and self-absorption of your characters--be extended in such a way that a larger scenario would simply be a matter of stamina--on your part as well as the readers? Or do some of your themes--the difficulty of making connections, of any significant contact between individuals--more naturally express themselves in a disjointed and abbreviated form? Would a change in your format tend to depend on new kinds of relationships, more extended contact--or in some less formal, more "narrative" investigation of frustrations and limitations?

Grayson: I think fragmented, self-conscious novels might very well be boring. Some people say that fragmented, self-conscious stories are also boring, but at least they're short. Although I think you can do just about anything in a short story, my view of novel is more traditional, and I don't think my story techniques would be adaptable to a longer form. I'm trying to work in longer forms now, though, and my style is changing. I think I've done to death what you call a "Richard Grayson story." I mean, I don't want to end up parodying myself, and it would be dumb to keep imitating a formula. Now I'm trying for more narrative unity but I don't know if I can pull it off. Sometimes I think it would be presumptuous of me to write a novel because I don't know enough yet. But I hope to get there eventually. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that there are no prodigies in fiction writing, and I tend to agree. I still feel like an apprentice.

Interviewer: How might a longer form affect the role of "Richard Grayson" as observed observer, the narrator who often makes the largest claim on the reader's interest and concern?

Grayson: Well, I'm working on a book called A Version of Life; I just finished the first draft. It's not fiction but autobiography/journal/memoir, about 300 pages in manuscript. The way I've eliminated the problem of "observed observer" is to take away the fictional barrier. Again, there aren't many narrators who can be "observed observers" and not be deadly boring in the long run.

Interviewer: In Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer, Binx talks about "certification." You use real people, TV stars, etc., to fill your stories with reality. As though, as Susan Lloyd McGarry points out in "Twenty-Seven Statements I Could Make About Richard Grayson," in Aspect no. 72/73, you are implying that these people in the media eye are more real than most of us. At the same time, you make use of personal details and family members, not strictly as autobiography, but without the conventional literary disguises. Your own life (or many different versions of that life) acquires its own celebrity and becomes "more real." Again, these elements seem most compatible with shorter fiction--parodies, vignettes, and so on. Do you think they could withstand the stresses of a longer form?

Grayson: Probably not. Actually, if you look at my work, it's probably more influenced by TV than by literature. My stories are built on "scenes" with breaks--maybe for commercials. (Sometimes I think I should put actual commercials in my stories--you know, the way athletes wear warm-up jackets with products' names on them. If only I could get Coca-Cola or Chrysler or Calvin Klein interested . . . .) We live in an age of celebrities. They're a kind of shorthand device because everyone knows Farrah Fawcett or Ronald Reagan and what they represent. You don't have to explain them in detail. There are very few people I know, including myself, who can resist the gossip that we're constantly inundated with. The sad thing about celebrity is that it's shallow, as opposed to old-fashioned fame, which represented accomplishment. Celebrity puts Erik Estrada and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the same level. I've tried to make fun of this in some of my stories: "Inside Barbara Walters," "Why Van Johnson Believes in ESP," "Chief Justice Burger, Teen Idol." Now, when I seem to tell intimate "gossip" about myself, my friends, and my family, that's a device pandering to this trend of learning everything we can about "public" people. Of course, most of what I "reveal" is just made up. Again, there's a serious point in the satire: isn't my mother's cleaning woman or my grandfather just as entitled to celebrity as Cheryl Tiegs or Rona Barrett?

Interviewer: Critics seem to like the more autobiographical material best. Possibly they find it easier to get a handle on the family chronicle or to relate to the "Jewish" experience. Have you noticed a reluctance on the part of critics or editors to deal with your more experimental work?

Grayson: I suppose that most people still like traditional stories best, and of course one of the main streams of America fiction in the past thirty years has been the "Jewish" story or novel. I don't know if it's a coincidence or not, but most of my favorite "traditional" fiction writers are Jews: Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Singer. Anyway, I think most of my work is fairly traditional and I don't really understand it when people call me an "avant-garde" writer--Rolling Stone used this term. Almost every so-called innovation in fiction has been pioneered long ago, sometimes back in the eighteenth century. I've always taken all these "experimental" devices for granted, and. I think I work in fairly narrow forms. Fragments, questions and answers, multiple narration, the unreliable narrator, surrealism, whatever I've tried--it's all old hat by now, and it was long before I started writing.

I think most people, maybe even most little magazine editors, take a very narrow view of what is and what's not a short story. Their view is narrower than mine. This is probably more true in America than in Europe or Latin America.

Interviewer: Apart from the semi-autobiographical narrator, your female characters seem particularly "real" and poignant. Have you ever considered a dual narration, something that might bring into play two (or more) characters on the same plane of invention, in terms of authority/control of the story and emotional impact?

Grayson: Yes, I've been working on something along the lines you suggest. I've got an outline for a novel, which my agent likes, about a twenty-year friendship between a woman and a man, and the point of view switches back and forth. I'm not sure how "real" my female characters are, but I find them easier to deal with when I'm working on a representational story. Women allow themselves a greater range of feelings than men--this is an extreme generalization--and they're probably more interesting as characters. They're usually more interesting as people, too.

Interviewer: Have you ever tried writing for television? Or theatre? Your characters do seem to have that disembodied talking head quality.

Grayson: I started out at fifteen writing plays: imitations of Edward Albee, mostly. I got a $150 prize for a play I wrote at fifteen, but I soon became bored with the theater. When I go to a play, I usually get shpilkes and can't wait to get out of the theater. Probably I've just gone to the wrong plays.

I really would like to write for TV. I'm a soap opera fanatic and would love the chance to develop a long form drama, though it's incredibly hard work. Some of the best writing I've come across was from Harding Lemay when he was the writer for "Another World" for most of the 1970's. He's also written two brilliant memoirs, the amazing Inside Looking Out (1970) and the recent Eight Years in Another World.

The one thing that made me really decide to be a writer was the BBC production of The Forsyte Saga, which aired when I was eighteen. It was a series of novels, of course, but it had the form of a soap opera. See, the true soap opera is a genre most resembling life itself because a soap has no beginning and no end (unless the show gets cancelled). More than any other kind of writing, the soap gets closest to what Henry James aspired to: the articulation of all life. Of course most soaps are written abominably, with clichés piled on top of one another. I think, however, that with the breakthroughs in cable TV, low power TV stations, etc., TV writers of the future won't have to contend with the mass audience all the time. I think we'll end up with specialized markets, maybe little magazines of the air, In South Florida we already have a poetry show on cable. I'm excited about the future of TV and would love to write for it,

Interviewer: Who are you reading now?

Grayson: I read Emerson constantly. His essays on Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, etc., are beautifully and wisely written. Aside from reading the usual hot literary books, I subscribe to a dozen or so little magazines, and I'd advise all poets and fiction writers to do the same. It really bugs me how many submissions these editors get and how few subscriptions. Some good books I've read lately are: Lightning Struck My Dick, short stories by the funniest man in Canada, Crad Kilodney; two chapbooks, Snacks and Bagatelles, minimalist fiction by Peter Cherches; Screed, a melange of wild writings by Jack Saunders; MacDoodle Street, an incredibly clever cartoon novel by Mark Alan Stamaty; Lifetime, Scott Sommer's first short story collection; and Joel Agee's Twelve Years, a memoir about growing up in East Germany.

I'm a newspaper freak and read at least three papers a day. The first thing I turn to is the gossip column, I'm ashamed to admit.

Interviewer: Could you tell us a little about your experience with the Fiction Collective?

Grayson: When I was in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, Jonathan Baumbach asked me if I would help the collective with their manuscript evaluation procedure. We developed a system in which in order to be accepted for publication, a manuscript had to receive four "yes" votes from Collective author/members. Since the Collective had members scattered around the country and since it sometimes took seven readers to make a final decision (four out of seven "yes" votes), this procedure was very time-consuming and quite complicated. I was in charge of sending manuscripts to the author/members, recording their votes, gently urging them to send back manuscripts that they had held onto for six months, and so on. Most of the authors were nice people, although a few had obviously just joined the Collective to see their own book published and then didn't want to do any more work. Eventually I began doing other correspondence, answering queries, mailing out review copies, helping with publicity, lifting heavy objects. It was fun and I learned a lot about the literary scene: mostly who was who in New York, at the NEA, at CCLM, COSMEP, PEN, AWP and other groups. My favorite job was pre-judging the 1976 First Novel Contest. I walked into the offices of their distributor, George Braziller, and found 500 manuscripts stacked up to the ceiling. Most of them were horrendous and I could send them back after reading only a couple of pages. It amazed me how many people who were practically illiterate had taken the time and trouble to write a novel. I wondered how many of them actually read novels; from the look of things, not many had.

Anyway, as time went on and more and more books came out and new authors were accepted, the old manuscript evaluation procedure became unwieldy. Also the Collective began to run out of gas. They published a lot of books that were boring and almost unreadable--nothing like the energetic and exciting early books by Baumbach, Sukenick, Banks, Spielberg and Federman. As with many things, the idea of the Collective was better than the actual result. In my opinion, the two main problems were that they published too many academics, who tended to be humorless and insulated, and that they didn't really care if the books sold or not--publication was the main (and sometimes only) goal.

Interviewer: You've been teaching for a number of years. Do you find it difficult to teach and remain detached from the academic environment? Is there anything you'd like to see colleges doing for writing students?

Grayson: I've been teaching mostly remedial writing at public colleges, where there ain't much of an "academic atmosphere." Hell, at City University you're mostly a glorified civil servant. And we part-timers are the migrant workers of academia: always low-paid, sometimes not paid (this has happened to me several times), never sure of where you're working, running from one college to the next. I've taught at ten colleges already and once I taught at four colleges in one term. My students aren't nice middle-class kids (except at School of Visual Arts, where they were arty) but nice lower-class adults who were going back to school or people who were high school dropouts or otherwise badly prepared. It certainly wasn't a cloistered environment: I've dealt with 28-year-old grandmothers, Vietnam veterans, retired people, nurses, nuns. Wall Street workers, and some street gang members who carried guns and knives to class. And what I've taught are really the basics: what a sentence is, how to develop a paragraph, to say he goes instead of he go, to put an -ed on the past tense, to learn how to spell, to use commas, to use a dictionary. Often my students need some cultural enrichment and I have to explain who Winston Churchill was, what the Constitution is, when television was invented (once a whole class of black teenagers claimed that there must have been TV during the Civil War). These people are not stupid by any means: some of them are really bright and do amazingly well. It's in society's interest today that most people be stupefied, because most jobs no longer call for skills or knowledge but for acceptance of some boring routine. Anyway, as you can see, this isn't exactly "the ivory tower." When one of your students comes up to you after class and tells you her paper won't be in on time because her husband got knifed to death on the subway the night before, you know you're in the real world. What I'd like to see colleges doing for writing students: Well, I assume you mean creative writing students. I have taught a few creative writing courses and literature courses. Well, I'd probably discourage undergraduates from majoring in creative writing. Major in history, astronomy, phys ed, classical civilization, Asian studies. I majored in political science myself. I'm not crazy about the proliferation of creative writing programs on the college level--even though I wish to hell I could get a full-time job at one--because they tend to treat writing as just another academic discipline and hence unintelligible to outsiders. Or else they produce forty writers who all write the same poem, the same story: look at Iowa.

I did enjoy the MFA program at Brooklyn because it got me started writing regularly and it gave me some critical feedback. By the second year of the program I was writing more for myself and for editors than the class, though, and I think it's important for a student writer to wean herself away from the workshop.

Interviewer: Susan Lloyd McGarry pointed out that most of your stories deal with "identity, sex, or sexual confusion about identity." Do you feel satisfied, on the whole, with your stories' mapping-out of this territory? With their ambiguities?

Grayson: I don't think my stories are about those topics at all. Not most of them anyway. I like ambiguities, but no, I'm never satisfied with what I've done.

Interviewer: At times the ironic detachment of your fiction (and its arrangement of "friendly" facts) seems to serve as a protective device. When the fictional "facts" are revoked ("The story is not real... A man is making all this up," etc. "17 Fragments," Disjointed Fictions) could that be a test of the bond (i.e. trust) between author and reader? Or simply a retraction of the narrator/author's impulsive self-exposure?

Grayson: It's both. I want to establish a bond between myself and the reader, make the reader part of the story and not just a passive onlooker. And yet I also want to hold back. It's annoying, I suppose, but isn't the opening up/holding back pattern true of most relationships between people?

Interviewer: The narrator "Richard Grayson" often exhibits a compassion and tenderness for his characters that they can rarely achieve in their relations with each other. At the same time, the character Richard Grayson will extend an invitation to the ideal reader ("Behold. Hark. Be my audience, my only friend." "Escape," Disjointed Fictions). Could the reader in this way become the compassionate "narrator," and the author himself a valued and protected creation? Could this be a way of circumventing the limits of real life connections?

Grayson: Yes, of course. Relationships are ideal in art and never ideal in life. Now that I've said that, I realize I don't have the slightest idea what it means. Forget what I just said; I don't know what I'm talking about.

Interviewer: Hitler becomes the object of a humorous compassion in the title story of With Hitler in New York. It's as if he were made safe, detoxified, almost domesticated through the medium of fiction. While the story may encompass the banality of evil, the universality of guilt, there seems to be more involved. Do you have any comments about your use of the character? I ask this because the reviewer in Fiction International no. 12 seemed to miss the point entirely. What about the narrator's admiration for "Hitler," his mental agility, physical carriage, etc.?

Grayson: I didn't see the Fiction International review, but I can tell you how the story "Hitler" came about. It was originally the story about the visit of a German friend to New York. Nobody seemed interested in it and it did lack any tension, any pizzazz. So I switched my friend's name from Herbert to Hitler. There's only one other change in the story, where somebody at a party calls him a Nazi. So I don't know what the story's about: changing the name was pure intuition. Maybe it's about how charged a word or a name could be. Of course no one would know that, and a couple of people have mentioned "the banality of evil," so I guess the story might have something to do with that. Sounds okay to me.

Interviewer: The main complaints I've heard about your fiction are that you write too much about writing, that your work is "too cute," too fragmented, or that it's "verbal diarrhea." What do you say to your critics?

Grayson: I say thank you to my critics. Emerson said a smart man throws himself on the side of his assailants because it's more in his interest than in theirs to find his weak point. Yes, my work may be too cute, too fragmented, and in need of Kaopectate. I've learned a lot from the reviews, which have pointed out my weaknesses. Generally I agree with the criticism and I'm working on improving. Of course some people just want to put you down and not help you; the Minneapolis Tribune reviewer called Hitler "the worst book ever written . . . a cornucopia of crap . . . makes Betty & Veronica look like a selection in the Classics Club." Pretty funny stuff, but it don't help me none.

Interviewer: Your stories seem like they'd get a wide audience response. Has this been your experience? Do you get a lot of feedback?

Grayson: Nope. Hitler elicited two letters from strangers. One was from a woman who typeset some of the stories; she said it was less boring than most of the Jewish religious books she had to typeset. And I got a letter from a guy in Long Island who wrote: "Dear Mr. Grayson, I read your book and liked parts of it. Sincerely, etc . Of course I do get letters from writer friends. Sometimes I think it's only writers who read other writers--at least this seems to be true of small press publications. Which is why I aspire to a larger audience. However, I haven't yet hit on the combination which will make me as popular as Dr. Joyce Brothers.

Interviewer: What are you writing now and what are your plans?

Grayson: As I've mentioned, there's A Version of Life--nonfiction. It needs one final draft and should be through soon. Then I take it to my agent and if he doesn't want it, I'll peddle it around myself--first to commercial publishers. White Ewe Press is doing a new story collection, and of course I intend to work hard to see that it sells a couple of copies. Another story collection is at another small press, and I have still another one--these are all already published little mag stories waiting in the wings. I've got my novel outline and I intend to start work on it soon, kinnahora. And I've got an idea for a unified collection of stories about South Florida: old people, Cubans, cocaine, condos, the rootlessness of living in a place that didn't exist five years before. Eventually I'd like to do a novel for teenagers, a book on Emerson, and a treatise extolling the virtues of designer jeans.

Interviewer: How reliable a narrator is this Richard Grayson?

Grayson: Pretty reliable, I think. But what do I know? Seriously, as in all cases, it's the reader who has to decide for herself how reliable a narrator is. So I'm the last person you should ask that question. Or maybe next to last, after Ben Bradlee.

--Interviewed in 1981 by Gretchen Johnsen & Richard Peabody


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