Gargoyle 17/18
cover sculpture (Crow Woman) by Virginia Hubbard
publication date 12/21/1981

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:
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
Disjointed Fictions (X, a journal of the arts, 1978),
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

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
(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
) 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
). 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

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,

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

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