Gargoyle 17/18cover sculpture (Crow Woman) by Virginia Hubbardpublication date 12/21/1981
Richard Grayson was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1951. A graduate of BrooklynCollege and its MFA program in Creative Writing, he has taught Englishat the City University of New York, Long Island University, the Schoolof Visual Arts, Broward Community College and the New Orleans Centerfor 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, WashingtonReview, Paris Voices, Iron, Gargoyle, The Bellingham Review, Ataraxia,Star-Web Paper, the Fiction Collective anthology Statements 2, and MudbornPress’s First-Person Intense anthology. In 1977 he was a Bread LoafScholar, and in 1980 a MacDowell Fellow. Two story collections have beenpublished: Disjointed Fictions (X, a journal of the arts, 1978),and With Hitler in New York (Taplinger Publ. Co., 1979). His newcollection is forthcoming from White Ewe Press.
Interviewer: You’re one of the most widely published young fiction writersin the US today, yet not exactly a household name.Most of your pieces have been published in the small press and not theslicks or larger circulation magazines. What are your feelings about thatkind of exposure? If you had it to do over again would you go the agentroute 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, thatseems impossible. See, I was pretty hard-headed about the chances of mygetting published in the slicks. Even before I started writing seriously.I knew they weren’t exactly hospitable to young, unknown writers, so Irarely bothered sending out to The New Yorker or Playboy andinstead I concentrated on little magazines. I think that’s the smartestthing I did. Some of my friends who were also just beginning laughed atme–“Where’d you find these crazy mags?” they’d say-and disdainedgetting published anywhere but in Esquire or places like that. Theysoon found out that it was nearly impossible to be published there, andsome 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 thatwas important to me.
Interviewer: I understand that Taplinger recently pulped your book andhas no plans for a paperback edition. You wrote of your experiences anddiscoveries regarding promotion in the Sept./Oct. 1980 issue of Poetsand Writers, in an article called “Fiction Writer as Publicist.” Canyou 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 inany case, that would be a business decision. The recent Thor tax rulingcomplicated matters for publishers since they can no longer write off theirinventory. As for Taplinger not doing a paperback of Hitler, againit’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. IfI learned anything about New York publishing, it’s that it’s a business–moreof 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 himthat if I were in his position, with my business dependent upon stayingin the black, I probably wouldn’t have published Hitler. I had ahell of a good time promoting my book and I enjoyed getting a lot of newspaperand magazine reviews that a small press publication never would have received.I began to read Publishers Weekly regularly and I think I’ve gota good grasp of how the industry works. Anyway, I was very lucky with mybook. The fact that its publication didn’t really change my life in a bigway sort of depressed me for a while, but now I realize that I did prettywell with the book–given the circumstances of publishing today, when ithas 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 RichardGrayson 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 ofits style. I dislike reading anthologies of fiction in which every storysounds like it was written by the same person. Models? Barthelme and Vonnegut,for the rhythm of their sentences. I didn’t consciously try to developa style, though. What you, call my “style” is probably just aresult of constant writing and my own weird personality.
Interviewer: Could the techniques you’ve made use of in your stories–thefragmentation of experience, the isolation and self-absorption of yourcharacters–be extended in such a way that a larger scenario would simplybe a matter of stamina–on your part as well as the readers? Or do someof your themes–the difficulty of making connections, of any significantcontact between individuals–more naturally express themselves in a disjointedand abbreviated form? Would a change in your format tend to depend on newkinds 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 beboring. Some people say that fragmented, self-conscious stories are alsoboring, but at least they’re short. Although I think you can do just aboutanything in a short story, my view of novel is more traditional, and Idon’t think my story techniques would be adaptable to a longer form. I’mtrying to work in longer forms now, though, and my style is changing. Ithink I’ve done to death what you call a “Richard Grayson story.” Imean, I don’t want to end up parodying myself, and it would be dumb tokeep imitating a formula. Now I’m trying for more narrative unity but Idon’t know if I can pull it off. Sometimes I think it would be presumptuousof me to write a novel because I don’t know enough yet. But I hope to getthere eventually. Isaac Bashevis Singer said that there are no prodigiesin fiction writing, and I tend to agree. I still feel like an apprentice.
Interviewer: How might a longer form affect the role of “RichardGrayson” as observed observer, the narrator who often makes the largestclaim 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 “observedobserver” is to take away the fictional barrier. Again, there aren’tmany narrators who can be “observed observers” and not be deadlyboring in the long run.
Interviewer: In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, Binx talksabout “certification.” You use real people, TV stars, etc., tofill your stories with reality. As though, as Susan Lloyd McGarry pointsout in “Twenty-Seven Statements I Could Make About Richard Grayson,” inAspect no. 72/73, you are implying that these people in the media eye aremore real than most of us. At the same time, you make use of personal detailsand family members, not strictly as autobiography, but without the conventionalliterary disguises. Your own life (or many different versions of that life)acquires its own celebrity and becomes “more real.” Again, theseelements 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 probablymore influenced by TV than by literature. My stories are built on “scenes” withbreaks–maybe for commercials. (Sometimes I think I should put actual commercialsin 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 Kleininterested . . . .) We live in an age of celebrities. They’re a kind ofshorthand device because everyone knows Farrah Fawcett or Ronald Reaganand what they represent. You don’t have to explain them in detail. Thereare very few people I know, including myself, who can resist the gossipthat we’re constantly inundated with. The sad thing about celebrity isthat it’s shallow, as opposed to old-fashioned fame, which representedaccomplishment. Celebrity puts Erik Estrada and Aleksandr Solzhenitsynon the same level. I’ve tried to make fun of this in some of my stories: “InsideBarbara Walters,” “Why Van Johnson Believes in ESP,” “ChiefJustice Burger, Teen Idol.” Now, when I seem to tell intimate “gossip” aboutmyself, my friends, and my family, that’s a device pandering to this trendof learning everything we can about “public” people. Of course,most of what I “reveal” is just made up. Again, there’s a seriouspoint in the satire: isn’t my mother’s cleaning woman or my grandfatherjust 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 orto relate to the “Jewish” experience. Have you noticed a reluctanceon 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 thirtyyears has been the “Jewish” story or novel. I don’t know if it’sa coincidence or not, but most of my favorite “traditional” fictionwriters are Jews: Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Singer. Anyway, I think most ofmy work is fairly traditional and I don’t really understand it when peoplecall 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” devicesfor granted, and. I think I work in fairly narrow forms. Fragments, questionsand answers, multiple narration, the unreliable narrator, surrealism, whateverI’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 verynarrow view of what is and what’s not a short story. Their view is narrowerthan mine. This is probably more true in America than in Europe or LatinAmerica.
Interviewer: Apart from the semi-autobiographical narrator, your femalecharacters seem particularly “real” and poignant. Have you everconsidered a dual narration, something that might bring into play two (ormore) characters on the same plane of invention, in terms of authority/controlof 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-yearfriendship between a woman and a man, and the point of view switches backand 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 representationalstory. Women allow themselves a greater range of feelings than men–thisis an extreme generalization–and they’re probably more interesting ascharacters. They’re usually more interesting as people, too.
Interviewer: Have you ever tried writing for television? Or theatre? Yourcharacters do seem to have that disembodied talking head quality.
Grayson: I started out at fifteen writing plays: imitations of EdwardAlbee, mostly. I got a $150 prize for a play I wrote at fifteen, but Isoon became bored with the theater. When I go to a play, I usually getshpilkes and can’t wait to get out of the theater. Probably I’ve just goneto the wrong plays.
I really would like to write for TV. I’m a soap opera fanatic and wouldlove the chance to develop a long form drama, though it’s incredibly hardwork. Some of the best writing I’ve come across was from Harding Lemaywhen he was the writer for “Another World” for most of the 1970’s.He’s also written two brilliant memoirs, the amazing Inside LookingOut (1970) and the recent Eight Years in Another World.
The one thing that made me really decide to be a writer was the BBC productionof The Forsyte Saga, which aired when I was eighteen. It was a seriesof novels, of course, but it had the form of a soap opera. See, the truesoap opera is a genre most resembling life itself because a soap has nobeginning and no end (unless the show gets cancelled). More than any otherkind 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, thatwith the breakthroughs in cable TV, low power TV stations, etc., TV writersof 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 ofthe air, In South Florida we already have a poetry show on cable. I’m excitedabout 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 readingthe 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 reallybugs 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 wildwritings by Jack Saunders; MacDoodle Street, an incredibly clevercartoon novel by Mark Alan Stamaty; Lifetime, Scott Sommer’s firstshort story collection; and Joel Agee’s Twelve Years, a memoir aboutgrowing up in East Germany.
I’m a newspaper freak and read at least three papers a day. The firstthing I turn to is the gossip column, I’m ashamed to admit.
Interviewer: Could you tell us a little about your experience with theFiction Collective?
Grayson: When I was in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, Jonathan Baumbachasked me if I would help the collective with their manuscript evaluationprocedure. We developed a system in which in order to be accepted for publication,a manuscript had to receive four “yes” votes from Collectiveauthor/members. Since the Collective had members scattered around the countryand since it sometimes took seven readers to make a final decision (fourout of seven “yes” votes), this procedure was very time-consumingand quite complicated. I was in charge of sending manuscripts to the author/members,recording their votes, gently urging them to send back manuscripts thatthey had held onto for six months, and so on. Most of the authors werenice people, although a few had obviously just joined the Collective tosee their own book published and then didn’t want to do any more work.Eventually I began doing other correspondence, answering queries, mailingout review copies, helping with publicity, lifting heavy objects. It wasfun and I learned a lot about the literary scene: mostly who was who inNew York, at the NEA, at CCLM, COSMEP, PEN, AWP and other groups. My favoritejob was pre-judging the 1976 First Novel Contest. I walked into the officesof their distributor, George Braziller, and found 500 manuscripts stackedup to the ceiling. Most of them were horrendous and I could send them backafter reading only a couple of pages. It amazed me how many people whowere 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 authorswere accepted, the old manuscript evaluation procedure became unwieldy.Also the Collective began to run out of gas. They published a lot of booksthat were boring and almost unreadable–nothing like the energetic andexciting early books by Baumbach, Sukenick, Banks, Spielberg and Federman.As with many things, the idea of the Collective was better than the actualresult. In my opinion, the two main problems were that they published toomany academics, who tended to be humorless and insulated, and that theydidn’t really care if the books sold or not–publication was the main (andsometimes only) goal.
Interviewer: You’ve been teaching for a number of years. Do you find itdifficult to teach and remain detached from the academic environment? Isthere 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, atCity University you’re mostly a glorified civil servant. And we part-timersare 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 alreadyand once I taught at four colleges in one term. My students aren’t nicemiddle-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 whowere high school dropouts or otherwise badly prepared. It certainly wasn’ta cloistered environment: I’ve dealt with 28-year-old grandmothers, Vietnamveterans, retired people, nurses, nuns. Wall Street workers, and some streetgang members who carried guns and knives to class. And what I’ve taughtare 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 learnhow to spell, to use commas, to use a dictionary. Often my students needsome cultural enrichment and I have to explain who Winston Churchill was,what the Constitution is, when television was invented (once a whole classof black teenagers claimed that there must have been TV during the CivilWar). These people are not stupid by any means: some of them are reallybright and do amazingly well. It’s in society’s interest today that mostpeople be stupefied, because most jobs no longer call for skills or knowledgebut for acceptance of some boring routine. Anyway, as you can see, thisisn’t exactly “the ivory tower.” When one of your students comesup to you after class and tells you her paper won’t be in on time becauseher husband got knifed to death on the subway the night before, you knowyou’re in the real world. What I’d like to see colleges doing for writingstudents: Well, I assume you mean creative writing students. I have taughta few creative writing courses and literature courses. Well, I’d probablydiscourage undergraduates from majoring in creative writing. Major in history,astronomy, phys ed, classical civilization, Asian studies. I majored inpolitical science myself. I’m not crazy about the proliferation of creativewriting programs on the college level–even though I wish to hell I couldget a full-time job at one–because they tend to treat writing as justanother academic discipline and hence unintelligible to outsiders. Or elsethey 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 writingregularly and it gave me some critical feedback. By the second year ofthe 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 herselfaway from the workshop.
Interviewer: Susan Lloyd McGarry pointed out that most of your storiesdeal with “identity, sex, or sexual confusion about identity.” Doyou feel satisfied, on the whole, with your stories’ mapping-out of thisterritory? With their ambiguities?
Grayson: I don’t think my stories are about those topics at all. Not mostof them anyway. I like ambiguities, but no, I’m never satisfied with whatI’ve done.
Interviewer: At times the ironic detachment of your fiction (and its arrangementof “friendly” facts) seems to serve as a protective device. Whenthe fictional “facts” are revoked (“The story is not real…A man is making all this up,” etc. “17 Fragments,” DisjointedFictions) could that be a test of the bond (i.e. trust) between authorand 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 thereader, 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 theopening up/holding back pattern true of most relationships between people?
Interviewer: The narrator “Richard Grayson” often exhibits acompassion and tenderness for his characters that they can rarely achievein their relations with each other. At the same time, the character RichardGrayson will extend an invitation to the ideal reader (“Behold. Hark.Be my audience, my only friend.” “Escape,” DisjointedFictions). Could the reader in this way become the compassionate “narrator,” andthe author himself a valued and protected creation? Could this be a wayof circumventing the limits of real life connections?
Grayson: Yes, of course. Relationships are ideal in art and never idealin life. Now that I’ve said that, I realize I don’t have the slightestidea what it means. Forget what I just said; I don’t know what I’m talkingabout.
Interviewer: Hitler becomes the object of a humorous compassion in thetitle story of With Hitler in New York. It’s as if he were madesafe, detoxified, almost domesticated through the medium of fiction. Whilethe story may encompass the banality of evil, the universality of guilt,there seems to be more involved. Do you have any comments about your useof the character? I ask this because the reviewer in Fiction Internationalno. 12 seemed to miss the point entirely. What about the narrator’sadmiration for “Hitler,” his mental agility, physical carriage,etc.?
Grayson: I didn’t see the Fiction International review, but I cantell you how the story “Hitler” came about. It was originallythe story about the visit of a German friend to New York. Nobody seemedinterested in it and it did lack any tension, any pizzazz. So I switchedmy friend’s name from Herbert to Hitler. There’s only one other changein the story, where somebody at a party calls him a Nazi. So I don’t knowwhat the story’s about: changing the name was pure intuition. Maybe it’sabout how charged a word or a name could be. Of course no one would knowthat, and a couple of people have mentioned “the banality of evil,” soI guess the story might have something to do with that. Sounds okay tome.
Interviewer: The main complaints I’ve heard about your fiction are thatyou write too much about writing, that your work is “too cute,” toofragmented, or that it’s “verbal diarrhea.” What do you say toyour critics?
Grayson: I say thank you to my critics. Emerson said a smart man throwshimself on the side of his assailants because it’s more in his interestthan in theirs to find his weak point. Yes, my work may be too cute, toofragmented, and in need of Kaopectate. I’ve learned a lot from the reviews,which have pointed out my weaknesses. Generally I agree with the criticismand I’m working on improving. Of course some people just want to put youdown and not help you; the Minneapolis Tribune reviewer called Hitler “theworst book ever written . . . a cornucopia of crap . . . makes Betty & Veronica looklike a selection in the Classics Club.” Pretty funny stuff, but itdon’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 froma woman who typeset some of the stories; she said it was less boring thanmost of the Jewish religious books she had to typeset. And I got a letterfrom a guy in Long Island who wrote: “Dear Mr. Grayson, I read yourbook and liked parts of it. Sincerely, etc . Of course I do get lettersfrom writer friends. Sometimes I think it’s only writers who read otherwriters–at least this seems to be true of small press publications. Whichis why I aspire to a larger audience. However, I haven’t yet hit on thecombination 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 tomy agent and if he doesn’t want it, I’ll peddle it around myself–firstto 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 anotherone–these are all already published little mag stories waiting in thewings. 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 aboutSouth Florida: old people, Cubans, cocaine, condos, the rootlessness ofliving in a place that didn’t exist five years before. Eventually I’d liketo do a novel for teenagers, a book on Emerson, and a treatise extollingthe 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 inall cases, it’s the reader who has to decide for herself how reliable anarrator is. So I’m the last person you should ask that question. Or maybenext to last, after Ben Bradlee.
–Interviewed in 1981 by Gretchen Johnsen & Richard Peabody