Gargoyle 17/18cover sculpture (Crow Woman) by Virginia Hubbardpublication date 12/21/1981
Kenneth Gangemi was born in Scarsdale, New York, in 1937 and earned anengineering degree in 1959. He eventually gave up engineering to devotehimself to writing. His most recent novel, The Interceptor Pilot (MarionBoyers, 1980), portrays Gangemi as a master of minimalist technique inwhich his narration is devoid of any personal or moral judgement. His otherbooks are Olt (Marion Boyers, 1969), The Volcanoesfrom Puebla (Marion Boyers, 1979), Lydia/Corroboree (ChristianBourgois, 1980), and Corroboree (Assembling Press, 1977).He currently works at one of his favorite jobs–tending bar in New YorkCity.
Interviewer: As the epigraph to Corroboree, you quote WilliamPitt saying, “Don’t tell me of a man’s being able to talk sense; everyonecan talk sense. Can he talk nonsense?” What is the purpose of nonsensein your work, and what is the value of nonsense?
Gangemi: Corroboree has almost all the nonsense I’ve written,although some is in Lydia. None of my other books–Olt, TheVolcanoes from Puebla and The Interceptor Pilot–containany. The most important purpose is the delight of nonsense for its ownsake. Its principal value is that people who read and appreciate nonsenseare better equipped to cope with the madness of the modern world, especiallyas reported via the print and electronic media. In A Nonsense Anthology,Carolyn Wells opened her introduction with, “On a topographical mapof literature, nonsense would be represented by a small and sparsely settledcountry, neglected by the average tourist, but affording keen delight tothe few enlightened travelers who sojourn within its borders.”
Interviewer: In your book about the motorcycle trip through Mexico, TheVolcanoes from Puebla, and in The Interceptor Pilot, inwhich you construct your fiction objectively and without authorialprejudice, you create scenes and let the scenes speak for you, completelywithout the trappings of Victorian digression and seemingly withoutmoral interference. What’s your opinion on the renewed push for a ‘moralfiction?’ And, with your emphasis on objectivity and nonsense, doesyour work forego a moral sense?
Gangemi: When I heard a few years ago that John Gardner had publisheda book with the title On Moral Fiction, I had not the slightestinterest in reading it. If there is a renewed push, as you say, for a ‘moralfiction,’ I am unaware of it. Perhaps we don’t read the same magazines.It’s true that objectivity is a characteristic of at least three of mybooks, but I don’t think that they forego a moral sense at all. Moralityis perhaps the most important theme in The Interceptor Pilot. In Olt,the central theme of alienation is so overwhelming that morality is hardlybrought into question. Yet Robert Olt, attempting to survive his cultureand society, leads a highly moral existence. The morality in Lydia and TheVolcanoes is contained in the style of life and the sense of valuesthat is gradually expressed throughout the two books. The satire of Corroboree attackshypocrisy and can therefore be said to serve a moral purpose.
Interviewer: Corroboree and The Volcanoes aremanufactured of the short, often ideogrammatic dialogue, phrase, paragraphor subchapter. Are these to be read as individual fictions? Similarly,in your second book, Lydia, your phrasings are asyntacticand simplistically constructed. Would you consider your works minimalistic?
Gangemi: Yes, they can be read individually, especially by the readerwho has a short attention span. Many people read only a few sections andthen replace the bookmark. Lydia is the most minimalisticof my books.
Interviewer: Plot, scene, dialogue and panorama often are considered primaryto the traditional novel. What characteristics do you feel are importantin the construction of a novel?
Gangemi: I have never written a traditional novel, have no interest inwriting one, and seldom read them, so cannot answer you.
Interviewer: Can you tell me something, then, about the construction ofyour work?
Gangerni: This question will be difficult to answer because I wrote/composed/assembled Olt along time ago. The book was published in 1969, but I effectively finishedthe manuscript in 1967. That was twelve years ago. Quite frankly, I forgetsome of the steps in its completion. If I remember some of the steps, Iforget the underlying reasons. Before Olt, I did a greatdeal of reading of modern literature. I saw what I liked, what I thoughtworked, and of course I saw what I disliked and what I thought was outof date. At the time I started writing there was still an enormous carry-overfrom the 19th Century. There still is, as a matter of fact, and much toomuch. I wanted my writing to take into account the rise of journalism,movies, and television. Anything that could best be expressed in thosemediums I did not want in my writing. This concept is hardly new. One ofEzra Pound’s aphorisms is “In all cases one test will be, ‘could thismaterial have been made more efficient in some other medium?’ ” Anotherfactor is that in my reading I was in the habit of underlining books. Thenwhen I finished the books, I would re-read just the underlinings, whatI thought were the good parts. It impressed me, even with the best authors,that the good parts were carried in a vast matrix of neutral writing thatmeant little to me. It was my idea to write something that would basicallyconsist of good bits strung together. There would be something in everysentence. To accumulate good phrases and sentences takes quite a long time.I once figured out that I wrote Olt at the rate of abouttwenty words a day. And that is a full day of work. If certain aspectsof literature are lacking in Olt, it is probably becauseI think that dialogue on the printed page cannot compare with dialoguecoming from the movie screen, with accents, voice qualities, emphasis,expressions, action, and everything else. Plot is also lacking in Olt. Thereis only a simple time-sequence. I have no interest in plot. I think itis important in movies, but not in imaginative writing. So I decided thatthere would be no plot in Olt. The time-sequence and thequality of the writing would be enough to carry the reader onward throughthe book. (I have an enormous regard for the reader, by the way, and alwayshave. I go to great pains to make my books readable.) The character ofRobert Olt is of course the transformed author, both a mask and a revelation.Anyone who reads the book knows a great deal about me. Another aspect ofthe book is that I decided against the usual mixture of characters. I sawcharacters as essentially false. They are make-believe, everyone knowsthat. The only character is the author. We all know that books are writtenby people sitting at typewriters.
The Mexico book is the descendant of Olt. Even the maskof fiction is dropped. Everything really happened. It is one human beingcommunicating to another, in almost total honesty, which is hard to comeby. I feel the same thing when I read Orwell’s nonfiction. Or Montaigne,Thoreau, Darwin, Forster, Emerson, Rilke, and many others. The short lengthof Olt was no accident. It was about one-quarter the lengthof normal books. I figured that journalism, the movies, and televisiongot the other three-quarters. The urban setting was decided upon ratherearly. I carefully made it possible for it to be any major American city,so that readers all across the USA could identify with Olt’s city. In realityit is a compilation of San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City,and a few other places. Olt is single. Perhaps in some inexplicable wayI forecast the rise in the number of single people. All of us see the worldfrom behind one pair of eyes; all of us are essentially alone. Olt livesa simple, rather Spartan existence. In part this was a reaction to my ownbourgeois background. But I guess I also intended it to be a model. Oltis totally anti-materialistic. He is completely apart from the obsessiveconsuming that is so characteristic of American life. I think Olt doesworthwhile things. He uses his mind and senses in the best ways. Almosteverything he does is free. The reason for the three stories is this: whenI finished the first one, I continued to accumulate material. When thetime came to put it together, I saw that I liked the form and structureof the first story. And so I decided to use it again. This carried on tothe third story. After it was finished, and about 10,000 words, I knewit was time to go on to something new. Besides, 10,000 words can be designedrather nicely into a 64-page book, which I think is a perfect size.
Interviewer: Would you say your writing is closer to photography ratherthan to music or the other arts?
Gangemi: Yes, closer to photography and drawing and painting. I startedout as a child who liked to draw. With different influences I might havedeveloped into an artist.
Interviewer: Other than constructing these verbal collages, how else,if you could choose, would you make your work?
Gangemi: Possibly I would like to be some kind of collage artist. I wouldstill assemble, select and present in a manner that was pleasing to me.Basically it would still be making an artistic order out of chaos.
Interviewer: How did you write The Interceptor Pilot? Yourworks have a definite European feel to them; perhaps you could also tellme who a few of your favorite artists are, or whom you might emulate.
Gangemi: The Interceptor Pilot was written in an entirelydifferent way. I got the idea for it in September of 1966, at about thesame time that the book begins. I had been out of the navy for over fouryears, but I remembered a great deal about flying. In eight days of intenseeffort I made notes about all aspects of the film, scissored and classifiedthem, and then typed them up in a coherent order. But I could do nothingwith these notes at that time. It was a film idea, and I was vastly inexperiencedin the literary world, let alone Hollywood and the film industry. My firststory had been published only a few months earlier, and I did not yet havean agent. The idea for Pilot was excellent, but it requireda more mature writer. I didn’t know what to do, so I put the notes in afile folder and almost forgot about them. Over three years passed. I acquiredan agent and published my first book, Olt. Then one day Iremembered my film idea. I figured I would rework it and send it to myagent to see what she thought. I had planned on a two-week project, butbecame re-involved in the idea, very excited by it, and spent eight months.It was extremely difficult, for I was attempting to transfer film to thetypewritten page, an impossible task. Every sentence was a struggle anda new challenge. In the end I had a 98-page manuscript that was a weirdkind of cinematic novel. I had never seen anything like The InterceptorPilot before, and neither had my agent. It took me ten years toget the book published. Gerard-Georges Lemaire published a French translationin Paris in 1975; and Marion Boyars published it in England and the UnitedStates in 1980.
Interviewer: Favorite writers?
Gangemi: Too difficult to answer. It would require a literary essay, “WhatJames Joyce Has Meant to Me.” If people ask me to name a favoritewriter, I might give his name first. Or second or third. Of all his books,the most meaningful has been Ulysses.
Interviewer: Let’s go back then to the writing of some of your other books.
Gangemi: I have already mentioned some aspects of how I work, so partsof this answer may be repetitive. Basically I regard phrases and sentencesas elements that are collected into paragraphs. For examples, look at mostof the paragraphs in Olt and Corroboree. Manyof the paragraphs could be scissored into their composite sentences, andthe sentences could stand alone. I wrote and accumulated the sentencesand then simply put them together in what seemed to be a good order. Theyare often simple declarative sentences. The phrases and sentences can alsobe regarded as “building blocks.” In poetry I frequently startout with only two words that go together nicely. That is about the smallestelement. I cannot control the subject matter of the phrases and sentences.They come in a random and unpredictable order. In the past I have classifiedthe little slips of paper by placing them into envelopes with “titles” onthem. In Corroboree the titles were “Businessman,” “University,” “Restaurant,” “Politician,” andso on. Some envelopes were never used, because I did not accumulate enoughmaterial. The envelopes I use are the cheapest white envelopes 31/2 by6 1/2 inches. I buy them in quantity. They fit nicely into a shoebox, whereI place them in alphabetical order. One of the advantages of this systemis that nothing has to be thrown away. The mediocre or unused bits simplyremain in the envelopes after the good bits are removed and assembled.Every bit goes through a sequence of editings. By the time it appears inthe finished manuscript, it has passed about six or seven editings. Whenthe time comes for an assembling, I use a worktable with lots of space.I spread the scissored bits upon it. At first it is chaos, but then twobits seem to go together. Then a third, and a fourth. An order begins tosuggest itself. Eventually the bits are taped to sheets of paper and thentyped up into what I call a first draft. Naturally much revision is neededafter-wards, but I have the basics of my paragraphs. It is obvious fromwhat I have already said, but I regard a scissors as extremely important.With this system I can work on different projects at once. In a day ofwork (while concentrating on one project) I might also come up with threebits of poetry, one of nonsense, two ideas for a comic film, three sentencesof nonfiction, etc., depending upon how my mind is working that day. Onall projects I keep running notes, where I “talk to myself” abouttechniques, structure, etc. This is necessary because I frequently haveto interrupt projects. With notes it is easy to review what I have donewhen the time comes to resume work. This method of writing is certainlynot original. It is surprisingly easy if the writer has patience, and ismeticulous and organized. I think many writers use different variationsof this method. I heard of one who puts individual sentences on 3 x 5 cards,and then organizes the cards.
Interviewer: Now, two final questions. First, how did you become involvedwith books instead of some other medium?
Gangemi: I suppose the underlying reason is that reading became an importantpart of my life from early childhood on. (Fortunately I grew up beforethe era of television.) I loved to be alone with a book. No one could botherme, and I could think whatever I wanted to. From a love of reading camethe next step, the discovery of favorite authors. Then in college I wasintroduced to the great modem writers of the 20th Century. If I did notfind all the answers in their books, at least directions were indicated.These books probably became more valuable to me than anything else. I couldbelieve in them. From there it was a logical step to wonder if I couldever be a writer. In December of 1958, while skiing in Vermont during acollege vacation, I met a man about twenty years old who had sold a fewshort stories to magazines. He was the first writer I had ever met, andbecause we were about the same age, I could relate to him. The authorsI saw on the jackets of books were older men. After talking with this youngman, it took me about 2 1/2 years of thinking before I actually decidedto learn to write. I started in San Francisco in the spring of 1960.
Interviewer: Finally, what kind of time is this to be a writer in?
Gangemi: It is a great thing to be a writer, now or at any time. Expressiveor expository writing will always be one of the best ways for one humanbeing to communicate with another. It is all terribly obvious, so I won’tgo into it here. The value of books and reading has been written aboutfor thousands of years.
Interviewed by George Myers Jr. in 1981