Still Digging  
An interview with writer William Gass
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly December 1998


William Gass may well be our greatest living writer. Gass first achieved fame thirty years Ago with the publication of the short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (Harper & Row, 1968). These stories, heavily influenced by the prose of Gertrude Stein, are still among the most anthologized and admired in contemporary fiction. The same year the journal Tri‑Quarterly published Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife in which Gass used games, photography, footnotes and a coffee stain to subvert—in, to be candid, a rather dated 60s way—the fictional process by bringing the reader into a metafictional maze of self‑referentiality. However, Gass' most outrageous accomplishment is a project that consumed him for close to three decades: his second novel The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995).

A few words on The Tunnel's plot are in order. William Frederick Kohler, the narrator, is a middle‑aged professor of history who has recently finished writing his masterpiece: Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. Filled with bitterness, envy, rage and misanthropy, Kohler sits down to write the preface and spews out The Tunnel's 650 pages. The book's title arises when Kohler for no particular reason and to no particular purpose decides to dig a tunnel in the basement of his suburban Midwestern house.

The Tunnel may well be the greatest prose performance since Nabokov's Pale Fire, but only the most stalwart readers will be able to last the full trip through Kohler's anti‑Semitic, sexually-depraved and bathroom‑humor obsessed world. When The Tunnel was published, almost every major critic felt the need to weigh in on it. Many abandoned their professional tone and responded in ways that were shockingly personal.

"This is the most vexing reviewing assignment I've ever undertaken," Sven Birkerts confessed in The Atlantic Monthly. In the National Review James Bowman called The Tunnel "a load of crap." But The Los Angeles Times critic called it "the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime."

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924 and raised in Ohio, Gass has spent most of his life in the Midwest, a region he famously loathes and that forms the backdrop for much of his fiction. Since 1969 he has taught philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is currently director of the International Writers Center. Gadfly spoke to William Gass shortly before the release of Cartesian Sonata: and Other Novellas, his first fiction since The Tunnel.

Was most of Cartesian Sonata: and Other Novellas written before The Tunnel was completed?

WG: Oh, no, just one was written a long time ago in rough draft. That was the first piece—called in the book "Cartesian Sonata." The rest, the last three, which are designed to match the first one, were written in the last year. I have a long span of gestation, I guess. The last story, "The Master of Secret Revenges," for example, was an idea maybe 35‑40 years ago and then just sat there not doing a thing until recently. The other two, "Bed and Breakfast" and "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," were more recent and don't appear to have had any lengthy sort of time in my unconscious, but you never know about those things.

Elizabeth Bishop isn't the sort of writer you usually focus on. Did you know her?

No, I didn't know her personally and I was slow to come to her work. Out of that group of people—Lowell, Jarrell, Roethke, Berryman and so on—I was reading them more than she at first. So it was a little slow, but now I think she is the most important of all.

What is it about Bishop's work that appeals to you?

Absolute precision, and an extraordinary care with everything. A marvelous perception. Here is a case sort of like Henry James where no idea violates it, but there are plenty of ideas lying behind the surface of the work.

Has the computer changed how you write? When you started The Tunnel, there were no word processing computers right?

Right. No, I worked from a very early age on a typewriter which I was given—a little portable—so I was in one sense prepared for the computer because I never wrote by hand. It proved to be a godsend actually because I was able to write much more rapidly on it and was able to complete The Tunnel in a year, writing about half of it in that last year on the computer.

You wrote that much of it in the last year?

Yes. I had written about 600 pages of The Tunnel in manuscript and I wrote about 600 pages more to finish up what I had planned: 12 sections about 100 pages each. These measurements, of course, are all manuscript measurements.

One of the things I noticed in reading The Tunnel is that you frequently make use of—I don't mean in the limericks—poetic meter in your prose.

Oh, yes, I tend to employ a lot of devices associated with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme, alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning. I also borrow a great deal from rhetoric and rhetorical structures.

In Watson Holloway's book on you, he says that you advocate experimental writing more in your criticism than you practice it in your fiction. Do you think that is accurate?

No. I assume that's one of the troubles people have with it: it is too experimental. I do a lot more experimenting in the fiction than in the essays. But it isn't something that I think is a requirement for a writer. It is just something that interests me.

When you were preparing to publish The Tunnel, were you worried about being compared to Kohler, about people seeing the book as somehow autobiographical?

Not worried so much. I knew it would happen. The book does set a number of traps for reviewers, and that identification certainly occurred. But the book in sly ways even encourages it; so that these people who don't really know how to read will fall into the trap. It was just an amusement on my part, and so when it happened, I had to suffer it. I had asked for it in a way.

One of those reviewers who fell into the trap would then be Robert Alter, who accused The Tunnel of being an immoral book because it compares Nazi persecution to domestic trauma.

Yes, well that is one way he wants to interpret it, but, of course, it is, and must be, to some sorts of reader an immoral book. I want it to be for them. I want it misread in a certain way by certain people. It's for me the proof of the pudding. Alter has a certain sacred cow—I mean, the Holocaust. I don't think anything is sacred and therefore I am prepared to extol or make fun of anything. People who have very settled opinions are going to dislike this book because Kohler is the worm inside all of that stuff.

What is your view of Kohler?

Well, I think he is very complex. I tried to make him a very sophisticated complex humanist in such a way as to exhibit one of the crucial problems of the whole Nazi period, and that is that there was no profession, no level of education, no quality and sensitivity, which can protect you from that virus. So I had to make him somebody who would even, from time to time, show sufficient sensitivity and regard so that the reader would begin to move along in his mind tract. Then, of course, derailment occurs. He is also for me a model of a kind of mind that is very common in the United States: a slightly hidden Fascist mentality.

How did you feel about the public reaction to The Tunnel? Were you surprised? What did you expect when it came out, and were you expecting the public to be shocked?

No, I expected to be ignored. I mean, I expected a few critics to be shocked and upset, and indeed a few were. There were some who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention. There were a few outraged voices, but that didn't surprise me. I don't expect much response from the kind of thing I do. If I was looking for plaudits, then I really have done the wrong thing.

Do you think the serious novel still has a role to play in our culture?

I don't know about "role"—as if it acted, it went about doing things. It has a serious role to play in the very nature of existence, I think. Any serious art does. But as an actor on the stage of human affairs in the ordinary sense, I don't think so. I'm not one who thinks that one's life should be directed by art. It's simply one of the things that makes life bearable, but it doesn't give it purpose or direction. One's consciousness is filled with beauty perhaps (in the old sense), but hardly with truth and goodness. I would be terrified if I thought that, as Yeats worried, books or poems sent people out to do anything or led to people having certain kinds of convictions. That would also indicate that they have very weak minds.

As a writer, you have chosen a different path, almost a hostile path to that little sub‑group that is our literary culture. You don't teach in an MFA program, you don't even teach in an English department, and your essay on the Pulitzer certainly guarantees that you are completely outside of the log rolling in contemporary literature. I was wondering if this was just how your life developed, or whether at some point you decided you didn't want to be part of the mainstream.

Well, I certainly decided very early I didn't want to be a part of any English department. I really don't get along with those people. I prefer to be in a place where one is teaching stuff meant to be taught. Philosophy is perfect that way. It is material meant to be chewed over and talked about and debated, and I enjoy that very much. Whereas, not certainly all, but many of the people in the English departments I find simply not caring about literature, and just playing around with bad ideas. So I am grateful to be out of that region, and that was a decision I made very early. I've hardly ever studied literature seriously academically. I stayed away from it.

Do you read many contemporary novels? Are there young writers that you like?

I have tried to keep up somewhat because the Center is interested in finding young people who show promise. I have a model staff who points me in the right direction. I think it important to try to find out what's going on. I used to do that by agreeing to judge say the National Book Award or something and then you'd get a dose of what was going on for at least a year. That was helpful even though it was painful as well: a lot of work. But, you know, you get distracted, you have too many other things to do, you don't read the way you used to for pleasure, you are always reading because you are reviewing. I no longer review anybody I'm likely ever to meet or be friends with or anything of the sort, and if I were ever to review a young person's book, I would be even more besieged by people wanting me to give them a lift. This is one of the disagreeable parts of this business. Everybody is after you for favors.

Do you see your influence at all among younger writers?

No, I don't. They are doing different things, and I think that is fine. I don't want anybody being influenced or following me. If I detected it I would drop the book in horror.

What are your writing habits like now?

I am an early riser, and I work mostly in the morning. I am usually through any serious writing by noon. When I am teaching, of course, that's a little altered, but I only teach one semester a year. I do my work at the Center in the afternoon and other kinds of work, which is more mechanical.

In a number of your books, your characters like to write naked. That's not true of you I assume?

No. No. I have air conditioning. I don't have to take my clothes off.

Willie Master's Lonesome Wife was before contemporary graphic programs. I was wondering how you did the layout on that.

This book was written for myself. I never expected anybody to publish it in any form. It was a very complicated text which could only be partially realized by any publisher, not only because some things were just simply impractical or impossible to do, but the rest, many of them, too expensive. Some ideas like setting the quotes that I interwove in the text in the type of the first edition of the book in which they appeared, that kind of thing was more a conceptual notion. It would have looked terrible and so there were other reasons for restraining. I worked with the designer on this who was, of course, trying to achieve what I wanted with good design and within budget.

So there is no manuscript lying around with the coffee mark on it?

Yes, there is. The original manuscript with the original notions and scribbles is at Washington University.

What are you working on now?

A book called Reading Rilke should come out next year. I'm trying to get rid of his ghost. It involves a translation of the poems, but as I am going through I talk about Rilke, language and the problems of translation. So it's also a little book about translation.

Then you are working on a book about architecture?

Architectural form and its relation to literary form. The structure of the sentence, the structure of the novel and the architecture of things. Architects deal with relations almost completely—how these relations are materially embodied. That is what interests me.

What about fiction projects?

I have another collection of novellas under way, and I'm about halfway done with another collection. I am not going to write any more novels. That takes me forever. I'm not going to do that.

It seems like you have been incredibly productive since finishing The Tunnel. Did getting that out of the way just...

It has been odd. In my 70s, I have been productive, but in a way I'm bringing to a close things that have been going on for a long time. I am trying to get them done and out of the way so that I can go on to some new things that I hope to fiddle with.

Will that be in your 80s?

I feel as young as I ever have, I guess. I am fortunate about that. My energy level seems not to have flagged. I'm still busy turning out stuff, but it may be that I will start slowing down when I don't have something that has been lying around for decades. New stuff might have to get old and I may not have time for that.