Thursday, January 06, 2005

"Authora Non Grata" -- Interview with the best writer you've never read

You're standing on the bald, frozen pate of the planet Pluto, focusing your gaze on the blue/green planet floating third from the sun. Your vision telescopes, breaching the hymen-membrane of the earth's stratosphere. Narrowing still, your vision falls upon the continent of North America, to the United States, to the mid-West, the state of Iowa, the city of Des Moines… until you're fine-tuned on East 7th Street, at the window of a home owned by a scowling man who still does his writing on a typewriter.

Meet Gary Britson, the best writer you've never read. When asked if he would consent to be interviewed, Britson replied: "Sure. I'd be delighted, as long as it doesn't conflict with my appearances on Leno and Letterman."

Over the past thirty-two years, Gary Britson has written seven novels (two unfinished), three plays (which have also been adapted into screenplays), and a few dozen stories.

I first came across Gary Britson's work randomly clicking through stories on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. I stumbled upon his story "A Job For Gotsdiner," and knew within a few paragraphs that I was reading something written by a man who was The Genuine Article. The story was insanely, demonically funny. I wrote to Gary asking if I could read more of his work, and he sent me one of his novels.

"I started writing a novel entitled Scoop about 30 years ago," Gary Britson says, sipping from a tall glass tumbler filled with bourbon and ice. "At that time, I didn't know Evelyn Waugh had already used the title. It was about an incompetent newspaper reporter."

Matt St. Amand: What became of Scoop? Did you send it around to publishers?

Gary Britson: I worked at it intermittently until about 20 years ago, when I realized that it was unmanageable. It was spread out over many boxes and various other locations. So I wrote three other full-length novels, starting around 1987: A Sad Tale's Best for Winter, Freedom of Choice, and Stray Cat.

MSA: I've read Stray Cat—it's a sprawling, hilarious novel. How did publishers and agents receive it?

GB: In the late 80's I realized that you can't get a book published unless you're a pretty girl sleeping with a publisher or a pretty boy doing the same. Being neither...

I got a note from a New Yorker editor in 1986, telling me if I changed a story she might consider it, but I had no idea what she was talking about so I didn't make the incomprehensible changes.

MSA: With all of these rejections, what successes has your writing enjoyed?

GB: I have also written 3 plays. One of them placed 2nd in the Writer's Digest playwriting competition 3 years ago. I got $350. That's the sum total of my writing earnings for 30-plus years of work.

MSA: What keeps you going?

GB: Writers write. I'm a writer. I write. But writers are now expected to be vaudeville performers, doing erotic dances for agents, standing on their heads, doing comic turns, singing and acting like imbeciles to sell their stuff. Worse: they're expected to write 2-sentences synopses of work it took at least a year to produce. If I could have said it in a sentence, I wouldn't have spent a year writing it.

Random short story quote: "Susan's father, driven out of his own living room by culture, knew how to enjoy himself. No tyrannosaurus rex dining on a hapless herbivore was ever more content than this man, his pile of newly-released, digitally-enhanced Three Stooges tapes, and the keg of suds in the middle of the airless room. He looked up and eyed Paul as Moe attacked Curly with a blunt instrument. Paul was just another walk-on in a play this man had seen before, and he asked Paul for no identification, reaching instead for an empty cup, tossing it to his new guest, and inviting him to help himself to the keg. He bade him sit on a dilapidated and suspiciously stained sofa. Paul sat. He had never enjoyed the Stooges, but now he saw their real worth, their aesthetic principles, their raison d'etre: In a world where happy, good-looking people are singing all the time, sometimes it does a man's heart good to see someone get hit with a wrench."

MSA: Have you crossed paths with any famous writers?

GB: In 1973, John Cheever was teaching for one semester at the U. of Iowa. I thought he'd be flattered if I dropped by his room, unannounced, and asked him to sign my copies of Bullet Park and The World of Apples. He was very polite about the whole thing. "Next time, call first?" was all he said. He should have scolded me for my unbelievable rudeness at knocking at the door of his hotel room on a summer night while he had company. He should have had my inconsiderate self kicked down the stairs. Instead, he signed the books very politely and didn't call me a rude, presumptuous nerd. I dropped by John Irving's office in Iowa City around 1976 or so, and asked him to sign two books. He was friendly and witty and signed without complaint. Since then, other book collectors tell me he's been "Pynchonizing" about signing books. Who can blame him, at this point?

MSA: Have you received any feedback from editors or agents about your writing?

GB: (Hands me a typewritten page with the letterhead redacted with black marker. The first paragraph reads: FREEDOM OF SPEECH [sic] is brilliantly written, Mr. Britson. It's as witty, as haunting, as enjoyably lacerating in its perceptions of the human condition (and particularly the condition of lawyers, whose ethos you explore with a good deal of ambiguity and mordant insight) as anything we've seen in 1993 and our hope for your future as a writer of fiction is accordingly high. If only this novel had a plot...)

MSA: How do you approach writing? Do you map out ideas in outlines? Do you write in longhand at all, or do you create at the keyboard?

GB: No outlines. Spontaneous combustion. Vague idea as to ending, but no idea, at the outset, how I will get there.

The best writing is in longhand, on legal pads, then revised at the typewriter. Jimmy Breslin has written eloquently about how writing in longhand influences the content of the writing, for the better. But of course it's much easier to turn on the word processor. It's quicker and looks better.

MSA: What do you use?

GB: I have a 15-year-old Brother word processor. It's a typewriter and a word processor. It is a dinosaur. Very slow. After many battles, we have reached an understanding and we hardly ever threaten to kill one another any more.

MSA: Do you ever mix alcohol consumption with writing? If so, what's your poison?

GB: In days of grace and cheer, I drink tumblers of Wild Turkey with Heineken chasers. On normal days, I go down to the Git 'n Go and fork over $3.29 for a 12-pack of Natural Light (the young people call it Natty Lite). The advantage of the former beverages is that the clerks compliment you on your nice smile and wish you a happy day. At the Git 'n Go, I have to listen to the clerk bitch about her no-good boyfriend and she tells me all men are perverts.

MSA: Does drinking help your writing?

GB: Drinking helps writing not at all. However, it is easier for me to appreciate what I've written if I have a bottle of Wild Turkey by my side.

MSA: What's been your experience submitting short fiction for publication?

GB: Today I reached the distinction of having my ninth story rejected by Glimmer Train, yet another grimy chapter in the long weary saga of my failure. I would be willing to bet my '63 Sandy Koufax that NO ONE ELSE ON THIS PLANET has been rejected by Glimmer Train NINE TIMES. I'd bet my house on it. We've all been rejected by The New Yorker more than nine times, we've all been rejected by the Atlantic and Paris Review, etc., more than nine times. But Glimmer Train? They should have published a couple of these pieces just out of a basic sense of common decency. What's a mother to do.

MSA: Why does so much of your work involve lawyers, the law, and "officialdom"?

GB: I've been licensed to practice law in Iowa for a long time and have had my share of jury trials on both sides of the fence. I'm not very good at it, because I lack killer instinct. The ideal lawyer has no conscience whatsoever. Lest I be accused of patting myself on the back for being too nice a guy to be a lawyer, let me add that when the Yankees are being victimized by corrupt officiating, I can also be something along the lines of a misanthropic son of a bitch. Or so I've been told.

Lawyers in America tend to be people who weren't smart enough to get into medical school, not tough enough to cut it in the construction trades, or too lazy to do anything honest. As a result our courts are run by mediocre college boys and girls whose one goal in life is to appear to be superior to you. Note that I said "appear." They ain't superior to nobody. Lenny Bruce was right about the courthouse: "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls." There are, however two honest lawyers in Des Moines, and if you buy me a beer I'll introduce you to the other one. It's a violation of the canon of ethics to honestly tell another lawyer what you think of him/her, so I do it in my stories. I know there will be no adverse reaction, since lawyers can't read.

MSA: Where do you see your writing going from here?

GB: Well, it's not going to Glimmer Train, that much is certain. I read about 30 biographies last year, most of them literary: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Dorothy Parker, Sherwood Anderson, Charles Ludlam, Eugene O'Neill, Rod Serling, Janet Flanner, e.e. cummings, James Agee, Nelson Algren, and others. Not one of those individuals ever:

  1. Received a rejection slip;
  2. Wrote a piece that had not been accepted and paid for in advance;
  3. Stood in line at Kinko's.

Great violinists don't make mistakes in concerts, great pitchers don't give up 6 runs in the first inning, and great writers don't get rejection slips. A few good writers may get one or two in the early stages, but if you're REALLY GOOD it's not going to happen.

Does this mean I'm not REALLY GOOD? Yes. As a matter of fact: Hell, yes. That's what it means. The knee-jerk reaction to all this despair will be: Why continue, then? Why don't you do something else? Quit complaining, already.

Well: writing's interesting. It's cheaper and healthier than chronic alcohol addiction. I've never been arrested while sitting at my typewriter, and my typewriter has yet to call me an loser. I'm too old for softball and way too temperamental for volleyball, chess or Tai Chi.

Also, it's good for my cat, Annie. She's peaceful when I write. She sits by me and dreams of mice. You see, while I'm writing, I'm not charging around the house cursing the phone company, the Iowa Legislature or the Minnesota Twins bullpen. I keep a bag of treats handy for her snacks. She associates typing with serenity. I usually listen to Debussy or a Strauss opera while typing. My cat knows more about Debussy than the rest of Polk County put together. Debussy is not a big part of day-to-day cultural life in these here parts. In these here parts, we sell insurance.

MSA: How about being an Iowan? Does living in the mid-west inspire your writing?

GB: Des Moines, you see, is an insurance capital. If you go downtown, you can't buy a shirt or a baseball cap or some really good Jamaican ribbed condoms. You can, however, buy massive amounts of highly specialized insurance for oil rigs, cotton plantations, high-rises on Maui or ranches in Perth, Australia.

In my little book Getting Laid in Des Moines, there's a pleasant scene in which a serial killer passes through Des Moines on his way to starting a new life far away from his native ground. He looks around town and thinks this might be a good place to settle. Since he has nice manners, except when he's plying his trade, he could get a job in the insurance business with ease. And best of all, he opines, going from serial killing to selling insurance would be a smooth career transition. Easy, since both trades involve making life miserable for poor people who have done you absolutely no harm whatsoever.

I thought it was a highly commercial novel, but I couldn't give it away.

My novel The Courthouse Record Store was intentionally written to be a best-seller, unlike the other novels, which are highly literary, strange, funny, shocking and probably neurotic. I tailored Courthouse for the movies. I made it the same length as The Bridges of Madison County. I wrote it in easily digestible, bite-size chunks you could have between sessions of selling insurance to Australian ostrich ranchers.

I couldn't give it away.

Regarding my plays, I did get a couple of thoughtful, encouraging letters from Lanford Wilson. My other efforts to interest agents, other writers and various literary types in my work has been, um, of limited success, as they say in the insurance biz.

MSA: Thanks for your time! Any final thoughts?

GB: I'd like to say hi to [American actress] Valerie Bertinelli. I can't understand why she married that rock star [Eddie Van Halen] when she could have had me.

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