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The Missouri Review 27.2 (2004) 39-53
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An Interview with Frederick Barthelme
Amy Day Wilkinson
[About the Author]
[Begin Page 40]
Frederick Barthelme studied with John Barth at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and has for some years taught writing and directed the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has won numerous awards, including an individual writer's grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous grants as editor of Mississippi Review, the literary magazine he has edited in print since 1977 and online since 1995. He is the author of fourteen books, including Moon Deluxe, Second Marriage, Tracer, Two Against One, Natural Selection, The Brothers, Painted Desert and Bob the Gambler. His memoir, Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, released in November 1999, was coauthored with his brother Steven and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The same honor was awarded his retrospective collection of stories, The Law of Averages, which was published by Counterpoint in November 2000. His novel Elroy Nights, published in October 2003 by Counterpoint, was also named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was one of five finalists for the 2004 PEN/Faulkner Award. He will publish a book of all-new short stories in the fall of 2005 with Harcourt.
This interview was conducted in 2003. [End Page 40]
Interviewers: Your recent novel, Elroy Nights, like much of your work, is deeply personal. You take the reader into the mind of the narrator. Yet throughout the novel, the larger cultural context is present, with talk about 9/11, political and cultural figures, styles and attitudes with political overtones. Do you believe writers should engage social and political circumstances in their work?
Barthelme: It seems inevitable. Publication puts a book in a historical context, and invariably the book is, in part, about that context. The distinction between writers who are politically engaged and those who are not seems specious, though much of what passes for politically engaged fiction is hapless, sort of a pop magazine's version of political dialogue or the stuff that TV commentators do. So overtly or covertly, the writer's always entering the political dialogue. Since everything is a politically charged act—everything we do and say, every reaction to public and private event—fiction that carefully develops and rounds its characters will inevitably present very complex arguments about the culture to the culture. These arguments embedded in texts are rarely mined and not much discussed, but they are present, waiting for history.
Interviewers: How does this play itself out in your fiction?
Barthelme: Well, the characters live in a world like ours. By and large they're alienated from regular politics; they find formal politics silly and bankrupt and thus not worth arguing about. For a lot of people, even as they try to participate and help, and change things for the better, formal politics is just more sometimes charming television, a break from CSI and CSI: Miami. [End Page 41]
I echo that, and then I do the overt stuff—the 9/11 business in Elroy; the whole of Painted Desert, where the characters' ideas tended to be aggressive and somewhat antisocial, and yet they shrink from acting on those ideas. They're unsure where best to attack, and they are equal-opportunity vigilantes, but they end up voting with their feet, or their tires, to be more precise, and opting out of the game to assess a political or social issue for themselves.
Interviewers: So what is the place of literary writing in today's culture?
Barthelme: Not exactly central, is it? And as it approaches centrality, it seems to veer away from literature and toward, as my brother Don famously said, peanut butter. This is a commonplace, I suppose, but one that sometimes gets lost on whole generations of writers. It's charming, not to mention ironic, to see John Grisham, a wonderful mainstream writer, working hard to cross over and get just one solid literary credential...