Thurs., May 20, 1999
Writing Her Way To The Top
© Carol Cizauskas
Nevada's Charlie Buck Hits The Big Time With A Story In The New Yorker
RN&R: Why do you write, and what do you hope to accomplish with your writing for yourself and for your readers?
Buck: I was a sculptor and a jeweler, and I was making these large, abstract works, but I wanted to tell stories. I started forcing narration into my metal works until it was crushed from the weight of narrative stories. What I was trying to do with that other work was inappropriate because visually I could capture only a woman or a scene, and verbally you can get the flavor of someone's life. And it was part of a move for me into wanting to live a larger life, and writing was a way for me to do that, a really central way for me to do that.
The way that I'm wanting my work to be different - I just want it to feel very alive, very much like life and conversation. The most interesting work to me has some ephemeral quality to it, like film-making: it's a moment that couldn't be captured any other way, and you feel it. And that's what I'm trying to accomplish: I feel like I'm trying to create a vapor, sort of a slight moment in a way that gives it body. I was watching a documentary on a painter the other night, and Brighton Marsden was saying about her that she made yellow visible in a way that few painters could, that it would disappear in most painters' work. That was a wonderful thing, to hear about a painter using a color in a way that nobody else could use a color - a color that's usually weak or recessive - to have it suddenly have the force of all of these other colors. Maybe that's my ambition: to learn how to use yellow.
R: Four years ago in an interview, when asked a similar question, you said you chose writing because you hadn't done it yet and it was also a political/social choice because your sculpture was so expensive and writing was something that everybody could participate in. It was more democratic.
B: I felt that all of the time then, that people can have access to writing without the intimidation of a gallery or an art scene or a price tag. And it's still a wonderful thing. I'm sitting at a kitchen table with a mountainous stack of things that I'm in the process of reading. It's just accessible to you. It's accessible in a way that can have some influence in your life.
R: What do you mean by you were trying to force narration into your sculpture?
B: My work began very abstractly. It was described as biomorphic geometry. It had these strange human qualities but also really machine qualities - working with metal. Then I wanted to make it look like a story was happening, and I started using aspects of the face in these pieces - little narrative strategies. Just little elements that you would recognize from life would suddenly appear in the middle of this pretty aesthetic sculpture. So there would be a boat or a ladder. I was making pieces about ideas forming in people's heads. And soon it was obvious that I was trying to tell a story, and the story could not be told with the medium that I was using. Then I started writing again - not that it's any easier to tell the story - but the medium's appropriate. There are so many stories I can tell now, that before I could only hint at but couldn't really ever tell. Now I can tell a story, and it's a great satisfaction.
R: How did you become interested in writing short stories?
B: I come from this eccentric, Southern family - Texas, but Texas has big elements of Southern gothic history. My father and mother and many other people in my family are great story-tellers, and I was a hideous story-teller. I was really bad, and people would just talk over what I had to say and just disregard me. I think in a way it was finding a way to tell my story that would be compelling enough for people to sit down and listen to. So there's something conversational about the short story: it could be a reply or a reaction or a rebuttal. In a novel that conversational aspect is harder to maintain.
R: How did you become a working writer?
B: I was a sculptor, and I was teaching metalsmithing in Philadelphia. It was actually the night before my thirty-first birthday. I always thought I'd be writing by the time I was thirty. I wasn't, and then the night before my thirty-first birthday, I sat down and wrote a story and just really severed all of my ties with the world of making objects. It was so weird. Immediately after that I started selling my tools. I went back to school. I hung on to my chop saw and my welding tank, but everything else had gone. So it was very strange. It was almost like a biological process: one day I was one thing, and the next day I was really another thing. It had been going on in a subterranean way for a while, but when I began writing, I no longer wanted to make visual objects, and it became a job for me to do that, instead of my calling. Writing was the thing that somehow I knew would fit forever. So I just began finding ways to work.
But it's very different. When I was a sculptor, I had a line of jewelry that made money. I taught sculpture and metal-working. And those were ways of having an income. As a writer I'm really careful about using what I do because I feel like I abused what I did as an artist. I had all these ways of making money that interfered with my job of being an artist. Now I work as a writer in the schools and prisons in Nevada, and occasionally I write non-fiction work. I'm working as a writer, but to say that I'm making a living at it would be a big jump. I've tried not to make a living from it in a way because I want the writing to always be what it is instead of being a method of profiting or a talent that I could use and then sell. I want to keep my relation to it pretty pure, have it be writing when I'm telling a story that I really need to tell, not when I'm trying to make five hundred bucks.
R: How do you eat?
B: I've been really lucky. In Nevada, I got two grants that really saved me, and I got teaching jobs, teaching other kids writing, which is a great privilege: it's wonderful to put something in somebody's life that you really believe is the most valuable thing they can learn. So I had ways of patching together a marginal existence. And then about a year ago I got an NEA grant, which is a substantial amount of money, $20,000, and suddenly I could really do what I've been trying to do for a long time, which was write full-time. And I got a fellowship to Homestead , Oregon, so there really were no distractions, and I didn't have to worry about money for a while. The effects on my writing were tremendous. When you are writing with the wolf at the door, you write a little bit, and then you go figure out a way to stave off the wolf, and then you can write a little bit more. When I didn't have that worry, suddenly I was writing eight hours a day, most days of the week. It was great.
R: Describe your experience in Oregon.
B: The Oregon fellowship: I started a novel - and I also think, writing short stories, you respond - your environment does dictate what you write. And I would get these short stretches of time because of various jobs that were perfect for short stories. But a novel requires really a continuous immersion. John Gardner talks about the vivid and continuous stream, about being able to submerge yourself in that. And I'd started a novel at an art colony. I had the idea for the novel in Nevada, and I knew that for the next six months, I wouldn't have more than a couple of hours to work on it every day. So I decided not to work on it because I didn't want to turn it into a short story. And six months later I was able to go to an art colony for two months.
R: That was the MacDowell Colony?
B: Yes. I'd been thinking of the book, if you can say that you're thinking about something that's unconscious. I'd been thinking about it, but not plotting it, not doing anything. I got there and had tremendous energy to write it down and left with quite a few pages - 170 pages - and a short story. After that, I thought I really needed to buy myself the time to finish this book. And so I was just going to work until I did that. And then the NEA came along, and I'd applied for Oregon in case that didn't happen. When I applied for it, it was sort of a desperate act. I couldn't really imagine someone wanting to be alone in the woods for a year. And yet, if that's what it would take to write my book, I was willing to do it. So then the NEA happened, and I actually had a choice. I could choose to do it or not, and I chose to do it because by then I thought that's an experience I'm never going to have any other way in my life and my life will never be so unencumbered again that I can do something like this.
R: That was a year in Oregon?
B: It actually was eight months.
R: Where was it?
B: It was along the Rogue River. It was in backcountry Oregon. It was about three hours into the mountains on dirt BLM roads. My nearest neighbor was two and a half hours of hard driving away. It's very isolated. It's on the side of a mountain. It's a natural meadow that overlooks the Rogue River, and I was the only person in that stretch of the wilderness.
R: What is the most difficult aspect about the process of writing? Of getting published?
B: With writing, what's difficult is just being willing to submerge yourself in the unknown. If you know what your writing's about and you know what you want to accomplish, it seems to me that you should probably be writing non-fiction. But I think fiction is being willing to work with this opaque idea that is gradually being made known to you over the course of the story. And that uncertainty is the hardest part about writing. You don't know what you're writing until it's written down, and you don't really ever know if you succeeded in properly telling a story.
The hardest thing about getting published. . .My feelings about that have really changed since getting published in The New Yorker. Before that it was sort of an unpleasant part of writing - the unpleasant personal hygiene part: you wrote it and now you had to scrub it up and send it out and perfume it and let go of it. It can be very divorced from the process of writing for me. I think that's why a lot of people write and they never send anything out, because it's a really different lobe of your brain that does that, that can midwife a story into the outside world. It's very different from the private thing that you write from, but it's necessary because the point of the story is usually some sort of connection, rather than alienation, a relationship with the outside world, and you have to facilitate that and get it out of your office and off into its own life.
But when I was in Oregon, I didn't send anything out for a year. I didn't want to think at all about that part of what I was doing. And I wrote the story that was published in The New Yorker my first two weeks in Oregon and put it in a box and kept looking at it and often thought about sending it out, but I just couldn't quite. I would go to the mailbox every two weeks. I'd go twice a month to town and get supplies and pick up mail and go to a meeting of the accordion club.
I learned to play the accordion in Oregon. It was so silent. The first week I was there it was so gorgeous and so silent and so alone. I felt so alone there in a way that was exhilarating and terrifying, and I thought, "In order to survive this, I need a chicken and I need an accordion." I just felt like I needed a chicken companion. I had hoped it would be for eggs, but it ended up being a rooster, whose name was Captain Squeaky. He was a wonderful, wonderful pal. Anyway, I got that chicken, and the temperature dropped, and that's how I ended up writing the story. I got him my second week. He was a little chick with two feathers, and the temperature dropped, and he didn't have enough feathers to thermoregulate, to keep himself warm, so he would crawl up my pants leg and go to sleep behind my knee. He was hysterical when I wasn't near him because he had just come from a hatchery where there 2,000 other little things just like him. So I started writing my second week there because I had to stay still to keep him warm. I would write that story in little snatches, and he would wake up and not know where he was. And I'd shake him out of my pants leg and go do an errand and then come back when he was getting really chilly and let him get warm again. He was a good muse. I got a lot of writing done.
R: In an interview four years ago, you said you liked being new as a writer because of the optimism that gave you. You said it was "important to get away from the parts of the writing world that take your heart away", adding that you were interested to find out what would happen ten years down the line, after you would have had more chance to experience the harshness of the publishing world. Four years after that interview, how is your writer's heart?
B: Oh, it's in great shape. I feel wonderful about the writing world. I just spent three months in New York, which is maybe a little too close for comfort because the industry is nothing that makes you want to write. But it's great to know it's there and that it's delivering so many beautiful books. So I feel good about it. I'm still at that point before I've published a book, although it's now a reality. Now people are interested in my book, and I had the chance to sell it in New York. I decided not to sell it before it was finished because this part of being a writer has been so wonderful for me, to be writing for myself and not be worrying about the audience for my book or the reception for my book. And I feel very good about this space, that it's a sacred space, and I want to maintain it until I'm finished with my book. So at that point, just like a story, I'll send it out and see what happens. But I'm really happy right now.
R: Can you tell me more about the book you're working on?
B: It's about outsiders and insiders. It's historical fiction that's set in the mid-'40s. And I've just been thinking about what it takes to bring an outsider in and what it takes also to thrust insiders out - how those little exchanges happen and what they mean to the people that go through them. It occurs on the Oregon coast.
R: Do you believe that it's easier for a writer to achieve success living in New York, and is that why you moved there?
B: No, I think it's harder for a writer to succeed in New York, or I should say it would be very hard for me because I write from an outsider's perspective and there are just too many people doing what you're doing in New York City. There's too much of an awareness of what people are doing and where they're publishing and where you fit in that continuum, and I think those things are anti-writing things, quite honestly. I write from life; that's where I find the privacy that I need and the material that I re-imagine. New York was exciting, but I think the big secret about New York City is that nobody gets their work done. I was surrounded by writers, and none of them were writing. I was staying in the apartment of writers who had gone to Nantucket so that they could write. I played the accordion a lot, and I wrote very little.
But it was wonderful to be there. The story was coming out, and I got to go to The New Yorker and edit the story with my editor, and I got to be in New York as it was published. I'd be riding the subway and people would be reading my story, and that was really exciting. It made me believe in serendipity because if I had been in Oregon, it would have been torture to do that. It was great to be there at the moment it came out in the world.
R: If it's so difficult for writers to actually write in New York, is it easier the further away you get? In other words, would it be easy for Western authors?
B: I don't think it works that way. You can't apply a formula. When I was in the West, people were always saying, "Oh, we're not being published because we're from the West." I never believed that for a moment. I think if you're writing something interesting, it's going to be published. The further away from the mainstream it is, the more your chances are of writing something really different, really fascinating. So I think the West can be a great place of writers.
When I lived in the West, I felt privileged to live there. I didn't feel I was making a sacrifice for art. I felt like I was adding to my experiences as a writer, like I had something different to offer, and that made me feel really good. So even though it doesn't actually appear in my work, I just think the experience of being on the outer edges of the literary world is a wonderful one.
R: How much do you think place - the West - affects the writing of Western authors?
B: There's an enormous preoccupation with it. When I lived there, it seemed very important to me. But I think that it can be very confining, too. It seemed to me that it was a universal concern in the West, and I think any universal concern is diminishing literature - it's almost like putting a political opinion in every story. It's like having some polemic that you're determined to get across. I think in some people's work it's totally gorgeous and appropriate. But I found it a pervasive concern when I lived in Nevada. It was the cool thing to talk about. But it can be a confining thing in a work because work is about so much than that. It's like one color.
R: You're originally from Texas. How many years did you live there? Where else have you lived? How long did you live in Nevada? How did these places influence your writing?
B: I lived in Texas eighteen years, then lived in Pennsylvania for about ten years, and then in Iowa two years, then Nevada five years, then Oregon one year. And I think I'm headed to Portland, Maine, next, and I'm going to stay there until I'm finished with my book.
Texas is very important - that gothic Southern sense combined with a Western sensibility. So I felt like a Westerner, but I think I write like a Southerner. I think Nevada was really important. I lived in a very isolated location. And I think Nevada is about so many different things. One thing you see happening in Nevada is people in dreams that are doomed.
R: What do you mean?
B: Slot machines: you believe in something that's never going to give you what you want. That was a very interesting aspect of Nevada for me, like all the strip mining and slot machines. I lived in the office building of a mining company. So it was never a home. You could have spent $20,000 on it, and it would have always looked like the office building of a mining company. There was an edginess in living there, never quite being settled, and I started living an itinerant lifestyle that had moments of settled-ness in other places. It was important in influencing my novel because I really had a feeling of being an outsider in Nevada that I've never had in other parts of my life - or that I haven't had as strongly in other parts of my life. I think artists are always going to be people who get from point A to point B via Q. But in Nevada I just felt outside of the community - I lived in a ghost town, I lived in a home that wasn't a home - both inspiring and profoundly isolating. And I think that's what I'm really writing about right now in this novel. I'm writing about trying to make something that's not right into the thing that you've always believed you needed, writing about people moving from outside into the inside and from the inside out. I think I really started thinking about the strictures in Nevada, about how permeable the membrane was between different aspects of life.
And also the place was really important to me. There was no water in sight, and yet you felt the action of water up on the hills and the mountains and the floor of the desert. My novel is a reaction to that. It's all about the ocean, and I began it when I lived absolutely in the middle of the desert.
R: Describe your work with prisons and schools in Nevada as part of your fellowship with the Nevada Arts Council. Specifically focus on your work with Wittenberg Hall and what you're doing that's upcoming with that.
B: Wittenberg is a great place to work. Those kids, they're almost in a prison situation, and they can be there for anything, from ignoring a curfew to committing a really violent crime. You never know what they're there for. It's unimportant because they're just in a room and something terribly traumatic has happened in their lives that they had no part in, and they're at the junction of event and emotion that is a really good point at which to write, at which to find a way to express what you think is true and what your part in it was. I feel really good about being there because I think writing is power. Communication is power, it's finding your own voice. It's finding a way to tell people how you're feeling, of giving them a little taste of your world view and they're not able to shut you down. You're able to get as much say as you want to, to say what you need to say. And my feeling in Wittenberg is a lot of these kids have not had a voice, and one of the aspects of whatever they've done is they're trying to make their mark - they're trying to be present in their own lives, and they don't know how to do it in a less individual way.
I had the weirdest feeling at Wittenberg. I felt like the students were more intelligent than the average high school class I've been in, that they were more honest in their writing, that they were more individualistic. And it really made me think that the distance between crime and art is not so great; both are ways of asserting yourself. In Wittenberg, a lot of those kids can find a different way to be in the world, but they need to find a way of having power that doesn't mean asserting it on an unwilling participant, whether that's a parent or whomever.
R: So it is a writing program? It's a program to teach them writing or help them with writing?
B: Yes. I'm there for a week. We start with some writing exercises, and they immediately start reading to other members of the class. It's really a workshop, and it's a more effective workshop than most college-level ones I've seen because those kids are really interested in knowing what people think about them and if they're moved by them. They've written really amazing things. Kids can often write good poetry, but poetry is something that you can stumble into, especially when you're young, and be awfully good at it. And you also can stumble out of it. But prose - it's much harder for kids to write good prose, and in Wittenberg, they're universally writing good prose.