Interview by Bradford Morrow
The following interview with novelist and playwright James Purdy was conducted in two sessions, the first in the middle of the night drinking cappuccinos in a small Seventh Avenue coffee shop, the second in the middle of the day eating sole and deep-fried okra in a restaurant situated in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge.
BRADFORD MORROW: When you began writing, what authors did you read and who had an influence on you?
JAMES PURDY: Unamuno had some influence: only putting into the work what is absolutely essential. Also Hemingway, at least technically, again because he leaves out so much. Sherwood Anderson. I always felt a close affinity with Whitman and Melville, though people tell me it’s not possible. Especially Melville, the tensions between men in isolation and the megalomania, the megalomania in Pierre and Moby Dick, Billy Buddand The Confidence Man. It is something I immediately recognized as significant. And even James Fenimore Cooper. I knew it was a world which I belonged to.
MORROW: What was Sherwood Anderson’s influence?
PURDY: The isolation in his work, the small-town vernacular. When Marianne Moore said I was a master of the American vernacular it was very nice because even then I was working in the dark, I didn’t know what I was. Anderson wrote a wonderful story called “The Man Who Became a Woman”: one of the most amazing stories ever written. I don’t know whether he knew how startling it is. It’s about a young boy who is a groom in the stables, he takes care of horses. The story is really a problem of crisis of sexual identification, to use a pretentious psychological phrase. Suddenly, working around these awful, rough men, and being just a young boy who simply loved to curry the horses, suddenly one night he wanders into a saloon and he looks into the mirror and instead of seeing himself he sees a young woman. Horrified, he runs back to the stables. There these Negro laborers try to rape him and he runs away. He becomes a man again, but there is no real closing to the story: Anderson shows such deep insight into the terror of adolescence in this story.
MORROW: It sounds to me like a James Purdy story.
PURDY: Yes, it does! It’s the only story by Anderson where I think he really plumbed the depths.
MORROW: Did you read that when you were a youngster, or later?
PURDY: Oh, I didn’t understand it when I read it, but I knew it was great.
MORROW: When did you start reading fiction?
PURDY: When I was about ten. Another book that influenced me when I was young was Gogol’s Dead Souls, which is a great book. I think he is so much greater than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Cervantes’s Exemplary Stories, in Spanish Las Novelas Ejemplares. These also have the outcasts, the young derelicts. “Rinconete and Cortadillo” is one of the greatest stories ever written. “The Dialogue of the Dogs” is also a great story—much greater than Don Quixote, which is great. But these stories are the distilled liquor of his genius.
MORROW: You just naturally gravitated toward the “outcast” figure since you were a child? Are you an only child?
PURDY: No, I have two brothers. I’m the middle child. Lots of uncles, cousins, aunts, a whole clan.
MORROW: Where did you put your hands on the books as a child?
PURDY: My father left a big library. He read.
MORROW: Any writers in the Purdy ancestry?
PURDY: They’re all farmers!
MORROW: The question I am circling is: How and when did you know you wanted to become a writer, a novelist?
PURDY: I began writing anonymous anomalous letters when I was eight and nine. These anonymous anomalous letters, as I call them, and which I still write today, are purportedly unsigned letters which defame the recipient by telling him the truth about himself. You know, a truth can never be told in public. Anyway, I remember my mother had this terrible landlady where we rented a house and she pestered my mother about little things, do this, do that, about the yard. And so I wrote her this letter … I wrote it about her, I didn’t send it to her. My mother was horrified by it, because there was so much anger in it.
MORROW: Why do you write the anonymous anomalous letters? Is it a kind of recreation?
PURDY: It’s a blowing off of steam. But the novels sort of come out of it, I think.
MORROW: When you write an anonymous anomalous letter it seems ultimately that you are the outcast figure rather than any character.
PURDY: Yes, I guess so, yes. Because there is so much anger in them.
MORROW: Could it be that you write these anonymous letters, in which you yourself are the outcast figure, and then you work toward decentralizing that outcast figure by creating a fictional ball around it?
PURDY: Yes, I suppose so. I’ve known a lot of outcasts. And so I would write these letters and my older brother loved them, because he was wicked!
MORROW: I notice you’ve left Henry James out of your list of early influences.
PURDY: I was once quite fascinated by him and now I can’t read him. He annoys me no end. I don’t think he knew anything about people. He reminds me of that old story about the three men who were asked to describe an elephant and each one had a completely different and erroneous description—one thought it looked like a snake, the others thought it was something else. I think the reason he remains so fascinating is because he was so confused by life. He is the only “great” writer who doesn’t seem to have had any real, direct life experience. It’s all what he heard, or what someone told him. It’s amazing the energy, and the number of books he wrote, an amazing body of work. And yet I almost always come away from his work bitterly disappointed. It’s a matter of temperament: I don’t really care about his people, and I don’t really care therefore about him.
MORROW: One very obvious difference between your work and James’s is that in his dialogues, especially in the late novels, all of the characters seem to speak in James’s voice, whereas I can never hear your own voice in your characters’ mouths.
PURDY: Oh, really. That’s interesting. Proust is a little that way, like James, everything is Proust’s voice.
MORROW: What about Thomas Hardy?
PURDY: I love him. I adore his poetry, he is a great poet. Much better than someone like T. S. Eliot: I can’t stand him.
MORROW: I believe I see a pattern emerging here: You don’t like the exiled American who becomes super-Anglophile.
PURDY: I can’t bear them. It’s one thing I find unattractive in Hemingway, the fact that he was an expatriate. I don’t think he got into America enough.
MORROW: The Nick Adams stories would contradict that.
PURDY: “The Killers” is a great story. But I don’t think he ever did much after those.
MORROW: Is there any over pattern that you are trying to develop, novel by novel, into a “body” of work?
PURDY: No. I think my style’s changing but I don’t pay much attention to it. I know it’s different but I’m too busy writing the next book. I’m not consciously trying to develop a body of work: I’m so lucky if I can make another book, get through another book. They are hard to make. No matter how many times you dive from an eighty-five-foot height I think you’re scared each time.
MORROW: You’re afraid when you start a book?
PURDY: I’m scared all the time. This book, On Glory’s Course, I thought I’d never finish. It is about as long as Mourners Below. It’s like being put on a different animal to ride each time. Part of the difficulty in it all is that everything is dictated by the characters: They sort of appear, they come to visit you, they say, “Here I am.”
MORROW: Do you consider your work comic or tragic?
PURDY: In the middle.
MORROW: Do you dream about your characters?
PURDY: Well, I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember any of my dreams. I probably do, but don’t remember them. Maybe because I’m dreaming all day.
MORROW: What is your best book?
PURDY: I sometimes think it is The House of the Solitary Maggot. I sort of wrote that asleep: It all just came out of me: I don’t know where it came from. William Carlos Williams admired the stories in Color of Darkness and he was a great admirer of The Nephew. That was his world he said, The Nephew. But you know he was very ill at that time, he died shortly after The Nephew was written. He and Marianne Moore were friends of mine, she was a little bothered by my subject matter but she loved those stories.
MORROW: I’ve always been amazed that Edith Sitwell managed to see through the subject matter and get to the form.
PURDY: Absolutely. It sounds boastful but it showed real insight in her as a critic. You know she defended the use of the word “motherfucker” in print, she said it had to be in there. All these little sissy men were crying and carrying on.
MORROW: How did you get in touch with Sitwell?
PURDY: I simply sent a copy of Don’t Call Me by my Right Name to her at the Castello Montilgafani, and I thought, “She’ll never get it, and if she gets it she’ll never read it.” But she really went wild over them, and when I sent her 63: Dream Palace she said that it had to be properly published.
MORROW: She was the person who put it into Victor Gollancz’s hands?
PURDY: Yes. Then he infuriated her by taking those words out. It’s bowdlerized, that edition. She was indignant about it.
MORROW: How does a Purdy novel develop? You begin by writing anonymous anomalous letters, then ideas begin forming themselves into larger schemes, then characters begin making visitations, etc.?
PURDY: I don’t know when I’ve started a book. For example, On Glory’s Course. I knew the heroine of the book largely through my mother. I only remember her because she was always talking about her. I was thinking this would make a wonderful story but it was too far away from me, too removed from my actual memory. But it just started and I couldn’t stop: I resisted it all the way through, the last fifty pages I thought I’d never see through. There were these young veterans from World War I who were horribly disfigured, and they had plates in their legs and plates in their heads. These veterans appear in the story.
MORROW: These disfigured vets have appeared before!
PURDY: Yes! I used to see them in my hometown, I’d see them on my way to school. They were in their early thirties, and they’ve stayed with me.
MORROW: How much do you write at a sitting?
PURDY: This may sound a little pretentious, but the books are so intense that if I write three or four pages it’s just like I’ve been running for an hour in the blazing sun. I’m just a wreck. I have to either take a walk, or lie down. Sometimes I’ll write at two sittings in a day. But I can always write anonymous letters, even if I’m fagged. Those are like taking dope. I used to write terrible letters to publishers and send them but I’ve learned not to do that: I write them, but I don’t send them now! I write three or four pages in a day. I’ve written as many as twenty pages in a day, but at that intensity twenty pages kills you, something bursts inside of you. Usually I revise at a later date; when I get up I usually keep going rather than revise what I’ve already written. It’s like mountain climbing: You had better keep going. Sometimes I reread, sometimes not. Sometimes I’m afraid to reread it for fear I’ll look down and fall. You see, you’ve got to maintain a speed, you’ve got to keep telling what you know. There’s part of you that says, “This is so much shit, stop, it’s no good, who cares about it.” But you can’t believe that. You have to be crazy and believe.
MORROW: Lack of a certain kind of apperception is an important element in creating a novel?
PURDY: Yes, you’re too dumb to know better. You have to keep going. Malcolm Cowley once wrote me that it is true I am a genius, but I’m a primitive genius. I was astonished anyone called me a genius in the first place, whatever that is. But he said I don’t know how to write.
MORROW: I noticed in your room in Brooklyn that your library has no contemporary fiction in it.
PURDY: Yes, just Loeb Library. All Greeks, dead Greeks! I get the sap for my work out of those books. I was reading Diodorus Siculus the other day and he said, “It’s very hard to travel beyond the north wind, but if you do go beyond the north wind you can pick up an arrow and it will fly back to where you started.” Like a witch on a broomstick, say. And I thought, Isn’t that horrible, to go back to beyond where the north wind blows. Those people are called the Hyperboreans.
MORROW: Sounds like Einsteinian curved space.
PURDY: That stayed with me for a week.
MORROW: What was the last book of contemporary fiction that you read and admired?
PURDY: William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I can see how William Gaddis is said to like my work, because we both come from that sort of puritanic small town in America. I like some of Paul Bowles’s work, and some of Tennessee Williams’s stories. Also, Alejo Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo and Peter Feibleman’s A Place Without Twilight.
MORROW: What is your opinion, in retrospect, of your novel Malcolm?
PURDY: I think in a way it’s my best book, one of my best. It’s like a big firecracker that keeps going off. It’s quite outrageous and I’m sorry to say that some academics now say, well, that’s just his first book, he ought to just forget it: I think that’s a mistake, because they’re not reading it correctly.
MORROW: What about Cabot Wright Begins?
PURDY: That used to be my least favorite book. I think it’s somewhat like Malcolm in that it is an outrageous work. I based it on real characters, except Cabot himself. This crazy ex-convict I knew was always going to write a book about a rapist and all he talked about was this man, this rapist. I got so sick of hearing about it, and I knew he’d never write it because he’s not a writer, so I wrote it for him!
MORROW: Which of your stories would you include in a selected stories of James Purdy?
PURDY: “Some of These Days,” “Eventide,” “You Reach for Your Hat,” “Cutting Edge,” “Man and Wife,” “Sleep Tight.”
MORROW: “Daddy Wolf”?
PURDY: Yes. And “Goodnight, Sweetheart.” “Summer Tidings” too.
MORROW: We’ve talked before about how America tends to exile its greatest writers. You’re essentially in a state of self-exile, exile, at least, from the so-called establishment.
PURDY: Yes. Because they want Longfellow. They want lies. The publishers do.
MORROW: The country is conservative?
PURDY: I don’t think the country is conservative. I think it’s wild. I’m talking about business. I’m talking about business. You see, very ordinary people can read my books, but they’re never told to read them, they’re told not to read them. Anybody could read Mourners Below. Public relations men need labels to sell things, but they could never label me because every one of my books is different.
MORROW: Tell me about your new novel, On Glory’s Course.
PURDY: It takes place almost eighty years ago, some of it a hundred years ago. It’s about a woman who in 1897 had an illegitimate child, and she came of a wealthy family. Her life was ruined by it. They took the baby away from her. The book begins when she is forty-eight years old, and this young boy who is sort of her adopted errand boy gets this girl in trouble. And suddenly his baby, and this similar predicament, digs up her past life, which she thought she had kept a secret. Actually everybody knew about it all along. It’s based on a true story. I’ve always wanted to write it but I thought it was too difficult. Finally I just started it. Everything about it is difficult.
MORROW: How did you research it?
PURDY: I read a lot of books about the period, a lot of novels, too, like Poor White and Heaven’s My Destination. But in the end they didn’t help much. The story was told to me by my grandmother.
MORROW: In your dialogues in the novel do you use period terminologies?
PURDY: Well, sort of. But it’s not a “period” book, it could happen now.
MORROW: When did you write your first story? Not the anonymous anomalous letters, but an actual story?
PURDY: I wrote a lot of stories when I was very young. They’re all lost. I used to publish this little magazine on a duplicator. It had my stories in it.The Niocene. I got out five or six issues! They’re all lost now, I imagine. I was eleven or twelve. I wrote everything in it, but it was mostly imaginary. I printed it on a duplicator, an old one that you used with jelly. It was very messy. I ran off several copies and bound them myself with fasteners. I guess those were my first published stories. I’d run off ten and give them to my family and friends. I sold some, too!
MORROW: Instead of lemonade.
PURDY: Yes! I forget how much I charged.
MORROW: There is a deep compulsion to write, in order to be read.
PURDY: Yes, but I don’t think it’s so much to be read as to be heard, to communicate. My idea now is that there is really no communication in the media at all. That you’re not reaching your audience. People are listening, but nothing is being communicated. Their attention is simply being taken up. But nothing is being told them. It’s noncommunication on a mass scale. It’s like the music in this restaurant. It’s noise: it’s not communicating, musically. It’s not saying anything to the psyche. That is what the television is all about. Nothing is being said. There are these words. And there are these people speaking these words. But they’re not actually reaching their audience. It’s noncommunication communication.
MORROW: This ties into the earlier statement about the desire to hear lies, perhaps. Tell me more about your childhood.
PURDY: I grew up in the country. My family is Scotch-Irish. The family were mostly farmers, but my father didn’t like being a farmer. He became a businessman, so he got to work in the bank, in real estate, things like that. But they all remained sort of rural. I had two brothers, actually I had three brothers, but one died before I was born.
MORROW: Besides publishing your stories in The Niocene, did you ever publish in school magazines as you were growing up?
PURDY: No. I don’t think they liked what I wrote in school. It was a preview of what the critics were going to say. The stories bothered my teachers, until I got into high school, where I had a good teacher. She read my writing and thought it was remarkable. The only advice she gave me was to keep writing. She said I would be a writer.
MORROW: What did you do after you finished high school?
PURDY: I went to Chicago. Then I got into the army. I was a most unlikely soldier. I was going to be drafted, so I just joined up. That was in 1941. But there were a lot of people that didn’t belong in the army. I didn’t have to go into combat, for some reason. I was based at Scott Field, which is in Belleville, Illinois.
MORROW: Did you manage to write still, while you were in the army?
PURDY: No, that stopped it all. I suppose I wrote a few little things, but I was frustrated. But I was learning a lot.
MORROW: What did you do after you got out of the army?
PURDY: I did interpreting for a while, and then I got a job in Cuba. I learned Spanish in the army. I taught school in Havana for a year, and that was quite interesting. The government got me that job, it was sort of a teachers’ agency, except it was the U.S. government. It was a school for Cubans and Americans, and I taught English literature more or less. We had trouble getting books, so they had to read a lot of books that weren’t first-rate. I could have stayed on longer, but I didn’t want to.
MORROW: Did you start writing again when you were in Cuba?
PURDY: Yes. I had one story published then, in The Prairie Schooner. That was a big event. They took my story “You Reach for Your Hat.” That was my first published story. After I left Cuba, I came back to Wisconsin, where I taught for several years at Lawrence College. I taught English and Spanish. Then I just gave it all up. I had jobs all around the country. Those were terrible years. I want to tell you, I wouldn’t want the name of the magazine used, though it ought to be, I think it was between 1948 and 1951, I sent “Eventide” to a magazine. Now “Eventide” has since become a classic. This magazine accepted the story for publication and after three years returned it to me stating that they decided not to publish it. I don’t think editors know what that does to a young writer. It is so devastating. Then when I was made rather famous when Color of Darkness was praised by all these critics and writers, the editor of that magazine had the nerve to write me a letter of congratulations. I never replied, of course. What was I to do? But anyway, I wrote a lot in Wisconsin, I finished Color of Darkness there. But it was impossible to get those stories published. I would send them out and they were rejected one by one by one. I got vicious comments. Editors said to me, “These stories are sick.” You know, when you’re that young you are just starving for encouragement. I was destroyed by it, but I didn’t seem to be able to stop. I don’t trust evaluations. I don’t care who it is. It’s hard to forgive people: To tell a writer he has no talent is a form of murder. Why don’t you go out and shoot yourself? That’s what it means.
MORROW: What magazines began accepting your stories?
PURDY: Black Mountain Review, which Robert Creeley edited. He took a story, and it was a godsend, because I couldn’t get anything published. And when he took “Sound of Talking” that was a big moment for me. Then there was nothing. Then there was a man in Chicago, Osborn Andreas, who felt that the stories had to be published, so he privately published Don’t Call Me by my Right Name. And those stories were kind of a bombshell, they shocked everyone.
MORROW: What did your family think?
PURDY: Well, they didn’t shock them. 63: Dream Palace shocked them, but not as much as it shocked the critics. Had this man never published those two books I would have been unheard of forever. I couldn’t have gone on because of all the rejections. I probably would have written, but it all would have been left in bureau drawers.
MORROW: All these novels would be in drawers?
PURDY: I probably would have died. I think the New York literary establishment is totally closed to anything new. When you think of the slick magazines and what they publish, and when you think of the editors and what they want! What they want is recycled cellophane. They want recycled recycled. Sawdust. Those are formula stories they take. They’re utterly dead. They don’t even have water in them. They’re utterly recycled sawdust. The stories are meant to go along with the ads for Tiffany’s, the Plaza Hotel, Cartier’s, Alfred Dunhill. There should be nothing really human about the stories. It’s all about clothes and fashion.
MORROW: Most New York-based slick magazines are simply vehicles for advertisements and are meant to generate capital. They mask this behind the guise of self-help, fashion, cuisine. But it’s all a showcase for the ads.
PURDY: It’s all for the money. Everything in the United States is money.
MORROW: Perhaps this is part of the reason some of your best writers are exiles, in Brooklyn, or Tangier, or whatever. So you would have stopped writing and sending material out?
PURDY: I would have died. What else could I have done? I hate teaching. I like being with the students, and talking with them. But I hate teaching, I don’t communicate that way. It’s not my form of communication.
MORROW: How did you leave stories, as a literary form, and begin writing your first novel, Malcolm?
PURDY: I just started writing. I wrote Malcolm for a friend, really. He gave me a place to live in the country, in Pennsylvania, near Quakertown. His name is Jorma Jules Sjoblom, he’s Swedish and Finnish. He would read it when he came home from work. I wrote Malcolm in a few months, but, see, I didn’t think anybody was ever going to publish it. But when I did get a publisher I spent quite a few months going over it. It didn’t have an ending, so I had to write an ending.
MORROW: I notice that you write purposely to be read. Malcolm was written during the day as a gift to someone who came home from work in the evening to read it.
PURDY: It’s true. This is how I communicate. This is how I stay alive. That’s what I mean about television. It doesn’t communicate. It’s sad how people sit in front of that box instead of touching other people, like your family, and saying, “I did this. What did you do today?” or “What are you wearing, what is that fabric?” You see, this is communication, that other is death. They’re being used as a mechanical receptor, they’re as dead as the television itself.
MORROW: What makes reading an act of communication where watching the television is noncommunication?
PURDY: If it is an important book, it is another human being talking to you, even though it’s on the written page. Television is something thought up out of a formula not to communicate with another human being, but to manipulate him. To get money out of him because there will be ads. When Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass he wanted to communicate with anyone who would want to understand: He didn’t want to manipulate that person, or get money out of him, he wanted to touch that person. Television is manipulative noncommunication. Nearly everything in our society follows that principle, though. Movies, medicine. There is no communication between doctor and patient, by and large. It’s just to extract money out of them, and giving them a formula which probably doesn’t fit them. So I think the whole society will crash because of this lack of communication. Everything that we do in America is non‚communicative. We lie to get power over people, and to get money. People are manipulated into thinking they want to manipulate! It’s the only thing we believe in, money. We think it would be nice to be rich, because then we wouldn’t have to suffer certain things. Then you spend your life protecting your eggs. It’s a nightmare. When you are reading a book, you are actually talking with another person, whether you know it or not. I can’t just look at you, and let you talk, and not give you anything. But you can do this to a screen: That’s why it is noncommunication: You cannot give the screen anything, because it’s dead. In Aristophanes’ and Shakespeare’s theaters the players and the audience were one, they weren’t separate: They were communicating with one another. Shakespearean audiences screamed at the actors, threatened them, cheered them. I was brought up not on the theater, because we had no theater, but on the movies. And this has harmed us, because the actors can’t see us. We can see the screen, but it can’t see us. This is the beginning of the noncommunicativeness of our culture.
MORROW: It’s funny that you have to sit in a darkened room to watch television or the movies, but you have to sit in a lightened room to read a book.
PURDY: True. Also, when you read a book you know that one person wrote that book for you, for you. Nobody wrote these television shows, they were compiled by machines, they were tested. And they are considered complete failures unless ninety-eight million people see them. And they don’t even exist! Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass for maybe ten people, but those ten people were communicated with, while the ninety-eight million are not. The reader has to react to the text or it will not come into existence for him, where the television will go on whether you are there or not. Television is eternal, it’s eternal noise. It has no beginning, middle, or end, like a book: it is just … it!
MORROW: When someone reads a book the visual imagery that is formed in his head is an imagery that comes from his own personal past, whereas the television screen provides all ninety-eight million people with a single image that doesn’t relate to anyone’s past except for the cameramen and actors.
PURDY: It doesn’t relate to anything at all.
MORROW: So when I read about some fellow named Daddy Wolf, and I am given no physical description of what a Daddy Wolf looks like, or what he is finally up to, the communicative part I play as a reader comes in the formulation of an imagery in my mind: In the process of reading, my intellect and imagination are sparked into participation: There is room for movement because James Purdy has constructed a landscape for me to bump around in.
PURDY: What is a Daddy Wolf and why is it called Daddy Wolf? You see, you are being opened up, if you are really “conversing” with the book. Even if you are talking about trivial things. You are having a reciprocal human experience. Communication is life. We are only human as long as we have communication with other human beings. If man lived totally alone, he wouldn’t be human. I don’t know what he would be: He’d be something else. This is the whole reason for art, and for life. Only by being next to other people are we human. And in our culture this happens less and less and less and less. That’s why we have all kinds of strange behavioral anomalies.
MORROW: And yet you refuse to exile yourself from America, even though you recognize the horror that defines our culture.
PURDY: I couldn’t leave. I used to get very upset when I lived in Spain because I was communicating with Spaniards, but it was in a language that was not my own. I started getting ill because of it. I couldn’t live elsewhere. Brooklyn is not the kind of English I know either, it is a very bad English.
MORROW: How did you end up living in Brooklyn?
PURDY: I really don’t know why I’m here. I really didn’t have much choice. I moved here because I was desperate to find a room. I moved here from Pennsylvania in 1962. You might think that I chose Brooklyn; I didn’t. I fell here, from a plane. I’m stuck here. I don’t have any freedom of movement, unless I become a vagabond, because I don’t have any money. You can’t plan your life if the job you are doing doesn’t pay. People say you can do this, you can do that, but all I can do is live by the day. People think I’m a writer. I’m not a writer. I write books, but I’m not a writer. I’m not supported by the profession.
MORROW: Do you think that will change?
PURDY: I doubt it. It’ll probably get worse. I don’t know, I don’t even care. I used to think that one day my books would sell, but I don’t think they ever will.
MORROW: It’s not impossible that a year after you die everyone will say, “That’s the man, James Purdy, what a great writer.”
PURDY: Oh, sure. That happens in America. They’re glad you’re dead.
MORROW: The more “slick” the death, the more apt one is to gain a twenty-five-year reputation among those in academe as one of the greats.
PURDY: It happened to Dylan Thomas. Nathanael West. It will happen again.
MORROW: Are you a compulsory writer?
PURDY: No, it’s not compulsory. I guess it’s just inevitable that I keep on writing books. After I finish a novel I sort of rest by writing a story, or plays. But I don’t make any plans; those are made for me by my subconscious.
MORROW: Are you conscious of any style in your writing?
PURDY: Not in those terms. I know this, and this is all I know. It has to fit right: every sentence: It has to just be … right.
MORROW: You build by sentences?
PURDY: Sometimes. More often by little paragraphs. But I think I am a dramatic writer in that it’s what people say that is what I write, why I write. It’s people speaking, it’s not a writer explaining something. I don’t explain much. I think it’s all in what is either said, or not said. But I am very fussy about the sentences being just the way I want them, and the fact that many of my characters use, as Marianne Moore called it, the vernacular, makes certain pseudo-highbrow critics wring their hands. They think I’m an ignoramus. I don’t like that word “style,” because it smacks of the academies, but I do have style. But it’s not style in the sense that one would apply to Henry James, where he talks through five thousand sheets. He never gets to the characters because he, Henry James, talk talk talks. Everything is talked about, nothing shown. Which is a great achievement, I guess, but doesn’t work for me. Tennessee Williams once told me “That’s mahtee fahn dahlog.” It also has to do with communicating. Style shouldn’t be thrown up between the writer and reader. It destroys the communication. Noncommunicative communication destroys attention, destroys the family.
MORROW: This noncommunication you’ve discussed sounds very Machiavellian to me, in the sense that it makes the populace easier to be ruled.
PURDY: True, by monsters. It is Machiavellian. But instead of making people fascists, or cannibals, or criminals, it turns them into zombies, which is worse. Because to be made into a member of some terrible political party, or a cannibal, is still sort of human. But to be turned into nothing is awful. Evil is better than nothingness, because it’s human. Evil is horrid, but it’s still human. To be a zombie is the bottom. You’re another television set looking at a television set. You go out into the world and no one knows you, you can be ruled because you’re programmed. Everything is stamped, put on the shelf, described, thrown out into the garbage. It’s a political process, and behind that an economic process. But to be nothing, that is the worst of all possible things.
James Purdy is the author of Out With the Stars, published by Peter Owen, London, in 1992. Other works include his Collected Poems (1990) and In the Night of Time and Four Other Plays (1992), both published in English by Polay and Van Gennep, Amsterdam.
Bradford Morrow is the founding editor of Conjunctions. He is the author of nine books of fiction, including Trinity Fields, Giovanni’s Gift, The Forgers, and The Prague Sonata. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction, an Academy Award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Nora Magid Award for excellence in editing a literary journal. A Bard Center Fellow and professor of literature at Bard College, he lives in New York City.