Postmodernism and Sumo Wrestlers: An Interview with Joseph McElroy
For this week’s Mahal, I spoke to Joseph McElroy, my friend’s dad and one of postmodernism’s major players. His 1960s debut novel, A Smuggler’s Bible, is something of a modern classic, and at age 82, Joseph’s still kicking—Dzanc Books recently released his ninth novel, Cannonball. The book tells the complicated story of an inexperienced San Diego photographer, who shoots government staged propaganda during the Iraq War and finds himself involved with two California divers, an illegal immigrant from Mongolia, and the narrator himself. I recently chatted with Joseph about his new novel, his career, and why water is a fascinating literary topic.
VICE: When did you first realize you could pay your bills by writing postmodern books about smugglers and other dudes living in America?
Joseph McElroy: I never did, although there were times when I had a windfall or a book made some money, and I thought, I’m going to be able to do this. Kurt Vonnegut said that he figured two percent of practicing writers made a sufficient living to support themselves and their families. I was fortunate enough to really enjoy teaching. My books have a certain reputation, but I am not a bestselling author, and I probably could not have continued writing as much as I have if it were not for other sources of income.
What's the story behind your first book, A Smuggler's Bible?
A Smuggler's Bible is, like everybody's first novel, trying to put too much between covers. What I do is take that idea, think of a young person with eight different episodes in his life, try to bring them together, and fail. With the smuggling metaphor, I find all kinds of connections within the parts of his life. The smuggling also works in trying to bring together what is precariously only one life—it's a young book, and young people still seem to like it.
What was your most significant discovery while writing Women And Men?
It is partly about the close and even microscopic interrelations between women and men, which are always there. Also, the book sees that there are strange similarities between women and men—however, I cannot say that without acknowledging that this fundamental relationship happened during a time when second generation feminism was so important in New York, and there was a war going on that opened up all of the United States.
Why is your non-fiction project on water taking you over nine years to write?
Well, it's partly because of the materials coming in over the transit from day to day—from China, from Russia, from the guy next door. Everybody knows that Joe is writing a book about water! According to my son, Kanye West even says, "My momma was raised in an era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin."
In the beginning, I looked at water becoming a commodity—people buying and selling water and stealing from aquifers, municipal water management in South America, where poor people were really fucked over endlessly—and other bad things happening in the water world. I have always been interested in water, even as a swimmer, a diver, and a coast guard on a weather ship out in the middle of the Atlantic during the Korean War. My goal was to write a book about water that was going to change the world. I soon realized that it was naïve, and I wasn't going to persuade anybody.
I stepped back and went to the physics of water and from there to my own experience of how the properties of water are connected to floods, draughts, and even dams. Many distinctly nonfictional events become chapters in the book. However, our imagination goes beyond what we normally make of non-fiction. Through that I come back to the arts and how it can change the way we think about water.
What inspired you to write Cannonball?
If I were to put my finger to one cause for the novel, it was anger of the Iraq war that led me to the strangeness of things that happened. Although, I am not a practicing Christian, I was angry at the self-righteousness of the government. They undoubtedly embedded a pretext for entering the war--I made up another kind of pretext for getting into the war. What I made up was partly based upon a big event in archeology back to 1947, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered on the shore of the Dead Sea. I made up whole kinds of new scrolls. Which, in this case, the government concocts, wants to protect, and sets up intent to destruction of the scrolls by terrorists. It is in that situation that the main character is drawn. The burden of these scrolls is that Jesus is not the person we know, but a yuppie with capitalistic acclamations—thus suiting the mindset of the American government as I saw it.
Did you intend to create any connections between the Iraq War and the large sumo wrestler kid diving off of the springboard?
Yes, I did. We are flashed forward to the involvement of the young Asian boy, who is physically huge and much younger than he looks, doing a dive off a board into a pool in Baghdad that evidently belonged to the former Iraq dictator. At that moment, an explosion occurs, which the main character is down at poolside ready to photograph. He did not know his friend [the young Asian boy] was in Iraq. Within my knowledge of diving (I was a diver), we learn that even overweight people can be graceful, and we see that in the boy's dive, he enters the water and makes no splash at all.
It takes me a long time to understand Cannonball, and I know that the water book is taking you a long time to write. Is that typical of you?
I think the prose is challenging. I mean it to be an image of what it is really like to be alive. To be an image of consciousness.
You seem to like to take your sweet time with your writing.
I'm glad you say sweet. I think they represent my love for what I am doing and my patience. I don't thing the great books necessarily compel us to finish them in a short amount of time. A lot of my writing and my meditation (out of which the writing comes) could be associated with a kind of lateral and illuminating patience that tells me that I will take my time and the book will be the way I want it to be. Pascal, the French mathematician said, "The last thing you decide is what to put first.” I think he might have been talking about what is important in your life, but also speaking of writing. The difference between writing and acting is that at the last minute you can change the opening—here I can change whatever I like. The rewriting is where the victories are won. That is another reason why books take time.
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Excerpt from the Novel ‘Family Life’
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