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Barry Gifford Is America’s Offbeat Dostoevsky

We caught up with the novelist, poet, and frequent David Lynch collaborator to talk about his new book 'Writers' and what it’s been like working with the iconic director.
December 4, 2015, 4:30pm

Photo by Matt Dillon

In Barry Gifford's short play "After Words"—one of 13 that make up his new collection, Writers, published in November by Seven Stories PressRoberto Bolaño and the ghost of Jorge Luis Borges indulge in some literary hobnobbing. "Camus took his style," proclaims Bolaño, "from Hemingway and James M. Caine." The formulation is the kind of pigeonholing Gifford (a frequent contributor to the VICE Fiction Issue) has spent his own career trying to avoid, but a longtime reader could be forgiven for describing his style similarly. That is: hardboiled, often minimal, existentialist. How else to explain a body of work (consisting of almost 50 novels, screenplays, and collections) that animates a lively and lunatic underworld of mobsters, motor-mouthed oddballs, profound innocents, and other desperadoes with a genial off-the-wall fatalism?

Like his characters, Gifford's typically dialogue-driven books span the country, from the Mexican border to the shady back roads of the South, only occasionally brushing up against the better-lit world of the American mainstream. In 1990, the film David Lynch made of his novel Wild at Heart won the Palm d'Or at Cannes, and Gifford continued his relationship with Lynch, with whom he wrote the 1997 film Lost Highway and the HBO series Hotel Room. Wild at Heart's pair of passionate star-crossed lovers, Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune (played in the film by Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern), would go on to feature in eight more novels, most recently 2014's The Up-Down.


Now, in Writers, Gifford presents short scenes that combine snatches from the imagined lives of literary luminaries with his trademark conversational surrealism: Jack Kerouac talks books with famous criminal Crazy Joe Gallo, Jane Bowles flirts with an older woman at the Stanhope Hotel, James Joyce has a word with Samuel Beckett, and so on. I met Gifford at the offices of his publisher prior to a staging of some of Writers plays at the New School, to talk writing, weirdness, and what it's like to go to a diner with David Lynch and Harry Dean Stanton.

VICE: In Writers, you're dealing with some extremely well-documented personalities. But your goal seems to be only partly biographical.
Barry Gifford: That's why I have Camus quoting Proust's dictum, "Literature is the finest kind of lying." My idea was to depict these writers in wholly imaginary or relatively realistic moments in their lives and taking liberties with what, in several cases, has passed for biographical information.

The facts about a writer are to be found in what they wrote. If people are interested in Hemingway, it's because Hemingway produced a body of work that's worthy of study. I wanted to get at something closer. I wrote the Hemingway piece, "Spring Training at the Finca Vigia," a year or so before the others. A gallery in San Francisco put it on, got a good reception, and so I started thinking about how I could get at the essence, the souls, of these writers I admire. I wanted them to be able to speak to the audience in a way that I thought was realistic. But not, strictly speaking, biographical.


And yet you've got Baudelaire receiving his Dear John letter from Jeanne Duval, his "Black Venus"; B. Traven going to see John Huston in disguise on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre … How do you choose these precise moments?
I made them up! For the most part. I mean, Proust on his deathbed is one thing.

He did actually die. Fact.
But he was actually waiting for this angel of death to appear. That's based on fact. But of course I made the whole thing up. That's what fiction is, and these little plays are fiction. I've never been able to stand anybody writing about writing. So there's Camus in a hotel room in New York 1957 with a prostitute whose ex-pimp is going to be executed at midnight. So it's an intimate situation to begin with, but also a false situation, one that forces him to confront his own identity. Where does that come from? I don't know.

The John Huston one, "The Pith Helmet" is interesting, since he himself wrote and directed so many adaptations from literature. For example, in his Moby Dick, Ahab catches the whale.
Well, you take on Moby-Dick, you're going to have problems. Plus you need a mechanical whale. But Huston was a terrific writer and made several of the masterpieces of cinema—besides Treasure of the Sierra Madre, there's The Asphalt Jungle, and Joyce's The Dead . It's a thankless job, to take on so-called classics. And remember, Moby-Dick was Herman Melville's downfall too. Can you imagine? And now it's up there with In Search of Lost Time as the book the most people pretend to have read. That's why, in my Melville play, "The True Test of Greatness," I scattered in lines from his books. Some people will see it immediately, and others will think I made it up. Just as well. It's all in Melville's voice, attributed to Melville.

"Most of the time, the people who taught me best by example and by their writings happened to be either female or gay. Or both."

How do you find a voice like Melville's or Joyce's without just feeling like you're aping their writing?
It had to do with rereading Finnegans Wake—I always understood Finnegans Wake as a dream, but for a long time it seemed like something was lacking. Then I made a discovery; a friend gave me a recording of Joyce reading from the book for eight minutes. That high, lilting kind of voice evoked the sound of the river Liffey flowing through Dublin, over the rocks. It was that rhythm of that musical voice that lit the whole thing up for me. Now I knew how to read Finnegans Wake ! That's absolutely what I'm trying to do with Writers, to let you hear the voices of these people as near as I can imagine it.

It's not always that flattering to them, either. Your Martha Gellhorn comes off as much smarter than Hemingway.
I think that's a very realistic presentation. It's the women who are usually my heroes. It's funny how that works. Most of the time, the people who taught me best by example and by their writings happened to be either female or gay. Or both. I'm neither. Like Jane Bowles—she was such a foundational writer for me, even though her output was very small. I find her to be, as Tennessee Williams agreed, far greater than Paul Bowles, her husband, and as a character she fascinated me. She said, "Certainly I am nearer to being a saint" than a writer. I tried to write her as both.


Many of the authors you chose to write about are what might be considered regional writers. Do you feel rooted, as a writer, to any particular place?
I had a peripatetic childhood. I was born in Chicago and, within a few months, we moved to Key West and I spent my early years going back and forth between there and Havana, where my dad had a place in the Hotel Nacional. And my mother and I would often drive to the family headquarters in Chicago. My novel Wyoming is my record of those drives. But I had a very informal education, was in and out of school. My real instruction came from being in New Orleans for a while, then Jackson, Mississippi, or Miami. But I'm not an autobiographical writer. With the Sailor and Lula books, I decided to write out of the Southern part of my brain. So I created them as my mouthpieces and then that grew and grew.

Did the larger-than-life portrayals by Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula in David Lynch's film of Wild at Heart change your attitudes toward them?
No. A movie is a movie, a book is a book. The only thing they have in common is that they both necessitate the use of words. I was thrilled with Wild at Heart. The one change that came out of the film was that, after spending six days on the script, David called me up and asked, "Do Sailor and Lula get back together?" And I said, "Sure they do." He said, "That's great!" and wrote that famous ending, which doesn't occur in the book. That's the only big adjustment that had to be made. David shot virtually every chapter—he's released most of the cut scenes in the Lime Green boxed set. It would be fun some day to see that stuff integrated into the final cut.


I heard the torture scene between Grace Zabriskie and Harry Dean Stanton caused walk-outs during the test screening and nobody's seen it since.
There was actually a 20-minute version of that. I was talking about this the other day with Duwayne Dunham, the editor who's now working with David Lynch on the Twin Peaks redux. About a minute of that sequence made it into the film, because the reaction of the test audiences was just so horrified that it had to be chopped. The same thing happened when we did Lost Highway, we sat together and had a three-and-half-hour movie, and we both agreed to cut it and lighten it up.

On Noisey: David Lynch on Twitter, Partying, and Being Free:

I've been dying to ask—what's Harry Dean Stanton like in person?
Oh yeah, I wrote a poem about him that's coming out in April as part of a collection called New York 1960. I met him during the shooting of Wild at Heart and again when David and I were making Hotel Room for HBO. My old friend Vinnie Deserio was visiting the set. Vinnie's a plumber and a Tibetan Buddhist—in fact, he was a bodyguard for a Lama for several years…

I didn't know Lamas had bodyguards.
This one did. In any event, Harry Dean and Vinnie would get into these amazing conversations at the Du-pars Diner. And I mean, David Lynch and I had to go sit at our own table, because Harry Dean and Vinnie were philosophers, men of the world and normal guys like us couldn't compete. The places they would go in these discussions were unlike anything you've ever heard in your life.

"There are stratums of society that, when someone like Jim Thompson writes about them, everybody says, 'Yeah, what a bunch of crazy down-and-out deadbeat people.' But all the same themes are there in Dostoevsky."

It's refreshing you're so at ease with films, when you think about how many writers complain about their work being butchered in film…
That's why Lynch and I get along so well. But not everybody is David Lynch. Take Perdita Durango [the 1997 Álex de la Iglesia film released in the US as Dance with the Devil]. That film went through numerous rewrites before Álex decided to take it back to the content of my book. I'm not sure that was the right thing to have done. I'm all for jumping off, making it something different.

Your work has been described as "screwball noir," a kind of pulp Americana.
Noir is what critics call you if you write about people who are basically at the lower end of the economic totem pole, people that need to scrap to survive. I'm not complaining, but there are stratums of society that, when someone like Jim Thompson writes about them, everybody says, "Yeah, what a bunch of crazy down-and-out deadbeat people." But all the same themes are there in Dostoevsky.

So you're trying to get back to some kind of authenticity, independent of genre and format?
The thing that was always most interesting to me was how people talk. I was raised in hotels, born in a hotel, grew up sitting around swimming pools, listening to people coming and going from all parts of the world, listening to how they spoke and learning the dialects in Chicago and Havana. I was fascinated by the way people spoke and not just the stories they told—the inflections, the accents. H. L. Mencken's The American Language was my foundation text. Almost no one talks about that book anymore, but that's what interests me. To get down to how people really talk and what's behind the words they're using and let the stories build in that way. That's what I've always been about. I want to get the voices right. So that's why in Writers I thought, Let them speak for themselves!

J. W. McCormack is a writer whose work has appeared in Bookforum, the Brooklyn Rail,Tin House, the New Inquiry, n+1, Publisher's Weekly, and Conjunctions.

Writers by Barry Gifford by Barry Gifford is now available in bookstores and online from Seven Stories Press.