This interview took place on September 18 and 19, 1985, at Garrett’s house in Charlottesville, not far from the University of Virginia. It is a sizable stone house, rented, with most of the available wall space covered with hastily erected brick-and-board bookcases. Not quite settled yet, Garrett and his wife, Susan, joked about how they were still living like graduate students, after 30-odd years of an extremely peripatetic career.
Bell: Why did Death of the Fox take so long to write?
Garrett: Partly because I was doing all these other things at the same time. I worked in Hollywood. All kind of teaching and publishing, and other stuff. And I just never knew enough to be able to do it. I didn’t know what I was looking for. And there was the great explosion of Elizabethan scholarship: As fast as I would think I was reading everything I should know, 50 more books would come out. Trying to know enough to do it, handling truckloads of notes got in my way. It may have been that they were so disorganized. So I changed the model of my book from term paper to test. Which are the only two models we have when we come out of college: you write a paper or a test. So I changed it over to test and then I just closed the trunk and wrote it off the top of my head.
The down side is, two weeks after Death of the Fox was published I couldn’t remember Ralegh’s middle name if he had one, let alone any details. So when I came to do The Succession, which had been planned, I thought it would be real easy because I knew everything. I opened up the blank sheet of paper and I didn’t know anything! I had to start over and do the same thing, exactly, back to square one.
Bell: The Ralegh in Death of the Fox, is that a portrait of the real Ralegh, do you think, or an invention, or both?
Garrett: It has to be a little of both and it has to be somewhat distorted. Even unintentionally distorted. Things are in there because I remembered them at a particular time. Right? In other words, it partakes of the peculiar urgency of memory.
Bell: You never cheated at all?
Garrett: Basically not. It was like an open book exam, but you’ve got time as a factor. Insofar as the book has any singular living quality, it is the quality of being really remembered. Okay. It is really remembered, because I am straining my memory trying to recall what I read about Sir Walter Ralegh. The urgency of my memory gives it a certain kind of excitement it might not have had otherwise. On the other hand, the risk is that you will forget. And I frankly forgot some major events in Ralegh’s life, some of which contradict or greatly modify positions I did take about it. I thought, “So what, let them worry about it. It would be cheating if I did.” And I didn’t mind the figure that emerged. It is quite true that he is a distorted figure and certain amounts of historical fact and detail about him seem to have been suppressed, forgotten. I don’t know what real experts on Ralegh would think. There were a few notices that said, “Wonder why he didn’t mention his 10-year obsession with so-and-so . . . ” Either I had never heard of it or I had forgotten it. It was a slight cheat to have him remember as I am trying to remember. To put the whole story at the end of his life so he is allowed to forget aspects of his own career.
Bell: One of the things in both of the books is a sharp analysis of political behavior. What do you think, was their political life like ours?
Garrett: I think in many ways it was. It had more integrity in a certain way—you died for your positions. You don’t die for them now, you just deny everything and run on the other ticket. I think you would shake a lot of guys out of American politics like rotten apples off a tree if they thought their lives were on the line.
Bell: There is a lot of detail, especially in The Succession, about ordinary people, rather than historical personalities. Do you think you ended up knowing what the basic life of the time was like?
Garrett: No, I’m not sure that I did. What one ends up with in a work of fiction of that kind, ideally, is a capacity to imagine living at that time with the elements which you have been given.
Bell: Living as yourself?
Garrett: This is about the most that you can figure. The deeper I got into it, the more alien it seemed. I never really got around that. I still think that is the main impact.
Bell: They weren’t much like us, then.
Garrett: No. The more you knew about them the odder they appeared, by our standards. Then it gets really quite startling if you realize that it hasn’t been all that long ago—human beings have changed that much in such a short time. They can’t even perceive the world in the same way.
Bell: Does this sort of discovery cause you to believe in progress?
Bell: What about the progress of intellect and sensibility, evolution of that kind? Do you think it exists at all?
Garrett: I have my doubts. Are you thinking of whether people are more intelligent or knowledgeable? They know different things. I don’t think they are any better. But I am thinking one of the characteristics of the 20th century is how often and how successfully we lie to ourselves.
Elizabeth I could forbid discussion of certain topics. Her succession was illegal to discuss in public, particularly during the last 10 years of her life, when it was a very important issue. Now, we are very proud of our complete freedom of discussion.
One of the great tragedies of a free society is when they use self-censorship to such an extent that they might as well have state censorship. There are any number of things that have become unthinkable to discuss. You would be instantly thrown out of the room.
Who can deny some technological progress? But the Elizabethans did at least weigh the consequences of the technological progress they had available to them. There are cases where they changed their mind about something they were going to do because of the dangers involved. Old people in America, who were here when the very first automobiles appeared, have said that if they had ever imagined the filth and the danger these damned machines would bring into their lives, they would have stamped them out then and there, and we would be running around on horses. Now that to us is unthinkable—that someone could stamp out technological progress—but of course the Elizabethans did.
Bell: In the light of everything you’ve been saying, what is the meaning of history anymore? What do you get from it, if it is not really progressive?
Garrett: If it is not progressive, it is not so much the meaning of it as the value of it that’s in question. There are two sorts of possible notions about it. One of them would be that it is especially significant that things haven’t changed that much; there is no particular movement in history—how people handled their problems in the past is much more relevant than we might have imagined. The other, though, is that it is like an undiscovered country, to be approached not as an inferior form of modern life but as a separate and distinct culture. When we approach the Elizabethans or the Romans or anybody else in the past, it should make the past very different for us, and much more pertinent. At least it changes the perspective for us so that we have different things to learn from it than how they were so stupid they couldn’t invent television.
One of our assumptions about progress seems to be that each generation accumulates more knowledge than the past generation. That we are like giants—we are standing on the shoulders of the last generation like cheerleaders on top of a pyramid. The only problem with that is it seems that we forget as much at the other end as we are learning at this end. The sum total of knowledge does not increase, which is one of the things which makes it so difficult for us ever to have enough information to properly imagine the past.
Bell: Starting into the first novel, did you have particular influences? Did you see yourself in relation to the Agrarians or the Fugitives or Southern Renascence writers at all?
Garrett: Not really, but I had certainly read them—and had read an awful lot of William Faulkner. I was trying not to do something that sounded like everything they did, but inevitably some of my concerns were the same.
Bell: What about Faulkner as an influence?
Garrett: I went the opposite direction from some I know. Example: Reynolds Price says somewhere that he is almost completely unfamiliar with Faulkner. Very early he read one book or something and decided he didn’t want to read any more because he just didn’t want to be influenced. I did the opposite; I read it all. I think you have to do one or the other. I wanted to use the things he had taught us, but I didn’t want to sound like him, to pick up the rhythms and the words and the tropes and devices. In the best sense, there are ways to use the influence and work better. That’s what I wanted to do, and whether it was always successful or not I don’t know.
As for the others I did indeed read a great many. Southern novelists interested me the most. Warren, Lytle. I liked Tate. Caroline Gordon. I was tremendously excited by reading the first things of Carson McCullers. I didn’t know Flannery O’Connor until a little bit later, when I began to get stories turned down: “I like this story a lot and I would publish it, but it sounds too much like Flannery O’Connor.” I had Flannery O’Connor mixed up with Flann O’Brien. Anybody named Flannery, I just thought it was some guy from Ireland. It bugged me because I hardly could have been influenced by somebody I never heard of and thought was an Irishman. So I was greatly pleased, years later, to find in her book of letters one that says: “Katherine Anne Porter came through town. We had lunch. She tells me I write a lot like George Garrett. Who is he? I hope he’s no one terrible.”
Bell: The Finished Man is a political novel, and I’m wondering how you’d compare Southern politics with the politics of Elizabethan England.
Garrett: In Southern politics failure didn’t cost you your life either, but there weren’t too many second chances. As late as the 40’s and early 50’s, you get aced in Southern politics and you are finished. Except, strangely enough, for Claude Pepper, who’s the model for the senator in that novel. He was one of the leading Democratic senators, very likely would have been Vice President instead of Lyndon Johnson. Instead he got beaten out of the Senate by his own protege. The book is modeled closely enough on the Pepper/Smathers race, and most of the papers down Southeast reviewed it with pictures of them and discussed it in that way. Anyway, Claude Pepper survived all of this. A few years went by and he found himself—he is now a major national figure again: Claude Pepper the congressman, now 80-some years old, leading the aged people of America. They don’t even remember Claude Pepper the senator.
There is a story that goes with this. Susan and I both worked for Jack Kennedy, years and years ago. My job was to try to talk writers into voting for Kennedy. And I must tell you that I made endless phone calls, and many famous writers of my generation (I can remember their names, and I hope they’re reading this interview) said, “Kennedy and Nixon, Kennedy and Nixon—two of a kind, I’m not voting!” Later, many of these same guys were very passionate about marching against the Vietnam War. But after they made that statement I didn’t take their judgment about Vietnam or anything else very seriously. Their knowledge of politics was zero, and I am not progressively oriented enough to think that they acquired more knowledge as they went along.
Anyway, very shortly after Kennedy’s election, I was invited to a Kennedy party and got introduced to one of his hotshot guys as somebody from Florida. This guy said, “Tell me how we can win over and get next to the Democrats in Florida. We didn’t do well there in the election.” Pepper had come into Congress that same election, so I told him, “Co talk to Claude Pepper. He’s a winner.” And the guy said, “I would like to talk to Claude Pepper but he’s embarrassingly New Frontier.” Now, that stunned me, because it suddenly dawned on me that their feeling about the voter was like my feeling about beautiful scornful women. Any woman that liked me, something was wrong with her. The Kennedy people constantly tried to win over people that didn’t like them, and they had contempt for anybody who did.
Bell: There’s an episode in that book where the judge provokes a public beating, and gets himself badly hurt, so he can turn it to political account when he finally gets out of the hospital. I have always wondered if there was any truth in that.
Garrett: There is a basis of reality in that, though it did not involve a public beating. My father and his law partner got up at the big Fourth of July picnic where speeches were being made and said that the two of them would defend free of charge anybody who resisted the Klan in any way. Kill them, whatever. And then they very shortly had cases and so on. They did in fact run the Klan out of Central Florida, and they were in great danger of being killed. It’s a showboat way to take on the enemy, to really hit them right out there in the open. The Elizabethans have that sort of thing in common with the Southerners. Something might have happened, but if it didn’t happen right then, they were safe, as the only people who could possibly kill them were Klan people. It sort of was a shield of protection to do it so publicly. By doing it quietly they might easily have been burnt out or killed.
Bell: In the first couple of novels, did you feel like you needed to work for the market at all?
Garrett: I didn’t know what the market was. I wanted The Finished Man to be kind of a straight novel. I wanted to learn how to do one. The way it got published at all in America was because the English had already accepted it. Scribner’s had rejected that novel. When they looked at the first hundred pages they said I didn’t understand what a novel was like. I did nice short stories, but I had to understand that a novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end to it, and my story as outlined didn’t.
When Eyre and Spottiswoode took the book, then Scribner’s wanted it also, and I added one thing to their manuscript that wasn’t in Spottiswoode’s. It took about five minutes. Three pages of manuscript—you’ll see it in the book, if you open it up: Roman numeral I, beginning (and a little epigraph); about midway through, II, middle; and in front of the last 20 pages, III, end. When they accepted it they said that I certainly had improved it a whole hell of a lot and had profited from their criticism. But rejection is my middle name—we could clutter up this whole interview with rejection stories.
Bell: It seems to me that in your third novel, Do, Lord, Remember Me, the oral quality becomes much stronger. In structure it looks forward to the historical novels more than the others do. Any reason for that?
strong>Garrett: One difference from the earlier books was that some of the pressures on me to write more conventionally did not exist. With Do, Lord, Remember Me I had no desire to make it simple. I had a job. Therefore I was liberated to try stuff I wanted to do. The version that was printed represented half of that book. Fifty percent of it was cut out. I was under contract to Little, Brown, and I sent in this novel and didn’t hear from them for a long time. And back it came two days before Christmas, 1963, with a very short letter that said, “Goodbye, we don’t need this. We find this novel to be scabrous and orotund.” I will never forget the term, “scabrous and orotund.” I had to go get a dictionary to find out if that was good or not. That was Alan D. Williams, and at some point he said, “Don’t give up. Some day you will make a dent in the American consciousness.” Ever since then I have seen it as a fender, this huge fender, the American consciousness.
Bell: What is the first thing you began to write, poetry or fiction?
Garrett: Poems. Back in the early 40’s, high school and college. My first exposure was reading out loud to an audience, and I did that for quite a little while before getting anything published. That was always the primary basis of everything—the oral. And that makes for a different kind of poem, in a way.
Early on, in some kind of collegiate contest, Marianne Moore was one of the judges, and she got to be a friend. That was in her reclusive stage. She was asked to introduce a younger poet that she liked the work of at the Museum of Modern Art, and since she didn’t know anybody else, she introduced me. In those days, I thought that was perfectly natural: of course I would be taken to the Museum of Modern Art and introduced by Marianne Moore. I went on the fumes of that a long time. It was much later, four or five years, that I ever thought about publishing anything.
The prevailing mode of the time was the poem as finished object, more like a piece of sculpture—you walk around it. The poems that I was trying to write were meant to give the impression (it’s equally artificial) of spontaneously happening now. The poem is making itself up even as you are doing it. The two presuppositions are utterly different, in what you are aiming for. And you can miss very badly; with the wrong cut or shift of tone, you can blow the whole poem.
The characteristic poetry of the period was poetry built around the line as unit. And in the poem I’m talking about, the poem that’s working itself out, to have a finished line world go completely against the grain of what you are pretending is happening. So nothing falls into place until you get to the end. The lines tend to tumble and tend to be unfinished.
Bell: Was there any reason for your shifting from a high style to a comparatively colloquial voice in the verse?
Garrett: Looking back now, the clearest line that I can see has to do with the relationship of the prose and the poetry. That is, when I was writing short stories or quasi-realistic novels about the Army and politics and stuff, I was writing rather formal, old-fashioned sorts of verse. When I started working on these long novels, working with a language which, while I hope it isn’t stilted, is certainly removed from colloquial day-to-day English, the verse got loose. To satisfy my own need to be in touch with my own language at the time that I am living, I wrote more and more what you might call casual and colloquial verse. It also happened to be, unfortunately, opposite from what anyone else was doing at any given time. I have never been in sync (I would gladly be in sync if I could) with whatever movements were going on.
Bell: What do you think of these movements and things?
Garrett: What’s bad about it is that each group pretends that none of the others exist. The performers and careerists at the moment seem to have closed their minds to everything except what they are doing—money-changers in the temple.
Bell: Why is that?
Garrett: Well, there’s one practical fact: it is worthwhile now for the first time in the 20th century to be a careerist in poetry, because there are a few rewards, for the few, which are significant. Teaching jobs and grants and prizes and so forth. Until this present generation of poets, poetry had not been anything but a means toward downward mobility. There wasn’t anything in it for anybody.
Still, there aren’t enough jobs or grants to take care of all the poets. So there is a temptation to belong to a group which has some power and prestige and is able to reward you. And there is a temptation to close one’s eyes to anything outside of that. I do know, for example, that it makes my friend and esteemed colleague Charles Wright extremely nervous to hear or talk about poets he doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to hear that there are unknown poets in Texas right now. I remember Jim Dickey categorically asserting that there couldn’t be life in outer space, but what he had in mind was that he didn’t want there to be any poets out there. Right now, writing stuff he didn’t know about. It’s sort of like a small trough with a lot of pigs trying to get up there, and it makes these people nervous, it takes their concentration away, to have in the back of their minds that right this minute, at desks all over America, poets they never heard of are writing in styles they don’t know how to use. That’s enough to really throw the old writer’s block on a lot of people.
Now the next aspect of this, which is much more serious than pure careerism, is that it is either you make it or it’s back to the old cotton field or assembly line for a lot of these guys. So I have known a lot of young poets coming out of Iowa or somewhere who very patiently wait their turn because if they don’t they’re going to be out in left field, somewhere that no one is looking at them. You get in a hierarchical club like the Iowa or Breadloaf circuit, and even if you are not one of their stars, if you stay patiently and do what we used to call “pull wool” down South sufficiently, your time will come. They can’t leave you unrewarded forever. Queen Elizabeth could, but the Iowa Writers’ Workshop can’t.
Bell: You’ve taught at a lot of different schools, and there must be hundreds of publishing writers who’ve had you as a teacher at one time or another. Do you think writing can be taught?
Garrett: Well, you can’t teach anybody to be a writer. I never had somebody saying, “Make me a writer.” I have had close to it, one guy who said, “I will do anything to be one.” All you had to do was tell him to do something once and he would do it, and this was a horrendous responsibility, because he didn’t resist. Other than that I have mostly had people who needed response, needed direction or something to come up against, but who were not to be made into writers. You can teach certain kinds of techniques, the way that people teach the violin and the cello.
My approach to this is rather like that of my late uncle Jack, the golf pro, who was supposed to be one of the great golf teachers. He was one of the first guys in the history of golf to get holistic about it. He didn’t know the word, but he suddenly realized that all this discussion—”this is the grip, and this is the stance”—was working against the experience of hitting the golf ball. So instead he took people out with buckets and buckets of balls and just had them start hitting that ball. He wouldn’t give them much advice at all because what he was trying to find out was what their natural body inclinations were. Basically, all you are then is a critic, you are not imposing a system.
I picked up a class right after a very arbitrary, directional teacher had left, who had told them, “The following things are in a short story and should be in your short story. And I will not read stories on the following subjects. . . . ” We worked as kind of a nice one-two team: when I came in I said, “Anything is a short story, let’s see what you got.” And then worked in terms of what they did. And that is my whole method, such as it is. So you don’t end up saying that you taught anybody. You responded to somebody—they taught themselves. And for writers, maybe that’s the best way.
Bell: What are you up to now, or will you discuss it?
Garrett: Not too much. One more historical book which is a short (I hope), spare book concerning the murder of Christopher Marlowe.
Bell: The Succession was supposed to be short too, right?
Garrett: Right. There’s no way I can do something like that again—I’d be dead. So this one has to be short. We’re beginning to think trilogy now, right? This one is going to be different, to the extent that I’m going to be without my greatest prop. It’s so spare in planning that there’s going to be minimal detail about the texture of Elizabethan life. Almost just the people and just the action. So it has to sort of exist in the context of the other two books. It’s kind of the underside, which we dipped into a little bit in The Succession, but it gets farther down into it. There aren’t any great folks, except in distance, hated by these minor malcontents and murderous bastards. It’s the only time we’re really doing the underside without the immediate contrast of the rulers and managers of the nation. My original supposition was. “What if Raymond Chandler wrote about the murder of Christopher Marlowe?” Well, it isn’t going to be quite like that.
Bell: Looking over the record, your career has seemed to run in cycles of publication and recognition. Several books a year at the beginning, and you won the Prix de Rome. Then nearly a decade without much happening. Then Death of the Fox makes the best-seller list. Another decade of virtual silence, and now you’ve got four or five new books out, with The Succession, maybe, in the lead. The wheel of fortune has made a couple of complete revolutions in your case, it would seem. What do you think of the literary life?
Garrett: It’s a mug’s game, as Eliot called it. That part, that’s not very satisfactory. Why I thought it would be immune from the general scriptural description of life on this earth I don’t know. I imagined that by writing I would somehow be immune from the normal code of things, which leads inevitably to a contempt for the mundane. So the literary life is, of course, rich with disappointments. It’s disappointing that I allow myself to be disappointed.
It’s taken me a long time to figure this out, and other people have known it all along in a slightly different way, but it’s what my wife, Susan, says: Public life does not exist. Only private life is real. Public life of any kind is an illusion. I’m not sure that’s true. . . .
Bell: Ralegh might not have agreed with that.
Garrett: No, I think not either. Except, when he came out of the courtroom the day before he died, having been sentenced to death again in Westminster, a cousin of his saw that he was being very witty with a lot of the people, with jokes and bursts of laughter. The cousin said it was very unseemly for a guy just condemned to death to be cracking jokes, and Ralegh, punning at the time, said, “Indulge me a little, I shall be grave enough at the sad parting.”
Lack of recognition does affect what you do. And you find yourself desiring trashy things. The hideous irony is that you box yourself in a position where if you get what you’ve been waiting for, it turns out to be a nice platter of trash.
Faulkner has been a great inspiration to me, an influence in the sense that he managed to succeed in doing his work while being bitterly unhappy, and it’s quite clear that he was, over not getting any kind of recognition. My favorite example is from the unpublished introduction to The Sound and the Fury. He had enormous difficulty with his third novel, that was ultimately published as Sartoris, getting it published anywhere. So he had this tremendous disappointment, because things had been real easy up to that point. And he says he was liberated to write The Sound and the Fury by having this thing happen to him. He said, “One day I seemed to close a door on all agents, publishers, book lists, and everything else, and said to myself—now I can write.” It’s the reverse of doors being closed in your face. You close the door.
Bell: Did you ever wish you had not done this, and instead had made your career as a Marine fighter pilot or something of the sort?
Garrett: I really liked certain aspects of the army life, and I thought for a while that I might just do that. I was a master sergeant at the end of it. I looked around, and there were some master sergeants that had a pleasant life. But I’d probably be very dead by this time. I didn’t know the Vietnam War was coming.
Bell: With all the irritations and frustrations that come with being a full-time professional writer, do you still think it’s worth it?
Garrett: Nobody chooses. There’s a poem by David Slavitt, “The Calf and the Ox,” based on a fable of Avianus, where a frisky little calf is standing by the fence and laughing at this big dumb ox, yoked and pulling a big heavy plough. In his cheerful amusement the calf doesn’t see “the farmer who carries a glittering butcher knife / and a light halter, coming toward the calf” And then the last line of the poem, the old-fashioned moral, is, “Nobody gets to choose which yoke to wear.” And I know that’s true.
Your major choices, such as they are, are always made without any real knowledge of where they may lead, and you tell yourself that, as in “The Road Not Taken.” He’s going to say, as he does in the poem, “I took the one less travelled by, / and that has made all the difference.” But he makes it quite clear that he didn’t know whether it was less travelled or not, so he was not capable of making that conclusion. What I would choose, knowing what I know now, would still be chosen in ignorance and would probably turn out to be equally disappointing. So it seems to me a great relief that nobody gets to choose which yoke to wear.