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Interview with Philip Furia, November 13, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Philip Furia, November 13, 2007
Date:
November 13, 2007
Description:
Interview with Dr. Phillip Furia, professor of creative writing at UNCW and author of several books, including Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer and The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee:  Furia, Phillip Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  11/13/2007 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes

 

Diesenhaus: I'm Doug Diesenhaus, and today is November 13, 2007, and I'll be interviewing Philip Furia for the Randall Library Oral History Project on Creative Writers. Perhaps the best place to get started is to ask how you got started writing, how you've come to it.

Phillip Furia: I can't remember when I didn't write. My father was a government clerk and he had a great big old cast-iron Underwood typewriter that he put in my room and let me play with. And I can remember constantly running paper through the typewriter and typing and making up stories and writing poems and making up little plays so it goes back. I was an early reader and I think most writers start as readers. You read something, you think I could do that, and you start writing. So somehow that old typewriter, which I wish I knew where it was now, but that was just always a fixture in my room.

Diesenhaus: Were there certain, certain books or certain authors that you were drawn to at that age, that were your favorites?

Phillip Furia: Oddly enough, most of what I've written has been biography. And I can remember the first books I checked out of the Ducane Public Library, just south of Pittsburg, in the steel mill district, were biographies of people like Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson. So it's interesting that I've, that's the kind of thing I wound up writing. But I started reading biographies and I was always fascinated by mostly westerners. Before the Davy Crockett phase hit with the other kids, I was already into him, before the Walt Disney movies of 1955, '56.

Diesenhaus: Does, do you feel like there's a connection, you know, early interest in biography now that maybe the majority of the kinds of books that you are publishing? Is it something about how they are formulated - ?

Phillip Furia: Yeah, it, there probably was a connection. The odd thing is that I usually don't like to read biographies now. Following the advice of a writer I had as a teacher - or rather not following the advice of a writer I had as a teacher at, at Iowa, a wonderful novelist named Richard Yates, who said, "Write the kind of book you like to read." And although early on I liked reading biographies, nowadays I find most biographies pretty dreadful reading. They are far too long, they're usually like eight, nine hundred pages long. They are often written by scholars rather then professional writers. And there's a tendency, I think, to put absolutely everything in about the subject, without doing what a good novelist would do and that is focus on a narrative, tell a story and try to bring out a character. They just seem to be accretions of details. The main thing I look back on, those early biographies I read about Daniel Boone and Kit Carson, they were short, they told a story, they developed a character. So maybe I've been trying to get back to those early books rather then those ponderous, huge biographies. Now I know somebody told me a couple of years ago, there a biography of Bing Crosby that I ought to read because I was writing about - a biography of my own on Johnny Mercer, and they were both, they were very good friends. And I went to the bookstore and I saw the book on the shelf. I had them put it aside for me. And it was, I thought, about that thick which, I thought, "Finally, a biography of about three hundred pages." And when I got it, it said Bing Crosby Volume 1, The Early Years, you know, like 1906 to 1939. It finishes before he even sings "White Christmas." So it's funny, it's a genre I liked as a kid, it's a genre I don't like now as it's practiced by most, most biographers. But it's one that I, I try to practice.

Diesenhaus: Are there other, kind of, writerly techniques that you bring to the form? You talked about narrative and character. Are there other elements?

Phillip Furia: Well, I try, I try to insert myself into the biography. It was something I had to do with the Johnny Mercer because there had not been anything - much written about him before. But I did know that while he was a prince when he was sober, he was a demon when he was drunk, and I didn't know how bad he was. And the more people I interviewed about him, I became increasingly revolted by this guy that I'm supposed to be writing a book about. And particularly one interview, one of the first interviews I did really threw me because it was with one of his nieces. One of the things I've found as a biographer is when you are alive be nice to your nieces because nieces have better memories of their uncles than anybody else in the family does. But this is a niece about my own age and she was living in Savannah, where, where Mercer had grown up. And when he was drunk he had made a pass at her. She was the age of his daughter, and always thought of herself as a daughter. And at the time my wife and I had just adopted an eight-month girl from Guatemala. I had two sons by a previous marriage but this was my first little girl. And the thought of Mercer making a pass at someone who was like his daughter really put me off. And for a couple of years, while I kept doing interviews and kept doing research, I really didn't want to write about the guy. And then finally one of my last interviews was with another niece, and she gave me at first, a kind of, very, wonderful Uncle Johnny stories. And I just said, "I'm glad your memory of your Uncle Johnny is so much nicer than your cousin Ann's." And she said, "What did she tell you?" Asked me to turn off the tape recorder. And I told her and she broke down. And we're in a, in a tea room in Savannah, and this woman's crying. And she pulled herself together and then gave me the interview you could only dream of. And she went into a lot of the horrors she had had with him. But she then dredged up - because she knew him better than anybody else. She was actually raised by his mother, because her mother was - I could never quite get it straight. She was very open about it. But it sounds like she was kind of an idiot savant. She was a wonderful piano player but couldn't function socially. And so she had pretty much the same upbringing that Johnny had had. And she began to talk to me about the pressures that were on him because of another sister who died very young, and it was always Johnny's role to make up for that death. And I began to see him in a much more sympathetic light. So what I was able to do is - what, what I had to do, really, was to talk about - in the beginning and the end - talk about my experience writing about Johnny Mercer and how that first interview with the niece he had made a pass at had completely revolted me, and then close with the interview with the other niece that brought me around. So it was a way of inserting myself into the biography. I mentioned this at a conference a couple of years ago of biographers and they were horrified that something about this genre, even though Boswell's all over it, Life of Johnson, something about the genre is you do not, as biographer, ever use the pronoun "I". But I did it, and it worked, and I think that's one way to enliven the genre. The other way I wasn't really able to do would be to avoid that dreadful chronological "and then and then and then". If biographers could move around in the narrative in a way that's not chronological, I think that would really enliven the genre, genre, too.

Diesenhaus: Do you feel that you're extending the kind of strictures of the form? Or that by pressuring the biographers to kind of loosen up a bit that it may be expanding or becoming more of a creative nonfiction?

Phillip Furia: Yeah. I'm trying to make it more like memoir, which in some cases some of the best memoirs have been written not about the author himself or herself but about someone they knew. One of my favorites is by Irving Berlin's daughter. She wrote a wonderful memoir about her father and it's, and she's present all the time in it. And it doesn't begin with Irving Berlin's birth, it begins with hers. Well, actually it begins with Berlin's death and then she uses flashbacks, and she talks about her awareness of her father and then learning about what had happened before she was born. And it, it's a much more fluid narrative. And the prose is much more lyrical rather, again, than that kind of academic objective prose that you get in most of those great big biographies. So yeah, I, I like to think that it's pushing the, the conventions of biography against the need to be impersonal, to be objective, to be almost academic in style, that I like to think I push that a bit.

Diesenhaus: Does that interplay between pushing it against kind of a - not a formula, but a form that has certain boundaries? Does that feel liberating in a way? Do you feel like you have kind of a freedom to move around a bit?

Phillip Furia: You don't have much. I really had tried to find a way to - in the Johnny Mercer biography - to avoid chronology. And his story was so good told chronologically. When I gave it to one of my colleagues, Philip Gerard, I said, "Help me figure out a way to avoid this chronological narrative." He said, "It reads wonderfully as a chronological narrative, and to do anything other than that would be mannered. It would be a mannerism." I thought, "That's all right, it works, and I, I managed to insert myself into it because I had to, not because I was trying to." But there are some qualities of biography that are, that are hard to circumvent.

Diesenhaus: It sounds like that was, that felt right because it was a natural story.

Phillip Furia: Yeah. The story read, read well told chronologically. He'd lived his life in an interesting fashion, so.

Diesenhaus: You talked about the interviews with the nieces. I know that you've done a substantial amount of interviews for, for your works. Is there a - when you talk to these people, do they relish this chance to tell their story and talk about their family members or themselves?

Phillip Furia: Yeah. One of the things I've found is everybody likes to be interviewed. They enjoy talking about their acquaintance with somebody famous. The problem, though, is that they've told the same stories so many times, they're so polished it's hard to get them beyond that to think about why Irving Berlin did this or why Ira Gershwin might have done that. The stories have become part of their repertoire, and it's hard to get - it's almost like they've lined up the stories. I'll tell you my number-one story, my number-two story, my number-three story, but that's all you get. So it's hard to subvert. And the best technique I've found is kind of cross-interviewing. After you've interviewed enough people you can go to someone and say, "Well, somebody told me this about - did, did he ever do anything like that?" And that will kind of jar them out of that kind of repertory recitation. So using one interview to get to another is an effective technique, but of course you can only do that when you're pretty far along.

Diesenhaus: Is that, is that something that you've developed or did you have some training, either reportorial to, kind of, be able to do that?

Phillip Furia: No, I've done it on my own, made a lot of mistakes. One of the first interviews I did with - in Savannah with the Johnny Mercer book was with a guy ninety-three years old who had worked for Mercer's father in their family real estate firm in Savannah. And he had been there when the real estate firm suffered an enormous loss in 1927, I think it was over one million dollars, and this was before the stock market crash. And Mercer's family had been affluent, and this wiped them out. And Mercer was in his senior year of prep school, a very fashionable prep school, Woodbury Forest in Virginia. And his mother had to write him and said, "You're not, you're not going to college." And this guy was there when that happened. And so I was gonna get to interview him. And he said, "Would you like to interview me?" His name was Nick Mamalakis. He's since deceased, but a wonderful guy. He said, "Would you like to do the interview at the Savannah Country Club?" I thought, "Wow, Savannah Country Club, you bet I would." And of course I took my tape recorder, we had lunch, and got everything down that he'd said. And I didn't realize that you don't interview in a restaurant. I didn't listen to the tape as I should have that evening in my motel room. I didn't listen to it till I went to transcribe it about six months later and it was all restaurant noise. And the things I could hear most distinctly, as I would not be able to discern what he was saying, but I would hear myself say, "Really. Wow." (laughs) I, you know, well, it was hours, my wife and I, rewinding, playing the tape at different speeds, and we finally got these wonderful stories he was telling me that fleshed out that incident about how Mercer's father refused to declare bankruptcy. Because while he would've saved his own fortune, he would have ruined all of the people invested with him. And he liquidated the company instead. And as he did that he took all of his own money, which was $75,000, out of his own bank account and put it into the black hole of the firm. And what this guy was telling me, one of the things I said "Wow" about, was he said when, when Mercer's father did that, his, his banker said, "George Mercer, are you crazy?" And he said, Mercer, George Mercer said, "When I walk on Bull Street" - which is the main commercial street in Savannah - "and someone says, 'George Mercer, you have my money,' I want to be able to say, 'My money is where your money is.'" And it was a perfect story. And it took me, like, my wife and I two hours to pull that off the tape. I made all those kinds of mistakes, and you just learn by trial and error.

Diesenhaus: Along with the recording, are you, are you taking notes? How are you using notes to, kind of, find further questions or to create those links for the cross-interviewing you talked about?

Phillip Furia: I didn't for the Mercer interviews and I wish I had, because when I realized I was going to open with my interview of the niece he made a pass at, I wanted her to describe what she was wearing, where we were sitting. She had a house where Mercer spent his summers, it was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen, on the water in Savannah, the Intracoastal area of Savannah. It was just gorgeous. One of the rivulets there has been named Moon River in Mercer's honor. And I could remember looking out the window and seeing the light shimmering over the Intracoastal Waterway, and - so I could reconstruct that. But if I've had had notes with me while the interview was getting taped and talked about what she wore, what the room looked like, she gave me lunch. I couldn't remembered what we'd had, but I've could have written down all of those visual details so that when I turned that into a scene that opened the book, I would've had that. But that was a lesson I learned too late.

Diesenhaus: I want to talk about what's been such a major focus of your work, the lyricists of Broadway and Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley. Can you tell me a little about how you've come to that, your appreciation for them?

Phillip Furia: Yeah. I grew up - so that I was - I was born in 1943. So I was listening to music in the late '40s and the early '50s on a radio. And I can remember when rock and roll came in, and I was already pretty far along listening to music. I can remember hearing Elvis Presley sing "Heartbreak Hotel" on January first of 1956, when on New Year's Day they played all of the hits of the previous year, and this was a song that had just come out. But by that time I'd already been listening to people like Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore. I was madly in love with Doris Day. And in those days the recording industry moved from a standard 78 rpm record to two different kinds of records. They moved to a thing all the teenagers had, it was a 45 rpm, so a record about that big with a big hole in the middle, and it had one song on each side. And you had a little cheap electric phonograph, and you put a stack of those on, and you would just listen to one after the other. And that was where you got most of your rock and roll. But you also had a record player much fancier called the hi-fi, high fidelity, and on that you played much larger records called LP long-playing records, and that could hold an entire symphony, it could hold a Broadway score, a Hollywood movie soundtrack. And those were marketed as the more classical kinds of - more sophisticated adult recordings. But I had one of those too, and I think these record clubs are still in existence. The one I joined was the Columbia Record Club where it looks like a great deal because you get to pick twelve free LPs right off the bat. And then, the way they got you was that they would say, "We're going to send you - unless you tell us not to - we're going to send you an album every month and then, then you have to pay for it." And you had to tell them - well, no kid remembers to tell them not to. So I started accumulating all these Frank Sinatra, Doris Day albums. And I would listen to them, put a stack of those on hi-fi. And what they were singing at that point was the standards of Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins because they were trying to make what we'd now call, I guess, a concept album. Dor - these band, big-band singers, who were now striving to stay in the singing business, were turning out albums, and they couldn't sing contemporary songs because that was mostly rock and roll. I mean, Doris Day and Sinatra were big enough they had a few contemporary hits in the late '50s, but mostly they were singing the songs of the '20s, '30s, and '40s. Those were the records I took with me to college. And I stopped listening to popular music when I graduated from high school in 1961. So that I was actually shocked to see the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. I didn't know who they were. This was like 1963, 1964. But I could recognize some of the songs because I would've heard them on the snack box - snack bar jukebox where I went to college. But I was so out of it in terms of popular music, and I was listening to all this stuff made in LPs in the 1950s but basically the songs of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. And that just formed my musical taste. And I didn't think much about it. I wouldn't have been able to tell you at that point whether a song that Sinatra or Doris Day or Ella Fitzgerald sang was by the Gershwins, by Irving Berlin. I was just - I knew all the songs, but I didn't know who wrote them. And I was teaching at the University of Minnesota and I was in the English department but I also taught courses in American studies. And one of the courses I developed in American studies was a course on the jazz age where we looked at the literature of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and E.E. Cummings and Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. But also the paintings of Georgia O'Keefe and Marsden Hartley, and mostly painters centered in New York. And the photography of Alfred Stieglitz, and skyscraper architectural, art deco really broadened it as an American studies course. And we did a little bit of jazz, Rhapsody in Blue, some Duke Ellington. And it was a course that I proposed when I applied for a Fulbright professorship in Austria in 1983. And I got the professorship and I went to the University of Gratz in Austria which is - it was a town I'd not heard of. I'd heard of Vienna, Salzburg, and Insbrook. But Gratz was the second biggest city, a beautiful old city. And it was more or less isolated. Everybody didn't speak English so I had to really bone up on my German. And I was teaching in English but I was teaching this course on the jazz age. And my Austrian - it was a graduate course. My graduate students listened as we talked about architecture, photography, literature. And - but after I played them some jazz, some Louie Armstrong, they said, "Well, what was the popular music like in the jazz age?" And I said, "I don't know." And you know how it kills a professor to say that. And so after class I thought, "Geez, I wonder what was popular in the '20s and '30s?" And fortunately they had a very good American studies library at the University of Gratz. And I went in and found this book by a songwriter named Alec Wilder, and it was an Oxford University Press book called American Popular Song, 1900-1950. I thought, "That'll tell me." And it turned out he had chapter on - he was writing mostly about the music, but he did tell a little about the lyrics. He had a chapter on George Gershwin, one on Harold Arlen, one on Jerome Kern, one on Irving Berlin, one on Cole Porter. And I thought, "Oh, I know all those songs." I didn't know who wrote them and I didn't know when they had been written. But suddenly I thought, "I can go back now to my Austrian students and say, 'Not only will I tell you what was popular, I will...'" - because I'd had all my tapes, all my Sinatra's and Ella Fitzgerald's - "'...I will play you what was popular in the '20s, '30s, and '40s.'" And I was listening to some of the songs and I, I knew most of the lyrics by heart. And I thought, "Well, they're going to have trouble when they get to Cole Porter's 'You're the Top' with 'You're a rose, you're Inferno's Dante, you're the nose on the great Durante.' Their English is good but it's not that good." So I thought, "Well, what I'll do is I'll type of some of the lyrics and photocopy them and pass them out." And I started coming to lines like "We'll have Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, too. It's lovely going through the zoo." I thought, "Boy, those are clever rhymes. That's like something E. E. Cummings would do. Or Larry Hart breaks up the poetic line. That's like the way William Carlos Williams breaks up the poetic line. My specialty at the time was American poetry, the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. People like William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and Robert Frost. And I thought, "Gee, this is really - I wonder if anybody's written about how the song lyrics of this era are like the poetry of the era?" Nobody had. And so I started writing and I very - I wrote one essay that was published on the relationship between the poetry and the song lyrics. But I never looked back. I just started writing about the song lyrics. And I did a book that turned out to be a companion to the Alec Wilder book that was called The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists. But it analyzed the lyrics just as he had analyzed the music, and again almost chapter by chapter. He had a chapter on Irving Berlin, I had one on Irving Berlin, he had one on Cole Porter, I had one on Cole Porter, he had one on Richard Rodgers, I had one on Lorenz Hart. So that was like the first big breakthrough. And it, as I said, I knew most of the lyrics already, but had not, had never thought about writing about them or about how they developed historically, and that's what I've been doing ever since.

Diesenhaus: Especially given the fact that you yourself didn't really know about the writers, do you feel like you're elevating them from the second fiddle status by focusing on them? It seems like people tend to forget about them more than they for - know about the composers.

Phillip Furia: Yeah, I guess I have done that because there's - a friend of mine edits a series called The Dictionary of Literary Biography, which every library has. We have, it takes up about three bookshelves in the reserved section here in Randall Library. But he does volumes of essays. One might be Scottish poets of the nineteenth century, you know, big thick blue volume. And someone will edit it and someone will - and, and, and get other people to write about individual poets. And when he read my book he said, "Good grief. There needs to be a dictionary of literary biography volume on American song lyricists. And he asked me to edit that. And since then, other people who have been putting together encyclopedias - like I've written an essay for a book that's coming out from Harvard, Encyclopedia of America Literature, and several others that now include essays by me or by other people on lyricists or on lyrics. And I don't think you would've found that before. I'm not taking all the credit for it but, yeah, in a way I kind of highlighted people who really needed to be highlighted before. As I say I can't take the credit for it because one of the reasons I think a lot of other people didn't write about them was, again, something in all my innocence I wasn't aware it was going to be a problem, and that was copyright issue. Because when I got back from Austria I wrote to Oxford University Press and said, "I read this wonderful book you published by Alec Wilder about the music of American popular songs. I would like to write a book about the lyrics." And I got a letter back from a very famous editor, Sheldon Meyer, who's since retired. But he was he one who got Alec Wilder to write that book. And he was the one at Oxford who, beginning in the 1960s, started publishing books about American popular song, about Broadway theater, much to the dismay of the people who ran Oxford. But they let him do it. He got Mel Torme to write a book, he got Wilder to write that book on America popular song, and the books are phenomenally popular. And so he kind of established a reputation as the guru of Oxford's American Popular Song line. I got back a letter from him that said, "As you could imagine, you're not the first person who thought about doing this book, but the copyright issues are so horrendous there would be no way that you could possibly get permission to quote from all of those lyrics without paying an exorbitant fee." And it's kind of nice to be a tenured full professor because you can do stuff you can't do if you have to make a living by your writing. I thought, "I'm gonna write the book anyway and see what songs I want to talk about, and then I'm gonna deal with the copyright issue." God, was I ever lucky, 'cause that's what I did. I sent the book off to Oxford. The editor wrote back and said, "I love the book. But what are you gonna do about the copyrights?" He said, "You have to handle that. Because if we ask as Oxford University Press, we're gonna have to pay a lot of money." And so I started out just trying to find who owned the copyrights. Now you can do it on the - you can look up ASCAP and you can find out in twelve seconds the name and address of all the copyright holders. But I was calling all these music companies, and I remember, like, calling one company and saying, "Do you own the copyright of 'Stormy Weather'?" And they said, "I think we do. Let me check. No, someone bought that last week." And, you know, it was just this run-around. But the first group of people I heard from was the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. And they - I explained this is a scholarly book and I want to quote from four song lyrics by Hammerstein. And they gave me a flat rate of $100 for all four songs. But the big copyright holder was Warner Brothers, and they owned almost all the Cole Porter, the Johnny Mercer, probably more than half of all the songs I'd quoted from. And I had called and they said, "Well, send us what you're quoting so we can see the context." So I'd sent this big stack of stuff over. And I called and I got the office of the senior vice president for special projects, a guy named Jack Rosner. And he talked like somebody from The Godfather. His secretary was out. He answered the phone himself. And it was like, "Oh, Professor. Let's see, I -oh yeah, I saw that thing you wanted to quote. I'm lookin' at it now. Oh Professor, it's gonna cost you a lot of money." I said, "Well, what's a lot of money?" He said, "Three hundred dollars a song." I said, "Three hundred dollars to quote two lines?" He said, "Yeah, that's the standard." And I said, "Oh, now look. This is - I mean, I quote from more than three hundred songs. If I have to pay that much, that's a hundred thousand dollars." And he said, "Okay, how about a hundred fifty dollars a song?" I said, "Well, that's still..." - I said, "This is gonna be a scholarly - it's Oxford University Press. It's gonna be..." - and I think I actually said the word "dull". "It's gonna be a dull scholarly book. It's not gonna make - " He said, "Professor, if you're quoting from Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, it ain't gonna be no dull book." So he said, "Tell you what, have, have you heard from anybody else? What are they charging you?" I said, "Well, Rodgers and Hammerstein is charging me a hundred dollars to quote from four Hammerstein lyrics." He said, "Really?" He said, "Wow. That's twenty-five dollars a song." He said, "I'll tell you what. I'll let you have our songs for twenty-five dollars a song, but on favorite nations basis." And I said, "What's that?" He said, "That means if you pay anybody more than twenty-five, you have to pay Warner Brothers the same amount." Well, I thought, "Now that's was pretty threatening," but it turned out that that was a wonderful tool to have because when somebody who owned maybe one song, like the guy who owned "Manhattan" - which is Rodgers and Hart's first hit big hit that I quote from for, like, three pages - he didn't want me to let me have it for $25. And he said, "That won't even pay my secretary to type up the permission form." I said, "Well, but Warner Brothers is giving me all their songs for twenty-five a song on a favorite nations basis. And if I pay you more than twenty-five, I've got to pay them." He said, "Oh, Jesus." He said, "Oh, I don't want to be a son of a bitch. All right, you can have it for twenty-five bucks." And only one copyright holder refused, and fortunately it wasn't from a song that was crucial. But that favorite nations thing got me over the hurdle that was just too big for most other people who had wanted to write about their song lyrics. And ever since I've been able to quote - even Irving Berlin, who was still alive. He refused Alec Wilder permission to quote from his songs in Wilder's book American Popular Song. And in fact called Oxford University Press, and Sheldon Meyer, the editor who still remembered this. And in a vitriolic profane abuse had just read Wilder's chapter on himself. And was screaming at the phone obscenities, saying, "You can't say this." You know, Wilder would compare him to Kern, and Berlin would think, "He's saying I stole from Kern." And he wouldn't let them quote a word. And I had sent off my Irving Berlin chapter to the Irving Berlin people and I got a call from Berlin's lawyer. And he said, "We're gonna do something we've never done before. We're gonna let you quote." He said, "We would like it if you would not say this thing you said about Berlin's father-in-law" - where there were very bad relations - "and if you would correct something you said about Berlin's depression in the 1920s. It was not caused by the death of his son, it was caused by...." So they had a couple of things. They were really helpful in some ways. And some of the things they didn't want in print weren't essential. And the lawyer himself said, "Professor, you're not writing a biography of Berlin, you're writing about Berlin as a lyricist." And so I agreed to pull a couple of things and correct a couple of other things. And they gave me complete permission - in fact, it was the first time anyone ever had it, to quote from Irving Berlin's lyrics, and didn't charge me a cent. Well, the people at Oxford couldn't believe this. I mean, Sheldon Meyer said, "I'll believe it when I see it in writing." But yeah, so something like - that you wouldn't think about when you're writing, a copyright issue. It could be so seminal a problem in, in trying to talk about that stuff.

Diesenhaus: It sounds like that has opened up. If that hadn't happened, you might have been blocked, right?

Phillip Furia: It would never have been published. It would have been $100,000 worth of - as it was, it ate up all my royalties. You know, it was like $5,000, $6,000 at $25 a song, still quoting 300 songs. But it was enough that the book could be published.

Diesenhaus: How has this, this specialty fit into the scholarly position you hold, into the English department, and American Studies or Creative Writing? (inaudible)

Phillip Furia: Well, now I don't have to worry because I'm not in an English department anymore, and I don't teach American Studies. But boy, it raised some eyebrows when I was working on this. I had just finished a book, my first book, that I almost never talk about anymore, which is about Ezra Pound's Cantos. And word got out that I was writing about song lyrics. And I took a lot - I mean, I had a lot of friends in my department of, at Minnesota, but there was some, there was some teasing about "Rinky dinky do, how's that coming, Phil? Tra la la. Is Barry Manilow gonna do a C - you know, an album to go along with your book?" And - but interestingly, one day I was in the photocopying room and copying sheet music. And one of my most conservative colleagues, who is a very distinguished Samuel Taylor Coleridge scholar, and at that time was a member of - oh, I forget, it was a very conservative organization of American scholars who were protesting Marxist criticism, feminist criticism. So he was a pretty crusty old guy. And he saw the sheet music and he said, "I hear you're writing a book about people like Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter." And I got defensive and I said, "Yes, I am." And he said, Good. We don't need any more books about Wallace Stevens or Robert Frost, we need books about Gershwin and Porter." So that kind of buoyed my spirits. And I would teach courses in the art of the song lyric. And I mean, students worked as hard as they did there as they did in my courses on American poetry, where they had to scan the meter of Robert Frost poems and tell an iambic foot from an anapestic foot. Now they were looking at song lyrics that were being matched to triplet notes, that had to match long vowels, to whole notes. So it was the same amount of work and the same kind of, you know, demand and demanding expectations that they got in poetry courses. So I didn't feel like I was dumbing down by teaching lyrics. It was as technically intricate. It wasn't thematically as intricate as the great poetry because it can't. I mean, a song lyric has to be graspable the first time you hear it. So it was a different kind of art, but it was technically as, as demanding as the poetry courses. But one of the delights about being in a department of Creative Writing is that I don't have to worry about accountability in that sense, that my writing is a kind of creative nonfiction, either in biography or when I'm writing about these song lyrics and - other than biographic terms and historical terms. Like, I'm doing a book now how songs have been used in Hollywood movies, not just musicals, but how songs in dramatic films like As Time Goes By and Casablanca, how the song fits into the movie. Is it done as a performance by someone putting on a show or playing in a nightclub as Dooley Wilson does As Time Goes By? Or is the song an expressive manifestation of what a character feels in a particular moment as a lot of the Astaire/Rogers songs are. They're not done as part of putting on a show, but they emanate from what a character feels at a certain dramatic moment.

Diesenhaus: What you just said, and also the, some of the teasing you talked about, the "tra la la", speaks to the kind of playfulness of some of the lines. And I'm thinking a bit of when John Updike came, when he talked about the disappearance of light verse and his frustration. Do you share some of that?

Phillip Furia: Oh, I, I steal from it. One of the things that again made me feel better when I was starting to work about this material is there's a series of very scholarly books done by a guy who's since become a friend named Robert Kimball who lives in New York, and he's done a, a, a big volume called The Collective Lyrics of Cole Porter, and it's edited with all the footnotes and scholarly apparatus. This was a Yale Ph. D. in American Studies who turned his attention to kind of the, the scholarly side of studying these lyricists. He did a collection of Cole Porter's lyrics. Then he did one of Larry Hart's and one of Irving Berlin's, and now he's working on Johnny Mercer. But at the time the only one that was out was the Irving - the Cole Porter, and I saw this big book in the remaindered section of a bookstore. It's this big, black, glossy cover and "The Collective Lyrics of Cole Porter" and I thought, "That's great," and I picked it up and he had his own introduction, but then he had a forward written by John Updike, and Updike made that key connection because he was a great lover of light verse, Phyllis McGinley and Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. And he made the point in his forward that many of these lyricists had started out wanting to be light-verse poets as he had. Updike himself - that's where he started, as a light-verse poet. And when they turned to songwriting, they carried some of the same techniques, the flippancy, the taking a serious subject and, and, and treating it comically using intricate rhymes, double rhymes, triple rhymes, feminine rhymes. They took those same techniques of light verse and transferred them to songwriting. And I quoted Updike in the very first chapter of The Poets of Tin Pan Alley. And so when I was inviting him here in a series of letters, you know, talking about timing, money, I mentioned that I was really indebted to him for that introduction because here was John Updike, a famous writer, saying these lyrics are important and they're like light verse. And then the more I, I researched the lyricists, I found that Updike was really absolutely right about them because they had started out wanting to be light-verse writers in all the big New York newspapers of the time - from about 1910 to well into the 1940s - the big New York newspapers had columns of light verse, and they would publish things that people sent them. So that Franklin P. Adams had one in The New York World called "The Conning Tower," but in all the big New York papers they had these columns. And Ira Gershwin appeared in print for the first time. He sent a little four-line poem to - or no, he - actually, he sent something in prose that appeared, but they would run bits of light verse, sometimes bits of prose. And so you were a kid growing up in New York, you're looking at the newspaper, and there's poetry every day, and it's funny. And when I was reading about Yip Harburg, Harburg, who's not as famous as Ira Gershwin, but he's the lyricist who wrote the lyrics for "Over the Rainbow" and April in Paris and Finian's Rainbow, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" - a great Depression song of the 1930s. He grew up very, very poor, and read all the New York newspaper light verse but also read anthologies of light verse including one that was one of Ira Gershwin's favorites, and they both went to the same school, Townsend Harris, Harris High School, and because it was Harburg and Gershwin they were, often sat near each other alphabetically. And they got to know each other and they kind of opened up and they said, "You know, you read light verse. I write light verse. Let's - " Then they did a little school newspaper column of light - a newspaper of light verse, and Harburg once said to Ira - it was Yip and Gersh they called each other, and that's how they signed their light-verse poems because one of the things you did as a light-verse poet when you appeared in the newspapers was you went under a funny nickname. Like Dorothy Parker was Dotty, which in, in, in England, "dotty" means you're a little daft, a little, a little off your rocker. And, and Yip said to Gersh - he said, "Do you know who my favorite light-verse poet is?" And Ira said, "No. Who?" And he said, "Well, it's this guy in, in this light-verse anthology named William Schwenck Gilbert," and Ira said, "Yip, you know those are song lyrics," and Harburg said, "You're kidding," because Gilbert and Sullivan - when they wrote songs, Gilbert would write the poetry first as, as light verse, and then Sullivan would set the poems to music. And Ira said, "Yeah. That - there's music to all those songs," and he said, "Come on home with me." And on the Victrola he put on a recording of H.M.S. Pinafore and Harburg couldn't believe that these poems that he had adored for years, suddenly he hears music to it, and he said, "That made me want to write song lyrics." But the difference, of course, is that in American songwriting it was the music that comes first. And it's a completely different - it's much harder that way to be witty and clever and wry when you have to fit words to notes, like working a musical crossword puzzle, so that the fact that Yip and Gersh and Larry Hart and - well, Cole Porter wrote music and words so he could go back and forth, as did Irving Berlin - but all these other witty lyrics by Lerner and Loesser and Hammerstein - the fact that they were written to music and still can rival Gilbert and Sullivan for cleverness just seems to be miraculous.

Diesenhaus: In a slightly related way, you've, you've also described lyrics as a rhyming conversation and, and given that, I wonder if you hear lyrics sometimes as fiction or dialogue in a story, of characters kind of relating to one another in the same way that there's a comparison potentially to light verse or poetry is that - I guess another way to look at it also is the idea of the iceberg effect. There's so much implied in just a few short minutes. I guess I've just been curious, and I'm wondering if -

Phillip Furia: Yeah. I hadn't thought of that. I mean, Ira Gershwin did say a good lyric is like a conversation that happens to rhyme, but so many of the lyrics are not really conversational in the sense that they go back and forth. There are a few that do. One of the great ones is the song that Bob Hope sang with Shirley Ross that became his signature song in an otherwise terrible movie called The Big Broadcast of 1937, but it's "Thanks for the Memory." And it's a wonderfully dramatic and conversational - it's two, it's a divorced couple who are still in love but they can't admit it. You talk about the iceberg-effect thing. And they meet in a bar on an ocean liner and they start having martinis, and it's partly talk and it's partly sung, but sung in a more spoken way - "Thanks for the memory of candlelight and wine, moonlight castles on the Rhine." I can't - the lines aren't coming to me now. "Motor trips and burning lips and burning toast and prunes." So you had this kind of funny list, a catalog of images, and they go back and forth and sometimes they stop and talk, but that would be a lyric that works like two people talking with one another, and the same with a great Frank Loesser song that Esther Williams and, I think, Ricardo Montalbán sing in, in a film from the late '40s called Neptune's Daughter. "Baby, it's cold outside, I really must go," she sings, and he says, "But baby, it's cold out there." And they go back and forth and it's, again, a lyric that works as a drama, but most of them are - and you can see why, because they're designed not only to work in a Broadway show or in a Hollywood movie, but they're designed to become independent pop songs that a male or female singer could sing. That's why frequently they're androgynous. It's "I love you" or "You love me" and you don't even define the gender because you want to make sure it can be recorded by both a male and female singer. But most of them are designed for that pop song two-and-a- half minutes' recording that can be sung by a single performer. So I think that that would be a limit, to try to get them to be too much back and forth. But it's an interesting question.

(crew talk)

Diesenhaus: I suppose I want to talk a bit about the fact that you have an MFA yourself, and - if you could talk a bit about that experience at Iowa Writers Workshop, and if you were working with the same kind of things that you've now (inaudible) in American poetry. Is that, is that what you were working at, or was the MFA - ?

Phillip Furia: No. There was no such thing as creative nonfiction in the 1960s even though the creative nonfiction revolution as they called it was starting to happen because in the 1950s, if you picked up a magazine like The Saturday Evening Post, what you'd get in it would be short stories. By the 1960s, if you picked up most magazines what you got were - we didn't call it creative nonfiction, but it was not short stories. It was nonfiction articles, and here there were so many of us trying to write short stories and some of our teachers like Kurt Vonnegut was trying to tell us there's no market for that anymore. You know, you don't - I mean, you could still sell a short story at that time for the exorbitant sum of $700 to Playboy or Esquire but if they ran a short story it was kind of as a gesture to being literary, but most of what was in that was nonfiction articles. So as that revolution in writing was happening and The New York Times was starting now to carry two lists of bestsellers - it used to be just one, fiction, but now there was a nonfiction list as well as a fiction list, and we just weren't aware of that. We were still - I was writing short stories and a novel, and at that time Iowa had a policy which somebody tells me they still have, which I can't believe, that to get the MFA you had to turn in 90 pages of good fiction and I had 90 pages of a novel that was accepted, and it's still sitting somewhere in a trunk in my house and page 91 has yet to be written. I mean, I wrote 90 pages, and somebody said they still do this. It's still a two-year program. It's still fiction and nonfiction. They don't even have a track in nonfiction. I mean, it's fiction and poetry, they don't have a track in nonfiction, and I can't believe it. You know, Iowa's - of course, they get all the best writers so no matter who goes there is still going to write, but no, I was writing nothing but fiction, and when I wasn't - several people were able to place their novels. One of my best friends there placed his novel with Harper's and Harper's Magazine ran an excerpt from it. And the agent had come out from New York and basically looked over a lot of our stuff and took several of us on. Gail Godwin was in our class, the fiction writer from North Carolina. John Irving, I think, was in that same class although I didn't know him. So people were getting work placed in fiction and when mine wasn't picked up by the agent, I started to have second thoughts, and I stayed on and got a Ph. D. just to be safe, and wrote a Ph. D. dissertation on William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane that also didn't get published but got me a job at, at Minnesota, but the workshop was still great training. I mean, it was, it was rigorous. It was harsh. They didn't pull any punches. They told you when something was bad. I can remember they had a, a rule of anonymity that the writer could not identify himself or herself in the workshop, that in theory anyway nobody knew who wrote what, so it was open game. You could say anything. You didn't know whose feelings you were hurting. After a, a year, when people were working on a novel then you could sort of figure out, oh yeah, well, that's so-and-so's novel, but in one - I wasn't present in this workshop, but it got to be legendary. It was one of Vonnegut's. The writer was so hurt by all the criticism that it - his short story was so unrealistic, no one would ever say this, no one would ever do that, that he exploded and he broke the rule of anonymity and said, "But that's exactly the way it happened in real life," and Vonnegut said, "Well, some things only happen in real life and bad fiction." And that was kind of the level of slamming that, that you got, but it was good training. I had people going over my prose and I learned something about developing a narrative and defining a character, but I didn't write anything like creative nonfiction probably for - until the, the '90s when I started writing biographies with the Ira Gershwin biography and then it came in handy. I really thought about trying to develop scenes and developing suspense and telling a true story, but telling it with as much fictional art as I had learned.

Diesenhaus: And how - do you have thoughts on how the MFA may have changed since you were a student and now as a teacher? Are there certain things that you've, you've noticed, that you think are kind of evolving?

Phillip Furia: Oh well, I think the MFA program as we have it here is so much better than - as I think, if what I hear is true about Iowa, it still is. I mean, the main thing that would have helped me was what we now do and we have a third-year program, and that's when you finish the thesis. That's when you write the book and that seems to me the, the critical thing about an MFA. You should get your first book out of you and, and that's what we've managed to do with enormous success here, that people write books, they're good books, and many of them have been published, and making people work in other genres was something I didn't have to do and that would have been great. Some of the best biographical essays I've gotten from students in my workshops here have been from MFA students in poetry who come in sort of terrified that they're going to be doing research and they're going to be interviewing people and be writing biographies, but they bring this wonderful power of language to write about - and they frequently are people writing about people they know, parents and friends, but they do the research rigorously and they need a lot of help as poets in narrative structure. They just are not used to looking at something that's ten pages long and then going up to the blackboard and then outlining it. They just - you know, the poet - for a poet that's just, you know, a cold water bath that you outline a narrative, but I think - and I think the whole attitude - it's so much more supportive and it really brings people along and gives them lots of feedback, and the writers are not here just to do their own writing, that - and I think every one of my colleagues is about as thrilled when a student has success as they have when they themselves have success, and that's, that's just priceless. I don't think that's true in a lot of MFA programs.

(crew talk)

Diesenhaus: So (inaudible), I just wanted to ask you a few questions about process. And I think - maybe a, a general place to start is what is, sort of, your favorite, least favorite parts of writing? We've talked a lot about the research and the permissions -

Phillip Furia: Oh, yeah. That's, that's not fun. The, the hardest part for me is - 'cause I always give my manuscript to usually three or four people to read, mostly colleagues here who are writers themselves, and the hardest part is getting it back from them. They're all very good, but it's just I already finished this thing and I know I asked you for input but I wish you hadn't given me so much or, you know, oh boy, that's really going to be a problem. It's not dealing with your own revision but having somebody come at you and say, as one colleague did, "Here you - in - you begin this chapter by saying Mercer was entering into the twilight of his life," and he said, "You've got 150 pages after that," and he said, "Can you imagine how the reader feels reading that sentence, like, I'm almost finished, and then looking at the rest of the book?" So it's when the, the need for revision is not prompted by something you've seen but it's by some - something somebody else is seeing, although that's always - it's always helpful but it feels like work. The most enjoyable part of a book, I think, is the initial shift from research to seeing the narrative develop to, to going through interviews, transcribing, reading about your subject, going through letters, and then suddenly seeing one chapter will be about this and then another chapter will be about this, and then seeing the beginning of that pattern of the story unfolding. It's, it's the moment before actual writing but envisioning the narrative structure of the book and feeling I've got a book here. There's a story, there's a character, it's developing, this chapter's gonna be about this, and it's at this moment that we're going to end it and we're going to begin this chapter when this happens, and - yeah. And that's, like, before your hands get dirty with the writing that - yeah, the movement in creative nonfiction from your - reached the point in your research - you're still going to do more research, but you've reached the point where you can see the shape, the narrative shape, of the book, is probably the most exciting part.

Diesenhaus: At that point are you creating kind of outline strategies, or have you maybe done that before that point?

Phillip Furia: You haven't written it down yet but you can see it, and I've gotten to the point now where I don't even have to write it down. I don't have to write the outline down. I can see that - I can actually sit down and write the chapter and it changes as you're writing it, you know, because you, you do more research, you come across something more. I was writing a chapter - actually I'm still writing a chapter, that I thought was going to be about how Warner Brothers presented songs in the 1930s Busby Berkeley movies, and I have just finished a chapter about how Paramount had presented songs in movies that were more like European operettas that featured primarily Maurice Chevalier in the same period. And then I was just going through a big, wonderful scholarly collection of - called The Hollywood Musical that had clips - photo clips from different movies but it gives the dates. It was all the information, who was in it, who directed, what the songs were. It's a book by Clive Hirschhorn and it's just something that you dip into constantly wherever you are in the book, and I saw Mae West. And I thought, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Mae West sang songs in movies," and I thought, "And before her Marlene Dietrich sang songs in movies and it's exactly the same time, in the early '30s, and so it was kind of a nice problem." Well, where am I going to put them because they worked at Paramount but they presented songs not expressively as Maurice Chevalier does in an operetta where he's not playing the part of a performer. He's a tailor and he's singing "Isn't It Romantic?" but Mae West and Marlene Dietrich sang songs in nightclubs so I'm going to stick 'em for now in the Warner Brother Busby Berkeley chapter because that's about presenting songs in performances. We're putting on a Broadway show in 42nd Street and so we have a realistic excuse to sing because we're rehearsing, we're putting on a show, so I thought that's kind of a nice bump that before you get to Busby Berkeley, you're gonna talk a little bit about Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. And then, you know, you go and get a book on - you get a biography of Mae West and a biography of Marlene Dietrich, and you find out that they were friends and they were both kind of outcasts in the Hollywood - in Hollywood society. They didn't get invited to a lot of parties and they became kind of sympathetic. They were both sex symbols before the code came in and when the production code that censored movies really got tough in the 1930s, in 1934 or 1935, their careers dovetailed so it's kind of a happy - I don't know if I'm going to keep them there. I'm going to keep them together but whether they're with Paramount or Warner Brothers, the more important thing is that there is a resonance there that I hadn't planned for. I could see the chapters but then this nice little bump comes in and you've just got to have Mae West and Marlene Dietrich.

Diesenhaus: Given that you said you feel that you can see the chapters, when you're sitting down to write them, does it kind of just happen or do you need any kind of rituals or habits to get into it?

Phillip Furia: No. You just sit down - I've gotten to the point where I can compose on the computer. I sometimes will still write things out in longhand, but the last few weeks that I've been writing it's been write - working on the computer. And it's kind of sloppy because one of the things I tell myself is if you're going through a Marlene Dietrich biography, everything that looks good, put it in the chapter. You're gonna have to cut a lot of it later, but while you've got the book checked out of the library put the page number in, put the quotes in, summarize the information. If Marlene Dietrich complained to Mae West when they were talking in her dressing room that she thought Paramount was exploiting her legs too much, Mae West said, "You take care of the legs. I'll take care of this," and bared one bosom and said, "Remember...." Or she said, "Remember, you're also making movies for women. If it were - if I were just making it for the men, all I'd have to do is this," and she bared a bosom and then slapped Marlene Dietrich on the leg and said, "Remember, you know, movies are for women as well as for men." Geez. Put that in. That's such a great story. You may not use it. It may not have anything to do with the way songs are presented but you kind of make the chapter a great big Baggie thing so you don't really feel like you're doing the polished writing yet. It's more like a grab bag of information and research, and that way you don't have to go, "I remember a story about Marlene Dietrich," and then (inaudible), "What was that? Was that in the Mae West biography or the Dietrich?" You've got it all there, so that's just kind of a great big canvas bag of information that you have and there's some shape to it, but you're, you're writing it down first and you're gonna give the real narrative shape to it later.

Diesenhaus: And is that a specific benefit of the technology of the computer that you can - ?

Phillip Furia: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. In fact, the first book I wrote, the Ezra Pound book, didn't start out as a book. It started out - I was a professor of - his specialty was modern American poetry, '20s, '30s and '40s, and I didn't know a thing about the Cantos. I'd never been taught it in graduate school. Pound was still - because of his anti-Semitism and his support of fascism - was still somebody you didn't study and most people didn't write about, but in 1970, the year I started teaching, this huge book came out, one of the best books ever written, called The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner who was a brilliant - still a brilliant scholar. And it sort of revolutionized modern poetry and it said Pound, whether you like him or not, is absolutely central to everything that happened in modern literature because he was bringing in Joyce and Eliot as well, and people who were purported scholars of modern poetry were, "Whoa, I guess I'd better bone up on Pound." And so in the late '70s I started looking at the Cantos, and now of course you can buy books that are - that annotate the Cantos, all the - there's - it has Chinese in it. It has references to minor Renaissance figures. It has sections that are charters of Italian banks. It's just all over the place in terms of the world of reference that Pound makes. But in the 1970s there was very little written. There was one journal devoted to Pound scholarship so I thought what I'd do is I'll read every article in that journal and every time I'd come across something that explains a reference in the Cantos that translates some of the Chinese, I will in my great big book of the Cantos, which was about that big - it's about 800 pages long, a single poem - I will write down in the margins what that reference is. And pretty soon my pages were being all covered up, and a friend of mine who knew about computers said, "You know, what you need is an electronic notebook." I said, "What's that?" And he said, "Well, it's a computer and you can go down" - we were housed in Minnesota near the engineering building, and at that time you went in and you'd have to go in to one room and there were these huge computers and you couldn't even do things like underline or italicize or footnotes. It was really primitive stuff. But he said, "What you need to do is instead of writing them down in your coll - book of the Cantos, is say canto one, reference system, and write all these down." So I started doing that, and I spent my day in the engineering computer lab and they had these big floppy disks about this big and I started accumulating these, and I thought, "You know, I've done all this homework and gone through this journal and annotated all of this stuff, that I probably could do a readers' guide to, not the whole cantos, but Pound had excerpted some in to a collection called the Selected Cantos. I could probably do a readers' guide and explain all these references and do some interpretation of the Selected Cantos. And I sent off a proposal to Penn State Press and they said, "Yeah, we'd like to do that book. We've been wanting to do an Ezra Pound book because of the interest in Ezra Pound occasioned by Kenner's The Pound Era." And I said, "Well, good. There's a Pound conference. I'm gonna go to that and I'm gonna meet some Pound scholars." Met Hugh Kenner and met a woman from Yale, and she said, "Well, what is your research on Pound?" And I said, "Well, I'm doing a readers' guide to the Selected Cantos," and we were having a cocktail and she just gulped on her drink. She said, "Oh, my God. You've got to meet George Kearns." And I said, "Who's he?" She said, "Oh, he's teaching at Rutgers, but he's already done that book. It's coming out next fall." And I met this guy and he said, "Oh, I feel so sorry for you." He said, "Yeah, I did the same thing you did. I went through all the journals, annotated, and The Readers' Guide to Ezra Pound's Selected Cantos is coming...." So I wrote back to Penn State Press and I said, "I guess I can't do the book," and they said, "Well, can you do anything else with Pound?" I thought, "Well, what could I do?" And I thought, "I could write a book about the sections of the Cantos that hold all of these documents, the bank charters, John Adams' state papers which he summarizes some books of Chinese history," and I thought, "My thesis will be - part of the Cantos is about the retrieval, preservation, and dissemination of information." And so I wrote this book and as I was finishing it, all - wrote it on the computer, I said, "I wonder if I'd have come up with a thesis about the retrieval, preservation, organization, and dissemination of information if I hadn't been writing on a computer." And so, in a way, preserving and disseminating information kind of fed into - the medium became the message.

Diesenhaus: Just a few more questions, specifically about - by the way, I'm fascinated by what you just said - when you're sitting down, are you - are you working every day? Are you - ?

Phillip Furia: That's right, I should have stuck on process, yeah.

Diesenhaus: No, no, no, I was very interested. Are you trying to reach a quota, sort of like little things that you might have to get you going or that you aim for when you're working?

Phillip Furia: Well, yeah. I - I'm trying to do right now - 'cause it changes with different books. Right now I'm trying to draft a chapter a month, and I'm two weeks behind. But when I get this chapter done I'll still have, like, two weeks left to do the next one, so you always play that game with yourself that I still - it's still within the month. If I get it done, then I have so many days more to finish but, I do that, but there - there are no rituals about the writing. I, I write at different times and one of the advantages I have - and I find this when I talk with other writers who are writing novels or long memoirs or other research books, is they really need blocks of time, and because I'm writing about songs and maybe writing about the history of how songs are presented in film, but I'm writing about Mae West singing "My Old Flame." So if I've got forty-five minutes, I can cue it up on the videotape, watch it, and in forty-five minutes I can write two paragraphs and then it's self-contained, and I can walk away so - 'cause a lot of people said, you know, I've been an administrator in academic departments almost my whole career since the late 1970s, and while I was chair of the Creative Writing department here, when I was director of the film studies program, when I was chair of the department of English, I was still turning out books. And this kind of amazed people and I finally - and it kind of amazed me too, but partly it's because I can work in very small units, and so that if I have an hour or two I can definitely get something done. I mean, that - you can't do the whole book that way, but you can do all, all the pieces of it.

Diesenhaus: And it sounds like that allows you to balance your life with all the other obligations and responsibilities if you can break it up into these chunks.

Phillip Furia: Yes, absolutely, particularly when you're a department chair, which is a really demanding job, demands all of your time, and you've - if you can get those little chunks, you can get a book done.

Diesenhaus: Maybe just two more questions. First - may seem surprising for someone who's been writing so long, but I think it applies more to some of the other folks I ask, but I wonder, just, how do you think people perceive it when you tell them you're a writer? How do they perceive it? What is the reaction? What does it, what people say to you, that kind of thing?

Phillip Furia: I don't think I tell people I'm a writer.

Diesenhaus: Do you tell them you're a professor?

Phillip Furia: Yeah. I teach Creative Writing, and you know, if they ask me I tell them I write books but I - I'm not adamant about this, but one of the things I've said to - frequently to our faculty is that when we bring in visiting writers, it's good to bring in writers who don't teach in other MFA programs so that our students can see - and we, we've been able to bring some writers in, like this, have stayed the whole semester and taught as writers-in-residence, writers who actually make a living by what they write, and that's kind of why I don't say I'm a writer because if I had to live on my royalties I, I couldn't, and I, I think - I'm perfectly happy with other writers saying that, but I'm just kind of old-fashioned about that, that I like to think a writer is how you make your living, and I make part of my living by writing but I'm not exclusively a writer. I'm a teacher of writing who also writes. The reaction that I get when you say that is that, that people are still a little in awe of somebody who writes. I mean, they think that's - they don't, they don't see the hard work, lonely, solitary side of it. They, they think it's kind of a glamorous thing to do. And fortunately I don't get the reaction I always used to get when you said you were an English professor, which is, "I have to watch my grammar." It's - no matter where or what, people would suddenly get very nervous that they were going to make a grammatical error in my presence, but the nice thing about saying I teach writing is they don't automatically go there.

Diesenhaus: Mm-hmm. And, perhaps as a final question, maybe an overly broad one, but do you have any advice for writers of nonfiction, writers of poetry, any, any genre they might be doing? Do you have any broad, general advice for people?

Phillip Furia: Yeah. I guess the one thing - I think a good department is one where everyone has a hobby horse and when you get in a department meeting you can pretty much be sure that somewhere in the course of the conversation Professor X is gonna say, "We need to - " and Professor Y is gonna say this, and I'm the professor who one way or another always says, "Good writers need to read in the history of their genre," that I think too many of our students are only interested in what's being written today because "that's where I want to publish and I've got to be up on the contemporary market." And I think most of the, the successful writers that, that I know or that I admire - talking with John Updike over lunch and dinner, I mean, the knowledge of not only the history of fiction but of poetry that goes back, or meeting - the first time I met a contemporary writer like Robert Bly, he wanted to talk about Chaucer. And I think the really good writers have a grounding in the older writers of their genre, and so one of the things I teach are the Forms courses here, are they the Forms of Poetry, the Forms of Fiction, and I'm gonna start one, now that I'm no longer chair, on Forms of Drama. Even though we don't have people working a lot in drama, I think they need to read Sophocles and, and Shakespeare. When I do a Forms of Fiction course, I start with The Odyssey, and we do a medieval romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I make them read a Chaucer tale in Middle English. I make them read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. If you're doing this, it should be exciting to you as a writer to know that - well, just take Jane Austen as an, as an example, that this, this girl who lived in a tiny hick town in England, when all of the men writing novels spoke as if they were writing an essay in their own voice - I mean, you open the beginning of Tom Jones, you don't get to Tom Jones for about twelve pages. You get Fielding talking about himself. Or if they're Dafoe, they write in - on the model of autobiography. Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe, they talk in the "I." That Jane Austen could figure out that you open a novel with a dramatic scene in Pride and Prejudice - and it just seems to me if you're a novelist, you ought to know that she did that and that ought to make you feel like you're in a tradition of innovation, and there are these great writers who've done these fascinating things, that Homer opened The Odyssey with a flashback. And if you're only reading contemporary fiction, or reading contemporary poetry, and don't know what Alexander Pope did in The Rape of the Lock with heroic couplet, you're kind of narrowing your range as a writer if you are not grounded in that history. So that's my hobby horse and that - that's probably the advice I'd give to writers: read the old stuff.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Phillip Furia: Okay.

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