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Interview with Philip Gerard, April 3, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Philip Gerard, April 3, 2008
April 3, 2008
Interview with Philip Gerard, author and professor of creative writing at UNCW. Here, he discusses his background and education, the founding and structure of UNCW's MFA in Creative Writing program, and the concerns of memoir and creative nonfiction.
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Interviewee:  Gerard, Philip Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  4/3/2008 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes


Diesenhaus: I'm Doug Diesenhaus and I'll be interviewing Philip Gerard for the Randall Library Oral History project on creative writers. And usually, the best place to start is to ask people how they go started writing, how they've come to this life.

Gerard: I think I'm very ordinary among writers, in that my writing started with reading, as a kid reading _________, many, many authors. The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, the Ted Scott flying stories, loved adventure stories, loved that. And by the time I was in fourth or fifth grade, reading King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and Ivanhoe and Tom Sawyer and all the great kind of classic kid literature books, full of romance and adventure. And I think it's a natural thing at some point that you read it long enough, that you want to write your own. And so I began doing that. I started publishing short stories in college, in the college literary magazine at the University of Delaware, and then did some freelance work after that. I always wanted to write books. I was living in Delaware. There was nobody there that I knew who wrote books, so I went to the writing program, and studied with people like Robert Houston and Vance Bourjaily. I learned a little bit about writing a book and decided that's what I wanted to do, so that's what I've been doing ever since.

Diesenhaus: Either when you were younger, or in the college years you described, were there any teachers or people who were influential for you, encouraging you to pursue?

Gerard: Yeah, I've been real lucky in my teachers. I went to a school called St. Andrews in Delaware for a couple of years. It's the school of the Dead Poets' Society. My Robin Williams character was a guy named Don Coburn, who was a wonderful, energetic English teacher, who was probably 23 years old or something. He since went on to become an editor of the Washington Post, get his MFA in poetry and like that. He was a wonderful, inspiring influence. At the University of Delaware, I worked with a poet named Gib Ruark, and a really good short story writer, named Thomas Molyneux, who unfortunately killed himself during my senior year. So that was a bit of a setback, in contemplating the life of a writer. In Arizona, I was very lucky to work with people like Richard Shelton, who's a poet, but became a kind of mentor to me. And Robert Houston, Vance Bourjaily, a lot of people like that, Ken Cook. I've always had colleagues that I considered teachers as well. Of course, if you teach long enough and you get talented graduate students, you can't help but learn from them. One of the great perks of teaching in a graduate program is that you're working with the writers who you know in a couple of years are going to have their own books out there. They keep you sharp and they make you constantly revisit the things you think you know for sure about writing. So over the years, my esthetic has developed, partly as a result of feedback from students, and watching students take risks in their work that I didn't take or wouldn't take, and then realizing they had something there and try it.

Diesenhaus: With your move, geographically--

Gerard: A lot of them!

Diesenhaus: Do you think there's something about-- you talked about in Delaware, you said you didn't find people who were doing some of the stuff--

Gerard: I always tell people that want to be writers, you really have to be where you live if you're going to be a writer. Or you can be an expatriate, and then you write about being an expatriate. Hemingway almost never wrote about the United States, after he wrote his initial stories. Almost everything he wrote was set overseas. He lived in Cuba, he lived in Paris, he lived in Italy, and Key West, which was, arguably at that point, not really part of the US, it was so far removed. I grew up in Delaware. Delaware is so small, it doesn't even have an airport. You have to go to Philly or Baltimore. It is flat and fairly featureless. The town I went to college in, where I grew up, Newark, was a nice little town, but you always felt small and constrained and ordinary. I wanted to do-- I wanted to go someplace where the landscape really got me. So I spent time out west and the scale of the landscape in Arizona is remarkable. North Carolina's a place I'd come to as a teenager. I had a neighbor, Harry Cooper, who had three daughters. I was his paperboy, and he needed a fishing buddy. So whenever they camped on the Outer Banks, he invited me to come along. I really fell in love with Cape Hatteras. I mean, the very first time I saw it, and all the hundreds of times I've been back to it-- almost all those times, by the way, sleeping outdoors, either in sand dunes, campgrounds or whatever, when I was younger. The landscape just filled me up. I thought if I could ever, ever come back to the coast of North Carolina, I would. And so, when the opportunity came, I applied for a job here and was fortunate enough to get it. I live right now on the water on Whiskey Creek. I look out in the morning with my coffee and see great blue herons and egrets. I see the tide washing on, smell low tide when the tide's going out. Walk down a little ways, and there's the ocean. There's just nothing like it. It's a place where I felt immediately at home, and I feel like has never changed, nor do I expect it to.

Diesenhaus: In particular, you have the literature of the south, or just southern culture in general, how have you adapted to that? Delaware, I guess, is mid-Atlantic.

Gerard: Delaware's a funny state. Delaware, in way, is a great metaphor, because Delaware is mid-Atlantic, except that Delaware itself is divided by the C&D canal, Chesapeake and Delaware canal. And people talk about lower Delaware, sometimes slower Delaware, because it's more southern than anything. It's really part of Maryland. It's farms, it's fishermen. It used to be; now it's more touristy. And then the upper part, the smaller part, which was industrial, Dupont. You know, they've got the powder mill there since the 1700s. So Delaware was on the Mason-Dixon line. In the Civil War, it sent troops off to fight for the south. It was occupied by the Union army because they were afraid of it. It had a Confederate prison, right in the river, Fort Delaware. I mean, it kind of occupies that ambiguous place. It was, for me, a kind of place to get out of. Southern writing, as they talk about it down here, southern literature, is in many ways a problematic term, or even being called a southern writer. I have a colleague, Clyde Edgerton, who is very definitely a southern writer, considers himself that. He's also just an American writer. He's just a really good writer, who happens to have-- he's just drenched in this regional influence, because his grandparents and great-grandparents all lived in this area for hundreds of years. I think that there is a kind of divide between the old south and the new south. I've been here almost 20 years. I've written about hurricanes here. My first novel was based on Cape Hatteras. Another novel was based right here in Wilmington in the 1898 riots. I have, in essay after essay and short story after short story, used the locale, the people, the customs, and my particular relation to it as an outsider to try to figure out what's going on with it. So in some ways, I'm much more of a southern writer than many other writers, simply because the stuff I'm choosing to focus on is stuff that fascinates me. Things in the first novel, Hatteras Life, the surfmen of the Outer Banks. It's an entire subculture within a subculture. Well, actually, you've got the south, which is one. You've got the coastal south, which is a whole different set. You've got the island coastal south, where they're still speaking Elizabethan English, in 1918 when the novel takes place. Within that, you've got the surfmen, who are kind of the crème de la crème of the island culture. So insular, that unless you're pretty much born into it, you're not going to be able to do it. Within those, you've got the elite of the heroic ones. So you've got one box inside another. That novel, like pretty much everything I write, is all about a community that has a very definite cohesion, and then outsiders come in. In this case, the Germans attack with a U-boat. The US Navy comes in to defend the island, and suddenly, a place that was full of only friends and family is full of strangers and strangers that have nothing to do with the island, have nothing to do with the culture, or the aims or agendas of the island. They've got their eyes completely focused outside the island. And the same is true of Cape Fear Rising. You've got a town that has grown up with a culture where several families control everything. You've got a kind of wealthy, upper class of white guys who are businessmen, that control the river and the trade and the government, and everything. And then suddenly, you've got what they think of as outsiders, which is an influx of free blacks after the Civil War. It takes about 30 or 40 years before that reaches a critical mass, where finally these people are saying, "Wait a minute. We don't like our town this way any more." The other people are saying, "Wait a minute. It's always been our town too. We just didn't have any say about it." And of course, the whole premise of the novel is based on the white supremacist coup to take back-- in their terms, take back their city, which they successfully did, at great cost. But it really is about clashes of culture, and particularly about outsiders, or people considered to be outsiders, coming into a place where people feel a proprietary ownership. To me, that's, in many ways, the story of Western civilization, whether you talk about Columbus and the Indians, or you talk about the Moors and Spain, the perpetual wars between France and England, France and Germany, Germany and England, Germany and the rest of the world, Japan and Asia. They're all about somebody, outsiders, moving into somebody else's property and trying to take over, for whatever good or bad reasons they have.

Diesenhaus: Do you think that's why you're drawn to it? The kind of macro level, or is it also because, say, you're coming here and-- does your own personal experience drive part of your interest?

Gerard: It's kind of a snake eating its own tail, because obviously if I were living somewhere else, I would probably-- I did one novel based in Arizona where I spent seven years. It's very much rooted in the kind of creepy, barren beauty of the landscape out in the desert. But yeah, it matters that I'm here, and that I'm here by choice. There are many other places I could have been by choice. I had chances to go to Virginia, New Mexico, California, at different points, and the Midwest. I didn't take them; decided to be here. But yeah, I am drawn. The south, one of the things in the southern culture is that there's the whole culture of a lost cause, which is related to the civil war, but in some respects, it's the cause of the underdog. It's a very American thing in one way, and a very un-American thing in another. It's American, in that we're fascinated with the underdog. The Confederate army didn't have shoes, didn't have cannons, whatever and yet they fought these amazing battles against the well armed northern army. And yet, I guess the un-American part is, we celebrate self-reliance and winning, and not wallowing in loss or victimhood, not holding a grudge, moving ahead. That's a very American thing to do. So we can't understand, for example, that the Lakota tribes out in the Southwest, or the Dakotas, feel a sense of aggrievedness, because of what the cavalry did in 1870 or something. We feel like, "Hey, move on with that." And yet, in the south, it's as if the war happened last week, and as if 1898 happened last night, as if desegregation was this morning. The timeline is-- I think what Faulkner said, "Where the past is not dead and buried. It's not even past." And that's very much the case here. It's almost as if you're living in this palimpsest, all times and places are just superimposed on one another. You feel like Wilmington is crowded, not just with the people who live here, but with their grandfathers, and their grandfathers, pretty much all the way back to the original Indians, who were, by the way, wiped out by the first settlers that came to the Cape Fear region, along with the Carolina parakeet. But you feel like that's all smushed together, and when you look at it, you see it all, superimposed together. And I think the whole south, in many ways, is like that, in a way that Delaware never was. We had little bits of history here and there, but I never felt that sense of the past, even though I went to a university that was founded at the time of the Revolution. I used to drink in a tavern where Edgar Allen Poe stayed, and George Washington used as a headquarters the other tavern in town. And yet it never-- it felt like they were gone. They had been there; they were gone. Here, it feels like the ghost of Robert E. Lee is still riding through town or something.

Diesenhaus: I think this is connected, but you write both fiction and nonfiction.

Gerard: Sure.

Diesenhaus: I wonder, especially given the kind of stuff you're talking about, is your approach to each different, or do you actually prefer one over the other?

Gerard: There's always a great argument: what's harder or more satisfying, fiction or nonfiction? I think it really comes down to what the subject is, and what your interest is in it. My background, I never studied journalism. I studied-- I was an anthropology major and an English major by default, doing a double major at Delaware. I happened to study with really terrific anthropologists who happened to be, some of them, quite famous, although I had no idea. Their idea of doing science was that, before you make judgments or decision, what should be, what could be, how to change something, that their job was to look and see what is, in a very detailed way, without judgment. And I think that's something many writers forget. Well, it's the core of what a journalist ought to do. It's the core of what a nonfiction writer ought to do, in my view, to first pay attention before you-- and this goes for critiquing manuscripts, as much as for doing work that will lead toward a manuscript. Before you start monkeying with it, figure out what you've got. Try to approach it without some bias. Try to figure out, what are you really looking at? And they used to do it to us by showing us various film clips, and saying, "What did you just see?" We would invariably see it wrongly because we had preconceptions. And then they would tell us we were witnessing something, and here is what we actually had as a context for it. So my impulse for nonfiction comes out of that, but really, the fiction I love to write most is fiction where you know the exterior story, and the exterior story's fascinating. But you don't know the interior story, and the whole project of fiction is to figure out the interior story. It's the one thing you can't really do in nonfiction well. I can't write about George Bush and tell you what he's thinking. I can tell you everything he said and did. I can interview people about him. I can find pictures of his childhood, but when it comes to the interior life, that's unavailable to me. Or if you're writing a novel-- I just finished a book about Paul Revere that's very much in this vein. I know what he did, the night that he made his famous ride. It was fairly remarkable, and I know the other actors, and I was able to go to the places that he was and look at the artifacts left over, the lantern from Old North Church, and guns that were fired at the Battle of Lexington. I fired a musket myself to find out what it would be like. I learned how to ride a horse, to feel like what it was like when he rode a horse. But ultimately, I don't know what he was thinking that night. And so the excitement of doing the fiction is getting yourself so much into the psychology of that guy, that you begin to feel like, "Okay, now I've got things going through my mind that must have been going through his mind." Now I'm starting to get to motive. Why is he doing these things? Because if you think about it, most of us don't know why we do most of the things we do most of the time. Sometimes we kind of can figure it out on a big decision where we lay out all the odds. Here's the pros; here's the cons. But often, we do things, a hundred times a day we do things, and we do them spontaneously. We do them for motives that are buried way in our back stories. We're often not probably even aware what they are. Sometimes, in retrospect, we figure it out. Sometimes other people tell us. Many therapists make millions of dollars a year, answering this question for people, why are you doing what you're doing? What other choices could you do instead? Well, that's what the novelist does. A nonfiction writer does, I think, maybe two things. One is, you're discovering and telling a story in a way that maybe hasn't been discovered before. I wrote a very long essay about a sailboat that sank down at Charleston for example. All kinds of people had written about pieces of it, from the point of view of a news story. I maybe found 50 newspaper articles, magazine articles, interviews, investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board, and two court cases, full transcripts and appeals and everything. And yet nobody had actually pieced it together from start to finish, in a coherent way that accounted for what happened. Because if you're in real life, most people are concerned with only a part of things. Like Jerry Bledsoe, who's a great crime writer, used to say that when he came to a true crime story, he the writer was really the only guy concerned with truth. The defense attorney was concerned with getting his guy off. The prosecutor wanted to convict somebody. The family wanted justice, and there were other people that had their various agendas. He actually wanted to figure out why it had happened, who did it really, why they did it, what the consequences would be. And then to do the second thing which I think a nonfiction writer does, which is to say, "Okay, I figured out what happened. As best as anybody's ever going to know, I think I do know that now. And I've put it together in a way that I think shows the logic of some kind of train of thought." Because you could put together a story in many ways. But the second part is to ponder it, and say, "Well, okay. What have we got here?" Who cares if a sailboat with three children and an adult crashed into a jetty off the coast of Charleston and drowned a couple of days after Christmas in 1997? What does that mean? Why do we care about that now? And it's figuring that part of it out that ultimately will change journalism into literature, I think. Because that's the, what as __________ said, "News that saves news." You're past the date of the headline. So you can read accounts of Martha Gellhorn in the Spanish War. Or you can read Hemingway's Memoir of Paris. Or you can read George Plimpton writing about New York. It doesn't matter that the people are gone. It doesn't matter that the circumstances of the world have changed. They survived because they've got at something fundamentally true about human nature, and also because they said it beautifully. After all, that's kind of what we do. I think we lose that sometimes. We get to talking about sentences and whatever. I feel like what we're really trying to do is create something beautiful, every bit as much as a painter or a sculptor or a dancer.

Diesenhaus: I've heard alternating positions on how the confines of the truth in nonfiction give the writer freedom or liberation, and then the opposite, how fiction, the ability to make something up, provides the same. I guess I want to ask that in relation to what you're saying. It seems like you could find the interior or the exterior, on the opposite of each of those. Like finding the story and then finding the motives, or finding the truth of what happened, and finding the motives.

Gerard: Well, you really are turning them inside out. In fiction, what you've got is a circumstance. Fiction can be triggered by a circumstance, it can be triggered by an idea, a feeling, a personality, a sentence. Fiction can start anywhere, and as you begin to ponder it, part of what you're doing is creating the armature on which all of this interior stuff can hang. You change the armature. One of the things you can do in fiction is, you can say, "You know what? I had him driving a Chevy, but it's better if he drives an Oldsmobile. I had her playing the piano, but I need her to carry around with her, so better make it a fiddle. That's the armature, that's all the superficial things. You wouldn't change those in nonfiction. It would be essential, and it would be a lie if you did. But you're working from two different places. And the rules are different. It's as if you're saying, "Well, to play baseball, it's important to be flexible and maybe fast, and patient. To play football, maybe it's interesting to be all those things, but if you're really going to be in the line, you want to be really physically strong, aggressive and you want to be focused." And so there's very different approaches, because the rules are different. I think the rules come down to what contract you're making with your reader. If I'm writing a novel, my contract is, I'm going to try to tell you a crackerjack story. I'm going to try to make it true to human behavior and psychology as I know it, in the context of something that I think will entertain you, keep you interested. Maybe you'll learn something from it. I want to do something for you on several levels, and I'm going to make it up. I'm going to really put my effort, really burn the brain cells into trying to make up a great story. I may borrow from real life something that was just too good not to. In nonfiction, part of the artfulness is going to come from how well I can maneuver within the confines of the facts. I would love for it to end this way, but it didn't. So if I'm kind of a cheesy artist, then all I do is, I fake it and I make it end the easy way that would make it convenient for me. The better artist says, "You know, I've got this block of marble, and I've got this terrible defect right here, but I've got to work around it. How do I do that?" I think it takes more artistry to work around that, and still come up with a beautifully shaped thing in its own right that somehow honors the original shape of the thing you were doing, than to simply say, "Well, let's grind away the flaws and polish it up, fake it, make it look like it's what we want it to be." I think there's a great obligation for a nonfiction writer to really try to be truthful. Having said that, there's a million ways in which small details get lost. I've been struggling with a piece, writing about a photograph that I saw almost 20 years ago, and I can't find that photograph. I can't even find the notes I wrote about. I have a vivid, vivid memory of it, for various reasons, and I'm writing about it from memory, which is what I say in the piece. But I would love to be able to recover that photo, and look at it again, and see if my memory actually is accurate, or whether I have added or edited things over the years. But nonetheless, I'm making a sincere effort to do that, rather than just simply saying, you know, one photograph, in the famous example of Annie Dillard making up the, what was it? A cat or something in one of her pieces. I wouldn't make up a cat. To me, that's very important. The fiction writer, obviously, all those details are negotiable. You don't like an Oldsmobile? Put him in a Ford. You want him to have a cat? Give him a cat. Wait, is it better that they have a mynah bird? Give him a mynah bird. Whatever serves the story. In fiction, the question you ask is, what is the most interesting way this could have happened? Rather than the project of nonfiction, which is, can we get to the bottom of what happened in some way that makes sense? Not everything that happened, but can we look at the event, people? And starting with an accurate sense of what we're witnessing, can we then use that? So if you get the evidence, and start fudging the evidence, then the conclusions you come to are fudged. It's as if you're falsifying evidence in court, in a way. It changes everything and it doesn't give you the truth at all. It gives you falsehood. So it struck me as odd that people think you could find greater truth in a real life story about real people with real consequences for their lives, by lying about it. You can do that in a made up tale, because everybody understands you're lying. So in that context, you're not really lying. If I say to my stepson, "I want to tell you a story about a turtle and a hare having a race," he understands that's story as opposed to, "Really? Where was the turtle? Was it down--?" It's not reality. It's something different, done to entertain, to make a point, moral instruction. It's just plain fun, whatever it is that you're doing in the fiction. I do think that's important, and it's been fudged a lot lately. It shouldn't be.

Diesenhaus: Given that separation of the rules in your work, do you need to separate when you're working on fiction versus non, or can you kind of jumble them and maintain?

Gerard: I think unless you're insane, as long as you've got a fairly good grip on reality, when you change projects, you know, you kind of know that this is make-y up-y, and this over here is not make-y up-y. I was writing about Paul Revere, I knew it was a novel, because there was very little known about him. He didn't leave behind extensive writings of his interior life. And yet if you did, those things are always, at best, unreliable, because I don't put everything in my journals. I put in the things I want to remember, or maybe things that I wouldn't feel bad about if somebody accidentally read them, or if I was dead or something. Some people are more candid than that. I'm pretty aware of what I'm doing. I'm doing the what if? What would be the most interesting way this could have played out? It's almost a hypothesis that you're creating in a novel. Whereas, right now, I've started on a long project about the evolution of language in human history. What started as kind of a gloss on some things has really deepened to where I was on the phone yesterday with a researcher at MIT who's doing computational linguistic analysis with computer modeling. This stuff boggles the mind. But I want to get it right, so what I'll be doing when I write about it is, I'll be sending stuff to her, saying, "Is this accurate? Help me get it right." Because the last thing I want is for somebody to say, "Well, it's all well and good, but it's bogus." Because not only will I be reading it, or whoever ends up reading it, but the people that actually work in the field will read it. People that know more about this than I do will read it. My hope is that I can synthesize things that are off there on a bunch of different academic silos and say, "Well, this one's working on computational analysis. That one's working on fossil remains. This one here's got a linguistic theory that goes back to classical nativist theory. This one here has a theory about teaching deaf children, and that goes through language acquisition with infants. Let me see if there's anything that they can all share with one another," which is typically not how scientists usually write about their work, by saying, "Here's a review of what's been done, but here's my theory." And then the whole thing's about that. So I'm trying to do something different, but it really matters that I honor the facts, insofar as there are facts. Then you get that great, squishy center, kind of the soft center of nonfiction, which is, you're usually writing it because finally, the thing you want to know is unknowable. There is no fossilized human brain, so we don't know, for example in the acquisition of language, 50,000 years ago, when stone tools changed, which did survive, did the brain also change? We can measure skulls and say, "Well, the brain case maybe did or didn't, but what about--?" So finally, you're making a leap from one fact to another, and you're jumping over the things missing in the middle. Often, the thing missing in the middle is the point and that's what you're writing around, trying to get there. I think of that book, the Perfect Storm which, in many ways, is a flawed book. Sebastian Junger went back and sort of apologized afterwards for getting a bunch of things wrong. His defense was, "I didn't realize it was going to be that big a deal. I was writing--" At that time, I think it started as an article. But he was writing about something which was unknowable. A bunch of guys go out on a fishing boat and disappear. Nobody knows what happened. Nobody was there. nobody survived. There was no eye witness, no footage, no black box or onboard camera, so he had to paint everything around it, and then that missing shape in the middle is the shape of the thing that must have happened, or that's maybe the best hypothesis about how it played out. I think that's perfectly legitimate, particularly because he tells the reader what he's doing.

Diesenhaus: You talked about that researcher, sending the technical or the factual material for her review. I wonder about a different kind of work, where it's maybe less technical or factual, or you're talking about people. People have different approaches about whether they'll send something to someone for a review. Would you do that?

Gerard: To my way of thinking, it's a fairly simple question, if you just say, "Okay, what serves the work?" And in this case, what serves the work is trying to get-- I'm not a scientist, so I'll take all the help I can get. And I'm not writing about these people as personalities. I'm not exposing their lives. What I care about is this person's expertise. I'll be talking to people at the primate center at Emory. I'll be talking to other kinds of people. So when I have a primate question, I'll call that guy and say, "This is how I've written it. Does it make sense to you?" That doesn't mean I give them any editorial control, and it doesn't mean that I may disagree with their-- but it will be more information is more valuable than less information. And for them to say, "No, no, no. You got the equation backwards. Here's how it should be." I'd rather know that in advance than be embarrassed by it. If I were writing a memoir about my family, depending on how close they are, or whatever, I might do what many writers do, which is to share that with them at some point, maybe even just before publication. Maybe at some point before that. It would depend a lot on my relationship with them, what was at stake, and to what extent I was putting their privacy on the line. Writing about For Morning Dew, which was the sailboat that crashed, I felt that to go to the surviving family would be an intrusion. I wasn't interested in opening that up for them. What I was very much interested in was taking all the published accounts, going down to the site, seeing what it was, dealing with all the public records. Because so much was public that I really didn't need to do that, nor did I want somebody who was a plaintiff in a lawsuit, is not going to be an unbiased person to critique what I've been writing. So there's a fine line, and I think you make the judgment based on what'll serve the work, and sometimes based on what's right. If I were writing about my child or something, and they were not of age-- maybe even if they were-- I would probably feel an obligation to say-- Dinty Moore was talking about this, writing about his daughter, that as she aged and went from being just kind of a little girl to being a young woman, her perspective on her life put between pages changed quite a bit. He felt obligated, as her parent, and also as a writer, to kind of honor that and be fair and say, "All right. This really isn't' just my memoir. This is ours, because your life is in it." I think maybe that's something that more memoirs ought to think about. when you're writing a memoir, it's not just you. Maybe your husband, your mother, your kid, your dog, they're all part of it. It might pay to think, if they're reading this, how fair am I being? How accurate am I being? Will I learn anything important by talking to them? Sometimes, what'll happen is, you don't show it to those people, because you're lazy. You don't want to have to change what you've written. Or worse, you don't want to have to revise this rehearsed feeling of what happened that you had in your head. It's more convenient for the story you've told yourself all your life to write it that way. I'm thinking of Vivian Gornick's book about her mother, when she wrote after she died. It seemed to me a tremendously unfair book in the way she treated her mother, particularly because she admitted she made up things that didn't happen, and at the same time, almost always cast herself in a kind of heroic light, and her mother in this terrible, harping, limited intelligent life. I always wondered if her mother came back and read it. I know that her sister in law was at a reading one time, and got up in the question and answer session and said, "That's not who she was at all." Then she painted a very different portrait of the same woman. Sometimes it's self serving to claim editorial integrity. I know that, for example, newspapers like the Times, or the Washington Post, or whatever, will do things like call up a source and say, "Here's what we're saying about you. Do you want to respond to that?" I know that many journalists who do books will often have a deal with their subject, and they'll say-- you know, Bob Rees [ph?] when he interviewed Kissinger, had a deal that he would allow Kissinger to review what he had in his notes for accuracy. He could dispute anything that he felt he had gotten wrong or written down incorrectly. So they had a very long conversation after the interview. I think that's fair enough. It's also a question of who controls the thing. Ultimately, you are the one who controls the horizontal and vertical, not the person you are writing about. It's kind of the trouble with authorized biographies. You get into the situation where, like Rod Powers writing about the Muppet designer, Jim Henson. He gets permission from the family, and then they don't like what he's written, and so there's no book. Or you find yourself changing what you've written in order that the family's happy with it. That doesn't really serve anybody. That just becomes a kind of PR to them.

Diesenhaus: I'm curious from the reader's perspective, when I interviewed Haven Kimmel, she said-- she was referring to memoir in fiction, but "When one writes a memoir in nonfiction, no one believes it's all true. And when you write a novel, everyone believes it's autobiographical, or ____________ in your case, hewing closely to real events." I wondered, have you experienced that?

Gerard: You can't control a reader's reaction, and I do think it serves the writer and the reader for the reader to understand that memoir is an inexact thing, because you didn't have a tape recorder at Thanksgiving dinner when you were ten years old. But you remember sort of what your Uncle Henry used to say when he had too much wine, or whatever. I think the reader makes that allowance and says, okay, when you start having fully developed pages of dialog with extensive detail for a scene that happened when you were ten years old, you're either going way over the top, like David Sedaris. The reader's, "Okay, that's fine. He's trying to be funny. I'll accept that." Or the reader goes, "Wait a minute. What did you do? Have a video camera in the room? Whatever." But I do think that's a copout when you're writing about other people. If you're doing a story about a public figure or a private figure or whatever, I think that you do have an obligation to try to be the person that finds out what happened. I just got done doing a piece about the very first newspaper story I ever did. I meticulously researched it. It was about a kid who rescued his girlfriend from a burning car in the high school parking lot. I got it all right, and then entirely got the story wrong, as I didn't know what had led up to that incident. The fact was, Leder [ph?] claimed that he had started the fire himself, which was the one question I didn't ask and should have. How the fire started. I was a 21 year old cub reporter, or whatever. Novels can be autobiographical, but more importantly, if you're doing it well, you are revealing yourself. I remember when I published Hatteras Light, which is set in 1918, is set in North Carolina, a state where I had never lived. It was set among a group of people who spoke a way that I never would speak. It involved people who were fisherman and sailors and small boat handlers and coastguardsmen and Navy people, which I wasn't at that time. All those things, and I sent a copy to my mom. Some time later, I called her and said, "Have you read my book?" She said, "Well, I started, but I couldn't finish it." "You couldn't finish it? Mom?" She said, "It was just embarrassing. It was so personal, I felt like I was reading your diary." I thought, "Oh shoot, what did I do?" But I think for someone who knows you, they do see you in every line, and probably that effect lessens as you get out further and further afield. But I think it's true. The other interesting thing is, people are always sure that they're in the novel. But they're always wrong, or almost always wrong. They always have the wrong character. Like, even if they're in there, they think they're your Aunt Sadie, but really they're not. They're Millie, or whatever it is. In nonfiction, I think people expect more than maybe Haven Kimmel's allowing. I think otherwise they wouldn't be upset that James Frey did what he did, or that-- what's the latest one now? There's another African writer who's just fudged a whole memoir. Then there's the woman who claims to have grown up in south side of LA. It turns out she grew up in the San Fernando Valley in an upper white middle class family. I think people feel tricked, and they don't want to feel tricked. They want to think that you actually made the bargain and kept your end of it. And they flopped down $29.95 for your book, it's because they want to see how your life really was. There's a reason why Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs of the Civil War, which are fairly dry reading, got the largest royalty check in history up to that point. People were hungry for the facts. They really wanted to know what had happened. Now they understand that all memoirs by generals are self serving. He's not going to admit to his mistakes as much-- although he did more than most. He's going to give you his version of things. But he was there. He was a kind of important guy when he was there. He was running things. So people had a hunger. So if it turned out that he just was fudging things left and right because, for whatever reason, people would have reason to feel cheated by that. I think it goes back to that bargain. What do they think they're buying, and what are they really buying? If you're selling them something that's not what they expected, I think they have a right to be upset, which doesn't mean you're not going to get things wrong. It doesn't mean that you're going to mis-remember, but if you start from that point of view that even if you are the absolute, most conscientious reporter you can be, even if you take good notes, even if you interrogate your own memory, even if you research yourself in all the ways you can do that and write a memoir, you're still going to get things only somewhere within the ballpark of what happened. So if you start by fudging something, how far afield are you going to be by the end? It's like navigating. A difference in 1 degree carried on for 100 miles, and now you're miles and miles away from where you expected to be. So it pays to be accurate, I think.

Diesenhaus: I want to ask some questions about writing, or work that you've done outside of the traditional print field. One way to start, what you were just saying, in a way, from that reporting and the journalism, do you think that had an effect on your style?

Gerard: Yeah. The great thing about being a journalist, which carries over to being a writer of any kind, but especially a nonfiction writer-- because people understand that more than they do say, being a poet-- is it gives you an excuse to go anywhere in the world and have a reason to be there. Now I hate traveling as a tourist usually, because I always feel like, "Oh, this place doesn't belong to me. I'm just coming along and kind of stepping on the surface of things, and not really getting into it. Here I am at the typical tourist Hawaiian luau. Here I am with the tourist bus going through Disneyland or whatever." I would much rather be in a situation where somebody says, "Come with me," and you cross the police line. You go behind the scenes, you go backstage. You talk to the guy in charge on the 27th floor. You meet the last governor of Hong Kong. All those things, which is what being a writer can do for you. People understand that when you say, "I'm writing. I'm working now." So that part of it carries over to it, and the hunger to find out things, and kind of behind the scenes and say, "Okay, here's what we see, but what's really going on? I want to see the pulleys and the wires and the lights and the smoke and mirrors that go with it. I want to see all that work that's going on invisibly behind the scenes." And that, I think, does carry over to style in a certain way, because what you present in a narrative, if you're doing it right, doing it well, you're presenting a surface that's really pleasing to the eye, and yet one that has what I call a narrative intelligence to it, narrative intelligence being everything you bring to it. Your personality, the things you know, the things you know about the subject, your special insider knowledge of what's going on behind the scenes, your moral sensibility, your upbringing, your manners, your way of talking, your vocabulary, all those things, the kind of totality of who you are intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, historically, inform that. And so one of the advantages of really going out and finding out stuff, frankly, is that when you write a simple sentence, the narrative intelligence, because of the way of you've written it, informed by all these things, the reader understands here's somebody that knows what they're talking about, as opposed to here's somebody who's never thought deeply about this or done this, which doesn't mean that you can't write about things by imagining them, but the more you go out in the world and find out how things work, the more you can extrapolate how human behavior is. I mean, one reason I could write "Cape Fear Rising" frankly was, which is all about cabals of conspirators meeting, and about meetings being subverted by a strong personality with an insidious agenda, kind of working the room and getting the votes and taking what was, you know, 11, the "Twelve Angry Men" scenario, 11 for and one against, and turning that on its head is, hey, I've been in universities for, you know, the last 25 years. I've been at those meetings. I've watched, you know, a surly band of faculty members go from being against something to being all for it. I've watched policy being made that turned out to be completely different from what we thought was going to happen when we went in the room. I've seen leadership emerge as somebody takes all kinds of competing factions and finds common ground and consensus and builds an intelligent way of making that happen. So that doesn't mean that I sat around conspirators trying to overthrow our government, but it does mean I know how meetings work and how leadership works to some extent in organizations. I've studied organizations. I've paid attention to how they work. I can take that and extrapolate it and now I can imagine how a bunch of guys in a back room in downtown Wilmington plan to take back a government and not get in trouble for it, you know, because I know, you know, I've sat with legal counsel trying to craft a policy that will watch your back. And that's exactly what they did. So it's not a one to one correspondence, but there are things that you can extrapolate from. But it goes back to getting your butt out in the world doing things, doing things, talking to people, finding out stuff, reading widely, experiencing things, not as a kind of daredevil thrill seeker but often in a much more mundane way than that. But it's all, it all goes into your tool box as a writer.

Diesenhaus: Well, actually I wanted to ask. I think you've kind of answered it, but I know you've held a lot of jobs through the years, and it sounds like that is exactly what you're talking about, not the thrill seeker side necessarily.

Gerard: I held a lot of jobs because I didn't have any money. I mean, I came from a, you know, a regular, middle class family. We had six kids, and my mom didn't work and, you know, I didn't have parents to pay for college. I either worked or I had some scholarship money, same for graduate school, loans, working, whatever, and since. So, you know, I did all these things. In college I was often working two or three jobs, often working 40 hours a week. At various times I was either washing dishes, working for a supermarket, or I was in the Meat Cutters' Union or the Retail Clerks' Union, depending on the year. I was working with special ed kids sometimes from 8:00 to 12:00, you know, during the school year everyday. I played in a band that was playing three nights a week having a ball, you know. During the summertime I was roofing houses. I would generally, in college I would generally leave myself a month or six weeks in the summer where I could take the money I had saved and hitch, go out West, go anywhere, because I didn't have the money to, you know. I was going to go overseas at one point and realized I can't go to France. I don't have any money. So I would take two or three hundred dollars that I'd saved up and put it in my backpack, and I would head out and spend time in, you know, Wyoming, Montana, California, up and down the East Coast, you know, went to a great concert with The Grateful Dead, And The Band, and the Allman Brothers up at Watkins Glen, New York, with half a million people, went to the Fiddlers Convention in Union Grove. I had a guy who was a Mormon take me to the Mormon Tabernacle choir practice, you know, in Salt Lake, stayed in a ghost town in Colorado for a while, you know. All these things were just. I think when you're young there's a point where, I don't know how true this is for young women, and I'm reminded of this after having just looked at the movie "Into the Wild", but it seems to be that a young man, somewhere between 18 and 21, have an experience that breaks him away from being a dependent, being a boy, puts him in a situation where he's finally on his own metal, where there is some danger involved. The kind of classic war literature is all about that, and I think that's probably why. And there's also a reason why it's hard to get 30 year olds to go, unless they're career because, you know, they know better. They understand that in order for a coming of age experience to be useful, you got to survive it. And in say World War I, there's a great chance that wasn't going to happen. So my coming of age experience was leaving, you know, high school, which I had two years of a Catholic high school. It was just awful, and didn't go for the last three weeks, and kind of graduated and then just left, took off, and spent a lot of that time at Cape Hatteras. Spent some of that time up on the northeast, met people, met musicians, learned how to surf, I mean, hang glide. I did all these great things, and broke away forever from, you know, my family. From that point on I never really lived at home again. I never was a dependent again, and it kind of gave me the confidence to say, okay, well, I've survived it. I've made tens of thousands of miles this way. I've camped outside. I've been in tricky situations and negotiated them. I've survived storms. I've gone for a day and a half without eating, and I've done all these things. They're not huge. It's not the same as trekking into the wilderness, but in the end I thought, okay, I can kind of handle myself, and you kind of figure out what you believe in, what you know, how you are with strangers. It forces you to meet people when you travel alone. And then would come back and work whatever job was necessary. The two hardest jobs I guess I ever had were roofing, part because it's summer. I remember my Keds literally melting onto the asphalt shingles on the roof we were working. I worked with a guy that fell off a roof, a 24-foot roof. Fell off onto pavement, got up cursing. Climbed up the ladder and went back to work. The other hard job I worked for North American Van Lines during graduate school. I worked at their warehouse to make money, but I also worked on the long haul trucking route in the summertime for one summer. We were driving anywhere from five to eight hundred miles a day. Often we would load when we got there or unload, or load and then drive, sleeping in the cab of the truck, sleeping in the trailer when it was empty, showering at truck stops. I mean I lost 15 pounds, and it's a great experience. There's nothing like kind of seeing the highway from this rolling tower that's 15 feet up above all the cars, but, man, hard work. Oh, I couldn't do it. I don't. People that do that kind of work for 10 or 15 or 20 years, it would just wear you out, you know.

Diesenhaus: In your talks about this part of your life, you frequently mention music. And I know that you play several instruments, and you perform with your colleague, Clyde, among others. I just wonder does that music life interact with the writing in some way?

Gerard: Oh, yeah, yeah. In fact, you know, for the Revere Book I've got a whole, I'm making an entire. I don't know what to even call it. It's not exactly a musical, but it's songs with a narrative that will be kind of all the major characters will be singing, and I've been working on that for about two years now. I've got it nearing completion. But, yeah, music has always been central. I mean, I started playing the guitar back in the '70s when everybody, you know, played the guitar. And I fell in love with it. I had a 12-string guitar that I carried with me all over the country. I stuck it on my backpack, Gibson 12-string guitar. And now I play the five string banjo. I've got a 12 string and a six string, and I've got a knock off of a National Steel guitar for playing slide. My most recent thing is a pedal steel guitar, a Dobro. You can totally get lost in music. It's a really good thing. It's also been one of the truest ways I've ever had in my life for connecting with other people or hearing other strangers. I still remember vividly when I was 18, you know, a kid camping out on Cape Hatteras, and this guy showed up in a Winnebago on vacation for somewhere for two weeks. And he had an old pre-war Gibson guitar. He was the best blues player I ever heard in my life anywhere. And we would sit at night and play. Now I wasn't very good, but he was great. He was washing the licks. I was later that summer up at Tangle Wood, which is kind of an outdoor concert area, and Livingston Taylor was playing, James Taylor's brother. And, you know, of course, everybody in the crowd had their guitar, and they're all playing James Taylor. There's a guy that I met, and he comes over with his guitar and sits down, shows me pretty much every arrangement for ever James Taylor song, and many of them I still play today. The people I've gotten a chance to jam with, everybody from Dick Bausch to George Thurgood, who I used to play baseball with, and we jammed one time at a coffee house at Delaware, just, it's just very cool. I did a show up in, where was it, Harborough, North Carolina, when they opened their big civic center up there. It was me and Roy Blount, Jr., and Maya Angelou, and Jessica Mitford, and Shana Alexander, a few other people. And they brought in a kind of professional music director from California, and all of us that could perform, we went up a few days early and rehearsed and did a show. It was great. I mean, kind of a whole backup. We had backup singers. We had a pedal steel guitar. We had, you know, bass and drums and keyboard, and we all did our, whatever songs we wanted. So it's also been a real kind of a fun addition to the professional part of my life. In fact, I consider part of what I do now is a musician after all these years. When I was in college I'd always thought I didn't know what I wanted to do at first. I would just end up, you know, being a session man somewhere. But, you know, I wasn't good enough for that, but it's part of what I do. I often now, if I can do it, carry along an instrument and do the reading. You know, I know Clyde does that quite successfully, Bland Simpson, getting away from the literary reading as some kind of a, you know, reverential thing where we all sit and bow our heads and it's sort of the gospel according to the writer, and then everybody claps. Glad when it's over. I'd much rather have people laughing at music. I just think music is indispensable.

(crew talk)

Diesenhaus: You're currently the Director of the MFA program here.

Gerard: Well, actually the Chair of the Department. Yeah.

Diesenhaus: The Chair and a professor, and one way that I like to talk to people, especially people at MFA, is to ask about their MFA experience. You went to Arizona.

Gerard: Arizona, yeah.

Diesenhaus: Can you talk about the workshop and just what it was like and maybe how that relates to how you see UNCW.

Gerard: I almost didn't get into Arizona. At Arizona you had to have two out of three of the faculty who review each application, and I got two votes but not the third. And it was very funny because Bob Houston, the novelists who's a wonderful friend now, and I've known him for many years, you know, we laugh about this now, because he was the no vote. He didn't think I had what it took. And I joke. In fact, not just me, but I think some of us here joke that we wouldn't get into our own MFA program now because the standards are pretty high. People coming in are, you know, pretty darn good. But Arizona was a very traditional MFA program. In fact, it was partly that was because the faculty had almost all come from Iowa. At that time the faculty was Buzz Poverman, C. E. Poverman, who was from Iowa, Jonathan Penner, who was from Iowa. Vance Pergilli [ph?] joined the faculty from Iowa. We had Morris Den, who was from Iowa. Ken Cocan [ph?], I think he'd gone to Iowa. And I believe the two poets there, Steve Roland and John Henderson had both been at Iowa. So practically the entire faculty, with the exception of Richard Shelton, who was an Arizona guy, had come fro Iowa, and it was very much you sit around the table and tear apart whoever's story was up for. I can remember my very first workshop experience, you know. I didn't even know what point of view meant, you know. And we were sitting around this workshop table, and we had maybe half the class were old boys, you know. It was almost all male. I think there were two women in the class, and ten guys. And it was Jonathan Penner, who was leading the class. And I had written a story that, it was loosely based on one of the experiences I had. In fact, I think it was about going to the Grateful Dead concert. And what happened at that concert was beautiful and tragic. There was a skydiving show, and while the Grateful Dead's on stage, and half a million people are there, and the Hell's Angels are revving their bikes over here, and people are selling concert tee shirts there, and everybody's smoking dope and everything, this guy jumps out of a plane and he's circling down with this, you know, blue smoke. And people are applauding and cheering and whatever, and he lands sort of behind this shed in this farmer's field and that's the end of it. The next day I was in New York. I was actually at Stanford. I went and hitchhiked in and spent the night on the bench at the Stanford-Connecticut Train Station. Picked up a New York Times and on the front page they had a story about the skydiver who had burned to death on the way down. The flare had gone off under his jumpsuit. So what we were watching was a very spectacular and painful death. And I was writing the story. I didn't have the craft to be able to write that kind of a story then, to write this story. Well, it so happened that Richard Yates was a guest that week on campus, and he was sitting in on our workshop. And it was all the old guys were kind of demonstrating just how sharply and easily they could eviscerate my story. Whack, whack, whack. It was like watching "The Night of the Long Knives" or something. We'd go around the table. I was just shrinking down, you know. I remember writing a letter home to my old girlfriend, and I drew a picture of a ship being sunk by a submarine, and the ship was labeled "Me", and the submarine was labeled "The Workshop." And we got all done and Richard Yates, I still remember. He says, "Boys, boys, boys, boys, you know, calm down." He says, "One thing you have to remember this is a pretty good story." And I thought, okay, that was what I needed to hear. And after that it turned out many of them were very good friends, and that program produced some really good people. I mean, Rick Russo was in that program. He ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize. Other writers like Kevin McAvoy, his novels came out of there, a lot of good poets. David Woljohn [ph?] was there at that point. Yeah. So it turned out to be a good group to hang out with. But the workshop was pretty unimaginative in the sense of people would read and just sort of go around the table and talk, and the instructor didn't do much in the way of direction or trying to get at larger principles. And I still remember Buzz Poverman, who we complained about because he would come in and just pronounce what he thought of a story, say well this story sucks, and here's why. And he was responding to criticism in a very funny way later on. He said, "Well, people have faulted me for coming in and, you know, and going on too long first about the story. Maybe I should let you guys talk first and then I can kind of come in and gloss it." He said, "So today's story." He's like, "There's two important things wrong with it. What are they?" So that was kind of it. There were forums courses, you know. I got to study with Tess Gallagher in a forms of poetry class of one kind or another. I studied like courses I never would have thought to take, you know, women's literature with a real feminist, Ovid's Love Poetry, whatever. Just there just stuff out there that was great to do, good camaraderie. Dick Shelton was running the program at that point, you know, wonderful guy. I actually worked as his assistant, which is where I learned how to build and run a program, which came in good stead later. But there were things that I knew even then were not being done well that needed to be done differently. And when we came first to build a program in Arizona State where I was right after Arizona, some of the things we tried to do was to head off at the pass the bad habits that had been inherited from the old Iowa model. And then here, in a much more deliberate fashion, we really created a structure and then a curriculum to fill that structure that we based on, okay, what did all our teachers do right, and what did they do wrong? And what courses would we invent that we wish we'd have had? And one of the things I personally did in creating the MFA proposal, which I drafted and then took up to Chapel Hill with the graduate dean here to get approved. You know, I personally called or wrote a whole bunch of program directors around the country and asked them quite directly if you had to change one thing in your program, what would it be? If you could tell me one thing you're glad you did right, what would that be, you know. We had conversations like that. I was always active in AWP, so I came back with a lot of good ideas, one of which was to include nonfiction as a genre, which Iowa does not do, and many programs do not. And some that do, do it only as a kind of extra stepchild. But I felt it was important as a, if nothing else, a meeting ground between fiction writers and poets because one of them said what you don't want is all your poets over here in this pen, and all your fiction writers over here in that pen. You want them to respect each other and kind of cohere as a program. And I think we've done that here as far as I can tell. We don't. If there are groups of friends, it's not based on I write fiction and you write poetry. It's based on maybe age or where we live, or other shared interests, which is perfectly natural and normal.

Diesenhaus: And I wonder, you know, either since the time that you were in school or even before that, if you think that the MFA degrees have changed or evolved.

Gerard: Yeah.

Diesenhaus: And then also it sounds like maybe some of that changed due to the people who get the degree, they become teachers and administrators and they respond.

Gerard: Yeah. There has been a huge change. I mean, I think most of it has been better. The quality of what the students get in a program like ours now doesn't even, you can't even measure it against what was going on in the old days. I mean where I remember people still smoked in the classroom, for heaven's sake. Teachers, you know, Vance Pergilli, a wonderful writer, but he would often not have read the manuscript when he showed up and give the most cursory thing. We never had written comments back from anybody. The faculty pretty much showed up, did their thing, and were gone. It was hard to find them. It was hard to, you know, unless you were their friend and played basketball with them or something, which a couple of people did with some of them. There was a sense that the teaching was a bothersome thing that helped to subsidize my writing. And I think the professionalization, the good part of it is that we take teaching seriously, as do colleagues around the country, and that have also tapped into it as a kind of creative well. I wasn't kidding when I said the graduate students that you work with really do keep you honest. The good ones are like, "Hold, look at that. How did they do that?" And you're kind of rethinking what you are doing and being pushed a little bit, which is good. You know, the downside obviously is if you're spending time reading, particularly beginner's work, which is not very sophisticated, it can, you know, you write like what you read, so you've got to be careful not to just read that, not to get so mired in that, and not to let that grab your time in such a way that you can't give your students what's most valuable, which is your own experience at the writing table. I mean, my sense is I go to the writing table. I do things. And for different people that writing table's in a different place, but ultimately you're saying, "Look what I found out?" And you're coming back and talking to your students about that. And if you stop finding stuff out, then what you're doing is telling old war stories, and I don't want to do that. The way it's gotten not so good is that, and it's not just MFA programs, but universities in general are getting completely tied up in knots with reporting and paperwork and one thing or another, assessments, end of year evaluations, final reports, all kind of things, some of which are necessary but, I mean, we are for the first time this year doing criminal background checks for all accepted graduate students. Well, in one way this is good, because we are a community. We want to be safe. It's sad that because of Virginia Tech and Illinois and some other places, we have to do it and feel like we'd better do this or we're letting our students down. But at least once people get here they'll know that, yeah, we've checked out everybody. As far as we can tell, you know, there's no fox in the hen house. We should be able to relax and enjoy each other, but those kinds of things. But that's graduate programs, that not just MFA programs. There was a lot of talk for years about the MFA story, or the MFA poem, or what have you, and there was some truth to it in that if you think about the model of the Iowa workshop, where people are trying to survive what's essentially a kind of a gauntlet, you know, a blood letting, the tendency then is to play it as safe as you can, to find no place where somebody can find fault. That's not the same thing as writing an inspiring story that takes risks and maybe fails grandly, but nonetheless is exciting and is a discovery for the writer, because the thing you're not supposed to be doing in an MFA program is writing polished pieces that are ready to go off to, you know, The New Yorker, or whatever. You're supposed to be figuring out your craft, and you're supposed to be trying out things that, in fact, you could almost argue that the more you fail, the better you're learning because if you're not failing, that means you're just doing what you already know how to do over and over again. That if you always write in first person and you try writing in third person, and it's a miserable failure, you probably have come away with a increasing respect and knowledge of exactly what it is the first person does for you. Or if you try a subject matter that's way out of left field, and you just can't do it, you probably have figured out, okay, now what is it I am good at writing about, and why is that, and then you bring that back. So you should leave with a sense of a formative, at least a formative aesthetic, and some sense of what you're good at, and what you want to try next. And I always believe in any project there should be something that requires a little more of you in some way than the last project did, a little more attention, a better, more lyrical style, more research, a different kind of sensibility, a different forum, you know, something that will stretch you as a writer or you just keep on doing the same thing. You know, if you're a framing carpenter eventually you want to be a finish carpenter. If you're a finish carpenter, eventually you want to make furniture. You make furniture, you eventually want to make something that's actually a work of art. And that's kind of what I think of the MFA experience should be. And by the way, I think that changed because I think the nature of workshop is no longer the "Night of the Long Knives" in many parts of the country. Many, a lot of that whole generation, like me, reacted against that, and said that's not really effective. There was an article in last month's AWP Chronicle about that very thing. It's not a good way, just beating up on people, critiquing them. At a certain part of your career, when given editor who's being really honest with you, it's a good thing. Until you're ready for that, it can be a very destructive and soul deadening thing to just kind of bludgeon somebody with all the things they don't know how to do. Of course they don't know how to do them. If they knew how to do them, they wouldn't be here. They're supposed to be trying things, and what you should be doing is figuring out what they tried that looks promising. What they tried that was a great idea, but ultimately couldn't be executed, and where the opportunities are to take something that they've conceived, that there are opportunities maybe they don't see and, you know, take it to the next level. Once you have that model in place, then students are no longer kind of, you know, it's like a boxer covering up. They're no longer writing those stories where they're covering up, trying not to be vulnerable. They can afford to put themselves out there. They can afford to try something. It's an utter failure but it's beautiful in its extravagance, you know, that's way over the top. The prose is way too purple. But you know what? Okay. They tried it, and they don't have to feel like they have to go home and shoot themselves after the workshop. And I think that ultimately means that the kind of story or poem or whatever coming out of workshops, not just here but anywhere across the country, is better and more different. If you look at the variety of stuff being written right now, I think it'd be hard to find a time in American history where you had that kind of variety. Some of it is not to my taste, frankly. Some of it I consider awful, you know, and that whole graphic novel type thing is, you know, that's out there for me. I can sort of see it, but I can't quite wrap around it. There are some kinds of avant-garde fiction that to me leave me completely cold. But on the other hand, there's incredible other good stuff going on in 15 different directions, in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. So if you search, you will find something that is to your taste, and also you'll find things that you're surprised to find are to your taste, because you didn't think they would be. But I think there's more openness that way, and I think it starts with taking the workshop from basically a good working over in the back room with the lights in your face, to making it something where people should feel when they leave the workshop I think, you know, they do in the good ones. Wow. I can't wait to get back to my writing. I know something I didn't know before this afternoon or this evening. And if you haven't done that, then the workshop's not working.

Diesenhaus: In this interviewing process, I've had the opportunity to speak with many people who come through the program, including many from either the very first year, or the early beginnings. And I just wonder about your opportunities for mentorship with students, or to be on the other side of the experience you've talked about having at Arizona with these teachers and professors. Has that been an enriching experience for you generally?

Gerard: Yeah. I mean, there's a real special satisfaction when you watch a student through time take on a project, maybe reject that one, try another. Finally come across the one that everything is starting to feel right, and they're doing it, and you see them grow. You see the light in their eyes as you're talking. They understand it. They get it. And as they're doing their draft, and as they're working through it, they talk about it. It's exciting to watch the growth, and you see them. And what you can do is maybe save them a little bit of time, kind of nudge them in directions. But really what you're counting on is that they kind of get the bit between their teeth and go with it. And there's a kind of a courage that's required, because those students have to be willing to say, "You know what? There's a whole lot of work ahead of me. Maybe I'm not as smart or talented as I thought. I have to be humble in front of this work. On the other hand, I got to try for this, and why not? Why shouldn't I do this?" And kind of take a deep breath and say, "Well, I'm going to give two years of my life to this book." And who knows? Maybe it's two years of something that'll be in a drawer, but I always like Allan Gurganus' answer when somebody said, you know, "Did you regret, you know, when you were working for that seven-year period on 'The Confederate Widow Knows All?' Did you think maybe this will be a waste of time? What if it isn't published?" And he said, "I had to live those seven years anyway. I had to do something." And so to watch that process, and then to watch the thing, you know, come out in piece's defense, and you see the final thing. That's not the final thing. The final thing in a way is they take that and then maybe a year later, sometimes very soon after that, you find out that a publisher's going to put it out, and then you know they've gone to the final phase of the their apprenticeship, which is some good editor's now banging away at them, doing that last thing, because the editor doesn't have the time you have in a workshop, and doesn't have to be gentle. Some are, but most aren't in my view. They are going to say, "You're out there. Your book is out there along with Joyce Carol Oates' books and, you know, whoever your favorite person is out there." Nobody's going to say, "Well, this is her first book. Let's go easy on her." But some fairly beautiful books have come through my workshop, and many of them have started in the long narrative where we do a whole year long thing. Spend the first semester laying out what the book will be, another course we didn't have. Nobody taught me how to write a book, per se. And then the second semester writing the book, you know. Norma Liasian [ph?] just sold her novel. It's a beautiful book, evolved in that period, and then she kept working on it with the same group of people after that. Kirsten Holmstedt's book started as a series of magazine profiles, and I and others sat down and said, you know, you can't. Nobody wants to buy a collection of magazine profiles. It's got to be a book book. Here's how you do that. And then she went back and doggedly just went back and did the stuff. And she would come in and I would say, "Well, okay. This is good, not good to that." She would take a deep breath and go, "Okay." Go off and do that. Come back. And little by little it broke that threshold from being very good amateur work to being this is how the pros do it. And, you know, I see that time after time. We've got a long collection of published books. But it's also true some of them aren't published yet. Maybe some never will be. But you do see that the writer started out here, and got here, not just in terms of the quality of the writing, but in the sense of maturity of how the writer's approaching the craft, approaching the writing, and the subject, and you can almost start to hear it in the way they talk about it, you know. I remember years ago when we first started the program before it was an MFA. Tim O'Brien came down and we went out, took a bunch of students out to Katy's after a reading. And he talked to them all for maybe an hour and a half. And as I was driving him back to his hotel, he said, "Okay. So and so's a good writer, but she's too timid. She's got to break out of her shell. So and so thinks he's really good, but he hasn't got a clue, you know. So and so, he must write nothing but really violent, kind of pornographic stuff, but he'll outgrow that. I think he's got something." And he went down the list. I said, "How did you know? Like that was just spot on." And he said, "Look, I listen and talk about writing. You can always tell." And I think one of the things I noticed in the long narrative course was by the middle of the second semester the way the writers in the class talked about writing had gone from here to here. It's a very different sensibility. It wasn't posturing. It wasn't lit crit talk. It was just a deep knowledge of having worked with a long manuscript was a very different thing from writing short. They had gotten to a place where they were beginning to understand the mechanism of it, and the structure of it, and how it moved and all that. And so the conversation just gradually crept up. Actually we'd go to here, then jump to here, then we'd jump to here, and approach equilibrium. And that's what you see, and that's one of the satisfying things. When we have our thesis sessions now, which we just did, I've got one today. I did one yesterday. It's an invention we've done differently from the way it's done anywhere else that I know of right now. We break it into two parts, one of which is a celebratory reading, as you know, but the other is the three people on the committee getting together with the writer in a kind of super workshop. By the time they're sitting there, we know we're not going to fail them. We would have told them that. We're not going to have the embarrassment of having to fail somebody. We'll postpone and have them work on it some more before we do that, when they're in that room, then, at the super workshop, and if three writers on the faculty who have all read the work, and who are going to talk to the writer about their work for an hour. Think about that, that you're not going to get that in real life. You're not going to get it from an editor. The advantage for us is it's a very exciting, fun thing. We look forward to it now. We used to dread them, you know, because there's grandma. They're going to read for half an hour. Grandma's going to sit there. You can't really ask anything because you don't want them to look bad in front of their husband, grandma, mother, son, whatever. But now we can just get right down to it and say, okay, forget about passing. We already know it because you're here. We wouldn't let you be sitting here unless we were going to pass you. You know, you'd be postponing and we'd be working with you further. But now that you're here, let's really talk about your book, and let's not talk about the thief. Let's talk about where it goes from here to become a book. And it's great because, you know, I sit down with Clyde or Wendy, or yesterday with David and Becky, and we almost never get to sit around and kind of do a workshop with each other. We've been on panels together, or something, but we get to sit there and talk about writing. And I get to learn from them, and they get to learn from me. And that's really exciting for us, and it helps us to be better faculty members and better writers, I think. So that process. And then you hear the student talk about the work, and sometimes you just swell with pride. Listen to you. Listen to you, you know, you're ready for Oprah, you know. But it's not posturing. They get it. You're thinking you have really, you got to the bottom of it. You did it. That's what it's about. And now it's not just about this book now. It's the next book. It's what you're doing in 10 years. It's how you read every book for the rest of your life. It's how you'll talk about it if you go on to teach. It's how you'll teach. And that's the really satisfying part.

Diesenhaus: I have just have two more questions, both that I try to ask everyone. The question is, if you're in a social situation with new people and you introduce yourselves, and they ask maybe what do you do, I wonder what you say. Do you say that you're a writer? Do you say that you're a professor? And how do you kind of answer that question?

Gerard: That all depends, you know, because if you're on an airplane and people say what do you do? You say, oh, I'm a writer. They go, well, have you written anything I would have read? And you know, unless you're John Grisham, on an airplane most people, you know, there's a 100,000 books, or 200,000 books every year, and I'm always tempted to say, well, what do you do? You're an architect? Have you built anything I would have, you know, been in? Or you're a doctor, did you save anybody's life I would know? It also depends on whether your affiliation is important when I'm traveling. Like right now on this project that I'm doing, because I'm contacting people who are mainly housed in research laboratories or universities, the fact that I have a university affiliation cuts right to the chase, because they understand that, and they understand that somebody somewhere has vetted me, hired me, and tenured me, and they trust the academic system to mean that I'm not just some idiot that's going to waste their time. Other people find that intimidating. If I'm just at a cocktail party, I'll probably say both, you know. I'm a writer. I teach over at the university in the creative writing department, you know. You know, rank and all that kind of thing is usually lost on the lay public. They don't understand the difference between a professor, associate professor, you know, assistant professor, lecturer or, you know, whatever. But I've always been proud to teach here, and I've always felt it's a great privilege to teach here. Maybe because I've had the kind of jobs where your sneakers get melted to the roof, and where you're busy all day doing back breaking, physical labor, the job seems to me, has always from the first job I had at Arizona State, has always seemed to me a gift. I mean, it doesn't mean it's not hard at times. Being Chair is the most difficult job I've probably ever held because it requires so many levels of both skills and emotional involvement and expertise and all the rest of it. On the other hand, it's a gift. It's a great privilege to have it, and if you think about I get to work in a place that has a special collection, has a library next door. I get to spend most of my time with smart people who care just as much as I do about the thing I care about most. My professional life is writing and teaching. I get to go and do interesting things as a writer, and I have a good excuse to do them. I get paid to do them sometimes. I have a great support system. I've got a computer to work with, a telephone to use, and a file cabinet to put all my junk in. It's a real privilege to do it, and I hope. I always hate to hear any faculty member anywhere who's in a program complaining that this is too hard or it's not. It's a privilege, and there are many people that would love to have the opportunity, so I think it's one you want to use wisely whenever you can.

Diesenhaus: As a final question, again try to ask everyone, just if you have advice, general advice or specific advice for fiction writers or for nonfiction writers, and young or old, the people who are in the program, or the kind of more general.

Gerard: Well, a couple of things. One is if you're- mostly it applies to nonfiction writers, but it really applies to any writer who is trying to find out something. And it's something that Bob Reiss, who's been a writer here at times, has talked about. It's always do the last thing, ask the last question. The thing that you're too lazy, you're tired, or you're just running out of time, do it anyway, because it's often that last thing which blows open the subject, and you should do it. The general thing is it's like planting an oak tree. I hear a lot of people come to me and say, "I'm 45 years old, but I want to write, you know. I've been a lawyer. I've been a doctor, and I want to write, but I feel like I got to do it fast. I'm running out of time." And my feeling is, well, the old oak tree thing. There's only two good times to do it. If you're going to plant an oak, do it 25 years ago, or do it now, you know. And you're going to do it at whatever pace you're going to do it. You can be a young writer and be 55 years old, because you're just starting, so you're young in terms of the craft. You could be an old writer at 25 if you've been doing it, and you published a book or two and really gotten your hands in there with years of it. But more importantly than anything is probably almost anything you want to do in life that's interesting, people will line up to tell you how impossible it is and how it's not going to work out. This is true if you want to be an actor, if you want to be a dancer, if you want to go backpack across the Himalayas, if you want to, you know, you name it. And part of it is I think human nature. They don't want you doing something and daring to do something and maybe succeeding, because then it will remind them that they could have made it and they played it safe. There's a part of that in that answer. Then part of it is just the genuine skepticism that we're all ordinary, so why do you think you're extraordinary? Well, the answer is, I mean, there are dancers in the world. There are people who are movie stars. There are people who, you know, climb Mount Everest. There are people who sail around the world. And, yeah, a lot of people end up failing, but a lot of people have ended up failing at being lawyers, or plumbers or, you know. So don't give up and don't let anybody else decide for you what you're going to do. If you want to do it, do it. Also understand that it costs something to do, and that you may fail. Be ready to accept that. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But, you know, I've tried many things in my life that failed. I've never regretted trying them exactly. I've regretted failing, but I would have regretted not trying more, you know. It isn't true that anybody can grow up to be president. There's only a few presidents. Most of us statistically are going to be excluded, but that doesn't mean somebody out there shouldn't want to try, and maybe instead of being president they wind up doing something else but equally, you know, important, but having the aspiration, I think, is important.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Gerard: Thank you.

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