An Interview with David Gates
by Brian Gresko
Reading David Gates led me to take one of his seminars, with the hope—not unusual for a novice writer—that he might impart some secret to his skill. Writing mostly in the first person, Gates's antihero protagonists are rude and disaffected, erudite and funny—not-so-distant relatives, one imagines, of Holden Caulfield. Like that iconic character, they come across as flawed yet likable, or at least sympathetic, revealing sordid aspects of the human condition with brutal honesty and wicked humor. Gates's debut novel, Jernigan (1991), was short listed for the Pulitzer Prize. His follow-up novel, Preston Falls (1998), and his short story collection The Wonders of the Invisible World (1999) both received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The syllabus for Gates's seminar covered a broad range of works, from classics by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving to contemporary pieces by Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson. He arrived to class with numerous notes scribbled in the margins of the stories, and would, without preamble, jump in to close, intimate readings, dissecting paragraphs sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. Gates has brought these same critical faculties to bear in his many book reviews for Newsweek magazine, where he served as senior arts writer, and also for The New York Times.
I mimicked what I saw as Gates's approach, trying to learn how to write by re-teaching myself how to read with a minute attention to craft. Curious to know more about this from the man himself, I discussed reading, writing, and how a writer develops an original voice with Gates over e-mail. Much to my surprise, I found that David Gates the reader and David Gates the writer approach the page very differently.
BG: Who are some of the authors, or what are some of the works, that you have turned to as a sources of form or for problem solving when writing?
DG: I hate to say it, but I don’t really turn to other writers for ways to solve problems in my own work, even though I recommend them to my students. It’s true that in some writers’ work I’ve seen brilliant solutions to problems—one example I cite over and over again is near the end of John Cheever’s “The Sorrows of Gin,” where there’s a wonderful jump cut—but I can only apply such achievements to my own work in the most general ways. It mostly amounts to “Be smarter.” This may be because I read so much before I ever became a writer myself, and never went to a writing program or even took a writing workshop (except for a couple of weeks when I was in high school), and was never taught, and never became accustomed, to look at other writers’ work as a specific resource rather than a general inspiration. I’d like to be as concise and disciplined as Amy Hempel, say, or as intense and brilliant and analytical as Samuel Beckett, or as wildly imaginative as Dickens. But these writers, and others I admire, are never in my head when I’m actually writing.
BG: Have you ever been motivated to take your work in new directions based on your changing and growing tastes as a reader, or have you sought out reading material that feeds the direction you’ve decided to move as a writer? Or have you returned to the same touchstones again and again, always drawing something new from them?
DG: This sort of influence—which is what you’re talking about—takes place far under the surface for me. I know that part of my idea of what writing is comes from Beckett, part from Ann Beattie (to whom I was married), from Donald Barthelme (though I write nothing like him), from Raymond Carver, from Amy Hempel, and from John Cheever. That’s the approximate order of my discovering them.
Jane Austen came to me somewhat later, and probably I was past the age of being strongly influenced. But I was aware, in reading her, of how well she shows her characters’ motivations and agendas, and how they come into conflict with the agendas of other characters. It’s something to which every writer of realistic fiction should pay attention, and certain scenes of hers stick in my head as touchstones: the two encounters between Elinor Dashwood and Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, the Sotherton episode in Mansfield Park. But I can’t say that I sit and study them. I love and appreciate them, and I hope to be able to do something comparable. But when I’m sitting at my own work, other writers’ work really doesn’t enter my mind—probably because, when things are going right, I think of my characters and their situation as real, not literary. It’s really just me and them.
BG: How do you keep yourself from duplicating or copying the voice of the texts you return to?
DG: I do have to watch myself. I once caught myself inadvertently plagiarizing a line from a story I greatly admired. I had no idea I was doing it, and thank God I recognized in time that this brilliant line of “mine” actually had a source. I don’t know that there’s any foolproof way to prevent this, except to be scrupulously honest in your own writing. That is, if you take pains to say the thing that only you can say in the way only you can say it—which is the whole idea—then you have less chance of echoing something you’ve read somewhere.
BG: Do you clue the reader in to your influences somehow, or leave crumbs in the text leading to the works you used as models? Or is this a private practice that informs your craft but doesn’t directly make it onto the page?
DG: I certainly leave clues to things that I’ve either stolen outright or been inspired by. “The Wonders of the Invisible World” is a title I stole from Cotton Mather, and my story by that title makes this clear. Part of the idea for my novel Preston Falls came from a Hawthorne story called “Wakefield,” and in the novel, the town next to the fictional Preston Falls is the fictional Wakefield. And sometimes I’ll just give a little tip of the hat to writers I admire—I think it’s Willis in Preston Falls who calls his penis “the Unnamable” [in reference to the Beckett novel]. Or, again in Preston Falls, there’s a town called Chesterton, though there’s nothing particularly Chesterton-like in my work, as far as I can see, except perhaps my covert (is it even covert?) religiosity.
BG: Many of the short stories in The Wonders of the Invisible World are told from the first person by narrators with distinctive voices that engage the reader from the first line. The narrators tell their stories very honestly, and the reader is very close to their thoughts and feelings. Are there particular authors you look to for guidance or inspiration in regards to narrative voice?