Thirty Years Later:
A Conversation on John Gardner
With John Smelcer
This year marks the 30th commemoration of John Gardner’s tragic motorcycle accident. Poet, playwright, translator, medievalist, he is the author of such novels as Nickel Mountain, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, The Sunlight Dialogues, and October Light, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. His Grendel, now a classic, is a magnificent retelling of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. Widely regarded as one of the best teachers of creative writing in America, Gardner was the author of numerous books on craft and literary criticism, including The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, Moral Fiction, and The Forms of Fiction. In this candid conversation, Joel Gardner talks about his father with John Smelcer, Ragazine’s contributing editor and founder/co-judge of the “John Gardner Prize for Playwriting”.
JS: I knew your father from our letters. In the decade before emails and the internet, we had a friendship in the old epistolary tradition. In 1982, I was an undergraduate at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, some 4,000 miles northwest of Binghamton, New York, where John was then teaching. I wanted to be a writer, and I heard that John Gardner was one of the best creative writing teachers in America. I recall having seen him once on the The Dick Cavett Show. His slender Grendel amazed me. Having read Beowulf in junior high school, I loved his bold retelling. He taught me the importance of point of view and voice. From that summer up until his untimely death in September, we exchanged a series of letters on craft. He also guided my summer reading. I remember at the time he was working on his seminal The Art of Fiction. We “discussed” the overriding importance of Coleridge’s “vivid and continuous dream” in fiction writing, especially in the novel. Some of our “conversation” ended up almost word-for-word in the book when it was posthumously published a year or so later. In the twenty-plus years that I’ve been teaching English, I’ve always used his books on craft in my creative writing courses. It’s often said how generous John was with his time. I wasn’t even a student at his university, and yet he expended postage and effort to teach me from afar. Our friendship connected my life to Binghamton University in ways I could never have foreseen at the time.
JG: Dad was indeed a generous teacher. He was one of the few people I’ve ever heard of who would read and comment on the work of writers outside the formal atmosphere of the workshop or classroom. It was not uncommon for him to ask for manuscripts from people who reached out to him with a letter or a phone call, and—where he sensed there was a willingness to learn—he was very generous and would provide feedback and encouragement, whether in the form of correspondence or critique. He was an incredibly perceptive reader, and he absorbed and retained material almost whole on a first reading. One of the things he shared with me is that he felt very lucky to have read all these stories and novels by students and colleagues, many of which might not ever appear in print. He felt his experience of literature was richer for having all that hopeful (though not always successful) fiction in his head. But how is it after three decades, you ended up teaching creative writing at the same university where my dad used to teach?
JS: In 2004, my book Without Reservation won the Milt Kessler Prize for a book of poetry published in a given year by an American poet over 40. I was invited to visit Binghamton University to speak to classes about creative writing and to read from the book. Two years later, the university offered me a generous fellowship to earn a Ph.D. in English and creative writing. For the past five years, I’ve roamed the same halls and taught in the same classrooms as your father, whose presence is still felt on campus. For instance, the room of the university’s literary magazine, Harper’s Palate, is named the John Gardner Room. I earned the degree last spring and was given the opportunity to teach in the department this year.
JG: As long as you’ve been in Binghamton, you must have a lot of friends and colleagues who were also friends of my father, right? Jan Quackenbush comes to mind. You may also be acquainted with Liz Rosenberg and Susan Thornton. Is Bernie Rosenthal still with the department?
JS: I’ve met Liz at a few readings, but as far as I know I’ve never met Susan or Bernie. In a strange coincidence, I knew Jan before I came to Binghamton. He and I were both teaching in Wilkes University’s low-residency MA/MFA creative writing program along with Norman Mailer’s son, Michael. I met Jan in the fall of 2004 after someone introduced us, saying that he had been a close friend of your father’s ever since your dad came to Binghamton in the late 1970s. With our mutual connection, we became good friends. He used to take me everywhere your dad used to haunt, even the exact place where John wrecked his motorcycle on that fateful September day in 1982. Jan used to ride with your dad, cruising the backroads from Binghamton to Montrose and Susquehanna, stopping by Jan’s little farmhouse for lunch and a beer. Although Wikipedia suggests that alcohol was the cause of your father’s death, Jan says that there was a dog that used to live at the house right at the bend in the road and that the damn thing always ran out to chase them whenever they motored by. Jan once said that he believes the dog probably ran out in front of John, who tried to avoid it and wrecked instead. I’ve ridden my motorcycle past that spot a few times, and I can see how it could have happened exactly like that. Jan gave me the leather jacket he used to wear when he rode with John. I recently wrote a poem about riding with your dad:
RIDING WITH JOHN GARDNER
I only knew Gardner from our letters.
But ever since I moved to the same town and haunt
the same university halls, I have this recurring dream:
We’re riding motorcycles on the backroads of New York
and Pennsylvania on our way to Susquehanna or Montrose.
It’s summer and we’re a couple of badass poets in black leather
& cool mirrored shades.
But then Grendel rides up on a hardtail Harley —
his shaggy fur ablaze in the sun, the road behind him aflame.
He pulls alongside, points a clawed finger, glares a gore-dangling grin,
strops a yellow fang with a blistered tongue, rattles his head and bellows,
before he runs us off the road and gorges on our grisly carnage.
The dream always ends the same.
* * *
I hope your father would approve. You once asked me which of your dad’s books is my favorite. Hands down it’s Grendel. I loved it from the first page with the obstinate goat with his hanging balls standing on the rocky crag. I remember telling your father thirty years ago that I wanted to do something similar with Caliban from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. As you know, I finished that novel a few years ago, and you were nice enough to read it and offer a few words for the dustcover. But his The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist are never far from reach. Of all your dad’s books, which are your favorites and why?
JG: I love the poem. Probably the first book of my father’s that I really fell in love with was The Sunlight Dialogues. I was young the first time I read it — it had just come out —but it was a big, powerful book, and the story grabbed me. I could see so much of my father’s early life in Batavia in it (The Hodges being very much modeled on the extended Gardner family) that it served as a bridge to a past, a family archeology that I was only distantly a part of. But it was also the magic of the book, not just the stunts the Sunlight Man pulls off, but some of the effects, like the Esther chapter that begins by cutting straight into her stream of consciousness. And of course the plot was rich, multi-layered, profluent — though I wouldn’t have had the word for it then. Nickel Mountain is also a favorite, but for very different reasons. This book (October Light has the same quality, but in a more celebratory way) captures a man alone in the world coming to terms with a world that’s very different from what he believes is right and just. In Nickel Mountain, there is a gorgeous wedding scene, in Callie’s POV, that just knocks your socks off. There is something just so compelling about this monstrous man, Henry Soames, who runs a diner on a road over a mountain to and from more or less nowhere that feels truly like the despair any of us feels when we’re stuck, and we don’t know what to do about it. I love the generosity of the book, the love in its pages. The scene of the birth in the hospital in the snowstorm is pretty mystical.
I had a hand in Mickelsson’s Ghosts, not just by virtue of the pictures I took for the book, but because I came into my dad’s study one day with a handful of wallpaper from a back room he was remodeling in that house on Coleridge Road into a dining room. There were five or six or seven different layers of wallpaper, each seeming to indicate a different use for the room in past times. That scene is in the book somewhere, Mickelsson seeing all the different kinds of wallpaper when remodeling the fictional room, but it’s also the genesis of the book, or at least so Dad told me when he started writing it. MG is a big, complex, feisty and supernatural journey. It seems both a lot more grounded in realism and a lot more shaded with occult weirdness than any of Dad’s other works. I like that about it, but again, there is some tour-de-force writing in there, a whole chapter which takes place in Mickelsson’s mind while he’s driving, for one. By the end of the chapter, you are so in the vivid scene, that you are shocked and thrilled when you find yourself riding with Mickelsson, then shocked and thrilled again when you hit the end of the chapter and find yourself holding a book in your hand, that you’ve actually just been reading the whole time. Spooky stuff, even without the witches and the ghosts.
I pretty much love all of the books, but I haven’t grown to love The Wreckage of Agathon. I haven’t really even given it a fair shake. It is such an ugly book to read, at least the first hundred pages or so, that I could never get past the opening. Truth be told, I’ve never gone back to finish it. Maybe one of these days. Some of the short fiction is magnificent. The King’s Indian works as a whole like a great marvelous ship, with each story bursting with a different kind of life and magic: The New Jerusalem indeed! There are so many intricate things going on in so many of those stories, I pick it up every few years just to be reminded how good a story can be. I feel that way about the stories in The Art of Living, too, but the wildness and the range of Dad’s voice in the earlier collection is just so ambitious. You heft the book in your hand, and you can taste the gunpowder. I’m reading Jason and Medeia right now. It’s muscular and strange, and I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t take much to turn it into a gorgeous animated movie, though you’d have to cut a lot of the story. But it would be ravishing.
JS: This raises an interesting question. I have two daughters, and I often wonder if they’ll read my books, and if so, what will they learn about me as a person? So much of who I am is on every page of every book, story, or poem I’ve ever written. Will they come to know me more from reading my books? And when I am gone from this earth, will reading my work reconnect them to me momentarily? At such instances, will I live again? Is there much of your father in his books? These are questions I think you are better suited to answer.
JG: What your daughters learn about who you are as a person depends a lot, of course, on the kind of writer that you are. I think it goes without saying that if you approach writing with the kind of integrity and fierce belief in the power of story and poem to effect change and bring about a better world—as my father believed and advocated—there is no question your daughters will come to know you better through your writing. But there are two other consequences that are even more interesting. First, it is almost certain that you’ll be a different, better and more present parent to your daughters by virtue of the work you do as a writer. Part of the change that writing with seriousness and integrity brings about is almost imperceptible, gradual, but real growth in self-knowledge and character. Secondly, what writing does — and here we can drag out the real meaning of what my father meant by “moral” fiction — is it provides the reader with subtle shadings and an ear to the fine tuning of a character’s decisions in dramatic situations, and that leads right back to the source (you, the author), revealing not just who you as a writer are, but how you think, react and reflect, what you value and how you fight to protect those values, including your loved ones. So your daughters (and I realize this is Thing Three) will also see a better version of themselves in what you write, not just explicitly, as when you tilt aspects of them into characters or thinly veil situations lifted from real life, but in the example of your very mode of thought and love. For that’s where all of this is really leading: the kind of writing we’re talking about is Love. And love, written, is a powerful and enduring source of comfort and strength. I feel it every time I happen into a bookstore, and I can reach out and touch the binding of one of my father’s books, Nickel Mountain especially. Or The Art of Living, which is a very love-driven collection. “Redemption” is itself a powerful and dangerous act of love and forgiveness, though of course it was hard for Dad’s parents to see it in this light.
JS: Speaking of On Moral Fiction, I think Gore Vidal, Barth, and other critics of the book got it all wrong. I spoke to Updike about it (we had a heated debate), but he eventually agreed that all good novelists must write true, as Hemingway so often admonished. Cormac McCarthy says that all great writing is about life and death. I think you do a good job of clarifying what your father meant (and which I agree wholeheartedly). I’d like to return to Caliban for a moment. My wife says that there is a lot of me in my portrayal of Caliban. I created him to be earthy and elemental and brutish. He farts, snorts, burps, picks his nose, scratches his groins . . . a typical male, if you ask me. Do you think there’s any of your father’s personality in his portrayal of Grendel? Would you say he was obstinate, stubborn, or a rebel against authority (like Grendel)? Your dad must have had a blast breathing life into his monster.
JG: There’s no question my father identified with the monster — and yes, John, he enjoyed playing the role of any of the characters he was writing, inhabiting the character — but he also used the character of Grendel as a foil, a fictive stand-in to test his ideas about art and life, what makes us human, and what it is not to be human. There is also certainly something of my father in his Grendel (and something of his mother in Grendel’s mother, when you get down to it): he felt monstrous — capable of being a monster, possibly believed he was part monster — after killing his brother as a child. My father knew for a fact there was an abyss, and he pretty much knew right where the edge was. He’d been there, so that — and all things monstrous associated with the abyss — was to him familiar territory. But as a foil, he’s holding Grendel up as an example of what we would all be — any of us — without culture and community. In no way is the monster, Grendel, ever a hero, and yet he does go on the prototypical hero’s journey. The monster is also a test (as you know) of Sartrean existentialism. It turns out that existentialism is all well and good if you are sitting at a café table on the sidewalk all day, smoking French cigarettes, but it isn’t such a good model for living. I remember when my father was working on The Wreckage of Agathon. Now there was a burping, farting, ass-grabbing, drunken madman, all right. And that’s exactly how I remember my father behaving back in the early seventies. I’ll admit his inhabiting that character really put me off reading the book.
You ask about obstinate, stubborn, whether John Gardner was, or whether he was a rebel? He was a fire-breathing monster of a cause on two wheels, hell-bent to change the world, to make it better. He was Tolystoyan in his approach to writing and teaching, and he expected us to read, to learn, to think through the kinds of elaborate and fully complex moral circumstances his characters had to slog through so that we would be better equipped to make the best decisions we’re capable of in life. And that’s finally what he meant at that last Bread Loaf when he admonished the crowd in the Little Theater that “. . . [I]f you’re not writing politically, you’re not writing.” So rebel? I’d say yes. Sometimes an ugly one, but for all the right reasons. And yes, you as Caliban: I can see that. Caliban and Grendel riding into the sunset, lobbing fictional and poetic bombs into the meek and modest crowds feeling so good about themselves because they went to church on Sunday.
JS: The final question is the easiest. Like your father, you are a motorcyclist. What’s your ride nowadays? I ride a black and chrome 2008 Yamaha V-Star Midnight Special. Sweet!
JG: You are right there. My first motorcycle was a 1975 BMW R65, a 650 cc boxer that was a great introduction to motorcycling, very gentlemanly. Now I ride a K1200RS, a very elegant machine, well-balanced and capable — especially for distance touring — but not always so gentlemanly.
About Joel Gardner:
Joel Gardner was born in Chico, California. He is currently producing a feature-length documentary on John Gardner, SUNLIGHT MAN, and with his wife, Catie Camp, he writes and produces video for educational institutions and non-profit organizations. He currently lives in Newton, Massachusetts, where his two sons are in high school. His website is campgardner.com.
About the interviewer:
John Smelcer is a contributing editor to Ragazine. You can read more about him in “About Us”.
Photos courtesy of Joel Gardner.