David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Nicholson Baker Full Interview Transcript

Conducted on March 1, 1994.
Also read the published article based on this interview.

Nicholson Baker wearing a hatQ: What kind of reaction have people had to The Fermata so far?

Reviewers are taking [The Fermata] as a personal affront — we liked this Nicholson Baker, we trusted him, how could he do this to us? It’s a controversial book, I knew it would make some people hate me, and it’s no fun to be hated — I’m not enjoying that part of it. But some people seem to understand what I was about, which was I wanted to do something mildly exaggerated and funny and exuberant and strange. I wanted to pull out all the stops and really write a frolicsome little exercise in self-destruction.

Q: Self-destruction?

That’s what it’s turning out to be. I wrote these two books with nice narrators [The Mezzanine and Room Temperature]. And this narrator is not. And yet he sounds like the earlier narrators. What I wanted to show was that if I want to, I can write about a person who is not exactly like me, who is not nice always, and I can lend him my voice if I want to. Why shouldn’t I have the right to do that? John Banville can do it. Just because I wrote three books with nice narrators, why should I be denied that opportunity?

You hated the book.

Q: No, I liked it.

Oh! What a relief! I just never know. It happens with every book. The most unexpected people like this book, women in their late 50s, lesbians and bisexuals — and then there are people who I would’ve thought would’ve gone for it who detest it. There was this guy in England who never let on that he really liked the early books, and he was disturbed by it. The only thing that really makes me unhappy about this whole process is that I’m having to become in my dealings with the world a warier and more reserved person. In my books, I’ve always volunteered every embarrassing tidbit that seemed relevant. Now it seems they’re all being used against me. If I mention that I have psoriasis of the penis, there’s a thing in Esquire that starts “Nicholson Baker has psoriasis of the penis.” As a point of fact, I don’t have it. If the fact checker had called me first, they wouldn’t have printed it.

The only book that’s gotten more column inches in England this year than The Fermata is Margaret Thatcher’s autobiography. It’s kind of riveted people and angered them, which I didn’t want to do. I hate to make people angry, I really wanted to delight and instruct just as Aristotle said that a writer ought to do.

Q: Are you going out on a book tour for this book?

I’ve been trying not to do a book tour. We have this three-month old son and I just really don’t want to go away and do ten-day tours and readings. Instead of having the publisher’s person set these things up, it’s me at the telephone with these little notes on the calendar.

Q: All of your novels are concerned with the minutiae of life, with things that we usually don’t notice during the course of everyday living. Why is that?

The problem I seem to have is I want to describe something in a paragraph, and it turns out that I have more to say about that thing than a paragraph can accommodate. In The Mezzanine, I used the footnote as a way to encapsulate more stuff that the reader could take in at will. Footnotes are voluntary, you can drop down to them or not. I’ve been wrestling with this problem of too much to say for years. I think the sci-fi premise of The Fermata is another way of coming to grips with that problem. The hero can stop time and think about whatever it is he wants to think about for as long as he wants. In the same way that if I’m riding up an escalator in The Mezzanine, I can think about the handrail at length or something.

The Fermata is lurid and very sexual because Arno is that kind of a guy, it’s very much a writer’s fantasy where you can stop time and if you see something interesting about the world, you can stop time and write about it. Don’t you want to be able to write it down? It would be ideal for interviews. If I said something interesting, and if we didn’t have this tape recorder, you could just snap your finger and write it all out. There’s this awful moment where you know what you want to ask, but you can’t quite think of the next thing to ask is. If you could just stop time and ask the question…

Q: I think it’s interesting that you describe your writing style as a problem.

I think it’s an asset and a problem at the same time. The temptation is just to go on and on. Normally I’ve had to stop myself, decide I’ve said all I want about the flotational characteristics of a straw. Stop! I’m interested in unpromising things, like straws — or like sex…

Q: How have women been reacting to this novel?

This woman from England who came to interview me and had some reservations still treated me fairly and doesn’t treat me like a wacko. In the past my ideal reader has been a woman. Women in general are better readers than men. My wife is a better reader than I am, she reads 19th century novels, she really gets submerged in the novel. This one, though, seems to make many women angry. I guess a man would be an ideal reader for this book. Men seem to be much less troubled than women. They think it’s funny, and it arouses them. If you want to call it pornography, sure, but there’s more than that.

Q: Do you have an opinion of how Arno makes use of his powers? Do you approve or disapprove of him, or is the question irrelevant?

I don’t know that Arno subscribes to his own philosophies. He avoids coming up with a code of ethics because it’s totally indefensible. Of course it’s wrong to stop time and take off women’s clothes. But he’s drawn to it, he hasn’t really figured it all out. In writing his autobiography, he sees where his errors of self-justification lie. There’s no one-to-one correspondence between me and Arno. I have to take responsibility for the book, and I do, I’m proud of the book. The character came out of my own mind. He is a very exaggerated, very selectively filtered of a part of my 14-year-old self. He’s kind of a pathetic guy in some ways, but not always pathetic. I think I see more to like in him — of course I have to like him, and having spent some time with him, he has limits. What I did was ask people, what would you do? And of course I changed what they said a little bit, but I wanted to include their reactions in the book. Some of things were really things that people said to me. This is not entirely a product of my own feverish sexual imaginations. Some of it is a part of other people’s feverish sexual imaginations.

Q: If you had Arno’s powers, would you do some of the things that he did?

There’s a huge gulf between thinking about something and doing it. The only thing that’s troublesome about the reaction to the book is it seems as people are treating it as a position paper on how men ought to behave, when really it’s a physically impossible fantasy of one man who has himself some doubts about the moral advisability of what he’s doing. I live here monogamously with my wife, I am willing to entertain those thoughts because they seem to allow for the treatment of certain themes about men look at women. It’s doing what the novel can do, taking a situation that can’t be true in reality and assuming it can be true. What if people really could undress people with their eyes? I think it’s a somewhat thought-provoking work.

Some women who’ve responded to the book say, I wouldn’t take off men’s clothes. At least, it wouldn’t be the top on my list. I might do it later on down the line. They’re saying that Arno is this terrible racist, but themselves they say to me, of course I’d do it here and there. The book seems to be angering people because of its failure of emphasis. The women readers who are offended think they would never do it. They say they’d drop into other people’s apartments and snoop around. This is a very anarchic and yet oddly non-violent power, because it allows you to do these wicked things without distressing anyone. If Arno knew that he could go around being an exhibitionist and by some fluke would never be punished for it, he wouldn’t do it because the women who saw him would be unhappy. He doesn’t want to make people unhappy. It’s almost as if it doesn’t happen, because it’s in so small a chink of time.

That’s why he doesn’t get punished in the end. My wife liked the book, but she was disappointed that he didn’t get his comeuppance. He loses his powers, but he isn’t left in some prison cell shivering. Even though we panted along with the narrator all the way through, we’re going to get it in the end. But this guy doesn’t, because this particular power makes it possible for him to escape detection.

The whole thing is a sort of fairy tale, it’s sort of impossible. When you’re in the book, you accept what’s going on. I have to talk about the moral dimension because I’ve been being attacked for having written an offensive book. But for a reader who isn’t troubled by it — it’s supposed to be a comic novel, and I think when I’ve taken a glance at it, I have written one. In order for comedy to work, the normal consequences of things have to be interrupted. If it’s physical comedy, if people fall off cliffs, they don’t die. It’s a world where you don’t pay the price. I was trying to keep myself intellectually and comically and sexually entertained. I wanted to have some fun, man. I wanted the book to be fun. I give up.

Q: Do you think that Vox or The Fermata could ever incite someone to commit sexual harassment or assault?

They couldn’t do something too horrible under the inspiration of my narrator, since he’s so reluctant to do anything horrible. The books and movies that I worry about are the ones that really do have graphic rape scenes and stuff. I think mine is pretty benign as far as influencing people to do bad things. It seems to click most with people who are in person polite, not prone to acts of violence and crime — it’s a book that nice guys like. And it doesn’t seem to make them into bad guys.

I saw [the movie based on the Michael Crichton novel] Rising Sun for some silly reason. Now there is a movie that’s disturbing. There’s a woman who’s being choked and fucked at the same time, and you see it repeatedly. If I were the producer of that movie, I would have responsibility. I think it would be silly to pretend that movies and videos don’t have some influence over our lives. I don’t think this particular book could inspire anyone to do anything bad because it’s based on an impossibility. That’s what makes it okay, I think, that it is impossible. It’s a kind of strange fairy tale. In the same way Grimm’s fairy tales involve awful things, but we know when we’re in that universe that things are different.

Clearly I broke some taboo that was unthinkable. I committed an unthinkable crime in not honoring that convention, because the fact that Arno is not in a prison cell really irritates some people. Other people say what is so bad about it? This guy who was an Oxford don said, I think he’s a nice guy, and I don’t see what the trouble is here. He doesn’t do anything bad. I’ve never written a book that’s gotten so much intense disagreement. I think people are actually arguing over this book. That makes me sad, because I didn’t want to create strife. I don’t want to trigger divorce — the man says what’s the big deal, and the woman says this is horrible.

This is one of the irreconcilable differences between men and women, and it seems interesting to me that some of these images can inhabit the brain of a person who isn’t pathological. These thoughts are more characteristic of men’s minds than men want to admit, maybe. It’s not a book that represents my own personality because it’s so completely sexual. It was written in a mood that was lit by powerful sexual floodlamps, so it’s not that I’m saying that men are this way. But why don’t we add this particular information to all the other pieces we have so we can come out with the richer understanding of the human lives of human beings?

Q: Would you say that you write about “the interior lives” of people?

The present outside world doesn’t have much meaning, but my narrators are usually filled with thoughts about the outside world that they remember, or some piece of it that’s going through their minds. They’re not solipsistic in terms of always thinking about themselves. The narrator of The Mezzanine is glad to think about the history of the stapler. U and I is the most solipsistic of my books, but even there there’s this other center around which I’m thinking. While we’re writing books, we don’t think about the messy desk and piles of books and whatever, we concentrate on what we’re describing. Their inner lives are usually about the outer world thought about more thoroughly.

Q: I read somewhere that you actually were an office temp like Arno for a while.

I was a temp. I spent several years in Boston working in these big companies. And it was fascinating working in an office situation. I also have done white-collar jobs, I’ve worked on Wall Street and been a technical analyst. I really liked typing people’s tapes, and I typed the tapes for people like John Silver, the president of Boston University. It is as if you are entering their consciousness, more so than if you read their letters. Because you hear them hesitate. To be turning that into coherent words on the screen. I wanted to catch the texture as an office worker.

A woman that I talked to — she was bisexual — said she wanted to be Arno. And the frozen universe is a pretty lonely place. But maybe the book was attempting to show ways in which it could be less lonely than you think. When he finally gets Joyce into the Fold, he’s exhausted and he takes a nap next to her. It’s kind of companionable, to catch up on some sleep.

Q: Have you finished exploring sexuality for the time being? Will there be more books like Vox and The Fermata?

I’m finished, I’m done with it, it’s over, I’m kind of pleased with these two books, but I really feel that for the time being this is all I have in inventory to say about sex. Vox was a nice egalitarian book, where the woman had as much to say as the man, and it was an entirely consenting situation. But there were certain things left over, and I felt there was much more to be said. Well, I’ve said that. Not all of it is entirely pleasant. But at least it’s been put in book form. I’m happy about that, and I can get along with writing about whatever. Medieval shipping or horticulture or delicate familial sensibilities and whatever. I’m working on essays now that are not about sex at all.

That’s not to say that these books are the last word. This subject, it’s so awful when it’s written about badly. So much of the way we talk about sex is in this fossilized vocabulary and these cliches like the women’s magazine cliches and the porn cliches and the frat boy cliches. Nonetheless, it’s — it’s like sunsets or trees. Trees are still interesting, even though every great landscape painter has painted a tree, there’s still a lot of “treeness” left for painters to capture. For the time being, I’ve painted these two trees, and I’m going to go on.

Q: Vox received a lot of media hype and sold more than any of your other books. Did you feel pressure to one-up yourself while writing The Fermata? Would you have chosen the subject you did if Vox hadn’t been so controversial and successful?

The Fermata was the only book I could write. I think The Fermata — it has hurt my career to have written The Fermata. With a whole group of readers that I would like to be on good terms. When I finished Vox, the only book I could write was The Fermata. After I finished Vox, I felt maybe braver, brave enough to write about things I wouldn’t have written about before. There’s a fated progression of books inside writers, and there isn’t an awful lot that negative and positive reviews could do to change that. It would have been nice to have able to write a book about hotel maintenance after Vox, because people like my mother-in-law would prefer — they could defend one sex book by saying, he got that out of that system, but two books seem like it’s more of an interest than it should be.

There is a way in which the reaction to Vox influenced me in writing The Fermata. It made me freer. I got many good reviews, but a number of vicious reviews. I was a fairly thin-skinned person, and I take reviews seriously, and I had some strange fantasy that I could make everyone happy, and everyone would like me. When you write books like Vox, you suddenly realize you can’t make everyone happy. You have to make yourself happy. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. The fact that I was slammed around a bit in Vox and treated badly by some critics toughened me up and made me able to just sit down and write exactly the book I wanted to write.

Q: Do you think society has an unhealthy attitude towards sexuality? Would you like to see less sexual repression in society?

I wish men didn’t make women unhappy so often, and weren’t always getting ridiculous divorces and things. I wish that we were politer and less interested in sport killing and things like that. I wish men were better readers. That goes for me too, I wish I were a better reader.

I don’t think there’s too much repression in these things. The excitement of sex thrives on forbiddenness. Without some sense of scandal and of there being a resistance to nudity, the whole thing can become just a little bit too healthy, too open. I sometimes get the feeling reading those sexual advice columns where anything goes that the correspondents are all part of this delightfully permissive stew — it doesn’t work for me. These things have to be heartfelt, they have to be somewhat difficult to attain.

I don’t know what it’s like over there in Baltimore — raiding [Baltimore’s notorious red-light district] The Block seems tiresome. If you raid them and shut them down in place, they’ll just pop up in another. If you’re asking whether I think that women should be harassed and put in jail for being prostitutes, of course not. I don’t think that porn movies should be harassed either. I think they should be ridiculed if they’re bad, and if they’re stupid, you should use the stop button and stop watching them. Distributors are having to cut them down and release bowdlerized versions of them. Censorship doesn’t have a lot to do in my life. The anti-porn industry isn’t interested in words; what really troubles them is that film footage that is graphically sexual. I don’t understand it, actually. It doesn’t cramp my own style too much.

There’s absolutely no reason why anyone should finish this book if it’s making him or her unhappy. I think that the response that the character had, the woman who flung the tape out the window, I think that’s exactly what they should do. What I do when I’m bored by a book, I just stop reading. There are so many thousands of books out there, there just doesn’t seem to be any point to reading books that aren’t worth living.

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