This story takes place in the night, during the hours where most people are unaware of themselves and the rest of the world. What is the advantage of writing about this “secret” time?
That’s a secret. But it’s the open secret, I think, of creating anything when you’re not following the prescribed story conventions that are plotted out for us in the light of day. There’s the freeing risk of losing your sense of proportion and achieving something that bears the same relation to the well-made story as Frankenstein’s monster does to your garden-variety human lettuce. Maybe there’s even an occult kinship between writing the night-side and the very short form, one of the beauties of which is that it constrains you to ungodly improvisations.
Is your protagonist a good painter?
He doesn’t exist anywhere but on the surface of this one canvas called “Night Vision,” where, I’m afraid, he doesn’t cut a very promising figure. We probably recoil from him much like he does from The Librarian. But I admire his persistence in the lost cause of his art, and when you look at his paintings with the right kind of eyes – steeped, say, in the jar of decades-old pickled eggs in the tavern next door to his all-nite diner – you’ll see that they have their own gallery in eternity. Those eggs have seen it all, man.
In this story, the artist manages his best work by painting a woman that fascinates him and repels him. How do you find the subject matter that inspires you, and what qualities does that subject matter have to have to get your attention?
I think with many of my stories, and especially with the shorter pieces, I begin not with a subject matter but with language, a sentence that intrigues me and begins to spool out possibilities that seem latent within it. I sometimes think of it as being “on the scent,” like a bloodhound, sniffing here and there and zigzagging from one place to another – and hitting dead-ends, going in circles, backtracking – until there’s a convincing trail of words. The subject matter that comes out of this process, however, is no doubt characteristic of my interests and obsessions, and is often about liminal or threshold states, those places where one thing turns into another – where, say, repulsion turns into fascination, ugliness into beauty, or masturbation into a six-figure, two-book deal with Random House.
There is a feeling of urgency here, the idea that the painter is trying to stay on schedule and beat a deadline. Already, he is falling apart at least a little as his night vision has gotten worse. How conscious are you of this urgency when you approach your own work?
It’s wonderful to be asked questions like these because they show such close attention to the story, but this one goes beyond that into x-ray specs territory. I was reading them aloud to my wife and when we got to this one our eyes met and we shared a laugh – somewhat uneasy, on my part – because it was so dead-on. Deadline, dead-on – you get the picture. The problem is always to make of it a motivation rather than a source of paralysis. Maybe my painter has the right idea, no daytime distractions. Dostoevsky was also known to have done his writing at night, until he died of emphysema at age 59. I was in St. Petersburg a couple of years ago and went to visit Dostoevsky’s grave at Tikhvin Cemetery. I communed in silence for a while with the bearded bust on the tombstone and then asked the great writer’s spirit if he had any advice. In the Arctic breeze came the reply: “Quit smoking.”