Without a Phartsmone: A Rare Interview with G. F. Gravenson

George Salis: I remember reading somewhere online that The Sweetmeat Saga was advertised as nonfiction rather than fiction. In that sense, it would be a part of other notable literary hoaxes, as it were, from the more recent The Mad Patagonian to as far back as Don Quixote. Could you comment on this and, if it was indeed marketed as nonfiction, what was the motivation for doing so?

G. F. Gravenson: In our binary literary world you’re either fiction or nonfiction. Could not there be a mid-ground, not considered a hoax, or even a put-on, but something like mass hysteria as Hy Frisbee insinuates in the epilogue? So the reader, not being part of reported happenings, becomes part of this mass hysteria in their personal interpretation of events, fictional or otherwise.

We are seeing that today in the testimony of January 6th Capitol insurrectionists. Some of whom were there quite believing in their minds and hearts the events were purely symbolic and harmless, the purpose of which was to re-emphasize to the nation their distrust of election results. In that regard, they were acting out, in reality, a truth, not a fiction. But no one has called their actions a hoax, or that they were ingenuous in their beliefs. To the contrary, they claim to be the real truth-tellers, the only people who truly know what actually happened that day and why. All the rest is media fake news and speculation. And going to jail over their beliefs is a mark of heroism, martyrdom, not shame.

So the real question becomes: does something fictional become reality if enough people believe it? Ask your Bible for the answer.

GS: The typographical trickery of the novel took up the entire sheet of a given typewriting paper and thus the book had to be produced using A4 facsimiles. How did you come about formatting the novel in this way?

GFG: On The Road was purportedly written end to end on a roll of teletype paper. I took Jack’s idea and used legal-sized paper in a portable non-electric Olympia typewriter. How the book managed itals and so forth will remain with me.

GS: What books or other works of art inspired you at that time?

GFG: I also was impressed with Howl. At one time I even possessed Allen’s first published edition—on mimeograph paper!

GS: In a favorable Times review, critic R.Z. Sheppard, who would go on to review such works as Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest, claims that you had claimed “to have written [your] novel under the influence of marijuana.” Did you find that puffing the magic dragon released your creative inhibitions or was this simply a habit that corresponded to that decade?

GFG: Both. Except the pot was very very mild. You had to smoke several reefers to even get a buzz. The more adventurous of us tried LSD. However, with acid your writing instincts failed. So if you wanted to get something done, and not merely stare into beautiful stairwells of changing colors and patterns, you used marijuana—or Mary Jane as was its common euphemism then.

GS: Tough Poets Press, run by Richard Schober, has brought out the 50th-anniversary edition of your novel. You explained to him that “when it was finished in ‘66 it had a Sweetmeat Songbook attached to it, so the reader had lead sheets for 8 of the Sweetmeat’s Greatest Hits. Those were songs I had been writing since high school but only performed locally, never recorded. (I think I recorded one but don’t ask me to find the vinyl.) At any rate, I spent about 4 years trying to peddle the book along with the songbook, before [Outerbridge & Dienstfrey] took it on. But Dutton only wanted the book rights, not the songs. Something about copyright protection, royalties being paid, being in the public domain, and so forth. Legally, too complex. So only the book was published in ‘71.” Do you ever think these songs will burst out of their unpublished and no less fictional prison, like the ‘title track’ U2 brought to life based on Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which also features mythic rock stars who disappear?

GFG: Most of the songs the Sweetmeats wrote were love ballads and longing-for-someone reveries. Today they would be mocked as too immature, too naive. But remember, back then, the country was in a more romantic mood, not a conflicting one. Sure, the Vietnam War was on, and some of the Sweetmeat songs were about the war and protesting it. (In fact, one such song, “Take Back America” will be in the 50th-anniversary edition, making it truly a special edition.)

As a side note, in the few years I was trying to peddle the manuscript, a couple of movie producers approached me wanting to make TSS a full-length movie—with the Sweetmeat songs as a backtrack. It was an attractive offer—but the small print gave me no creative control of the content. So I turned them down. Then came Woodstock and its documentary. I’ve always wondered how The Sweetmeat Saga would have fared under the massive reality weight of “Woodstock.” “Pathetic imitation,” is my guess.

GS: What music or band would you say most sounds like the lost Sweetmeat songs?

GFG: The close harmony of the Sweetmeats and their dueling guitars remind me most of The Everly Brothers.

GS: The Sweetmeat Saga is subtitled The Epic Story of the Sixties. How would you compare the 60s to the decades that have since passed? The 70s and 80s were quite iconic as well, among others.

GFG: As I’ve said, the 60s was a defining decade. It was both highly tragic and lyrical/romantic—bookended by Kennedy’s assassination and Woodstock. The Sweetmeats signed off halfway in the spring of ’66 so they didn’t get a chance to be at Woodstock. I was actually there with my wife—and all I could think about was that they would no doubt be headlining alongside Joanie and Jimi, Janis and Joe. And sure, then came many other more popular genres and groups. Each generation has its own music, its own art, its own icons. It’s called, “You don’t understand, Dad.”

GS: You used to be a writer of TV commercials. Can you reflect on your time working in this capacity and did this have a significant influence on your writing?

GFG: The less said about this the better. I was on the cutting edge of legality.

GS: What is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?

GFG: Well, it’s not a novel but a well-written book about quantum theory. It’s called Biocentrism by the well-known physicist and physician Robert Lanza, published by Benbella Books in 2009.

In about 200 pages, he outlines what our lives will be like in the near future. And he does it in such simple prose with such complicated scientific subjects, you’re overwhelmed by his clarity and genius.

GS: You’re currently living in Mexico. How long have you lived there and what have your experiences been like? Have you sampled any of the country’s authors? Carlos Fuentes? Fernando Del Paso? Rosario Castellanos?

GFG: I’ve been here since the turn of the century, since my first SS check was issued. I wanted a place in the sun, where I could write without distraction, without even a phartsmone. And it was a good choice for retirement. I haven’t read much in the English editions of the authors you mention, but rather several books by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude should be required secondary-school reading.

GS: I’m curious about whether or not something specific drew you to Mexico.

GFG: My first trip to Mexico was the summer after graduation from Grinnell College. I went down with some biology majors and en route met some archeology majors from Harvard. They seemed more interesting to me so I tagged along to a fantastic dig in the Yucatan. And I realized what a fabled place the untouched parts of Mexico were. In the 60 or so years that have intervened, most of that innocence has been violated by tourism and commercial building interests. In fact, a tourist train will soon make stops along some of Mexico’s most hidden and mysterious Mayan ruins. Yet Mexico still offers American retirees safe, affordable living, cheap transportation, and wonderful weather wherever you go. Most of all, the Mexican people are gracious, hospitable, and industrious. It’s a real treat to be living here amongst them.

GS: You’re working on a project called Quantum Agnostics, which you’ve described as a “non-fiction visionary blog.” Could you go into more detail about what this project is, how it came about, and when it’ll be available to readers?

GFG: Well, I talked a little about Lanza’s book and the profound effect it had on me. I wanted to put his science into my art—create and update a blog where people would be comfortable discussing the incredible pressure our planet is putting on us right now and vice versa. It’s visionary to the extent that if we don’t do something about the 3 Cs now, we won’t have a planet for visionaries to vision about in our lifetimes. What are the 3 Cs? Climate, COVID, Cybercrypto. Climate destruction affecting our existential/spiritual world, COVID attacking our physical wellbeing, and Cybercrypto jamming up our mental capacities and hacking into our decision-making powers with AI. We need to put limits on all three, overseen by some world body with a 4th C—Courage.

GS: In the 50 years and some change since The Sweetmeat Saga, what else has been filling your days? Have you continued to write fiction or have you dedicated time to other pursuits?

GFG: I’ve been looking at the amount of time people are now using their phartsmones and computers to communicate with each other, both socially and professionally. The idea that someone wants to re-issue my 50-year-old book in the Time of COVID is amazing to me. There is nothing to glean from its pages that isn’t immediately apparent to these two generations since the original publication. They’ve learned how to discern “shit from Shinola” in Hy Frisbee’s words…and in so doing have learned the binary skills necessary to split apart a nation that was coming together a mere 50 years ago. Indeed, today you’re either a 0 or a 1, take it or leave it.

GS: If you had to hazard a guess, where would you say Pookie and Paul Sweetmeat are today?

GFG: They were born in ’45, 21 in 1966 when last I left them and would be in their mid-70s now. I know Mick and Paul, Dolly and Ringo and a few others are still performing from that Golden Era—but remember, by disappearing, Pookie and Paul essentially sold out their audience. And an audience doesn’t forget. Where would they be today? Perhaps under a clear blue Mexican sky, sipping their margs or simply picking their guitars under an umbrella in a remote sandy cove with some friends. The last thing on their minds is being reminded of their glory days captured in The Sweetmeat Saga.

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Photo of the author by Walter Giersbach (circa 1970)

From the dust jacket of the original edition:
G. F. Gravenson has spent many years in publishing and journalism. He brings to this book a careful and thorough professional objectivity for his subject matter as he attempts to separate fact from fiction in the events that surround the disappearance — now explained — of the deeply missed Sweetmeat twins, Paul and Pookie.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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