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George Salis: How do you think a marriage, let alone a family, would turn out if it was dictated by Some Instructions: Concerning the Upkeep of the House and Marriage, and to My Son and Daughter Concerning the Conduct of Their Childhood?
Stanley Crawford: Badly.
GS: Some Instructions is straight-faced satire. I’m wondering if you were at all tempted to break this mask and add a bit of overt commentary or cynicism within?
SC: When the nameless narrator of Some Instructions knocked on my door it was not long after my wife and I and friends and family had spent several strenuous years building our adobe house in a village north of Santa Fe, including making the adobe bricks ourselves, an intensely physical process I had never experienced before. Because RoseMary and I were disciplined, we succeeded where a number of our then-hippie friends failed. That discipline was the germ of the obsessional character of the narrator, but exploded out into the pathological. He is such a hermetic character that the thought of any cracks in the iron cocoon he has constructed for his family is inconceivable. But cracks there no doubt were, or would eventually be, and those I explored through another controlling right-wing male narrator in Petroleum Man, who deals with an uncooperative wife, politically errant daughter, and grandchildren with little interest in the legacy he is trying to impose on them.
GS: Is writing a novel like planting and tending to crops or is tending crops like writing a novel?
SC: Crops? Novels? Novels? Crops? I think the relationship is more like the one offering an escape from the other. Gardening and farming offer a sensually multidimensional escape from the sensual deprivation of sitting in a room manipulating symbols, while writing offers an escape from the complexities, the aches and pains, the inevitable failures of the garden. The transitions from one to the other, spring and fall, used to be difficult and painful for me, but much less so now. Perhaps only a sense of relief being able to let the fields lie fallow in the fall or early winter, a sense of relief at being able to leave my studio for the outdoors in the spring and summer.
GS: You have novels that aren’t in an experimental mode, with prose that could even be compared to John Updike. Are these two modes non-overlapping magisteria?
SC: Not sure I understand the question, but here goes: In The Canyon I wanted to write a conventional narrative from the point of view of someone who was not obsessional or deranged in some way, the choice being a 14-year-old boy recounting two summer vacations in the Rockies. Some years or decades back I gave up on the MS of Village because at the time I felt it was too conventional, too without voice, and was too close to the bone—in relation to the village where I was and am still living. It sat on a shelf for perhaps 20 years. When I rediscovered it I was pleasantly surprised, revised it lightly, wrote the last several chapters, which I had prepared for. My more edgy novels, which I wouldn’t call particularly experimental, are voice-driven.
GS: Is the comparison of your later work to John Updike’s a coincidence or did you get inspiration from his style?
SC: I followed Updike’s work though was not crazy about it. So: coincidence.
GS: What is a novel you think deserves more readers?
SC: Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is the best thing I have ever written, and I think it has found the readers it needs. In my nonfiction, same with A Garlic Testament. I no longer care much for some of my novels, SI and PM above, for example, and Travel Notes. My favorite at the moment is Seed, which has some of my best and funniest dialogue—and a good cast of walk-ons. I had a lot of fun writing it, which seems important.
GS: Why don’t you care much for those earlier novels anymore?
SC: Urgent as they were at the time of composition, that urgency has faded or not aged well. One moves on. Books, you might say, don’t always, though some do: I have read War And Peace four times. There are passages there that appeal to the young, the middle-aged, the old, to the novel writer, to the historian.
GS: What about works other than your own? Are there any you think deserve more readers?
SC: My favorites, from recently, backwards in time: Apeirogon, Colum McCann; The Promise, Damon Galgut; The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville; The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka; Plainsong, Kent Haruf; Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year, J.M. Coetzee; Where Rivers Change Direction, Mark Spragg.
GS: You’re not a huge fan of most contemporary writing but Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is an exception. Can you reflect on your admiration for this novel? And what could you say to Seth to help him with his long writer’s block vis-à-vis A Suitable Girl?
SC: I think what Seth needs to do is put the MS in a drawer for five or ten or twenty years. When he comes back to it he will find it fresh and surprising and probably worth continuing. A Suitable Boy was one of those magnificent long reading experiences (we had two copies, and RoseMary was a hundred pages behind me) with an extensive cast of characters of different generations and ethnic groups. I never got mixed up about who was who, a considerable achievement in itself. I thought it a wonderful continuation of the tradition, as it were, of Paul Scott’s remarkable Raj Quartet.
GS: Did you read other books with RoseMary?
SC: Seth’s novel was an exception, I think. RoseMary on the whole preferred plays, as she was an actor and wrote plays herself.
GS: You’ve mentioned that, as a younger man, you were gung-ho about mastering multiple languages. Ishmael Reed recently told me that young writers should broaden their linguistic horizons in this way so they can improve their craft. Do you agree with this advice? And, other than English, what language do you think is the most aesthetic in terms of sound, words, etc.?
SC: I took six years of high school and college Spanish (it was too soon after the war for me to learn German, which was what I was really intent on) but was hardly fluent until after a year of teaching English in Cali, Colombia, where I had an advanced class in which we traded English for Spanish, as it were. But fluent as I became then, I wasn’t much interested in Spanish lit, except Don Quixote. (Later of course I read Márquez and Vargas Llosa, but in English). I was a shy young man and what I discovered was that I could become someone quite different in speaking another language. The year before Colombia I was a student at the Sorbonne, wrote my thèse in French on Proust, got a mention: bien, but my spoken French was somewhat stilted until I spent a summer on Lesbos where I wrote Gascoyne and hung out with a younger French painter who helped me loosen up my French. I think mastering other languages is important for a writer because another language is an extreme of style (in relation to your own) and can teach you aspects of style that are perhaps too close to see in your own language.
I love the sound of French, but I am particularly fond of Greek, which I was once verbally fluent in, in everyday matters, having learned it from speaking, not from study. I think of it as a very witty language. I would love to be able to regain my ancient fluency, such as it was. In today’s world, I would encourage the young to take up Chinese, Japanese, Arabic. There are of course vastly more tools—online, etc.—than ever before.
GS: Speaking of Greece, I know Don DeLillo lived there for several years and even wrote a novel set there, titled The Names. Did you happen to read that one?
SC: I should read the DeLillo novel though I have the feeling that one’s experience of Greece can be so strong as to be incomparable with others. My current MS, The Stream / la Plage, is set on Lesbos, more autobiographical than anything else I’ve written. In my six months in Molyvos, summer of ’64, I wrote my first published novel, as I said, discovered I had a body and loosened up my French, both thanks to my French painter buddy, who bedded down virtually every tourist woman who came through the village. In a sense, it’s a sequel to The Canyon. The village is a backdrop to expat antics, little more. A possible successor is set on Crete and will be more Greek. After not having one for 20 years, I now have an agent for The Stream / la Plage, but he’s been at it a year without success. Have recently started a new nonfiction attempt at a “car book.” Earlier failures led to PM, in which I skewered, a little painfully, my liberal pieties.
GS: How do you view success as a writer? Is it in relation to a reader’s response, what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o calls the “Nobel of the Heart,” or is it all within your own conception of a particular work or the body of work as a whole? Does a book without a reader exist in any meaningful way?
SC: Success? Some will see it in monetary terms, copies sold, etc. Of late, my books have led to long-distance friendships (a reader in France, a writer in Ireland), which I value highly. For me, that makes the writing project worthwhile. Some writers will publish a number of books but only one will stand the test of time. There is a wonderful short book, So Many Books, by Gabriel Zaid (Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia), who points out that in wealthy countries such as ours everyone can get their book published, no matter how few readers there might be out there, including I suppose zero readers.
GS: As someone who was first published by big presses and is now celebrated by indie presses and university presses, do you think the latter houses are holding the weight of literature on their backs?
SC: I don’t feel very conversant with the overall publishing situation, other than the general atmosphere of gloom and doom (Amazon, etc.) and that some university presses are in trouble and reports that increasing numbers of young people don’t read printed matter. But I’m thankful that FC2/U/Alabama and Dalkey Archive (though it may be on life support) are still around and that new startups keep emerging to carry the flag. Since publishing, like writing, has always been a passion for some, I am generally hopeful, whatever shape it next takes—and your work is an example.
GS: In a 2008 interview with Deb Olin Unferth, you mentioned that “a lot of us back in the early 1970s thought that the world was on the brink, the government out of control, the then-war pointless, and that the best bet was to learn how to grow your own food.” From the pandemic to climate change, many people feel this way today. Is the world always on the brink or will there be a time when the real end will come? Do you think the pandemic, among other tragedies in the news, is a sign of this brink before the sink?
SC: Back in the late 1960s a lot of us thought the world was coming to an end and it was time to head for the hills. Now the issues of that era seem so simple by comparison to a world grown far more complexly interdependent and consumption mad. Whenever I leave the little bubble of my valley with its small farms and superb coop market and enter the eight-lane worlds of LA or Austin or Denver, I think there is nothing sustainable about this world as presently configured and worry that it is probably impossible to dismantle the gazillion-dollar fossil fuel infrastructure and create something better—in time. The pandemic is a product of course of the current complex global interdependency (which has also given us many other kinds of invasive species besides viruses) but there are other risks. The Internet, for example, seems especially vulnerable. And then there is global warming.
Yet, one cannot live without hope, and some of my work as a sort of environmental activist is to try to realize that hope, against perhaps all odds.
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Stanley Crawford is an American writer and farmer whose early fiction, in particular, was innovative and less traditional. His novels include, among others, Travel Notes, Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine, Some Instructions, and Petroleum Man. His nonfiction works include A Garlic Testament, a biography of life on his farm in Dixon, New Mexico. You can learn more about Crawford on his website.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus 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 Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.