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Q&A: Author JOHN HASKELL

An online exclusive interview

Author JOHN HASKELL / Photograph by PETER SERLING

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

By Charles Haskell


In John Haskell’s first novel, American Purgatorio, the main character Jack, who is strikingly similar to the author, drives from New York to California searching for his wife, Anne. As with all great stories, the journey is about more than the search for one person, place or thing — it’s about remembering why finding someone, someplace or something is important to begin with.

You can tell by looking at Haskell in conversation that he not only knows people and how to read them, but also the motivations for the things we do in life. Like some being looking down on us from space, Haskell (with whom I share no relation) traces our behavior in his novels like we trace the movements of the night sky on charts.

When I met John Haskell for coffee last year, I couldn’t help but feel like I was riding across America by car with Jack rather than walking the streets of Brooklyn with John. The character and the author have much in common. Both seem to be open for just about anything — however that “anything” must be well reasoned. Haskell is sharp and focused in conversation, though he often stumbles over his words and frequently falls short of clearly expressing himself. There were several points during our interview where he appeared to be frustrated with his memory, or possible he was unable to remember how to say what he was thinking or picturing. I noticed that the line separating his genius and madness is thin.

More than anything, I discovered that Haskell is difficult to decode: His appearance and mannerisms lead one to believe he is a free spirit, but he also seems rational and old-fashioned, especially when discussing writing and what he wants from his fellow writers. There is a seriousness to his work that has nothing to do with money or fame or whatever else can possibly result from a career in writing. Rather, it has everything to do with his heart and the feelings that motivate his work.

John Haskell is the author of two novels, American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin (FSG), in addition to the story collection, I Am Not Jackson Pollock.

Stop Smiling: When Norman Mailer was interviewed by The Paris Review in 2007, he spoke negatively about fiction writing in these times. What’s your take on the state of American fiction writing?

John Haskell: Well, it’s actually [negative]. We all know that people are reading less. They are doing everything less. They are even watching television less because there’s so many other things to do. But there used to be just one thing to do at a time. Like, either you would read or you would go square dancing or something. Now there are a million things to do. So people are reading less.

SS: Mailer also mentioned Hemingway’s death. He said that “in a way it was a huge warning. What Hemingway was saying by committing suicide is, ‘Listen all you young novelists out there, get it straight, when you’re a novelist you’re entering upon an extremely dangerous psychological journey and it could blow up in your face.’” What do you think of that? Do you have any negative thoughts about the psychological journey?

JH: Well, yeah, it is a psychological journey. But, now Hemingway, you know — different people deal with the psychology of it differently. The main thing I appreciate was that he did deal with it. Everybody brings his own personality to it. Hemingway’s personality may have been slightly — it might have had a crack in it, so that as he went farther into it, the crack widened and then broke. But I like that. It’s very hard to keep digging into something that can be painful. It’s difficult because that’s where fear is and that’s where anger is. So it’s hard, but I think otherwise the whole thing is just an exercise. What I don’t like is when people don’t bring their whole personality to it, and it is just sort of an exercise for entertainment. I don’t have time for that.

SS: Did you always know that you wanted to write fiction?

JH: When I graduated from college I didn’t know what I wanted to do. At the time they had these “For Sale” phone services. It was a Hollywood answering service, an actor thing. Actors would give out the number of the service and people would call in to speak to them. They don’t have them anymore, I’m sure. But I worked there and talked to a couple of famous people. The only one I remember was Mike Connors, who was in a show called Mannix. He would call in and ask for his messages.

At that time I actually didn’t even have a house. I lived in an office building and I used the YMCA to shower. I was cheap. I don’t know what I ate. I didn’t eat. I lived in an office.

SS: You were homeless?

JH: Yes.

SS: What happened? How did you become homeless?

JH: I had romantic notions of one thing or another. My idea was to live a little bit on the edge, or on the fringe of society. But I took a playwriting class and the teacher really liked my work, even though I wasn’t actually enrolled in the class. One day I read an article about David Mamet in Chicago and I started thinking about moving out there. So I hopped a freight train. I didn’t have much money to scrape up so I was a hobo for a while. I did that a few times and I was mainly alone, though one time I met an old hobo guy. He was an old, quiet guy and I remember he rolled me a cigarette in newspaper. I was riding in an open container car. It was incredibly filthy and very windy in the car.

One time some guy told me to watch out for the guards — back then they were called bulls. I was sitting on the top of a car because it was a nice day. It was like I was on top of the world. But the train stops and the next thing I know the engineer comes back. He says, “I don’t care if you ride on the train, but I’ll get in trouble if you’re up top.” It was nice, he didn’t call the cops or anything.

SS
: So you eventually wound up in Chicago?

JH: Yeah, I was Chicago for about seven years. I did the thing with David Mamet. He was having some kind of seminar. It was sort of open to the public at St. Nicholas Theatre, which he founded. I ushered at the theater, so I just became part of it.

Then I met some people through the Art Institute and we started a little theater company. I wrote plays and won some awards for the plays. And one of the plays, the most developed one, had a very long monologue in the beginning. I thought that was the best part of the play. I thought I should do some more of that, so I wrote some more, which was at the beginning of writing I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Then I broke up with a girlfriend and moved to New York. I think at the time I was publishing in some little magazines — kind of alternative literary magazines. But I was mainly performing the stories at different places. Some of those stories got into I Am Not Jackson Pollock. Like the Jackson Pollock story, I remember doing that as a monologue. People seemed to like the monologues and I enjoyed it. It was nice because I wasn’t really getting paid — I was just doing it for myself. So in that way I was able to develop.

SS: What were you doing for work?

JH: A bunch of things. I was copyediting. I worked at a photo studio and I did house painting. I also worked in an envelope factory and a vending machine repair place. I tried to send out a novel but nobody was interested. I just continued to work on the monologues. Eventually I applied to Yaddo [the artists community in upstate New York] for a residency. I went up there and met a woman who was also a writer. She had an agent who read my work. And he eventually sold I Am Not Jackson Pollock to FSG. That was how it really got started.

SS: How did you decide on the title I Am Not Jackson Pollock?

JH: The agent asked what we should call the book and I didn’t know. One day I was just looking over the manuscript and I saw the first sentence, “I am not Jackson Pollock,” so I said to just call it that. Later I had regrets. I thought it was a terrible title. Now I think it’s good, but at the time I thought it was pretty bad. I was worried it was so flip, and kind of unserious.

SS: So you weren’t just taking the name of your favorite story in the collection?

JH: No. I didn’t want to name the book after a story because that would give preeminence to a story. I didn’t want to call it one of the story names because then everybody would be like, “Oh that’s the best story, that’s what I’ll read first.” But I didn’t want to tell people what to read first. In a way, it was just the order. I thought that since they sometimes do poems like that, where the first line of the poem is also the name of the poem, I would do that too.

SS: Did you know the story of American Purgatorio before you began writing it?

JH: Sort of. I don’t remember exactly when it hit me. I remember the initial idea had something to do with a movie I saw and a lot of things kind of came together. There was a movie called This Man Must Die. The beginning of it was about a man and his son walking up from the water in a little fishing village, and a car is coming down the highway. You see the man and the boy. And you see the car. Then the man and boy again. And the car, again. And finally the car makes a quick turn and hits the boy. It kills the boy and drives on. And the man spends the rest of the movie trying to find the guy who killed the boy. So I thought that was a good story. I thought about that and I read a book by Czesław Milosz about the seven deadly sins.

SS: Did you have the general concept of the story down at that point?

JH: At that point, I had this idea of the seven deadly sins and breaking the novel into seven parts. I think the first time through I sort of found an ending, and then the second time through I realized that it had to go another way. Each time through it became a little clearer.

SS: Did you ever consider abandoning the project?

JH: Not with that one. I really felt there was something important to say with American Purgatorio, and it seemed to be coming out in the process. It’s funny. When you write something over and over and over, it’s almost like it writes itself.

SS
: Did you read a lot growing up?

JH: Well, I’m not sure. I remember being unimpressed by the reading material in school so I was just reading on my own. I remember reading Thoreau. But I don’t think I had a favorite writer. I didn’t read that much in college, either. I read, but I didn’t think of myself as a writer then. So there’s a different way you read when you’re like that.

SS: Are you strictly writing novels now?

JH: No, I’m not set. To me, it’s all writing. Whether it’s essays or short stories or novels — it’s whatever works. When I start a project, if something doesn’t grab me it’s not necessary to write it. If a certain feeling or emotion doesn’t grab me I don’t have to write it. So I try and keep that in mind.

For instance, in American Purgatorio, what struck me at the beginning was a sense of loss and a sense of fighting with desire and denial — and both of those things in opposition. Anne is gone, but Jack wants to deny that anything has happened. He just wants to live normally and not be in pain. It was initially about that, among other things. That is something that was there from the beginning.

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