DT: It’s certainly not as if you’re writing polemical books.
MH: Well, I’m out already.
DT: If they were just to read your books, they might have no idea what your politics are.
MH: That’s true, but they do now. Even the books are totally contrary to the zeitgeist. I don’t think of women as a political tribe. I am unconcerned with sexual dysfunction, because up until now, thank God, I haven’t had any. I am religious by nature, I’m not a nihilist. I don’t follow, I don’t even know what the tenets of things like deconstructionism are, and all those schools that come up and their way of looking at things that people strive to incorporate into what they write. I don’t even know what they are. Because I sense from a distance that I don’t want to know. And therefore even if I had no politics, actual politics, my cultural point of view is hopelessly out of date with the modern literary sensibility. Which is nihilistic, and ironic, detached, cool, and cowardly. It is cowardly, really cowardly. . . .
DT: You had an article in National Review a few months ago urging conservatives to be more involved in the culture. Do you have any advice for young people who might actually be interested in doing so — especially since it’s not always easy if people know they’re conservative?
MH: Yes — keep your day job. Frequently, young people — and I still have the delusion I am, but I’m not — will come up to me, write to me, talk to me, walk up to me when I’m out in public, and say, “What should I do?” And that’s good, because it shows that they’re smart. I was so stupid that I didn’t start doing that until I was about your age. I thought that anything that I could learn, I could experience myself. After I got beaten up quite a lot, I finally figured out it’s a matter of intelligence — both in terms of the military sense and the regular sense — to speak to someone who’s been there before, and is older than you or I, and might even be smarter. And you save yourself a lot of trouble. So they come to me and they ask me, they want to be a writer, what should they do. I start out by telling them a long time ago, it’s probably more now, the IRS published a statistic that a million people claimed on their 1040s that they were writers. And it’s pretty clear that, I don’t know about nonfiction, but for fiction writers, there are probably only about fifty people, if that, in the country who can make a living as fiction writers without doing something else. Like teaching or something else. And I count getting grants as doing something else. I mean just by selling what they write. And that is fiction — serious fiction. Belle letters, fiction of the old style, not junk fiction. Maybe fifty, maybe less, maybe twenty, I don’t know. It would be very hard to do, and very interesting to find out — who actually makes it, who survives just writing serious fiction. So the discrepancy between the million and fifty is such that if you pay any attention whatsoever to the statistics, you’d better have another boat to put your other foot in, so you can be secure enough, so that you’re not bullied into being in step with fashion, really. One of the reasons that I was able to make the decision that I made, which was I’m not going to shut up, I’m not going to pretend I’m something I’m not, and I’m going to ask questions and answer honestly without being tortured or lying, was that I did have another foot in another boat. From the age of 22, really, I went into military analysis. I’ve never needed to actually do that for a living, but I had it there, and I did it . . . did it in a sort of informal way, never as a fulltime occupation, but I’ve done it, so that I know I could switch into it even now if I had to. Actually, now, I can’t switch into anything because I’m too old. You can’t get a job . . . well, you can, but it’s hard to get a job if you’re about 60 years old.
DT: Are there any contemporary writers whom you read, that you admire?
DT: You don’t read anything at all? Someone like Tom Wolfe strikes me as . . .
MH: Oh, he’s terrific, but . . . about thirty years ago, the New York Times Magazine interviewed me, and they basically asked me that same question. I usually don’t read what other people read. But I don’t read book reviews, I don’t have friends. I mean, I have friends, but I don’t go to cocktail parties. People don’t say, “Oh, did you see such and such?” And I follow my own nose. So I read things that are different. People will always say to me, “Have you read Robert S. Bosco’s latest novel?” or “Have you read so and so’s history of Peru, which is reviewed in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times and has a buzz about it?” I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I’m like from another planet. I’m a pygmy from the jungle. But I’ve read some books. And so I can’t stand it because I always have to say, no. But I don’t then turn to them and say, “Have you read British Intelligence in the Second World War, British Edition, by F. H. Hinsley?” I don’t do that. The thing is that in the world there are 30 million books. And I follow my nose. I don’t have a prohibition. But you look at the books I have, there just aren’t any books with buzz. Of any kind. A lot of them are sent. I usually don’t end up reading them, because I don’t have any time. I read extremely slowly. What am I reading now? Six Days of War. I read it for a course I’m teaching. I’m reading Cicero. I’m always reading Churchill. When people say, Do you read contemporary writers, I have to say no, because I don’t even know who they are. Honestly.
DT: Do you think that that’s a handicap at all for someone who is a working novelist?
MH: Oh, yes, I’d be much richer if I did. Among other things, I should review their books, and sit on prize juries, and then they would review mine, and I don’t do that. In fact, can I tell you about this? In 1975, when I had my first book out, A Dove of the East, published by Knopf, I thought it would be really great if John Cheever would review it. Because I figured if he reviewed it, they’d have to put it on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Which would be very much to my advantage. And they would have. Had he reviewed any book they would have done that. And he was sitting by our pool one day, and I came home and I saw him there. And I walked down to the pool, and we talked for a while, and I took the plunge — not in the pool — and I said, “Do you think you could review my book for the New York Times Book Review and then it would be on the front page and that would be a great success?” And he said, “I can’t.” And I fully understand him. I wouldn’t review a family friend’s kid’s book either. “Is it the same publisher, are we both with Knopf?” I said. He said to me, “I can’t because Saul and I have agreed to review each others’ books and not any others this year.” So, that’s what he said. Now, I never checked to see if in fact he had reviewed Bellow’s book, and Bellow reviewed his book, but that’s what he told me. I’ve never said this to anybody in an interview. I always disguise it, because I figure well, what if they didn’t review each others’ books? I don’t know if they actually did, but that is what he said. And, now they’re both dead, and they’ve both been dead for a while now. There’s no reason not to mention it. It doesn’t diminish from anything they’ve done.
But at that moment, I felt two things at the same time: The first was that I was excluded from a club, and that this wasn’t fair and that this was unjust and awful. I was kicked out. The second was deep shame. That’s what I felt. I wanted to be in the club. It illustrated to me exactly what it was to be thrown out. And yet I had wanted it. So I felt ashamed and disappointed at the same time. And I vowed at that second never to review anyone’s book, never to sit on a prize jury; in other words, “I scratch your back, you scratch my back.” I never scratched anyone’s back and no one ever scratched my back. Some of them scratched my back thinking that I would scratch back. And when I didn’t, whoa, the cat fur, you wouldn’t believe. Meow! Then you really get them mad at you if you do that. So I don’t participate in that and never have. It’s been more than 40 years, and never, ever have I done that.
DT: It seems you had been quiet for a few years, fiction-wise, and then you came out with two books that were very different from each other, and an interesting departure for you in a lot of ways.
MH: Yeah, it was.
DT: There was a lot more comedy.
MH: I wanted to have fun. And I also wanted to make a lot of money. And it didn’t make that much money but I had a lot of fun. I wanted to have a great deal of fun. So I said to myself, I write all these books and they’re all so serious. They have humor in them, but they’re more or less serious. That’s my nature. I’m like that. But I also like to laugh. And I said, look, let me write a big long book which is a comedy. Of course, all comedy ends up being either serious or ridiculous. That’s called Frohawk’s Rule. There was a teacher at Harvard, a professor named Frohawk. Everybody hated him in the sixties, boy did they hate him. A professor of French, he was strict and conservative, at least in method, and they really, really hated him. Everyone loved William Alfred, who was my tutor. He wrote a play called “Hogan’s Goat” and it starred Faye Dunaway. So Faye Dunaway was hanging around his house and all us Harvard boys wanted him as his tutor. They wanted Faye Dunaway. I did. It was Faye Dunaway when she was young. Now she’s like an old woman, but so am I, only I’m not a woman. And so everyone loved William Alfred, not just because of Faye Dunaway but because he was a celebrity, because he writes plays, because his play was a hit off-Broadway, and because he was a terrific raconteur. And he was funny and friendly and everyone hated Frohawk. Well, Alfred was my tutor, and I liked him very much, but I remember very few things that he ever said. I remember much more from Frohawk. And one of the things that Frohawk said was that all comedy ends up either as being totally ridiculous or serious. So Freddy and Fredericka ended up being serious. And with a vengeance, and I knew it would happen. But I wanted to do that. And I did it. I really liked writing it, too. I wrote it here in Virginia. The only book I’ve ever written in Virginia. I wrote a third of Pacific here.
DT: So why were you seemingly quiet on the fiction front for all those years?
MH: Antproof Case came out in ’95, then A City in Winter came out in ’96. Granted, it was a children’s book. It’s small, but it was a book. And The Veil of Snows came out in ’97. Granted, it was a children’s book. And then in 2004, The Pacific came out, and in 2005, Freddy and Fredericka came out, so that’s five books in 10 years. And yet people say, “Where did you go?” And I say, “Well, from 1995 to 2005 I had five books — that’s one every two years.” But it still looks like a legitimate question. So you can look at things from different angles and things can be true, contradictory things, at the same time. If you look at it a different way, you say, between adult books, 1995 to 2004, it’s nine years. The answer is — I’m trying to do this the way a scientist would do it — the answer is, two children’s books, lots of Wall Street Journal editorials, involvement in the Dole campaign and in impeachment, getting the house ready for sale, selling the house, moving across the country, looking for and buying a house, redoing that house over a period of two years, an incredible nightmare, getting that house ready for sale, selling it, moving to a rental house, moving from the rental house, looking for a house, this house, buying it, redoing it, moving to it, setting it up. The death of my mother, the death of my wife’s mother, and raising two children. That’s why.
DT: And now I want to ask, how did you manage to write books in that time?
MH: And in that time, I wrote two books. I wrote a lot of Pacific before that. I wrote half about 60 percent of it while doing that. I’m always doing something. It isn’t as if I just sat around.
DT: How do you work? Do you sit down every day at a set time and work a set number of hours, or work toward a set number of words?
MH: Not numbers, nut words, never count the words, only Thomas Wolfe counts the words. You know the story?
DT: He would send his editor Maxwell Perkins pages and pages and pages . . .
MH: Someone would look out his window and see him walking down the street at night saying, “I wrote 10,000 words tonight. I wrote 10,000 words tonight.” Now that both my children are in college, our schedule is becoming much more predictable and replicable. So essentially what I do is, I get up and usually run. On rowing day, because I row, I work from home, and I go rowing. As opposed to running day, which is the other days of the week. I get up at 7:30, I run, I get to work, come back, get dressed, get breakfast, all that stuff, and I get to work around 10 or 10:30 and work into the afternoon. What I call real work, which is actually pen to paper. And then the rest of the day is doing subsidiary stuff.
DT: Why are you so obsessed with beauty?
MH: Because it’s beautiful.
DT: [laughs] This is something I’ve gotten from all your work, over and over again.
MH: That’s an interesting question. See, that’s one of the questions that I’ve never, never had put to me. So I’ll have to think about that for a second. I suppose it’s the inverse of why I am repelled by ugliness. One is attracted to beauty. Beauty is the coordination of things, in such a way, that it is what attracts you. It’s almost self-defining. I know at a personal level, I have always been interested in it, and I have always sought it out, and was comforted by it, because it was comforting. I think in one of my books I say it’s a promise that there is a purpose in life, because if things can be arranged, coordinated in a way that made you react in that fashion, then perhaps it means that everything has a purpose in the end. And by the way, one of the books that I have read is Croce’s Aesthetics, and if you’ve read it, then you know that he spends 500 pages trying to define what beauty is and can’t even begin to. So in order for me to answer that question I’d have to define beauty, which I can’t. One can do it poetically in a line or two, and therefore incompletely, in the same way that the best gloss on a poem is another poem, or perhaps the best gloss on a poem is a song, or vice versa.
And that brings up the question of criticism. You mentioned deconstruction. I’ve always been terribly uninterested in criticism. And one of the reasons, I just thought recently, is that you know there are various schools of criticism that will compete, and one will supercede the other. I just read a book called The Future Without a Past by John Paul Russo, who is a professor at the University of Miami, and he is a master of criticism. He’s an independent thinker, but the book is very difficult to read, because he knows all these things so well. But in reading that book, I encountered his discussion of probably fifty different schools of criticism, because every major critic has a school. Which by the way in suspect in itself really, if you’re a major critic you’re in a school.
They have a program at the Claremont Institute. They’ve got me, David McCullough, Victor Davis Hanson, and Martin Gilbert. We come for two weeks and teach mini-classes. Do you know what a mini-gun is? On a helicopter. It’s a Gatlin gun but it’s really tiny. It shoots a million rounds a minute. That’s what we do. That’s what I do, anyway. Because everything has to be compressed. So you have to shoot a million rounds a minute. But what I will ask the students is, you’ve encountered this school and that school, you’ve encountered deconstruction, and you’ve encountered the New Criticism and the New Critics. I don’t even really know these things very well. Over my graduate school career, I had to read a lot of it, but it all went in one ear and out the other. I’ll say to them, Does any one of them predominate? Can you, by logic, use any one of them the way you would a scientific theory to exclude the others? The answer is no. Does any one actually reveal the truth about a particular work or literature in general? The answer is no. It reveals perhaps part of the truth, but never the whole truth. And what that does, in my eyes, anyway, is it really, really brings down criticism as an endeavor. What’s the point? What it is, it’s using scientific method, and it goes nowhere and it achieves nothing. It doesn’t work. It’s useful in discussions. It helps you perceive things. But really the best way to learn about something is simply to read it and not make a scientific theory of interpretation.
DT: I read somewhere that you once roomed beside Nabokov. Did you actually meet him?
MH: I think I was 17. I was in a motorcycle accident in Aix-en-Provence where I went to impress a girl from my school who was an exchange student. She later became my girlfriend but then we broke up. I didn’t impress her. She was interested in a French boy at the time, who was much more swarthy and Mediterranean than me. She went with him. I went back to Marseilles, where I was staying, on the motorcycle which I had rented to impress her. It was the first time in my life I had driven a motorcycle. It’s about 25 kilometers to Aix-en-Provence. So on my way back something happened. I always thought it was that the front wheel came off, but I think it happened after that happened. I think I hit a rock or something. Whatever it was, I went head over heels. I was very badly injured. But because I had a New York state junior license which was not valid in foreign countries, I didn’t accept help from the police or ambulance because I didn’t want them to discover me. I said, “Oh, I’m all right, I’m all right.” My skin was peeling, I was dripping with blood. I put the wheel on and started the thing up. I rented a garage with tools in it. How I found this, I don’t know. I found a garage and repaired the motorcycle. I took it back to the place I rented it from. The proprietor looked at me and said, “What happened to you?” I said, “Nothing.” And I had repaired the motorcycle to the extent that he didn’t notice anything. I got through that hurdle. I went back to my hotel and went to sleep. In the morning, I couldn’t get up because I was stuck to the sheet. But I had to get up so I pulled it off and everything started to bleed again. Then they got infected. So then I had to seek medical treatment and I ended up actually on the destroyer Robert A. Owens. They thought I was a sailor. I collapsed on the gangplank. I couldn’t find a doctor, it was Sunday in Marseilles. I had found a doctor the day before. He gave me a rabies shot, penicillin or something, and something for my stomach. He left. He was a French Algerian. And I collapsed on the gangplank of the Robert A. Owens. That’s one reason I’ve always loved the navy. I’ve always been devoted to the navy, like Anticles and the lion. They healed me. But I was an invalid after that.
I went to Switzerland to recover because I had read all these Russian novels. A lot happened in Switzerland, but without getting to that, I took a train from Geneva. I got on the boat at Lac Léman — Lake Geneva. They called it Lake Geneva but it’s Lake of Geneva, the city. I got off at Montreux. And it was really cold and it was raining coldly, and I didn’t have a raincoat because I’d been to Greece and didn’t need a raincoat. I got soaked to the bone, very sick. I thought I was going to die because I started having chills and fever. My idea was to stay in pensiones and very cheap places, youth hostels, that was in my budget. So I went around Montreux and Montreux didn’t have many youth hostels or any of the cheap places. Even any vaguely affordable places were booked up. It was in the summer, of course, and getting dark. I was freezing, the rain was coming down, it was in the mountains, very cold. I said to myself, I’m going to die if I stay out freezing here. There was a hotel, I think it was called the Montreux Palace. I just walked into it. I had a knapsack, little scabs. But they treated me well, said, “Yes, sir, are you checking in?” And I said, “Yes, do you have a single room?” “Yes, we have a single room.” “How much is it?” I think it was $500, my entire budget for the rest of the trip. I don’t remember the sums but it was 1964, I think. Or in the early ’60s sometime. They took me to a palatial room, as big as this room. The bathroom was as big as this room. It was the most extraordinary hotel I’d ever stayed in until that time, with a huge bedroom, giant goose down quilts. The bathroom had about three rooms to it. I went to sleep, got up in the morning, and I was fine. At that age, everything’s fine. I went out to the balcony, a very big balcony, 50 feet. The room was 50 feet. The next room had a balcony, too. A man and a woman were sitting, having breakfast. The man was writing on blue index cards and since that time I have gotten blue index cards. [retrieves blue index cards, to prove it] The woman had her hair tied up in a sort of a braid, a knot. I think they had a pitcher of orange juice and croissants. It was Vladimir Nabokov and Mrs. I didn’t know that at the time. Only after they introduced themselves and I introduced myself. I think I said, “I’m a writer, too.” I looked like I was 12 years old. And I was totally scabbed. It was funny.
DT: Did you get any writing tips?
MH: No. It was very brief. They asked me what I was doing there. Because I was a kid. I told them about my accident and everything like that. It was more than 40 years now. I don’t remember it too well. But I remember parts of it like that.
DT: Are you working on anything now?
MH: Oh yes. I’m working on two things. Two books.
DT: Anything you can talk about?
MH: I never say what it’s about. I never say the titles. You saw how the titles change? One’s a novel, one’s a non-fiction book.
DT: You haven’t done any non-fiction books before, have you?
MH: No. You’re very precise. You know your stuff.
Interviewer Kelly Jane Torrance is fiction editor of DOUBLETHINK and an arts and entertainment writer at The Washington Times. Her website on culture can be found at www.kellyjanetorrance.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire