The interview “took place” one
morning in a midtown New York hotel. One must resort to quotation
marks here because Constance Eakins—a jealous recluse
despite his global popularity and larger-than-life persona—refused
to allow the interviewer a glimpse of his famous countenance
at any point during the meeting. Following a stipulation put
forward by Eakins previous to the meeting, a busboy was summoned
to the room to set up a curtain-like apparatus in the doorway
between the suite’s living room and its bedding quarter.
(The curtain was, in fact, a tablecloth.) The interviewer sat
in a chair on one side of the curtain, and spoke his questions
with great volume. From the loud breathing several feet away,
it could be surmised that the world-class author was reclining
in his bed. Several times the author was silent as long as
thirty minutes, after which period he would explain that he
had been gripped by a fit of composition too powerful to restrain.
The interview was cut short by one such fit, which lasted several
hours, at which point the interviewer made his exit.
floors below the window, cars streamed through the late autumn
rain on Fifth Avenue, toward the Empire States Building.
E. M. Forster says his characters sometimes take over and dictate
the course of his novels. Has this ever been a problem for
you, or are you in complete command?
My knowledge of Mr. Forster's work is limited to one novel
which I dislike. My characters are galley slaves.
You were saying earlier that you don’t like being interviewed.
The reason I don’t like interviews is that I seem to
react violently to personal questions. The category of “personal
questions” encompasses all inquiries about my work. The
violence with which I react can be severe, irregular, and stunning
in its alacrity.
Blaise Cendrars said that writing is a privilege compared to
most work, and that writers exaggerate their suffering. What
do you think?
I think that writing is very difficult, but no more difficult
than the skinning and surgical reconstruction of animal carcasses,
in preparation for taxidermy. Take a tiger, for instance,
and say that the cause of fatality was a true-struck blow
to the cheek, by means of a bony, iron-hard human fist. The
first thing one has to do is meticulously recreate the bone
structure of the face. Otherwise, the animal’s visage
will never come close to reclaiming any verisimilitude to
its natural condition. The eyeball, having been cast a dozen
yards from the body by the force of the death-blow, must
be recovered and re-inserted into the socket with great delicacy;
usually a smudge of petroleum jelly will help get the job
done. One must then stealthily remove delicate, superfluous
bones from other parts of the beast’s body, shave them
into proportionally, and weave them together in a lattice-like
structure to imitate the natural convexity of the cheek.
The cheek-skin must then be re-sewed with a precision one
might expect from a Penelope of seamstresses, but not a young
writer-adventurer from St. Rose, Louisiana. And then there
is the business of organ-cleaning and blood-draining, a tedious
and unrewarding process. So now I pose the question back
to you, interviewer: what is the feat of writing when put
Is your fiction at all autobiographical? Do you write about
people you know specifically, do you write about yourself?
Sometimes. My fiction is usually autobiographical, but in a
distant, unrecognizable way. Once in a while, as in the story “Sacrosanct,
or Conroy Eaker Ate Lunch,” I write pretty close to
what happened. But I fictionalized that too—which worries
me, in fact. When you get to an event that close to real
life and you alter the characters in some way, you run the
risk of your girlfriend, or your wife, or your friends thinking,
You don’t understand me. That wasn’t what I was
thinking. I know that’s not what they were
thinking, but I need searchlights on a piece, so I have to
change characters, make them more appropriate to the fictional
idea, the real subject, which isn’t just history.
Usually, though, I’m not interested in celebrating
my own life. I use feelings that I have myself—the
only feelings I know, directly—and I deal them out
to a group of characters and let the characters fight out
the problems that I’ve been fighting. And when they
fight, they let it all out. So the autobiographical element
is more emotional than anything else.
danger would be to believe that I have actually enacted all of the horrors
depicted in my writing. Besides, even if I have, a work of fiction cannot be
used in a court of law to support real-world allegations. I learned that during
my trial for armed robbery in Mobile several years back, when the prosecution
tried to enter into evidence my story, “There Was Only $23.44 in the
Cash Register of Duane’s Liquor Store.”
I want to discuss your childhood, about which you have been
very private in the past. Was it when you ran away from home
that you began to feel that you were going to be a writer?
No, I always wanted to be a writer, even before I was born.
My first story was what I like to call an image-story. When
I hadn’t yet learned how to speak, my dear mother would
give me a parcel of rusty nails, which I used to draw abstract
shapes on the walls of our home.
How do you know that these were stories? I mean, doesn’t
every child make drawings if given some sort of writing implement?
They were image-stories and if you went to look at them now
they would make you weep from the beauty of their narrative
You said you knew you would be a writer before you were born.
How is that possible?
I remember vividly what it was like before I was born. There
was tremendous pressure all around and I was swimming in
a fluid with the consistency of fruit preserves. I’ve
written about this at length elsewhere. Next question.
Do you believe in a community of writers? Is that of any interest
No. I’ve never seen one in any case…and
I don’t think any writer ever has.
But surely there were writers important to you growing up,
writers who inspired you, either through their work or their
From the ages of five to fifteen I read every work by every
writer of note who has ever lived. I devoured them like a
hungry beast and then I laughed.
Why did you laugh?
Because I knew that my creations would dwarf them all. I am
thinking of Gulliver arriving at the Court of the Lilliput.
Do you keep a notebook?
No, but I do keep a brainbook—a mental catalogue of every
thought I have that may one day be useful for a story or poem
or essay. As I write I mentally page through the reams of my
brainbook, looking for ideas and correspondences.
Where do you work?
I have an office like any other honest man, if that’s
what you mean. But I do not confine my working hours to it.
Life is like a chain of molecules. There are nodules of activity,
but between the atoms and the electrons there are enormous
gaps in which we waste away our existence. I use those gaps
to do my work. So I write in the elevator, in the bathtub,
waiting for an elevator, tying my shoes, eating a plum. I am
writing right now.
When do you begin writing each day? As soon as you wake up?
Yes, when I wake up in the morning I always have the desire
to sit down to write. The first thing I do is write down
my dreams, then I get to my fiction, poetry, theater, film
scripts, monographs, critical essays, and journalism—in
that order. But then I constantly am receiving telephone
calls, gawking fans come up to my house, friends try to visit,
and I am all the time interrupted. Somehow I manage to keep
on writing. I sometimes think I will only be able to achieve
a perfect state should I go away to a far island. I would
go to the moon not to be disturbed. I have never yet written
in peace, but I keep going nonetheless.
Do you ever listen to music as you work?
No, but I do hear a sound in my head during the art of composition.
It is like the sound of every orchestra in the world tuning
their instruments at the same time, like every wave crashing
in every sea, like the shrieks of every motherless child,
deprived of their love, begging for buttermilk. It is an
awful, world-rending sound, but it is my lot. It is far preferable
to the screaming muteness of the great abyss that awaits
Did you write this morning?
I did. I wrote twenty-three pages. That’s what it’s
come to. I used to write ten thousand words a day and sometimes
even more, in my golden years. But now it’s just a paltry
seven thousand or so. Things move so slowly sometimes I feel
that I am living in reverse. This is the trouble with being
in one’s thirties, and past one’s prime.
Do you write by longhand?
Yes, but I often go back to typewriter when my arm can’t
keep up with the jet engine that is my image-narrative-thought-machine.
What do you mean by “image-narrative-thought-machine”?
Do you rewrite constantly? How important is the editorial process
There is not a single utterance I have made that requires the
interference of an editor or any other deviant body. I have
not rewritten a single page in my life and if you modify
in print any word I have said during this conversation I
will react with a stern and unyielding display of force that
will make you wish you were a hole in the ground. A swampy
hole in which not even a wounded sparrow would crawl to die.
A hole like that I would make of you, and you would laugh
with pleasure and thank me kindly for it instead I do my
I don’t follow your use of the word “instead” in
that last line.
I warned you once already.
What do you do when you finish a first draft?
I send it to the press.
You mean, you send it right away to your editor?
No, I mean the printing press. Editor? I don’t have editors!
My publisher is always in a great rush to put the newest book
on the shelves so they ask me to send it straight to my man
the printing press. He is a good man who does good work, so
I have nothing to say against him. You can ask me all day about
revision and about editors and all day I will reject that frivolous
line of talk.
How do you name your characters?
How does a mother name her sweet child?
Are you asking me? Well, I don’t know. I guess it depends
on who the mother is. Sometimes a baby will be named after
A mother names her sweet child after the vision that gleams
in her deepest heart. A song that has yet to be sung. A cry
that clings still to the throat. A caterpillar. When that
doesn’t work I leaf through the phone book.
I see certain characters forming a pattern in your work. Miss
Eckhart in The Slayed is an individualist and outside
and similar in that respect to Keftir of “Keftir The
Blind,” and Johnson Else of Days and Nights.
In looking back I can see the pattern. It’s funny—when
I’m writing, I never see a repeat I make in large or
small degree. I learn about it later. In New Orleans they were
recently doing a play of Dolman Hardy. The new novel
was so fresh in mind, whereas I hadn’t thought of Dolman
Hardy for years. But when I sat in at rehearsals, I kept
seeing bits and pieces come up that I thought I had invented
for The Next World, there they were in another version
in Dolman Hardy. So I thought, It’s sort of
dismaying, but there it is. Your mind works that way. Yet they
occur to me as new every time. Of course, I’m confident
that if the two characters were ever to meet, they wouldn’t
recognize each other.
I wanted to ask you about Sacrament, one of your greatest
successes, and a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. One of the
most startling things about the book is that it’s not
lachrymose. In fact, given the tragic nature of the material,
it’s rather dry-eyed. And yet, as I read it, I kept thinking,
Doesn’t the knowledge of this experience, what you witnessed,
what described—albeit in fictional form—in this
book, set you apart in some unbridgeable way from the world
that you’ve since come to inhabit?
It does. Certainly I have felt, ever since the war ended, ever
since I could stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t—that
in spite of all my efforts to be normal, to be like everyone
else (these efforts, I should add, stopped some time ago),
I remained irremediably different. I have always been aware
of an uncomfortable distance separating me from other people.
Perhaps also a distance separating the real me from the other
visible me that you, for instance, are talking to right now
(but not, in fact, actually seeing, due to the curtain-cloth).
I have worried that this distance manifests itself as a lack
of spontaneity, a tendency to be aloof and stand aside. Sometimes,
half in jest, I call it being a zombie. I am speaking now
of what I call my personal life, and my emotional life. Oddly,
I have somehow, despite this, managed to be in love with
very many women in very intimate and heart-rending ways.
So this is something I call a paradox.
Your relationships with women have been the source of great
speculation, both in the tabloid magazines as well as in
the literary columns. Can you talk about them further?
It is true that I cannot.
In addition to writing stories and novels, you spent many years
of your life in journalism. You still work as a journalist
for numerous publications, including The Herald Tribune, The
Saturday Evening Post, and The Forward.
Yes. I am a journalist. Every week I write two or three journalistic
articles. But I don’t limit my definition of journalism
to reporting on facts, or commenting on the political situation.
I can write pieces about whether life makes sense or not,
or that you shouldn’t commit suicide, or a treatise
on imps or devils being in everything. So if I am a journalist,
I am not exactly the same kind of journalist who works for,
let’s say, The New Orleans Times-Picayune,
though I do write for them as well on occasion.
Do you think working as a journalist is a good background for
somebody who wants to write novels and stories?
I think that any information a human being gets, especially
a writer, is good for him. I don’t think that being
a journalist can do any damage to a writer. The only thing
that can do damage is doing interviews. They suck the blood
out of you. Each question is a mosquito.
American poets often answer questions about how it feels to
be a poet in our time. Do questions like this interest you?
Do questions about the social utility of poetry interest you?
No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing
else needs to be said about it.
When you write, do you read your poems out loud?
I recite them very loudly to myself while standing up in my
room. If I hear that something is wrong with the rhythm of
the poem, then I destroy it and begin a new one.
How does the writing of a play differ from the writing of poems?
They take quite different approaches. There is all the difference
in the world between writing a play for an audience and writing
a poem, in which you’re writing primarily for yourself—although
obviously you wouldn’t be satisfied if the poem didn’t
mean something to other people afterward. With a poem you
can say, I got my feeling into words for myself. I now have
the equivalent in words for that much of what I have felt.
Also in a poem you’re writing for your own voice, which
is very important. You’re thinking in terms of your
own voice, whereas in a play from the beginning you have
to realize that you’re preparing something that is
going into the hands of other people, unknown at the time
you’re writing it. Of course all my work will go into
the hands of other people, sooner than later, but the rate
varies when you move from poetry to theater—or to film
for that matter.
And what about film? It’s been said that you have earned
a prodigious amount of money in Hollywood but you are never
credited on any films. Why is that?
It is true I have made a solid buck in the film trade. Yet
there is a certain immutable fact about screenwriting—it
is impossible to do it with interference. Every word is picked
over by a dozen levels of clerks, bureaucrats, and executives.
By the time the process is finished what is there bears only
slight resemblance to my original creation. I could not in
any good conscious allow the name of Constance Eakins to
be associated with a product so heavily diluted of my spirit,
so I refuse credit. It is true that payment is a service
Did the fatwa shake your confidence as a writer?
Not at all. I took a very deep breath, and then I rededicated
myself to the art. It is true that, for a number of years,
I did suffer worldwide vilification and my life being threatened.
This is why I went into hiding.
Weren’t you in hiding long before the fatwa?
Yes, of course. I was always hiding. But I had another reason
for it then. My critics, at least, gave me more of a break
as a result. I knew my work did not appeal to the likes of
radical mullahs, but nobody could have foreseen this result.
It had never happened before. It never would have occurred
to me. And you know, I found out some time later that there
had been an unauthorized translation into Farsi of my previous
novel, The Turnipseed and the Anger, done by the
Persians, who had then given it a major prize as the best
translated novel that year. This meant that when The
Darkness and the Dead was published, even Iranian booksellers
thought that I was probably acceptable, because the mullahs
had given my previous book a stamp of approval. So it surprised
people in Iran as much as elsewhere. But why shouldn’t
literature provoke? It always has. I might add, why shouldn’t
one’s lifestyle choices provoke? The way I live is
part of my art.
Does that include your criminal activities?
Of course. If my life is criminal, my literature is homicidal.
I mean that exactly as you think I do.
You once quoted Coleridge’s saying that all men are either
Platonists or Aristotelians. Which are you?
Doesn’t that contradict Coleridge’s statement?
Yes. He was wrong about that and much else. He had a peculiar
theory of the digestive system that has been disproved by
numerous scientific interrogations staged in recent years.
I think he also had a series of odd hypotheses about the
transubstantiation of matter in outer space that are clearly
preposterous—and was considered as such in his own
time. But he did have an original mind, didn’t he?
He was also said to be an excellent father and an accomplished
horse-breeder, two traits I respect highly.
John Gross says in his book on the English man of letters that
we are now as far from James Joyce as Joyce was from George
Eliot, but in terms of the progress of literature, we haven’t
moved at all.
Yes—except for me. It’s curious. People have no
desire to read anything new. It is bad that English is taught
in universities. It’s bad in England, where it’s
sometimes not badly taught, but over here, where it’s
horribly badly taught, it simply stops the thing in its tracks.
You’ve traveled extensively, so much so that you are
considered a world-class explorer. National Geographic has
awarded you special medal of special distinction. Do you spend
so much of your life traveling because you were looking for
a perfect place?
No, I don’t think so. I really haven’t traveled
that much yet. I do want to spend more time in the Upper Amazon.
You start from Peru and go down. I loved the trip down the
Nile, and of course the one to the Galapagos Islands a few
years ago. Zimbabwe in ’46, that was a dream from which
I’d like never to awake. Same for the Himalayas that
year, and Siam, and don’t let me forget St. Petersburg,
lest I forget one of the best weekends of my life. I’d
like very much to go back to Italy again because I haven’t
seen nearly enough of it. Sicily is a dream. Venice is wonderful.
Florence is rather strenuous, I think. I was last there in ’49
with several women friends. We rented a car did northern Italy
for five or six weeks. We did an extra month in Rome. I must go
back. There are so many things I haven’t seen yet. I
am of the opinion that even in the world’s most heavily-traveled
places it is still possible to find, tucked away here and there,
vestigial outposts of the natural kingdom. That is always what
I am seeking in all my travels.
Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You once wrote
that you could only write well when you were in love. Could
you expound on that a bit more?
What a hell of a question. But full marks for trying. What
do you take yourself for, a poet-philosopher? If it is all
the same to you I would rather not expound on that. I will
say this: there has never been a time in my life when I have
not been in love. My definition of love, however, may be
different from yours. Treating a syphilitic whore to an exceedingly
expensive meal at the Plaza Hotel, and shouting at the other
diners to shut up, so that they can better hear her pathetic
tales of heart-misery and soul-rot: this is love. Murdering
a wild, man-hungry beast under the sweltering heat of the
Kalahari, with nothing but one’s own fists and hearty,
sun-battered legs: this is love. Swimming a fifty-mile stretch
of the Mississippi River, against the current, on the dare
of a deranged wino, encountered on the streets of New Orleans:
this is the loveliest love of them all.
I wonder how schizophrenia has influenced your imagination.
I wonder that too. I am not really sure. I really wonder that
Why do writers have such a hard time writing about sex?
Because they haven’t had much of it. They say you ought
to write from experience. That is why I have such massive amounts
of sex in my novels.
If a writer explores violence at length in his work, is there
a sense in which he inevitably celebrates it?
I would call it a coming to terms. There is a catharsis. We
live in a time of ongoing war and the threat of violence
is very close to all of us. It’s not an exotic thing.
You have to be pretty lucky to get through a day without
witnessing it—at least I do. Writing about violence
is, for me, a way of dealing with the violence in myself.
I think it can do that for the reader as well. Violence is a
preoccupation of mine. It occurs in my books perhaps disproportionately.
But it’s been my fortune to see rather a lot of it
and to have to think about it. I try to curb my fears in
what I write. There’s a sense in which I use my characters
as scapegoats to pay my dues for me, to ward with their flesh
danger away from mine. You know, when some drama intrudes
on your life your first impulse is to recount it—to
turn disaster into anecdote or art. I deal with much that’s
negative and gruesome, but I don’t write to dispirit
people. I write to give them courage, to make them confront
things as they are in a more courageous way. A more Eakins-like
Didion, Gardner, Morrison, King, Nabokov, Welty, Singer, Bellow,
Hemingway, Rushdie, Kleinzahler, Borges, West, Bishop, Stone,