Erskine Caldwell Interview
Tobacco Road , Erskine Caldwell’s 1932 novel
My Life: Writing, Not Reading …
This previously unpublished interview with the late literary lion Erskine Caldwell by Charles Hayes took place in 1986, about a year before Caldwell died. It is one in a series of interviews with artists, writers and musicians that Hayes undertook in the ’80s exploring the creative process and various hurdles the subjects had to overcome along the way to becoming established in their respective fields.
By Charles Hayes
Place: Paradise Hills, Arizona
Date: September 24, 1986
This interview was conducted with Erskine Caldwell whose novel, Tobacco Road, was turned into the 1941 movie, also called Tobacco Road.
Our conversation took place at Caldwell’s gated community home in Scottsdale, Arizona, outside of which was neither a Bentley nor Mercedes (which I saw in the neighborhood). Caldwell’s wife guided me through the gates in an old Chevy. We spoke while he labored to breathe through plastic tubes connected to a portable oxygen cannister. Caldwell had about half a lung left and knew he was not long for this world. He reflected on having had only a minor education, learning to write by way of experience, and the obstacles he had to face as a writer, including times when he had to eat rat trap cheese. At the time of my visit, Caldwell was on his fourth wife, the very hospitable and helpful Virginia Caldwell. One of his previous wives was the photographer Margaret Bourke-White. This interview is one of the last interviews he gave. He would die a year and a half later, in April 1987.
EC: Will you state your premise, again, so I will know what we are talking about? You’re doing what? Researching a book?
CH: I am doing research for a book.
EC: This is ah, a thesis or … ?
CH: … a book…
EC: Did you attend the University of New Mexico?
CH: I’m going through that (grad school) now.
EC: So, what is your theme?
CH: I want to be able to present materials that writers and artists like yourself, whose works have to do with hardships that they’ve gone through, as a way to tell us something about the creative life or creating thinking, you see?
EC: What is the title?
(His wife enters the room, “Your son, Jay, is on the phone.”
CH: that’s okay.
Mrs. C: It will be one minute.
CH: That’s fine – I’m used to it.
EC: What is your title?
CH: Pearl in the Mud
EC: What kind of people are you talking to?
CH: Besides yourself, Lucas Foss the conductor, Edward Albee the playwright, Louise Bourgeois, the sculptor, and others… Some are not famous.
EC: That can be the best kind because when people get famous they think they know everything!
CH: Yes, I would like to talk a little about this issue.
CH: If you get tired, we can stop, I have about 15 questions. Let’s see, personally I was impressed by the resolve with which you moved through your hindrances. When young, before American Earth, before Tobacco Road came out and you said various things in your autobiography, Call it Experience, such as “For 10 or 12 hours a day I wrote always with a dogged determination regardless of hardship.’ That was when you were in, ah, Maine. And…you said: “I was to break down the resistance of Scribner’s,” the publisher. I’m wondering about that, it seems you had this resolve to get there.
EC: Well, its hard to describe [trembling, feeble tone\ in a way because, ah, you see I was handicapped early in life…. I did not have an education, went to high school for two years, and that as a total of, ah, three years and before (that) lower school. Then I went to different colleges. I went to a small college in South Carolina, which I didn’t like: Erskine College. So, I got out … and made it to the University of Virginia, which I did like. After that, I was able to go to the University of Pennsylvania summer school, which also gave me a big life, but my personal education came out of the University of Virginia even though I never graduated. But, I achieved what I wanted to get, all right, as if I had to struggle against the tide, against the odds, because I didn’t have … what might have carried me to higher levels… higher intellectual levels, and so forth.
So, I was not at all capable of higher intellectual life. My life consisted of how life, the life on the bottom, the life of the people who were poor because when we were growing up, we were surrounded by people in poverty, and so I had no great ambition to be anything but a chronicler, a conveyer of other peoples’ lives by interpreting their existence to my eyes, the way I saw it, not as … anybody else would see their lives, necessarily, but as their lives revealed to me that basic struggle of human existence, spiritual, educational, medical…all kinds of things.
People who were poor were also in poor health. You can’t have good medical attention if you’re out of money to pay the doctor, so if you had bad health you had a poor empty stomach, you had no great future… So, of course, the panacea for all this … came out of the evangelical religion that was imposed on them. (Not imposed, but) they grasped it because it was the only feasible thing they could get hold on.
CH: Did you feel for those people empathetically at a young age?
EC: Well, you see, I knew them so well because I lived among them, as I was writing in this autobiography over here (points to a large pile of paper on his desk). I used to drive an auto for a country doctor for several summers, for several doctors, so I would be exposed to the mysterious diseases nobody else knew about. But the doctor knew what they were and he could do nothing. I became exposed to those (cough) lives and (cough) yet get into which they were living, so that, ah, influenced me to be sympathetic (hard cough). So my life was in among those people, and not among the elite, not among intellectuals, not about and among the educated, no. It was just among the people that were out in the field, the mills…. That is the only thing I knew.
CH: When you started to write, you started on the newspaper, didn’t you? You started at 18, or so?
EC: Yea, well, I go into that in my autobiography. I started there. I learned it by working as a volunteer, a weekly newspaper, type by hand, all kinds of things like that. Writing social notes, obits, then I graduated up to sports writer, writing about baseball and the small town in which I lived in Georgia; so that’s how I started in newspaper journalism. When I left college the last time, I got a job on the Atlantic Journal, and that’s where I really got started in writing because whatever I wrote, he threw it into the waste basket; so I learned everything I write is not going to be good.
Right, so you know you have got to do it yourself, because you can’t trust other people to help you…
CLH: I remember you did a story during those times, about a guy on skid row, it was “Blue Monday,” and, he, your editor, threw it away. Can you recall any images you had of success or fame before Scribner’s started accepting your work? Did you have images of that? What was it going to be about?
EC: No … No, because I had no great, ah … ego about the whole thing. I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it, and trust to the future. I had no ambition to be “a writer!” or “novelist!” or anything. The idea was to do what I could do whatever it was, so I gradually gravitated from non-fiction … from newspaper journalist to fiction, because that’s what I wanted – to interpret what I saw through my filter system. And so to me nothing else matters – except just my reaction. Whatever they were, true or false, I had to do it the way it appealed to me, so that’s why I wrote as I did – and wrote 50 books… on that basis, and wrote just what appealed to me. Not what might appeal to a publisher or reader. I care nothing about the reader or publisher, only secondarily. First it has to be appealing to me and so it has to be filtered through my filter. And I don’t want to take advice from an editor….
CH: What did all this do to you? You know, Tobacco Road starts becoming a big hit on Broadway after a while and a lot of stories come out and you are in the papers, you are … what we call Famous. What did that do to you, the Erskine Caldwell who was private, maybe introverted, or whatever? What was the power of that on you? Did that cause a conflict? Public versus personal, who you really are?
FC: Hah! (laughs) You see, I was nobody. I wasn’t anything (chuckles). I was just another scribbler, another writer. I had no conception of myself as being anything other than the next guy. Um, because to me a writer had no great standing… where I was living. As I was growing up, he wasn’t anything to bank on, and he wasn’t anything to raise and he was nobody to look up to. I suppose in certain circles eminence comes from great popularity, or from great fame. But to me that simply didn’t appeal to me. I just wanted to be myself, I had to do it my way.
CH: Well, what happened when certain people early on started to align you with Henry James and Balzac … ‘This guy is up there.” What does that do to your ego and so forth?
EC: Well, you hear in college classes, you hear all these names of people who are said to be famous. Sir Walter Scott, Henry James… It meant nothing to me. I didn’t read ‘em. I didn’t read other peoples’ books. I wanted to do my own books. Ah, I didn’t want to be influenced… I didn’t want to waste my time… Sure I it would have helped me, it would have educated me, ah, but my life, ahh, is spinning away… I couldn’t sit and read a book. I had to write a book! Ah, that was my life. Writing, not reading.
I didn’t know what fame meant! It was so far removed from my existence that it was Nonexistent. In my time, it was several writers I heard about… Well, I was not interested… They could invent kingdoms way up there, out of reach. And, of course make it interesting I supposed, but it didn’t interest me. … As time went on, what I tried to do was to read one book by some master, whomever appealed to me, and one book by a young contemporary… I read a few books, maybe two a year. So, I would read one book by Hemingway, one book by Truit Edison, one by Theodore Dreiser. But they didn’t influence me because they were doing their things and I was doing my things.
CH: Next question, Criticism. Was it Call it Experience in which you talk about early criticism, the first book that Scribner’s published – American Earth?
EC: American Earth?
CH: That’s right…and there was a lot of negative criticism and a lot of negative criticism toward Tobacco Road. In a certain part of the book, you said you had a realization that you no longer had to satisfy the critical establishment. Where one time you began to think there had to be a formula for your books to sell, but then you realized that you don’t have to do that, you’re writing for you and to other people. Now, my questions is, “With that realization, was there a change in your life? When you had that realization… (was it) a kind of therapy? You know, a breakthrough?”
EC: well, you see (cough) when criticism came, I was not interested in it. I probably would have benefited from it, but I always had a theory: there are always two opposing forces in criticism…One is praise and one is damnation. To me they cancel out each other. So, I was not interested in either. Ah…to me, when someone panned (a work), I could accept it. If I read it – I didn’t always read it, didn’t know about it, I guess, but ah… if somebody praised it, I usually didn’t accept praise. Ah, I disbelieved it. Because to me there might be… some element there…some trickery. I don’t know, somebody might think he could achieve success by… praising something. Well, to me that’s false. I couldn’t accept any of that, no more than I could the praise, the condemnation. I guess… outside all that criticism, any book, current or other I’ve done, because once I approve or once I finish or set out a book… that’s the end of it. I don’t care what’s going to happen to it. If it has a good sale, fine…. If it has a poor sale, fine. I accept that. So I don’t expect anything. I don’t accept praise and I don’t accept condemnation. I… I just live above it.
CH: So, do you think that has been basically one of your saving graces, the things that allowed you to have or find buoyancy, where others fell? They identified themselves as a god. In popular music, someone like Elvis is an example. He became a myth, a famous person.
EC: Well yes! You see, the trouble with many young writers is that they get into a corner… they get backed into a corner and the first thing they know they belong to a coterie! A crowd. A self-admiration society. And so they only surround themselves with people who can appreciate them. Outsiders go away! An inner circle… Inner circle, where a lot of writers get into that troublesome thing… that they think they have to associate only with their own kind. I don’t associate with writers. Writers are dull people. I must rather associate with the store clerk. Or bank clerk, or garbage man, or anybody who has a better outlook. A writer is self-centered. He’s so self-satisfied with himself and life, he knows everything, so you can’t tell him anything, so why associate with him?
CH: It sounds like being brought up in your family, you know, a father who was the minister… and the kind of humble surroundings… It sounds like you were helped by your upbringing to prevent this sort of illusion?
EC: Uh huh…!
CH: That can destroy people. The next curiosity I have is to do with nostalgia.
EC: With what?
CH: Do you ever feel you live in a fairly comfortable existence? Do you feel…a desire for those days when you were eating rattrap cheese and bread, and you know, starving in Maine? And Georgia, and New York? Do you feel like you’re missing something from then?
EC: Well, you put it this way… you see, you can FEED on that past! And… you know the pangs of hunger. And, so you say to yourself, “I know what it feels like to be hungry; I used to be hungry a lot. Well, you’ve already experienced that. You know the feeling, so you don’t have any desire to go back and relive that. Not because you feel you have achieved anything or that you’re rich enough or that you don’t have to endure poverty again. It’s just that right now, I have no great ambition to be extravagant. I have a certain level of living, a standard of living – so that suits me. So, I’m not going out to try to make a lot of money … or anything in order to raise the level of my automobiles … So, I don’t have to have a Rolls Royce, I’d feel embarrassed. Ah, I can imagine that, that a lot of people would want one and use it if they had it, but I don’t want one. If it were a gift, I would trade it in for a Chevy.
CH: You have one there (ha ha!)
EC: Ha! Yea. (pause) or a Ford!
CH: Didn’t you say this feeling that you have also happened when you were in that Hotel and the guy ran it who was the writer, and you had to get out of place because it was so swank and you were eating cheese on the floor…. Was this the same feeling of “What in the hell am I doing in THIS place?”
CH: Was that present at the time?
EC: Yeah… I guess so. I used to go back and recreate those things. I’m 83. I’ve lived…. And a lot has happened. And a lot of things have been forgotten. You ask do I want to go back and relive my days of poverty. No. For the same reason that I’ve already done it. Done it in the same way you don’t want to repeat yourself in a book; you don’t want to write the same book twice. You want to but you have different visions; so, I don’t know how to explain my existence now… it’s nothing great. Ah, a lot of people think I’m living on the edge of poverty right here…. Ah, but I don’t consider that. I don’t even consider what the degree is, as to me that’s immaterial. As long as I’m satisfied with what I’m doing. What’s now is revising these galley sheets. After that, I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, ah, right now that’s the only thing that interests me.
CH: Uh, huh…ok!
EC: And… I do have this new cancer. So, that’s something to think about. I’ve had it twice. Now I have this inoperable cancer, which cannot Be operated on! You have to take the chemo.
EC: Injections (cough) So… I don’t know how long its going to last. That’s an interesting thing. I look forward to what’s going to happen tomorrow. Or the next day!
CH: How does that affect your creative life, how does that affect time… things getting shorter, and how does that affect your creativity? It must put you on the ledge between life and the hereafter… How does that affect you?
EC: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think about that enough, I suppose I don’t know how to feel ‘bout it, because, ah, as you know I was raised a Presbyterian….
EC: And the Presbyterian is not too much worried about what’s gonna happen, because its going to happen anyway; so it doesn’t bother me what my troubles are – I know I am going to have troubles, so whatever they are, it’s something I have to lived with. And, I’m prepared to do it. Whatever it is. Because I don’t expect to live beyond another two or three years, anyway.
I set myself as a goal – 85! And my wife wants to raise it to 86 because she wants to be 70 years old before I die. You think she’ll make it?
CH: You might surprise yourself, too.
[Mrs. C (in doorway) I think you might! Its time for your water!)
EC: (to his wife) You will bring me that check to sign?
Mrs. C: All right, I will. Would you like some coffee or tea?
CH: Tea would be nice.
Mrs. C: Or cookies?
CH: Just a little bit of caffeine would be nice.
Mrs. C: Just plain old tea or fancy tea?
CH: That’s all I drink is plain old tea.
Mrs. C: I have every one, from blackberry to sassafras.
CH: O… blackberry…
CH: Well no one knows when they are going, I could go before you and I’m 37.
EC: 37? You are about half way!
CH: About half way, huh? However long my life is, I just want to be able to do it fully, and I think you’re a model in a way… because you live fully. You’ve written, you’ve done what you wanted, you know, and I respect that.
What would you say is the most trying phase as you look back … What do you think … what was the most trying phase, if you can talk about it. The one that had the most obstacles, where you almost gave up. If you can use that term?
EC: Well, you see, these obstacles I consider to be helpful! For example, as I keep saying, I was undereducated even though my mother did teach me almost everything I know (coughs), but I never memorized the definitions of words, that kind of thing, so when it came time to write ‘em out, I couldn’t spell ‘em, and so what I looked for was a word of two syllables, and to me that simplified matters. It helped; it was helpful to me because as I grew older, I found that the best writing is simple writing. Not the most intellectual or educated, or whatnot. Because if you’re going to know what the meanings are, even though I don’t know myself… Even though I look it up in the dictionary, I really don’t know what I’m doing! So, I like to look for a word, the origin of a word whether Greek, Latin, French, or wherever it came from, ah, to see the root. So, for me, that gives the basic meaning of the word that can be simplified. So you don’t have to put a lot of syllables on it. Man is man. Woman is woman. And so on.
CH: How did you deal with the problem of labeling? There are many people out there labeling artists…. You have been labeled everything, more than anybody…. From a communist to somebody who writes burlesque…to a naïve writer that Malcolm Cowley called you, to a surrealist, to ah – O God, everything. How do you deal with this sort of thing, you know, the public image; how the public perceives you? Has that ever been a problem?
EC: Well, I don’t, because you see, that’s part of what I consider criticism.
CH: All right.
EC: I don’t take to criticism. So, I don’t care that the public advises, or thinks… I’m gonna do it my way! So, I’m not much impressed by other peoples’ advice. So I’m not impressed by other people. Sure people have great reputations. Malcolm Cowley has a fine reputation as a critic. Ah, he could not influence me! Not by any means, I wouldn’t consider… followin’ his advice ‘bout picking out certain themes to write about; that would not interest me, but I want to do it may way. I want to pick the theme, not what he thinks is good.
CH: He’s supported you more than a lot of people.
CH: Where does he live, Malcolm?
EC: In Connecticut, like a little of writers. I used to live there myself.
CH: Some people have commented that you have been denied some of the major prizes… like the Pulitzer. They felt that Hemingway and Faulkner got these, that you didn’t. And your reponse was “I don’t really care.” Once I’m gone, it doesn’t matter.” My question is: does it matter? Let’s assume there’s life after death and you can look back, what would you like us to know as far as Erskine Caldwell goes?
EC: Well, I think… ah, some time ago I had some question like that, and I think what I said was, to give an example of what happened at one time. I had a letter from a reader. I don’t know what story they had written about… It was a woman reader who said, “I likevery much…your story about so and so…” (she gave me the name of the character) “because it revealed to me something about my uncle that I had never been able to fathom myself. When I read your interpretation of so and so’s life, that was my uncle!’ And, that was the application that this story had for the woman; it revealed for her something she otherwise would not have found herself if she had to read my interpretation of somebody else’s life. So, that’s about the only answer I can give to that kind of question.
CH: Back to your late 20s, early 30s when you were in the phase of writing The American Earth and you had already done The Bastard then Tobacco Road… and it ends up being a work that – through your own imagination, reflecting, being a mirror for the rough social conditions and economic conditions for a lot of people with whom you were brought up – the sharecropper, etc. My question is: Is there ever more than just mirroring? Can writing therapize and deal with that? Or, is there always a residual feeling of suffering? Because, I’m assuming here that the imagination in ways amplifies, especially when you see so much and you can’t get it out of your writing. Or, is your writing a form of therapy?
EC: Well, it is a result of observing. Result of having to do something yourself, because I always think that how could you write about and describe a human being if you never had seen one? It would be so fanciful. Ah, are you going to make it realistic if you never saw a human? If you were the only being there was, and you couldn’t see yourself, of course, but if you tried to write about someone else, it would be difficult.
[Virginia Caldwell stands in doorway]
EC: What do you have there, Virginia?
CH: Can I help you?
VC: [Brings in tray of cups and cookies]
CH: Are you feeling tired?
EC: We have been at it for about …
CH: For about an hour. I’ve got about three more questions.
VC: (talks with EC about signing checks)
It’s so automatic to write a check and sign it. And that’s an attractive New Mexico style color!
CH: Oh, that’s a Sear and Roebuck! Its incredible what I found for $12.
EC: Oh, Sears has turned out to be quite the store… they have fashion shows.
CH: I didn’t know that, but they upped their quality and their prices, too. They even got new managers in Chicago.
VC: You make him behave will you, Charles?
VC: He wanted to get rid of his oxygen …
CH: Staying on the topic of imagination a moment – there was the psychologist, Carl Jung, who found that going into oneself and confronting imaginary figures can be a tremendous teaching. And, when I read your comments on imagination and characters as they develop and speak, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference. They have independence, in a way, they are not just your ego, but there is something else about them. And, I’m just wondering if they have been “teachers”… not only Ty Ty (and Geeter, but are they “mentors”? That may be a hard question.
EC: Well, imagination is a writer’s best friend. If you could not imagine (then) all you’re going to end up with is an encyclopedia of facts everybody already knows; what you’re doing, you’re repeating the facts… you have to go beyond that, you have to interpret those facts in a different way. Ah, I couldn’t by any means…delineate or explain what imagination is, how you get it, and how you use it. I don’t know. I just do what I do. I think most writers do who are imaginative in that sense because imagination is a free flowing thing. I think that’s what they meant when they called it “stream of consciousness” because its unmediated thought; things that come to mind without being urged, without trying to recall because it has to go beyond anything that’s happened… Just like fiction has to be something that has never existed ‘till it is written. Ah, fiction means exactly what it says. It’s fictitious – nothing that exists ‘till you write…. And, that’s fiction; that is something that now exists because you’ve written it. But it never existed before.
So, Imagination is the same thing, it has to derive out of nothing, more or less… Derive… make it realistic… not a dream… it’s not like dreams because dreams are very elusive, they are deceptive. If you try to go back and justify existence of some dream you had, to verify it, you’re gonna find flaws, you’re gonna find great flaws in it that could never have existed. It’s just a dream world. It means exactly what it says, it simply does not exist. Imagination is different, it is [the] free flowing result of, ah, human existence. You apply what has already happened to what might happen. – now, that’s imagination! And, not what has happened. Fiction has got to be something that has never existed. So, your imagination has got to be unique, and should not be denied a writer, that is his best stock-in-trade. If he doesn’t have imagination, what’s he going to do? He might know how to spell… Know how to make paragraphs, but what’s the meaning? That’s the important thing.
CH: Do you see a different …obstacles (today) that were different from when you look at your 30s or 40s…obstacles that were different from then or similar to ones you were or are (still) hitting in your mature years, you’re 60s through 80s? Do certain obstacles stay with you, or do they change?
EC: Well, obstacles always exist in some form. Because they conform to, ah, your current existence, current life and so forth, because… I’m trying to think of an example – of what existed then and what does not exist now; but, for example, Welfare. In my days, there was no such thing as welfare. Now, everybody knows what welfare is and has ambition to go on welfare or something of this sort. In my early life, which is, say, 70 years ago, no such thing as welfare existed, and you had it or you didn’t have it. If you are going to beg… well, go out on the street and beg..
But you wouldn’t do that now, you go to welfare, so it’s a change of existence, a change of style. The obstacles then and now, always differ, no matter what the subject or matter is, it’s going to be different Now, everybody … a lot of people … could not exist or would not exist without credit, borrowing money, credit cards, mortgages… In the old days, it was a feat to be debt-free – if you could manage it. So you tried to own your house, you didn’t want a mortgage…. You didn’t want to have to pay on it. You just wanted to live in it. So, the present generation, the people in their 20s and 30s, they want credit. Well, more power to them… but I wouldn’t want it.
CH: We’re forced to. I’m finding myself forced to. I want to keep away from that kind of thing, but I had to have a Sears credit card to get this car at the Phoenix Airport!
CH: They would not let me pay cash.
EC: That’s right!
CH: I had to have a card, so you are forced to go into hock…. To me, its terrifying because it’s all in computers and people can know about you and it is getting to be a mess. Talking about writers today, I remember one thing I had read, something you commented about, how it’s hard to be a writer today because everything has to be done quickly! The publishers want you do things quick! You have to read quick, and so forth. How do you feel, what would you do, if you were not born in 1903, but 1949? How would you handle this “future shock” that everyone is quick, everyone has to be instant! You can’t reflect anymore.
EC: Well, of course, you can swim with all the blows you get. You learn to do that. You learn to live with your circumstances. It all depends on the era in which you live, because life ten years from now is going to be nothing like it is now. Whether I could cope with it ten years from now, I don’t know (coughs). If I knew 40 years ago what life was going to be like today, I probably would have had a convulsion!
CH: What do you say are the main things in an aspiring artist’s character that are needed to deal with the insanities of today?
EC: Ah, of course that’s where the writer comes in! he should imagine at least what is going to transpire next year. Maybe not ten years from now, but that’s why a writer’s imagination has an opportunity to exert itself If he can foresee tomorrow or the next day or year, Ah, that’s imagination, where the imagination of a writer goes to work. I wouldn’t want to write a novel of the future; I could not envision that far ahead. I could try to write about maybe what is happening today, and it could be of course about, maybe what is happening, and it could be a dated novel, and it would be written in 1986 and so forth and so that would be a 1986 vision, but at least you could apply your imagination to some extent, and sort of foresee… what the architecture of a town is going to look like in years from now. Things like that. You can use your imagination to that extent, but beyond that, I don’t think I could cope with the world tomorrow.
CH: There’s one thing that came to mind as I was driving over here, following your wife here. It has to do with relationships. … about how relationships, marriage, and so on, impact a writer’s compulsiveness, and I wonder how you have dealt with that, if it’s been a problem at all? You know, the kind of intimacy, and so forth. How has that affected you, taken you from writing? Has that threatened you? And how did you deal with that?
CH: With a woman, male – female.
CH: Say you are related to someone like Margaret Bourke White, who is very energetic and so on, what does that do to you?
EC: Yea, yeah! Ah, it all depends on your nature. Some people can, some men can get along without women… to various degrees, of course. But to me it is natural to be affiliated with the female. To some extent, I can understand out here – there are two birds, me and female, they fly together…. I can appreciate that, so for me it is just as natural for those birds to be mated as it is for a male and female to be mated. My… difficulty in life is that I’ve been married four times. That’s not a very helpful… kind of life I suppose to some people. But, it happened to be my life and I lived it that way. I think I couldn’t see it any other way because now, looking back, there are a lot of people I wouldn’t want to be married to, that I had known earlier, then I would not even be intimate with. But, looking back and remembering the circumstances of other people, I say: “Well, I’m glad I’m not married to that woman!” But, I can say, “I am glad I am married as I am today!”
CH: You do have a wonderful wife. I had a college professor in Florida, a poet who said in class one day, “One of the great things about getting older is that you can look back with joy at all the people you didn’t marry!”
Let me put it this way: Okay, assuming that I don’t know what your personal philosophy is about the afterlife… But assuming for a moment that one exists… and the possibility of coming back into life again…. What would you become…a writer, again? Or, would you eliminate that?
EC: Well of course, hindsight is a very ticklish kind of thing to deal with because you could always approve of what you did wrong in the past. Ah, I would rather come back as a writer rather than as a lawyer or anything else. Although there are some of the glamorous professions, like movie actor, all kinds of things, but to me the way I feel about myself, I wouldn’t want to be anything else the second time or third time! I’d have to be what I am.
CH: Would you still type in a cold room in Maine with not enough wood? Would you still eat rat cheese in a depression? Would you still accept the rejections …
EC: Well, you see, those things, when you look back… seem like hardships, but while you are doing them you are so busy living, you don’t consider what they are. Sure, I was cold at night, very cold. But, at the same time, I considered it part of living life itself. So, it was something I didn’t regret, or didn’t disapprove of, didn’t dislike. It was a hardship, sure…
CH: Do you feel that those hardships added to your life as you sit here at eighty three? Do you feel that those were important for your character in terms of who you are?
EC: Well, they give you a lot of stamina! You, you get engrained with stamina. Ah, of course, I could not visualize a life of ease in which you have no hardship. I would not know how to exist because I would be living in a false atmosphere in which you have no troubles – ah, if you had no money troubles, no health troubles, no this, that, and the other … you have to have hardships in order to be impressed with life. Especially as a writer – if he’s not impressed with living, well, what’s he going to write about? So, I don’t say that every writer should go to Greenwich Village and live in a coldwater flat and be emaciated down to 98 pounds – NO! I don’t think that’s necessary. But, if that’s what befalls you, well, you’ll want to do it if you are a dedicated writer.
CH: What do you feel “failure” and what do you feel “success” are?
CH: Success versus failure?
EC: Okay, well, I don’t think that success is necessarily fame. Ah, success might be recognition. Ah, but that recognition his not something that is as important as the fact that you wouldn’t be satisfied without it. It’s something that you think you may have worked for and earned. Ah, and if money comes with it, that’s secondary; that’s not the main point. And if you have recognition, not fame, but if you have recognition, if somebody says: “Well, he’s a pretty good writer!” he’s written some pretty good books!” to me, that’s the ultimate praise that any writer could or should expect…. Now, failure … we are talking about writers’ failure. Its someone, to me, who thinks he has talent or for some reason has… mesmerized himself to the point that he thinks he should be successful. But, not having the talent and the ability, but somebody who keeps on in the face of failure, ah, to the end, and ends up a derelict, to me that’s failure. Now, he might resort to other means of making a living, by writing porno books or something, to exist. To me that is not a successful failure, that’s a premeditated failure. Ah, to do something like that in order to try to be successful, because if you change your philosophy… if you change your ideals… in order to achieve something underhanded, something fraudulent, to me – that is not something successful. It’s a failure.
CH: I think that one of the best comments I’ve gotten on this subject! Seems like you have thought about it. Well, I’m through, if there is anything you can think that we didn’t cover?
EC: Ha ha! Well, I don’t know of anything else I can say, and I don’t know if anything I said was really important. So, it’s whatever you make of it. Because I’m not a great mind. I’m not a great thinker. I’m not a great philosopher. I’m just an ordinary guy.
About the interviewer:
Charles Hayes began publishing poetry and essays in the 1970s and ’80s. His 1978 book, From the Hudson to the World (introduction by Pete Seeger) remains the most complete collection of Native American lore and art (gathered from 17th century Dutch deed books) to date. In the ’80s, Hayes started a book called Pearl in the Mud, which involved interviews with various famous and lesser-known artists, from John Cage and Elaine Dekooning in New York to excellent folk weavers in the New Mexico mountains. A book he funded on student loans.
Concurrent to his book project, Hayes studied Navajo language and earned his MA degree in Art Therapy from the University of New Mexico. Since then, he has become an avid amateur photographer who combines his photos with his writings. Currently, he is “taking the ‘Pearl’ project onward in the form of a smaller book, Ten Women Composers You Should Know.
Previous contributions to Ragazine include interviews with the late John Cage and the very-much-alive Dorothea Rockburne.