Monday, September 16, 2013

Writer on Writer: Part Two, Alex Kudera Interviews Dave Newman

Following up on last week's Writer on Writer interview, this week Alex Kudera interviews Dave Newman. Alex is author of Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books, 2010) and Dave wrote Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children (Writers Tribe Books, 2012). Each novel looks at the struggle of one writer trying to pay the bills by adjunct teaching. At my request, Alex and Dave read each other's books and came up with their own questions.


Alex Kudera: Winning an award named after Andre Dubus is an amazing accomplishment. Are you a Dubus fan? I like almost all of his novellas, the story "Townies," and many more. Do you have any favorites among his writings?

Dave Newman: I love Andre Dubus. I’m a huge believer in the American small press, and I read all his books on Goodine, which was one of my favorite presses at the time. Dubus was one of the first writers I fell in love with, and his stories and novellas meant so much to me when I first started reading. I’m glad he’s so revered now, but I wish he would have had more success when he was alive. Both the movies based on his work, which I’m sure steered readers back to his books, came out after he died. My favorite Dubus’ books are actually his essay collections. Some of the best writing about being a writer—and the morals of being a writer—are in those collections. I love that he was committed to writing as a spiritual pursuit. I love that he was honest about writing and money and how those two mix. He knew that the important thing was to write the best book you could write and to have the book reach the world. It’s obvious that he cared deeply about his characters, and from things his son and last wife have said, it’s obvious that his love of writing sometimes distracted him from his familial obligations. I love his wife’s letter to Poets and Writers, where she says, basically, “Quit fucking saying I took Andre’s kids away from him.” I thought that was badass of her.

Alex: I also recently read his son's memoir Townies, and it was illuminating to get that side of Dubus as father. I didn't love the memoir in every way, but one tidbit I loved is how he tells his son it's okay to write about his parents, that he should do it if he is compelled to. To me, that's refreshing and quite writerly. From what I've read of your novel, it seems like you are very much in favor of this sort of honesty. Is that possibly the main trait we look for in writing?

Dave: I have Townies but haven’t read it yet. As I said above, Andre the Dad seemed like a difficult person but he was conscious of that, so it makes sense that he would encourage his son to pursue honesty in his own writing. I think honesty is the main trait we look for in writing, and I think that’s why we sometimes forgive writers who have stylistic lapses. I want to puke on the sentence people who feel like lines can be separated from characters and narrative. That’s a fashion show. It’s literature as pornography. It always pisses me off when people include Ray Carver and Barry Hannah in that discussion. Both Hannah and Carver wanted to tell stories, and they did so in a language that served their narratives. Carver wrote great poems and stories after he broke from his editor, Gordon Lish, who is a sentence asshole. When Hannah went too far with language, when he failed in storytelling, and when he was criticized for it, he admitted to fucking up and losing control with language. He wasn’t proud of it. He didn’t want to be someone who was known for writing sentences. He wanted to tell the truth about the world. So yeah, me too.

Alex: I am aware of the writer as bad father, and there are too many great writers to name in this regard, literary superstars with multiple wives and children, guys who walked off the job early and often. I see your awareness of this in your novel, and it sounds like you very much are intent on staying in one marriage, of making your family life a success. Is this something you were thinking about from a young age, or something you became more aware of once you became a husband or father?

Dave: I didn’t ever plan on marrying. I figured it was an either/or situation. You either wrote, which required hours of reading and writing, or you got married, which required hours of marriage stuff, whatever that was. Then I found myself in Vegas, getting married to a woman I barely knew, and I was unbelievably happy about it. My wife is awesome, and she’s a great writer, and we support each others’ writing in every way possible. It really speeds up the process to know you have someone in the other room who wants to read your writing, not is willing to, but wants to. We both have three published books now. We had a combined total of zero books before we were married. I think a lot of people perpetuate the myth that you have to be a shitty person to be a writer, or that you have to be a terrible spouse to be a writer, but as I got older I started to realize some of those myths were coming from shitty people who were also shitty spouses. My wife and I both want to be successful parents, more so than successful writers, but we’re both conscious that writing makes us better and happier people, which makes us better parents, so we strive for that balance. There’s a lot to give up, some hard and some not, if you want to be a parent / writer / decent person. Don’t watch junk TV. Don’t see terrible movies for the distraction. Don’t hang out with your neighbors just to be a good neighbor. Don’t hang out with anyone you don’t want to hang out with, unless it impacts your kids by not hanging out. Vacation exclusively for your children. Eat cheap. Go to elementary school open houses, smile a lot, and get the fuck out as fast as possible. I never go and see the same writer read from the same book twice. I never flew to New York to read to four people in a bar just to say I was on a book tour and read in New York. I try to be productive when I’m not being productive. When I drink beer, I will often spend the first hour cleaning the house with loud music playing, so I’m not just drinking but cleaning and catching up on tunes. Only watch sports you love. I only watch the Steelers now, and I usually fold clothes while the game is on. If my kids want to hang out, we hang out. If my kids want me to play with them and their friends, I politely decline. They can amuse themselves. I make time for my wife to write because she gets more easily swallowed into the world than I do. When I need to write, she puts the bubble around me and keeps the world away. I still do shitty things all the time, but they’re usually on accident, and I try to learn from my shittiness. One of my goals is to be less shitty, to help more people. That’s how I want to be in the world as a parent and husband and writer, all at once.

[The interview continues]

Alex: In Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children, the narrator has a book out, and he wasn’t funded as a graduate student in creative writing. By chance, is it part of your autobiography that you were not funded as a graduate student in an MFA program? It must be a source of pride that you have had so much success, multiple publications, appointments to teach and judge prizes, etc. I like that kind of story, the underdog story within the program, but did it seem scary at the time? Did you find yourself wondering how some of the others got their stipends or fellowships, or did it ever seem like you were in over your head?

Dave: I definitely did not get funded in graduate school. The student loan people remind me every month and I guess they will until I die. I think I finished grad school in '95 or '96, which for me was pre-internet. As an undergraduate, I’d attended two community colleges and eventually graduated from a small branch campus. I planned on being a high school teacher, which took five years to get certified, but I fell in love with reading and writing, and my undergraduate teacher suggested I go to grad school. I asked her what someone did with a MFA degree and she said I could teach college, work in publishing, write for a magazine, all these wonderful things, no mention of working in a warehouse or driving a delivery truck or not getting a job, so I applied and went. I didn’t know what funding was until I arrived and realized other students were getting paid to be in the program and I was paying to be there. I applied for funding while I was there but I was passed over. I think the general consensus was that I was either stupid and / or a heroin addict and / or a terrible writer and /or a misogynist and / or straight and white and / or an alcoholic and / or the patriarchy and / or a narrative poet and / or a hater of Robert Lowell and, as far as I could understand, these were all horrible things. It was a bad experience and expensive, but it was worthwhile in that I saw how insular things were—the head of the writing department edited the university press poetry series and he published both the other poetry professors—so I knew I’d need to find a completely different way to succeed as a writer. The recommendations and appointments and job opportunities were going to happen for the students who were funded, who were being mentored by the tenured professors who were published by the tenured professor who ran the university press poetry series. I was being mentored by the library and Caliban Bookstore and Wormwood Review magazine and City Lights and Black Sparrow and New Directions, these great American independent presses. I was reading Nazim Hikmet, Lucille Clifton, Ed Field, Charles Bukowski, Etheridge Knights, and wondering why everyone thought I was so worthless. My first full-length book of poems just came out and even though I have a couple novels and another novel coming out in January and the reading world doesn’t care very much about poetry, the collection means a lot to me because it’s what I set out to do when I was 21 years old, and it was what I did, and it’s what I hope to do again. I love poetry, even if the poetry world did not love me back when I was in graduate school.

Alex: I must confess I’d like to continue teaching, and so although I do answer interview questions about working as an adjunct, each time, I face the same ambivalence. I want to help more people earn affordable college degrees and more teachers gain decent wages and health benefits if I can, and yet, I also feel a need to cover my own ass (more or less, the American way, family first, etc., something I am able to do somewhat, but it has always made me uncomfortable, how we are supposed to ignore what we may be doing to other people’s finances while trying to secure our own living). I sold cars for almost two years before retreating to a two-year creative-writing degree with a 9K-per-annum stipend plus tuition waver, and it felt like a huge relief to know, possibly, I wouldn’t be dealing cars for the rest of my life. Car-selling combines extremely long hours with all kinds of things that can make the salesperson feel bad. In general, I saw the wealthiest people get the best deals and the poorest people get the worst deals, and frankly, when you see how half of undergraduate America has to work a lot to pay their way through college, both during and after with loans, and then the other half is paid for by parents, it seems like higher education does the exact same thing except they dangle the carrot of career instead of delivering a car. Did you ever experience in the classroom that feeling like the kids staring back at you were getting ripped off as so much of the money gets funneled to technology, administrative overhead, elite research, etc.? What’s the dirtiest job you’ve had in capitalist America?

Dave: I know exactly what you’re saying about teaching. I loved teaching. I loved my best students, the ones who made the effort and read and wrote, sucky or great, it didn’t matter, as long as they tried. I loved the time off. I wrote my ass off every Christmas break. But yeah, the students are paying a fucking mint for a degree that will not necessarily be applicable in the working world. I explained this in every class I ever taught. I explained that literary writers do not make a living off their books. They teach. Then I explained that most teachers—college teachers, what students refer to as professor—make McDonalds-type wages. I discouraged going to graduate school unfunded. I encouraged writing a book and trying to publish a book and then going to graduate school if you wanted to teach, the opposite of what the previous generation had done. I encouraged people to minor in writing and major in something practical. It’s all very confusing. What a good liberal arts education offers—insights into the world, compassionate thinking, a way to engage people who are different from you—is useless when you can’t pay your bills. If your student loan bill is $600 a month and you make $12 an hour, you’re fucked. There’s no time for compassionate thought. There’s the electric bill. Universities could change this by lowering tuition rates, by linking majors to careers, and by paying their teachers a livable wage. Every time I see an op-ed on The Rumpus or Salon or Vice by a tenured or tenure-track professor raging about something, I want to say: stop, look in your own backyard; those men you are raging against in pop culture—the Kanye Wests and Robin Thickes—are also in your department and you should stand up to them and demand they hire more full-time teachers and lower tuition rates. Pop culture is shallow, no shit. University life is a fucking conservative / corporate joke run by a bunch of people who espouse liberal values, yet very few writers criticize it from within. America is losing its ability to be self-reflective, and it’s sad. There’s a college in Pittsburgh—Saxifrage—that is trying to balance practical training (i.e. a skill that will get you a decent job) with a liberal arts education (i.e. something that will enrich and deepen your life), and I hope they succeed. It could be a new model for other people to learn from.

It’s funny you mentioned selling cars, that was always one of my great fears, that I would end up in a bad tie, trying to talk someone into buying a new-used car to better rook them. I think I am generally too ugly and I sweat too much for sales. I’ve usually done more grunt work. Loading and unloading boxes for RPS (and being their yard truck driver) was pretty rough. There was always a supervisor with a stopwatch standing at the end of your trailer, clocking your work, yelling that you should throw boxes faster. It was the only time in my life when I’ve been referred to as a clitoris, as in, “Pick it up, you fucking clit!” That always felt humiliating.

Alex: I suppose there is also ambivalence over the issues themselves, and yet, we live in this weird world where we accept that one set of teachers (K—12) should get fixed-income pensions, another set of teachers (tenured profs) should get good wages, money for conferences, reduced loads, etc.), full-time but non-tenure-track college teachers (lecturers, visiting writers, etc.) get benefits and a living wage, and then this other huge group (true pay-per-course adjuncts) get none of the above. From the adjunct perspective, the visiting writers have almost ideal conditions (teaching creative writing, reasonable course load, etc.). I like the way in Raymond Carver, you noted that the part-time couple would be drawn to look like mice if it were a movie or comic. Also, Richard, the officemate, who loses his full-time contract and is left with only part-time classes, sees his pay drop from $30,000 to $9,000. The actual cash difference seems a bit exaggerated although the point you are making with these numbers is clear. So, again, I’m rambling, sorry, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dave: First, I think people hate public school teachers, which is sad.

Second, what’s sad about my novel is that those numbers were pretty accurate at the time for an adjunct teacher in Pittsburgh. I think Duquesne pays $3500 per class now but that’s a recent increase from $2500. I think Robert Morris pays $1750 per class. Community colleges pay around $2200. It’s insane. You really could go from being a lecturer making 30 grand to teach a 3/3 load to teaching a 3/3 as an adjunct and making $12,000. It’s scary. Again, I can’t imagine anyone thinking this is acceptable, but the general consensus is: oh well; what did you expect, dummy; if you don’t like it, go to Wall Street; then they’ll accuse you of being a Wall Street scumbucket.

Thank you for liking my mice image.

Alex: By e-mail, we’ve already communicated about growing up as Steelers fans, talking about Mike Webster’s sad fate among other things, and there are references to the late seventies Steelers in your Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children. It occurs to me that football players often wind up in as bad financial shape as writers, with a huge percentage considering or declaring bankruptcy in retirement, although it seems like this is for a different set of reasons. Also, like writers, at least a few lucky writers, they get that exhilarating roar of the crowd at some point in their life (or at least a roar of their mother or spouse or best friend who isn’t insanely jealous that they got a single book out with a two-dollar advance) and then the sea of quiet sets in. I’ve seen novel-writing as a bit like playing piano or running marathons or boxing, in that it’s in part a personal endurance test. I hadn’t compared it much to football, but I’m wondering if you have?

Dave: I love the Steelers, and I’m glad you loved them growing up. I don’t think you could have written so well if you’d really liked Eagle’s quarterback Ron Jaworski. Maybe you loved Reggie White and that helped, but I think you love porn and Reggie hated porn. He used to do billboards that said: real men don’t use porn.

I’m not sure about the financial connections between athletes and writers. I guess the odds are more in favor of writers succeeding (meaning publishing a book) than an athlete turning pro, but even a rookie making the minimum in the NFL has exceed the wages of almost every writer writing in America now. I suspect the kicker for the Steelers is bankrolling Jennifer Egan under the table, even if she’s getting movie rights and screenplay work.

I do think novelists have to have some of the same qualities that athletes have, as far as training and endurance. I like the idea of a writing season. You kiss your spouse / partner / kids, tell the world to fuck off, write until your asshole aches from sitting, emerge with a manuscript, publish a book, then kiss everyone who allowed you to disappear. Thank you, lover. Thank you, Jesus. Go to Disneyland, which, for a writer in Pittsburgh, is Kennywood. Ride the Thunderbolt. Drink in the Brillo Box with Louie Ickes feeding you beers. Enjoy the offseason which, hopefully, includes lots of fucking and more drinking and stories about how you won the big one, meaning a fucking book. Go bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s for books! (that was me in a cheerleading skirt, looking hot).

Alex: Did you teach any sports stars as an instructor? Did you, or do you, have any strong feelings for how the athletes are treated by colleges or college teachers? It seems pretty clear that these days college is a business, and adjuncts aren’t the only one considering questionable compensation for their contribution (winning programs generate revenue, etc.). I notice that big-time male athletes in my classes have excellent attendance and, on average, inferior writing skills although some of these kids were quite sharp, and except for a few knuckleheads, most have had excellent citizenship (polite, on time, etc.). Growing up in Philly, I remember hearing some negativity about student athletes from teaching peers although at Clemson, it has almost shocked me that right in the English department we have a whole bunch of die-hard football fans. In Philly, I always felt I had to lay low on sports talk when I was in my own department, and now that I’ve lost interest (or lost time for it), I hear it all over (or read football talk from feminists on Facebook).

Dave: I don’t think I ever had any star athletes in my classes, but the athletes I did have were usually pretty nice. And if they were not nice, the system was set up with a bunch of checks-and-balances, people calling and emailing to make sure the athletes’ attendance was okay, that their work was average or above. The athletes were usually polite and disinterested. None of the athletes I taught (male-wise) were academic stars, but I never had any problems. A couple female athletes I had in class were good writers—maybe they weren’t as pampered as much as the male athletes because female sports don’t seem to bring in as much dough. I am generally supportive of college athletes. Maybe the universities should have higher academic standards, but those kids should have more freedom to make money. If someone wants to sell his/her jersey and sign a few autographs for money, I’m for that.

I haven’t thought about Brian Dawkins in a long time (when it comes to safeties, I’m exclusively rooting for Donny Shelly to get in the Hall of Fame), but Levon was awesome. He didn’t play on great teams or he would be remembered better. I think he’s the Steelers all-time leading tacklers, which trumps Jack Lambert.

Sports are a huge part of Pittsburgh culture and I love that. If you ever start feeling too literary, someone (i.e. poet Bob Pajich) will remind you that legendary Steelers announcer Myron Cope is still the best writer to ever come out of our city.


Again, don't miss Part One of this interview, where Dave Newman interviews Alex Kudera about Fight for Your Long Day.

Please check out the books:

Alex Kudera, Fight For Your Long Day, Atticus Books, 2010.

Dave Newman, Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children, Writers Tribe Books, 2012.

I plan to do more double-interviews in this new series, Writer on Writer. My hope is that this series will introduce two writers to each other, and then expand on the fan base of each writer who is working with a similar theme or style. Stay tuned!

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