Louis Bayard Interview by Julia Ingalls
“Once, without realizing it, they spent ten minutes conversing about two entirely separate topics. Alex was talking about S/M lifestyles, and Patrick was talking about living in New York, and they didn’t realize their error until Alex said, with an air of finality, ‘Well, it’s a lot to go through just for an orgasm.’”
—Fool’s Errand, Louis Bayard
Although novelist Louis Bayard undoubtedly deserves a much longer introduction, all you need to know is that he’s as hilarious over the phone as he is in print. Enjoy.
Julia Ingalls: You’ve written five novels. Fool’s Errand was about the quest for love, Endangered Species was about the quest for family, whereas the novels Mr. Timothy, The Pale Blue Eye, and The Black Tower seem to be about the quest for identity.
Louis Bayard: Oh, wow! That sounds good.
JI: We’ll put it together as a blurb, I guess. But do you agree with that? What made you want to write in the past?
LB: You’re talking about binding all this together, that implies that I put much forethought into this than I really did. What happened is that I’ve written these two books. They were put out by a small press, and they sold decently for a small press book, but I got an itch for a larger audience. I had this particular idea about Tiny Tim, of all people. I’m not even sure where it came from. I was talking to my agent, and I mentioned it, and he got intrigued by it. This historical thing grew out of writing about Tiny Tim.
I didn’t set out to be a historical novelist. I’d never written that way before. I’d never written a thriller before. It was really a self-education to put that together. That’s the logistics of how that happened. Because the book did well enough, the publishing industry being what it is, they kind of want you to do more of the same thing. The next book was about a real-life French detective who inspired Poe [François Vidocq]. They’ve all been linked that way. There’s at least some tangential link. Maybe the second and third book, not so much. But I can see where identity plays a part, and where family plays a part in a lot of these books. Mr. Timothy is the creation of an alternative family. The Black Tower is about trying to reconnect with his parents after their deaths. I can see all of these things resonating.
JI: The Black Tower specifically seems to be written at a much more cinematic clip. The chapters come at you much faster. Was that intentional?
LB: Cinematic is probably a good word for it. I definitely wanted to keep that moving. I was just remembering a key thing in the writing of that book for me—I usually just write the whole way through, and then read it all whole way through, but because I was going on vacation and I didn’t want to bring my laptop—see, these are the way things happen, like these silly little things—so I just printed out what I had. I was astonished by how much fat there was in the book. There was a lot of larding—most of it, research. One the traps of being a historical novelist is you do a lot of research usually, and then you want to shoe-horn it in there wherever you can to reassure people that you’ve been working really hard, and you deserve a gold star for all your hard work, and then you go back and read it with an unbiased eye, and think, “I really don’t need that. Readers don’t really need to know that.” I wound up scissoring away a lot of that stuff, and the result was so lean that it forced the whole book in that direction. I liked that it was moving so rapidly.
JI: It really does accentuate scenes. For example, the scene in the morgue at the beginning at the book with the piano forte in the next room, is incredibly realized. It’s fun to read because you’re there, you know.
LB: Good. That came out of research, which is where a lot of great ideas come from. I read something about the morgue and how the morgue-keeper lived in the same building, and his family was next door, that was inspired by the reality of it. I was fascinated by that juxtaposition.
JI: It comes across really well.
JI: To give you your gold star for all your research.
JI: You got a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern. You must have always wanted to be a writer from when you were growing up. Why did you choose journalism as opposed to trying to write fiction directly?
LB: I should say my college senior year thesis was a book of short stories. If somebody had rushed a printed collection and turned me into the next David Leavitt—I’m trying to figure out who was the ideal at the time—um, I would have gone that way, but nobody was rushing to publish these, so I liked the idea of journalism because it I thought it get me out in the world and introduce me to some more reality than I had experienced at that time in my life. Since I had anticipated going into journalism, I realized I would need to get some clips. I thought a master’s program would be the best way to go about doing that. I left there fully convinced that I was going to become a newspaper reporter. But I couldn’t get a self-respecting newspaper to hire me. So I became a flack in Washington and stayed on there in that capacity for various people and organizations. And eventually became a freelancer, which is what I’ve been since ’95.
JI: Wow. Congratulations on that.
LB: I’ve served a lot of masters. A lot of the work I’ve done is not by-lined. I write junk mail, I write newsletters, I’ve paid the bills in a lot of different ways.
JI: Is that difficult to switch from one style of writing to another? How do you make sure that your writing remains what you want it to be when you do a lot of commercial work and then you get back to fiction?
LB: I do the fiction work the first thing in the day. I’m at my freshest. If you wait longer in the day, things always come up. It’s like those people who put off exercise until 4’o’clock, something happens, the phone rings. I write as long as I can, which some days is all day, and some days it’s just an hour, but I try to get at least an hour a day. The discipline comes in stopping and going on to the other stuff that is frankly less interesting but is more immediately remunerative. I’ve developed a pretty good balance over the years. I sit down and do it. Any professional writer just kind of has to do it. That’s how bills get paid. You don’t have time to futz around. But we all have our own procrastination tools.
JI: It seems like you consistently write really hilarious, wonderful columns. I’m thinking specifically of the work you do for Salon.com. Specifically, there’s an essay you wrote called “Attention: All You Memoir Fabulists.” My favorite example is Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ where you say, ‘Reviewers have flagged the following line: Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.’ And you say, ‘We should change the second line to ‘Sorry.’”
LB: That article was prompted by an example of a memoirist who had been fabricating her story. People saw it as a fabrication, but really, the issues we think are uniquely modern have an ancient providence. And the whole question of telling the truth about one’s life lies outside of time, because we all tell fictions about ourselves and our lives, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We’re all fictionalizing. It’s a vexed area, trying to decide if something is fiction or non-fiction and where the line is.
JI: Would you consider doing a novel in a slightly more contemporary historical period like the 1960’s or the 1980’s?
LB: I would love to. I’m not wedded to horses and carriages by any means. The book I’m working on now, half the story is told in the modern day. It’s really quite refreshing not to have to ask myself, ‘What the hell would they be wearing?’ I have this basic frame of reference. On the other hand, I found to my surprise I had to do almost as much research about modern day stuff because there is only so much in the world I experience on a daily basis. It’s taken a lot more work on the front end than I thought it would.
JI: Is the book about the Elizabethan “School of Night?”
JI: And the contemporary period that you’re working in, is that literally modern day?
LB: It’s literally modern day. It’s like, now. And it’s Washington, D.C, where I live. In a way, I’m revisiting some of the terrain of my first two books. And using a little more comedy as well. Or trying to, anyway. It’s interesting; I’m right in the middle of it, and I’m conscious that I’m using different registers. The historical tale is set in 1603 England and has a more tragic register. The modern day is more of a caper, has more of an antic quality. I’ll be interested to see when I do the critical stuff of re-reading the manuscript, whether those different registers come together or clang against each other.
JI: How much time do you allow yourself to edit your work after you write it?
LB: Part of it is that when I have it to where I want it, I send it to my editor and she goes through it pretty diligently. I make response to her edits. The Pale Blue Eye was substantially re-written between the first and second drafts because of what my editor rightly suggested about structure and shape of the story, things like that. But I don’t know. I give myself a few weeks to go through it and hack away at it. Usually, it’s hacking away. Most writers are like that. We write more than we need to. There’s a great quote by Roger Ebert, in an obituary for Paul Newman. I think they quoted Roger Ebert saying, “He spent the first half of his career figuring what to put into his acting, and the last half deciding what to take out again.” I think that’s true. As you get older, you realize it’s much more of a taking out. You know the stuff, you know you don’t need as much. That’s the mistake I see in aspiring young writers. They blast you with words. They want their voices to be heard. It’s hard to convince them they could be heard much better if they just pare away a lot of that stuff.
JI: It seems it also has to do with structuring it so you don’t get lost in tangents—which, I suppose, is the same as cutting it down.
LB: Sometimes it is a plot fix. I honestly think plot is relatively easy to fix, or it can be. The stuff that can’t be fixed is if the voice is insecure. For that reason, I always take the longest time with the first chapter. The current book, I spent several weeks on the first chapter, because I wasn’t happy with the voice, and who the narrator was, and it took me a while to get fine with it. Once you get that in place, it goes much faster. There’s no substitute for a sure, confident voice. Plot–you can lift things up, move things around. In The Pale Blue Eye, I actually removed an entire character. Not a main character, but a secondary character. She served no plot or function, she was there really just to entertain me. And that was harder in a way than killing off a character, to remove a character entirely. It requires a lot of juggling. In the end it was worth doing.
JI: What do you think is your ultimate ambition—well, that’s kind of a strange question. Let me put it a different way.
JI: Do you feel accomplished? Are you looking to write ‘The Perfect Novel’?
LB: I don’t know. I think I may have given up on writing the next “Great Gatsby.” I think that falls to one or two people in a generation. I like writing in genre, I like the idea of writing entertainments. I have no belief that my work will necessarily outlive me. But I think you can write some thoughtful things in the context of genre. Some of my favorite writers have been genre writers. Raymond Chandler, Ruth Randall, Patricia Highsmith, in the same way that Dostoevsky did, but they do it in the context of a particular entertainment form. The trends I like in literature today is that a lot of those genre lines are being blurred, and you’re seeing people like Michael Chabon writing detective novels.
JI: For a while there, it seemed that literary fiction was at an incredible remove from plot or narrative based fiction. I think it’s good to weave them back together. I think either extreme becomes dull, but if you somehow interweave them.
LB: I agree. I wonder how much of that had to do with academia. For a while, in parts of academia, the whole idea of a story was cast in doubt, the idea that fiction should tell a coherent story. I was rather frustrated with the idea that we should always remind our readers that this is fiction. I love the illusion of being swept up into a story, and not having the writer constantly nudge me and say, “This is just fiction you’re reading.” Well, I know that.
JI: Do you pick the cover art on your novels?
LB: I get to weigh-in. I suppose if I ever chose to exert it, I would have veto. I try to be open-minded about it, because I recognize that I don’t always know what works in the marketplace. If I truly hated a cover, it wouldn’t fly. It becomes more of a collaboration between me and my editor and my agent. I feel lucky to have a team helping with this stuff. Authors are frequently not good at anything but writing. We’re not good self-promoters or marketers, and certainly not visual artists.
JI: Why do you think that real-life 18th century French detective Francois Vidocq [a principal character in The Black Tower] is no longer as well known as his fictional counterpart Sherlock Holmes?
LB: That’s a question I asked myself. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to make him better known in America. He was back in the 19th century—his memoirs were best-sellers on both sides of the Atlantic—he was well-known enough that Poe and Melville and Dickens could allude to him, and readers would know who he was it. I’m not quite sure what happened to him. I’m not sure why he ended up in the dustbin of history. I sometimes wonder If it’s the funny spelling—the ocq at the end of the name—people don’t know how to pronounce that. Holmes, of course, is such an easy thing to spell.
JI: That’s sad, but you’re probably dead-on. I have to admit my ignorance: I had not heard of Vidocq before I read The Black Tower.
LB: I hadn’t either, until I read the Murders in the Rue Morgue. That was the first time I saw his name in print. Because the character Dupin was immediately at pains to elevate himself above Vidocq’s example. It’s like, who is this guy? It’s a slaying of the father impulse, saying ‘I’m better than this guy.’ Kind of like Holmes would later do with Dupin. There’s this whole history in detective fiction of the next generation of detective rising from the ashes of the previous one.
JI: Who is the 21st century’s detective? Who embodies that?
LB: Among the writers currently out there? I think the model is still Chandler and Hammet. I’m not sure we’ve had our 21st century guy yet.
JI: Do you think the prevalence of crime drama on television could be the template?
LB: Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the forensic scientists. All the CSI guys. The idea that we can solve crimes by putting attractive people in laboratories.
JI: Don’t forget the cool music.
LB: Yeah, the cool music. And these very dramatic lighting effects! Which I’m thinking in any laboratory would be like, “I can’t see.” These like, Chiaroscuro compositions. “Can anybody see through their microscope? I can barely see you.”
Louis Bayard’s new novel is The School of Night.