Acclaimed novelist Larry Woiwode is the author of Beyond the Bedroom Wall; What I’m Going to Do, I Think; and Words Made Fresh. His short story “That Old Dog” appears in Image issue 70.
Image: “That Old Dog” is about a famous novelist who hasn’t written a book in a long time. But over the course of the story, he shows he’s capable of learning a few new tricks, and he may have one more great book in him. In some ways it reads like satire but it’s also very affecting; we feel for this guy. How closely do you identify with that character? You haven’t had the kind of dry spell your character has, but is that sense of the potential for one more great book always with you? That dread of resting on your laurels?
Larry Woiwode: John Updike, speaking from beyond the grave in his posthumous essay collection Higher Gossip, says that reviewers tend to compare a writer’s later books to earlier ones, generally negatively. And he says that at the beginning a writer is more confident of self and the individual vision he or she enters the fray of publication with. My first two novels received the fullest positive attention, so perhaps Updike is right, and I suspect the encounter with reviewers and critics and editors and readers tends to pollute one’s early-on individual vision. As for “That Old Dog,” I identify with anybody who’s down-and-out and from the start I’ve particularly identified with older people. The great-grandfather and grandfathers in Beyond the Bedroom Wall, for instance, the sitcom actor who has lost his job in Poppa John, and the hundred-year-old narrator of my latest novel—not yet out. From my side of the fence, I believe Born Brothers is perhaps my best book so far, and by “so far” I of course mean I think the new novel is my best—so, sure, that potential remains. Fifteen years ago I wrote a single sentence, “His status was similar to that of an old dog”—a phrase along those lines, and it wasn’t until recently that the character who would bear those words stepped up to the plate. It’s always risky for a writer to write about a writer but I hope the comedy and empathy help the story bounce along.
Image: Your story raises the old question about the relationship between the goodness of the artist and the excellence of the art he or she creates. What’s your take on that?
LW: I shy from unresolved brutality, or fiction of the sort that begins with somebody being blown away, as in any good detective novel. So I never understood Flannery O’Connor’s idea that to connect in a violent world the writer had to be more violent, since it seems to go against the injunction to turn the other cheek. Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being, however, are the two best books on writing from a Christian perspective. I would tend to agree with John Gardner who said that most fiction deals with good and evil, so the responsible writer has to take a moral stand. That process is detailed rather exuberantly and sometimes cruelly, as auditors have pointed out, in On Moral Fiction. Updike said in response, No, no, no, one must only be honest and accurate—accuracy was for Updike a benchmark. God knows all and is not surprised by anything we write, Updike says his magnum dicta, Self-Consciousness, but I believe readers come away from Updike’s work surprised or shocked that a person who confesses to be a Christian gets so entangled in graphic sex, while the outpour of his oeuvre can only be classified, from the outside and on the whole, as excellent. He’s the American writer, along with Willa Cather, I nominate for the ages.
Image: Are there fiction writers working now who you particularly admire?
LW: I liked Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes a lot—a novel that deals with the war in Vietnam but without axe-grinding, neither pro nor con, simply the daily life that soldiers went through there. And Lynn Stegner’s Because a Fire Was in my Head is wonderful, as her writing usually is, although a dark, dark novel. But I prefer honesty over chrism-varnished Pollyanna people. I’m always interested in what Tom McGuane is up to, and I’ve followed and liked most of Louise Erdrich’s work—shall I say especially the early novels? But also Tales of Burning Love. I think John Moore, a writer whose work takes a clear Christian stand, has been underappreciated. I love Tom McGrath and try to keep up with Seamus Haney.
Image: You once wrote a commentary on the Book of Acts, which is surprising from a guy who’s mostly known as a fiction writer. How did that come about, and how do you think your background in fiction informed the project? And why Acts, instead of some other book of the Bible?
LW: It began with a request to contribute to an anthology on the New Testament. I wanted to write on Ephesians but the editor suggested the Acts of the Apostles, and when I realized it was the longest book in the New Testament I wondered if he wasn’t serving justice for my long novels. I did the piece but it kept wanting to grow, and my agent located an editor at HarperSanFrancisco who was interested in a book-length take on Acts, based on the essay. My background in fiction informed the project because Acts is the most narrative book of the New Testament. I also happened to be reading too much theology at the time, and when my editor suggested I incorporate some of my everyday acts in the book, it all fell in place in a pleasant way. Perhaps my tongue is the pen of a too-ready writer.
Image: A collection of your essays came out this year, Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture. What was it like to go back and revisit things you’d written a few years back? Do you find your way of thinking or writing has changed over the years? Do you recognize yourself? What surprised you, if anything?
LW: The essays seemed of a piece and I mostly cut to remove infelicities, where they stood out. With others, such as “Guns,” I had the opportunity to bring matters up to the present in a kind of coda. When I began as a writer I used to read everything I wrote to my wife Carole, and her critical acumen, seldom spoken but a powerful magnetic aura, helped train my ear for the times my voice or tone went wrong. After a few years of this an inner person took over and I began to hear my voice from his mouth, as it were, as I wrote, and most of the essays date from that later period, when I was thirty-five or older. It was a pleasure to gather and arrange the essays in a way that made sense to me, and I particularly enjoyed, this time around, the essay on guns, the one on Bob Dylan as mentor of my generation, and those on John Updike and Shakespeare—who will forever remain better than anyone anonymous, no matter how many times they rehash those old conspiracy theories about who wrote his plays.