an interview with Frederick Busch      
photo of Frederick Busch

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  Bold Type: You've written over twenty books. What drives you to be so prolific?

Frederick Busch: I need to write. It's who I am: The man who makes up stories. I don't feel that I've earned the air I'll breathe every day, or the right to walk on the ground I walk upon, unless I've made good language: words that are useful to someone other than me.

BT: This is not your first foray into historical fiction. What are some of the challenges and pleasures you find when setting your novel in the past and creating characters based upon actual people?

FB: I wrote a novel set in the 19th century that was published in 1978, The Mutual Friend, about Charles Dickens. The pleasure in writing a book set in the past is mostly in finishing it! The difficulties lie in the amount of research required (by me, anyway)--an enormous quantity; and there's a sense of responsibility to the realities of the past--they're on record! you can look 'em up! you can find me at fault!--and to the actual people I might be writing about. I worked for a long time, with documents, many photographs and drawings, many journalistic reports, even paintings--even charts of the Hudson River--until I felt that I was in my characters' teeming, wild, polluted New York City, or the Civil War settings of my narrator's adventures; and then, every morning, I came to my desk and took a breath and traveled--back in time to 1867, and away into the mind and personal history of a man whose face was shattered and whose soul was wounded.

BT: Herman Melville is the subject of The Night Inspector; is he one of your literary heroes? What attracted you to him? Was it a daunting challenge to "become" Melville?

FB: Herman Melville is indeed a major character in the novel. He is one of my literary heroes, the author of the true Great American Novel, Moby-Dick, and a horror story for writers and readers alike. For he was roasted by the critics for his novel about Ahab and the whale. He sold precious few copies of any of his most serious books. At the time of the adventures this novel recounts, Melville was a deputy inspector of customs, at the Port of New York, working for $4 per week. He was forgotten as a serious novelist, ignored as the poet he tried to be, thought by some to already have died. He's the skull beneath the skin for a lot of us: Remember, his story suggests to us, it could happen to you. The language he made, the stories he told, the darkness his brilliant vision penetrated, then recreated for us, make him peerless. When I wrote about him, it was like trying to write about a god and I couldn't even use his full name. I call him M in the novel, and I hope his restless spirit forgives me for even that familiarity!

On the other hand, every pretty good writer is arrogant enough to assume that she or he can become anyone for a few hundred pages--male, female, great, lesser, evil or good. And in the tradition of my elders and betters, I sailed right in and tried my best to "become" the American writer I most admire, and the American husband I most wish to not be like, and the American father whose bad luck and bad management terrify me.

BT: It seems that you often find inspiration in writers who have come before you. What is the process by which you come up with an idea and explore it?

FB: I have written about a couple of writers, yes; but I have made up most of my characters (even those who appear to be Dickens or Melville). I don't find ideas so much as they find me. A writer needs to be available to the lightning that, if she or he is lucky, strikes. With me, it's never one idea or concept. It's an accumulations--this event I've read about, that event I've speculated upon, the other event I've made up; when I get lucky, and there's a lot of luck involved, I suddenly see a way in which those several events or thoughts or wishes or dreads can be organically linked. A character must be available to help link them through her or his story. It all comes from the character, to whom I wish to remain loyal and serviceable--this is true even of my more nasty characters--with every word I write. It starts and ends with a character in whose fictive life this amalgamation of several events or speculations is a matter of life and death. For I want the reader to feel that the events of the book somehow represent a matter of life and death to him or her, the person following what happens and then what happens next.

BT: When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

FB: When it became apparent that Miss White, my 4th-grade teacher at P.S. 152 in Brooklyn, whose pale blue eyes bore into my soul every day as she found me wanting in yet another endeavor--the arithmetic flash cards, my dreadful handwriting, my failure to bring a clean handkerchief to school, my incapabilities in weaving picture frames of bright green wool--would like me more because of my poems. The one I wrote about "my little dogwood tree" ("My father planted it for me") made her smile at me. She never smiled at me. She wanted me to be moved to Paraguay or to contract a dreadful disease and never return to school. But she did in fact smile at me because she liked my poem. I began then, and I continue now, I suspect, to placate and seduce what I can of the world so that, like the terrifying Miss White, it might smile upon me.

BT: Who are some of your main influences, literary and otherwise?

FB: Main influences: Dickens and Melville, Ernest Hemingway in his greatest work--two novels, one memoir, 24 of his stories--and dozens and dozens of my brothers and sisters in writing: Rosellen Brown, Richard Bausch, Andrea Barrett, David Bradley, Reginald McKnight, Reynolds Price, Nicholas Delbanco, Leslie Epstein, Pam Durban, Joanna Scott, Chang-rae Lee, Ann Beattie, Peter Carey. I learn from them all, and from the 100 others I haven't space here to name.

BT: You've recently written an essay collection, A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life. What are some of the things about your chosen profession that you most enjoy and are most frustrated by?

FB: What I most enjoy: Knowing that I made someone see something in a different way. Knowing that I've saved a glimpsed face or a precious memory or a thought about a fellow soul from time, which is what art works to check or even defeat. Am most frustrated by: Giving in to fear or laziness or fatigue rather than working through those natural enemies of writing. Backing down from finding the right word and settling for one that's merely not too bad.

BT: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?

FB: I can only be a writer. I wouldn't be Busch if I didn't write; it's my definition. I can admit, though, that I always wanted to be an editor. I'm pretty good at helping writers see what their manuscript wants to be and at suggesting ways they might get it into that desired shape. So I might be the person I call and nag and whine to!

BT: You teach literature and fiction writing, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

FB: Read all you can. Try to make good language every day, at the hour best suited to your metabolism; if that isn't possible--if, as it was with me in the early days, when I sat in the bathroom of our Greenwich Village one-room apartment and typed on the portable typewriter set on the shut toilet seat so that my clacking-away wouldn't wake Judy, exhausted from holding down the viable job--then just plug away, trying to steal an hour or two. You can write a novel if you can steal an hour. Never get lost in the advances or celebrity of others. Instead, focus on your work. Love and serve your characters. Talent should be taken for granted until the world proves that you have none, or an insufficient quantity. It is energy that will see you through--to get your work done, to survive rejection. Never use "submit" as a verb for sending work to magazine or book publishers; say "offer," and never, ever submit. Keep your knees unbent. Be brave.

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    Photo credit © John Hubbard