an interview with David Gates      
photo of David Gates

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  David Gates

Bold Type: According to a recent story about you in Publishers Weekly, there is now a "typical Gatesian narrator." Can you tell us about this person?

David Gates: I could pretend not to know what you're talking about, but I assume you mean those middle-aged, ironic, borderline-nasty white men who seem to keep cropping up, though not all of them are narrators and not all my narrators are middle-aged ironic white men. I'd like to think that "this person" is actually a bunch of separate people, but sure, there's a similarity. Since they theorize so much about themselves (their favorite subject), they don't really need me explaining them. As the guy in the title story says, "You know, what don't I know?" I guess I could add one more layer of ironic distance to the ironic distance they already feel from themselves, but why not give 'em a break?

BT: Many of your characters seem to be their own worst enemies. Do you think that is true of most of us? Is that true of you?

DG: That's probably true of them, but I don't know about most of us. In a lot of the world, my characters' neurotic self-subversion would be a decadent luxury. The Kosovars' worst enemies are the Serbs. Abner Louima's worst enemy--allegedly, as we journalists say--was that cop. Then we've got cancer and TB and AIDS and that whole dispiriting range of human experience. Starvation. Global warming. Am I cheering you up?

For right now, at least, I seem to be one of the lucky few who's got no other enemy but the creep within. Unless somebody--maybe some writer I've reviewed--is sitting someplace muttering and sticking pins in a doll.

I don't mean to belittle neurotic self-subversion, by the way. It makes great literary material. You can even pretty it up by calling it spiritual struggle. But I wouldn't expect people whose troubles aren't of their own making to read about this stuff with fascination and sympathy.

BT: The Wonders of the Invisible World is your first short story collection. How is writing short stories different from writing novels?

DG: Novels take longer? In my case, not always. Some of my stories kicked around for ten years or so before I got them right, assuming I got them right.

BT: Do you prefer one form over the other?

DG: I suppose the novel is more heroic. Maybe this is a guy thing: size matters. But you can see and control--well, theoretically--every bit of a story, work on it until it approaches an ideal density, an ideal intensity. Except maybe for the Beckett trilogy, no novel has hit me as hard as, say, Cheever's "Goodbye, My Brother" or Carver's "Vitamins" or Hemingway's "The Light of the World" or Barthelme's "The Death of Edward Lear": things you can read at a sitting, with no break in your attention.

On the other hand, you can't inhabit a short story the way you can inhabit Our Mutual Friend or Mansfield Park or Lolita. I love both forms, and in my own work I prefer the one I'm doing at the time I'm doing it. True, if I've got nothing but a story in the works, I feel as if I'm not quite a real writer. But I don't subject other writers to such a silly judgement--in fact, it wouldn't have broken my heart if Cheever, Hemingway and Barthelme had never written their novels. And Carver, of course, never did. This feeling of mine is partly a desire to be immersed in the big, enveloping world of a novel, and partly just Napoleonic crap.

BT: Many of your characters are either divorced, about to be divorced, or trapped in an unhappy marriage. What are you trying to tell us?

DG: I don't know where I'd get off telling people anything. I mean besides telling them stories. And stories need tension. Two people getting along really, really well might make for a satisfying life, but who could stay awake reading about it? What would you put in between the sex scenes? Bulletins about how well their investments were doing?

BT: Getting back to that "typical Gatesian narrator," can you imagine writing a novel with a happy ending?

DG: You mean me writing such a thing? If I could imagine another novel right now, I wouldn't care if it ended with three simultaneous marriages, a Mideast peace accord and the discovery of benevolent life on a nearby planet. Let the critics call me a sellout.

A happy ending--like any other ending--is a literary convention. It certainly corresponds to nothing in life; it's merely the point at which the writer decides to stop inventing. Jane Austen might have followed the characters in Pride and Prejudice all the way up until Mr. Darcy dies of cancer at 75 and Elizabeth, with failing eyesight and deaf as a post, is left at the mercy of corrupt, lazy and hostile servants in a crumbling Pemberly. But this would have been esthetically out of keeping. If the endings to my books are esthetically satisfying, they're happy enough for me.

BT: America's suburbs have provided you with a wealth of material. What is it about the suburbs that interests you?

DG: I've never lived in the suburbs myself, though I visit there often enough. Suburbia is a kind of wonderland to me. Small, manageable lots, driveways and garages to park in, sidewalks (that nobody walks on), trees, grass. A mix of total privacy and total exposure. Old-world manorial-bucolic life, but distributed democratically: a little bit of it for everybody. It would scare the hell out of me to live there: I don't know the rules and the folkways, and I assume I'd never meet my neighbors until one of their kids vandalized my car or shot my dog. The promise of suburbia is so entrancing that I find it impossible not to see it ironically. But I don't really know anything about it. It's an imaginary place for me, like Middle Earth or Narnia.

What it offers me as a writer is typicality and ubiquity. Most Americans live in the suburbs, and suburban life (at least as I imagine it) varies less from place to place than country life or city life. I'm still pretty much a regionalist writer: I work New York City and the Northeast, mostly, between the Hudson River and the Connecticut. In this collection, characters get as far as Boston to the east and Albany to the west, with a flashback set in Pennsylvania; for me, that's pretty exotic. Maybe putting characters in the suburbs makes my stuff feel less provincial. And I love that promise of clean air, quiet, privacy, space, greenery and decent schools. What beautiful things to watch people get ambivalent about, if not downright disillusioned with.

BT: Before joining Newsweek, you were a phone operator for Western Union, a stock clerk, a cab driver, a square dance musician (still for hire, I understand), and almost a furniture mover. How does this background influence your writing?

DG: Well, it certainly makes me prefer writing. Square-dance musician, though... If I could've made that pay, we might not be having this conversation.

BT: What are you working on now?

DG: I've got several thick notebooks full of blurtings, fragmentary scenes, half-glimpsed characters, enigmatic conversations, conflicting plot outlines, complaints that I can't write anymore and suchlike. You know, the usual. I'd been hoping I'd wake up some morning and the elves would have turned it all into a novel. I'm giving them until July, when I take another leave of absence from Newsweek and can tend to it myself.

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