ight Action in the Caribbean involves an unusual variety of forms, settings, and themes. Did this involve a conscious effort on your part?
I've worked in different forms over the years. For example, "Rubén Mendoza Vega" is an experimental form with a single paragraph and a lot of footnotes. The piece "The Letters of Heaven" is another kind of fiction, in that it's based on the lives of historical personages. Then there's the story "In the Garden of the Lords of War" which takes place in the future, or "Thomas Lowdermilk" which is a more traditional short story. So I work in different forms, and I thought, "Can I make a book work that asks the reader to move across a fairly large landscape, without their thinking 'Oh, here I am at this same crossroads again, exploring the same feelings again'?"
You actually told your editor you wanted to write a story collection "leavened by unmitigated evil." I think those were your words.
Yes. The kind of story that I write is usually hopeful, in the sense that in the end of the story you feel a sense of expansiveness about the possibilities of human life. But then a couple of years ago I began to write stories like "The Deaf Girl" or "Light Action in the Caribbean" where there was a fair amount of darkness at the end. There was a conscious effort to include a couple of stories that ended in a box canyon. I meant them to be read alone of course, but they do best in a collection like this where there are other places for the reader to go.
"Light Action in the Caribbean" stuck out more to me than "The Deaf Girl" in that regard. The sense of Evil.
Well, to say one thing about "The Deaf Girl," the guy who's narrating the story leads a pretty self-satisfied life. What he doesn't realize until the second to last sentence is that this situation is not what he thinks it is. What he's got in his mind up until that time are issues about making sure this girl doesn't go find this guy and kill him. That's clearly not what she's going to do. For many people today that's a reality. They have to make peace with the fact that life will not be fair to them. The deaf girl in the story has found some ground beyond vengaence and the mechanisms of justice, which is where he is, and to a certain extent, where most of us are.
Look at what happened in Yemen a couple of days ago. The newspapers are full of stories of getting back at whoever it was that blew a hole in the side of this ship. We're on this treadmill in modern times of vengaence for crimes. It plays itself out in a very sad way in the "Three Strikes and You're Out" policies in some states, and the death penalty and all of that. And that's all about "Let's show these people, and crush these people for committing these crimes," instead of looking more deeply at what's going on, at the kind of injustice that propels cruelty.
How do these ideas play out in "Light Action in the Caribbean"?
In "Light Action in the Caribbean" I had fiddled around in my imagination with a couple that is the sort of couple that a lot of us would admit, if you go to a party and overhear this couple it's a lot of fun. Because they seem so empty-headed. Everything they say, you sort of roll your eyes at the lack of sophistication or the venal nature of their desires. The woman can't imagine her life without a guy in it, and the guy, who probably is married, is on the make, and is just a jerk. He's a character that a lot of us know, if you work in an office or similar place you're always running into people like this. They think that the whole company is held together by their brilliance on their computer keyboard. And you're saying to your friends, Can you believe this guy? Part of what is fascinating about the story is that we're eavesdropping on this life of theirs. If a maitre d' ushered this guy out of a restaurant for some reason, we'd all feel like that was good. But if he's going to be killed that's way too much of a price to pay for the life he's leading.
As far as punishment for the three sociopaths, I don't imagine that when you finish the story you think the police are going to come over the horizon and nail them. They're headed for some island where they've got some kind of ties with some kind of paramilitary group and it's all going to be history. Maybe because Americans are involved there will be some kind of furor, but basically we're not talking about a situation where there's going to be justice.
Is there any particular reason you named the collection after "Light Action in the Caribbean" rather than one of the other stories?
Actually there's an in-house reason. The working title was originally The Letters of Heaven. As we got further down the line, somebody in house there wondered if having the word "heaven" in the title would send the wrong message about what the book was, because of the way that word is turning up in book titles. So my editor Robin called one day and said, "What do you think about switching it to another story?" And there was a heartbeat and then both of us said the same title in the same breath. There was never any question about what story we should change it to. It just seemed like the story that was a point of departure for the collection.
On the other hand, I didn't want it to be the last story in the collection, because it ends in such a dead-end place. I wanted the collection to end with Phillip, the father from the story "The Mappist", turning his lights off, driving down that road and opening his mind to the sky above. It's a much more hopeful and open-ended ending for the book, rather than a bunch of dead bodies shooting to the bottom of the ocean.
Was any one of the stories a personal favorite?
I don't think of my writing in that way, where I might have a favorite story or favorite book of mine. I think about it in terms of frames of mind. Some stories represent a direction in which I'm headed. That I'm likely to push further along a certain path. "The Mappist", for example, is a story that I liked, that I like to go back to and think about. In "The Mappist" we have a situation where we're living in the narrator's world, and he's read this other guy in college and come to admire him, and sort of made him up in his mind. When Phillip finally meets Corlis Benefideo, Corlis won't be the person that the narrator wants him to be, won't accept his projection, and in the process Phillip realizes that this is a real person, who drinks unlabelled tequila and has a more complicated life than Phillip had imagined. and when he drives away he wants to sit down with his daughter and find out who she is and what she wants to be, rather than what he thinks she should be. That set of relationships is intriguing to me. It wouldn't surprise me if I wrote another story like that, about a father and a daughter.
You won the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams, which was a nonfiction book. Could you tell me your experiences with that book? How did you come to write it?
I made my first trip to the Arctic in '76, and between '76 and '81 I made probably 15 trips into the high Arctic. I travelled a lot with Eskimos and hunted with them, and travelled with scientists. What I was trying to do was understand how people relate to the places they live in, and what their fatal encounters with animals were all about. And what exploration was all about. What happened to people who travelled unprepared in the Arctic in the 19th Century? What made things go bad? Arctic Dreams is a record of that travel, thinking about the relationship between human imagination and the places it finds itself in. There was a lot of attention to the book and it gave me a very large profile as a nonfiction writer. Going on at the same time were these collections of short stories, but they tended to be in the background. Being a National Book Award-winner, having a bestseller, tends to take up more space.
What did you think about that experience? I mean, it's something I see all the time in marketing copy: "National Book Award-winner Barry Lopez" but I don't think many people know what actually happens when you win the National Book Award. Is there a shortlist? Is there a ceremony?
What happens is, about a month or so prior to the National Book Award dinner in New York, which this year is November 15th, the National Book Foundation announces a shortlist, like the Booker shortlist. That list of 4 or 5 books gets a lot of attention, and a lot of people start reading them, and it all builds up until the night of the dinner. Then the finalists all go to the dinner, and the finalist is announced at the dinner. The publisher prints medallions to go on the cover of the book, and you start selling more books.
It changes your life, in the sense that it marks you as someone whose work is taken seriously. It's a boon to you as a writer to have that kind of accolade and attention from your peers. Everyone has their opinion about these awards and prizes, but the National Book Award and the Pulitzer are the two major prizes for fiction and nonfiction, and there's a more literary cast to the National Book Award than the Pulitzer.
How would you compare the prestige or importance of the National Book Award to that of other major literary awards in America?
The major awards for a fiction writer are the National Book Award, the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner. Those three awards are the most prestigious for fiction writers. But it's a funny thing about these awards and when you get them: If you get an award like that when you're young, it can throw you completely out of line, and you begin writing more books that will get awards, instead of writing books that are good. But it's important to realize that life is not a ladder. You don't win a National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize and then win something bigger the next time. Life is just not like that. You have to get straight in your own head that some books will become bestsellers and will be a critical success, and other books will be a critical success and won't be bestsellers, but it's going to fluctuate all over the place. You can't build a life around wanting to make a lot of money or wanting to be well known. It's a prescription for disaster.
Do you have a moment that you would say gave you the greatest satisfaction as a writer?
The image that comes to mind to me when you say that is standing up after having been sitting in a chair in front of the typewriter, when you know it's as good as you can make it. You feel that sense of deep satisfaction. My sense of satisfaction in a book culminates in the final set of galleys, in the conversations with people who were involved in making the book a public thing after it's been a private thing. That's where my satisfaction is. And when I'm on a book tour and doing readings at bookstores and talking with readers and shaking hands, there's a tremendous pleasure for me in that. But again, if you try to focus your energy as a writer on wanting the satisfaction of being praised in public, you're just setting yourself up for disaster.
Is there a story that you'd particularly like to see us do in Bold Type?
Well, I don't have a lot of screen time in my life. I don't have a computer or a word processor, and I only occasionally use the Web, so I don't have a good instinct about what works on that screen. This is an example of a decision where I'll leave it up to someone more savvy than I am.
So you're giving me complete license?
Actually--I don't know if this is the right choice--but the one that intrigues me is "Rubén Mendoza Vega". There's a mentality in that story that is like this way we have of thinking that we can click on words. When you said you appreciated the range of the stories, that was very satisfying for me to hear, because I do think that one of the intriguing things about the book is the range, from the traditional story like "Thomas Lowdermilk", to a more experimental story like is "Rubén Mendoza Vega". The problem is, if you pick a story like is "Rubén Mendoza Vega", people think "Oh, every story in the book must be like this!"
But I think we'd have the same problem no matter what story we picked.
--interview by Anson Lang