Excerpted from North by Frederick Busch. Copyright © 2006 by Frederick Busch. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Frederick Busch
This conversation took place in November 2005. Frederick Busch passed away suddenly on February 25, 2006.
Geoffrey Becker is the author of a novel, Bluestown, and a collection of stories, Dangerous Men. He teaches ﬁction writing at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland.
GB: Both your short story “Ralph the Duck” and your novel Girls feature the same narrator as North. What was it about Jack that made you want to continue working with him?
FB: I couldn’t get his voice out of my head, and after I had written A Memory of War, which was such a different kind of book, so full of complexity, I was hungry to get back to writing a simpler voice. I love his voice. The other thing was the situation where you have a man who is telling the story–so he’s using words–who finds it impossible in his situation to use words. He can’t name his dog. He can’t tell his wife. He can’t tell his friend Bird, his best friend for various reasons, some of which involve his own sins. I was very interested in those paradoxes.
GB: In Girls, he says he’s taking a class to learn to “express himself.”
FB: Exactly. And he can’t. And he won’t.
GB: One of the things that he can’t express is the secret that you begin this novel with.
FB: “In a marriage you have to tell your secrets.” Yet he wanted to have the marriage, and he did love her, and he still loves her.
GB: I think it’s fair to say North is a dark book. And yet something I really admired about it was the humor. I wondered if you were thinking about that.
FB: I’m so glad you found humor in there. I like to think that a lot of my writing has a kind of dark humor in it. Apparently not– according to Judy, my wife. She’ll ask how the writing is going, and I’ll say I’m writing this funny story, and she says, “And then you’ll bring it down and I’ll read it and I’ll start to cry. That’s your idea of a funny story.” I like the idea that you can tell true stories about grown-ups’ lives and still have some kind of humor.
GB: In a setup right out of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet, Merle Davidoff hires Jack to ﬁnd her missing nephew. Even her name, Merle, seems from another era. How consciously were you channeling the world of hard-boiled ﬁction, or of ﬁlms like The Maltese Falcon?
FB: I wasn’t, I was just desperate to ﬁnd a name for her. I’ve never used a Merle. Probably I’d just seen a movie with Merle Oberon. If I was channeling anything, it wasn’t just the 1940s or certain hardboiled writers. I think I was trying to work with the whole genre of the detective story in which you followed, roughly, a form, and yet didn’t resort to the clichŽs of the form. You know, so they don’t meet cute at the bar of the resort when she picks him up and falls into his arms and says, “You big hunk of stuff, I need help ﬁnding my nephew.” Instead he gets interested in her, she gets interested in him, and then as far as he’s concerned, they’re never going to see each other again. Then catastrophe strikes his small life on the Carolina coast and he’s suddenly homeless and without work–he moves from job to job and I think he deﬁnes his life by work–so when they meet up again, it’s because he’s looking for work. I was trying to write the usual, in the sense of the usual private cop story, without using those cliches.
GB: If James M. Cain had written this novel, Merle would have been a femme fatale.
FB: Oh, absolutely. She would have been implicated in the death of the nephew or something like that.
GB: I was glad it didn’t go that way.
FB: Me, too. I was hoping they were going to get together, myself. And they might.
GB: The novel has a palimpsest quality to it, with the past constantly becoming visible to us through some tear in the fabric of the present. For instance when Jack pulls over at the rest stop overlooking the Hudson River and is transported momentarily back to that same field that figures in the opening of Girls, Jack seems almost adrift in time. Did you think of him this way?
FB: Yes. I didn’t realize I was doing it, but I’ve had a project that has been lasting since 1996 or 1997 when I wrote Girls, and then The Night Inspector, and then A Memory of War, and now North. In all these novels, I have been dealing with characters for whom the past is not over, and in whom the past keeps presenting itself with power equal to the present. I was interested in their apprehension and understanding of time, with their contending with time, because I believe that is what art–and literary art–seek to undo and to resist: time. That’s the enemy–to the writer. Not to the characters . . . but maybe to the characters, too. It interested me because it was such a difﬁcult writing assignment to give myself. How are you going to write about these people who are adrift in time, while still anchoring them to a speciﬁc time and place so that the reader (a) understands what’s going on and (b)–most important–cares? There’s no point in writing unless your reader feels something important and strong. That’s what I wanted to achieve. When I ﬁnished North, I felt that I was done with that, at least as a primary concern. That the next book would have to be radically different from everything that’s gone by.
GB: For all his toughness and apparent competence, Jack is also a lousy shot.
FB: I wanted that. I don’t know why I did, but I wanted that from the beginning. Again, I wanted to violate the notion of the cowboy as played by Tom Selleck, or the detective as played by some B-actor on television who is a great ﬁstﬁghter and a great shot, and he can track human spoor better than a dog. I love the idea in Girls, when he’s in a small kitchen with the guy, and he unloads a whole revolver’s worth of ammunition and he can’t hit him, and he virtually scares him into confessing. The same thing here, where he’s got a carbine, he’s got a pistol, you’d think he could take anybody out, he’s totally protected, and he can’t even hit the front of a car from twenty feet away. He’s probably flinching, doesn’t like the shot. I enjoyed that. It’s my sense of humor, I guess. He’s not an ofﬁcial hero.
GB: Let me ask you some craft questions. John Irving claims he doesn’t start writing a novel until he knows the very last sentence. Other writers will tell you they don’t have a clue where they are going, they’ll just get an image, or a voice in their head, and they’ll start writing. How does this work for you? How much do you have laid out in advance, and how much do you ﬁgure out as you go?
FB: I am among the clueless. I usually write something to respond to a question I have about–oh, it could be an image. I may see a man and a woman together in a situation and I want to know why, how’d they get into that situation. I may start in response to a line of poetry–poetry is very important to me–I may start just responding to a rhythm of something I’ve heard. I can’t start unless I know the vocation of the protagonist. I need to know the protagonist’s job, where they edge into the public world from their private world. That’s my own silly habit. And then I write to ﬁnd out what the hell is going on in what it is I seem to be writing. So it’s draft after draft as you try to ﬁgure out why in heaven’s name you wrote this, or are writing this, and what it’s about. What does it want to be about? I’ve come back to short stories six months after beginning them, thinking they were done, realizing that I still haven’t ﬁgured out who the characters were, and I have to rewrite the end, and then finally I knew why that situation matters to me. I’m like a sculptor. I try to ﬁnd what is the shape in the block of wood or the chunk of stone that is to be represented, that’s in it to be expressed.
GB: Do you often ﬁnd that where you begin is not the beginning?
FB: Yes. North did not begin where it begins. Girls did not begin where it began. A Memory of War underwent many, many changes, and The Night Inspector, the same. Most of my novels. I just keep writing until I get it right, or until I think I’ve got it right. No doubt some critic will tell me whether I got it right or not.
GB: It occurs to me that The Night Inspector begins with someone commissioning a mouth.
FB: “No mouth,” he says. I believe that’s the ﬁrst line of dialogue, maybe the ﬁrst line of the book. Because he’s gone to a professional woodworker to make a kind of papier m‰chŽ mask to cover his maimed face, and the man who is crafting it for him was going to make a mouth–a circle through which his lips could speak–and he doesn’t want that. Didn’t want to have a public caricature of a face. But in the end, he says, he made me a mouth. That’s again a story about talking versus not talking.
GB: I used to believe I had a lucky T-shirt. Kent Haruf wrote a novel with a hat pulled over his eyes. Any superstitions involved with your writing process?
FB: I work in a modernized room on the second story of a barn across from the house. I work in a corner that has a blank wall; I keep the blinds and the curtains drawn. Although I live in a beautiful area, I’m really careful not to look out at physical reality. The only pictures I have inside are family photographs and some stuff that my wife has given me, and a poster by Wyeth illustrating Robinson Crusoe, which was a seminal book for me. But I don’t look at reality, because I want to manufacture reality. I don’t know that I have other quirks. I try to write ﬁve or six pages a day.
GB: First thing in the morning?
FB: First thing in the morning. I go to work. Just like grown-ups. I go across the ﬁeld to my workroom and I lock myself in and I go to work.
GB: No e-mail.
FB: I don’t check the e-mail on writing days. No consciousness coming in. Nothing but the characters. When I wrote The Night Inspector, I sat above photographs of New York in the 1860s, which I was writing about, and I just stared at the photographs. I fell into that place–it was a kind of a self-hypnosis. Usually I don’t have anything like that to help me. I just sit down, do the damn work if I can. And if I can’t, I write letters, pestering my friends. I try to make words. You must have a similar experience–I think everybody does. Every time I sit down to work at my computer, I wish I were sitting down at a typewriter. I used to love to pound really hard on a typewriter, so I’d work up a sweat–it felt like manual labor.
GB: Why don’t you do that anymore?
FB: I can’t get a good typewriter that will stay in tune, you know, and produce what I want to produce. My friend Ward Just still writes all of his novels on a portable typewriter. He was a war correspondent in Vietnam, and he keeps it up. I’m a fast typist–I’ve gotten to the point where I like the convenience of the smart typewriter. That’s all I use my computer for. It remembers what I’ve written.
GB: Do you keep any old typewriters around?
FB: All of the tops of the bookshelves in my workroom are littered with the corpses of typewriters I’ve pounded my way through.
GB: So what are you working on now?
FB: I have ﬁnished a book of stories called Rescue Missions, and I am wrestling with a novel I’ve begun, which I think is going to be incredibly difﬁcult to do right, and I expect that to occupy me for the next two or three years. Maybe just ﬁguring out what it is will take a while. I’ve just finished an essay for Harper’s magazine on my older son’s time in Iraq as a combat Marine ofﬁcer, and that was a very interesting and satisfying thing to do, especially now that he’s come home.
1. “It was a warm day for upstate New York but mild compared to where I’d been living. I had gone there to get away from the cold. I thought maybe the cold made me feel the other feelings stronger.” (page 81) Girls, the novel in which Jack and his dilemma are introduced, takes place in the coldest part of winter in upstate New York, and North takes place in late summer in the same region. How does the weather affect Jack? The story? How might North be different if it took place in winter?
2. “Why did you really come back? . . . You were right to stay away. So I mean why really? This is where it all blew up in the air in pieces on you and the pieces never all came down. Why in hell would you ever come back?” (page 67) Why does Jack return to upstate New York, the place he had to leave?
3. Merle Davidoff calls Jack a rescuer. Do you agree?
4. Jack was too late to save Merle’s nephew, but he managed to ﬁnd him. In what ways was this discovery signiﬁcant for Jack? What else had Jack been looking for?
5. How does Jack react to Elway’s illness? How is this a reversal of their roles?
6. “I thought how I had become a specialist in knowing what the people I cared about the most should never know.” (page 172)
Jack keeps grave secrets to protect others. Why does Jack shoulder this burden? Do we all do this?
7. Could Jack and Fanny have saved their marriage, or was their paradoxical secret an insurmountable problem? Do you think Jack could have saved Fanny?
8. Jack reveals his secrets to the reader very slowly and in pieces. Did you trust that he would reveal the whole story?
9. Why does Jack tell Elway the truth about his daughter’s death? Would Jack have told him if he were conscious?
10. One night, Jack abstains from adding sour mash to his coffee and thinks, “If I started in treating myself too generously, I thought, I might come to expect that sort of kindness from me all the time.” (page 127) Why does Jack have trouble being kind to himself?
11. What was Jack seeking in his affair with Georgia Bromell? Was he just looking for her part of the story, or, as she claimed, did he want her for other reasons? What about his affair with Sarah? What did he seek from her? What might he ﬁnd with Merle if he pursues their relationship?
12. Clarence Smith charges that Jack doesn’t like the idea of losing control. He says Jack is control. What hasn’t Jack been able to control? How has his need for constant control influenced his choices?
13. When Jack realizes that Georgia plans to shoot him and not Clarence Smith with the carbine, he says, “Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, why not? On account, Georgia, of my absolutely flat-out not giving a good fucking goddamn. That’s the why and that’s the not.” (page 278) What makes Jack realize he does care if she shoots him? What makes Jack want to live?
14. “How many ways had I betrayed [Elway]? This idea carried over too well to Fanny and our child and to Sarah and other people who had cared about me.” (page 271) In what ways has Jack betrayed them? In what ways has he been loyal and good to them?
15. How has Jack changed over the course of the novel? Do you think he’ll keep his word and be in touch with Sarah and Merle?
16. Sarah tells Jack that he could be a happy person. Does Jack agree with her? Do you agree with her?