Excerpted from Preston Falls by David Gates. Copyright © 1997 by David Gates. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.
Q: In Jernigan, you gave us a front-row seat at the unraveling of a self-destructive man. Again, in Preston Falls, we watch as Doug Willis, a successful corporate flack, throws his work and family life into chaos. Why does this topic fascinate you?
A: You mean there are other topics? Well, esthetically, I find the downward spiral a pleasing shape, with comic possibilities all the way to the bottom. And certainly Peter Jernigan and Doug Willis started out as improvisations on some of my own worst qualities. Nabokov once told an interviewer that such characters as Humbert Humbert were "outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral facade--demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out." That's more or less the way I see my guys, though I'd hesitate to assert that kind of big-time moral serenity for fear of putting the whammy on myself. It's easy to dismiss the fascination with self-destruction as morbid and prurient, but I like to think prurience is rooted in moral or ethical or spiritual curiosity. How does evil behave when it really spits on its hands and goes to work? What shall I do to be saved?
Q: We see the destruction of the Willis marriage from both Doug's and his wife Jean's perspective. Was it difficult to write from a woman's point of view?
A: No worse than writing from Willis's, once I got her character up and running. For a couple of years before Preston Falls, I'd tended to write short stories in the female character's voice--I must have done three or four like that--so when I decided this book needed to be opened out beyond Willis's view of things, getting into Jean's head (and body) didn't seem as daunting as it might have. In fact, after hanging out with Willis awhile, I was glad to be there. At one point, by the way, I had the bad idea of doing a full-length section from each of the two kids' points of view as well. I think the nine-year-old son's part was going to be all in dialogue with his shrink. Or was it going to be a Holden Caulfieldesque document that he was writing for his shrink? Some damn fool thing.
Q: You offer a rather bleak picture of what is supposed to be Happily Ever After--kids, a nice house in the 'burbs, a summer home. What happens that ruins the happy ending?
A: I'm not sure Preston Falls has an absolutely unhappy ending, but I know what you mean. Personally, I'm all for family life and disposable income; still, you can't help noticing they don't necessarily make everybody happy, wise and virtuous. In the case of Willis and Jean, the good life turns on them because of their own decisions, though the cards were stacked against them from the get-go. (I ought to know; I stacked 'em myself.) I mean, look at the wretched families each of them came from. Willis brings to the party a stubborn bohemian contempt for the life he lives, which he finances by working at a job he considers, with reason, an affront to his spirit. And Jean, meanwhile...but I shouldn't talk the whole book away.
Q: You actually spent a night in jail once, as Doug Willis does. How much of the novel is based upon your own experience?
A: I used lots and lots of superficial things, then dismantled, recombined them and let them mutate. The book begins with Willis taking a leave of absence from his job; I took leaves of absence from Newsweek to write the book. Willis spends his night in jail after an altercation with a ranger at a state park; I had a similar altercation five or six years back, but I spent my night in jail more than 30 years ago, when I ran a stop sign and the cops found marijuana seeds in the glove compartment. Willis's country house borrows from my own place upstate, but it's based equally on two other houses I've known, and has some features that I've entirely invented. I gave Willis my own .22 rifle, but unlike him I don't carry it around in my truck--which is a Ford and not a Dodge--in order to take coked-out potshots at deer signs. Oh, and I don't have two kids, my marriage isn't on the rocks and I don't smuggle dope in the back of my guitar amplifier. Which isn't a Fender Twin.
Q: 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?
A: And don't forget the car wash and the chicken farm. I doubt all of those supposedly colorful experiences put together have provided more than a couple of details for my fiction. What's important is the cast of mind that led a smart kid--second in his high school class!--to do all this stuff until the prospects started to scare him. The tension between my respectable job in corporate journalism and my bohemian roughneck period is part of what's behind doubleminded characters like Peter Jernigan and Doug Willis. And yes, if anybody calls looking for a string band, you've got that number I gave you.
Q: You weave a lot of song lyrics throughout Preston Falls. Do you listen to music while you write?
A: No, I can't. I tend to focus on it and get distracted, especially if it's got words. Years ago, when I first started writing fiction, I'd sometimes write while playing late-period John Coltrane, the squealing-and-shrieking stuff, on the theory that it would energize me, or that I could somehow piggyback on his creativity, or simply that it was a cool thing to do. I didn't keep it up for long. Now, once in a great while, if I've got some more or less mechanical work to do--typing longhand revisions into the computer, say--I might play something appropriately relentless. Miles Davis, Jack Johnson, the Chemical Brothers and a bunch of coffee got me through a couple of late nights with Preston Falls. And my printer's so antiquated that I was able to listen to all of Parsifal while printing out an early, 750-page version of the novel, tearing the sidestrips off the fanfold paper and numbering the pages.
Q: You have lived through one of publishing's worst nightmares--your original manuscript of Preston Falls, loaded with changes representing a couple of months of work, went up in flames with a number of others in a truck fire. How did the novel change as a result?
A: I guess I'll never know, will I? The hell of it is, in going back over the book, I could remember some of the problems I'd found, but not my brilliant solutions. Fortunately, I had a handwritten draft of a couple of absolutely crucial paragraphs near the end, but the rest of the changes had to be reinvented. I suspect Preston Falls actually ended up a little better as a result of this bizarre disaster. I know that I took out some of my fury by cutting slow stuff I might have been willing to tolerate. But I'd still love to see that lost version now, in sort of the same way I'd love to know if Mallory made it to the summit of Everest, or who really killed JFK.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Nag, nag, nag. Yes, I'm well aware I've got a contract for a book of short stories, thank you very much. I'm trying to rescue an old story that's never quite worked, and I've started a new one that I don't know what I think of. The characters and situation seem promising, but it might be a good idea to make something happen in it eventually.