Blair Mahoney Interviews John Barth
26 January 2001
I recently wrote to John Barth to ask him a few questions now that his new novel is imminent. This is a verbatim transcript of the exchange. Somewhat disappointingly he wasn't very forthcoming in his responses to my questions, but, as he says, he isn't very keen on interviews:
John Barth: I really don't enjoy interviews -- once every 10 years or so is enough, to measure mind-changes -- and inevitably, with new book from new publisher, there'll be more unavoidable ones than I wish. But a) I'm grateful for your critical attention, and b) my wife & I much enjoyed a prowl through NZ a few years ago. So here're very short answers to yr questions, followed by a batch of "pre-ponses" that I fend off interviewers with and that you're welcome to quote from, as others have done.
Blair Mahoney: Your new novel, Coming Soon!!!, has been coming soon for quite some time now (your last full-length work, On With the Story, was published in 1996). Five years between major works is not unusual (some writers have taken twenty years or more between novels), but I believe the novel was intended to appear in 2000. Are there particular reasons for the delay aside from a writer's desire to continue fine-tuning his work?
JB: Simply didn't get done "on schedule;" see pre-ponses, below.
BM: I understand the new novel addresses the nexus between print fiction and electronic fiction, something you've touched upon previously in your story "Click," published in the December 1997 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. That story was concerned with what you termed "the hypertextuality of everyday life." It strikes me that hypertext was a concept that was waiting to come about so that technology could finally catch up with the aleatory techniques you were using in Lost in the Funhouse more than thirty years ago. This leads to a couple of related questions....
a) Your contemporary and fellow metafictionist Robert Coover has in recent years been an advocate for hypertext fiction as a way of opening up new possibilities for writers. Just as your stories such as "Lost in the Funhouse" anticipated such developments, so did early stories of Coover's, such as "The Babysitter" and "The Magic Poker." You yourself experimented with different forms for fiction, with "Lost in the Funhouse" being intended for print, tape, and live voice. Do you see yourself experimenting with forms such as hypertext, or are commited to the print form?
JB: Entirely committed to print, but fascinated w hypertext etc as metaphor (note that coover, too, doesn't to my knowledge do e-fiction himself).
BM: b) Your story "Click" was also, for a time, published on the online version of The Atlantic Monthly, Atlantic Unbound. In my opinion, somewhat paradoxically, the story, with its faux hyperlinks and computerised subject matter, was actually better suited to print than it was to its online manifestation. Perhaps this is because there is an inherent disappointment in links that don't work, and the links in your story were never intended to. Perhaps, further, although metafictional work such as your own and Coover's (and more recently that of David Foster Wallace or Vikram Chandra) anticipates hypertextuality it is inherently bound to the print medium. That is, in much the same way that an actual landscape may fall disappointingly short of the aesthetic pleasure of a great artist's depiction of it, so hypertext fiction may in its actuality not approach the aesthetic quality of print fiction that approximates it.
JB: I quite agree. (Chandra, by the way, is an ex-student of mine.)
Barth then provided a few interview "pre-ponses":
Q: What's up?
A: New novel to appear next fall from new publisher, Houghton Mifflin. It's called Coming Soon!!! (small caps, 3 exclamation points). Begun in 1995, it was supposed to have been my Y2K novel, but the muses don't sing by clock or calendar (the 1979 novel LETTERS was to have been my Bicentennial book, so I've been here before). CS!!! concerns a gently sinking Chesapeake showboat called The Original Floating Opera II, inspired by & replicative of Adam's Original & Unparalleled Floating Opera in my maiden novel The Floating Opera (1956) -- which was inspired in turn by the actual James Adams Floating Theatre, which toured the Chesapeake from 1914 to 1941 and aboard which Edna Ferber homeworked her Show Boat novel in 1924 and '25. (Ferber, who was amused to call herself "a nice little Jewish girl from Chicago," spooks around a bit in Coming Soon!!! ) More immediately, CS!!! was in-spired by a ruinous hulk that my wife & I caught sight of on our annual school's-out sailing cruise down the Bay in June '95: Its bow bore a battered banner -- CHESAPEAKE FLOATING THEATER JAMES ADAMS II, COMING SOON!!! - and its ETA was given in local tourist brochures as Spring 1995.... The thing has since disappeared without a trace, as I hope the novel will not, although its ETA was likewise a bit optimistic.
A: Houghton will be my fifth American publisher in the 45 years over which my 15 books have appeared. Not all that unusual for a mid-list writer in the USA: Sometimes the publishing house dies; sometimes one's editor dies, or is dumped, or moves to another house and takes a few valued writers along; sometimes one's last few efforts haven't exactly made their publisher's fortune, and so the bid on one's next is shall we say modest, and then some other house makes an offer one can't refuse, perhaps including the reissue of out-of-print items from one's backlist. Given the economics of American trade publishing nowadays, we non-Steven-King types are happy to be in trade print editions at all. To have in print simultaneously all 15 of my serial impositions on civilized attention, as promises to be the case when CS!!! appears and Chimera (1972) is reissued, is gratifying indeed. What makes money for publishers is the "horizontal audience" (lots of readers for a short time); what non-commercial writers hope for is the "vertical audience" (fewer readers per year, but over a longer span of years), and that audience has gotten ever harder to reach the way books are published and marketed nowadays. Perhaps the rise of e-books and the like will change all that; one hopes so, for literature's sake.
Q: What's next?
A: I incline to think of CS!!! as my Latest Last Book -- although I note that the one called The Last Voyage (1991) was followed by Once Upon a Time (1994) and On With the Story (1996). One never knows, especially at age 70, which pause between projects will turn out to be the muse's menopause. Lord knows whether there's yet another novel in my shop, but I envision at least another short-story collection somewhere down the road, to be called And Then There's the One (some books germinate from their titles), and maybe another essay collection (after The Friday Book  and Further Fridays ), to be called maybe Final Fridays? Those Friday-titles, by the way, are from an old habit of writing fiction on Monday through Thursday mornings and nonfiction on Fridays -- and that in turn comes from my teaching years, when my wife & I would meet our last classes in Baltimore on Thursdays and then take off for our weekend place on the Eastern Shore. As a novel grows, its manuscript and notes and related materials get too cumbersome to pack up and haul back and forth, so I'd leave it spread out on my worktable in the city and take a breather on Friday mornings with the muse of nonfiction. Nowadays we're off the academic calendar, and sometimes we declare our weekends in midweek, but the general habit still prevails, even if I declare a Tuesday to be Friday.
Q: Speaking of work routines....
A: Like most but not all of my writer-acquaintances, I write sentences between breakfast and lunch 5 days a week and do life's other things (which for 40-plus years included teaching) in the rest of the day & on "weekends." My workroom is divided into three areas: Creation (one side of a large old grade-school worktable, where I draw out my sentences in longhand with an immortal British Parker 51 fountain pen on looseleaf paper in a binder that dates from 1947, my freshman year at Johns Hopkins), Production (the computer workstation), and Business (in a different chair on the other side of that worktable, where telephone and appointments calendar and file cabinet abide). Teutonic tidiness, to balance the disorderliness of inspiration.
A: I guess I've done half a thousand over the past half century, most of them on college campuses, and I still enjoy doing a few each season, probably because I'm an ex-jazz musician who likes an occasional live audience instead of the merely living one that we writers write for. I quite agree that print-lit is meant to be a silent transaction between author and individual readers, not a group experience like theater and live music. On the other hand, it derives from the great and abiding oral taletelling tradition, and the figure of Scheherazade, yarning through the nights to save her neck, remains my chiefest navigation star.
A: Glad you asked. It's that which not only follows Modernism but follows from it. Postmodernism is tying your necktie while simultaneously explaining the step-by-step procedure of necktie-tying and chatting about the history of male neckwear - and managing a perfect full windsor anyhow. The postmodernist novel is aware of itself as words on paper, a made-up story; aware too of its predecession, what Umberto Eco calls "the already said" -- and yet able to say something new, or differently, and to satisfy our so-human pleasure in hearing a good story. 'Nuff said? Hope so.
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