Photo by Margaret Brentano
Josephine Reed: That is writer Nicholson Baker--he's just one of the authors who'll be reading at the NEA's Poetry and prose pavilion at this weekend's National Book Festival. Welcome to "Art Works," the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Nicholson Baker is a hard writer to characterize. He won the 2001 National Book Critics' Circle Award in Non-fiction for Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, an impassioned case for the urgency of recognizing old newspapers and books as important historical archives. But then there's his sex trilogy, Vox, The Fermata, and House of Holes... which are exuberantly explicit and beautifully written. Katie Roiphe calls them, "his highbrow dirty books."
His half-dozen or so other novels are deeply anchored in the details of everyday life. Baker is known for his extraordinary observations of the ordinary. His first novel, for example, The Mezzazine--is a daring piece of fiction that takes place during a single escalator ride, while Room Temperature centers around the feeding of a baby. In his 2009 novel, The Anthologist, Baker introduced us to Paul Chowder, a poet who is trying with great difficulty to write an introduction to a poetry anthology. Well, Paul Chowder has returned in Baker's latest book, Traveling Sprinkler. Paul has just turned 55; he misses his girl-friend Roz, and he isn't doing a very good job of finishing his overdue book of poetry. He is a quirky, oddly-endearing character and when I recently spoke with Nick Baker, I asked him to tell me a little more about Paul.
Nicholson Baker: Paul is a guy who is in some ways extremely like me. He grew out of my attempt to say things, certain things that I had to say about meter and rhyme in the history of poetry, and also about a moment in my life in which I was trying unsuccessfully to write an introduction to a book of art from American newspapers that my wife and I were doing. She was doing the book and I had taken the pictures, and all I-- and she was writing the captions; she'd done all the work, and all I had to do was write this introduction to a big, kind-of-fancy art book, and it was so hard to do it, it was-- and I kept putting it off, and struggling with it, and so the novel came out of this effort, this, for a long time, this unsuccessful effort to do something that was really quite small, which is just to write an introduction to something. It's very hard to-- and what he has to do is write an introduction to a book of rhyming poetry, even though he himself is a non-rhyming poet. He wants to kind of look yearningly at the world of rhyming poetry and understand it, and I do, too, so I put a lot of myself in him, although I change the-- well, what I did was go up in the barn where-- we have a big barn, and I made up tunes for some poetry that I liked, and I kind of sang and I recorded myself, and gradually this book just sort of gathered itself and happened out of these monologues that I was saying, sometimes typing and saying, and sometimes just recording into a tape recorder or into a video camera, and it became more fictional, I guess, as I went along.
Jo Reed: What led you to write a character that is so much like yourself?
Nicholson Baker: I think I cannot get too far away from my own life, and it was based on a sense that, a kind of fear, that my dear wife was unhappy with me, because I had-- I'd really stopped writing. <laughs> I'd really-- not because I had writer's block, because I was-- I don't know what that word means, but I was filling lots of paper with words, but I wasn't finishing anything, and it was-- and that kind of terrified feeling that the person who is dearest to you is losing her faith in you-- that was the emotion I think that made me think that I had a novel as opposed to, I guess, a kind of wandering essay.
Jo Reed: And you reintroduced Paul in "Traveling Sprinkler." Why resurrect him? Not that he was dead, but why bring him back?
Nicholson Baker: Why bring Paul back is because I like him, and I think he may be the most complete character I've ever made, and there's a lot of me in him, and I missed him. I was trying to write another book, in fact, last year I was supposed to write another book, and it was a nonfiction book, and I was not doing too well with it, and I started to write it in the Paul Chowder voice, and everything was so much easier. I just-- I like writing-- I like the way he thinks, and I like writing the way he writes. <laughs> It's easy, it's better, it seems to lead me in places that I would like to go. It allows me to have a slight distance between me, Nick Baker-- so it gives me a little escape. I'm not writing an autobiography, but it allows me to say things that are true about me, with just a bit of an escape clause built in.
Jo Reed: Well, one thing that's true about you is the importance of music in your life. In fact, you studied music back in the day.
Nicholson Baker: Yeah, well, I was a high school bassoonist. I picked this instrument because it was beautiful, and it looked complicated and Victorian, and I practiced a lot, and got a little bit better, and I don't know, at some point I found myself overcome by the urge to be a composer, that was my first ambition was to be a classical composer.
Jo Reed: What made you decide to leave music and move to writing?
Nicholson Baker: Well, when you make a decision like that it usually has to do with the realization that you are lacking in talent. That's what was my-- I just suddenly realized that yes, I could probably play the bassoon okay, but that's one sort of proficiency, but the ability to hear complicated things in your head, and turn them into black splotches on the page that other musicians could reproduce, that's another thing entirely, and I realized I just didn't have the mental hardware to do that.
Jo Reed: But writing was something that you felt you had the ability to do, I mean, you were obviously quite correct. What made you think that that would work for you?
Nicholson Baker: Well, it's nice of you to say that I was correct. I just felt that it was something that I'd always-- I'd always liked reading, I guess, and I thought it was a good backup. <laughs> I mean, it's a-- what you want when you're a kid, I think, is to go straight at beauty, go straight at the thing that just grabs you immediately, and music did that for me, but I'd read a lot of-- well, I'd gone through a big science fiction phase. I knew that novels could create this kind of trembly excited feeling when they were good, and I knew that I wanted to put something down on some kind of paper, if it wasn't music paper, then it would be paper with words on it, and so I just decided to go with plan B. This was about when I was-- I guess I made the fateful decision when I was about 18, so I transferred to Haverford College, and was an English major there.
Jo Reed: What writers were you reading when you went to Haverford? Who was it that kind of enflamed your mind at that point?
Nicholson Baker: Well, before Haverford, I think I'd have to put at the top of my list, Vlad, Vlad the Impaler, Vladimir Nabokov. He was the one I read. When I was in high school, I took a class at the University of Rochester and we had to read a bunch of modern short stories, and there was this excerpt from Nabokov's memoir, Speak Memory, and it was so full of truth that it just was fuse-blowingly exciting. So he was sort of the-- I guess the beginning of my writerly ambition, even before I got to Haverford. At Haverford I was an English major, which meant I read what people said was good to read. We started with epic poems like Edmond Spencer's "Fairy Queen," and Milton's "Paradise Lost," things that I would never ever ever have read, and I kind of just convinced myself that they were worth reading, and they were, and there was a lot of good poetry. I read a lot of poetry. I really read almost no prose in college. I think I learned to write prose by reading 17th century poetry.
Jo Reed: Now, after you went to college, you worked at many different jobs, including an office temp, and to my mind, the most unlikely of all is you worked on Wall Street?
Nicholson Baker: Yes. Well, I felt that I wanted to do something out of character, and I had been-- I'd taken a philosophy class, oh, that was just very exciting, taught by Richard Bernstein, who now is at the New School, and my mind just was dancing with all these notions of how knowledge flows through society, and I looked at the stock market, my grandfather was-- sort of played-- actually, the formative experience was he took me to meet his stockbroker at Merrill Lynch when I was a little kid, and then-- and she said, here's a book you should read, and it was a history I think of Lehman Brothers, <laughs> and I read it and it was just fascinating, and it was a whole world I didn't know anything about. So once I got finished with Haverford, I thought, I want to go to New York and be a businessman, and I got my hair cut and my beard trimmed, and wore a tie -- it was the era of dress for success, so I kind of-- within the limits of my budget dressed for success, and convinced this nice man at L.F. Rothschild to hire me to write about the oil industry, and then I realized I was completely out of my depth, and misplaced.
Jo Reed: Were you also writing at the time, or had you kind of put that on the backburner while you were down on Wall Street?
Nicholson Baker: Yes, I put it on the backburner in the sense that I read a lot of research reports, and thought a lot about how stock prices reflect knowledge and all that, but at some point I started writing on my lunch hours, and then my lunch hours got longer. I was writing about a trombonist. I wanted to write about my musical life because it felt as if my life was-- or that side of my life was over, and I was losing it. So I really-- I started writing, I guess you could say furtively, in the cracks and crevices of the day when I was on Wall Street, and then I was sort of semi-fired. I don't-- I think they gently fired me, or conveyed to me that I was maybe not the person for the job, and I felt this enormous relief, and in the two weeks or three weeks after I'd left the Wall Street job, I felt this-- I guess it was just a kind of joyous, an elation of freedom, and I wrote a story, then, about a man who lived in Manhattan and could charge sleep to these teams of professional sleepers. So I wrote this story that ended up getting accepted by the New Yorker, and suddenly I thought I was a short story writer.
Jo Reed: Well, your early work really did have that kind of magical realism to it that shifted as your career continued. What accounts for moving from magical realism to just a very detailed realism that focuses on such details of everyday life?
Nicholson Baker: Well, that's a wonderful question, and I don't know that I've figured it out, but I guess I was dissatisfied at some point with magic realism because it seemed-- well, I thought other people were doing it better than I was, but it was not true, it was not true enough, and I just thought there was more magic maybe to be had in describing what was actually around me, and I'd developed-- by that time I had a lot of notes, and then I-- once I left the job and was kind of trying to make a living, trying to support myself. I was a temp typist, and then a word processor for law firms, and worked for the president of Boston University, I typed his letters, he was kind of an angry, irascible man, and I had all sorts of notes about being in different offices, and I felt it was a world that people hadn't written about, and that's what led to my first book, which was really a kind of celebration of the lunch hour that implied the rest of the business day.
Jo Reed: And we're talking about your first novel?
Nicholson Baker: Yeah, the first novel, it started really as a short story about getting dressed in the morning, which became chapter-- I think, seven of the novel.
Jo Reed: The Mezzanine.
Nicholson Baker: The Mezzanine, right, and the mezzanine was just the place that I worked for L.F. Rothschild, on Water Street, in Manhattan. I rode the escalator up to work and I just-- I mean, once you-- when you ride an escalator to work every day, and then you ride it-- you have to ride it four times a day, you think a lot about life on that escalator, and so that became kind of my guiding moment, or the book is really a book in which the guy just gets on the escalator and thinks about things, more or less, and gets off at the end. I thought that was a useful way of kind of defining a small space of time, and really getting into it.
Jo Reed: It's also a book that has footnotes in it. Now was that confusing for publishers when you first sent that out?
Nicholson Baker: Well, they didn't go for it. There weren't-- footnoting wasn't happening, then, and I had just read Boswell's Life of Johnson, which has wonderful footnotes-- I was fascinated by footnotes, especially the-- I ended up using 1, 2, and 3, and guiding the reader down to the bottom of the page with numbers, but I really loved those strange symbols, the dagger and the asterisk, and if you have more footnotes, you have stranger and stranger printer symbols. So I loved footnotes, and thought that they hadn't been used, and they were useful to me because I had a lot to say about certain things that seemed excessive, and the way to confine excess, or control it is by scooping some of it out and pushing it to the bottom of the page.
Jo Reed: So was it a hard slog to get it published?
Nicholson Baker: Well, I had an agent because of I'd had a couple of short stories then, and she sent it around, and people said, well, it's-- gosh, you know, it's interesting, but it really isn't a novel, and they were confused, and there was some thoughts that the footnotes shouldn't be footnotes, and then so-- no, I mean, it was a hard slog in the sense that I got a bunch of rejections, but I found a publisher, Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, a British publisher was just opening a branch in the United States, and they published me, and it worked out pretty well. I mean, of course it's horrible to get rejections, but I was very used to them. I started sending things out when I was still at Haverford, I was sending-- and there's a whole ritual of sending pieces out to little magazines, and having them come back, and I had a chart and the date that I'd sent them out. So rejection is the norm, and it's part of the fun of it, in a way. I mean, it's a kind of strange sick fun, but getting-- sending things out to the world and having them come back is the rhythm of being a beginning writer, and sort of learning from your failures. So I'd had a lot of failures, and so the fact that the book didn't make it right away was part of the expectation I guess.
Jo Reed: You know, The Mezzanine has always struck me as a pretty bold first book because it is so unlikely, both in its structure and in its content, and typically, authors go for one or the other with the first book, but you really went for both.
Nicholson Baker: It just came out that way. I'm of course pleased to hear you say that it's bold. It felt like the only way to say things. I asked myself, what did I really want to read about this man living his life, and working in this kind of anonymous place with coworkers. Did I want the big plot that was-- that involved insider trading, and or complicated financial machinations? Probably not, I probably wanted to think about the things that I was thinking about, which is the way the drawers rolled when you pulled them. The ball bearings in the drawers were fascinating to me, and the hanging file folders, and the all the kind of local texture of office life, that felt truer, I guess. So, I just felt that I was doing my best to catch what I knew- write about what I know.
Jo Reed: What strikes me so much about that book, your early writings is that detail, the way the chair feels, the coasters feel as you slide the chair for example, or the drawer opening. Those kind of details, the details that make up a daily life, in my experience, an appreciation for that comes-- seems to come with age, at least it did in my life, you know, the realization, the slow realization that it really is, those are the little details that make up life, not those huge shooting stars that of course we all like, but let's face it, they're far and few between. And for you to realize that that young is quite unusual.
Nicholson Baker: Or well that's one way to look at it, and it's a very nice way to look at it, the other thing is that maybe I just didn't know anything useful, know anything to the level that would qualify it as novelistic, about some of the painful things in life, and some of the big dilemmas. I think those are worth writing about, too, and I don't-- I'm not trying to say that only the little things are worth thinking about, it was just that I felt unqualified to write about bigger things or sadder things, momentous things because I hadn't lived through them, but I still feel that there's a lot to be said about that kind of knuckly give that an old doorknob has when you turn it and it doesn't quite turn anything inside its mechanism first, and then it turns-- those almost nonverbal sensations that we're surrounded by, I still feel that we think a lot about those things, and that maybe one job of a writer is to realize that we're thinking about those things, and try to describe them.
Jo Reed: Well, one thing we certainly tend to think about is sex, and you've done, I guess the sex trilogy, three different books about sex over the course of your career, and they're quite explicit, they're funny.
Nicholson Baker: Thank you.
Jo Reed: Are they fun to write?
Nicholson Baker: Oh, absolutely fun to write. The first book I wrote, Vox, I guess it was my 1, 2, 3-- fourth book, and my wife and I had a young child, we were living in a little town in upstate New York. At that point I had written almost nothing about sex, and I had a kind of almost Puritanical feeling that-- of dissatisfaction with the way sex scenes happened in traditional you could say literary novels, which is that people go along with their life, and suddenly they're in this sex scene, and there's a whole different vocabulary, and it's kind of embarrassing, actually. I mean, it would be better if they left that out, I think. So I thought, well just don't leave anything out. Just have the whole thing be a sex scene, or a conversation, but have two strangers kind of grope their way through a conversation that is sexual but isn't sexual. So once I started to have them talking to each other, it became a seduction, became exciting, and it wrote itself very quickly, and of course, it was loads of fun to write because I got to write about some of my own fantasies, some of my wife's fantasies. I got to put in any, you know any, dirty thing that popped into my mind; it just could come right out on the page. So that was fun.
Jo Reed: And you circled back around sex in three novels, then two years later-- Vox came out in 1992, The Fermata came out in ‘94, and then House of Holes, 2011, I think.
Nicholson Baker: That sounds right. Yeah, long time between.
Jo Reed: Yeah. And that's a collection of short stories that are loosely connected.
Nicholson Baker: Well, we like to call it a novel. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yes. Sorry.
Nicholson Baker: But no they're a series of extremely bizarre vignettes that are connected because they're-- it's a group of characters at a sex resort called the House of Holes, and it was written much later than the two other books. Yeah, it's a sex trilogy, but the last one is my-- I guess my autumnal-- I don't want to say farewell to sex writing because it-- sometimes you just get in the mood to write a sex story and it happens, so I don't want to cut off anything, but I really felt that I was putting everything I could think of into that book, into the more recent book.
Jo Reed: Yeah, House of Holes.
Nicholson Baker: Yeah.
Jo Reed: I'd like to get back to your more recently published book, Travelling Sprinkler. Do you mind reading from Traveling Sprinkler, is that possible?
Nicholson Baker: No, I have a brand new, freshly published hardcover of Traveling Sprinkler right here.
Jo Reed: I really like the passage on metaphor.
Nicholson Baker: Okay. <reads from book> "I went outside and sat in the green metal chair and tried to further my understanding of the problem of metaphorical interference. It's a serious problem, at least for me. What is metaphorical interference? Okay, well, it's when two or more strong metaphors are podcasting in the same room together, and they mess with each other, they mix, but not necessarily in the very same sentence the way a classic mixed metaphor mixes. They mix structurally. Say for example, that you decided to mention the traveling sprinkler in your poem, the moment you mention it, it starts to twirl and hiss and spray water everywhere. It becomes a controlling metaphor. There's no help for it, you're going to get wet, but then, say the traveling sprinkler seems to be tightly connected in your mind, perhaps by a long, pale-green hose, to another idea that interests you, which is Debussy's piano prelude, "The Sunken Cathedral." You think you're still alright because one is a real object, and the other is a piece of classical music that contains a metaphor of submergence, but then you remember that some yellow jackets have made their nest in the hollow, plastic handle of the hose reel. This happens to me every summer. I know that if Nan says that if I can set up the sprinkler's hose route around her tomatoes, I'm going to need my hose, as well as her hose, and I know that as soon as I start wheeling the hose reel around and pulling the hose off it, the yellow jackets are going to fly out and dart at me angrily, and sting me as I run away. I don't want to be stung, so I'll debate whether I should boil up a pasta pot of water and pour it on the hose reel handle, destroying the yellow jacket nest. My friend Tim told me about this technique, and I did it two summers ago, before my sister and her family came for lunch at the picnic table, and it definitely worked, but I felt horrible afterward. What right did I have to destroy a whole happy nest of insects, regardless of how annoying they are when they crawl around on potato chips. Now, your poem is in trouble. You've got wasps in the hose reel, you've got the sprinkler twirling at the end of the hose, and you've got Debussy's "Cathedral" sunk under the waves. You've got fish, you've got tomatoes, you're starting to get strange purple interference patterns, fringe moiré patterns at the edges of each metaphor where it overlaps its neighbor. Photographers call this purple fringing, and it's a flaw. This is the moment when your creative writing teacher may say, you've got an awful lot going on here, Paul, maybe you need to pare this poem down, and pick a controlling image.
Jo Reed: <laughs> I loved that passage.
Jo Reed: And that line, now your poem is in trouble was a laugh out loud line for me.
Jo Reed: It's such a wonderful description of a process of writing.
Nicholson Baker: Well, it's the problem. I run into this all the time because I, like every writer, I like metaphors, and I want to use them, but they do kind of get into each other's hair a little bit. I find trying to keep one over here, and one way over there, so that they don't interfere, and in this book, I thought, well, first of all, I thought, well, just I'll be honest up front about this difficulty that I have, constantly, but also I'll just let them interfere, and see what happens.
Jo Reed: Paul is quite cheery, and really kind of optimistic. I love the section in the book where he talks about people really evolving, and that people think war is inevitable and human nature can't change, but then he takes us through capital punishment throughout the ages, and I felt quite heartened by the end of that page.
Nicholson Baker: Oh, well, I'm so glad. I don't feel that the job of the novel is to rub our noses in everything, every wickedness that human beings are capable of. I do think that we-- most of us, at least in my experience, are doing the best we can, and are reasonably nice people, I mean, I don't have a lot of experience with monstrously bad people, so I think that maybe, I just feel that partly, it's just that it's what I know, but also the job of the novelist is to show some of the upper harmonics of human nature, some of the ways that we have gotten better, and can continue to get better, and treat each other better, with more forgiveness, and I-- my character is very impressed by this idea that he sees in his life love Roz, which is loving kindness. I just I really do love that word, lovingkindness, all one word.
Jo Reed: I do as well. Nicholson Baker, thank you. It's a pleasure to talk to you and I very much look forward to meeting you this weekend at the National Book Festival.
Nicholson Baker: Oh, I look forward to meeting you, and thank you for including me on this podcast.
Jo Reed: Oh, thank you. That was author Nicholson Baker. You can hear Nick read from and talk about Traveling Sprinkler at the NEA's Poetry & Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival, this Saturday afternoon, September 21rst. For more information about the festival, go to loc.gov and click on book festival.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.
Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "Foreric," from the album Metascapes. Performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to "Art Works" at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, 2013 National Heritage Award recipient, shape singer, David Ivey.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Nicholson Baker may have written three exuberant sex novels, but he turns to his other passion in his latest book, Traveling Sprinkler: the extraordinary details of the ordinary. [27:30]