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Thinking Like a Painter 

An Interview with
Frederick Barthelme

by Robert L. Hall


Barthelme’s is a literary minimalist (although he might dispute the label) who uses persistent themes and motifs that recur throughout his fiction. Much of his fiction is set in the “New South” of shopping malls and neon signs.  Popular culture references fill his work and, in the process, destroy the uniqueness of his fictional settings, making them seem commonplace.  

He is also, as reviewer James Kaufman puts it, "not particularly interested in plot or story’ but rather ‘in scenes, in snapshots which illustrate such fashionable problems as fear of intimacy, loneliness, hostility, and other sub-clinical manifestations of the modern malaise."

He worked in the art field for several years after completing his undergraduate work, including jobs as an architectural draftsman, an exhibit installer, assistant to the director of the Kornblee Gallery in New York City, and creative director and senior writer at various Houston, TX, advertising firms. His artwork was featured in many galleries in the late sixties and early seventies, including the Louisiana Gallery in Houston, TX (1965, 1967), the Museum of Normal Art in New York City (1967), the Seattle Art Museum in Washington State (1969), and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (1970).


How has your writing life evolved from your childhood?

My father was an architect and my mother an English teacher. We lived on the grasslands outside of Houston, where my father practiced. The family was very talky. Lots of reading and lots of opinions were expressed, and lots of heated discussions—all encouraged by our parents. 

I went to Catholic schools through grade 12, then Tulane, the University of Houston, and the art school at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. I studied architecture and painting, though I was writing privately even as a teenager. 

What were your  first literary ventures?

I moved to New York in 1967, showed visual art at the Museum of Modern Art and various galleries, and got the opportunity to do a book called Rangoon for a small press, Winter House. This was a multi-media thing, with drawings, photographs, short stories, fragments of things, faux essays, whatever I could think of. It was a crossover book, in the sense that it was heavily indebted to a visual art sensibility.  In 1971 I published a second book, War & War, with Doubleday.  This too, was a multi-media, art-based book.  

In 1976, after having worked in advertising in Houston for a few years, I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to study with John Barth, Tony Tanner, Charles Newman, Leslie Epstein, and others.   

How did you start teaching at University of Southern Mississippi and working as Editor of the Mississippi Review?  

When I got the degree in 1977, I took a job at The University of Southern Mississippi, and, after a year or so took over as director of the Center for Writers and editor of the Mississippi Review.

In 1982 I started publishing stories in the New Yorker, working with a wonderful editor there named Veronica Geng, who was a remarkable writer as well as editor. Over the next decade I published thirty or forty stories in the New Yorker, and also a few in Esquire, GQ, etc., as well as the usual run of fine literary magazines. 

From 1984 to the present I have published 15 books of fiction, short fiction, and non fiction, all with good New York publishing houses (Simon & Schuster, Viking-Penguin, Houghton Mifflin, Counterpoint). Reception has been very good—three times I’ve been fortunate enough to have my books featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and all but a couple of these books have been honored as The New York Times Notable Books of the Year. 

Tell us about your current novel, Elroy Nights.    

Elroy Nights is a novel about a middle-aged art teacher. It can be seen as a story about a guy who wants to change his life and can’t quite get it done; or a story about a guy who steps out of line and buys himself a lot of trouble for his effort; or as a story about the enduring power of real, complex, adult love. It’s a meditation on change and on intimacy and on the gulf between youth and middle age. The feeling of a widening gap between the self and others, particularly younger people, that becomes progressively more prominent as one gets older.  

What do you think is significant about your latest novel, Elroy Nights?

I can say that I tend to patch things together, often things that don’t seem to fit, and then to come back later and edit heavily until they fit in seamlessly. I think of this as another method of refreshing the process of writing and thus the product—incorporating material that doesn’t fit, thus forcing yourself to go outside the normal corridor a story might stick to if left to it’s own devices. It’s a process analogous to writing in something your spouse hollers at you from upstairs, or something you hear on television. The job is to keep the text fresh, all the time. 

They call you a "favorite" of Mid-South Region's writers. Why do you think that is?

I don’t imagine I’m a favorite among Southern readers, though I do set most of my work in the South, particularly the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, for which I have a great fondness. 

Describe your writing regimen, stylistic, and technical tools that you utilize.

When I’m writing, I write daily, for hours on end, usually at night—my typical work day as a writer starts at 11 p.m. or midnight and stretches until 6 in the morning. A lot of work I dictate and then transcribe and edit on the computer.  

Tell us about your work with the Mississippi Review.

Mississippi Review is both a print magazine and an online magazine < >. The print version only accepts unsolicited submissions for its annual contest issue. The second issue we do each year usually has a special editor and theme, and the work for that issue is almost always solicited. The online magazine usually accepts unsolicited submissions for theme issues announced on the home page (though we have no new issue now coming out before January 2004). It’s a popular web site; we have about 15,000 visitors per month.  It’s been online since 1995. 

I read where you wrote your first two books as accompaniment to visual art. Do you consider that you write visually? Emotionally, sensually, or how about analytically?  

They were more like springing from a visual art fame of reference, as opposed to a literary frame of reference. I started as a painter and so when I made the first two books, I was still thinking like a painter, particularly the kind of painter (a formalist, a concept artist) I was in those days.

I always have a fondness for the mundane, the everyday, the small pleasures of the routines we all have. I like to write them and think about them, show them for they are, which is, in my view, a great deal more than they appear to be. We are enriched by our everyday lives, and it’s always seemed odd to me that for our literature, not to mention our entertainment, we tend to prefer almost comic book material—heroes and villains, characters that have much simpler lives than we do.

I hear that you write at night?  I recall hearing that old Perry Mason shows were always done at night, so as to catch intensity and dramatic representation accurately. 

I’ve always written at night, usually starting at eleven or midnight, writing three or four hours on a good night. I think the reason is that things are so quiet, all other responsibilities have been dispatched; there’s time and space to get the work done. I think night does have some effect on the content, of course—especially in writing scenes that take place at night.  

What advice can you give other authors to help them with their craft?  

My advice has two parts: (1) write a lot, write all the time, make everything up; and (2) edit like crazy, be merciless with your own work, cut everything that doesn’t really make it for you—if it doesn’t knock your socks off, chances are it won’t knock the reader’s off either.

For more on this please consult The 39 Steps, a primer I prepared some years ago and which is online now at

The Mississippi Writers Page: Frederick Barthelme

The Mississippi Review


Elroy Nights
by Frederick Barthelme
Basic Books, 2003
Hardcover, $24.00 (240 pages)
ISBN: 1582431280




© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Rerserved