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"I'm just a shameless eclectic."

An Interview with David Galef

 by Robert L. Hall

 

 
 
"People used to look at what I'd published -- it was all over the map, and they didn't know what to make of it.  I guess I'm just a shameless eclectic."

So comments David Galef, Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, on his varied writing: short stories, poetry, non-fiction, humor, scholarly essays, and reviews. At seventeen, he published his first short storyĖin a computing magazine, which paid $120. But it was another two years before he got anything else accepted. Not put off, he continued to write, write, write. 

After he graduated from Princeton, Galef learned Japanese during a year-and-a-half stay in Japan while teaching English in Osaka. Upon his return to the U.S., he wrote for a Japanese-American newspaper in New York City called The Spot. Looking for a column idea, he took some Japanese proverbs and translated them into English. Eventually, he hooked up with an illustrator and put out two collections of proverbs in translation: Even Monkeys Fall from Trees: The Wit and Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs, and Even a Stone Buddha Can Talk: More Wit and Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs.  

In 1989, he graduated from Columbia University with a Ph.D. in English and got a tenure-track job at the University of Mississippi. In 1993, he published a book of literary criticism stemming from his dissertation: The Supporting Cast: A Study of Flat and Minor Characters. 

What kind of niche were you aiming at with that book and what were you trying to say in it? 

It wasnít aimed at only writers, or just readers. It was an attempt to point out how minor and supporting characters hold a story together. Itís the friend who shows up so the girl can cry on his shoulder about a problem sheĎs having, or the accountant with the green eyeshade who worships Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. 

I see--sort of like the short comedic scenes in Shakespeare? 

Exactly. Only they donít have to be comedic. They can be tragic, flat, or anything else. Supporting characters in a story give an aura of realism. 

You also wrote two childrenís books. How are these books different or significant?

I donít think that theyíre especially different from others. I just tried to do a better job than some of what I see out there.

Please describe one of the childrenís stories.

Oneís about a railroad tracklayer and his crew. Originally, the idea was that they got drunk at a saloon, and then laid the tracks through trees, around and up and down crazy places. But drunkenness is somewhat of a taboo subject in childrenís books. So I had the nearsighted railroad foreman accidentally smash his glasses, with the same disorienting effect.

You have a new book out, Laugh Track, a collection of your short stories written over a period of twenty years. Tell us about the first story you wrote thatís in the book.

"The Web of MŲbius" is a short story that I composed a long time ago. Itís about a mental patient whom the reader gradually realizes killed his wife. The story progresses and regresses, and you figure out that the man is caught in a kind of loop, but with a twist, as in a MŲbius strip. 

Do you see a common thread or theme running through the fifteen stories in Laugh Track? 

I donít. If you see one, please tell me. Unless itís that so many have weird premises.

"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" is based on an interesting premise. Tell us about it.

I started with the idea back when copy shops were becoming widespread. I was a writer sending out material, and Iíd walk into one of these copy shops and see reams and reams of material there, with people running off everything in existence...flyers, pages from cookbooks...and the mounds of stuff there made me want to turn back in disbelief and leave. I began to project myself into the mind of a worker in the copy shop. What would she think about all this? How do you function in this type of atmosphere, when you donít have anything in particular you want to copy? My character is someone who doesnít doubt her self-worth, but she doesnít need to copy everything in sight.

I particularly like the scene from that short story where Doria is trapped by a compulsive copier who needs to write (badly in his case) in order to vent his frustration:

The man drew himself up. "Iím a very fine poet."

"Iím sure you are." She looked around for Marvin, but he had stepped into the storeroom for a moment.

"So go ahead, read it."

"I told you, I really donító"

"Read." He placed a hammy hand over her wrist, guiding her hand over the six identical pages. So she read. It was either read or step back to call the police, and it wasnít worth the risk. Keep the customer happy. So she read the poem, twenty lines or so of free verse, stumbling pornography about his second wife. Doria was no poet, but she did have an appreciation for poetry, which this wasnít.

She nodded. "Um, very nice."

The man nodded back eagerly. "I wrote it at one sitting. I write all my best stuff that way. That woman Yvonne, though, thatís a made-up name."

"Oh?" Thank God Marvin returned just then. "Well, itís been pleasant talking with you." She wrenched her hand away and darted back to the storeroom, with its comforting white boxes as barriers. 

So she finds her art? 

Sort of. She starts copying parts of her body, but thenĖwell, I donít want to give away the rest of the story. Letís just say that she runs into every artistís problem: how to keep producing good work. 

Another tale, "Portrait of a Portrayal," is basically, as I see it, about people who like knowledge for knowledgeís sake. What is that all about? 

Well, the main characterís a polymath, but heís also kind of warped. Itís a metafictional portrait; that is, fiction about fiction. You know, the kind of treatment you see in works like John Barthís Lost in the Funhouse. But what I thought Iíd do is to rig up what seems to be a quite reasonable story about a wacky family and focus on one member of the familyĖwhoís sort of tortured into writing. He eventually invents a fictional girlfriend for himself, but she turns out to be not the only fictional construct in the story. 

Some of the quips from "Portrait of a Portrayal": 

ďI opened up Heart of Darkness and read the first ten pages of that (it would never have gotten published in The New Yorker.)Ē

~               

ďSo why did I want a girl? Why did the Man in the Iron Mask ever want to leave his cozy cell?  Didn't he have enough to read in the Bastille?"

~

            ďEricís silence was eloquent.Ē

~

          ď[President] Jackson, it seemed, was a boob and a half, but that just made him all the more popular. You can see it in the classroom; you can see it in politics: America distrusts brains.Ē 

If you had to come up with a short story right now, what would you write about and why? How would you construct it? 

Maybe because Iím working on a novel right now, I find that what I really crave are short-shorts. Itís also a form I push in my beginning fiction workshops. Anyway, an idea Iíve been tossing around, which I eventually hope to commit to the page, concerns a horrible party where the protagonist invites his agent, his dentist, and his therapist. They all come and spend the evening picking him apart. It would be sort of a short dialogue or trialogue or whatever, and I think it would work nicely in a short space. 

What three or four things would you advise writers to include in their works in order to produce quality writing? 

Thatís tough to prescribe. Iím much more comfortable looking at someoneís writing and saying "Do more of this," or "Cut that out." But in general, a clever premise can help, as you pointed out in my collection. Or standout imagery. I see too much of a guy driving to a gas station, filling his car with gas, going to a diner for a meal--rather than describing the meal, giving the guy at least a name and a few personality traits, maybe providing a metaphor for the car...thatís the kind of writing I appreciate. Other than that, Iíd have to fall back on something that Barry Hannah tells his class when they pester him for this kind of advice. He says: "Good nouns and verbs." 

What are you doing, as far as appearances for Laugh Track? 

Iím going to schools here and there, and to bookstores, for readings and signings. 

How about your short and long-term goals? 

The monkey I really want to get off my back is a long-term project, my third novel. Itís about the intersection of a disintegrating marriage in suburbia with a child molester. It cuts back and forth a lot. Itís just going slowly because Iím involved in a great deal of other activities these days. I administer the M.F.A. program at the university, I teach full-time, and my wife and I are trying to raise our son. There are other things besides writing, you know.


David Galef's Bibliography:

 

   Short-Story Collection
 
  Laugh Track
  The University Press of Mississippi,2002.
  ISBN: 1-57806-422-8

 

Novels
Flesh. The Permanent Press, 1995.
Turning Japanese. The Permanent Press, 1998
Childrenís Books
The Little Red Bicycle. Illus. Carol Nicklaus. New York: Random House, 1988.
Tracks. Illus. Tedd Arnold. New York: William Morrow, 1996.
Translations

Even Monkeys Fall from Trees: The Wit and Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs. Illus. Jun Hashimoto. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000. Rpt. of Even Monkeys Fall from Trees, and Other Japanese Proverbs. 1987.

Even a Stone Buddha Can Talk: More Wit and Wisdom of Japanese Proverbs. Illus. Jun Hashimoto. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2000.

Criticism

Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. [Editor and contributor.]

The Supporting Cast: A Study of Flat and Minor Characters. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.


© 2002 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved