FAMILY FRICTION AND “PULP” NON-FICTION:
AN INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER CONLON

by Tony Albarella

I’ve known Christopher Conlon for a period of about one year.  I’ve never shaken his hand, I have no idea what his voice sounds like.  A mutual friend put us in contact and we have since exchanged thousands of words via email.  Our relationship is a product of the modern world in which we live.  Chris and I swap thoughts and dreams digitally.  We are virtual pen-pals.

Foundation
Articles
Media
Photos
Links

One might think, as I have, that surely there is a long list of others better qualified than myself to interview Chris.  I have since come to believe that the precise structure of our friendship, the unique balance of remote familiarity, is the very reason I’m qualified to introduce him to you.

I’m still getting to know Chris.  I gleam little tidbits from our correspondence but primarily I know Chris from his work.  I learn more about him with every story I read and with each essay I experience.  This puts you and me on somewhat of a level playing field.

A true artist can be measured by the amount of soul they graft unto their work…the amount of self they put into their selected medium.  Chris can be found in every phrase he has written.

So by all means, read on and enjoy the opinions and insights of this gifted author.  Find out his point of view on some issues and his thoughts about his work.  But when you are done, delve into his fiction and truly get to know Christopher Conlon.

TA:    Chris, let’s start with a proven adage: to be a writer one must also be a reader.  What authors do you enjoy reading?

CC:   Increasingly, it seems, the dead. When I was in my twenties I made a conscientious effort to keep up with my contemporaries, but with age that seems to have mostly fallen away. Now—closing in on forty—I read and re-read the writers I’ve loved for years, mostly those of a darkly romantic hue: Turgenev has long been a great favorite of mine, and Chekhov. Marcel Proust, greatest of all novelists. The post-World War 2 generation of Americans is also central for me: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Styron—though Styron, unique in this company, is actually alive! I should say, though, that this morbid death-preoccupation of mine seems to apply to fiction only. I do keep up with the careers of living poets. I love Donald Hall, William Heyen, Jack Gilbert, Lyn Lifshin, a few others. All alive and kicking, last I heard.

TA:    When you read the classics, or just something by another author that inspires or moves you, what effect, if any, does that have on your own work?  By that I mean, do you find it a bit intimidating or does it motivate and challenge you?

CC:   I find it inspiring, yes, definitely. Motivating. Challenging. Only bad writers are scared off by great writers. Every piece you read gives you new ideas, new approaches, things you can try in your own context. When Tolstoy was stuck in a story, he would read Dickens. He would read and read until finally he would cry out—in Russian—“Aha! I’ve got it!” And he would run off and finish his own story. Something in Dickens seemed to help release him. It wasn’t plagiarism, it was entering another writer’s analogous creative world and letting it spark his own imagination. That’s why it’s so important for young writers to read, read, read—everything they can get their hands on, but particularly the classics. And that’s what they never want to do. They don’t understand that you can’t grow or mature without knowing what others have done before you.

TA:   Certainly a writer's life experience plays a crucial role in his work.  To what degree do you feel your time and effort as a Peace Corps volunteer has influenced your career?

CC:   Well, I wrote a lot of poems about my Peace Corps experience, and they constituted most of my early publications. I’m talking here 1989, 1990. I’ve rarely written directly of it since, except in an essay called “Proust in Africa,” which Fodderwing Magazine published.

TA:    Do you feel you would be the same writer you are today had you not had this experience?

CC:   It changed me as a person, certainly, that time. I lived in Botswana for two-and-a-half years, in a little village called Tsabong. The middle of the Kalahari Desert. I taught English—my first teaching job. It was a hard life but a good one. More than anything else, I miss the time I had—time to visit friends, time to read, to think. Life is terribly simple in a place like that. It was perfect for me then. I wouldn’t do it again, but not because of any negative feelings toward it—some things work better at twenty-five than they do at thirty-eight, that’s all.

TA:   Your preferred writing format seems to be “first person.”  Why is that?

CC:   I don’t always write in first person, but it’s true that every story in Saying Secrets, and both stories in the chapbook Ghosts in Autumn, do use “I.” All I can say is that I’ve always loved first person as a reader. It has an intimacy, an immediacy, that third person doesn’t quite catch—the sensation of someone grabbing you by the shoulder and saying, “Listen. Let me tell you about this interesting thing that just happened to me.” Plus, it gives the writer an opportunity to experiment with different voices. If you compare the narrative voices of any two stories in Saying Secrets, I think you’ll find they’re quite different. That’s part of the fun, the challenge. In a story called “The Unfinished Music,” which is in Ghosts in Autumn, I needed a highly literate voice for my narrator—she’s a middle-aged professor—but one that was tight, constricted. Emotionally constipated, if I may put it that way. This reflected the woman herself. Whereas a story like “Loving Anne,” in Saying Secrets, required a more mournful, lyrical, emotional kind of voice. My stories are always intimate examinations of people’s inner lives, and who better to describe those lives than the people themselves?

TA:    You have researched and/or interviewed the complete group of "California Sorcery" writers including, among others, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and George Clayton Johnson.  With an interest and background in "Classic" literature, how did you become involved with these so-called "Pulp" authors?

CC:   That goes back to my childhood. They were my first favorite writers. I read fantasy and horror obsessively until I was about sixteen, then made the switch to “real” literature—permanently, I thought. For ten, fifteen years I thought nothing about any of them—they were just faded heroes of one’s youth, you know. Irrelevant. Certainly people I went to college with never heard me say anything about fantasy and horror—I was a terribly stuffy and pretentious young scholar, I can assure you! But when I came to teach where I do now, the Nora School, I found that the established “classics” by and large just didn’t make it for my students. I needed edgier works. So, around 1995, my mind started to move back to those early favorites. I picked up some of them at the library with a degree of trepidation—you’re always afraid that your early heroes will turn out to have feet of clay, you know. But they didn’t.

TA:   Sure, it’s nearly impossible to view any childhood experience we’ve had in quite the same way now.  Did you find these stories suffered somewhat after your rediscovery of them, as an adult?

CC:   I see limitations in them now that I didn’t see then, but then again, rediscovering their work has shown me the limitations of many so-called “literary” writers too—limitations of basic narrative skill, many times. A good pulp writer, if he knows anything at all, knows how to tell a story, and these are wonderful writers. Many literary writers have no idea how to do this. They think that plot and narrative momentum, entertainment, are low on the totem pole of artistic considerations. But they’re not—they’re central. Dickens knew this. So did Shakespeare.

TA:    So it was this revival that led to your renewed interest in their work?

CC:   Yes, in re-reading these writers, I ended up contacting a few. Soon enough I was writing about them, little essays and articles which people seem to like and which have had some success. It’s a way of paying them back. You know, just the other day someone made a snide remark to me, something along the lines of, you know, “Oh, pulp writers. How can you deal in that terrible stuff?” And I thought, Yes, terrible stuff—imagine, books that people actually read!

__

TA:    You have incorporated a wide range of behavioral qualities in creating complex and hauntingly real characters.  Do you ever base a character solely on someone you have encountered, or are these fictional people more of a mix of personality traits?

CC:   Every writer loves a question which is also a compliment, so I thank you. I wish I knew where my characters come from. I’ve never really based a character directly on anyone I knew, though I’ve used traits, obviously. Idiosyncrasies. Habits, turns of phrase. But a lot of it just comes from my own experiences. Most of my male protagonists seem to have lost their mothers early in life, as I did. Alcoholics are everywhere in my work, especially alcoholic parents—and, yes, both my parents were alcoholics. So there are elements of myself, elements of my family. In fact, I sometimes grow a little sick of it—“Oh, God, not another drunken mother character!” But the only hand any writer can play is the one dealt him by life.

TA:   When characters are so richly drawn, it can be easy to assume the writer has lived his work, at least to some degree.  The first person format makes it even easier to jump to that conclusion. Do you ever worry that people will find it difficult to separate the writer from his fiction?

CC:   You might be right, people may think I must be messed up to write such stuff. But people make those assumptions about fiction writers anyway. Every time I introduce the stories of Harlan Ellison to my classes, somebody pipes in with, “Christ, that guy must take a lot of drugs!” Which invariably makes me sad…so few people have much confidence in the human imagination. Or in talent. I suppose because they themselves can’t do what writers do, they assume there must be some weird, mind-altering drugs coursing through us to allow for such creative products.  Though I hasten to add that I don’t believe creative people, per se, are any better or more important than anybody else.  Being able to write a poem is nice, but when my toilet backs up what I need is a good plumber.

TA:   In addition to being a writer of both fiction and non-fiction alike, you also teach literature.  Do you find that the practice of writing enhances your ability to teach?

CC:   I don't think the writing particularly enhances the teaching. In fact, I fear it might work the other way—I’m less patient with student writers, perhaps, than I should be. I gave up teaching Creative Writing—normally considered a plum job for any English teacher—exactly because of that. I grew impatient with all that uncontrolled adolescent angst—I just felt I couldn’t read it anymore. At that age it’s really just about getting their feelings out on paper—a valid-enough goal, by the way. But I want to teach writing, I want them to learn the craft of it. At fifteen, sixteen, you just want to rant about what bastards your parents are.

TA:   How about the flip side to that...do your experiences as a teacher weigh heavily in your writing?

CC:   Well, it’s strange. I was at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival last year and a wonderful, funny poet, Billy Collins, mentioned that it was a odd fact that no poets wrote poems about teaching, even though practically all of us teach. I guess we’re too busy being wounded geniuses to write about our real lives. And I’m as guilty of that as anyone. Someday I want to do a sequence about teaching—I even have the title. I’ll call it Making a Living.  But I’ve not written a word of it. Probably I never will!

TA:   Short story fiction and poetry are two very disparate forms.  When you develop a notion or concept, is it conceived strictly as a poem or short story from inception, or do you alter it to conform to one of these mediums?

CC:   The form seems to come with the idea, and for me it’s a simple equation: if it’s short, it’s going to be a poem; if it’s long, it’s going to be a story. I’ve never had to change the form midway. Character and plot arrive simultaneously—I’ve never understood writers who claim to “start from character,” as if you can visualize characters without visualizing a situation for them to be in. They have to go together or there’s nothing to write about.

I’ll give you an example of how a poem comes from a small idea. Here’s a recent poem of mine, just published in the Baltimore Review. It’s from a sequence, highly fictionalized, about my parents’ early lives.


MY FATHER REMEMBERS ZARIE

Only once in my life did I hear
my father mention the name: Zarie,
he said, drunk in a restaurant. It was
a name I’d never heard before, nor
did I again. But he said it. Zarie,
he said, and went on to a story
I couldn’t completely follow about
this little girl, half a century ago, who
had the distinction of being the only
child in that part of North Dakota
from a family poorer than his. Her
face was always dirty, he said,
her hair a black tangle of rats’ nests,
and she smelled, he could recall that
Okie stink to this day. Once,
I gathered, her dress, this little
eight-year-old’s shredded dress,
literally fell off, just like that, while
she was jumping rope at recess, and
she stood there naked—nothing
underneath—the whole school
too stunned to even laugh.
Between whiskey-and-waters
he remembered gawking at her,
his first nude girl, feeling
a wild pride he’d never known
since, that though his feet were
bare, his pants and shirt were
together and buttoned, warm,
secure, safe as houses.


Now, that is practically a little short story in and of itself. But it’s too small to be a story—written out in prose, it would just be a rather pointless little vignette. So, with a tiny idea like this, I turn it into a poem. The heightened and condensed and intensified language one uses in a poem lifts it into something memorable—or so I hope, anyway.

TA:   You have written for a number of varied and diverse publications.  Do you create with a certain periodical in mind and mold the work to fit, or simply publish a completed story or poem in the format most suited to the subject matter?

CC:   “Literary” writers like me aren’t supposed to consider markets, didn’t you know? For us it’s all “Art.” Ho, ho! Listen, there are only two categories of writer that never consider markets: 1) the kind so famous that they can publish everything everywhere, and 2) the kind so obscure they can’t publish anything anywhere. For the vast middle class, markets are invariably a consideration—but that can be a positive thing. I’ll give you two examples. As we’ve mentioned, I’ve had a fair amount of success with these essays and articles about the pulp writers. Well, if the first one—the “Southern California Sorcerers” piece—had been rejected, never seen the light of day, I would not have written any more. There would have been no point. The fact that there were editors eager to print such pieces encouraged me. It’s not a matter of writing for money or prestige—God knows I have neither!—but just the fact that one’s time isn’t wasted in doing it.

Now, in terms of fiction, it is difficult to continue writing in forms in which you are continually rejected. But I have a steady home for my stories, a journal published in Massachusetts called The Long Story. Wonderful publication, and I don’t say that just because they publish me. But the fact that they do publish me encourages me to write more stories in that form, at those lengths. In fact, without the constant support of that journal’s editor, Peter Burnham, a couple of the pieces in the Saying Secrets book probably would not have been written at all. “Whisper,” in particular, the incest story—my favorite in the collection—well, I just would never have done it. It’s just too much work, too much emotion to go through just to find the story nowhere but at  the bottom of your desk drawer. Now, I never adjust a work to try to fit a particular market—that’s a slippery slope, I think. It’s a mistake to attempt to tailor your work to anybody in particular. But I do consider whether or not there’s a reasonable possibility I might be able to get a certain piece published before I try to write it. Sometimes I’m wrong, of course, and it ends up in the drawer.

TA:   A piece such as "The Map of the World" runs the gamut of the human condition, from moral depravity to the triumph of the spirit.  Do you find these extremes valuable as a means to showcase the range of characterization that you use?

CC:   “Extreme” seems to be a word people often use to describe my writing. Honestly, I think I’m just trying not to be boring! There are great artists of the everyday—I think of novelists like Penelope Fitzgerald and Anita Brookner. But I’m not one. My work doesn’t mumble, it shouts. And, you know, some people don’t like shouting. I just had an e-mail today from an editor of a journal who told me my poems had divided their little reading committee: some “loved” them, others found them “offensive.” I don’t go out of my way to irritate people, but if you write about sexual and violent themes, it’s going to happen. A black woman with whom I used to correspond cut off all contact with me after “The Map of the World”—she felt it was unforgivably presumptuous and insulting for a white man to try to write in the voice of a black woman. But it’s a terribly dangerous thing if we come to believe that any experience is off-limits to any writer.

TA:   That's unfortunate.  And ironic, given that I don't really see "Map" as a racial story.  Aside from the logic of the main character's race due to the Louisville setting, the abuse she endured could conceivably have happened to a person of any ethnic group without altering the main storyline.  The ravages of fire on flesh would result in basically the same look regardless of skin color.  Was there any particular reason for your choice of race and setting in the story?

CC:   I’m tempted to say that I was just being too obvious. Once I had the idea—a story narrated by a horribly disfigured woman, burned beyond recognition—I had to ask myself, “Who would likely be burned in this way, and why?” The idea of a racial hate crime seemed the most obvious. And for that reason, possibly it was a mistake. But the contrast between being black, and then being nothing at all—in the sense that her extreme disfigurement essentially disqualified her from being able to participate in society on any level—intrigued me. She starts out marginalized, then is completely erased. How does a person live like that, under those conditions?

Anyway, a story like “Map of the World” wasn’t generated from a desire to steal anyone’s experience—rather, it came from a newspaper story I saw a few years ago about a summer camp for burned children. The photos haunted me, the terribly ravaged and distorted features on these young kids. And yet they looked so happy, splashing around in the lake with others like them, others who wouldn’t judge them on how they looked. It got me thinking about where people like that go. How they live, and where. Why we never seem to see them passing us on the streets. And I realized I had my narrator.

TA:   You've has success and recognition in many aspects of the field; from articles, interviews and essays to poetry and the short story format.  Do you have any plans to go the screenplay or novel route at some point in the future?

CC:   One of the pains of obscurity is that people don’t realize what you’ve done, because it’s all hidden in that damned drawer I’ve mentioned. I have written novels—two, in fact. I’ve had three agents over the past ten years representing them, but they were always rejected for the same reason: they were, I was told, “uncommercial.” Now, how they would know that without trying to sell the damned things, I don’t know. But there we are. I’m planning on bringing out the first, The Unspoken, a very long novel I wrote primarily in Africa, myself. These new on-line printing services allow for that kind of possibility—in fact, Harper’s just published a letter from me on this very topic [March 2001]. Very few people will ever read the novel, of course, but absolutely no one will read it while it sits in my drawer.

TA:   It’s a challenge for any “obscure” writer to throw his or her soul onto those pages, never knowing when or if the words will make it to others.  So why do you write?  What do you hope to accomplish in your writing?

CC:   I’ll skip the usual writerly answer, which is that you write for yourself. Every writer who claims that is lying—at least if they’re publishing, or trying to publish. The very act of attempting to publish disqualifies the writing-for-oneself-alone answer. No, I want to communicate to people. I want an audience, even if it’s a small one—I don’t want to just be talking to myself in these stories and poems. I want to give others the experience I’ve gotten all my life from reading—which is to wrap someone up into an emotional whirlwind and offer them something so vivid, so real, that the characters and situations spring to life in their imaginations and become almost as real to them as people they actually know and memories they actually have. I see no other point to fiction or to poetry. John Gardner called it the “fictive dream.” That’s what any reader wants, and that’s what any writer wants to be able to give. I don’t know if I’ve done it. I know I’ve tried. And I’ll keep trying.

TA:    Fame is a relative term, but in the general sense of the word, do you have any insight as to why the status of "famous writer" has yet to catch up with you?

CC:   Well, the most obvious answer would be that the New York editors are right and that my work is simply no good. But I have an awful lot of testimony from people whose reputations and judgment I respect to indicate the contrary. But I must admit that I’m a lousy hustler, and that seems to be a big part of who makes it and who doesn’t. Now, there are wonderful writers who do make it—but they’re usually good hustlers, too. They know how to get out there and meet the right people and make a good noise for themselves. Think of people like Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Capote—all master self-promoters. And we all know that there are perfectly atrocious writers who make it, too—also people who can push themselves forward. But you know, at this point, I don’t worry much about it. I think of the big writers out there as being like the big chain stores—you can’t compete. My career is more of a cottage industry, a funky little mom-and-pop store that few people frequent, and which is always in danger of shutting down entirely—but which sells things you can’t get anywhere else. And there are always a few adventurous souls out there who want those strange, exotic, one-of-a-kind  products.

TA:   Well, I for one am proud to be one of those adventurous souls.  Thanks…for the interview, and for the writing.

CC:   Thank you, it was a pleasure and I enjoyed it.


Tony Albarella is a freelance writer whose work appears in Filmfax magazine and on the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation website.