A Conversation

Barnes & Noble talks to William Lychack…

Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Lychack:

“For some years I worked as a Judo instructor to learning disabled and autistic kids in New York City. I played and competed in the sport until I was thrown on my head and suffered a fairly serious concussion.”

“For a few summers I drove a Mister Softee Ice Cream truck! That alone warrants an exclamation mark, doesn’t it?”

“And though this smacks of one of those singles’ ads, if I could be anywhere right now I’d probably be in Myanmar (Burma) on Inle Lake. My wife and I have traveled throughout Southeast Asia and have fallen hard for Burma.”

“The sad truth is that there’s not a lot of free time these days. In the last year I’ve published my novel, gone on tour for the book, moved out of New York City after almost ten years there, written freelance pieces, finished a new collection of stories, started teaching at two colleges, and had a baby. So any interests and hobbies that are not essential have fallen away, I’m afraid. To be frank, sleep feels like a hobby or indulgence with a year-old boy in the house. I try to run every other day or so, but that’s about all I can manage. In my dreams, though, if I had to do it all over again, I’d be a landscape painter.”


What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?

So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell — for so many reasons, but mostly because I believe it’s about as perfect and beautiful as any novel could ever hope to be, filled with so much feeling that one senses Maxwell handing over, in one distilled narrative, everything he’s ever loved or cared about in his life. I’d quote it here — put a glorious passage in which the narrator returns home in a dream to Lincoln, Illinois, and realizes that his dead mother is alive somehow behind the door of a particularly lovely house — but I keep giving away all of my copies of the book. I literally buy them seven at a time and hand them out like cupcakes.

What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

bullet Believers and Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter — More than likely, I would be something other than a writer today if not for Charles Baxter and his work. His stories saved my life — not my literal life, of course — but I can’t count the times he’s talked me off a figurative ledge through his work and his support of my work. I love the title novella of the collection, “Believers,” as well as the story, “Cures for Love,” and I often open, at random, the essays in Burning Down the House and read until I find my feet again.
bullet The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald — It’s like traveling inside of dreams for me to read Sebald — don’t ask me where he takes me or where I’ve been, but he’s almost always present to me now when I write or think about writing these days. In my mind, he seems to use ideas and facts as narrative elements in the same way that other writers use action and violence.
bullet A Long Desire and The White Lantern by Evan S. Connell — Perfect, puckish, profound — these are essays that combine beautiful writing with incredible details, all stories about the nature of desire and obsession, all enthralling, all worthy of close study, all deceptively brilliant.
bullet Young Men and Fire by Norman MacLean — Again, my list seems to be marked by narratives in which the writer seems to care deeply about his or her material. Every detail and every sentence in this book is soaked with love for the young smokejumpers as they race against the book’s fire, just as the author races against a parallel fire of his own advancing age. It’s one of the most sustaining books I’ve ever read — gorgeous and lovely.
bullet The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens Van Der Post — Surely, it must be true, everyone has a book or three that truly change their lives. There’s always a context to how the book finds you — a context which probably isn’t that interesting or magical to anyone except yourself — so I’ll spare you the story of how a stranger handed me this book, how forlorn I must have seemed, how lost I was after college. Here’s a brief passage to live by: Van Der Post, who has dreamed from boyhood of finding the nearly-exterminated Bushmen, has just committed to organizing his expedition into the Kalahari desert of what is now Botswana:
In fact all the aspects of the plan that were within reach of my own hand were worked out and determined there and then. What took longer, of course, was the part which depended on the decisions of others and on circumstances beyond my own control. Yet even there I was amazed at the speed with which it was accomplished. I say ‘amazed,’ but it would be more accurate to say I was profoundly moved, for the lesson that seemed to emerge for a person with my history of forgetfulness, doubts and hesitations was, as Hamlet put it so heart-rendingly to himself: “the readiness is all.” If one is truly ready within oneself and prepared to commit one’s rediness without question to the deed that follows naturally on it, one finds life and circumstance surprisingly armed and ready at one’s side.
bullet War and Peace and Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Illych and The Cossacks and anything else by Tolstoy (or Joyce or Flaubert or Conrad or Melville, for that matter).
bullet How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen — Once upon a time, I sat on a panel with Jonathan Franzen and thought he was smart and honest and vulnerable in a completely inspiring and authentic way — and I think these essays are as close to repeating the experience of that evening as I’m likely to get. They’re also quite heartfelt, these essays, which continues to be my criteria as I look back at what this list of mine.
bullet The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, and Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti — Two wonderful and completely unique books by two friends of mine, two books and writers I wish to emulate in my own way.

What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

The truth is that I love certain films for the same reasons I love certain books — that aura of love and respect and care for the material — and at the top of the list I’d have to put the work of the director Jim Sheridan — especially his trilogy, My Left Foot, The Boxer, and In the Name of the Father. Perfect films, to my mind, important and distilled down to their essence of love and grief and, for lack of a better word, truth. Tender Mercies, Raging Bull, My Life as a Dog, Groundhog Day, La Strada — the list is long, actually. We don’t have television in our house, so we listen to a lot of radio and rent a good number of films.

Hardly a year goes by that I don’t watch My Dinner with Andre once or twice. In a previous life, I used to work at a bookstore on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One day Andre Gregory walked in — he was a friend of the owner, Arthur, who kindly introduced me to him — and all I remember now is how I walked all the way home to my apartment in Greenpoint that evening, a three or four or maybe five hour trek over the river, through the undersea streets of Brooklyn, replaying the meeting in my mind, taking in the neighborhoods and shop fronts and voices on the corners, thinking how he told me that everything in the movie was planned and rehearsed and choreographed, which surprised and delighted me for some reason — and still does.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s The Big Lebowski. This will sound arcane, but, somewhere or another, Kundera lectures about how novels should preserve and do what only novels can do — in other words, they shouldn’t aspire to become films — they should celebrate the art form that they are. Now, taken another way, perhaps films should exploit and celebrate their film-y-ness. The Big Lebowski does what only films can do and puts us on a meaningful lark. As a side note, I often invoke “The Dude” when I’m feeling in social peril, and this seems to help in times of trouble.

What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?

I go through phases — as I write this, I’m listening to the soundtrack of The Boxer — but it could just as easily be anything by Tom Waits or Natalie Merchant or Lucinda Williams or Sparklehorse or Glenn Gould. I usually don’t listen to music when I’m writing, actually, unless it’s to tune out some other noise or distraction. And when I do listen to music, I’m usually trying to soldier through some pile of the more clerical and less celebrated duties associated with a writer’s life.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?

Well, we’d want to shoot the big guns. Start with a little confidence builder, like The Brothers Karamazov (because we’ve always wanted to read it), then we’d hit the Civil War trilogy by Shelby Foote (because we all watched him in the Ken Burns documentary and want to spend more time with him and his sensibility), and then our intrepid little book group would start in on Proust (which might take us the rest of our natural lives).

What are your favorite kinds of books to give — and get — as gifts?

In the last few months I’ve given away copies of So Long, See You Tomorrow, of course. And my real favorite to give away lately is a small gem of a book by James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait. It’s a magical glimpse into the process of Alberto Giacometti as told by Lord, who sat for a portrait for eighteen days. Each chapter starts with a photograph of the portrait as it comes in and out of focus, Lord illuminating the various stages of the work — a portrait of a portrait, really, it is funny and heartbreaking and completely encouraging for anyone wrestling with their art.

Other gifts I’ve sent off in recent days: The Great Bridge by David McCullough (a gripping epic about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge); From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler (a fascinating and direct and somewhat practical book about writing and the writing process); A Fortune-Teller Told Me, by Tiziano Terzani (a book I wish I’d written — half spiritual journey, half travel book); The Night Parade by Edward Hirsch (wonderful poems about memory and love).

Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you’re writing?

No real rituals, thank goodness, all I need is some excuse not to write. What I try to do is keep semi-regular hours, try to work every day, and try to remember to keep reading. I’ll sometimes use an egg timer so that I don’t cheat the actual time that I work. And I seem to enjoy having books around, of course, and letters from friends and writers and family on the wall over my desk for encouragement. That said, I do keep a kind of mummified mouse on my computer: a bog mouse: and he speaks to me…

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a novella, The Architect of Flowers, which will (hopefully) be the title story of a new collection of stories due out next year with Houghton Mifflin.
Many writers are hardly “overnight success” stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?

Where do I even begin? I’ve been writing — or trying to write — or focused on writing for almost twenty years now. My novel took more than ten years to finish. I’ve written a lot of other things — children’s books, corporate histories, speeches, journalism, everything that came to me, (for years I wrote book reviews for this very web site) — and I came to feel that The Wasp Eater was life or death to me, that no matter what else happened in my life I had to finish that book before I could move forward. I wrote an essay that’s in the back of the paperback edition of the novel about the process of writing the book, so I won’t repeat myself, but I will add that I feel I’ve come to a realization that other people’s reactions to my work are not what drives the writing for me. In other words, while I want people to find my work and enjoy it, it’s ultimately not for those external, theoretical reasons that I write — love, fame, money, whatever. Besides, writing is so bloody subjective that you have to trust yourself, which is a constant struggle, at least for me. That’s why I pin my latest rejections on the wall, I suppose. After all, they don’t call it submission for nothing, do they? I mean, if I’m honest, everything I’ve ever written has been rejected by someone or another.

If you could choose one new writer to be “discovered,” who would it be?

I don’t know if you’d call him new, but I’d want everyone to know about the work of my friend Tom Andrews, who died a few years ago. Start with a book of poems called, The Hemophiliac’s Motorcycle, then read his memoir, Codeine Diary. One of his poems ends in a prayer and reads, in part:

language must happen to you
the way this black pane of water,
chipped and blistered with stars,
happens to me.

I’ve also been enjoying a book called Brain Work by Michael Guista — he’s alive and well, thankfully.

What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?

What a dangerous question. I hardly feel qualified to give any advice, hardly feel anything like discovered, hardly feel that I would know what it means to be discovered at all, actually. Besides, for someone who had been plagued for such a long time by feelings of fraudulence, it’d just invite the Fraud Police to my door to think that I could say anything about this. To paraphrase Charles Baxter in his contribution to Letters to a Fiction Writer, there’s always someone doing better than you, always someone doing worse, and what’s the measure of any so called success or failure?