Interview with JIM DODGE
by Peter Wild
Still best known in the UK for Fup, Jim Dodge is the kind of writer you prize and cherish (you pass his books out among your buddies who all return them to you with smiles and gratitude and talk of “He’s the man” etc) – and, while Fup deserves all and more of the kudos heaped its way, yo should check out Stone Junction, Not Fade Away and Rain on the River too – because here is a man who firmly believes in quality over quantity. Peter Wild spoke to Jim Dodge and we are very proud to bring you the results!
Peter Wild: You seem to share Pynchon’s feelings towards governmental control (as evinced by him in Vineland and you in Stone Junction). Oh and you said “anarchy doesn’t mean out of control it means out of THEIR control” in “Living by Life”: bearing in mind your own definition of the word (“I hesitate using that fine word because it’s been so distorted by reactionary shitheads to scare people that it’s connotative associations have become bloody chaos and fiends amok, rather than political decentralization, self-determination, and a commitment to social equality”) do you still consider yourself an anarchist?
Jim Dodge: While I still consider myself an anarchist, over the years I’ve somewhat narrowed (or perhaps broadened) it to Reborn-Yet-Again,Taoist Dirt-Pagan, bioregionalista anarchy. I think I’ve also come to understand that freedom resides in being equal to your needs, self-determinism requires self-reliance, and that the “self” is the worst idea of Western Civilization (or at least doesn’t excite my imagination as much as the pantheist notion of an extended, constellated identity, as suggested by genetics, ecology, and a kiss. (Besides, for a pantheist, the Messiah comes every day.)) Clever critters that we humans are, we’ve invented weapons of mass destruction to protect ourselves against mass destruction, and I don’t want anyone to have the power to unleash such powers; thus, I favor radical decentralization of power, with bioregions replacing nation-states. I’m the first and loudest to praise the vision expressed in our constitution, but I think America has become too large and complex to be governed by less than a thousand people, with one of them–the president–having inordinate power. I’d rather see the United States evolve into the United Bioregions, but united only on the basis of mutual aid and dispute resolution. I have this recurring fantasy that America realizes it’s the dominant power on earth and does something that would take boldness, imagination, and soul–announce it is unilaterally disarming its weapons of mass destruction, even its weapons of medium destruction, and limiting weapons to those for personal defense (handguns, long guns, and bazookas–just because I always wanted one).
PW: You spent (and I quote here from a website bio I chanced across) “an uncommonly peripatetic youth as an Air Force brat, living in Texas, Wyoming, Labrador and southern California . . .” Did army life as viewed thorugh the eyes of a child help form your later counter-cultural sympathies?
JD: I was an Air Force brat from age 6-12, but since my father was a flight instructor, we moved about every six months during the Korean War years. Even though our family (Mom, Dad, brother Bob, and me) moved often and I lived what a Russian poet called “a life of farewells,” I enjoyed military life. Perhaps because all military families “rotated” at least every three years, there was a fluid sense of community and people genuinely cared for each other. I admired the men as warriors defending a great nation and I was tremendously impressed with the toughness of the women–their husbands had dangerous jobs at relatively dismal wages; were often gone on Temporary Duty. Elsewhere, leaving Mom to hold the family together; and they had to move the next every two years.
In short, I enjoyed military life, and almost went to the Coast Guard Academy (I was filling out the appointment document, when I came to this question in the Medical Section: When did you begin to menstruate? Then in parentheses it added, “If you’re a male, don’t make a fool out of yourself by answering this question.” And it struck me that was my one reservation about military life: they set the terms of foolishness. And I reserve the right to be a fool at any time, as humans wisely should, just to cover their asses.) Ironically, what kindled my counter-cultural sympathies was my belief in the promise of America, a belief strongly instilled by my K-12 teachers, a belief that was badly shaken when I discovered that African-Americans were not really allowed to vote in some states. Two years later, with Vietnam, the façade of a free America was in tatters, and I understood I hadn’t been told the truth about my country. But rather than become cynical, I asked, as JFK had suggested, what I could do for my country, and decided to become a revolutionary until, indeed, there was liberty and justice for all. What is the point of freedom if you don’t exercise it? Then JFK was assassinated, we went to war in Vietnam, and the rest is sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.
PW: You’re still best known in the UK for your classic short novel Fup, which has become one of those books that become worn with use (making their way from one buddy to another). Is the tale of Fup Duck a source of great pride?
JD: I’m proud of Fup, and gratified that it continues to sell in many languages. I’ve been particularly moved by letters from readers who claimed it greatly eased the deaths of loved ones, especially one from a mother who claimed she read it to her 14 year old son dying of cancer, and that he laughed more than he had since his diagnosis. At the end of the story he smiled at her and said, “See? It’s gonna be all right.”
I’ve always viewed writing as a collaborative act of imagination with the reader, where imagination is taken as the nexus of intellect, emotion, body, and spirit (or intuition, if you prefer). Rexroth called imagination “the organ of communion,” and I obviously concur, thus am grateful when readers feel some connection with my efforts, whether story, poem, essay, rant, or screed. I take credit only for trying to make the transmission as lucid and graceful as I can, which most often means getting myself out of the way and putting what craft I have in the service of the story, poem, etc. I also agree with the poet Robert Duncan that we (tellers and listeners) are all working on the same story/poem. I actively attempt to confine my pride to doing my part well; beyond that—like believing I’m essential to the art, or that my work is misunderstood—lies a realm of peril, mostly of petty ego entanglements, entitlements, and resentments that are more enervating than interesting.
PW: There is (I feel) great wisdom in your writing. (I picked a quote from Fup to demonstrate this: “It just ain’t possible to explain some things. It’s interesting to wonder on them and do some speculation, but the main thing is you have to accept it—take it for what it is, and get on with your growing.”) Is that conscious on your part or (terrible metaphor this but it’s the only way I can think of explaining it!) does wisdom spring up like weeds through the paving stones of your narrative?
JD: I would never claim wisdom for my work, conscious or otherwise, partly because I’m not sure I’d recognize wisdom if it latched on my ass. Wisdom, it seems to me, entails not only knowing what and why, but, just as important, when and how to move understanding into action. I assure you I’m as confounded as most people I know, and if you find wisdom in my work, you do so at your own risk.
PW: You started writing poetry in 1967 and yet your first collection – Rain on the River – only appeared this year. Why the delay? Are there plans to release more?
JD: I needed to write enough good poems for a book, and I was receiving all the ego-gratification I require from publishing fiction. Besides, one of my great teachers was Jack Spicer, and when he said “Hang on as long as you can before you sell out,” I promised myself I would. And I did. Moreover, another early mentor/model was Jack Gilbert, who publishes so seldom it’s always an occasion; he emphasized the importance on concentrating on quality rather than recognition. Besides, I’ve always thought the best poets (and audiences) were local, and I was quite content with readings in the Shasta/northcoast communities and publishing a chapbook once or twice a decade with Jerry Reddan at Tangram Press. I only want to be famous for a 100 miles. I had my moment of American fame with Fup — People Magazine, Good Morning America– and found it distracting to the point of distortion.
PW: I read that you’ve been an apple picker, a carpet layer, a teacher, a professional gambler, a shepherd of five years, a woodcutter and (currently) an environmental restorer (specialising in tree planting, log-jam removal & erosion control). It sounds like the ideal career path for a writer of distinction! How many of these career choices were directed by circumstance (ie you needed the money) and how many were directed by choice?
JD: They were all ways to buy writing time and, the last ten years, to provide for a family. Because my initial practice was poetry, in which there’s no money, I learned early on that there’s two ways to affluence: work to make enough money to buy everything you want, or to not want much. I chose the latter, spending my late 20s and my entire 30s living on a fairly self-sufficient small commune in Western Sonoma County, where we subsisted mainly through hunting, fishing, gathering, and gardening.
The most difficult job was playing poker for a living; sometimes I worked 48 hours straight and returned home with a smaller roll than I’d left with. Also, to gamble I had to go on the road, and I’d seen all the road I needed when I was an Air Force brat. Professional gambling, like being a writer, sounds romantic, but they’re both inside-sitting-down work that demand long periods of intense concentration and edgy intuition. . .and you can lose the night’s gains with a single lapse of attention or a wrong move. Well, that may be a little romantic, but it’s not healthy.
PW: Not Fade Away is your great rock’n’roll novel. It’s got prose you can dance to (if you’re that way inclined). It’s also hugely cinematic. Are there or have there ever been plans to make a movie?
JD: I thought Not Fade Away would make a terrific movie, too, and bought a dozen wallets to prepare for the sluice of Hollywood money that it offers in exchange for humiliating writers, but the only interest came from a little independent company that dropped the option after three years when it couldn’t scrounge up financing. Shows what I know.
PW: Not Fade Away shares a certain kinship with Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (it’s the drugs and the road trip, I suppose). Saying all of that, there’s a meaness to Fear and Loathing that isn’t shared by Not Fade Away – Not Fade Away is as full of life as it is bennies. Would you describe yourself as a “glass is half full” kind of guy?
JD: I felt the same meanness in Fear & Loathing…; when I reread it, I noticed that the journalist and his attorney always laid their worst craziness on the most powerless people–like doorman and maids–rather than folks who could do them damage, and that psychic bullying undercut what is otherwise an astonishingly tight piece of writing. Beating up on the weak finally isn’t as funny or as noble as pounding on the powerful, though I suppose you could make an argument that Hunter T is taking on American social mores in general.
As to your direct question whether I’m a glass-half-full type of guy my glib answer would be “break the fucking glass!” In fact, though, it depends on my mood and who I’m talking to, though in my writing I tend to appeal to the positive and hopeful in human life, partly as a reflex of gratitude for the possibilities presented by this adventure in consciousness, partly because I want to encourage the best within us. Nihilism is easy, cheap, and ignoble; if you want to refuse the glorious opportunities life offers, fine–shut up and destroy yourself. But don’t spit on the gift, or extend your destruction to others.
PW: Given that you teach creative writing and work in environmental consulting as well as writing – is it sometimes hard to find the time to write? Are there enough hours in the day?!?
JD: I’m always sniveling about lacking time to write, but in truth–and I make this point as forcefully as possible with students–the first proof of being a writer is that you make time to practice the art, even at the cost of relationships and livelihood. In my case, my wife Victoria and I adopted a kid ten years ago (Victoria’s sister’s son), about the same time my brother required increased care (he’d lost a leg in a car wreck and later developed diabetes), and in accepting those family responsibilities I realized I would have less time to write. But raising a little human being also had an unforeseen consequence on my writing: it kicked a serious hole in my ambition. Spending time with son Jason was far more interesting and compelling than spending time alone with myself in a room full of language. This proved especially true of long fiction, which for me requires uninterrupted daily stretches of fierce, sustained concentration.
Besides, I burned out a bit writing Stone Junction, which came close enough to making me crazy that I got scared. Also, the novel I want to write next has some daunting narrative demands that, so far, have defeated my meagre abilities. But I haven’t “quit writing” as rumors have it. I’ve been working on poems and essays, which are more conducive to family life than long fiction. But again, true writers make time for their work, whatever the personal or family consequences, so maybe I’m not a true writer, or don’t feel the same press of necessity I did in my 20s and 30s. Also, in adopting Jason I assumed the responsibility of providing for his care, and while I truly enjoyed living by my wits–which is really fairly easy if you don’t need much and live in an affluent society–it isn’t fair to ask a child to rely on your wits. So I accepted a full-time teaching position, with its attendant medical benefits, to ensure the security of a steady income. I enjoy teaching, but I think Gore Vidal was right when he said that teaching has ruined more American writers than alcohol. We’ll see.
PW: You live in the Klamath Mountains with your family, and work a couple of days a week at Humboldt University. Is that a good balance between the country and the city?
JD: As far as I’m concerned, the proper balance between mountains and town is 80:1. However, when Jason enters high school in a few years, we’re moving to what he calls “civilization” for four years.
PW: Jamie Byng at Canongate informs me that you’re writing a detective novel at the moment. Can you tell us anything about it? How’s it going? When can we expect to see it on the shelves?
JD: I’ll confirm its a detective novel, but as my wife noted ruefully, “only in the loosest generic sense.” I’ve just started a sabbatical, the point of which is to face this book’s complex narrative demands. I’m thinking of it as a Texas Steel-Cage Death Match: If I can’t pin it, I’m going to give it up and work on something else. I also have the odd trepidation that if I actually pull it off, and the book is commercially successful, there will be tremendous pressure to write a series featuring the same characters. Other than this scant information, I don’t like discussing work-almost-in-progress.
PW: Have you read anything good recently? Anything in particular you’d recommend?
JD: I did not read a complete new book this year, which is a casualty of teaching (where I read lots of student stories and preparation materials) and writing (where I’m confined to research reading). What little “free reading” time I’ve had has been devoted to revisiting, in more depth, some long poems I particularly admire: Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Snyder’s new Mountains and Rivers Without End and Spicer’s Collected Books (which I see as one long poem).
Fup, Not Fade Away, Stone Junction and Rain on the River are all published by Canongate and can be purchased at a super duper discount price directly from Canongate