This line can summarize the plot of nearly any story by David Gates, the most recent of which have been collected, along with a novella, in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. It’s his first book to be published since 1999, and I’ll say right off, each piece is phenomenal. Gates is simply a story-master, and there are few authors alive today who can match him. His writing is feisty and witty and cynical, and also poetic and heartwarming and sentimental. It’s difficult to get all these adjectives to get along together. But Gates gets it right. Every story, every line.
His characters are honest and cruel, gallant and considerate, cowardly and selfish—and self-aware about everything they are. Most of them have lived at one time in New York City, and then have fled to the country, to somewhere they don’t really fit in. They’re well-educated and cultured, artists and intellectuals in a time and society that no longer values education and culture and artists and intellectuals. And so—laid off, underpaid, unemployed, surrendered to mediocrity—they’re bitter. They’re jaded. They’re damaged. And so they’re cheaters, liars, drug users, and drinkers. They’re pretty much awful people. But they’re not murderers, or rapists, or thieves. Not good people, but not bad people. Just people. And they tell their shit-show of a story so well, so compellingly, that we sympathize with them, or at least we suspend moral judgment and chalk it up to: “That’s life. That’s just what people do.”
I reached out to David Gates, who was gracious enough to answer some questions.
Tweed’s: Most of the characters in this collection are breaking up, hooking up, divorcing, or cheating. What are your views on the realities of monogamy?
David Gates: You’d have to ask a social scientist about the realities; in fiction, though, monogamy often gets you nowhere. Without conflict and tension, there’s no story, so writers have to make their characters misbehave, suffer and cause others to suffer. My people don’t seem to get much joy out of their misbehavior in the long run, and sometimes not even in the short run. Tough on them, sure, but satisfying for me. And, I hope, for the reader, who I think likes and expects to get put through the wringer.
Tweed’s: As a reader I will say that I do feel great pleasure in watching your characters make messes of their lives. Why do you think that is? Are we readers sadistic, or is there something deeper going on, in the inner workings of fiction?
David Gates: Aristotle would probably tell you it’s wholesome—a proper purgation of pity and terror. I don’t know about all that, but as a reader I enjoy fiction that makes me tense, and then goes on to resolve the tension in some way, if only in the beauty or the shapeliness of the piece itself. I don’t want all the characters behaving as decently and charitably as I’d like people to do in my real life. Neither you nor I want to read much about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, the good little bunnies, picking blackberries; we want naughty Peter to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden, however nervous we get about the prospect of his being put into a pie. If this makes us sadistic, we’ve got a lot of company. My fiction is short on good little bunnies—that is, characters who are uncomplicatedly “likeable”—and tends to focus on naughty Peters, of both sexes, who sometimes end up in pies of their own making, and sometimes get off with a dose of chamomile tea. Pretty archetypal stuff.
Tweed’s: Well, yes, if you put it that way—and I appreciate the playful way you put it—it seems obvious and archetypal. Besides their misbehavior, another thing your characters don’t seem to get much joy from is their high level of education and vast cultural knowledge. (For example, they make references to obscure musicians and authors, but are then quick to explain the reference, sometimes with embarrassment. They regularly take visits from Upstate or Vermont to NYC to see the opera at the Met, a new exhibit at a museum, or a Broadway show, but they seem to do it as a duty rather than for pleasure. And later in the novella “Banishment” your protagonist seems embarrassed she went to an Ivy League, and changes Yale to UConn on her résumé.) What are your thoughts on being well educated and cultured in a society that no longer values education nor culture?
David Gates: I’m lucky enough to live in a university community and to teach in a writing program. So most of the people I hang out with, and most of my friends elsewhere, are as bookish as I am, and it’s easy to lose sight of the larger culture—sometimes for minutes at a stretch—beyond my garden wall of Penguin Classics and Vintage Contemporaries. Anyhow, I’m not convinced it’s really much worse than ever out there. True, elite culture (I guess we have to call it that) might once have been more visible—Maria Callas, say, on the Ed Sullivan show. But it’s always been a minority taste, and it still commands some respect in the mainstream: hell, in today’s New York Times, M.H. Abrams got the lead obituary. Since you can now buy pretty much any highbrow book or any DVD of an opera, with a mouse-click, an appreciable number of people must continue to want this stuff. We’ve got more serious problems to worry about.
You’re right that some of my characters would agree with the speaker in Donald Barthelme’s story “The Party”: “Is it really important to know that this movie is fine, and that one terrible, and to talk intelligently about the difference? Wonderful elegance! No good at all.” But others do find joy in their highfalutin (and lowfalutin) tastes, like the narrator’s second husband in the novella. She finds this uncanny, but I don’t. She’s not actually embarrassed by her Yale degree, though—she’s quick enough to let the reader know about it. She simply thinks it’s more prudent to say she went to UConn when applying for a low-level job, so as not to seem suspiciously overqualified.
Tweed’s: You clearly know your characters very well. This might have to do with how much time you spend writing your stories—in a previous interview, you said that it can take up to ten years for you to get a story right. Can you elaborate on what it means to get a story “right” and how you go about doing it?
David Gates: I suspected you’d ask me something I couldn’t answer: when it’s right, I just know it, and there’s nothing more I can think to do with it. Of course, once I think I know that, I’ll often go back into it and find tons of problems to fix. By “right,” I mean stuff like the following. Nothing’s extraneous or self-indulgent. The characters are behaving and talking consistently with my understanding of them. The shape, the pace, the rhythm of the story pleases me: I like an odd number of sections, like three or five or seven, and the lengths of those sections need to be graceful in proportion to each other—having two adjacent short sections, for example, often doesn’t feel right to me. Then there’s the ending: it’s right when I can’t imagine the story going on past the conclusion I’ve come up with, and when it lands on a last line that feels inevitable (whatever I mean by THAT). And I try to get rid of anything lazy or formulaic: characters “smiling” or “laughing” or “shrugging” or “looking” or “gazing” or the like. I’m not always successful—even the galleys you’ve seen still have some embarrassments, most of which (I hope) I’ve eliminated from the finished book. I finally stop tinkering when I can’t stand to look at the piece one more time, or when some kind soul takes the thing away from me.
Tweed’s: Well, that was quite a thorough reply for a question you couldn’t answer! That advice can go a long way, and your writing students should consider themselves privileged.
The flip side of knowing when something is “right” is knowing when it is wrong. I’ve read that you didn’t start writing fiction until age 33, and that you wrote two novels before publishing Jernigan. I’m curious about why you never tried your hand at fiction earlier, and about those novels—have you been working on them with the intent to publish them someday, or are they just “wrong,” can’t be made “right,” and destined to never see the light of day?
David Gates: It’s true. When I was the age most of my grad students are now, I was a grad student too, but in literature—I wanted to get a Ph.D. and be a Samuel Beckett specialist. I had no thought, at least consciously, of writing fiction. When I gave up on a straight academic career, I floundered around for a couple of years, pitching Talk of the Town pieces to The New Yorker—none of them took—doing arty cartoons, trying to get editing work. I wrote one or two little “stories,” in which nothing happened. Finally I hit on something, no more than a voice or an attitude at first, which I thought could become a novel, and I decided to dedicate myself to it, for want of anything else; in a year I had a manuscript of 125 pages or so. Then I started writing some stories—no quotation marks, since stuff did happen in them—and began another, more ambitious novel, which I ground away at for a few years. I never could figure out what I was doing with that one, and I began writing what turned out to be Jernigan as a respite from this big, serious project. I’d never try to spiff up and publish those earliest things, in which I was still awkwardly serving my apprenticeship to Beckett, and trust me, you’d never want to read them.