Name: Greg Gerke
Current publication: Greg Gerke has just published a a new and expanded edition of See What I See on Zerogram Press.
Recommendations: Book: Novel Explosives - Jim Gauer; Film: Jealousy - Philippe Garrel
If you enjoyed this interview with Greg Gerke, visit his website for updates and more information.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I started to write at very different stages.
First, I wrote screenplays that were more descriptive, modeled after Ingmar Bergman’s. A few years later I started writing longer works of fiction—a teacher had pointed out James Salter and somehow I found John Berger and I wrote in thrall to them in tandem, producing nothing interesting. Then I wrote a novel or two novels—and then threw them away. Then Alice Munro, Paula Fox, J.M. Coetzee, and Cormac McCarthy were in my head and I wrote more things to be thrown away.
And then, after I looked at the writer, Lon Otto, especially a piece called “The Milwaukee Poets," I started writing “flash fiction,” which seemed to free something up. Those pieces were the first published and they became part of a book I’ve subsequently disowned. The aforementioned undergraduate writing teacher, the only one I had, Robert Hill Long, was important.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think it has gone in stages. The key for me was reading more widely and reading over a number of years. Coming under the spell of William Gass and then interviewing him was a big event. But also reading more poetry, which I started to do about ten years ago. Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Geoffrey Hill—the verse (and much of their non-fiction) of these poets has been as important as any fiction. Going back to Faulkner after many years away from him was also key. I didn’t know how to read him until I reread the major works a few years ago.
I found my voice by writing shorter pieces that gradually became longer—and by writing essays. But there were years of stepping stones. I guess I found my voice when the form merged with the content in a meaningful way, but I wasn’t aware of that happening.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
My sense of identity is very vague to me—I’m just some guy. There’s nothing else important about me. I’m from the Midwest—does that matter? Maybe someone else might argue that it does, but not me.
Much more important to me is who I’ve read. And I keep looking for new things which I hope will floor me, like a new novel by an Australian writer I’d only know of through twitter. Michael Winkler’s Grimmish. I’m looking forward to those words.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The challenges were not having anything to write about and not knowing how to write—two pretty powerful ones. And now, many years later, inside the pandemic—the main one is just not having the time or concentration to write. Everyone is home much of the time. A few times over the years I’ve been able to write outside, but with all the cell phone conversations and music playing and bees coming to investigate my tea, this has become nearly impossible.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
I think I’ve seen their relationships very differently over the years. I didn’t know anything about style or form when starting, as I think most people don’t because they are so evanescent—they are the “thing” which really keeps one reading in serious literature, but they take years of study to fully contemplate, let alone define. If one is getting the language right, it will take care of the story—plots are for bodies to be buried in, not minds. Now I see everything as style, which is, necessarily, an outgrowth of form. But to back up, the sound is the story for me—which is both a Gassian and a Garielle Lutzian notion. The rhythm of the words, their locomotion. I don’t look for fiction about certain things like romance, The Civil War, or clowns, I seek the style. Any story idea has begun to come later and later—I don’t know where I’m really going until the text (the rhythm of the words) takes me there. I have a vague idea, but it’s not crystalized until there are the words immediately preceding the ones I need to know—those words will tell me where to go, nothing else—I’ve learned to squash the ego that would think to know what I was going to write about in any strict way, at least a little.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
I think I’m much more beholden to observation than research. Everything I read goes into a book, somehow, but I don’t really read for research—I’m reading fiction to see how they did it and how it sounds and maybe to steal some things. I rarely read books or articles about specific “things” or interests anymore, besides art—it’s mostly literature and philosophy or critical pieces on art. I read for the style instead of the information, but they are connected in a diffuse way—when you have enough style, information becomes less important.
For instance, I am interested in the Japanese director Ozu and have read a few of the main books about him published in the US. Then I read the seven pages on him in Gilles Deleuze’s The Time Image—and that seven pages says more to me than all the other books combined and communicates it in a rhizomatic style (though translated). Deleuze has a certain panache, but these other writers were giving information in laconic nearly hack-critic-speak, which are sentences that aren’t breathing to me. I’m much more apt to write about places I’ve experienced than making up imaginary ones—and the same goes with people, though composites will drive some of the real ones nuts—someone will say that’s them, but only the writer will know the truth.
Maybe years ago I thought I had to watch people, but I never had any systematic way of doing it and never took notes. But then I moved to NYC and the whole experience of living there was watching people to learn how to survive. Now everyone is pointed down into their phones, but I live in the memories of the old days.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
I believe my subconscious or muse writes most everything via an aural transparency, which is offered to me. It is jagged and raw. Then comes the real work. But I’m not attached to this version because I’m writing this interview out of my superficial self, not the innermost self who really does the work. I hardly know anymore where a story is really going, the language takes me there. It’s the logic of the language—if that makes sense.
I don’t really think about characters—Gilbert Sorrentino was really good on this, he laughed about writers who thought their characters took on a life of their own. For me, the only character is the writer—and all writing is autobiographical. But I should say it took me many years to get to this point. In Gordon Lishian terms it’s called consecution (each sentence is extruded from the last, as Christine Schutt says, meaning the sounds and ideas and pitch therein), but one finds this in pretty much all the greats, whether Faulkner, Beckett, or Elizabeth Hardwick. In writing fiction, if the rhythm demands that a grammatical rule gets broken, it always gets broken.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My child wakes us up early in the morning, but that’s alright, we are morning people. Because of the pandemic and the small, but full house for the past year, any schedule has gone out the window.
I often do my serious reading for the day in the morning (maybe 45 minutes worth) and then write emails and look at twitter, something I have to switch off from. Everything depends on the state of childcare. I finally wrote something I’ve been meaning to tackle for almost a year, just by taking an hour a day behind a closed door and a blaring white noise machine. Essays have been easier to write since the pandemic, but this was fiction and it seemed impossible, mostly because of the world situation which made fiction feel useless to me for a while.
Writing has to be separated for me, but I’ve molded my life to be a “life in the chair” so I suppose I’ve taken a good step toward often being ready to listen to the muse.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The breakthrough would be going to interview William H. Gass— the greatest living writer in my language at the time (the interview would then be published in Tin House). It was all aspects of the process—the detailed reading and the questions I wrote out, more than half of which were superfluous, but they helped me to study deeply the written word. I felt I had to go see him and sit with him—and I was lucky. He seemed approachable and his voluminous essays, along with the incredible fiction, are the equivalent of a degree, if one studies them. I don’t have a writing degree and so I had to make my way in this direction.
To make a pilgrimage and go to their house and see where they live, how sunlight hits their windows, gives a lasting impression. I’m much more attuned to the ancient ways of apprenticing oneself, where sometimes you sit at someone’s feet and listen—and this was as close as I could get. I really didn’t even need to ask questions, I just had to listen. He and his wife were very kind—what a time.