Name: Christopher Bernard
Age: On a good day I feel 45; on a bad day, 65. My actual age seems to drift between these two extremes.
Where are you from: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc:
I have a B.A. in the Humanities, with a concentration in creative writing, from the late, lamented New College of California. I now live in San Francisco with my partner, a Japanese-English translator and interpreter; she and I have two cats and a garden that is struggling in California’s drought.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
It’s been a busy, even hectic, month.
My play, The Beast and Mr. James, about Henry James and World War I, was just given a reading at a local theater that was very successful, thanks to an excellent cast.
Caveat Lector, the webzine I co-edit, organized a performance including music, poetry readings and a short film from local artists, as part of San Francisco’s Litquake; we also launched our fall issue.
I’m gearing up for the publication early next year of my novel Voyage to a Phantom City, by Regent Press.
I’m deep into helping promote my most recent ebook, which appeared in August: Dangerous Stories for Boys.
I just had a poem nominated for Best of the Web (with few hopes of winning, but it’s certainly nice to be asked).
So much activity at one time, at least on the writing front, is rare. I’m grateful for the attention, and hope I live up to everyone’s expectations.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I discovered I enjoyed making up things on paper when I had to come up with sentences using new vocabulary words for my English homework in elementary school in the farm country of eastern Pennsylvania.
The sentences I came up with were often bits of dialogue, or descriptions of dramatic action, or brief lyrical effusions. They seemed to please my teachers, who gave me good grades and jotted encouraging remarks on my homework, except about my deplorable penmanship, which has, if anything, grown even worse over time. By my calculations, I have handwritten at least a million words in my life, many of them illegible!
One day, when I was about nine, after seeing a movie I’d fallen in love with, and afraid I’d never have a chance to see it again (a movie, at that time, was treated as about as worthy of preservation as a newspaper), I wrote down a long, detailed description that went on for pages; it was probably the longest piece of writing I had ever done.
It came out without too much agonizing, and the results might even help me remember my favorite scenes of the monster rising from the sea depths in clouds of subterranean gas, and trashing his way across a Tokyo barely rebuilt from the war. So, despite some self-criticism about my penchant, already clear, for overwriting, I folded it up, stuck it in my desk drawer and lost it during our next move, prompting a sense of despair that I would soon forget and never have a chance to see again my (up to that point) Favorite Movie of All Time—Godzilla. I had no inkling of the monster’s long franchise to come, or of video tapes, DVDs, internet streaming, etc., that would make my memory aid unnecessary if not obsolete.
Around that time I also discovered the first book that completely entranced me as a reader, a collection of stories by Edgar Allan Poe: his blend of horror and terror and probing psychology and rich language left me spellbound.
The combination of pleasure in writing and a desire to emulate Poe led me not long afterward to my first story (“Incident at Tyrone Cemetery” a murder mystery/ghost story), my first poem (“Old Hundred,” about an old, dying, faithful dog), and first play (“The Awakening of Thaddeus,” about a man returning home for the first time after a long term in prison).
My father, who worked in television at the time, also had literary aspirations, and literature and writing were often touched on at the dinner table, so I shared my first stories with him and my mother. Their surprised and even ebullient enthusiasm surprised me.
So I was hooked.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
That is a harder question to answer than it first seems. What does it mean to be a “writer” in America today? Especially a white male writer, which I am.
Does being a writer mean have a successful career? Does it mean being an artist, that is, entirely focused on an inner vision? Does it mean being a social or political commentator or conscience? Is it something different still – or does it mean all of the above? Or does it mean just being devoted to putting words on paper (or screen) in the best way one knows how and, as for the consequences, just hoping the best?
I felt I could technically think of myself as a “writer” after finishing my first long work to my own satisfaction, a short novel called The Hyenas, when I was 29. But this came at the end of a long, complicated, sometimes painful process.
For many years I had a conflicted relationship with writing and “becoming a writer.” I also had had an extremely conflicted relationship with modern American popular, political, and literary culture, a conflict I continue to have to this day.
Though I enjoyed writing in my teenage years so much that it seemed a natural career choice, I was also pulled between a number of different passions (which is not too strong a word for them) for a long time; passions that, partly because of the cultural, social and political revolts of the 1960s, seemed far more important to me than strictly literary pursuits: philosophy, history, psychology, and political science seemed to demand my entire attention for a long time if I was going to get even the slightest sense of what was going on around me and inside me. I was also powerfully drawn to music and in particular composing as a creative outlet alongside the writing of fiction and, above all, poetry.
It was a long time before I discovered that I might be able to combine all of these interests through the writing of literature.
My understanding of literature, since my childhood, has been syncretistic – I see literature as combining as much of the experience of human life as language itself can gather; not as excluding or as purist. This was partly what drove me away from studying literature in American universities when I was younger. Their approach struck me as sterile and suffocating – “academic” in the worst sense of the term. I was much more drawn to the European approach, which seemed broader, richer, and deeper to me. That was what I wanted to do if I was going to be a writer, even though this would put me in direct opposition to the supposed “anti-intellectualism” of American culture and even, to an extent, contemporary literature, which has a difficult time dealing with political and philosophical themes except within a very narrow range.
My opinion regarding the American academic approach to literature I have seen little reason to change over the years, and it was why I never pursued a degree in English literature.
Of course, I couldn’t see the coming of deconstruction, creative writing degrees, and identity politics, though, looking back, something like those were probably all but inevitable, given the intellectual and political climate of the time.
On the other hand, American trade publishing is openly anti-intellectual and has focused almost entirely on commercial success, which has meant a concentration on books that are not intellectually challenging or politically confrontational (or only in ways within a narrow, even constrictive, range) – but this was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to do in my own writing.
I have always assumed that if a modern writer is not making somebody angry, they are not doing their job. A modern writer who pleases everyone is suspect in my eyes. But the hallmark of American publishing is to be loved by as many people as possible; a commendable goal for a person, but an ignoble one for a writer.
(A more accurate word than “anti-intellectual” I think is “anti-philosophical”: American culture tends to resist probing rational investigation of its values, its sense of truth or justice or beauty; it prefers to believe in “emotional spontaneity” as opposed to philosophical examination, which it associates with “old Europe” and especially its arch cultural rival, France.)
So, my fundamental problem was deciding what it actually means to be a writer in the modern world, and then what it means to be a writer in modern America. And that could only be done by deciding what and how I wanted to write, neither of which is obvious or clear. “Write what you know” is the usual advice. But what do I know? “Show, don’t tell,” is the other bit of commonly offered advice. But that is advice for a photographer; words show nothing, they can only tell. If you are a writer you are condemned to telling, not showing.
It took me many years to sort out these issues, and some of them are, for me, still not resolved. For example, the politicization and academicization of modern American literature, both of which I understand, at least in terms of the social forces driving them, and yet also profoundly deplore. To say nothing of the modern triumph of genre over literary fiction, which I find unfortunate, although I continue to believe there will always be readers who prefer a novel that wrestles with reality in new and imaginative ways to a novel whose interest in being entertaining is so narrowly focused that it avoids confronting reality.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
Reading Raphael Sabatini’s Captain Blood when I was ten years old while my family was living in Mexico, in the city of Guadalajara. I immediately set out to write something like it, a 125-page saga about one “Captain Skull,” which was unfortunately stolen by an older friend of mine just before we returned to the States.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I must, of course, just as I have my own face and my own voice, though not as a result of deliberate choice. I’m always puzzled by writers who say they have found their “voice”; whose voice were the speaking with before now? Whatever I do or say will be colored by who and what I am – I can’t escape it. There’s nothing to find; I am it, ineluctably, already.
A writer’s voice or style is characterized by, not only a style of writing, but an intellectual style, a way of approaching and solving certain problems, by choice of subjects, manner of treatment, and the like. The best way to establish a “voice” in that sense, I think, is simply to follow, and trust, one’s instincts.
Once you give up seeking your voice, you may discover you had it all along. (What you may have had before that discovery is a “false voice,” created as a result of imitating successful writers: the way to get rid of a “false voice” is simply to write enough; after your second or third hundred-thousand words, the “false voice” will fall off like a dried-up scab.)
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
By trying many different ones until I got a title that seemed to fit and had the right “music.” That’s the usual process. Sometimes it takes time and struggle; sometimes it comes quickly, may even be the first thing I think of for a piece. I’m jealous of my titles. The contractual demand that publishers have final say on a book’s title is not one I can accept without a fight; would I let a publisher name my children? I think not!
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
There is no message as such, though there are certainly themes – in the case of Dangerous Stories for Boys, I wanted to convey that those years of boyhood between (roughly) 8 and 20 years of age are “the dangerous years,” when young males make their first big decisions and make their first big mistakes, mistakes that no one can stop happening or prevent without consequences easily as bad, or worse, and that can and do affect the rest of their lives; but also that can lead to an early wisdom that the luckier among them can use to grow and thrive.
But I think all men carry the scars of their youth, scars that are the more humiliating in that so many of them were self-inflicted.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
I would say all of the stories are “realistic” in that they either have happened (to me or people I knew) or could happen.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
All of the stories have been so based, either directly or by implication. I don’t want to go into details, as I don’t want the sources of the stories to over-shadow the stories themselves, which I believe are more interesting than their sources. Biography should have the decency to wait until an author is dead before disinterring his inspiration.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
The list of books is very long, but must include at least the following: Poe’s stories, as mentioned. Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” Crime and Punishment, The Possessed and The Brothers Karamazov. Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Joyce’s Ulysses. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Plato’s Republic. The Enchiridion of Epictetus. Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. Walter Kaufmann’s From Shakespeare to Existentialism, The Faith of a Heretic, Critique of Religion and Philosophy and Without Guilt or Justice. Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. Chekhov’s stories. Ibsen’s plays. Beckett’s novels and plays. Sartre’s Nausea. The poetry of Shelley, Keats and Baudelaire. The Portrait of a Lady, “The Lesson of the Master” and “The Beast in the Jungle,” by Henry James. Miguel de Unamuno’s poems and stories and his book The Tragic Sense of Life. The critical writings of George Steiner. The nouveaux romans of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Robert Pinget, Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute. Count Julian, Juan the Landless and Makbara by Juan Goytisolo. Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra. Correction, Concrete, The Lime Works, Extinction and other novels by Thomas Bernhard.
I had no personal mentor, though both my father and my mother gave me very helpful advice when I was just starting. I consider the writers whose books are mentioned above to be my true mentors.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I recently finished several books that have been on my reading list for many years: Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica , Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Orwell’s 1984.
I also re-read Joyce Carey’s A House of Children, one of the most beautiful books about childhood I know.
More recently published books I have read, in my continuing concern with climate change, include William Ophuls’ Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, his Requiem for Modern Politics, and Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall, and, somewhat older, Bill McKibben’s deeply depressing The End of Nature.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
The writer who I have discovered over the last ten years who has interested me most strongly is the Hungarian novelist Imre Kertesz, especially his Kaddish for a Child Unborn and Liquidation. Karl Ove Knausgaard, with his monumental My Struggle (reading his book is akin to an all-night drunk; within a few years, the literary world may be wondering what the excitement was all about – wasn’t it all maybe a pink elephant?). Recently I discovered the work of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccotet (in Derek McMahon’s admirable translations); he just published a short novel with Seagull Books.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
I have two projects, one a collection of poems, not yet titled.
The second is a novel that is more like a book-length prose poem, and that I cannot say much about, except that it’s based on a formal principle and a structural idea I have not myself used before nor seen anyone else use it.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a novel that is interesting, readable and satisfying but doesn’t follow the traditional rules of storytelling. My first novel, A Spy in the Ruins, to a certain extent demonstrates this, or at least tries to; the new novel takes those explorations further. (After Spy, I seem to have needed to prove, to myself at least, my ability to write an old-fashioned story, which resulted in Dangerous Stories for Boys and my next novel, Voyage to a Phantom City, which will be published early next year, in 2016.)
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
If I could make enough money, writing as I like to write, to cover my modest living expenses, I would. But I have a hard time convincing myself the contemporary reading audience is as enthusiastic about the offbeat things that excite me as I am.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
No – I feel a deplorable self-satisfaction with it. That could change with time.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Sheer pleasure in writing words – phrases, sentences, paragraphs, etc., etc. Writing feels like an endless feast that is, paradoxically, endlessly renewed: the more you feast, the more the feast seems to grow.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here is the opening section of the prose-poem novel:
“As I walked out of the landscape into the cube of shadows of the bar, the sun stepped out of the clouds, waved his hat and withdrew. A crowd of eyes turned toward me from the battered counter like a host of flies, not unsympathetic but insatiably curious.
Grumbling, sighs, laughter.
—Pascal, my boy (the portly man said), did Sasha actually say that?
I’d seen it in her eyes. Defiant, sullen, distant, like coins falling down a well. The indifference around her mouth. She’d stopped the hating part, that was one consolation.
—The only time she looked more beautiful was the first time I saw her.
Someone else was nearby: a short blond guy with spider glasses, a bully-type, behind the room divider.
The frost had come early; I’d walked across a mile of it to get here. The sun had been hiding behind a mask of gray wool flecked with crystals of ice sweat.
What I needed now was those random human sounds, grunts of unfocussed sympathy, like the open strings of a guitar.
Anything to hide from the blank I had left behind.
The host of flies immediately became softer, less itchy, yet still hummed. Like warm animals in a barn in the country where I grew up. Or damaged buses in a depot waiting for the mechanic’s whistle.
If I’m humble enough—wasn’t I humble before?—maybe she’d have . . .
But there’s no “she” anymore.
A familiar sound gave out.
—Hey Manny! Look outside!
I couldn’t have been there that long, but all of us could see the winter covering the land. Blinding whiteness, like an enormous bleached sheet falling in great blowing swirls down from the stone clouds.
—There’s nothing beyond that but pitch black, I told Sasha once. She’d been right here, not two feet away, looking at me with that testy expression of hers.
—You wouldn’t want me to go there, would you?
—No, I said, I mean, yes, of course, I would.
—Together? she said.
I looked back across the whiteness.
I’d gone on, in my impetuous, bumbling way.
—Because here, now, everyone can be seen, at all times, in all places. Naked, in theory, forever. So never despair. We’re at least being paid attention to. Which is what many seem to want. Like fame …
Sasha had seemed frightened at that. Her privacy was her most prized possession. And then there was the colossal weight of a psychotic civilization, moving calm as a sleepwalker toward shipwreck. Though they both knew that, about the future, uncertainty was the only security. Even if it was logically sure, by fiat or the rules of Fergus and the brazen cars, or all the signs rushing toward them like a herd of terrified horses.
That had been even longer ago.
—So little wonder you were freaking out, to be detached was to be radically divine: beyond me, at any rate. It was the portly man again. What was he drinking?
The trail of tears some called it, and they knew of what they spoke. The barred lines, black, white, red, painted across their cheeks, the lonely, angry eyes. The astonishing loss of their power.
Perhaps later I’ll learn exactly what the doctrine they lived by was, but for the time being I had to resign myself to the memory of the horses furiously advancing.”
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
The single most challenging part of writing for me was reaching a level that matched my standards in reading at least some of the time. This took a good fifteen years, until I was almost 30, when I finished my first long work – The Hyenas, mentioned above – that met my standards, such as they were, at the time. There are parts of that story I still feel proud of, though others are so deeply mistaken in conception that no skill in execution could have saved them.
The most challenging part of writing for me right now is making connections with editors and publishers. I suspect my own sensibility is not always close that of many contemporary American readers! And my writing does not fall easily into contemporary alternative categories either: feminist, gay, ethnic, political, green, etc.
And yet some readers have been almost embarrassingly enthusiastic about my writing when I have gotten it published. And those sparks of recognition warm the winter nights.
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
Dostoyevsky, despite his manifest faults of style, structure, etc. I periodically reread him, and am left with a feeling of awe and humility. He is the author who first showed me all that literature can accomplish – that there is, and should be, nothing in heaven, earth or hell that is foreign to it. He is the great mongrel of literature, the great antipuritan, the antipurist. He puts most other writers to shame.
I have always felt that Dostoyevsky was Kafka with a backbone; he danced with the devil, but he never let him walk on him, which Kafka I feel too often did.
For Dostoyevsky, as for many of the most important writers of the last hundred years, literature is ultimately a matter of life or death. If it isn’t – if it doesn’t address the living issues of its time, to say nothing of the farce and tragedy of the human condition – it isn’t even the one thing it has no right not to be: interesting.
I have been trying to catch up with Dostoyevsky all my life.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
No, though I did have to a great deal of research for Voyage to a Phantom City.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
I worked with the publisher on the designs.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part, but also the most rewarding, was the revisions. Writing, for me, is 20 percent writing the first draft and 80 percent revising, editing, polishing. Each of these two books, short as they are, took an average of three years’ worth of full-time work to write.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned how to approach the next book.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Be your own hardest critic. Read and study the masters (as old as Homer and Gilgamesh, as recent as Morrison and Kertesz) – and pay no attention to political correctness, though have a delicate conscience, both personal and social; but be a loyal servant of literary rightness. Artistic rightness is, I believe, the ethics of the artist.
There are three rules for writing: Revise it again. Revise it again. Revise it until there is not a single sentence you are ashamed of signing your name to – and be easily ashamed!
To quote a great and demanding literary stylist: “Try every word for its life.”
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Read. Enjoy. And read it again: I deliberately plan my books so there is more to discover on each re-reading.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
No, but the first book I remember being read to me, by my late mother, was The House at Pooh Corner. I was told I was named after Christopher Robin, so I suppose I’m biased.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
What makes me laugh is sublime silliness (Monty Python’s Flying Circus is my gold standard).
What makes me cry? Expressions of profound love.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
Very hard to say: there are so many! At the same time I feel certain I would be disappointed. And I would rather keep my illusions.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
Si dolce far niente. (An Italian expression meaning “So sweet to do nothing.”) For obvious reasons.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
Classical music, which I listen to almost every day – above all the great Romantics, but also modern classical, such as Elliott Carter, Peter Maxell Davies, Thomas Adès. Films, modern art, philosophy, history. And I’m an avid amateur photographer.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
Right now, on TV, Indian Summers. In the past, Mad Men, Foyle’s War, Wish Me Luck, Piece of Cake.
Recent movies: Testament of Youth, Phoenix and Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation. I recently saw Noi Vivi and Addio Kira (the Italian version of Ayn Rand’s We, The Living), on YouTube, which deeply impressed me.
And I’m a fan of film noir.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
My favorite food changes depending on my mood; it seems to go back and forth between Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Indian and Thai.
My favorite colors: saturated colors, earth tones, dark blues. (You didn’t ask this, but my favorite seasons are fall and winter.)
My favorite music: late romantic classical, though I enjoy any music that shows rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic originality and flair, from medieval to Arabic, from blues to folk, from pop and jazz to house and world.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I have composed music on and off all my life (included the libretto and score of an opera), but I would have liked to concentrate on composing if the seduction of writing hadn’t been so strong.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
I had one with Red Room, the writer’s social networking site that is no more, and keep a link to my archive with them:
I also use Caveat Lector’s site as a web home (www.caveat-lector.org) and have a poetry blog, The Bog of St. Philinte.
Link to “Dangerous Stories for Boys”: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B014JT59TY?keywords=dangerous%20stories%20for%20boys%20bernard&qid=1445466129&ref_=sr_1_1&s=books&sr=1-1