Greg Baxter was born in Texas in 1974. He lived for a while in Dublin but now lives in Berlin. While in Dublin he wrote a couple of novels but couldn’t find a publisher. He turned to autobiographical writing and finally found success with A Preparation for Death. This intimate memoir chronicles the dark doldrums he found himself in after his marriage disintegrated: he hated his job, he was drinking too much, ignoring his writing and going nowhere fast. As a piece of self-analysis on self-destruction it showcased a new, honest voice full of, yes, self-pity, but also righteous anger. Interspersed with the hangovers and meditations on creative failure are a number of anecdotal digressions—past escapades in Dublin and Vegas and flashbacks to Texas and Vienna. His recently published first novel, The Apartment, is full of similar branch-offs and wrong turns, encompassing everything from modern-day warfare, classical music, East-West relations and art history and perspective. The book tackles major themes and poses big, at times provocative, questions but deliberately refuses to answer them. The result is an intriguing and perplexing debut that boldly asserts its ambiguities and revels in its open-endedness.
For this interview I met Greg at a café in Berlin. He lives on one side of the city, I live on the other. We compromised and met quite literally in the middle—Berlin Mitte—and he had the following to say.
Malcolm Forbes: What is your creative process? Are you a morning or evening writer or do you follow a 9-5 routine?
Greg Baxter: I wish I knew what my process was because it was totally different for my two books. I think I tend to not write for a long time and when I sit down to write my mentality is I have to finish the book that day. I will work as much as possible, remove all other priorities. I become really difficult to live with. I become totally single-minded with writing and I can work up to 14, 16 hours a day.
MF: It is interesting that your first book, A Preparation for Death, was a memoir. This was some feat. It is seldom that a publishing house will take on a memoir by—
GB: A failed novelist?
MF: Well, I wanted to say an unknown voice. Publishers will rush out a Philip Roth memoir but you had yet to make a name for yourself. What was your trick? What made your memoir so exceptional?
GB: Firstly, I call it an autobiography—I can’t call it a memoir. A memoir is so prejudicial that it becomes difficult to talk about it as a piece of literature. Memoirs have narratives, they are about something, and this was not, it was a collection of essays written in real time. I had given up the hope I had for myself as a career-writer, a novelist, and had come down to the lowest of the low and found I quite enjoyed that feeling of liberation, and so started writing these essays about my thoughts. I was reading a lot of essays and was inspired…I think I just said more than other people would say. It wasn’t necessarily about wanting pity or forgiveness, it was about fearlessness, the idea of having nothing to lose so no one was hurt, and if you are in that situation you can say anything you like. I found as I was doing this I was recreating a foundation, a minimal standard of selfhood I hadn’t really had before, or that I had sold out. My best friend at the time was the editor of the Dublin Review and I gave him each essay until he said let’s make a book. I had no agent. I stopped trying and it kind of took care of itself.
MF: So how did you get the idea for The Apartment?
GB: I started writing it two months after A Preparation for Death was published. I can’t remember how it all came together. I know I was obsessed with this particular job this narrator did.
MF: The Iraq job?
GB: Yeah. It was based on my friend’s job. He is the BH in the book’s dedication. I was intrigued and obsessed by it for a long time, since 2003 or something like that. It was terrifying for me to think war was in some way so orderly and so organized. So that was in my head for what, eight years. But I didn’t have the voice, the plot. And I couldn’t set a novel in Iraq, I wasn’t there. A lot of the book that deals with Iraq actually came from cut and pasted emails from my friend . . .
MF: The book is set in a nameless European capital. A lot of people are wondering where the city is. I see some Berlin in there.
GB: Yeah, it is Berlin, but it’s also Vienna, it’s also Paris, it’s also Budapest. It’s got real elements from lots of different cities and—you know, I went to Bucharest in January and I was like, wow, it’s also Bucharest.
MF: You are deliberately ambiguous, particularly with names. There is Saskia, Mr and Mrs Pyz, a Hotel Rus, and yet none give a real indication of where we might be.
GB: Probably where it is is on the Austro-Hungarian border. There is only one dead giveaway in terms of geographic location and that is the furthest the Ottoman Empire came before they were fought back in 1537 and that was actually the outskirts of Vienna. But I didn’t want it to be Vienna because if you set something in a real city with a man and woman walking round you immediately enter into romantic clichés and I wanted to avoid that. Also I wanted people to struggle at first and become comfortable with not having answers. I am suspicious of the kind of fiction that tries to psychologically find motivations for characters. I wanted people to say there is no answer to why this guy is here, what he has come for. Is that final scene in the apartment a scene of reconciliation or horror? I didn’t want answers to exist and not naming the city was a great way to say on a broad and contextual level that you will not find the answers you are looking for. The whole book is telling you stop psychoanalyzing. People talk about having difficulty naming the city and this is partly because it is illogical. The distances the characters travel, the paths they travel are illogical. I wanted to create a horrifying labyrinth. I wanted to give an idea of inescapability, a kind of Kafkaesque quality to it. It has this contradictory effect of being hopeful and terrifying.
MF: I found a lot of anti-American sentiment in the book. Do you have mixed feelings about the place since moving to Europe?
GB: It’s possible that my relationship with America is a central question to me as a writer. Or maybe that my attitude to living here—you know my grandmother and my father come from Vienna—and so I’m not really sure except that it would have been easy to write an anti-American book because all the clichés are there.
MF: Most of the criticism of Americans comes from the European characters.
GB: This book in some ways came out of a failure to write an essay about my relationship with America and why I had moved. It was a topic that was too complex for an essay so maybe this book came out of it. I was trying to get to the heart of the negativity. The question is how do you feel about where you are from. I don’t know. But it’s something I am clearly obsessed with and trying to deal with.
MF: There is a tendency with debut novelists to incorporate snippets from previous, failed novels and to instill a great deal of themselves in their protagonists, especially their narrator. Is The Apartment completely fictional?
GB: Well no, this job is based on a friend’s job, some of the protagonist’s thoughts are my thoughts. The question of whether there is a lot of the author in a work of fiction is in some ways easy to answer because all fiction is autobiographical. There is nothing that exists outside of our own experiences. You read one of my favorite writers, Thomas Bernhard: when does it ever stop being Thomas Bernhard’s voice? Sebald is the same. The autobiography is for me a liberating way of approaching fiction because . . . I don’t care about plot, coincidences in the way conflicts are resolved and characters are transformed by their experiences. That for me is utterly uninteresting. The only thing I care about is the sort of vertical descent into a character’s thoughts. How deep are we going to go, and to try to find a way to create complexity out of that.
MF: I think it’s fair to say this is a novel of thought. It is not presented as a stream of consciousness but it is a rolling narrative with long paragraphs and no quotation marks.
GB: I’ve never used quotation marks, even when I first started writing. I always thought they were ugly and intrusive and you didn’t need them anyway. I don’t understand what purpose they serve unless you are so bad at dialogue that you have to show who is speaking at all times. This book is not stream of consciousness but it’s based on an illusion of thought. The idea is that hopefully the reader is under a spell and believes this is one thought. Having it be a thought rather than a plot allowed for the digressions, and the digressions are the whole book. I wrote it with far fewer paragraphs and a lot more transitional sentences because when I was writing it I wanted to take it inch by inch, and then in subsequent edits I removed that, realizing it wasn’t necessary. Bernhard is a huge influence but I don’t want to become so influenced by a single writer. It’s funny, the influence people refer to most is Sebald but I don’t know him so well. I do know Bernhard, I do know Kafka . . .
MF: Which leads to a question on influence. Some see it is facile but I’m always interested to know who has inspired a writer. With all the digressions I do see Sebald, especially The Rings of Saturn, and hints of Kafka. Any others?
GB: Well I’m absolutely grateful to be mentioned in the same sentence as Sebald. But even though I talk a lot about people I consider influences, there may be no one I’m more in awe of than Chekhov. In Chekhov’s stories characters say everything and tell you nothing. He offers characters that are tremendously complex because he refuses to search inside them for psychological motivation . . . he refuses to associate the human condition with a quantifiable set of causes and effects. This approach not only allows for but demands contradiction. But beyond books, the other thing is music. I think the book has as much musical influence as it does literary. I mention Bach and I love the Chaconne and always wanted to write about it. I’ve been reading a lot about [Alban] Berg, and Adorno talks about his work as a music of transition rather than a music of conclusions. There is something about that. At no point do you come to a sort of declaration, an end of thought, that one thing is leading on to the next. A lot of the other influences, well, Conrad is a huge influence.
GB: It’s nice to read Conrad and Bernhard together because they contradict each other in a nice way, they are so wonderfully incongruous but also so infectious. You read Bernhard and want to write like Bernhard, so you read Conrad and it tempers it down. I stopped reading reviews on books many years ago—not my own, those of others—because I became aware in many ways that critics can only spot innovation in things they recognize, that they already know about, and that there is a tendency to want to dominate, to understand completely, and we read someone like Conrad and he seems alien to us, and rather than adapting to him we sort of dismiss him but we do so at our own peril.
MF: In terms of Irish influence –
MF: The events of the novel take place in a single day, not unlike events in Dublin by a certain Irish writer.
GB: Yes, I’ve been asked this before.
MF: Purely a coincidence?
GB: A total coincidence. You know I wouldn’t even dare to accept the comparison. You know I love Ulysses, I’ve read it a number of times. You can see it for yourself in my book, I’m not interested in finding the limits of language. Joyce asked that question, he found the limits in so many ways . . . my book is a postmodern book, there is lots of pastiche in it. There is a section on submarines coming out of the water, and life onboard a submarine and, you know, that was taken off a navy recruitment website! But I didn’t want to draw attention to the pastiche-collage quality of the book, I think people can get overwhelmed by their own interest in postmodern influences. I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.
MF: Finally, you previously taught creative writing. There are many skeptics who say creative writing can’t be taught, that it’s either a natural gift or it isn’t. Or that the best writers learn their craft from reading. Can it be taught?
GB: No, you can’t teach it but an aspiring writer can teach his or herself through reading. A person with a certain amount of talent and ambition can make it. I had two creative writing lives. One of them was when I did my own program in Louisiana State University in 1999 to 2001 or 2. Probably the worst experience I could ever imagine. I had to get eight years away from the experience in order to forget or rather deliberately claw the influence of that systematic way of writing out. It was the mentality around creative writing, around the industry and around publishing itself that gets into you. You know it’s good to have ambition but you have to be careful about what the ambition is for because if you have an ambition to publish you will be ruined. If you have an ambition to write then you may succeed. I don’t think about being read and don’t think any writer has an obligation to readers or anything like that. It is a wonderful thing that anybody would want to read you but I suspect that people only want to read you when you don’t really care if you are read or not.
Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.
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