10 Questions for Gary Amdahl
- By Amal Zaman and Danielle Brown
"Clement mothers, Sweet Fathers: the Neanderthals laid their dead in graves and covered them with flowers. This is certain, in all the ways that we can approve certainty. It is also possible to think that they sang, wordlessly, and danced, strangely, while they wept. They were, it continues to be possible to think, big sentimental artistic oafs, without the vocal apparatus, without the right shape of jaw, the right kind of teeth, lips, a tongue that did not loll and flex with the articulate power and grace of our later, superior tongues, without the refined larynx, without the properly extended throat, the almighty hyoid bone, perhaps even without the wish, for more articulate speech or abstract language, and the heaven and hell that ensues. (Because it does, and that is why we speak today of dignity.)" - from Much Ado About Everything, our January 2016 Working Title. Read an excerpt or buy on Amazon, Kobo or Weightless Books.
Tell us about one of the first pieces you ever wrote.
The second play I wrote was produced by a group in Minneapolis, The Illusion Theater, in 1982. (They are still going strong, thirty-four years later.) The play was called Fall Down Go Boom, and it was meant to be funny in every way a play could possibly be funny. My first play, and subsequent plays, were full of ironic humor, lines and scenes sometimes emerging above the laughter-line, usually not quite, but FDGB was written with a cast and director who were doing gags, slapstick, and all kind of vaudevillean movement—sometimes with vaudevillean content, sometimes with version of that humor which had its source in a quintessential moment in American theater: Groucho Marx’s parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude in the middle of another play, Animal Crackers, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind.
The Marx Bros., O’Neill, and Kaufman and Co. stood for everything I wanted my plays to be, with Strindberg dragging me toward hysteria and Beckett toward something I didn’t understand at the time. But FDGB was just clown-crazy, the humor as high and as low as it could go. The first production was everything we hoped for, and I got to see people clutching their bellies, throwing their heads back, and slapping their thighs. My memory has it that some people were actually rolling in the aisles, but they may have been simply caught up in the spirit of the play, and acting along with us. The encore performance was in a different, larger space. The actors seemed to be engaged in some furious roil that no one could make out. The jokes seemed to rise up like thin lines of smoke from a dead campfire. The audience watched the smoke rise and collect at the ceiling and dissipate. A reviewer later said that I ought to be ashamed of myself. There is nothing quite like a life in the theater for megalomania and anomie.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
In 1974 I was reading Conan the Barbarian, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delaney. The language of the latter three has stayed vividly with me. In 1976, I read Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Waiting for Godot, saw the movie version of Long Day’s Journey into Night, and a stage production of Geography of a Horse Dreamers, study which resulted in my first paycheck as a writer (theater critic for the University of Minnesota Daily), and which precipitated me, a few years later, into a decade of play-writing. In 1978, during the summer, I read the major Faulkner, Moby Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, 92 in the Shade, The Sot-Weed Factor, and The Public Burning. I believe I was pretty well formed by then. My method is probably Jamesian and Proustian. Novels that have stayed with me over the long haul are Under the Volcano, Independent People, and Riders in the Chariot.
What other professions have you worked in?
I was a janitor until I was thirty. I’ve worked in three magnificent independent bookstores, all long dead. (See the title story in The Intimidator Still Lives In Our Hearts for an account of what it was like at Dutton’s Bookstore in Brentwood, California.) I’ve taught night school at UCLA, and sometimes temp at the University of Redlands.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
It’s hard to escape the neurochemical vestiges of childhood. When I write, I always think about southwestern Minnesota, where I was born (in a farm house that lacked indoor plumbing), and the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, where I grew up—whether those map-verifiable places have any presence or meaning in the work or not. I mean, on the one hand, as geographical places—the street down which I looked in November of 1963, seeing all the curtains drawn, the intersection over which I presided as crossing guard in 1967 (see Across My Big Brass Bed), the porch on which my uncle was murdered in 1987 (see “Narrow Road to the Deep North”)—they of course have no meaning in and of themselves. (I find literary tourism, of all the tourisms, particularly odious.
As a novelist who lived for years in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old Saint Paul neighborhood, I can tell you there is absolutely nothing there to see or feel or “experience” that will enrich or even inform a reading of The Great Gatsby.) But on the other hand, my brain is soaked in memories of these places. They are as ubiquitous and unremarkable as the self itself—hidden until looked at.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was inspired to write Much Ado About Everything: Oration on the Dignity of the Novelist by an assault on the dignity of novelists made by one of the High Priests of Orthodox Science, Steven Pinker, with a “hear, hear!” from the Dick Cheney of philosophy, Daniel Dennett. I won’t recap the essay’s complaints and accusations except to add that Pinker has gone on “to be associated with” (he insists his guilt is by association only) Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychology Center, from whom and which there are direct links to the American Psychiatric Association, the CIA, “learned helplessness,” and the approval of torture.
Why this length for your work?
All my works find their own lengths. I never have a sense or a plan about how long anything is going to be—not even answers to these questions.
Is there any music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I listen constantly to church, theater, and court music, composed roughly between 1150 and 1950. When I was writing Across My Big Brass Bed, I listened to nothing but Bach’s cantatas. Charles Ives (one of the two Big Insurance men in my life, Wallace Stevens being the other) plays a major role in the essay (as does Stevens). When I was writing my play Dharma Comes to Dinner, which has songs in it, I listened to 20th C British art songs from composers like Britten, Finzi, Grainger, Gurney, Butterworth, Warlock, Elgar, Vaughan Williams. Right now I can’t get enough of Martinů, Janáček, Bartók, Kodály.
If you could work in another art form what would you choose?
I would write and play music.
What did/do you want to be when you grow up?
From very early on, I knew I wanted to either write or draw for a living.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality, Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle, Paul Wellstone’s The Conscience of a Liberal, and the Library of America Collected Poems 1956-1987 of John Ashbery.
Gary Amdahl is the author, most recently, of a novel, The Daredevils, and a play, Dharma Comes to Dinner.