I interviewed John Crowley, author of Little, Big, The Aegypt Quartet [more about this later - that's the news], The Translator, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, Novelties & Souvenirs, The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, and other books.
He's one of my favorite writers and was also, for a little while, my professor. Little, Big is a novel like no other, and you will hear its fans say things like, "best novel by a living writer" or "among the great 20th century novels" or "best novel of the last 25 years" and so forth.
Of particular note is that the 25th anniversary of Little, Big is around now and with Crowley's blessing and participation, some people are putting together what looks like a beautiful special subscription edition. It's expensive but, well - I ordered one. It looks worth it. Here's the site.
Crowley's also well-known for the Aegypt Quartet. Only three of the books have been published so far. The fourth and final one has been eagerly awaited by readers for quite some time. It is finished but unpublished. There is news - like, actual, exclusive news - about that book in the interview below.
Here's John Crowley's personal site (discussed below in the interview) which he started recently and which is updated pretty consistently with fascinating oddities and valuable reading recommendations.
Here's the "official website " Harpercollins set up for him.
Here's a terrifyingly detailed page by a Crowley fan.
Here's Crowley reading at KGB last fall. This was a good reading; I went to it. Afterward everyone went out and ate Chinese food on St. Mark's Place.
And here's the interview:
Me: You have written the fourth and final book in the Aegypt series, but it is not published. This is annoying. For you it is probably more annoying than it is for me. Are there plans to publish it? How long did it take to write the entire series? Will I ever fully understand what is going on in this series if I don't have a deep and comprehensive grasp of Gnosticism?
Crowley: I'm not able to make the official announcement yet – the publisher wants to prepare his/her own press release announcing this momentous thing – but the book is, three years after its completion, at last going to be published, late next spring, from a surprising source. More on my Internet Journal [see below] when this is closer to actuality. My gratification at this almost allays my deep frustration at the delay in the appearance of what has to be described (whatever its other merits or failings) as the most ambitious thing I've done or am likely to do. The series began to be written in 1981, just after Little, Big came out. So that's a long time. (Other things got written in the interstices.) You don't need a deep and comprehensive grasp of Gnosticism (I don't have one) any more than you do to grasp The Matrix. It's a mythology that describes the world we live in as a false or temporary or ad-hoc construction in which we can never feel at home, within which our deepest, bravest, most agonizing and fearfullest feelings – our heart of hearts – are more real than the physical world we seem to be living in. As the imaginary novelist Fellowes Kraft will note in that now-at-last-to-appear volume, this may not be very much like our actual universe, but it's very much like the universe inside novels, made all of words; and the dilemma of characters in novels, who do not seem to be solely made of words, and who can intimate but never really know their state, is one I ponder.
Me: Little, Big has been probably your most popular novel. Harold Bloom considers it canonical and has said it's one of the best novels of the 20th Century. It is soon to be re-released in what promises to be a gorgeous limited edition if enough people sign up for it. What do you think about the fact that this novel gained such a cult following? Do you look back on it with the same love that many readers and critics do?
Crowley: What moves me most about it is that it is still in print, one way or another. There just isn't anything else a writer wants. You can say it doesn't really matter that your book's out of print, that it's got its ISBN and can't be got rid if, but that's like saying your failed marriage or alienated children are just the way of the world. Why is it loved? I think that in the writing I tried to provide for myself all the satisfactions of Edenic wish-fulfillment, including that dash of grief and longing that makes it piquant; and my wish-fulfillments matched other people's, at least somewhat. That, and people found it surprising to have a story of "enchantment" and wish-fulfillment taken so seriously and given such a full-dress literary treatment. Makes the pleasure less guilty. Do I love it as much? I marvel at it – how shameless I was, how I let so much flow out of me without caution. I love that I seem to have got away with so much. It's possible that it will turn out to be the "best" of my books, the best regarded, which is of course a little painful when so many followed and keep on coming. When Vladimir Nabokov was asked what he thought was his best book, he answered, "The next one."
Me: One of my favorite incidental passages in Aegypt describes Pierce Moffett's experience as a professor, haplessly teaching students who are of a generation that seems "not to understand the nature of evidence." You teach writing at Yale. You were my professor. Do you find teaching writing to insistent and overly ambitious undergraduates like me a) engaging b) frustrating c) simply financially necessary d) other or e) all of the aforementioned?
Crowley: Pierce's experiences were described before I'd ever tried to teach anybody anything. When I came to teaching, I was amazed to find young people (the ones I encountered, anyway, at Yale, and selected by me on the basis of their writing) to be so open-hearted, open-minded, witty, unfooled, and far better writers than I was at their age. I was a little abashed to try to teach them anything, and I think that many were right not to listen anyway, but the act of teaching – of talking about things I know a lot about (the writing life and labor) that almost nobody else wants to hear about but those who aspire to it, and the pleasure of encountering young writers – has been a very great pleasure. The writing teachers in a dozen comic academic novels – failed writers trying to escape a bunch of hopeless, self-regarding, analphabetic and deluded students, or out to lay them – well it's not been like that for me. Now after a dozen years of it I'm a little tired of saying the same things over and over – but that's where that money thing comes in. So far the puzzling thing has been that so many of the very best writers I've encountered have not appeared in print, as far as I know (present company proudly excepted). I think I automatically attribute to the best writers I encounter the other strengths you can't do without – persistence, and a granite ego, and dissatisfaction, and will – which they may well not have.
Me: You started an online journal, which is linked to on this site. I was totally surprised by this. I read it almost every day. For some reason (perhaps it is just my default image of writers) I have always pictured you as a somewhat prickly and reclusive writer who would be averse to jotting down daily musings on the internet. Of course, I am (I think) constitutionally averse to doing this, too, and yet I do it anyway. I like it now. Why did you decide to create a journal? Has it slightly improved your life?
Crowley: Well it was a cold-eyed attempt to raise interest in that limited edition of Little, Big you alluded to, being sold by subscription – if the edition doesn't get enough subscribers, it won't be published, and I'll never see or have it, and it's going to be spectacular. (The site to sign up at is www.littlebig25.com, see what I mean?) But once having started, I found it pretty addictive – not so much my own writing as the responses. I live in a very small town without a lot of literary company; Yale professors tend to flee from downtown and head for the suburbs when the sun goes down – I don't encounter them in the places I go after work on the days I'm down there (though I imagined it would be one of the fun parts of the job). So it's a place to engage with the amazingly witty and welcoming bunch who have found my site, and laugh at their jokes, and respond. Of course it takes up time, but the dirty secret of the writer's life is that you don't, actually can't, spend all that much time writing. A page or two – four if you tear up the first two and start again – isn't a bad day's work. I certainly can't – except in extraordinary circumstances – spend more than three hours at it at a time. A lot of time is spent reading the papers and other "research" or puttering in the garden or other timefillers. So there's this instead. The danger I guess is that typing witty or elegant or impassioned stuff can trick you into thinking you actually are writing.
Me: In the collection Novelties and Souvenirs, there are a number of stories I particularly like. "Snow," which is a story about a facility that stores images recorded over a person's life by a "wasp" that hovers over that person, is one. It turns out though that images cannot be accessed in any organized way, and that the heartsick viewer, re-watching scenes from the life of a loved one, can only access them randomly. Furthermore, the images degrade over time, and, well, yeah...it's strange and sad. And reading it, one slowly realizes one is reading something different from what was expected - not a stereotypical sci-fi story so much as a description of the painful experience of remembering and of re-experiencing loss. You are considered a sort of hybrid sci-fi/fantasy/intellectual/literary author. Where is most of your readership? Do you think about balancing the expectations of different kinds of readers? Does it bother you that your earliest (sci-fi) novels for a long time helped define your reputation?
Crowley: It always seemed to me that the attraction of SF (different from its odd associate or twin Fantasy) was in creating a technology or a scientific structure or a natural event (aliens landing, the world turning to crystal as in Ballard's great novel) that itself would bear the emotional and human burden in the story: not functioning as a symbol of the subject but itself the subject and generating the feelings. I rediscovered fantasy and science fiction in the late 60s, when it had matured into a really interesting form, but still allied to its popular and genre roots (try something like Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss or Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch or, if you dare, Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney to see how far it had got). The genre allowed you to write whatever you wanted and yet live within a literary community that was very welcoming. The difficulty arose when you tried to exchange the currency of SF for what only the genre writers and fans refer to as "mainstream" – it was heavily discounted. Kurt Vonnegut is about the only writer I can think of whose early SF doesn't cling around his reputation. Of course it's easy to go the other way, as Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Philip Roth (who seems to believe he invented the alternative-history-Nazi-America mode) have all done, without blotting the escutcheon. I don't know. I'm usually satisfied with the bargain I struck. Playing in the big sandbox from the beginning might have only meant getting sand kicked in my face. Books I wrote in the 70s that never sold hugely are still in print [see above] because the SF fans want and need them. And I think that the SF/F genres are actually on the point of dissolution, with books like The Time Traveler's Wife on the one hand and the universal acceptance of fantasy tropes in everything from graphic novels to vast film epics.
Me: I have heard rumors about your next book, the one you are (allegedly) working on now. A relationship, dreams, something... Can you say anything about it?
Crowley: Well I might have hinted at the existence in fetal form of a few different projects. All the ideas I've ever had seem to me to be somehow still extant and every once in a while some concept I had in high school or on acid forty years ago will taxi back and seem to be alive, sometimes only to die again. Having signed a contract, I guess I can say that I am actually working on a novel about people working in a bomber plant in World War II. Most of them are women. One is a disabled man who gets involved with a surprisingly large number of them. The bomber is the great VanDamme Pax B-30, of which a couple dozen were built but which never flew (and which I have in fact invented.) That's all I can say as of now.