The novels of Stephen Wright offer a fascinating glimpse into humanity’s dark side for those who dare to read them. Beautiful and grotesque images repeatedly collide in reams of imaginative storytelling and rhythmic, seductive prose, exposing the dichotomies that haunt the American soul. Meditations in Green, inspired by Wright’s experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War, won the Maxwell Perkins Prize for promising first novels in 1983. Dense and disturbing, the book observes a veteran’s struggle adjusting to civilian life and how he maintains his sanity by ruminating on houseplants. M31: A Family Romance, turns to the bizarre and often hilarious dysfunctional domestic setting of a UFO cult, whose members rely on an autistic child to communicate with aliens. In 1994, Wright published Going Native, a terrifying odyssey across America and into the lives of social misfits, crack addicts, pornographers, and a deranged hitchhiker. The antebellum South and the Civil War provide the backdrop for his latest book, The Amalgamation Polka. Wright’s other work has appeared in Esquire, Antioch Review, and Ontario Review. He currently teaches creative writing at the New School, in New York City.
I spent an evening with Stephen Wright at ACME Bar and Grill in Manhattan’s East Village.
Patrick Ambrose: What drove you to write a historical novel about the Civil War era?
Stephen Wright: I think it all started when I was 11 or 12. And one year, coming back from Florida to our home in Cleveland, we stopped in Maryland to visit some friends who suggested that we go to Antietam, which I had never heard of. So we went, and I just think it made an incredible impression on me. What’s good about Antietam is that it’s only 30 miles from Gettysburg. And the Battle of Antietam is the single bloodiest day in American history, but very few people have heard of it. Everybody has heard of Gettysburg and the battlefield there is all commercialized. But when you go to Antietam, you see it as it was. Hardly any monuments, the cornfield is still there. I think the disparity between the beautiful landscape and what actually happened on that land made a big impression. So, I wanted to do The Amalgamation Polka after M31.
PA: Why did you write Going Native first, instead?
SW: I was so unhappy with how M31 did.
PA: And why is that?
SW: Books of poetry sell more copies than M31 did. I was very upset and I thought, I’m not giving this company my Civil War book. So I decided to do something in between. Little did I know that Going Native was going to become so complicated, the extended writing project that it became. So that’s how that happened. And you know the main issue with The Amalgamation Polka is race. No one wants to talk about it. And if you read the reviews, people still don’t want to talk about race. It’s a hot potato. And I thought this is the best way to address this subject. In the 19th century everything was much more naked—the misogyny, the greed, the racism. There was no political correctness, and people didn’t hide it.
PA: Do you think that the emergence of political correctness in the ‘80s, particularly in the universities, killed the dialogue on race and made people afraid to talk about it?
SW: I don’t know. I don’t think it would matter what was going on. The subject just makes people uncomfortable. And so I’ve been very surprised to read these reviews from Northern intellectuals. I don’t think I’ve gotten a bad review in the South, which is amazing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution gave me the most stunning review I ever got. And in Texas, they go right to the race issue. Not the way they do in the North, where they go around it, and then they start talking about how the characters are not this and not that. “Gee, sorry I didn’t write the book that you wanted to read.” Everyone wants it safe, calm, in a little box, and I’m not going to give them that.
PA: The scenes with Asa, the grandfather, conducting gruesome experiments on his slaves in an attempt to turn them white were profoundly disturbing.
SW: I meant it to be. And you know what? I didn’t make up anything he says. Those were all racial theories—
PA: From antebellum ethnologists?
SW: Yes. I didn’t make up any of that. And these people who want to attack the book for its exaggerated characters only reveal their stupidity and ignorance. I toned it down. People think [of the Civil War era] as Gone With the Wind, and it really pisses me off. That’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. Did you see [Michiko] Kakutani’s review?
In the 19th century everything was much more naked—the misogyny, the greed, the racism. There was no political correctness, and people didn’t hide it.PA: No, I didn’t. What was it like?
SW: Icy. Icy and nasty. It was on Valentine’s Day. Her Valentine to me. [laughs] And she liked everything else that I did. But I read her review and I wouldn’t change a thing in the book. Too bad for me because it was in the Times.
PA: But no review is a bad review, especially in the New York Times. The exposure alone is a good thing.
SW: And then a week later, the [New York] Times Book Review redeemed everything. Not a negative word in the whole review [by Laura Miller]. But if that hadn’t happened I would probably be in a very depressed state because a bad review in the Times can kill a book.
PA: You use an unusual narrative technique in your work. It’s voyeuristic, almost as if the reader is behind a camera lens, zooming in on vignettes in the immediate present. Was it a challenge to continue using this method in an historical novel with events that occurred almost 150 years ago?
SW: Are you kidding? It was a nightmare. It’s one of the many reasons why the book took so long.
PA: Did it take the full 12 years since Going Native’s release?
SW: No. I wasn’t writing the whole time. At one point I wanted to give it up. I didn’t see any point in writing anymore. M31 was a debacle and I never got over the failure of Going Native.
PA: The failure?
PA: Vintage Contemporaries has reissued all of your earlier novels.
SW: Yeah, I know. But the sale of Going Native depressed me, and at one point, I wanted to give up writing altogether. Writing is an act of communication and that act isn’t completed until someone else reads the book. And if that act isn’t completed, then the work is unfinished. So there was a long stretch of time where I didn’t write at all. And I had a lot of stuff going on in my personal life. My marriage came apart. It hasn’t been a pleasant past several years. So there was all of that, and in doing [The Amalgamation Polka], you can’t write more than three lines without looking something up.
PA: Did your experiences as a soldier in Vietnam inform your battlefield scenes in The Amalgamation Polka?
SW: I don’t think so. Vietnam was so different. And I wasn’t a combat infantryman.
PA: You were in intelligence?
SW: Yeah. I was at an air base. Actually, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket, where Joker, the main character, is making wise-ass remarks to the lieutenant, and the lieutenant says, “Joker, how’d you like to go up to Phu Bai?” That’s where they sent him for punishment. And that’s where I spent the war. [laughs] And thank God I wasn’t there in 1968 or ‘69 when they overran the whole base and city and everything else during the Tet Offensive.
PA: Were you drafted or did you enlist?
SW: I got drafted. I wasn’t doing too well in school. I was at Ohio State. You know, the Buckeyes, Woody Hayes. And I’m still a die-hard Buckeye fan, and I hate Michigan.
PA: I can relate to the whole rivalry thing. I went to the University of North Carolina—
SW: So you have your own rivalry to deal with. A friend of mine, Will Blythe, just wrote a book about [the U.N.C-Duke rivalry]. Sports rivalries are great. I hate the Red Sox, too. I still can’t get used to Johnny Damon being a Yankee. But then, what if the Yankees got Shilling? He’s the biggest asshole in baseball. I don’t think I could ever warm to him. But sports rivalries are good for us. They help us get rid of aggression and I think that keeps people sane. I learned all about rivalries at Ohio State when Woody Hayes was still coaching.
When people fall apart, that’s always interesting. I think you’ve got to have someone in jeopardy to make a good story.
PA: I’ll never forget the 1978 Gator Bowl when Woody Hayes punched the Clemson player—
SW: [laughs] It was pure Woody. He couldn’t restrain himself. And he destroyed his career.
PA: I may be reading too much into your books, but in every novel, it seems like there’s at least one character who is going through an identity crisis.
SW: I wasn’t aware of that.
PA: Well, in Going Native, you’ve got the Wylie character, who seems like a typical suburbanite, but he’s really a demented sociopath.
SW: That’s all about identity.
PA: And you’ve got Gwen in M31—
SW: Yeah, she’s cracking up. I think I’m just trying to make the characters interesting. And when people fall apart, that’s always interesting. I mean novels are about conflicts and problems. And problem-solving. And I think you’ve got to have someone in jeopardy to make a good story. And that’s another thing—the critics attack me about character development. But The Amalgamation Polka isn’t a coming-of-age novel at all. It’s not so much about Liberty. [Liberty Fish is a main character in the book.—eds.] That should be obvious.
PA: I don’t understand how they could attack you about character development when all of the characters are multi-dimensional. Even the minor ones. And you used dialogue to flesh them out.
SW: Well, I got attacked on that, too. In the manner of the way the characters spoke. But it’s a class thing. Liberty talks that way and his parents talk that way because they’re from a certain social class. Once Liberty gets into the army, if you pay attention to how the soldiers talk, you realize that the soldiers are from a different social class. They were lower class. That’s the thing about publishing and I’ve said this to my students. When you get reviewed, it’s much more about the reviewer than it is about the book. And what’s in the reviewers’ heads are all of the rules and regulations about what a book should be and how life should be.
PA: I wonder how much that has to do with the advent of new journalism—the journalists’ need to put themselves in the story, where the first five paragraphs of a piece is more about them than the actual subject they’re supposed to be writing about.
SW: I know. You’re in competition with your own reviewer. It’s horrible. Like at the beginning of [The Amalgamation Polka] where it begins, “He was born in the fall of the time at the end of time.” And then it goes into everyone waiting for the apocalypse. And I never mention any names. People either get it or they don’t. Well, one reviewer, just to show how smart he was, wrote, “This is William Miller.” And that’s exactly who it was. William Miller was a true person who predicted the end of the world two or three times, and all of the followers were called Millerites. And they would get up in trees, on rooftops, just how I described it, and wait for Jesus to appear in the sky, and then the rapture would take them all up. And that is the beginning of the Seventh Day Adventists. And one reviewer spent, as you said, the whole first four paragraphs talking about William Miller to prove that he knew what that meant, and he’s taking up all this space talking about the first page of the book. [laughs] When I was in my own MFA program as a student, John Irving was one of the instructors there—
PA: This was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
PA: In the late ‘70s.
SW: Yes. And Irving said to us—because a lot of people were having trouble dealing with the criticism in class—and he said what happens to you here is nothing compared to what is going to happen if you publish. And he’s right.
PA: What do you think of this proliferation of MFAs and MFA programs? You’ve taught at Princeton, Brown and the New School. You went to one of the premier writing programs, one of the first, I believe. Are there a lot of wannabes out there who think attending these programs will turn them into writers?
What university did Melville go to? William Faulkner? Ernest Hemingway? Jane Austen? Virginia Woolf? None of these people went to these programs.
SW: I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me.
PA: Why did you enter a writing program?
SW: [laughs] I don’t know. I didn’t have anything better to do. I was [finishing up] at Ohio State and had taken an undergraduate writing class and I knew I had my hands on some great material—Vietnam. And I didn’t want to blow it. I wanted to do the topic justice. So that’s what I was working on. If I had written a nonfiction book about Vietnam, it could have been done years before I finished it.
PA: Were you writing fiction while you were in Vietnam?
SW: No. It was enough for me to just keep my head together. The only things I wrote were letters and not too many of them. I was not interested in writing at all during that time. Really, it was all about keeping myself together. And writing wasn’t a part of that.
PA: One of the things that was fascinating about Meditations in Green was the prose poems between chapters about botany, the first one written from a plant’s perspective. Where did that come from?
SW: Beats me. But I’ll tell you this, that book had a long gestation period. That’s what’s interesting about first books, is that they are also a record of a person becoming a writer. And as I said, I knew I had great material and I did not want to betray it. I wanted to do it right and I didn’t know how. The Vietnam War was a chaotic mess. And all the people who died—the 56,000 Americans and millions of Asians—what was that all for? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So I had all of that and I wanted to do it right, but it wasn’t until I came up with the plant imagery that the book fell into place. Because I saw how I could combine the devastation of the environment, Agent Orange and all of that—the assault on all of the land is what it came down to. And then the drugs. They come from plants. The plant metaphor bound the whole thing together.
PA: Was there an autobiographical quality to James Griffin, the book’s main character?
SW: During the war, I did exactly what he does in the book. The Vietnam stuff. Looking at [aerial photographs] was my job.
PA: And circling areas that would become targets of aerial bombardment.
SW: In eight-hour shifts. Mine ended at dawn. And that was all that I did. And it was all meaningless bullshit. And all of these dots were then put into computers and sent to the Pentagon. And I realized that if this little operation was as fucked up as I knew it was, then imagine all of the data that they’re getting from all over South Vietnam, coming into the Pentagon. And they’re thinking this is all accurate. It was bullshit. I’ve been though it. I know the drill. And before the war in Iraq, I’m telling everyone that they’re not thinking this through. No one is thinking. It’s that same Vietnam arrogance. We learn nothing and just go on making the same errors over and over again. Now we’re involved in the biggest debacle ever.
PA: And that same arrogance is displayed in the commanding officers in Meditations in Green. At what point did you decide that you wanted to fictionalize your experiences?
SW: I had wanted to be a fiction writer since I was eight or nine. I think it’s a superior way of knowing. And this is what really aggravates me about American culture—that if you look at the bestseller list in The Times, the fiction and nonfiction lists look equal. They’re not. The nonfiction books are selling many more copies. And the reason is that in America, we don’t take [fiction] seriously—the imagination and its products. First of all, to even conceive that there’s such a force as the imagination is not something that most Americans would even agree to. And then its products are suspicious. And this goes back to the Puritans—the same goddamn thing. And who’s a Puritan today? No one. But those structures of thought are in all of our heads. And in the culture we live in, if you read a novel you are wasting your time. What should you be doing? Making money. That’s what America is all about. The only philosophical school of thought founded in this country was pragmatism. And it’s all about being pragmatic, realistic, and making money. And fiction has nothing to do with any of that. It’s about play, and it’s about pleasure. And those two aspects of fiction aren’t even taught in American schools. Literature is taught as though it’s an ordeal that you have to get through. We could change this.
PA: It seems like you would enjoy teaching.
SW: The ultimate truth is, who needs [creative writing instruction]? What university did Melville go to? William Faulkner? Ernest Hemingway? Jane Austen? Virginia Woolf? None of these people went to these programs. And what’s so weird today is that everyone [who wants to write fiction] thinks that they have to go to a writing program. If you want to write, you sit in your room and you write. And I think writing a good novel is the hardest thing that a human being can do. It is the most complicated piece of problem solving. A computer can’t do it. And very few humans can. And the only way you learn is by reading a hell of a lot. You read everything. And then you write and you rewrite, over and over. But I’ve been at the New School for five or six years and I’ve never had a bad class. The students are all at a certain level of talent, and they’re ambitious, enthusiastic, and into it.
PA: While you were teaching at Princeton, was Toni Morrison there?
SW: Yeah. She’s a great person. And she really loved Going Native.
PA: She endorsed the book.
SW: She did.
PA: And DeLillo—
SW: Don has liked everything I’ve done.
PA: Are you guys friends as well?
SW: Well, after Going Native, and then the whole emotional crisis that I went through, I just quit talking to writers, because it got so depressing. Because every writer, no matter what level they’re at, has got all the same problems—no one is appreciated enough, no one is read enough, no one sells enough copies. And when you’re with writers, everyone starts punching those same buttons and it becomes a descending spiral, and you get more and more depressed. And I realized I can’t do this anymore. So I just kind of shut myself off to a lot of writers, probably to my own detriment and I haven’t spoken to [Don DeLillo] in years. And he’s a great guy.
PA: How did you occupy yourself during that time when you weren’t writing?
SW: I was still teaching.
PA: Do you set aside a specific amount of time to write each day?
SW: No. I just write whenever I’m up to it.
PA: And you don’t own a computer.
SW: No. That never interested me.
PA: You write your drafts in longhand.
PA: How much of a novel is in your head before you sit down to write it out in longhand?
SW: Not much. Obviously, you’ve got to have a beginning.
PA: And you always know where the book starts.
SW: I can’t start writing until I have a beginning. So I usually know the opening scene and that’s about it. And then I may have a vague notion of where it’s going to end. But with Going Native, I knew the beginning—backyard barbecue, suburbs of Chicago—that’s where it’s going to start and it’s going to end on the West Coast, largely because you run out of geography. And thematically that’s where it has to end. It has to end in L.A. So then the whole thing was getting the story from Chicago to L.A., and I had no idea what was going to be in the middle. And I had no idea what the ending was going to be either. With The Amalgamation Polka, I had a very hard time coming up with the ending.
PA: It ends on an almost positive note.
SW: But a little sarcastic. It’s America and everything is going to be fine. [laughs] I like how it’s both, because that’s how we live—in ambiguity.
PA: That’s interesting, the double meaning, because I’ve read numerous reviews and comments about M31, and all the writers and critics refer to it as a book about a UFO cult. But I’ve read the book twice and each time, I come away thinking that the characters—Dash, Dot, and the family—are all actually descendants from the M31 galaxy.
SW: [laughs] Well, that’s what they think. But that’s good. I like that. But you know, I see M31 as being about religion. It’s about the religious impulse. And once I started doing research on that, I felt kind of soiled. It’s pornographic, once you get into the whole UFO field. And everyone is so paranoid—so many conspiracies, the government is covering it up, all of that. But the more I got into it, the more I saw it as a thwarted religious impulse. And what religion used to give people isn’t working—awe, a sense of awe and a sense of wonder, about you, about humans, and about your place in the universe. And becoming a UFO freak gives you that. It’s the same story—that we don’t belong here, that we’re from another realm, and there are people looking over us, and one day they will come back and return us to our natural state. And that’s Christianity, too.
PA: I apologize for throwing your words back at you, but I read something you said in an interview after Going Native came out—and I’m paraphrasing here—but you noted that there is a certain emptiness in everyone, particularly in a secular society, and that void needs to be filled with something from the spiritual realm or it leads to violence.
SW: Did I say that?
PA: Something to that effect.
SW: I think that’s true. If I said that, that’s good. I must have been smart for a moment.
PA: And I was talking with a buddy of mine about that statement and how you might respond to the issue of religious fundamentalism—a spiritual characteristic that often leads to violent behavior.
SW: That’s the problem with humans—that something can be good and bad. It depends on how it’s addressed. I think that fundamentalism is the enemy, and it’s the enemy across the board in every culture, and it seems to be on the rise in the world. After 9/11, I cut out an ad from the Times which must’ve cost thousands of dollars. I can’t recall which group paid for it, but the ad had a headline that said: “The American Taliban.” And under that headline was Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Because after 9/11 happened, the two of them were talking about how 9/11 was God’s punishment for same-sex marriages and lesbian mothers. I mean the intolerance and the hatred—it’s depressing. And the fundamentalist mind is the same the world over. Doesn’t matter whether you’re Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, whatever. It’s that same mindset, and it’s based on fear and insecurity. And it’s all about being stupid. And most people are ignorant when it comes to their own unconscious emotional drives. They have no idea what’s going on. This is what I’m taking on in my next book.
PA: Have you started it yet?
SW: Yeah. It’s on love and sex. And it’s not going to be pretty. It’s called Haunted Houses. And it’s all about the way people avoid one another and avoid connecting with one another. People would rather do anything than have an honest connection with another human being. And I think our culture is in deep trouble. I wish someone could talk me out of writing the book. But once this issue is brought up and people start thinking about it, they agree with me. And how many people want to read a book that deals with this topic? I’ve gotta do it, though. This could be my most important book.
PA: Does Haunted Houses contain the same comedic elements that appear in your other novels? I’ve noticed that in your other books characters make statements that many people might think, but wouldn’t dare articulate. There’s one line in Going Native that states: “His wife was a half-century old stick of incendiary material that he should have put the match to decades ago.”
SW: [laughs] I don’t remember that.
PA: The essence of good comedy is stating those sort of subtle, everyday thoughts that people have, but are too embarrassed to admit. Is this a conscious effort on your part?
SW: It’s just how I see things.
PA: Are you’re not trying to be satirical?
SW: No. In fact sometimes that irritates me. Like when critics say that M31 is a satire.
PA: About the American family?
I would take these junkies out to lunch and dinner, and they were all thrilled: “Hey, there’s a guy from Esquire who is buying everybody dinner.”
SW: Yeah. I just think you people should get out of the office more often and see what’s really going on [in America]. Because I saw [the characters] as real people. And I see Grandpa in The Amalgamation Polka as a real person and I hate that kind of criticism. And you want to say that this guy doesn’t have a shred of humanity? Well, there’s plenty of people like him walking the streets.
PA: I have to ask about “The Big No,” the article you wrote on Kurt Cobain for Esquire, shortly after his suicide. Where did that come from? Because you don’t usually write journalistic pieces.
SW: Esquire called me. They found the body on a Friday, and on Monday, I got a call from Will Blythe, who was at Esquire.
PA: What was he doing there?
SW: He was the fiction editor. And he called me up and said that they had had a meeting and I was the person that they wanted to cover this story. And my immediate response was no, because I knew instinctively that to write a good article, I would need to bond with [the subject], and this was not psychic terrain that I wanted to enter. Because I knew that [Cobain] was profoundly depressed. And then Will mentioned a figure larger than any I could imagine for writing this article and I thought I’d give it a shot. And I will always remember, it was an incredible experience.
PA: Did you speak to Courtney Love?
SW: I tried. I arrived almost a week after they found the body and most of the world press had already left. And I had seen the pictures of Cobain’s body and the garage.
PA: Did you go into the home?
SW: No, I didn’t go in. Courtney was still there and no one was allowed in. And there was heavy security. But I was able to go around back and you could stand on a little dirt road behind the house and look right down into the upper floor of that garage where he shot himself. And I realized, just like I did when I was in the Army, that looking at this in the newspaper is not the same as looking at it now. This is the real place and it’s not a picture. It made a huge impression on me. So a stringer and I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of Going Native, and we typed up a note to Courtney stating that I was trying to write a serious piece about [these circumstances]. And this is what I do not like about journalism.
PA: The invasiveness?
SW: Yes. I did not want to pursue it. But I had to do it because that’s what I was being hired for. So we wrote the letter, went out to the house, and as soon as I turned off the engine, security guards are heading for the car. On public property. I gave one of the guards the book and the letter, told him I was from Esquire, and said that I wanted to speak to Mrs. Cobain. And immediately his whole attitude changed. And he took the book back with my name, phone number, and everything. And, of course, there were no calls. I was kind of relieved. I don’t think anyone in that state of mind would want to talk to a member of the press. So I had to do the whole story with people who knew him. And everyone [in Seattle] who was into music or drugs knew Kurt Cobain.
PA: And you were able to speak to them?
SW: I would take these junkies out to lunch and dinner, and they were all thrilled: “Hey, there’s a guy from Esquire who is buying everybody dinner.” And they would order pots of coffee before the meal even arrived. I got a lot of material that way. This was an article they wanted out as soon as possible and I was typing the final paragraph when the messenger from Esquire arrived to pick it up. And to this day, I can’t read that article. I started reading it once and I didn’t recognize it at all because of the editors. I didn’t like seeing words that weren’t my own. That’s what I hate about journalism. And what I’m interested in writing about is not what magazines want to put on the cover. They want celebrities and they want the dirt.
PA: I remember Christie Brinkley was on the cover of the Esquire issue that published your Cobain piece.
The more he drank, the more alive he became. He was like a vampire coming awake after the sunset.
SW: Exactly. But I’ve had so many [journalistic pieces] killed. One time Esquire wanted to hire me to write a piece and they asked if I had any ideas. And I said, “Sure. Motörhead.” And there was this long silence. Total shocked silence. And finally I said, “You know, they’ve never put out a bad album.” And then one of the guys says, “Well, I’ve heard that.” And I think that’s where we left it. So, I got a gig to go to L.A. to do Chuck Jones. This is after going through a million different ideas. You know who Chuck Jones is? Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck—
PA: The voices of those characters?
SW: No. He invented them all. Chuck Jones is the prime Warner Brothers animator. And [Esquire] went for that. So I went out there and the guy was like 80-plus, wearing a white hat and a white suit, and a cane. And I talked to him and within five minutes I thought, this man is a genius. And I’ve never felt that with anybody. I’ve never said that about anybody. But I just felt that this is a real genius because the level of his discourse was everything from Daffy Duck to James Joyce. And he could talk about it all with equal authority. And then came the magical moment in the interview, when he was talking about Pepé Le Pew. He pulls over a piece of paper, picks up a pencil, and just bam-bam-bam, and within like four lines, he created this creature. It was an extraordinary moment. And then he said, “You want to know how to make him sexy? You just do this.” And he went right back and made the mouth. It was an astonishing moment. Well, Esquire rejected the article. They paid for me to go out there and I ended up getting a kill fee. This is why I gave up journalism. But while I was there I called up Lemmy [Kilmister, the lead singer and bassist for metal band Motörhead]. I had his phone number. And I said, “I’m here in L.A. and I don’t have anything confirmed about this, but if you’re willing, I’d like to come out and see you.” And he said sure, and to meet him at the Rainbow Grill on Sunset—you know, the prime rock-and-roll hangout. So I get there and Lemmy is out front, leaning against a garbage can, and he looked like hell, as though he hadn’t slept in a week. And when I shook his hand, it was like nothing, and I thought, oh my God, this is not going well, this doesn’t look good. So we go inside, up to the bar. And at the time, this guy was 50-plus, and he’s still on a mission. And he’s not about to give it up. That alone is worth an article. How many people are like that? How many people are 58 who are still playing hard rock? Not folk music, not blues, but hard rock? Anyway, we got our drinks and he insisted on paying, and the more he drank, the more alive he became. He was like a vampire coming awake after the sunset. And then he told me that he couldn’t get drunk anymore. He drank to maintain.
PA: How old is he now?
SW: He’s 60 or 61 at this point. And still on the road. Anyway, a woman shows up with her dog, so we go outside and because it’s Lemmy, they’re bringing us free shots of whiskey. And the folks next door at the Roxy are hanging out the windows from the second and third floor yelling down at us. Well, I must’ve passed the audition. Because after about an hour, Lemmy says, “Why don’t we go to my place?” And I said, “Great! Where is it?” And his place was across the street. He doesn’t drive. He found a place to live that was only a block away from The Rainbow Grill so he could walk there! And once inside, the first thing I see is about 10 pieces of luggage stacked up by the door, like he’s ready to leave on a moment’s notice. Then he takes us into the living room. And from floor to ceiling, all the way around the room, was Nazi regalia.
SW: And in the bedroom, from floor to ceiling, mainly knives and bayonets. And he hands one of them to me. Now usually you can assess quality just by looking at something, but once you held this thing in your hand, you knew this was the highest quality that you could possibly get. Perfectly balanced. You could hold that knife on the end of your finger. And it was solid and hard and beautifully made. And I asked, “How much is one of these?” And he said, “Oh, that one there is about 25 grand.” He said he had been collecting since ‘91 and had probably spent a quarter of a million on Nazi stuff. So the wheels are just spinning in my head.
PA: Did you ask him why he was collecting Nazi memorabilia?
SW: Well, I didn’t go too deep because I didn’t know him quite well enough. But I did say, “What’s the deal?” And he said, “You Americans, you know nothing about being attacked.” But then, I realized that his father was in the R.A.F. during the Battle of Britain. So he has a complicated past. And I thought this was a great story. This guy is fascinating. His television is always on, even when he leaves, and it’s always on the History Channel. That’s all he watches. And while we were talking, anytime anything having to do with World War II came on the screen, he had to stop the conversation to see what it was. Now there’s a new crew at Esquire. And when Going Native came out, the current head of Esquire had ordered every one of his writers to get a copy of the book and to read it because that is the kind of prose he wanted in his magazine. And since The Amalgamation Polka’s release, I got a call about a month ago from Esquire and they want to talk to me about writing something for them.
PA: Is the Lemmy piece finished?
SW: No, but I took hours and hours of tape.
PA: Have you ever thought about writing any short fiction?
SW: I wrote some short stories before Meditations in Green. But it’s not my form. I find writing so difficult, so impossibly difficult to do that I don’t even want to pick up a pen until I’ve got a big topic that’ll make it worth doing. I’m just not a short-story person at all. I don’t think that way. I love big topics. That’s why the next book is about love, sex, and the difficulties that people have relating to one another emotionally. And you know, even writing a bad book takes so much energy and time. That’s why, when I go into the Strand [bookstore] and I see all those stacks of books piled up, it’s depressing. Because I know all of the hope and emotion that’s buried in those books.