Luddites, Innuendo, and the Solar Plexus: An Interview with Tom Drury

Tom Drury walks into an unmarked bar. Previously, when he’d pass by on walks through his current neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he thought it abandoned. But then he discovered it was just an unmarked bar with a Victorian interior that suggested a haunted house quality. Naturally, he was curious to investigate and thus decided it was an appropriate setting to discuss his fifth novel Pacific, released last month from Grove Press.

 

Unmarked bars would fit comfortably into a Tom Drury novel, where vanishing field machinery, vandalized water towers, and strangely articulate electronics conspire to create a world that, as Daniel Handler pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, feels “as strange as the world and the great literature that helps us make our way through it.”

 

The End of Vandalism, his first novel, released in 1994, was serialized in the New Yorker and is now considered a modern classic (GQ named it one of the fifty best novels of the past fifty years; a reviewer for the Boston Globe called it “certainly one of the funniest, most humane novels of the past quarter century”). 

 

Pacific is his third novel to revisit many of the characters living in and around Grouse County, a tiny farm community that in some way resembles (but is not, he insists) the small Iowa town where he was born in 1956 (The second is Hunts in Dreams, released in 2000). Sheriff Dan Norman has retired; his red-headed wife, born Louise Montrose, has moved on from photography and now runs a thrift-shop; Louise’s one-time husband Tiny Darling is up to his usual small-time malfeasance, and a platinum-haired, Celtic-obsessed stranger named Sandra Zulma, who proves adept at wielding both swords and yardsticks, comes to town.

 

This time, however, Drury transplants several characters to Los Angeles (where he lived between 2004 and 2010). Joan, once a strident Christian, has become an actress in a new drama called Mystic Forensic, and decides to give a second go at parenting Micah, her fourteen-year-old son with Tiny Darling (Micah’s sister, Lyris remains in Grouse County). Micah’s new coastal lifestyle includes drugs, Venice Beach and beautiful girl named Charlotte, who has “perfect eyebrows,” drives a pick-up truck that would not be out of place in Grouse County, and looks like one of the girls in the Boston Persuasion shoe commercial” (which in fact, she turns out to be).

 

Before Tom Drury was a novelist, he worked as a reporter for several papers around New England. After he was a novelist, he worked as a writing instructor at Wesleyan university (where I was his student in both literary journalism and fiction-writing during the mid-’90s), an editor on the foreign desk of the St. Petersburg Times, and an editor for the Web site of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He now lives in Manhattan, with his wife and daughter.

 

As it happens, my tape recorder is so sensitive that not only does it pick up our own conversation, but at the very same time that he is telling me that people speak in fragments, not purposeful dialogue good for exposition, it has also recorded fragments of dialogue from the surrounding tables. Transcribing the tape is not unlike being a character in a Tom Drury novel, and I feel like I may, at any time, uncover a fiendish plot. When I tell him about the ghost dialogue, he writes back, “You might be able to uncover a fiendish plot, but should you? I believe this was the plot of many Hitchcock films.”

 

Our conversation at the unmarked bar included the comforts of illuminated appliances in darkened rooms, Celtic epics and the difference between a sentence written by Tom Drury and one performed by Red Skelton. Ghost dialogue not included.

 

 

BNR: I just read all three Grouse County books back to back. The dialogue is similar. But The End of Vandalism feels so snappy, so perfectly stylized. In Pacific, the sentences between the dialogue felt more relaxed, maybe even a little mournful, or elegiac. How do you feel about the tone of this book?

 

TD: I think of the three Grouse County books as radically different in style from each other. In The End of Vandalism, there’s always an outlet of humor. And while it was called deadpan humor, it is overtly funny and you don’t find that so much in Pacific. Progressively, there is less in Hunts in Dreams and less in Pacific. I’m still keen to the humor of certain situations -- like when the guy has sold the canoe out from the other guy, that made me laugh.

 

Ah, yes. The $900 canoe. He was just doing the guy a favor. Taking the canoe off his hands.

 

As he says, it was a $900 canoe. We don’t know what he got for it.

 

Presumably considerably less.

 

There might a kind of mournfulness, as you say, but it’s more a seriousness. Or something. Even when we were editing The End of Vandalism, my editor, Veronica Geng, would say you don’t want to feel like it has to be funny on every page. That’s something I’ve taken to heart. I try to be interesting on every page, but not necessarily through humor.

 

That last scene in The End of Vandalism is both -- funny as hell and also very sad.

 

“The scientist dies”?  Maybe that is a projection of what’s coming.

 

“The scientist dies” -- that’s said in response to the television. In Pacific, you also have semi-sentient devices. A radio plays while one character is dying. Later, another radio seems to suggest a ghost. I found another seemingly astute television in The Black Brook. What narrative possibilities do you see in electronic devices? Is it just randomness or another outlet for humor? Or is it more of this sentient connection that allows you to at least suggest the possibility of say, ghosts?

 

What I like about TV and radio is that they allow you to bring all kinds of images and dialogues into the narrative where they serve a purpose just as if someone in the story were seeing or hearing them in real life. I don’t think of mass media as sentient to the point of knowing who is in the room. It’s more that people want to make sense of everything so that these random electronic messages can be interpreted by them as part of their stories. And mostly they should be random, and not all manipulated by the writer to make some point. The relationship should be a little mysterious to everyone.

 

To continue with the man vs. machine theme, Micah, the teenage boy in Pacific joins a group called the New Luddites while living in LA. One of the sweetest scenes in the novel is when a passing stranger translates the image of Micah and his new girlfriend, Charlotte, into Palmer cursive, a style of writing that has fallen out of fashion. But as in all your novels, technology seems rather friendly: Like Dan, who has always been comforted by the light coming off small appliances, Micah seems to find as much solace in “a friendly light shining from beneath the cupboards” as he later does looking off to the horizon at sunrise. Also the New Luddites protest itself -- broadcasting the National over the school PA -- is both literally using technology to disseminate art, and itself requires pretty decent hacking skills. It seems like you may be saying the technological world and nature don’t have quite as many gripes with each other as it may seem. True?

 

The technological world is so vast that it's hard to know what it's doing or what trouble it might cause. Lights are pretty low-tech and I think that in places where there is real darkness at night and lots of it they are welcome. More so by Dan than most maybe. What the New Luddites do is of a different order. At one point I had them debating the use of the computer to undermine the computer, whether they could use it to that extent and still be square with their principles. I cut that part, but someone said you can’t change the system if you won’t go anywhere near it. And it’s really more a question of how the technology is used. Micah tells the headmaster it’s all about money and that the social network is a Trojan horse, that because of cellphones people no longer see what is in front of them. I think he’s right about all these things. But when he needs to talk to Lyris near the end, he has to borrow someone’s cellphone. Maybe it’s like the vandalism of the first novel. Albert and his friends did not object to the water tower as a visual medium, they just wanted to paint their own words on it.

 

I can’t decide if the use of drugs in this novel is another example of synthetic substitutes for emotion being valued just as much as their natural counterparts. But they often don’t seem overtly negative -- as one of the kids has it, these are “vision” as opposed to “metabolic” drugs and even though Micah is fairly troubled when he starts using them, there does seem to be a kind of mysticism, even spirituality to his drug use that harks back to a kind of old-school California drug subculture.

 

I do think the drug use is a ritual of Micah's acceptance rather than something bad. It's how he and Charlotte find a connection. There's that line, "She really cared about you, making sure your high was okay." Drugs, alcohol included, can be useful as a way of helping characters reach a kind of emotionality or openness they might not otherwise have. Just like in life. Of course it can be overdone. Charlotte passes out in public sometimes, and Micah ends up drunk and confused as to whether his sister is in the Midwest or hiding under a lifeguard shack on the beach. But yeah there is a kind of spirituality going on, in the lines Micah sees among the stars and the sunrise he and Charlotte see after a night of drinking and running around.

 

To go back to Grouse County, Dan and Louise, who were the emotional heart of The End of Vandalism are back and still at the emotional center of Grouse County.

 

They’re not thirty anymore. And Louise has her night time worries. The childlessness that perhaps didn’t mean so much to them when they were a young couple perhaps comes home to them. I very much found that Louise and Lyris were kind of gravitating towards each other because one doesn’t have a daughter, and the other doesn’t have a mother. That just seemed to happen as the narrative went. I think there’s more of an emphasis on family, but at the same time, the family seems hard to achieve in this book.

 

But there are many functional families in this books, they just aren’t usually the nuclear ones? For example, neither Lyris nor Micah have a great mother in Joan, but Louise is a mother to Lyris, and Lyris to Micah. Might it also be true that the families one chooses can sometimes be stronger than the ones one is born with, even if they are, as you say, hard to achieve?

 

Yeah, that is an excellent point. At one point Micah was thinking that he did not blame Joan and Tiny for who they were as parents and that he would find his family wherever he went, in the people around him. This was when he is hanging out with Beth after they take painkillers together. I cut that thought of Micah's, too. It's interesting how many things that were cut speak directly to your questions. That's a good thing probably. Usually when I take out something like that it's because I think either the reader will know this from what is happening or, if not, saying it directly won't make it so.

 

I also sort of love that Tiny Darling’s fatherly advice -- hit him in the solar plexus! -- turns out to be surprisingly practical. But Joan seems as damaging and incompetent as ever. Is this the difference between bad mothers and bad fathers?

 

I think Joan is better than you think. A little better anyway. She lets Micah do pretty much whatever he wants, it's true, and some will see that as neglect. She seems somehow bound to break up a family whenever a child of hers arrives. But that little scene where she is helping him with his homework and they come up with The Age of Fabric to help him memorize the presidents. Or when she is telling him about the Olympic skater who once lived in their apartment building. Or how she owns up to having left him. I think that is an important moment because Micah is saying he did not view her departure as something that she did to someone, and she says, "To you, that's who it was done too." Sort of reminding him of his validity as an individual, which is a good thing for a kid to understand.

 

They’re not in Grouse County anymore. But none of their families of origin back in Grouse County were that great either.

 

It’s one thing when you’re estranged from your parents when you’re in your late twenties, or in combat with them, as Louise was with Mary in EOV, but twenty years later, it’s a different thing. And not as funny, and not as redeemable. You always think, “Well, there will always be time.” And then time goes away.

 

Louise and Dan started out The End of Vandalism in their mid-thirties. So they are in their fifties, now? Are they your contemporaries?

 

Yeah, roughly. More or less. That’s how I think of them. I was thinking End of Vandalism plus seven years is Hunts in Dreams plus seven more years is Pacific. That wouldn’t quite bring us up to now, but it brings us into the late 2000s. I had to ask myself things like, “Could Perry Kleeborg [Louise’s boss at the photography studio] still possibly be alive?” And I thought, “No, no way. He’s got to be dead.”

 

But turning his photography studio into a thrift shop is such a nice gesture. It’s a way to collect and archive the past.

 

What you see of Grouse County in Pacific is about a movement away from the country and the little towns toward the medium-sized cities, which maybe -- who knows? -- is even sociologically correct. I can go into a certain place, and I can say, “There was a farm here, and a farm here, and a farm here, and they’re gone.” Louise and Dan both work in the city. But there’s just not as many country scenes. Which is partly ‘cause, one thing in writing these, if I did something in The End of Vandalism, I don’t want to do it again.

 

But you do repeat the characters. You are obviously striving for continuity on some level.

 

They’re the same characters in changing social structures and language. The End of Vandalism to me was kind of like a letter from somebody eccentric at home.

 

And by home you mean?

 

Someone living there. Living in Grafton. Calling it a letter from home makes it sound sweeter than it is. You get letters from home that are not sweet. And that are sardonic and somewhat cryptic.

 

You grew up in Iowa, right?

 

It’s up near Mason City. It’s called Swaledale. It’s got a population now of about 150. It had 220 when I was growing up. Very tiny. 220, I believe was the high mark. And that’s when I was a kid.

 

My life in the town I grew up in was much quieter than The End of Vandalism. Part of the reason I think I wrote it was because it was too damn quiet when I was young, and I wanted people to come out and talk. And they do.  There’s so much dialogue in The End of Vandalism. It’s almost like I wished that the dialogue would have been there.

 

Did you know any writers when you were growing up?

 

I didn’t even know what to read. I read True Grit. I read Nine Stories by Salinger. And I read S.E. Hinton, who I still think is really good.

 

Me, too. And there is a That Was Then, This Is Now reference in Pacific.

 

I read those in high school. Then I went to college and took some journalism courses. I really, honest to God, didn’t know what to read until I was out of college and living in Boston, and someone said, “Well, why don’t you read Hemingway?” And I thought, “OK. I guess I’ll try this Hemingway fellow.”

 

I’ve heard he’s quite good.

 

Yes, me too. So I just didn’t know. Which I don’t think is bad. Ultimately, it helps you to be original, to the extent that you are.

 

How old were you when you left?

 

Twenty-four. I got a journalism degree at Iowa, I went out to the East Coast. I was doing clerical work in a law firm, in a big, tall building that I thought was thrilling. The wind would come off Boston harbor and the building would go back and forth and you’d be riding the elevator, scraping the walls, and I would think, “This is so great. This is so incredible.” After living in a town of 150. I worked three newspaper jobs, culminating in the Providence Journal in ‘83? I wanted to try grad school, and Brown was right there.

 

Brown is very much known as an experimental program. But you are more realist.

 

Here’s the cool thing that I found. Bob Coover was very adept at dealing with writing of all kinds. The last interview we had before I graduated, he said, “You can do this. What else can you do?” And by “this,” he meant a form of fiction that was sufficient, but not good.

 

The thing that I did was find that voice in The End of Vandalism. I thought, well, what can I do? I knew I had a sense of humor. You begin by thinking whatever you can do, that doesn’t matter. That’s not literature. Literature is this idealized thing that someone else does with all the skills that you don’t have. I eventually realized the humor that I had could help create a style and a way of looking at things.

 

Since all the novels, at least, are written in the third person, the humor is the thing, to me, that shapes your point of view as the narrator. You are the one offstage setting up the jokes and things that the characters themselves don’t get or don’t necessarily see.

 

Right. And sometimes many of the readers, too.

 

That sounds like more of this ‘deadpan humor’ I hear so much about...

 

That’s what they all say...I don’t know what they mean.

 

...That’s what the kids say...

 

I’ve never understood that. Red Skelton, who you wouldn’t remember...

 

I know of Red Skelton...

 

OK, Red Skelton: not deadpan. We know that. There’s this big kind of jokey style. But I don’t know. Who writes that way? Maybe somebody. But I don’t know who.

 

But your humor is all about the spaces between the words, which is what all literature is about.

 

It’s about being aware of the possibilities of change within in a sentence or within a scene. Sentences can start out very serious, and you might discover something funny or offbeat at the end. Same thing with scenes. Very few things are totally devoid of any possibility of humor. If you are aware of that possibility, and alive to the scene becoming that way, then it just happens naturally. That’s what I feel living is like, too. I find a lot of things that make me smile or make me laugh over the course of the day.

 

It also has to do with a form of realism. You walk down the street, you don’t hear any purposeful dialogue that would be good for exposition. All you hear is fractured bits, which is the way we speak to each other. I tried to be true to that. Always my fallback is, “What is life like?” Get as close to that as you can. As opposed to, “What is literature like?” I feel like, try using life as the model. You may end up with something interesting and different.

 

You were, in fact, my literary journalism teacher. I feel like part of your skill with dialogue comes from having once been a journalist.

 

Yeah, I’m with you. I used to love working with a tape recorder. It’s not a bad thing to do if you want to learn how to write dialogue. I don’t do non-fiction anymore. Eventually you just feel constrained by the facts. You want to go where the words take you, and people’s actual lives don’t always conform. And you can’t know them that well.

 

With this book in particular, there was a real effort to cut it to the bone with narrative and get it down to the things I could still be interested in reading after I had read it eighty times. Also, I have been working on a screenplay for The Driftless Area. Coming off that, you really have to think about, what is this doing? Why is this here? If it’s not here for a reason, cut it. Which is totally antithetical to The End of Vandalism, which was all about, And I’ll tell you something else... that you don’t need to know!

 

Given your skill with dialogue, I had been meaning to ask you if you had done work for TV or screenplays. And the answer seems to be yes.

 

We have the screenplay. It’s finished. It’s slated to shoot in late summer. I wrote it with this great director, Zachary Sluser. So the answer is, yeah. But I love the power of fiction. In a screenplay, you write a scene and you think, “This is going to require so much.” The collaboration of many, first of all. And it’s tricky. For example, to do the car accident that is in Pacific, it would be expensive, you know.

 

Michael Bay expensive! And you don’t have to think about that when you are a fiction writer.

 

Not at all! It’s like, “I made a car accident today! And it didn’t cost me a dime!”

 

So you wrote Pacific when you were actually living in LA, right?

 

No, I was living here. [New York City].

 

So once again, like writing about Iowa, a letter from a place you had already left.

 

See, and I don’t say Iowa. I never say Iowa. You said Iowa.

 

Sorry. Grouse County.

 

It’s OK. But the important thing to me is that to me these places are not these places. This is not supposed to be the Midwest, or Iowa, or Midwesterners or Iowans. It’s supposed to be people that exist in my head.

 

I always feel that way when I am writing about a place. I use an actual, physical location as a kind of a stage. Just like a playwright might have a favorite stage. And then you’ll come back and you can do anything there. But the characters, they’re not supposed to represent. They’re just supposed to be, and hopefully they are spontaneous and new. I’m not trying to say, “This is what the place is like.” Or, “This is what the people are like.” Because I don’t think that’s the way it is, or they are. They are made up.

 

There is a certain sensibility that goes with each place, whatever that place is. And there is a certain collision of sensibilities that comes from relocating the characters from Tom Drury’s Grouse

County to, well, Tom Drury’s Los Angeles...

 

No ambiguity there, yes, it is Los Angeles. It’s Santa Monica.

 

One of the biggest differences between Grouse County and Los Angeles seems to be the intrusion -- and possibility -- of strangers. When a stranger shows up in Grouse County, she is literally trying to kill people. When Micah arrives in LA, he can’t even imagine enough people to fill up all the buildings. But the strangers don’t seem so bad: they are also the ones who make room for a stray like Micah. Others have suggested that this novel makes LA into another small town. What contrasts do you see between Tom Drury’s LA and Tom Drury’s Grouse County?

 

There's a lot more for a kid to do in Los Angeles. One of the things Micah tells Thea he used to do is walk along the abandoned railroad tracks. Here there are kids and mobility and parties and drugs and horses and mansions both perfect and falling apart. I think both places at least in this novel are very tolerant of strangers. The difference lies not so much in the place as in the stranger. Micah is trying to find an exciting life and Sandra is caught in some kind of mythological time loop that makes her sense of reality absurd at first and finally very dangerous. Still, everyone is courteous to her, and everyone is always offering her clothes to wear.

 

And Joan, the Bible thumper and erstwhile mother, is now an TV actress on Forensic Mystic, or Mystic Forensic...

 

I can’t remember either.

 

I am actually obsessed with Forensic Files. That’s the only trash TV I watch.

 

What? Forensic Mystic?

 

No, Forensic Files. True crime.

 

We don’t get TV, but I just noticed through ads and stuff that there’s all these shows about these women who have, like ESP, and solve crimes and things. Also I just like the rhyme of Forensic Mystic.

 

Or Mystic Forensic.

 

It’s sort of a nod to “Disco Mystic,” which is a song by Lou Reed, many years ago.

 

 You have a lot of song lyrics in this novel.

 

There’s not so many. There’s the National [“Fake Empire.”]. Thing with song lyrics is you have to go track down the copyright.

 

You don’t have to track them down. You can mishear them. There is a long history of mishearing song lyrics, too.

 

True. I had a thing in, I forget what book. Remember Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers had a song called “Islands in the Stream”?

 

Oh, and it was about the Hemingway book, too, wasn’t it?

 

Hell if I know. I referred to that song that the character always thought of as “Island Dentistry.” People like to say, “Well, it felt really timeless, but then you had the National in it.” Well, OK. Doesn’t bother me.

 

The National are already timeless themselves, goddammit. There is the kid singing M.C. Hammer’s “Hammertime” in End of Vandalism. And I swear Micah and Charlotte are listening to Janelle Monae in the club. “Tightrope,” which came out in 2010.

 

“The Tightrope” is Leon Russell. Seventies.

 

Transpositions and mishearings indeed. It is also Janelle Monae. Look it up. I swear you will like it. My copy of The End of Vandalism is from the year I took your class. It was annotated by college me. As it turns out, adult me does not find what college me has to say about your novel particularly interesting.

 

That’s sort of how the Celtic aspect came about. I found a book called the Tain, which is a translation by Thomas Kinsella of an Irish epic called the Tain Bo Cuailnge. It was annotated by with little underlines and marginal comments. The comments had the “i” dotted with a hollow circle, which made me think, “This is a woman who is writing this.”

 

Hollow dots over the i’s are very much a teenage girl thing.

 

There were these passages that were about sex and it would say in the margin, “Sexual innuendo?” And I was thinking, “Innuendo? What are you talking about? That’s sex!” But it made me think about this person, who, at a very young age, got very deeply into these epics and took it into herself and it became her reality. And it made me think, “What would happen if that had a deep effect on somebody?” I don’t know if you can think of games you played as a kid …

 

Well, Dungeons and Dragons is a classic touchstone for people my age. There is a Sam Lipsyte story about it. Paul LaFarge wrote on it, too.

 

But even before that. Playacting or running in the yard. Swordplay with sticks. Like, kids, like, below ten. And then maybe somebody eventually grows out of it. And maybe the other person doesn’t grow out of it at the same time. And maybe that other person goes farther into it. That’s what I thought about the character of Sandra. The characters have some sort of weird protectiveness of her. There’s some sort of general distrust of law enforcement, I think.

 

Which is ironic, given that the most long-running hero of the Grouse County books is Dan the sheriff. But there is that line about him saying him not trusting the rules now that he is no longer enforcing them. But this book is full of people breaking the rules. There are so many betrayals. Infidelity, all the way through.

 

It’s approached in different phases. Dan, ten percent. Joan and Gray, the sex-addled screenwriter...

 

About whom we get the classic line, “I thought you could count on men to be callous and evasive...”

 

Right. I thought that was kind of true. I’m not sure if it is, but I kind of hope it is.

 

That you can count on men to be callous and evasive? Or that you can’t?

 

That you can’t. Joan thought Gray would be easy to sleep with and forget because, in the way of men, he would want to sleep with and forget her. Instead he begins following her around like he’s insanely devoted to her even though it seems to be her audition reel that he’s really in love with.

 

I think Louise and Dan kept on OK. Somebody said to me, “Oh, you hate to see Dan and Louise flailing.” But I don’t know if they are flailing. I always feel like people are always saying my characters are “flailing” or “bumbling.” And I think, “What are their lives like? Who are these people who have these perfect lives in which they never flail or bumble?” Really. I hate to analyze my own book.

 

You are allowed to analyze your own book!

 

I always go back to Huck Finn as a character. He didn’t expect anything. He didn’t have any Victorian expectations of a good or proper life, and so he was very well-equipped to deal with whatever happened. A lot of my characters are the same way. Their feelings aren’t hurt when things go wrong, because they don’t have a sense of entitlement about things going well.

 

Many writers will go back and forth between writing full-time and teaching. But you see to go back and forth between writing novels and journalism and ...

 

Day jobs.

 

Are there day jobs that you have found help or hinder your writing?

 

Here’s the thing: I was never writing when I was doing any of those jobs. I was writing a little bit when I was at Wesleyan. But I wasn’t writing when I was doing journalism. What it does to your writing is stop it. That’s my advice.

 

So the advice is marry a financier?

 

No, the advice is: Keep a damn low overhead. I don’t regret any of it. I was able to be a more present father to my child, my girl. It’s hard to argue with that. And you think, well, if the world was deprived of two Tom Drury novels, the world will probably get over it. I’m not unhappy having five novels. That ain’t bad. Go back to the kid in the little town of 150 and say, “Hey, kid, you’re going to write five novels.” It’s OK with me.

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