How David Gates Slow-Cooks Great Stories
The novelist got everyone’s attention with the indelible Jernigan in 1991. Since then he’s taken his sweet time about publishing more, but the quality has never varied.
American writers—like other Americans who work in office cubicles and hospitals, in factories and on farms—are under constant pressure to work harder, work longer, produce more. Never mind that the rewards rarely keep up with the ever-increasing productivity. Just keep it coming.
Writers deal with this pressure in a variety of ways. Some, like Joyce Carol Oates, pour forth rivers of books without seeming to break a sweat. (Oates has published well over 100 books, and another memoir, The Lost Landscape, is due out this summer.) Brand-name genre writers like Lee Child and David Baldacci produce a book or two every year, like clockwork, to feed the beast. James Patterson hired a stable of writers to help him crank out his torrent of bestsellers, as many as half a dozen a year.
And then there’s David Gates, who decided he wasn’t going to play the game.
Gates has just come out with his first book in 16 years, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, a collection of one novella and 11 short stories. In addition to being full of Gates’s laser prose, his pitch-perfect dialogue, and his usual wised-up, broken-down, unmoored characters, this book is a testament to the benefits of slow cooking in an age of flash-fried, microwaved fiction.
Slow, indeed. Gates, now 68, was a late bloomer, publishing his first novel when he was in his 40s. Jernigan, an acidic first-person tale of an alcoholic trying to deal with his wife’s death and his life’s aimlessness in the New Jersey suburbs, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Gates followed it seven years later with another novel, Preston Falls, a portrait of an unraveling marriage told in the shifting third-person, from the points of view of the feckless husband, Willis, and his aggrieved wife, Jean. That novel was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the passages told from the woman’s point of view marked a major step forward. A year later, Gates came out with a short-story collection, The Wonders of the Invisible World, another finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, that showed even greater poise and ambition. These stories were narrated by a pregnant woman who drinks on the sly, a gay man taking care of his junkie sister’s son while she’s in rehab, an unhappily married day-care worker, a father keeping a vigil over his philandering daughter, a gay suburban couple, a wronged husband. Considering that the stories take place in the urban, suburban, and rural Northeast—that is, in the tight confines of Cheever country—their range is an astonishment.
Then in the late ’90s, after publishing three books in eight years, Gates stepped back. He didn’t exactly fall off the map—he worked a day job for nearly 30 years writing about books and music at Newsweek, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, he taught creative writing in New York, Vermont, and Montana. And he kept writing fiction, though at a much more deliberate pace, publishing a short story every year or so in such high-end venues as The New Yorker, Granta, GQ, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Tin House.
These stories, which compose the bulk of A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me (only the novella, “Banishment,” was previously unpublished), cement Gates’s reputation as a masterful realist. His subject is that vast complexity known as domestic life, including childhood, young adulthood, infidelity, maturity, old age and death. His characters are smart, erratic, and self-sabotaging, thirsty for spiritual (as opposed to religious) nourishment. They tend to drink too much and/or smoke too much weed, and they read Timon of Athens and Madame Bovary; Dickens is about as low as they go. A unifying theme in their lives is the near-impossibility of forging truly happy relationships that last.
My personal favorites in the new book are stories told through the eyes of female characters, particularly “Banishment” and “A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens.” If I have a quibble with this book, it’s that the aging bucks all tend to sound like John Huston after his third martini. But that’s a minor point. The important thing is that in today’s overheated publishing climate, any writer who publishes just one short story a year is definitely doing some slow cooking. In this case, the results are delectable.
It may seem counterintuitive for a writer to slow things down in our hectic digital age. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the most sensible strategy for dealing with today’s pressure to produce more and produce it faster (whether you’re making novels or Buicks). After all, quality writing takes time—ideas must gestate and marinate before they become words on the page. Then there’s the work of editing, rewriting, polishing. Some stories need to sleep in a drawer at this point, until the writer can revisit them with fresh eyes. All this takes time.
Before Gates gave a recent reading at Book Court in Brooklyn, he talked with me about his deliberate pace. “I was lucky because I was always gainfully employed,” he said. “In a way, that made me less productive. On the other hand, it made me pure as the driven snow.”
He laughed, then went on, “I’m just naturally slow. It usually takes me about three or four months to write a story. Then it takes me a while after I finish a story to forget that story and convince myself that my next story is a hot new idea that’s never been done before. Nobody but the writer cares how long it takes to write something.”
Now comes the counter-counterintuitive part. After meeting weekly deadlines for nearly three decades at Newsweek, Gates, perhaps naturally, luxuriated in the freedom to slow down while writing fiction. But the absence of a deadline presented a new problem. “Without a deadline,” Gates says, “I would sit there trying to be a genius.”
The problem was solved when A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me was nearing its production date—and Gates still hadn’t finished the 90-page novella that opens the book, or the short story “Locals.” He finished the latter in one month and brought the former in on time. “I was successful writing them on a deadline because I had to get them done,” he says. “I realized I welcomed having a deadline.”
While the goad of a deadline helped Gates complete his new collection, he’s content to leave the volcanic output to writers like Joyce Carol Oates and Trollope and Balzac. “It never appealed to me to have a Balzac-sized shelf of books with my name on the spines,” Gates says. “I never wanted to produce something I wasn’t happy with, that wasn’t the best I could do. Why do that unless you need the money?”
Later, at Book Court, he told the appreciative crowd that he’d done a fool thing earlier in the day. “I had lunch with my agent today and I drank a little too much coffee,” he said. “And I promised her I would have a novel to her one year from today.”
This announcement was greeted with applause. I joined in, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that new novel, for a couple of reasons. First, because Gates had admitted to me that he’s “working on thinking about writing a novel.” And second, because David Gates understands, as well as any writer at work in America today, that great writing can’t be rushed.