William H. Gass: How I Write

Three novels in 47 years—the books of William H. Gass aren’t so much written as molted into dense, solid masterpieces. The latest, Middle C, is 18 years in the making, a theme and variation in the key of middle C, about Joseph Skizzen, a professor obsessed with establishing the Inhumanity Museum.

Ropi/Zuma Press

What drew you to the study of philosophy, and how does that subject tincture your fiction?As a youngster, I read anything that came within my reach. I found the morose philosophers (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spengler) the most interesting. Then it was Thomas Mann. The books of these authors made me look smart.

Where do you live and why?I live in St. Louis, Mo. Washington University offered me a job in 1969, when I very much needed one. The city is easy to move around in and, at that time, Wash U was growing into something great.

Describe your morning routine.Get up. The only thing in life I do easily. After breakfast and a good read of The New York Times, I go to my desk and try to write something until lunch comes.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?I watch westerns when I can, and practice my alliterations. I usually dislike “serious” movies when they show up on the TV screen. The last time I went to a movie was so long ago I can’t remember. Decades. I enjoy ignoring popular things.

What is your favorite item of clothing?Whatever I’m wearing while I’m practicing my alliterations. I hate dressing up.

A few authors I’ve interviewed had third-party websites dedicated to their work. Gary Shteyngart has a site that someone built exclusively to chart his blurbs. I love Reading Gass, curated by The Believer writer Stephen Schenkenberg. What is it like for you to have a site dedicated to your books and their fans, as well as having your work the subject of Ph.D. dissertations?Continual surprise. Gratitude for Schenkenberg’s labors. Sorrow for the misguided students.

In an oft-quoted anecdote, you appeared in a debate, back in 1978, with John Gardner, who said of your respective writing styles, “The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” To this you replied, “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there, solid as a rock, and have everybody think it is flying.” Do you still feel the same hope for your fiction, or would you adapt your response today?I might put it differently, but the point would be the same. I would like my plane to be too beautiful to risk.

Please recommend three books to your readers, and tell us what you like about them.John Hawkes, The Lime Twig. Stanley Elkin, The Living End. William Gaddis, J R. Joy that they were written by friends. Delight that they were excellence in action. At least two of them are short.

For readers curious to read philosophy, but intimidated by the texts themselves, what would you recommend as the “starter set” of philosophy books?Plato, Apology & Symposium, Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Santayana, Skepticism and Animal Faith.

For readers approaching your work for the first time, which book would you recommend they begin with, and why?On Being Blue, because it is brief.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?Flow it never does, but I don’t have any plot either. I am not constructing a story, but exfoliating an idea that’s usually caught in a metaphor. I listen for its squeak. What I have written must tell me what to write next. If it does not, it must be rewritten until it does. That way I rewrite my beginning until the book is done.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.After breakfast, I start to work by studying what I did yesterday. Noon is lunch. That is now followed by naps. In the evening, I usually watch people get shot. I wouldn’t call that a ritual.

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Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace?There is nothing unusual about it—the usual suspects. Lots of lost paper. Shelves of books. One stuffed orangutan with a sore, sad gaze.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?Bad ads.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?Nothing except a sharp wind.

Do you have any superstitions?No. I despise them. And every second belief in the world is a woolly superstition.

You write in a variety of genres: novels, short stories, essays. Does your approach differ, depending on the medium, and does one come more easily to you than others?All the same cursed difficulties.

What is something you always carry with you?Grudges.

I read that you have around 20,000 books in your home library. How many of those would you guess you have read, and how many books would you guess that you read each year?I wouldn’t guess. As a youngster, and well into my 50s, I read at least three or four books a week, but now it may be one a month. Lots of books are dipped into and then fled.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?Not even Hitler deserves such a calamity.

What is your favorite snack?In the olden days, it was popcorn and scotch. Now I have no favorite. I bite into anything I can steal.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.That I was once slim.

What phrase do you overuse?I was told once I overused “of course.”

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?The manuscript of Omensetter’s Luck was stolen, and I had to rewrite it. But that story is not behind its publication. It fell into the hands of a wonderful agent and terrific editor, after it was rejected a dozen times.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?Not really, but the day I saw a stack of my books in a window of the Sorbonne comes close.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?Having passed the morning without scrapping the previous day.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.That they take place.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?Don’t take my advice.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?I don’t care how my ashes are disposed of.

What is your next project?A book on baroque prose called Baroque Prose.

This interview has been edited and condensed.