Writing with 'the hard high ring of truth': More from Evan S. Connell
Published: January 28, 2011
|The March 2011 issue of The Writer featured an interview with Evan S. Connell, headlined: "An independent sort: At 86, Evan Connell, the bestselling author of the classic Bridge novels and Son of the Morning Star, is still going strong—on a 50-year-old typewriter, no less."|
Connell, wrote our contributor John Brady, "is one of the least known best-known authors in American letters today. He is a puzzlement to critics because he's difficult to categorize. In a career that stretches back some 65 years, Connell has written poetry, essays, short and long fiction, plus Son of the Morning Star, the (again) difficult-to-categorize, bestselling biography of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the saga of the Plains Indian wars, which reads like a nonfiction novel."
Summing up Connell’s best-known works, Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin said the paired novels, Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) "remain among the most insightful portraits of 20th century middle-American suburban life ever written," while his Custer book "re-imagines the story of the Old West as a complicated tragedy, marked by narcissism and genocide."
Following are some additional comments from Brady’s interview with the author.
In the early ’50s you were in Europe with George Plimpton and The Paris Review set. What was that like?
The Paris Review was notoriously tightfisted. They bought three or four stories from me, but I hadn’t been paid. I went into the Paris Review office, and there was a receptionist sitting there and I asked, "Is George here?î I knew damn well he was there. "No, George isn’t here," she said. He was hiding in a closet or somewhere.
I ran into George Plimpton one day and he said, "Let’s have lunch together." We did, and when the bill came—it was $1.60 for the two of us—we both stared at it, until, finally George said, "Let me take you to lunch." I was about to say yes, but then I realized, if I let George pay that 80 cents (or whatever it was), it would be another two years before I got paid $12 for a story. So I insisted on paying for myself.
When you get onto a book project like Morning Star, is there anyone you talk to—an agent, an editor? Do you get any guidance at all?
No. With the Custer book, the publisher of my previous book had an option on it, so I had an editor, John Dodds, and I may have talked with him while I was working on the book, but I don’t recall that he was giving me any guidance—and he eventually rejected the Custer book. He’d been looking forward to it, but when he finished it he said he was very disappointed and embarrassed. He said it seemed to him that it broke into two parts—the history of the Plains Indian wars and the biography of Custer. He felt I had to decide which it should be. He said he’d be glad to work with me on it to get it into publishable shape. But he didn’t think it was publishable as written.
If I had been 22 years old, I probably would have taken his advice. But I was pleased with it the way it was, and, finally, you’ve got to make your own decisions. So John and I parted in good company. He said, "Well, you’ve fulfilled your contract and our option; you are free to show it to someone else. If you don’t get any offers that satisfy you, come back and I’m willing to work with you on it again."
So I sent it to [agent] Elizabeth McKee, who showed it to four or five big New York publishers and all turned it down except one, and that was for an advance of $5,000. Five thousand dollars—and I’d been working on the book for five years. She also showed it to Bill Turnbull and Jack Shoemaker, who had started up this little North Point Press. Both of them loved the book and wanted to do it very much.
I called Elizabeth. "Well, you have two offers that are essentially the same," she said. One was from this small California press; the other was from a big New York publisher. I asked her what she thought we should do. "I would go with Turnbull and Shoemaker,î she said. I asked her why. "They love it and want to do it so much, I think they will do a better job." So I took her advice.
Did you have anything to do with Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, the movie version of your books?
I didn’t have a lot to do with it. I spent two or three weeks in Kansas City, consulted with the screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who does most of the Merchant Ivory film scripts. She’s astonishingly good. She’s of German/Jewish descent. How she became so adept in English, I don’t know. There were very few mistakes in the movie, almost so small you wouldn’t notice. They had Mrs. Bridge wearing a cheap sweater in one scene, for instance, when the Bridges could afford to just turn up the heat. Nobody’s going to notice that except people who live there.
Were you on the set during shooting?
Yes. The most difficult thing I had to do was keep my mouth shut. I’m sitting on the sidelines and Jim Ivory is running the show, and I wanted to say, "No, no, Jim. Let’s do it this way." That’s the last thing he wanted to hear.
In the end, my only complaint about the film is that I think it could have been funnier. I would have made a few changes, but Jim Ivory’s sense of humor is not mine. I think they did a pretty good job as a whole.
William Goldman once told me the most exciting day of your life as a young screenwriter is your first day on the set. The dullest day in your life is the second day.
I was going to say just that. I learned very quickly how dull it was. Just boring, sitting through all of that.
I have a quote here from Thomas D’Evelyn in The Christian Science Monitor, reviewing Son of the Morning Star: "Now we have the story of General George Armstrong Custer as Flaubert would have written it.î That must have resonated with you.
Yeah, I remember that review. I’ll accept that.
Do you think your strength is in writing fiction or nonfiction?
Ha. I like that Custer book. That’s kind of an evasive answer.
It sounds like you like it both ways. It’s nonfiction, but you have the skills of a fiction writer. It’s similar to a "nonfiction novel," which Truman Capote claims to have invented with In Cold Blood, though some say you can go back to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the origins of that form.
I wondered about that. I never understood what Capote meant. I knew the book editor of The Kansas City Star at the time. He told me that Capote traveled with an entourage, and they called him up and wanted someone to show Capote around town. During the day, Capote was quite friendly toward the people he was talking to for his book. After a day’s work, though, Capote and his entourage would mix a drink he called The Bloody Clutter, making a joke of the whole thing.
Somebody asked me to review In Cold Blood. I think it was the San Francisco Chronicle. While I was reading it, something bothered me, a feeling that there was something insincere just beneath the surface, a sense that Capote was manipulating, getting what he needed out of it, that he didn’t give a damn about these people.
When I wrote the review, I quoted Capote’s description of Nancy Clutter skipping down the stairs. He was not there at the time. He invented this kind of magazine prose to give an indication of what happened and it’s just plain false. In another scene, he wrote, "Dick knew he had a tiger by the tail." Well, you don’t pay any attention to this sort of phrasing if it’s a third-grade magazine writer, but Capote had a reputation as a stylist, and this is crap.
Which writers have you admired over the years?
I usually go back to the Continental writers, late 19th and early 20th centuries, British, Russians, French ... Chekhov, Flaubert ... even when they don’t write an especially good story, there is something worthwhile in what they have done.
Are there any American writers you hold in high regard?
Individual things, yes. A lot of Hemingway I can do without, but once in awhile everything comes together. He wrote a story called "Old Man at the Bridge," a short story about an old man forced out of his village by advancing armies in the Spanish Civil War. He gets as far as the bridge and he’s too tired to cross it. Hemingway the journalist talks to him, and the old man explains how he has walked so many kilometers, he can’t walk any farther today. Hemingway asks him why he left his village and the old man says they drove him out. He wasn’t doing anything wrong, just taking care of animals. He couldn’t understand why his life has been torn apart, but that’s the way it is.
I read that story half a dozen times. It just rings true.
I think I can demonstrate that right here. [He takes out two coins, Spanish pieces of eight.] One of these is counterfeit and one is authentic. If you drop them on the surface of the table, you can tell the difference. You can tell which is silver and which is not. [He drops them in sequence. One rings; one thuds.] I bought both of these at the same auction. One is silver; the other is silver-plated lead.
I used the same analogy one time in the Custer book when the troopers were telling stories, and one trooper told this fantastic story, and it was all nonsense. Another told a story very much as it happened. That was the difference between something that is the truth—if you dropped two coins on a table, and one of them is counterfeit, it goes clunk, and the other one has the high hard ring of truth.
And so in the Hemingway thing, that was the way people respond. That was the high hard ring of truth. This old man lost at the bridge. Can’t go any farther. That’s all there is to it. And he didn’t try to decorate it with any sentiments.
Other American writers you like?
Walter Van Tilburg Clark didn’t write very much, but he wrote some first-class short stories, including "The Wind and the Snow of Winter," one of my favorite short stories, about a prospector coming down out of the Sierra Nevadas, and he’s losing his mind—he didn’t know it—and he asks somebody in town how to find Mrs. Jones’ boarding house, and he gets a funny look. "Aren’t you so and so?" And the realization comes to the reader that he’s been doing this for years, coming to stay in the same place every winter. But now they have to tell him that Mrs. Jones (or whatever) died 20 years ago.
Cheever did some good stories. "For Esme, With Love and Squalor," that’s a very touching story. That’s close to the very good Hemingway and Flaubert. There is a Chekhov story called "On the Road," about a couple of Cossacks and gendarmes who pick up a vagrant, who may have been a thief, somewhere in the countryside; and they are marching him into town, where, presumably they are going to put him in jail for who knows why. And so the three of them are walking, walking, walking down toward the town, and they get tired and they stop to rest. Then they get up and continue walking.
Reading that, I thought, my God, that’s the way it is. I guess they get to town and jail him or something, but that’s all there is to the story. The cops don’t have any particular animosity toward him. They are just doing their job. And the guy understands that. He has been picked up because he hasn’t been following the regulations or whatever. These very often are the simplest of things.
Do you enjoy writing?
When it’s going well, yes. Yes, I do. Especially when you’ve done something good and you feel sort of proud of yourself.