The real authors of Anywhere, USA

Can you be an author of serious work and still have a personal life to boot? What kind of a question is that?

Let’s sideline the discussion of “serious” work—what is serious literature and what isn’t serious literature, etc.—and focus on the personal life part.

Part of my interest in this question is in the fact that some of the most “serious” writers writing today are very reticent on the topic of themselves. You have Cormac McCarthy, who doesn’t often give interviews, who seems to do his best to detach himself from his own books. You have Thomas Pynchon, who hasn’t been photographed in, what, half a century? If ever? And you have Don DeLillo who, the chummiest of the bunch, still exudes an aura of liquid nitrogen—cold, cunning and calculating critic.

Of those three, DeLillo is the one I am most familiar with. He was the one who cropped up the most when I looked at modern literature. He threads it much more than either Pynchon or McCarthy—DeLillo the teacher where Pynchon and McCarthy are more like idols or anomalies.

My view of DeLillo is, in a sense, still in its infancy—I hope I’ll come up with some veritable judgment by the end of the semester at least—but everything I’ve read of him, fiction and anecdotes, indicates  he has always been reticent toward other people. Especially when it concerns his work.

DeLillo never gave a real interview until 1979, 10 years after his first novel was published. Why the reluctance?

In the interview (a seminal one, conducted by Tom LeClair) DeLillo essentially said there was no point in discussing his work since even he doesn’t fully understand it. In short, “Do not bother me please because I can’t give you a good answer and you’re interfering with my personal life.”

Understandable sentiment, yes. And, probably, the right one. The author who gets too deep into his or her own work generally comes across as cloying and pretentious.

Case in point: In an interview about his latest book, “The Testament of Mary,” Colm Toibin talked about “becoming Mary,” as it were, while he was writing it. Such sentiments are pretty insipid to me.

Nonetheless, DeLillo’s admission of his own personal, analytical reticence doesn’t fully explain why he was so reluctant to do interviews—or why either of those other two veiled titans have the same syndrome. One clue, though, comes from a book DeLillo published in 1991, “Mao II.”

“Mao II” is about crowds and terrorism, but it’s also about writing. The writer in question, Bill Gray, is a Pynchon-esque figure who, after publishing two books, drops from the world to stew in his next novel—one that takes the shape of a mausoleum, in essence. And down from the crypt, half-dead, Bill Gray emerges, though not necessarily into notoriety.

Because his books are so damn elusive, I’m going to pass on judging DeLillo’s novels (for now) and get back to my main point. DeLillo was obviously very concerned about the personal lives of authors when he wrote that book. It was published at a very fertile time too. Salman Rushdie was enduring his burgeoning fatwa and J.D. Salinger was the victim of drive-by photography. Pynchon and McCarthy were in this scene too.

In a certain sense, DeLillo was concerned with how writers could be usurped by public life, and how any personal details could also usurp the writer. Psychoanalysis can be a cruel mistress.

The question: Can you be a “serious” author and have a personal life? Answer (a la DeLillo and the other enigmas): Yes, but only if you carefully guard it. No interviews, no literary side jobs, no teaching fellowships (though a MacArthur or Guggenheim is more than welcome, just slide it under the door). The only connection proffered between author and audience is the work and even then it isn’t personal.

My own answer? It’s a mixed bag. You have cases where privacy is broached (Salinger) and cases where someone’s life is unfairly threatened (Rushdie), but then you have the people who come across as misanthropic (McCarthy), paranoid (Pynchon) and diffident (DeLillo). And of course, there are stresses that all the aforementioned likely endure—not unlike celebrities—but at the same time it’s not on par with celebrity treatment.

My answer is you can write and have a personal life, though some unmitigated individuality is either not realistic, or requires a great deal of orchestration. And you don’t need to sacrifice a personal life to do important work, either. Find an approach—stiff upper lip and all. Because your personal life always hinges on other people—regardless of whether or not you want it to. It’s something societal you need to negotiate, or fight for.

Are you a hermetic author yourself who wants to unveil your hidden genius? Shoot Sean an email at sreichard@wisc.edu.

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