Summer 2004 vol 3.2
An Interview with Douglas Unger
Jarret Keene
Douglas Unger has published four novels to unanimous acclaim, including Leaving the Land, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The novelist turned to short stories with the recent collection, Looking for War (Ontario Review Press, 2004). “Leslie and Sam," a story from that collection, was short-listed for the 2002 O. Henry Award and named a distinguished story by the Best Short Stories of 2002 anthology editors. His first book, Leaving the Land, received the Society of Medland Authors award for fiction, nominations for the Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy award as well as a Special Citation from the P.E.N. Ernest Hemingway award. The Washington Post described his last book, Voices from Silence, as an "emotionally complicated story that is a grisly sequel to El Yanqui." It narrates the story of a journalist and a former foreign exchange student who takes his wife to Argentina to introduce her to his former host family and becomes deeply involved with the family's tragic circumstances after military dictatorship takes over their country. The story is based on Unger's own experience as an exchange student in Argentina. He has been Managing Editor of The Chicago Review, Assistant Editor at The Iowa Review and the Associate Editor of Point of Contact: a journal of Arts & Ideas. He has also been an essayist for the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, and has worked as a screenwriter for New Horizons, Andes Films and Universal Studios. Currently Unger is the Director and co-founder of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing International program at University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

Unger brings visceral power and stylish grace to the short story form, making each story a unique meditation on such varied themes as inter-species love (“Leslie and Sam”), the inherent deceit of globalization (“The Perfect Wife”), visual art’s transcendent power (“Matisse”), and war journalism’s refusal to communicate reality (“Looking for War”). In sum, Unger’s collection is big, ambitious and unafraid to forge new literary ground.

I met with Douglas Unger at Esmeralda’s, a Salvadoran restaurant on the edge of the Fremont district in downtown Las Vegas. Unger is a tall, thin, bespectacled gentleman, who pulls his hair back in a ponytail. He speaks fluent Spanish. He is generous to a fault, especially when it comes time to pay the lunch tab, which I had to snatch from him. Indeed, Unger is not the moody, capricious writer that his aggressive yet politically informed fiction might suggest.

Jarret Keene: The opening story, “Leslie and Sam,” is devastating, mainly because the most intimate moment in it occurs when a student lab assistant shares a kiss with a drug-scarred rhesus monkey. Are you worried a story like this might get you labeled a misanthrope?

Douglas Unger: Not really. I always wanted to write a story about inter-species love, and have it be a truly romantic story, have it not be sexually satirical like “Descent of Man” by T. Coraghessan Boyle, but a more sentimental kind of story. This idea had been kicking around in my head for some time. I’d worked in a similar situation and handled monkeys in animal labs at the University of Chicago. What I did was to reverse the genders on all the significant “characters.” When you work with animals and you’re in a lab setting, you can’t help but get close to them, even as the scientists do such terrible things to them. Writing the story was my way of dealing with that experience.

I don’t know how to talk about stories, really. You get an idea, the idea simmers for a while, and then one day it becomes something that’s writeable. I suppose I have five or six story ideas that are stewing in my subconscious for long periods of time—sometimes years—before one finally comes to the surface. This one came to the surface because I was joking around with [the poet] Don Revell about inter-species love, dog love, love of animals, and the idea jelled that I should write a romantic story about true love between an animal and a human being, and not have it be satiric, not have it be comic, but really make it sentimental. If anything, when I finished the story, I thought it was too sentimental, too overtly reaching for the heartstrings. But then it was this story that was runner-up to an O. Henry, a radio station read it on the air in Minnesota, and it had a life after publication. So my initial perception of the story was probably a little harsh.

There are those animal labs in the subterranean levels of the hospitals and research institutions. I’ve got lots of stories about crazy animals running around loose in the system, but I didn’t tell them. I just wanted to tell this story. In my day, at the University of Chicago they were doing all these drug-addiction studies in the early ’70s. They were addicting monkeys to heroin, cocaine, THC, everything and anything you could imagine. And they were doing behavioral science on the monkeys, too. And, of course, eventually they’re all euthanized when the scientists finish with them. So I guess I wrote a story in response to that reality, and maybe I’ll write others.

J.K.: “Tide Pool” is a gothic-horror story, isn’t it?

D.U.: Originally, I wrote that as a Halloween story. It goes back to two things: First, a great love for the work of Horacio Quiroga, whose naturalist jungle stories are very much engaged in flora and fauna. Quiroga is a disciple of Poe, Victor Hugo and Dostoyevsky, and wrote horror stories of the jungle that I read avidly as a kid in Argentina. I love the way Quiroga stories use nature and animals to reveal his characters’ intentions. Second, in the mid ’80s I went to Itaparica [an island off the coast of Brazil] with Richard O’Connell, who’s a great translator of Brazilian poetry. Our wives went out gathering seashells, and it turns out there were all these horrific creatures and indescribable insects living inside them. And O’Connell actually brought them back to Philadelphia and his wife nearly died from a scorpion that was living inside one of the shells. But before that, my late wife Amy and I were in our hotel room in Bahia, and I was awakened by a weird noise. I saw this shell walk across the dresser top, land on the floor, and then continue walking. Also, there’s a Quiroga story called “The Feather Pillow,” a story I admire a great deal, which has to do with a relationship. The poison in the relationship is made manifest in this horrific jungle insect that lives inside a feather pillow and drains the life out of the newlywed’s wife. So, all these elements came together in this story patterned after Quiroga that I used to tell on Halloween for many years. And then I just sat down and wrote it. So it is meant to be a gothic story, a horror story. I went up to the jungle in Missiones and visited Quiroga’s house, looked at all of his memorabilia, and I even translated a little piece, “Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller,” so I got pretty obsessed with his work for a while. “Tide Pool” is a nod to his work—although very different, it’s still a nod. Also, the story works over the idea of pitting our scientific explanation of the world against some other explanation that frightens us, the idea that we think we’re all secure in our rational certainties, when in fact our rational certainties may have very little to do with what happens to us and how it happens.

I had trouble with that story. I wrote a version of it that burned in a house fire, and I had to go back and rewrite it years later. It kept vanishing. I hope the book doesn’t vanish because of it. What I mean is that there’s a kind of horror that follows Quiroga’s work and his life. Every time he would publish a collection of horror stories, it seems as though some horrific thing would happen to him. Anyhow, you don’t want to mess around with the “gothic” too much. I don’t know how Joyce Carol Oates does it—she’s one of our best gothic writers right now. Or Stephen King. Or Dean Koontz. Or any of the popular gothic novelists.

J.K.: “The Perfect Wife” is another kind of story. It deals with a kind of political intrigue. What genre would you classify it under?

D.U.: I hope it can’t be classified under any genre. “The Perfect Wife” is a joke on the Spanish tradition of la perfecta castada. Fray Luis de León published a manual for wives on good wifely behavior in the 16th Century, which lays out all the horrible slavery in which most wives find themselves in the Spanish traditional culture and how they’re supposed to behave toward their husbands. It’s almost as restrictive as any Islamic fundamentalist rules as far as how women should behave. To me, it’s a political satire on the way the world works and the way relationships work, and the story tries to juxtapose the two things.

I don’t know why, when anyone wants to do anything of any consequence in Latin America or almost anywhere else in the world, you have to have these sleazy Washington types involved, a shadowy somebody in between the money and the actual working out of the deal. I’ve spent enough time doing State Dept. consulting, working around those people and being around Argentine government people, to see how the U.S. economists come in, the bankers come in, the consultants come in … so they’ve got to approve everything before the project works. I consider it a really sleazy and deceptive system, so I thought, “Gosh, what if we have this guy posing as somebody else? Or better yet, what if we have an actress surround him during all these social events pretending to be his wife, and have it be a big discovery for this conservative business-type?” I wanted it to be funny, a satire on what really happens in the world, particularly with globalization.

J.K.: “Funny”? I didn’t laugh.

D.U.: No? That happens to me a lot. I’ll think the story is funny, and everyone else will be really grim about it and think it’s serious stuff. I have a real disconnect. I think the suicide at the end of Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete is funny, and all my students are aghast. “The Perfect Wife” also comes from a time when the novelist Christopher T. Leland and I were down in Argentina in 1989, ’90, on Fulbrights, and we kept reading about this U.S. congressman from Massachusetts who was touring the interior. We kept looking at his name, and Chris said, “I don’t remember any congressman from Massachusetts with his name.” And then we looked into it a little more when we went to a couple of conferences in the interior of the country, and we discovered that apparently there was this guy who had gotten hold of congressional stationery and was running around posing with Rotary clubs and the like as a real U.S. congressman. God knows why he was doing it. For the parties, the dinners? To meet the mayors of all those little villages? He was an impostor. Only in the depths of South America could you get away something like that. We reported it to the embassy, and nothing ever came of it. He was never caught. But that fed into “The Perfect Wife.” The whole idea of the poseur fascinated me. De Maupassant has a very short story—four pages, I think—called “This One and the Other One,” which is all about a rural politician who has a mistress he campaigns with, and the De Maupassant story also serves as a source.

To me “The Perfect Wife” is also a metaphor for globalization, where everything seems to be a deception, a front. It’s a lie that’s told upfront, especially by the International Monetary Fund, which promises development, uses the rhetoric of free trade as a goad to government to follow their restrictions, and then the IMF imposes all these rules which are all about cutting state subsidies, cutting social safety nets, diminishing the size of government. Almost every country in Latin America that the IMF has been involved with for the last 15 years is now on the skids and just about bankrupt, and now there’s no safety system to pick up the slack. So, to me, globalization is a deception, and I wanted to write a satire about that, and I did.

J.K.: With stories like “Cuban Nights,” “The Writer’s Widow” and “Matisse,” you make an about-face, since you’re writing about art. But they’re still satires, of course.

D.U.: Or eulogies to art, sure. But “Cuban Nights” is also a satire of the academic world and an academic eulogy. The problem with the story is that whenever I’ve read it, most people think the voice is mine. But I intended it to be a much more subtle, obviously limited academic voice that’s trying to pay homage to an artist he’s completely misinterpreted. And then having the story cross paths with the political implications of art and the postmodern and the idea of Cuba. And, really, to satirize the whole Cuban embargo and its political agenda. And the artist Jack Nelson, who has a similar story.

Nelson, who died in 1996, had his sculptures trapped in Cuba, and he eventually went down there and just gave them away, because he couldn’t free his work. There was just too much bureaucracy prohibiting him from getting his work from Cuba to the U.S. So I wrote a mock eulogy of an artist, intending the whole thing to be a send-up of the embargo and also a complete misreading of art in the mind of someone who doesn’t quite understand what he’s talking about, who eulogizes the artist in a sentimental way. The artist in the story is much wittier and less involved in the establishment than the narrator. And the story shows how a rebellious artist eventually becomes part of the establishment, gets absorbed into the university and quits taking chances then ends up with his work stuck on the walls of the third floor of the library. And, yes, I meant that story to be really funny.

J.K.: “The Writer’s Widow.” Is the story a “hit piece” on Raymond Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher?

D.U.: Well, I won’t go so far as to say that. But everyone reads it as that … except for people who don’t know anything about Ray Carver and Tess Gallagher, and they read it differently. I just did a reading of the story in translation down in Argentina—Alicia Steimberg did the translation, which should be coming out in [the literary journal] Jornadas out of the University of Buenos Aires. At the conference was Maria Kodama, who is Jose Luis Borges’ widow, and the whole audience was scandalized, because they thought the story was about her. And it was an awkward moment, except that I know Kodama, and I know that she wasn’t offended and that she knows I wasn’t working off of her and Borges’ life at all. But everyone in the audience thought it was directly aimed at her, and that I was insulting her, and all the rest. So … I don’t know.

People kept asking me about the biography of Ray Carver, and what happened, and what the relationship is, and what Tess Gallagher is doing, and telling me their general complaints. I got sick of talking about it, so I wrote a fiction, which can be taken any way the reader wants to take it. But I don’t have to answer that question anymore. I can say, “Well, I’d rather answer in fiction, so here’s the story. You can take it or leave it.” On the other hand, there is that other level of functionality, where I followed the rules of journalism, and if you were to read the story that way, I made sure that there was at least one reliable source and then other sources that could back everything up. I realized that it would work as journalism, so I passed the story around to a couple of people who didn’t know Ray Carver’s work, because I wanted to make sure it worked as a story for people who didn’t know anything about Carver. And it does. So it’s more likely to be considered as a story about writers and a complaint against literary heritages. You can point to a lot of historical examples.

Olga Kniper, Chekov’s widow, did exactly the same thing and kept Chekov’s biography pretty much under lock and key. She died in 1959, so there’s no real authoritative or accurate biography of Chekov until Kniper died. And she kept manipulating Chekov’s work, altering his letters. There’s a literary widow’s syndrome that happens, I think.

There’s a book in France out now that’s citing “The Writer’s Widow” like a piece of journalism, and I really object to that. I think it’s being misused. I’m not the only one. The book is misusing Chuck Kinder’s The Honeymooners the same way, and other people’s work. Basically, I want to go over and kick the guy’s ass. It’s just not right, what he’s doing. He’s taking fiction that may or may not be based on Carver and treating it as though it’s a journalistic account. I didn’t anticipate being quoted in a biography as though the story were journalism. It is, after all, a story about a lot of different characters. It could be about Tess Gallagher, or Kniper, or Kodoma, or someone else.

I also thought it would be interesting to do an homage of Carver’s style in terms of the way the sentences go together, the paragraphs go together. I’ve studied him enough and taught him enough. Another thing that’s interesting about Carver’s fiction is how little of it is made up. Maybe about 10 percent of it is imagined. The majority of it isn’t. In some of the stories, he didn’t even change the names. He’ll always skew things, of course, but if you look at biographical sources, like Bob Adelman’s photographs in Carver Country, they’ll actually be identifying the people in Ray Carver’s stories. So there’s that kind of New Realism at work.

J.K.: Is there that kind of New Realism in a story as seemingly true to your own life as “Autobiography”?

D.U.: Looking for War is a collection that wants to move from traditional story forms into forms that break the genre line. Readers might wonder, “Gosh, is this an essay? Is this memoir? Is this made up?” I think of Borges a lot. He did it in a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, ingenious way, and of course it’s very different. But I like the ground he broke for all of us in being able to begin a story with memoir, with personal reflection, and then he’ll invent this completely unusual form. And we understand that it’s a fiction, but it’s invented fiction that presents itself much like an essay. So I wanted to do something similar and deal with autobiography and the autobiographical complications of the writer writing his own story. What’s perceived is a memory of the self in a particular time and place. And, of course, memory is a distortion as it is in the story; it’s never completely accurate.

So yes, there’s a lot of autobiography in the story. There’s certainly my brother and I on the streets, living the crazy 1960s life we lived in crash pads, sleeping in subways, and all that. It’s something I began working with in the late ’90s, when I was in therapy and quitting drinking and had to deal who I was and what I was doing and why I was such a mess. So I had to talk all of this through and learn a lot. I had to admit a lot of things I didn’t want to admit before. In the process of doing that, you begin to reflect on how things catch up to you.

But it’s coincidence, too. What do you do when someone you knew on the street 35 years ago and who once had power over your life turns up as a senior-citizen student in one of your classes in Las Vegas? I mean, that’s an astounding coincidence, right? You have to write a story about something like that. If you don’t write a story, then you’ve got to write an essay. It’s just too weird not to write about it. There are exaggerations in the story, though.

I really believe we live in a world of perpetual coincidences and serendipitous encounters that we can’t explain rationally. A lot of us just don’t see it or don’t notice it. But it’s there; it’s all around us, even increasingly so, because we’re in touch with many more hundreds of people on a daily basis than we ever dreamed possible before. So you’ll run into somebody you knew as a child more likely today than a generation ago. Or you’ll cross paths with that person, or you’ll end up on a plane with that person. We travel more; we go more places. Eventually, we run into all these echoes of wherever we’ve been.

J.K.: “Matisse” is another story about art.

D.U.: “Autobiography” and “Matisse” comprise a diptych. I wrote one right after another, like painted panels that reflect on each another. “Autobiography” is about the discovery of reading and writing as a way of saving oneself, of finding a refuge within that’s not of the world. And then “Matisse” is about the discovery of painting or the plastic arts as a way to view the world and to get out of oneself. They’re meant to parallel each other. One is about the mystery of literature; one is about how the discovery of art can improve things. If art works, if it’s successful, it makes us forget our own condition when we’re standing before something. But it’s also an autobiographical story about Boston at that time. Magical Mystery Tour had just come out that November, and the story is about the kids’ culture we lived in. It’s not romantic. I’m not sure what today’s generation really thinks about the ’60s, or even if it does think about the ’60s. But it must look back and say, “Gosh, that was a wild movement.” It was very removed from the popular culture and very much on the fringe. It was a dangerous way to live, and it was an abusive way to live. There were thousands of kids hitchhiking, living in vans, living in crash pads. There was communalism, of course, but there was a lot of abuse that went on in that world. “Matisse” touches base with that.

J.K.: The dark side of the ’60s.

D.U.: The darkest side of the ’60s.

J.K.: “Looking for War” is the closing novella, and it’s in first person.

D.U.: Right. The collection starts with third-person omniscient narration, and then moves to a first-person editorial “we,” and then we get into first person New Realism. “Looking for War” is an anti-war story, and I wrote it in five days, right after our war with Afghanistan began. Not that I wasn’t in favor of that military action. I just had a visceral reaction to war in general, and certainly I have a response to whatever war this country is always getting ready to be involved in for whatever reasons. I wrote it in a rage. And I thought, “How do I do this? Well, don’t write about a contemporary war. Write about some other war nobody knows about, so that’s it not so loaded.”

I remember what Kenneth Koch said when we were all trying to write anti-Vietnam stories in the old days. He said, “Don’t write about Vietnam. Write about ‘the war of the cows.’” I thought what he said was ridiculous at the time. But I understand what he was saying. If you want to be really politically engaged, you write with metaphor or by comparison. So I just wrote about what it’s like to be a war correspondent, to be naïve, to end up in a jungle you’re completely unprepared to be in, completely untrained, with your camera, trying to take pictures of a war and nearly getting yourself killed. It happens a lot; I saw it a lot. I saw it in Latin America all the time, all these, God, all these naïve free-press journalists especially, looking for the story. And I was like that myself; I stuck my face in places in South America I shouldn’t have been in, and I’m lucky to be alive. Plus, the story came out of reviewing the documented history of the United States’ involvement in Latin American dictatorships, its support for repressive regimes—all of that is available for anyone to check out. So the story is about political journalism.

One complaint the editor Ray Smith and I kept going back and forth with was, gosh, maybe the story was too much like journalism. Was there anything I could do about that? And my answer was, “Well, the story is about journalism, and about a naïve character who wants to be in journalism and to experience through journalism the most obscure, unwritten-about war he can possibly find.” And he finds it.

In a way, the story is about what journalism doesn’t tell you. Journalism rarely tells you what’s really going on, what it smells like, what it’s like to see people die. There were maybe one or two stories from the [latest] Iraq war that told us these things in depth. But most war journalism tells about troop movements and victories and lists of casualties, but they don’t put the camera up close to the wounded and dying the way they used to in Vietnam. They don’t do it anymore; they conceal. It would be too disturbing, otherwise. So I wrote in a rage about how I felt about journalism. Originally, I was sending the collection around [to publishers] without that story in it, for fear the nature of the story would overwhelm the collection. I was even thinking of calling it “The Three Monkeys”: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—what seemed to be the rules for the contemporary, sanitized journalist, one who’s having his graphic content edited out. Eventually, though, Ray Smith wanted it to be the title story for the collection. And I said, “OK, let’s do it.”

It’ll probably overwhelm the collection, but then again I’m lucky to have a collection coming out at all. Short stories are so hard to publish these days. Getting a collection out anywhere with any press is a major victory. There are so many good writers out there. The short story seems to be a vanishing form. I don’t know why that is. But there’s going to be another great short story writer who’ll come along and change that, a writer like a Carver, or a Cheever, or a Borges, or a Flannery O’Connor. Who knows if it might already be Tobias Wolff or Alice Munro, or one of my former students, George Saunders or Dan Chaon? We can hope one of these great short story writers will create new energy and rebirth and so bring new readers to the form.