Spring 2001 vol 1.1
An Interview with Ralph Lombreglia
Whitney Martin
RALPH LOMBREGLIA is a Web and multimedia consultant and writes a column for Atlantic Unbound, the on-line edition of The Atlantic Monthly. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, and other publications, and has been collected in two books, Men Under Water (1991) and Make Me Work (1995). His stories were twice selected for The Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 1987 and 1988). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, he has won a number of awards, including a grant form the NEA. He is currently working on novel, for which he received a Guggenheim. He teaches creative writing at Boston University.

turnrow fiction editor Whitney Martin interviewed Ralph Lombreglia at the Southern Literary Festival at the University of Louisiana at Monroe in April 2000.

Whitney Martin: To those involved in the literary arts and to those who are avid readers, what do you think public readings can bring that the words on the page may not?

Ralph Lombreglia: I assume that all good writers pay attention to the music of their work—whether it's poetry or prose. And though much of this music should come through on the page, there's certainly something that an oral performance can add. But I've seen it work all different ways. I remember seeing a fiction writer read aloud one night from work that I found boring in print, but his performance of it made it sound enchanting; I went back to it in print, and it was still boring; the guy could probably have made the phone book sound good, and should probably be a performance artist, not a fiction writer. That's a rarity, though. Slightly more often, I've seen writers give dismal performances of work I admired on the page; it didn't hurt my respect for their work, but it made me wonder if they understood their work themselves. Usually, writers do a decent job with their own stuff, but even so, they always emphasize something differently than you did when reading it, or find something funny that you didn't, etcetera, and so you always come away with something.

WM: What do you enjoy about readings the most? Do you hear your story better when you read it aloud? Is there some auditory level to fiction in the same way there is in poetry?

RL: Yes, I think that good fiction should have as much resonance and cadence and shapely utterance as poetry—different, but equal. I re-write my fiction 20 to 25 times, and most of those iterations are mostly on the page--though I'm always imagining the sound of it, even from the first draft. But in the last handful of rewrites, I'm usually saying it out loud to myself, at least in part. And I'll always read the whole thing aloud to myself before the final draft. I've even tape-recorded passages when some indefinable something is bothering me that I can't figure out; it usually helps. Reading in public for an audience takes it a step further, and not only because you're hearing their reactions. Of course their reactions are a big part of it; but the simple fact of their being out there, of there being an audience at all, forces you to rise to that occasion as a performer, and gets something out of you that you wouldn't bring to it in a private "test" reading. And so in public, even if the audience isn't making a peep, I'll hear something new in every passage. All writing is a transaction; but when you read in public, you see and feel the other side of the transaction as you never do otherwise (except maybe for fan mail).

WM: Is your writing informed by or influenced by region in any way?

RL: Not as much as I wish it was. I certainly write about specific places—set pieces of fiction in definite locations and get something special from those locations—but in general I'm not "regional" at all. I'm Northern, born in Newark, New Jersey and then spent a lot of time in upstate New York and around Boston. But in my work I have the vaguest regional affiliation. As I say, I wish it were stronger. Maybe it will get stronger. I lived in California for a year, and it seems to have had the strongest effect on me of anywhere I've been; if I lived in California, I think I'd certainly be a "California writer”—I mean, I'd feel moved to portray it the way a landscape painter would portray a place. California is dramatic that way.

WM: Who—or what—have been the biggest influences to your work?

RL: I always "wanted" to be a writer, even from the time I was 11 or 12. But I became a writer because I discovered the work of Vladimir Nabokov. I can point to him quite specifically. His stuff was the particular magic that sent me over the edge. And then a number of other "fabulist" or "metafictional" writers thrilled me for quite a few years. In the short story, Donald Barthelme meant a great deal to me. Again, I found him to be a magician more than a writer, exactly, and I prized that. Thomas Pynchon, especially in Gravity's Rainbow, floored me completely; ultimately, my fascination with Pynchon probably slowed me down as a writer, because his imagination was (and still is) so intimidating; coming after him, it was hard to hear my own consciousness, either because he had done so perfectly something I wanted to do, or because he is so "encyclopedic" that there didn't seem much room left for anything else that wasn't simply redundant.
Flannery O'Connor has always been a model. Tobias Wolff is one of the best we've got, and Ray Carver certainly was one of the best—a true original. Joseph Conrad was huge for me, and so was Melville, Jonathan Swift, Montaigne, Joyce of Ulyssess, Samuel Beckett particularly in his novel trilogy.

WM: You seem interested with the disenfranchised—is that the word I'm looking for here?—the creative personality on the outside of mainstream society. What are the problems facing the artist in the twenty-first century—have we, as a society, lost the need for the artist? Do we have an obligation to support the arts with public funds? Does art have a utilitarian purpose?

RL: I was talking to a musician friend the other day about certain American "jazz" guitarists we like. Outside a handful of major American cities, these players can scarcely fill a club. But anywhere in Europe, they're treated like royalty. People literally put them up in palaces. The most accomplished citizens of European countries want to experience the art and the personal presence of American avant-garde artists, but Americans themselves are utterly uninterested. This is a cliché in its own right, of course, and it's been true for many decades, and not just in the area of jazz music, either.
It's been a long steady process, but yes, to a large extent, the United States—as a whole, as a society in general—has "lost the need for the artist," as you say. We don't need to be shaken up anymore. We're comfortable, by and large, and we want to stay that way. It's the first glaring symptom of our fatal disease, but we don't know how to read the symptoms, so we think we're in rollicking good health. We have pursued the physical—the material—very successfully. But we've pursued it with reckless disregard for the metaphysical, to the point that we now honestly believe that if you can't apprehend something with the five senses, it doesn't exist and isn't important (by which logic, radio waves don't exist, but never mind—you can't tell Americans anything). We're too self-satisfied, too smug, too convinced we know it all. Yes, I think we have an obligation to support art with public funds, just as we have an obligation to regulate industry that harms our environment. The Ronald Reagan idea that if you "give capitalism its head it will take care of people and right its own wrongs" is complete bunk. Capitalism will take care of people as long as they serve the purpose of the machine; if people get in the way, watch out. But doesn't that mean that capitalism is so stupid that it will actually kill its own customers? Yes, of course; look at the tobacco industry. And yes, art has a utilitarian purpose. Its purpose is to make you see, because if you see, you'll behave like a humble human being. To make you see, art has to shake you up. It can also entertain you, and sometimes it can "entertain" you while making you feel profoundly shaken up; that's the good stuff. To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, art isn't an escape from reality, it's a terrifying plunge into reality.

WM: Does the artist have a responsibility to the reader, to society, to his or her time?

RL: The artist has profound responsibilities to his or her reader, and must have abiding respect for the reader's time—which means for the reader's mortality, for the fact that the reader is going to die. It's funny that you ask me this, because I'm always telling my writing students precisely this. The main thing that goes wrong with student writing is lack of respect for the reader. For many student writers, writing isn't a transaction; it's narcissistic self-regard. The most important credential for being an artist is the recognition that we're all going to die. If you really absorb that reality, and then in grand Samuel Beckett fashion you are able to "go on," you probably have respect for the mortality of others, and you'll probably make some utterances worth hearing.