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With the publication of The Garden of Lost & Found (Mischief + Mayhem), Dale Peck comes one step closer to completing the five-novel cycle he conceived of in the mid-90s. Drawing inspiration from a familiar cast of characters as well as his adopted home town of New York City, Peck delivers a novel that explores family, sexuality, AIDS, and the resiliency of the city, and he does it without kowtowing to the populist sentiment that a character ought to be likable: this one certainly isn’t. Following the death of a mother he never knew, twenty-one-year-old vagabond James Ramsay inherits a derelict brownstone two blocks from the World Trade Center. James must decide if he’s going to turn out his newfound tenants, an elderly shopkeeper and her pregnant niece, Claudia, or if he’s going to salvage the only connection he has left to his mother. In typical fashion, Peck spares no punches. The prolific novelist and sometimes critic chatted with Lambda about his career, his novel’s long road to publication, and the evolving face of publishing in the twenty-first century.
You seem equally comfortable writing children’s literature as you do with more traditionally adult books. How do you decide?
The children’s books came about almost by accident after 9/11. I was staying at a friend’s house up in Cape Cod and he had a dream that the house was floating away—if you read Drift House that’s essentially what it’s about. It was one of those moments when you want to escape into something and yet at the same time say something. I was reminded of the way the C.S. Lewis books were contextualized as a response to the London Blitz. It was a way to sort of approach 9/11 in fiction.
You said that you wrote the structure of this book well before 9/11—
I wrote a complete draft of the book and it was scheduled for publication. I sold it to one company, which was purchased by HarperCollins. The editor I ended up with at HarperCollins really didn’t like the book. We didn’t see eye-to-eye. It was a really contentious process, but I was able to get out of my contract. The book would’ve come out in early 2001, so it was sort of a blessing in disguise because it takes place two blocks away from ground zero. When 9/11 happened I felt the book had been completely superseded by history. I put it away for five years to see how I would respond to that. The first sentence of the book was “The city was dying.” I mean, that sentence was always there, so it became a way of using that sentence in a post-9/11 context without being defeatist.
What I find really fascinating about this book is this tension between futurity and the past. The city is simultaneously described as “the dying city” and as a place of relentless reinvention.
New York is first and foremost a city that destroys itself and then rebuilds. It has absolutely no respect for any of its own traditions except for that futurity—I might be more crass and call it commerce. But that’s New York. It paves over its beloved landmarks and builds really ugly buildings on top of it. There’s some nostalgia about that, but then it happens again 20 years later. That’s where the incredible energy comes from. It comes from the continual hordes of people who come here and remake the city in their image each and every generation.
You’re a married man—
I am a married man!
There’s a lot of talk now about the mainstreaming of gay culture. Do you see a favorable way to synthesize our outlaw history with a move towards the mainstream?
I don’t think any one could synthesize the whole thing. It’s interesting because when this book made the rounds, a shocking amount of people were incredibly alienated by this character. There are many people who think there’s no audience for HIV anymore because HIV isn’t a problem, then suddenly you put a gay kid in front of them infecting people and then suddenly there’s a big problem. That’s exactly what I was trying to write about in this book vis-à-vis the epidemic. There’s half of our being that just wants to say it’s over, then the other half that knows it’s still this huge problem.
Is there a nostalgia for AIDS?
It’s almost impossible that there wouldn’t be, however weird or problematic that is. As a 45-year-old gay man I grew up with AIDS, and, you know, even as I watched the tens of thousands of people dying I also saw the political community that came out of that. The mainstreaming that we’re talking about probably owes a lot more to AIDS activism than it does to gay activism. That was the epidemic’s backhanded gift to us. There are a lot of artists that I love, particularly Derek Jarman, who explicitly use the word “gift” to talk about AIDS. [Jarman] never said he wanted it, never said he wanted to die, but having AIDS taught him to look at life in a different way at the end of his career, quite literally because he went blind. I’m not HIV positive. I would never dream of appropriating that metaphor, but I certainly understand it. In the book the two years Jaime and Trucker spent having unprotected sex, that’s not just carelessness—it’s a kind of willful engagement with a previous history rather than the current history. Sometimes it works out for people and sometimes it doesn’t.
Do you see parallels between the way New Yorkers expressed solidarity during 9/11 and in the early days of AIDS?
I don’t. I’m extraordinarily pessimistic about 9/11, that’s why I said in the book that New York didn’t change after 9/11. This is not a story about 9/11. It’s a story that happens during 9/11. I think the AIDS epidemic was one of those moments when the US really shone, where people used the tools of democracy to confront a crisis and make incredible inroads to save literally millions of lives. I think the US really mishandled 9/11. It brought out our xenophobia; it brought out our bullying tendency and our refusal to acknowledge history. People came out in the early years of the AIDS epidemic and said this is not some accidental viral mutation, it’s predicated on historical institutions in the gay world and in the straight world; whereas, with 9/11, we treated it as a completely ahistorical event, as if we had never done anything to anger the Arab world. I’m not saying that justifies what happened on 9/11, but I do think there’s a historical context for everything that you have to acknowledge.
Claudia and Jamie have an interesting dynamic. To a certain extent they’re mutual enablers. What’s the motivating factor behind that?
Claudia sort of turned into an amalgam of half a dozen incredibly intelligent women I knew in my first ten years in New York City. All of who never quite got it together to realize their promise to become the scintillating human beings they had the potential to become. James is the person I could turn into if I let my guard down. I wanted him to not be alone in his lack of self-examination. What they’re really hiding from is their strength, which is what makes them so weak. When 9/11 happened the weight of the towers coming down was an apt metaphor for their relationship. The collapse of one caused the other to collapse, but I worked really hard to not say that directly.
You often write about fathers, but this time around the real focus is a mother. Why the shift?
For me it was less of a shift only because it’s one of those weirdnesses in my writing life. When I was a senior in college I came up with the idea for five novels. Martin and John, Law of Enclosures, Now It’s time to Say Goodbye, and The Garden of Lost and Found were the first four. I always wanted this book to be mother-centric in contrast to all the heavy father stuff, especially in Martin and John. My own bio has shaped the way I write. My mother died when I was very young, and my father remarried several times. I tend to write about mothers as ideas rather than people, and fathers as overpowering presences.
It’s interesting that in this one it’s both the mother and potential fathers that are more ideas rather than people.
I confess I stole that from Oedipus Rex. Claudia’s story is Antigone and James’ is Oedipus.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your decision to self-publish through Mischief + Mayhem.
Publishing has changed so much in the fifteen years since I first conceived of this book. What a publisher is willing to do for a book that they don’t expect to sell a lot of copies has gotten so ridiculously small that there’s very little reason for a writer like me, in mid-career, to sign away what little money the book is going to make in exchange for a five- to ten-thousand dollar advance, especially when the publisher is just going to turn around and ask you to do all the promotional work on your own. That was coupled with changes in technology that make it easy for people to form little publishing collectives. There’s no reason – as more and more consumers are letting us know – to have books in physical stores. You can buy books on the Internet, as consumers increasingly do. That said there are still challenges.
Our publicity efforts were fairly minimal, but I don’t think they were any more minimal than they would’ve been with a mainstream publisher. This book was extraordinarily personal to me. I made my peace with the fact that not a huge number of people were going to love it, and I wasn’t going to fight with publishers like I have in the past to try to get them to promote it. I love this book like crazy, but I have no illusions as to its mainstream appeal. Bringing it out, having it available, that was the priority.
Daniel Mendelsohn recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker about a critic’s role. In it he defends the negative review as a way to dismantle hype and reorient discussion around a work of art’s merits and flaws.
Mendelsohn wrote a piece like this? Did he mention me?
In a way it’s the opposite of all the self-promotion we’ve been discussing, with Mendelsohn and others arguing that a critic is more important than ever now. Certainly, the negative review is not something you’ve ever shied away from. Do you think it’s important for novelists to be critics?
I don’t know if it’s important for a novelist to be a critic. I think it’s often a problem. I find a lot of novelists tend to write about other novels in overly flattering terms to avoid the kind of repercussions that I’ve experienced. I write about books because I love writing about books. As a writer, I understand my work in very critical, canonical terms. I tend to think that way. For me, writing about contemporary writers was a way to clarify why it was that I felt so out of step with many of my peers. It’s one thing to say I don’t like x, y, or z and it’s another thing to understand the reasons behind that.
I think that in terms of how important a critic is depends on what you call a critic. I think we have an extraordinary number of people who are book reviewers, who are essentially commentators or free advertising for books. Some are good. Some are doing it largely as a way of getting their name out there. I’m pretty sure if you poll 10 book reviewers, 9 of them would be aspiring novelists, and they’re reviewing for the sake of the relationship and not because they want to become a long-term book critic. The serious critic of old is increasingly rare and we could definitely use a return. There isn’t an Edmund Wilson out there, or a Mary McCarthy, or a Lionel Trilling anymore. It would be really nice if there were. I do feel that serious literary discussion has been downgraded in terms of its standards. I think one of the reasons why a lot of our writers–who I think are incredibly middlebrow–have become so celebrated is because our better critics have become middlebrow and this is the work they’re willing to stomach whether formally or in terms of content. It’s very hard for me to imagine a supposed serious critic these days liking Samuel Beckett if he were to appear now and hadn’t already been vetted by the academy. It’s very hard for me to imagine them liking The Sound and the Fury if it appeared today. Work that is being celebrated right now, most of it is shockingly easy. It is not very far removed from popular fiction. I have nothing against popular fiction. I just don’t think it’s particularly serious, and that a lot of it tends to be overly celebrated.
Do you think you’ll ever pick one side or another?
I always argue that I’m not a critic, actually, that I’m a novelist who writes about books for the sake of his own work. I pretty much like everything about literature even the things I don’t like about it. I’m a novelist. It’s just what I am. I like the way a narrative is made. To me, when I’m writing criticism I’m helping to create a context for my own work. There’s nothing impartial about what I write. Personally, I don’t think there should be anything impartial about serious criticism. Every critic should have an axe to grind. For me, that axe is what I think about my own work.
(Image via The Garden of Lost & Found book trailer)