Hunger for language ‘maximalists’ and suspense

Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule’’ was the “dark horse’’ winner of National Book Award. Jaimy Gordon’s “Lord of Misrule’’ was the “dark horse’’ winner of National Book Award. (Brian Widdis)
February 6, 2011

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This past fall, Jaimy Gordon’s novel “Lord of Misrule’’ won the National Book Award in a thrilling small-press upset for a writer who has spent her career, in her words, “swirling in the eddies on the margins.’’ Gordon worked at hard-luck racetracks, like the one portrayed in her novel, before moving to Providence in 1970 for graduate school at Brown University. Since 1981, she has taught creative writing at Western Michigan University. Gordon will read at Brookline Booksmith on Feb. 11.

Some readers have expressed surprise that your book lacks quotation marks.

You have to be interested in language, and listening hard, to negotiate a book in which dialogue is important but that doesn’t use quotation marks. Cormac McCarthy springs instantly to mind.

Are you a fan of McCarthy’s?

He sometimes infuriates me. “Child of God,’’ the first novel of his that I read, utterly nauseated me. But I recognized that this was a prose stylist to be reckoned with. “Blood Meridian’’ is a hugely important book, and even in some ways an influence. It’s a permission to write exciting, active fiction in language that is rhetorically splendid.

What other contemporary novelists do you love?

I was always inclined to writers who were maximalists in language: Russell Banks, at times. Joanna Scott, a writer I’ve known about for years. Kathryn Davis, who wrote “Labrador’’ and “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf.’’ She’s always been underrated. Now, I don’t read Kathryn Davis for an adventurous plot. Although I love plot.

Clearly. For a literary novel, “Lord of Misrule’’ is full of sex, drugs, racing, and murder. I love a book that’s stylistically challenging, but suspense is so important to me that I couldn’t not want to capitalize on it. One book that operated both ways was Walter Abish’s “How German Is It.’’ He must have that same addiction to narrative. But he’s also aware of the artifice behind fiction.

Your writing became more realistic and narrative after graduate school. Did your reading?

I never stopped reading novels that left me hardly able to breathe with excitement. But in that Providence milieu, I couldn’t reflect on the real world and what I wanted my relationship to it to be. Language always came first. My literary godparents, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, who run Burning Deck Press, were a puzzle to me in terms of contemporary realism. I could never quite anticipate what they would like.

Now, I’ve been teaching all kinds of writers for 30 years. Teaching has made me more open to any writing I’m looking at closely. How can you help it? You start seeing how other writers do things.

Did you read hors y nonfiction when working on “Lord of Misrule’’?

I read Bill Barich. And like everybody else, I’ve read “Seabiscuit,’’ and loved it. But even biographies of famous racehorses depressed me by not being enough about what that horse was like. Too much about the people and the record of the horse, and not enough about the horse’s personality.

What about fiction?

Of course, I read “Horse Heaven,’’ Jane Smiley’s novel. But the owners in “Horse Heaven’’ are respectable, upper-middle-class people, not like people I used to know on the racetrack.

I hoped I might write a book like Leonard Gardner’s “Fat City.” To me, that’s the best novel about American boxing, and yet it’s about boxing at its absolute bottom end, around Stockton, Calif. That’s what I wanted to do — write a book about horse racing at its low end, in an era considerably before the present moment, and see if there wasn’t an open niche for that. By god, it seems to have happened.


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