David Huddle Interview
Okay, okay, here’s something I’m proud of
Amy Wright: Standing in front of Botticelli’s Magnificat in 1898, Rilke has an epiphany. After all the hours opining in front of other paintings, a “spell” of judgment is broken. He recognizes that the longings of the artist are our longings and are passed each to each through us until they are fulfilled in a new beginning of which we are the forecast. Your question of that prophecy that is the Lady Ga thus follows centuries of build-up, aesthetic foreplay for which we can only imagine soon-coming, (pun intended) a denouement. But we hold off, the exhilaration rising with the fear that apparently there is as much to alarm as comfort us in surrender to this myth of love. Unconditionality is bracing, implies the man with the golden jaw. What’s the closest you’ve ever been to total acceptance—given or received?
David Huddle: My answer to this question is pig-headed. I haven’t been close at all. I’ve come to understand unconditionality only in personal terms—when my first daughter had surgery that went on for about seven hours and when my second daughter’s birthing suddenly turned into an emergency caesarian—and these were instances in which my mind’s activity was like some distant conversation. I felt utterly helpless in these situations and entirely prepared to submit to whatever came out of them. In my writing I’ve experienced nothing like that. I’m a low-to-the ground artist, much more visceral than I am intellectual. I know Lady Gaga has a high-altitude design to her work, but that dimension of it is only of slight interest to me.
AW: Sounds like there’s a pretty comprehensive acceptance of your artistic process in that answer. Will you make a list of eleven objects and/or texts in orbit around your current creative workspace?
DH: I’m at the Bread Loaf School of English right now, in the fourth week of the six-week session, and I’m in Maple 11, my room here for the past twenty seven summers. It’s a little after 7:30 p.m., the temperature has fallen to 87, and so the fan in front of my easy chair is what makes it possible for me to sit still right now. On the single bed immediately to my right are a Pilot Precise V5 extra fine ball point pen and an iPad. To my left, atop the dresser are the three CD’s I received for my recent 69th birthday, the new Lucinda Williams, the Carolina Chocolate Drops Heritage, and Waltz for Debby by the Bill Evans Trio. Also on that dresser are a water thermos, a digital clock, a stapler, a tape dispenser, an orange, an apple, and a bunch of random papers & documents. On the other twin bed are books by former students of mine, Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, and Tracy Winn’s Mrs. Somebody Mrs Somebody. Also on that bed is Edward P. Jones’s All Aunt Hagar’s Children, which I’m teaching this week. I’m writing on a 6-month old MacBook Pro, which I greatly appreciate. And oh yes, between my lap and the lap is pillow. What’s missing from this picture is my coffee cup, which is always with me when I’m writing (because I do my “real writing” in the early morning hours. As to the matter of my comprehensive acceptance of my artistic process, yes, that’s accurate; since around 1969 I’ve been writing for a couple of morning hours of almost every day, and so my artistic process and I are comfortable with each other. We tinker and we make little changes now and then, but mostly we’re literally “set in our ways.” We want to go on and on.
AW: What do its moments of passion look like? That is, if your writing process is an old couple, are they inspired by offbeat drives down unexplored byways or do they go in for the cozy nestle of intimate disclosure, or perhaps its new challenges that get them? Or....
DH: Have to let the Lady Gaga piece represent me in this regard. But I do my best not to bore my reader even though I want to write as seriously as I possibly can. Last spring my Hollins workshop voted in the topic of “Heirloom” for the next week’s assignment. Here’s my opening paragraph:
Throughout my childhood a wooden cabinet with oddly punched-metal panels in its doors and shelves full of useless scraps and jars sat out on our back porch adjacent to the weekly-used wringer washing machine. Long ago that cabinet had been carelessly painted white, but the years of weather, along with dust from the driveway, had darkened it into a profoundly undistinguished shade of grayish brown. On an afternoon when I was about eight, it seemed logical to me to hack at that thing with the butcher knife, thereby gouging triangles of wood out of its top edge, giving it an improvised serration that seemed to me quite appealing. When my mother appeared on the porch and discovered what I’d done, she got in my face and instructed me as follows: A) If I ever played with a butcher knife again, I’d be very, very sorry; B) I had better learn to respect things that belonged to grown-ups; and C) the thing that I had just irreparably ruined was a pie press that had belonged to great grandmother Akers, that could not be replaced, and that was—didn’t I understand?!—an heirloom. You might think that experience would have instilled in me a lifelong respect for heirlooms. Not so. Sixty years later the very concept of heirloom just pisses me off.
AW: So when your writing gets fired up, there are butcher knives involved. I’m not one to judge, although I might note that if your heirloom was a Wythe County pie safe, which it sounds like it was—if those hammered tins were urn & tulip-patterned—the ones in good condition bring $7,000-10,000 at auction. What’s your relationship to editing / revision?
DH: Wish you hadn’t told me how much that old pie safe might have been worth. I’m determined not to feel bad about what I did to it, but you’re making it harder. As to editing & revision: I have a first reader, my friend Ghita Orth, who was my longtime UVM colleague and also a member of a writing group I was in for several years. She knows my work, has a better sense of what I’m doing than I do, she’s a hardnosed reader, and I trust her to let me know whether I should let a piece of writing out of the house. She’s great at helping me catch little mistakes and big ones. I accuse her of carrying around in her brain half of the creative portion of my brain. But of course there’s always more editing to be done. I had a great copy editor at Houghton Mifflin—Frances Apt, a.k.a. “Pixie,” whom I never met but adored anyway. Jim Schley at Tupelo Press is a gifted editor who’s helped me with the novel (Nothing Can Make Me Do This) that’ll be out this October. The short answer to your question is that even though I consider myself a careful and capable writer, I also know I’m someone who benefits a great deal from editors I can trust.
AW: There is a road between my hometown and your hometown, 94, that they evened out the turns of some years back so it runs a straight stretch that enabled my brother (and so many others they keep a “county mounty” posted there) to get his bike up to speeds so high your helmet almost pulls off your jaw. What comes to mind when you tally things you’re secretly proud you did?
DH: So we’re back to the tough questions, huh? Amy, I have a long list of things I’m ashamed of from my high school and college days but almost nothing that I’m proud of, secretly or otherwise. Probably that’s why I’ve written so much about that time in my life—and I still go back to it almost involuntarily. Lots of reckoning and revising to be done. Mostly I just think I was lucky that I didn’t get beaten half to death or thrown in jail. I was lucky that teachers and family and friends put up with me. I’d say I’m proud I learned how to write pretty good sentences and paragraphs, but lots more credit for that goes to Arraga Young, my high school English teacher, than it does to me. Okay, okay, here’s something I’m proud of: I spent a lot of time around my Grandfather, Charles R. Huddle, Senior, and therefore learned a lot about story-telling and about appreciating “characters” and the situations of their lives. But I did that for no other reason than that he kept me interested for hour after hour. But at least I had sense enough to sit still and pay attention to him And ditto Muncy Webb—the railroad station-master in Ivanhoe back in the fifties. I spent a lot of time with him and learned similar kinds of things. I’m proud of having somehow realized the value of being in the presence of those men.
AW: Thanks for pulling some characters out of that question. I want you to tell me a story. Can we end on one?
DH: Well, our previous Q&A calls to mind this one that I call “Boy Story”:
Willie Crockett, my friend Sonny’s mother, mothered
me through high school, when I wanted nothing
more than to smoke cigarettes, drive fast,
slide Melva Stephens’s underpants off her hips
in the back seat of my mother’s Dodge Coronet,
play my sax so gorgeously the whole world
would bat its eyes at me when I walked down
the hall in my pink shirt with the turned-up
collar and my black pants that’d been pegged
skin-tight by Bobby Walters’s mother
who did it as a favor to my mother,
with whom she and Melva’s mother played bridge
on Thursday afternoons, along with Eddy
Walcott’s mother and Marty Kincer’s mother,
and some other mothers of kids I didn’t give
a damn about, because I was too cool
for them, focused as I was on Melva
and those knickers, which I absolutely knew
she wanted to give up except for knowing
her mother’d know she’d done it the very
minute she did it—and so it was me
against the invisible forces of wholesome
behavior, which included T. W.
Umberger’s mother who went to Melva’s church
and Susan Puckett’s mother who recognized
the kind of boy I was when she saw me
offer Melva a cigarette at Band camp,
but I was winning the battle, I swear
to God, I got that lingerie started
on its life-changing journey down Melva’s
majorette thighs the night when we parked out
by the Lutheran graveyard, with Elvis helping
me with Unchained Melody on the radio,
when all of a sudden Melva stopped me,
sat up straight, and whispered, “Oh my God,
my grandmother’s buried right over there,”
got her garments back in order, rolled down
her window to get the wind to cool her face off
so it wouldn’t be just so obviously beet red
when she had to go in to face her mom.
AW: All I can say, David Huddle, is it’s a good thing you left town.