“Real America is Ikea”: The TFT Interview with ‘Field Guide to the North American Family’ Author Garth Risk Hallberg
The best elevator pitch I can give for Garth Risk Hallberg’s perfectly realized and exquisitely rendered multimedia novella, A Field Guide to The North American Family, is that it’s the Great American Novel deconstructed. Think Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road updated for the 21st century, and imagined as an Audubon Society–style field guide, complete with beautiful high-res source photography. The book is fun–it can be read in any order–and nice to look at. But what makes it truly special is Hallberg’s prose, which combines the earnest lyricism of the best American realism, with a healthy dose of post-modern skepticism. For all its frills and structural games, Field Guide is ultimately a book about characters–two families in particular–who in their strivings for some new American Dream, are both wholly unique, and utterly representative. Mark Batty Books recently re-issued Field Guide in paperback, and I was lucky enough to sit down with Hallberg on a rainy night in Brooklyn over Mexican beers to discuss Field Guide, as well as a host of other topics including literary dignity, Friday Night Lights, and why he’s not on Facebook. -Adam Wilson
TFT: One thing I wanted to ask you was about the fact that you’re not on Facebook. You’re not, right?
Garth Risk Hallberg: I’m not.
TFT: Do you feel, as a writer, that you must be on Facebook in order to engage with the literary world in a way that people will actually remember who you are or, or go buy your books? Is it somehow necessary for publicity? You seem like not a self-promoter at all.
GRH: Or is this all just part of my brilliant strategy to promote myself as not being a self-promoter? This is the Facebook hall of mirrors I find it useful just to steer clear of: already we’ve entered into a conversation where anything I can say here might be understood as a form of self-promotion. Though I guess that’s what an interview is.
TFT: But as a serious question, do you feel like it’s hurting your career in some way by not using social media?
GRH: One of the things not being on social media promotes is not spending a lot of time thinking about yourself as someone who has a career. I think of myself more as like someone who has to go to a therapist six mornings a week in order to be able to do all the other things that are expected of one during the day, such as groceries, laundry, speaking to other people, etc. It’s just that my therapist happens to be a desk.
I’m actually planning to at some point to do a 180, for the purposes of research. I’m going to get all up on the Internet and really allow myself to become a person who can’t think for more than three seconds in a straight line. I want the narrator of the next next novel, the one after the one I’m working on, to be afflicted with that problem. But I can’t write that way now. I can’t afford to emerge from a day of work, spending many hours finding myself, and then after fifteen minutes of Internetting feel like I’ve lost myself in some way again. Which is a constant struggle. It’s an unfortunately big and kind of silly theme in my life.
TFT: I remember talking to you at one point and you sort of saying you had gone through an obsessive period of Internet addiction and you had to cut yourself off entirely.
GRH: Well, the story of all my addictions is that I sort of get just far enough down the road to see where I’m going and that if I take about two more steps, I’m never coming back. And then I manage to…my super-ego is powerful enough to step in. But it really is sort of like having someone lock up the liquor cabinet. My wife logs her computer out of the Internet when she leaves for work and, I mean, I can’t get to it. I can go to the library if there’s some full-on cyber-emergency. But after about three days of not looking at it, I find that even in the evening, when I could ask her to let me on, then suddenly I realize that nothing I would be looking at is as worth my time as reading a book would be. Or just being would be. There’s a kind of modification of consciousness for me that happens online that doesn’t feel the same as just being.
Do you remember the opening of — what I think is not a very good book — Exit Ghost, the last of the Zuckerman books? It’s been a while since I read it, and I haven’t retained that much about the middle and end, because I decided pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be the masterpiece I was hoping for. But I seem to remember the beginning having something to do with Zuckerman coming back to New York from Connecticut or Western Mass. or wherever it is he’s been holed up for thirty years and feeling this kind of intense democratic madness in the streets. This kind of wildness. That intoxicating distraction and chaos exists for me in the form of the Internet, and after a while, it makes it very hard for me to think straight. As New York makes it hard for Zuckerman to think straight.
TFT: But is there a fear that, “Oh this book would have reached a wider audience if I had promoted it on Twitter.”
GRH: Are you kidding?
GRH: This book would have never reached a…I mean, I don’t think anything I do will ever reach a wider audience.
And actually, I’m supposed to moderate a panel on this specific question for the Brooklyn Book Festival. Which is really funny, because I’m the very last person in the world who should be moderating a panel on how writers can effectively promote themselves in the 21st century. Maybe I’m supposed to be the devil’s advocate or something. But I really question the premise on which your…I mean, listen. I’m relying fully on conjecture on this point. Not being on Facebook, I don’t actually have any idea what I’m talking about. But how many of your Facebook friends are going to buy your book?
TFT: But in the sense of a broader engagement in the online literary community…
GRH: …But I am engaged! The Millions is an online literary community. I’m deeply engaged. I’m just engaged on my own terms.
TFT: You’re very quietly engaged.
GRH: It’s like, when I choose to talk, I would hope the reason that I’m talking is that I actually care about the subject of my talking rather than what my talking says about me. And that, therefore, what I say when I choose to speak maybe gets taken a little more seriously. Whereas I think there are people – and I won’t name names, but I don’t think I have to – who actually have very serious things to say, but who also, if there is such a thing as self-promotional genius, have it. And who, therefore, might say things that get written off as mere self-promotion when they’re actually trying instead to say something that matters. It can get very hard to tell, if you’re not careful.
TFT: I think that’s true. I feel like I’m afraid of both. Caught in the middle.
GRH: I’m kind of a control freak, I guess. And I just don’t parallel process very well. Anything I’m working on is all sort of one thing for me. If I was thinking a lot about my online persona, it would somehow become a thing I’d have to start writing about. But for me, from where I’m sitting right now, not being particularly interested in writing about that, time spent thinking about it is just energy…I’m just not, to perhaps an unhealthy degree, interested in thinking about that shit.
I realize that the hermit is, in a way, an intensely socially calculating person. And I’m not even claiming to be a hermit. But…Internet stuff is not, for me, the work, and time spent thinking about it is time spent not thinking about the work.
I grew up with this idea—and this is all very ready-to-hand and facile for me because I’ve been thinking about what on earth I could contribute to this panel–but part of what I was in love with about writing, as a kid, or about writers, which is already one degree removed, was this idea of dignity. Benjamin Kunkel framed his posthumous essay on David Foster Wallace around “the dignity of the writer.” I don’t think Wallace is totally pure on that count. But still…
TFT: And as you can see from that book, [Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky], it’s a calculated dignity also.
GRH: Well, his mind has that hamster-wheel quality. You get on that hamster wheel, whatever it may be, and you can’t get off. That’s a guy who could never stop running. That’s part of why he’s trying to control his self-presentation, a little bit, lest it run away with him. But somebody who actually does, in a possibly more natural fashion, carry himself with that dignity, that sense of “Well, when I have something to show you, you’ll hear from me, and in fact you’ll be eager to hear from me” is Jeffrey Eugenides. I just got his new book in the mail today and it was like, “Hey, old friend. Haven’t heard from you in 10 years. I’m really curious to see what you’ve been up to in the meantime.”
TFT: But I do feel like you have to get to that level where somebody knows who you are.
GRH: You don’t get to that level through Facebook. You get to a different level through Facebook. Or a different dimension of levels.
TFT: I think that’s very true.
GRH: What’s getting carved out on Facebook is some third level between ubiquity and nobody cares. It’s: ubiquity but still nobody really cares, including you. And that’s not a level I’m interested in. I’d rather sort of—I’m not saying I’m doing this, necessarily, but–as a thought experiment, I’d sort of rather roll the dice, do the work, and see what comes of it.
TFT: Yeah. I just don’t think I have the balls to do it.
GRH: Yeah, you do. Everybody has the balls to do it. It’s only being online that convinces you that you don’t.
TFT: I spend half my time with my writer friends complaining about other writer friends who self-promote too much on Facebook.
GRH: What form does “too much” take? I’m just really curious.
TFT: What I think is the line, for me at least is, saying, “I wrote this piece, here’s a link to it.” I do that. I think that’s cool. I feel like, “I wrote something on the Internet, most people probably wouldn’t see it because they don’t go to this website everyday but, I’m going to put a link and then if they want to read it, they can. Or my mom will see it, or whoever. I don’t have to email everyone individually and be like, “Hey I wrote an article. It’s not just the five readers who buy this literary journal. If I say, “oh I have a piece in this literary journal,” maybe one of my friends will read it.
GRH: Because without Facebook none of your friends would read the journal…
TFT: Yeah, exactly. And with Facebook maybe three of them will. But there’s a line between that and saying, “Here’s a link to an article where someone said something nice about me.”
GRH: People do that?
GRH: As Facebook or as an email?
TFT: On Facebook, on Twitter, on their blogs… I know people who, every time their name is mentioned in the context of their writing, they’ll put a link to it.
GRH: So here’s a confession. I will probably link to this interview on The Millions, which is a practice I already have a mild level of discomfort with. But as I said, it’s not like I’m not on the Internet at all. And if I publish an essay or something I think a particular friend will be interested in reading, I’ll email them, the way you Facebook yours. It’s efficient way of disseminating information, which was the original idea of the Internet, I think. Or the sales pitch, anyway.
But for me–do you know what “too much” is? Too much” is having a Google Alert for yourself. Publishing critical stuff online, you discover who has a Google Alert for themselves. If I post a review of someone’s book and they email me within the hour, then I know. How did they find it? Google Alert. And this knowledge is always just crushing to me. “You? You have a Google Alert? Not you, of all people. Why do you need a Google Alert? You just won the National Book Award!” And I think, what kind of work is that guy going to doing in ten years? Though maybe by that point we will have all crawled too far up our own assholes to even notice.
TFT: I did want to ask you some questions about your book. I was going somewhere from social media to your book.
GRH: Take your time. I could do this all night. I love/hate being on the Internet, but riffing about it I purely love. You can see the degree to which it’s colonized my brain. This is an addict’s mentality.
I remember I had a good day last week where I took my son to the High Line. I spent the morning writing, then I lay in bed and read Martin Amis with a fan on because it was a million degrees. I’d had my wife leave her computer logged in because was waiting for a specific email. I hate waiting and it screws with my head. Waiting, anxiety, is anybody thinking of me, me me me… This is the headspace. The headspace I want my characters in, but that in order to create I have to detach from myself. So I was having this nice Martin Amis experience, this New York experience, reading Money in the withering heat. I thought about checking the Internet, decided I didn’t need it, and we went to the High Line instead. There’s some toothless transvestite sitting on a sidewalk, talking to my son. She’s fifty years old and has been here since the neighborhood was totally different, and she’s beaming, toothless, at my son, making silly faces, and my son is giggling back at her. This experience won’t alter my life in any way, but its much more likely to enter my subconscious and make art there than this guy you told me about attempting to rip his dick off on the Internet.
You’re only awake seventeen hours a day and you need to choose at some point how you spend them. It kills me that at some point you won’t be able to do anything without existing on the Internet and won’t be able to find a phone without a functioning 7 through 9 key, but until then I choose life.
TFT: I’m envious, because I have a job that requires me to be on the Internet eight hours a day.
GRH: As everyone’s job does now.
TFT: At Faster Times, part of the job is tweeting and writing on facebook.
GRH: So you’re engaged in a great experiment. Listen, fatherhood has changed me; I’m a cheap date now, so I’m little tipsy, and I’m talking out my ass. I have no real way of knowing, in response to your line of questioning, if arduous online self-promotion really will get you more readers. Which is of course the great noble goal of writing. You’re about to find out, personally, empirically. Though it sounds like you’re not that good at it, so you may need to rip your penis off, or something, for the sake of experimental purity.
TFT: I’m better at promoting pieces on The Faster Times that I didn’t write myself.
GRH: Just remember, penis, plus liveblogging. If you can do something that combines those two, you’ll get attention. The question is, what do you want the attention for? The more you understand attention, the more you understand that it is value-neutral, for all our efforts to turn it into a commodity.
TFT: But I don’t think readership is a value-neutral thing.
GRH: Exactly. This means there must be some difference between readership and mere attention. Whatever that difference is…there’s the value of reading.
TFT: I feel like someone is a Facebook friend, and they see your book for sale, they’ll be more likely to buy it or at least pick it up.
GRH: Pick it up? Yes. Buy it? I’m not so sure. There’s a barrier to entry that’s fourteen dollars, hence my pessimism. If you go platinum, by the way, I’m going to completely rethink this. I’m going to become a total Facebook whore.
TFT: But your book…The title, “The Field Guide to the North American Family” gave me the feeling that it was going to be set in a sort of any-town suburbia, and the photographs come from different suburbias. But the book is clearly set in Long Island. There are a couple readings of this; that Long Island as a specific place is more representative of a generic US setting than “Anytown.” But the specificity of the setting also works to deflate the semi-ironic grandiosity of the title.
GRH: Well, I had the title. I usually find titles to be impossible, but sometimes a title will come to me apropos of nothing, separate from the work, and when this one did, I thought, “Damn, I really like that title. I’m hanging on to that.” Especially since, over against its grandiose abstraction, I rarely write anything set in a, quote, “Anytown USA.” You think of contemporary writers like Judy Budnitz, where there’s often no real sense of place, and that’s part of her strategy. I’m thinking of the story “Miracle,” which I teach. But I’m still responsive to a more traditional lyricism and to the idea of a specific place. I grew up in North Carolina, though I didn’t have the same affection for it that I do now–
TFT: I just assumed you were from Long Island.
GRH: No, but New York was always the enchanted target that I was wobbily making my way towards. I would periodically come up here for various excuses; I couldn’t afford to fly into anywhere except Long Island, and I’d see all these prepackaged houses with their above-ground pools and I remember thinking, at age 19: so this is America. I’m very responsive to the tri-state area; the vegetation, the topography. Well, not so much Connecticut.
TFT: And New York City?
GRH: New York City doesn’t belong to me. I’m writing about it right now, but I write about it as an outsider. New Jersey and Long Island are the real crucibles in which American culture is melted down and poured into aluminum sided irregularities. It’s fascinating to me, by the way, that the phrase “American Family” will now automatically connote suburbia. Though I suppose there’s a selection bias at work, because readers who read this sort of thing are likely to have gone to X, Y, and Z colleges and therefore to have hailed from some sort of suburban area.
TFT: But its larger than that. If you think of the term “Americana,” that refers to non-urban spaces.
GRH: To me, America is somewhere in between urban and non-urban. I’m not interested in writing about flyover country right now. I read in the paper that the majority of Americans live in metropolitan areas, but they’re concentrated in the outlying districts. “Real” America for me is the IKEA off the Elizabeth New Jersey exit of the Jersey turnpike. It doesn’t get more American than that. I don’t mean to be European or snide about it; there’s truly something poetic and magnificant and amazing about the jar of mayonnaise that’s as big as your head that you can buy at Wal-Mart. America is not an Eisenhowerish place of white picket fences and sparklers on the lawn. Its commuter trains and Taco Bells.
TFT: Which Delillo was on to early on.
GRH: And if you want to get referential, maybe what activated my latent mid-Atlantic sympathies when I was writing the book was that this was Cheever country and Updike country. I hadn’t read Richard Yates yet, but the trench-coated men on the Metro North and the LIRR coming from vaguely defined and narratively unimportant jobs in the city were, for me, the territory of American fiction. And now of Mad Men. Trench-coats plus Taco Bell.
TFT: Have you ever read this Larry McMurtry book “Roads”?
TFT: Its a travel book where he drives across America, using only the major highways. His idea is that the strip mall is a nuanced place.
GRH: And he’s right, anthropologically. If you can get in the right head-space, you can see these places as though you haven’t seen them a million times already. You can get out of the habitual and see that they are where life is lived. Of course, it’s really hard not to go the other way and romanticize it. But that America is where we live.
TFT: Now “real” America feels like the Internet.
GRH: You’re right, it is. But I don’t want it to be.
TFT: I was thinking of book’s title and its design as something that almost asks for interpretation before you’ve actually opened the pages and started reading it. But at the same time, I think the book’s triumph is that it deflates the initial interpretation. There’s a fear with the playfulness of the structure that its something very precious or something very ironic and its neither of those things. That happens becuase its a very human book and mcuh darker than you expect it to be. Was there a fear that that wouldn’t come across?
GRH: I hope you underline the word “triumph,” put in red font and animate it on the screen. (laughs)
TFT: That’s what I’ll title the interview. Hallberg’s “Triumph.”
GRH: There’s a lot of interesting stuff to unpack in that question. The first is your default assumption that the book wouldn’t be that dark.
TFT: Well, my default fear was that it would be a book where the guy didn’t write that much and filled it with pictures instead.
GRH: But that stuff is an artifact of the conception. The book was never supposed to be a book. It started as a long short story or a novella that was part of a collection I was working on. The collection has never really recovered from losing the capstone that was holding it all up.
Anyway, I’d been doing these subliminal transmissions from my brain that were vaguely related and cohering into a narrative. The writing felt very real to me. I just couldn’t figure out what the form was going to be. Then this title, which I’d filed away, came back to me and everything synced up. I was maybe halfway through the writing then, but I knew, if it’s a field guide, it’s going to have those things that make it borderline precious. As it moved to the finish line, it had pictures, it had captions. And I wasn’t really conceptualizing a standalone book. I planned to include it in this collection of short stories that in no way resembled it. Basically, there wasn’t really much to be afraid of. At some point, it just wanted to be what it wanted to be.
TFT: I was talking more about a fear that a book like that will be gimmicky.
GRH: It is gimmicky.
TFT: But it’s beyond that.
GRH: It is gimmicky, because it wanted to be gimmicky. It is what it is.
TFT: It’s interesting that the section titles are word definitions and sometimes the connection between the section titles and their entries is very surface and sometimes it’s abstract. Did you write the sections and come up with their titles, or the other way around?
GRH: This was pre-MFA for me, so the notion of craft was very distant, and publication was not at the front of my mind. I can tell you, if publication is at the front of your mind, DO NOT include four-color photography in your projection of what a book will be like. It’s not a huge turn-on to whoever might bring something to print, because it’s expensive.
At the time, I was reading a lot of different, contradictory books. The Updike and Cheever, but also a melange of Latin Americans and Borgesian stuff and Dalkey Archive stuff. One of the fascinating things about that kind of writing is that anytime the pattern settles too neatly into one particular thing, the mystery dissipates. Like, one of the haunting things about the Sebald books, which I didn’t read until afterwards, is the shifting relationships between the text and the pictures. I wanted that for this book, those very fluid and hard-to-define relationships between image and text and title and caption. I was very certain that, however the book turned out, those relationships had to be fluid, or else it would become, as you put it, a gimmick. It can’t just be “Here’s a narrative, here’s a picture of an object that appears in the narrative.” But occasionally, for the sake of keeping it loose, I want to do that, too. It was important to unbalance those relationships. Which also gave me some license to play with the chapter titles. I’m assuming you read the book straight through, alphabetically?
GRH: It was my assumption that most readers would, though you don’t have to, and so sometimes I’m finessing the title a little bit, because I want to push something forward in the primary reading. That created, paradoxically, an aleatory element in the chapter titling.
TFT: I’m assuming you knew which one you wanted to be the first.
TFT: But it never felt forced.
GRH: I’m still figuring out what I can and can’t control. And that weird middle space is where the magic happens for me. I think that Maurice Blanchot — who I’ve never read so I could be totally wrong about this — said something about the space of literature being the space you’re never quite sure you occupy. One of the ailments of contemporary fiction and the designation “literary fiction” is that presumes to know. One of the things that could be horrible precious about this book is that parts of it signify literary references or allusions that are horribly pretentious, capital “L” literature. And I, as a good citizen of my generation, want to make sure that I’m never totally sold on the idea that what I’m doing is capital “L” literature. I want to leave the question a little bit open for myself. I want that anxiety.
TFT: I keep thinking about [Philip Roth’s] The Counter Life.
GRH: Yeah, with all these different, interlocking pieces. You’re left at the end and you have to think, ‘If I took a piece of paper and a pencil, could I map out how the transition among them happens?’
TFT: I’d say, ‘No.’
GRH: It’s the illusion that you could map it out that holds it together and it’s the fact that you can’t that ultimately makes it alive.
TFT: I feel that in Bolano’s work, certainly 2666, and the best of Paul Auster. But when it’s not working it feels like you’re being forced into that place.
GRH: It’s a delicate balance between elements that are cliched and elements that are archetypes. Which is isomorphic with the balance between freedom and control I was talking about a minute ago. Or earnestness and irony.
TFT: Like on Friday Night Lights. Do you think Tim Riggins being number thirty-three was an intentional Jesus reference?
GRH: I don’t know. Riggins is a God-like figure in a lot of ways. As in, there’s something kind of corny about the guy, but you can’t quite get rid of him. Lately, though, I feel like he’s turned into the Joker from Tim Burton’s Batman, which is not an exciting development.
TFT: Though he did have one of my favorite all time lines this season; Billy is visiting him in jail and says, ‘I’m kind of like a coach to you,’ and Riggins says, ‘Coach is my Coach.’
GRH: I want a bumper sticker that says that. Coach is my Coach.
TFT: (laughs) me too, and Mrs. Coach…
GRH: Mrs. Coach is my Mrs. Coach. I think she’s the hottest woman on television.
TFT: My brother and my dad like Lyla.
GRH: Lyla is horrible.
TFT: I know. I like Julie Taylor, she’s a little young though. This season I actually really don’t like her.
GRH: This isn’t a good season for Julie Taylor, but it’s one of the best for the show and, not coincidentally, it doesn’t feature Lyla. Where I grew up isn’t too distant from Dillion, figuratively speaking.
TFT: Were you Landry?
GRH: God, who was I?
TFT: You were Saracen.
TFT: You could only be Landry or Saracen.
GRH: I was a party crasher from another show. I was the wisecracking kid from the OC.
TFT: That’s who I was too.
GRH: And I invaded Dillion and they were like, ‘What the fuck is this kid doing here?’
TFT: That’s a weird person to be. But that is Landry, in the context of FNL.
GRH: I guess so, but Landry has the courage of his Cruxifictorious.
TFT: There seems to be this idea with young writers that to write experimental fiction, it has to be syntactically difficult and challenging to the reader on a sentence by sentence basis. I like that your book isn’t afraid to be lyrical.
GRH: When I write too much in the shadow of the experimental work that I love, I often feel derivative. Plus my sensibility doesn’t run that way. That personal sensibility is an unteachable quantity, but the novel can’t afford to lose it. Writing can’t afford to become just an average of market preferences. My natural brain-voice just happens to speak in a slightly outmoded, late 50’s-early 60’s, lyricism. Or did, at that time. In the end, I don’t know if I’d call the book experimental. I don’t even know how I’d categorize it.
TFT: It’s almost like there’s these two ghettos and I want something in between. There’s the minimalist, literary but not high-literary novels that get reviewed in the New York Times.
GRH: The Franzen ghetto.
TFT: Right, but Franzen is the high point while the low point is like slightly smarter beach reads.
GRH: Not everyone’s sensibility is going to have that in-between cadence you’re looking for, but people seem to recognize there are two camps and everyone is trying, in his or her own way, to synthesize them. That’s something I really feel. The Internet, in its steroidal expansion of a sphere for book chat, has created a way to be too self-conscious about this. To have a sense of ‘What does this writing say about me?” that precedes the writing itself. But still.
Let me tell you about the way I came to Bolano. I saw the cover for The Savage Detectives, which is amazing. I picked it up off the shelf and I read without any context. I thought, ‘Shit, this is a very pure expression of this man’s whacked-out sensibility.’ I would not how know to put that book in a camp except to say that in some way it is synthesizing two things that need to be synthesized. It’s aesthetic, in that it’s “making it new,” and at the same time, there’s something ethical about it, in that it makes suggestions about how a person should be and what happened at this particular time in history and so on.
That’s where the novel, if it is to be disruptive, needs to be. Poised anxiously between the two. It’s also another reason for me to bracket off the incredible profusion of self-conscious-in-the-bad-way-making — Germans probably have an awesome compound word for that, ‘self-conscious-in-the-bad-way-making’ — Internet shit. I don’t know if Field Guide, this short thing, achieved ineffable sweet spot. But I do know that when I was working on it, I had much less of an idea of what I was doing than is usually mandatory for someone of that age to have when they’re starting out. I felt very free writing it. I will always be trying to get back to that freedom.
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