William Joyce has had an intensive literary career whose vicissitudes exemplify the shallow fickleness of the industry. This is a writer who knew Norman Mailer, and who wrote a first novel, First Born Of An Ass, that baffled the reviewers, not hard given their restricted reader’s skills, and he carried on. That is what writers do especially those who challenge society. William met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about his place in the American legacy and the tethering of literature by social conditioning.
What is your enduring relationship as a writer with the American legacy?
Enduring?? I don’t have enough money for next month’s rent so my relationship with the American legacy is the least of my concerns. I’m hoping to ENDURE without sleeping on the street.
But since you mentioned it, which “America” are you talking about? There’s the U.S. “America” which has misappropriated the name and there’s the continent America named after America Vespucci, an Italian cartographer.
If you’re talking about the U.S., as soon as I die–shortly– the academics will build a statue to me, and put me in the Pantheon of Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, and Charlie Chaplin. As long as they erect an emaciated statue, I’ll be happy.
But if you’re talking about the continent America, I identify just as much with Eduardo Galeano as W.C. Fields or Henry Miller. That would also be true with another dozen Latin American and West Indian writers like Aime Cesaire, Vallejo, Rulfo, Asturias, and Jose Donoso.
To what extent do you think America and Europe now are tethered by social conditioning and a failure to appreciate breakthrough literature, if you think of the effect Henry Miller had on the literary establishment, and how much was your novel First Born an anarchic assault on those limiting sensibilities?
Well, I think the difference between now and then is that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer had eloquent defenders. There was in Europe and the U.S. in 1935, or 1960, an aristocracy of critics who had the confidence to take on any book, no matter how low-life, and articulate its vitality. These connosseurs of what is best in the written word do not exist now.
First Born of an Ass had no such defenders. In 1989 when it came out, there were book reviewers who applauded the novel but no one who really took its measure. It was “breakthrough” in the sense that it used apparent losers to define a way of life in a particular setting, the steel mill towns of Western Pennsylvania.
What also made it breakthrough was that like Tropic it disparaged the entire the entire set of bourgeoise values. Art, thrift, cleanliness, progress, education, respectability all are washed down the drain.
All of these “Breakthrough” books have another thing in common–The Body. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, Tropic of Cancer, and First Born of an Ass never get far away from the body. If Tropic could be said to be one large stomach, First Born is nothing but one sprawling intestine. It is the world viewed from the digestive apparatus.
This is the last thing the Modern World of isms and sects wants to hear. The Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, deny the body. It is always suspect. With its unpredictability, it needs to be reigned in, harnessed, covered up. All of literary censorship is predicated upon this. If the body can be denied, it can be used as a tool to perpetuate profits and a slice of propaganda.
The most important thing about Breakthrough Writing is that a lot of the time it is funny. And once you have people laughing, they’re going to look around and see the absurdity of their own situation. Then, they kick off their high-heels, or loosen their neckties, become slightly human. Now the writing is a threat.
A long time ago, there were men, and occasionally women, who saw all this and in a leisurely fashion wrote about the joy and insights they got from such unpredictable material. No such arbiters exist today and it is one of the reasons humans are becoming junkies at an unprecedented rate. What we have in place of excellence is the voice of the Mob. And there is hardly anything they don’t know.
Do you think that Art and literature are being increasingly repressed by social engineering and the rise of the far right and its Christianising tendencies in the US and what is the antidote?
Repression? Social Engineering?? Whatever is going on it has made people dumb. In all the countries people are so dumb it’s a wonder they’re alive.
In 1966, Roberto Rosselini, the pioneer Italian film director, said in an interview that Europe was headed toward an infantile society. We’re there now. Billions of people just waiting to be fed, no sign of life anywhere.
Look, if an educated man has the choice of eating a pizza or reading a good book, he’ll take the pizza. The pizza has taste right away whereas the good book takes work. You have to bring something to the book–desire, a sense of adventure, a willingness to explore; the reader has to have energy. Ahhh, but with the pizza you need only open your mouth. Bingo! Everything is taken care of. All you need is dollars or euros and You’re set. And dollars or euros is all that most people have. Desire was flushed long ago into the gearboxes of nasty machines.
The problem is that the wheat for the dough in the pizza is full of GMOs. The tomato sauce is loaded up with a chemical preservative to give it longer shelf life. The cheese comes from a cow that had its ass shot full of hormones to promote quicker growth of the befuddled animal.
The body doesn’t know what to do with all these chemicals. all this sludge. So the pizza just sits in the guy’s gut in various stages of putrefaction while the body tries to arrive at a verdict. When the autopsy was done on John Wayne, they found 36 pounds of feces. The great defender of law and order and he’s dragging around all this shit while 50 million people across the Earth scream, “That John Wayne, he’s my hero, he doesn’t take shit from anybody.” Well, he just happens to take a lot of shit from the whole food network which is supposed to keep him alive but in fact is responsible only to a group of shareholders.
The guy who just gobbled the pizza doesn’t care about all this. The next morning he wakes feeling pregnant when he liked to feel nice and light. He tries to relieve this bloatedness by yelling at the wife and kids but they’re bloated too and yell right back. It’s called The Great American Family. Everybody hoping to make A Stupendous Crap in the hoity-toity-ha-ha-ka-ka Craperia Room so they can go out and buy more pizzas. Papa then goes to work–usually in some office building– where anger is not permitted. At lunch in the company cafeteria, someone blames all the problems on the Commie government, a second guy says, No, it’s the Jewish bankers. A third party blames all the problems on the Armenian faggots, they’re the ones who’ve taken over the schools. The conversation has inflamed the original pizza guy. It’s tapped his adrenal gland and he rushes off to the Rest Room where if you were ever caught just resting, security would haul you off for serious questioning.
A modest bowel movement and the pizza guy feels a bit lighter. “Maybe it is those Armenian faggots” he says to the mirror as he washes his hands.
There’s always been Social Engineering going on. In 1850 Alexander Herzen said about Russia that 52 adults were waiting for the infant to plop out of the womb. If your own life’s a failure, you can always give advice. But humans prepare for this social engineering by eating a lot of ballast. That way they’re passive and can be molded this way or that way. They don’t want freedom which is what the artist represents; they want to be weighted down… with pizzas, with slogans, any kind of crap will do. Pursuing freedom takes too much work, too much vigilance. Better to be half comatose and relaxed–cool it, chill out–than all flighty, flapping one’s wings toward a distant chimera.
Whether it’s the social engineering in 1491 from Uncle Ephraim or the technological variety now, there’s always a constant. There’s something that’s inherent in humans that’s always looking for a shortcut to happiness. In 1492, Isabella and Ferdinand were looking for a shortcut to the Spice Islands so they sent explorers west in wooden ships. No spices but Indians who had lots of gold and silver. In 1849, More gold at Sutter’s Mill in California and this discovery made half the world insane at so much riches in one tiny locale. 75 years later it was liquid gold and people went mad at the thought of a model-A Ford that could power them right up to heaven. Led Zepplin has a lot to say about this. Now it’s a host of technological devices that are supposed to make people feel Connected but just a glance around and you see that people are totally disconnected. They can’t see and they can’t hear. They just poke and pray and wait for the next pizza.
So I don’t think it’s a matter of repression. Humans have been gutted by seven centuries of looking for a shortcut when paradise was often right next to them, within them. Very few have ever been willing to serve that 10 to 15 years apprenticeship that would have taught them contentment and often ecstasy. They’d rather buy a pill by that name.
What is called art or literature is nothing more than a record of an individual’s participation in the comedy called life. Language has been so reduced in its resonance that words are now taken literally. Comedians in the U.S. no longer enter college campuses because they say students take everything literally. That means desire is gone. The body has retreated into a shell. Dead at 18, waiting for the teacher to get them down the road to the next Holiday Inn. The far right or far left or Christian evangelists are just examples of polemicized mobs who take everything literally. Who are ready to kill if they don’t get their daily umbilical transfer of pizza. All the groups, when they see that pizza, smoking from the oven, scream, “AWESOME!”
The antidote??? Hide.
How would you introduce your work to a new readership?
Well, there’s a direct tie-in with your previous questions.
Given the quagmire the Earth is in now and the fact that most countries are police states run by corporations, if I wanted readers I’d have to find rebels, people fed up. This has already happened. How did you and I meet? Through Les Edgerton. And who is Les Edgerton?
Well, he’s more than a rebel. He’s put his body on the line. He’s done time. He’s worked the streets which means he knows what it takes to get a job done. And he’s not going to be fooled by rhetoric–he’s not living out of his head. He’s also done the hard reading; he can decipher the difference between art and the con job called Prize Winners. He’s not going to be fooled by the Noir crowd, nor any genre for that matter.
The funny thing is that before I met Edgerton I dreamed of meeting Edgerton. I knew I needed someone like Edgerton, someone who as a child had rooted for the Bad Guys in movies. I knew 10 years ago I couldn’t get along with straight people.
Straight people don’t get it. They don’t get anything. They have no idea of Charlie Mingus or Miles Davis. Their parents’ idea of a good time on Saturday night was to watch Lawrence Welk on the teevee and they’ve followed suit. Straight people don’t have that little hitch in their giddyup, that savvy on what it takes to get the day started. They’re content to poke at some machine.
In the old days, there were publishers who had this sixth sense of how to get a book rolling. Barney Rosset of the old Grove Press had it. So did the guy who ran Workman’s Press in the ’70s. Carl Weissner had it Germany and if it hadn’t been for him, Bukowski would still be working for the post office, even in his grave.
But publishers like that no longer exist. That means the writer is going to have to have the street savvy to do it himself but he’s also going to have to find allies. Find his Edgertons–hustlers, conmen, out-of-work actors and actresses, people with sense and taste and a sense of humor.
For example, in 1989, when my poetry book For Women Who Moan came out, I hired two saucy hookers to go into a bar at Happy Hour time. Later, I’d walk in smiling.
“You look like you’re in a good mood,” the bartender would say.
“Yeah, my book just came out.”
“Oh, what book is that?”
So I show him the book.
“No charge. It’s your tip.”
“Thanks, my girlfriend’s birthday is coming up. I think she’ll like this.”
“But maybe you could show your new book to those two ladies at the end of the bar?”
The two ladies thank him and start to read–out loud, together, just as we rehearsed it. Already a few guys have meandered in and they hear this strange poem about orgasms just as their sipping their first beer. They knock down that beer tan rapido and order another. Now the place is starting to fill up. A loud argument starts up at the bar. The ladies are debating which of them has the best Moan–just as we rehearsed it.
Well, even in 1989, U.S. men had a hard time getting laid. And now, no sooner do they get off work than they hear two attractive women waxing eloquently on the female orgasm. Potential buyers are creaming their drawers at the sound of it all. Men are soon packed three-deep around the women. One, then two whisper in the women’s ears for their phone number.
“Maybe you could buy me a copy of this book,” the men are advised.
Of course the guys are going to buy the ladies a copy of For Women Who Moan. A half hour later a new crop of suckers stroll into Happy Hour at Childe Harold’s Bar and Restaurant at Dupont Circle in D.C.
Happy Hour indeed! Me and the ladies are out of there with ten books sold in an hour and a half. I leave a ten-dollar tip for the bartender and I meet the ladies down the street at the corner. I have White Out with me and I spread it through the dedications and resell the books at the next bar.
Many nights I arrive home so high I fall asleep in bed with my clothes on. I wake in the morning to ten and twenty-dollar bills all over the bed. In eight months I make more money from a poetry book than even Walt Whitman did in his best years. Poet & Writers, the trade magazine, sends out a reporter. D.C. hookers report that business has never been better.
But if you’re an enterprising author working the streets, you’d better be prepared for accidents and prepared for how to take advantage of them.
Example. One day I’m in a supermarket at the checkout line and a huge Black man pushes me aside, yelling, “Make way, make way, I have to cook for the vice president.”
I’m so dumb I’m asking myself, “Which corporation is he talking about?” Then I remember that I do live in Washington, D.C.
“Hey!” I yell at the cook, “You rudely pushed me out of the way. Maybe the Vice President would like a copy of my latest book?”
He hands me ten dollars and I inscribe For Women Who Moan to “Dan Quayle who is ready to lead our noble nation into battle.”
Two weeks later I see the cook in the same supermarket.
“Hey, what did the VP think of my poems?”
“He never got them. Mrs. Quayle got a hold of the book and won’t give it up. When I left she was reading it to somebody over the phone.”
I could have sold him another copy but I thought, “The hell with it. Let the VP and his wife fight over the Moan book.”
A month later there’s that cook again.
“Hey Cook! Did the VP ever get my book?”
“Naw, Mrs. Quayle lent it to the First Lady.”
Immediately I started having grandiose fantasies. I imagined the President of the United States plucking For Women Who Moan off the bedside table and wondering, “Have I ever known a woman who moaned?”
Then I imagined getting a call from the First Lady and it wasn’t about the quality of my poems. The Moan poem had started her hormones galloping again. I was filled with dread. What if she actually did call and I had to perform on the First Lady or watch my poetry career go down the drain? It was remote. It was absurd. But stranger things had happened to me. How would my tool, John Henry, react when he saw all that white pubic hair and heard those Secret Service men pacing outside the door of the motel room???? And what if she did Moan and the Secret Service men, thinking she was being strangled, came crashing through the door, guns blazing?? I laughed it off as silly thought; still, every time the phone rang, my stomach tightened. Finally, after a week when I didn’t hear from her I figured I was off the hook. Maybe she got George to quit thinking about bombing Iraq for an hour and he gave her a tumble. Stranger things had happened.
What I wasn’t prepared for was a knock at the door a few days later. A little guy in a white shirt and a necktie said he was from Baker & Taylor and could he talk with me. Baker & Taylor I knew to be the largest book distributor in the U.S. This rep said Baker & Taylor had received calls from bookstores requesting the Moan book and did I have a few hundred copies I could turn over to them. I asked him if anybody important had called the bookstores. Yes, he said. Who? He said he couldn’t tell me.
We did some paperwork then and it revealed I wouldn’t make much. Bookstores would get 40%, B & T 15% which would leave me with one dollar profit on each book. I paid the publisher $3.50 a book. I told him it was no deal.
In retrospect, I made a mistake. I would have had nationwide distribution and it wouldn’t have affected my street sales. My ego was just too inflamed with my independence. But what stories I got every week. So, as far as readers now, it’s just a matter of matching the right book to the right locale… and being careful of elderly ladies who have power.
Thank you William for a great interview.
Dana Yost’s “Re-blogging: Give this author your attention”