Interview with Robert McGowan  (Murder Slim Review)
Interview with Murder Slim Press
Murder Slim: Let's start off with NAM. We know you were stationed in Vietnam during the war, but why do you think it took over 30 years for you to respond to the war as you have by way of this story collection?
Robert McGowan: Very close to forty years actually. I could make up something for you here, but I'll tell the truth instead. I came back from Nam in 1969 with a rather severe anxiety condition, as detailed in the piece from NAM, "As Much As I Should Have," which is one of two or three nonfictions in this collection that is otherwise primarily fictional (though most of the stories are in large part autobiographical, and I've intentionally kept to myself which of them are and which aren't). Among the causes of my coming home a nervous wreck were the frequent mortar and rocket attacks we endured where I was, my bitter antipathy for Army life, my feelings of guilt on being involved in what I considered, even while there, an indefensibly heinous war, and my consequent refusal, psychologically, to accept being there. The severity of my anxiety condition lessened after a year or two following my return to civilian life, but what took its place was a kind of overall emotional numbness that unfortunately pervaded my whole life for many, many years. I'd stuffed the whole Nam experience away so deeply that it was, in a sense, emotionally unavailable to me until, for various life-changing reasons decades later, it surfaced again, enough time having elapsed that I was able to ponder and even re-live that experience at a real remove. Writing the stories in NAM was actually cathartic for me, a process by which, after all those many years, I was able finally to put the whole absurd and nasty business mostly behind me. Some have suggested I should write more of these Vietnam stories, but it's all out of me now, at least for the foreseeable future.
MS: How much of the collection is really true? And how many of the other characters' voices you use are based on personal experience?
RM: As I said, two or three or four of the pieces are pretty much straight memoir. And several others are in very large measure taken from actual experience. In fact, very few of the stories are wholly without some basis in my recollection of events I was involved in and of people I knew. I'm however reluctant to reveal very much in detail, publicly, about what is and isn't true in NAM. In all honesty, I'm not sure why this is so, except that possibly my keeping a veil over this helps me keep the entire experience at some distance, which is-again, psychologically/personally-possibly the healthiest way for me to deal with it. But, yes, I would say that most of the characters in most of the stories are based in large measure on people I remember from my time in Nam, though I certainly do in most cases modify or elaborate on these people fictionally, often quite extensively, and a number of characters and events are of course wholly imagined. I think another reason I like to keep to myself precisely what is and isn't true in NAM is that-and this is a fascinating experience-as a writer, the real world as recalled from a distance of several decades, and, on the other hand, the fictional world that in part grows out of the experience of that real world, do become strangely, and actually rather satisfyingly, somewhat indistinguishable. They merge, to the extent that it becomes difficult to tell them apart. Plus, the writer wants the reader to respond to his stories as stories, without regard to how much real-world truth is in them.
Robert McGowan on his arrival in Vietnam, during 1968. [Click For Larger Image] ---->
MS: What are your main memories of the war? Are you still haunted by them?
RM: Gosh, I still have a whole bundle of memories. "Haunted"? Not very much any longer, not in that really troubling sense, no. Certainly not as much as would have been so years ago. There are memories that remain stunningly vivid, yes. I virtually never, ever hear a helicopter overhead without memories of Nam coming back, because that sound was so omnipresent during the war. I'll choose two memories to speak of here. Now that I've mentioned choppers, one memory that comes back to me often-and, yes, I suppose this does "haunt" me somewhat even now-is of a very dark evening when I was standing alone somewhere in our base camp, Dong Tam, watching a chopper out beyond the perimeter firing a minigun down into the bush out there. A minigun fires up to 6,000 rounds per minute-just try to imagine that-so steady a stream of bullets that, at night, as made visible by tracer rounds, fire from a minigun looked like an unbroken ribbon of red leading from the chopper to the ground. I remember very clearly standing there that night, imagining what it must be like for the people on the ground receiving that fire, a virtual wash of lead pellets coming down on them. Horrifying. Sure, they were the guys out there sending mortars and rockets in on us many nights, but still . . . horror is horror. And besides, we Americans were, in my view, the bad guys, they the defenders of their country trying to make the invaders go away. Another memory is when the 9th Infantry Division ammo dump took a direct rocket hit. The initial explosion, followed by numerous secondaries, was beyond description, so massive that we truly did at first believe the enemy had acquired and dropped a nuclear weapon on us. Many people were killed that night. One other recollection-and this is used in the opening paragraphs of my NAM story, "Like Some Damn Story" - is my still very clear memory of our having been called to the base-camp perimeter one night when we were on alert for a ground attack. I remember perfectly how I felt, waiting there against the berm, my M-16 on automatic and the safety off, expecting to be attacked by a horde of VC. I remember thinking, "I could be killed here tonight," but I remember also the very eerie sensation of calm that attended that thought, as though I were some disinterested observer of myself lying there behind the berm-as though I weren't really there at all, you see. A startling example of genuine dissociation. This particular attack, by the way, never materialized. False alarm.
MS: Did you ever make your anti-war feeling known at the time? And did you try to dodge the draft?
RM: Some of this is detailed in NAM. I did not try to dodge the draft. In fact, I enlisted, but as part of the Army's "Choice, not Chance" program, by which a guy could enlist for three years instead of being drafted for two, but under which program the enlistee could choose what his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty / your job in the Army) would be. I enlisted in order to avoid the likelihood of being put into the infantry were I to be drafted. I chose to be a clerk, little anticipating that I would end up with the 9th Infantry Division out in the Nam boonies, not out in the field as an infantryman but in a place I wouldn't have anticipated being as a clerk, a place where I would very much rather not have been.
Anti-war feeling was not uncommon among the soldiers in Nam, especially in the latter years of the war. And, yes, I certainly did express my anti-war feeling while in Nam, at least to an extent I could get away with. The incident in NAM-I don't off-hand recall in which story-where the narrator recounts throwing his Bronze Star medal into the waste basket in front of the colonel in charge of his unit . . . this was me. I shit-canned the thing immediately after they gave it to me. I was so bitter about the war that I wanted no part of any such award for my participation in it. After I left Vietnam I still had some time to do in the Army and so was stationed at Oakland Army Base, in California, for several months, where I was, miserably, processing guys over to the place, Vietnam, from where I'd just returned. I did while at Oakland Army Base attend a few antiwar rallies in San Francisco, and I distributed, secretly, an anti-war paper on base. After I was released from the Army, however, I needed to put Nam behind me and recapture my own life. It was at that point that I began, unconsciously, the process of stuffing the very troubling Nam experience down so deep that it became far distant from me for decades.
MS: You've been mostly known before as an artist. What have you been up to artistically over the years?
RM: Well, I got an M.F.A degree in studio art from Cranbrook Academy of Art, near Detroit, Michigan, in 1973. An extraordinary school, and a wonderful experience it was, my time there. And it's astonishing, looking back, to realize I entered art school only about a year after I got out of the Army. I'd simply divorced myself from the Nam experience; I don't recall ever even thinking or talking about it during my time in art school. Actually, now that I think of it, there's some mention of this too in NAM. Anyway, I had quite a good deal of success with my artwork a few years later, a sell-out show in New York, gallery affiliations across the United States, work taken into various collections internationally, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Later I founded the first real artist-run exhibition space in Memphis, the Memphis Center for Contemporary Art (1988-1991), and was the primary founder of the art journal, NUMBER:, which I'm pleased to say is still in publication these c. 25 years later. In recent years I've of course been focused primarily on fiction writing, much of this work set in the art world. I do still do some art; I'm afraid it's for me a compulsion I'm not able to put aside. I've actually tried, because I've worried it takes energy away from my writing, but I simply cannot quit. I do some drawing and, nowadays, photography mainly, much of this work showing up in my fictions as the work of my imagined artist characters. I don't think these days about showing my visual work or selling it as I did years ago. Been there, done that-though I suppose I might one day like to do an exhibition of some of my new work, especially in connection with the writing in which the visual work plays a part. I adore a good gallery space; I have a very special feeling about that and might someday like to see my work occupy one again. But the History Department of Memphis Public Library established a few years ago The McGowan Collection, which archives material concerning, among other things (civic involvements in Memphis), my writing and artwork and published books. Much of my art, and various documents concerning it, are entered into that Collection, so I have the satisfaction of knowing it'll be available there into the future.
<---- Robert McGowan in his Art Studio, 1981. [Click For Larger Image]|
MS: It isn't too hard to find details about your artwork, and you were a master of getting information about your gallery in the press. What are your views on promotion? Is there a line where it becomes indecent? And where is that line?
RM: I think that, for the producing artist, whatever the medium, whether visual, literary, or other, an essential feature of the process is communication, the conveying of one's expressive intentions to others by way of the work produced. I do honestly think that the impulse, the drive to make things, to create, is itself very likely some sort of illness, yes, but to make things and then to be content that the stuff you've made remain wholly in the dark, never seen or read or thought about by others . . . that would be either incomprehensibly saintlike or practically psychotic. So I believe artists and writers and such are duty-bound to do all in their power to get their work respectably out into the world. Respectably. And respectfully. That is, the effort to bring one's work to the attention of the world must be undertaken with dignity and professionalism. To promote oneself or one's work by means tacky or unseemly is disgraceful, childish, off-putting, or, as you say, "indecent." As old-fashioned as this might sound to some, my feeling is that, if you want your work to be taken seriously by serious-minded people, you simply do have to behave like a grownup in seeking to place it before them.
MS: Your visual art is largely abstract, while your writing is largely realistic. What ties do you find between both styles? What marks them as distinctively McGowan?
RM: When I was, millennia ago, in art school, we were given to believe that the artist's primary responsibility is to find within oneself a core direction and then to manifest and refine that single direction throughout one's productive life as an artist. I respect this idea. Refine, refine, refine.
But, for good or ill, I've never been able to keep driving down the same road forever and ever. I feel it's a matter of personal growth. With any given body of my work, whether literary or visual, once I've got what I want, I'm inclined to take off from where I've been and move on beyond that place into further exploration, toward that ever-illusive whatever-it-is that an artist seeks to find.
I should note, however, that I am frequently startled, especially in the visual work, to realize that what I'm doing in the present relates very clearly to what I'd done previously, perhaps even years and years earlier, so that it's clear there are certain core features of my expressive impulses that are settled in and that keep coming forward repeatedly over the years. In other words, some aspects of a single direction do make themselves apparent time after time. An utterly fascinating phenomenon. And wholly mysterious. No one understands what makes this happen.
As for what might seem distinctive about my work . . . in my writing, I would think my prose style-precise, unromantic, no poetry-is generally pretty much my own, whether I'm writing realistically or otherwise. And, by the way, not all of my fiction falls into the realism camp. I have for example two short novels, as yet unpublished, Bad Night and Entry, that are decidedly unconventional and that in my opinion represent a high level of maturation in my work as a fiction writer.
In answer to your question concerning ties between my visual work and my writing, I can only say that there might actually not be any, no significant ones anyway. Hell maybe I'm just two wholly different people. This could, in a sense, be so. Who knows. I must say that I'm very much aware, painfully so sometimes, of there being in me an ongoing battle for supremacy, as it were, between the writing and the art-making, as though the two me's were battling it out down there inside. I don't know, I just do what's in me to do. Someone else, should they for some reason be interested in doing so, can try to figure this out, not me.
MS: Another of your story collections, Stories from the Art World, is forthcoming very soon from the new American indie publisher, Thumbnail Press. Again, how much of this fiction is based on personal experience? And how positive do you find the art world to be? Is it as phony as most people suspect?
RM: I'm excited about this book. It's a group of eight short fictions set in the art world, and in these stories various series of my own recent artwork are used fictionally, and presented in the book, as the work of my artist characters. I anticipate Stories from the Art World will be a very handsome volume.
Most of the first half of my adult life was spent in the art world as a teacher, a producing artist, a gallery director, a newspaper art critic, etc., so all of my art-world fiction is derived of a very broad experience in that world. Is the art world phony? In a word, no, no more than is so of any other realm of competitive professional endeavor. I mean, if you want petty politics and phony one-upmanship, just spend some time in a university academic department, no matter what the subject concentration. Every profession has it's sea of bullshit. As for the art world, people who've had no real contact with that world, except maybe for the occasional glimpse in a museum or gallery at artwork they find incomprehensible, can conclude that artists and art museums and galleries are engaging in some species of fraud, snootily seeking to foist off on an innocent public a body of offensively meaningless crap. And, absolutely yes, there is a lot of incompetent, inconsequential crap being made and shown at any given time or place in the art world. But, again, this would be so in most other professions, as well, in certainly any profession in which the work being done is subjective in nature. But, in my experience, artists and others in the art world are entirely serious about what they're doing. True, the contemporary art world can indeed seem, or even be, insular, so that the lay person can understandably feel mystified by it, and perhaps miffed because of that. But, however arcane the art world can be or seem to be, it's by and large simply untrue that artists and their supporters are trying to pull the wool over the public's eyes and laughing about it behind closed doors. The same accusations could be leveled at contemporary poetry. Sometimes you do have to be in a world (art world, poetry world) in order to understand what's going on there.
MS: We've talked a lot about your wife, Peggy McGowan, before. What is she known for, how did you meet, and how is she?
RM: Peg is doing very well, thanks. She has recently completed a horribly torturous bout of cancer treatment, chemo and radiation, and is bouncing back wonderfully now, cancer-free. We're very, very lucky.
Professionally, as you're aware, Peg is known as the first woman ever to win a national Emmy as a camera person. She worked for some years in Hollywood at NBC, running camera on numerous major television shows and specials. She has many, many fascinating stories about her encounters with the likes of Johnny Carson, Bob Hope, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Bette Davis, numerous legendary musicians, many others . . . Her determination to win that Emmy is the same determination that has helped her recover so energetically from cancer treatment. An utterly remarkable woman, Peg is.
Peg and I were introduced by a mutual friend about twenty years ago. We've had a deeply satisfying marriage. We're each other's best friend. She says I can be the boss in our home as long as I do everything she tells me to do, so that's what I do, because I like being the boss around here; it makes me feel macho.
MS: This is the ol' standard interview question, but which artists and writers have inspired your work? Do you have one piece of work that you really recommend to readers?
RM: Gosh this is always so difficult. In art, I respond to the mid-century American Abstract Expressionists; I've of late become very much interested in Joan Mitchell, much overlooked in her time but now coming to the fore. I love Cy Twombly and was much saddened by his recent death. I've for many years had a general interest in medieval and early Renaissance art, especially Northern Renaissance art, due largely, I think, to its being a kind of return to an awareness of the individual, following the centuries of, as they say, darkness, after the collapse of classical civilizations. I was much influenced in my personal thinking about art by my teacher at Cranbrook, Richard De Vore. I had the extraordinary experience back in 2006 of writing the primary essay for a book about Richard - Richard De Vore (Cranbrook Art Museum, 2008) - my work on the essay undertaken in consultation with Richard during the final months and weeks prior to his death from lung cancer. Richard was a remarkable artist.
But, in perfect honesty, I cannot cite any particular artist or period of art, except probably for American Abstract Expressionism in general, that has influenced my own visual work.
And I would say roughly the same concerning literature: no major influences. For the most part, I've simply found my own way as a writer. Possibly because, though I'd written art criticism and other nonfiction for some years prior, I didn't begin writing fiction until I was more than fifty years old. I was by then well past youth, that early portion of life when people are influenced by others as they struggle to find creative direction and maturity. At a certain point in one's life, if you're lucky, you feel you've attained a reasonable breadth of experience concerning what others have done so that you can settle fairly securely into your own sensibilities and impulses. I could mention writers whose work I adore and/or respect-Nicholson Baker, J.M. Coetzee (the later work), Lydia Davis, Max Frisch, David Markson, James Salter, W.G. Sebald, among others-but I don't feel I've been much influenced by any of these.
<---- Robert McGowan at home, in 2011. [Click For Larger Image]|
MS: Your short personal essay "Mystery" deals beautifully with your religious disbelief. And you were a philosophy major in undergraduate school. How does all of this inform your thinking? And how does it make you feel about death?
RM: I bitterly resent death. It angers me mightily. Because I think this experience of living is unendingly fascinating, I'd like to continue having the experience indefinitely. But I'm certainly not given to making myself feel better about death by way of some comforting religious fantasy, however charming that fantasy might be. I do expect, if the human species doesn't destroy itself and the planet before we advance technologically to the point of accomplishing this, that humanity will overcome death, probably by genetic modifications or even some sort of merging with computer-like gadgetry. But, alas, none of us alive at present will enjoy that adventure. No doubt most people pooh-pooh the notion of overcoming death via scientific advancement, but then no doubt most such pooh-poohers think there's a divine being somewhere up there looking after them and guaranteeing them an immaterial eternal life after their biological one down here is over, which is a notion more fantastical by far than the former.
MS: What do you want to achieve before the ol' void?
RM: I want my work as writer and artist to find at least some small lasting place in the world. Quaint though the notion might seem, I want my work to live on after me, for a while anyway, in much the way parents want their progeny to live on in the world beyond their parents' demise.
MS: Are you happy with the response to NAM so far?
RM: I'm very deeply gratified by the laudatory blurbs the collection garnered from some much respected writers, and I'm certainly pleased thus far with the customer reviews on NAM's Amazon pages (American and UK). The book is of course only recently out, so it's hard at this point to have a clear feeling for how the book is going to fare out in the world. Naturally, I want NAM to occupy a place within the literature growing out of the Vietnam War. That is my primary concern regarding this book.
MS: What pisses you off most about people?
RM: It distresses me when people are unkind to other people or to animals or when they're otherwise destructive of peace and well-being. But I think I'm generally more forgiving of individuals than of humanity as a whole. The foolishness of humanity on so many fronts-our inability to overcome the primitive tendency to war, for example, our childish despoiling of the planet, our greed and selfishness . . . -is profoundly depressing.
MS: What gives you a buzz?
RM: The satisfaction of feeling a piece of work works. A story, a visual image. Outside of personal relationships, nothing in life means as much to me as completing something and sensing that I accomplished what I set out to do, that the piece successfully manifests my intentions, that it truly does live, that it has a life independent of me.
Interview conducted by Steve Hussy, September 2011