Essays on Writing and Life
by James Sallis

Never mind working without a net; living as a writer is like working without even the tightrope, learning to balance, suspended, in mid-air. That's the way James Sallis has lived for almost forty years, publishing a blizzard of novels, short stories, poems, essays, translations and biographies in everything from "Transatlantic Review" to "The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction." Two rules, he says. Put your butt in the chair. Don't look down.  
WFL columns

Writing from Life
Babe the Blue Ox, and Mike
Stalked by Poetry!
Approaching the Page
Repopulating Oz
On Just Saying No
Distress Signals

Tiny Blurbles

Duck and run as you will, once you publish a clutch of stories, maybe a book or two, sooner or later, more likely sooner than later, two things are inevitable. You're going to be asked to provide blurbs for other writers' books. And you're going to be interviewed.

Blurbs always put me in mind of Steve Martin in Roxanne doing his set piece of nose jokes. Philosophical, he says — then lets one loose. Practical — another joke. Poetic — another. Many of the same categories might apply.

First few times you're asked, you're flattered. You spend priceless days reading the manuscript or those bound galleys known as ARCs, for Advanced Reading Copies. You interleave decks of yellow Post-Its into pages, underline and occasionally inscribe tiny stars and exclamation points in the margins, scribble notes that rarely make sense when you come back to them.

Half a dozen books later you're down to skimming PR material, thumbing pages, and doing The Great Generic. Your blurb could serve as easily for the latest detergent or breakfast food as for this newest dropping of literary genius.

Engaging, you write.

One of the best in years.

Seldom have I come across.

Nights you lie awake, guilt's hand on your thigh. Never again, you tell yourself. Then the next day's mail brings another solicitation, another seduction, another request. Like a waterbug skittering haplessly over the surface, you check it out.

No one catches the tenor of our time as accurately and poignantly as Whosit, you write.

Whatshisname is one of America's most underrated writers.

Although you find yourself disturbed by the innate hyperbole and inevitable escalation of the practice (in America, everything must get better and better), you keep telling yourself you owe this to the art and enterprise that supports you so feebly. The stack of _____-approved books on your shelf (Your name goes here) grows. You call down the distant thunder of Chekhov, the pale lightning of Nabokov, the fine rain of Raymond Carver.

Okay. Some writers produce poetry, some essays or journalism, some novels.

You, however, have become Blurbmeister.

There's a Fritz Leiber story in which, in the pressure cooker of coming years, enduring works of literature become ever more condensed till their very essence is reached. An entire Mickey Spillane novel, for instance, is reduced to Bang! A few years of life as Blurbmeister could well cause one to think often of that story.

My brother, who has published books pretty much neck-and-neck with me, points out the curious phenomenon that, with even measured success as a writer, increasingly one is drawn to distractions and busyness that bear one away from the writing itself, from the source of it all.

Interviews fall towards the other end of the spectrum, ultraviolet to blurbdom's infrared. They come in every size and shape, some, in fact, little more than blurbs themselves, others sprawling across the afternoon like bursts of wildflowers at roadside.

They're the tabloids of the literary life, gossip come for dinner in its best clothes — sometimes a burden, sometimes great fun.

Back in my days as a journalist, a demi-career that lasted, like several others, about ten minutes, I did my own small share of interviewing. Those days I had both a memory and far more self-confidence than is remotely sensible. I never took notes and, exiting the interview, would sprint for the nearest bar to write down, virtually verbatim, all that passed between self and interviewee. These days I'd be lucky to remember where I left the car.

And, anyway, these days I'm mostly at the other end of the teeter-totter. Believe me when I say that coming up with good questions is harder than coming up with passable answers.

I've been interviewed in every conceivable setting and form.

A two-hour session in an Edinburgh pub with a youthful Ph.D. in American literature who had read my work, all my work, intensely, and who kept inquiring about literary journalists like himself in the States. ("There aren't any," I had to tell him. Except for Mike Dirda, of course.)

Quickies over the phone, as circumscribed by time and content, and often by the interviewer's attention span, as by the oblong, coffinlike boxes in which they appeared.

A ninety-minute live broadcast over Radio France; another conducted on the train, half in English, half in French, between Saint-Malo and Paris.

Long, leisurely interviews with Steve Nester for his radio show "Poets of the Tabloid Murder," Terry Gross of "Fresh Air," WILL's David Inge.

One particularly extended session with a marvelous young UK critic, Gerald Houghton, since deceased — a great roman fleuve of an interview, many branches, many tributaries — left me three legacies. First, a powerful if all too brief friendship with Gerald himself. Second, probably the finest, truest, most comprehensive interview I'll ever have. Finally (as each morning, week after week, I'd get up, brew tea and settle down to respond to the latest battery of questions) the notion of a man who spends his entire life being interviewed, whose life becomes the interview.

It's a story I still may write. Great potential for a novel, I figure.

Everything's perception, right? Esse es percipi. Years ago my brother told me about this student who supposedly throws an eraser at the blackboard where his philosophy teacher crouches scribbling just those words. When the great man turns around demanding Who threw that eraser?, the student responds What eraser?

My lead character, we would come to know — would "see" — only in a series of interviews conducted over the years of his life. Each interview, each interviewer, would have a different slant, a different take.

The whole would be rife with cultural reference, aesthetic constructs of every sort, and irony, of course. But rife as well with the tacit rift between outer and inner lives, our inability to form coherent connections, the folly of all our pretentions. A Nabokovian, Herzog, Citizen Kane kind of thing.

Anyone out there ready with a blurb for it?

In tandem with novelist Jack O'Connell, Jim recently interviewed Richard Matheson for the literary journal Paradoxa. While he long ago gave up smoking, he continues to blurb.