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In my dream world, where people occasionally have actual conversations, Louis Malle’s film My Dinner with Andre (1981) is the prime cinematic symbol of the very possibility that conversation can be something that matters and changes those involved in it. Luckily, in answer to my question ‘Is there anybody else interesting in Manhattan?’ the unforgettable Fran Lebowitz said, ‘Wally Shawn is interesting.’ This led to a meeting with Wallace Shawn on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the spring of 2013 at Ollie’s Chinese restaurant on 42nd Street, the backdrop for our conversation.
One of the two sons of ‘Mr Shawn’, that is William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987 who disliked crowds and ‘never published anything for the sake of selling magazines, causing a sensation or being controversial, popular or fashionable’, Wallace Shawn (1943) is usually presented as ‘an American playwright and character actor’. Some would add ‘the best’ in front of ‘playwright’ (as a playwright, in 1975, 1986 and 1991 he received the Obie Award, the main off-Broadway theatre award, and in 2005 he received the PEN/Laura Pels Award for ‘master American dramatist’) and ‘one of the most memorable’ in front of ‘character actor’. In addition to his extensive acting in the theatre, since 1979 Shawn has played roles in more than 100 movies starting with Woody Allen’s Manhattan, although in some, like the Toy Story series in which he plays Tyrannosaurus Rex, only his voice is heard; he has also acted in about the same number of TV shows and series. In 2009 Shawn published his first nonfiction book, a collection of his essays appropriately called Essays.
In all his writings—from plays, essays and translations to private correspondence—Shawn is very careful with words, as if an inappropriate phrase or misplaced word would hurt not simply the text it is in but the world, being or the Being itself. This tender care for what is said or written is coupled with an attentive listening to what is spoken in his own internal, highly private, inner world or mind, as it were. Hardly a man prone to ecstasies, his attentive presence in whatever he is involved in at the moment hints to a unique, even primordial task of consciousness in this stupid, shitty, meaningless existence—to be a witness to what happens. From this perspective, I was not surprised that his longtime friend and conversational dinner partner in My Dinner with Andre, theatre director Andre Gregory, when asked if he had met anyone in Manhattan who knows while the majority is asleep, replied, ‘Wally knows.’
Personally, I’ve often ordered spare ribs, but I haven’t been here for a long time. I don’t know if they still have them. They used to make very good cold chicken, terribly spicy. And they’ve cleaned the menus!
What do you mean?
I mean, these are very clean menus! The last time I was here they were pretty dirty! So I’m completely impressed.
(Reading.) ‘Dry, spicy, tasty diced chicken.’
I bet that’s the one I’m thinking of. But we’ll ask because it might not be. Also, Chinese restaurants change cooks frequently. Oh my God, look at this: ‘Numbing spicy sliced chicken’! It’s so hot! So tell me the truth: How do you come to be here, and why are you here? I mean, why are you not always here?
Well, we publish a strange magazine in Riga, Latvia. The bulk of its content is slow conversations with interesting people from around the world.
Amazing. I understand it completely because that was my boyhood dream, absolutely!
I guess Chomsky and Strand aren’t the only ones you’ve talked to?
They’re the only real interviews. You know all about me then. I hope you don’t do to me what I did to them.
What do you mean?
I worked at the Strand interview quite a bit. I moved everything around—but with his OK, we worked together. I even said, ‘Say this better’ or ‘Write this better than you said it.’ With Chomsky I did that a little bit but, of course, he’s too frightening… You’ve interviewed him too, right?
Yes, I did.
You don’t want to waste too much of his time.
He gave us thirty-five minutes.
Yeah, I mean, he is…
The world is dependent on him! An hour of his time is saving somebody’s life! Whereas, I may not say anything! Because I have nothing to say to the world. (Laughs, addresses the waitress.) Can I ask you a question? You used to have very hot cold chicken with peanut sauce.
Waitress: This one: ‘Shredded chicken’.
Shredded chicken. Very good! So we’ll have one shredded chicken and one barbecue spare ribs.
That’s for you?
Yeah, that’s for me, but you’re welcome to have some!
(Ordering) Pork dumpling chicken soup. By the way, do you have sliced pig ears?
How can you not have pig ears?! That’s very important.
I’ll have this one here but maybe not so spicy. And one more soup, please.
Waitress: OK, thank you!
I was amazed by your letter, with all its capital letters.
I’m a desperate man, I’m trying to survive! I’m much too busy doing things I’ve planned to do, and a message like yours comes out of the sky. To be frank, I know so little about Latvia, it’s almost tragic! And yet one cares desperately about connecting with other places. Although it’s very big, this country is very provincial.
You mean, the United States of America?
The United States! It’s big, it’s supposedly what they call ‘the melting pot’, but it’s very provincial.
In what sense?
All these people you’re looking at out in the street, they have a big effect on the rest of the world, but they aren’t thinking about the rest of the world, and they don’t even, for the most part, know or care about it. When I was in my teens and twenties everybody talked about European films! Everyone was obsessed with Ingmar Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini. That’s not true now.
But if America is provincial, where’s the metropolis?
Or is it all just margins?
Because I am so provincial I don’t really know. My impression is that people in Europe are more interested in the rest of the world than Americans are. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a Spaniard is only interested in what happens in Spain.
What surprised me in your conversation with Mark Strand was his description of writing poetry. He said it was like creating another world from which this world can be observed. I don’t know if this applies to your writing too, but if it does, could you describe the contours and content of the strange world you create, the world from which you observe this one.
So you know a little about me, you know I write plays, right? They’re not all set in the same world. Only one is set in a specific place—in London—and it talks about real things in the real world: the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger. The others don’t mention real places, but they’re certainly not all set in the same place. I grew up in a very…a small bubble, a small, privileged island. I don’t know much about the real world! I haven’t learned much about it. I’ve travelled a bit. I spent a year in India when I was in my twenties. I lived in England for a couple of years… (Food is being served.)
Is this the pork dumpling soup? That’s a serious volume of soup.
Don’t worry about it… I’ve travelled as much as I can. And I worked a bit. In my twenties, I worked in New York’s Garment Centre as a shipping clerk. I’ve worked as a copying machine operator. By chance or by luck I started working as an actor when I was about thirty-five. I’ve made what they call a living from it. But that’s not work. You know, I haven’t lived like a regular person, so my knowledge of the real world is sort of limited. For me, it’s more natural to write plays that don’t claim knowledge of things I don’t know. I don’t have the ability to write realistic dialogue real people would speak. I write in a way you could believe, possibly, if I’m lucky. You could watch and somehow believe: Yes, these are real people talking. But if I said: Here’s the conversation going on between the cooks in this Chinese restaurant, it wouldn’t be believable because I don’t know anything about it. Sometimes my plays are closer to real life and sometimes a bit farther away. I had a play which ran in that theatre across the street; it was called Marie and Bruce, I wrote it maybe thirty-five years ago. It takes place in a made-up world, but it’s close to America, New York. Things happen in my most recent play, Grasses of a Thousand Colours, that could never happen on Earth, that are like a fairy tale—things that are interesting to me. I’m living on Earth, so if they didn’t have something to do with Earth they probably wouldn’t interest me, would they? And one play, The Designated Mourner, is really about political courage or cowardice. So I made up a country. The play takes place in a very specific country and city, but I wasn’t claiming to write about a real country. I don’t know anything, I don’t know enough! I couldn’t say: This is happening in Guatemala, or this is happening in Russia. I made up a country and a city, and if it seems believable then I’m delighted… Have some of this very hot chicken, and I’ll see if they’re still doing it the right way. But it’s very hot.
You mentioned that you were born into and grew up in a bubble of privilege. Apparently you realised it was privilege later in life, not while you were growing up?
I realised it when I was probably thirteen.
My question is: What did people do in that bubble?
I didn’t know… For instance, when I was growing up I saw children in Central Park whose clothing wasn’t clean and neat. They were from a different planet! And I asked my parents, ‘Why are these children not like the children I’m going to school with? Who are they? What are they? What’s going on?’ My parents sort of said, ‘Well, these children are poor.’ I didn’t know what in the world that even meant. There were children in my school who were on scholarship. The school gave money to some less wealthy children to go there. A couple of my friends were from that group. When I visited their homes, they were very small, everything was crammed together. And I was like: Wow, this is unbelievable! I had two friends whose mothers were single, who didn’t have the father. They were poor. I must say I found those homes very appealing! I was attracted to that more informal life. One mother was an actress who lived in this apartment—fifty per cent of the apartment was just a big bed! Her son and I and she would all sit on that big bed with two dogs who also lived in the apartment. We would watch television—all sitting on the bed! I thought that was very nice. Until I was twelve I never met an adult who used bad language, who swore. I went to a camp, a summer camp, and there were counsellors there, adults. They were very young, maybe twenty, but they were quite mean! They threatened people with physical violence and used terrible language. I never knew there were adults like that—it was shocking! In a way I’m still quite shocked.
Your story sounds like that of Prince Shakyamuni, the one who later became Buddha. He left his father’s house, started noticing sickness, old age and death, and then started his path towards enlightenment. What was your reaction to noticing that things like rude people, small flats and dirty clothes exist?
I didn’t really react until I was about forty. I was just absorbing all these facts but still trying to believe that basically America was a place where, for the most part, people were aspiring to create a good world and that problems would slowly be solved. I studied in university, I studied economics, politics, and I thought maybe I’d work in poor countries and try to make things better. Maybe I would help solve the problem of hunger, maybe I would be a diplomat and work at the United Nations. It was only when I was about forty that I came to think I was making the world worse. Until then I thought I was just observing the whole thing, looking for an opportunity to make things better, but I wasn’t really part of the planet. When I got to be forty, I thought: The world isn’t stationary, it’s all moving along, and I’m a character in the drama. I’m one of the people living here who’s basically benefiting from what we’ve done to everybody else!
But what harm had you done?
You know, the bad people… Let’s say I’m a nice guy—this is a very American phrase, ‘nice guy’. Let’s say I am one, that I’m a nice fellow. Then there are the bad people, like Bush. He’s mean and he—let’s say—is thinking: We need more cheap oil to help the American system have all the things it has. OK, let’s say Bush is somewhat wealthy; maybe he gets a bit more out of the system than I do, but basically I get almost as much as Bush does out of it. Even though I’m a nice guy and I wouldn’t go and invade Iraq if it were up to me, I still get the cheap oil, and I get to lead a very agreeable, pleasant life. Meanwhile, the people in Iraq… There’s a lot of argument about how many people were killed in Iraq. The numbers believed by the more radical people are like ten times the conservative numbers. But let’s be conservative and say at least a couple hundred thousand people lost their lives and millions had their lives totally disrupted. I’ve never…I mean, the World Trade Centre blowing up was a frightening time. There were a few days after that when people sort of thought: Oh my gosh, anything could happen! Maybe someone could, you know, blow up Times Square. So I was frightened but obviously not… If you live in Baghdad the level of fear must be unbelievably great. I’ve really never experienced that kind of fear. I did go to Guatemala a few times—it was very, very violent, at least when I was there. There were a couple of moments when I experienced fear—in fact, so much fear that I haven’t felt anything like it since! But that was like for an hour. Basically, except for that hour—and the time around September 11, 2001—I’ve lived a fear-free life while others lead a fearful life. I have one of the most fun lives of anybody because I don’t work; I put on plays, I act in movies, I write whatever I feel like. My life is outrageous, very enjoyable. I go to concerts; I listen to great musicians play. It’s not because I have some merit that’s being rewarded—it’s just because I have the fortune to be an American and to come from an elite class. People in Guatemala and Iraq pay a price for that. And even though I’m a nice guy and not like Bush, I’m benefiting from the things he does.
Does that mean you feel guilty for the way you live?
Well, I am guilty.
But you don’t feel guilty.
No, it’s not a feeling—it’s true! I mean, I’m a member of a group that is the beneficiary of the way the world works, the status quo. And I would say that if I feel guilty, I feel guilty for not doing anything about it or doing almost nothing… Would you like a spare rib?
Are they spicy?
No, not at all!
I’ll have one, yes. Thank you. In your interview with Paris Review, you said one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave you was to go to Oxford and take an undergraduate course. But I never heard you say why that advice was so good, apart from the fact that it helped you avoid the army.
Because being an undergraduate at Oxford meant you had the tutorial system. I studied philosophy, politics and economics.
Who were the tutors in philosophy?
The best-known one was a man called G. J. Warnock, who was… Everyone there was in what you’d call ‘a school of philosophy’, which some people would say is not even philosophy at all! But they thought they were the only real ones. They thought somebody like Heidegger was at best a poet—they wouldn’t recognise him as a philosopher. So I’d write a little paper every week, read it to the tutor, and the tutor would criticise it. I had two beautiful years of that, which actually made me about five times more intelligent than I’d been when I arrived. That was my peak—I mean, I didn’t get any smarter. They were incredible tutors; they didn’t accept meaningless statements. In a funny way, the other students also didn’t accept chaotic statements, even in social exchanges. They would say, ‘But what do you mean? What are you saying? Give me an example.’ It enabled me to cross over to a point where I could ask: What are the underlying assumptions of this article or newspaper? What is the writer telling me that he doesn’t mean to tell me but is telling me? I mean, that helps me live every day. I’m still living off that.
Regarding the attitude at Oxford towards Heidegger et al., apparently, when you read Heidegger, especially Being and Time, something struck you as mysterious and interesting.
Well, I only read the Being, I haven’t read the second half.
It hasn’t been written.
(Laughs.) That was recommended to me by a writer who just died a month ago, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Have you heard of her? People think she is Indian but she is—was—a Polish Jew. She wrote short stories and she also wrote about twenty films with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. She recommended Heidegger to me. So I read that book; of course, I don’t claim to have understood it, but I spent many months reading it. It was very important to me.
What did it give you?
I have no idea. I have no idea!
What did you find there? If you still claim that it’s important.
Honestly, for me it was like travel or it’s like saying: What did India mean to you? It was a sensual experience that totally changed me. I entered a different planet, a different world that left me very different, you know, like the way people talk about taking pot or LSD. It was a trip! I don’t know how else to say it. It was like going to India, which I actually have done, or taking LSD, which I’ve never done.
But could you try to describe that change? It changed you from what into what?
When I was in college I took a wonderful course about science, where I read about the universe. Ordinarily my thoughts are very trivial. I mean, when I wake up in the morning I think: The printer is out of paper; I’ve got to get more paper for the printer or I haven’t paid the telephone bill; I have to pay that. Ninety per cent of my brain is filled with those things, and a great deal of my time is spent doing my own, you know, theatre things. Thinking about the universe is not something I do every day! The images that filled my mind when I read Heidegger were not unlike the images in my mind when I read about what’s going on outside our galaxy in space, how the universe was created. To speculate about being, what it is, was like stepping out into open space!
But as I understand it, reading Heidegger changed you in an important and enduring way, whereas galaxies didn’t change anything. Or maybe they did as well?
No, no, they did. They did!
You came to understand how small you are?
Not really, but that one year studying science, I was taught by an incredible biologist, George Wald, who I think won a Nobel Prize for his research on the eye. This course took a year. We worked in a laboratory and we did all kinds of amazing things, but it started with the atom and the universe and worked its way up.
Where was that?
At Harvard. It’s one of the few things I look back on there with happiness. My view of life is certainly more scientific than that of many people I spend my time with. Take people who go to drama school—there are as many people in New York’s theatre district who believe in astrology as there are in India! I mean, most of the actors working around here don’t actually know what science is. They don’t know why there’s a reason to respect science more than astrology—they have no idea why. So that influenced me quite a lot. And Heidegger helps me feel that I’d like to live a long time because I really haven’t gotten anywhere yet, or haven’t figured anything out yet and I’m just beginning. That’s exciting!
Let’s get back to everyday life. You once said that Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism and James Joyce’s Ulysses helped you understand that everyday realities contain amazing revelations, or can contain amazing revelations. Yet now, as you describe your everyday life and, as you say, your ‘trivial thoughts’, there are no amazing revelations there. Could you tell me about these amazing revelations that everyday life can provoke?
Well, I suppose there’s a struggle in everybody between the force of awareness and the force of unawareness. Of course the tablecloth’s whiteness is there to marvel at if you have the capacity to be awake and alive enough to marvel at it. I mean, it’s real! And we do have consciousness; we are capable of walking down the street and looking at a tree or a building or another human being and feeling open to them, receiving them and feeling a kind of ecstasy. But there’s another force in us that is deadening. You know, people love young people and children and find being with children enjoyable because children often brush aside those forces of unresponsiveness, unawakeness, deadness. Not that they can’t be bored—I remember being very bored as a child at certain times. I remember my parents and other older people saying to me, ‘Look at that beautiful Minoan pot in the glass case of the museum! Isn’t it fantastic?’ And I’m looking at it and I see nothing.
Can a child be boring as well?
Well, I’m not really involved with children so I often find them boring. I usually find them boring because I can’t communicate well with them. But every once in a while I run into a child and I’m enchanted! Obviously, a film or a play is designed to enchant and awaken an audience, and it doesn’t take as much skill to be moved by a play or a film as it takes to be moved by the experience of buying paper for the printer.
You call this a skill, so you assume it can be learned.
Gosh, I hope it can be.
I don’t know! I certainly believe that if you do the things Suzuki spoke about—you know, if you devote your life to it…
To attentiveness, yes. I believe you could.
Why haven’t you devoted your life to it?
Because I’m too conventional I suppose. Most people don’t and nobody encourages you to do it. But, yes, it happens to me. I walk down the street and all of a sudden I’m looking, and it means something to me, and it’s great! Similarly, if I go to a museum, most of the time it’s nothing. I’m looking at it and thinking: Why would a guy spend his life painting these pictures? I don’t get it. Every once in a while I see the picture. But I can’t control it or predict it. I mean, I see the picture on Monday, but if I go back on Tuesday it makes me closed again, dead—the same picture.
What is there to marvel at in other people?
Well, we’re designed to be attracted to other people.
But that’s very far from marvelling, isn’t it?
It’s the same thing.
Sorry for saying it, but you can’t fuck everyone.
I’m not capable of defining sex or not-sex or drawing a distinction, but to me looking at a painting or a person or a tree or a play, they’re all sexual in a way and very similar. I mean, sex is a word and I don’t know quite what it means, but I think to say that what I feel when I look at a person is different from what I feel when I look at a painting seems wrong. It’s the same! It’s related!
The word ‘sex’ usually denotes a certain activity, which is a lot easier to perform with people than with trees or paintings, so there must be a difference.
It’s a small, subtle difference. I mean, I don’t think Suzuki would’ve put it this way.
Maybe he didn’t have that experience—with other people.
Maybe that’s why he didn’t think of putting it that way. But it’s all the same! It’s waking up and experiencing the beauty of something around you. Yes, if you want you could say: OK, that feeling of joy or pleasure, it can find physical expression if its object is another person, and if you tried that same form of expression in a painting they’d put you in prison. But it’s a similar feeling; it’s similar to what you feel about a building or a tree when it suddenly calls out to you. If you could feel that about the errands you do, paying bills or buying paper…
One question you’ve avoided is about the bubble of privilege you grew up in. I asked you what people did in that bubble—the people leading their lives there.
This was an art-oriented bubble, arts and letters. My mother talked on the telephone, and she had a great appreciation of the comédie humaine and knowledge of human beings and her friends.
You once described your change after realising how privileged you’d been by comparing it to your mother all of a sudden stumbling upon Eleanor Roosevelt committing murder in the basement. You seem to be implying that your mother never experienced a change comparable to yours.
She did, because my parents were both… If you want to get into the technicalities of the war in Vietnam, the American escalation started with the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, when President Lyndon Johnson said the North Vietnamese had, I don’t know, sunk a boat in the Gulf of Tonkin and that the Americans had to respond. I remember vividly my parents believing at that time, which would’ve been I think 1964, that the President would not lie to us—because they had grown up or reached maturity when Franklin Roosevelt was president. They loved him as many American liberals did. They even liked Harry Truman! They even thought Eisenhower was a pretty nice fellow. The idea that the president could lie to the American people would’ve shocked them in 1964, but by ’66 or ’67 my mother was screaming at the television set with hate against Lyndon Johnson. I think she did go through a process, something like the one I went through years later. My father certainly did. He was radicalised before me, but he didn’t go quite as far as I went. Only in the sense that he and my mother didn’t put things together and say: OK, there’s a system, capitalism works in such and such a way. For instance, Noam Chomsky—he’s always quick to point out he’s not a Marxist, he’s really an anarchist, but nonetheless—he doesn’t pick up a newspaper every day and think: Oh my God, I’m shocked! He sees a system at work that is somewhat predictable. My parents were liberals rather than leftists in that they didn’t see a system at work. They thought every day could be quite different: Maybe we’ll elect a nice guy and things will change, whereas Chomsky doesn’t have that illusion. And even I don’t have that illusion.
Do you still read The New Yorker?
I do, although, you know, the typeface is actually not identical to what it used to be; it’s a little bigger but similar—physically it’s very similar. For me it’s like the psychological illness some people have—they’re convinced the people they live with are not who they say they are. There’s a psychological illness in which a person wakes up and thinks: This person looks like my wife but she’s not really my wife. When I look at The New Yorker I always get this science-fiction feeling…
Since the time when your father wouldn’t allow your work to be published in it, what’s changed, content-wise?
I didn’t submit things to The New Yorker. I don’t think he ever rejected anything.
I heard that he hated nepotism and for that reason didn’t encourage you to submit anything.
No, that’s not really true. I’ve sometimes thought maybe I wrote plays to get away from the whole issue. It wasn’t conscious; it could be a deep psychological motivation. If I had written short stories, I would’ve had a problem—I would’ve had to submit them, and that would’ve been complicated. Obviously. If I’d written factual articles, who knows, he might have accepted them. And maybe I could have done that, but I didn’t. My father had an outrageous interest in detailed information, let’s put it that way, and I might have gone that way as a writer myself. I too can get involved in information.
Or so-called facts.
Somebody would come to him and say: You know, something is happening in Africa and I want to go study it for three years and write an article about it that’s four hundred pages long, that will have to be serialised in five different issues of The New Yorker and that will be of interest to a very small number of people. And he would write the check! That was a different time, a different world. How can I say it? There’s a certain group of people—I’m one of them—who read The New Yorker for a few decades in those old days; they read these factual articles, and they’re different from the people who didn’t read them. That’s all I can say. I’m one of those people who read all those things, and there’s no equivalent to it! There really is no equivalent. Susan Sheehan, a writer for The New Yorker, followed a mentally ill woman in New York who went in and out of mental hospitals. She was schizophrenic but spent part of her time in the hospital, part of her time out of the hospital. Susan Sheehan followed that woman around for three years or something! And she wrote a whole book about it that was serialised in The New Yorker. That mentally ill woman lives in my head! There’s no equivalent to that. I mean, you can’t interview that woman for an hour and learn the same things you would learn by following her around for three years. Nobody’s doing those things anymore! When The New Yorker stopped doing them nobody else started doing them. (Laughs.) Because the writers have to be paid. You know, a writer can’t just do that unless they’re willing to live in abject poverty.
I think you’ve said on several occasions that one of the most important events in your life was working on the film My Dinner with Andre.
Well, the film itself changed my life because it was strangely successful. After we did it there was this period, a couple of years that were quite a lot of fun. You know, I sat on the same sofa as Truffaut on one occasion. And I thought my life was going be like that—I was going be hanging out with Truffaut on a daily basis. But it didn’t happen that way.
I understand that in your script for My Dinner with Andre you used a lot of stories Andre Gregory himself told you, which you then adapted.
Well, the whole thing was based on tape recordings. In other words, we met every day, not every day but, let’s say, three days a week for months, and then the conversations were transcribed. I wrote a script based on those transcriptions. So it wasn’t just his stories, his words were the ingredients.
But what he says in the film is partially based on stories he told you, isn’t it? Towards the end of the film, when your character finally starts telling his own stories, what are those based on?
These conversations were real! We spoke with no pre-planned agenda at all. It was: Let’s talk, and we’ll see if there could be something funny about these two people.
So the key word is ‘funny’?
That was my original thought, that this was going to be funny! And because we had contrasting personalities, in writing My Dinner with Andre, I tried to turn us into two characters or two archetypes who were much more contrasting than the two real people. The only out-and-out falsehood is the dinner. We never had dinner! But the things we say are real. There were other things too, because, as I said, I was trying to turn us into archetypes. For instance, he talks about going to India. Well, in real life he went to India for a few weeks, whereas I lived in India for a year. So when we were really talking, I would’ve said, ‘Oh, yes, when I lived here and when I went to Calcutta I did this.’ But I didn’t put that in the movie because in the movie I was supposed to be the guy who didn’t go anywhere. We turned ourselves into characters, and then when we started rehearsing, Louis Malle would say, ‘You know, you should be much more hostile here.’ And I would say, ‘I’d never be hostile, I’m a very polite person and I would never be hostile to Andre.’ And he would say, ‘Well, I don’t care what you would do; it’s a movie, not a documentary!’
I gather it hasn’t been easy for you to let somebody else, in this case Louis Malle, edit your writing.
Yes, I’ve never allowed it to be edited. He really had to fight me for every word! We spent months doing that—sitting around a table, Andre, Louis and me. That’s why he never asked me to write anything for him again. I think I just annoyed him too much!
In one of your essays you sort of referred to your writing as ‘received’—received from somewhere. You said that’s one of the reasons you guard it as a gift, as something given to you, and why you don’t let anyone else intrude upon it. My question is similar to the question you asked Mark Strand: Where does your writing come from? Where does this voice come from?
Obviously it doesn’t come from my conscious mind, and I don’t believe in the supernatural, so by definition, I have to say that it comes from the unconscious. But I don’t feel that every word I write is sacred. There’s a stage in writing when I really don’t know where it comes from—I don’t know if any writer does; some may. They may have an outline and know they’re just following their outline, but even then, where does the dialogue come from? That’s the original material. Then I work on it, just like I worked on the dialogue transcribed from the tape recordings Andre Gregory and I made. I mean, then I worked on it—with my conscious mind. Of course I know that I’m not the pope, I’m not infallible, I know my writing can be improved. I’m just what they call in American pop psychology ‘a control freak’. I’m the son of an editor so, obviously, being edited brings up deeply personal feelings. And I do write very, very slowly. I worked on my last play for ten years—that’s a long time! So I can justify each line.
And each comma.
Yes! I can justify it. I can say, ‘That line serves five different purposes, and if you change it then it could have a lot of bad consequences.’ On the other hand, I’ve rewritten everything I’ve ever written, more than other writers.
OK, let’s finish up with a couple more questions.
All right. ’Cause I’m going to get going. Although I’m sorry I haven’t arranged to spend longer with you—it’s been fun!
You ended your letter to me with the remark, ‘My life is pointless but I have many things to do.’ What do you mean by ‘my life is pointless’?
I had the honour and privilege of knowing Harold Pinter. Now, everybody agrees that he was a great writer and that he was making a contribution to humanity. His life obviously had a point! He was one of the people doing something valuable on Earth. He didn’t doubt it for a minute! Maybe he had secret moments of doubt—I never saw it. But that hasn’t been agreed about me. I have a few friends who respect me, and a few people I don’t know, who I’ve heard about, respect me. There are people who think what I’m doing is valuable, but most people would say, ‘Well, he’s just a stupid guy who, because he comes from a literary background, felt he should be a writer, and he writes these stupid things that are worthless.’ I have no proof that my life has a point. You know, it’s just pitiful! I mean, I believe in myself, on good days. Most of the time, I do sort of believe in myself, and as a matter of fact I behave as if I were Harold Pinter. I talk to my friends as if I were Harold Pinter. But I’m always aware that the main person who sees me as being like Harold Pinter is me, plus a few friends. When I say my life is pointless, in a way I’m hoping that a god will appear in front of my computer and say, ‘Wally, we’ve had a meeting, and all the gods have agreed that you’re a wonderful writer and your life is not pointless.’ What I’m really saying in the letter is: I’m not going to swear to you that my life has any point, so of course my time has no point. It doesn’t matter if I waste time because what I’m doing is ridiculous! That’s what I meant.
What’s the most important thing you’ve come to understand in life?
Can I e-mail you an answer? I have to go and you’ve hit me with a very hard question. I’ve figured out a couple of things in life but I don’t think they’re important. They’re not very important! Mostly I’m obsessed with the things I haven’t figured out. Now, I’ve really got to go!
Questions by Arnis Rītups