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On Dialogue

October 1, 2013 by Gary Amdahl

Do you consider yourself to be a dramatic sort of person?

Yes, but not dramatic in a good way—the way, say, someone is who risks his life for a common good, to save the life of a drowning child, or who takes an unpopular but principled stand on a moral issue at a critical moment. Or even a tragic hero who makes a terrible mistake and pays a terrible price. Dramatic rather in a bad way, or at least theatrical in the way a baby is, or a bad actor: the latter hammy and unconvincing, the former helplessly, needily demanding of attention. I am always feigning astonishment or disgust or rapture or some other histrionic emotion, slapping my forehead and crying merde alors, dropping my jaw, and so on. Maybe it’s not a bad actor I resemble so much as a very specific type of methodical actor: an actor from the Delsarte school, where emotions have precise but simple gestures to represent them, or a Meyerhold biomechanic. And yes, I am dramatic in the sense that almost nothing I do or say is done or said casually or conversationally, without imaginary footlights and a sense of rehearsal.

When writing dialogue, writers often fall into two camps: those who strive to make every utterance sound realistic and those who craft the kind of dialogue that you wish people would say. You clearly fall into the latter category. What decisions have you made in this regard—realism versus idealized dialogues?

Those writers who strive to make every utterance sound realistic fail miserably one hundred percent of the time. Am I exaggerating and being dramatic? Perhaps, but it’s a belief at the foundation of my craft. Look at a transcript of even the most articulate, eloquent conversation between two intelligent, passionate speakers, and it’s baffling, incoherent, wearying. Or a transcript of two ignorant assholes: no idea what the point is or what’s at stake or why they are bothering to speak. It’s not revolutionary to note at this point that “realism” is every bit as artificial as, say, “surrealism” is. Each has conventions that, if relied upon, weaken the story, sicken the reader, and, eventually kill whatever interest may have been kindled at the start. The written word bears only a superficial relation to the spoken word. The very greatest literary artists can make that relation profound, but they have to make it. Make is the important word there: writers are makers. Everyone on the planet speaks—almost nobody on the planet is a writer. When James Wood makes sport of Rick Moody’s ridiculous denunciation of realism, what a writer must keep foremost in mind is not: “James Wood and realism are good,” or “Rick Moody’s wish to ‘kick realism in the ass’ is bad,” but that pretending to be honest and alive by characterizing your work as realistic is just as fraudulent as a politician posing as “an ordinary guy,” or “one of the people,” or whatever term of bullshit is currently fashionable.

Most important to me is the feeling that there are inner voices, or as you put it, idealized voices, in every grunt and whimper and fashionable locution that a human being can make. A baby is privy to everything in the human condition that an old man is. The da-da-goo-goo and the strangled whisper are the tips of the iceberg. A writer offers the whole iceberg. If the iceberg doesn’t seem realistic, well, jeez, that’s reality’s problem, not the writer’s.

Cadence, the careful rise and fall of it, is embedded in to so much of your dialogue. What rhythms do you hear in your head? Where do they materialize from, and how do they get from your head to the page?

It’s not that I hear a kind of rhythm, or kinds, but that I hear rhythm at all and think it essential to prose. Rhythm in music, in poetry: goes without saying. But the idea that narrative prose depends on it too is less easy to assert. Maybe this is another aspect, to return to your first question, of "being dramatic": everything I hear, from the blades of my fan to the clink of cutlery in a café to La Mer and Richard Burton reading the phonebook, seems like a performance to me.

What, for instance, is stuck in your head right now?

Shakespeare. Blank verse fulmination. Latin oratory weaving in and out of Anglo-Saxon grunting. Fugues, as in Bach, as in Beckett. Comedians, especially Groucho Marx (especially Groucho imitating Eugene O’Neill a la Strange Interlude), but comedians in general: bitter intensity giving way suddenly to silliness and vice versa. Demanding that people laugh at you. Sadness mocked only to return in angry hilarity. Angry hilarity forgetting what it was saying, repeating, fading, being washed out to sea in an allargando. Anything but a sales pitch, the rhythm of the hard sell, fraudulent bullshit: David Mamet can have it. There’s not a moment of true feeling in it, and true feeling is the only way you can significantly alter the rhythm of artificial speech, of rhetoric. The rhythm of selling is monotonous—and it permeates American fiction. Really, everything I find moving or influential or delightful in English goes back to Elizabethan Anarchism.

Whose dialogue do you admire—I mean, specifically, whose fiction do you read for the dialogue? Does any of it get lodged in your head?

Thomas McGuane and Malcolm Lowry leap immediately to mind as writers who have a particular genius for rendering the sort of conversation that seems highly (and often hysterically) unlikely and yet as naturally convincing as something you overhear in a café, or some primary interfacial zone of customer-service. The beginning of Under the Volcano, for instance, has two friends of the novel’s alcoholic hero, Geoffrey Firmin, discussing Firmin’s suffering. One is French, the other Mexican, and they are speaking English: “…we got so horrible drunkness that night before, so perfectamente borracho [accent on the mente] that it seems to me the Consul [Firmin] is as sick as I am. Sickness is not only in body but in that part used to be call: soul. Poor your friend he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies.” In the middle of Ninety-two in the Shade, McGuane has his hero getting bailed out of jail by his father, who is more disapproving of his son’s request for Apollinaire to read while incarcerated than the incarceration itself: “Those frog lunatics have produced a generation of destructive addlepates to which I fear you appending yourself. Though I’d prefer it to your fiddling with dope, it’s a narrow choice.” Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett wrote ten or twenty novels apiece which are almost completely composed in dialogue: matchless, incredible, death-defying work. But if I had to choose one brief exchange, it would come from Barry Hannah’s “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb”: a confederate cavalryman is about to shoot a union soldier who thought he was dead:

“Say wise things to me or die, patriot,” I said.

“But but but but but but,” he said.

“Shh!” I said. “Let nobody else hear. Only me. Tell me the most exquisite truth you know.”

He paled and squirmed.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

A stream of water came out the cuff of his pants.

“I’ve soiled myself, you gray motherfucker,” said the old guy.

“Get on with it. No profanity necessary,” I said.

“I believe in Jehovah, the Lord; in Jesus Christ, his son; and in the Holy Ghost. I believe in the trinity of God’s bride, the church. To be honest. To be square with your neighbor. To be American and free,” he said.

“I asked for truths, not beliefs,” I said.

“But I don’t understand what you mean,” said the shivering home guard. “Give me an example.”

“You’re thrice as old as I. You should give me the examples. For instance: Where is the angry machine of all of us? Why is God such a blurred magician? Why are you begging for your life if you believe those things? Prove to me that you’re better than the rabbits we ate last night.”

“I’m better because I know I’m better,” he said.

I said, “I’ve read darwin and floundered in him. You give me aid, old man. Find your way out of this forest. Earn your life back for your trouble.”

“Don’t shoot me. They’ll hear the shot down there and come blow you over.”

You studied at The Playwrights’ Center, and had several plays produced before turning to fiction. Who would you rather write dialogue for--actors or fictional characters? Was it more satisfying to hear your dialogue spoken on stage, or do you prefer to manipulate it for the page?

I didn’t really “study” at the Playwrights’ Center: that was the first and last time I received a grant, and my only obligation, my only occupation was to write plays and listen to the plays my fellows wrote. Had I actually studied, I might have been a better playwright and consequently been more able to enjoy actors speaking words I’d written. As it was, I could barely stand it. Of course I blamed the actors and “theater” at first, but I blame myself now, completely. I have studied since then and desire, like a character in a fairy tale desires, to write a play again and see it performed. But if I had to give up the page to do so, I wouldn’t. My fiction is filled with actors and acting, and maybe that’s the best of both worlds. I don’t know. The Playwrights’ Center, in the early eighties, was fecund ground. Two other Jerome Fellows (that’s what the grant was called, a Jerome Fellowship) in residence the years I was there were Lee Blessing, who had a show on Broadway, and August Wilson, of whom I need say nothing except rest in peace. Lee and August both worked very hard at the craft, while I was content to show off my verbal skills. I remember very clearly seeing the first draft of August’s Jitney: it was a thousand times longer than it is now, the characters just could not, would not, shut up, and of course that was the strength of the thing at the same time it was a weakness. My friend John Richardson, one of the great unsung minds of American drama, sat down with August and they carved the thing up. It was like flaying August alive, for months, but he learned how to work his voice for the stage.

The world of Gary Amdahl is inhabited by lively characters with thick accents. We get Chicago mobsters, Russian intellectuals, Minnesotan hockey players, a taste of Brooklyn (“co-eld”), and an Australian ("free bee-ah"), to name a few. Furthermore, your narrators often fall in and out of impersonations, "British clipped," southern—different affectations for different moods. Why the obsession?

Again we return to Q1 and the idea of “a dramatic person.” I make faces and use funny voices all day long, all night long, in my dreams and e-mail, talking to friends and foes. I’m a helpless mimic (it’s gotten me in serious trouble) and I suppose I can’t help but write that way too.

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