An Interview with Nicholson Baker
by Alexander Laurence and David Strauss
(c) 1994 Alexander Laurence and David Strauss
- Alexander Laurence:
- So you studied music in school. You were a musician for a
while. What instruments did you study?
- Nicholson Baker:
- I originally wanted to be a composer--I played the
bassoon at the Eastman school of music. I was an applied
music major and I was briefly the utility bassoonist for
a philharmonic orchestra which meant that if they had a
huge Mahler concert, they would hire me as a fourth
bassoon. By that time I was half-serious about it all. I
spent hours at the piano trying to write piano sonatas. I
realized that I didn't have the hardware to be a
composer. Eventually it became clear that I would have to
pick a different art.
- Is there any period of music that interests you?
- I went through a big Bartok phase. I like Brahms. I
listen now to pop music. While I was writing The
Fermata, I listened to Suzanne Vega a lot.
- David Strauss:
- Many musicians turned writers such as Harry Mathews, Paul
Bowles, and Thomas Bernhard are also interested in the
concept of time.
- I got interested in time in the 4th grade. I had the
discovery that you could split up the present moment
infinitely. There's no present. But it's a very thin
topic. If you just stick to the idea of time, there's
just not enough grit to make a novel out of it. As a
musician, I used to love the fermata. I loved the chords
that you could sustain it with. It's a nice looking
symbol with a nice name. It sits on top of a chord and
just looks at you. Very evocative. It just means
"stop." I've forgotten what it's like to be a
musician to tell you the truth. I sold my bassoon a long
time ago: 1978. I don't play anymore.
- The question was not so much "time" as a
subject. You use a lot of realist detail in your books.
At the same time, you're really into playing with the
time in which this occurs. You do divide up those seconds
in The Mezzanine.
- The Mezzanine was an attempt to stop time by
expanding the length of the paragraph by using the
footnote as a kind of fermata. So that you would feel a
stop in the middle of a sentence, and then have a whole
secondary thought that balloons down the side of a page. The
Fermata is taking that idea and giving it a
supernatural twist. It really isn't enough to write a
footnote about a pair of shoelaces. What you want to do
is stop the world and allow your own prose to catch up
with whatever it is you want to describe.
- You get the feeling in The Mezzanine that there
was a lot of information there that you wanted to get out
to the world.
- I felt that I had been mistaken in the way I'd been going
about trying to write novels. I would start with a hero
who was in a certain setting, and then the plot would
crank into motion. All of a sudden, all the things that I
was interested in would be marginalized. Eventually I
gave up on the plot part. I just had him go through his
lunch hour because that seemed the most efficient way to
say the things I had saved up to say. The plot has to be
very tiny for me to pay any attention to it for some
reason. As soon as my narrators focus on something, they
seem to lose track of the fact that they're supposed to
be part of some momentous chain of events.
- Information with an implied meaninglessness affects us,
whether the emanator knows it or not. An advertisement
will haunt us for the rest of our lives.
- Yeah. There's the big things that happen: marriage,
death, and divorce. That sort of thing. Then there are
things we think about every day. It's much more likely
that we're going to come up with TV movie of the week
responses about the big things because we haven't had
practice with them. I write about the little things
because we've usually come to some interesting
conclusions about them, we've recycled them around so
- In The Mezzanine and The Fermata you have
focused on the lives of office workers. What is the
- In Vox too, I would say that they're professionals
of some kind, with office jobs. To say something about
"Temps."--the notion of a person who is part of
a situation but isn't engaged the way everyone else in it
is, linked up for me the theme of the book. When you have
the power to drop into the fold or create a fermata, you
can be part of a situation, that isn't going on at all.
You can think about it at the same time as it's suspended
in the state of almost happening. Of course the temp is
the lowest on the totem pole, the least promising
character, the one with the least amount of power; he is
the equivalent of the earplug or the shoelace. It turns
out that he has all these thoughts, disturbing and
- Stylistically, you altered the form of your novels: one
is written with footnotes, another is a dialogue. Why did
you do that?
- I like to have a different texture with each book because
it helps me stay entertained as I'm writing. I don't know
if the books are about different things or the same
thing, or the same texture. The Fermata is the
most fictional. The whole thing is physically impossible.
It's clearly a work of fiction.
- It's metaphorical. And when you're writing about
masturbation there's a certain connection with the
process. Writing is isolating yet involving. Time is
distended just in the process of putting things down.
- Writing and reading are actually not living.
- It can feel that way when you're in the middle of writing
a book. You really feel as if the rest of the world is
shut down. The only thing that is working, that's in
motion, is whatever object or social situation it is
you're trying to describe.
- You talk about the character being two years in the fold.
That's the time it takes to write a novel.
- And, of course, the novel is about writing a book.
- Yeah. But it's meant not to be too highfalutin about it.
Arno Strine is not "a writer," in the sense of
a serious fiction writer. There's so many bad meta-novels
that are out there. The Fermata is, I hope, making
fun of that. This guy is writing rot. He's this amateur
pornographer. What he wants to do is write things and
watch people read them. Every writer wants to see how a
reader reacts to his stuff.
- Is all art trying to preserve the moment and trying to
- Yeah, certainly. It's funny because out of all my novels The
Fermata covers the most amount of time, the longest
duration, yet it's all about honing in on specific
moments, and doing sneaky things in them. The
Mezzanine was essentially one lunch hour. Room
Temperature was also a very short amount of time. The
Fermata is a rangery book, a looser book in a way,
even though it has these moments where everything stops.
- There's a sense of isolation in all your books.
- When you're reading a book, you're in a state of enforced
solitude. I always liked reading books about solitary
people because I like witnessing their thinking. So I
guess I write books about solitary people for the same
reason. I don't think that any of my heroes are kind of
Hero Isolates. They're not solitary in the French sense,
of really being "alone," and filled with ennui,
and oppressed by objects. They just happen to be solitary
at the moment. Arno is a special case. He's been screwed
up by this wonderful ability. His personality has been
stunted by the things he could do. If you had the power
of the fermata, what would you do?
- You know. World peace. That sort of thing.
- What I did when I was writing the book was I'd ask people
"What would you do?" The problem with Arno's
trick is that he still ages even though time has stopped.
The longer he spends in the fold, the more he gets out of
sync with his actual age. This book is a kind of fermata
in the sense it's trying to take some fragments of
reality and subject them to a hypothetical torque, and
come up with this chord that hangs together that is
playing the whole time you're reading the book. Some
people were repulsed by the idea. Some people were
interested and as I asked more questions, they backed
off. Most of the men said what essentially the men said
in the book, like go straight to the locker room of the
women's basketball team, and check it out.
- I guess it's the most obvious adolescent dream.
- This is based on something that is a true adolescent
fantasy. What's wrong with things being sophomoric once
in a while? The sophomore year has been given a bad rap.
This is definitely sophomoric in some ways. I hope it
does something new with the traditional fantasies. All
the fantasies like having x-ray vision or being invisible
or stopping time. The genesis of the book was an idea I
had in 4th grade, very much like the one described in the
book. I had this idea that I wanted to switch time off
and look really closely at the chalkboard. And then I
thought that I could incidentally take the teacher's
clothes off. That's what started the book. Judging from
the reaction to the book, I put in more than enough
sordidness for most reviewers' taste. I got some really
outraged reactions. For instance, my wife wasn't wild
about the idea, when I tried it out on her. I tried it
out on her before I wrote the book because I was worried
about it. When she read the finished book, she liked it
more than she expected, although she wanted the guy to
get punished badly. But certainly, I haven't gotten any
hate mail. I've gotten hate reviews. I've gotten some of
the harshest reviews I've ever seen a literary novelist
get. I feel that I've been unfairly slammed by some
people because they were treating the book as if it was a
position paper on the way I thought men ought to act.
What I was trying to do was look at it, and take a piece
of the male mind and exaggerate it.
- What sort of preparations did you do for this novel?
- I was working as a temp in 1983, and suddenly remembered
this 4th grade thing. It seemed like a good idea for a
novel. So I played around with it and tried to think of
different plots that would work with it and I couldn't. I
was scared of it I guess. I wrote a few other books, then
came back to it a few years ago. I asked people what they
would do and I got many interesting responses. There have
been some TV versions of this fantasy: The Wild, Wild
West, Get Smart, Bewitched, and I
Dream of Jeannie. They were all rather limited. TV
doesn't have the miraculous powers of the novel to
explore. None of these TV versions of stopping time were
true to the answers that I was getting when I would pose
the question. It seemed to me that the truer kind of book
to write would be one that stuck very close to the
adolescent male fantasy. It would not be robbing a bank,
but it would be simply seeing women without clothes on.
This book has alienated some people who liked some of my
earlier books. It's weird though because you write a book
in a certain mood, and you submit to the mood. I almost
believed at some point during the book that I would
develop the power myself to stop time. I wouldn't use it
the same way as he did. The book was an act of magic.
Then you're finished with it, and a year goes by, and
you're in a completely different mental and emotional
state. I was interested in the confused state where
you're not sure whether something is supposed to be funny
or is supposed to turn you on.
- So there's this so-called "serious literature",
high-brow language texts, Updikean word-massages, but
there's also "erotica", which is not taken as
seriously. Ever since Raymond Carver, there's no sex in
writing. That's the paradigm for current writing: no one
has sex, and it's never described.
- Suffering without sex -- it seems ridiculous!
- It's an utterly confused time to write about sex because
it's not going to shock anybody. I've stopped worrying
about whether I was being taken seriously or not, at some
point. I wrote a book that ignored all the grand themes
that the novel is supposed to take up. That was in The
Mezzanine. The only thing that I object to is when my
two sexual books are criticized as being sell-outs. I had
some things to say about sex, strangely enough. I felt
that I had exhausted the shoelace and literary ambition
in this one. It took two books to cover the topic of sex
completely for me. It wasn't a cynical attempt to
sell-out at all. In fact, The Fermata has
obviously harmed me. If I was thinking of my career, I
wouldn't have written it. It was so much fun to write, so
what the hell?
- So, you're here to tell us that you're definitely not a
sell-out and your next book is going to be over a
thousand pages and heavily researched...
- ... taking place all over Latin America?
- Now, that's a sell-out! Long books really sell!
- Some of these hang-ups that your characters have are very
interesting. Do you share any of them? For instance, in The
Mezzanine, the guy suffers from not being able to
urinate in the company of others, especially in those
- That's a serious problem with me. That continues to be a
problem, even after five books. I try to resort to any
ploy. Anything that will help. Nothing is foolproof. I
think it's a subset of shyness. I just dropped off a
suitcase of urine at Merris Health. I'm having a kidney
test done. You have to pee into this little vinyl
suitcase for 24 hours. It's quite an experience. You have
to store it in a refrigerator.
- Urine is a major theme for you?
- Today it is. That's definitely autobiographical. It's
straight from the heart. After a movie, it's hell.
- You never thought about doing a Fermata in mid-stream,
have you? That's what I would do. Surround myself with 20
urinators in a circular urinal. They turn off while I
keep going. Sort of a revenge.
- It's so clear. It's waiting to be done. You were avoiding
my question before, but now I have your answer.
- Someone like William Vollmann can write about how he has
fucked all these Thai prostitutes, and women will flock
to him. Then you make it a little less impersonal...
- The reason Arno is really disturbing is that he isn't a
psychopath. He's a recognizable colleague. He's similar
to things in yourself that you might not want others to
know. Definitely, I think that women don't really want to
know some of these things about men. It's depressing to
them, but they should know the worst before they get
involved. It just turns out that I'm not a
controversialist, and I don't really want the book to be
used to make any other point than itself.
- One of the criticisms of Vox, although I don't
agree with it, was that the two characters seem very much
- One of the things that happens when you hit it off with
somebody, is that there's a certain amount of chiming
that goes on when you first meet. You're sitting at a
cafˇ and there's a repeating of phrase patterns and
agreement. But I thought that she told stories
differently than he did, and he had to learn how to tell
a story. One of the things that the book was about was
that he had to go through a fast apprenticeship in the
art of being sexual and verbal at the same time. She
helped him out with that, but it was a collaboration. One
of the reasons people thought they were similar was
because it's not a common thing for a story to be told
antiphonally like that.
- Like Richardson's Clarissa?
- Vox is an epistolary romance much like Richardson's Clarissa,
although I haven't read it. I suppose that it is.
- Why do you think that so many educated, intelligent
readers can't tell the difference between the writer and
his or her protagonist, and confuse viewpoints expressed
with the viewpoints of the author?
- Well, they're right, in a sense, to be confused like
that. There was this whole tradition of new criticism
that swept across the 20th century. The poem was kept
utterly distinct from the writer's life. Biographical
considerations were kept out completely. That's complete
crap. Of course the fact that Coleridge had a laudanum
habit is germane to "The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner." So, to a certain extent, readers are
right. Readers are right when they read a book like Lolita
and think "Well, Nabokov must have had a thing for
little girls." How could he have written 300-some
pages with lovingly obsessive descriptions about downy
hair on Lolita's arm, if it wasn't something that really
got to him? You can take that a little too far. What
Nabokov was doing was maybe taking one tiny chip of
himself and then putting it under the highest powered
microscope that he had and then subjecting it to many
different strange sidelights and coming up with a whole
book. To make an equal sign between that tiny chip and
how he was as a person is a mistake. The Mezzanine
is about 87% myself. Room Temperature is a little
bit more. But The Fermata is purely fictional and
not like me at all.
- You mentioned that you wrote The Fermata in a very
short period. Six months. Could you talk about your
writerly habits and how you schedule yourself?
- I tend to write better in the fall. There needs to be a
hormonal something in order to engage in continuous
effort. August; I start to ramp up production. September;
I make a few false starts. Towards the end of September I
click in gear and write the first chapter. October is the
big month for me. I write short stories year round. I
write every day. It's just that the writing is not so hot
some times during the year. I have an office five blocks
away from where I live in Berkeley. I've been doing some
short journalistic things. I have something in this
week's New Yorker about the destruction of card
catalogues. Very racy stuff. All across the country
they're throwing away these card catalogues. They have
these on-line systems, but they're not keeping the cards.
They're all being denatured. I wrote something about the
movie projector for The New Yorker's movie issue.
I'm just writing essays now, for a while. Got to cool
down, clean up my act.
- You use a computer and e-mail. It seems that The
Mezzanine was a precursor to the hypertext, a story
where you can choose your own path.
- The footnote is the poor man's hypertext. It's not fancy.
You don't need any software at all. All it takes is a
little number, a little asterisk, and smaller type. It's
great. You can choose. Do you want to go into the
subroutine of the footnote and follow it out and move
back, or do you want to skip it? So you have that branch.
It's very interactive. I've heard people read every
imaginable way you could do it. Skipping the text.
Reading the footnotes first. I wanted it to be optional.
Some people are less interested in the flotational
aspects of the straw. I was very proud of one of my
footnotes that went on for four pages with only three
lines at the top. It was about skate blades and the
grooves in a record. Oh, those were the days. I was
innocent then. I was a nice guy.
- Are there any writers you like?
- There's Allan Hollinghurst, a gay novelist. I like Samuel
Johnson. I like certain poets: Howard Moss, Stanley
Kunitz. I'm reading Ronald Firbank right now. Flann
O'Brien. I'm a terrible reader. Usually if I actually get
to a point of reading a book, there's enough stuff that
I'll like. I buy novels for the cover. Beautiful covers
are like buying candy.
- Which writers do you hate?
- Name some names, maybe I'll hate them. My hatred doesn't
last. I have these little passing irritations, but I tend
to be constitutionally too cheerful to harbor any disgust
for contemporary writers.
- How do you feel about self-publishing? You only get 10%
of the profits, right?
- The Fermata is entirely about self-publishing.
Arno writes these things, types them out and puts them in
a plastic bag and buries them so the woman will dig them
up. Writing is all about getting what's in your mind into
someone else's mind. The tendency is finally to eliminate
the middleman and do everything yourself.
- I'm assuming that at the end of The Fermata that
Arno has stopped time and put the book into our hands.
- Right. Some of the people who read the book kind of
believed it. They weren't sure if I had the ability or
not. And I do. Maybe I'm two years older than I actually
- Joyce accepts the whole thing with Arno quite amiably at
the end of the novel.
- Then she thinks "Oh..."