This is my letter to the World: An Interview with Charles Holdefer by Curtis Smith

Charles Holdefer is a writer based in Brussels, Belgium. According to Rain Taxi Review, his hybrid collection Agitprop for Bedtime was “a gem of a book…with a zany sense of humor.” His latest novel, Don’t Look at Me, about Emily Dickinson, basketball and the persistence of literature in a post-literary age, has just been released. Holdefer’s work has appeared in magazines including The New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review, and Slice. His story “The Raptor” won a Pushcart Prize.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Don’t Look at Me. It’s a wonderful read. You’ve published a number of books with Sagging Meniscus Press now—and I think such relationships are part of what makes the indie world so interesting. Can you address this relationship from an author’s point of view?

Charles Holdefer: Sure. It boils down to dealing with an effective individual. Instead of work by committee, there’s direct interaction with a person—a smart guy, Jacob Smullyan, who cares about detail and getting things right—who stands up for doing original books. Sagging Meniscus now has a pretty extensive list. The house is newish but it’s carving out a significant niche, with writers I respect. He’s not afraid to take risks. Over the years I’ve had a number of agents, good and bad, who surf through submissions and deal with publishers where decisions are made by committee. I’m not knocking agents in general—many of them work their asses off—but the system is jammed. It’s not enough for an editor to like your book. There’s a larger machine to appease, which is fairly faceless, and if that machine isn’t satisfied, you’re paralyzed. Whereas Jacob will say, let’s do this thing. And before too long, it gets done. The book exists.

 CS: I loved your main character, Holly. She’s so wonderful and unique—I often talk to my students about access points and how we find our way into our stories, and I was wondering if you came up with her first before understanding the book’s trajectory. How did she present herself to you? Did you see the six-foot-nine basketball-player—or did you see the young woman who’s kind of lost on a college campus first? And once you saw her, how did she evolve?

CH: Holly has been with me for so long I can’t pinpoint a beginning. I worked on this book for about a decade. Not constantly, there were intervening projects—but when you spend a lot of time with a character you start to feel that you know her well. No doubt my teaching experience came into play, as I’ve seen plenty of young people struggling to find their way. Then there’s the added complication of trying to write a young woman’s point of view. That’s an extra challenge. But I truly care about Holly. It’s not just a literary game. And I hope the reader will care, too.

CS: There’s a wonderful mix of genres here. We have the writing and character-centered focus of a literary novel—but we also have love and mystery and intrigue. Can you unwind this and tell us how the plot came together? Was there a thread that attracted you first—and from that, did you discover these other possibilities? Did you end up where you first envisioned—or did the story take you somewhere you weren’t expecting?

CH: I’d gathered notes for a campus novel with a working title of Heart of Dorkness. But I wanted something larger than a campus novel, something less parochial. Literature is much bigger, it’s out in the world. That’s where the mystery angle comes in, about Emily Dickinson’s secret lover. And questions of Americans and their proxies going to war. What I didn’t anticipate was how much the story would be about a sister and brother. I enjoyed discovering that and writing about it. Novels about family often focus on parents and children, or siblings of the same sex: brother stories, sister stories. I liked doing a sister and brother. It wasn’t what I first envisioned.

CS: And speaking of knowing where you’ll end up, let me ask this—John Irving has said he can’t finish a book until he knows the last sentence, the place where everything will touch down. I’ve also heard Stephen King mock this, claiming it’s pretentious and not solid advice for young writers. Where do you weigh in on this? Do you know your ending (at least in some form) and write toward it? Or do you discover it as you get closer and closer to it?

CH: I’m not so organized. I have a general direction in mind, some plot points or emotional inflections that I want to hit. But it’s not all spelled out. I discover a lot as I go along. Maybe there’s a better way to work, but that’s how I’ve functioned so far. I have no clue what’s right for other people.

CS: You’ve published a good number of books over your career. How has the process evolved? Do you feel it’s more streamlined now—is there a rhythm, either on the page or in your mind, that allows you to navigate the task easier? Does one project somehow carry over to the next—or is each like starting anew? And how about the big ideas at play? Fitzgerald said he was only capable of writing about a handful of things—and that he spent his career circling back to those themes. Do you find this in your work? If so, can you identify them? How do you work with these big ideas?

CH: The process of multiple drafts remains about the same, but over the years I’ve probably gotten better at avoiding certain mistakes or dead-ends. On the other hand, I don’t have the same stamina I did in my twenties, when I could get away with sleeping less. A book is exhausting, there’s no way around it.

Looking back, I notice how the length of a form affects my voice. For novels, the plots tend to be about family and human foibles, in a realistic mode, with humor. Politics are present but with the exception of The Contractor, they’re not the main story. My short fiction tends to be more volatile. Sometimes it’s surreal or polemical. The volume knob is turned up louder, and sometimes it blasts.

CS: Emily Dickinson plays a big role here. In real life, we’ve talked a lot about prose, but not too much about poetry. Can I assume you’re a Dickinson fan? Do you regularly read poetry? I know when I’m working on a nonfiction project, I often read poetry—I’m not sure about that connection, but I feel that it helps me be more exact.

CH: My reading is scattered but yes, I like Dickinson. She’s hard to pin down and it’s interesting how she’s been depicted over the years: the Belle of Amherst, or a morbid, death-obsessed recluse, or a wacky old spinster, or a feminist seer. These appropriations don’t do her justice, in my opinion, but they tell us about the people doing the reading. Don’t Look at Me is my reading of her. Dickinson is vast.

CS: Besides a great story, there are also a number of larger issues looming here—conformity, self-image, campus culture—and in light of her actions, I’ve got to believe that you view Holly as a hero (I know I do)—and we love her, flaws and all. Is there a larger idea you feel Holly represents beyond her own, personal struggles and challenges?

CH: Well, there’s the issue of letting someone else’s gaze define you. This problem has always existed, of course, but social media has exacerbated it. People devote a lot of energy to curating an image of themselves and often it’s bullshit. Or even in a well-intentioned manner, people believe in the mask they’ve adopted. But when something goes wrong and it’s pulled away, the experience is traumatic. Holly is self-conscious about her size, hence the title, Don’t Look at Me. But she also embraces the role of basketball star. It gives her an identity. When she’s sidelined by injuries and forced to confront the adult world, she has to ask seriously, for the first time, just who is this me? Her journey is the novel.

Also, since you ask about larger ideas, yes, that’s where Holly’s discovery of new poetry by Dickinson comes into play. At the risk of sounding grandiose, Holly stands up for literature in a post-literary age. Somebody has to! She bucks the tide.

Nowadays a lot of people have given up on literature, or live in a world where it’s not on the radar. Their world is paler for it. Universities have traditionally stood up for literature but, as Holly discovers, the institution is faltering and it suffers from factions and fashion.

So where does that leave us? I’m a fiction writer, and I think fiction writers can learn from poets, who bravely persist while working in the most marginalized literary genre. They’re not writing in the hope of kudos from the media industry. “Famous poet” is an oxymoron to most people. It’s a labor of love, to be a poet in our culture. I’ve always admired that line by Allen Ginsberg: “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.”

CS: What’s next?

CH: More fiction. And a screenplay about an American “passing” as Chinese in Victorian England. Keeping busy.

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020.  

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