INTERVIEW WITH ERIC DARTON BY SUSAN TEPPER
Photo: Gwendolyn Kehrig-Darton
YOU ARE THE QUINTESSENTIAL NEW YORKER, YOU WERE BORN IN THAT CITY AND
CONTINUE TO MAKE IT YOUR HOME. HOW HAS NEW YORK INFORMED YOUR WRITING?
Some of my earliest memories are aural impressions of naptimes. The old
tenement I lived in was bookended by industrial buildings and I recall the
rhythms of various machines as a kind of dreamscape. Also, across the
back alley stood another tenement where women used to hang out washing on
clotheslines, so through the window came the sound of pulleys and their
conversations, audible, but not comprehensable. Construction sites
nearby -- a boom-shish, boom-shish noise which I later learned was a pile
driver. At a very basic level, before language, those sounds mapped out
my world. So even though I'm a prose writer, my bedrock reality is the
sound of whatever's happening.
Later, of course, one swam through a multitude of distinct voices and
voicings. I grew up in an Italian-American -- really Sicilian-American --
neighborhood and the city was Puerto Ricanizing fast, so there was a mix
of those tongues and a host of Englishes. Not to mention my
Yiddish-speaking relatives. No one spoke the same as the next person! So
I got the idea that language could be very ductile and symphonic and was,
at bottom, a more or less interesting amalgam of sounds.
The heroic scale of the city then too, and the changes that were then
taking place in it. The fifties! Vast clearances and ambitious
constructions. The era of the great skyscrapers not long past and
incredible modernizations still going strong. A glass bank branch through
whose huge windows one could see an enormous safe -- right there in plain
view on Fifth Avenue. A sculptor, Jean Tinguely, created a machine that
destroyed itself to enthusiastic applause of the audience in the
garden at the Museum of Modern Art. They broadcast the whole event on
the radio, the arrival of the fire deparment and all. Later, I learned
the sculpture was called "Homage to New York."
Museums of all sorts and parks, and dangerous streets. Some real squalor.
The place was a bloody cornucopia. Anything generous in my writing has to
derive from a combination of the wordplay in my family and the mixed
messages in the surrounding blocks and boroughs. And then too, you could
tune into WNYC radio and hear the United Nations General Assembly. All
this domestic chatter and a world of babel out there too. Freighters
docking not half a mile away, and ocean liners that went to all the places
whose names one heard voting on this or that resolution. Street fairs
down the block with dollars plastered to saints effigies hauled through the
streets. Knife grinders, live poultry, clubs with strippers along
Bleecker Street whose windows sometimes were low enough to peek through if
you jumped high enough and grabbed onto the sills with your fingertips.
If one didn't go mad with stimulations, one became a writer.
THE BOOKS YOU WRITE SEEM QUITE DIFFERENT, ONE FROM THE OTHER. OR DO YOU FEEL THERE IS AN UNDERLYING COMMON THREAD?
Oy, the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Well, you're right, they are quite different. Free City is a fantastical novel.
After which came Divided We Stand, a cultural history of the World Trade Center. The second novel, Orogene, does not, at first
glance, resemble the first novel. And the book I just finished, The Great Work, is a memoir that constantly shifts focal
length from the narrator's self to the observed and witnessed city to the wider world and back again.
It's a monster -- eleven years of New York life beginning in late 1995, running through 9/11 and concluding early this year --
fourteen hundred odd pages worth wherein the narrative strata all resonate against one another in a way that's more associated
with the novel than nonfiction. So the texts, taken individually, would seem to be a mixed litter: one a piglet, another a
kitten, still another a puppy, maybe a porpoise in there too, or a composite beast.
But the common element is that the books work through, in varying forms, certain consistent themes. From my perspective,
everything I write, at bottom, explores some aspect of the relationship among beauty, power and freedom. And, reciprocally,
the obverse of these. One pretty clear analogue among them is that they all narrate these forces playing out in real or
invented cities. I try to fuse beauty, power and freedom in the language too. Down to the sentence level. Which makes me
a slow writer, at least in the revision and polishing phases. If I were looking at the work from completely outside it,
I'd also say this guy has a definite preoccupation with eros and nihilism -- that he's interested in what happens when
generative energies transmogrify into destructive ones. My thesis in the WTC book, for example, was that the building of
the WTC constituted an abuse of power and a nihilistic act in and of itself.
Last but not least, the books all investigate the kinds of blindness -- personal, intrapersonal and social -- that are
occasioned by fear. My fiction protagonists as well as my nonfiction narrators confront terrifying situations and struggle,
with greater or lesser degrees of success to see things clearly. They're not classical heroes, but one can't say they
fail for want of trying.
AFTER THE 9/11 TRAGEDY YOUR WORLD TRADE CENTER BOOK "DIVIDED WE STAND" GENERATED A LOT OF BUZZ, AND YOU WERE
FREQUENTLY IN THE MEDIA. HOW DID ALL THAT AFFECT YOU, AND DOES THIS BOOK HAVE A "BEFORE AND AFTER" LIFE?
Yes, post-9/11 many personal chickens came home to roost. I'd always told my students that once their writing went out
into the world, the world would make something out of it way beyond their scope of intent or control. I found myself
practicing what I'd preached in spades.
And imagine the weirdness -- a writer suddenly being solicited by the media as though he possessed the philosopher's
stone. And why? Because he'd paid attention to something unexamined -- tried to find meaning in a cultural icon that
no one gave a rap about until it was obilterated. What made the situation incredibly difficult was that I knew right
away that the destruction of the WTC would be used as a pretext for war, so I had the rare opportunity to,
metaphorically, stand in front of the tank for fifteen minutes before the collective hysteria shifted to
anthrax-phobia and bloodlust. In what universe does a pacifist anarchist get to talk live on Voice of America?
Or get a chance to plead the case on Good Morning America for waiting a year before acting -- either to rebuild
or to bomb -- so that we could absorb the magnitude of what had happened.
Such was the moment, before the actuality of the horror was shrink-wrapped and the media began the dunning
repitition of the towers falling in slo-mo -- the true commencement of Shock and Awe.
Consequently, fighting this losing battle against the dogs of war, I got sick as a dog too -- with pneumonia.
I may have breathed in some funky stuff too. Lots of folks did. Being that depleted, not sure my lungs were
going to recover was my first real intimation of mortality. In the wake of all this, and particularly when we
started bombing Afghanistan, I got very depressed. Somewhere, at bottom, most writers imagine they can change
the world with words, and in my own mind I had failed. First, I'd failed to warn people with sufficient urgency
that there was something desperately wrong with the WTC to start with, and second that our aggressive response
would further deepen the trauma, not help heal it. It got to the point where I actually tortured myself with the
idea that if I had written a better book, none of this would have happened. The towers would have been abandoned
after the first bombing in '93 and turned into a gigantic curiosity that no one would dream of inhabiting, but
which made a nice viewing platform and maybe a base for turbines.
But that was, I think, really a regression to a kind of weird omnipotent stage based on a real sense of helplessness.
In a way I was lucky to find out in such an unsparing way that books both do and don't matter, because in some sense,
this nightmarish experience freed me to write precisely what I want rather than idealizing the process or writing
out of a sense of obligation to knit the ruptures of world and family back together.
As to the before/after part of the question, the book was respectfully reviewed when it came out in late 1999 and
sank like a stone. It did make it into the Columbia University classics library, but very few people apart from
some urbanists noticed it at all. It was a radical book, both formally and politically, and the left ignored it
altogether. The best review came out of the Wall Street Journal. But fundamentally, until the morning of 9/11,
the WTC was yawn city. Then, suddenly information about these buildings became interesting, vital even, to a
wider readership. In October Divided… made the Times bestseller list.
It's indicative of something in our body politic too that the Divided's phoenix-like rise from remainder table to
Airport Book lasted perhaps six weeks. Then the Divided… submerged again, but it has never entirely gone away.
In retrospect, I'm glad someone took on the subject and lavished so much time and care on weaving the various
threads of the tale into as robust and fundamentally useful a history as time has proven it. The buildings and
the souls inside them are gone, so book is really what's left as far as an architecture and archive of ideas goes.
All the primary source texts I used were blown away. Bits of those documents drifted down on Brooklyn and got
plastered to the windscreens of fire trucks.
DO YOU FOLLOW ANY SORT OF WRITING ROUTINE?
I've tried, so far as possible, to live outside the tyranny of the clock. My muse prefers it when I heed
her urgings, but the work suffers when I'm crazy or exhausted, so lately she's been pretty tolerant of my
attempts to conserve energy when I need to. After all, I'm 57, an age verging on old a generation or two ago.
57 still is old in many places and under cerrtain conditions.
What I do routinely is visit my local café as many mornings a week as I can. It's a regularity I can tolerate
without feeling oppressed because there's so much variation built in. Been going there these past twelve
years -- the Man at Table 4. The idea of being publicly findable and available appeals to me. For a number
of years I wrote at the café back when I was pretty much anonymous there, but then a group of regulars
developed and I would miss out on the conversations. So I trained myself to ignore the dust bunnies and
work at home. The café is a kind of penny university, where diverse folks gather to sing a kind of collective
aubade. Sometimes discordant. Indispensable.
One of the blessings and curses to being a writer is that one works all the time, even when not actively
writing. The challenge is learning how to suspend narrating. In my case that's made difficult by the
tendency of anxiety to rush into any gap in the work. The midlife practice is to try to engage what's
happening and not turn it immediately into thought or story.
For people though, a writing routine is essential, so the trick is to make it less like school
and more like a tryst with a lover.
HAS YOUR EXTENSIVE TRAVEL ABROAD SHAPED ANY PARTICULAR WORK(S)?
Most definitely. I'd pretty much silenced myself by spring '01 -- my relationship with my writing was drained
of energy -- and our trip to France that summer, the incredible sensuality of the environments we traveled through
kicked the doors of resistence in. Suddenly I had the strength to go into the yucky stuff that meant becoming a
The second novel, Orogene, owes its existence to a trip to the Dordogne region of France the following year.
My compańera suggested that I use the two weeks to give the book a much needed revision that I'd been simply
too fragmented to do at home. Well, it wasn't a revision the book needed, but a rewrite -- not a sentence was
left standing when I was done. It took a year. But I got a start anyway and found I could keep going stateside.
And the geology and flora of the region, not to mention the neolithic caves, poured into the text as though the
book had been waiting for them all the time in order to have permission to blossom. Which makes sense given that
the book is about the discovery of a perfected world.
The Great Work, the New York journal, invariably leapt ahead on trips abroad. I'd never have had the distance
to make big strategic decisions on the text had I been jammed up in the city with my everyday preoccupations
and assumptions about what could and couldn't be done.
Recently we went to Costa Rica and on a solitary walk one evening, up and down a mountain, along a path
improvised by cows, it came to me that I'd be cool with melting back into the earth whenever it was time.
And, curiously, another result of the trip was that myths, Greek and otherwise, which I'd always loved,
became much more physical to me. I "got" the relationship between natural forces and gods in a much more
direct way. It's not abstract any more.
YOU BEGAN AS A POET, DO YOU SEE A RETURN TO THAT FORM?
I sure hope so. Whenever I love a piece of prose, fiction or non, almost invariably there's a strong sense
of poetics, often unconscious, that underpins the characters, plot, situations. Poetry and drums grew up
together. They're the heartbeat.
If I'm lucky, one day my mind won't be so busy and I'll be able to feel my way toward pure form again.