I yam what I yam 

David Gates on regional writing, not doing coke and his new short story collection

The last time I saw David Gates was in summer 2012, when we drank Maker's Mark at the Depot and I badgered him aggressively about when we'd see another book. Finally, finally, the journalist, Pulitzer Prize-finalist author and part-time Missoula resident has given us the splendid short story collection A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, which we recently discussed over email.

Your characters often address the reader directly. Some examples include: "If I'm sentimentalizing those days, bear with me" and "Anyway, here's the coda." I like this style of storytelling very much. Do you ever have a specific reader in mind?

David Gates: I love this stuff, too, and I imagine I caught it from books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lolita, Samuel Beckett's trilogy of novels and so on. No, I'm not addressing any reader in particular—just the reader whose presence it seems silly and artificial to ignore, especially if you've got a first-person narrator talking. I don't hear these narrators as simply talking to themselves—what would be the point, since they already know the story they're telling?

Earlier this month I wrote in an interview: "It's fine to be a white male writing about finding your hot wife in bed with another man in your over-mortgaged house on the East Coast and whatever existential crisis that moment unfurls and all." to which you replied, "Damn right it's fine," in what I can only assume was a playful and self-effacing way. But it's true, right? That who you are as an older white man writing about educated people is plenty prevalent still but not particularly in vogue. Of course I'm not mad at you and it's not your fault. But what do you have to say for yourself?

DG: Nor am I mad at you—you were right on the money. Sure, I was joshing. What I meant was that I've made a damn good living off of this material, and what I meant by that was that I actually haven't—check my sales figures—though I do have a great teaching job. Older white male writers may not be in vogue, but they still seem to be eating three square meals a day, when they're not trying to lose that spare tire. And I notice a lot of younger white male writers dealing with overeducated people. And let's not forget such nonwhite, non-male smarty-pantses as Paul Beatty or Lorrie Moore, or, or, or. Writers do tend to be overeducated—hell, you're overeducated yourself—and they tend to write about what they know. Tiresome, maybe, but I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam.

click to enlarge Renowned author and UM writing instructor David Gates recently released his new short story collection, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY MCCORMICK
  • photo courtesy of Mary McCormick
  • Renowned author and UM writing instructor David Gates recently released his new short story collection, A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me.

One can't help but notice that many of your characters use drugs and alcohol with suspicious authenticity. Not to mention your Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Jernigan and its unsentimental portrait of an alcoholic father. Have you ever had any issues in your personal or professional life with people holding you responsible for your characters' bad behavior? Asking for a friend.

DG: I've occasionally run across people who are surprised not to find me falling-down drunk and keeping a civil tongue in my head. But it's been rare—most people seem to realize that fiction is fiction. My second novel, Preston Falls, is about a cokehead, and, believe it or not, I've never done coke.

This collection runs the gamut of human experience. Here I am in my 30s and worrying that I haven't been married yet, but if your stories are any indication, my nightmare's just beginning: Divorce at 47, a kid that can't stand me—why even try to guess? You don't have kids and you're not a woman but you write convincingly from both perspectives, so it can't all be informed by experience, right? For example, having read Preston Falls, it absolutely blows my mind that you've never done cocaine.

DG: Well, shucks. Some of this comes from experience, some from observation, some from projecting myself imaginatively into people of different ages, different sexes, different sexual orientations. I was writing about geezers, for instance, long before I turned into one. Somebody, maybe Flannery O'Connor, says you've seen enough by the time you're 12 to write fiction for the rest of your life. I actually think it might help to get past puberty, but you see the point.

These stories all take place out east. You've been teaching at the University of Montana and living here intermittently since 2010. (We met in your first UM fiction workshop, in case readers were wondering the origins of my cloying familiarity.) Has the West wormed its way into your heart or your writing yet?

DG: Into my heart, yes—certainly into my affections. Into my writing, no. I suppose it might, but I've been a Northeast regionalist for a quarter of a century or so. That part of the country—its history, its topography, its people—continues to obsess me. I still go back there for a couple of months twice a year, and I'm a relative newcomer to Montana. I just don't have the authority to write about the West. Perhaps when I come to know it as well as, say, Kevin Canty has—but by that time I'll probably be pushing up bitterroot.

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