An Interview with Paul La Farge

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Paul La Farge writes exacting, ambitious novels about how the world we inhabit (both physically and emotionally) creates our sense of identity and history. In his much-lauded Haussmann, or the Distinction, La Farge crafts a whimsical tale rooted in the real, wherein the French architect, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, tells the tale of his greatest accomplishment via the tale of his greatest loss. In The Facts of Winter, La Farge plays translator, transcribing the fake dreams of real individuals living in Paris in 1881. In Luminous Airplanes, a young man reconciles his sense of self in San Francisco while going through his grandfather’s belongings.

Each of La Farge’s projects endeavors to examine how the past influences present happiness, be it historical or personal. In La Farge’s new novel, The Night Ocean, a young black man comes to prominence while investigating the relationship between H. P. Lovecraft and his fan, Robert Barlow. The novel is consistently thoughtful in its examinations of self-delusion, the limits of ambition, and our shared perceptions of famous, near-mythic artists. On a snowy Friday morning in February, La Farge was kind enough to chat with me by phone about his work.


TQ: I wanted to start by asking how the idea for your latest novel came about. Were you interested in Lovecraft and Barlow, and you conceived the book from there, or was it a different set of ideas that eventually led you to working on this project?

La Farge: The book began with Lovecraft and Barlow. I was the writer in residence at Bard College in 2005, and I met the poet and novelist Robert Kelly through that. We went to dinner, and ended up talking about Lovecraft. Robert knew quite a lot about Lovecraft’s life, and had even met Samuel Loveman, who had been one of Lovecraft’s friends in New York. He told me the story of Lovecraft’s visit to Barlow in Florida in 1934, and how he’d stayed with Barlow for nearly two months. Lovecraft was a private person, so there’s a question as to why he went, why he stayed so long. Beyond that, Barlow was fascinating in his own right. After Lovecraft’s death, he went on to be an experimental poet; he moved to the Bay Area, studied anthropology, moved to Mexico, and became an expert on Aztec civilization before committing suicide. I thought their friendship would be a good subject for a book, so I read more about Barlow and Lovecraft. Then right away I started working on a version of the story, which collapsed under its own weight. I returned to the project in 2013, when I was fortunate enough to have a fellowship at the Cullman Center in the New York Public Library. They have an enormous amount of material that turned out to be relevant: among other things, they have all these magazines featuring amateur writers from the 1920s and 1930s, and books relating to Barlow and Lovecraft and their circle and the times in which they lived. I started looking things up, and realized the material was a lot richer than anything I had invented. I made notes, and The Night Ocean really began from there.

TQ: In so many ways, the novel is about being a fraud. We have Charlie, who is possibly an emotional con artist; Spinks, who is an actual charlatan; and Marina, who dupes herself into believing there’s a chance her husband is alive. Do you feel that delusion is part of writing, or life in general, or is that reading too much into the novel’s overt meaning? 

La Farge: I think a certain amount of delusion is a part of life in general. We need delusion to keep going. To put it in Lovecraftian terms, we imagine that our lives have meaning, and that our accomplishments have value. We could see ourselves as infinitesimal beings in a universe that’s completely indifferent to us, and yet we believe that we matter. We’re always telling ourselves stories, and our writing, or at least fiction, is a heightened or intensified form of that. One of the things The Night Ocean is about is how stories draw us in, and also what happens to us when we start to feel that we can’t trust them, that we’re just being deluded. What happens when we try to wake up to the truth. 

TQ: So, then, would you say Charlie is a con artist who ends up facing the consequences of believing Spinks, or is he someone with good intentions who does his best but ultimately fails?

La Farge: Charlie is someone who really wants to believe. He wants to believe the story he hears from the person whom he believes to be Robert Barlow, and he also wants to believe in himself, in his own talent and empathy and righteousness. That’s great up to a point, but for him it’s also dangerous. Charlie is unaware of his own bad intentions, his aggression, his aptitude for dishonesty.

TQ: I do want to stick with this line of thinking for a bit, since you have Spinks/Barlow interact so deeply with the literary world of the early and mid-1900s. The way you depict these figures is usually with some combination of vivid humanity and excessive pretension. I wanted to know how you toed the line between the two, and how difficult it was to render these almost mythic figures in a way you felt was authentic. 

La Farge: I was mostly trying to capture the historical figures who populate The Night Ocean as I imagine them to have been. Many of them were howlingly strange human beings. Ursula Le Guin much less so than the Futurians, the science fiction writers and editors, who were truly weird. They said and did strange things; a lot of them were physically grotesque . . . And because they were all writers, their behavior is well documented. They wrote about each other and about themselves. Their fiction is revealing, too. I read everything about them that I could find, and in a few cases I spoke with them, or their children and grandchildren. It was a lot of fun to try to capture them in all their flamboyant strangeness. 

TQ: When it’s revealed that Charlie believed Spinks, and is ridiculed in the press, I couldn’t help but think about the controversial writer James Frey. Were you thinking a lot about the relationship between fame and authenticity when developing this?

La Farge: For that part of the book I was, yeah. I was thinking about J. T. LeRoy, Jonah Lehrer, James Frey: people who were discredited for inventing facts about themselves, and publishing them in their books. I was also thinking about our need to unmask people, to expose them as fraudulent in one way or another. Of course, we want to know the truth, we don’t like being deceived or taken advantage of, but there’s some witch-burning going on there, too. Exposing someone else as a fraud is a powerful act, it’s an assertion of your power over the person you expose. It might also be a way to convince yourself of your own authenticity, and to overlook the more unsettling truth, which is that everyone is capable of deception, and that most people put on an act some of the time. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing to do. A world where we were totally honest with ourselves and with each other would be very difficult to live in.

TQ: In general, how do you view yourself as a writer? Your novels tend to be ambitious, near-historical fiction works. I’d like to know if you see yourself as a novelist first, or a kind of historian who happens to weave fiction out of reality?

La Farge: I’m definitely a novelist first. I’m a novelist who’s interested in history, but my work is fiction. Also, I haven’t been trying to do the same thing in all of these books. For example, Haussman grew out of what I knew about Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, but a lot of the research for it followed the writing, to make sure I had a rough sense of what was actually happening in that time. And when I was done writing the book, I went back to check all the little things. Were the streetlamps in Paris in the 1850s gas lamps or oil lamps? It was surprisingly hard to find out. The goal wasn’t to get history exactly right, but to to tell the story of how Paris went from being a less planned city to a more planned city, and the consequences of that change for the people who lived there. In The Night Ocean, historical accuracy, even in the smallest details, or maybe especially in them, is important, because the book is trying to create a feeling of authenticity, and it’s also about authenticity, among other things. So, I had a real urge to get things as right as I could, but at the same time, the book is constantly asking, how right can we get things, and what happens if truth is in service of something more like deception. 

TQ: While this is a globe- (and era-) trotting work, in many ways it’s very much a New York novel. We have a tortured pseudo-academic, a partner who can’t seem to compete for their affection, an affair, a kind of midlife or existential crisis, and so on. I was hoping you could speak to whether or not you had that idea of the East Coast novel as the core of the work, and, if so, how you spun off it to transcend the trope.

La Farge: No, I wasn’t thinking of an East Coast novel. I grew up in New York, and I’m a writer, so I drew on that knowledge to write about Charlie, who’s a writer (though I wouldn’t call him a pseudo-academic—he’s more of a journalist) in New York. But that’s only one part of the book. As you say, The Night Ocean is all over the map—it takes place in New York but also in Florida, in Providence, in Mexico City, in Canada, in Germany. It’s also about more than one New York. The city Charlie lives in is fairly different from the New York of the 1930s, where the Futurians’ story takes place, or the 1950s New York where Spinks mingles with America’s right-wing elite. Those people were fairly central, fairly powerful in their day, but they are the exception in The Night Ocean. Most of the characters are marginal in one way or another: they’re gay, they’re poor, they’re Jews, they’re Communists, they’re first- and second-generation immigrants, they’re science-fiction nerds in an era when that was a very marginal thing to be.

TQ: A larger theme in your work has been the scrutinizing of obscure historical figures or events. Do you feel it’s important for someone in the privileged position of “writer” to ask questions and confront these assumptions or gaps in understanding, be they about place, family, time, or myth?

La Farge: I feel it’s important for me to do those things. I find value and interest in doing them. I think my work thrives on my ability to think deeply about the relationship of myth to history, about the relationship between people and places. I’d be very hesitant to say what writers should do in general. Each writer has to follow her or his curiosity and interest. Otherwise, why write? It’s hard work. It doesn’t pay very well.

TQ: I think it could be quite easy to lump your work in with that of Jorge Luis Borges or Nicholson Baker, but it seems to me that you’re occasionally after something grander or more concrete, even in The Facts of Winter. In terms of your own understanding, what do you feel separates your work from those writers you’re normally grouped with? Do you think it’s fair to say you’re after more solid understandings of life? 

La Farge: If there’s a group that comprises Borges and Nicholson Baker, I want to be part of it! That said, I try not to think about my work in categorical terms. I think about what I’m curious about, and what I can do that I haven’t been able to do before. If I could stand far enough outside my writing to see it as belonging to a category, I wouldn’t be able to do it. At the same time, I’m fantastically intrigued by this Borges/Baker axis you propose. I don’t know what you’d call it, maybe detail-oriented fabulism? Kinky miniaturism?

In answer to the second part of your question: As a writer, I don’t think I’m looking for a concrete understanding of life, particularly. I can only make something as clear as I can. But the question does make me think about my book The Facts of Winter. On its surface, The Facts of Winter is a fantastical work. It was written in French, which isn’t my native language, and it’s a collection of imaginary dreams, compiled by an obscure French poet who doesn’t actually exist. There are all these layers of distancing going on in the book, but at the same time, it was an avenue for me to write quite directly about my experience, or at least that was how it seemed to me when I was writing it. There’s a paradoxical thing going on there, where the more I go away from my own experience, the more directly I can access it and have it come back.

TQ: Why do you think this is?

La Farge: That’s an excellent question. I have no idea how to answer it. Either it’s a feature of my experience, or of fiction in general, or maybe, somehow, of the world.