An Interview with John Biguenet

by William H. Coles


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John Biguenet Interview 11/21/2009

William H. Coles

John Biguenet

An O. Henry Award winner, John is the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he teaches creative writing. Among his six books are an acclaimed volume of short stories, The Torturer’s Apprentice, and a novel set in Louisiana, Oyster. He also is an award-winning playwright and served as a guest columnist for the New York Times after the collapse of levees in New Orleans in 2005.

Oyster by John BiguenetTorturer's Apprentice by John Biguenet


I’m in a conference room at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans sitting at a table with John Biguenet. John is a faculty member of the annual Words & Music Conference and is this year’s winner of the 2009 ALIHOT Award for Literature, presented by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society.

WHC

John, I’d like to thank you very much for agreeing to interview with StoryInLiteraryFiction.com.  It’s a pleasure to be with you.

JB

It’s a pleasure to be here, Bill.

WHC

I was fascinated by your lecture yesterday when you implied that the literary story is in decline.  What is the cause?

JB

I’m not sure there has been a decline.  It’s just the opposite.  Our society is so immersed in stories that a kind of narrative exhaustion has set in.  Every viewer of television and film can almost always predict where a plot is headed.  The same thing is true of the other kinds of stories to which we are introduced every day in advertising, the news, and literary fiction as well.  So I think writers are facing a real predicament in terms of what it is that fiction should do when there are so many sources of storytelling and such experienced consumers of narratives.

WHC

Has the quality of the fictional story changed in your mind?  The reason I ask is that there is the sense that memoir and nonfiction have been replacing the fictional prose story.

JB

Well, I think because there is something potentially unexpected in the way a real life works out, nonfiction doesn’t face quite the same problem of the prediction of the outcome by the audience.  I think it is one reason that reality television has become so popular . . . the possibility that something unpredictable will force the story in an unexpected direction.  This introduction of the unpredictable is one of the reasons that sports are so popular as well.  We know the game’s rules and its boundaries, which is to say we know the structure of the story, but the unexpected element of an injury, for example, or a bad call by the referee can affect the ending of a particular tale, whether it’s a basketball game or a soccer match.  So I think those kinds of narratives have attracted larger and larger audiences in part because traditional narratives suffer from more predictable conclusions.

WHC

In narration of stories, have you seen a change in how writers think of narrating a story?

JB

Not necessarily.  I think short stories have increasingly imitated the novel and often have taken as their subject relationships between two people.  But I’m not sure six or seven thousand words are enough to develop two characters and the arc of their relationship fully . . .  and I don’t think that is what the short story was designed to do, actually.  The novel’s better suited to that type of tale.

WHC

When you talked about the novel, interestingly you noted that the nonfiction content is one of the ways—in modern times—to bring new readers to the novel, that the quality and the choice of this nonfiction content is important.  Could you expand on that idea for our readers?  Specifically, I’m thinking of the way you’ve used Louisiana to find the often unknown aspects of the oyster industry and the human conflicts of a specific era.  How can writers find their own valuable nonfiction for their fiction?

JB

I think the novel has traditionally had a great deal of nonfiction material in it.  From the beginning of the Western novel, particularly, readers learned something of how the world worked from novels.  But by World War II that type of information was being conveyed by many different media, and so today the novel has lost one of its central reasons for existence, which is the conveyance of information unknown to the reader.  I think that is one reason for the success of writers who are talking about immigrant experiences, like Jhumpa Lahiri, for example, or in another sense, Nathan Englander in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, who talks about a Jewish community that is not well known to most readers.  Those writers have attracted an audience, at least in part, because their books continue to provide information about the world that is unknown to the reader.  At the same time, of course, their books are very well written.

WHC

Is there a wealth of potential in stories exploring the integration of various aliens into existing society?  For example, the transitions of Asians into American society, and the [importance of] internal transitions.

JB

Since the United States is becoming an increasingly diverse society, I think there is a great deal of curiosity about the many communities that make up the country now.  And the writers from those communities who have arrived recently in the United States bring greater insight into the daily lives of those immigrants.  Those communities have not had many voices before in our national conversation.  Writers from those communities can find wide readership, at least in part, because these kinds of narratives continue to do what the Western novel has done since its founding in the mid-eighteenth century—to bring us news of something we don’t fully know.

WHC

As you look at the importance of the nonfiction content of a novel, is there any danger of decreasing the importance of characterization?

JB

Oh, no.  Just the opposite.  When we talk about the nonfiction content, we’re talking about the setting in which a character becomes eloquent.  In Huckleberry Finn, for example, the character of Jim and the character of Huck become fully eloquent in the context of the journey that they’re taking.  It is impossible for us to think of ourselves as human beings outside the place in which we find ourselves.  But places where characters have found themselves often have been places that are unknown or only vaguely known to the reader.

WHC

What are the elements you think are necessary for a writer to develop in an effective work of fiction?

JB

A writer becomes an author by demonstrating authority in two ways: by demonstrating authority over the craft of writing, but also authority over the subject matter.

WHC

How important is imagination now in literary fiction as opposed to writing from experience?  Do you have feelings about that?

JB

Well, I think American fiction tends to follow the conventions of realism, and those stories that pay attention to realism will follow experience.  Throughout the rest of the world, fiction is often fantastic, and that places as much emphasis on the imagined as on observed experience.

WHC

As you begin to develop in your novels character-driven plots, what does that mean to you and how do you conceptualize character-driven plots as opposed to plotting in a genre way?

JB

If a story depends on things being out of balance, that absence of balance will be evident in a character who is capable of change, and so a story that begins with such a character will seek to discover how that person can achieve a sustainable balance.  The setting of such a story also will reflect that imbalance.  But it begins with ambition, lust, greed—some imbalance in a person that can be depicted in a plot.

WHC

Does that relate to a core desire [that is out of balance], or a foible?

JB

Not just a foible but something essential to the person.  One might think of it as a crack running through the character, which we all have, of course, but one that is capable of remedy as the character chooses one alternative rather than another to put himself or herself into equilibrium.

WHC

You’re a student of story and have historical and cultural perspectives that are valuable.  What is valuable for writers to study about the development of story over the ages?  I’m particularly thinking of how the oral tradition contributed to the written story and how drama was inserted.

JB

To balance on the one hand what the Greeks, for example, were doing in their drama and their epics and what Chekhov was doing in the nineteenth century with the short story is quite a leap.  The forms that emerged out of the issues that each of their communities faced shaped the structure and, in a certain sense, directed them toward a certain medium.  The short story, as we practice it, is basically a nineteenth-century invention and it responds in some sense to the industrial revolution and urbanization.  But it’s difficult to trace a linear path of stories reflective of culture.

WHC

Are there stories that you recommend for study?  To start, for example, Chekhov.

JB

Well, I admire enormously “The Lady with a Dog.”  There are many stories by Chekhov, by Hawthorne, some by Poe, certainly by Henry James . . .

WHC

What are the Henry James stories you might recommend?

JB

I think “The Real Thing” is a very interesting story.  It looks at the ways in which imagination can be bound by reality and at the necessity for the imagination to remake what it observes.

WHC

Do you think “Turn of the Screw” is important?

JB

It’s about ghosts, so in some ways it’s at odds with most American literature, which has followed mostly a realist tradition.  But I think that everything that James writes, because of his focus on the sentence, is something from which we can learn.

WHC

How about earlier?  Hawthorne?

JB

In Hawthorne, you can see the invention of the form.  In a sense, he’s inventing the genre of short stories as he writes them, though with a high level of artistry.  It’s fairly unusual to see someone both inventing and mastering a form simultaneously.

WHC

What is the contribution in terms of structure?

JB

Structurally it’s to focus the short story on a single moment of crisis.  When you compare one of Hawthorne’s tales to the Scarlet Letter, you can see two very different things are happening.  He’s employed the novel for a complex unwinding of character while he’s reserved the short story for a crisis that leads to a kind of decision through which the character could put his or her life back in balance.

WHC

I sense dramatization has been lost somewhat in contemporary writing.  Is it possible to trace dramatization through the development of both the short story and the novel?

JB

I’m not sure about the term dramatization.  But I can say the character has to embody the conflict.  My story “The Vulgar Soul,” for example, has to do with what exactly religion has to say about human experience if one strips away belief in the supernatural.  Unless it’s addressing something entirely imaginary, religion must describe something observable.  If one has no belief in God or the soul, is that to dismiss five thousand years of human thought in this area, or does religion—even without belief—have something useful to say about human experience?  And to try to get at that question, I used a character devoid of religious faith who is afflicted with the stigmata and followed how his embodiment of this apparently religious experience works upon him.  Although it doesn’t engender any religious feelings, it does bring him to insights about himself and what it means to be a human being.

WHC

In considering the differences in writing between the first person and third person, which do you prefer—I know you will say it depends on the story and how it develops—but when do you choose, why do you choose, and what are the advantages?

JB

The first person is somewhat immediate, and the third person is somewhat distanced.  It depends on how much space you want between the action and the reader.  If you want the reader jammed up against the action, first person is more likely to accomplish that.  If you want the reader to lean back a bit and be in a better position to make judgments about the choices the character is making, the third person better accommodates that.

WHC

Is it fair to say that if drama is conflict as you suggested—that is, conflict, action, resolution—that it’s important to do that in scene and that is more difficult to do that in interiorization, or narrative description?

JB

Yes.  I think the reader is likely to grow weary of philosophical monologues relatively quickly.  Series of scenes unfold very much as life seems to unfold, and so scenic development is easier for the reader to grasp with sustained concentration, I think.

WHC

What is the role of meaning in your short stories and novels?

JB

I don’t know about meaning, but there is a difference between the elements of fiction—like plot, characterization, setting—and the subject.  In the end, the story is about its subject, which is not the same thing as its plot.

WHC

Is there morality in fiction?

JB

I don’t know about morality in the religious sense, but if you think of stories as mainly about things being in balance or out of balance, then if someone is out of balance, it may feel to that person a moment of moral crisis.  How do I bring my life into balance?  It may have no religious implications; it may be more a question of taking too large a portion for myself or distorting reality through a lie, for example, and therefore throwing things out of balance.  How do I bring myself back into balance?  That’s the question of fiction.

WHJC

What’s the responsibility of the writer in endings, particularly in the great short story that will be remembered and persist into future generations?

JB.

A great short story will frame a choice that may be unexpected and will bring us to a new way of understanding the particular imbalance the story has depicted.  So we come to understand greed or deceit or infidelity in a new way, perhaps a more complex way.  It’s in the conclusion where the writer, through the character, reveals a new way of thinking about the problem . . . probably not providing an answer, but reframing the way we think about the question.

WHC

Do you have thoughts about Joyce’s epiphany and how that relates to imbalance?

JB

He was employing a particular form that expressed its climax as an insight that might be accepted or rejected.

WHC

Maybe on the religious side?

JB

Perhaps.  However, I don’t think he is suggesting a religious solution to the problems his characters face.  But he was raised within a religious culture, and it provides a form for him to think about the problems a human being faces.  The epiphany is simply the structural manifestation of the reframing of the human problem that Joyce offers.

WHC

What are the major reasons that stories do not succeed today in terms of being great stories but also in terms of getting publishing?

JB

I’m not sure about publishing, but a story fails because it has nothing to say, or perhaps because what it has to say is badly said.  It does come back again and again to the craft of the story and its subject.  Does the author have the authority to write about this matter and the authority of craft to depict it effectively?

WHC

Is there anything related to beginning and how the story is shaped?

JB

Because modern readers know so much about narrative, we certainly cannot begin with a great deal of exposition.  The story must usually begin with rising action and go from there to integrate the character and the setting as the action continues to rise.

WHC

This has been extremely helpful.  If there were readers who wanted to study with you, are there ways to do that?

JB

I teach at Loyola University in New Orleans in the English Department, but I also teach in the summers at the Paris American Academy.  It’s a month-long writing workshop in Paris with a community of anywhere from ten to thirty English-speaking students from around the world.  Those interested can find more information online for the Paris American Academy creative writing workshops at http://pariswritingworkshop.com/.

WHC

Do you have a website that’s available for your schedule of presentations, lectures, tours?

JB

Yes, http://www.johnbiguenet.com.

WHC

John, I’d like to thank you very much for participating.  It’s been very enlightening.

JB

Thank you, Bill.  It’s been a pleasure.



Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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