There Are No Rules: An Interview with Barry Gifford

By Todd Summar

Throughout his vast career, Barry Gifford has been a novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, poet, screenwriter, playwright, and songwriter. His writing has been described as 'William Faulkner by way of B-movie film noir.' He was born in a Chicago hotel room in 1946, and spent his childhood here and in New Orleans, a fitting origin for the gritty tone and geographic range of his work.

Among Gifford's most well-known works are the Sailor and Lula novels (the first, Wild at Heart, was adapted by David Lynch into an award-winning film starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern) and his collaboration with Lynch on the screenplay for Lost Highway. Last fall, he published The Roy Stories, a collection of short stories he'd written over the span of 40 years, finally collected into one volume. I spoke to him over the phone about his career and philosophies on writing.

Todd Summar: You started writing at age 11. How did it start for you and what were you writing at that age?

Barry Gifford: I was developing this sense of narrative because I spent so much time by myself, growing up largely in hotels, staying up all night watching late night movies, so that sense of structure was coming to me. And I read a lot. We traveled a lot, and so I would listen to people tell their stories, the way they spoke, the different dialects. I wasn't so conscience about being a writer, I just started writing. The first thing I remember having written was a story called 'All in Vein' about two brothers who fight on opposite sides during the Civil War. And as I spent half of my life in the Deep South and half of my life in Chicago, it was probably a reflection of that.

TS: The attention to different dialects and unique characters definitely comes across throughout all your stories.

BG: I was always interested in the way people spoke. I grew up speaking this sort of Cuban kid's street Spanish because we lived in Key West and my dad had a place in Havana, and my mother spoke French. I'm a first generation American. On my father's side, his father spoke German and so I was always aware, obviously, of other languages. Even in Chicago, people speaking Gaelic or Polish, or whatever it was, so it was really language that always interested me.

TS: You started as a poet and a journalist and then crossed over into other forms. Many writers stay solidly within one or two. What led you to tackle these different formats?

BG: I began writing in earnest as a musician, writing songs. Initially, I had a band in London, in the mid-60s, and the poetry grew out of the song lyrics. I realized that I needed to learn more. I wasn't academic, I wasn't going to school. And so I had to go to those people who I thought could benefit me. Teach me what I didn't know in terms of format. Writing stories came naturally to me, but I think the poetry was extremely important in terms of economy of language. Learning how to say the most with the fewest possible words, and with the right words. The fiction and prose came out of that. Journalism was always a side thing, something to make money. I was one of the early Rolling Stone writers. I started writing for them very early in 1968. I did everything I considered a manual, idiot job that didn't interfere with my real work, which was my writing. And I was reading, of course, all this time. Reading what people told me to read, people whom I respected. It's pretty much what I still do. I was always interested in lots of different forms, whether I was writing poetry or fiction or essays or screenplays, eventually, or plays to doing journalistic work, whatever it happened to be. It's all writing, you know? And so I just figured, if you're interested in these different forms, why not explore them and find out what you're good at, if you're good at any of them? Sometimes thoughts and feelings come to you and they're best expressed more in one form than another, so it's more of a decision making process as to which is the best form to write in.

TS: When an idea comes to you, how do you determine which form it will take?

BG: That's a very good question, Todd. And one that I'm reluctant to answer with any certainty, because it really depends. One time I was saying to my editor, 'It's really short stories that interest me the most. I think that's the toughest form to write in, so I wish I could write short stories.' And he said, 'But your novels are full of short stories.' And so then I began writing short stories in earnest, like The Roy Stories, and various other short stories that I've written. I really think that's the toughest form.

TS: When you approach these different forms, are there differences in the writing process?

BG: I think it's pretty standard procedure. Once I'm writing a novel, it's like laying a few bricks every day to build a house until the house is done. I write early in the morning. I work from seven or eight until one o'clock in the afternoon. I just add to it. In general, I don't know where I'm going with it. I like to have a process of discovery, so it's kind of a mystery to me where it goes, but I know the characters well. And of course, poetry is just bang, it's sort of in that moment. Often, the best poems are written just before I'm running out the door somewhere. When I'm involved in a novel, it's really like being in a trance for the several months that it takes. I'm preoccupied. But the great thing, Todd, is that there are no rules. That's something I always liked about being a writer. However you get it done, you get it done.

TS: When you're writing a novel, then, do you just follow the characters and wherever they take you, as opposed to writing an outline?

BG: After I wrote the first six of the Sailor and Lula novels and novellas, I thought that was the end of it. Then fifteen years later, I wrote The Imagination of the Heart, which is Lula's story. And I wrote it in the form of her diary, more or less, or her journal, in her voice. But I didn't plan that. I didn't know that was going to happen, but at some point, I had a little space in time between other projects, and she was in my thoughts, and I thought, Gee, what happened to Lula after Sailor died? Then, this year, I began to think about what happens to Pace Ripley, the son, after the death of both Sailor and his mother Lula. And so I wound up writing a novel called The Up Down, which will be out at the end of next year, just all about him after both Sailor and Lula are gone. So it winds up now being eight books associated with Sailor and Lula. I didn't know this was going to happen, but I'm very happy about it. I think it's very different and more reflective.

TS: It seems like those characters and their world have had so much to say to you.

BG: A good comparison is Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or any writer who creates a universe and creates these characters. I remember after an early review of one of the Sailor and Lula novels, someone wrote that a writer is so fortunate if just once in his or her lifetime, characters like this appear. I guess I use it as a filter or as a vehicle to write about what interests me or bothers me. Even though I've written many other novels, in other forms, these are probably closest to me. Until something like The Roy Stories, which is another matter all together. It's the other side of the coin.

TS: You mentioned that you're developing a screenplay on The Imagination of the Heart. Is that something you can talk about?

BG: There's a woman who's producing it and a woman who's writing and directing it. They were very taken by The Imagination of the Heart, so let's hope that this next year they're going to be able to do it. It's tough to make an independent feature these days, Todd. It really is tough. If they're not doing Marvel Comics or James Bond, the studios are putting their money into television and episodic TV. And I like it. I like that form. I like the idea of having 13 episodes or more to develop your story, or to play it out. I even have a good idea for one myself, and I'm developing that also. It's a different form, you know. Even when I wrote Wild at Heart, it began as a short story. I just thought it was this conversation between these two people in a motel room, and that was the end of it. And pretty soon I wanted to get them out of the context of the motel room and get them out on the road. And here we are, if you take into account all eight of those novels, we're almost 1,000 pages along the way. But I think that's the end of it (laughs). But I've said that twice before.

TS: Many of the scenes and dialogue of the film adaptation of Wild at Heart are lifted directly from the novel, but some elements are different, such as the Wizard of Oz motif, and the ending.

BG: David Lynch adapted the novel, and I was the creative consultant of the film. (The Wizard of Oz motif) was the last thing that came, and that had a lot to do with changing the ending. My ending is there, where Sailor and Lula separate, but then David brought them back together because they needed to have a happier ending. One funny thing did happen, though. When I showed up on the set the first day, Dave said to me, 'Well, Barry, how do you like the screenplay now?' and I said, 'Oh, I think it's great, David, except one thing. You left out the most important line in the whole story, where Lula says this world is really wild at heart and weird on top.' And he went through the whole screenplay and said, 'By golly, Barry, you're right!' And he put it in in the best place. Whereas, in the novel, it's in the beginning and it's like a thesis statement, he puts it in when they're in the Iguana Motel in West Texas and everything's going to hell. And it was the perfect placement of that line for the story as it was being told on film and in that context. So he was brilliant as far as that choice was concerned.

TS: What's your preferred method of writing – longhand, on a typewriter, etc.?

BG: I write in longhand and then I'll go over that and make corrections and revisions in my notebook or my legal pad and then I put it on a manual typewriter, so that's like a third draft. Then I'll make corrections or revisions on that, so that becomes like a fourth draft. Then I'll leave it at that or make a cleaner copy. And now, times being what they are, I give it off to my assistant Oscar who then puts it on disk. Then we have what essentially becomes a fifth draft. And we send it off to the publisher. I write everything in longhand because it's the closest I can come to being direct from the thought to the paper. And it's the most intimate way of doing things.

TS: I think it makes sense to capture that pure thought directly. So many writers go directly to the computer and don't ever try that method of just getting it on the page.

BG: I have a term for this, when people overwrite, I call it 'computerrhea.' Because I think people often write too much. They don't distill it. Or maybe they don't have that sense of economy of language that I've learned through writing poems. So they might write 2,000 pages where really they only needed 200. I won't give any names or examples, but I think it's pretty obvious when that happens. Now all this being said, I want to say writing something like a screenplay is a totally different process. It's a totally different language. It took me a long time to learn. And that I write differently. I will write sometimes by hand, but most of the time I'll dictate it. I'll speak it. I'll act it out. And it's much easier that way. It makes more sense. It's a different form, and each form, as we've been discussing, has its own demands.

TS: What made you decide to finally compile all of The Roy Stories together into one volume after 40 years?

BG: I saw that it was really one story, more or less. It's the history of a time and place seen through the eyes of this child. It was a natural feeling to have them all together, and I wrote a whole new section for The Roy Stories book. And it has a natural denouement, a natural ending. Roy from five to seventeen. I'm really happy to have it all together like this. The reaction has been kind of amazing. As you can see, when Jayne Anne Phillips wrote that piece in the Wall Street Journal and various other places, and the reaction to readings, which I don't do very often anymore, it's been really kind of universally wonderful. So I think I made the right decision to put it all together.

TS: Because there's such a span of time and place, what do you see as some of the common threads that tie all the stories together?

BG: I didn't think in terms of a theme, but if there is an arc, I think it has to do with how the world changes and how Roy changes vis-a-vis the world. He's growing up, he has a mother married many times, a gangster father, he grows up in these different worlds, and he realizes early on that he's got to own his own life, and he has to determine his own life, which is a wonderful kind of lesson. There's a point at which he realizes he's on his own. If there is any meaning, then that comes through, let's hope. If the reader can identify with it somehow, that's always the most important thing. I'm sure as a writer yourself, you understand that. You want the reader to identify with a character. The same thing is true in movies.

TS: The theme of this year's Story Week is 'DiverCity: Urban Stories.' The idea is that we create a 'city of words' with this diverse set of voices and cultures. You've said that you've been strongly influenced by female and gay writers. What aspects of their experiences speak to you, and how has that informed your own writing?

BG: There are a lot of writers that have interested me. It was Martin Eden by Jack London that first gave me the idea of the possibility that I could be a writer. A female writer like Jean Rhys, for example, is a wonderful writer. Often, gay writers like E.M. Forster and others had emotional content or connection or sensibility that spoke much more deeply to me. I'm not very analytical with this, but I found that I had something in common with the psychology and how they approached things and how they looked at things. All these people, all of these different voices and perspectives, they collude in a way, and I'm happy to be influenced by someone like Forster as well as by Faulkner, let's say. It doesn't matter. It just depends on what filters through to you. It's always interesting to see that people have a different perspective than your own, and maybe they can help you see things in a way that you'd never seen before. Isn't that what it's all about?

TS: It's similar to the idea of reading outside the genre you're writing so that you take in ideas beyond just what you're concentrated on.

BG: I've always been an omnivorous reader. It gives you this knowledge that just informs your writing. I tried to imbue The Roy Stories with that knowledge. Again, there are no rules. I don't know how to speak for different readers or viewers of films. You put it out there and you hope that it finds an audience and a readership. Lynch and I always talked the same way about going to a movie. When you go into a movie theater, you surrender to a kind of dream and you let the sounds and images roll over you. You really want to be in that dream world, which is probably why we've worked extensively together and see things similarly. I try to do the same thing by creating this atmosphere with The Roy Stories, so that you're in that world. Or with the Sailor and Lula novels.

TS: Are there any key lessons you've learned that you would pass along to less experienced writers?

BG: All I can say is write how your characters talk. You embody those characters. Be as true to those characters that you've created as possible. Beyond that, you have a story to tell, so tell the story. There are many different ways to go about it. You have millions of examples, a lot of good ones. You have to make up your own mind and go in your own direction. Hopefully, you have your own voice, and you have to find that voice.