Conducted by Mark Schofield
Debut novelist Christian Bauman has a peripatetic history and has earned his keep at a strange assortment of trades, from soldiering in the U.S. army to touring as a folk musician. He puts his experiences to good use in “The Ice Beneath You,” published this fall by Simon & Schuster. I recently picked his brain about how and why he wrote his impressive soldier’s tale, and whether Tom Waits or Jack Kerouac had anything to do with it.
FF: What sorts of writing exercises do you benefit from? I’ll sometimes sit and try to write the worst paragraph I can, which helps me define what I want to avoid.
Christian: I don’t really do any writing exercises. Looking back, I will sometimes see with hindsight that a work I might have considered failed writing was in fact good experience for me as a writer. But I’ve never done a writing exercise per se. It’s not out of arrogance; that I think I don’t need it. It’s just that my brain doesn’t work that way. I just write. I have a difficult time writing at all unless I feel passionate about something. For me, anyway, there are some things in life you either do or do not do, and having done it, either succeed or fail. Writing is that way for me. Failed writings might end up being good exercise for me, but I never set out to just exercise.
FF: Is “The Ice Beneath You” the longest work you’ve finished? Many writers have ten pages in the sock drawer for each page that finds a home.
Christian: Yes, it is the longest work I’ve finished. I have a lot of stuff that’s never seen the light of day. Ranging in size from 2 to 200 pages.
FF: The story’s point-of-view character, PFC Jones, finally confronts his failures as a soldier, husband, and man. Have you considered his alternative fate, twenty years on, if he never faced up and instead chose paralysis?
Christian: Not really. I mean, I made individual choices for the decisions he made in the book, and those choices were not always obvious to me. So I had to think ahead a bit, and see what a particular decision would mean to him. But I’m not really interested in Jones twenty years from now. What I was interested in was this process he went through, and that’s what I tried to document. On the other hand, knowing where Jones came from was very important to me, and I had to figure that out along the way.
FF: Does the wild contrast of Jones’s surreal disconnect from the high-pitched violence that follows him serve to make a point about the violence or the disconnection?
Christian: Neither, I don’t think. I didn’t intend to make a comment on either violence or disconnection. I may have ended up doing so, but it wasn’t my intention. My point, if I had one, was to comment on a human, and the human reaction to violence, and to fear. Jones’s reaction, as is frequently the case with soldiers, was disconnection. In cases like Jones is presented with, I think you either get hysterical or you go through some type of disconnect. In his case, I think he straddles a fairly common line between hysterical and disconnect.
FF: At first, “The Ice” shifts between first person narration and more distant flashbacks told in close third person, until mid-way the storytelling turns entirely third person—an admirably subtle effect that nearly goes unnoticed. Have you seen that before or was the idea your invention?
Christian: The idea was to alternate the first half of the book between first and a close third person. But then when the incident occurs at the end of part one, and Jones disconnects, it seemed to make sense to illustrate that by emotionally disconnecting the narrative, as well. By moving into the more distant third person that starts part two- so distant that I even stop calling my characters by name for a while. It’s like you have to meet them all over again. And there is a point to that: they’re different people now. Then by the end of the book, as Jones is pulling himself back to the surface, the narrative also gets closer. Until the very end, where I finish the last few pages in Jones’s voice again.
The device was intentional, but it was not easy. It took a lot of work to get it right- so that it didn’t feel contrived or forced. I can’t tell you the number of chapters that got rewritten five or six times, going back and forth from first to third person, until I made up my mind. And there is one incident in the book that I actually tell twice, from different points of view. The prologue, which is in third person, gets retold halfway through the book in Jones’s voice.
No, I didn’t make this up. Although I don’t recall seeing it done exactly like I do it here. But there are any number of great novels that have employed some type of device to allow the reader to see things from different points of view, or different angles of the camera. Darcey Steinke does a masterful job in Jesus Saves of following two different girls in two different places. Pat Barker does something a little closer to what I set out to do in her novel The Ghost Road; as the narrative moves forward in the book’s ‘real time’ of World War I, one of the character has chapter-length flashbacks to earlier times in his life.
FF: The controlled calm to the narrative that keeps the reader turning pages feels like it might’ve come out fast. Did you hammer out the story in a frenzy like Kerouac or deliver it with slow, precise deliberation?
Christian: Both and neither. There are times I write ten or more pages a day, barely taking time to breathe. And there are days or even weeks where I labor over one sentence or paragraph. Sometimes it feels like whatever I am writing is writing itself; other times I have to haul it out with a steel cable.
I am, though, a very slow and deliberate editor, and a compulsive rewriter. I spend much more time on editing and polishing and rewriting than I do on first-time draft writing. But something like Miguel’s monologue in the San Francisco section, writing that was like tapping into something, and I wrote it blind and fast. It got worked over extensively after, but when it originally came it came quick.
FF: Your own pursuits, from folk music to the military, haven’t fit a standard trajectory either. Do you now imagine a sustained literary career that includes six or eight or ten novels?
Christian: Without fail, every time I have imagined something in my life, it hasn’t gone that way. So I’ve stopped planning. The less I think, the better work I do. I didn’t go to college, I got sent overseas with a rifle twice, I survived any number of bad, dangerous, or mind-numbing jobs before and after the army. Now I have a family I love and a house to call my own and that’s pretty much enough to get me out of bed in the morning. I have some idea of where I’d like to see things go from here, but you never know.
FF: Music’s in that handful of things that are harder to do well than prose is. What does Tom Waits know that the rest of us don’t?
Christian: I don’t know that music is harder than prose. I have a huge amount of respect for those that do both, and do their work well. One thing I’m starting to believe, that I didn’t know when I was younger, is that real talent is very rare, in any field, and those who have it and use it are few and far between.
I don’t know if Tom Waits knows more than the rest of us; I think he has an ability the rest of us don’t own. I’ve sat around in some of the worst bars in the country, getting stinking drunk and watching the waitresses, and I still can’t write like Tom Waits.
I do think lyricists deserve more artistic credit than they frequently get. They tend to occupy some rung of the ladder south of poets and just north of janitors. But there is a level of craft to lyric writing that would make a lazy, bloated novelist blush. Entire worlds live inside the songs of people like John Gorka and Greg Brown and Ani DiFranco. The work I did as a lyricist is just as important to me, and exists on an equal footing with, my work as a prose writer. It’s all writing, as far as I’m concerned.
FF: Some writers are storytellers above all while others are primarily users of language, which Anthony Burgess called A-writers and B-writers, respectively. Which type more closely describes you?
Christian: I would hate to think I was one or the other. I strive for both. I’m a firm believer that narrative is important, you must have a story there. No story, and you’re just masturbating on the page. But, as we’ve said, I come to prose as a lyricist, so I pay a great deal of attention to words and rhythm. And as a reader I think I tend to gravitate toward writers who do the same, writers who provide strong, compelling stories and characters, but write in some kind of lyrical way.
Visit http://www.christianbauman.com for all the latest news on the state of Christian Bauman’s art, as well as photos, links and other fun stuff.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Schofield