The PEN Ten with Jack Livings
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, we talk to Jack Livings, winner of the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for his debut collection of stories, The Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was also named a Best Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement. Jack lives in New York with his family and is at work on a novel.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I must have wanted to be a writer when I was 14 because that’s when I started reading Raymond Carver. I know that his author photo is what gave me the idea that writers wore flannel shirts and rumpled corduroy pants and didn’t draw attention to themselves. I’d heard that diners were a good place to pick up dialogue, and the frumpy writer uniform dovetailed with that—the idea was, if I wanted to write, I needed to stay out of sight, eavesdrop, and record. Self-abnegation was central to my idea of what a writer was; maybe a little less so now.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
I used to work with Russian journalists for whom self-censorship was self-preservation. There was a line in the sand, and they knew what would happen if they crossed it. Even if they weren’t shaking their fist in the face of power with every story, they produced good, sometimes subversive, work. Toeing the line was the only way they could keep their magazine open, and being able to publish stories that generated a following among thinking people was more important than going out in a blaze of glory (the government shut them down anyway). The problem is that writers’ and journalists’ psyches don’t hold up well under this system; moral compunction and a strong desire to speak honestly is requisite to those jobs, and the complications of self-censorship seemed to weigh heavily on the journalists I knew. Opposing censorship is a moral absolute, so of course it’s never acceptable. But it’s easy to be absolute when you don’t have to deal with practical considerations.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Maybe airplanes and waves? I do get obsessive about details in my fiction, especially procedural stuff—if I mention that a message is delivered by pneumatic tube, for instance, I can really go down the rabbit hole and read for days about how those things work. I got obsessed with glassmaking when I was writing a story about Chinese glassworkers. But these are obsessions of utility. Maybe because I happily jump from one detail to the next I don’t really have any overarching obsessions? I mean, there’s always sex, so that’s one.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I don’t know. My book, if picked up by the wrong person at the Chinese embassy, might keep me from getting a visa, but I don’t think anything I’ve written would qualify as daring.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To be honest in his or her depiction of the world.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Sure. Writers tend to be good barometers of their culture and time. We need writers to record and interpret, to keep discourse alive, to put to bed moronic, irrational arguments, to introduce different, sometimes equally moronic and irrational arguments of their own, sometimes brilliant and cutting rational arguments, to support the absurd, to create contradiction, expose and conceal, to insist on reason and to insist on mysticism, tell it straight, tell it slant—just tell all of it. Anything that can be done on the page, probably should be. It doesn’t matter whether or not we, as readers, like it or agree with it. The collective quality of writers at any given time could be judged by the volume of discussion generated by their work, even if those discussions take place primarily within a reader’s head.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Is the implication that if he reads the right book, he might soften his position? I don’t think it’s possible. A person who imprisons writers is incapable of the empathy required to read in a way that does anything other than reinforce his own opinions.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
I think I need a lawyer. Isn’t the answer usually “intent?” I’m not sure any of us would care what our neighbors know about us so long as we could be assured beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re not judging us and have no intention of using what they know for malicious ends. But when we can’t trust the observer not to use our own behaviors against us, observation becomes surveillance.