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Interview: Barry Gifford

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 31, 2008 3:25PM

2008_3gifford.jpg We had the good fortune recently to speak with Barry Gifford, one of our favorite contemporary authors. His newest book is Memories from a Sinking Ship, a "fictional memoir" about growing up in mid-fifties Chicago (and Key West and New Orleans). Roy is a youngster shuttled from place to place, alternating between his beautiful, vivacious mother and his estranged, gangster father. For a sizeable chunk of the book he lives at 6312 N. Rockwell, and the story is packed with fascinating details about a vanished Chicago: going to movies at the Nortown Theater on Western or hanging out at Lucky's El Paso pool hall.

In the course of our conversation we talked about Wild at Heart, working with David Lynch, his love for the writing of Nelson Algren, and the mysterious enduring popularity of the Cubs.

Gifford is probably best known for his novel Wild at Heart, which David Lynch adapted into a Palme d'Or-winning movie starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. Their characters Sailor and Lula set off on a surreal roadtrip through the American southwest, encountering a menagerie of weirdos along the way and usually just a few steps ahead of hired killers. The movie got a mixed reception upon release but is now a bona fide cult classic, and Gifford has written a whole series of Sailor and Lula novels. "I really had no idea the books would keep coming," he confides. "But as I was finishing Wild at Heart, there at the end there Purdita Durango came in. I kinda had to push her aside but I knew she needed her own book. So I did that one. And then I just kept coming back to them. They made that appearance in Baby Cat-Face too."

Later he collaborated directly with Lynch on the screenplay for Lost Highway, which was just released on DVD for the first time. "I attended a screening of it last week, up here in San Francisco. People always seem really excited about that movie. There's a lot of enthusiasm," he says, almost sounding puzzled. But its twisty structure practically seems straightforward now after the radical scrambling of recent Lynch movies like Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE. "That script was a 50/50 collaboration. When you're collaborating like that, you don't remember who did what later on."

It's even been turned into an opera. "I was surprised by the libretto. Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel a few years ago, wrote it and really kept it the same. There's one additional scene but other than that it's straight from the script. When David worked on Wild at Heart he kept a lot of the dialog intact too. I think he wrote the script in about six days; he just kept a lot in there."

Gifford's output shifts frequently between different subjects and different types of writing. There are novels, biographies, essays on film, screenplays, poetry and even librettos for operas. And his prose style vacillates between a kind of Southern Gothic baroque and a spare, almost minimalist style. He says, "I have a lot of interests so there is a lot of stuff that inspires me. It's easy to move from different things. I guess I've been writing more about Chicago in the last few years. It might be a product of getting older, wanting to capture that. I let the characters tell me how to write. I write based on that. I'm not interested so much in the plots. I'm interested in the people. Like Chekhov said: 'I am interested in the individual.'"

Nelson Algren ranks high among his influences. "His stuff was an inspiration. He wrote about working class Chicago, the blue collar world. Later I read Saul Bellow and [The Adventures of] Augie March but I didn't connect with it. It wasn't the Chicago I knew. Like you said, Hyde Park is a kind of bubble. I was on the north side, West Rogers Park and the Loop."

In the series of books he's written about Chicago, the protagonist is always still a boy, forever on the cusp of growing up. "I don't go past when he's 15, 17," he says. "After that he doesn't interest me. I'm interested in those early years, when a person's character is still forming. Still being formed. The character makes the man. After 17 really, you are what you are. You don't change. You adjust, but you don't change."

When he was a boy, Gifford's father owned a drugstore at the corner of Rush and Chicago. "At that time, Chicago was the sort of western outpost of the media world," he explains. "Hollywood was there of course, but Los Angeles hadn't yet become the second city. So Chicago was it. That corner was at the center of things. Everything passed through there." When asked what Algren would think of Chicago now he pauses and then replies, "To be honest, I don't know what Algren would think of Chicago now because I don't know what I think of Chicago now. I haven't had much occasion to spend time there for awhile. I don't have any family there anymore and most of my friends have moved away."

In the early 80s Gifford wrote a fantastic book called The Neighborhood of Baseball. It's about the loneliness and disappointment of being a Cubs fan. When asked about it he groans and then replies, "Yeah, I'm still a Cubs fan. And my kids have grown up being Cubs fans too. We get WGN radio out here in San Francisco so I listen to games sometimes. Or I'll be tuning in for the weather and catch the scores." He has an interesting theory about why, despite their miserable record, they're still as popular as ever. "Here we are, past the century mark now. But you know why it is? It's the superstation [WGN]. The games are broadcast everywhere. The superstation keeps it going. And then awhile ago they sort of made them cute and cuddly. They became the Cubbies. When I was there they were just the Cubs. There wasn't this lovable image going on. I don't like that. Now they're the lovable losers. This superstation has made them lovable and that's why they're still popular."

So what's next? He's just finished writing the seventh Sailor and Lula novel. "This'll be the last one," he says. "Lula is 80-years old and she goes on one last road trip." It's due to be published next year. Also scheduled for next year is the publication of Memories from a Sinking Ship in paperback. He plans to come here to support its release, which was designed to coincide with the Nelson Algren centennial next March. "I volunteered to do something for that, and I roped in my old friend John Malkovich to make a contribution too. Since those things will be at the same time it might be a good way to spend some time in Chicago, do some exploring and get reacquainted." We certainly hope he does.