John Crowley: ontology, featherless bi-peds, and Pynchon’s great mistake

We often forget that the novel is a piece of low-tech wizardry. It divides us into authors and readers. One creates words, sentences, and stories; the other consumes them. What’s more, the novelist looms behind the majesty of his creation like an invisible presence. We praise him, beseech him, and very often curse him. Is it any wonder, then, that a booklover gets a little wobbly in the knees at the opportunity to correspond with an idol writer? I don’t think so.

Who are you?


John Crowley (by Zoe Crowley)

I am a married white male age 66, living in northwestern Massachusetts, no criminal record, university grad (1965), parents deceased, two children (twin girls). Author of several volumes of fiction (13 or 17 depending on how various collections and odd volumes are counted). The most recent is Four Freedoms, a novel about people working in a bomber plant in World War II. The bomber is invented (so are the people).

What’s the most recent book you’ve read? What do you think of it?

Most recently I read The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. It’s an ARC or “advance reader copy” that goes out to reviewers; I’m reviewing the book, which won’t be out for a while. I enjoyed it greatly. I think Baker is one of our notable writers, an absolutely unique voice, exasperating sometimes, profoundly honest (about small things that most of us would be more ashamed to expose in detail than we would our big failings). His first novel, The Mezzanine, was almost entirely about an office worker who breaks a shoelace. It’s wonderful, and his later ones are better. This new one is about a poet who can’t write the introduction to his anthology of poems, Only Rhyme. It contains a lengthy and ingenious theory of prosody.

If you could meet a character on the halodeck, who would it be? And what would you do?

This seems to me a profoundly mistaken question. Characters are functions of the books they exist within, and those books are made out of words; much as we enjoy pretending that the words in novels are imitations (Platonic sense) of actualities, and that the people constructed of words in books are capable of doing other or more things than they do in their books, we are fooling ourselves – or maybe say inventing fictions or supra-fictions of our own. Writers are less tempted to this category error; it seems ontologically creepy. All that said, I’d go for meeting Rima the Bird Girl in the forest, and getting to know her well; maybe get those feathers off.

What book simply got the best of you?

None has yet; I have no unpublished torsos. The third volume of the Ægypt series – Dæmonomania – came the closest. I was sure that I had failed, would not be able to make it to the shore of the last page, even knowing that Volume IV – a simpler book I understood very well – lay beyond that shore. What you do in that case is to make the possibility of failure, the certainty of it even, a part of the book, and your surrender to it a conclusion, an ending, an achievement. See Beckett.

If this question means What book did I try repeatedly to finish and failed, the list is so long and shaming that I wouldn’t know where to begin. How about War and Peace?

Is there a novelist you wished had the ear of President Obama? Explain.

In general I think novelists should not speak about politics, and if they speak about them we should resist listening. These are people accustomed to creating imaginary worlds and making them go as they like, which can make their opinions tend to the fascistic, even their gentle-hippie or wise-crone opinions. Autocratic maybe rather than fascistic. The relation of cause to effect in fiction, remember, is the reverse of the same relation in life, at least from the novelist’s point of view: endings and conclusions cause the situations that will bring them about, and characters take paths or do deeds because the endings say they must; all writers know they can always change a character’s early life if they find that they need a cause for something in his later life. Doing this every day does not make for a good political sense, which requires a mature and wise sense of actual possibilities. See Norman Mailer. See Thomas Mann. See almost any novelist.

Is there a defect in a widely admired novel that you‘d give your right arm to correct? How would you improve it?

Well, there’s the ludicrous intrusion of Marvel Comics characters into Gravity’s Rainbow, set in a hallucinatory but very time-specific 1945. They bang around for many pages. Dumb self-indulgence. I’d give Pynchon’s right arm to expunge it.

In the last 25 years, what’s the most significant change in the form of the novel?

I would say that it’s the proliferation of accepted fictional forms and projects. It somewhat resembles the proliferation of accepted choices in other realms of life – for instance the choice young people today have to be hippies, punks, Goths, ivy-league do-gooders, jocks, louts, etc., all pretending to be unable to comprehend the styles and choices of others. The world was formerly full of many distinct styles of being, but they – hillbilly, sophisticate, proletarian – didn’t seem like choices, and to be a hippie then meant rejecting all other modes. The 1970s struggle between maximalist/magico-realist and minimalist/mall-realist was just that, a struggle – one side was supposed to be right. In the last 25 years it has become increasingly possible to choose any mode, or make up your own (see Baker), or write in one genre while evoking another (see Kelly Link’s ghost and zombie stories), to cleave to realism a la Alice Munro or abandon it, or to write mall-realist stories with ghosts in them (George Saunders). Anything goes. Good.

What novel should replace the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms worldwide? Explain.

The Gideons began putting bibles in hotel rooms back when hotel rooms348-3 didn’t have televisions. Now that they do (complete with porn channels and gaming, not to mention the internet for your laptop) I’d guess that far fewer people pick up that very odd miscellany and leaf through it looking for something amusing or instructive (I have). So the fate of any book chosen to replace it would be a little like getting married to a king – you’d be thrilled at first, the fame and glamour, but you’d find your life has evaporated, and you’d never get out of the bedside-table drawer. Nevertheless, my choice would be Little, Big by John Crowley, a large and capacious epic (like the bible) and full of wonders (like the bible).

Can wisdom be found in novels?

See above, passim. Yes, wisdom can be found in novels, but other things (thrills, sexual titillation, environments strange to you, unlikely stories, commonplace stories, surprise endings, weddings and funerals) are far more common; and the wisdom you find is largely put there by you the reader – as the magician can trick you into giving to him the card, the coin, the paper that he pretends to have discovered in his pocket. I think that delight is a more reliable thing to find there, and less disputable (I can argue with the wisdom you think you got out of The Dark Tower or From Here to Eternity but I can’t say you didn’t enjoy them and find them memorable).

3 Responses to John Crowley: ontology, featherless bi-peds, and Pynchon’s great mistake

  1. ~Angie says:

    I read Little Big, in 2008, upon the recommendation of, R.J. Stewart. It was a lot to process and it still haunts me. I appreciate those sorts of novels, the ones that beckon you into their world and leave you feeling frustrated at not being permitted to linger there. Thank you for an insightful interview. I would much rather find this book in the nightstand at the hotel.

  2. Colleen says:

    Dear John Crowley,

    I didn’t expect you to be hilarious. That you are makes me happier than I can say.

    – A quietly giddy fan girl from Canadia.

  3. John, thanks for taking the time to answer Kevin’s questions. They were a delight to read.

    I’ve always wondered about the germ of the idea that evolved into Little, Big.

    May I ask you about your inspiration? How did the core of the story come to you? Was it a character? Setting? Story?

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