David Shields is the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, including Heroes (1984), Handbook for Drowning: A Novel in Stories (1992), Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (1996), Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season (1999), which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a PEN USA Award, and was was named one of the year’s ten best books of nonfiction by Esquire, Newsday, LA Weekly, and Amazon, and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008), which was a New York Times bestseller. Shields has also written countless articles and essays which have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and the Boston Globe, among others.
Shields is the recipient of a long list of awards that includes a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He is a Professor of English at the University of Washington and on the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
Shields most recent book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, was published in February of 2010 and created an immediate stir. With Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Shields has taken a strong stance in favor of nonfiction over fiction, promoting an end of copyright tightness and instead advocating sharing, tagging, sampling— all the elements inherent to our modern digital culture. In Chuck Klosterman’s words, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, “might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last 10 years.”
David Shields’ work defies classification, but he is himself rapidly being classified as one of the most original and groundbreaking writers of our time.
When did you decide that “writer” is what you wanted to be?
At a very, very early age. Probably six or seven. I wrote stories about dancing hot dogs (paging Dr. Freud) as a very little kid. To me, for a long time, being a writer meant being a journalist— through high school. Writing was, and in a way still is, very bound up with stuttering for me; writing represented potential to turn “bad language” into “good language.”
Did you consciously use writing as a tool/shield/encourager in the face of stuttering? Do you still?
I think it has changed dramatically over time. I now have considerably more control over my stutter, so it’s nothing like the same issue as it was once for me through my twenties. Still, that trope of the wound and the bow persists in my mind. So, too, due to stuttering, I value writing and reading as the essential communication between writer and reader. It’s why I want the writing to be so intimate. I think of writing as a bridge we construct across the abyss of human loneliness.
How did you go about pursuing your early career as a writer?
I went to Brown, which had a strong undergrad writing program; I went to Iowa, which had not only a strong writing program but also a really great speech clinic. I wrote my first novel, then I wrote my 2nd novel…
My first novel was Heroes. I met an agent at Iowa Writers’ Workshop who agreed to represent it. She sold Heroes relatively quickly to Simon & Schuster once I finished it. My second novel, Dead Languages, was represented by another agent. He sold it to Knopf. I want to emphasize that in each case, the book was turned down by numerous publishers.
You were determined and productive from the get-go, it seems!
I didn’t do a lot of semi-writing things. My parents, both journalists, were a model for me, or rather an anti-model, of Hope deferred maketh the heart sick. I saw them as “frustrated writers.” They were also keeping the wolf from the door, if that is the expression, by writing yet another article that they didn’t really want to write. They worshipped “real writers,” i.e., writers who wrote books. I wanted to write books.
What did being “someone who writes books” mean to you?
Writing books has to do with writing with all your lights on, to quote a Salinger novella. Writing according to your own voice and vision and at full expression.
How did your parents feel about your decision to pursue a life as a writer?
My mom died before I became a published writer. She died during my junior year of college. She saw a few early stories I wrote; she over-praised these. My father died a couple of years ago at age ninety-eight. I once asked him what he thought of my life as a writer—hey, I’ve published all these books; pretty cool, no?—and he said, “Too bad you didn’t become a pro athlete. You had some talent as a kid.”
When was the first time you were published?
I was editor of my junior high school paper, of my high school paper, I wrote for the college paper freshman year…so it all seemed to be a gradual process. Seems to me my first semi-real publications were essays on James Joyce in James Joyce Quarterly, an essay on Nabokov in the Iowa Review, and essays on John Gardner and Kundera in the Chicago Review.
What kind of writerly challenges did you face early on? Like…rejections?
Hmm. I was never wildly good at orchestrating narrative. I found it difficult to move from story to novel. Let’s see, particular rejections that stung… I feel like they still sting. They never end, though one of the great accomplishments for me of middle age is that reviews simply don’t affect me one way or another. By the time the book comes out, I’m usually already at work on something new. It was painful to see my first novel turned down, though finally accepted. So, too, my second novel.
I take pleasure that my agent was prepared to give up on The Thing About Life— then it became a bestseller. And he didn’t think Reality Hunger should be published by a trade publisher, and it was and it has generated a lot of discussion. The publishing industry knows so little about books. I’m struck by this over and over.
More writerly triumphs?
I seem to have a fond memory of certain teachers saying things like, “This doesn’t quite work yet, but you have potential…”
Alright, life challenges?
My goodness, of course. In my entire twenties, I lived on practically nothing. I rode a bicycle. I didn’t own a car until middle age.
What kinds of jobs did you have before you were able to support yourself on your writing?
Not sure I support myself entirely by my writing. In fact, I know I don’t.
Before teaching, I had been a proofreader for law firm in San Francisco. It was an evil law firm that represented the wrong side of every case, especially on environmental-oil disputes. The lawyers hated their jobs. I loved mine, though. I spent my entire time there, though, rewriting Dead Languages. All the other subalterns were as bored as I was, and they were happy to print out copies of drafts for me, retype pages for me, etc. It was Team Shields. We also discovered a new thing there called a fax machine. Very exciting. I’d arrive first thing in the morning, before anyone else, and the lawyers would praise me for being so eager to work. I was eager to get to work on my novel.
Any other jobs before teaching, besides proofreading?
In high school I worked at McDonald’s. Got fired. I worked at a fabric store. Got fired. In college I worked as a custodian. Got fired. Wasn’t too good at the physical stuff. One person asked me if I was so bad on purpose or whether I was really that uncomprehending of the relation between soap and water. I also worked as a proofreader at the Rhode Island Historical Society. I worked as a TA at Iowa. Then I house-sat a lot of houses for people. I got a lot of grants. I made a very small amount of money stretch a long way.
I first started teaching at a high school in Los Angeles. A private high school for the children of the rich and semi-famous. I would sit up front and answer their questions. “Who wrote The Scarlet Letter?” Maybe look at the spine of the book. It might tell you. Where was Google? This was 1987.
In between there, I published my first novel, Heroes, in 1984. I taught at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York between 1985 and 1986, and 1987-1988. In the in-between year, I worked at the San Francisco law firm. In 1988, I came to Seattle to teach at University of Washington.
Any good memories of those jobs?
I have sort of a nostalgic image of myself teaching at this crazy private school. The kids would be, say, the child of the comedian Flip Wilson. Or the girlfriend of the son of the star of Bewitched. Or Rob Lowe’s brother. People like that. They weren’t too interested in the schoolwork. I would sit up at the front of the classroom and have to pretend to answer their questions about geometry, history, science, etc. The entire day would go on like that. During the class and during recess, I’d be madly working on revisions of Dead Languages. I’d show the kids the manuscript I was working on. They’d laugh at my autobiographical woes; no way this book is being published, dude, etc. They were charming. Highlight of my life was writing little profiles of each of them for graduation and all of them laughing hard at my profiles.
I have an image of myself on the bench during recess working and reworking and reworking the sentences from Dead Languages, hoping that there was life in this book, hoping that books could be a life.
If you can think back to the time before your breakthrough, what might a regular day have looked like for you?
To me, it’s a false dichotomy: breakthrough vs. non-breakthrough. I’m now working on my thirteenth book and I’m trying to break through it. My day in 2010 is pretty much the same as it was in 1974. I try to write, swim, do errands, answer mail, read, teach. Thrilling, I know. Predictable beyond belief, wedded to routine, workaholic in the extreme. You do the same thing for 40 years, you make a little progress.
Was there ever a time when you wanted to give up on writing?
I must admit, no. Stuttering and writing are too connected for me; it is too crucial to me to write.
When you appeared on The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert asked you “Are you the Vanilla Ice of Novels?” He was referring to the fact that you think writers should be as free to “sample” as musicians are— since you are against laws of appropriation. Can you tell me more about why you think the obsession with copyright and citation is limiting?
Shakespeare took 2/3 of Henry VI from Holinshed’s Chronicles. Picasso: “Art is theft.” James Joyce: “I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man.” In contemporary, digital culture, it’s crucial that we catalyze all the material available to us and transform it into art rather than remain hidebound by narrative and copyright conventions of the 19th-century. If we don’t do this, literature will die and/or will serve only as nostalgia museum for the ancient verities.
I recall that you told me, many years ago, that truth could and should be somewhat slippery; that the perpetual quest to pin down the “truth” in nonfiction is beside the point. You said something like, “If a conversation serves the story better set on a bus as opposed to at home, where it perhaps actually happened, set it on the bus.” Other nonfiction writers would disagree with you. What is it you mean when you talk about “truthiness?”
Memory is a dream machine. Composition is a fiction-making operation. The perceiver by his very presence alters what’s perceived.
Nonfiction, as opposed to fiction, is the name of your game right now. You said in an interview that “the shift is in no way only in me.” Can you tell me more about how and why you see society as a whole moving toward nonfiction?
Kafka said, “A book must be the axe to break the frozen sea within us.” For me, living in an utterly simulated culture, more fiction isn’t going to break through the bubble wrap. The only work that can is work in which the membrane between writer and reader is as thin as possible. Samuel Johnson: “A book can either allow us to escape existence or show us how to endure it.” Fully adult books show us how to endure it; everything else seems to me entertainment.
Does that mean you don’t think books should be entertaining, or that entertaining books are not serious?
The latter. I’m interested in works that are completely engaging by their depth charge, not by their narrative legerdemain.
In Reality Hunger you write: “The beauty of reality-based art—art underwritten by reality hunger—is that it’s perfectly situated between life itself and (unattainable) ‘life as art.’ Everything in life, turned sideways, can look like—can be—art. Art suddenly looks and is more interesting, and life, astonishingly enough, starts to be livable.” This seems to me, as a young aspiring creative caught up in trying to make art while also making some sort of sustainable living possible, to be quite an invigorating idea. Did you feel this way when you were in the midst of your own salad days, and if so, did it fuel you?
This is a relatively new feeling for me. Writing my first three books—all novels—I didn’t feel this way. Only when I was writing my fourth book, which I thought was a novel and which turned into my first collage book, did I start heading in this direction.
So, does that mean that your relationship to the act of writing has changed from when you were writing fiction?
I think now I do more research probably, I build up a huge amount of material to work from. But I couldn’t generalize too much. My first novel: very traditional. My second novel: somewhat less traditional. My third book: novel in stories— less traditional still. Remote: literary collage.
As each book got more formally adventurous, I think my writing process changed somewhat. Writing fiction felt more craft-like to me. Writing essay, extended essay, book-length essays, feels to me more artistically challenging: taking the entire data-storm of the world and transforming it via personal voice and vision and juxtaposition into collage art.
Any general advice for young writers just starting out?
Write yourself naked. In exile. And in blood.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Tom Collicott