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Full interview with Terrence Holt



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INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Your bio line says that you gave up a promising career as a writer, until the publication of In the Valley of the Kings, for a career in medicine. What does that actually mean?

TERRENCE HOLT: A lot of what comes out around a book, on the jacket, is overheated, but the business about giving up writing for medicine—that's actually true. Medicine felt to me then—it still does—like something you can't do half-heartedly. I actually thought I was never going to write again. As to just what I was giving up, well, "promising" is an interesting word. I had managed to place a few stories in good magazines, and most of them had been anthologized in one place or another. My first story, "Charybdis," was reprinted in O. Henry Prize Stories, picked up from the Kenyon Review.

And when was that?

That was a long time ago.

And it's always been short stories?

Almost always. There was a time in my life when I made the mistake of thinking I needed to be writing novels, and I tried. But I discovered I was boring myself while writing, which was a terrible thing. I think part of what I lost was a capacity to have fun while I was writing. It all felt like an obligation.

I'm sympathetic—I love novels, but the idea of writing one seems like a magic trick. I'm more of a sprinter.

A novel is a miracle. I love to read them, and admire them immensely.

Any novels in particular?

I'm in the middle of Peter Matthiessen's re-working of his enormous "Mister Watson" trilogy. I think he's the best writer working in English today. When he offered to do a blurb for the book, I nearly fainted. Novels aren't all I read, but I prefer them, even if I have no understanding of the form. Maybe because of that.

Borges wondered why you should take 500 pages to say what you can say in five.

That's what we tell ourselves, and God knows what the poets say about us! But the short story and the novel are very different things; one is not a longer version of the other. I think the short story is what the lyric poem metamorphosed into, out of the 19th century. You can see the transition starting around the 1830s and '40s, when, independently, people like Tennyson and Browning are developing the dramatic monologue, while people like Hawthorne and Poe, in this country, are doing the same thing in prose. Over the 19th century, poetry lost a lot of its audience, at the same time that the short story, coming largely out of this country, became a more important form. I think they serve the same function, whatever that is.

And since the 1950ss or '60s, poems and short stories have fallen off dramatically in readership.

Which is funny, because it's the same time that sees the big boom in creative writing programs. Iowa and places like that started cranking out short story writers, because what are you going to talk about in a workshop? Certainly not novels. And I do think there are a lot of people writing really great short fiction now. I have no historical perspective on this at all, but it feels like a really rich moment for the story. But I hadn't realized how much, as a marketing item, they've fallen on hard times.

That seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? That the shorter forms would fall off at a time when our culture seems to be losing its attention span. Why not the novel?

But you also see a lot of repetition and serialization in cultural production now. The thing that makes the story hard is that it requires that initial wrench of your perceptions, your way of thinking, your way of using words. A novel's going to ask that of you once, and a short story collection, every 20 pages. That's hard to do. I don't know what it has to do with attention span, but in terms of emotional commitment to something, it asks a lot.

In your stories, you exercise a great deal of care with your language, especially in specialized realms—say, medicine, or Egyptology. You linger over the specialized language of those fields, revel in it.

I love terms of art and the jargon that goes with a particular area of practice. It's the nuts and bolts that we make the world out of, and if a practice, such as medicine, involves a particular perspective on the world, the language that comes with that is just irresistible to me.

The language conjures its world very fully, and gives you that whiff of esoteric verisimilitude.

I think a lot about the rhetoric, more than I do about whatever meaning people will get out of it. Meaning takes care of itself. But the way things sound, what some people call the semiotic aspect of language, strikes me as terribly important, and often overlooked. The rhythms in the sentences and the sounds of words take up a lot of my time.

In many of your stories, language is doing a lot more heavy lifting than just basic description—it informs the texture and fabric of the plot. In fact, language is often an actor in your work, from the opening story, where the disease manifests as a word on the skin, to "Charybdis," where a forgotten phrase triggers the astronaut's descent into psychosis. I can hardly think of one where language doesn't serve as a launching pad for the character's search for understanding or truth.

The stories are about the language as much as anything. There's an automatic tendency, which is reinforced by the way we teach people how to read and think about language, to believe that words are simply these little containers we put meaning into and get meaning out of. It's as if the words matter only for what they "contain." If only they were so obedient! But it would be a very dull world for writers. Words are objects in and of themselves. They have very little in common with Mason jars, except that they're both kinds of objects: compared to that, any capacity to convey something else is secondary, almost accidental. Words are extraordinarily refractory and wonderfully fun to play with. To the extent that they mean things, they do so in combination with each other, and the reader, and the time of day, all sorts of incredibly complicated things that nobody understands very well. Much of my work in writing is to try and pare things down enough that I think I've got a handle on what's going on. Some of the stories are about that process: People in isolated situations trying to strip things down to the bone so they can get some kind of handle on their situation.

So when you use a word like "carnelian," it's doing more than describing the thing, it's about the way the word sounds and its texture in the story and that bouquet of associations the word releases into the story. Your characters move through this world of carefully formed language, which plays into their struggle—the language is so material that it makes sense how the characters want to sort through it, to get at what can be known. They're doing this in the narrative, but the same process is being enacted in the language—you, the writer, are doing the same thing.

As to "carnelian," it's a wonderful word, red as raw meat—but I think I liked it at the time because I was still at Cornell: one of those little jokes we put into things because we can. That cloud of associations is complicated and mysterious at either end: much of what works its way into a story has its roots elsewhere, in a network of events and sensations that happened randomly (or not) around the writing. We're no different from characters in fiction in that regard: we understand everything through language, broadly defined. There is no direct access to the world; everything comes to us through representations. We're buried in words, created in words. Most of the people in these stories engage in some kind of archaeological expedition into their past and themselves, and the artifacts that they have, that they dig up, are verbal. How could it be otherwise? It's a story; it's words on a page. But it's no different for us when we dig into ourselves in real life, the tools we use and the things we dig up are all constructed through language.

Like in the title novella, a literal excavation is being mirrored by this more metaphysical, linguistic excavation....

Or vice-versa.

I like all the stories in the book, but "Scylla" is the one that strikes me as perfect—one of those rare stories for a writer to get to write, which justifies whatever else they may do. Just to set up one all-encompassing idea that like is hard, but then to be able to follow it to its logical conclusion, like a dart—that's a miracle. I'd really like to know how it felt to write that story.

It pleases me a lot to hear you say that, for the obvious reasons, but also because, for years, that story was my orphan. I think every writer has a cherished unwanted story, and that was mine. I wrote it when I had a residential fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which is a very intense seven-month sojourn in the darkness and silence that is Cape Cod in the winter. I was scheduled to do a reading, and I'd been working on "Aurora," another story in the volume, toward that end, but when I woke up the morning of the reading I realized it wasn't ready. So in a bit of a panic, I sat down, and eight hours later, "Scylla" was on the page, pretty much as it was published. I have no memory of writing it. Just that I was terribly stiff when I stood up.

I knew it! You can just tell that it was one of those stories that come out perfectly formed.

Every once in a while—and I think panic is probably helpful—I understand what the Greeks meant when they said, "The god speaks through you." I really have no memory of writing that story. Something was flowing between me and the screen that must have had little to do with me. That's happened to me only twice, and each time I was impressed by the extent to which, if you're really performing your function as a writer, you're just about invisible and insensate. You're putting together what's around you in the ether, and the ether is putting it together for you as much as you are for it.

I'm really pleased to hear you say that about "Scylla," because those are the kind of stories I love best—ones that have that sense of transmission, as if the author is letting something speak through them.

Poe claimed that a story or a poem had to be readable in a single sitting, and I think he's talking about the same thing. I think it's partly what Coleridge is up to in that probably spurious story he tells about "Kubla Khan." The way he tells it, the poem appeared to him in a dream, but as he was writing it down he was interrupted by "a person from Porlock." When he went back to write, it had all vanished. It seems like a pretty finished poem to me. And I remember years ago, in graduate school, I spent months writing a term paper on Melville. At one point in the dark night of the graduate student's soul, I realized it was ridiculous that anybody should care what Melville as an individual thought about anything. What did he know? He was a customs official, an ex-sailor. The individual doesn't matter. If any art is serving its function, it's somehow putting together stuff that's in the culture in a way that makes sense of it. It's not, "What did Shelley think?" It's about, "What does this work make visible to you that was not visible before?" You have to get your own notions and ideas out of the way. Sitting down with an idea is the shortest route I know to tedium.

The poet Jack Spicer talked about being an antenna for Martian transmissions. That seems very clear in "Scylla." It has this ring of deep, ineffable truth—the idea that this constructed world is sort of a dream, and real life is elsewhere. It's a very poignant story to discuss here in your office, with the trappings of the Law all around us.

It's more visible here than most places, yes. That's a wish I think we all have, a powerful feeling that comes over us from time to time. It responds to different things, and in that story, it's aging. But I don't claim to have special authority on what those stories are about, especially that one.

Yes, it's such a fable.

I think there is something important and profound and very poorly understood in stories in their power to seize you out of yourself. We've all had that experience of being so consumed by a story that we lose track of time; we put down the book and realize that we're in some ordinary place like our living room or a bus station. That's power, and it's a really important one. It works with elements of the human mind that nobody has a clue about, yet they seem fundamental to being human. This thing that we blithely call the imagination is an extraordinary capacity. I can't imagine a more interesting medium to work in. I've got the English language and the human imagination, two of the most complicated and powerful, and least orderly, things in the world. I'm a lucky guy.

The Law, in "Scylla," is almost a hypnosis or thrall, and you're talking about how story can snap us out of that thrall temporarily, or at least give us the possibility of a different one.

One of the things I've been a little surprised to discover, thinking about these stories again, is the extent to which I'm still an idealist. I'm still in pursuit of this possibility of transcendent knowledge, even though I don't rationally believe in it. It still has a very strong appeal to me, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'm quite happy to feel that appeal, because the pursuit of things you can't necessarily get is not a bad thing. As a geriatrician, I think it sums up what life is all about. If you're not interested in fighting a losing battle, you're probably on the wrong planet.

Some of your stories are filled with cryptic circumlocution, like "Aurora" and "Eurydike," which I think of as having a very heavy incense around them. They're like foggy catacombs, where the reader is tumbling and chasing the idea. And some of them have this bright conceptual clarity, like "Scylla" and "My Father's Heart," where the idea at play is limpid and the reader can follow it cleanly. Do these represent different chronological periods in your writing, or are you just comfortable writing in these very different modes?

They're just different modes. You're right that the two shorter pieces are much less....

Less elliptical, for sure.

It's funny, I hadn't thought of them in those terms, which is not to say it isn't an appropriate way to talk about them. When I think about these pieces, what you're calling the elliptical ones, it's not in terms of structure, or how it might feel to read them, it's always in terms of the process—how it felt to write them. In my mind, those pieces go on day after day; the first draft of one of those will take several months. And the revision can go on for years. They're about duration as much as anything. But elliptical or not, long or short, they all feel very similar to me. I start with maybe a setting, often not even that much. But there's always a tone of voice, and that's the thread I follow. Everything else is dark.

The voice is really central to these stories.

The voice is what I'm chasing. I'm trying to figure out where it's coming from. These stories begin for me as a voice speaking in the darkness. The voice creates the world around it. Everything else—plot, setting, character—is scaffolding sustaining that voice, and I hope in the end explaining it for me, taking it to whatever end it's seeking. For me, stories are still essentially a spoken form, which is funny for someone who's been described as producing ornate prose—which I don't think is exactly fair. If you ask Microsoft Word, I write at a seventh grade level, I think because I like short sentences. But they're very much an oral form for me.

The voices in the stories do intone and echo in your head. They kind of crank up, if you know what I mean.

"Crank up" is exactly it. One of the things I'm trying to do is to get the narrator and the situation together in such a way that the narrator is allowed, at least once before the end, to cut loose with a burst of rhetoric that is as unrestrained, as powerful, I hope, as I can make it. One of the tragic things about writing in this post-minimalist era is that it's hard to get to a place where you can do that, do all of the things this language can do. Milton could open up all the pipes on the organ whenever he felt like it. Readers these days are more cautious, and don't buy into things that readily. So you've really got to crank for awhile before you can get up on top of the hill and bellow. We're so used to people trying to manipulate our sensibilities. We grow up awash in a sea of images and stories and sounds that are very knowingly designed to make us think things we would not otherwise think, and we've all developed sensitive antennae for when we're being jerked around. We still want to be manipulated, but we don't want to sell ourselves cheaply. So I try to get us all into a place where we can experience a powerful emotion, brought on by powerful language.

So, most of these stories have been in progress for decades.

Yes. I haven't had much time to write fiction in that longer mode since I went into medicine. I've been writing other stories in a very different mode. Some of them have come out already, and I'm close to finishing a second collection. It's radically different stuff, which anyone would recognize as realistic. They're set in hospitals, and they're about medical education. The working title is Internal Medicine. They're stories I collected in my head while studying medicine, when I thought I'd given up writing forever.

What happened all those years ago, when you decided to go into medicine?

I can tell you a story about it, although I have no idea if it's true or not. It's something I concocted after the fact, when I woke up one day and realized I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing. You reach a time in your life when people around you start to get seriously ill for the first time. As a result, I was spending a lot of time in hospitals with people who were sick, and I met some doctors who impressed me overwhelmingly with their capacity to make a huge difference in people's lives, just by thinking. I enjoyed teaching literature, but what these people were doing seemed even more worthwhile. I just wanted to be like them. I kind of edged into it.

And you chose geriatric medicine.

In the second year of my residency, I was a resident on the oncology service, a very dark place. I was not enjoying what was happening to most of my patients, which is that they were dying in various awful ways, many of them very young—younger than me. Getting into geriatrics was in some ways a reaction to that. It meant four more years of training, which I hadn't really anticipated; in fact, I'd sworn I wasn't going to do anything after residency but get into practice. But I'm so glad I did. I love geriatric medicine. The medicine is really complicated, and the people are fascinating and unpredictable.

It seems related to your writing, in its focus on eschatology, last things, the mind-body connection, final rites, all the ineffable mysteries at the end of life and language.

All of that is true, but I'm wary of a teleological fallacy in that. I didn't go into geriatrics to try and flesh out my imagination. I don't write in order to use the material I see as a doctor. Those worlds are very separate to me, and one doesn't lead to the other. When I'm doctoring, I'm not thinking about writing. And medical stuff might surface when I'm writing, but not more, I don't think, than anything else.

I wouldn't posit a causal relationship between them, but they do seemed linked by a fundamental impetus toward some kind of transcendent understanding.

They're linked in the same way we are with chimpanzees—there's a common ancestor. I went into geriatrics for the same reason that I write what I write about; they involve things that absorb me, that I want to be involved with and understand, and help people with. One thing writers and doctors have in common is a desire to reach out to and be of some use to people. Which is a funny thing to say about writers—we're supposed to be disaffected, misanthropic people. But most writers are really concerned about people around them and want to help somehow.

In another way, your two careers seem very incompatible. You're a doctor, a man of science. Yet most of your stories seem founded on a deep mistrust of the empirical.

I think that, given the state of scientific knowledge—especially medical knowledge—you probably want your doctor to be pretty suspicious about it. I have a great deal of respect and love for lots of different kinds of science, and try to be as informed as I possibly can be. But you have to know how our knowledge is limited. Otherwise, you're going to make one terrible mistake after another. This is especially so in my own field, where so many of the clinical studies are done on younger people. Physiology changes. The patients I see are very different from the "normal," or younger, body. I like to say that geriatrics is the last refuge of clinical judgment; it can't be reduced to an algorithm. It's helpful to work through problems methodically, but you have to be aware that you're leaping from stepping stone to stepping stone over a lot of uncertainty and flat-out ignorance. Medicine is a wonderful field because you're required to learn a lot of science, but in the end it's still an art. Hippocrates told us that life is short but art is long, and that's good advice for writers as well as doctors. The craft takes a lot of learning, and you're never going to learn it if you think it's reducible to equations. So if there's a lot of mistrust, it's not of empiricism per se, so much as people's blind faith in and misuse of it. One of the things we have most in common with our patients is that we're up against things we don't fully understand, and if you don't share that with people, you seem like a jerk.

Why did you decide to get back into writing after all these years?

Like most things in my life, I didn't really make a decision. It just happened. When I finished my residency and started my fellowship in geriatrics, there was a period when there wasn't much to do, because I was waiting to get credentialed. I had an office and computer for the first time in years. Within days, I found myself writing stories, the ones for the second collection. I was surprised and delighted. I had never expected to write again, especially not in this new mode.

Have you wondered how fans of In the Valley of the Kings will feel about these new stories? Will Junot Díaz still think you're the greatest writer since Borges?

I can't describe what a terrific human being Junot is. I met him when he was an undergraduate. I was teaching creative writing at Rutgers then. My contribution to his work was that I had enough sense to get out of his way, and encourage him to do what he was already doing. Some years later, I was in medical school, and got a call from Junot's agent, saying she wanted to represent me. The way I understand it, he had told her, "Okay, you can represent me, but you have to track down my old writing teacher and take him on too." It was very characteristic of him.

Do your colleagues and patients read your stories?

I've spent most of my life being a very private individual, and I never expected to have any audience larger than the few hundred people that read the literary magazines. One of the most puzzling things about this has been seeing a patient in the clinic, and they say, "Oh, I saw your book." One does not want to be rude, and yet, one does not want to be the subject of a conversation that should be about the patient. My colleagues here have been very supportive.

I just imagine a patient picking up the book and going, "Dr. Holt, my goodness!"

That did worry me, and it still does! But they're all grown-ups, and I think they can make a distinction between this imagined and the professional me. I'm not censoring much in those stories, not that there's anything in there you wouldn't read to your mother.

They're not profane, but they're quite dark and rather frightening.

People say that they're dark, and I understand why they're saying that. But it's really only a cheap painter's trick: paint can't really glow, so if you want something to look shiny, you set it against a lot of darkness. Why do you think I set things in space?

To me these stories aren't about that darkness. That's just the ground to something else. They're about how precious the world is, how beautiful, how precious we should be to each other. They're about why anyone would want to be a doctor. But you can't know light—much less love it—until you know the dark. If there's a lot of darkness in these pieces, it's because the light is so precious. There's a lot of grief and loss, but that's about love, isn't it? Most of the time, I think, what I'm really writing about is love.

Your stories are not embarrassed by influence. I hear a lot of Poe, of course, who's been often mentioned, and Lovecraft, and even hints of Robert E. Howard.

All writing is inescapably pastiche. You either know that and try to be in control of it, or you don't, and you're doing sloppy pastiche. You're the first person to come up with Howard. I can't claim him, other than as refracted through Marvel comics. Lovecraft, I enjoyed a lot when I was younger, and I'm happy enough if people think of him while reading my stories. He's an unusual and distinctly original American voice. Poe is the master, one of the first writers I really responded to. He's one of the people I credit with inventing the short story as we have it now, and that's not a small achievement. Language is really about atmospherics for him, and that seems wise and essential to someone who wants to write as consciously as possible. And he was one of the first psychologists in the way we understand it now. And the stories are puzzles.

You seem to have a lot of knowledge in archaeology, astronomy and other areas.

I'm a crow; I pick up bright and shiny things. I have a long-standing passion for astronomy; I published a handbook for amateur astronomers in graduate school, and I've been putting together telescopes since I was quite young. It's another hobby that got out of hand. As for Egyptology, everybody likes mummies. I spent years reading all sorts of stuff for the title novella—the hieroglyphics in there are real. I do a lot of looking-up-things, which is different from scholarship, because I want to have the details right. If the world is going to cohere, then it has to follow the rules that come with it.

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