In the Valley of the Kings
By Terrence Holt
W.W. Norton & Company; 224 pp.
Terrence Holt teaches and practices geriatric medicine at UNC. He was late starting as a doctor, only entering medical school after he turned 40 and decided to quit teaching. To Holt's own surprise, after he became a physician he resumed another of his youthful vocations: writing. In September, W.W. Norton & Company published the 57-year-old author's first collection of short stories, In the Valley of the Kings, placing Holt in the company of other professional healers who have channeled their intelligence and curiosity into fiction, like Somerset Maugham and Anton Chekhov.
Holt's stories feel at once startlingly unique and deeply familiar, not to mention robustly American—they blend Poe's psychologically charged oratory and Lovecraft's arcane fixations with perspectives on words, medicine and science that are entirely Holt's own. Whether they're lost astronauts or Egyptologists, his characters struggle, in isolation, for transcendent knowledge beyond life and language. The book earned raves everywhere, from The New York Times (Holt's book "will take its rightful place beside those works of genius—fiction, philosophy, theology—unafraid of axing into our iced hearts") to Bookforum, where Junot Díaz hailed Holt, his former teacher, as his favorite writer.
The Independent recently caught up with Holt at his office in Chapel Hill to do some excavating of our own. (Read the full, unedited interview.)
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: 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.
TERRENCE HOLT: 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.
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.
Voices are very important to these stories. 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.
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. [...] 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.
Do you ever worry about how your patients will react to these dark stories?
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.