Charles Holdefer Interview with Curtis Smith

Charles Holdefer

Charles Holdefer, author of four novels and the recent story collection Dick Cheney in Shorts, is an American writer currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His first nonfiction book George Saunders’ Pastoralia: Bookmarked has just been released by Ig Publishing. His work has appeared in many magazines, including The New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review, and Slice. His story “The Raptor” also appears the 2017 Pushcart Prize Anthology. More information is available at

Curtis Smith: I’ve done a number of interviews with writers in the Bookmarked series, and I’m always intrigued by the selection process. Why this book—and what other books were in the running? And once you settled on Saunders, what about Pastoralia won out over his other collections?

Charles Holdefer:  Many books tempted me. George Orwell’s essay collection Inside the Whale has always mattered a lot to me. There’s Nabokov’s Pnin, and several books by Willa Cather. I “discovered” Cather embarrassingly late—better late than never, I suppose. In the end, though, I wanted to go with someone contemporary, and Pastoralia was at the top of the list. Saunders’ other collections are good but they don’t have stories as important, I think, as “The Barber’s Unhappiness” or “Pastoralia.”

CS: Another question I ask authors in the series is how they found the process. You had about a year to hand over a finished book—did you know its structure and your plan of attack from the beginning? Was there an initial struggle and then a breakthrough where it all came together? If so, what was the turning point? Or was it a slog from beginning to end—and if that was the case, what did you find most vexing?

CH: Actually, it was less than a year, and I usually take longer to write a book. So, yes, it made me nervous! But deadlines are good, too. As in the saying: “The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind.” I didn’t have a preconceived structure but I felt that I should offer a reading of each story, so that helped break it down into pieces. Writing a 3000 word segment is less daunting than sitting down and telling yourself: OK, it’s time to write 35,000 words about an entire book. Weaving in connecting ideas mainly came in revision. It wasn’t a slog but I definitely feel there’s plenty more to say. Pastoralia is a rich collection.

CS: The earlier offerings in the series were novels—but yours is the first story collection (soon there will be another collection—Brian Evenson’s take on Carver). In terms of structure and thinking of the piece as a whole, what challenges did tackling a story collection pose? Along the way, did you discover any unexpected positives or negatives of addressing a collection rather than a novel?

CH: The question of wholeness is tricky. Saunders wrote these stories one at a time and didn’t initially conceive of them as a cohesive entity. That said, they do hang together very well, without a shared plot—I guess you could call it a sensibility? The challenge for me was to tease out that sensibility. A story collection is a series of bursts. Taken as a whole, it’s often more taxing or strenuous than a novel. But it brings its own rewards.

CS: Your last book, Dick Cheney in Shorts, had a lot of humor—and George Saunders is known for his. I appreciate humor—but I find it difficult to write. Now that you’ve spent a year or so digging into Saunders, how do you think he carries off his humor? What elements/techniques do you see in his style that others who wish to write humor could learn from (asking for a friend)?

CH: Saunders has a sharp eye for human vulnerability. With him I’m reminded of an observation by Orwell, which might seem strange, since Orwell is hardly a load of laughs. But it was something Orwell wrote about James Joyce’s style, about his preoccupation with consciousness. He said that Joyce’s real achievement, and I’ll quote here, was: “to get the familiar on to paper. He dared—for it is a matter of daring just as much as of technique—to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody’s nose.” That’s what Saunders has done, I think, not only stylistically but morally, too. He’s dared to expose the goofy stuff in our heads, the whirlpool of desires, how we’re not so composed or collected as we pretend to be in public. In a story like “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” the main character is a modest, rather dull fellow, seen from the outside. But inside his head, it’s freaking wild. And the contrast between outside and inside is hilarious. Not all of Saunders’ humor works this way, but a lot of it does. And much of the external humor, like the wacky theme park in “Pastoralia,” is a projection of what we have inside us. Theme parks are contrived for thrills, for fun, for what we want. Or think we want. Saunders has put his finger on how confused that sometimes is, on the inner spectacle we make of ourselves. He’s not sneering, though, because everybody shares this vulnerability. No character is spared. No one is above it.

CS: Maybe an even greater current than humor that I feel in Saunders’ work is his empathy. I find him incredibly humane. There’s a basic goodness here—a vibe I felt skillfully echoed in your own recollections of your childhood on an Iowa farm. Even Saunders’ darkest characters are full and sympathetic and more like us than we might care to admit. Do you see this as well? If so, let me echo the last question and ask how do you think he pulls this off?

CH: I agree—Saunders manages empathy across a whole spectrum of characters. But empathy is also a slippery term. In the media sometimes it’s reduced to playing nice, it’s a sort of a fashionable platitude.  For Saunders, though, it’s something else altogether, because meaningful empathy, as opposed to humblebrag or “playing nice,” is allergic to platitude.

I think empathy is more like a non-aggressive way of calling bullshit. We’re constantly bombarded by formulas that claim to explain people, that generalize, that push aside their particulars. As in, “You belong to such-and-such group so you must be such-and-such person.” These labels fall short of personal truth but are a constant temptation to a writer. They make the job easier.

But Saunders refuses to go along with the program. His characters can act foolishly, sometimes very foolishly, without being fools. They are not winners or losers but individuals.

CS: Your book is basically structured like the collection, with most chapters dedicated to individual stories. I admired the way you constructed these chapters—in each, there’s a type of weaving—an investigation of the piece, a story from your life, and a kind of conceptual thread—either a reflection on society or some philosophical concept (or both). How did this structure come to you? How happy were you with it? Were some stories more difficult than others to put into this context?

CH: I enjoyed the liberty of the form but was also a little apprehensive about it. In academic writing or journalism there are rules to respect. Professional conventions. But the premise of the Bookmarked series is for personal readings. I think it’s a great premise because when you love literature, it is first and foremost personal. Not professional, not some sort of exercise.

For the moment I’m fairly happy with it except that I feel there’s still a lot unsaid. Plenty of connections that I didn’t address. Literature is an ongoing conversation. I feel like we’re sitting on the porch, talking about why a book matters.

CS: This is your first book-length work on creative nonfiction. Tell us what that was like.

CH: Well, for better or worse, I stuck pretty closely to the text. Or to my own experience. There are no major flights of fancy or speculation. I put it together like a sort of ping-pong between my own life and the book. Pastoralia offers a number of pieces, and I played with each one.

CS: I heard an interview where Saunders described his technique as (and I’m paraphrasing here) continually increasing the boil/pressure on his characters, be it in little or small ways. In your exploration of his work, do you see any common stressors, either internal or external? I’m wondering if perhaps the stressors he utilizes say anything about his view of our current world?

CH: That attitude might be of a piece with his empathy, which we mentioned earlier. Saying as much might sound curious, even a contradiction. But what I mean is, just as Saunders refuses to reduce or label his characters, as a means toward empathy, he also refuses to let them off the hook—in effect, attach a label like “You’re OK” or “You have nothing to answer for.”

Nobody in Saunders’ world is completely OK. Ever. They always have something to answer for. That keeps the pressure on.

A major point that he’s at pains to debunk is the human tendency to think that “what’s good for me is good for everyone.” This idea pops up in a number of stories, and he keeps swatting it down.

CS: What’s next?

CH: Later this year an illustrated book of humorous speculative fiction will come out, called Magic Even You Can Do. A long time ago, before I ended up a writer, I used to do magic shows and spent many hours practicing sleight of hand. There’s a lot of crazy lore there, and I’ve put some of it into fiction. I’m also finishing a novel about a basketball player and Emily Dickinson. Keeping busy.

Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out five story collections, three novels, and three works of creative nonfiction. His new novel, Lovepain, will be released by Braddock Avenue Books in Spring 2018.


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