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23 June, 2017

“Critical thinking is what makes us humans and voters”

American post-modernist writer on politics and war, humanistic values and a balance between emotions and rational thinking

Interviewed by Olena Kukhar

A classic postmodernist writer, Joseph McElroy stands among the most influential prose authors in the post-war America. He is also the author whose talent and more than 60 years in literature has been deeply appreciated by only several dozen critics.

Women and Men is a novel of 1,192 pages. The best-known of McElroy’s nine novels, it has made it into the essential postmodern reads by the Los Angeles Times. Yet, his writing is not well studied. This is because of the uncompromised complexity of McElroy’s writing and the length of his works.

The Ukrainian Week spoke to Joseph McElroy at the 7th International Book Festival in Kyiv about his latest novel Cannonball from 2013 that was just released in Ukrainian by the Tempora publishing house. We spoke about politics and war, humanistic values and a balance between emotions and rational thinking.

You were once asked whether the canon of a “great American novel” exists. You said that a “Great America” would have to exist for that. What is America for you? How do you interpret it?

I’ve been thinking about this while I’ve been here, in Ukraine. I think about it often. Walking the streets of Manhattan where I live, I also think what it means for me to say that I am an American. It’s quite difficult. I am uncomfortable in certain parts of my country just because I am from New York. Other people in the USA see New-Yorkers as fascinating and horrible at the same time: that’s where the communists live, a lot of black people reside, there’s too much noise… So there’s that hostility which in a way makes me feel more a New-Yorker than an American. But when I go abroad, I feel very strongly American.

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America is where I was born and where I can best understand things going on, even if they are incomprehensible. It helps me to go abroad, and sometimes I feel not welcome because of being what I am. This makes me feel even more American. It raises the question: to what extent am I responsible for the policies that are coming from Washington? And if the answer is “I am not responsible”, then maybe the second part of it is that I should be.

There is something sentimental about my being American. It has to do with the land itself and its vitality. It thrills me. And I’ve been all over it.

What has changed for you after Donald Trump came to power, as a citizen, a writer and a representative of the culture community?

First of all, you could say that we have lived under the Trump-like rule for quite a long time. In the sense that half of the country (it’s a divided country) is unsympathetic with the arts. My wife is a painter and a teacher; she has combined her work with the arts.

I think our sense is that even under unfriendly influences in the US we can still manage it. But if funding for the arts is decreased by people like Trump or whoever succeeds him, that is very-very bad.

In one episode of your latest book, Cannonball, you draw a line between three generations and three wars, linking the generation of the grandfather and WWII, the father and Vietnam, and the son and Iraq. Why did you choose this theme of war and armament for your ninth novel?

First of all, thank you for reading the book so carefully! A lot of people didn’t get that! Secondly, never trust a writer talking about how a book came around. To be serious, if I go back to the beginnings of other books, I can give only a rough account.

With Cannonball, one source was my absolute anger at the entanglement of Evangelical Christianity with money in the USA. And with the attitudes that have to do with profit taking at any expense. I believe that the so called patriotism of Cheney and Bush and the others came out of this, leading to their willingness to lie to the American public about chemical weapons and so on, and push us into that war, which was a terrible mistake.

To some extent that book came of that feeling – of anger because of the war in Iraq. I would not write a non-fiction book because I don’t think that I have anything to say in that form. So I turned it into a story.

Do you know that most critics write about inability to comprehend your texts, complain that they are too complex?

Of course, I know that. People also complain about life’s complexity…

The majority of those who read your books till the end admitted that they discovered a certain system of reading that helped them. The readers find thrilling descriptions and warm intonations in your prose (in a detail of a child or a memory of a walk in the part). Thanks to these moments, they get to the end. So it comes that people ascribe loyalty to classic humanistic values with family values at the helm to an outstanding postmodernist? What do you think of that approach to your prose?

I think that it’s the need of questioning that matters even more than the system. It is not a system that appeals to me. The important parts of texts are questionings. And that is of course inseparable from emotions. Writings do have to connect thoughts with feeling. And I think that fiction at its best does this.

I like characters who think. So I must say that someone who follows through books of mine focusing on heart-melting moments like children or family stuff, sees only part of it.

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Cannonball has got a lot of energy and joy, but look at what happens at the end… There is a lot bad stuff going on and there is darkness in the end for Zack, the main character. But there is also his voice speaking from the darkness, that has a lot to do with figuring out what is wrong with us.

If you read Marcel Proust, you can do it just for the love that he had for his grandmother. You have to pay attention to the particular themes.

You can call it abstract or rational or critical thinking, but this ability of critical thinking is what makes us humans. And voters. A lot of people who voted for Donald Trump last year, did so – it’s hard to say “with their hearts”, – but definitely with some chaotic emotional factor in themselves, which meant they did not think enough. Most of the people I’ve known in my life, who have been most thoughtful, have been deeply feeling at the same time. To start thinking is part of being a human.

Do you contemplate any experiments in writing? Would you try new genres, methods or formats?

There is this text that I began in 1948. It is terribly important for me, and it is not finished. It is called «Fathers Untold».

Everything is an experiment when you write all the time: I want to finish a screenplay. And I also write poems quite a lot – partly because you can finish them quickly. I want to finish a stage play and have it performed. I’d like to have that experience, hearing my dialogues said by actors on stage. And maybe seeing people walk out. Or maybe not.


Joseph McElroy is an American prose writer. Born in New York in 1930, he graduated from the Williams College and Columbia University. He taught literature for nearly 40 years, first at the University of New Hampshire, then at the Queens College, CUNY. McElroy has authored nine novels, three collections of short stories, numerous essays and reviews. He holds honors and awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Endowment for the Arts, Rockfeller Foundation, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and more.

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