Thursday, December 8, 2011

Robert McGowan in Lit World

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 1:52 PM

When the Flyer reported recently on two books by Robert McGowan, last spring's NAM: Things That Weren't True and Other Stories (Meridian Star Press) and last month's Stories from the Art World (Thumbnail Press), it failed to mention some additional facts:

The anthology Art from Art: A Collection of Stories Inspired by Art (Modernist Press), published this past summer, features McGowan's story "An Ephemeral Exertion."

McGowan's nonfiction pieces "Beetle" and "Owl" were up for Pushcart Prizes last December (with nominations made by the journal River Teeth and Thumbnail Magazine, where McGowan is a consulting editor).

And dotdotdash, the Australian literary and art journal, has published several examples of McGowan's artwork, including his 1986 photographs of pre-revitalization South Main Street in Memphis, in addition to images drawn from his series "Under Overpasses," "Spills," and "Crushed Plastic Cups."

The Flyer also didn't include, because there wasn't room, further information on McGowan, who supplied answers to questions put to him about his entry into what he calls Lit World. In what follows, I make room:

What led you to start writing nonfiction and fiction after being well-known for your artwork and other pursuits in the visual arts?
Robert McGowan: I suppose I've wondered about this too from time to time. Long story really. But, for one thing, my all-consuming and stressful involvements in South Main issues (and all the politics dealing with city agencies and with property owners and so forth) during my time there in the 1980s — the creation and direction of the Memphis Center for Contemporary Art (1988-1991), the creation of the art journal NUMBER:, and related efforts — ended up being a crippling (ruinous, I suppose I should say) distraction relative to my work as a producing artist. And it was just at the moment in my life when I'd finally attained a pretty significant level of success: a sell-out show at the Hadler/Rodriguez Gallery in New York, gallery affiliations across the country, work going into collections like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a solo show of paintings and clayworks at the Brooks in 1985.

My circumstances following my 1991 departure from South Main were not conducive to my returning to art-making in a truly career-level way. No studio space, for one thing. But I'd by then begun writing — art-related nonfiction at first, mainly for NUMBER:. And I had a mid-'90s stint as art critic for the Memphis Flyer. I'd always felt very much at ease in writing, possibly even more than in art-making, really. 

So during the mid-'90s, I began writing a group of short personal essays on nature (I was a biology minor in undergraduate school) that, in looking back, functioned for me somewhat cathartically in regard to the emotionally difficult experiences pertaining to South Main, MCCA, etc., my 1991 divorce, and the collapse of my life as a producing artist.

Those nature essays are in a book of mine called Current, to come out next year by the publisher of Stories from the Art World. It's a slim collection, many of the essays brief and somewhat prose-poem-like, based on my intimate association with the natural world of Middle Tennessee.

At some point in the late '90s, I also began, suddenly, writing fiction. It felt much less like something I chose to do than something that happened to me, one of those kinds of events that are common among artists, when something simply rises up out of the unconscious to become a demanding presence in one's conscious life. From that moment, I became rather obsessive about writing fiction, the majority of it set in the art world.

The stories in NAM: They were written from mid-2008 and into 2009. Most of the pieces in Stories from the Art World were written a little earlier, in, I think, 2007 and 2008, though I'm always kicking myself for keeping no records about when things were written. But it's all led to this point: nearly 60 of my short stories and essays published in literary journals worldwide.

How would you differentiate your writing in the Vietnam stories and the art-world stories? Because the art stories have a run-on, complicated sentence structure that you don't find in the war stories. That change in prose style is one you consciously explored?
Stories coming out of a war experience and stories coming out of the art world ... these draw from vastly different kinds of experience, don't they? I believe the nature of my prose, which I would judge to be in most instances fairly consistent, is different in nuance, depending on the feel of the experience, real or imagined, that a given piece derives from. I mean, I doubt I'd sound quite the same in writing of a death-dealing ground attack in Vietnam as I would in writing about some artist's creative dilemma. And then, too, my fiction does range from being more or less conventional to the decidedly unconventional, which naturally creates different approaches to the feel of the prose. I like to think that my stories are more in charge of themselves than I am.

In a collection like NAM, tied tightly to a theme, the war experience, which has its own inherent power for the reader, I've not confined myself to many of the fiction-writing rules — narrative arc, character conflict, tidy resolution, etc. Lots of the little pieces in NAM are less story than glimpses into what is or has been going on in a person's head in response to his/her or his/her friend's/relative's experience of that tragic Nam fiasco.

Lit World, generally, is conservative compared to Art World. In Art World, one learns the "rules" largely in order, with of course mature judgment and purpose, to get beyond them as required in order to manifest expression. But in much of Lit World — not all of it but in a very large slice of it — creative writing students are taught the rules — and there are lots of rules — with the expectation they'll strictly abide by them, as would a dull craftsperson. As my narrator in "Little Dead Birds" says, "A craftsman's job is to meet expectations, but an artist's job is to re-form them."

It's certainly true that little of my fiction work could be properly considered experimental, but most of it does put aside, to one extent or another, various of the conventions concerning, for example, the centrality of narrative, the current era's near-prohibition against backstory, the absurdly rigid show-don't-tell rule, most of the academic pronouncements regarding the way character must function, the place of idea, the matter of neatly wrapped-up resolution (as though, in real life, anything at all is ever neatly resolved), the modern-day proscription against the didactic, which is a feature of many literary classics over many centuries.

Mind you, I'm not saying that all of Lit World is rule-bound, but I think the creative part of "creative writing" is commonly near 'bout suffocated in the classroom. Seems very strange to me.
There's an interview you gave Steve Hussy, publisher at Meridian Star Press, that does a great job detailing your experiences during and after Vietnam — so detailed, in fact, I'd rather refer readers to it than ask you about the autobiographical elements in "NAM."
Well, yes, a very large percentage of the NAM stories are essentially autobiographical, though I've intentionally obscured that fact to keep the book from seeming to have too limited a tie to me personally. NAM, however, is exceptional, because by far the largest percentage of my fiction is set in the art world. 

Do those stories in "Stories from the Art World" represent a first: fiction inspired by artwork (which is reproduced for readers throughout the text) that had been executed years earlier by the writer himself?
I can't with absolute certainly say that this has never in the entire history of literature happened before, or at least some version of what I've done, but, to my knowledge, it hasn't. I'm aware that some few other writers have written fictions inspired by their drawings and whatnot. But being "the first" blah, blah, blah is not a huge deal for me. What certainly is interesting to me personally is the phenomenon itself — my artwork done by the real me in the real world becoming at last the product of wholly imagined characters in imagined places.  

Tell me about another manuscript of yours set specifically in Memphis' South Main District.
Jodie Vance, publisher of Memphis Downtowner magazine, and Hank Cowles, longtime South Main-area resident and president of the South Main Property Owners Association, expressed some interest last spring in publishing a group of my stories set on South Main and vicinity — a collection called South Main Stories, to be published by Jodie's company, Downtown Productions. I told them I'd donate a portion of my share of sales to Hank's organization, because I retain, even after all these many years, an affection for and interest in the South Main District and would like to be supportive of it. ("I left my heart in ..." — truly in large measure I did.)

Jodie says that she intends to get this little book out soon. The collection contains nine stories, including a group of seven stories I wrote some years ago, forming what I've called The South Main Suite, and two others, "A Stirring Body of Work" and "What We Always Wanted," a modified excerpt from my as yet unpublished first novel, A Difficulty of Terrain.

However much these stories are based on my experience on South Main and in the surrounding area, though, they're fiction.
Jodie is also using reproductions of a number of my photographs taken during my time downtown. These will be selected from a group of gelatin silver prints now in the McGowan Collection in the History Department of the Memphis Public Library.

I've contacted you just after Veterans Day in November. Is it right to wish that a veteran had a "happy" Veterans Day?
A friend took me out this year for margaritas. The waitress gave us 20 percent off, because I'm a vet. I knew that whole Nam thing would pay off big-time one of these days.


To hear actor Greg Page reading from NAM: Things That Weren't True and Other Stories, go here.

For Steve Hussy's interview with Robert McGowan, go here.

And to keep up with the latest on Robert McGowan, go to

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