Q & A with Deborah Kalb about the literary imagination’s engagement with the world:
For a conversation about cultural history and writing, please follow the link to:
For an in-depth interview on the White Albums of Joan Didion and the Beatles, please follow the link to:
For an in-depth two-part interview, “A Writer’s Life: Tracy Daugherty,” please follow the link to:
STORY BEHIND THE STORY: Profile by Donna Seaman, from BOOKLIST, June 1, 2011:
Tracy Daugherty, author of a new biography of Joseph Heller, was inspired by his grandfather: “He was a politician in Oklahoma and also named Tracy Daugherty. So when I was a kid, I would see his political speeches and hear him give speeches, and I’d also see posters with his name on them, which was also my name. That’s when I fell in love with written words. That’s when I learned that words have power.”
Daugherty became a fiction writer and currently has four novels and four short story collections to his name. He never thought about becoming a biographer until he found out that a planned biography about his teacher and friend, the masterfully innovative fiction writer Donald Barthelme, was not going to appear. “At that point, I felt that someone had to do it because Barthelme’s books were falling out of print and he was going unnoticed. So I began fiddling with the idea of writing a biography myself. It was a very personal project. I knew many members of Donald’s family, so it was nerve-wracking to ask intimate questions. But for that very reason, it was also absorbing and engaging.”
Born and raised in Midland, Texas, and currently Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at Oregon State University, Daugherty was still working on HIDING MAN: A BIOGRAPHY OF DONALD BARTHELME (2009) when his editor at St. Martin’s Press, Michael Homler, asked him if anyone had written a biography of Joseph Heller, best known for his first book, the caustic and hilarious, prescient and indelible satire, CATCH-22. “I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Michael said, ‘Well, maybe that can be your next book.’ We laughed. I had taught CATCH-22 for many years in my college classes. One day I decided to re-read it. Then I re-read Heller’s other books. And then I began to get very interested.”
CATCH-22 and its eviscerating take on hypocrisy, nationalism, and war is so widely known that its title has become, aptly enough, a catchphrase. It’s defined in Webster’s as a “problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule.” Yet few of the millions who read CATCH-22 went on to read Heller’s other books.
Daugherty observes, “With each new book he produced, there was a feeling of disappointment because it wasn’t CATCH-22 again. I think that his second book, SOMETHING HAPPENED, is a great book. It’s better written than CATCH-22 and more important in some ways. So I thought that book needed to be resurrected. Heller never repeated himself, and he was always very ambitious. He belonged to the generation that believed in the Great American Novel, and he tried to write that every time out.”
Heller’s Coney Island boyhood and adult life in the vortex of Jewish American culture might seem like unfamiliar territory for Daugherty, but his wife, writer Marjorie Sandor, whose short story collection PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER WHO POSED NUDE IN WARTIME (2003), won the National Jewish Book Award, shares Heller’s background. For more glimpses into the biographer’s life, including Daugherty’s open-heart surgery, see Sandor’s newest memoir, THE LATE INTERIORS (2011).
Daugherty’s research into Heller’s universe was extensive and exciting, and the results are startling: “The different phases in Heller’s life are like literary genres There’s the immigrant story. There’s the war story. There’s the corporate ad man story, and the courtroom drama, during his divorce case. Then there’s the medical drama, given his health problems.”
For Daugherty, biography is simply another form of storytelling: “I just love stepping into other people’s lives.” But a specific quest does underlie his literary biographies: “What are the intimate, private, secret impulses that drive art? I don’t think you can always know the answers–creativity is such a mystery. But as a biographer, that’s what I’m interested in.”
Read my interview with Splice Magazine at www.splicetoday.com/writing/interview-tracy-daugherty
Audio interviews can be found in The New York Times podcast archives (March 20, 2009) as well as at Public Radio International (www.wpr.org/book/090503a.cfm).