Talking to ourselves

Ivan Schneider (far left) joined bestselling author and UW writing prof David Shields on his evening pedestrian commute two weeks ago. Judging by the evidence, their interview took a turn for the personal — but not the person you'd expect. Below is Schneider's follow-up email, thanking Shields for his time and recounting some of the ground they covered.

David Shields will join Claire Dederer to discuss their new books, Other People and Love and Trouble, respectively, on Tuesday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m., downstairs at Town Hall ($5).

To: David Shields
From: Ivan Schneider
Date: June 1, 2017
Subj: Other People

Dear David,

Thank you for participating in our May 16 walk-and-talk interview for the Seattle Review of Books.

We covered a lot of ground — the University District, Wallingford, the aisles of Safeway — and many intriguing conversation topics as well. Yet on reflection, our talk was more about you interviewing me than me interviewing you.

To recap, you asked about my current project, an academic paper on my working hypothesis that Cervantes had initially intended to include a dog narrator in Don Quijote, and you found this to be a “preposterous” interpretative misprision akin to Charles Kinbote’s commentary on John Shade’s poem in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I’m not offended in the least, mind you, as I am acutely aware of the apparent absurdity of my claim. It would be ridiculous enough for someone with my academic non-stature to offer a novel reinterpretation of a foundational 400-year-old text, let alone through some wild theory about a talking-dog narrator.

I recognize the potential humor in the situation. Imagine: Here’s an unaffiliated scholar-turned-autodidact, a close reader of Cervantes’ Spanish who can barely scrape together a single spoken Spanish sentence, who, despite being under no financial or professional compulsion to do so, takes up the challenge of conveying in academic prose a theory of such apparent incredibility as to defy belief. And then, to pursue publication in an academic journal, to seek recognition from the sober and serious-minded, to desire to become a published expert on talking dogs in literature — were that a disingenuous stance or an invented pose rather than a genuine scholarly interest, it would be a stunt of Andy Kaufman-esque proportions.

Sometimes I even question my own perception, that despite my extensive readings of literary theory, narratology, animal studies, and the literature of Golden Age Spain, I’m playing at wish fulfillment, delusions of grandeur, or just plain old delusions. Yet despite my inability to articulate myself convincingly during our meeting, I believe that when I put the arguments together in my upcoming paper, it will crystallize into a coherent and convincing brief worthy of scholarly attention. We also talked about my CV and my family, but enough about me.

Ours was the first interview I’ve done for the Seattle Review of Books, and I’m still trying to get the hang of the form. I would imagine that it’s easier to interview authors of fictional novels, as I would be able to ask basic questions about the nonfictional basis for the author’s fictional creations: “What inspired you to write this and that?” and “Tell me about your childhood.” But I can hardly ask you those questions, can I? It’s all there, already in print, anything I’d care to know, wrapped up in artfully arranged, bite-sized chunks.

Perhaps I should have asked you, the nonfiction writer, to spin me a fiction. You’d have to invent a character on the spot and conduct the interview entirely in that character’s voice. “You are in an imaginary world populated by fantastic creatures, where everything is not quite what it seems. Now, tell me what you see!” Ah yes, away from the comfort zone of self-guided self-revelation and into the zone of unbridled artistic creation, what mysteries might your subconscious reveal?

Or if that’s too loosey-goosey, perhaps a game of Dungeons & Dragons would have done the trick, using a subtle mix of choice (“What’s your race? What’s your alignment?”) and randomness (“Rolling 3d6 for charisma!”) to convey a sense of identification and attachment with a made-up character. Say it, David, say it aloud: “I am the Dwarven Warrior they call Cloudshallot, wielder of a +3 waraxe and possessor of the finest senses of stonecunning and darkvision this side of the Greypeak Mountains!”

Not your thing, I’m guessing.

In Other People: Takes and Mistakes, you open with a Philip Roth quote from the first chapter of American Pastoral (it’s a great epigraph), but then you tell me that you’re not at all interested in reading Roth’s work. Well, I just re-read that first chapter of American Pastoral, and I have to say that I think you’re missing the point — and missing the fun.

The narrator Nathan Zuckerman pauses in his account of his dinner with the Swede to ruminate on the difficulty of understanding other people without superficiality or shallowness or unreal expectations or overloads of bias, hope, or arrogance. To overcome this difficulty, Zuckerman suggests three possible alternatives:

  1. 1. “to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day”;
  2. 2. “getting [people] wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again”; or
  3. 3. “forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride […] if you can do that […]”

Let’s consider this passage in context. By virtue of the fact that you hold a fictional novel in your hand, Roth has taken door number one. We can imagine Philip Roth writing American Pastoral having gone off and locked the door and sat secluded like the lonely writers do, etc. He is a summoner who believes in summoners. Meanwhile, Roth’s fictional alter-ego Zuckerman, also a writer, takes door number two, as do you. You’re always going to open door number two, correct? No soundproof cells, no word people for you. Nor would you just go along for the ride.

Yet there’s an unmistakable irony in your underscoring the limitations of “word people” based on the soliloquy of an actual word person. It’s like when people quote Hamlet in graduation speeches: “To thine own self be true.” Uh, yeah, that’s in Hamlet, but it’s spoken by Polonius, who’s a real gasbag and a phony, and so what’s his advice worth? Same thing here — if a word person downplays the value of word people as a means of understanding other people, you should question the source.

I also think you’re missing the fun that can be had from word people. An example, from Roth:

… the humiliation Jerry had brought upon himself in our junior year of high school when he attempted to win the heart of a strikingly unexceptional girl in our class who you wouldn’t have thought required a production to get her to kiss you.

As a Valentine present, Jerry made a coat for her out of hamster skins, a hundred and seventy-five hamster skins that he cured in the sun and then sewed together with a curved sewing needle pilfered from his father’s factory, where the idea dawned upon him.

Is this not a beautifully evocative picture of misguided desperation? Here we have a son unsuccessfully trying to employ his father’s tools and methods in a flamboyant attempt to achieve a prize that, in Zuckerman’s callous estimation, hardly merited the effort. With all the killing and hiding and wooing, it’s the stuff of epic poetry.

Anyway, I neither expect nor want you to give Roth your undivided attention. There are more than enough authors competing to become the next generation’s Philip Roth, to inherit his Zuckermanhood, which will happen when a conclave of Roth specialists gathers in an ornately appointed drawing room somewhere in Connecticut, the faithful waiting outside for the wafting scent of smoked whitefish to signal the election of a new Philip.

David, you’re a pillar of creative nonfiction in our community, and I greatly admire what you’ve done in expanding your range as a writer within the nonfiction genre as you continue to redefine it. And if anyone asks me, “Where should I start with this David Shields?” I would enthusiastically recommend Other People: Takes & Mistakes. Through reading it, and on the basis of our conversations, I feel that I’ve gotten to know you at a fairly profound level in a relatively short time. But then again, I’m sure I have it all wrong.

Best regards,


P.S. Here's a link to the video of my talk "The Search for Dog in Cervantes" — given to the Harvard Extension Alumni Association (starts at 31:50).