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SDSU Couple's Book an Eclectic Look at Today's Writers

September 07, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Sinda Gregory and Larry McCaffery stayed up until 5 in the morning with novelist William Kennedy, sipping Irish whiskey and listening to Ol' Blue Eyes. Kennedy was amazed they wanted to go to sleep.

"I thought you guys wanted to talk!" he said.

Ah, but they had an interview the next day, and many more after that.

Gregory and McCaffery got Tom Robbins, author of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" and other books, to speak of how serious he thinks he is, how he's often misinterpreted by the reading public (and especially by critics).

"Comic writing is not only more profound than tragedy," Robbins told them, "it's a hell of a lot more difficult to write. There seems to be almost a conspiracy against exploring joy in this culture; to explore pain is considered not only worthy but heroic, while exploring joy is considered slight. This kind of attitude strikes me as nearly insane."

Marriage of Shared Tastes

Gregory and McCaffery are teachers of English at San Diego State University. They are also married. They share much more than a wedding ring, or a cozy, book-filled home in North Park. They share a love of music--the poetry of rock, the elegance of jazz--and a zest for literature.

Gregory and McCaffery have just published a book together: "Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s."

The 13 writers chosen may appear to have little in common. All, in McCaffery's and Gregory's view, are skilled, compassionate storytellers capable of taking the language to new heights, albeit in drastically different ways.

The authors chosen include the better-known (Kennedy, Robbins, Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie) and the lesser-known (Walter Abish, Ron Silliman, Ursula K. LeGuin and Edmund White).

They reflect an eclecticism that captures the decade as well as unity and brotherhood captured the '60s.

As the book notes, "The 'voice of America' today is really a cacophony of sounds: It can be heard in the music and poetry of Kennedy's Albany gangsters, in Hannah's crazed Southerners, in the interaction of found languages of Silliman's San Francisco, in the playful exuberance of Robbins' mind-expanding metaphors and in the self-revealing chatter of Beattie's modish East Coast commuter crowd."

In 1983, McCaffery did a similar book of interviews called "Anything Can Happen," written with Tom LeClair. He found that book more unified, as it dealt with writers who came of age in the '60s and shared a vision that writers today only dream about.

Sense of Greater Unity

"In the nation as a whole during the '60s, you had this sense of a greater unity in the community of artists and sensitive people," McCaffery said. "A lot of writers in the '60s shared something, mainly this widespread sense of being in a desperate situation. Writers reassessed conventions and decided the old ways weren't working."

Thus, McCaffery has often been drawn to experimental and avant-garde fiction, as has Gregory. Because the couple included in their book an interview with Raymond Carver--labeled a connoisseur of the New Realism--some of their contemporary, avant-garde friends have badgered them about why.

"OK, so it turns out the book is extremely eclectic," McCaffery said. "The original title we wanted was 'No Real Center.' When I was in graduate school, I felt there was a center to American literature. I can't tell you the number of friends who puzzled over our interviewing Carver.

"Well, he's a wonderful writer, and not nearly as conservative and traditional as many of our friends would like to think. He expresses our sense of contemporary fiction. His writing has all kinds of stuff going on. All of these labels are very misleading."

If a unity and shared vision did emerge, it was couched in anger over labels. Many writers feel pigeonholed and believe the strictures of critics and marketeers have affected, in some cases damaged, their writing.

"Many feel their works just haven't been understood," McCaffery said. "Max Apple is a remarkably fine writer. He said, 'I'm labeled kooky, zany, and I don't even think ketchup is a vegetable,' as President Reagan apparently does. Max considers his work--although peculiar--very serious. But when he's reviewed, he's seen as this kind of oddball."

Forget the Faulkner Tradition

Gregory said most writers "don't want to be in any niche--they don't want to be pigeonholed." One example was Barry Hannah, author of "Geronimo Rex" and "The Nightwatchmen," who insisted he no longer be labeled a Southern writer, and please forget the Faulkner tradition.

"Even before we started, he asked that we not ask a single question about Faulkner, or about his being a Southern writer," McCaffery said. "That's what every single article about Hannah starts with."

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