David Shields

Life isn’t about saying the right thing. It’s about letting the tape play.—Jonathan Goldstein

You ready?

Ready to roll?

Is this thing on?

Can you sit up a little in your chair and turn toward me?

We’re six feet apart, wouldn’t you say?

Any chance you can project your voice out a little louder?

Are you hearing as much feedback as I am?

Do you have to be anywhere else later this morning, by which I mean do you have a “hard out” of, say, noon?

I have no particular agenda going in, do you?

Might we just start and see where our conversation takes us?

How—more broadly—do you choose the subjects for your books?

What was the genesis of your latest book?

How did it emerge?

Why would you choose that as your material?

Doesn’t it seem somewhat counterproductive for a male writer to pursue that particular subject in this day and age?

It’s a really unusual book. The form, the delivery system, is inextricable from the book’s ostensible subject; which came first—the form or the content?

How many times have you been sued?

“The law is my muse”—what does that mean?

Do you really believe that?

How can you tell a good idea for a book from a bad idea for a book?

When you get a good idea for a book, what do you do next?

Where do these ideas—good, bad, or indifferent—come from?

Have you ever had a great idea for a book and then discarded it?

If you’re working on a new book now, might you wind up discarding it?

If you discard it, can I have it?

While you’re writing a book, do you discuss it with fellow practitioners?

Is there really such thing as a writing community?

Do you ever wish you could tell a story in a more straightforward manner?

Do you miss being a novelist?

This is a wildly overused trope, but some of the reviews of your earlier books said you had the potential to become something approximating your generation’s version of Salinger. You’re now more like the baby boomers’ Hermann Broch; doesn’t that feel like quite a letdown?

Your last two books have similar formats. Were you writing them simultaneously?

Do they now feel oddly redundant of each other?

You’ve now published 22 books—too many by half?

You once said to me—as a joke, I suppose—that all your books are “brief, collaborative, and plagiarized,” but really what is the secret to your somewhat monomaniacal rate of production, especially the last decade?

“Perish into the work,” I suppose, per the Kunitz dictum?

Did you always want to become a writer?


Which was the bigger influence—both of your parents being journalists or your childhood stutter?

What’s the first thing you ever published, outside of college magazines?

Outside of academic journals?

Outside of magazines edited by friends of yours?

How do you get an agent?

Is it difficult?

How many agents have you had?

Is that a lot?

Seven agents but only one wife? Interesting.

Ex-wife? I see.


Sorry to hear that.

Did you encounter much rejection at first?

Do you still?

What have you learned from rejection?

According to E.M. Cioran, “Only one thing matters: learning to be the loser.” Agree or disagree?

Another way to ask this is, are all writers “bottoms”?

Having read nearly all of your work, I’d say you’re more than “half in love with easeful death.” Any pushback on your part?

Are there any how-to books you would recommend?

Any you would counsel against?

What does John Casey mean when he says, “A writer needs only two things—an absolute commitment to tell the truth and low vaudeville cunning”?

Did you study with him at Iowa?

He stutters pretty badly, doesn’t he?

Has he ever written directly about that, to your knowledge?

Does the title of his novel The Half-Life of Happiness mimic stuttering, in your view?

Do you keep a journal?

What’s the worst book you’ve written?

Worst supposedly “great book” you’ve read?

Most influential, in a good way?

Is it true that you once drove from Providence to Berkeley to ask Leonard Michaels to release you from the stranglehold of his voice?

In a bad sense?

Do you write every day?

Do you have a “schedule”?

Does it ever seem odd to you that John Clayton, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh, pronounces “schedule” in the British manner?

So you’re at it more or less all the time?

If you write a book and it’s published and no one pays any attention, do you regret the trees felled in the forest?

Do you fervently wish for a MacArthur Fellowship as a validation of your existence?

Maybe apply next year?

How long did it take you to write your second novel?

Why so long?

Were you ever concerned that the material would go dead or “flat” on you?

Does this feeling ever wash over you: “When am I ever going to finish this, and will anyone find this of interest?”

What’s more challenging—the research, the writing, or the rewriting?

Do you ever hire research assistants?

What do you pay?

May I email you my CV?

I’ve heard you’re a big winnower; any tips in that realm?

How can you tell what to retain and what to jettison?

Are you good at absorbing criticism?

Do you mind, then, if I offer you a little constructive criticism about your last three books?

What makes you want to write another book?

To be blunt, why bother, when not that many people read each new book of yours anymore, do they?

For instance, has any book of yours sold even 50,000 copies in hardcover? That would be every person in Pascagoula, Mississippi, but absolutely no one else.

Isn’t there a sort of grace in knowing when to exit the stage?

Not being the bald, old dude drinking PBR at the punk show—if and when we have such shows again?

Are you, in effect, a dead man walking?

Are you a good titler, do you think?

Personally, I sort of like your titles, but why do they always remind me of lyrics from an emo band’s first album?

Do you have any writing rituals—lighting incense or plinking on the piano beforehand or anything of that sort?

I still don’t get it; can you explain again why you don’t write fiction anymore?

Do you prefer the term “montage” or “assemblage” or “bricolage”?

Oh, I see—“collage”?

Would you connect your interest in “collage”—its polyphonic Cubism—to your lifelong battle with stuttering?

Do you think of yourself now as more of a sculptor?

A conceptual artist?

A film editor?

I meant this figuratively, but now you’re actively trying to make real movies?

Where do you get the money?

Are you secretly rich?

Ever worry about spreading yourself too thin?

Why does the Johnson scholar Helen Deutsch call you an “amateur” in the 18th-century sense of the word?

Amo, amas, amat?

Do you take this as praise or put-down?

Do you lay out little Post-its on a giant canvas on the floor, à la your idol Jackson Pollock?

Not your idol anymore?

It was important, though, for you to correct Caleb’s pronunciation?

Your father collected quotes; so do you, obviously. A couple of “wisdom” junkies?

Magpies, perhaps?

When you put these scattered fragments together, how do you really know they’ll all come together?

Isn’t it all a bit of a wing and a prayer?

Do you know the etymology of “a wing and a prayer”?

Fascinating, isn’t it?

I guess I’m asking, Is there a method to your seeming madness?

How many of your books would you say began in the classroom, in one sense or the other?

At least one began as a literal course pack, right?

Which one?

Are you finally an artist or an archivist?

A creator or a collector?

Are you pro- or anti-appendices?

Did you write one draft all the way through?

Are you “anti-chapter”?

Do you feel an intimate connection with the reader as you write?

Have you ever felt a truly intimate connection with another human being?

When you’re writing, are you trying to tap into the collective unconscious?

Care much anymore about an “audience”?

Do you care how posterity treats you when you’re dead and gone?

A consummation devoutly to be wished for?

Has this been a satisfactory exchange thus far?

What do you make of all this?

Where are we going with this?

Do you see what I mean?