Lewis Buzbee is a San Francisco writer whose first novel, Fliegelman's Desire, was published in 1990. His writing has appeared in Harper's, Paris Review, Gentleman's Quarterly, The New York Times Book Review, Black Warrior Review, ZYZZYVA, Best American Poetry 1995, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco, and recently he published a memoir about the book trade called The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, as well as a collection of short stories titled After the Gold Rush. We spoke in person at his home in the Sunset District of San Francisco.
You've clearly learned a lot about the history of the book trade in writing this book. What was the most surprising detail you came up with in your research?
I think the most surprising detail that came up was simply the longevity of the book trade and the notion of a bookseller going back at least three thousand years. We usually think of the book trade coming into being with the Guttenberg press, but it turns out that in classical Rome, the Rome of the Caesars onto the beginning of Christian Rome, there was a huge and thriving book trade that we would completely recognize as similar to the book trade we see today, with chain stores, and author appearances, and people working for minimum wage or less, Roman slaves, who were happy to have that job because it meant they weren't coal mining.
Do you have a favorite bookstore? Top 3?
I'd have to say City Lights, in San Francisco, because it's such a surprising bookstore. You see things on the display tables at City Lights that you never see anywhere else, even at the most sophisticated university bookstore. And it's still sort of a down-at-heels, worn out kind of bookstore. They've done a lot of great work, especially with the publishing program, and in the last few years they've bought the building and refurbished it, and the place has been there something like fifty-three years. So I urge you to put your credit card away if you go there because you're gonna be screwed no matter what. You've got this wonderful poetry room that's bigger than some bookstores. And you step out the door and you've got this great view of the skyline of San Francisco, and you've got three world class bars within rock-throwing distance, you've got tourists and limousines and strip clubs and Chinatown right there and there's just a confluence of everything I want in a bookstore. Probably my second favorite is Galignani Bookstore in Paris, which is the oldest English language bookstore on the Continent—late eighteenth century. It's a great bookstore with tall, dark wooden shelves and rolling library ladders, so you've got that, but it's also right on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, and I think probably why it's one of my favorites is because it's in Paris.
And how many businesses have survived continuously for two hundred years?
There are certainly very few. That's what's so dismaying about seeing these Bay Area bookstores close, like Cody's and A Clean Well-Lighted [Place for Books]. Cody's has been around forever. The same vintage as Kepler's and City Lights, which came along after World War II at the beginning of the paperback revolution, and at the beginning of a burgeoning West Coast literary scene, and helped create the anti-war movement and the free-speech movement. But, all things considered, fifty years is probably a pretty good run.
In every age there are a lot of doomsayers, about any number of topics, and there are certainly a lot them now when it comes to the future of the book or the novel, but I tend to have sort of a conservative perspective on this—like, does it really have to change, and will it necessarily? As a former bookseller and then a publisher's rep I imagine you have a pretty interesting perspective on this.
Well despite what people are saying we're still producing and selling more and more books every year. In the book I talk about how in the nineteenth century, when the bicycle became popular, social critics came out and said, oh well, this is it, the end of literary culture as we know it. People are just going to be riding their bicycles all the time and they will never read again. But social critics said this at the dawn of the moving picture, and the radio, and the television…they probably said it of disco, and they've said it of the computer, and the VCR, and the internet, and the iPod, and I just don't see it. There are 4 million titles in print right now, and if we stopped printing books right now there would still be all the objects around. And it's a great technology. It doesn't break. Anybody can use a book providing they know how to read. We do like things that have shiny lights and loud noises and pretty colors and go zoom, but we like to immerse ourselves in a quieter world too.
I always figure as we spend more and more time in front of computer screens and video monitors that there will be more of a backlash of people wanting a vacation from electricity.
Let your eyeballs get some rest… there's such a difference physiologically between reading text on a computer screen and reading a book. Neurologists have studied this. Even when you're looking at a computer screen you're far enough away from it your eyes don't track back and forth, it's almost a static thing. But when you're reading a book your eyes track back and forth and it provides a certain kind of exercise for your brain.
You also have a book of short stories out, After the Gold Rush. How do you think your experience as a bookseller influences you as a fiction writer.
I think if I had paid more attention as a bookseller, I probably wouldn't be writing short stories. I'd probably be writing genre novels and trying to pass myself off as a young, sassy woman. But unfortunately I'm stuck with literature. If anything, bookselling has exposed me to this great ocean of literature, from works in translation to experimental work to classics that you just don't get in high school and college, which really alerted me to the possibilities in fiction and gave me a sense of the very best that's out there.
A lot of your stories are about family dynamics, parents with children—I guess it's a pretty obvious observation that being a parent has influenced writing? Would you say it's changed your perspective?
Being a parent changed my life immediately, from the second my daughter was born. The minute it happened my writing changed in a way I could not have foreseen, and I guess it has to do with having added some weight to my life. Before that I'd been a rather carefree bachelor guy and I didn't know or didn't feel rather the importance and the dread and the fragility of life as keenly as I felt it when I first picked up my daughter. So many of the stories in the collection have to do with families destroyed not from within by alcoholism or repression or whatever, but from without, from drownings and car accidents. I think a lot of parents do this, but I still can't help but think about all the horrible ways in which my daughter could be killed or maimed. It's just something parents do in the back of their heads. It doesn't color everything and it doesn't make me any more conservative in my parenting, but there's this constant notion that this creature you are charged with is just so fragile. The realization didn't really come to the fore until some friends up the street, parents with a small child, were in Greece and they were in a car accident and the mother died—this was the basis for the story "Hairpin." And I became interested in the way people grieve, and by that I mean grief about things as obvious as a death and grief about something less obvious as simply as your children growing away from you. I realized I was really tired of the American style of grieving, which was sort of active and self-help, and I felt that people grieved in a totally different way.
In "American Son" a young man defects to Russia, and I have to say there's a whiff of personal fantasy in there. Have you ever spent any time in Russia?
No. I've become great at writing about places I know nothing about. There's one story in here in which a character goes and lives in Taiwan for several years, and I simply came to this fascination with Taiwan because I used to watch Taiwanese television on Sunday nights. There was this one really weird gameshow on that I just didn't understand at all because I didn't understand the language, and the more I watched it the weirder it became. And then I started watching other Taiwanese shows and it just became this place in myself. Russia was always a place in my head because of literature, Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. And that idea of a seventeen-year-old boy who defects to Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War, in 1974, was an idea I had when I was seventeen. Because I was in love with literature, and I understood that if I became a writer in this country nothing much would happen, because it was like we had too much freedom. You could play Pong or you could read books, it didn't really matter. But in the Soviet Union, people put their lives on the line for literature, and I figured if I defected to the Soviet Union I'd be a star, an American high school student, and they'd love me and publish everything I ever wrote. So I carried that fantasy around for years.
Most of these stories are grounded in California, or at least touch California at some point. You mention Steinbeck in both books, and I know you're a fan of Joan Didion, but are there any California writers who are less well known who you like?
There's a Los Angeles writer named Eve Babitz who I love a lot. And Kate Braverman is a California short story writer I really admire. Stephen Beachy has written one of my favorite California novels ever, Distortion. Robert Hass, the poet, is a terrific writer. A lot of native Californian writing has come out of the Hispanic community. Jose Antonio Villarreal wrote this wonderful novel called Pocho about growing up in the Santa Clara Valley and that's a terrific book. Raymond Carver is a California writer who I love, and even though most of his stories take place in fairly anonymous suburbs and apartment complexes, a good half of them do take place in California, and they are about a very particular California experience—people who are lower on the economic scale, people who are renting, people who came out here to find something but haven't hit it big or moved into the fast lane. What I find odd about California as a place for writers is that so many writers come here from elsewhere, particularly in the Bay Area, and none of them write particularly about California or Northern California—they take on the mantle of the California writer but there are surprisingly few writers who are really concerned with how life is lived in California. And that has always been a particular obsession of mine, because I'm from here and because I started with Steinbeck, and because I'm concerned with these notions of the mythology of California. I really wanted to focus in these stories on San Francisco as a place—not the sort of glitzy, transported dot-com/Silicon Valley kind of life, but as the home of those people who just live here and live with the fog and know what that's like.