Tracy Daugherty had never written a biography of anyone before the thought arrived to tell the life of his old teacher, Donald Barthelme. The two writers' paths crossed at the University of Houston in the 1980s, where the famous postmodern writer taught in his later years. For Barthelme, it was a return home; born to an influential architect father outside of Houston in the ‘30s, he remained there for decades until his success with fiction prompted a move to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.
Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme is a wonderful read, particularly for fans of Don B.'s antic styles and satire. Daugherty's research is impeccable and his own prose impresses on every page, but the real selling point is how clearly personal the subject matter is for him. The book begins and ends with remembrances of Barthelme the teacher and friend, and in between Daugherty makes an increasingly convincing case for the writer's place in the American literary history without ever succumbing to over-reverence. I emailed Daugherty to ask about the different processes of writing fiction and biography, his further plans in the genre, and how rereading Barthelme's fiction can reveal hidden layers, even to those who knew him personally.
SPLICE TODAY: First, how did you become Don's biographer? You've got books to your credit and you knew the man, sure, but how did this project come to you instead of say, Kim Herzinger [editor of most of Barthelme's posthumous collections]?
TRACY DAUGHERTY: Initially, Kim Herzinger was planning to write a biography of Don. I kept waiting and waiting for his book to appear, and when it didn't, I contacted him to ask when we might expect it. He told me he had set the project aside-why, I don't really know. I was dismayed that Don's books were falling out of print, and I thought somebody needed to write a biography, so, without admitting to myself what I was doing, I began scribbling. I was several hundred pages into a draft before I looked up and realized I had committed myself to completing this thing, for better or worse. I was fortunate to find an agent and an editor who were as interested in Don as I was.
ST: How long did the process of writing and researching take? What biographers or biographies were your models?
TD: The actual writing took about seven years, but of course I had been studying and teaching Don's stories for nearly twenty years before that. [Richard] Ellmann's James Joyce was a natural model, not only because it's an excellent biography, but because Don was so taken with Joyce's work. And Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf is the best recent literary biography I've seen.
ST: Parts of Hiding Man allude to the Barthelme family's incredible density of talent and intellect; you quote certain people likening them to the 19th-century James siblings. Your book isn't exactly scandalous in its portrayal of Don, but, particularly since you cite Ellmann as an influence, was Don's family cooperative in your research? Was there any resistance to having the family's lives portrayed so intimately, as there was in the Joyce family's case?
TD: The family was quite generous and patient with me. They're good people, and sticklers for accuracy. I think (I hope) they knew, all along, that this was a labor of love for me, and that I had the best intentions. They certainly showed nothing but the best intentions toward me. I admire them all.
ST: The Quarterly Conversation, the online magazine where my review of your book will appear, published an essay last year about the odd republication of Don's short fiction—in volumes, published decades apart, that jettison the stories' original order and chronology. You mentioned your concern about his work going out of print, so tell me how you feel about the way in which Don's work is currently preserved. Would you change anything, like, say, republishing the original collections? Are you aware of any plans for that to happen?
TD: I believe there was some talk, years ago, of trying to get a Library of America collection of Don's fiction into print-chronologically, the way it first appeared. My understanding is that Edwarch Hirsch and Susan Sontag tried to make this happen, and I'm not sure why it didn't go forward. It's badly needed—as is, I believe, an annotated edition of some of Don's stories. I don't think there's anything shameful in the fact that the literature of one era becomes the historical documents of the next, requiring explanation and annotation: this is one of the ways culture gets passed on and pushed forward. But it does need to be done with some sense of context.
ST: How much did your interests overlap with Don's? As in, were you pretty familiar with the many musical, cinematic, and literary stuff that was so important to him, or did you have to educate yourself regarding [jazz drummer and prominent Barthelme influence] Big Sid Catlett, et al?
TD: My own interests overlapped quite a bit with Don's, but my levels of experience and knowledge were terribly low compared to his, as you would expect. As Don did, I grew up in Texas. I play the drums, [and] love movies and literature. Architecture and architectural theory were new to me, but once Don pointed me in that direction, I ate it up. He once gave me a copy of Joseph Rykwert's On Adam's House in Paradise, a book about architectural origins. He never told me why he wanted me to read the book, he just knew it would catch my interest and perhaps be useful to me in my writing, which it has proved to be. I think Don saw a little of himself in many of his students in Houston. We were, most of us, dwelling in old places in a part of the city where he used to live when he was first on his own, writing his first short stories. In some sense, he relived part of his youth through us, I think.
ST: I'm a drummer myself, so I wonder: did you ever hear Don play? He was apparently in that dreadful campus rock band in Houston, but surely he must have been at least a little bit talented given his breadth of knowledge and adolescent practice.
TD: Well, I blush to confess that I was also in that "dreadful campus rock band"—Moist and the Towlettes. Don and I were the percussion section. He and I spent happy afternoons in a store in Houston called The Drum Shop, looking at cymbals and drums. He was talented, and knew his stuff-but talent and knowledge were not the driving forces behind "Moist." In fact, they may have been liabilities: if you were good at impromptu screaming, you could have been a lead singer for Moist and the Towlettes. At first, Don enjoyed his time with the band, then he got bored. I myself think we were . . . unique, and I'm quick (if not proud) to claim association with the group, some of whom (Tom Cobb, Jeff Greene) have gone on to publish successfully. I'll withhold further comment, hoping to stir up interest, and higher prices, in any bootleg recordings that may be around.
ST: Your being from Houston makes sense; it comes across very evocatively in Hiding Man. I'm curious what your thoughts on the city are, as you've grown older and moved away, to the presumably more liberal Pacific Northwest? [Daugherty teaches at the University of Oregon.] How did Don's 1940s and ‘50s Houston measure up to the one you knew as a child and college student?
TD: I loved, and still love, Houston. It's complex, diverse, rich and poor, and a lot more culturally savvy than people give it credit for (though I should correct you and say I'm not from there, originally. I was born in Midland, Texas—George Bush country—and migrated to the big city of Houston, where I found a home.) I don't want to get started on stereotypes of liberal/conservative, blue state/red state—these categories are so simplistic as to be meaningless, in my humble view. I'll simply offer an anecdote: in the early 1980s, when I lived in Houston, there was so much money floating around town, corporate CEOs, looking for tax shelters, would often say, "Well, let's buy us some art!" and next thing you know, there'd be a Miró sculpture, or some other wondrous public spectacle on a street corner, in front of a bank. This atmosphere made everyone believe in limitless possibilities: true of Barthelme's Houston as it was of the Houston in my day, and as I hope it is, still. The point is, for all his melancholy—temperamentally—Don grew up believing in possibilities. This, I think, gave him courage to proceed with his, after all, rather strange career.
ST: You write fiction, as well, and I'm curious how the two writing processes differ. Specifically, tell me about characterization. Did you find yourself looking for qualities in Don that would make for a useful fictional protagonist, or did you just want to report the facts as you saw them and hope a character evolved?
TD: I knew certain aspects of Don's character pretty well—he was a unique personality, and extremely witty. I had witnessed, firsthand, a number of occasions that made for good potential narrative moments, and there were many, many Barthelme anecdotes floating around. I figured my first task as a biographer was to tell a good story, just as a novelist would. In digging through stories of his past, from various sources, I looked for incidents that might help illuminate the writing, or his writing process, but I also looked for incidents that felt truest to me, given what I knew of his personality—incidents that I felt I could weave into narrative based on my observations of him, though I would be writing about the years before I met him. I worried that pausing to analyze his work would kill the narrative momentum. That was the one difference between writing biography and fiction. I tried to overcome that challenge by positing the writing as absolutely integral to his daily life—which it was—and thus making analysis and the compositional process part of the narrative of his days.
ST: Would you do a biography again, or was this more like a one-off tribute to an old friend?
TD: I am currently writing a biography of Joseph Heller, a project suggested to me by my editor at St. Martin's Press, Michael Homler.
ST: Did you know Heller when he was alive? If not, how do you envision this process will be different from the Don B. book? Where do you start your research?
TD: Sadly, I never met Joseph Heller, though I've taught his books to college students for years. I'll be more of an objective researcher on this project than I was with Hiding Man—though, with that book, I wound up researching a lot, because I wanted to get it right, and the personal stuff turned out to be the hardest to write about. My experience penning novels has taught me that research is best when it's put into the service of connecting intimately with a character, which is what I'll try to do with the Heller project: details that reveal personality, rather than facts for facts' sake. I've already spoken to several people close to Heller—family, friends—and they've been immensely generous and helpful.
ST: Since you knew Don and had presumably read all his work prior to writing Hiding Man, what were the biggest surprises, in his character or his writing, that you had while working on the book? What facets did you discover during this process that you hadn't seen earlier?
TD: I knew, but was surprised all over again by how pragmatic and careful he was in his writing. The work is often so radical, formally, that readers may not realize how practical and cold-eyed he was in his approach to writing and editing fiction. He always wanted to surprise the reader, but he also wanted to take care of the reader. He once said, "I am never needlessly obscure—I am needfully obscure, when I am obscure," and that sums up his process, I think. He was a tireless reviser, a poet. And a reporter. He began as a journalist in Houston, and the reportorial instinct never left him. On the surface, his stories may strike many readers as abstract and absurd, but there is actually a good deal of accurate and timely observation in most of what he wrote. His stories could serve as a catalog of American life in the second half of the twentieth century.