Interview by David Carriere
You come from a long line of Northern California-based farmers? What kind of farming, and did you ever feel like that was also go going to be or should have been your path in life?
I’m a third-generation rice farmer and until a couple of years ago, still had a farming operation with my brother, Ron. As a child of ten or twelve, after school my mother would drive me to the ranch where the fall harvesting was in process. My father taught me to drive the bank-out tractor that transported the rice from the harvester to the trucks that hauled it to the dryer. Because farming was so much a part of my family culture, I was always associated with it in some way. But I never thought it would be my major interest. And it wasn’t. I had a fleeting career in ballet. The family business branched out into retail and I managed the Ranch supply store we had for many years. Then went into real estate for another thirty years. And still owned a rice ranch with my brother. We recently sold it, sliding gracefully into old age. Not mentioned in the book is my lifelong dedication to breeding and exhibiting purebred dogs-afghan hounds-a hobby that became, in effect, an avocation. And still is.
This memoir has been called a coming-of-age book. What, if anything, makes it different from other books of the same genre?
I suppose I see it not as a child/young boy/young man becoming an adult, but as an adult going back in time through memory and in some way reimagining his childhood as a child would. The man emerging as the boy, if you will. And, I think, the way I reacted to and assimilated my sexual experience at age five is different from anything I’ve ever heard or read about.
You refer to something called saudade. What is it? Why and how did it come into play in your life?
Saudade is the most intriguing word I’ve ever come to know. One I didn’t know existed until I was well into writing the book. I came across it in a biography of the Portuguese figurative artist, Nathan Oliveira. It’s a characteristic, a state of mind peculiar to only a few groups, the Portuguese being one of them—and consequently, mine–a pervasive feeling of melancholy for something or someone lost that can either not be regained, or was never really there to begin with. A yearning. An ongoing pull toward the unattainable. The interesting thing about the word is that it is one of a very few, about a dozen I think, that are so loaded with subtle variation they defy absolute, definitive description-like some emotions we all have. Learning of it lent so much clarity to who I was and who I always had been. And who I always would be. Learning about it was a literal epiphany. It gave me an amazing insight into myself.
You describe in graphic detail your sexual experiences at age five with the much older neighborhood boy, but never couch it as sexual abuse? Why?
It’s such a complicated question. It deserves a whole book of its own. Yes, I was young. And, yes, there is no doubt that most, if not all psychologists and others, will conclude that it was sexual abuse, pure and simple, not that Bobby’s (the neighborhood boy) behavior was just a young man experimenting with another young man. I’m sure it would be seen as an act of predation. (I raise a question in the book that Bobby’s behavior may have been passed on to him from his father although I had with no evidence to support this). Bobby was never a predator in my eyes. He was a jump start to an inevitability. Am I in denial? Perhaps. But the point of the book is what the relationship, one that went on for months, meant to me, the individual–the door it opened to the proclivity I believe I already had. Early, yes. Too early? Who can say? I can’t know for sure, of course, the totality of what the impact was. But what’s important to me is how I held the experience in my heart and mind, how it affected my future behavior. I think that’s what the book says.
You speak a lot about memory, reimagined, and possibly, reconfigured. Where did this idea come from?
Generally, I suppose, from a lifetime of dwelling on the romance of the past. That saudade part of me at work. Specifically, probably, from two literary works that still ruminate in my head: The Glass Menagerie, which was Tennessee Williams’ “memory” play; and Proust’s excruciatingly detailed descriptions in Remembrance of Things Past and his notion of memory as the more pertinent reality. I think these two works were mixing in the background somehow as I was writing. Except my menagerie was full of monkeys-the voices in my head—not fragile glass figures and my remembrances of things past became a lesser sort of stream of consciousness as experiences and small details came and went. None in a particular order. I sometimes put the writing away for years and then all of a sudden, a thought, a memory, would flash across my brain like a bright light, grab my attention and not let go until it was written and then re-written. Then re-written again. And again. This insight or inspiration, or whatever you want to call it, could be as encompassing as a major event. Or as seemingly insignificant as one word that described something better or more accurately. There was never any way of knowing or controlling it. It just happened.
Throughout A CAGE FULL OF MONKEYS you make literary references, do you consider yourself well-read?
I read a lot. I’m not sure if that makes me well-read. I have no preference as to genre. If I like the writing, I’ll read it. My pattern follows a fairly predictable course. If I find an author that interests me, I start with his/her first book. If it grabs me in some way, I’ll read everything he/she has written. I recently discovered Alice Munro and James Salter–I know. A bit late—and read everything they’ve written. Re-read Edmund White and James Baldwin. Have read Henry James multiple times. At the moment I’m revisiting Phillip Roth. There are so many good, new writers, I have trouble keeping up, but I do seek them out as time allows. Would that there was more time…
What was your writing routine while working on this book? Did you tend to write at a particular time of the day?
I’m at my best early in the morning. In the den. With coffee. Before the sun comes up.
Why did you write this book?
For one thing, it ended up being only part of my story. As I say in the Preface, “what life can be told in one telling”? The inclination to write that part of my life the book focuses on had been on my mind for most of my life. I knew one day I would write it. It was a bucket list priority and had always been. When I finally started, it more or less wrote itself. I was a transcriber of feelings into words. And always under the influence of saudade.