The Mechanics Institute was founded in 1854 “to serve the vocational needs of out-of-work gold miners.” The current headquarters was built in 1910 in downtown San Francisco, with a library and wooden spiral stairs. Wandering around on the fourth floor, I found a room full of chessboards, with the pieces waiting for a mental showdown. There were two men concentrating, with one of them in a wheelchair.

I was there to hear an interview with Barry Gifford.

screenshot from wild at heart

still from wild at heart. click for info on the film.

One of his novels, Wild at Heart, was turned into a David Lynch movie in 1990. He also wrote the screenplay for Lost Highway.

The lecture room was maybe half full, with a bar in back. It was mostly an older crowd. Gifford was born in 1946. It was not a big turnout for someone who has been so widely published and worked in Hollywood. He lives in Berkeley and speaks well, with the relaxed manner of someone who approaches life without an academic filter. He was in jeans and a black sweater.

The man has stories — not surprising when you’ve been around since the 1940’s and have kept your eyes open. The historical depth of older people is a natural resource. There were references to living in Rome and putting four kids through college.

It sounds like he was born into one of his own stories. He has been writing since he was 11 and never went to college. It was clear early on what he wanted to do: “sports and writing.” He grew up in hotels from Chicago to Havana, Cuba, mainly because his father was in the mob — a Jewish gangster who married a Texas beauty queen (Irish Catholic) who was twenty years younger. His father died when he was 12, and his mother remarried four times.

Gifford_BarryHe mentioned The Roosevelt in New Orleans, a classy old hotel. I was walking through the lobby a month or two ago and standing under chandeliers, which hung like a luxurious sword of Damocles. Sinatra stayed there. I have the feeling his father was doing well in his chosen line of work. The mob had a huge presence in Cuba before Castro kicked them out. Gifford speaks Spanish, but he said it was “Cuban street kid Spanish,” which is ok in the Mexican border towns that he has written about, but not ok in Spain, where they asked him to speak English.

A major literary influence was William Saroyan (1908-1981), who he noted was very popular in the 1930’s. Saroyan was “the quintessential San Francisco writer,” an Armenian from Fresno who later lived in Paris. He refused the Pulitzer Prize (which Gifford remarked did not diminish his reputation), and wrote The Human Comedy. He would scan the “necrology register” in Variety and write about the dead, sometimes settling old scores. He was nearly forgotten after World War II, but not by Gifford. “Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” is a Saroyan story he would recommend. Saroyan knew Ginsberg and wrote about Kerouac — who admired his work.

Gifford came into possession of a manuscript by Saroyan in the 1970’s. He wouldn’t say how. He edited the novel, removing much that was “libelous.” The book did well, and they arranged to meet at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. He arrived early, went into the men’s room, and realized he was standing next to Saroyan at the urinal, but decided to introduce himself later when he didn’t have his hands in his pants. It’s a curious situation, meeting someone famous in the leveling domain of a bathroom. I was in the men’s room of a nightclub in Los Angeles years ago when George Harmonica Smith burst in (he had just been onstage), and was exuberant about there being room at the urinals for everyone.

Here is an excerpt from a story set in 1962 in Chicago. It involves a stolen trumpet:

T went down to the precinct house across the street from City Hall to claim it. Roy and Tommy Cunningham went with him. When the claims officer handed the trumpet over to T, he laughed and said, “Look what they done to it.”

The bell had been bent up at a forty-five degree angle.

“This is how Dizzy’s horn looks,” said Marty the T. “Whichever one of the stick-up men did it must know that.”

“Can you still play it?” asked Cunningham.

Marty the T put the trumpet to his lips and squeaked out a few notes.

“No trumpet playin’ in here,” barked the claims officer.

“That’s the intro to ‘Night in Tunisia,’” T told him.

“Yeah, well, it’s late afternoon in Chicago,” said the cop. “Take it outside.”

I was going to say there is something old-fashioned about Gifford (and I mean that in a good way), but it’s more accurate to say he is in touch with the past — particularly when he is channeling those memories into his stories. He was here with his new book, The Roy Stories, which are semi-autographical accounts going back to when he was between 5 and 17 years old. As Peter Maravelis noted, who works at City Lights and was interviewing Gifford, “He’s an historian, capturing a time and place… a time capsule.” In the process, he preserves the language and expressions used in other times and places. Gifford quoted Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I’ve always liked that thought, which gets around the linear concept of life going by and then it’s gone forever. That can be a narrow and depressing point of view (as Proust noted in The Remembrance of Things Past).

On the other hand, I have a hard time mixing fiction and non-fiction — one reason that someone else wrote Wild at Heart and I didn’t. It gets a little dicey when Lillian Hellman or Marguerite Duras is embellishing a memoir, but that is not how Gifford works. He throws himself into his fiction, and he quoted the poet Jack Spicer, saying a writer is obligated to set down his thoughts wherever and whenever they occur. I know the feeling, having scribbled so many notes on anything that was handy.


still from wild at heart. click to watch gifford read from the roy stories.

He referred to “obnoxious technology” and how it is distracting, making it “hard to be alone with your thoughts.” That is usually what it takes for those thoughts to learn the ropes and get some exercise and come up with something original. It reminds me of when the French writer Jean Genet was in the U.S. Someone was driving him to a reading and turned on the radio. Genet immediately objected, saying he needed to concentrate and why did Americans always have to be diverted and entertained.

Gifford can’t be too old-fashioned if he works in Hollywood, but he has a healthy wariness of technology and computers. He mentioned that his friend Al Young lost 140 pages of writing in his computer. He writes in longhand, maintaining an open channel from brain to hand to page. There are corrections, rewrites on a typewriter, then it is given to someone to type onto a disc, and more rewrites. The manuscript could go through five or six drafts. I am typing this on an IBM Selectric, looking over my handwritten notes. I never compose on a computer, although the final draft will end up there.

He said, “The story itself dictates the form it will take,” and his writing comes in different forms: poetry, short stories, screenplays, and journalism. Reminds me of a Bob Dylan line:

Anything I can sing, I call a song. Anything I can’t sing, I call a poem. Anything I can’t sing or anything that’s too long to be a poem, I call a novel.

(from the jacket notes to Freewheeling Dylan)

Gifford finds short stories the most challenging. The seven novels that make up the Sailor and Lula saga (beginning with Wild at Heart) average only 70 pages each. He learned “an economy of language” from writing poetry in his early years. He said that writing screenplays is completely different.

He thinks people write too much because of computers, becoming virtually longwinded. It’s too easy, and there is a “lack of editorial taste.” Instead of sitting in a college classroom he was doing construction jobs. He generally maintains a “Hemingway-style” approach to writing. Dog bites man… man bides his time… a woman in the tide. But he puts it through a blender of his own 20th century torque, often in a manner which evokes “William Faulkner by way of B-movie film noir, porn paperbacks, and Sun Records rockabilly.”

He read one of the stories from his book.

“Do you like cemeteries?” “Not since my dad died.”

A jackhammer started up outside, but fortunately there were microphones. I asked him how Wild at Heart came to the attention of Lynch, and what was it like working with him. He didn’t have much to say about it — Lynch is good to work with, etc. Another film, Perdita Durango, was based on one of his novels. Here’s a description:

In addition to the ample dosage of sex and violence, distribs in some censorship-sensitive territories may balk at certain scenes involving fetus-trafficking, rape and pedophilia, not to mention a bizarre, graphic depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. But the tongue-in-cheek tone that prevails makes all of this relatively innocuous.

I asked him after the event about his steady output of prose, and if it required a lot of coffee. I went through a long phase of writing on coffee and cigarettes which left me with piles of writing which I am still editing. He thought at first I was referring to the Jim Jarmusch film, Coffee and Cigarettes, but said no, he doesn’t use stimulants and hasn’t done drugs since 1970.

roadendsOther points that came up during the Q and A: He is color-blind — he sees everything in shades of gray. When working on a movie, it is harder to arrange the funding than to write the screenplay. While he manages a certain verisimilitude about his hard-luck characters, he was never in jail. He knows people who have done time, and his father did a year or so in prison. Someone asked if he writes psychological profiles of his characters before starting a book. He stared blankly and said no — what is this, Psychology 101? Also: there are no rules. He said that Kerouac revised his work, it wasn’t all just stream of consciousness and don’t look back. A woman poet asked whether young people going on an odyssey is still possible, and if it tends to be a working class phenomenon. He thought it was a good question and knocked it around for a while.

He ended by reading a recent poem, “The Disappeared,” and then we all went away.

Steven Gray

Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).