May 19, 2013

Ducking the Question


In a shocking turn of events for the American media, in recent months revered and brilliant novelist Thomas Pynchon has been sniggling his way into the mainstream news more often than you’d expect. An honest-to-god NOVELIST, mind you! That he’s a novelist who actually matters, who’s actually good, and one many consider the greatest of all time makes it even more mind boggling. No such thing has been known to happen since the late fifties, when people still bought books and writers were still considered an important and influential part of the cultural landscape.

            More shocking still, Mr. Pynchon has been making the news for two unrelated reasons, neither involving a drunk driving arrest or an unwholesome but titillating sex scandal involving a midget stripper.

            First, it was announced last month that he would be releasing a new novel, Bleeding Edge, in October. For most authors, such news would be met with less than a shrug and most certainly would never be reported in the Washington Post. In Mr. Pynchon’s case, however, given his stature and the rarity of such an event over the course of his fifty year career (this will only be his ninth novel), it’s cause for a great deal of anticipatory giddiness among those who can still read.

            And second, famed and highly respected filmmaker P.T. Anderson, one of the few living filmmakers I still give a tinker’s damn about, is poised to start shooting Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Mr. Pynchon’s previous novel.

            For years the Pynchon geeks have been spending an awful lot of time on their little message boards blue-skying about what director might be best suited to make a Pynchon film (should Pynchon ever agree to sell the rights to Hollywood, which seemed doubtful). Considering the nature of his work—the complex and tangled multiple story lines, the blend of high and low culture, and the amount of obscure science and mathematics that often works its way into the mix—it would take someone with a unique and rare intelligence and style. That narrowed things down considerably. People thought of Kubrick, but then he died. Others mentioned David Cronenberg, but then his films stopped being quite so weird. I couldn’t think of anyone myself except for a guerilla filmmaker named Craig Baldwin, but I knew that was a long shot. Then it was reported that P. T. Anderson, who’d made There Will be Blood and The Master, was cutting a deal, and everything finally came together. He was the perfect choice.

            Inherent Vice, a sort-of old fashioned detective story that wanders through the pot haze of early seventies Los Angeles, will mark the first time one of Mr. Pynchon’s works has been turned into a feature. That, combined with the fact that a popular filmmaker like P.T. Anderson is directing it and some big stars are lined up to appear in it has generated an almost endless stream of buzz over the last several months.

            So with all this going on I’ve decided to jump right into the middle of it all and use it as an opportunity to tell a funny story and maybe even indulge in (ironically enough given the subject matter) a bit of cheap and shameless self promotion.

            For reasons I have never understood, Mr. Pynchon has been extraordinarily kind to me over the years, writing a couple of blurbs for some of my books and what-not. I’m extremely grateful for this, though it has led to its share of misunderstandings. From the moment that first blurb appeared and for years afterward, every single editor I’ve had at every single publication I’ve written for (and there have been a bunch) has approached me with the same ridiculous request: “Will you get us an interview with Pynchon?”

            See, the magnificent leap of logic there is that since a perennial Nobel contender would have no other cause to pay attention to a low-rent hack such as myself, I must have a solid in, a mysterious level of access. Maybe I was blackmailing him or something, right? Otherwise it just made no fucking sense. But even if that was the case and I did have an in (I don’t), and even if you’ve never read any of the novels, you know at least one thing about him: Mr. Pynchon has never given an interview and does not allow himself to be photographed.

            Because of this, the numbskulls in the media make a leap of their own and call him a recluse. But there is a difference between a recluse like, say, J.D. Salinger (who saved his own urine in mason jars), and someone who has simply opted from the start not to play the publicity game that inevitably pushes the personality above the work. He’s one of those rare individuals left in the world who believe the work is what matters and want to leave their own personality out of it. It’s something to be admired.

            So anyway, coming to me and asking if I can get an interview is a cementhead move on all fronts. I can’t ask and he wouldn’t answer. Originally I responded very bluntly and simply: “Yeah, ah, see, that just ain’t gonna happen.”

            It did the trick, sure, but you know, it wasn’t as funny as it could have been. This was a situation that called for something straight out of MAD magazine’s “Snappy Answers to stupid Questions.” So the next time I was asked (it’s never too long before it crops up again) I leaned back in my chair all Joe Cool and told my editor, “Yeah, I might be able to arrange something.”

            “Really?” he asked, all sparkly-eyed and dumb.

            “Maybe. No promises. But there are a couple of ground rules. Three things we need to promise straight off the bat.”

            “Okay,” he said eagerly, nodding like a jackass. “Of course.”

            “Okay, first we can’t discuss his personal life at all. Nothing about his family, his home life, his past, anything like that. Second thing is, we can’t discuss his work at all. And finally, we cannot use his name or give any indication at all that it’s him. So in short, see, what you’ll get is a feature interview involving two guys talking about Destroy All Monsters for 5,000 words.”

            That’s when The Big Hint finally hit home and his face fell. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah, I get it.” Then he went away. It’s worked like a charm ever since.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.