David McConnell is the author of The Silver Hearted (February 2010). His novel The Firebrat came out in 2003. His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. He lives in New York City.
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David McConnell has been writing and thinking about the written word his entire life. In every important way self-taught, he put together his own curriculum of ancient literature, classics with a big “C” (Chaucer, Chateaubriand), Oulipo, and English and French outliers like J.R. Ackerly, Raymond Roussel, Pierre Loti, Henry Green, Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Cravan. McConnell is fond of science fiction and also enjoys outdated popular writers like Captain Marryat and Gustave LeRouge.
His fictionalized memoir, The Firebrat, came out in 2003 and was nominated for a Violet Quill Award. After The Silver Hearted, a novel of delirious imagination (and a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley and the Lambda awards), he re-imagined “True Crime” non-fiction in American Honor Killings which won the 2014 American Library Association Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Award for Non-Fiction. He's now at work on a memoir about his relationship with a man on death row.
On his mother's side he's descended from judges, divines, Brook Farm abolitionists and ultimately from New England Puritans like Roger Conant and Deacon Samuel Chapin. His grandmother, brusque and a little haughty, was stingy with her memories, perhaps for fear of rambling. She used to say the family was known for loud voices, big hands and clannishness. His mother's father was an industrialist with an interest in the family-founded Reliance Electric Co. (In 1907 "Electricity" had the business cachet "Silicon" does now.) Exxon bought Reliance in 1979.
As a child, when he spent the night at his Aunt Mary Holloway's house, McConnell and she played a game called "Stock Ticker." Aunt Mary always invested in "Industrials," and they always went down. Even so, it was a good game. She laughed at her losses.
McConnell went to The Hawken School, then Choate/Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Connecticut from which he "withdrew" after two years. Back at Hawken for half a year, he dropped out again. He finally graduated from Shaker Heights High School. He lasted a year at Columbia College in New York City.
With Nora Wright he rented a sprawling farmhouse in Stephentown, New York. There, they kept cats and friends and experimented with nudism and marksmanship and published a literary magazine (along with the poet Tory Dent and James Cheney).
Peripatetic for a while, McConnell lived in a white high rise overlooking Lake Erie, then sublet the painter Joe Brainard's Green Street loft in New York City, then moved to Hudson, New York, for a single gloomy year, then relocated to Paris, France, for five.
After returning to New York, he got a pilot's license and, for a short time, taught elementary Math to prisoners on Riker's Island. After learning his old Greek and Latin teacher had died, he regretted never returning a borrowed copy of Catullus, and, in an unusual dramatic gesture for such a reserved person, he threw the book into the Hudson River.
He now lives with sometime Mississippi businessman Darrell Crawford in a West Chelsea townhouse once built on spec by slave owner Clement Clark Moore (an ancestor of Aunt Mary's daughter's husband as it happens).
A Short Interview - August, 2009
Q: People call your writing beautiful . . .
DMcC: “Beautiful” is kind of an insult, isn’t it?
Q: I think they mean to praise you.
DMcC: Some do, some don’t. It’s a tricky subject. Personally I won’t go near a book described as “beautiful” or “lyrical” or “poetic” or full of “fine writing.” I know I’ll hate it. On the other hand, yes, language is incredibly important to me. I don’t understand how people can think a book is good at all if the writing is bland or shoddy. Story and writing are inseparable to me. Anti-intellectual grousers who dismiss great books as all complex style annoy me just as much as the snobs who patronize Dennis Cooper. I don’t understand style partisans. I can get equally excited about Raymond Carver and Ronald Firbank. My “beauty” involves all sorts of things that aren’t in the beautiful/lyrical/poetic lexicon—deliberate awkwardness, for example, or a moment of over-the-top-complexity, a great metaphor that’s a bit of a stretch, abrupt or deliberately ugly passages, plain passages, even in-tune loveliness sometimes. Also, “beautiful writing” is like that droning voice people think they have to adopt to recite poetry. In other words, it’s extraneous, a pretentious add-on. I like to think every word I use is necessary, even when there’re a lot of them. Anything beautiful has to be intrinsic.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
Q: Why bother writing at all nowadays? The audience is tiny. Getting something out there is difficult, and the rewards seem meager.
DMcC: Books have a few things going for them that no other art form has. First, it’s the supreme—really the only—art form of the inner life. Nothing can change that. That’s why the so-called “interior monologue” looked like such a revolution. It appeared that literature had gotten to its very essence. And even though nobody writes that way now, it’s still a perfectly viable technique. The standard bits of interior monologue in schlock serial killer novels, for instance, sound just like Les lauriers sont coupés . I wish more people would read those ambitious modernist works. There’s so much out there. I prefer passages in the very Joycean Omensetter’s Luck to the Molly Bloom monologue in Ulysses. (Joyce can get surprisingly cornball when his humor ebbs.)
Another unique strength of books is compression. No matter how sophisticated we get with visual language, when the time comes to learn about cladistics or Bantu history you’re not going to download a two-minute clip from YouTube. And the power of compression applies to books that aren’t textbooks, too. The old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words really means that a picture is worth a thousand descriptive words. And anyway I love descriptive language. To me a phrase like “the red scarf” is worth a thousand pictures.
Finally, there’s something wonderful about books that’s so obvious people don’t notice it. Literature is the art of language. That makes it the most democratic art, because everybody can think and speak. So, in theory, everybody’s a writer. In fact, in our wildly democratizing age, as the novel withers and memoir and non-fiction and casual blog writing take over, everybody really is becoming a writer. I think that’s great. I don’t worry about literature at all. I only sometimes worry that in our headlong abandonment of the formal, metaphorical, expert and even rhetorical (to use a dirty word) aspects of language, we’re allowing culture to become much less complex, muting and in some cases losing the unobvious ideas and fine distinctions that take centuries to accumulate. I also think a canon—a body of culture that every educated person shares—is important, and that doesn’t exist anymore. There’re too many educated people, too much art and too many competing traditions, and, oddly enough, the result is that everybody seems stupid and the arts seem dull, scattered and aimless.
I do get pissed about the total domination of pop culture sometimes. I understand why it happened. But I wish people would stop pretending they’re battling a monolithic snob high culture with their love of trash and guilty pleasures. You won, already. You’re the monolith now.
Q: What about The Silver Hearted? It’s a weird book, and I mean that in the best sense.
DMcC: You sound like me. “Weird” is always a compliment. One of the things I wanted to try was to put the most controlling personality imaginable in the most out-of-control situation possible. Then find out what happens morally. So I stripped my rich narrator of his money and his sense of himself and I stuck him in a made-up tropical country with a culture as garish and exotic as I could imagine. Then I started an indigenous uprising in the country. So the book is basically one long emergency, one long case of panic.
And as my narrator is realizing that his imagination really isn’t up to the cruelty, violence and anarchy he finds all around him, I wanted the reader to share in the unsettling experience in the guise of reading a somewhat old-fashioned adventure story. So, without ever being arty I hope, I tried to introduce jerky elements like quick cuts in film and little flaws in the narration that could lead one to think (though I wouldn’t want to be firm about this, and in fact I’m not certain) that the whole thing is a fever dream.
Also I wanted to make homosexuality an unquestioned background. I wasn’t interested in “gay” issues or in writing a minority point of view. The homosexuality in the book is really more like prison sexuality than it is like gay life. It’s brutal and tender, and civil rights or marriage rights just don’t figure. Those issues don’t exist.
From a 2003 interview about The Firebrat . . .
Jim Marks: There’s a Wordsworthian quality—emotion recollected in tranquility—to The Firebrat. Events in the book take place fifteen or more years ago. Was this—I’m thinking particularly about the AIDS theme—too emotional to write about at the time?
David McConnell: I think I’m mostly responsible for the long delay, though I’d like to answer that fiction is a slow art, even in an era of news cycles inhospitable to long, deep projects. My dreamy lack of urgency could easily have concealed a fear to grapple with what you have to grapple with to attempt meaningful work. I agree there’s something typically romantic about this book, which is a species of outpouring. Wordsworth says the tranquility recedes and you resurrect old emotion in a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” I guess that describes my impersonation of an earlier self. But it’s really Elliot who is utterly romantic, though he does everything to try not to be.
JM: Contributing to the preserved-in-amber quality of the book is the style, which is both playful and precise. How was your sense of style formed?
DMcC: All writing has style, even if it’s plain style. I think style is inseparable from everything else. People who fault writers for being merely stylists are usually saying writers who have a rich style and whom they don’t like much, aren’t very good. A book that’s all simple sentences and no metaphor is also the work of a “mere stylist” if it turns out to be vapid. Style has a lot of sources, some so deep they almost seem genetic, like handwriting. At some point you just start expressing yourself the way you do. It’s your voice. The great discipline comes later. You have to force your quirky, unbalanced way of expressing yourself into alignment with the world or with exactly what it is you want to say. In The Firebrat Elliot is almost literally in love with his own voice. There may be a little autobiography in that. I started out exclusively interested in language and technique. It was totally demented.
JM: The attitude toward sex in the book is complicated. On the one hand Elliot has an avid interest in sex: when he meets a couple he starts trying to figure out who is top and who is bottom. Yet at the same time he is disdainful of homosexuals, and at one point refers to sex as more of an obligation than a pleasure. Should we read this conflicted attitude as part of a larger theme of the way gay men were reacting to sex at the height of the plague years?
DMcC: Elliot revels in sexual gloom sometimes, and I think that was a way gay men tried to make the scariness of AIDS erotic. But in general I’d say his attitudes toward sex show more masculine quirks than gay ones. I think people imagine men have fewer hang-ups about sex than women do—except for performance anxiety, maybe. I doubt that’s true. We can barely keep a straight face nowadays when notions of honor and dignity come up in public—they sound so primitive; they make you think of a Talib beating his sister to death because some guy gave her a funny look—but those weird, destructive notions are still at work in private. Our vocabulary is just psychologized. We call them issues of self-respect, control, top or bottom. The animal ethologist’s “alpha male” has even become a popular term. Some men are so caught up in these issues that sex serves virtually a ritual purpose in their lives. The idea of pleasure itself is too feminine.
JM: I was a little sorry that the gym guy never came back into the book. Was he a red herring? Part of a conscious effort to make the point that life leaves lots of loose ends?
DMcC: Rather than deal with a single obsessive relationship, I wanted to show that all of the narrator’s interactions were misfiring in the same way. The loose ends and the scruffy arrangement of incident might have something to do with my old irritation at the irreality of the usual tidy plot structure. But also, presenting experience in shreds perfectly reflects Elliot’s teetering uncertainty about what it is the scenes of his life add up to. It’s a novel of education, but, more than that, it’s very much his own book. So voice and structure are both, in a sense, character traits.