Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Remembering Leon Forrest (pt. 2)

Here’s more of my 1993 interview with novelist Leon Forrest. We pick up after I sat in on one of his classes at Northwestern, during which he discussed Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
LEON FORREST: Literature, I must say, saved my life. I’d be over there on skid row if it wasn’t for literature. (laughs)

DAVID MILLS: Golly. How do you mean?

FORREST: Literature, in teaching it and also trying to write it, gave me something extraordinary to live for. Because generally, and ‘bout nearly every other way, I’m an enormously mediocre to even less-than-average person. I was never good at anything particularly. In a crowd of people I never was able to assert my voice. But seemingly this was the one thing that gave me something to live for.

Also, I think, too, life has always to me been filled with chaos. And it’s in literature that I find some pattern, some order, in the misery and the heartbreak and the folly of life. The one place where I can find some leverage.

Concerning something like Dostoevsky, who goes to chaos – he’s drawn to it, and sees this as the way life is – then, out of that, to find a pattern, or to create a pattern. Well, this can be very instructive, I think, for people generally. …

I’ve got to, I feel, sort of awaken these students to the power and lyricism of things.

MILLS: Now that’s a job, right there.

FORREST: That’s a job. It’s hard to get people willing to surrender their attention and mind and soul to what is obviously very passionate literature. So that’s a problem.

MILLS: They made me read “Crime and Punishment” in high school. And I haven’t read a novel since high school. It is not a part of my living. I can remember nothing about the book, having had to read it, and having had to read “Wuthering Heights” and “Jude the Obscure” and stuff like that. I’ve become a writer, yet I don’t have a passion for reading. Because it just seems very demanding. I don’t read very fast –

FORREST: I don’t read very fast either.

MILLS: It takes a great commitment of time. I just don’t find myself with the discipline –

FORREST: This is a problem in the modern world. That everything is given to us through these images. Even the J-schools teach you to write in short sentences and short paragraphs. But it’s an unfortunate thing that’s happened in society. We’ve moved away from this reverence for literature. That if it takes, say, two or three weeks to read a novel of this length, that the rewards will be life-sustaining. And that it will be something that you can return to all of your life.

There are books like this that I’ve been reading since I was a young man, or sometimes even when I was in high school, and I’m still reading and learning from. Well, that’s what I’d like to do as a novelist about the black experience. To offer something that could be enriching the way “Invisible Man” has been for me. I’ve been reading it since I was about 18.

MILLS: When did it happen for you, your love for it?

FORREST: I was sort of in love with writing, in the way that a young man is passionate about a woman or something, when I was in my teens. But the thing that attracted me to literature then was the emotion of language, the romance of it. It was much later that I began to realize, if I was going to be a writer – and a good serious reader – that I would have to develop intellectually.

That’s quite different from music, for instance. I can appreciate a lot of music without expending a lot of intellectual energy for it. Music, in that sense, seems to be more native, I guess. Even when you’re talking about some classical music and certain difficult jazz musicians.

But literature is primarily the life of the mind and the spirit. It’s a much more intellectual enterprise, and it demands a much more sustained memory, sustained reflection and sustained commitment to time. Writing is a kind of priesthood, in a sense. I didn’t feel this way when I was a young man. I wanted to write very much, but I didn’t know of the extraordinary commitment that it takes. I mean, writing demands everything.

MILLS: When did you come to know this?

FORREST: When I got out of the Army in 1962, I had dropped out of college, and I was getting over several things – a big romance I had been involved in, and perhaps even more importantly the death of my mother. So I went to a professor I had at the University of Chicago I was very fond of, and learned quite a bit from him in the classes I had taken with him. And I showed him something I had been writing, the beginning of a novel. Maybe about 100 pages of it.

He was rather surprised at some of the progress in there, but he wasn’t overly encouraging. So I said, “Do you think I ought to go on and commit myself?” Not to the madhouse, but to writing. He was also a short-story writer…

MILLS: What’s his name?

FORREST: His name was Perrin Lowrey. He was an interesting Southern white man. He knew Ellison, and he was also interested in jazz. But he said, “Why don’t you go on and try?” He says, “One thing for sure: If you don’t, you’ll always be miserable.”

I suppose I was ready to make a break for it anyway. But that was a turning point in my life. It was late; I was in my late 20s then. I had been sort of fumbling around with writing. Dropping in and out, moving from wanting to be a poet to a fiction writer.

So what I did for a long time was to work for newspapers, where I would only work maybe 30 hours a week, and I could write in the morning or in the evening when I came home. Since I was single, it was enough money to support myself. As the journalism career began to develop more and more, I finally did work full-time when I went to Muhammad Speaks. By then I was in my early 30s. I got married when I was 34. So I was doing both; I would write at work, and then come home in the evenings and pursue the novel.

My first novel was accepted for publication in 1971. It was published in ’73, with Toni Morrison [as editor] there at Random House.

MILLS: As critics have noted since “Divine Days” came out, you have not received your due. With so much of yourself invested in the writing, how important is it to you that, in your lifetime, you be recognized?

FORREST: I think I worry more about the books being recognized. Because when I’m gone, the books’ll be here.

All the time we were talking today about Dostoevsky, we weren’t really talking about him, we were talking about “Crime and Punishment.” I can’t be here years from now and say, “Listen, readers, didn’t you see this and that in the book?” The books will have to live or die on their own power and merit.

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