Charles Baxter was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Macalester College, in Saint Paul. After completing graduate work in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he taught for several years at Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1989, he moved to the Department of English at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and its MFA program. He now teaches at the University of Minnesota. Baxter is the author of 4 novels, 4 collections of short stories, 3 collections of poems, a collection of essays on fiction and is the editor of other works.
Hot Metal Bridge: Setting is always an important part of your work, especially the state of Michigan. Five Oaks is even featured twice, once in Shadow Playand then again in Saul and Patsy. What is it about place that you find so intriguing, and do you find yourself more comfortable writing locations you intimately know?
Charles Baxter: Every writer, I think, discovers his or her imagination’s home. Mine is the Midwest. When I daydream, the daydreams occur here. But now that I’ve traveled, I find that I’m also obsessed with other places and have therefore located parts of my stories and novels in New York City, Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Buffalo. Places don’t define the people who live in them, but they tint them emotionally. I’m after that tint.
HMB: Your most recent novel involves two men claiming to be the same person, something you’ve admitted has happened to you. Does much of your real life bleed into your fiction, or was this a case of something so extraordinary happening that you just had to get it into your work?
CB: It was the latter. Nothing like that had ever happened to me–someone going around claiming to be Charles Baxter–and . . . well, it hasn’t happened to much of anybody else, either. I just had to write about it. Of course, the way it happens in the novel is not how it occurred in real life, but the ground-situation obsessed me, and finally I got rid of that obsession.
HMB: Spirituality factors into many of your books including parts of your short story collection Believersand in the novel Shadow Playwhere a character is trying to write her own bible. Is this theme something you find particularly interesting? Do you get hung up on certain subjects and spar with them over a few books before moving onto something new, or are there career long obsessions that you’ve been wrestling with since you began writing?
CB: The poet Roethke wrote in his notebooks, “Get down to where your obsessions are.” Quite a few Protestant preachers figure among my ancestors, and for much of my life, I was conscious of a presence of some kind–not God, exactly, but something–that I wanted to define because I could feel it/her/him. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I got something of that into Shadow Play, and there are several God-tormented characters in my stories, particularly “Prowlers,” which is almost like an Ingmar Bergman movie.
HMB: I’ve read that you originally tried to teach yourself to write mainly by working on novels, and when that didn’t work, you moved onto short stories. How did that shift help you advance as a writer, and can you talk about some of the most important lessons about writing that you discovered early on?
CB: Short stories concentrate the attention in a way that novels don’t. If you make a wrong turn in a story, you can usually tell right away. That period, when I was young and writing bad novels, is still somewhat nightmarish to me. It was as if I couldn’t write anything that anyone would like or enjoy. The only important lesson I learned from any of this was to write characters who might actually exist and might be plausible. It’s a terrible lesson to have to learn, but I tried to learn it.
HMB: Has your reading taste changed over the years as you’ve become a more experienced writer? Who were some of your favorites when you were just starting out compared to now?
CB: When you’re an adolescent, you read writers who speak to you, and then you grow older and you want to read something else that speaks to your condition. When I was young, I read the usual stuff, and when I aged, my tastes changed rather drastically. I’d rather not name names.
HMB: Has the way you write dramatically changed over the years? Do you have a set routine? Do you do anything to prepare to write? I’ve heard other authors talk about how they read a poem or a short story before they get down to the desk. Do you have any habits like that, or would you find them distracting to the task at hand?
CB: Sometimes when I’ve gone dry, I read work by writers whom I feel close to and who can charge me up: Katherine Anne Porter, John Cheever, Deborah Eisenberg. If I’m in full creative cry, I don’t have to read anybody. I can just start. But I also need a lot of time ahead of me and no other pressing concerns.
HMB: During a 1997 interview with the Beatrice Blog you said that you preferred writing short stories to novels and felt that you were better at shorter forms than longer ones. Do you still believe that now? Have your opinions on the matter shifted at all?
CB: Yes, I still believe that, and, no, my opinions have not shifted in the least.
HMB: Although you’re mainly known for your fiction, you’ve also published some nonfiction and poetry as well. Can you discuss what it’s like to work within three genres and if there’s any interplay between them for you? Does writing a poem feel completely different from writing a short story, or is the transition between them easier to navigate than some might think?
CB: When I go to the AWP convention, I’m often recognized as the author of Burning Down the House, a book of essays on fiction, which has been used in quite a few creative writing classes. It’s a relief for me to write criticism; it takes less out of the soul. It’s less of a drain. You just sit there and let the ideas leak out of your brain. The spigot of poetry has almost completely dried up for me. I can hardly remember writing poems now. There’s a great deal of psychic wear-and-tear when you’re writing good poems. Almost no one can write good poems anyway. I can’t, anymore. I can’t tell you how much I admire people who can.
HMB: You’ve taught in MFA programs for years, but you actually received a Ph.D. in English. How was that experience different from what your MFA students go through, and do you think one is more valuable than the other in terms of becoming a writer?
CB: Well, I got a Ph.D. from a wonderfully brilliant and weird Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in the early 1970s. There’s never been anything like it; it’s no longer like that now. It was almost like a creative writing program in ideas. Ideas were flying around the place like bats flying around a bat cave. It was very stimulating, but although it was almost like a creative writing program, it wasn’t a creative writing program, although John Barth and John Logan and Robert Creeley and Helene Cixous taught there. It’s hard to describe, but I tried to get it into my latest book, The Soul Thief.
HMB: A lot of your students have gone on to make names for themselves as writers, including Michael Byers who we’ve also interviewed for this issue. How do you run your workshops and is there any piece of advice that you pass along to all of your students?
CB: Advice: be stubborn. Don’t quit. When your work is being critiqued, stay patient until you hear something that you can use. Ignore the rest. When you’re running a workshop, make sure that the students describe the work first before they go on to critique it. Spend at least fifteen minutes on description. Try to see how the content matches (or is mismatched) with the form of the piece. Don’t make too many suggestions. That’s about it.