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Maybe the People Would Be the Times

Luc Sante interviewed by Oscar Mardell.



3:AM Magazine: Maybe the People Would Be the Times collects fifty-one pieces, written over twenty-six years, with subjects ranging from spirit photography to Patti Smith, Belgian Crime to Lyn Ward; but the collection feels seamless, with each piece segueing perfectly into the next. Writing the individual pieces, did you ever sense that they were parts of a larger work?

Luc Sante: Not exactly, although there are several items here (notably “Hooliganism,” “The Seventh,” and parts of “E. S. P.”) that were salvaged from an abortive novel that preoccupied me for years without ever being resolved. But a lot of the echoing is just the usual echoing in a writer’s head. When I was putting together the collection I was at first irritated that there were so many repetitions of details and anecdotes, but then I started to see that as an asset, and went searching for forgotten items along the same lines.

3:AM: In a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, you discussed the calm that you’ve found making collage under quarantine. Do you see Maybe the People as a version of the same practice?

LS: No. Collage allows for a certain remove, but language puts me under the hot lights. For the first four months of COVID I couldn’t write at all. Collage is low-intensity, but many of the pieces herein are very high-intensity.

3:AM: Each piece is appended with the date of its first publication — and this allows readers to construct a chronology, to trace your development as a writer; but what’s really interesting, in this respect, is that the pieces from the nineties feel as contemporary as those from the last few years. Have you noticed your writing change in that time?

LS: I think I’ve learned over time to cut ever more bullshit from my writing, and much of the stuff I wrote more than twenty years ago I can’t read now because of the cloud of intended effect that surrounds and maybe conceals it. That said, I do rediscover pieces I can barely remember writing, and there are a few pieces that I couldn’t fit into Kill All Your Darlings, which was more strictly an essay collection.

3:AM: The ‘Times’ here aren’t exactly linear. The pieces in the collection aren’t arranged in chronological order, and most are concerned with some form of temporal displacement: pasts that refuse to stay buried, presents that are visible only in retrospect. What draws you to these disturbances?

LS: My experiments with time began in childhood, when my parents and I spent four years yoyoing between Belgium and the United States, which were nine or eleven hours apart by plane or four to seven days by boat, but at least thirty years apart culturally and technologically. Somehow one day I could be traveling by car and watching television, and soon after going everywhere by foot or streetcar and using straight pens and inkwells in the classroom. Growing older has something to do with it, too. I can feel that I live next door to 1975, but 1987 is four centuries ago, while I can time-travel to 1907 or 1878 without much difficulty. Still, historical time is a measuring stick I rely on to order my thoughts. I always think of a Saul Steinberg drawing in which the centuries appear as shelves in a bookcase. Not coincidentally, I shelve my books — the “literature” section — chronologically.

3:AM: The ‘People’, too, are often displaced in some way. Many of your subjects are migrants, vagrants, and orphans — of one kind or another; figures ahead of their times or without precedents, barred from the establishment or lacking obvious homes. Again, what attracts you to these characters?

LS: That, too, is very autobiographical. I’m an only child, without first cousins or other same-age family members, and I was an immigrant child, isolated with just my parents in the new world, with no other immigrants around in those days, let along French-speaking ones. I grew up very much alone. And what is my home town? I feel a deep attachment to Verviers, the city in Belgium where I was born and at least 800 years of my ancestors were born, but I haven’t lived there since the age of one and have no people there anymore. New York City was my elective home town, but I was dragged out of there against my wishes, and then it changed beyond recognition. So I feel a special kinship with Vivian Maier, and Simenon is a very dark mirror reflection, and I can nod to Lynd Ward from one crag to another, and so on.

3:AM: Much of the collection is directly rooted in personal experience — discussing your life and your ancestry, the places you’ve lived and the people you’ve known. You’ve spoken several times about the difficulty you’ve had with autobiographical modes of writing — particularly in regard to The Factory of Facts (1998). Are you satisfied with the result this time?

LS: Yes I am. I’ve learned when to deflect, when to use fictional elements, how to talk about myself by purposely not talking about myself.

3:AM: In the preface to Low Life (1991), you warned that nostalgia is “a state of inarticulate contempt for the present and fear of the future”. Maybe the People is far from teary-eyed, and anything but inarticulate; but do parts of it stem from a place of contempt? Even fear?

LS: Well, it’s unavoidable after a certain point and successive waves of distancing from what feels like the bedrock. In other words, we are all in our youth training to enter a mode of life that will have ceased to exist by the time we attain the right age to enter it. I was born into the world of paper and ink, of arranging social life by pure chance because nobody answered their phone, of learning about the world by scanning the contents of the nearest newsstand, etc. I employ the digital world and have done so for 23 years, but I will never be comfortable there, and while I think the Internet is an enormous convenience I also think it’s an enormous social mistake, at least as great as the private automobile. I have a home, but I am not at home in the world now — but can any of us say they are, between fascism and climate change, not to mention the pandemic?



Oscar Mardell

Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 16th, 2020.