Portland Oregon, 16 September 2008, revised October 2011 and November 2013.
Noel previously helped out the site by providing this Panic interview translation.
Noel King: Could you say how you came to set up your DeLillo website, 'Don DeLillo's America'? How did it connect to the state of play with the 'world-wide web' at that time, and why did you select DeLillo as the author to whose work you would devote your efforts.
Curt Gardner: Well, let's go back to 1995, at that time the whole world-wide web was almost more of a rumour than a reality, it hadn't really taken off yet. And I started hearing about this thing, 'www', the world-wide web, so I started getting interested, wondering what is this thing? And I started digging around with whatever search tools were available at that time, probably Yahoo. And I also started looking around at author websites for authors that I liked, to see what was available already.
NK: Such as?
CG: For instance, Thomas Pynchon, and I found out he had been covered quite well already. Even by late 1995, there were several sites up an running on Pynchon. But then I searched on DeLillo, and found very little at that time had been done. There was a woman in Seattle who had a page set up as a 'Don DeLillo quotation of the week.' She would rotate a new quote every week, and she had scans of some paperback covers of DeLillo novels, along with a few other things, but that was about it.
If we go back a few years earlier, while I was in school at Berkeley I had access to the big library there, and I think it was while I was there I had come across In the Loop by Tom LeClair, the first serious analysis of DeLillo's novels. LeClair's book had the best bibliography available on DeLillo's work, and it listed the early short stories that were pretty inaccessible as they were printed in relatively obscure journals. But at Berkeley of course they had all the journals in which the stories had appeared, and so by the early-to-mid 1990s I had been able to get copies of all the stories that I was aware of. I think I had most of his novels by that point, had read most of them up to that point, and had some of the the first editions.
In that late 1995/early 1996 time frame I was working at a software consulting firm and I got interested in the technical side of how to make web pages and how it all operates. I decided, well, I've got some simple html books, and I've got the content about DeLillo, and he's not really covered. And one other thing I considered was the fact that DeLillo's not like an Updike who's writing a novel or review every other week. He does what he does, but it's quite contained, and I felt I could get it all, I could do 100% coverage, get everything that he's ever done, and get it on the website and really cover it. That was my goal, I wanted to try to cover it all, without my personal critical commentary, and really make it for the average DeLillo fan, whoever that may be.
And as a bit of a book collector, I also like to see what books looked like when they were first published. As I said, I think I had a lot of them, paperback first editions, American mass market editions from when they came out. Once I got the site going, I started investing a bit more money into getting the hard cover editions, and part of it was just to be able to put all the cover images out there on the site. It was definitely a goal not only to have information but also to have pictures of book covers to show what these things looked like at the time they came out.
As time went on I started spending time looking at the different book designs, to see what images were used for each book, what themes come out of the imagery, and I got even more into non-American editions, the book covers of the translations, interested in how the designers interpreted these books and how they marketed them. It began by trying to get all the American original imprints, all the images out there, get the facts out there, all the story.
NK: When did the page go up?
CG: I got the basic framework of the site up in February 1996. I cobbled together a number of pages, one for the novels, one for the stories, one for other essays, one for interviews, and there were a number of other areas that I wanted to cover with whatever I could find.
I got the original skeleton of the site up very quickly, and it's hardly changed in 15 years. All the original pages I set up are still there. There's a little bit of rearrangement that's gone on but not very much. Partly it's just inertia, me being lazy, and partly it's me thinking that it's as good as it needs to be and it provides access to all the things that I want to provide access to.
NK: How did you go locating the interviews? I know he was described as 'reclusive', à la Salinger and Pynchon, but in fact he gave lots of interviews so far as I could make out.
CG: At that time he still very much had a reputation for being reclusive, but in fact he did lots of interviews. Not so much in the 1970s, I don't think anybody much asked him to, but since then, as his profile went up he's done lots of interviews. And part of why I wanted to get this information out there, my hope was that people who were going to interview him would see information that I had logged, and not ask him the same old questions. I like to think that happened, but it's hard to prove. Still, you don't see people asking him about his birthdate any more, so I guess that helped.
NK: What kind of response did you get once your page was out there?
CG: As I said, I got the framework up very quickly and then quite quickly started hearing from a few people, because I put something out there very early on inviting people to send me tips, saying, 'if you know of more information let me know.' I had my email address plastered on every page so people could get in touch with me, and fairly quickly I started hearing from people. For instance one of the early people who got in touch with me was Noah Hawley who at that time hadn't published any books. He was writing at that time but hadn't been published, and he sent me a copy of the Paris Review interview, which I hadn't seen before. Later I met up with him and sold him a copy of Amazons, and he has since written a couple of novels.
I don't know the exact order of all this, but at some point in the first year I got an email out of the blue from Tom LeClair, and he gave me the text of an address on Mao II which he had given which he didn't think was going to be published anywhere, so I put that up on the site.
NK: Who else got in touch?
CG: The person who gave me the next batch of information I hadn't seen before, and if he hadn't provided this stuff I'm not sure anybody would have found it, was Vince Passaro (also a published novelist). He had written a nice New York Times Magazine profile on DeLillo back around 1991, and he got in touch with me and said he had some materials on DeLillo. He sent me 'The White Silhouette' article that had to do with Hitler, the non-fiction article DeLillo had written slightly after White Noise. Since then, it's been republished in the critical edition of White Noise but at that time I'd never heard of it. It was originally published in a journal called Dimensions, which is devoted to Holocaust studies and so it's really a very niche thing, I've never actually seen a physical copy of the journal, only a photocopy of the cover.
Vince Pasarro sent me that, and he sent me the short piece, 'Notes on Americana', a funny little piece that DeLillo wrote a couple of years after the publication of Americana, explaining a bit about the book's themes, and wondering whether it would ever come out in paperback (though I think it did within months of this piece appearing). Tom LeClair hadn't mentioned these two pieces, they'd been published before In the Loop so I don't know if perhaps DeLillo really didn't want them publicized, essentially I had no idea, I'm speculating. I don't know if LeClair knew about them and didn't list them or didn't know about them. But in any case they were new pieces to me and I was so excited about that, being able to list new DeLillo writing that most everyone was unaware of.
NK: And how did you come by some of the translated material?
CG: Particularly after Underworld, people would email me and say, 'Did you know this German paper ran an interview' and then they would offer to send a copy, and sometimes they offered to translate it, and I'd say sure, I'll put it up on the site and credit your contribution. And the other material of that sort came as kind of one-off things. If I had a contact in a country, I'd ask, has there been a translation, could you send images?,.
NK: DeLillo has spoken several times about the literal impact of the typewriter on the page, the shape of words that it forms, on occasions starting new typed pages for each paragraph. And we know that William Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter. Did you get any feedback about what DeLillo thought about your cyberspace work on his writing?
CG: As far as I know DeLillo still doesn't do email and computers.
It's interesting, I don't remember where he first talked about what you are mentioning. It seemed to be a later development, as he described it in discussions of how he wrote. I think he said it was with The Names where he started the paragraphs each on a fresh page, and he first described this whole idea of a sculptural quality to the writing.
NK: That would be appropriate given the etymology of 'character' as relating to inscription on a stone tablet.
CG: I re-read The Names fairly recently and felt it was quite tied to the ancient stones in Greece, the engraving, the mark, character, carving it in stone and how that architectural quality relates to the form of individual letters. DeLillo often talks about the new level of seriousness in his writing dating from the time of The Names.
But in terms of his finding out about the website, exactly when that might have happened is a good question. To be honest I don't know exactly. Given that LeClair found out about the site and LeClair's in contact with DeLillo fairly often, I wouldn't be surprised if he'd first mentioned it to DeLillo. I can't remember the timing very precisely but at some point in 1996 I did write to DeLillo about the site. Actually I had first written to him back after the publication of Libra, I wrote through the publishing company, which was Viking at the time, I sent a letter which I'd probably be slightly embarrassed about now. This was long before the website, in 1988. I had some comments about Libra, and asked him about Americana as well.
NK: Were you in San Francisco at that time?
CG: Yes, I first got to San Francisco in 1988, and during my first few years there I did volunteer work helping RE/Search publications, which generates all sorts of counter-cultural material. And one of the first things I worked on for RE/Search was transcribing a book by J. G. Ballard. V. Vale, the main man at RE/Search, had done a book on Ballard several years before, and had made arrangements with Ballard to do a reprint of The Atrocity Exhibition. And so one of the first things they had me do was transcribe the text of the book, which meant I really got to know that text very well! I had access to a PC at the time, so I was using an early word processing program and manually typing it in from the copy of the book.
One of the things I asked about in that first letter to DeLillo was if he had read Ballard. I felt there was some connection between their writing, that tracking of the media landscape. I feel both of them, in very different ways, have such a sharp eye on the world around them, and a very idiosyncratic way of seeing the world and getting it on paper. So I asked him about that.
NK: And DeLillo answered some of your questions?
CG: Yes. DeLillo replied to my letter in 1988, a typewritten note, as I remember he replied about the Ballard thing, saying, no he hadn't read Ballard but had one on his stack of books that he was going to read, Empire of the Sun.
Along with that letter I also sent him a postcard that I'd found which was a picture from Dallas. I found a postcard of the Ant Farm art collective recreation of the JFK Assassination, the Lincoln Continental or whatever the car was in Dealey Plaza, and so I sent that along just as another piece, a bit of ephemera, and he made some comment about that as well, and I'm not sure he was aware of that recreation at the time.
NK: This is the Ant Farm collective doing their video re-enactment, Eternal Frame, of the J.F.K. assassination in Dallas, where they have a man wearing Jackie's famous pink dress? They also did Cadillac Ranch around that time.
CG: Yes, I think so. Maybe he knew about it before, maybe he didn't, but what was interesting was that very recently in editions of Libra he's added a short introduction, and in there he mentions the Ant Farm fascination, so I like that it's crept in to Libra now.
NK: When did you first meet DeLillo?
CG: He did a small book tour in 1991 for Mao II, and came to Berkeley and did a reading at one of the bookstores in Berkeley, Black Oak Books, and I went to that. Actually I didn't even bring the book along, so I unfortunately didn't get it signed, and I didn't talk to him. I do remember that day being the first time I ever saw a copy of Amazons. A few people brought in their entire stack of DeLillo first editions, it was probably the first time anybody there had seen DeLillo on the west coast, and of course there are a lot of book collectors in Berkeley. I don't know if he signed them all, but he might have. Anyway, I was looking at these people's stacks of books, and I saw this book titled Amazons, and I thought what the hell is that? I'd never heard of it at that time.
The next sign of DeLillo was the appearance of 'Pafko at the Wall' which was published in Harper's magazine, I just found it in the supermarket in '92. And then there was that quiet time, between 'Pafko' and when Underworld came out, you really didn't hear too much for a while, I just assumed he was busy working on a big book.
At some point in 1996, I wrote to him again and I would have told him that I was running a website on him and his work. A bit later in 1997 I put together the 'autobiography', where I patched together all the autobiographical bits from the different interviews in a chronological sequence, the many various things he'd said about his own life. I'm sure I printed that out and sent it to him because I just wanted him to be aware that I was doing this. It would have been thirty pages or more, a sample of what was on the site, I think I probably said that if there were anything he really hated or didn't want out there, let me know.
He replied to that as well, and the only thing that he objected to was that he really didn't like the postings on the money-side of the writing. I think that one of the first reports I'd seen on Underworld was in the New York Post in their Business section, where they ran a little story claiming DeLillo had scored big time, had signed on with Scribners for a million bucks. And that was the one thing he pointed out, saying something like, 'I don't write for money, I don't like it talked about it as if it's a business deal, that's not what I do it for', and that was the only thing he really pointed out as not liking, the monetary aspect and gossip about the money.
NK: So I guess he's never told you how much his papers fetched when they went to the Harry Ransom Center?
CG: Not that I've asked, but no, it hasn't been mentioned. And so I guess I wrote him two or three times in the first couple of years of the site, and since then I haven't written to him at all. I did see him again when he came to San Francisco for an Underworld tour. He came and gave two talks, they weren't just appearances in bookstores, he made it more of a lecture-reading. He had a signing line, so when I got to him I introduced myself and he definitely knew who I was. He asked if I'd received a signed copy of Underworld. There's a limited signed edition that was given out by the publisher, and I had gotten one, and thanked him for that.
But that was about all, we chatted very briefly, I thanked him for coming out, that was really all. I've never interviewed him or anything like that. Maybe if I had ten burning questions that I wanted to ask him, I guess I would but I don't really. I see my work on the website more as documentation, not a new academic look at his work. All of this stuff is already public, I'm not trying to reveal secrets, I'm just trying to make what's already been revealed much more readily accessible.
NK: Has that process become easier over the years as computer technology has ramped up?
CG: Now it's easier but there's such a deluge of information. Back in 1996-97 I spent a lot of hours in the library looking things up, and at one stage I was trying to get scholarly critical articles, I had copies of all of them. At that time I was trying to get every critical reference I could, I was trying to track them down and get copies of them, but at some point I just got kind of tired of it.
NK: You don't say!
CG: And that's not my main interest in the end. I mean, it was my interest and I liked reading them, but in the end I realized that this is a battle I can't win, I can't keep on top of that so I'm not going to try. Fortunately somewhere around that time the 'DeLillo Society' got started up, which had more of an academic focus, and my first thought was, that's fine, I don't want to keep track of all that, if you guys keep a list of critical articles, that would be great, we'll collaborate, if I hear things I'll let you know.
NK: You say you aren't an academic scholar but of course your website is a testimony to dedicated scholarship of a very traditional and admirable sort, the chasing down of obscure references and information and so on. It's clear that there is a strong overlap between the dedicated fansite, what the English would call 'trainspotters' or 'anarak wearers,' and 'pure' academic research. In any event in the recent Cambridge Guide to Don DeLillo your website and the 'DeLillo Society' website are mentioned as research resources.
CG: Well, like I say, when I first started the page the idea was that it was for the 'average reader,' I never intended it as a scholarly thing. I just wanted to get the facts out there, and make it so that people who were interested in DeLillo could find out more about what he's done.
But it also felt appropriate to concentrate less on the academic studies, because he's not an academic person, he's never been in the academy, he doesn't teach, he doesn't write reviews. He initially worked in advertising - to me at least, that informs a lot of what he is, especially the 1970s work, which I find very streetwise. And I just felt, if there's a website on him it should be something that was more about what the facts are, not a whole bunch of theorizing about what he does.
That said, various academic folks have got in touch with me as well, Phil Nel was probably one of the first ones, and at that time he was doing work on DeLillo and was trying to build up his own credentials (he's since gone on to do quite interesting work on children's literature). He suggested that we do an annotated bibliography. And he worked on a lot of the annotations, so I got that out there on the site sometime in 1997. I should say I appreciated the fact that it got a little more rigorous in that academic way of listing all the work that's out there, and by then the website clearly had become a reference point, something to keep building and keep adding things to.
NK: Were you able to work out if you were getting an increase in hits?
CG: In the beginning I didn't have a very good means of tracking the response, so I wasn't really sure. All I knew was that I'd get emails from people, and those started fairly quickly. There was a group of people who were interested in DeLillo and once the site was out there, they found it. And it seemed to attract a steady following. Nowadays I see an ebb and flow probably largely based on the US academic calendar, which is busy in Spring (February-May), then it drops off for some time, then it comes back over September through November, then it drops off again.
A lot of people read White Noise in college, it made the reading lists, and some people are always digging around for information. So if they're working on something about DeLillo they often find the site and they get a lot of the information they need. Some send me a thank you, saying, 'it saved me a lot of time and got me on the right track,' and so on. To me the site is kind of a public service, essentially, I don't put advertising up there, and I never tried to make the site into a bookstore, I never put Amazon links on it and all that kind of thing. And that's tied to DeLillo's independent approach, I didn't feel it was appropriate to try to sell things on the site.
NK: Have there been any issues concerning copyright, and have you had a chance to visit The Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, to see what material is held there in their collection of DeLillo papers?
CG: In 2004 I visited the Ransom Center and spent a few days there looking at things, very soon after they got DeLillo's papers. I had always wanted to go to Austin, and that gave me a good excuse to go. And so I got copies of a few interesting things. My main investigation was on Amazons, I wanted to get the scoop on exactly what this supposed collaboration had been. That's where I devoted a fair amount of time, just going through the materials relating to that book. It's actually quite interesting, because it became clear that there was a collaboration, he had worked with a woman he had known from the advertising days, Sue Buck. She wanted to write and I think he wanted to help her get going.
It's quite funny because there are a set of letters back and forth between the two of them, but they are all chopped up. I think what DeLillo had done is taken all these letters and physically cut them with scissors; basically she had written some parts about the Jumping Frenchman's disease, and some parts about small town life in Philadelphia that played a role in the book to do with where Cleo Birdwell was from, and there are some other parts set in LA I think. These letters have been all chopped up and filed together by subject. He had done that to her writing to organise it. And so there was a bit of detective work to be done by me first of all, fitting the pieces together, because there are various letters from different dates that had been chopped up and reorganised. So I was trying to put them together and organise chronologically what had actually happened, where each bit had come from. I spent quite a while trying to do that, note taking and fitting the pieces together, like a jigsaw puzzle.
And then later I found some very interesting letters between DeLillo and his agent Lois Wallace that directly talked about Amazons. If I had found those first, it would have explained the whole thing but I only found them later. In any case the materials that haven't previously been published, that are only available in the Ransom Center, for instance letters and so forth, as I understand it you have to get permission from the Ransom Center to quote from them. They'll photocopy basically anything for you, but then if you want to quote them you have to get their permission, and I think they may even have to get DeLillo's permission. I decided not to even try, partly because I said I never intended to give away secrets, or reveal the 'gossip'. There's some interesting stuff there, there's good material there if somebody wants to run with it, but I don't feel like I'm that person.
One of the other things I did get was a copy of an exchange with David Foster Wallace which was quite interesting. It made me wonder whether with email now there will be archives like this in the future? In so many instances the only reason we have what is in the Ransom Center is because DeLillo himself made a carbon copy. And nobody does that anymore, nobody has their own letters. In the future, I don't know whether this sort of archive material will exist.
NK: Did you check any material on his blurbing of other writers' books, and his writing of references of support for other writers to receive grant money? I checked out some of that stuff when I had a few days there.
CG: I didn't see any of that. I looked at what was called the first manuscript of Americana which was completely different from the published novel. I could hardly find a line in there that I recognised. It was just a completely different thing, so obviously he wasn't lying when he said that he had a big pile of typewritten manuscript pages that got worked on and worked on.
NK: Seeing the various lists of possible titles for the various books is also intriguing. DeLillo says that it was in the long course of writing Americana that he decided he could make writing his career.
CG: It's an interesting point. Young authors today don't get that luxury of learning on the job. No one's going to spend four years trying to help an author get her act together. But it's clear when you see where he started and where he ended by the time Americana was done, he knew how to write a book.
NK: Nelson Algren's review of Americana for Rolling Stone ends by saying that if you are the sort of person who liked Bob Rafelson's film Five Easy Pieces, then Americana is the book for you.
CG: There's that blurb from Nelson Algren and another one from Joyce Carol Oates for Americana, and it took me a long time to track those down. The Nelson Algren one was credited to Rolling Stone, so that was all I had to go on. At one point I just sat and went through microfilm of Rolling Stone from 1971 and looked for it, and finally found the original review. The search for the Joyce Carol Oates one was even longer, as it did not say where it was from, and then finally someone sent me an email, they'd got it from Joyce Carol Oates's webpage, and so I finally tracked that one down.
I was interested in the reviews, particularly of the early books. Americana didn't get reviewed widely but I wanted to find the ones that were written and take a look at them. I had the 'things I'm looking for' page, and people were quite helpful.
When I started the site I had never seen the original Americana paperback and finally a guy sent me a note and said I have an Americana second printing paperback that you can have if you want. I said yes please, and then I think in the meantime, he found a first printing and sent that along too, what a bonus! I hadn't seen either of these, and then I got them both. And other people sent a link here or there. But I also do a lot of random searching around. In the late 1990s I did quite a bit of digging around chasing up leads on things referenced in footnotes of critical articles and so forth. If I saw a reference to something interesting I'd look it up and usually if I had a good enough reference, I could chase it down because I had access to the Berkeley library. But sometimes, with a poor reference, it was harder.
NK: An example?
CG: Well there was a blurb from a review by another author I quite like, Steve Erickson. I think it appeared in the LA Weekly, but I never knew exactly where it was, and have not found it so far.
Another area where I spent a fair amount of research time was trying to distinguish between things, related to a couple of earlier DeLillo bibliographies I had found. These listed certain short DeLillo pieces, and so I tried to track all those down, trying to figure out, are these things new or not? Are these things stories? They had titles I was not familiar with. A lot of them turned out to be pre-publication excerpts from various books as they came along, but sometimes there would be a few extra DeLillo comments. And it was interesting to find that the excerpting would often put different pieces together, you know, take half of one chapter, half of another chapter. Part of doing the bibliography research was just to clear all that confusion away, to establish the unique pieces of writing, and what are reprints, clearly identify all the work.
NK: You first encounter DeLillo's writing courtesy of a newspaper article your father sent you.
CG: That's right. I don't think I'd heard of DeLillo until my father sent me an article entitled 'Missing Writers' by Tom LeClair (who would later write In the Loop on DeLillo), which came out in October 1981. It must have been in late 1981 or early 1982 when I got it, and it's basically Tom LeClair writing about four authors with a low public profile, including Pynchon, Salinger, DeLillo, and Gaddis.
My father sent it to me because at that time I had read some Pynchon, and I had read some Salinger books, like Catcher in the Rye in high school. But I'd never heard of DeLillo, I think I'd heard of Gaddis, but I hadn't read him and wouldn't read him until quite a while later. But DeLillo, this was the first time I'd ever heard of him. I went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, which is not a particularly big place, but there was a used bookstore downtown. This is 1982, pre White Noise, so DeLillo certainly wasn't on anyone's readings lists or anything and in fact I'm not sure how many of his books were even in print at that time. I went down to the used bookstore and found a paperback copy of End Zone, and so that was the first one I read. I liked that one.
NK: What does your father do?
CG: My dad made his living as a writer, but not as a novelist. He attempted several novels but he never got anything published. He made a living as a newspaper and magazine writer, on both coasts actually. In the 1960s he worked for the Berkeley Gazette, which at that time was a daily paper, so he covered, for instance, the Free Speech Movement, he did stories on that as it was happening. By the early 1980's he was working for an advertising magazine in New York City. He reads a lot as well, and he knew I'd be interested in someone like DeLillo, I think, so that's where it came from.
What's funny is how it is all tied back to Tom LeClair. I believe LeClair and DeLillo first connected in Greece. LeClair spent a lot of time in Greece, I think he played basketball in a Greek league. The 'Missing Writers' article came out around the time DeLillo left Greece; LeClair was a professor of literature and wanted to shed some light on some authors he thought weren't getting enough attention. But of course then it comes back around, when LeClair got in touch with me once the website was up. So that was a really nice circle; by way of my father posting me that article, Tom turned me on to DeLillo, and then he contacted me some 15 years later, and we've stayed in touch since then. I finally got a chance to meet LeClair in Brooklyn in 2010, we had a good lunch at Junior's.
As I remember, when The Names came out in late 1982, I bought a copy for my father for Christmas and he read it, and I might have read it later, I don't think I read it at that time. I really got hooked with White Noise though. I remember finding White Noise at the library one day in the new releases shelf, and I checked that out as well as the new Robertson Davies, because I had read a bunch of his books. I brought both of those books home. As I remember, my dad took White Noise and read it first and then we flip-flopped around and I read it after him, but that was the one that really kind of pulled me in, as it has for so many.
NK: And according to DeLillo, White Noise brought him many more women readers. I wonder where they get that kind of drill-down demographic information?
CG: I suspect it's judging by who writes to him. And I've seen somewhere, I don't know where exactly, in some interview he commented about what his sense of his readership was. It was a fairly early interview, in the early 1980s, before he got bigger. It was quite interesting because he said something like, judging from the letters and stuff that I get, it's a pretty wild group of people that are reading my stuff.
NK: That's where he said that he used to get letters from people who seemed pretty 'unbalanced,' and that was in the era of Running Dog and Great Jones Street. At that stage he also said the only interest from Hollywood would be an occasional contact about turning Great Jones Street into a film. I don't know whether the Hollywood contacts also came under the category of 'unbalanced'!
CG: I can imagine that who he started hearing from after White Noise might have been quite different from what he was used to as he was writing the seventies novels.
NK: He also said of White Noise that he was surprised to find himself writing an 'around the house and in the yard' book, of a type that he used to make jokes about.
CG: For me one of the main strengths of White Noise was that it very much was about what he saw after coming back to the U.S. after being in Greece and the Middle East for three years. You have the domestic angle of course, this crazy patchwork family of kids from all different combinations of parents. And then the whole permeation of television and commercial-speak and brand names and the three word combinations and then the Airborne Toxic Event, and what not, a fascination with all those things and with the media coverage of those things, and all that just seems to encapsulate a moment in a way that no one else really was able to. But I see it as a result of the fact that he was away for those years and then came back, and that gave him the opportunity to see things in America anew.
NK: You said you were in Melbourne, Australia, working when Underworld came out.
CG: It was interesting timing because I'd started the website in early 1996 and at that time it was still unclear what DeLillo's next book would be. 'Pafko' had come out four years earlier, and it was clear that he was working on something but no-one quite knew what it was, what the scope of it was and so forth. By early 1997 the news started getting around about this big book, Underworld, and I remember it got mentioned, the New York Post had a story about selling the rights to it, as I mentioned earlier.
I think it was late 1996 that the typewritten manuscript got shopped around the publishing houses. It was a 1400 page typewritten manuscript. I wish I had bought one. For a little while in mid 1997 you could buy one of those for around $100, and that would have been a nice thing to get. I didn't get one of those, but I did get an advance reading copy, so that would have been about June or July of 1997, the book didn't officially come out until October.
I got my hands on the book in summer of 1997 and then as I read it and saw all the sweep of history through the book, it spurred me on to enhance the website, to get it ready and put more information up on to the site that directly related to Underworld, to try to really correspond in time with the actual release of the book. Two projects came out of that. One was to put together something I mentioned earlier, that stitched together 'autobiography' from the interviews. Given that Underworld works its way back to the Bronx, and is clearly tied to DeLillo's life, I thought it would be nice to shed a little bit more light on his life story, to make it more obvious.
As I say, it's all public information, but it was scattered, no single interview really laid it all out in one place. I wanted to pull it all together and just lay it all out, from birth to the present day, saying where he's been, where he's spent time, what he was doing when the Kennedy assassination happened, all those kinds of things. I tried to pull all those fragments together. At that time I really had a good handle on all the interviews, so I knew where all the pieces were. It wasn't a huge project, but a helpful one to have out on the web.
And then the other part of it was a bit of a multi-media approach to Underworld, in that I wanted to find pictures of things mentioned in the book, I wanted to use pictures along with text, to give people some visual sense of what this book was describing. Later that summer, I was digging around and trying to find images that would match up to things in Underworld. I thought, since I already had pages about all his previous books, and since Underworld's a big book, I'll have a bigger splash for Underworld.
I created a page for each section of the book and then tried to find images that would go along with each section or other materials that would kind of feed in and shed light on the book. For example, somewhere I found a picture of the planes out in Arizona, the abandoned planes from part one of the book. There were some pictures that Harpers had run in 'Pafko' that I scanned in. Later I found there were pictures of Bobby Thomson as he hit the famous home run, and some additional pictures that have come out since then.
I also discovered as I was reading the book that DeLillo was slipping in various echoes or references to some of his earlier work, including some to his very first stories, so I tried to highlight those as well.
NK: Did you research the Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason at the ballgame stuff, the vomiting onto expensive shoes?
CG: Yes I did some research on that trying to figure out if that really could have been true, and where Sinatra was at the time, and it did seem possible. Sinatra was doing a show in New York City. So I thought, maybe. I looked up the New York Times front page, although that might have come a little later, because DeLillo started mentioning that in interviews, and talked about how it spurred him on, seeing the parallel news of the Russian atomic bomb test along with the home run. But I remember going and looking at the microfilm of that issue, and really found it fascinating, not only the front page, but many of the stories on that particular day.
I also tracked down the Life magazine that he describes in the Prologue, the Brueghel picture which was in the proper issue and I found the blurb, what Life magazine had written about it, and put that up there. I found some things about Lenny Bruce for example, all kinds of odds and ends like that. I got those pages ready and made them public on the same day the book was officially out in October 1997, so that if you looked it up on the web you would actually find some context for the book. Underworld was one time where I did actually pull a few interesting quotes out of a DeLillo book, it seemed appropriate to do it for that book.
Then, come early November of 1997, I had an assignment to go to Australia, and work several months in Melbourne. I was working in an office just off St Kilda Boulevard. But when the book came out, of course, all of a sudden, reviews are appearing all over the United States, all the papers, lots of reviews are appearing, and I was worried at the time that, 'Oh my gosh I'm going to be off in Australia when all this stuff about the book comes out and maybe I'll miss all of it'. But what I found was that the timing was excellent in terms of the fact that most media outlets now had a website, and while the searching mechanisms maybe weren't that great, a lot of leads just came in. People would send me emails, and say 'did you see this review?', typically they'd send me a link.
Now in those days in particular things were often only up on the web for maybe a week, and then they'd take them down and put them behind firewalls, 'hide' them. They'd want you to pay to see them. Even though I was in Australia I could keep track of all the media that was happening in the US, and print out these reviews that were appearing on the websites of all the newspapers and so forth. I have a really good collection of most of the reviews that appeared all over the place for Underworld during that time. And then it started moving around the world, as they started releasing the book elsewhere and it got more UK reviews and so forth. I found that it really didn't matter where I was, because as long as I had an internet connection I could keep up with things.
NK: So the technology was evolving as the site developed?
CG: Yes. Another thing about the way the web developed, was that when I started my site, the computer I had at home was an old DOS machine. I wasn't running Windows. Windows was still a little flaky and you needed a good machine to run Windows, and basically my machine didn't have enough juice to run it very well. At that time I was browsing the web through a Telnet session and I was using this browser called Lynx, which was a text-only browser. You couldn't see any pictures, you could only get text. And nowadays, a lot of websites probably wouldn't work very well with that approach because so many things are in pictures, in text-and-pictures. But in those days most things were pure text, the important stuff was text, and you could read it by using this Lynx browser.
So Lynx was the tool that I was using as I was building the site up originally, that was the only way I had to see it. Even though I was putting pictures on it, I had jpeg files and was loading those in, but they didn't display in this Lynx browser. At work I had a better machine and so I could see what things looked like with the images, but at home where I was doing the work on the website, I couldn't see the pictures, I could only see the text. But I decided that was OK because I wanted the website to work as text, I didn't want it to depend on the pictures. In fact it was kind of nice that once or twice I got notes from people who were blind or vision-impaired to some degree, who said thanks for putting this website in text because I can access it. They have readers and tools that gave access to it, whereas when you put things on in images, the readers can't handle that, it's inaccessible to people who can't see.
I should also mention that there are some things on the site that are not so readily accessible. Basically, there's a main page that has links to all the other pages, about 13 other high level pages. But then there are other pages, other parts of the site that you can get to, that aren't directly on the menu. Partly it's just the organic growth of things as I found new information. For instance somewhere there's a page about radio interviews, and somewhere there's a page about the awards DeLillo has won, but there's no direct way to get to them through a menu structure, you kind of just have to trip upon them somehow.
It became deliberate at a certain point, I wanted the site to be a bit labyrinthine so that there would be these surprises that you could find. You know, if you're really into it and you spend time looking at the website, you will find things that you didn't know were there to begin with. To me, that just made the website become more interesting and more fun, having extra stuff in there that wasn't obvious from the main level menu.
And I remember, another person I corresponded with, a guy named Ed Park - I have his first novel here, Personal Days - he was doing work with the Village Voice in the 1990s. I'm not sure how long he worked there (now he's an editor of The Believer), but he had a thing where he'd do little website reviews, just 2 inch by 2 inch kinds of things. Ed Park gave 'Don DeLillo's America' a little review, and one of the things he mentioned was the fact that it was as labyrinthine as some of DeLillo's books are, that it had hidden surprises and so on.
NK: What is the immediate future of your DeLillo website?
CG: At this point it's a very part time hobby, really. There are flurries of activity whenever he publishes something, especially a novel. And basically what I've done ever since Underworld is keep track of the key reviews that come out and just provide people with a sense of what this new thing is that he's released, and what the reception has been and so forth. And so as far as I can see, I'll probably keep doing that as long as he keeps publishing. It doesn't really take that much time these days because things are so linked together, you pretty quickly find out what's happening. In between books, as is the case right now, it's kind of a fallow period, I don't really know what he's doing right now. I assume he's probably working on some novel, but whether it's long or short or anything else I have no idea. (Point Omega was published in 2010)
NK: How do you track the film adaptation or film option material?
CG: A number of his books have been optioned. Underworld got optioned, by Scott Rudin, a pretty big player in Hollywood, White Noise is optioned, End Zone. Recently, as far as I knew filming on End Zone had already happened, it was scheduled to start in February 2008 down in New Mexico, and then just two weeks ago (in mid-2008) I saw an interview with an actress who was going to be in it and somehow End Zone came up, and she said it didn't go ahead. According to her she really wanted to do it, thought it was a great script but it didn't get a green light. So apparently it didn't start filming and who knows whether it ever will.
My sense of the movie business is that it's such a crap shoot that you just never know until it's been filmed. There's a lot of talk and financial deal making but I wouldn't hold my breath for any of these projects to actually happen. One of the things she said was well, End Zone is about football but really it's about nuclear warfare and it's kind of a tough sell. And I think all of DeLillo's stuff is a bit of a tough sell in that way. I'm sure somebody could make some fascinating films using his novelistic material but whether we'll see it in a commercial Hollywood vehicle or not is another story. When the film information seems serious I usually make a note of it, saying I think this might happen, but I never put too much stock into these kinds of rumours.
NK: David Cronenberg is now (2011) in planning production on Cosmopolis, so perhaps we'll see a flurry of DeLillo adaptations (Cronenberg's film of Cosmopolis came out in 2012). And you track the theatre productions as well.
CG: The plays seem to get performed pretty often around the word, and that's another place where I like to get some images, the imagery that the theatre groups use for the different productions, I try to always grab an image of what they're using to advertise their production, whether it's 'Valparaiso', 'The Day Room', 'Love-Lies-Bleeding'.
NK: Or 'The Engineer of Moonlight'.
CG: That one has never performed as far as I know, and somewhere he talked about how it's not really performable, so I don't think it would really work very well. I have read it, I have a copy of that one that I got at the library. It's got some interesting material in it, but whether it would work as an actual production is another story.
Sometimes people who are doing productions get in touch with me and sometimes they don't. I'm often surprised when they don't, because one of the pages I came up with after a while was an 'Events' page, where I list either events involving DeLillo himself or some DeLillo-related thing, whether it's a production of a play or when a book gets published, or any of those kinds of things. If people have news about DeLillo, such as a production of one of his plays, I'm happy to list it. And I think of it as an ongoing continuation of the autobiography - the autobiography basically takes you up until the Paris Review interview, so around 1996 - and then everything after that is part of this ongoing 'Events' page which now goes back more than ten years.
If someone ever writes a DeLillo biography or something, I've given them a lot of clues of where to look for what happened when and what he was involved with. But I can't imagine DeLillo himself wanting a biography.
NK: Has he given his approval to your project in 'Don DeLillo's America'?
CG: The authorization question is interesting. I've never talked to or had any communication with his agent, Lois Wallace, and I don't really know whether or not they like this thing being out there. As I mentioned before, I wrote to him, so he knows it's there. My sense was that in the end he gave, to the extent that it was informally possible, his consent or his blessing, as if to say, okay I acknowledge it's out there.
I thought it was interesting that at the end of Underworld it touches on the internet, he's got a couple of urls in the book which don't really make sense. But as I said, I had sent him the pages from the site prior to that, and after I did that I felt, if I were to put myself in his shoes, wouldn't it be weird to have some guy out there with this site on the web, documenting what's he's doing. What would I think about it if someone was doing that to me? And partly that was why I felt like I wanted to keep things only to what was publicly available, and not try to dig into dirt or provide information that wasn't already available.
But even then, there's a privacy issue. It is a little weird. He's not trying to be a celebrity, he's not trying to put himself out in the spotlight. And so I had concerns about that, I didn't want to trample on, take away his privacy, but at the same time he was now aware that there was this website going on, and right at that time he was finishing Underworld the internet really was exploding.
I like to think, well, the site might have shed some light for DeLillo on what this whole internet thing was about, and provided him with just one more angle on what America is about in 1996, what's happening in the world right now. And I thought some of the lines are great, I don't remember the exact quote, but that line that goes, "is the internet part of the world, or is the world part of it?" When I read that, I thought, wow, he's really seeing it, he gets it, he may not have ever browsed the web himself but he gets it, he sees that this is a very powerful and enormous thing that's developing.
One other thing about the internet in the days since then. I'll admit that for a long time, I liked to keep track of where 'Don DeLillo's America' was, if you typed 'DeLillo' into Google. And for several years if you did that, you'd hit this site first, it was the number one hit for 'DeLillo,' which was kind of my intention. I wanted to be the place where you'd go to find out this stuff. And in the last several years, Wikipedia has taken over that place. Wikipedia's an amazing resource for all sorts of things and there's a link back to 'Don DeLillo's America' from the Wikipedia article. Then at some point along the line someone removed the link to 'Don DeLillo's America.' It was a little odd in that it seemed pretty clear that some material, some of the images and things to do with the novels, had been taken directly from my site and put into Wikipedia. Which is fine, I don't really mind that.
I tried doing a couple of updates on Wikipedia that were later removed. That's the funny thing about Wikipedia, of course, anyone can change anything. You don't really get blocked, it's just that someone else can come along and decide they don't like what you changed or that they think something else. And anyone can do that, it's kind of the group mind about what's appropriate. I did some updates on Wikipedia and then some of them got removed and after that I felt, I'm not going to bother if I can't be sure that they'll stay there. But since then other folks have added a lot of material to the DeLillo article in Wikipedia, and I think the link to my site is back again.
Still, you can't hide from Wikipedia. In general, what's there is factual and correct in terms of DeLillo, I won't vouch for everything obviously, but the DeLillo stuff that's there is right. I think I've got a lot of interesting information that's not in Wikipedia. 'Don DeLillo's America' still has its role, it's not going away. If I thought it didn't have something extra, then I might start thinking about whether it was worth doing. But at this time that's not the case. Wikipedia describes the novels, describes his life, describes a bit about the critical reception and where he stands, and that's the extent of it. In terms of the biography, the events, the more multi-media stuff I've got going on in different images that are related to the books that aren't the books themselves, my site still has a good role to play.
NK: So you could say that these days your site, 'Don DeLillo's America,' is the place for the person who wants to know more about DeLillo, and Wikipedia is pitched more at the first time comer?
CG: Given that Wikipedia now the Google number one link for 'DeLillo', that's where people are going to go first. It's not a bad place to start, and if people dig a little deeper then they're probably going to hit my site next, and my hope is just that people who are interested in DeLillo and like his work, will then find out new and more interesting stuff about him, and what he's done. And maybe they learn a few things that they didn't know before, and it sheds some light on how he does what he does and where he's coming from. To me, that is what good scholarly articles about DeLillo do, shed light on, give you a new angle on, this book that you might have read for plot the first time through, and then you go a bit deeper and say, 'Ah, it's interesting how he's fitting these pieces together and how he's consistently dealing with these kind of issues.'
And in my own way I try to do the same thing. I'm just trying to shed light on where Don DeLillo came from, and what he does, and why he's good.