Meet Robert Archambeau, today’s guest author:
Robert Archambeau possesses the world’s least interesting international identity. Of French-Canadian ancestry, he was born in Rhode Island, raised in Canada, and spent summers in Maine or at his father’s art studio on a lake in the Canadian wilderness. An art school brat, he always felt it was inevitable that he would end up making art, or at least movies, but his fate was grimmer still. After a brief stint as a deck hand and grotesquely underqualified ship’s engineer, he fell in with a group of poets and pursued graduate studies in English at the University of Notre Dame. While studying for his PhD, he ran off to Chicago, got married on a sailboat in Burnham Harbor, and worked as a clerk in a secondhand bookstore. Here, sitting at the long counter in the Aspidistra Bookshop, he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth, as well as many of the poems that would make up of his first collection of verse, Home and Variations.
He became an English professor at Lake Forest College, where he taught 19th
century British literature, Irish literature, creative writing, and literary theory—taking time when he could to co-teach interdisciplinary courses with colleagues in the art and history departments. Archambeau also lived for a year in Sweden, where he taught at Lund, a medieval university in a cobblestone town a hovercraft-ride away from Copenhagen. While in Lund he met the Swedish writer Göran Printz-Påhlson,whose uncollected works he would edit after the writer’s death. Back in the United States, Archambeau wrote two scholarly studies of poetry: Laureates and Heretics and Poetry and Uselessness. He also wrote two collections of literary essays, The Poet Resigns and Inventions of a Barbarous Age, and another collection of poems, The Kafka Sutra. He took to writing art criticism, primarily for Hyperallergic, and became a semi-regular contributor to The Hudson Review.
He lives just outside Chicago with his wife and daughter, who indulge him in his various vices: hanging out in art galleries and museums; collecting paintings and antiques; and owning more tweed and vintage Brooks Brothers clothing than any man should.
Thanks to Robert Archambeau for joining me in this conversation:
How do you come up with book titles?
Usually I begin with abject failure followed by pleas for help. How to encapsulate months of work in three or five or even six words? It can’t be done! Or at least I can’t do it. So, I call a few of the people I consider my consiglieri—I like the Italian word, for its hint of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and the image of huddled conversations in the back of some trattoria in Little Italy. My consiglieri are writer friends and old mentors, some of whom worked in publishing for decades and don’t have any hang-ups about putting a title on some pages. Most of my books have been named this way. I did come up with one I liked, once—Making Nothing Happen. This was going to be the title of a scholarly study about the idea that poetry is useless. I’ve always loved W.H. Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and was a bit insufferably pleased with myself about the title, but in the end the press couldn’t use it—it was too close to something else they already had on their list, so we went with Poetry and Uselessness. Two of my books seem to have titled themselves before they were even written: both titles came to me before the books existed. One was a collection of poems, The Kafka Sutra, and the other is my new novel, Alice B. Toklas is Missing. I just woke with the phrase in my head one day and realized there was a story inside it.
Were there overt negative reactions to the book? Did they contain grains of truth? What was your response to those reactions then and now?
We’re in the early days, so there’s plenty of time for all sorts of reactions. So far things have been positive, but one review of Alice B. Toklas is Missing, which deemed it a “glittering venturesome historical mystery” and said (my favorite comment ever) that the book was “a romp with zing” noted that some plot elements could “stretch credulity.” I mean—fair point! The book is a bit lunatic at times. Maybe the lunacy is a necessary component of the zing! Anyway, what can I tell you? It didn’t bother me. I kind of felt seen.
Where do your characters come from?
It was hugely fun to make characters out of the real people whose books I’ve been reading, whose music I’ve been listening to, and whose art I gladly trek from city to city to view. Gertrude Stein! Ernest Hemingway! James Joyce! Alexander Calder! Ezra Pound! And a host of second-tier modernists as well. Getting to make comic villains out of a few of them was a real pleasure. But it was also very important to me to draw characters who were composites of people I know. I think of Ida, my protagonist, as a composite of many of the student I’ve taught—brilliant young women who have had a hard time grasping just how talented they are.
At what moment did you decide you were a writer?
Maybe it was growing up as an art school brat that made me dislike it when people make a big todo about “being an artist” or “being a writer.” Too often it coincided with bad behavior and, you know, the absence of writing or art-making. So, while I’ve written seven or eight books, I like to think of writing as something I do, not something I am.
What does your writing space look like?… like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?
The Secret Backyard Writing Dojo! Before I had it constructed, I would write in my office at Lake Forest College, where I teach. This was possible by a fortunate architectural accident: my old office was located at the top of an old building, on a floor with only one other office (belonging to a soft-spoken scholar of Brazilian theater), an unused seminar room, and a strange old lecture hall where nobody liked to teach. No one was ever around, and no one dropped by, probably because one had to hoof it up three and a half flights of stairs. But now I have a kingdom of a few hundred square feet of heated, air conditioned, carpeted, book lined bliss just a few steps from my house. I think the fact of it being a different building is good psychologically, and good, too, in preventing the casual knock on the door. In good weather I’ll throw a laptop in my bag and cycle over to the Chicago Botanic Garden, where I have a spot underneath the linden trees I quite like. I’ve tried writing on the esplanade near the fountain, but a gust of wind from the wrong direction will see you and your notebook soaked. One lives, one learns!
What genres do you work in?
I’ve written a couple of books of poetry, a few books of essays—literary and art criticism, mostly—and couple of full-dress scholarly books of the sort no one in their right mind wants to read. Now I’m writing novels. But since so many of my poems are about art or artists, and the novel is about claiming one’s creative powers in a milieu full of oddball geniuses, I kind of want to say everything I write is criticism by other means. A comic historical mystery novel, perhaps, is just art criticism with (to quote the reviewer I mentioned earlier) a good deal more zing.
What do you read that people wouldn’t expect you to read? What’s the trashiest book you’ve ever read?
I love everything old and remote. When I was in graduate school I worked for a used and rare book dealer, and we bought the libraries of a lot of people, sometimes university professors with acres of deeply out-of-fashion academic books. I loved reading the things my own professors told me were obsolete, mostly because they turned out to be nothing like what I was told they’d be. The New Critics, the Tory Satirists, the Georgian poets—none of it was as advertised. I’ve also made a ritual of going to a part of the library I rarely visit, pulling random books off the shelves, reading around in them, and maybe taking one home. The Surrealists believe in random chance as a royal road to growth and insight, and they’re right.
Trashy books? That sounds like a guilty pleasure term, and I am incapable of feeling guilt about my pleasures.
Do you come to your writing through a particular lens? I have a friend who emphasizes style over everything else, though this approach leads him to character development and plot. Do you sketch out the plot first and work out other aspects of the story in relation to that consideration? Do characters spring up in your mind asking you write their stories?
When I sat down to write a novel, I knew that working up a plot would be the biggest difference from writing poems or essays. Scholarly books have a big argumentative through-line, or should, so I knew a bit about large scale structure, but I’d never hazarded a plot before, so I outlined the bejesus out of it. Just to generate some ideas, I wrote down the thirty-some plot points outlined in a truly impressive work by Vladimir Propp called The Morphology of the Russian Folk Tale. The book treats plot as a kind of language, in which certain elements go together to make coherent statements—some action is prohibited to the hero, say. And naturally the next part of the plot is the violation of that prohibition. “You can open any door in my palace while I’m away—just don’t open that one!” says Bluebeard to his innocent young bride. Well, you know she has to open the door. So I sketched out an impossibly over-elaborate plot and whittled it down from there to something cleaner, then just watched my characters rollick their way through it. I’m an outliner for all things, really. Most of my notebooks are full of flow charts for how I want whatever I’m doing—writing, teaching, throwing a party—to go. Making these and then not quite following them is kind of my m.o. in life.
My wife Valerie would probably—and rightly—kick me in the shins if I didn’t say she reads most of what I write before anyone else, usually before I do. When I’ve hurled 1200 words up on the screen and feel a little smug about them, I print them out and give them to Valerie, who is never happier than when she’s editing something. I mean, I’m all caffeine and over-confidence; she’s a detail-oriented obsessive, so it works out. When she hands the pages back they look like the red-penciled essay a professor might return to an unusually inept student. But that’s really the least of it. We talked through Alice B. Toklas is Missing before, during, and after I thought it was done—everything about it. My first plans were all plot, with no real romance between Ida and the character who becomes her unlikely love interest, the young T.S. Eliot. Valerie was the first person to tell me something I heard a few times about the early draft: that my characters were motivated by art and ideas and needed to want to have sex with each other. Right! On it! Back to the drawing board! I don’t want to write a book without her involved.
Do you belong to any writing groups or communities, either online or offline?
Not in a formal sense of getting together with other people to talk about the books we’re working on, but I do hang out with several different groups of writers, mostly poets but all kinds, really—playwrights, critics, novelists. There’s a coffee and pastry joint not far from Northwestern University where I meet one group. There are others I meet at the Arts Club, and there are crowds that meet up at different conferences s. I don’t care for the big conferences like the AWP, which remind me of nothing so much as boat shows. The West Chester Poetry Conference, where I’ve run a seminar or two, has meant a lot to me. And I’ve been going to the delightfully weird Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture for something like thirty years. It feels like my living room at this point. Writing art criticism put me in touch with another sort of creative type, too. And there’s a little cluster of people I call “The Thursday Group” that meets any day of the week except Thursdays for lunch. One member’s a historian, another is, like me, a poet who writes novels. A recovering academic dean has recently been joining us. Very little discussion of my writing projects ever happens with any of these people, but I learn a lot from being around them, and even the curmudgeons are delightful people in their way. Everyone needs to hang out, and it’s not something our culture is particularly good at, so it’s important to make the effort, especially when, as a writer, one spends a lot of time alone.
What’s next for you?
The sequel to Alice B. Toklas is Missing! I don’t think the protagonist, Ida, is done with me, so I’d like to take her out of Gertrude Stein’s Paris and send her to Virginia Woolf’s England. You know I’m helpless with titles, but my rock star agent Alicia Brooks has given the A-okay to the working title, The Bloomsbury Forgery. It gets the setting and the essentials of the plot right up front, and a slant rhyme never goes wrong—does it?
I look forward to seeing your next book, Bob. It sounds like a juicy adventure!