Nicholson Baker’s talk at the Twin Cities Book Festival was wonderful. He comes across as a smart, kind, funny, thoughtful man. Though I must admit I did at one point get distracted by his short but very full, very white beard. I was trying to figure out where his chin might be. Bookman and I had seats in the front row and as I was peering up at him (he was on a slightly elevated stage) it became a fascinating game for a few minutes. This might lead you to believe that as a speaker he wasn’t very interesting but in fact it says more about me than it does him.
He read several excerpts from his new book The Traveling Sprinkler and talked about some of the things that went into writing it. The book is a sort of sequel to The Anthologist, a sequel he did not intend to write. He was working on a nonfiction book of photographs with his wife and also working on writing a book of protest songs of his own composition. But he didn’t want the protest song book to be about himself and when he somehow found himself suddenly writing in Paul Chowder’s voice from The Anthologist he went with it. Apparently the enhanced ebook includes the protest songs Baker/Chowder wrote.
I haven’t read much of Baker’s fiction but it seems he uses quite a lot of his own personal experiences in his books. He stated outright that Traveling Sprinkler is very autobiographical.
Both Baker and his character Paul Chowder are interested in metaphorical interference. Baker claims it is how he writes his books. He is interested in so many things that he tosses them all in enjoying how they collide. Thus the idea of the traveling sprinkler, a device with a prearranged path where its history is its future, bumping into Quaker meetings, cigars, and music. Baker said whenever he starts a book he hopes it is the last one he has to write. Which leads him to toss in so many things in an effort to feel totally cleaned out by the end.
When he was writing the book, he would drive his car to a shady spot somewhere and sit in it for hours writing and smoking Fausto cigars. He tried a variety of other cigars during the writing of the book but found Fausto charged him up the best. Plus, he found the name utterly delightful.
Baker also attends Quaker meetings on a semi-regular basis. He is not a Quaker nor does he believe in God, but he said the Quakers don’t seem to mind. What he likes about the meetings is the silence. It is the silence, he said, out of which music comes.
Before he became a writer Baker planned on becoming a composer. He is an accomplished bassoonist and attended a music college. But he realized composing was not going to earn him a living so he sold his bassoon for $11,000 which allowed him to spend a year writing short stories. Thus his writing career began.
Baker read a marvelous passage from the book in which Chowder is at a Quaker meeting and no one breaks the silence to say anything for the whole hour. As the clock ticks to the end of the meeting Chowder thinks he should say something about Debussy and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the beautiful bassoon solo that opens it. It was a beautiful passage and Baker kept interrupting himself to tell us about Debussy’s flutes and Stravinsky’s bassoon and why the bassoon opening was so extraordinary. It was clearly something he was passionate about because by the end of the passage Baker had to pause and take a moment to collect himself before talking again.
Someone asked him a question about whether he listens to music while he writes and if so, what does he listen to. He does listen to music and it varies depending on mood, but what he really likes to listen to while writing is rock music. Baker concluded his talk by telling us that his one remaining goal in life is to write a song that makes people want to get up and dance. A worthy goal if you ask me.