Barry Gifford continues the ‘finest kind of lying’ in ‘The Cuban Club’
By Lou Fancher
It’s not often that career success is owed to a peripatetic childhood, haphazard early education, an aborted college career, hotel lobby conversations with members of organized crime, overdosing on television and noir movies, telling fibs to strangers and creating characters who stick around for decades.
Those rare attributes for celebrated literary standing are inherent in the life and work of Berkeley author Barry Gifford. The 70-year-old writer’s prolific output includes poetry, plays, fiction, screenplays, nonfiction and a new collection of his trademark “Roy Stories” — “The Cuban Club” (Seven Stories Press, $23.95, 240 pages).
“Having had a mother who was married five times and a father who died when I’d just turned 12 and who was often at a distance and living in a netherworld, it enabled me to have a certain territory of my own,” he says in a phone interview. “I had to fill in the backstory.”
The backstory began with Gifford’s birth in a Chicago hotel in 1946. He lived with his mother and occasionally with his father, mostly in hotels in Chicago, New Orleans, South Florida and Havana. “I didn’t go to school on a regular basis: I was in the best possible school for a writer. Hotel lobbies, unrestricted, left to my own devices, talking to people from all over the world. It served me well because I like to listen to people’s stories about where they’re from, what they did. It’s that observation: taking it all in.”
Gifford began writing at age 11, graduating from poems to songs, short stories and novels. His arguably best known work, a series of eight novels about free-loving Sailor and Lula, started with “Wild at Heart.” The novel was adapted in 1990 by film director David Lynch. The movie of the same name earned awards and resulted in another collaboration with Lynch (“Lost Highway”), a feature film by Alex de la Iglesia (“Perdita Durango”) and publication in 28 languages of Gifford’s 40-plus works.
The continued Roy Stories in “The Cuban Club” chronicle the character’s — and Gifford’s own — coming-of-age in America during the 1950s and early ’60s. Roy’s age revolves in elliptical, nonchronological order from 6 to 19 as he watches people interact — their worlds collapsing, expanding or colliding either violently or with sexual tension. “That’s my representation to the world. I’m not an autobiographical writer,” says Gifford. “In the Roy Stories, it’s the history of a time and place which no longer exist. The stories are inspired by things that really did almost, or could, happen. But it’s fiction. I made it up. That’s not defensive.”
Gifford writes economically but descriptively, with haiku-length dialogue as the primary driver. He’s comfortable remaining on the fringes, like his protagonist. “Roy’s an observer. He might just add a quip. I like him being off to the side, somewhat,” says the writer.
Although he wrote during the 1990s about white-hot fundamentalism and racism — ”Which to me always rear their ugly heads in this country, now as much as ever,” he notes — he’s stopped that kind of work. Seeking a cooler temperature, desiring to live in his mind if not in reality in a different world, he found Roy again speaking to him. “I felt a responsibility. He and his family persisted in appearing in my dreams and thoughts. It seemed disloyal not to write about them. It’s still gripping me.”
But for Gifford writing is not a panacea or therapy. “When I say I’m trying to make sense of the world, that’s overstating. People will gain something by reading what I write, if there’s a scintilla of evidence of why we exist. I don’t want to get into the high falutin’, silly part of this. ‘Silly’ originally meant smart, so I retain a native understanding of the word. Which is why the stories are weighted with humor.”
Unpacked, Gifford’s world reveals old-fashioned simplicity of process and avoidance of hysteria in lifestyle. He is married to Mary Lou Gifford, and the couple have four adult children. “Like Flaubert, I believe a writer should have a tranquil home life and be wild and crazy — even violent and undisciplined — in his work. Let it all out there: The truth is always in the work.”
He writes longhand, then makes a draft on a manual typewriter. A computer copy on disk goes to the publisher. He edits his work to the point that he can recall only one time an editor suggested moving a chapter. Selecting the right form — short story, novel, screenplay, poem — he says is intuitive, involves skill and is “not high science, but should be.”
As a “rereader” of books with wide-ranging subjects and unrestricted form, he favors physics as a topic and writers like Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa, whose 1956 novel “The Devil to Pay in Backlands,” astonished him with a “brilliant, entire universe” he’d never encountered.
Tacked up on his wall, he keeps a fortune cookie message that says, “Literature does not lead men astray.” Curiosity, he insists, is a companion he hopes never to lose. As is the ability to tell a fantastic tale, like one from long ago. In a hotel lobby, he once held a married couple spellbound with stories of his family’s Wyoming ranch and favorite pet. “Of course, we didn’t have a ranch or a dog. I was testing stories, a natural way of being. You know, Proust said literature is the finest kind of lying.”