CWW Interview with David Shields, Essayist, Paris Instructor, & Author of I Think You’re Totally Wrong (2015)

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.This year, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Summer in Paris Writing Retreat will take place from July 22-30, 2015. At the event, we’ll be hosting a wide variety of craft of writing seminars, creative writing workshops, and special readings from our Paris 2015 faculty, which includes David Shields, Kathleen Spivack, Rita Banerjee, Diana Norma Szokolyai, Jessica Reidy, and Elissa Lewis. One of our featured faculty members, David Shields, an essayist and nonfiction writer, recently co-authored a new book with Caleb Powell titled I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel. The Cambridge Writers’ Workshop’s Alex Carrigan sat down to speak with David for an interview. Read below to see the interview, and be sure to register for our Summer in Paris Writing Retreat t by May 5, 2015!

AC: Your writing style is said to be very much like a “collage,” in that you blur genre, autobiography, fiction, and essay. How did you develop the form of the literary collage?

DS: I wrote three novels that were relatively traditional, although increasingly left. I wrote a book called Heroes, a very traditional novel, a growing-up novel called Dead Languages and then a book of stories called Handbook for Drowning. I was trying to write my fourth novel, a book called Remote, and I found all the traditional gestures of the novel just really were not conveying what I wanted to convey.

I was watching a lot of self-reflective documentary films, especially films by Ross McElwee who is from Cambridge. I was reading a lot of anthropological autobiographies by people like Renata Adler and George W.S. Trow and listening and watching a lot of performance art and stand-up comedy.

What was going to be my fourth novel became my first work of literary collage called Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, published in 1996. Ever since then, I’ve been continuing to explore boundary jumping work, the limits of autobiography, and the limits of genre-jamming. By no means am I the progenitor of literary collage. Collage is an ancient form going back to Heraclides’ Fragment 3,000 years ago and coming up to all the way to, say, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It’s a beautiful form that lets me do what I want to do on the page.

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AC: How did the idea of I Think You’re Totally Wrong develop?

DS: A lot of what I do on the page is to question myself. I write what I call “self-deconstructive non-fiction.” It’s a term someone applied to my work. I’m interested in exploring myself but also in demolishing myself as a way to get at large cultural and human questions. The canvas in my work is myself, only as an avenue to approach broader questions. I’m not interesting in anything like conventional autobiography or conventional memoir.

In a way, I was tired of debating myself in my work, in books from Remote to How Literature Saved My Life. I wanted to have somebody embody the opposition. I have always been a fan of books of dialogue from Plato and Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues all the way up through The Magliozzi Brothers in Car Talk. I just love the form of two guys arguing.

I sought out a former student of mine (Caleb Powell) who tends to have a different point of view from me. Three years ago, we went off to a cabin and argued for four days. Then we radically edited the transcript into a book, then we took the book and made it into a film with my former student, James Franco, directing the film.

AC: The book references My Dinner with Andre’ and The Trip as influences for the novel. What aspects of those works do you feel I Think You’re Totally Wrong best encapsulates? Do you feel the book does something those works didn’t?

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DS: It seems sort of foolish to not acknowledge the predecessors from Boswell and Johnson, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laurel and Hardy, Car Talk, Sideways, and The Trip. A wonderful book I really love is David Lipsky’s book on David Foster Wallace in which the two of them argue for three or four hundred pages.

It’s not up to me to say what the book does better or worse, or what the film does better and worse than previous ones. The challenge I placed before myself and Caleb was to make it… I think what our book and film do well is being more naked, more raw, or more vulnerable. A few of these other projects, they might have more talented performers or whatever.

There’s a wonderful quote on the back of the book by Peter Brooks, my former teacher. He says “Confession makes sense only when it costs something, when it’s courting disaster; I found that risk-taking in this book, and it’s bracing.” That’s a very generous quote, and it goes to what we were trying to do. In a way, we wanted to court disaster, where something like The Trip is never seriously courting disaster. Even My Dinner with Andre’ is an incredibly polished performance.

I’m very fond of this quote by Walter Benjamin: “A work of literature should either invent a genre or dissolve one.” Our attempt was… to dissolve a genre or extend it, by making the quarrel between two people be just unusually naked and raw and vulnerable and discomforting. That’s our attempt at contribution.

AC: In the book, you and Powell briefly criticize the notion of “show, don’t tell.” Was that something that played into how you presented I Think You’re Totally Wrong since the book presents almost entire transcripts of your conversations?

I think it’s because I’m very invested in the essay and the contemplation, the meditation. In our book, it’s beside the point to do long description of what the woods look like. It’s essentially a play or screenplay.

It’s mainly “show, don’t tell,” because it’s two guys arguing. Any time Caleb goes to too great length on a story, I always imagine asking him “Okay, but what’s the point?” I think the book embodies “tell, don’t show” not because we don’t give scene descriptions, but because we don’t waste time doing a lot of dialogue. We’re trying to cut to what actually matters and to contemplate existence directly.

AC: Do you ever see yourself going on a trip similar to the one in I Think You’re Totally Wrong ever again, even if it’s not to write a book?

DS: No. Everything I do is related to books, and I guess that’s part of the comedy of this project. I’m really busy; I teach, I write, and a lot of the book is about how I really like to write. I might go off with my wife and daughter to hang out. To me, words are very precious, and I don’t give them to people for the hell of it. If I’m trying to use words well, I want to make it part of a book. I’m not going to spend five days thinking about existence and not try to make it part of a literary project.

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David Shields with Caleb Powell & James Franco

AC: How did the film version of the book come to be?

DS: James [Franco] was my student at Warren Wilson College (Masters of Fine Arts: Low Residency program). James is an actor, a writer, and a director. We were getting to know each other better, and we both share an interest in self exposure, nakedness, recollection, awkwardness, and in breaking the fourth wall. We have a shared aesthetic, so that we’re working not only on this film (which is completed) but also with two other books of mine that we’re making into film. We have a kind of shared ethos in self-deconstructive non-fiction. That’s not all I’m interested or all James is interested in, but it’s a shared interest.

James wanted to do a film of one of my books. I showed him I Think You’re Totally Wrong, and he said, “this is a movie, let’s do it.” Caleb and I wrote a screenplay, a scene sheet, a beat sheet, and a treatment. The irony of it, which I sort of love, was that on the first day of shooting, we wound up throwing away the script because a real life, real time argument broke out on the first day which was all about what can and what can’t be used in the film. It was a perfect embodiment about the whole life/art debate, which was what the book and film are actually about. We stumbled quite serendipitously into an actual argument and we filmed the actual argument.

AC: In the film, you and Powell play yourselves. Was there anything challenging about becoming “actors” and reliving the weekend?

DS: In many ways, it wasn’t reliving. It wasn’t like we act out our scenes from the book, which is what we thought we’d do. We created an entirely new work, which has a relationship to the book, but we basically started arguing on camera.  Franco and I started yelling at Caleb; Franco and Caleb started yelling at me. Ot was a real argument about a real thing.

I was just being myself and wanted to win the argument. You have to be aware there is a camera and that you are trying to make a good movie. Just like I do on the page, I took who I naturally am and was aware of projecting, amplifying, and exaggerating that for drama, which I think is what any personal essayist does.

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AC: Was there anything that had to greatly changed in the adaptation of the book, such as certain scenes that had to be cut or reworked?

DS: It’s an entirely different narrative that has a whole different strategy and purpose. It’s about an argument that develops when James and I urge Caleb to incorporate certain material into the movie. He refuses, I feel awful about badgering and bullying Caleb, then I apologize to Caleb, then James accuses me of being a theoretician and not a practitioner of riffs, then I accuse James of the same, then Caleb has a meltdown as he recounts this war movie he is telling us about, then we all worry that we don’t have an ending, and then out of nowhere we find an ending by, in a way, rediscovering what the whole film was about.

I think it’s a lovely little film and I’m quite proud of it. We were writing the film hour by hour over the four days that we shot it. Any time that we weren’t shooting I was madly scribbling notes about what we should do next. On one hand, I was trying to respond to the actual argument and on the other, I was trying to make a film. It was a completely different experience, much different from the book in my view.

AC: Do you have any upcoming works you’d like to talk about?

I have four books coming out in the next year. I Think You’re Totally Wrong just came out and the film will be out this spring. In April, I have a book coming out with Hawthorne Books called Life is Short- Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity. I’m the co-author of that book with Elizabeth Cooperman. In June, I have a book coming out with McSweeney’s Books called That Thing You Do With Your Mouth: The Sexual Autobiography of Samantha Matthews As Told to David Shields. It was kind of an amazing project.

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In next September, I have a book with Powerhouse Books which is a photography and art publisher called War Is Beautiful: A Pictorial Guide to the Glamor of Armed Conflict. It’s a book about war photography. Then in January of 2016, I have a book coming out with Knopf again called Other People: A Remix. I’ve taken about 60 essays of mine that I’ve written over the last 30 year and rewritten them all to make an entirely new book with a contemplation on a particular theme.

Those are all keeping me busy for the next year, just ushering these new books to print.

AC: Since you’re going to be coming on our Paris retreat later this year, what are you looking forward to and what are you planning to teach?

DS: I’m looking forward to meeting my French publisher. I’m looking forward to meeting some friends I know in Paris. I’m looking forward to giving a reading at Shakespeare and Co. Those are the side things.

The core of the experience is the Cambridge conference. I look forward to talking about brevity; I’ll be using my brevity book as the core of that seminar. I’m going to talk about collage, and I’m going to talk about collaboration. Three of the things I’m most passionate about (collage, brevity, and collaboration) will form the basis for three workshops. I’m still working out exactly what, but I teach out of my passion, and those are three of my literary passions.

AC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

The best thing I can think of comes from a wonderful line of William Butler Yeats who said “Out of the quarrel with others we make politics; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” That’s sort of the essence of what I’m interest in: to harvest the arguments with yourself, and out of that to create what you hope is memorable.

Author photo of David Shields, 2012.David Shields is the internationally bestselling author of twenty books, including Reality Hunger (named one of the best books of 2010 by more than thirty publications), The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (New York Times bestseller), and Black Planet (finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). Forthcoming are War Is Beautiful (powerHouse, November 2015), Flip-Side (powerHouse, March 2016) and Other People (Knopf, 2017). The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and Believer. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, can be purchased on Amazon. The book was named one of Amazon’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books for January, 2015 and one of Powell’s Books Favorites for January, 2015. The film version will be premiering at Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival in April, 2015.

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