OSU professor of creative writing Tracy Daugherty has written more than 10 books of fiction, short fiction, essay and biography. His most recent, Just One Catch, is a biography of the writer Joseph Heller, most famous for his novel Catch-22. Just One Catch follows a 2010 collection of short stories, and Hiding Man, Daugherty’s acclaimed 2009 biography of his mentor, the author Donald Barthelme. An excerpt from Just One Catch was published in the August, 2011 issue of Vanity Fair.
We recently had the chance to talk to Daugherty about Just one Catch, Heller’s prophetic sensibilities, “Mad Men” and writing about a literary icon.What made you want to write about Joseph Heller, and what was it like writing about him after writing about your former mentor?
TD: Well, the Barthelme book was, as you mention, was a very personal book for me because he had been my teacher. So that’s how that came about. And I would not have picked Heller on my own. This was really my editor’s suggestion.
What made you not dismiss the idea out of hand?
TD: What struck me when I read Heller was that “Catch-22” was a very prophetic book in a way. It was about World War II, but it seemed to predict the chaos of the Vietnam War years. And then his second book, “Something Happened,” seemed to predict the retrenchment, politically and culturally, of the 1970s. It’s a book about corporate life and the kind of inward-turning that happened in the 1970s in our culture. And then his third novel, “Good as Gold,” seemed to predict the neo-conservative political movement that came during the Reagan years.
So he struck me as a writer who was always 10 to 20 years ahead of his time at predicting currents in American culture, and I thought, ‘There’s something just fascinating about that.’ So that writing about him might be a way to really talk about cultural history during our lifetimes.
A lot of people describe Heller as subversive. Do you think of him that way? Or do you see him purely as ahead of his time?
TD: I think ahead of his time is more accurate. He went to great lengths to say that “Catch-22” was not anti-war so much as anti-bureaucracy, that he wasn’t being anti-Vietnam, anti-war. He said in interviews over and over again, I think we had to fight World War II, I wasn’t against that.’
So I don’t think he saw himself as subversive. I think he saw himself as a very realistic observer of institutions and bureaucracies. And because he understood so well how institutions worked, I think he was able to see trends that were shaping businesses and educational institutions and military bureaucracy. He was able to see changes in these institutions ahead of time, I think, because he was so clued into they way businesses worked. I think he was prophetic more than subversive.
“Catch-22” is the Heller novel most people know, but are there any hidden gems?
TD: Well I think his second book, “Something Happened,” which came out in 1974, which was 13 years after Catch-22 – I don’t know if you know the current t.v. series “Mad Men,” but that show and that whole subject of corporate intrigue and business in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s is right out of Joseph Heller. That whole series – Matthew Weiner I think is the guy who did that show – has admitted that Heller is a huge influence on him.
So all these kind of things when you talk about conspiracies in businesses, that’s what “Something Happened” is all about. I think that book has had enormous influence under the radar. People aren’t that aware of it but I think other writers and people in t.v. and Hollywood have taken up themes from that book a lot. I think it’s a better book than “Catch-22.” I think it’s his best novel.
You got to do more on the ground, in-person research in New York? What did you see this time around that you didn’t see while doing the Barthelme book?
TD: Yeah. And that was another reason, frankly, I took on this second biography. Barthelme had spent a lot of his time in New York and I’ve come to really love New York and this was another excuse to keep going back there.
Heller ran in wealthier circles than Barthelme did. And Heller late in his life really was of the jet set. He was hanging out at East Hampton with movie stars and he was living the high life. So I got a little glimpse of a fancier life then with Barthelme. Barthelme was a poor writer and Heller had become fairly wealthy and famous so he hung out with a whole different group of people. For example his daughter, Erica, still lives in the building where Heller wrote “Catch-22.” It’s called the Apthorp, and I got to go inside and tour the Apthorp. I’ve never been inside this sort of palatial New York apartment before. It was fun.
What did you think of Coney Island, where Heller grew up?
TD: Well it’s sad, it’s depressing. A lot of the old amusement parks have been torn down. They’re rebuilding some of it now but of course there was nothing left from Heller’s day, which I knew would be the case. The apartment where he grew up was long gone and those neighborhoods had all been torn down. It was February and very bleak and the crowds weren’t on the beach. But still I liked to think I was able to feel a little of the atmosphere.
I’m writing elegies in a way, I’m writing about a cultural period that’s past. I’m writing about places, and a whole way of, the whole publishing industry obviously is going through huge change right now. The publishing world that I’m writing about is now gone. There was something about Coney Island in the wintertime being sad and depressing that seemed to fit the atmosphere of the book in a way because I realized I’m writing about a time that’s now gone.
Were you worried about writing about Heller because he is well loved and because “Catch-22” is an iconic book?
TD: Yeah, although I think when I first took it on, maybe I was in denial. I just didn’t think about that so much. It’s only become gradually that I realized how intensely possessive certain people are about that book. It’s such an important book to so many people. I think I’m only now waking up to that. I may have stepped into something I denied for awhile.
I guess the answer to your question is no, I didn’t think about it that much. I just got so involved in the story and the background, and it’s only after the fact that I’m realizing that this is kind of a big deal for people and if I get some of the details wrong or if my interpretation is different than someone else’s I might be stepping on some toes that way because they feel possessive of it.
Do you think Catch-22 is still relevant today?
TD: I do think his vision of the way a bureaucracy is a self-perpetuating trap that we all get caught in is just as relevant today. It’s weird, if you Google the phrase “Catch-22” how often it comes up everyday in the news, in regards to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, that phrase is coming up. With the Gulf Oil spill, it was in all sorts of news stories about that.
The book is so wonderful in its details but also just as a kind of shorthand idea. The phrase itself, “Catch-22,” is instantly recognizable for people in defining the paradoxes of contemporary life, because bureaucracies have gotten so big. It’s very relevant.
Did you get the sense that you would have liked him as a person when you were doing your research?
TD: I think that would have depended on what day I met him and what kind of mood he was in. I think he had a real capacity for friendship. He was obviously funny and warm and could be gregarious and terrific on certain days. When he was upset about something or irritated I think he could be a tough guy. I think he was mercurial. I think over time, yeah, I would have been able to befriend him and he would have liked me okay. You never know.
In your wife, Marjorie Sanders’ recent book, she talks about your experience with heart surgery. Has that experience has changed the way you approach your writing or your perspective as a writer?
TD: It has. I was 44 when it happened and it happened out of the blue. I do think it created a greater sense of urgency in me. Not to be morbid, but I’ve been aware that time can be short. There are a lot of projects I want to pursue and I realized I better not waste any time. So I do think it created a sense of urgency in me. I have written more and maybe faster than I should have. Maybe I should take my time and slow down some. I look back and since then, I look at the number of books I have produced and it is a lot. I do think it’s partly tied to that.
What will your next project be?
TD: I’ve just signed a contract with St. Martin’s to write a biography a living writer.
Is there anything else you want to add?
TD: The only thing I want to throw is a plug to our creative writing program and how well it’s doing. I think we’re on the verge of a lot more national visibility as a program and we’re all very excited. There are so many publications from graduates and faculty lately. We’re starting to see a lot of publications in a pretty tough time, so we’ve got a good track record going. I want to say how amazing and wonderful it is to be part of this program and see this community grow over the years.