Although his body of work includes poetry and essays, award-winning writer Charles Baxter is best known for his fiction -- brilliantly crafted, non-linear stories that twist and turn in unexpected directions before reaching surprising yet nearly always satisfying conclusions. He specializes in portraits of solid Midwesterners, regular Joes and Janes whose ordinary lives are disrupted by accidents, chance encounters, and the arrival of strangers; and his books have garnered a fierce and loyal following among readers and critics alike.
Born in Minneapolis in 1947, Baxter was barely a toddler when his father died. His mother remarried a wealthy attorney who moved the family onto a sprawling estate in suburban Excelsior. From prep school, Baxter was expected to attend Williams, but instead he chose Macalester, a small, liberal arts college in St. Paul. Intending to pursue a career in teaching and writing, he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, attracted by a faculty that included such literary luminaries of the day as John Barth and Donald Barthelme.
After grad school, Baxter moved to Michigan to teach at Wayne State University in Detroit. He spent more than a decade concentrating on writing poetry, but after a particularly discouraging dry spell, he decided to try his hand at fiction. He labored long and hard over three novels, none of which was accepted for publication. Then, just as he was about to give up altogether, he attempted one last trick. He whittled the three novels down to short stories, replacing epic themes, extraordinary characters, and ambitious story arcs with the small, quiet stuff of ordinary life. It was a good decision, In 1984, his first collection of short fiction, Harmony of the World, was published. Another anthology followed, then a debut novel. Published in 1987, First Light charmed readers with its unusual structure (the story unfolds backwards in time) and a cast of richly, draw, fully human characters.
Baxter continued to publish throughout the 1990s, alternating between short and full-length fiction, and with each book he garnered larger, more appreciative audiences and better reviews. His breakthrough occurred in 2000 with Feast of Love, a novel composed of many small stories that form a single, cohesive narrative. Described by The New York Times as "...rich, juicy, laugh-out-loud funny and completely engrossing," Feast of Love was nominated for a National Book Award.
"Every time I've finished a book, it feels to me as if the washrag has been rung out," Baxter confessed in a 2003 interview. Yet he keeps on crafting absorbing stories infused with quiet (sometimes absurdist) wit and a compassionate understanding of the human condition. A longtime director of the creative writing program at the University of Michigan, he is known as a generous mentor, and several of his students have gone on to forge successful literary careers of their own.
Good to Know
Back to Top
In our exclusive interview, Baxter shared some fascinating insights with us:
"My novels are sometimes criticized for being episodic, or structurally weird. And they are! I like them that way. It's fairly late in the day -- 2003 as I write -- in the history of the novel, and I think it's fair for writers to mess around with that form, and to stop thinking that they have to write books that move smoothly from the first act to the second act, and then to the climax and the denouement. I like digressions, asides, intrusions, advice, anything that gets in the way of a smooth narcotic flow. New novels should not look like old novels, except when they want to."
"My father died when I was eighteen months old, and I expect the unexpected to happen in life and in art, and my fiction is full, or loaded down, with unexpected fatalities of one kind or another. For me, that's realism."
"I had an unhappy childhood that I thought was happy, and I dove into books as inspiration and relief and comfort and security and information about what people did and how they thought. I can still get happy and sentimental just over the thought of libraries -- the image of a woman sitting quietly and reading is a terrifically sexy image for me."
"Like many writers, I'm private and quiet and observant and bookish. For a physical outlet, I lift weights at the gym two or three times a week, and I don't quit unless and until I've worked up a fairly good sweat. Many writers need an outlet like that to counter the sedentary nature of what they do. I don't have any wild delusions about the greatness of my work: I am happy to work humbly in this field where so many writers have created so many immortal manifestations of the mind and spirit. As Henry James said, you work in the dark; you do what you can; the rest is the madness of art."
Back to Top
In the fall of 2003, Charles Baxter took some time out to discuss his favorite books, authors, and interests with us.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
For many writers, the experience of falling in love with a book has to happen in high school, or it won't happen at all. Love at that age is mad love. The book that did it for me at that period in my life was Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, with its voluptuous melancholy; I don't think I had ever imagined that the word "sorrow" could be deployed in so many densely lyrical ways. The book's dramatic idea of the outsider struck a chord in me, since in those days I felt as if I was outside everything of any importance.
The other book that did it for me was Melville's Moby-Dick, whose language struck me as wonderfully over-the-top. I found myself pleasurably lost in it and never wanted it to end.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary -- Every writer of fiction of serious fiction takes this book to bed and wakes up with it -- it is a hallmark of scrupulous style, of intricacies of tone, thought, and feeling. Also, it is often very funny.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita -- A word-enchanted, art-enchanted, beautifully seductive novel on a seemingly repulsive subject.
James Joyce, Dubliners -- Because of its story "The Dead," one of the great works of art, of paralysis and entrapment, of our time or any other.
Katherine Anne Porter, Stories -- She is the greatest American short-story writer, and "Noon Wine" is the greatest American short story. I can't imagine being a writer myself without that story.
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita -- This book amused and terrified me and showed me what the imagination could do when under duress.
Dimitri Shostakovich, Testimony -- Reading this book is like getting to know the composer, and what it was like to be him, and to be a genius, and to live in terror of your life.
Shakespeare, Collected Plays and Poetry -- You can't be a writer in English without those works nested in your head.
James Wright, The Collected Poems -- Because when I read this book, I understood why anyone would want to write poetry. I recognized in it feelings that I hadn't known I had, though they were mine, in a language that seemed both natural and lyrical, and Wright's example eventually took me back to the poets he loved, including Thomas Hardy, Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats, Frost and Housman and Trakl and Edwin Arlington Robinson.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse -- I don't know why. I just love it, that's all.
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow -- Michael Ondaatje said it was one of the great books of our age, and I agree. Maxwell's example was very important to me.
But now I see that I've left off Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and War and Peace. And somehow I left Alice Munro's books off the list. How could I do that?
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Jules and Jim -- For its evocation of a time and place, and a mood -- very hard to sustain in films.
The Hour of the Wolf and Persona -- Two of Ingmar Bergman's best films, scary and brilliant.
Bresson's A Man Escaped -- For its quality of inwardness.
Chinatown -- A brilliant film about the insatiable forms of American greed.
Vertigo -- Hitchcock's greatest film, which conclusively proves that great films can also be completely implausible.
The Night of the Hunter -- Which is like a terrifying mixture of Brecht and Sherwood Anderson, directed by Charles Laughton.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music when I'm writing. I like a very large variety of classical music, including, among the French, Satie, Ravel, Debussy, Poulenc, and Dutilleux; American music: Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, John Adams, Eric Stokes, Wm. Bolcom; and English: Ralph Vaughan Williams and William Alwyn. And the classics: Mozart, Bach, Brahms.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Books of poetry, or books about travel.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No special rituals. I have too much clutter on my desk -- I have to clean it immediately.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Don't quit. Don't quit. Don't quit. Don't quit.
Back to Top
|Charles Baxter Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Charles Baxter|
|Harmony of the World: Stories, 1984|
|Through the Safety Net: Stories, 1986|
|First Light, 1987|
|Imaginary Paintings, 1989|
|Relative Stranger: Stories, 1990|
|Shadow Play, 1993|
|Believers: A Novella and Stories, 1997|
|Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, 1997|
|The Feast of Love, 2000|
|Saul and Patsy, 2003|