A Conversation with Rick Harsch, the author of Skulls of Istria

When I asked Peter Damian Bellis what I could do for River Boat Books right now, he asked how far Stuttgart was from Slovenia, wondering if I wouldn’t mind interviewing Rick Harsch, who lives there in the coastal town of Izola. I said sure, so he put me in touch with Harsch, who insisted that if I were to do this I must agree to stay at least three nights at his apartment. That made me nervous, so I agreed to two, which turned into five, and a great vacation, as Harsch and his family are wonderful hosts, and the region both beautiful and rife with mixes of culture and history.

I arrived Sunday night, June 24th, after about 13 hours on buses from Stuttgart through Munich and Ljubljana and finally to Izola. He met me at the bus, where I was pulling my luggage from the side bottom, rushing up to me and telling me to grab a few other suitcases while I had the opportunity. It doesn’t take long to get to know such a man.

But he had another surprise. Apparently all the Germans he knows live in Stuttgart as I do, as well as one of his Slovene friends and his family.  

 The Germans are in the band Kaufmann Frust, and he said the final condition for the interview—remember, commissioned by his own publisher—was that I present 
 Rick Harsch  on his Izola balcony with Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook and The City of the Future.  

present myself as a former member of the band, which I have done in my introductory piece for the press. So let me correct that here and now: I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the band Kaufmann Frust, though it is true I can play a lot of American cover songs and make small change in big cities throughout Europe doing so.

I read Harsch’s currently published book Skulls of Istria on the bus—it’s a short, what he calls ‘tavern-confession’ novel, and so I was able to not only read it but give it a thorough going over—but the first night he dodged all questions about the book. Our talk was more general. Here’s one exchange:

KH: Who do you think the most important living writer in the world is?

RH: Antonio Lobo Antunes  [he answered without hesitation]. If you want the most important writer in English it’s Sesshu Foster. Sesshu Foster is a Los Angeles writer, author of Atomik Azteks, most recently a book of poems called The City of the Future, and several other books, poetry and prose poetry. I’ll get to him soon.

KH: Why?

RH: Besides various requisites such as talent, inventiveness, disinclination to acceptance of prescribed order, revolutionary sense down to the marrow, which I think any writer I mention in answer would have to have, Foster is an adamant small press writer, or if adamant isn’t the right word, he’s fully aware that the best writing is generally out of the view of the main writing culture and he makes every effort to advance the cause of small presses, while at the same time absolutely refusing to let himself get worn down by the near total lack of concrete award for doing what he does, what he does via tireless promotion and tireless work, writing work.

KH: I’ve never heard of him, which probably doesn’t surprise you… But I feel I have to ask the awkward question: How can he be the most important writer if, as I am guessing, most even modernist writers, most writers who read Gaddis and Barth, for instance, probably have never heard of him either?

RH: All I can say is that that is a fair question and at the same time underscores Sesshu Foster’s importance. To take one shortcut: if it were not for Sesshu Foster, proto-Sesshu Foster’s, Barth and Gaddis would be unknown as well. There must be someone throughout the continuum if the continuum persists. You might know that William Gass might have had a lot to do with the recognition of William Gaddis; yet still, the holy New York Times mistook the two in a review of one of Gaddis’ most important books, actually publishing a review that had Gass as the author. In such a literary world you surely must imagine that the most talent on the continuum is at that part not shoved up the ass of wealth, fame and propriety. It's not surprising to find that a writer has himself surrounded by books. Harsch has most of his books in a large bedroom where he also has his work table and computer. The children’s room (he has a 14-year-old son, Arjun, and a 13-year-old named Bhariavi) is filled with books. The bathroom has a small shelf on the floor with books piled to waist height. There are two cases in the dining room, and his seat on the balcony is surrounded by books. These are the ones he is currently reading. I noticed a biography of Pasolini, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, and two books pertaining to Malta.

KH: So what are you reading now?

RH: Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook.

KH: Come on, you said the books in there [I point to a shelf] are books you’re in the middle of.

RH: Foster’s in the bathroom. I am also nearly finished with a manuscript by my publisher, your boss Bellis, called Gods and Gazelles. I could look around if you want and come up with at least 30 books I’m reading with some urgency.

KH: Then why say Foster?

RH: It’s the most important one to mention…For reasons stated.

KH: Okay…Well, then, what are you working on now? Are you writing?

RH: Like a madman. I’m writing a book on little league baseball in Italy. I started in early March, intending to follow my son’s 12 game season, you know, a book for baseball fans and travel fans, and it turns out I have a lot more to write about than I realized. There are three games left and it’ll end up being more than 500 pages. Maybe 600. I don’t know because I’m using single space and small font, but I did some calculations and it’s nearing the length of my longest novel.

KH: The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas?

RH: Peter told you about that?

KH: I do my homework. It’s coming out in January, right?

RH: Approximately.

KH: What can you tell me about it?

RH: Ah, shit…it’s best to have a fly leaf or something. When I think of one of my books, especially one that long, something over 500 pages I would guess, in book form…I think of various sections. Like for instance this one has a truer version of the bear story of that film Dicaprio was in, the Hugh Glass story. I moved the location a thousand miles or more, but the actual description of the event even presented somewhat comically is closer than what the film depicted. So I think of that. It’s a book about the ancestors of one of the few main modern characters, and it alternately follows the modern characters and covers a great portion of US history covering this family’s generations. The first is a mountain man, who speaks some authentic mountain man as do others, and…and then there’s the mining in Nevada, the atomic testing…some Indian lore…And there are a lot of Rabelaisian lists.

KH: Does it have a distinctive style?

RH: What doesn’t?

KH: I mean, how would you describe the book, you know, stylistically?

RH: Harschian.

KH: Right, so you aren’t much on labels then. Neither am I, frankly.

RH: They don’t bother me, really—it’s just that the more you say generally, the more misleading is the description. I can say it’s dark and funny and plays with language a lot, that it makes fun of itself sometimes, that it’s rather scathing towards US history…but what would that make it? Postmodern? Hyper-real is good. I don’t mind if someone calls something of mine hyper-real.

KH: Is that accurate?

RH: No.

KH: But you don’t mind.

RH: No…Look, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I was there over, what? I started there almost 25 years ago. That’s where someone first called my writing meta-fiction. So some guy read something in a university class and it was called meta-fiction, and when he encountered mine, which was probably similar only in that it refuses to obey standard literary notions in whatever ways, he called mine meta-fiction, too. Probably Joyce and Beckett are both meta-fictional, but…
KH: I thought Skulls was great, I really did. But I didn’t think of it categorically. I was trying to think of it like a literary guy would and what I came up with was a kind of mix of Camus and Conrad, the Marlowe books, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness.
RH: That makes sense, though, because you’re just describing the storytelling technique. But I hope you liked it more than The Fall—I couldn’t stop laughing when I read The Fall. All that ‘Here we are again today my friend’ bullshit.

KH: I read it ten years ago.

RH: Go for twenty.

KH: You’re right, though, in that sense, Skulls of Istria is a very realistic work, which is not something I would ever have thought of your books. [We had already talked about how I came to know his work.]

RH: The story is surreal enough, particularly the one that never really gets told but is the center of the book, Viezzoli’s story. A man, a 26-year-old man, goes off to join the International Brigades and gets killed in Madrid in his first encounter. Gets his name engraved on a plaque.

KH: The engraved! That’s what the dedication means. I didn’t think of that…I thought about graves.

RH: Right. Both.

KH: What about your other book?

RH: Which one?

KH: Voices after Evelyn.

RH: You do do your homework. That should be coming out in November as the inaugural book from Maintenance Press, a new Midwestern press, sort of the avant-garde wing of Ice Cube Press, a well-established Midwestern press based in Iowa. Back to Sesshu Foster, this press began with a fundraising, you know, one of those crowdfunding things, and shot for 10,000$ and got to their goal in about two months, which suggests that there is awareness and interest in less commercial literary ventures.

KH: What’s the book about and how is it avant-garde?

RH: Finally an easy question about one of my books. Avant-garde is sometimes essentially the failure to concede. For instance in the ‘realistic’ Skulls of Istria, the most dramatic action is presented in a page—I’m talking about the war crimes in Mostar—most novels that contain the same basic elements would make that central in an obvious way, the action would be presented in lengthy scenes, characters made of victims and perpetrators. Imagine the film: bad guy required. Evelyn is a historical novel accurately depicting the pivotal moment in a town when a babysitter disappeared, was almost certainly murdered, her body never found. Every expectation given that scenario is rejected. The book is comic, lively, and playfully dark, in fact slipped in to the novel is the murderer played by Peter Lorre in M as a means of conveying a modern chiaroscuro to this colorized event that is researched in blacks and whites. My agent of the time I wrote the book did not get it, and was even, believe it or not, confused by the narration, which is by a series of characters, something twice done by Faulkner and not at all meant to be modern or unmodern or anything but the way the tale needed to be presented. The novel also focuses far less on the victim—in fact, does not focus really at all on the victim—the novel focuses on people living in a 1950s Wisconsin river city who would have lived similarly whether the crime happened there or elsewhere…yet at the same time it is in its way a tip of the hat to the bizarre, the mysterious, the perverse, which is sometimes misunderstood as a characteristic of the Midwest, which is all that but only in its most extravagantly subtle lineaments different from the same excretions in other geographies.

[Given a limit to what I can present to the press, I cut much of the interview and focused on selections I felt were important. I will end with an exchange on River Boat Books.]

KH: Are you happy with River Boat Books? By that I mean many things, but at least address the financial aspect, as it is not a known press that afforded you a large advance.

RH: [Laughing] I need money because I have a family, so if a large press offered me substantial money I would have to take it, for my children. But more important in real terms is the proximity of a press to the essence of its books. Maintenance Ends perfectly matches its first book. Perfectly…right, stupid word because what I need to say is that in the end River Boat Books may be an even, no, I won’t say better fit, but they are more or less the same in regard to my sense of what is—shit, I’m babbling. Look, I am being published at the same time as an enormous masterpiece that came from out of nowhere, The Mad Patagonian, and at the same time along with the historic publication of one of my literary uncles, Roberto Arlt, his great book The Flamethrowers published in English translation for the first time. Now, after reading my publishers novel Gods and Gazelles, I know with certainty the press is run by a mad genius. I am extremely happy, yes, and if River Boat Books survives the coming year, you and I will both be even happier, for there is much more to come that—recall Mr. Foster now—would otherwise be preserved by bark-ravenous insects.


Klaus Hauser, Literary critic (for lack of a better label) and Book Connoisseur (because there are 1,759 books in his Stuttgart apartment)