Charles Baxter is one of our Twin Cities most celebrated and accomplished authors. His latest, There’s Something I Want You To Do, is a group of linked stories—some based on virtues, some vices—almost all with “a request moment.” The stories touch on desire, family life, dreams, and the rippled consequences of our actions. As is Baxter’s way, it is graceful work about complicated adult concerns.
He meets the Mother of All Book Clubs in the Starbucks in the basement of the Barnes & Noble, Galleria, this Thursday, June 11, at 5:30 p.m. A public reading follows at 7 p.m.
Here he answers our five questions (and one bonus question).
1. These stories take place right in our place. What do you love about the Twin Cities?
I was raised here, so the people here are people I recognize and can write about because, in a minor way, I can be authoritative about them. Something about the mildness of Midwesterners resonates with me--and I'm interested in the odd ways people here can explode, as they do, periodically. I like the watery settings—the Mississippi, and the lakes—and the violence of the climate, including the ordeal of Minnesota winters. I like the cultural set-up here, all the interest in literature and music and theater.
2. In almost every story there is something you call “a request moment.” (There is something a character wants another character to do.) What fascinates you about the request moment in a story?
Request moments get dramatic momentum started, especially if one character asks another to do an almost impossible or unethical task. Requests also lay bare the obligations that we feel toward each other. If you love someone, what would you be willing to do for that person, if you were asked? Shakespeare, not that I'm comparing myself to him, was fascinated by request moments: both Hamlet and King Lear begin with requests.
3. The New York Times Book Review called the environment you created “a shimmering web of interconnectedness.” I found the realness of this effect in the book very moving. Maybe it’s social media. Maybe it’s my own adulthood. Are you particularly aware of interconnectedness at this moment in time?
Yes, I am, but I'm also interested in the way that interconnectedness results in distraction and loneliness. I'm not really a part of the Twitter generation, but I have been watching the phenomena of texting etc. with awe and unease. In literature I love the ways that images and emotions can match up and resonate—that's a different kind of interconnectedness, the kind that literature is built from.
4. Your characters all have an inner grace, and yet they’re unpredictable. Did any character in this collection give you any trouble?
Corinne. I had to struggle to get her right.
5. You’ve got some complicated mothers and complicated mothering dynamics going on. One woman in particular is a “Runaway Mom.” How do you approach mothers and mothering issues in your work? What are you thinking about—or particularly careful about—when writing mothers?
The literature of motherhood is vast, and it's easy to sentimentalize it and easy to fall into a set of clichés. Besides, how do you portray a mother who isn't perfect in every possible way, but isn't a monster, either? I think the practice of motherhood is changing in our time, and I was trying to give an inkling of that change.
6. Lots of people describe your work as having “grace.” What do you think they mean?
The Russians have a phrase: "You should ask them." But, okay, here goes: I understand "grace" in several ways: as a form that art can take when it's well-made; as a form of generosity of spirit that seems to create a kind of inward glow; and, more religiously, as a descent of benevolence—forgiveness—and loving-kindness over those who need it most. I'm not sure what these commentators see in my work. All I do is write the books.