Stanley Crawford, born in 1937, is the author of five novels (Gascoyne, Travel Notes, Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, Some Instructions, and Petroleum Man) and three non-fiction works (Mayordomo, A Garlic Testament, and The River in Winter), and has been writing and farming with his wife Rose Mary in Dixon, New Mexico, for nearly forty years. His novel, Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine was reissued last September by the Dalkey Archive. A fantastical tale of a troubled husband and wife sailing the world on a raft of their own invention, its reissue has been praised by the Los Angeles Times as “a heroic homecoming…his novel is to marriage what Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is to parenting.”
I recently discussed the reissue of Log, his current work, and farming and writing in Northern New Mexico with Crawford via email.
New West: Dalkey Archive’s reissue of The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine, originally published in 1972, has garnered an impressive amount of critical attention. You have said that the novel was, in part, your response to the tumultuous atmosphere you found upon returning to the U.S. in 1969. Do you think that the current national mood, forty years later, has anything to do with the sudden revival of interest?
Stanley Crawford: Yes, but I hadn’t re-read the book for many years, perhaps decades, until Dalkey decided to reissue it last year. I came to think of it as an apocalyptic novel, which I suppose it is, but to a lesser degree than what I had come to imagine. It may be this, or the “freedom” from institutional and political constraints that the Unguentines seem to have attained that readers are picking up on, but reviewers have focused more on the relationship, the marriage, the interpersonal—or their pathological aspects. And the times are very different: 1968 and all that had to do with a younger generation trying to elbow its way into a society that was perceived as being repressive and controlling and murderous. Today, I think people are trying to find, or imagine, places of refuge during this slow-motion collapse. Perhaps the barge offers a sort of refuge.
NW: Log is perhaps my favorite of your novels, yet its tone is quite different from the satirical humor of novels such as Gascoyne or Some Instructions that first attracted me to your work. When you wrote Log were you consciously working to write a different sort of novel, or was it more organic than that?
SC: No, it came out of the blue, after six months for the first time in my adult life of not writing at all, at the end of a time when I tried (again—there were several attempts at this) to paint. I remember quite clearly the somewhat gloomy room that served as my studio in our second floor apartment atop a Japanese restaurant, on the corner of Geary and 36th Avenue in San Francisco, the first lines emerging enigmatically from my Olivetti portable, which I left for a few days before continuing on with the story, in longer and longer sections, unbelieving at what was happening. Much later I could trace the filaments that wove themselves into the voice (to mix metaphors) and some of the imagery of the tale, but at the time it was thoroughly mysterious—and fearsomely delightful. Better, you might say, than “organic.”
NW: In a recent interview with novelist Deb Olin Unfirth, you mentioned that “Log would become a sort of imaginative blueprint to the next phase of our lives in Northern New Mexico as back-to-the-landers.” It’s interesting to think about such a fantastical novel serving as a “blueprint” for living—could you elaborate on how you see the relationship between the novel and your life in New Mexico?
SC: “Blueprint,” on reflection, is a little misleading. Yes, we built our house with our own hands, grew our own food, kept livestock, but what I discovered in Northern New Mexico (and had been long craving) was the social, was cooperation, collaboration, and dialogue about matters political. And of course history is still very much alive here, to perhaps an unusual degree in the States. Raising children was also at the core of all this. Unguentine sought to disentangle himself from the world, from the social and political and historical, and live in the mythical world of self-sufficiency; and if this was to a certain extent an illusion I was attracted to, our early years in New Mexico quickly disabused me of it. Of course the imagination is where one can safely try out such extremes.
NW: It’s interesting to me that the cooperative and collective aspects of life in Northern New Mexico is a central theme in much of your nonfiction, whereas your fiction is often focused on individualists gone awry, and not, generally, on issues of place. Have you ever considered what accounts for this divergence of focus?
SC: Historically literature has celebrated the individual, and this was my training—not writing (I never took a writing course) but English and French literature. Why, in short, the novel is still considered dangerous in totalitarian and fundamentalist societies. As a rule the novel criticizes or even denigrates the collectivity from which, ironically, it emerges; by definition its protagonists are outsiders, misfits, criminals. Certainly there are novels that celebrate the collectivity. I think for example of Winifred Holtby’s wonderful West Riding. It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but I was struck by its realistic portrayal of town meetings—the sort of thing Flaubert wonderfully satirized.
My actual training as a writer came through rubbing shoulders with experienced writers on Lesbos and Crete in the 1960s, William Golding among them. Eventually I came to see the destructive or stunting aspects of being an expatriate writer. I was good at languages, but in time I wondered whether this might be at the expense of keeping up with my own language and therefore writing. I also came to feel helpless, particularly after the Colonels’ Coup of April 21, 1967, turned Greece into a rightwing dictatorship that arrested a few Greek acquaintances (but quickly released them) and banned, among other things, the songs of Nikos Theodorakis. Politically helpless, helpless as a foreigner to take matters in common with others in hand.
It was this urge, most of all, that lured me back to the States. Fiction seems to me to be essentially a critical tool in an imaginative sense, and when I found myself settling down in Northern New Mexico, a place of strong characters and age-old traditions, I found myself without the writing tools to describe it. And wondered whether I should even presume to, as I was not much less of a foreigner among my Hispanic neighbors than I had been among the people of Lesbos or Crete or Paris. But in time, after seventeen years of mending fences, digging ditches, and planting my gardens, I tentatively wondered whether I might finally have earned the right to write about my neighborhood. Mayordomo was the first published result. With that, nonfiction became my preferred means to explore the ways of community, which is of course to say place, and therefore in my situation local economies and small-scale agriculture.
NW: When looking for a copy of Some Instructions recently, I was amused to find the following comment made by an anonymous customer on amazon.com: “The nameless narrator of Stanley Crawford’s book has something in common with today’s survivalists of Ruby Ridge and the Republic of Texas.” It’s kind of an offbeat comment, but something about it struck me—do you think of that book, or any of your other fiction, as somehow responding to a particularly Western brand of rugged individualism?
SC: Not yet, at least. I have a draft of novel set in the early 1950s West (or the one I think you have in mind) which I have kept parked for a couple of years now but intend to get back to, and though it’s not satirical it still wouldn’t quite fit in that box.
The buzzword at the time of Some Instructions was “self-sufficiency.” Survivalism was probably out there, perhaps in its incipient stages, but not yet on my radar. And self-sufficiency, in its extreme form—grow your own food, make your own clothes, build your own shelter, acquire all the tools you need to do everything, etc., left out community in the large sense, just as did the early stages of the organic movement, though it did not attempt to severely seal itself off from the rest of the world in the way the survivalist movement tried to. Or for that matter the narrator of Some Instructions. Personally I was pulled in opposite directions. I wanted to be at least somewhat free of the complex industrial systems that seemed to be entering a phase of instability; and yet I could not entirely dismiss E.M. Forster’s dictum, “Only connect.” For some years I was attracted to various cooperative enterprises until I finally settled on the quasi-cooperative Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, for which I worked as a volunteer board chair for 14 years, and then a paid staff member for three years, and then again as a board member for a couple of more years, until about a month ago.
NW: Are there any writers working in the American West that you see as having been particularly influential on your fiction?
SC: Would it sound ungrateful to say “no”? New Mexico is another country, and it faces south when not facing inward. I was raised in California, went to school there, which has other flavors of Westness than what I feel around us, up in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho. I recently discovered Kent Haruf’s stunning Plainsong, but he’s perhaps a little too Great Plains to be considered Western, and sometimes Annie Proulx’s stories evoke in a startling way the Wyoming of a late brother-in-law. The part of the country I’m most fascinated with now is the Great Plains—I loved Ian Frazier’s book by that name—though I doubt I will ever write about it.
NW: Funny that you mention “looking south,” because I wanted to ask you about Latin American writers: I was interested to learn that you see One Hundred Years of Solitude as having inspired you around the time you were writing Log. What Latin American writers, if any, are engaging you these days?
SC: Some years back I became an avid reader of Vargas Llosa’s more interesting fiction, Conversations in the Cathedral and City of Dogs (if I remember the titles correctly, and I believe the second one had two different titles in English), and particularly The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. Mayta is stunning in its mid-sentence shifts in point of view, switching between the journalist in search of the “real” Mayta and the subjects he is interviewing; after the initial shock it comes to seem quite natural, logical even. Beyond Llosa, and certainly not his later potboilers, I haven’t read anything as engaging, though I have a sense there must be something out there. In this connection, I must mention a gem of a book, So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, by the Mexican businessman Gabriel Zaid.
NW: Your corner of the world has a long history as a literary and artistic haven–do you think Northern New Mexico is still a place with a vital sense of artistic community?
SC: Oddly, perhaps, I see myself as only a marginal member of the artistic community. My real communities are the village where I live, the community of small farmers and political activists.
NW: What writing projects are on your plate currently?
SC: To be purposefully vague, as I am uneasy about talking about works in progress, there are a couple of nonfiction pieces, and two novels, one nearly done (but when?) and another just begun. Two of these projects have broken this year, and I’m pleased about that; and I’m trying not to make myself miserable about shelving the two older projects for the duration. Sooner or later everything gets recycled, though unlike actual material recycling, which results in a progressive degradation of the quality of the plastic or aluminum or paper reprocessed, in literary terms the result should be the opposite, a gradual refining. Or so I hope.
NW: Finally, how is El Bosque Farm doing–has the recent craze for local food created more demand for your produce?
SC: We just finished putting up a hoop house or cold frame (an unheated greenhouse, in effect), to extend the season. And shorten the writing season? The local food movement has helped us get through the downturn with no loss of sales. Odd, of course, to feel a larger—almost—mass movement finally catching up with what a few of us were thinking a generation ago. But so it goes. But, really, more than catching up. Michael Pollan, in particular, with his wide yet sharp vision, has located and connected all the dots in a way that beautifully underpins those earlier intuitions.
Alex Young is a writer from Oklahoma and Colorado currently living in Morocco, where he writes and teaches literature at the American School of Tangier. He was recently awarded a Provost’s Fellowship for the study of the literature of the American West from the University of Southern California, where he will begin studying this Fall.