Gary Groth Interviews Harvey Pekar (1984) Part Two of Two

Posted by on July 15th, 2010 at 5:57 PM

­­Previously: Part One.

GROTH: What’s this reading project you’ve referred to?

PEKAR: Oh, I’ve got this project that I’ve been working on since 1980 or 1981, which is to try to familiarize myself with what are considered the best works of prose fiction, not only from the U.S., but from around the world. I’ve sort of set up a program for myself. For example, I’ll read 19th-century French and British literature, the 20th-century French and British literature — like that. I’m trying to develop a basic vocabulary of literature that way. I’ll read histories of literature to find out who’s considered important, and then I’ll read something by this guy, something by that guy and see what 1 think of them. Sometimes I’ll discover people who I think are vastly over-or under -rated.

GROTH: You’re largely an autodidact.

PEKAR: I don’t know to what extent I am.

GROTH: Do you have a college degree?

PEKAR: No.

GROTH: Then you’re an autodidact. Do you regret not having a formal education? Is this a source of any displeasure or bitterness?

PEKAR: If I’d have stayed in school I might be a history professor or something like that, and I don’t know what kind of life I would’ve had. I’ve done OK, I can’t complain too much. I’ve got a steady job and I make enough to live pretty comfortably. I can eat what I want; I have a comfortable apartment in a neighborhood I like a lot. I’ve got a car.

GROTH: Well, in American Splendor you seem to convey a certain contempt for people who have college degree, to whom you feel superior.

PEKAR: Yeah, that’s partly a result of being married to my second wife, who was a real academic careerist. I met a lot of people at her university and was disappointed to find that a lot of them weren’t particularly interested in their subjects. They were just holding a job and that was it. They’d do what was required of them but if I would meet them and want to talk to them about their fields they wouldn’t want to bother with me.

GROTH: They didn’t regard it as a vocation?

PEKAR: They didn’t get any pleasure out of it and they didn’t do any more with it than they had to. Not all were like that, but too many were. There are too many back academics; it’s like they’re just holding down a job and that’s it. Hmm, what am I saying — that…everyone is supposed to love what they do for a living? That because I love European literature everyone should enjoy teaching it?

GROTH: That’s funny because I think right now you’re conveying some things that you convey very well in the book, a sense of both disillusion and naivete.

PEKAR: Well, what can you do?

GROTH: No, that’s not meant as a criticism, just —

PEKAR: Yeah, well, I constantly learn new things. I never cease to be amazed. But I’ll tell you one thing — sometimes I will get bitter about things when I know I shouldn’t. It’s hard to keep a perfectly balanced outlook all the time. You feel mad, sometimes you want to let it all hang out, take it out on somebody, and you don’t want to restrain yourself all the time. I say to myself, “Now take it easy; wait a minute. This guy’s got his own story and he has his problems too, and you’re screaming at him just because he makes more money than you. You should be taking all this into consideration before you blow your top.”

GROTH: Yeah.

PEKAR: I don’t know, maybe if everybody did that it’d be wonderful, but maybe everybody’d be walking around, like, repressed nervous wrecks.

GROTH: This might be a misconception, but particularly in your earlier books there seems to be a real inner turmoil, a sense of unhappiness that has been mitigated somewhat in the later books. 1 don’t know if you agree with that or not.

PEKAR: Yeah, I do.

GROTH: Particularly your relationships with women. You’ve been more successful recently than in the earlier books.

PEKAR: Right. Not only that, I’d been unsuccessful so many times that in recent years it didn’t hurt as much. You become…

GROTH: Inured to it?

PEKAR: Sure, you become inured to certain things and you learn to cope with them. I had a terrible time between my first and second marriages, but it wasn’t bad between my second and third ones. When I wasn’t going with anybody I’d spend my time pretty fruitfully by reading for hours and hours each week. I accomplished quite a bit; I feel real good about it. In fact I got to be a fanatic about reading. I got compulsive. I was trying to read books the way I collected records or something. I just wanted to read everything by this guy and everything by that guy. I read so much I didn’t have time for social relationships. When I got married last time I regretted the fact that I couldn’t spend as much time reading as I had in the past, because I couldn’t keep on at the same break-neck pace, reading three or five novels a week. I had to devote time to my wife.

GROTH: Yeah, I see.

PEKAR: It was like I was collecting stuff, just knocking these books down one after the other. Actually that’s a bad attitude that I had. But I’ve managed to continue to read even though the pace is slower. It’s just a wonderful project that I’m involved in. Right now I’ve just finished Jules Romains, a guy that is not much talked about in the U.S. I’ve read The Death of a Nobody. It’s a wonderful book. You get ideas and stimulation from these authors; you get to feel you know them. I tried to convey my feeling about that in that Katherine Mansfield story on the back cover of my latest book.

GROTH: Well, why don’t we get into discussing some of your reading, some of the authors you like and .so forth? Let me ask you what you particularly look for in writing, what kind of authors you most admire.

PEKAR: Well, I guess the authors I most admire are probably people who wrote in a genre similar to mine. I like mid- and late- 19th– and early 20th- century naturalists and realists quite a bit, both in Europe and America. In England, I like George Eliot and George Gissing an awful lot. In France I like Balzac and Flaubert.

GROTH: You and Gissing probably have a lot in common as writers, don’t you?

PEKAR: Yeah, we write about working-class life and class antagonism. Another guy I like a lot is George Ade.

GROTH: James?

PEKAR: Henry James I have ambivalent feelings about. Theodore Dreiser is a clumsy writer but he’s a fine writer. I like Stephen Crane an awful lot. I wrote an article about him and I think that a lot of his best work is not well known.

GROTH: Do you like George Orwell?

PEKAR: Yeah, I like Orwell’s realistic autobiographical writing in Down and Out in London and Paris. Henry Miller’s autobiographical writing impressed me too, and I liked Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, which is told in the first person. Dostoevsky is a tremendous writer. Getting back to the French, I mentioned Balzac and Flaubert. I also dig Zola and the Goncourt brothers.

GROTH: Fairly grim stuff.

PEKAR: Yeah. Let’s see. American writers I like, Herman Melvill, he’s the most lyrical prose writer I know of; he’s fantastic. Wow, there are so many people, I could go on and on. These are just the first that come to mind. Another that I like an awful lot, that maybe influenced me, is Daniel Fuchs, who wrote some outstanding novels in the 1930s. I like Chekhov, I don’t like Tolstoy but I like Chekhov a lot.

GROTH: That’s interesting. Why don’t you like Tolstoy?

PEKAR: He’s a windbag. I think he was pretentious and that a lot of his ideas weren’t as original or valid as he thought they were. In War and Peace he comes across as a chauvinist, both a male chauvinist and a pro-Russian nationalist. He’s a good writer, don’t get me wrong, but I think he’s really overrated. Boy, his condescending attitude toward peasants is another thing that gets on my nerves.

GROTH: Who are some other writers you think are overrated?

PEKAR: Maupassant. He’s got pretty trivial ideas. Hawthorne is overrated, although I liked House of .the Seven Gables and to a lesser extent; The Blithedale Romance. But I’ll tell you the thing I liked best by Hawthorne was his introduction to The Scarlet Letter. In it he tells how he had this job in charge of a customs house and how he found some material in the attic which inspired him to write the novel. But he also tells about the everyday stuff that went on at the customs house, how interesting it was, talks about the clerks and the old sea captains who would sit around and kill time. And then he says that if he’d had any foresight he would’ve written about stuff like that, it would be a new kind of literature. I read that and 1 thought, “Right on, Hawthorne,” Because he’s talking about something much like the writing I’m doing today!

GROTH: How about Hemingway?

PEKAR: Hemingway is in some respects over-praised. He wrote a lot of bullshit stuff. His macho man pose is really absurd. The women he writes about involve his wish fulfillment; they’re just his dreamgirls, ridiculously submissive to their old men.

GROTH: What do you like about his writing, if anything?

PEKAR: Technically he’s an original and very fine writer. I like the economy and flow of his writing.

GROTH: I’ve always thought he was really a short-story writer, rather than a novelist.

PEKAR: Well, in a short story he couldn’t go on at length about much, which is an advantage to a guy without ideas. Some of those Nick Adams stories are OK; you know, the ones with no one in them but Nick and a pile of wood and it match. Hemingway was such a screwed-up guy, a mess … I like Fitzgerald a lot. There’re so many writers I dig.

GROTH: Nathaniel West.

PEKAR: Sure, Nathaniel West is very fine. I’ve read all of his novels.

GROTH: James Farrell.

PEKAR: A favorite of mine: Not only were his books rich in content, he was an original stylist.

GROTH: What about living authors?

PEKAR: I’m about 50 years behind the times. I’m adhering pretty rigidly to my reading schedule and right now I’m in France in 1925. I read a lot more contemporary writing back in the early ’60s so I might be familiar with some of the people you want to ask me about.

GROTH: How about Christopher Isherwood?

PEKAR: I’m not familiar with his work yet.

GROTH: Capote and Styron?

PEKAR: I like both. Capote doesn’t stand out, but at his best he’s very good. Styron’s Lie Down In Darkness is excellent.

GROTH: Well, back to a dead author, how do you feel about [Joseph] Conrad?

PEKAR: I read a few of his books a while back and I found him pretty hard to stomach. He makes such a big thing out of personal bravery. I had an awful lot of trouble getting through his stuff. I certainly don’t look at things the way he does. I’m going to read more of his work, though, because he has such a good reputation. Maybe I’ll develop a liking for it. But the emphasis he puts on personal courage and stuff like that. …Well, he’s certainly more complex and less ridiculous than Hemingway.

GROTH: Yeah, I think he’s a much better writer. I would say that he puts the emphasis on personal responsibility more than on bravery.

PEKAR: Well, I don’t want this to be my last word on Conrad. I want to read more of his things … Oh, Edith Wharton, she’s good. Henry James, to get back to him, has done a lot of good work. I enjoyed Washington Square a lot, but even people who hate Henry James are supposed to like that book. In some ways James is quite perceptive but he gets all worked up over the problems of people who are nothing but dilettantes, they’re drones. “Where are his priorities,” I wonder, “Does he really think these people are worth writing about?” And then I think, “Well, you know, they got a life too.” So maybe my antagonism toward James’s characters is caused to some extent by reverse snobbery. On the one hand I think, “With all the starving masses in the world why is he writing about these spoiled, corrupt, society people with their piddling problems?” On the other hand, it occurs to me, “Hey, they take themselves seriously, why shouldn’t James?” So who knows? It was said of him that he came to deal “more and more with less and less.” I’ll tell you, though, he had a tendency to be coy, which I really dislike and also he didn’t have real good control of those long sentences he used to write. Some of his stuff is technically clumsy, All things considered, though, he’s a very important writer.

GROTH: Well, he and George Eliot really ushered in the psychological novel, didn’t they?

PEKAR: Depending on who you talk to. I don’t know. Everybody and his brother is supposed to have written the first psychological novel. Sometimes Stendhal is given credit. “Psychological Novel” is a vague term. People have been making shrewd psychological observations and writing them down for a long time, at least as long a time as there have been novels.

GROTH: Do you read much criticism?

PEKAR: Not a whole lot. I tend to read literary histories. I am not at a stage where I can really read a lot of criticism yet, because I want to get more of the primary materials, the novels and short stories, under my belt. Once in a while I’ll stop if I find a writer that especially interests me. Then I’ll read criticism and critical biographies about his or her work. Generally, though, I read literary histories that give me an idea about what’s generally thought about certain writers. Then I read their books and form my own opinion.

GROTH: I see.

PEKAR: After I get a certain amount of basic books under my belt then I’ll go back and read more by certain authors, or try to dig up other obscure writers who are often ignored in the literary histories.

GROTH: How do you organize your reading?

PEKAR: By era and by geography. I’ll take a country, like England from 1850 to 1900, and read histories of English literature in that era and books by the authors discussed in them. I’m constantly going to rummage sales and book sales, picking up these so-called important novels. I’ve got shelves and shelves full of them and I intend to read them all in time. If I like a writer a lot I may read all of his or her stuff. Like I’ve read all of George Eliot’s novels. In any event, I’ll at least read something considered representative by as many good writers as possible, just to see what it’s like. I did the same thing with music, jazz and classical. I read history books, got hipped to musicians, got their records, learned about them and formed my own opinion of them. I talk to people about writers and musicians too, try to learn from them.

GROTH: Uh huh.

PEKAR: Look, before we get off the subject of prose fiction, I’d like to say something more about fantasy. I have nothing against fantasy and I’ve read and enjoyed books that fall into the fantasy category. Some are thought-provoking. A good fantasy book should contain more than super-human beings using supernatural powers fighting with each other, though. I want some food for thought, not just some silly story with a “good always triumphs over evil”-type moral at the end. I would like people to get, from at least some of the books they read, the idea that the social, political, and economic problems we have as individuals and as members of society must be faced and dealt with. I don’t think Marvel and DC comic books do a good job in this respect. In the Marvel and DC universe super-beings save Earth from alien invaders; in the real world middle-aged steel workers with families to support are losing their jobs and wondering where to turn next. I don’t see any supermen helping them. Sure, I’ll admit again that there’s a place for escapism in art, but I don’t think it should dominate movies, novelsor comics.

GROTH: Have you ever thought of going to college? Taking night courses and so on?

PEKAR: I don’t have time. There’s no point to my doing it, it’d just inhibit me. I’m embarked on my own course of study. I don’t want to be wasting time taking requirements like speech and gym. We don’t have very good literature professors in the Cleveland area anyway, from what I can tell. I can read the books these guys use in their classes if I want to.

GROTH: Since you put great stock in knowledge, what end do you think knowledge should serve?

PEKAR: I would think that the more people know the more intelligently they’d act and the happier their lives would be. The kind of knowledge I’m referring to here is in the area of the so-called humanities. If people advance in their knowledge of science and technology but continue to treat each other as stupidly as they did during the days of the Roman Empire, then you get something like what we have today — the spectre of a nuclear disaster hanging over us all.

GROTH: The more knowledge people had, the more copies of American Splendor they’d buy.

PEKAR: Let’s hope so.

GROTH: Do you feel any resentment about that?

PEKAR: Aw, it’s pretty much what I expected it to be. No, I don’t feel any resentment because way before I wrote comic-book stories I was a jazz critic, and I knew about musicians who were excellent but couldn’t make a living in music so I figured, “Well. . . the same thing might happen to me.” These real good jazzmen were working in the post office. And that happens in a lot of artforms, people are good but they can’t sell their work. Look how terribly Jean Rhys was treated, and she was great. But I never planned on supporting myself with American Splendor. I’ve had my file clerk job for a number of years and I’ll keep on working till I’m 55 and I get a pension. Then I don’t know what ‘II happen. I never figured to make money in comics but I wish I could stop losing it.

GROTH: What do you do with the unsold books?

PEKAR: Well, I’ve got a locker in the basement of my apartment building jammed full of them and I’ve got more stored in a couple of other guys’ houses.

GROTH: Oh.

PEKAR: Say, I want to ask you how you liked Val Mayerik’s work in my latest book.

GROTH: Well, as a matter of fact, let me ask you something with regard to that. I felt that his work in American Splendor wasn’t substantially different from his other comics work. He draws the way he draws; but there’s a sense in which your writing tends to transform the artist’s work. You place it in a different context, your context, and you impose your authorial vision on the visuals, and by doing so you sort of give a legitimacy to the artwork that it might not ordinarily have. Do you understand what I’m saying, or do you agree anyway?

PEKAR: Well, OK, first of all, I wasn’t familiar with Val’s work for Marvel when I met him. I went to his studio and he sure didn’t have comic-book work hanging on the walls. I really liked what I saw of his drawing and painting. He’s a very talented and well-trained artist — got a good academic background. He’s reliable and he works quickly, and just about everyone who saw the story he illustrated for me really likes his work.

GROTH: Oh, I think it’s quite good.

PEKAR: So, I don’t have any basis for comparison because I still don’t know what he did for Marvel. But when Crumb saw his work he said, “Keep this guy.”

GROTH: Well, I think context is very important. The work that Mayerik did for Marvel, which I’ve never liked very much, has tended to look like everything else Marvel publishes. I mean, when someone like Mayerik does a Conan it’s hard to tell that Conan from another Conan.

PEKAR: Right.

GROTH: And when he does a story for you it takes on an entirely different dimension. I’m sure if Crumb saw a Conan story Mayerik did, he would be pretty appalled.

PEKAR: You might be right. I think Val’s work at Marvel probably has a lot of restrictions on it. They probably want. him to draw like all their other artists. I don’t think he particularly likes doing that but he doesn’t feel strongly enough about some of the characters he draws to make a big deal out of it. It’s a job. Val’s got a lot of interests. He’s interested in theatre and, in the area of visual arts, I think he’s primarily interested in painting. He told me sometimes it’s annoying for him to break a page up into panels.

I mean a lot of guys graduate from art school all the time and not all of them have an easy time finding work. They have to take jobs where they can find them. Maybe a guy catches on with a comic-book company, maybe he doesn’t know anything about the business, and they tell him, “You draw like we want you to or you don’t work here.” So what is he going to do? Should he make a big deal about drawing a Marvel Comics character? What’s the point of making an issue out of a thing like that?

GROTH: Well, I think there’s more complicity on the part of the artist.

PEKAR: Well, I guess it would depend on the individual artist. I guess some of these guys get worked up about drawing Spider-Man.

GROTH: Let me ask you something that you brought up earlier and that is that you said that your comic wasn’t different in form but in content. Now it seems to me that when someone like Val Mayerik subordinates his talent to a Piece of Work that essentially has no content, it tends to diminish his own work. In other words, his own work takes on a worthless dimension, where it’s simply in the service of something so trite and so worthless as to make the whole God-damn thing meaningless.

PEKAR: Well, there’s money in triteness, because the stuff keeps on coming out.

GROTH: Conversely, I wanted to ask you about Michael T. Gilbert, because I tended to think that he’s one of the most sophisticated graphic artists you’ve used, but oddly enough, I thought he was one of the least effective interpreters of your work and I wanted to ask you how you felt about his work.

PEKAR: When I worked with him it was on a one-shot basis.

GROTH: Well, actually, you did several stories with Gilbert.

PEKAR: His illustration was in two books, a. one-pager in one book and seven pages in another.

GROTH: The one-pager was the library story?

PEKAR: Yeah. The second version of it …Well, what happened; Gilbert had asked to do something for me. So when Crumb couldn’t draw anything for my sixth book, I thought Gilbert might be able to do something because he had a cartoon style. So he wound up doing things I would’ve asked Crumb to do.

GROTH: Well, I thought his stories were a little self-consciously arty and terribly over-rendered. He seems to me the best illustrators for you are the most straightforward … Let me ask you this, have you thought of drawing?

PEKAR: It’s way too late in the game for me to be doing that because I don’t have any drawing ability to develop. I know that damn well. Some people have seen my stick figure drawings and said I should publish those. I guess that would be like listening to something on the radio; you’d just have to read the dialogue and look at my directions to the artist and try to imagine what people and things looked like. Sort of like when you read a play.

GROTH: But I was thinking that — for example, in the case of someone like Jules Feiffer whose drawing becomes more and more tenuous — it’s the idea that carries the strip. They could be virtually stick figures.

PEKAR: Yeah, well, in my case they are.

GROTH: I was thinking in your case the drawing wouldn’t have to be sophisticated, just as long as they connote the feeling or sensation you wish to, and if you drew it yourself, no matter how amateurish or crude the drawing might be, it would be truer to your own vision, although you might sell fewer copies.

PEKAR: Well, it would be just stick figures with directions. I never went beyond that.

GROTH: Let me ask you about the library story, because this is the only story that I’m aware of that you printed twice. They are almost identical except at the end.

PEKAR: I’ve always viewed my work sort of like a playwright would view his. Just as different actors, different casts, and a different director could focus on different aspects of a play, illustrators can interpret comic-book stories in. various ways, each bringing their own style and experiences into the job. I’d like to see my stories illustrated by various people who might each see something different in them.

GROTH: Right.

PEKAR: So Gilbert was talking to me about that library story when he originally wrote to me, so I thought I might rewrite the library story and connect it to another piece I’d done, “The Kissinger Letter,” because I’d been researching it in the library when I witnessed the conversation that I used in the first library story. So I said to Gilbert, “OK, why don’t you illustrate a new version of the story I’m writing.” That’s how it happened.

GROTH: I see.

PEKAR: You know, there’s an advantage in not being able to draw. I’ve been able to see my stories drawn by a bunch of different people, each interpreting it in their own way. It’s been a pretty enlightening process: let me tell you. I’ve certainly learned a lot about certain drawing styles and techniques by having to always compare them.

GROTH: If you could, would you write more than you do now? If you had the means to be published? .

PEKAR: Actually, I’m way ahead of myself. I have a big stack of stories written that I haven’t published yet. I write most stories as soon as I can so that the facts don’t fade in my memory. The more stories I have, the more I can choose from in the process of putting out as well-balanced an issue of American Splendor as possible.

GROTH: How many stories do you throw out? How many stories do you start, feel dissatisfied with, and abandon? Is there a large percentage of those?

PEKAR: No. I think I know by now what I’m doing, what I’m looking for and I eventually use a very large percentage of the stories I write, occasionally incorporating a short story into a larger one. I did a lot of experimenting when I started writing and got an idea of what I did and didn’t think would work then. It’s easy for me to write stories. The hardest part of getting the book together is getting the illustration done, because the guys who do the drawing don’t make a living doing work for me, they do it after they’ve done their own stuff.

GROTH: Well, Budgett and Dumm seem to be it in for the duration.

PEKAR: Well, Budgett wasn’t in the last issue or in the fourth. There was one issue Crumb wasn’t in. That’s the way it’s gone. Guys come and go, like Gerry Shamray. He got a job at a TV station doing commercial art, and then he got to working with Tom Batiuk, who does Funky Winkerbean.

GROTH: Right, right.

PEKAR: So Gerry’s big thing is to get a syndicated strip. He’s working on that too. He simply doesn’t have time to work for me. And that’s OK. I understand. I appreciate the excellent work he did for me and we’re on good terms. I tell him, “Gerry, if you ever get time and you want to do something for me, just let me know,” and if he does get time maybe he will. But he’s got his own priorities, so I’ve just got to sort of just catch him when I can. Most people want to work with me because they want to get published. I can’t afford to pay them as well as they deserve but at least they get into a book that gets distributed nationally, so they can put it in their portfolio.

GROTH: Do you read any contemporary comics?

PEKAR: Very few. I read Love and Rockets. I like it. My wife Joyce hipped me to it; she used to be part owner of a comic-book store.

GROTH: Do you read Raw?

PEKAR: Sometimes. I haven’t seen every one. I like it. Joyce gets comic books, and she shows me the ones she thinks are good. She knew I was completely out of touch with what was going on. Had been for a long time. I used to read underground comix quite a bit in the ’60s, and the ’70s. But since they’ve been practically killed off I don’t look at stuff too much. But my wife showed me Love and Rockets real early on — that’s a favorite of hers.

GROTH: That’s great.

PEKAR: I like it myself; it’s a good book.

GROTH: I wish there were thousands like you. Do you read Weirdo?

PEKAR: Yeah, I read Weirdo. Crumb sends it to me.

GROTH: Do you read Cerebus?

PEKAR: No.

GROTH: Elfquest?

PEKAR: [Laughter.] I don’t want to embarrass anyone. Look, let me say this. I’ve taken a look at these so-called alternative comics that have been published by some of these independent publishers and I don’t think most of them are much of an alternative — really it’s pretty much more of the same stuff. The undergrounds of the 1960s were so much better, so much more innovative. Oh, I’ve read Mark Beyer’s work.

GROTH: Yeah, I think he’s very good.

PEKAR: I like his work. But I just don’t have time to keep up with all the stuff going on in comics, even though there are going to be gifted, intelligent comic-book artists coming to the fore at times. I’ve got my regular 40-hour-a-week job, and then I’ve got to write and publish my comic book, fill orders, answer mail, etc. I’d rather read novels or see movies or listen to music than read a bunch of quasi-alternative science-fiction and fantasy comics. What am I going to get from them?

GROTH: Are you interested in films?

PEKAR: Well, I have a greater interest in them now than I used to have because Joyce is a big film fan and I see them with her. But some movies have had a big impact on me in the past, like The Bicycle Thief and La Strada. I thought some of the Italian neo-realist films were wonderful. I used that term, “neo-realist” in a humorous way to describe my work in my first book, and people took it seriously and started to use it to label my style. I liked Fellini’s later surrealistic work too. See, there is an example of outstanding adult fantasy work, as opposed to the juvenile fantasy in most superhero comics.

GROTH: I was surprised to hear you say you thought Bergman was a crashing bore.

PEKAR: I recognize that he’s an important, even a great filmmaker, but a lot of his work does bore me. He’s often a sophomoric thinker and his sense of humor is kind of lame. He’s heavy-handed, deadeningly earnest. That’s just my opinion; I’m not trying to impose it on others, because Bergman certainly has a lot to be said on his behalf.

GROTH: Well, do you mean to be influential? Certainly when you write essays about jazz or George Ade you do.

PEKAR: Yeah, when I was a critic I liked to champion the under-rated guy. Or else take on some guy like Tolstoy, who I thought was over-rated, to set the records straight.

GROTH: Do to him what Tolstoy did to Shakespeare?

PEKAR: Tolstoy didn’t do anything to Shakespeare because Shakespeare’s still around.

GROTH: But he tried.

PEKAR: No matter what I say about Tolstoy, people are going to keep on thinking he’s one of the greatest handful of novelists for a long time. But if I can get a few people to realize that some of the stuff he said was invalid, superficial, and harmful, then it’s something.

GROTH: Do you ever face the charge of misogyny?

PEKAR: A couple of times: yeah.

GROTH: How do you react to this?

PEKAR: I’m not a misogynist, but I can understand how it comes up, because I’ve had conflicts with individual women and when I depict that conflict, people read the book and they think, “Yeah, this guy hates women.”

GROTH: Yeah, because I confronted that myself, talking about your work with someone, and she thought there was something either patronizing, or downright misogynist, about your work.

PEKAR: Well, believe it or not, I’m strongly pro-feminist hut I have had a lot of conflict with individual women; I’ve written about it and when women read my stories, some may get the idea that I hate them all. I think that story “An Argument at Work” would be cited by women to show that I’m misogynistic.

GROTH: Well, in that particular story, for example, after the woman doesn’t accept your invitation out, you say. “Lousy cunt. I’m 10 times as smart and knowledgeable as any guy she ever went out with, She got a nerve brushing me off.” And then you go on to say, “God damn women! If they think a guy is beneath them socially or ain’t respectable they don’t care how much he got on the ball, or how nice he is. Most women suck respectability from a man like a vampires sucks blood.” Do you think this in any way serves as proof that you dislike women or resent them?

PEKAR: No, I don’t. Let me explain. First, I was writing about myself in the heat of passion. That’s why I portrayed myself as exploding with anger, using the word “cunt.” As to the substance of what I said, I’ll stick with it. In the historical era men have dominated women politically and socially. Women have derived their valves from men in far too many instances; in other words often they’ve accepted them from men, and they’ve also considered their men’s social status their social status. A guy like me does not have a lot to offer any fairly intelligent and well-educated American women. I don’t have enough money for them, nor am I in a high enough social class. But knowing that didn’t make me quit looking for a wife. I thought there might he some woman out there who would accept me as I was. But in finding her I had to get involved with others who rejected me. I hope more women become independent socially and intellectually, among other reasons, so that they do not look down on men who are poor or don’t have prestigious jobs. That’s why I’m pro-feminist. Actually, right now I think the priorities of both men and women are pretty messed up here, as I said earlier.

GROTH: So this is a cultural condition that is sexually impartial?

PEKAR: Yes, but women have been in a position to hurt me very badly and I’ve written about it with some bitterness. When I did women readers misunderstood my position, which I recently found support for by a woman psychologist and a woman sociologist in My Mother/Myself.

GROTH: I particularly liked your story “Rip-off Chick.” I thought it was a very shrewedly told story about how your own intelligence can be subverted emotionally. Because you were well aware of what you were doing throughout the whole story but still you felt some sort of emotional dependency, I think that’s certainly something common to us.

PEKAR: Well, the story shows how I do something that I think will probably be injurious to me in the long run, but I do it anyway because I have to satisfy an immediate desire.

GROTH: Another story that I particularly liked was the Eleanor Roosevelt anecdote.

PEKAR: Oh yeah. I just sat and listened to a guy do his rap in that piece and wrote it down.

GROTH: Is that right?

PEKAR: I thought, “Perfect, man. I don’t have to change a word. I just hope I can remember them all.”

GROTH: I don’t have it in front of me now but I thought the last three panels were especially effective for you. I think you had a silent panel in the middle, so there was that pause und then he said something to the effect that he was part of your era too. I thought that was terrifically resonant. Now, is that exactly what occurred?

PEKAR: Yeah.

GROTH: Jesus.

PEKAR: Look, if you’re a photographer and you’re walking down the street and you see something — a bridge, the way an intersection comes together — you whip out your camera and take the shot and it turns out great. You act first and get the thing down, and then think about it later.

GROTH: Yeah.

PEKAR: I don’t know if I can tell you why I liked what that guy was saying so much but, boy, I just wanted to get it down as soon as possible — exactly the way the guy said it. I thought, “this is beautiful, it’s perfect.”

GROTH: I thought so, too.

PEKAR: I look at myself sometimes when I do these shorter pieces like a photographer walking down the street who runs into things he sees things and he shoots them. It would be difficult to explain why exactly they strike me. Some of these stories have a wider popular appeal than others. I draw my story ideas from a pretty broad and odd frame of reference, but I’ve always found one or two people who’ve told me they liked eyen the most off-the-wall of my stories. That’s really been gratifying. Maybe a story will be ignored by almost everyone and then someone will say about it, “Boy, that really hit me, that one story.”

GROTH: You seem to be a stubborn relish in what you’ve referred to as your “plebeian characteristics.” And I would point out, for example, your continued use of the word “ain’t” despite the fact that you’re educated enough not to use that.

PEKAR: I do use the word “ain’t” and I often speak ungrammatically, depending on whom I’m talking to: I’m influenced by the people I speak to, I tend to talk to a degree their dialect of English, even in some cases to mimic people with foreign accents. Occasionally it’s been pointed out that I do it even when or not conscious of it. When I was a teenager and hung around on the street with guys who came to be called “greasers,” I ‘ started talking like them: a cousin who hadn’t seen me for a while accused me of affecting the dialect, but I wasn’t. I love listening to people talking English in different ways. I give an awful lot of attention to dialect writing.

GROTH: But haven’t you found it necessary to refine your own surfaces?

PEKAR: I don’t know. I’m not as sloppy a dresser as I used to be. I guess I’m a bit more refined in other ways, but see, there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t want to be bothered with, I’ve got a lot of things on my mind. I’m really not very interested in presenting a polished appearance.

GROTH: Would it be far from the truth to say that your priorities are such that you’re more concerned with substance than surface?

PEKAR: Well, there are a lot of people who think clothes are substance. Who’s going to admit that their values are not substantial?

GROTH: Well, how would you define substance?

PEKAR: My priorities differ from many people’s in that I don’t put much emphasis on things like personal appearance and table manners. It’s annoying for me to be bothered about those things. When I was younger I’d get defiant about it but now 1 just don’t want to be hassled.

GROTH: So you’re feeling the pressure to conform?

PEKAR: I always did, and it’s annoying. People are always telling me how inflexible I am, so lately I’ve been a little more conscious of my appearance and manners just so people’d leave me alone. But sometimes I wonder who’s the inflexible one because they’re not bending an inch toward me. But I happen to be in the minority; I either make the changes or I have to fight or be penalized. That’s just a minor, irritating thing that’s gone on all through my life, this hassle about manners and dressing.

GROTH: The way you depict it in the book, though, it’s almost a moral principle.

PEKAR: Well, I talk about that stuff in my story “Stetson Shoes.” I was very defiant, almost invited controversy when I was in high school. Later I just didn’t care but people would keep bringing it up.

GROTH: Do you consider yourself a nonconformist?

PEKAR: I’ve certainly been called that enough. If I say I am, it’s like I’m wrapping myself in a flag, but I guess I am in some ways. Right now I don’t want to be bothered about the clothes and manners crap.

GROTH: One of the most astute things you’ve written was in a story called “Prelude, Party, and Post-Party,” in which you say about a girl you’d knew in high school and met 20 years later, “She’s not a romantic-rebel misfit, she’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-Misfit,” which struck me as the dilemma for rebels and misfits.

PEKAR: In that story I was talking about a woman who had a romantic notion of herself as rebellious but who was actually pretty conventional. She put a high priority on material wealth and professional “success” but she wouldn’t admit that she did; she wanted to be known as a bohemian. She seemed to be pulled in two directions and didn’t want to let go of either.

GROTH: Have you ever applied that to yourself in that you are obviously looking for great success, but that you may lose a part of your own identity once you achieve that?

PEKAR: I don’t know what you mean by “great success.” I’d like to stop losing money and I would like to be somewhat better known so that I can …

GROTH: Well, let’s say you started earning $100,000 a year; that would substantially change your life.

PEKAR: That’s not in the cards in the foreseeable future. I’m 45 now. If I ever start making big money from American Splendor I’m going to be pretty old. Of course, I’d like to stop losing money on the book and make more contacts, because that’s what’s helped to keep me going on a couple of occasions. Cleveland is an interesting place but it’s not exactly loaded with people who have much in common with me. If I told you how few friends I have here you wouldn’t believe me. That’s why my correspondence — and long distance phone calls, for that matter — are exceedingly important to me.

GROTH: Yes, that’s right.

PEKAR: Look, I’ve got an ego like everyone else and it makes me feel good if people say they like my work. I won’t lie to you, but I’m not for the kind of attention that gets you on the cover of People because when that happens it really screws up your life. All I was wondering in that story, “Hypothetical Quandry,” which is related to what we’re saying would happen if I didn’t have to work as a file clerk anymore, if I could live on my earnings as a writer. But it would be outlandish for me to think of making more than 15, 18 grand a year at it. I was mainly thinking of how my file-clerk job gave shape to my life, influenced my attitudes, and gave me something to write about.

GROTH: Yeah, right. I see.

PEKAR: But you know yourself that there’s no way in the world that I could make big money doing this stuff.

GROTH: Not unless they made a sitcom out of it …

PEKAR: Some guy did ask me about that once, believe it or not, but nothing happened. Not that I would have taken him seriously if he’d wanted to make a stupid TV sitcom.

GROTH: Well, your American Splendor seems aggressively anti-commercial. For example, you put on the cover of issue 5 “In this issue: Stories about Sickness and Old People,” something that’s sure to sell it. You have a “Big Divorce Issue. “ In issue 8, you had a story about “Old Cars and Winter,” which I’m sure is going to get people to jump over bundles of the X-Men to get to it. Is that in any way deliberate?

PEKAR: Well, I’m just trying to be funny, that’s all. It’s not so much that I’m anti-money; it’s just that the main thing for me is to put out the best book possible and I will not make concessions.

GROTH: Right.

PEKAR: There are some people who want to make money, that’s their goal in life. They sacrifice things for it. I want to put out a good book and I’ll sacrifice money to put out a good book. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an ascetic but I don’t know how I could make a commercial book out of American Splendor.

GROTH: Well, you could put a few superheroes and barbarians in it … what do you see ahead for yourself and for comics?

PEKAR: Well, I just see myself plugging away at this with the same commercial results for years. As for the aesthetic future — that’s a good question. My latest book, the ninth, was the subtlest, most low-keyed one I’d published. One of the reasons for this was because I’d written so much in the past about nasty conflicts between men and women and the pain of alienation, that I decided to leave those topics alone this time. So in the ninth book I dealt with some pretty subtle things. I’ve already talked about a few stories in that book, “Free Ride;” “One of Life’s Pleasures,” and “Hypothetical Quandary.” There was also a story in there called “Semi-Bummer Weekend,” in which I describe the tensions that develops between me and an out-of-town friend when things start to go wrong during his visit to Cleveland. Another story ends with Joyce jumping on me because I’m reluctant to identify myself as a writer, rather than a file clerk, to a stranger. She thinks I’m being too humble, selling myself short, and doesn’t want to stand for it.

In the future I’m going to probably do stories about my attempt to control my temper, my impatience, and my compulsions. I’ve got a story I’m using in issue 10 about how I first freak out and then try to get a hold of myself when I lose my glasses. These are the kinds of problems we deal with all the time but which are seldom written about. From a structural standpoint I introduced an unusual guy named Toby in my last book. In the next one, issue 10, I’m going to have more about him, show you more about what he’s like and why. As far as the future of comics is concerned, who knows? Prospects for the near future don’t look good. Even in the anti-intellectual 1950s there were important developments in comics — Mad and other EC books, Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly, Jules Feiffer. In the mid- ’60s to the mid- ’70s there were underground comics. Since then — I dunno, man. Comics can be a wonderful medium, but nor many serious, gifted people consider working in them because there’re so many comics that are commercial garbage. It never occurs to them that anything good can be done in comic books.

GROTH: Well, for someone who works in the medium, Harvey, you seem particularly uninterested in it. In other words, you don’t keep up with it, you’re not terribly involved.

PEKAR: That’s because the vast majority of comic books are not interesting to me.  Look, there’s medium and then there’s genre. Would you say to someone, “You write these realistic novels about everyday life, so why don’t you read more trashy Harlequin Novels and hard boiled detective novels? I don’t want to read junky novels or comics. A huge majority of comic books arc comparable to schlock, formula commercial novels or TV shows. I’m not going to waste my time reading or watching or listening to cliche-ridden stuff, no matter what form it takes, what medium it’s in.

GROTH: What you’re saying is that comics have almost been reduced to a single genre.

PEKAR: Well, what can I see — the superhero stuff. I don’t care about that stuff. I’m sure that here and there are good comics I’m not aware of. But I mentioned that I’d taken a look at what passes for alternative comics. These days — I don’t want to mention names, but I don’t see where they differ much from Marvel and DC stuff.

GROTH: You sure you don’t want to mention names?

PEKAR: I’m sure. There’s no point in it.

GROTH: Libel suits aren’t so bad.

PEKAR: Nah, I don’t even care about it from that standpoint. It’s just the idea that I don’t want to sound like a schmuck, like I’m envious, because I’m not. These superhero guys aren’t taking away my bread. If Marvel and DC books didn’t exist, most comic-book fans wouldn’t read my stuff. The genre is more important than the medium to them. If they didn’t have thejr superheroes they’d go see a horror movie. So that Marvel and DC don’t hurt me, don’t take business from me.

GROTH: Right.

PEKAR: I should mention that there is a certain kind of comic collector who’ll buy my books, even though he might not like them; the kid that has to have everything. That’s the kind of record collector I was. I’m sure that there are comic-book collectors out there who are into Marvel stuff but still buy my books. Good for these compulsive guys! For all I know they’re a majority of my buyers. But the people who’ll write to me to tell me they like my book are not mainstream comic-book readers. I don’t think I’ve got a potentially much larger audience among the collecting junkies.

GROTH: To change the subject, did you get any response from the Village Voice over your tirade against the Voice?

PEKAR: No.

GROTH: Not a bit, huh?

PEKAR: No, because those people don’t give a shit. That’s the point. They don’t care if I’m happy or I’m mad. They don’t care. They don’t take any notice of you.

GROTH: Did you find any irony in their doing a story on you almost immediately after that issue came out?

PEKAR: I knew the story was coming out. The guy who wrote it called me months before to tell me he was doing it.

GROTH: What do you think of his comparison of you to the Russian writers?

PEKAR: Well, that’s one stream of writing my work is related to. Dostoevsky and Chekhov are tremendous writers. Gogol is very fine — under-rated. But my style is drawn from a lot of other sources too, as I mentioned earlier. I think I learned from comedians like Rob & Ray, and Lenny Bruce, for example.

GROTH: Well, I think that influence comes across in your work, especially when you address the reader in a kind of monologue.

PEKAR: Yeah, and the timing thing too, the pauses, the panels without dialogue that I’ll write into the story.

GROTH: The silences.

PEKAR: Yeah, right. The silent panels.

GROTH: Yeah, I think you use those quite effectively.

PEKAR: Yeah, thanks. [Pause.] Let’s end the interview right here — a Harvey Pekar ending.

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