June 2010

David Shields


in conversation with

Sarah Manguso


“Abstract arguments about genre are boring—and what’s more, those arguments reek of eugenics and fear.”
Three silences, in order of increasing mystery:
Silence of withholding
Silence of aphasia
Silence of no content

David Shields is the author of ten books, including, most recently, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010) and The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (Knopf, 2008), a New York Times best seller. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is a professor of English at the University of Washington. His work has been translated into twenty languages.

Sarah Manguso’s most recent books are the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (FSG, 2008) and the story collection Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s, 2007), which was included in One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the low-residency MFA creative writing program at Fairfield University. Her books have been published in five countries.

Shields read Manguso; Manguso read Shields; they began a correspondence. This conversation was culled from a series of obsessive email volleys that took place throughout 2009 and began before the correspondents had met in person. In distinctively plot-blind fashion, neither of them remembers at what point in the conversation they finally met, or whether it had any effect on any quality of the ongoing conversation. In any case, it’s still going on.


SARAH MANGUSO: You’ve said that memoir belongs to literature, not journalism, and that lately it’s been misfiled in journalism. I feel that we should probably talk about this, but it seems so obviously true, I feel that any questions I’d ask you, any challenges I’d put forth, would be artificial and a waste of time.

DAVID SHIELDS: I’d rather talk about our mutual shame: coming out of a movie and having no idea what the plot was—“He killed whom?” Are we missing the narrative gene?

SM: Maybe. The second Austin Powers movie has a scene in which Burt Bacharach plays the piano on the top of a double-decker bus. A few days after I saw it, I described the scene to a friend, but somehow I remembered a swimming pool on the roof of the bus. How would Burt play the piano in the water? I have no idea, but I can see the water, remember the color of it. I don’t remember how the movie ends, of course, but that misremembered scene haunts me.

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