Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"My father was all hell for people talking as they should talk."

{Photo by Flickr user Marxchivist. Used under a Creative Commons license.}

I slip into the vulgate every once in a while--an affectation I only half-understand. There I am speaking impeccable English and suddenly I lingo it up.
That's James M. Cain, interviewed by David L. Zinsser for the Paris Review in January of 1977, nine months before his death at age eighty-five. The interview is full of interesting nuggets about his background and vocation, with side notes along the way about style and other writers.

The son of a college president and professor of English, Cain came to novel-writing late, after several years of working in newspapers and magazines. He started out working at the American Mercury for H. L. Mencken (who, we learn, never read Alice in Wonderland, which Cain, apparently serious, calls "the greatest novel in the English language"). A few years later, after a spell in the "lung house" to recover from tuberculosis, Cain moved to New York and started working for the World. His account of how he landed that job--on the wings of a glowing recommendation from Mencken--is amusing:
I suggested a job where I would just sit around and think up articles, ideas. I said I knew articles didn't grow on trees. . . . I went on like this, with [Walter] Lippmann staring at me while I tried ot talk myself into a job. I knew I was getting somewhere in a direction altogether different, that he was listening to what I had to say, and though disregarding it, he was meditating. I thought, What the hell is with this guy? He interrupted to ask if I had any specimens of my writing. Writing, I thought, what has writing got to do with it? I was still talking about thinking up articles. Later, when we got to be easy friends, I asked him about this first interview and he said, I began to realize as I listened to you talk, that none of your infinitives were split, all of your pronouns were correct, and that none of your pariciples dangled. That was true. I talked the way my father had beat into me; he was a shot for style, and that's what got me the job.
Yet by listening to the way people actually talked, Cain the novelist became an expert chronicler of the American vernacular.

Perhaps the most interesting moment in the interview, however, comes when Zinsser asks Cain about Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the two writers with whom he is most often grouped. Cain replies,
I read a few pages of Dashiell Hammett, that's all. And Chandler. Well, I tried. That book about a bald, old man with two nympho daughters. That's all right. I kept reading. Then it turned out the old man raises orchids. That's too good. When it's too good, you do it over again. Too good is too easy. If it's too easy you have to worry. If you're not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn't going to, either.
I'll admit to being surprised that Cain wasn't a fan of Hammett; I would have expected the brutal executioner's justice of Red Harvest at least to have appealed to him. His response to Chandler, on the other hand, makes sense: in the Cain novels I've read, darkness emerges from resolutely ordinary circumstances and characters, to which the almost gothic trappings of some of Chandler's best work would be entirely foreign. The producer of the film of The Postman Always Rings Twice had it right when he told Cain,
What I like about your books--they're about dumb people that I know and that I bump into in the parking lot. I can believe them and you put them into interesting situations.
Like almost everything else in the Paris Review Interviews, Volume One, in which it's collected, the whole interview is worth reading--I haven't even gotten to Cain's explanation of how the idea for Double Indemnity originated in a lingerie ad that carried a key typo in the slogan, "If These Sizes Are Too big, Take a Tuck in Them." If you're looking for a way to help out our new president in his efforts to drag our ailing economy out of the lung house, you could do worse than wandering to your local bookstore at lunch and picking up a copy.


  1. But, but only one of the Sternwood girls is a nympho, and Gen. Sternwood doesn't really grow orchids - they're merely his excuse to have a greenhouse to sit his old, cold body in!

    I can see Cain disliking the soggy, romantic world of Chandler - or objecting on the grounds of Chandler's flimsy plots - then becoming willfully obtuse on the subject whenever pressed. And I'm happy to give credit to Cain for the believability of his characters and the crimes they commit (very well put about the parking lot guys). But when it comes to this talent that Cain claims to have, for switching from high diction to lingo and slang, surely he must realize that he isn't even in the same class as Chandler?

    [Also: a glowing recommendation from Mencken? There were such things, ever?]

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  3. This sounds fabulous (as does the Ross Macdonald in yr next post) - and I am actually in Oxford for 2 days so can get them to read on the plane back. I like the idea of a job dreaming up articles - I would probably be better off if I had just had a job dreaming up books.

  4. I have been reading H.L. Mencken's American Language. In a chapter about English vs. American English, he notes that Englishmen prefer "post" (postbox, post a letter, get your post) where Americans like "mail" -- they use postman, we use mailman. I immediately thought of Cain's title. I read it this morning. How odd to come across this in the PM.