A Conversation with Robert Wexelblatt
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (February 2023)
More than twenty-five years ago, a fascinating footnote in an essay concerning a Chinese general deploying an illiterate courier with a secret message inscribed on his scalp inspired author Robert Wexelblatt to concoct an ingenious account of the fictional life of famed itinerant peasant poet Hsi-wei. Having accrued over forty tales in the intervening years, this inspirational character continues to entertain and intrigue, with no end in sight to his remarkable wanderings.
In this exclusive interview with Lowestoft Chronicle, Wexelblatt discusses his latest collection of Hsi-wei tales, his interest in the Sui Dynasty, and the origins of some of his many inventive stories.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): Your newest story collection, Other Places, Other Times, contains twenty-six historical fictions, half of which feature the fictional peasant poet Chen Hsi-wei. I’ve been an admirer of your Hsi-wei stories for quite some years, savoring periodic new installments and speculating if there would be a second collection. What made you decide on this combination of thirteen Hsi-wei tales and thirteen diverse narratives across dissimilar periods and places? How did this book come to be published by Pelekinesis rather than Regal House Publishing?
Robert Wexelblatt (RW): This is a question to provoke both reflection and confession. I’d like to say Other Places, Other Times was meticulously premeditated, that I conceived of the plan then executed it as best I could. The truth is that I wanted to do a new collection, compiled a list of published but uncollected stories, then realized that I had a bunch of historical fictions about the same in number as the Chinese tales written after Hsi-wei Tales came out. The symmetry felt fortuitous, and so I organized the book, alternating thirteen stories featuring Hsi-wei tales with a baker’s dozen that didn’t.
I have no regular publisher but have been exceptionally lucky in finding ones willing to publish my work. A colleague of mine from Southern California is a friend of Mark Givens of Pelekinesis Press. This colleague suggested I get in touch with Mark and submit a manuscript. I sent Mark Heiberg’s Twitch which he published in 2016. Mark is a delight to worth with, and things went smoothly. Two years later, I asked if he might consider another book, and he said yes. I offered more than one possibility, including the long and decidedly peculiar collection, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein. To my surprise, Mark wanted to publish it rather than a shorter and more conventional book of stories. I cautioned him about it and said that I wouldn’t accept his generous offer until he’d had two weeks in which to come to his senses. He took the two weeks but still wanted the book. It came out in 2018. So, my association with Pelekinesis preceded the one with Regal House. Because of the Hsi-wei tales, I did submit Other Places, Other Times to Regal House, who, after a few months of silence, said they were no longer publishing collections of short fiction, which sold badly. And so, I tried Pelekinesis once more and was lucky once again—lucky that Mark likes my work and is apparently unconcerned by poor sales.
LC: Among the many varied stories is the engaging “Three Noons” from a 2009 issue of SN Review. What stirred you to take a shot at writing a Western?
LC: Having been moved by the tuneful and lyrical brilliance of your collection Petites Suites—a hybrid of fiction and music—it’s interesting to see the entertaining “Petite Suite Littéraire” (from an issue of BlazeVox) included in Other Places, Other Times. Using this piece as an example, how do you start assembling a suite? Does it begin with the music, the title, or the germ of a story? How do you decide on the instruments and the tone? What motivated you to write an additional twenty-third suite, and might you attempt more in the future?
RW: All my Hsi-wei tales have been published, all but the last now collected in books. I wrote one more after the new book was complete when I discovered that the beautiful and innovative Anji Bridge was constructed during the Sui Dynasty. So, I arranged for Hsi-wei meet the architect and wrote a story about it along with the customary poem. It was recently published in a literary journal.
LC: You once mentioned that the books Petites Suites, Hsi-wei Tales, and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein all began in the 1990s as one-off experiments. “Hsi-wei’s Skull,” from the Fall 1997 issue of Sou’wester, was the first Hsi-wei story to emerge, and apparently, you drew inspiration from a footnote in an essay by Italian chemist and writer Primo Levi. Exactly how challenging was it imagining the Sui period and depicting (vividly so) this benevolent but crusading character? What persuaded you to make him a poet?
RW: It’s true that, like the first petite suite and the initial Sidney Fein essay, the original Hsi-wei tale was to be a one-off. It’s also true that it was inspired by a footnote to one of Primo Levi’s essays. It told of a Chinese general sending a secret message inscribed on the scalp of an illiterate courier. It was only later that I discovered that scalp-inscribing is called steganography and read up on it. I liked the idea of a peasant boy with fast-growing hair being recruited for the perilous mission, surviving, rejecting material rewards, asking instead to be educated. I liked the idea that this intelligent but illiterate boy would want to have language inside as well as on the top of his head. That he would become a poet was part of the plan all along, but he required some schooling first. I read up, superficially, on the Sui Dynasty, gathering just enough to seed my imagination. Sixth Century China is far away and long enough ago that I didn’t feel excessively constrained either by facts or my ignorance of them, nor did it seem likely anybody would charge me with cultural appropriation. Later on, I read more deeply into Chinese history, also mining the internet and other sources for details of the period, out of which I could fashion stories.
LC: Given his fame and the influential power of his verses, were you initially hesitant to include an example of his work?
LC: As the verses are often intrinsic to the tale, the construction of the stories becomes more intriguing. Do you compose the poem first, or is it always a case of creating verses from the finished story?
RW: As I mentioned, I based many of the stories on facts I discovered about the Sui Dynasty: the wars in what is now North Korea and Vietnam, the building of the Grand Canal, the repairs to and expansion of the Great wall, the Sui currency and land reforms, funeral customs, the examination system, the duties of magistrates, folk beliefs about witches and ghosts. Just as often, I simply imagined Hsi-wei in some situation and how his keen moral sense, along with the sensibilities and resentments of an educated peasant, would cause him to respond. Then there were little details I turned up about Chinese court or peasant life. One story was inspired by what may be the sole surviving Sui-period painting.
But you’ve asked the very best question about the tales: the chicken-or-egg one. There are a few cases where the poem came before the story. For instance, last spring, I found myself writing a poem about Hsi-wei conversing with a court official in the gardens of the Duke of Shun. It was weeks later that the story preceding the poem took shape. But that is exceptional. It’s more usual for the narrative to come before the poem. It was also useful to invent a Tang minister who is a Hsi-wei fan, have him take time off from his duties to visit the poet in his retirement and keep a journal of their conversations about his poems.
I’m pleased that you find the poems well integrated with the tales. Neither would exist without the other.
LC: Your many works comprise eight fiction collections, three books of verse, two books of essays, two novellas, and a novel. Roughly how many pieces of prose and poetry would you say you’ve published? Is there a particular work you prize above others?
RW: With the two books out this month, there are now ten fiction collections. I once read that men tend to count things, that there are few authors or academics who can’t state with precision the total of their publications. Me, too. By my count, there have been 754. This is astonishing to me as I feel I’m not so productive at all. All the same, I sometimes think of the last page of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” and joke that my supply wildly outstrips demand. I feel differently about the various publications. Many, even most, I entirely forget. The novel, Zublinka Among Women, took the most sustained effort, and so I feel for it the affection one might have for a difficult child who successfully navigates childhood and adolescence and makes it into respectable adulthood. The fiction collections merge in my memory so that I no longer can say which one contains which stories. I feel more affection for the long-term projects that all began as single experiments, the ones I called proprietary: Petites Suites, Hsi-wei Tales, and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein. About the three books of poems, I feel some ambivalence because I don’t think of myself as a poet, just as someone who occasionally writes verses, and mostly because I can’t help it.
LC: And what are your long and short-term writing goals? Will you remain focused on short fiction, essays, and occasional poems, or do you have ambitions to someday write another novel?
About the Author
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published ten fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, Petites Suites, Intuition of the News, Hsi-wei Tales, The Thirteenth Studebaker, and Other Places, Other Times and In the World of Confusion; two books of essays, Professors at Play and The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; three books of verse, Fifty Poems, Girl Asleep, and To See What I Have Seen, See What I See; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction.
About the Interviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of Lowestoft Chronicle. He has worked in various countries as a journalist, librarian, and researcher and resides in western New York. Formerly a book critic for the Lancashire Post, syndicated to twenty-five newspapers across the U.K., he now writes for Publishers Weekly and regularly contributes to the Colorado Review. He can be found at nicholaslitchfield.com.