The following is a conversation between the author Peter Turchi and his son, musician Reed Turchi.
A Conversation Between Peter and Reed Turchi
Born and raised in the land of Old Bay and the Orioles, Peter Turchi was once a promising right-handed pitcher for Liberty Road Little League. Luckily, he turned to writing instead, in high school producing a play so groundbreaking that even the much-feared football coach played a part. From there he headed to Washington College, where he convinced unwary staff at the school press to let him print a poem about summers at the beach on sandpaper, before heading across the country to earn his MFA at the University of Arizona. Years later, he became director of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program, a position he held for 15 years.
His newest book, A Muse and A Maze (Trinity University Press), is an exploration of writing through puzzles, mysteries, and magic. In some ways the book is an expansion on his previous book, Maps of the Imagination, and in others, a journey to new territories, and things just beyond our grasp. When not making money off unsuspecting University of Houston undergraduate table tennis players, he continues to teach and write fiction that without fail manages to expose embarrassing chapters in his son’s life.
“Take Me Back Home” is a revealing anthem for someone who has chosen to spend so much of his time on the road. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Reed Turchi crossed paths with former NEA director William Ferris, and before long he had a) declared himself a major in Southern Studies, with Bill Ferris as his primary mentor, and b) started a record label, Devil Down Records, in order to release an album edited from Ferris’s old field recordings of Mississippi Fred McDowell. That led to spending long days and longer nights with blues musicians in the Mississippi Hill Country and, within a week after graduation, taking a job as label director of Ardent Music, in Memphis.
Reed was born in Chicago, but after six weeks moved to the mountains of North Carolina, and grew up in Asheville. He still lives outside of Asheville, but works in Memphis, and spends weeks at a time touring as the leader of his band, which has produced four albums. The past two years he’s toured extensively in Italy, where he met guitarist Adriano Viterbini of Bud Spencer Blues Explosion. Together, Reed and Adriano created Scrapyard, released in a variety of formats, including reel-to-reel tape, this November.
These days we communicate primarily via text message. We had this conversation just after Reed finished a string of gigs across North Carolina, Virginia, and New York.
I. TRYING TO SOLVE THE PUZZLE
REED TURCHI: Well, now that I’ve cut out all of the paper polygons from the last page of A Muse and A Maze and made what looks like a duck-rabbit, should my writing have improved? In the end, should I even be trying to solve the puzzle, or enjoying my polygonic-wanderings?
PETER TURCHI: Actually solving the puzzles in the book isn’t going to improve anyone’s writing, but “trying to solve the puzzle” is one way to think about what a lot of us—writers and other artists—do every day. Step one is to recognize the problem, step two is deciding what constraints you want to impose or respect, and step three is finding a pleasing/surprising/exciting solution.
For instance: I was reading a novel in progress earlier this week that involves a family reuniting at a lake house and, over the course of a few days, discovering a number of alarming secrets about things that had happened during the previous ten years. The challenges for the writer included deciding which secrets were most important, how many secrets revealed were too many, which characters should know which information when, and how the revelations would impact the rest of the family. All of those questions eventually lead back to one: What’s at the heart of this book? Where does it want to focus, or toward what does it want to lead us?
RT: Examining puzzles, mystery and magic in relation to writing certainly has some overlap with the questions posed in Maps of the Imagination. In what ways does this book explore “the deepened sense of mystery” begun in Maps?
PT: Strange as it seems now, when I wrote Maps I wasn’t really thinking about it as a consideration of how a piece of writing is designed—it took readers to point that out to me. With this book, I’m interested in exploring the tension between two powerful creative forces: the rational mind as it works to create something, the part of the mind that has an idea or a plan, and then whatever’s behind the subconscious: inspiration, intuition, call it what you will. Because as much as most of us enjoy a story or play or song that makes sense, that fits its form, that feels unified and complete, the most powerful work somehow transcends all of that. That’s why some writers reject the emphasis on craft in creative writing programs: they want to remind us that we’re not carpenters, that you can learn all sorts of rules and techniques and still not be able to assemble something beautiful or enchanting.
RT: That sounds very similar to an exploration of the “space between the notes,” and the times in music production when removing something can add power, tension, and emotion.
PT: Absolutely. Paul Simon tells his band to play less in concert, to play the shadow of the song—to leave room for the audience. James Wood, writing about Chekhov, said the best fiction leaves itself open to completion by the reader. In The Half-known World, Robert Boswell writes about the importance of writing past what you can understand or explain. In his book on Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt talks about “strategic opacity.” But the key isn’t just to remove something that the reader or listener can easily imagine. It’s not a matter of being coy, or withholding information. It’s allowing for multiple possibilities, recognizing the complexity of human behavior, and making the world of a piece of fiction as marvelously confounding as the world we live in.
II. CONSIDERATION, INSPECTION, JUDGMENT
RT: In Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, the narrator watches a floor full of dancers, and she describes an old widow as “dancing with a memory, putting all the rest of us to shame.” If the memory being danced with is potentially the most profound, how do you carve a space for it while still leaving ambiguity?
PT: I wish I had written about Beard’s essays in the book, because they’re wonderful examples of strategic withholding and purposeful indirection. “Dancing with a memory” is a beautiful phrase to isolate. There’s a very mundane way to approach recalling the past, reciting incidents and trying to explain their importance, and then there’s what Beard does, leading us into a story almost as if she were leading us into a dark house at night: we don’t know exactly where we’re going, and the details she illuminates are surprising, even disorienting at times. We’re put on high alert. As a result, she manages to get us to see experiences in surprising ways.
So far as how to carve spaces and suggest the power of the unseen: that’s the subject of two of the chapters in A Muse. “How, From Such Wreckage, We Evolve the Eventual Effect” is about strategies for creating and maintaining true mystery while avoiding vagueness and obscurity. “Seven Clever Pieces” is about complex characterization, or how writers create characters that are both precisely described and irreducible, in some way not entirely knowable.
RT: You talk about pattern recognition, and how patterns produce powerful effects. This also speaks to musical phrasing, especially in an improvisational setting. A well phrased solo, riff, or melody establishes itself somewhere the listener can latch on to, and then works its way in and around theme, keeping listeners connected, while also surprising them and showing other ideas and directions.
PT: I don’t know exactly how long ago it was, but pretty early in your experience with music you sat at a keyboard and picked out blues chords and blues progressions. There’s a mathematical aspect to that: a very clear pattern to chord structure. (And I’d argue that you were sitting there in your room, puzzle solving.) But figuring out those chords and progressions is just a beginning, a foundation; they’re tools that allow you to create something unique. I remember your sense of revelation when you started pointing out all the blues foundations in Led Zeppelin songs.
RT: Well, I wasn’t the first or the last to hop on that enlightenment train–I remember pulling out one of the Zeppelin records when I was doing the college radio DJ thing and someone had scratched out and rewritten all the song credits, attributing them to the blues artists the songs were based on.
When I did those solo songs for the Fat Elvis Records 7”, I had three days to write, record, mix, and master—all in my bedroom, with one mic, and two or three guitars. The limitations made the timeframe possible to work with, and it’s actually the second song from that 7”, the one I didn’t have a clue about when I started, that turned out best.
The main riff came from a pattern inspired mostly by physicality: the way it ran together on the fretboard. From that came the harmonies, the chorus, and overdubbed guitars—based less on technique than sound and texture. The title, “Lovers from Other Lives”, comes from a series of letters filled with imaginary places and encounters that I traded with a girl in high school, who was in mind while I wrote it. So there’s that combination of technical ability, “mathematics,” and improvisation: the “inspired” side of it.
And speaking of titles: A Muse and A Maze, that’s pretty clever—did you really come up with that yourself? Aren’t you worried the radio interviewers will have trouble distinguishing it from “amuse and amaze?”
PT: The title of the book came pretty late in the process. For a long time, it had no title; the folder on my computer was labeled This Damned Book. I knew I wanted to play off a familiar phrase, for the title to have the sound of a riddle or puzzle. One night when I was having trouble falling asleep I started running through phrases and—coincidentally—thought of Dazed and Confused, both the song and my state at the time. I flipped it and got Amazed and Amused, which became A Maze and A Muse. Eventually I decided to turn that around. In any case, the title fits.
Most writers I know move back and forth between the rational and the intuitive, though there are some (like the writers in Oulipo) who approach writing very rationally, and others who claim not to think their work through. Deborah Eisenberg, a remarkably smart writer, was just here in Houston, and she insisted again and again that she doesn’t use her brain when she writes, and that she can’t really explain how her stories develop. But she works on a single story for a year or more, and she revises, so there’s certainly a process of consideration, inspection, and judgment going on.
III. SOMETHING BEYOND WORDS
RT: How has this exploration of developing the unknown/unsaid changed your own fiction writing?
PT: I’m always interested in the power of unspoken or implicit communication between a writer and the reader. Deborah Eisenberg has said one of her goals for her stories is to convey something beyond words. The stories I’ve been working on are from the point of view of a very talkative narrator—he’s got a lot to say. He’s also very digressive, and if I’m writing these stories well, his digressions seem natural, which is to say, sometimes it seems he’s forgotten what story he’s telling. My job as the writer is to make those digressions artful, to make sure the reader sees how they’re a necessary part of the overall composition. Of course, that means I need to figure that out for myself. But I’m intrigued by the challenge of putting everything you understand on the page, in order to discover (and present the reader with) true mysteries—questions that can’t be definitively answered, only contemplated.
This book grew out of lectures I gave at the residencies of the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College. There are a lot of unusual things about that program: one of them is a tolerance, even a nurturing, of the pursuit of metaphors that illuminate various aspects of writing. Another is that the faculty don’t just recycle talks from the past; there’s strong encouragement to explore new territory, to pursue our own interests, to present lectures that are really reports from the field. I don’t know anyplace else like it.
You grew up while I was directing that program, and as you got older you started hanging out with poets. Your mother and I were worried. What impact do you think that had on you as a musician or songwriter?
RT: Well, you’ve left out the softball games, which were really the key to my existence. But other than that, growing up surrounded by the oddball assortment of incredibly smart and craft-oriented writers makes the rest of the world feel pretty dull. Because I was never, and still am not, a well-trained poet or prose writer, but what profoundly impacted me was the relentless attention to and examination of self-improvement, the focus and meditation on subject matter, and also the power that the resulting art and observations can have on a wider audience, even on a kid sitting on the floor sticking forks in power outlets.
PT: Do you think the exposure to Larry Levis’s work, or Ellen Voigt’s, or Van Jordan’s, or Rodney Jones’, or Maurice Manning’s, or Alan Shapiro’s, helps you think about lyrics in any particular way? Or is poetry a more general inspiration?
RT: It’s both general and extremely specific. All of those writers, and others (not exclusively poets) revealed to me ways in which you can observe, write about, and portray the world, illuminate it. At the same time, they have very different interests and voices. What links those writers, at least for me, is that the vocabulary is accessible, but the turns and effects the words have are absolutely profound. Music is the same—it’s something to be shared, and the more people who can approach it and dive in, the better. Once they’re on the same wavelength, it’s all about traveling deeper, or further, together—into the unknown, or the feelings between the words or notes. The most specific “lesson” all these writers taught me, lyrically speaking, is to never be abstract or hazy, thinking that will automatically make it “deep.” Start with the most concrete description possible, and build outward, to what you can’t describe, but can gesture toward.
PT: I should add that while you became a notorious ringer in MFA softball, when you first started playing, and for years after, you were an automatic out, unless Thomas Lux took pity on you and muffed the throw to first.
RT: Those were scored “hits.”
PT: The official scorekeeper was a fiction writer.
RT: One of the carryovers from Maps, and from long before Maps existed, is Charles Ritchie’s art. What draws you back to those mostly dark, living-room-obsessed prints, especially in this book?
PT: I met Charlie at MacDowell, the first and only time I’ve been to an artists colony. I was drawn to his work initially because he had given himself so many constraints: all the images were small, they were all black and white, and the great majority, over many years, depicted the views from the windows of his house. I was struck by his dedication to a very specific project. I also admired the work. At Warren Wilson I gave a lecture, inspired by Charlie’s process, about obsession. I knew a lot of students worried that they were repeating themselves, and others who felt if someone told them their work was in some way like a well-known story or novel, they had to abandon it. I wanted to encourage them not to feel obliged to discover things that seemed absolutely new (which may be impossible), but instead to investigate as deeply as possible the subjects, ideas, or methods they kept returning to.
I gave another lecture about representing the self in fiction, a topic that initially came to mind because Charlie includes no human figures in his work, with the exception of self-portraits—and in many of those self-portraits it’s almost impossible to discern his image. We also collaborated on some other projects. I wrote a story (“Night, Truck, Two Lights Burning”) inspired in part by one of his images, and he created an image in response to it. So in this book I wanted to include some of his drawings and prints to illustrate the ideas he led me to, and he was generous enough to let me use them.
Two things I’ve done with both Maps and this book: titled the chapters and included a lot of images. And of course in A Muse and A Maze, there are all kinds of puzzles for the reader to solve. Will Shortz contributed one, Thomas “Dr. Sudoku” Snyder contributed a couple, and Michael Ashley composed an original acrostic. Readers can send in the solution to try to win a custom made wooden jigsaw puzzle by Liberty Puzzles.
RT: Am I disqualified?
PT: ‘fraid so.
Your mother was playing viola with a chamber orchestra when she was pregnant, and she played music at home and with various quartets and orchestras most of your life. I can’t play anything, but I started singing to you the day you were born (which accounts for a certain amount of trauma), and have always loved the blues. But you resisted music lessons, resisted a formal approach. What do you think led you to discover music on your own terms, then pursue it with such incredible energy—recording, starting a record label, working with other bands?
RT: There was a massive turning point when I realized the music I was making (at that point, forced and bribed piano lessons) could be my own tool of expression, and armed with some very basic ability, I could dive into material of my own interest, rather than work through what was assigned. That’s when the obsession began: constantly pushing to incorporate new ideas and technical abilities, while creating things that reflect the place or mood or setting I’m in. There are certain sounds (like slide guitar) and styles that resonate with me particularly, to the point that I simply have to be creating music, or working with it in one way or another (playing, recording, producing, mixing, sharing it with the world).
PT: Anyone who listens to your first three or four albums can hear you and the band developing, but can also hear the essential foundation in blues rock. This collaboration with Adriano Viterbini is something different. What happened?
RT: Hearing Adriano in person for the first time, dazed, jet-lagged, and in a tiny neighborhood bar outside of Rome, was one of the most transcendent moments of my life. There I was, on the other side of the world, and this mind-blowing guitarist was playing not just some of the same songs that I love, the same language, but with many of the same riffs, stylings and nuances, the same dialect and accent. Scrapyard, our collaborative album, began as an email correspondence. We’d send drafts of songs back and forth and add on to them, but when we finally met up in Memphis and in Rome, it was the improvisations that proved most interesting—starting in familiar territory, and pushing and pulling each other in the directions of our own influences, or throwing in licks and phrases from other sources. Adriano is a big advocate of contemporary African music, and continues to turn me on to new sounds.
At this point you’ve taken a deep dive into a wide range of topics and arts parallel to writing, what’s next? Is there another art form you want to explore to examine the craft of writing, or are you content to turn to fiction writing for a while?
PT: There’s a danger in being pigeon-holed: “New from the man who brought you The Writer as Cartographer and The Writer as Puzzle Composer, Unplugged: The Writer as Plumber.” But there was no plan—I didn’t anticipate that I’d spend years writing about maps or puzzles—so the future might indeed include a book on the writer as cardiovascular surgeon. A book of related stories is on the front burner, and that’s as far ahead as I can see.
Peter Turchi currently teaches at the University of Houston and in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson. He offers a variety of resources for writers at peterturchi.com.
Reed Turchi’s band’s most recent release is Can’t Bury Your Past. theturchi.com
Photograph of Peter Turchi by Dana Kroos.
Photograph of Reed Turchi by Alissa Whelan.