Interview with Timothy O'Grady
by David Kinzer
Timothy O’Grady has written three novels and four books of nonfiction. He grew up in Chicago but lived most of his adult life in Europe, primarily in Ireland. He’s a tall man with a senatorial voice, the voice of a founding father, an American from before Americans talked like Americans.
He’s the kind of man you’d assume would love the sound of his own voice, but instead he mostly listens. O’Grady has written two books of interviews, the oral history Curious Journey and now Children of Las Vegas.
Children of Las Vegas began with O’Grady’s desire to engage with his students. He moved to Las Vegas to teach at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute. This was shortly after the Great Recession began, and he found his students different from any he’d taught before. They worked in casinos and strip clubs and bars. Their friends and family suffered from substance abuse. More than one had been robbed by a parent. None had enough money to buy the textbook. Their default state was exhaustion.
One day, when none of his students had read the assignment—it could only be found in the textbook none could afford—O’Grady devoted the day to asking his students about their lives in Las Vegas. Much of Children of Las Vegas is devoted to the stories they told him. In between interviews are O’Grady’s own reflections on his two years in the city, written with his characteristically patient attention. (An excerpt from the book appears in The Arkansas International 1.)
I asked O’Grady over email about his experience writing the book, the ethical responsibilities of journalism, and whether Las Vegas deserves applause for its self-awareness. “If it packed itself up and gave itself back to the desert, I would say that an honorable decision had been made,” O’Grady responded. Find the rest of our exchange below.
Your book is a collection of interviews with Las Vegas residents, interspersed with your own reflections on the city and its history. Tell me a little about the interviewing process. Was each interview done in one session or over multiple days? Did you ask questions or just let each person monologue?
Every one of them was completed in one session, some lasting two or three hours and one lasting about six. They came to our house in all but two cases. I led them through it with very simply stated questions. Most of them were photographed on the same day they were interviewed, out on the balcony of our apartment, against a screen. I’d done this various times in the past. My first book, Curious Journey, was an oral history and I did a lot of interviewing of Irish migrants for the novel I Could Read the Sky. The late and great Irish writer Dermot Healy told me he took notes rather than recorded interviews as it gave time for the interviewees to think and lent some importance to the occasion. In this case I did both. I think that with some experience you can improve somewhat in interviewing and I would say this is always in the direction of alertness in listening, in keeping questions ever more simple and leaving a lot of room. I had greatly admired Studs Terkel for a long time and then was surprised to find myself being interviewed by him for radio. He was a geyser of enthusiastic and spellbinding speech off the microphone but when on it was simple in his questions and generous with his silence. I originally thought this would be a piece of journalism, just a photograph and a block of speech for each person. Steve Pyke and I had done this with pieces for the Observer in London, one on the subject of forgiveness with war victims in Ireland and the other with professional gamblers. To my astonishment no one we approached wanted to hear these bulletins from Las Vegas. This opened the way for it to become a different thing.
How were the interviews adapted for the page? What material was excised? What was moved around and to what end?
I listened to the tape of a person, then looked at the notes I’d made. When I listened to the tape the next time I wrote out by hand what I wanted to save. Then I tried to think of a structure that would deliver what the person had told me in the most effective way. So much was excised and much was moved around, but all the words finally published are as they were spoken. Studs spoke about the digging up of large amounts of earth containing ore, the separating out of the ore and then the fashioning of a jewel as the method of making oral history. You wouldn’t want to say you had created jewels, but in this case there was a lot of refinement.
How did your experiences interviewing these subjects differ from your experiences interviewing for Curious Journey and I Could Read the Sky?
Kenneth Griffith, my co-author of Curious Journey, did most of the early interviews. I noticed he kept the questions extremely simple - how did you first get involved in the fight with England, what did you do, where do you think it led, how does it look to you now. Sometimes the questions put by interviewers are like essays and the person who is supposed to answer has no room. I think in all the interviews I've done I've tried to keep to this very simple form. I Could Read the Sky was different in that what I was looking for was imagery and information, not the life stories of the people I was speaking to in Curious Journey or the Las Vegas book. In I Could Read the Sky I was looking for help; in the other books it was more like we were collaborators moving together towards the same objective.
Many of the people you speak with are shockingly candid, not just about their own mistakes but the mistakes of their family, their mothers and fathers and siblings and other relatives. Of course, this introduces a whole new ethical dimension to the interviews, since it’s one thing to record someone confessing their own mistakes and another thing to record them confessing someone else’s. How did you negotiate the ethics of that? Was there anything that was told to you that you didn’t feel like you could put in the book, either because it would be a violation for the third-party being discussed or because the interview subject might suffer retribution?
When I first heard them talking so openly and caustically about their lives, I assumed they would not be willing to do so for the record – named, photographed, in print. They were on the contrary very eager to be heard. They seemed to feel it was a rare opportunity to give testimony rather than for confession or catharsis. Even if they were talking about what happened in their homes it had a feel of the public rather than the private. The city is so frantically upbeat about itself and so in denial about the consequences of its own industries that it had made them feel as if they were in a tunnel or a deep hole, to be forever unheard. This was their chance. I wondered how they’d feel when the book appeared and they could see themselves in cold print. I warned them it could be an alarming experience. I still don’t know because they’ve only just received their copies and I haven’t heard from them. I made everything clear to them at the time, and through the years since while I was trying to bring their testimonies into the light. They, or at least those I could reach, always seemed committed to what the book was trying to effect. As for the ethical aspects you mention, I felt loyalty and responsibility to them and not to the people they spoke about. It could be said that that’s nicely convenient for me, or that I was risking hurting others by believing them, but I did believe them and saw myself as the vehicle through which they could make what felt like to me to be important, even necessary testimonies.
You reserve all of your own voice for the sections around the interviews, so you never directly describe the people you’re speaking to, instead allowing their words to speak for themselves. What informed that decision? You possess a novelist’s mind, so surely there were images or moments that occurred during the interview process that you wish you could have described for readers. Care to share any now?
As soon as I heard them speak in the classroom I thought the only option was to cede the stage to them. I could never possibly have the authority they have when speaking of their city. As I say in the book, they’ve been watching it all their lives and I think all present here have a clear-eyedness I’ve only rarely encountered elsewhere. There are of course various ways to present interviews. Questions and answers. Or describe the encounter and quote. That’s the usual way with magazine journalism. Miranda July does it in a book. Or the more unadorned thing that is in Children of Las Vegas. I played golf with a painter in Las Vegas. He played very well and I asked him how he’d learned. He said that when he was a teenager he met a man who told him, “Golf is all about getting out of the way.” I think that’s good advice for almost everything. Get out of the way. That would be the sentiment behind the way the interviews are presented.
What contributed to your decision to supplement the interviews with your own prose, to not fully “get out of the way,” like the golfer, but to step in and out of the spotlight?
There was something about the interviews that seemed to me and to Hanna to be too close focus and intense and perhaps finally wearing if read in sequence. I thought there needed to be some room, a different tone. The photographs could do some of it and also the notes bringing their stories up to the present, but then these little pieces or essays occurred to me. Years ago, before I ever lived in Poland, Edna O'Brien gave me a copy of The Emperor and Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski as exemplary of what could be done with non-fiction writing. He was a poet who in early post-war Poland became a journalist perhaps mainly because it could allow him to see the world. In those two books (published in England in one volume), he took the particular circumstances of the ending of the reigns of two monarchs and through the way he chose to write about them lifted them into the area of parable. You were no longer reading about Haile Selassie or that specific Shah who preceded the Ayatollah but rather about power itself in a mythic sense. They are really great. I could read them again and again. There's detachment, wit, a narrowing in on detail and then a pulling back, intelligence, wisdom. It seemed to me that the stories given in the interviews combined with something that had a cooler, more distant tone could pull the reader away from provincial issues about Las Vegas and into larger considerations of exploitation, decay, the yearning to live without consequences.
Your prose is sometimes centered on imagery and themes (like in the sections “Signs" and “Machines"), sometimes on history (as in “Founder”), and sometimes on specific incidents during your time in Las Vegas (as in “Homes). How did you decide on which topics to discuss? Was there anything that you would’ve liked to have discussed but didn’t, perhaps to better focus the book or because you couldn’t find the right approach?
I knew I needed enough pieces to work with the prologue and epilogue and in between the interviews. I thought the prologue and epilogue would speak directly to the reader telling our story of being in Las Vegas and meeting these people and then saying what I learned from it, the stories would be the immediate human drama and perhaps you could say evidence and those pieces in between would be more like poems made by a more impersonal being than the "I" in the prologue or epilogue or the declarations of the interviewees. The titles were also intended to move the reader in this direction of the impersonal: ”Machines", "Signs", "Homes", "The Founder". I didn't have a plan about what they would be, just how they would feel, so I tried to find them, feel them, write them. I had a good time with them. I had two years of impressions and some extra years thinking about those impressions.
There are many examples, in the book, of Las Vegas failing its residents, so, for critics of the criticism, what do you think is admirable about Las Vegas?
I met a lot of people there with good balance and compassion. Some of them pursue their own lives in a well-organized way and others tend to the wounds inflicted by the city. People with respiratory complaints might benefit from the dry desert air. We certainly benefited from its proximity to natural wonders and we drove thirty-two thousand miles in the two years we were there to see them. But the civic presence is weak and largely indifferent to the citizens. It conceives of itself as ruggedly laissez-faire while owing its existence historically to government projects. It’s now trying to get public money to plunder northern Nevada for its aquifers so it can maintain its status as the highest per capita consumers of water in the country. If it packed itself up and gave itself back to the desert, I would say that an honourable decision had been made.
I think of Las Vegas, to a certain degree, as exacerbating general conditions in the U.S. It’s not as if you can’t lose money on Wall Street. It’s not as if sex isn’t commodified in Hollywood. Las Vegas is just more honest about these things, embracing them instead of apologizing. I tend to think that self-awareness is a good thing, but in the book, you seem to identify this self-awareness as part of the problem. “The great sources of the city's revenue weigh heavily on its citizens,” you write, which I don’t think one could say about New York City or Los Angeles. Would Las Vegas be better off if it were better at lying to itself?
Various of the interview subjects commended Las Vegas’ honesty while deploring what it was honest about. It didn’t feel honest to me. It puts winners up on walls of casinos that are replete with losers. It promotes itself as the capital of fun while it seemed to me to be a kind of Twilight Zone world of neatly painted lines and trimmed hedges, absent of visible life, with an atmosphere just beyond of anger and shame and a really spectacular level of denial. Some people must have fun. Forty million people arrive every year and many return. It’s also true that the majority get out without lasting damage. There’s an honesty in the clarity expressed to someone at the point of doom, “If you can’t pay you can’t play.” But that’s not in the message when the seduction is going on. At that point it’s still in the fine print.
Do you think of Las Vegas as uniquely American?
Its carnival hucksterism, its lack of social cohesion, its scale and the brightness and luridness of its lights feel American, but much else feels more like any civilization in decline – the infantilizing, the pursuit of the moment at the expense of the larger picture, the belief in luck. One of the interviewees, Nevada Stupak, said that Las Vegas is very advanced in the business of status enhancement. That would be a growth business in a fading society.
Timothy O'Grady has lived in the United States, Ireland, London and Spain and now lives in Poland. He is the author of four works of non-fiction and three novels. He lived in Las Vegas for two years.