PW: Your roots are in the Chicago area, and Chicago has always been in the background of your view of life. You've set recent novels in Vietnam, Washington, Germany. Why this book [An Unfinished Season] now?
Actually, it's the third of what I think of as my Midwestern books. The Family Trust was set in central Illinois. Jack Gance was a political novel set half in Chicago, half in Washington. When I finished The Weather in Berlin, I realized I've been working with foreign material for a long time. I thought it was the right time to return to the U.S.
This book deals with a time period you've never fully evoked before: America at mid-century. Why did you choose this time and place?
Actually, the first line of the book has been rattling around in my head for many years. ["The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago."] The trouble was, I didn't know what came after that. Why the gun; why the coldest season? I've never written very much about young people. In my books, everybody always has a job, because I'm interested in work. This young man is 19 years old, too young to have a real job. I got half way through the book and I found I had to give him something to do, so I made him a copy boy.
What is different or special about people in the Midwest? One of your characters says, "Sometimes I think the Midwest is a nation apart."
I've always had a notion that the Midwest sits there pressed between a vise of the two coasts, where everything seems to be happening. Meanwhile, there's this flat, endless, rather sullen part of the world where life moves much more slowly and where trends are not set. Trends are set elsewhere. When you grow up in the Midwest, people's eyes are always swiveling between the east and the west coasts, wondering what's going to befall them next, what's the latest outrage coming their way.
Is this feeling based on something more than geographical circumstance?
In part it proceeds from the history of Chicago. The city was financed basically by banks in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and London. As a consequence, the Midwest felt it was a bit of a colony. When there was a financial tremor, it was felt tremendously in Chicago because the credit dried up. A lot of people in Chicago really felt on the end of a string held by somebody else. As a result, the same people who hated the Reds hated the Rockefellers. You grew up sort of tugged between an odd kind of dual hatred.
As usual you're writing about the influence of political and social culture on character. You depict some of your characters' narrow-mindedness and complacency, yet it seems you grudgingly admire them in their assurance that they stand for something. Would you have been harder on these fallible characters had you written this book as a younger man?
Probably. I had a lot of bile toward that world at one point. These characters have some virtues, though. There is a kind of admirable stubbornness to them and a determination not to be conned, and also an unexpected generosity.
What are the autobiographical elements in this novel?
There are some superficial similarities. I grew up on a golf course and the memory of a fairway sand trap that you can see from the porch comes from that time.
That leads me to ask about the now legendary golf game you played two seasons ago with John Updike and Charles McGrath, as recounted in the Boston Globe. What brought you all together?
I hate to tell you... that was a promotional event that had to do with the publication of The Ultimate Golf Book, which Chip McGrath edited and Updike and I contributed to. We all thought that book would make us a fortune, but it hasn't. The awful thing was that Chip is really a good golfer and Updike is good, too, but we all played wretchedly. We destroyed that golf course. It was extremely jolly, though.