An Interview with Paul Strohm (Guest Contributor)
Wonders & Marvels: Your latest book Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury tackles a very well known historical figure and literary work. What are the challenges and benefits on writing about such a famous topic?
Paul Strohm: As for benefits, you get a certain uptake with a known figure. This is especially true in the UK, where there’s a more established audience for historical biography and related subjects. (My book has been reviewed by most major newspapers and relevant periodicals in the UK, though it has had much less consistent coverage in the US.) The challenge of writing about a well-known figure is, of course, to have your own purpose and rationale. A couple of good “whole life” biographies are already out there, and part of my idea was to write about a particular, defining episode in Chaucer’s life. My American publisher has aptly called it a “microbiography.” This has meant that I’ve been able to work from the historical records and “life records” in a detailed way, and I think I’ve come up with some interesting and rather revisionary conclusions.
W&M: Chaucer’s Tale is your first attempt at biography, or, as you say, “microbiography.” Did you approach the writing of biography any differently than your other historical works?
Paul Strohm: Writing a life-narrative took me in an entirely new and somewhat unexpected direction. Narrative itself, and the construction of narrative, forces you to make decisions. You can’t endlessly say, was it this way or was it that way: Was Chaucer thrown out of his Aldgate apartment or did he leave as a matter of personal choice? Was he pushed out of his job in Customs or did he jump? My previous, more academic, writing allowed me to hesitate over such questions, or even to build a certain indecision into subject-matter of what I was writing. Whereas biographical writing–a kind of story-telling, actually–demands that you choose, and these choices are cumulative and irreversible. The act of narration itself can be a powerful discovery-procedure, can lead to insights you wouldn’t otherwise have had. But, compared with more supple kinds of analysis, it can lead you in directions you didn’t quite forsee or didn’t quite want to choose.
W&M: You have had a long and successful career as an academic and a writer. Have technological advancements changed your research and writing process? If so, how?
Paul Strohm: I’ve done lots of journalism, so I started out composing on a typewriter and the switch to a computer keyboard was an easy one for me. But it’s a fringe benefit that I want to hail: the chance to cut-and-paste. In my view, good writing is advanced by bold revision: not just tinkering with a word or two, but really reshaping and moving things around. And cut-and-paste facilitates revision without all that retyping, and I’m endlessly grateful for it. Some labor-saving stuff leaves me cold, though. All that internet searching and kindred mechanisms. I went into this because I like the labor: going to the library, looking things up, doing my own indexing, things like that. I’m not interested in finding myself estranged or alienated from the hands-on aspects of what a writer-researcher does.
W&M: Over the span of your writing career, what is one thing that you have learned about writing history that you feel is particularly important for new writers to know?
Paul Strohm: I’ve become more and more sensitive to what might be called the “multiplicity of time,” the sense in which historical time doesn’t just march along but proceeds unevenly so that different temporalities potentially co-exist. Each of us lives not only in the present moment, but also with fragments of unresolved past and intimations of uncertain future. This sense–that no moment in time is ever wholly unitary or present to itself, but rather inherently fractured and inconsistent–has a kind of “post-modern” edge to it, but it is actually quite venerable. No view of the subject has ever influenced me so much as Augustine’s meditation on time in Book 11 of his Confessions. But this is a view that you don’t just “adopt,” that each person has to rediscover, to work out for himself or herself.
Paul Strohm is Garbedian Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, at Columbia University. His Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury was published November 2014 by Viking Press.