A conversation with Geoffrey Pitcher
reproduced with permission
Geoffrey Pitcher: Your first two books, Apology For Big Rod and Nice, were satires. But the advance information on
The Contractor sounds very different. It says it’s about a secret American prison camp called Omega, and about the
treatment of detainees. That’s quite a change, isn’t it?
Charles Holdefer: Well, I did write The Contractor with a sense of urgency. A sign of the times, I guess.
GP: There are plenty of other signs of the times, aren’t there? How does a person choose? Are you trying to be
CH: It’s more the other way around. I feel I’ve been provoked. I wrote this as a concerned American who thinks we’ve
taken a seriously wrong turn in our policy toward torture. It’s a part of the conversation we’re having with the rest of the
world and with ourselves.
GP: There’s been coverage of this in the press. What do you think The Contractor adds to the conversation?
CH: I hope it makes it more audible, to start with. There’s been journalism but it hasn’t really penetrated the culture. As
far as I know, fiction writers have been pretty quiet on the subject. Actually I can’t think of one.
GP: Is there a reason for that?
CH: Probably lots of reasons. After the Abu Ghraib scandal, maybe some people compartmentalized these questions. I
mean, it’s possible to take comfort in the idea that it was exposed and some individuals were punished, and then tell
yourself “we don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore, do we?” Unfortunately it’s not so simple. As for using fiction to
address these issues, I think it’s very important. Nowadays a lot of terrific nonfiction gets written, and serious journalism is
essential, of course. But fiction has a part to play, too. It goes places where other types of writing typically don’t go. It
gives shape to confusing events, it personalizes them. It explores language and is very intimate.
GP: So how does all this work in your story? Tell us more what the reader can expect. What’s The Contractor about?
CH: OK. The story revolves around George Young, a civilian contractor for the U.S. government. He works as an
interrogator and when a prisoner dies on his hands, it makes him ask himself some hard questions about his motives and
methods. That’s what a novel can do: look around inside somebody’s head.
GP: It’s an obvious question, but it has to be asked. Does your contractor torture?
CH: Yes. But that’s part of a bigger picture. The book doesn’t have a lot of those kinds of scenes. There’s more about
what brought him to those kinds of scenes. He wasn’t a victim himself or anything like that, he’s not a sadist or ideologue
either. On the whole he’s a regular guy. He’s struggling with a not-so-hot marriage, worries about his kids and sex life,
worries about money. Insecurities. But the bigger problem is, what he thinks he knows turns out to be wrong. He
simplifies too much. He trusts the wrong people.
GP: What do you mean? Who are the wrong people?
CH: Oh, where to begin? Pointing fingers at authority is easy. In plenty of ways, too easy. There are no politicians
mentioned by name in this book, no political parties. What I should say is that this is a story about a regular guy who
eventually learns to point the finger at himself.
GP: So the truth begins at home?
CH: It has to. If he’s protective, maybe over-protective, of his kids, it’s a part of what made him The Contractor. If he’s
sexually insecure, that figures, too. If he’s a bit cocky about his business or how smart he is, it all contributes.
GP: But not everybody is prone to abuse others. People behave differently when they feel in danger, don’t they?
CH: I don’t doubt that. But there are questions of methods and questions of attitude. Sometimes I think about that now
infamous quote by Donald Rumsfeld, when he answered a question by saying: “there are known knowns, known
unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” That got a lot of attention, the media jumped all over him for that. They ridiculed
him. But I think it was a very interesting moment. Everybody’s waiting for a sound bite, some easy political lollipop or
pacifier to suck on. And weirdly this guy starts talking about epistemology. If you think about what he’s saying, it suggests
the need for a certain modesty, or humility, when you make decisions about how you act and deal with others. I think it’s
a good point. Too bad Rumsfeld didn’t practice what he preached.
GP: Now we’re touching on the more factual side of things. Your story takes place at a secret government facility. How
did you research that? Was it hard to get information?
CH: It’s a sensitive subject but there’s a fair amount of information that has leaked or been released. It took awhile, but
President Bush himself eventually got around to admitting that we have undisclosed “black sites” and “ghost detainees”.
It’s not a secret anymore.
GP: But what about the sources? How reliable are they?
CH: They were serious and politically divergent, if that’s what you mean. Some of the main ones were Chris Mackey,
which is actually a pseudonym for a government-vetted account by a guy who worked as an interrogator at Bagram. And
of course Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. The Taguba Report was only the beginning. There’s Tara McKelvey.
There’s a lot of information out there, actually, but it’s scattered and needs to be shaped and told and retold. A book like
The Contractor doesn’t pretend to explain everything—that would be presumptuous and absurd—but it's an early “hello,
anybody home?” in a conversation.
GP: So this is just a start?
CH: Right. There are going to be lots of others afterward, you can bet on it.
GP: Some people say that contemporary fiction is too removed from everyday life and has turned its back on politics. Do
you think so?
CH: I don’t know. Lots of political writing is frankly boring, it’s so preachy. Or it’s feel-good and bland. Good literature
creates a space for ambiguity. It has a sense of play, too. A topical book doesn’t have to drone on like C-Span. The
Contractor isn’t afraid of a joke. Even tragic humor makes life a little more bearable.
GP: There you’re coming back toward a satirical approach. Does that connect The Contractor to your other books?
CH: To a point but there’s also more to it. My first novels get called satires and that’s OK but I always thought of them as
comedies of manners. That’s not just a British thing, you know. It can exist for Americans, of all classes. Only the
manners are different: We have our own quirks. With satire you’re making fun and it can get pretty judgmental. If a
person is pissed off all the time, it can be tiresome. Whereas comedy of manners allows you to enjoy human foibles and
differences. In The Contractor there’s a character called The Doctor who’s a figure of fun, some of the jokes about him
are pretty unflattering, but in the end he has a certain credibility, a solidity, that the narrator, who thought he was so
smart, could envy. Satire on its own is more stark and stingy.
GP: Let’s go back a little. You attended a writing program. How much do you think it affected the way you write today?
CH: No program can teach somebody how to write. An MFA doesn’t mean a thing. But those programs can help people
avoid certain pitfalls. When you’re too isolated, you can waste time trying to reinvent the wheel. In small doses, and if you’
re not too young, a workshop can be helpful.
GP: What’s too young?
CH: Well, some people are more precocious than others. Maybe I should’ve said mature. I had a good experience at the
Iowa Workshop but I wasn’t mature enough when I went there. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, which was dumb but
that was how I felt. So many people were from the east coast or west coast and they bitched and moaned about finding
themselves "in the middle of nowhere," which irritated me, because I was a local, I’d grown up in Iowa on a farm. It was
being the odd duck in your own pond. But I made some good friends. I don’t mean “connections” or networking. I mean
real friends. That’s worth a lot anywhere.
GP: These are unstable times in publishing and many houses have gone out of business. Or they're cutting back in their
operations. Isn’t this a bad time for writers?
CH: Depends on what kind of writer. You’re a dolt if you expect to get rich. Most of my stuff has come out with the
Permanent Press. That’s Martin and Judith Shepard and a staff out on Long Island. Since the 70s they’ve been doing at
least a book a month, mainly literary fiction and some memoirs. There’s no fluff on their list. It’s excellent stuff. Plenty of
big slick houses have gone under but they’re still fighting the good fight.
GP: What do you think about the decline in reading?
CH: Nobody says, “Hey, I’m for it!” Sure, most people are watching TV and movies. That's what they prefer. Or at least
that's what they know. For writers, it used to be that some eager young person with an artistic itch would sit up nights
writing short stories. Nowadays it's more likely to be a film script. I like movies a lot, but when you make a movie, the writer
is usually a pretty small player. To say what you want, you have to write and direct. And even then—it’s such a big
process. With a book, for better or worse, it’s yours. It’s hard but it’s a lucky thing, really.