In a 1978 article for New Times (not to be confused with the alternative weeklies published by Village Voice Media) titled “Pieces of Pynchon,” author Robert Goolrick recounted his efforts to locate reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon. Goolrick answered a few questions about the genesis of the story, its aftermath, and his thoughts about Pynchon’s seclusion.
What was the genesis of writing this story? Was it really as simple as sitting in that Japanese restaurant one day?
I was actually having lunch with a friend of mine, and there was a lot of talk at the time about Pynchon’s mystery. Somebody at Time magazine had looked for a picture of him and couldn’t get one. So it was sort of a bet—I said, “I’ll find him.” And he was an editor at New Times, and so that’s how it started.
Did you have much in the way of leads?
I knew Nora Ephron, and Nora kind of knew everybody in publishing. In the article, if you remember, there’s somebody who says to find somebody who hates him enough to tell me where he is, and it was Nora who said that. So I just started out calling people, and finding out what I could find out. I wasn’t really a journalist. I’m not an investigative reporter, so it was kind of abstract from the beginning, and it became more abstract as it went along, as you can tell.
I was going to say that the piece is very indicative of that era of New Journalism. There are parts of it, like the conversation with the psychic, that wouldn’t appear in a magazine today, even ones that feature long-form journalism.
Yes. And I did actually go to a psychic—all of it’s true. I even at one point—It’s not in the article because the article is so long that it had to get cut, but I hired this wacky, insane private detective. I didn’t want to give him Pynchon’s name because I thought he would be relentless and really like, stalk him. But I went to him to say, “How would you find somebody who couldn’t be found?” So I got involved in this whole nightmarish thing with this crazy private detective.
He kind of stalked me. He called me all the time. He wanted to stay in my apartment. I met him for drinks at the St. Regis, and was telling me all these stories from the 40s—he was this older guy—when Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were staying at the St. Regis, and he was just full of wacky, insane stories. He had some weird office somewhere on way west 34th Street.
How did you come to decide to personalize the story the way you did?
I think I personalized it because everywhere I went I ran into these dead ends. Mostly because the people who knew him and knew where he was—if anybody knew where he was—wouldn’t talk about him. Faith Sale said it best: “I love him, and the only way to express my love is not to talk about it.” So I thought, what am I gonna do? Then I thought, you know, you spent all this time looking—you should find something. And something of value to you. That’s when I remembered this old friend of mine from college and started to find him.
The most interesting part was talking to Pynchon’s mother. His mother was as normal as apple pie, and was perfectly nice and perfectly regular. This was before the Internet, so it was a lot harder to track people down in those days. I just remember reading some article somewhere saying they lived in this little town on Long Island—Riverhead or somewhere. And I just called the phone directory and got their number, and called her up one morning. We had a long conversation, and she was really open and friendly, and kind of sweet. But she wouldn’t say anything.
The way she comes across in the story, it’s almost as if Pynchon is a long-lost son.
Candida Donadio said he wouldn’t see anybody. She said that he never saw Faith Sale anymore, which is not what Faith Sale said. It was all a big mystery, and there was no answer. When I was talking to Candida, I said, “How will I ever find him?” and she said, “You’ll never find him. If you write an article and if it gets published, and if he likes it, he will find you.”
Which begs the question: How was the story received?
Well, it made me kind of notorious for about three weeks, the way things do. And the ultimate end of the story was, I happened to be home one day—it happened to be my birthday. And I come home from work, and I was changing to go out for dinner, and the phone rang. I picked it up and said hello, and this guy said, “My name is…” I can’t remember his name. He said, “You don’t know me, but I’m a private investigator in San Francisco. And I happened to read your article about Thomas Pynchon. And he said, “In connection with some other case I’m investigating, I happened to find out where Thomas Pynchon lives. I found out everything about him, and I just thought you might want the information.” I said OK, so he gave me Pynchon’s address, Pynchon’s phone number, Pynchon’s driver’s license number. He was in California, apparently. The conversation went on for a long time. I hung up the phone, went out to dinner, and after a while I thought, “Who was that on the phone?” And it occurred to me that maybe it was Pynchon himself who called. Why would a strange private investigator call me a year later? But I was—by that time, I was so aware of Pynchon’s sensitivities that I never pursued it.
You never called, never checked out the address.
I never called or looked up the address. It seems regrettable, all these years later. But by that time I realized that there was nothing to be gotten out of him. There was nothing for him except his work. That was the only way that he was going to connect with the public.
What did it mean to be published in New Times back then?
It was filled with very young, on-the-way-up journalists. Frank Rich was there, Jesse Kornbluth was there, Nora Ephron, Richard Corliss. It was a very cool magazine, and it just didn’t take off. I wrote four or five articles for them.
Did you pursue much journalism after that?
Very little. I wrote a couple pieces for Rolling Stone, which they never published. I wrote for a magazine called Metropolitan Home—I did a lot of articles about home style. I got kind of tired of doing pieces about famous people. I wasn’t really a journalist, and my interest in them was more fictional than it was practical. I remember I was asked to write a piece about Janis Ian, and I thought, “What on earth do I really want to know about Janis Ian?” I couldn’t think of anything I really wanted to know. It seemed live a very artificial kind of form.
You mentioned in an e-mail to me that you had some advice about getting a photo of Pynchon.
I told New Times when they published the article, “I can get a picture of him. If you want a picture of him, I can get a picture of him.” They said, “The article is now about so many things other than Pynchon that to publish a picture of him would be beside the point.” But here’s a way to find a picture of him: He was the best man at Richard and Mimi Fariña’s wedding, and he was the pallbearer at Fariña’s funeral. Fariña’s funeral was a sort of public event, as well as a private event, and if you want to find a picture of him, the person who’s got one is Mimi Fariña. Because everybody’s got pictures of her wedding, and there are bound to be pictures of his funeral—it was a big deal, because he died the same day as the publication of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. And he was kind of a romantic young guy.
I didn’t get the impression from the story that she would’ve been especially open to that, though.
She was very open in talking about him, and she had, even then, she had a kind of thinly veiled contempt for him. Mostly because he had totally abandoned his friendship with Mimi once Richard was dead. He went to the funeral, he was a pallbearer at the funeral, and then she never heard from him again.
As an author, what do you think motivates Pynchon’s isolation?
Everybody told me he’s incredibly shy. That’s the only insight I have. I know for a fact that he married, had children; his children went to a private school in New York, and people that I knew, knew his children. He is now, what, 71 years old? So the children are grown. The children exist, and probably in new York City. He could be found. My general sense was, if you choose to connect to the world only through your work, then that should be respected in some way.
For me, I kind of think that there was a moment where he kind of held the reins of the zeitgeist in his hands, and then he kind of lost it. I found his later work very disappointing and diffuse. I haven’t read the new novel—it may be brilliant. I didn’t think Vineland was great, and I didn’t think Mason & Dixon was very great. I don’t know, but there was a moment when he was completely in sync w/the tenor of the times, and was completely a genius. He is a genius in some way.
He’s an odd duck. He’s so private that he’s willing, for instance, 30 years ago to cut himself off from his own mother and father. One thing I knew was that he was by nature a scientist, a scientist and engineer. One of the most fascinating things in that story was the story about the bricks, and going to the Philadelphia and getting the clay and taking samples. He is the most obsessive writer I’ve ever come across. So he must be an incredibly obsessive person.
But, the people who I talked to liked him, said that he was entirely lovable, once you got to know him. My only regret about the whole thing is that I never called the number that the private investigator gave me. But I think by that time I relished the mystery more than the reality.