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Finding the Question That Hasn’t Been Asked: An Interview with Lynne Tillman

September 11, 2014 | by


Lynne Tillman, Second Avenue, New York City, 2013. Photograph: Mark Alice Durant.

Writing a short introduction about Lynne Tillman isn’t easy; her singular and visionary writing covers a great deal of territory. The author of twelve books, she is adept at fiction, short and long essays, cultural critique, and interviews. A sampling of just three of her books conveys the scope of her work: her novel American Genius: A Comedy follows the obsessive inner monologue of a single character for almost three hundred pages; This Is Not It is a compendium of twenty years of witty and risky novellas and short stories, some as short as a paragraph; and Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co. weaves together the voices of Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, Paul Auster, Calvin Trillin, and many others to tell not just the story of the rise and fall of the iconic, well-loved Books & Co. but that of the changing landscape of publishing.

Her new book, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, is a collection of recent essays—on Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, on the lives and work of Paul and Jane Bowles, and on Edith Wharton and architecture, to name just a few—and interviews with Harry Mathews, Paula Fox, Lebanese-American writer and visual artist Etel Adnan, and German painter Peter Dreher. Each piece, whether essay or interview, is illuminated by Tillman’s wit, intellect, and curiosity. When the book was released earlier this year, Jason Diamond of Flavorwire declared 2014 to be “the year of Lynne Tillman.”

I spoke with Lynne Tillman at the New School, as part of the university’s Summer Writers Colony. Fiction and nonfiction students had spent three days reading What Would Lynne Tillman Do? and the questions I posed reflected their curiosity, as well as my own, regarding the processes and practices that allow her to transition easily between genres. Tillman was eager to answer, and the qualities that characterize her writing shone through in her answers.

In your 2009 essay, “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” you write, “I don’t want to take a position. Not taking a position is a position that acknowledges the inability to know with absolute surety, that says: Writing is like life, there are many ways of doing it, survival depends on flexibility. Anything can be on the page. What isn’t there now?” All those interesting negatives—“not taking a position,” “the inability to know,” “what isn’t there now”—reminded me of Keats’s famous letter in which he used the term negative capability. When you begin to build an essay, do you feel as if you’re exploring what you don’t know, precisely because you don’t know? Or do you begin with a firm idea or a mystery that you want to explore more deeply?

I begin nonfiction essays in a similar way to fiction. I have some questions in my mind, things that I’m interested in writing about, and in fiction I find a voice through which to do that. On the other hand, in an essay, I assay some of what I think I know, and then, as I go along, I realize that I don’t know what I thought I knew. I wrote “Doing Laps Without a Pool” because Rebecca Woolf was editing an anthology of work from Fence, with commentaries by former and current editors—I had been the fiction editor for fifteen issues. She was looking for essays that would somehow relate to our experience of the magazine. The reason Fence has its title is that they didn’t want to take an absolute position about what kind of writing they represented, and that appealed very much to me. I’ve been criticized for that, too—for being so involved and engaged with narrative. As if narrative were a simple thing. It was a hard essay to write because I wanted to address all those writers with whom I’d had arguments about stories but had never found the words to respond adequately. There are no answers in “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” but I’m saying that terms like experimental or traditional or mainstream or conventional are not resonant. They’re not helpful to writers or to ways of thinking about writing. At least they’re not helpful to me.

When I write, I try to find my way through it. Whether it’s an essay or a story, I don’t really know where I’m going. For example, in the essay “Point of View,” I asked myself, Why is it that people have been so harsh about Diane Arbus over the years? But I didn’t want to think about it in the ways it had been thought about. Half the battle is asking a different question, finding the question that hasn’t been asked. So in the case of Diane Arbus, I began to think about why it is that she’s considered so explosive by some, and somewhat exploitative. I came up with this notion of a “benign-looking contract”—that perhaps we had somehow thought we could look at documentary photography without feeling complicit or voyeuristic. I asked myself a question that hasn’t been answered or addressed yet. That’s one way I approach writing—going out on a limb with what is unsaid. In an essay, you have to take a position, finally, but you can also take many positions, and you can qualify those positions as well.

You do that in your essay about the Rolling Stones. The piece starts out being about getting dressed in the morning, then it moves into hunger, and then the Stones’ first concert in New York. And you have a great line about how “no one clapped or shouted, everyone was fed up, pissed off, let down.” Yet what you finally came away with was, “Life continued but something had changed: the Rolling Stones had played New York.”

I contributed that to an anthology called The Show I’ll Never Forget: 50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Concertgoing Experience. I had several shows in mind, but I didn’t know anyone else who’d been to that show, except for the friend with whom I’d attended the concert, while I was still in college. She was older. I thought I’d write about that because it remained so vivid. But I started it in that way to set up the kind of person I saw myself as then—a person who would like the Rolling Stones much better than the Beatles. You know, a depressed, angry person.

By the end, you come away with a sense of resolution—it wasn’t important how it unfolded, simply that the Stones had been here.

I don’t know if it was so much a resolution. It was more like, here’s this character—and to me she’s a character—who starts out saying, Every day is the same. She just gets out of bed every day, but then something was different—the Rolling Stones had played New York.

Your essays on Paul and Jane Bowles seem to turn on an idea of Paul Bowles having been “forever amused by something invisible buzzing around him, and that something kept him going. Maybe he was amused just to be alive.” But I wouldn’t say his stories and novels are about amusement.

They’re very dark.

Is that what first drew you to his work—those kinds of unflinching explorations of overwhelming underworlds?

What first drew me to his work was that he was an American abroad, and I was fascinated with that. I was living in Amsterdam, and everyone was talking about him and his work. After college, I had wanted to get out of America and lead what I thought was a writer’s life. Paul and Jane Bowles were models. Gertrude Stein was a model. There was the idea that in order to write you had to leave home, and maybe become an expatriate or even an exile. And that was something I very much admired in him. And also that darkness in his writing, the strangeness.

But people who write about dark things are not necessarily dark themselves. Bowles had a great sense of humor. Some of his autobiography, Without Stopping, is really hilarious. So is his nonfiction book, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue. He started out, in the thirties, as a composer, and he was sent by the Library of Congress to record Moroccan music—those recordings are still in the Library of Congress—and the book is about that trip. Absolutely wonderful essays about his travels in Morocco to record music that had never been recorded before. And that’s, of course, a connection to the Rolling Stones, and what they heard and became interested in—Joujouka music.

You begin “Nothing Is Lost or Found,” on the Bowleses, with a beautiful quote from Buber—“I once read ‘All journeys have destinations of which the traveler is unaware.’ The beginnings of journeys and narratives can be as surprising as their secret destinations.” The part about destinations is certainly true of some of the characters in Bowles’s stories and, less harrowingly of course, in your own essays. Is there some secret narrative destination that you’d still like to arrive at, that you haven’t yet?

There’s a wonderful essay by Mary McCarthy called “Settling the Colonel’s Hash.” Mary McCarthy was such a brilliant writer, and her nonfiction is nonpareil. In that essay she said something like, if there are no surprises for the writer, they’ll be no surprises for the reader. I really think that’s true. As you write, you’re finding things out. Now that’s a very hard thing to do, writing that way. Writing in any way is hard to do. But if you don’t really know where you’re going and you’re trying to figure it out as you go along, it’s not pleasant. It’s not as though you wake up and say, Hey, let’s go on a journey today. Let’s find something. I’m not that optimistic. I wish I were. But you’re trying to figure out something, and that’s why, going back to your very first question, I don’t want to be proscriptive, because maybe there’s a way for me to get somewhere that would be considered by some to be, you know, Oh, that’s not the way people do it anymore. But maybe, in the moment of writing, that could very well be the way to do it.

You wrote the introduction to Charles Henri Ford’s diary, Water From a Bucket, and you were his date for the Paul Bowles concert at Lincoln Center in 1995. But did you ever interview him?

I knew him a long time, and in some ways having any conversation with him was interviewing him. At one point he said to me, You’re so good at interviewing, you’re so good at asking me questions, why don’t you write my autobiography? Or I could write it with you. And we’ll do it by taping. I said, Okay, but who pays for the transcriber? And he said, You do! So the book never happened, because it was the mideighties, and I was making so little money, and there he was living in the Dakota, with a house he owned in Paris. It was crazy. He was fascinating and fun, but he was very cheap. It was astounding, in fact. He was late once to his own book party. It was snowing, and when he finally arrived, an hour late, he said that the bus had broken down and he had to wait for another bus. He wouldn’t take a taxi to his own book party.

And yet, reading his diary, his life was so fabulous—hanging out with the Sitwells, Cocteau, Leonora Carrington, Gala and Salvador Dalí …

I read his diary for the first time in the late seventies, and said to him, Oh, this is great, you should publish this. He sort of ignored me, but then I was a kid, really, unpublished—no one important to him in that way. I read it again in the late eighties, and I said again, You really should publish this. He said he just wasn’t interested. Then in the midnineties—and by then he was probably in his mid- to late eighties—I realized it was sort of now or never. I’d always thought the diary was an incredible document, unique in the way that he’d written it and in the way that it gave a sense of that period, of a certain life lived during that period, a life that would otherwise not be known. But he said, I’m too involved in what I’m doing now, and besides I don’t live in the past. He was pretty incredible that way—eighty-six and “I don’t live in the past.” Finally I said that I was going to get it published for him.

It’s a longer, sorrier story, but I got in touch with a publisher who said he’d publish it, and then four years later nothing had happened. Even though, when I’d sent it to him, I’d said, Charles is eighty-six, and I want this to come out before he dies. There was also very much a feeling in me that you don’t want to be forgotten when you’re an older person. You want a younger writer to come along and say, Your work is still valid and I’m going to get it published. So, on October 1, 2000, I went to his apartment in the Dakota, and saw that he was not doing well, and thought to myself, I said I was going to get this published, I made a commitment to him, and also to myself. So, determined to do it, I called the delinquent publisher the next day and wheedled it out of him that he wasn’t going to do it. He mailed the manuscript back to me, and, luckily, it arrived, because it turned out to be the only extant copy. It wasn’t even the original. I didn’t know where the original was, and Charles didn’t, either. Then I immediately got in touch with Jonathan Rabinowitz of Turtle Point Press, because I thought he’d love this book. Jon told me he was going to a bar mitzvah on Saturday morning in the West Village—not far from where I live—and if I could get it to him he’d read it over the weekend and let me know Monday morning. I did, and he called me that Monday and said, Let’s do it. We had it out in eight months. And Charles lived another six or eight months after that, so he saw the book. The book party Jon planned had to be cancelled—it had been set for September 13, 2001. Charles never had a party, but he had the book.

I was so entranced by his diary that it distracted me from my preparations for my talk with you! His sensibility was so completely of a different time, and I felt that by reading this intimate document I was living that time through him.

I think what I love most about diaries is the presentation of a sensibility. Sensibilities actually shift in different times, and with a diary you can discern the sensibility of an individual who is an individual but also a product of his or her time and society. A diary represents that. It’s a recording in the moment. Diaries are about private thoughts, secret feelings. It seems people don’t believe in having secrets anymore. And that’s a whole other idea then, and what does that mean? I think we’re just beginning to deal with what that means.

In “The Last Words Are Andy Warhol,” your final lines are “How do we know what to pay attention to. How do we know for ourselves what’s important. How do we choose. How do we know if it’s art. How do we decide what to see and to read. How can we tell unless everything is there to see and read.” These aren’t posed as a series of questions, but as statements. You’re not asking. You’re saying that this is what’s going on. I think it’s difficult now for writers to maintain an individual vision with so much encroaching from all sides.

I might have an issue with the idea of an individual vision, because, for me, being a person is so shot through with everything else that I’m not really sure we’re in control of what constitutes our individual vision, certainly not entirely. The question that you’re asking, though, is something we all wrestle with. How do I know what I think? How do I figure out what it is that I’m thinking about? I know that thinking about thinking is what an essay helps me to do. I recently learned that Einstein would go into a room and would sit for something like three days—I mean, I guess he would eat something every once in a while—but he would just sit and think, and that’s what his activity was. The activity of thinking, without necessarily doing, or without committing it to something, is an ideal that we could be doing more. We might think more, take time, rather than need everything to be instantaneous.

But in our own lives, how do we get ourselves to think about how we think and why we think it? And then, of course, that’s the place essays come from. And where all writing comes from.

Sharon Mesmer is a poet and fiction writer. She is the author, most recently, of the poetry collections Annoying Diabetic Bitch and The Virgin Formica and the fiction collection Ma Vie à Yonago: Illuminations. She teaches at NYU and the New School.



  1. Satyajit | September 19, 2014 at 3:43 am

    This interview reveals the sense of how life is and what life is.As we simply see life has its many ways, we have also different ways to take. I like it very much

  2. Kirby Olson | October 26, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    It’s a good interview. She seems to always want to make it about other people, people other than herself, so that would make her a hard subject. Most writers will talk endlessly about themselves if you let them. Not this one. She’s talking about what everybody else said. I especially liked the Charles Henri Ford bit.

2 Pingbacks

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