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

September 11, 2014 | by

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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. Read More »

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Regarding Mystery: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez

September 9, 2014 | by

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Photo: Timothy Archibald

In San Francisco earlier this spring, I’d hoped to meet the essayist Richard Rodriguez, the author of The Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, Brown: The Last Discovery of America, and, most recently, Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography, which has just been published in paperback. Though he’s largely associated with his early stances against affirmative action and bilingual education, not to mention his regular appearances on the PBS NewsHour, Rodriguez, who turned seventy in July, has had a wide-ranging career, and I wanted to discuss the shift of his work from cultural identity to religion. But our schedules were tricky to coordinate, and then I lost my wallet. “Pray to St. Anthony!” Rodriguez immediately wrote. (The wallet was recovered by one of the famous bellmen at Sir Francis Drake Hotel. “St. Anthony dressed as a beefeater,” as Rodriguez put it.) Instead, we corresponded for several weeks.

I was excited and surprised by Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography. I had seen you referred to as a Mexican-American writer, a Californian writer, and a gay writer, but never, until recently, as a religious writer. Have you always considered yourself a religious writer? 

Of course, I haven’t, until lately, considered myself a “writer”—in the grand sense. For most of my writing life, I have stood truly, if uneasily, on American bookstore shelves as a sociological sample—shelved “Latino” between a gangbanger’s book of poetry and the biography of a Colombian drug lord. Only in recent years, as it has become clear to me that so few people I know read books, have I been struck by the fact that I am a writer.

My sense of being religious is older. From boyhood, particularly my lower-middle-class childhood in Sacramento, I was transported by religion into the realm of mystery. Consider this: The Irish nun excused me from arithmetic class so that I could serve as an altar boy at a funeral mass. Along with the priest and the other altar boy, I would welcome Death at the doors of the church. We escorted Death up the main aisle. I later went with the cortege to the cemetery. There was a fresh pile of soil piled high at the edge of the grave site, discreetly, if unsuccessfully, covered by an AstroTurf rug that was as unconvincing a denial of the hardness of time as a cheap toupee. I wondered at the mourners’ faces—the melting grief, the hard stoicism. Thirty minutes from the grave, I was back within the soft green walls of Sacred Heart Parish School. It was almost lunchtime. I resumed my impersonation of an American kid. Read More »

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Mermaid Convention: An Interview with Matthea Harvey

September 2, 2014 | by

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Matthea Harvey. Photo courtesy of Graywolf Press

Matthea Harvey’s whimsy almost defies the scope of the English language. She seems to sculpt out of molten glass the topics and the treatments in her poems, optimistic fairy tales for a universe where everything’s deformed, or maybe deformed fairies in a universe where everything’s optimistic. It’s easy to feel almost at home among her poems, which are sometimes uncanny in the way that scary truths are uncanny, sometimes uncanny like the Uncanny X-Men, and sometimes uncanny in that their delightful artifice should, but can’t, be preserved and canned.

Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn; she grew up in England and Wisconsin. You may have read her beautifully titled first volume, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000); or Modern Life (2007), where alliterative, associative, alphabetical poems jostle against prose parables that science-fiction readers would call “slipstream”; or Of Lamb (2011), Harvey’s collaboration with the visual artist Amy Jean Porter, in which an erased biography of Charles and Mary Lamb sends Mary and Her Lamb through—a lost garden? A forest of previous children’s books? A dreamland? Or you might have seen one of her other collaborations—with composers, with animators—or one of her own photographs. Still, you won’t be ready for If The Tabloids Are True Then What Are You?, her new collection of poems and fables, in verse and prose, about mermaids, ice cubes, erasures, talking animals, and early telephones, with a set of images—including photographs of Harvey’s sculptures—inseparable from them. As NPR put it earlier this year, “Harvey is a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable.”

You can read more about her here and especially here.

Some of the poems have obvious sources in fables—“No-Hands has hands,” or “the animals did begin to glow.” Is there a particular fable or fairy-tale compilation that served as your best source? Aesop, the Grimms, La Fontaine, Kafka, Andrew Lang?

I wrote both of those poems without knowing that there were fables about either one. Myths and fairy tales are mysterious that way—we’re all shoots sprouting from one underground narrative fungus. Still, I know that stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter are all tumbling around in the pebble polisher of my unconscious. I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, in which I found a new favorite, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.” This insanity happens in it: “The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring. If it needed seasoning, he’d swim more slowly.” Imagine flavoring a soup with yourself!

This collection is full of mermaids. Why mermaids?

Primarily because the phrase “straightforward mermaid” appeared in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. But why mermaids in general? Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough. Read More »

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The Comic Voice: An Interview with Christina Nichol

August 7, 2014 | by

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Photo courtesy of the Overlook Press

Last month, Brooklyn’s powerHouse Books hosted Norman Rush, Marco Roth, and Christina Nichol to discuss Nichol’s debut novel, Waiting for the Electricity. Set in a post-Soviet Georgia, rife with power shortages, the book stars Slims Achmed Makashvili, a maritime lawyer navigating the perplexing, often hilarious vagaries of life in a corrupt republic. Slims yearns to visit America—he writes letters to Hillary Clinton and applies to a business program she sponsors—where he hopes to discover a land of stupefying efficiency. But when at last he arrives in the U.S., the vision of progress is not what he’d hoped.

Nichol has taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and, of course, Georgia; her experiences abroad inform much of Waiting for the Electricity’s observant wit. With Rush and Roth, she discussed the direction of the comic novel, fiction’s bearing on foreign policy, and a State Department official with a ukulele.

ROTH

Christina, how did you end up in Georgia? How did you join the great English-teaching enterprise that is this new American century?

NICHOL

As a kid I went to the Soviet Union with my grandfather, who braved a hundred Americans and a hundred Russians on a boat down the Volga River. This was during the eighties, and I sort of fell in love with Russia—I continued to go back to witness the transformation of communism into capitalism, which I saw as an amazing and tragic story of the twentieth century. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan, too, and as an adult I was trying to get back. I applied through this foundation, and they said, Well, we have Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia available. I’d once seen some Georgian folk dancers, and they were really amazing, so I decided on Georgia, knowing nothing about it.

ROTH

And Norman, you spent some time in the Peace Corps.

RUSH

Not technically. [Elsa and I] were co-country directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana from ’78 to ’83. But the formative effect of being outside the country for a long period of time is certainly the same—having that be a catalyst to a kind of uncheckable literary impulse, looking at a different part of the great evolution that’s taken place. But Christina, you said something intriguing—that you thought the conversion or the evolution of communism to capitalism was a great tragedy. That’s certainly not the State Department opinion. Are you a Bolshevik?

NICHOL

I suppose I’m thinking of how it was done to hold up America as an example. In communist nations, they’d heard all these terrible things about how capitalism works—someone gets money and then doesn’t provide the service he’s been paid for—and they’d say, Well, that’s the free market economy for you! Then, under capitalism, they began to live the kind of ideology of the propaganda they’d been brought up with. It was actually an even worse form of capitalism than ours.

RUSH

Yours is a glorious comic narrative, and there’s something slightly odd in talking about it in the midst of terrible political tragedy, the murder and carnage taking place around the world—a kind of carnage in which, as humans and as Americans, we’re all to some degree implicated. But it isn’t strange, actually, when you think about it. Comic narrative, especially high comic, in textual form, is very important for two reasons. One, it relaxes us and returns us. It disengages us from the essential tragedy, the base tragedy, and the unnecessary tragedy that we encounter as human beings. And it teaches a kind of distance. It has a way of recharging, of remaking our willingness to be open, to have strength in the world, and to work within it. This novel is a remarkable entry into the world of comic fiction. If you look at the history of what’s considered funny in terms of narrative fiction, it’s been pretty much a male reserve. Examining, say, English Anglophone writers—novelists, not short-story writers or nonfiction writers—there’s Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but suddenly now there’s Lydia Davis, Rivka Galchen, and an explosion of the comic subject. Read More »

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Colonized on Every Level: An Interview with Dodie Bellamy

July 29, 2014 | by

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Photo: Ugly Duckling Presse

Dodie Bellamy writes genre-bending works that focus on sexuality, politics, and narrative experimentation, challenging the distinctions between fiction, essay, and poetry. Her methods include radical feminist revisions of canonical works, as in Cunt-Ups (2002) and its follow-up Cunt Norton (2013), which appropriate the “cut-up” technique made famous by William Burroughs; and The Letters of Mina Harker (2004), an epistolary collaboration with the late Sam D’Allesandro, which reimagines Bram Stoker’s Dracula in an AIDS-plagued San Francisco. In her 2004 book Pink Steam, Bellamy explains, “I’m working toward a writing that subverts sexual bragging, a writing that champions the vulnerable, the fractured, the disenfranchised, the sexually fucked-up.”

As an active member of San Francisco’s avant-garde literary scene for the past thirty years, Bellamy is often associated with the New Narrative movement. Before moving to San Francisco in the late seventies, she grew up in the Calumet region of Indiana, studied at Indiana University, and joined a New Age cult. That experience informs her newest book, The TV Sutras, which Norman Fisher has described as “part porno, part memoir (maybe), part spiritual teaching (probably not), [and] part fiction.” Bellamy says she spent five months “receiving transmissions” from her television set, writing brief commentaries on each, which serve as the material for Part One. For example, from #5—“Do you want me to come back to your place? Man and woman in bar. Commentary: Focus on getting back to the basics/beginning anew. Establish a home base you can return to.”

Part Two, “Cultured,” switches into a more familiar form of narrative, but nevertheless refuses to explain itself. At times it seems as though it contextualizes and complicates the sutras in Part One, while at other times the connection seems hidden. In a recent correspondence with Bellamy, we discussed TV Sutras and her history with the New Narrative movement.

You refer to The TV Sutras as a conceptual piece. I’m curious about the ways you see it participating in the current trend of conceptual poetics, or conceptualism in general.

While my writing shares enough concerns with conceptual poetics to be published by Les Figues—poems from Cunt Ups are included in their I’ll Drown My Book anthology, followed by the book length Cunt Norton—The TV Sutras, like the current trend of conceptual poetry, connects with older roots in twentieth-century Conceptual art practices, procedural practices that have been employed since before the surrealists. Procedural strategies have been in vogue ever since I came to poetry in San Francisco in the late seventies—erasure poems, cut-ups, et cetera. I remember very early on going to a reading by Carla Harryman during which she said she “generated” a text, and I was shocked at her use of the word “generated” instead of “wrote.” For me, this was one of those “Dorothy’s no longer in Kansas” moments. Kathy Acker’s use of appropriation has been a touchstone, as well as her conflation of reading and writing. I “generated” the first handful of TV sutras for the Occult issue of 2nd Avenue Poetry, which focused on the intersections between poetry and divinatory practices, particularly rituals that introduce chance. In receiving my sutras through my television, I was reaching back to an ancient tradition of inspired texts—texts that arrive, bidden or unbidden, from a divine/alien elsewhere. Read More »

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Recalcitrant Language: An Interview with Ottilie Mulzet

July 21, 2014 | by

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Art from the first Hungarian edition of Seiobo járt odalent, or Seiobo There Below.

Translators of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai are a daring few, but they tend to win awards. This year’s Best Translated Book Award went to Ottilie Mulzet for the first English translation of Seiobo There Below, a dazzling, far-ranging novel even by Krasznahorkai’s standards. At 451 pages, the novel took Mulzet three years to translate; it required familiarity with everything from the terminology of Russian icon painting to the existence of Arcade Fire. The story, told in a series of loosely linked episodes, addresses small matters of death, time, divinity, and the transcendence of art. And that’s not to mention the sentences—intricately constructed puzzles designed to disorient and amaze the reader. They can be up to fourteen pages long.

Krasznahorkai is developing a cult following in the English-speaking world—he’s had one for decades in Hungary—and he draws packed crowds at readings. A recent appearance at Columbia University was so crowded that people were turned away. The author read in a dark room with only a pinpoint of light on the manuscript, for dramatic effect.

I caught up with the woman working under the name Ottilie Mulzet—a partial pseudonym, somehow not surprising from an artist affiliated with Krasznahorkai—to find out how she does it, and what else she has in store.

Tell me about your history with Krasznahorkai. How did you become his translator? How do you work with him?

Before I ever met him, I translated one of the stories, “Something is Burning Outside,” from Seiobo There Below. It appeared on the Hungarian literature website www.hlo.hu, and in June 2009, it was picked up by the Guardian for a series of translated short stories from Eastern Europe twenty years after 1989. I met Krasznahorkai briefly sometime around then. We corresponded, and I mentioned I’d be willing to take on the translation of Seiobo. Krasznahorkai was understandably a little hesitant at first, given the extraordinary complexity of the work. But I translated Animalinside, which was met with a very positive reception and went into a second printing fairly quickly. The following spring, I sent a sample chapter of Seiobo to New Directions.

Krasznahorkai and I communicate a lot by email. If I have any questions at all, he is absolutely wonderful about answering them. We communicate for the most part in Hungarian. There are times when he issues explicit instructions. For example, he didn’t want any of the foreign words in Seiobo italicized, and I could understand why, because they’re even more disorientating when they’re seemingly innocently integrated into the text. For me that was a pretty radical gesture.

What are the strengths and particularities of Hungarian as a language, and what challenges does it present to translate it into English?

I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.

English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages. Read More »

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