What’s in our Spring issue? Interviews with Hilary Mantel and Lydia Davis, plus the first-ever in-person interview with the elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante; poetry by Major Jackson, Charles Simic, and Ben Lerner; fiction by Angela Flournoy, Ken Kalfus, James Lasdun, and Mark Leyner; an essay by J. D. Daniels; and a portfolio of paintings by Mel Bochner. And we haven’t even put the issue to bed yet!
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Mel Bochner, Enough Said, 2012, oil on canvas, 24" x 30". © Mel Bochner___________________________________________________________
Hilary Mantel, The Art of Fiction
Would you ever change a fact to heighten the drama?
I would never do that. I aim to make the fiction flexible so that it bends itself around the facts as we have them. Otherwise I don’t see the point. Nobody seems to understand that. Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction. I suppose if I have a maxim, it is that there isn’t any necessary conflict between good history and good drama. I know that history is not shapely, and I know the truth is often inconvenient and incoherent. It contains all sorts of superfluities. You could cut a much better shape if you were God, but as it is, I think the whole fascination and the skill is in working with those incoherencies.
Lydia Davis, The Art of Fiction
More and more you seem to use found materials in your stories.
Back in the early eighties, I realized that you could write a story that was really just a narration of something that had happened to you, and change it slightly, without having really to fictionalize it. In a way, that’s found material. I think it’s hard to draw the line and say that something isn’t found material. Because if a friend of mine tells me a story or a dream, I guess that’s found material. If I get an e-mail that lends itself to a good story, that’s found material. But then if I notice the cornmeal making little condensations, is that found material? It’s my own, I’m not using text, but I am using a situation that exists. I’m not making it up. I find what happens in reality very interesting and I don’t find a great need to make up things, but I do like retelling stories that are told to me.
Elena Ferrante, The Art of Fiction
Many American reviews seem to make a direct connection between the work you do writing, its sincerity, its honesty, and your keeping out of the public eye. As if to say, the less one appears, the better one writes.
Two decades are a long time, and the reasons for the decisions I made in 1990, when, for the first time, we considered my need to avoid the rituals of publication, have changed. Then, I was frightened by the possibility of having to come out of my shell. Timidity prevailed. Later, it was hostility toward the media, which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and which values a work according to the author’s reputation. It’s surprising, for example, how the most widely admired Italian writers and poets are also known as scholars or are employed in high-level editorial jobs or in other prestigious fields. It’s as if literature were not capable of demonstrating its seriousness simply through texts but required “external” credentials. In a similar category—if we leave the university or the publisher’s office—are the literary contributions of politicians, journalists, singers, actors, directors, television producers, et cetera. Here, too, the works do not find in themselves authorization for their existence but need a pass that comes from work done in other fields. “I’m a success in this or that field, I’ve acquired an audience, and therefore I wrote and published a novel.” It’s not the book that counts but the aura of its author. If the aura is already there, and the media reinforces it, the publishing world is happy to open its doors and the market is happy to welcome you. If it’s not there but the book miraculously sells, the media invents the author, so the writer ends up selling not only his work but also himself, his image.
You were saying that your reasons for staying in the shadows have changed a bit.
I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work in every sector of human activity, and it has become universal. The media simply can't discuss an artwork unless it can point to some protagonist behind it. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a protagonist—and please note, I do not mean the individual. The individual person is, of course, necessary to the work.
But what has never lost importance for me, during this by-now long period of absence, is the creative space that absence opened up for me. Once I knew that the completed book would make its journey without being accompanied by my physical person, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, definite individual that is me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it illuminated for me an aspect of writing that was obvious, but which I had never thought of. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.