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