Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Joyce Chen, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed New School faculty Lynne Tillman about her book What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Criticism, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Joyce Chen: Colm Toibin mentioned in his foreword that "artists write essays ... to reposition the way we read or the way we respond so that the work they do can be read or seen more clearly. It is the same reason, if there is a reason, plants grow toward the light." As a writer who writes about artists, do you agree with this sentiment, and what advantages/disadvantages do you see being a wordsmith, "an outsider looking in," of sorts? Or do you view writers and artists as one and the same?
Lynne Tillman: I think Colm’s right. It’s not necessarily the case that a writer is conscious of the extent to which she is doing that, though it may become obvious the more she writes, and also with time. As artists we’re drawn to certain work – art, books, films – because of the way our minds work; what we want to see or read, and what gives us pleasure. Probably we want to find that pleasure in making our own work. In reading Colm’s novel The Master, I felt I was understanding how he, Colm, approached writing, how he found stories, not just how Henry James might have. So Colm, by drawing from his imagination to write James, also represented his own, and also showed me how to read Colm.
JC: The organizing principle for the book seems pretty intuitive (alphabetical), but could you tell me a bit about how the content of each separate essay informed the form (i.e. in A is for Andy, you wrote a list of observations, versus C is for Character, which infused fragments of his journal entries throughout the prose)? My impression was that you were inhabiting each artist's headspace a bit/mimicking their style, and I wonder if that was part of your process or intent?
LT: That’s a very interesting observation. I wanted the table of contents to be alphabetical, to let randomness, in a sense, do its work, and not to proscribe readings of the essays. In “A is for Andy,” I don’t think I was trying to get into his head space, but more to use his proclivity – list-making – and by doing that pay tribute to his process. It also seemed a good way to approach a unique novel: its form so unlike any novel I had ever read. To use a conventional approach wouldn’t suit its form. I’m conscious of that, I think always, what form suits what subject matter. In the essay about Charles Henri Ford’s diary, I wanted to use his writing, to quote bits from the diary, and so I organized my writing around it.
JC: There are frequent references throughout all the essays to mirrors and recordings, which I found fascinating. The idea that writing is like writing, and not like life, is a very simple, yet complex concept to wrap the reader's head around. What is the significance of reflection and reflections to you personally?
LT: I hope I’m using fewer references to mirrors now. I’m sort of done with the mirror, except for the mirror stage. Reflections and reflecting: can’t avoid those. I’d rather have a reflection than an opinion. Opinions often lack reflection, and need it. Everyone may have a right to his opinion, but in this country opinions are often uninformed outbursts. I’m glad you mentioned writing on the page not being life but writing. What writers (and artists) do is represent, and representation takes, uses, forms. Writers work through genres, say; writers choose their words, syntax, structure. We may work from life, however one wants to think of that; and it will appear variously from its various sources. Great writing feels alive to me, present, it may even feel life-like, but that’s different from life. What I’m arguing for is a recognition of fiction, that is, of making.
JC: Another concept that arises throughout your essays is that "omissions are as significant as what's on the page." Was there anything -- either an entire essay or bits of an essay -- that you chose to leave out of the final collection, and what was/are your reasons for doing so?
LT: My publisher, Richard Nash, and I left out many essays, reviews, and conversations. Mostly, Richard decided. I completely trust him, and don’t completely trust myself. I can’t know how someone else “reads” my work. I needed his mind. For instance, he wanted to include “1995" (about first going onto the Internet); I wouldn’t have. I thought it didn’t say anything people hadn’t thought about by now. But he wanted it because it was historical, raising some issues early, so to him it had merit. Some essays just weren’t good enough.
JC: One thing I found fascinating was how interconnected so many of these artists and subjects were -- both within one essay and as a thread throughout the larger work -- and how seamlessly they all fit together. In the process of writing, did you envision this particular order of works, and these intersections, or did they emerge organically? For instance, the tie between Bowles and Ford, and Warhol making an appearance throughout?
LT: People have told me they thought WWLTD? was like an intellectual biography. I didn’t envision that, not at all. When we put the collection together, I had no idea how it would come together. I suppose if one drew the book’s ancestral tree, many of the names would sit in the same family or on related branches. An aesthetic tribe, say. I lived in Europe for a while, and this affected what art and writing, film, I discovered and read. Often American outliers. Ford, Bowles, certainly. I was drawn to outsiders, I felt like one. Not an unusual feeling, right? Not just artists feel this way, I’d say almost everyone, especially in an American high school.
I wasn’t drawn to what was at the center – Phillip Roth, say – but the artists who fascinated me became central to me, even they weren’t to the culture. Warhol, yes, but also he was despised by some, and is still. He’s still an argument. I also think my being female, a girl conscious of sexual prejudice from a very young age, I was ten when I read a nasty Norman Mailer essay about “lady novelists,” also pushed me in the outsider category. That’s a much longer story. But it’s one reason why Jane Bowles was and is so important to me. She went against the grain, her writing is splendid, unique, sui generis. Also, she wrote about women but differently, and ignored all the possible traps that lesser writers, male and female, fell and fall into. She set the standard, for me. Sadly, she wrote just one novel, so she’s not a subject for PhD dissertations. The academy keeps many brilliant, lesser-known writers alive, even if they have to be dead a long time before they enter the curriculum. Note the irony.
JC: All of the essays are on one level about the art and artists, and your interaction with the art world, but on another level, they are also all about writing and the writing process itself. Do you see this sublayer as an inevitable offshoot of any writing/essays?
LT: I don’t know if it’s inevitable. And, I don’t think all of the essays are about the writing process, or writing itself. What I hope is that the essays are written well enough and have enough genuine thinking in them that readers know they’ve been written by a human being who cares about writing, ideas, and people, including them.
Following their initial email interview, Chen and Tillman continued their conversation over the phone...
JC: Congratulations on the NBCC nomination, first and foremost. We previously corresponded via email, but I wanted to follow-up with a conversation for two main reasons: 1. I was so struck by some of your answers that I felt they needed expanding, and 2. I have always been fascinated with the idea of a writer’s voice on the page versus their voice in-person. So thank you for taking the time. To begin, then, I was wondering if you could speak a bit about your answer to the first question, which was about finding pleasure in your own work as an artist, whether that’s of or inspired by other artists’ works. I was curious if there were any elements in artists that you’ve interviewed that inspired you to write other essays, whether or not they were included in this collection.
LT: It’s extremely hard for me to single out individual artists, with the exception of Andy Warhol, Peter Dreher, Virginia Woolf. And that comes mostly when I’m responding directly to their work. You’re asking about influence, the effects of others’ visions and perceptions, and there are too many artists for me to cite. But one of the most important is Freud, who is not an artist. His theories, intellect, his wisdom, have affected my thinking significantly.
JC: I’m also kind of curious because a lot of the stories, a lot of the narratives, have, as I saw it, two parts: one being the story behind the story and the other being almost like the front-cover for the story. For instance, I was reading the essay about Paul and Jane Bowles, about your correspondence with Paul and seeking the rights to publish Jane’s works and then the second essay was, I felt, more a product of the process. Was that intentional, this process/product pairing, or was it more that you wanted to give two angles on one subject, on one artist?
LT: I hadn’t finished with it after I had written the first essay. There are several repetitions, I think, particularly in the beginning of the second essay, from the first. I guess the story was so complex, had so many layers, I wanted to do a bit more excavating. And, as I said, I wasn’t finished with it. I may never be finished with it. It was such a peculiar situation, and there are things that I did not write about because I didn’t want to mention names or go into greater detail – I believe I said in the second essay, I could have gotten into some legal trouble if I had. Maybe some stories or events in one’s life are significant, indelible, but so hard to grasp, even in retrospect. For instance, my relationship with Paul Bowles, and my knowing that it meant more to me than it did to him. That’s true, but that I had any relationship with him at all was impotant t to me, because I respected him and was also fascinated by him.
Returning to an event is a way, also, to examine one’s memory. I was thinking the other day that, when people augment an experience, sometimes it’s a conscious lie. But sometimes it’s that one doesn’t remember, really. You believe something happened, or that you were definitely present at something, and it gets mixed up with something else. Or, you remember and have yourself play a different part. The more time you have on earth, the more that tends to happen.
JC: And that’s something that I think you explore really well. And I’m curious to know if there are pieces coming down the line that you would use to explore that idea even more. I wrote down so many quotes here, but there’s one that stood out: “Writers sometimes make it their jobs to unearth other writers, it’s not just altruism.” I find that concept fascinating. I was wondering if you could speak more about that idea?
LT: : It goes back to what Colm was saying [in his foreword], that we have a stake in each other’s work. And it’s not necessarily altruistic. I’m very conscious of the fact that, when a writer or an artist gets very old, he or she isn’t necessarily at the forefront. People forget. It’s part of the reasons why I was determined to get Charles Henri Ford’s diary, Water from a Bucket, published. I saw him aging, going from older to elderly. He remained active at home, especially writing haiku, but he went out less and less. As that was happening, I wanted more and more for his diary to be read by people, to have a presence, and I wanted him to experience that. It was a form of identification. That’s what I mean by this “stake” not being just altruistic. I felt an identification with Charles Henri. He’d written all his life, and made art, and he was disappearing, and he wasn’t yet dead. And after a friend dies, or an artist I love, I don’t want her or him forgotten either.
JC: That’s kind of to that point about connecting writing and life, and how writing is writing, but these thoughts that these brilliant writers have are somehow linking writing to life. What happens when these brilliant writers are no longer there and how do they continue on and how do they connect with different readers over time? It’s fascinating. Speaking to that point, then, could you expand upon the interplay of life and writing, and how and when you see the two informing each other or intersecting?
LT: One of the things I was addressing is, somehow people think that just because you participated in an exciting event, knew important people, or a traumatic event happened to your mother, you, your father or sister, it’s a good story. Anyone can write it. My stating that writing is writing and not life expresses my belief that there is mediation in representing an event, and what will make an exciting story exciting is how it is written. I had a friend years ago – he was a very funny, smart guy, and not a writer – he told me a story. I was then co-editor of a magazine called Paranoids Anonymous Newsletter (PAN for short). And everything in it was anonymous (we pubbed three issues). I said to him, you have to tell that story. You have to write that story, because I want to publish that. I mean, he had me rolling in my chair, laughing, it was such a brilliant and funny paranoid story. Then he wrote it, and it was dead, dead on the page. It had none of those attributes. He could tell it, he could speak it, but he couldn’t get it down on the page.
And that’s writing. It’s not that his life or that event wasn’t exciting. But it takes a good writer to take an actual event and make it an exciting representation of what happened. So many TV dramas say “based on a true story” to draw viewers. First of all, that’s to say that fiction isn’t true, when of course it is true, if it’s well done -- true to the human mind or human life or human spirit or human intellect, however you want to say it. Though something is based on an actual event, that doesn’t mean it’s a good story.
We keep inventing what “human” is. Take the treatment of animals, and how that has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. I think, ever since the 1970s, the emphasis in America, the emphasis on “a true story,” has been noteworthy. It seems to have come out of the Nixon years all the revelations of misadventures, lies, which encouraged people to believe they could only trust what actually happened. Imagination became suspect. It was sort of, “Just the facts.” As if facts tell a story.
We live in strange times, sad times, in many ways – so much war. I don’t know that a true story was ever wanted or needed more than it is now, and of course, my sense of a true story doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Truth with a capital T, or with so-called “facts on the ground.” in my book, true means meaningful.
JC: Relating to what you’d said earlier about memory and things being true or not, being fiction or nonfiction, I have the sense that these days there are more and more writers who are trying to break down those barriers, who are trying to take off the labels of “this is a work of fiction” or “this is a work of nonfiction.” Is that something that you believe has been around for a while, or is it something that’s just now being highlighted because of things that are happening in the community?
LT: Fiction has always used everything. It’s an admixture. It’s been based on actual events, entirely imagined, based in history, it’s been based in scientific ideas – the great emphasis on a fictional work, say, using nonfiction, or being a disguised memoir, is relatively new, the emphasis is new. Again, I speculate this is coming out of the 70s and 80s, a trend to undergird and support the importance of fiction, because it has been confused with “lies.” And therefore irrelevant or worse. In large part, it has also to do with living in post-modernity, when the “grand narratives” have been and are questioned, necessarily so. In my writing, I mix actual events with imagined events; I’ve used oral histories as part of a novel – that was the case in No Lease on Life, and that wasn’t called attention to, then – that’s 1998. I mix it up because, I think, use everything I want. My emphasis is in trying to make meanings, which I can’t predict or determine, that may be true, that is, have significance to a reader. I’m interested in telling stories, making meanings, and seeing how and where it all lands, how it lies and resides in different minds. And that changes, of course, changes with time, because different things happen in different times, and changes lead people to understand and interpret things differently.
You see, you can’t know what’s in the mind of a reader. That’s impossible. What I try to do is comprehend what’s in my mind as I’m writing. Harry Mathews, a brilliant American writer, says that a writer is her own first reader. So, as I’m writing, I’m also reading. I’m scrutinizing what I’m writing. I’m trying to understand what I’m writing, as I’m writing. I’m thinking about what I’m writing as I’m writing. So I’m my first reader.
You can’t know what’s in the mind of the reader, and you can’t know what’s in the mind of readers to come. It would be nice to have readers, you know? (laughs) You can’t write for readers, you can’t. Different people who write might write for a specific person, often unconsciously. For instance, I write for my father. But that’s different from writing for readers.
JC: I also noticed, quite randomly, that there’s a lot of use of “un” words – I think I underlined all of them – and some of them are “un” words that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen used before. I’m curious if that was a deliberate choice, because there’s a lot to be said about writing and how it is essentially undoing how a reader thinks in order to open their minds to read and view something in a new way.
LT: : I think my use of the “un” words is absolutely conscious and it’s because it’s different from "anti" – I see "un" as a kind of 180 degree turn, not a complete 360 degree turn, which "anti" would be. But shifting to the "un" makes you aware of what the non-"un"word means. And the undoing. One of my own favorite passages in my last novel, American Genius: A Comedy has to do with the protagonist wanting to unmake a chair and a television set. Take it apart. And in the undoing, she would see what it was. And I think that’s interesting. So often we deal with the finished product, which can feel like a word, we’re given a word to use, we learn these and we’re born through language in a way, but if you begin to undo that language, to undo the object that you’ve been looking at, then you’re forced to think about how was this thing done? How did it happen? Why does it do what it does? I can only undo in order to see that. Perhaps you have a little more flexibility in the way you use language, or the way you view objects or look at them. That’s the idea.
Lynne Tillman is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Her novel American Genius, A Comedy was cited as one of the Best Books of the Millennium (so far) by The Millions. Her other novels include Haunted Houses, Motion Sickness, Cast In Doubt, and No Lease on Life, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1998). Her story collection This Is Not It drew together 23 stories written in response to the work of 22 contemporary artists. Her most recent story collection is Someday This Will Be Funny. Tillman’s nonfiction books include The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-67, based on photographs by Stephen Shore (1995), and Bookstore: The Life and times of Jeanette Watson and Books & Co. Her most recent essay collection is What Would Lynne Tillman Do? Tillman is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, and was a Rea Visiting Fellow at The University of Virginia; in 2014, a Kestnbaum Fellow at the University of Chicago. Tillman writes a bimonthly column for Frieze art magazine, and is a Professor/Writer in Residence at The University at Albany, and also teaches at The New School and the School of Visual Arts.
Joyce Chen is a freelance writer, thinker, doodler, and journalist based in Brooklyn. She is currently a second-year MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at The New School in New York City. Her writings have been published in Narratively, Hyphen magazine, People magazine, the New York Daily News, US Weekly, Los Angeles magazine, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among others. She is also an editor of The Seventh Wave, an online and print quarterly that discusses timely topics by reflecting on their timeless nature, one issue at a time.