Now Find a Free Mind: A Brief Interview with Diane Williams

Posted by @ 12:48 pm on February 1st, 2010

I likely don’t have to give Diane Williams any sort of introduction. Her stories come from the heart–a wax, tender heart, and like a dying engine, ready to blow. Her stories come from the head–savagely recursive, a mirror curved to reflect the heart. Her stories bring me great joy, and it was a delight to interview her; I hope you enjoy this delightfully brief Q&A with Diane Williams: the other voice in your head.


AN: One aspect common to both your fiction and some of the fiction you edit seems to be a voice that is both detached and emotional, I think–in fact, your narrators often seem, under the surface, to maintain a very fragile balance between collapse and self-assertiveness. Would you say that’s accurate? If so, what about that voice compels you? From what I can tell, such equanimity requires a great deal of control and grace. How far have you come, since you began writing fiction, in developing that voice?

DW: A very fragile balance between collapse and self-assertiveness — yes, yes, you’re right!  How far have I come — since I began writing fiction — in developing that voice?  Uh, oh!  —  perhaps not that far.  I wouldn’t be the one to judge.  Wouldn’t it be nice if I had come far and had confirmation on that. What compels me toward this voice is that this is apparently my voice — my condition.  I’d like to think that the circumstance of the struggle, the perspective on the struggle shifts.

AN: From “Very, Very Red,” one of my very favorite of your stories:

I will tell you this–I had the shivers and my neck hurt from sitting in my chair. “I love you with all of my heart,” I told Diane. I think it is thrilling to hear people say that.

If taken on their own, any one of those sentences would be strange. Taken together, they are extremely strange–even chilling. There’s this tension between ambiguity, broadness–“to hear people say that”–and a very specific, fraught situation that, to me, is the motor force of many of your most effective lines. Those lines, I think, most often smash together a desperation and a looking-out into the world–a detachment from the “I” which works only when the “I” is most drawn into itself. Again, balance. How do you know when the moment is right for sentences like “I will tell you this,” and “I think it is thrilling to hear people say that”? How do you build up to those sentences–constructed with the barest of materials, the plainest of words, but always eerie, and usually sad or funny? How do you turn stark language so damn electric?

DW: I am so very grateful to hear applause for my sentences.  These are painstakingly put together.  I don’t view myself as an especially good speaker/writer.  I view myself as naturally helpless as to speech — capable of bundling it up with cliches and many tired ideas.  I have to maneuver syntax and sound aggressively.  This is my effort to vivify my life.

Your question beginning: “How do you know when the moment is right for…”  I am an impatient person…the moment is always right for a blast of plain feeling, but one cannot live like that.  We get to show it rarely or everyone around us would be terrified.

AN: I’m curious about the connection between toying with syntax and sound and the vivification of one’s life. When composing a story, how does the manipulation of sound/syntax–repetition, too–work for you; that is, where does sound find its place in your writing? Is each sentence self-contained, or do you try to create a network, a system of reference–to prior sentences, to forthcoming sentences–in each one? How, to you, does working on the level of the sentence–blasting the sentence with feeling–vivify a life? I mean: where, in the sentence, can a life be found?

DW: The acoustics are always on my mind.  My object is to manage the text as if it is a musical score.  I’m delighted to  locate a dominate sound  in the opening that may recur throughout and turn up  on its own at the close.  Of course,  alien sounds or rhythms might need to be introduced….

Experience on the page is equivalent to life and taking it up godlike with high hopes for vibrancy and drama is outrageous, but necessary.

AN: I have to ask, since I’m reading a bunch of Lish-edited fiction alongside this project: how has Gordon Lish’s approach to sound, voice, and rhythm in fiction–both editing and writing–influenced your own? If it has.

DW: Gordon Lish is a great teacher of writing and demands an ambitious, fine-grained attention to all elements of a literary text.  I was very fortunate to have been able to study with him.  His  interest, my interest is to keep an ideal text in mind.

AN: It often seems to me that not a single word in NOON is out of place. What does such absolute precision mean to you? What will it do for a story?

DW: Well, that’s a terrific salute to NOON.  Of course, there is no absolute precision, but if the texts seem to you akin to impermeable objects or to miraculous machinery — then all of us are doing our job.  “Do it again!  Do it again!” might be a reader’s plea…if powerful effects have been achieved.

AN: Indeed, impermeable objects–that’s what I see when I open NOON. It’s a way of living the sentence, of bearing the book as an “I,” that necessary, transgressive writers like you, Gary Lutz, Dawn Raffel, Christine Schutt, et al, to me, advocate on and off the pages of NOON. The sentence as an infinite sculpture turning in on itself. How do you think this kind of fiction confronts the reader–what does it demand of him or her? Do you think the sentence can be overemphasized?

DW: The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of  a sentence or any syllable of a word.  The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.  Missed opportunities are there regardless.   The sentence may  be a confrontation or a demand — you’re right —  or a consolation,  a revelation  — or —  it could  offer a lot of fun.

AN: Now, Christine Schutt seems to be pursuing more straightforward storytelling, though her writing is as beautiful and capitvating as ever. Dawn Raffel is only further refining her elliptical gems. Gary Lutz writes one perfect book every ten years or so. And then there’s you, of course. A ragtag team, moving in wildly different directions. But I think this group of writers–and I know there are so many I’m excluding–more or less started out with, and maintain, similar orientations toward fiction-writing, toward the sentence. What do you think binds all of you together? Is there anything in particular you want to see in the next wave of NOON contributors?

DW:   I don’t want to make a big lump of certain writers and then cite their attributes — better to look at particular passages and  texts and comment on those.  I also do not want to call for another wave of anything.  I’ll look forward to being startled by a droplet, droplets…or a wave as yet unforeseen.

AN: Your fiction, for me, expands the limits of what literature can do–aesthetically, emotionally, at its very bottom. One of your most compelling techniques, I think, is the interruption of the third-person with the first-person. This happens quite a bit in The Stupefaction (the novella). Your narrator will be telling a third-person omniscient story, and then an “I” materializes out of nowhere. The narrator drifts in and out as a character, foregrounding the question, which I believe is present in all fiction, first-person or otherwise, of where the “I” is speaking from. The first time I saw you do that, I thought, “Oh my God! You can do that?” What does this technique allow you to do? What are your intentions with it? What do you think the interruption of the third-person signifies? Is it art questioning itself?

DW: I am especially pleased to be asked about the narrator in The Stupefaction.  When I wrote The Stupefaction I thought I had accomplished a new and radical relation to the narrator and was quite proud of myself, but very few reviewers noticed this.  Seven years later, Laura Sims wrote a fifty page critical essay on my writing for The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Fall 2003) — and she commented brilliantly and extensively on this narration for which I am ever grateful.  I think she knows more about it than I do…I remember during the composition feeling strongly that the omniscient point of view was the craziest point of view and nearly impossible to sustain — yet it remains one of my favorites.  It is especially difficult to engage in if the author is in the godless mode — which I was at that time.  I also remember feelings of envy arising — my envy of the subjects I had created.  I found that unmanageable and I think it created some of the pressure to unwind the omniscient strategy.  The questions regarding what, which voice is speaking — who is being addressed  — and for what purpose…all the questions regarding the authority for speech are irksomely, enduringly present, and require refiguring with each composition.

AN: Another element to your work that is fascinating to me is how you write yourself in–as just another subject of the story. Sometimes you are even a peripheral character. How is that technique significant to you?

DW: I’m not sure I have much to say about naming myself in my own work.  I’ll try to investigate…I know that the first time I wrote myself in, as you say it– it was hugely upsetting and the next and the next time, hugely upsetting also. There is, of course, excitement in the upset. The barrier between private and public is a raw edge for me.  The barrier between fact and fiction is a raw edge.  Sometimes handing my identity over to a paper and ink figure is a deliberate goad — a slap in my own face to please wake up!

AN: I’ve seen you speak about your writing, or your orientation toward the latter, as amoral. Could you describe what you mean by this claim? I.e. what differentiates an amoral piece of writing from one concerned with truth, justice–morals? Why do you assume this specific orientation? If not morals, does your work have truck with ethics/politics?

DW:  I have a customary response to this question, which ought to force me to doubt its validity.

I am certain that amorality is the natural condition of the psyche, the unconscious — or of whatever name you give that mysterious wellspring.  Our dreams are evidence enough for me.

I can’t argue the case for freedom in art as persuasively as Freud did, or as Jung did, or as any of their heirs did and do.  Psychic freedom is crucial to our sanity and to our humanity — so nothing differentiates an amoral piece of writing from one concerned with truth, justice and morals.    A great work of art that can deliver Hell has a purifying effect.  Why?  Ask why.

Surely, though, a free mind could also produce a great work of art that is all heavenly light with no shadows.  Now find a free mind.

I think ethics and politics are smeared all  over my work.

AN: It seems like you see your work as a completely democratic space, i.e. one where the absence of repression abides. In this sense, are you writing a sort of utopia where the “libidinal economy” has been set free? Or is your work an attempt to set you and the reader free? Or both?

DW:  I’d like to see my work as a completely democratic space –where the absence of repression abides, but that’s only my desire and my success at this is improbable  — or  more likely  — impossible.

Set free?  I’ve never felt like that.  What I have felt is horribly disorganized. This sensation can cause vertigo. The sweetest consequence is to believe that a deep and sensible rearrangement has occurred.

I can comment on the text’s effects on me, but am unable to predict any reader’s experience.

AN: You’re currently working on a new collection of stories, right? Has the writing process changed at all with this one?

DW: I am always working on new stories.  The most recent batch — 13 of them — appeared this past year in Harper’s.

The process remains the same — Oh, now I’ll just open my mouth and sing!  I always hope for that. No, no, no. But yes, I am still here with the pen and with the paper and my bent-up body in the increasingly bent-up chair, undone that I cannot just open my mouth and sing.