Image credit: Photograph by Bill Hayward, cover design by A.S. Patric
A.S. Patric: Jonathan Franzen has described you as a hero of the avant-garde. How do you feel about a very popular writer who has had colossal mainstream success making this statement about you and your work?
Diane Williams: I am honored to have such a stirring, elegant and imposing French word near my name and I like to be reminded of my courage. I can be forgetful of my courage. My courage has to be recalled again and again. And, I am grateful to Jonathan Franzen for his salute! Very grateful.
But I fear you’d like me to discuss so-called avant-garde or experimental fiction versus so-called mainstream fiction. Neither my mind nor my heart naturally engages in this discussion or debate. True enough, these discussions and debates have a long history. In recent years in the US there was a much talked about in-print duel between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus. Marcus defended his point of view in an essay in Harper’s Magazine entitled, tongue-in-cheek: ‘Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It’. But I don’t think about what category my fiction is in – ever – unless forced to, nor do I think about what category NOON (the literary annual I edit) authors should be put into. To say it another way – the best category for all of us to aspire to, I believe, is the category – ESPECIALLY POWERFUL.
Of course, I am delighted that the feuding pair – Franzen and Marcus – have both given my work their praise.
A.S.P.: You resist categorisation in your work and your interviews. Yet, for a bookseller like myself, I wonder how you’d prefer I sell your book. Book buyers rarely make a leap into a complete unknown. What kind of reader will enjoy Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty?
D.W.: I’d say Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty is a book for an adventurous reader.
My ambition to write was ignited during a personal, shattering crisis in the late 1980s. Everything I thought I understood about myself and my life necessarily had to be revised. Old theories, credos and assumptions didn’t serve me at all. I sought new perspectives, and this is still is my project.
A.S.P.: Your writing redefines the way we read by creating a unique state of consciousness through prose. While we might read some writers for drama, or another for insights into character, we can read your work to find a new awareness of the way we decode the textual experience of ourselves. Is this particular pattern of perception continuing to develop? In what ways is it rewarding to you as a person to continue exploring the world in this way?
D.W.: I hope ‘this particular pattern of perception’, as you call it, continues to develop. I’d be lost without it, as I have described above. I appreciate how you define this research as seeking a new awareness of the way we decode ourselves. I cannot say it better.
A.S.P.: I would suggest that the pieces that make up Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty are not separate but that they all connect into a larger process of investigation, which culminates when the book has been read as a whole. To define it as a collection of flash fiction would do nothing to describe the interconnectivity of themes interweaving through the prose. Why do you choose to use traditional prose structures for the 51 stories when every other element of your text defies traditional expectations?
D.W.: I am partial to the untraditional story and to the traditional story. With either sort of good story in hand – in short order – there’s a chance to be transported out of my world, comforted, saved, changed. And, I love the cozy and familiar storytelling gambits such as abound in oral stories from the old-time storytellers –‘Then it was…’ ‘It was all about…’ ‘For one thing…’ and ‘And so you see…’ It’s lovely to have soothing, encouraging pats on the head during an adventure.
A.S.P.: You write stories that vaporise narratives and characters. You were a lecturer at Bard College, Syracuse University and the Centre for Fiction in New York. What principles of storytelling, of character and narrative, did you teach your students?
D.W.: Principles for the writing of prose fiction – hmmm. Language is the performative medium. We compose using sound and meaning. We explore how to create drama by way of well-made sentences. In class, we examine what tactics are necessary to support the implicit request: Please listen to this!
We conjure an ideal text – one that may have the chance to perdure. We assess the relative significance and complexity of the subject – the architecture of the sentences – their musical properties. Our ambition is nothing less than the deep opening and the revelation of the human heart. This is not a report on such an event – this is the event.
A.S.P.: There’s a way in which art destabilises us, generates mental distortion and provokes emotional turbulence. Your writing is often funny, but these other, more difficult qualities are what place you at the literary cutting edge. In the late 1980s you experienced a crisis that inspired you to write, so I’m wondering how writing has helped you. ‘The art as therapy’ idea seems ridiculously naïve. If it was true, artists would be the most well-adjusted, mentally healthy people on the planet. Even so, the idea of catharsis goes back to Aristotle and there are ways in which art can indeed heal us. How has writing helped you though your crisis? Does it inform your work and offer your readers similar ways through crisis?
D.W.: I don’t agree that ‘art as therapy’ is a ridiculously naïve notion. How much worse off any of us would be without art is impossible to estimate. I feel improved in the vicinity of great art and have felt stronger as a consequence of making my own art with language.
I experience psychic suffering as physical cramping – analogous to being captive in a small room with furnishings that are my painful ideas. I employ prose fiction composition to rearrange heavy furniture, to put other curios about. Even simple gestures, such as tampering with predictable syntax, changing an ‘is not’ to an ‘is’ – for example – facilitate the disturbance and prompt additional construction and renovation.
And, yes, you understand – destabilization, mental distortion, emotional turbulence – exactly – this is just what I am eager for. I don’t know how else to pursue what is so unlikely and so necessary – a new perspective.
Vertigo is the initial sensation … Vertigo should be the name of a god or of a goddess!
A.S. Patric is the author of Las Vegas for Vegans and The Rattler & other stories.