Lynne Tillman discusses her latest mindfuck story collection and how social reading platforms erode the barrier between writer and reader.
Photograph by Nan Goldin
“Things die so easily,” says a character in Lynne Tillman’s most recent collection, Someday This Will Be Funny (April 22, 2011). The character is referring to lethal injection, but given Tillman’s palette, she could just as easily mean the taste of a kiss, the sensation of rum, the flight of a mourning dove, another time, another man, the sound of a door closing, a lock. The act of storytelling is an act of power. In Someday This Will Be Funny, every story has its victims, but exactly who is predator, and who is being preyed upon, changes sentence by sentence. In “A Greek Story,” the narrator listens passively to her friend’s “best story,” repeats back a single line, and turns the story on its head. In “A Simple Idea,” the narrator is a more active voyeur, stepping in the middle of her friend’s paranoid fantasy (of being the object of a sting operation for incurring too many parking tickets)—to avoid solitude, we sense, or deathlike boredom in her own life.
In “Love Sentence,” the protagonist, Paige Turner, practices her own form of avoidance by investigating the language of love rather than the experience of it—her interrogation feels almost desperate, as if by constructing a definition of the heart, she might save her own from being savaged. The narrator of “But There’s a Family Resemblance” takes an academic approach to family photos, but hidden beneath its scholarly intonations, we sense his painful longing to reconnect with his estranged mother. The trait these characters share is an unwillingness to dive off any cliff save the ones in their imaginations. Like the protagonist in “The Substitute,” all Tillman’s characters are “overwhelmed with sensations that have nothing to do with the present.” This recalls Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius: A Comedy , where the narrator is so over-stimulated by sights and sounds and other people that she removes herself from such exposures entirely, checking herself into a retreat of sorts, where, for weeks on end, she is intimate with little beyond her own thoughts.
Someday This Will Be Funny is unusual the way all Tillman’s books (twelve to date) are. It is, as much as American Genius: A Comedy, or No Lease on Life (nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1998), a brimming stream of anxious interrogations about the nature of intimacy, ethics, and solitude. A writer of the mind, Tillman’s sentences imitate the rhythms of consciousness, its recursive nature, the rising and falling of memories, the circling back over images and preoccupations, the layering of color and sound. With the launch of Cursor, a social reading platform that promises to eventually house 50,000 indie publishers, meta-cognitive form has finally caught up with content. It is no coincidence that Tillman is the debut author of Red Lemonade, the first Cursor-powered book line. Brainchild of Richard Nash, ex-publisher of Soft Skull Press, Cursor is something of a literary roundtable, seeking to flatten the existing hierarchies among writers, readers, and capital. Red Lemonade is only the first example, and it works like this: an original manuscript is posted by the publisher (e.g., Someday This Will Be Funny, posted by Nash), and readers, instead of passively consuming content, may start a discussion—not only by commenting in the margins (although there’s that), but also by downloading their own creative work in a parallel space, thereby exposing themselves to the same immediate feedback, critical and exuberant, that they offered the author. The point, Nash says, is to “submit readers to the same joy and terror caused by that insidious blinking line, the cursor.” The other point, it seems, is to knock traditional publishers on their backsides. Thanks to the desktop publishing revolution, the supply of books has skyrocketed (and will continue to climb and climb). Readers don’t need gatekeepers. They need a community of like minds.
So how’s the first literary roundtable faring? At barely seven weeks, it’s probably too soon to tell. But so far, the marginalia surrounding Someday This Will Be Funny remains pretty slim. In response to “Chartreuse,” about two lovers who concurrently love and deny each other, we get little more than confession: “Isn’t this always the case with love?” In response to the lead story, where mourning doves make an appearance: “HA! I always thought it was ‘morning doves.’” Other commentary can be best described as lazy expulsions of tween positivity: “Yeah, baby!” and “Love this!” and “100%.” Three-quarters of the collection remains un-interrogated, white.
Nash often points out that storytelling, prior to the Industrial Revolution, was a social activity. Nash interprets this to mean that reading, in its “natural” state, is a social experience. Perhaps. But what if now, in this mad world of hyper opinionating and excessive feedback, people are jonesing for an escape from interactivity? What if the appealing thing about reading, now, is that it allows readers to, for a brief snatch of time, enjoy the simple, passive pleasure of walking around in someone else’s imagination?
The answer? Clearly there’s room for both. As one astute observer noted in the margins of “Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful”: “Had to read this paragraph aloud. To be overrun. The wave under the sea that can’t be seen & destroys all… life itself trumping sex, to be overrun by it.” Let us hope so.
—Elizabeth Koch for Guernica
Guernica: One of the many pleasurable things about Someday This Will Be Funny was the many levels of avoidance at work. In “A Greek Story,” there’s a story within a story, which creates an eerie sense of removal from the very first line: “A friend announced that she was going to tell me the best thing she’d ever done. It was her best story.” The narrator’s only role is to listen—how did you decide on that frame?
Lynne Tillman: Well, I did actually ask a friend what was the most interesting story she had. And she told me this story [Laughs.] And the way she ended it, “Oh god, this is the best story I know?” I thought it was amazing. What does make a great story? What are the things that we think in our life are extraordinary events? For that story to work, you needed a little distance from the story her friend tells. It could not have been an “I” story. It was not a great story.
Guernica: The narrator acts as a sort of witness—
Lynne Tillman: That’s right. The narrator is the witness, which stands in for the reader. But she is also the writer.
Guernica: In “The Substitute,” the protagonist, Helen, sits in her therapist’s office speaking half-truths and making bogus interpretations—she’s aware of exaggerating and contradicting herself, but Dr. Kaye seems to encourage her. He encourages her to flaunt her imagination. She almost starts to believe her own stories, which takes her away from the man she is trying to build a real relationship with.
I subject my sentences and the words to a kind of Grand Inquisition.
Lynne Tillman: Yes, in that one I realized the character could have two relationships going: one with her analyst and one with this man, Rex, with whom she never actually fulfills a relationship.
Guernica: You realized? You mean, after you started writing?
Lynne Tillman: Yes, the story just presented itself to me that way. For me it all starts with voice. It’s something I’ve become more aware of ever since a friend of mine, a poet, Rebecca Wolff (the founding editor of Fence) recently said to me, “You know, your stories are really voice-driven,” and I guess I knew that already, but it’s so true that I can’t get something going unless I can hear the voice.
Guernica: Yes, there is a lyrical quality to your sentences, a folding-back on each other. I’m thinking of “The Shadow of a Doubt,” where the narrator is at his ex’s wedding, basically to punish himself, and his thoughts are full of self-pity, but there’s a lovely sort of longing there—for his ex, for lost memories—and he starts making all sorts of associations that put him in a kind of trance. This language, this haunting rhythm, almost becomes the story.
Lynne Tillman: Yes, for me it’s a process of finding the word that really, really best says what I’m trying to say. I subject my sentences and the words to a kind of Grand Inquisition. I’m trying always to leave out what I think is extraneous. And to find what I think is the most wonderful language to make a beautiful sentence. Not beautiful in the sense of “oh it’s flowy” but in the sense that it really does what it’s supposed to do, it what I want it to say. It’s easy, at this point in my life, very easy to write a beautiful sentence that’s meaningless. A lot of writers do that. But I don’t want it to be meaningless. I want it to actually say what I want it to say, and so I’m thinking about it again and again and again.
Guernica: Sounds like there’d be a lot of anxiety in that process.
Lynne Tillman: In the novel I’m currently working on, the narrator is interested in his identity as a man. And one of the things he does as a cultural anthropologist is interview other men his age about what it is to be a man now. I’m very interested in that, and sort of playing off Henry James’s idea of “The New Woman.” I’m interested in the new man. So I’m trying to figure out ways to write a novel about that.
Guernica: Sounds like the narrator from “But There’s a Family Resemblance.”
Lynne Tillman: Yes, he’s my template. I realized I liked that guy. And I like that he was a cultural anthropologist. And because I wanted to write something that deals with photography, that thinks about photography, and images, I thought, “Ah! I can use him.”
Guernica: In my reading of that story, this man was trying really hard to create a concrete identity through photographs. He studies photographs of his own family as if this process might unlock some secret origin. And it was told in this very cold, dry, academic language— I found it very sad.
Lynne Tillman: Well, I was and am still very interested in that someone who is analyzing something and who feels like he or she has distance from the subject, but is entirely embroiled in the subject. And so that distance that they may gain by writing theoretically about something is really not earned in their own lives.
Guernica: You use language much more sparingly in “A Simple Idea.” The narrator has this friend who thinks she’s the object of a sting operation for incurring too many parking tickets, and although the narrator on some level gets off on her friend’s paranoia—never a dull moment!— she doesn’t want her friend to worry so much. So she calls the precinct and has this crazy exchange with a cop, where the cop repeats everything she says—only, coming from his mouth, the meaning completely changes.
Lynne Tillman: Yes, for that to work, you have to keep the dialogue as stripped down as possible. Because the humor is not in the description of it, but it’s in the action of it. That the narrator feels the necessity to do this for her friend—to save her—by calling a police precinct is pretty damn hilarious, and crazy.
Guernica: And yet — for the very reason that it seemed so crazy I completely bought it.
Lynne Tillman: One of the things I learned from Jane Bowles was that conversation on the page should reflect what the story is about. It doesn’t have to be “realistic” in the sense that it’s something you heard and plugged into a story.
Guernica: It can be as crazy or absurd as you want, so long as it fits the rules the story has set up?
Lynne Tillman: Yes. You have to create the space for the possibility of people speaking as they do. If writing is supposed to lead us in any way or educate or suggest other ways of being, it can’t do so by simply reflecting what’s considered to be realistic. I’m not a realist in that way. I’m interested in reality but I’m not interested in realism at all. I’m interested in the ways that I think people want to relate. Think of George Saunders’s stories. I mean, “Winky,” let’s say—that story—has anything like that ever happened? No, I doubt it. But could it? And is it something that seems totally credible? Absolutely.
Guernica: Their way of speaking seems to spring from these two neurotic personalities colliding. You totally believe in this surreal world they’ve created together. But then what? In the last paragraph—it’s just gone! They’re not friends anymore.
Lynne Tillman: That’s right, that’s right.
Guernica: So upsetting, how things can seem so permanent in the moment, and then everything just goes away. I found myself spending way too much time wondering what had really happened and what was made up.
Lynne Tillman: Well, some of “A Simple Idea” definitely happened [laughs], but more often it’s imagined. Which really can be disappointing to readers. For instance, in a story I wrote that had Clint Eastwood in it—which was called… oh God what was it called…I forget. But it was in This Is Not It. She goes to a party and there’s Clint Eastwood. And they get into a conversation. And I have him say all sorts of things. And I made the mistake of reading that story to a really big audience—a thousand people were there—I remember it was raining, and that’s why everybody came inside—people were sure that I had talked to Clint Eastwood. “When did you meet Clint Eastwood?” they asked me afterwards. “Oh I never met him!”
Guernica: Were you flattered by that?
Lynne Tillman: I was flattered that people found it so credible. The conversation in the story was—Clint Eastwood is talking about his father having dug a huge hole in the backyard, where he lived—for a week! And pissed and shit there? I mean—it was just like the oddest thing in the world! But it was very specific. So people believed this. I like to invent the dialogue that I want to have heard.
Guernica: And you give readers that. Like in “Charteuse”—the language is so witty and fast. It’s so delightful, and there’s such a sorrow in it. They’re just talking past each other.
Lynne Tillman: I was wondering—I mean, these stories were written over ten years. Do they seem very different?
Guernica: Not at all. In this whole collection, the language and the themes feel entirely fused. There’s this sense of eavesdropping on private thoughts and conversations.
Lynne Tillman: Well, they are fused. I write a few sentences, then go back, and from those changes, other sentences come. It’s happening within the language and within the ideas that I’m trying to best articulate in the language.
Guernica: So you’re not exactly a blurter.
Lynne Tillman: I mean, writing and rewriting are the same thing to me. I don’t believe what Allen Ginsberg said that “first thought, then—” I just don’t believe that.
Guernica: I don’t know how you’d achieve that associative quality without going back again and again. The connections you make are more intuitive than linear— the language folds back over the same words, themes, ideas, motifs. Actually, your last book, American Genius: A Comedy, is a perfect example of that.
Lynne Tillman: It was hard to start another project after that book. Those sentences were so hypnotic.
Guernica: Is the recursive feel of those sentences meant to imitate the way the mind works?
Lynne Tillman: Well, I do think we think repetitively. It’s so hard to get certain thoughts out of your head. If you’re angry at a friend, you’re going to keep going back to that conversation. Or if something happened that upset you a long time ago—there are things that happen in our lives and that trigger certain memories and thoughts. You start in one place, and you may end at another, but you’re going to go back to: “My mother killed the cat.”
I like to invent the dialogue that I want to have heard.
Guernica: In American Genius: A Comedy, this idea of an institution for people who can’t or don’t want to be exposed to the pollutions and stimulations of daily life in America—how did it come to you?
Lynne Tillman: Very slowly. One of the things I’d been thinking about a lot was sensitivity. From the 1990s on, and maybe even before that, the question of people’s reaction to their environment has been getting stronger and stronger. I was thinking a lot about that, and how strange it is, that even as people are becoming more sensitive to our environment, there’s an increase of insensitivity—the level of brutality, wars, the American indifference to war, Abu Ghraib, and torture in general. I was just seeing a big discrepancy between intense feelings of “I’m allergic to this” and “my skin that”—that is, the sense of each of us being encapsulated in our bodies and minds—and the level of cruelty and capital punishment and fundamentalism in this country. The anti-choice people who would deny women their right to have an abortion if they needed it. People saying “my ethical code is right and yours is wrong,” the lack of understanding of predicaments of poor people. It just seemed the disparity was pretty glaring.
Guernica: Did you find it was a question of privilege? Helen was able to go away for two months and not work, not make money, and she’s constantly thinking about her facialist, whom she sees regularly. Not everyone is going to a facialist several times a week. Were you making a critique about the self-improvement movement in America, this preoccupation with fixing every little imperfection, the disconnection it can cause?
Lynne Tillman: Yeah, I was thinking about America and Americans. Absolutely. That’s why there’s a lot about American history in there, and questions about freedom and racism. It wasn’t so much to point a finger and say Americans are this or that, but to think about a kind of ethos in which we live, where certain things, certain privileges are taken for granted. It wasn’t a matter of rich or poor. People, no matter the economic class, find ways to feed their narcissism. People in the upper classes can just as easily be indifferent to their own body, or treat themselves as badly, as people who don’t have the money. There are always differences among differences.
Guernica: Did you mean Helen to be representative of the way most American people think and behave now? Or is she a special case?
Lynne Tillman: I would never want to write a character who was not thoroughly herself or himself. She’s a very specific creature in my mind, and she has her thoughts, which range from skin to American history, philosophy, and the arts. I was trying to think about many ranges of consciousness, and how information in the broader sense is spread throughout one’s mind and life. How you live out what you know and don’t know. I wanted to think about the body more than I ever had. I wanted her to be encased in her skin and also to represent an interior world and the external world. Which becomes so prevalent when she goes to dinner. You see her differently, I think, once she’s with people and they’re talking to each other and she’s listening.
Guernica: And she herself was very conscious of what her mind was doing. She’d often start with a particular thought or opinion and by the end of the paragraph, contradict it. But somehow the supposed contradiction felt as real and honest as the initial thought. She didn’t use the word “progress.” But she was obviously trying to get somewhere. To find happiness, maybe.
Lynne Tillman: That was another thing I was interested in, this American belief that we can be happy. We are encouraged to believe this. To pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which is really an extraordinary concept. And a very strange quest. Why don’t we pursue contentment rather than happiness? Contentment, obviously, would be an absence of anxiety.
Guernica: Whereas the pursuit of happiness could cause a great deal of it.
Lynne Tillman: You know, I’m very interested in animal behavior, and the relationship of human beings to other animal behavior. Some years ago we had an ant infestation in our apartment. One night I came home and a wall was covered. Apparently a colony had found its way into our old tenement building from the backyard and crept in the walls. I thought I would faint. We got an exterminator to come in, but even so I would still see these ants. So I thought, “How can I cope with this?” I started to watch them, to see what they would do. Of course, they were going back to the queen. They were worker ants. That’s all they were, and their entire existence had to do with going to try to find a crumb of food. They would all come down in a line and give the queen the crumb or whatever and then they would go back. One thing—this was really fascinating—when they passed each other, they would usually touch. I asked somebody about that, and they said they’re sharing genetic information. I put something like this in a recent piece. About migratory birds and how they’re flying all the time in the pursuit of food.
Guernica: The mourning dove story, first piece in your collection.
Lynne Tillman: Yes. They have to get their chicks in the air and get back 12,000 miles. It’s a very hard life. And the ant life: that’s all they do is go back and forth. So if you think about human behavior—what makes us act differently? Bigger brains?
Guernica: We have expectations.
Lynne Tillman: And we have drive. But maybe it really comes down to an instinct to survive. People will do many things in order to survive. From murdering people, to Bernie Madoff stealing $65 billion. In some sense, this terribly warped man without any scruples, probably somewhere deep down thought he was doing what he needed to survive, as grotesque as that may sound. Somewhere over the rainbow he is a human being and like other human beings, he’s trying to survive. And now that he’s in prison—well, he seems to be adapting.
Guernica: Helen says regularly that human beings can adapt to anything. But she’s been in that institution several times, and she doesn’t seem to change. You get the feeling her mind is on the same obsessive track it’s always been on.
Lynne Tillman: I think about adaptation and change as slightly different ideas—we are generally forced to adapt. And change, the way Americans think about change—it’s often a form of volunteerism. “I’m going to diet. I’m going to the gym every day. I’m going to tell my boss off.” But, especially in the current state of this economy, people have to adapt. Not that they’re going to want to change, but they will change, and it’s because of conditions and circumstances beyond their control, which Helen often talks about. You’re born into things and situations that you have no control over, which to me should lead people to have greater equanimity—towards everyone. Life is unfair. As John Kennedy said, “Some people are sick and others are well.” That’s why I quote him in the beginning of the book. It’s an amazing thing for him to have said. He came from a wealthy, prestigious family, and he had Addison’s disease. He was in pain for much of his life.
The question about adaptation and change I see as being inflected differently in people’s psychology. But what I was thinking about a lot in the novel was how Helen wants to be rational. Part of her lying in bed, not going to breakfast, she’s talking to herself and saying, “Well, if I go to breakfast, this, this and this is going to happen. And, do I want that to happen?… But on the other hand, I’m hungry. Well, I could go, maybe I could get more food?” I mean, she’s trying to work through, like a little worker ant, how she’s going to manage the day and have more lofty thoughts, as well. So there was this notion of rationality: we want to lead a rational life, and we think about how to do this.
Guernica: Maybe we try to create a rational world because that gives us a sense of control or agency?
Lynne Tillman: Yes. And the last third of the book is about not being in control. The magician comes into her life, the irrationality of the séance. And yet she engages in the séance because some part of her wants it to be true. She realizes that her wishes are great—even if they’re different from what’s reasonable. I wanted to make that shift in her surprising. In the first two thirds she’s mostly imagining things or defending what happened in the day. Suddenly, in the last third, she’s in action. She meets that strange woman in the library, and remembers a bit of dialogue between them, and we get feelings about her from what she’s thinking. She realizes the woman could be thinking God knows what about her and be saying something else entirely. I was trying to play with all of these different strains of how complex human beings are, and how complicated our social arrangements are. How on any particular day you’re thinking all of these thoughts; but, you know, dinner is with everybody. Helen accepts that she does want to be with people. Human beings are social creatures, mostly. At some point, you want to have some kind of relationship to other people.
Another thing worth mentioning is unity. No Lease on Life takes place within 24 hours. In American Genius: A Comedy, let’s say there’s 12 hours. And then there’s a jump, about a week or a few weeks later, and I wanted to do that. I wanted there to be this gap. And time and space for the reader to imagine whatever she or he wanted.
Guernica: The repetition is what creates a sense of unity. Maybe you don’t feel the gap when you’re reading it because her mind is still circling back to what came before. And what keeps the repetition feeling fresh is the sequencing. The motifs are the same, but what changes are the thoughts that precede and the thoughts that follow, which change the meaning and the emphasis.
Lynne Tillman: That certainly was something I was conscious of trying to do. I’m just thinking about that in visual art, for instance. When something in a sequence is edited, if you repeat an image, but in a different place, the effect is different. Because the brain is remembering, and the different juxtaposition triggers other memories, thoughts, ideas, and so on. So I was interested in that, too. I was really trying to think about how we think, about how active thinking is in our lives, and how peculiar.
I recently saw a really extraordinary documentary about Einstein and how he got through the relativity theory. It took eleven years to prove his theory, and one of the things that they said about Einstein was that he could go into a room and think for hours straight. He would just sit in a chair, and he would think through an abstract process. Now that’s extraordinary.
Guernica: It’s amazing he ever got anywhere, just thinking.
Lynne Tillman: I remember having discussions with other writing teachers when I was at Bard’s MFA program about the necessity, or not, of finishing a story or poem. I argued that it was important to have students finish something. It was a necessity because, as a writer, if you did want something to be seen by other people, you had to finish it. You had to make decisions, and at some point, you had to live with those decisions. You have to force yourself, as a writer, to sit with a problem and try to resolve it.
When I was in college, I was really in bad shape. I was an English major, American history minor. But I was taking all my electives in studio art, which was great for me. There was just a different atmosphere in the studio art department. They were working artists. And the English department was so frozen. It wasn’t that I wanted to be an artist. But when I took my first drawing class with the painter Doug Ohlson, I could never finish a drawing. I remember one time we went to Central Park, and he wanted us to draw from life. You know, just anything in front of you. And I literally drew one side of a building. I couldn’t draw the other side. I never finished anything. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But they were sympathetic to me, I think, because I was this weirdo from the English department. The very last day of class, Mr. Ohlson came up to me and said, “How can I grade you? You have to finish something.” So he said, “Here, take a stick.” He took the pencil out of my hand. “Just do something with pen and ink.”
Guernica: And that freed you?
Lynne Tillman: Yeah, I was able to finish the drawing.
You could say this word is better to use than that word, this sentence is good and that sentence isn’t. But you don’t determine the value of your work for other people.
Guernica: Was your inability to finish a drawing related to the fear that, if you finished a whole piece, you would be confronted with the extent of your abilities? And you would be disappointed?
Lynne Tillman: I think it was that. Holding a pencil, I think, triggered this fear. The pencil was related to writing. I also couldn’t get my papers in on time, I think because I had this incredible anxiety that I was going to fail. On the other side, there was a delusion of grandeur that I could make the most brilliant thing in the world. I was absolutely caught.
Guernica: Anxiety is fascinating. It’s definitely prevalent in pretty much anything of yours that I’ve read [Laughs.] Do you think anxiety can ever be a good thing, a driving force?
Lynne Tillman: Well, it’s different from depression. In depression, you’re flattened. Your energy level is gone. When I’m anxious, I tend to have more energy. But it depends on the nature of the anxiety. The anxiety to finish something would seem to be more productive than the anxiety that says, “You’re feeling sick.” I think it’s very hard to reconcile oneself to the notion that it may not matter what you think if you still want to write.
Guernica: A lot of very accomplished writers admit to the anxiety of living up to their favorite authors: Beckett, Joyce. You’ve mentioned Edith Wharton and Henry James. Does your passion for them ever block your ability to write? Or do you kind of separate what they’re doing from what you’re doing?
Lynne Tillman: I try not to think about them. It’s not the writer who determines how good she is anyway. Writers don’t determine that. It’s readers who determine that. You could say this word is better to use than that word, this sentence is good and that sentence isn’t. But you don’t determine the value of your work for other people.
I remember when I was writing my first full-length novel, Haunted Houses, I was putting everything in it that I could, everything I was thinking about, everything I thought I knew. And I was writing in a particular style, I was trying to be tough as nails. I had this idea of presenting girls’ lives in a brutal way, writing a brutal book. I thought it would be apparent to everybody. People would see this and they would get it. They would get how special it was, or how it was treating girls’ lives in a unique way, or whatever. And it didn’t hit the world like a tsunami. It didn’t enter like Ulysses, you know, with people killing themselves over the brilliance of it [Laughs.] And it was very depressing for me, especially not even knowing that I was hoping for that kind of impact. So I learned a lot by having that experience. It was not a wonderful romance.
Guernica: It helped you let go of expectations?
Lynne Tillman: You try. I think many writers really believe that being published is a traumatic experience. A book coming out into the world can be a harsh, harsh time. And your feelings are on the line. Everything that publication is about is really not what your writing is about. Your writing is coming out of something else, and publication and being in the public are something else. And those of us who have published, in whatever way we’re published, are very fortunate. You know, it’s hard.
Guernica: Especially living in NYC, I imagine, where so many people are focused on awards, publications, fellowships, money—
Lynne Tillman: Well, I was very naïve at first. When I was writing Haunted Houses, I didn’t understand the power of prizes or the power of where you went to school or if your father was, you know, hooked up with so and so and knew the editor. I really didn’t think about it.
When No Lease on Life was nominated for a National Book Critic Circle Award in 1998—now that’s thirteen years ago—I was in the midst of finishing Bookstore and having a terrible time with my publisher at Harcourt, Brace. That was a nonfiction book. Then my editor for No Lease on Life called me and said, “Hey, look. It’s been nominated for a NBCC.” And I said, “Oh.”
Guernica: You were that out of the loop? You weren’t in the literary scene, going to readings and talking to other writers?
Lynne Tillman: No, I was. But I think it was the group I was hanging out with. There were a lot of visual artists. And writers, too. But somehow we saw ourselves as not included. I certainly wasn’t A-list, you know. I didn’t sell a lot of books. And I don’t mean this as a complaint because I was living my life and writing the books I wanted to write.
But in 1998, when I suddenly was nominated for this thing and was such a dark horse, I realized the power of a prize, of being nominated. And suddenly, it seemed I was on the map in a way that I hadn’t been. And I thought to myself, “I can’t believe how idiotic I’ve been about this stuff.”
People are less focused on the story, and more on how the story is told.
Guernica: Probably to your advantage.
Lynne Tillman: Well, I think in some ways. But then I realized, oh my God, I’m really making an impact. Everyone started treating me with more respect. And then since that period, it’s like a fall from grace, like being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. I’m much more aware now of how these things work institutionally. And also, that if you want things, you really have to ask for them. People aren’t thinking about you so you kind of have to put yourself in front of them. I’d always been of the belief that, if you deserved it, your writing would somehow just get to people.
Guernica: Well, Richard Nash certainly believes in you.
Lynne Tillman: He’s really the only one who wants me, so—I mean, he pursued me and so—it’s a marriage. A literary marriage.
Guernica: He’s a visionary.
Lynne Tillman: Which means I don’t understand anything he says. I just trust him.
It’s true you have to screen out a lot living in the city. I stayed away from New York for a long time after college, and when I was first back, I’d read The Village Voice and feel like I was having a panic attack. There was so much going on. I would think, “Well. I want to do that, and I want to do that, and I want to hear that and do that… I’m not going to be able to do all of this!” There’s this Navajo saying, “Wherever you are is the center of the world.”
I once wrote an essay about why people don’t read fiction. Because it is another world.
Guernica: So few people read fiction, but so many people try to write it. You must get tons of submissions as the fiction editor of Fence.
Lynne Tillman: We get a lot. My feeling about fiction now is that there are many different kinds of writing being done. People are less focused on the story, and more on how the story is told. When I’m choosing things, there’s a level of intelligence I want to peel off, whether it’s written in terribly simple sentences, whether it’s from the point of view of a dog, or a 15-year-old boy. Whatever the style is, I want to have a sense that the writer is thinking, and really trying to get at something, and that there’s a sense of discovery as the writing goes along.
Guernica: You once said that boredom is a form of dying.
Lynne Tillman: Yes.
Guernica: On some level, is this what drives your characters to behave the way they do?
Lynne Tillman: Can you give me an example?
Guernica: There’s the protagonist in “The Substitute,” who prefers her imagination to reality; there’s Paige Turner in “Love Sentence,” who chooses to analyze the concept of love, the word itself, rather than explore the experience of love; and Helen in American Genius: A Comedy, who obsessively tracks her own thoughts rather than interact with people. If boredom is a metaphor for dying— naturally they would distract themselves however they could to avoid this psychic pain.
Lynne Tillman: That’s a very good point. If boredom is a form of dying, then sure, she could be fighting the feeling that things are coming to an end. My friends and I sometimes laugh at each other that there is so much maintenance of a body. I paid no attention when I was younger. I remember years ago when I wrote the first Madame Realism piece. I gave it to Kiki Smith to do drawings for. I had a line in there, “She got her period monthly like statements from the bank.” And Kiki protested. She said, “It’s just not like that.” And I said, “Well, it is for me. It’s totally regular, and it’s no big deal.” And I think back on that and I think, “What hubris!” Now that I’m an older woman, I’m so much more aware of the changes—almost too aware. I feel sorry for being so dismissive. You have to think about what you’re thinking about and realize that you’re thinking it.
Guernica: You recently had a hip replacement. Has physical pain informed your work? It must have affected your writing, or your approach to a story?
Lynne Tillman: In a practical sense, pain kept me from sitting down as much, so that sometimes I would have to stand to write. Not that I would necessarily have gotten anywhere anyway. But it definitely set me back to be in so much pain.
I think it’s true that unless human beings experience something, they simply don’t understand what people are going through. Now that I am conscious of the world of chronic pain, when I see somebody walking down the street who’s having trouble, I feel a sadness for them. I notice. I’m very lucky that I could get a hip replacement. It’s extraordinary to go from not being able to walk more than a couple of blocks without painkillers, to walking three miles in Paris, when I was there recently to do a reading for Someday This Will Be Funny. It’s a miraculous operation, the way they do it. They’ve really figured it out.
Guernica: Your Madame Realism Complex pieces are fascinating. I guess people would call them art criticism or art essays, but I was really interested in how you were using the language of fiction to comment on visual art.
Lynne Tillman: There hasn’t really been much writing about Madame Realism stories that I know of. They came about out of necessity, which was an art critic was being asked to write about art, and I was very involved in visual art and film. To me, it was organic to be thinking about, “Well, how you write about art, but not write about. How do you write of or with? So I wanted to write stories. I think of them as stories. The ones I did for Art in America are more essay-like because I had to cover certain information. But I was also allowed to create, to have my character, Madame Realism, think in certain ways that were not part of what art criticism or art history would be doing.
She’s changed over the years. People have said to me, “Is she your surrogate? Your alter ego?” She’s not really. She’s a character. I was able to use the fact that I’m a fiction writer to create a character through whom I could talk about art in a different way. I don’t have the education of an art historian. I’ve certainly read about art and look at art and have educated myself to some extent. But I’m not a skilled or thorough art historian and I wouldn’t call myself an art critic. But visual art is very important to me, has been for a long time.
Guernica: I cared more about her and her mind than I cared about the art she was talking about. Is that wrong?
Lynne Tillman: [Laughs.] No. I don’t know.
[Reality] isn’t simply the so-called world that you’re in. Your reality is a much larger one that takes in all matter of identification and desires and hopes.
Guernica: There’s the likeability question—Francine Prose lambasts anyone who complains that a character isn’t “likeable.” She says it’s not necessary and it’s kind of irrelevant. How do you feel about this likeability question?
Lynne Tillman: Again, human beings are complicated. There are lots of unlikable characters in literature. It doesn’t mean they’re not fascinating. I don’t think anybody says to Coetzee or Dostoyevsky or Kafka, “Your characters aren’t likeable.” It’s not about your character winning a popularity contest. That’s not the writer’s job.
Guernica: What is the writer’s job?
Lynne Tillman: I wouldn’t say it’s anything in particular. There are just too many kinds of fiction and nonfiction. George Eliot or Henry James. Why are we still reading them? It’s because reality isn’t simply what one lives. Reality is also how one experiences life. It isn’t simply the so-called world that you’re in. Your reality is a much larger one that takes in all matter of identification and desires and hopes.
Guernica: What you imagine is just as big as your reality.
Lynne Tillman: Oh, absolutely. Reality is a very curious construction.
Guernica: I recently read this quote by David Foster Wallace, that fiction should “help readers become less alone inside.” I was wondering what you thought about that.
Lynne Tillman: I think it’s very touching that David Foster Wallace said that, given the extent probably of his great loneliness. That he wanted to help other people when they read his books, to be less lonely. As a reader myself, which precedes my being a writer, of course, I read in order to enter another world.
Guernica: So not necessarily because it made you feel less lonely.
Lynne Tillman: I don’t think so. You learn to read in kindergarten or first grade, and suddenly there’s this other world that isn’t your family or your school or your friends. It’s something else. You have a relationship to the book. Reading gave me great comfort and pleasure. When I started being able to write, around seven or eight, I wanted to be able to do that myself, to create that other world. I remember writing about Charlemagne when I was eight. I wrote one essay called “Man of Peace,” and another called “Man of War.” [Laughs.] I loved it. I was doing something, but it really wasn’t about me anymore. Sometimes being a writer interferes with reading, if only we could always read like that.
Guernica: Do you tend to deconstruct whatever you’re reading to see how it’s put together?
Lynne Tillman: You’re just much more conscious of what the writer’s doing.
Guernica: It’s hard to let go and just be in that magic.
Lynne Tillman: I’m trying to get back to this other way of reading.
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