Conjunctions:34 American Fiction: States of the Art

An Interview
John Hawkes was the mutual friend, the mutual mentor, who wrote me extolling the virtues of Joanna Scott’s first novel with that strange, beautiful title, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle. As usual, Hawkes was right, and the promise shown in Fading has been fulfilled with each new book. Over the years following that fond introduction, we’ve become friends, colleagues, comrades-in-literary-arms, and this interview—begun as an e-mail exchange—we completed over coffee in my apartment one late-winter morning this year.


 




BRADFORD MORROW: You have a gift for conjuring childhood consciousness, of depicting the many nuances of not-yet-knowing as it graduates toward knowledge. Tom, in The Closest Possible Union, and Bo, in your new book, Make Believe, strike me as completely realized children—not an easy triumph. We’ve known each other for a number of years, but I realize all I know about your childhood is that you grew up in Connecticut. Self-portrait of the artist as a young woman?

JOANNA SCOTT: I’ve come to think that the freedom I had way back when was really formative. Maybe this is just a story I tell myself, useful nostalgia, but it seems to me in hindsight that the freedom I had as a kid was extraordinary. My three older brothers and I were all half wild. Our only responsibility was to return home unharmed at the end of the day. From a very early age I could go and do whatever I pleased. And what pleased me most was to roam the patches of fields and woods in our town and pretend to be someone else. That kind of play gave me both a connection to the world and the illusion of escape. When my adolescent sense of dignity kicked in, I had to look elsewhere for that paradoxical pleasure. Books started to fill the space of play. At the same time, I’d plant myself in front of the television and watch the string of afternoon shows—Gilligan’s Island, F Troop, The Brady Bunch, I Dream of Jeannie.

MORROW: A personal favorite of mine. I wonder if that freedom to roam didn’t somehow translate into the freedoms you naturally claim as a novelist—certainly your forms are fresh with each new novelistic journey you take. What books seized your interest when you began to read? Can you trace influences in any of those early authors you most liked?

SCOTT: From the blur of my childhood reading I remember best my love of Tolkien, Burnett, Lewis Carroll, Harper Lee. But the odd sources I kept returning to, the books that puzzled and enlightened, were a collection of old English tales, the World Book Encyclopedia, and a musty copy of the Bible—New Revised Standard Version. I admit that by the time I got to Revelations, I was really confused. But I wonder if together these books gave me a sense of literary form and its endless possibilities.

MORROW: Just as your television shows seem mostly set in an imaginary other world, this childhood reading list really expresses a love of wordplay and invented language—Tolkien, Lewis Carroll.

SCOTT: Invented places, too. I enjoyed the distance and differences, the excursions to other worlds. Then I read Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. Go Down, Moses. I started writing what I dared to call fiction in response to Faulkner.

MORROW: What was it in Faulkner’s work that struck sympathetic harmonics in you? I can see a shared Gothic temperament, an interest in darker resonances in the individual personality. Certainly, an embrace of language as character, if you will, of form as content. Your geographies are different. What were the affinities and what was it in an inchoate winter that made her want to take that immense leap from reader to writer, witness to practitioner?

SCOTT: It is immense, that leap. I’d like to say I had no choice—at some point in our lives the ground opens up beneath our feet. But the propulsion came from Faulkner and his ability to make the murky private work of consciousness meaningful. Faulkner persuaded me that even the strangest, most confused impressions deserve articulation. I read “The Bear” and heard for the first time the sound and beat of thought. Then there’s the ending. That astonishing, wild ending. The squirrels in the gum tree. I wanted to write something that deserved such a finale. No surprise that I missed Faulkner’s humor and could do no better than bloat my sentences with commas and adjectives and sincerity. Luckily, I was introduced to criticism fairly early on. My first significant experience was at a party. The father of a friend wandered into our midst, found my notebook on the table, and opened it to the first page of one of my earliest attempts at fiction. He started to read it aloud. Just a group of teenage kids and this Mr. So-and-So in a room listening to the silliest, most overwrought prose ever written. Line after line—what howlers! We were all in stitches. It was a long, portentous paragraph about a storm. Now it might seem this guy was being a little unfair, exposing me to ridicule that way. But I was happy to have my aspirations.

MORROW: You clearly survived this first encounter with criticism. Who were your earliest encouragers? I know that John Hawkes was an inspiration and a mentor.

SCOTT: In college, at Trinity and Barnard, I found my support in a few wonderful, idiosyncratic teachers, who helped steady me through those wobbly years. Later, at Brown University, I worked with Robert Coover—a famously tough, precise, passionate teacher—and I started to feel more at ease with the whole process of writing. He taught me how to use a computer (this dates me—I’m talking about life back in the Dark Ages), and once I learned the block-and-delete command I saw how liberating revision can be. Then John Hawkes returned after a year’s leave. Jack was a hugely important teacher. He was a great comedian, a great writer, a devilish critic, a kind reader. He was—or pretended to be—endlessly perplexed. His complaints about a piece were cast as bafflement and comic misinterpretations. And yet I could hear the ring of truth in Jack’s misreadings. With the last story I wrote for Jack’s class, I tried something completely new. I gave up my attempts at elegance and created a narrator, an old fisherman, who begins, “I will tell you exactly how it was one day …” And I meant it. That old man was going to tell it exactly how it was. But within a few words it became clear to me that his version depended upon his illusions, his bigotry, his habits and assumptions, and it took me many pages to explore this strange consciousness. When I was done with him I had my first novel.

MORROW: Your work is never evidently, plainly autobiographical—by which I mean to say that the old writers’ workshop maxim, Write only what you know, seems somehow irrelevant, or at least shallow. Egon Schiele’s life. The life of young Bo in Make Believe, whose mother was white and father black. The scientists and discoverers in Various Antidotes. The narrators of both Fading, My Parmacheene Belle and The Closest Possible Union. None of these relate in any easy way to Joanna Scott. What does this distancing mean for you as a writer? How do you research a boy such as Bo, his grandparents, his parents? What’s the process?

SCOTT: I’m tempted to say that anything I ever write is no more than an accident. The fundamental mystery for me in any fiction is located in the confluence of circumstance and character, and when I start a fiction I can’t know whether or not that confluence will be rich with mystery. I may have some plan in mind, but my plans usually don’t see me through many pages. Especially with longer works of fiction, I experience a whole lot of false starts. I get to a certain point when I’m writing a novel and find that the elements aren’t combining, mystery isn’t being effectively generated, and I can’t make the inflections of language work for me. So I start over. If I’m lucky I stumble upon a subject that generates a novel’s worth of wonder, and I keep going. I find that when the elements are strange to me, different and distant from my own life, the fictional concoction is more interesting. There’s more to discover when I’m writing about an old fisherman, Egon Schiele, a small boy, a Coney Island witch, a Dutch lens grinder. Maybe when I’m eighty-five I’ll write my coming-of-age novel. But so far I’ve been able to invent more freely, and generate more mystery, by working with subjects that are, at least on the surface, unfamiliar. The research I do—if I dare to call it research—is haphazard, done at a glance, really. We take in so much at a glance. I glance at a stranger in a coffee shop and suddenly I feel I have an entire new novel in my head. Or I see a little pen-and-ink drawing or am struck by some piece of an anecdote. I have to say I’ve grown a little suspicious of research. Writers need to find various ways to gather information, but we use the word research to describe that process of gathering, and the next thing you know, authenticity becomes the highest value.

MORROW: And yet Bo’s world strikes the reader as utterly “authentic.” Its authenticity—verisimilitude, to use the painterly term—doesn’t come into question during the experience of reading. Is this as much a function of the language used, then, prose itself, the form of the artifact, as it is of scenes and circumstances?

SCOTT: Think of Defoe calling Robinson Crusoe a just history of fact. Deception is a writer’s great privilege. We use language to create a world, a feeling, a character, and we can call it true. We can lie. We can counterfeit.

MORROW: A novel’s an authentic counterfeit.

SCOTT: Yes, and half the fun is in the pretense. We learn about the mind’s astonishing powers of logic and invention as we read fiction—or write. I do want to make something genuine, but I get squeamish when authenticity is used in a prescriptive way to define some definite accordance with life. As long as it can describe both Vermeer and Braque, Dickens and Beckett, then it remains useful. This is the back-route answer to your question about language. These days I find myself most interested in the inflections of words. Old words, dull words, strange words—everything short of nonsense can be inflected in new ways. A distinct fictional consciousness is rendered by the slight elongations of meaning, the twisted, unexpected nuances. And it takes some sort of fictional event or circumstance to give an energy to the words, to make them spring into action.

MORROW: This calls to mind the taxidermic menagerie housed at the Manikin, and the library afloat in the Charles Beauchamp—in different ways manifestations of the power of obsession to bring imagination to life. Indeed, obsession seems to be a linking theme in many of the novels and stories.

SCOTT: It’s true, I’m obsessed with obsession. Or maybe just mildly preoccupied. Or maybe it’s a major linking theme for many of us, thanks in large part to Poe. We’re imps of the perverse, we can’t help it!

MORROW: Which leads me to ask you about the Gothic. Both of your most recent novels are informed, it seems to me, by an increasingly Gothic sensibility, an interest in how the imagination (of children, again) is shaped by encountering mortality—be it in the form of the classic Gothic manse with its suggestive imagery, or the violent death of a parent. How do you see classic Gothic theory and form influencing your work? Who besides Poe interests you? I could swear I’ve heard Charlotte Brontë humming behind some of your Manikin passages.

SCOTT: A wonderful thought, Charlotte humming—but not without her sisters. All those ghosts behind the cobwebs. And all that great new fiction you and Patrick McGrath gathered in your Gothic anthology. What is it that’s so appealing about the form? It could be the possibility of giving weight to shadows. Raising the dead from their graves. But there’s a simple explanation for my interest: I’m infatuated with the Gothic in its nineteenth-century manifestation—with Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Brontë (Emily more so, though you’re right, I was thinking of Charlotte’s Thornfield when I was building and furnishing my Manikin), Godwin at one cusp, Hardy at the other, and on this side of the ocean, Melville, Hawthorne and Poe (his weird, weird Pym). Sometimes I think that contemporary writers can best be described by their loyalties to either the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Some are Sternians, and others Dickensians. The Sternians are endlessly witty and aren’t plagued by Dickensian sentimentality and melodrama. Sentimentality and melodrama—they produce great dreams and nightmares, unforgettable violence, madness, passionate love. But they also can look pretty silly on the page. Perhaps this is why nineteenth-century writers so often open their fiction with an apology, begging the reader’s indulgence.

MORROW: What kind of reader are you? By which I mean to ask, when you’re reading Melville or Dickens or one of the Brontë sisters, what is the experience—is it possible or even desirable to sideline the technician within who’s there to glean formal ideas?

SCOTT: I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s remark about reading George Eliot: “No one has ever known her as I know her.” It’s a wonderful feeling, a sense of privileged intimacy, that certain writers inspire. We have private conversations with people we’ve never met. But I don’t do much talking back, at least not during the first encounter with a book. On a first reading I’m watching, listening, savoring the occasional shock of understanding, gliding down the page, sometimes drifting lazily. It’s when I return to a book that I go with a pen in hand and try to decipher the method.

MORROW: Did you have the chance to visit the Nabokov centenary exhibit at the New York Public Library? I was mesmerized by his complex jotting, schema and doodlings in his copies of Kafka, Joyce and others. It was as if he read with his pencil, tattooing his way through the sentences, all but revisiting the compositional moment of scribing the words of his colleagues.

SCOTT: No, I missed that. I wonder if he’d have found Post-its useful. I do a lot with Post-its these days.

MORROW: Interestingly, Nabokov wrote often on index cards. So Post-its might have been right up his alley. If he tossed one up into a strong breeze and squinted, who knows but that it would’ve resembled a butterfly. Jane Austen wrote her novels on small sheets of paper. I remember seeing her manuscript of Mansfield Park, or Emma, at the British Museum—stacks of confiningly narrow fields of foolscap covered in her long, elegantly complex sentences. A paragraph might go on for pages. Everyone develops a composition method. Graham Greene’s five hundred words written patiently each day. Kerouac’s compressed writing binges. Marguerite Young developing her massive narratives over decades. What are your practices, rituals, your ways of working?

SCOTT: A wonderful catalogue of tricks and habits you describe. I like to sit by a window when I write, and I like to begin with pen and paper. The computer is a temptation, and sometimes I find myself starting a sentence on paper and finishing it on the screen. But I know I’ve had a good day of writing if my hand is smudged with ink from my pen. The method does change from book to book. I work hard to develop a sharper sense of what belongs and what doesn’t belong as I move forward in a fiction. It has to do with voice, with the logic of character. The rules of a text are implied in the first sentence, and then they become more elaborately defined with the next sentence and the next. Even if I don’t know as I’m writing precisely what rules I’m following, what the confines are, I have some sense of it, and that’s what I try to honor in revision. I try to keep following the governing logic of a text. That means deciding what sort of observations and metaphors are available to my particular narrator. What words, what exclamations, are out of bounds? Does my narrator eat lobster thermidor or pancakes? Does a certain passage deserve a long unbroken block of full sentences or a short list of nouns? I need readers to help me do this. My husband, Jim Longenbach, is my first and best critic. We’re constantly trading pages from our works-in-progress.

MORROW: Question at an oblique angle. Does the writer have social responsibilities in the work she produces, and outside that narrative textual work? I know you serve on the board of PEN, for instance. How do you see the writer’s relationship with her community?

SCOTT: I’m discussing Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” with my students later today—it’s an illuminating illustration of this responsibility conundrum. In Chekhov’s story, Ivan Ivanich tells his friends a story about his brother, who, late in life, is happy with his opinions and his gooseberries. The brother’s example enrages Ivan Ivanich, who can’t stand what he calls “a kind of universal hypnosis,” and yet he considers himself too old to engage in the struggle, as he says. He has, at best, a passionate sympathy—or so he thinks. By framing this sympathy in a fiction, Chekhov keeps the problem sizzling, and readers can’t help but consider their own silence and hypocrisy. The fiction is unsettling, like most great fiction. And it is ambiguity—a strange ambiguity—rather than polemics that makes it powerful. This is true for some of the great social realist writers of the nineteenth century—Dickens, Hugo, Tolstoy. Les Miserables, to take one example, is a truly strange novel, with the possessive, passionately sympathetic Jean Valjean at its center—a wonderfully mysterious center. But it’s not enough to blend passionate sympathy and ambiguity. Anyone writing today has to be keenly aware of our potential for moral error. When a writer stands up and declares himself a witness, a spokesman for the masses, I get nervous. A writer must respond to “the terrible things in life,” as Chekhov puts it. Usually, though, we can do no more than keep the problems visible, at least when we’re inside the fiction. When we’re outside, anything goes. Grace Paley’s a good model—complex satire inside the fiction, passionate political activity outside the fiction.

MORROW: A section toward the end of Make Believe begins with the phrase, “Imagine yourself looking up from the bottom of Hadley Lake.” And then, in Various Antidotes, the story “Nowhere” begins with a similar invitation, “Imagine a treeless landscape …” The challenge to the reader is to imagine with you—what is imagination? How are we to imagine?

SCOTT: I’ve just been reading Elaine Scarry on this subject and my thoughts are in a bit of a flux about this. I find myself especially interested in the limits of the imagination. This is one of Scarry’s subjects in Dreaming by the Book. And William Gass has that brilliant essay, “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” in which he describes the way readers imagine a character. He points out that we can only imagine pieces of an image. When we’re reading fiction our imaginative involvement is so piecemeal, so circumscribed. As readers we participate in someone else’s dream. But there’s something about the broken quality of that dream that makes fiction unique. A character in Anna Karenina enjoys the cold air against her bare shoulder. Tolstoy is directing us to consider this single sensation, to imagine Kitty’s shoulder—only her shoulder. It’s such an effective moment because it is limited. The most memorable images of fiction stand out because they are surrounded by darkness.

MORROW: Could we go through your novels and discuss the moment the idea for the book came into being? I’ve often found that the genesis moment, the personal circumstance, that prompts a narrative can sometimes have little to do directly with the novel’s outcome.

SCOTT: Every novel I’ve written has been prompted by some sort of unexpected encounter. It often happens when I’m struggling with another piece of fiction. Often without even knowing, I’m looking, listening, waiting for the right accident.

MORROW: You’re a place looking for an accident to happen.

SCOTT: Exactly! Which is what happened most recently with Make Believe, literally. A car overturned in the middle of the night outside our house. But the first novel, Fading, My Parmacheene Belle, originated in a story my husband told me about his grandmother. She was Pennsylvania Dutch, very neat and precise, and on the day she was going into the hospital for major surgery, she set out her husband’s suit for him to wear to her funeral. That suit on the bed—it’s an image with immense implications. In Fading I set out to explore those implications.

MORROW: Such as?

SCOTT: What would a man think as he stands alone in the bedroom staring at that suit? The single image became the prompt for the fiction. I imagined the tangle of emotions provoked by the image, and in the process of untangling the response, I started inventing a narrative voice.

MORROW: The Closest Possible Union?

SCOTT: I had begun a novel about a literary critic who wanted to exhume Ezra Pound’s body in Venice and bring him back to the States, and I was in the library stacks looking for information on Pound’s background. I was just browsing, really, and I came across a book about slave ships and slaving. I opened it to a random page and read an excerpt from a boy’s journal. He describes watching an African man being hamstrung and thrown into the ocean. His voice was so peculiar—he was an incredibly observant and yet uncomprehending witness. I decided to mimic that voice in my own fiction.

MORROW: Arrogance?

SCOTT: I was at the fin-de-siècle Vienna exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and I heard some people laughing at one of Schiele’s drawings, a self-portrait of the artist—a beautiful, grotesque sketch of the artist standing naked. The people were laughing, the man asking the woman beside him, Would you buy a used car from this guy? That’s a powerful kind of laughter, isn’t it? Arrogant laughter ‚inspired by contempt, contempt inspired by indifference, indifference a defense against the artist’s provocation. I went home and started reading about Schiele, and in my own arrogant fashion I decided I could write a novel about him.

MORROW: What I’m hearing here is that you reach a moment of personal availability to the coincidental, the happenstance, the unexpectedly pregnant moment, which has richer implications than might at first be apparent.

SCOTT: Right. We have to be ready to notice coincidence. Or else I’m just trying to give meaning to arbitrary experience. A few years back our neighbors put a stuffed deer out in their yard. A trophy from their last hunting trip. But I mistook the stuffed deer for a real deer. A beautiful white-tailed deer standing in the snow. I admired it through the kitchen window, I went outside and called to it, I picked up a snowball and threw it at the deer. And still it didn’t move. I picked up another snowball, and threw it, and it hit the deer, and it still didn’t do anything. That’s when I realized I was dealing with an imitation. It turns out that my hometown of Rochester was a center for taxidermy at the turn of the century, and we still have some of the country’s greatest taxidermists here. Taxidermy—it struck me as an irresistible metaphor. We kill life in order to create art. How could I not write a book about it?

MORROW: And Make Believe arose from a car accident?

SCOTT: A car overturned in front of our house in the middle of the night. I went out to help but couldn’t get the doors opened, and the windows were tinted so I couldn’t see inside. I thought for certain that the driver had been killed, since that side of the car had been flattened by the impact. It was a dark, damp night. The street was silent. The only sound was the car’s blinker—tick tick tick. As it turned out, the driver, the only one in the car, had been thrown into the passenger seat and wasn’t hurt. But I filled the car with my own story.

MORROW: There seems to be a common thread of filling something that had life in it before, but is missing its inhabitants. The eviscerated deer, the empty suit, the crashed car whose occupant has fled, even Schiele was not there to defend himself against the ridiculing laughter. And here’s the artist, ready to fill those empty spaces with fresh life.

SCOTT: That’s very intriguing. Maybe it’s that whispering in the dark we do.

MORROW: What would you have done if you weren’t a writer?

SCOTT: There was a time when I wanted to study rocks. There was a time I wanted to train animals.

MORROW: To do what?

SCOTT: To do whatever I wanted them to do, of course! And then there was a time when I wanted to be a photographer. In high school I worked with an ambulance crew and I hung out at the local emergency room at night. I wanted to devote myself to medicine. And I wanted to sing in musical comedies.

MORROW: Who are your contemporaries with whom you feel an affinity?

SCOTT: Both as writer and editor, Brad, you’ve helped to tighten alliances among a pretty disparate group of writers. I feel grateful for that sense of connection to these extraordinary writers. And then there are the contemporary George Eliots—the strangers I know only through their work, writers I admire immensely. Calvino, García Marquez, Sebald, John Berger, Rushdie, Gordimer, Ozick, DeLillo, to name a few.

MORROW: Do you have a sense of what a Joanna Scott shelf should look like at the end of your writing life?

SCOTT: I want it to look just like this table here. With a shell, and a stone, and a little turtle, and a broken glass hand, and a dagger. And I just hope that when I’m all done—whether it’s tomorrow, or in thirty years—that there’s some coherence to it. I can’t tell just now.

Joanna Scott is a MacArthur fellow and the author of De Potter’s Grand Tour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and The Manikin (Picador). 
Bradford Morrow is the editor of Conjunctions and the recipient of the PEN/Nora Magid Award for excellence in literary editing. He is the author of The Diviner’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and the fiction collection The Uninnocent (Pegasus Books). A Bard Center fellow and professor of literature at Bard College, he lives in New York City.