My latest guest Joanna Walsh (@badaude) has been on my radar since she founded the high-profile #readwomen campaign in 2014, but it was only on reading her recent article on ‘self-writing’ in The Irish Times that I realised how many interests we share as writers and humans who happen to be women. The impression was confirmed by her new story collection Vertigo, in which glittering, elegant writing offers a fresh perspective on matters simultaneously familiar and under-explored. Despite its brevity (I’ll admit I wanted more!), it’s a powerful and articulate work of style and substance and one I’m fortunate to be able to discuss with the author today, amongst other things…
IC: You won’t be surprised to hear that I especially enjoyed the French flavour of Vertigo. What inspired this aspect?
JW: I’ve spent a fair amount of time in France, I speak French, and I’m interested in the gaps in meaning between French and the English language (or between languages in general, but English and French are the two I know). I’m also influenced by French writers, particularly Georges Perec, because of his varied approaches to writing, and the writers of the Nouveau Roman, especially Marguerite Duras, but also Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, because of their experiments with voice. I like contemporary French writers too, Marie NDiaye’s Self-Portrait in Green is a current favourite.
How would you describe the connection between the stories?
The Vertigo stories explore my concerns with women in social and family roles, with voice, and they are experiments with how language can be used to encounter objects and states of mind. I sent a whole load of my stories to Danielle Dutton at Dorothy, A Publishing Project in the US, because I’d read and admired Nell Zink’s debut, The Wallcreeper, which Dorothy had published. Not all the stories I write are like those in Vertigo, but Danielle wanted to put together the stories that seemed to fit, so we worked together on a final selection I’m very pleased with. They could all be about the same person, though they weren’t written with that intention.
Your aforementioned article in The Irish Times discusses the expression of personal pain in writing and its often deprecating reception if the author is a woman. Any honest examination of what Freud called ‘common unhappiness’ strikes me as an act of generosity rather than narcissism or self-pity. Is this something you feel compelled to do?
Putting yourself into your own work marks a willingness to encounter accusations of narcissism, challenging the way people (for me, women in particular) are expected to present themselves, but it is also a provocation about how books should be written. At that level, I don’t mind about negative reactions: they’re part of the friction produced the act. I had an argument with a (writer) friend about whether Chris Kraus was wrong to name Dick Hebdige directly in her autofiction I Love Dick (she wrote a first draft in which she used an alias, but when you have a name like Dick, how could you not use it?). Anyway, he thought Yes, and I thought No, or, more accurately for some reason it’s just not the issue for me. “I think that “privacy” is to contemporary female art what “obscenity” was to male art and literature of the 1960s…” said Kraus: the issue is the crossing of that boundary. I don’t think either of us satisfactorily solved the issue, and for that reason I think that conversation was quite important for both of us, or maybe it was only important for me and he came to an entirely different conclusion, and I’m giving our conversation a very personal reading, retrospectively…
(Nevertheless in my memoir thing, Hotel, I wrote about my marriage but decided not to name or otherwise specifically identify my ex.)
I like Sheila Heti’s defence of her use of her own life in her work: you can’t examine humanity ‘by looking at a toaster’, and what is more ready to hand than your own experience? On another level, I’m interested in artifice in writing: why do people make things up? Why do they want to split what they have to say between ‘rounded characters’ and put them in a ‘believable setting’, often following quite formal and established conventions as to how this is done, when what they really want to get across is something very personal.
I’m interested in playing around with what ‘non-fiction’ is and isn’t, which is something I’ve started to foreground more in my work (especially Shklovsky’s Zoo). I’m at the Cuirt Festival in Galway right now. I saw Tobias Wolff speak last night. He’s written both fiction and memoir, and declared his belief in a strong line between the two; that memoir has to be ‘faithful to your memory’ of events. I’m not sure such a definite break can be created: our memories are selective, stories we tell ourselves affected by the language we have to tell them, and the narrative structures available to us. Wolff has written a lot about lying, a whole book (a memoir) about how he faked his grades to get into a fancy school. It’s interesting that a self-declared ‘con-man’ is able to make such a separation… but maybe you can only lie if you have a strong belief in what truth is. As for me, I think that as soon as you write something down it becomes fiction.
What do you see as the biggest achievement of #readwomen to date? If you were granted a single wish to further that campaign, in the publishing business or the wider world, what would it be?
If I could further the campaign, I’d immediately conjure into being the prize I’m working to establish with a group of translators and academics for writing by women in translation. The current imbalance of contemporary fiction published in translation is over 70% male, a statistic the translation publisher, Chad Post of Open Letter in the US called ‘brutal’.
But on a more nebulous level what I’d really like to be able to do is magically cancel out that attention imbalance that mysteriously attends women writers (and I’m sure this happens in other professions) in some public situations. I was at a launch recently, talking to a group of guys I knew either not well or not at all. They didn’t really know each other either, so we should all have been in the same boat. First I did that classic thing of making a joke around something we were talking about: no reaction, ok it wasn’t that funny maybe. Ten minutes later, one of the guys made the same joke: huge guffaws. Perhaps it was nothing… Then one of them asked the others ‘do you guys work for [the publishing company launching]? And he really meant ‘guys’; he was physically turned as far away from me and towards them as was possible. None of the men asked me a single question about my work (and I had written for the publisher in question) or why I was at the launch. They didn’t even look at me. Maybe they thought I was someone’s girlfriend… It’s impossible to tell how much of this sort of thing is coincidence, and I’m sure it’s not intentional, but it’s pernicious and pervasive. What’s more it sounds paranoid to complain, and remembering and reciting the detail to ‘prove’ something happened is exhausting. I left, because I have published work, and I don’t have to hang around this sort of shit any more. But who knows what opportunities and contacts I might have I missed.
If #readwomen has achieved anything, I hope it’s a small counter to this sort of thing. It’s a very gentle intervention, that hopes to put women writers on a slightly wider radar. It’s little more than whispering their names in a crowded room, but if enough people whisper them, people will hear.
Tell me about a piece of writing that has affected you deeply. Or a few.
I’m afraid the books that involve me most are the ones that make me think, that’s amazing! How did the writer do that? I like to be dazzled by an efficient conjuror, but only in the service of a stunningly watertight and acrobatic argument (this could be fiction or nonfiction); by someone who is convinced that what s/he’s writing about is absolutely essential.
Thank you, Joanna, for joining me on the Literary Sofa for what could, I suspect, have been a much longer conversation. The way you talk about writing is fascinating – any thoughts from readers on these issues would be very welcome too.
Next week I hope to be revealing the gorgeous cover of my novel and an excerpt, and sometime soon, a post based on the locations and the favourite Paris places nominated in last week’s #parismonamour competition. Thanks if you took part – it was fun!