Seven Questions for Lynne Tillman

lynne-tillman

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I’m no specialist on the relative reputations of contemporary U.S. authors, but I would classify Lynne Tillman as “greatly underappreciated.” Over a long and fruitful career she has worked in numerous genres to numerous ends, the one underlying quality seeming to be, simply, quality.

Her latest book, a collection of short fiction called Someday This Will Be Funny, has just been published by Red Lemonade. (And, like all Red Lemonade titles, can be read for free on the website.) In one of the all-too-few reviews of this book to appear to far, Michael Wood at Bookforum opined

For all their attention to ambiguity, Tillman’s stories make impressions almost immediately. The titles of Someday This Will Be Funny themselves tell great stories: “That’s How Wrong My Love Is,” “The Unconscious Is Also Ridiculous,” “But There’s a Family Resemblance,” “Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful.” Some pieces feature inspired renditions of figures from pop culture and history, with characters including Clarence Thomas, Marvin Gaye, and John Lennon, all of whom are caught up in the intelligent melancholy that marks the rest of Tillman’s work. Other characters, named or not, remember old affairs, long for new ones, talk to their analysts, wonder about acts of so-called kindness, stay married in spite of (real or imagined) infidelities. They drink, make jokes, sometimes confront awkward truths, more often devise brilliant evasions of them. Quite often they write, clinging to sentences as if to memories or old friends.

This gestures toward the breadth and accomplishment of the pieces in this collection. For more on Tillman and what she does, I asked her a few questions about this latest book.


Scott Esposito: The first thing I’d like to ask is about the form of these stories. Most of them are very short, 5 pages or less. What were you trying to accomplish here? Or, to put it another way, what do you think can be done with this form that can’t be done with others?

Lynne Tillman: I began writing very short stories, so I’ve always done them. Actually, as a teenager, poems too, and I’ve recently been writing poems for my prose, like haiku. I like the intensity a short piece allows. I also love–more–the long form, novels, for how I can work with time and duration, and the development of consciousness over time, elaborating relationships, contradictions, playing with essays inside novels. The short form asks other things from a writer. More than economy, it demands the intensity I already mentioned, and there’s perhaps a different kind of attention and attitude toward time. We read with expectations, with history, other books and stories in mind, and different forms let you write with and against those expectations. There’s excitement too about starting somewhere and finishing fast.

SE: I’d like to follow up on this idea of very short work requiring a kind of intensity, perhaps having a particular creative space to fit into. Do you find yourself imposing certain limitations–like limiting revising–to maintain this intensity when you work with very short prose?

LT: I never impose that limit–I don’t see the point of doing that in writing. I’m not running a race against myself, though I am always testing myself to see if I can do better, but it’s not a race. More, I don’t think writing and writing again and changing and rewriting or revising are separate processes. It’s all writing. I don’t limit any of that. The intensity that I mentioned comes from what has to be achieved, said, written, in a shorter form.

SE: Given this intensity you strive for, do you find yourself using irony more in these shorter pieces than in longer projects? It seems to me that throughout this collection you get a lot of mileage out of unreliability, contradiction, and paradox.

LT: I think contradiction and paradox are inscribed in much of my work, though in shorter pieces, since there’s more compression, they may strike a reader harder or seem louder.

SE: Throughout the collection there seems to be a lot of appropriation, in different ways to different ends. I thought one side of it was summed up rather well by a remark you make in the story “Madame Realism’s Conscience” (itself a story that heavily appropriates quotes): “Jokes could be indiscriminate about their subjects, since the only necessity was a good punchline that confronted expectation with surprise, puncturing belief, supposition, or image.” My gloss of this is that this is a classic defense of a certain kind of appropriation that says sources only matter insofar as they are useful. Once a subject is appropriated into a joke, its broader connotations yield to the logic and goal of the joke–which is to surprise someone into laughing.

LT: It’s hard to separate appropriation or its strategies from language itself. Words name and describe things, words indicate, words are themselves objects, using words appropriates everything words have ever done historically, in a sense. I write about what’s around me, and how I see or experience or use it. About jokes, I have many thoughts. I like telling them, for one. I like being told them. I’ve used them most especially in my novel, No Lease on Life. There they were economical ways of representing what goes on in the city, what’s floating on people’s minds, what the current issues are. And, it’s the structure of the joke that counts–the film The Aristocrats demonstrated that beautifully; it’s among the best contemporary works on narrative I know, along with Tod Solondz’ Storytelling and Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass. Appropriation in visual art, as it was done in the 1970s on, emphasized what was always there–how art borrows from itself. Writing always borrows from itself. As Virginia Woolf said, “Books continue each other.”

SE: What you say about jokes strikes me as worth dwelling on since there are so many kinds of jokes in Someday This Will Be Funny (even the title implies that jokes are what unify these very different works). They range from the kinds of punchline jokes mentioned above to some fairly sadistic and elaborate practical jokes that verge on sociological studies. For instance, maybe the one in “Dear Ollie,” where a group of friends conspire to serve food artificially colored blue to one of their number, but act as though everything is normal. By the time they get to serving him blue milk with his coffee, he has stopped even commenting on the blueness. Since you mention your interest in structure, I wonder, do you see parallels between the different ways of telling a joke and the telling a story; The Aristocrats meets Exercises in Style?

LT: Parallels? I’m not sure. I was just amazed how many ways that, with a consistent beginning and end, the tale could be told and at the end I always laughed. It didn’t matter, the collision between the beginning, middle, and end inevitably was funny. Freud wrote about dreams and jokes in similar ways. I’ve stopped using dreams, for the most part, in my writing, and prefer to use jokes. They are little stories inside bigger ones that comment in uncountable ways upon what’s in the framing story, and the bigger story–what’s going on, as Marvin Gaye said. Jokes are sometimes offensive and do the job of saying the unspeakable in a permissible form. Someone’s disgusting, offensive joke is another’s way of letting off steam and not reaching for a gun. People need a place for ordinary sadism. Jokes allow for that. And also I seem to think funny and serious are often the same.

SE: I wanted to ask about your story “Love Sentence,” which I believe is the longest in the collection. It’s basically a collection of statements about love, many quoted from famous luminaries, and just as many made by your character, Paige. This story is a real treasure trove–you quote Derrida here as saying, “I can love the other only in the passion of this aphorism.”–and it has a great trick ending. All of these statements on love point to both the insufficiency and unlikely success of language. I’d like to ask, given your earlier response about appropriation, and given the grain of the story, do you see love, or related phenomena like memory, nostalgia, etc., as unique to the individual or more indebted to language that, frankly, comes from somewhere else?

LT: Romantic love is indebted to language. “The Art of Courtly Love” provided guidance for courtiers on how to woo. I don’t know that “romantic love” and “memory” are related phenomena, because memory functions differently, doesn’t it? Humans don’t learn to remember in the ways that people learn to love or to speak love. But the drive for sex is an instinct, in the way that remembering might be instinctive or at least built-in, for survival–like salmon upstream because they need to procreate and they “remember” the way. I don’t see how we separate individuals from the language they use, because individuals are constructed by language, so we’re also always social animals. Individuals take on culture and society through language. We “love” through language, we embrace ideas about love that aren’t only ours. We “need” from birth, need warmth, shelter, food, and all this before language. Humans have basic needs that get “civilized” in societies, and there are different customs for the same basic needs.

SE: In the final story in this collection you write “out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything. I know there will be stories. Certainly, there will always be stories.” Do you see the stories a culture tells as being the aspect of that culture that endures the longest?

LT: Years ago I read a newspaper article in the Wall Street Journal about scientists who were pondering how to let people far in the future know that a land area had been the site of buried radioactive material, unsafe for 10,000 years. Scientists knew they couldn’t just put a sign at the site, and think that future generations would see it. What if the sign was destroyed or taken down? So they considered the possibility of creating myths about the area to frighten off people hundreds of years later, people would pass on these myths. I don’t know if stories do endure the longest, but we still read myths that are cautionary tales and report human behavior in fascinating ways. When I wrote “Certainly there will always be stories,” I didn’t mean that stories would necessarily be relevant or that stories are necessarily positive elements or something to count on. To me, that line is deadpan and ambiguous. Stories may and probably will continue, but they could be awful and stupid and trite. There certainly are a lot of stories that do and say nothing.

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Has anyone found a link to the WSJ article that Tillman mentions, about creating enduring myths to warn people away from radioactive sites? It sounds fascinating!

Pam: I don’t know about the WSJ article, but John D’Agata gives (in my opinion) the definitive account of this venture in About a Mountain, which is an all-around great book.

[…] “I don’t think writing and writing again and changing and rewriting or revising are separate processes. It’s all writing. I don’t limit any of that.” At Conversational Reading, Scott Esposito chats with Lynne Tillman. […]

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