Thursday, December 4, 1997

An Interview with Rikki Ducornet


An interview with Rikki Ducornet, 

discussing her book The Word “Desire”



Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
December 4th, 1997.



The transcript of this interview appeared on the online version of The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine, accompanying a review of her story collection The Word “Desire.” I have somehow misplaced my copy of the original review.



The Word “Desire”
By Rikki Ducornet
Henry Holt, $22


Judging from stories like “Wormwood” and “Das Wunderbuch,” you seem really interested in the secret history of objects.

RD: What a beautiful question. Yeah, that’s a fascinating question. Nobody’s ever asked me that. And it’s right on. I think I have a theory about what I call potencies, that there are objects that evoke entire worlds and set us to dreaming. So for example, when I’m teaching creative writing, especially to undergrads, I have them think about the objects that were potencies for them as small children. Because they often are the things that will lead people into a kind of dreamscape and start them writing a story or writing a poem. So in The Word “Desire” I wanted to explore mysteries and fascinations and terrors of worlds steeped in history, and to evoke the dark beauty of such places. And of course objects can do that. An object can bring to mind an entire moment or an entire place.

Some of these objects seem to have parallels with certain humans.

These things happen organically always. You know, like I didn’t set out to write about Wormwood or about that book, but as soon as the world is in place and the characters begin to take off, it seems that objects such as those appear spontaneously, and they do say something about the characters. So Wormwood, which is a very obscene object—and it’s a conflation really of an object that my father owned, which was a plaster gargoyle, and some obscene little figures I’d seen in France—he certainly mirrors the grandfather and the kind of violence that’s being done to that child by the mother. And the Wunderbuch was very much a mirror of that narrator and her lost love, her lost world, because she never really has a love. Her love dies. And it’s also a kind of mirror for the rest of the book, with the Tree of Life, which appears in other places as well. And it’s a kind of little history of the universe in a pocket size.

It seems like these hidden histories are descents into smaller and smaller labyrinths.

Yeah, I’m very interested in space, the spaces in which we dream or daydream. And those spaces which also are potencies that haunt us. And indeed they bring us into ourselves deeper and deeper, so that you can, let’s say, engage the memory of a particular place, and almost, as with a pool of water, submerge yourself and go deeper and deeper. And that often happens in dreams as well. So that one in a dream will enter into a garden or into a chamber or a museum or take a forest path, or whatever, and that will maybe lead us into a darker and darker place or more and more convoluted areas or take us up and down stairways or open out into other landscapes or rooms that have been really interesting to us at one time or another. So, yeah, there are potencies in terms of places and potencies in terms of objects, and certainly books, and I think one of the things I wanted to do with this books was evoke the kind of mood that I get, the kind of mind-hunger that I’m susceptible to when I’m confronted with, for example, a maze of ancient streets or a very old book or very old house or very old object. And so that maze within a maze—it’s a literal maze. I mean it could be an architectural maze or a garden maze, but it’s also the maze of the mind. These are very interesting questions, because the outer world is always reflecting an inner landscape.

The character in “Roseveine” is interested in imaginary spaces. He invents different spaces in which to exist. This seems like the realm of the fiction writer too.

Uh-huh, exactly. It’s a very curious process. It was clear to me when I finished this book that I was really interested in evoking places that surprised me or enchanted me or troubled me somehow—moved me deeply, let’s say. So on the one hand, the writer’s evoked by a particularly potent object or place, and then the object is to evoke that kind of emotion in the reader. I live in a modern city. I live in Denver. And I’m someone who’s always been enamored of landscape—but also ancient cities. So I think, too, I wrote this book because I was longing for Paris or certain places—Cairo or Algiers, places I haven’t been to for a long time. I wanted to get back there somehow—or at least evoke the kind of mood that I’m susceptible to in those places.

The character in “Roseveine” is at odds with conventional reality…

He’s mad.

But is this a kind of comment on conventional storytelling modes?

I didn’t have that in mind. But I think I was thinking more generally of the imagination of the dreamer. This is more of a mirror of what creative imagining is all about. He was a curious character. He’s what you’d call in France a literary madman. And there were many of them. They were particularly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Well, I don’t know how popular they were, but there were certainly a lot of them around then. In part I think because of the Enlightenment and the fact that people were getting a glimmer of what scientific knowledge could be and started believing in progress, became fascinated by electricity, for example, but really understood nothing about it. So there were a lot of people, and he’s very much one of them—idealistic dreamers who are disappointed in the modern world or the approach of modernism and begin to dream of ways of escaping it. And of course he has a monstrous father, and I’m also investigating imperialism in various ways in the book. So there’s that too.

In “The Chess Set of Ivory” and in “Das Wunderbuch,” there are intellectual palimpsests that open up into rich worlds, and they seem like not-very-veiled comments on the riches in your own book.

Well, I’m very interested in books-within-books, which is something that I’ve got a lot of in my previous books and novels—there’s often a book-within-a-book or stories-within-stories. And indeed I saw the books in “The Chess Set of Ivory” and “Das Wunderbuch” as mirrors of the entire book. Or in “The Chess Set of Ivory,” those images in the book were little indications of what was to come into the stories. So again, they’re like little potencies that kind of light up. And then the Wunderbuch too—I originally thought I might call the whole collection “Das Wunderbuch.” Because I love the notion of the book of wonders. So yeah, that’s exactly what’s going on.

What I like in a lot of your fiction, like in the French-Arabic dictionary in “The Chess Set of Ivory,” is the disparate objects thrown together into a kind of salmagundi—the crazy juxtapositions.

Well, I was for years—and I still am, actually—but I was very active with surrealist groups, abroad and here. And of course that’s one of the great surrealist games, you know—Max Ernst’s collages, for example—bringing together disparate objects that take on entirely new meanings when they come together. And there’s also a mystical way of meditation, a Kabalistic manner of meditation, which involves skipping and hopping from thought to thought. The idea being that you bring disparate words together, ideas together, and you’ll break through the veil. You’ll see connections you have never seen before that will inform your notion of the world in some way.

Like wacky hypertexts.

Like wacky hypertexts. And I think that’s one of the fascinations of hypertext.

When people write about you, they often want to pin you down to your influences, which also seem like strange bedfellows. “Angela Carter meets Borges” is one that seems to come up a lot.

This is interesting, because with Angela Carter there are very clear connections, but the connections don’t come from Angela directly. I met her, by the way, because Robert Coover introduced us. He said, “You must meet. You both share a world. You both have so much in common.” And it was extraordinary, because it was true. And when we met we realized that the common ground was the books we had read as young girls. That we had both been crazy about the Surrealists, we’d both read Freud, we’d read Sade as young girls, Rabelais. I mean we had an amazing connection there. So indeed we did seemingly share a world. It was very exciting to be with her. It was like I had a real intellectual and—I don’t want to say spiritual—imagining friend there. Borges is something else. I read Borges first—oh, it must have been in my early twenties, and I found myself going back to Borges again and again. As I did to Kafka, who had been a tremendous influence on Borges. Borges translated Kafka, and I think a bunch of Borges’ greatest stories—they’re all great, but some of the greatest stories—came directly after the period in which he’d been translating Kafka’s greatest stories. So there’s a sort of double influence there. Without necessarily being aware of it, I just realized when I began to write that Kafka was a kind of grandfather figure. And later, with Borges, I became very interested in him and the idea of the labyrinth.

I like Borges’ idea that each writer creates his or her own precursors.

Yeah.

Like you wouldn’t think these authors—Kafka or Rabelais, or the other authors you’ve mentioned—would be connected in any way. But they’re connected through you.

Yes.

At the same time as you’re interested in the miniscule, the labyrinthine, you’re also interested in the exotic.

I think there are many connections. As a dreamy child, gazing into shells and seeds in my little microscope, the minute and the exotic were often the same. I was also a very nearsighted child, so that I did look at things very closely. And like the character in “Roseveine” who dreams of shells, I did dream of living in a shell, wanting to be very small and investigating these minute worlds. Or I remember having a favorite fantasy of becoming very small. You know, and again, this is Rabelais and Swift, you know—becoming infinitely small so that I could live in moss, and the moss would be like a forest.

A lot of these stories are set in mysterious lands, though. Why do you have to make them exotic, as opposed to in our own backyards.

Well, you don’t have to, of course. I think the exotic is everywhere, and one of the things I wanted to do was write about so-called exotic places responsibly, you know, and not just write about them because they are exotic. For me, the exotic—I lived in France for a very long time, and I lived in north Africa long enough too for it to become a real world, and not just an exotic place. Because I lived in Algeria for two years, and I lived as a child in Egypt for a year. And I became very intimate with those places, especially Algeria, because I was a young woman, and I was hitchhiking through the Sahara and spending a lot of time in very distant places. And I spent enough time there to have become intimate with those places. And one thing I wanted to do was finally write a story about those places, which is something I never did. Not because of the exotic nature of them, but because they were so mysterious and because they had been so troubled because of the war. One thing I wanted to do, and I hope I pulled it off with the book, was, by moving all over the world, convey the notion that there are infinite stories out there, infinite human stories out there. But also tip my hat to 1001 Nights, to the whole notion of storytelling. To evoke the wonder one feels looking at the Wunderbuch, or the wonder that another kind of crazy character, Vertige Dore, feels dreaming over maps of India—you know, to explore the exotic and what it does to our imagining minds. But do it responsibly.

I just thought the story “Fortune” was amazingly zany and cool. It’s narrated by Jos├ęphine Bonaparte’s dead dog, and I think this is exactly the kind of story that needs to be written now—a kind of antidote to all this post-Carver realism.

Hurray! Yeah, I think there’s this misconception that the so-called real world is as dry as toast. That that’s what’s real, and that’s what matters. And why should that be so? We are imagining, dreaming beings. We dream every night. We have constant reveries in our heads. And why are they any less real? And that’s why I think Robert Coover is such an important writer, for example, because that’s something that he engages constantly—the reality inside people’s heads. That’s why “The Babysitter” remains and exemplary, great story, among others. That’s why I love Borges and Kafka so much. It seems to me that they are revealing the workings of the mind.

I would say “The Metamorphosis” and “The Judgment” are more realistic stories than anything Charles Baxter or someone like that would write.

That’s because they’re psychologically so profoundly right on. I would agree with you.

The story “Opium”—you seem to have a pope fetish.

Yeah. The pope for me is the symbol of absolute idiocy. I went to Lourdes in France, which is a sacred place of miracles that people go to for cures. And they had these little wind-up popes. And I just took one look at that wind-up pope—it would do the sign of the cross, you know, if you wind up the key in its back—and I think ever since I’ve had a sort of thing about popes. And you know the story of the pope drinking human milk is based on a true story. So I read that and I said, “Oh my god. I gave to write about this.”

There’s this line in Saturday Night Fever where they’re talking about the pope’s asshole, and they say, “The pope ain’t got no asshole. That’s why he’s the pope.” It seems you’re amused with this kind of fear/fascination with holy bodies.

Yeah, because I’m fascinated by human foolishness. As I’m writing about the Inquisition now, a book I’m working on now—you know the early church, the Medieval church and Renaissance church, they were completely befuddled by these questions. “Does the pope have an asshole? Did Christ have an asshole? If he did, did he use it? Does Adam have a navel?” I mean, all these questions, I think they’re wonderfully funny, and a tremendous waste of time. But it really turns me on. It’s a sort of foolishness that a writer can have a lark with.

Like the idea that a saint’s body doesn’t decompose.

And of course, living in France I was living in a Catholic country, in a very Catholic part of that country, and there was a corpse not very far away of one of the saints that supposedly was intact. Of course it was completely covered in wax, and who knows what was going on beneath the wax, if anything else was left beneath the wax. And there was this persistent story that somebody’s head would show up in a junk shop.

You’ve read The Recognitions.

Yes.

All that stuff with the little girl who’s going to be canonized. And all those things where they’ll exhume a mummy and it’ll have a Navy tattoo on it or something.

I’m so glad you mention The Recognitions, because I think that is one really great book. And it’s one of those books that had a big influence on me, as a reader and as a writer.

There’s nothing like it.

And Gass’ Omensetter’s Luck—I read those two around the same time, and they both were tremendously important. The notion that one could take on anything, if one did it carefully.

I want to talk about your title story [The Word “Desire”].

Great. So many people misunderstand that story.

I gave a copy of that story to a friend of mine, and she called it “orgasmic.”

Wow.

It’s amazing to me how you can take one word and see how it illuminates an entire life.

Yeah. I began with that very sensuous opening image, and then by the time I got to the final sensuous image I realized that instead of writing simply an erotic story, which I thought I was doing initially, it was really a kind of erotic reverie, a philosophic reverie, on the nature of desire. And so as I began to examine the nature of desire, I began thinking about the word desire. And I guess I wanted to not only express the notion that we are desiring beings, which is in a way what the book is all about, and that part of being desiring beings is that we desire to seize the intangible world and hold it, but it always eludes us. It’s always slipping through our fingers like water or sand. And so the woman, finally what she recognizes is, in part, that all one can do is be desire itself, and to encompass the infinite faces of desire. So not only in terms of the infinite faces of the women that her lover might desire, but somehow that living itself is an act of fire. That we all are fire. I like the notion, too, that the whole book might be as well—that each story in its way contains many kinds of fire. You know, subtle, vaporous fires, pure, impure, penetrating, latent, flickering, igniting, whatever, and that the book, with all this sort of flickering going on, as though there would be a flame that would be sometimes cold, sometimes hot, but sort of moving throughout the book. Or like a serpent’s tongue, you know, flickering in and out, that there would be an incandescent moment that would end the book, so it made perfect sense that that story would also end the book, that a man would ignite in a woman’s mouth. I mean that would be a real act of fire. Indeed orgasmic.

—David Wiley




Thursday, October 16, 1997

Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut



A review of Timequake, by Kurt Vonnegut


Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
October 16th, 1997


Septuagenarian Stew


By Kurt Vonnegut
Putnam, $23.95


Some writers quit while they’re ahead. J.D. Salinger was one, having published four first-rate books before clamming up for good. And despite what most of his cult following will say, those four books are enough. Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, and Joseph Mitchell all share (or shared) Salinger’s prudent silence, choosing for some reason or another to keep their oeuvre tight and unmarred by decline. Too many other writers, however, just keep cranking them out. Look at Saul Bellow or John Updike or John Barth. I mean, really, who do they think they’re fooling?

And then there’s Kurt Vonnegut. Ya gotta love the old fart for keeping his old-school left-wing stance firmly planted in the American conscience, but let’s face facts. His fiction hasn’t been any good for at least a dozen years—and even that stuff wasn’t that great. His last really good book was Breakfast of Champions, and that came out in 1973. Since then it seems like he’s just been coasting, writing book after book of facile truisms and cute catch phrases. But he’s worn his decline fairly well, always making even his lesser efforts worth reading, if only for his crusty humanitarianism and his wacky take on the contemporary scene. It’s only now, with his final book, Timequake, that things get really depressing.

Timequake’s original release date was sometime in 1993, but Vonnegut couldn’t get it done on time. He ended up spending almost a decade on it, but as he writes in the book’s prologue, he ultimately found himself to be “the creator of a novel which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place.”

The premise is that the universe goes through a “timequake,” with everything and everyone stopping on February 13th, 2001 and beginning again in February 17th, 1991. Back in the ’90s, everyone finds themselves having to get back to 2001 the hard way: “minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, betting on the wrong horse again, marrying the wrong person again, getting the clap gain. You name it!”

Everything, including Vonnegut’s science-fiction-writing alter-ego Kilgore Trout, is stuck on auto pilot for a decade. And when February 13th, 2001 rolls around again, almost everybody’s stricken with Post-Timequake Apathy, not wanting to even move, much less take charge of their lives. It’s an interesting enough premise, with the timequake acting as a springboard for questions of divinity and free will, but Vonnegut just couldn’t take it anywhere. So what he did was compile the best parts of it and use them as the center of a freewheeling, jumbled mess of reminiscences, essays, and fictional sketches. Ultimately, what the novel ends up being about is not being able to write this novel, which fascinates in a postmodern kind of way, but it really just ends up sucking.

There are some real gems buried in the mire, though, and most of them have to do with the aging Kilgore Trout. As Cynthia Ozick does with her recurring character Ruth Puttermesser in The Puttermesser Papers, Vonnegut finally kills Trout off. And Trout goes out in style, with Timequake incorporating several of his stories and proving the out-of-print sci-fi writer to be a true prophetic visionary.

The book’s most amazing section is Trout’s story “Bunker Bingo Party,” an account of Hitler’s last hour with Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and family. In the face of imminent death, the Goebbels kids get out their bingo game and teach Hitler how to play, thus mercifully keeping the villainous thug at peace during his last few minutes.

This flash of brilliance may be one of Vonnegut’s finest moments, but it’s hardly enough to carry the whole book. “Bunker Bingo Party” redeems Trout before he dies, making Timequake seem like a requiem for Vonnegut’s favorite character, but what it ends up being is a requiem for Vonnegut’s own lost brilliance. So it goes.

—David Wiley

Thursday, October 2, 1997

Publish and Perish, by James Hynes



Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
October 2nd, 1997



By James Hynes
Picador, $24



Scholastic horror stories—why hasn’t anybody thought of doing this before? After all, what could be more terrifying than academia?

James Hynes’ new collection, Publish and Perish, comprises three novellas, each one scarier than a dissertation committee. The first story, “Queen of the Jungle,” tells the chilling tale of Paul, Elizabeth, and their cat, Charlotte. While Elizabeth is away at the University of Chicago, Paul has an affair with a flaky communications major, and Charlotte does her best to foil his dastardly plans for their family.

Sounds silly, and it is, but Hynes’ hilarious vision of academic life makes it stomachable. With Elizabeth schmoozing the tenure board at Chicago, Paul flounders on his unpublishable dissertation, writing such chapters as “Slouching Toward Minneapolis: William Butler Yeats, Mary Tyler Moore and the Millennium.”

The other two novellas, “99” and “Casting the Runes,” are successful in the same ways as “Queen of the Jungle”—and to the same extent. They’re all tightly written, funny, and scary as hell, but a horror story is still a horror story. Each tale follows a pattern of rising creepiness, with the reader figuring out if the protagonist deserves to survive, and then the climax passes final judgment on him or her.

It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but Hynes’ satires of academia can be breathtaking—literally. If Perish and Publish shocks at all, with its desperate doctoral candidates, disgraced theoreticians, and satanic tenure-dinosaurs, it shocks with recognition.

—David Wiley

Thursday, July 24, 1997

An Interview with Richard Ford



A cover-story interview with Richard Ford,

discussing his book Women with Men



Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
July 24th, 1997


U.S. Male
Author of Independence Day Returns with
New Collection Women with Men


By Richard Ford
Knopf, $23.00


Richard Ford’s last novel, Independence Day, was the only book ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award. A sequel of sorts to his novel The Sportswriter, Independence Day chronicled one long weekend in the life of Frank Bascombe, a real estate salesman. Ford has long been a champion of the quotidian, transforming the common experience of the average Joe into something uncommon—and in the case of Frank Bascombe, into something transcendent. Ford’s newest collection, Women with Men, revisits many of the concerns addressed in the Bascombe books, as well as in his remarkable first collection, Rock Springs. Comprising three long stories, Women with Men is mostly about men lost in their own selfishness. In “The Womanizer,” a man finds himself in a strange affair-like relationship with a Parisian woman, and in “Occidentals,” another man travels to Paris with his girlfriend while his estranged wife and child live it up in California. “Jealous,” the middle story, tells the story of a teenager caught—where else—in the middle of his parents’ recent divorce. The collection is drenched in divorce and middle-aged angst, which is interesting considering Ford’s enormous literary success and famously happy marriage. Ford explained some of the processes of how the collection came together when he spoke with A&E when he was in Minneapolis to promote the book.


When you were writing the three stories in Women and Men, did you plan for them to be all together in one book?

I intended to write a book of three long stories. I wrote the first two in 1991 and 1992, and then I took a five-year hiatus to write Independence Day. I kind of wondered when I came back to it if I could actually finish my plan. Because I knew I wanted to write at least two set in Paris. Actually, at some point I thought about having three in Paris, but then I wrote “Jealous,” and I liked “Jealous” a lot. It kind of dealt with some of the concerns and conceits of the other two, and so I did it that way. Like you do everything—you get an idea that you’re gonna do, and you see what you’re doing, and you see how it complies with the idea.

Your work is set all over the place, and you’re kind of a nomad yourself.

Less than are my stories.

Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

I consider myself an American writer. For me, the notion of being a Southern writer means some bad things—when I was young I thought that. It means you’re either writing about the South or you’re writing for Southerners. Or it means you’re the only person who can write this story because you’re a Southerner. None of those things do I really want to rope myself off into. I want to be a writer who can write about whatever my imagination finds and write for as wide an audience as I can. But I consider myself a Southerner. Hell, I was born in Mississippi, and I live in Louisiana. No surprise that I’m a Southerner.

The stories in Women with Men all have a similar structure, kind of like verses in a song.

Well, they probably do insofar as they are about people who are in quest of something. And through various kinds of solipsisms, various kinds of inabilities to understand the people around them, they end in calamity of some kind. So in a way, they are structurally similar. I think the moral, the proposal of each story, is that by being captive to our own preoccupations, we are disabled from having affection for others—affection that would save us. It would certainly make our life better. And also by being captive to our own preoccupations, we notice so much less. So many of the details, particularly the details of what is said to us by others, escape our notice. And we live then less expertly.

The stories all feature characters in crisis, but then you bring in outside violence that comes in to culminate things. Why?

Well, probably for both prosaic reasons and also maybe structurally integral reasons. For prosaic reasons, I probably have violence occur in stories because violence occurs all the time—to all of us. We sometimes think it can’t happen to us. But in fact it goes on happening all around us to people we care about and love and like. Irrespective of whether we experience it ourselves, our lives are shaped by a sense of the world affected by whether we do or don’t sympathize with others. In a more integral way, I think violence is probably in stories as a dramatic device, to basically up the ante of the moral consequences of the acts that these people are inexpertly carrying out. It’s a way of reemphasizing what are the moral consequences of solipsism, what are the moral consequences of not paying attention to others who are around us. So in a way I suppose it’s there for at least two reasons. Also, maybe a third way is the old Raymond Chandler axiom about when in doubt, have a man walk through the door holding a gun. He said that was always a device you could avail yourself of when you run out of ideas. And in fact, in “Jealous” a man does walk through the door holding a gun.

You seem interested by ordinary people in crisis. Why do you keep returning to this?

Well, I guess it’s because I don’t think of anybody as ordinary. One of my principal convictions about humanity is that if you look at people more closely, they become more interesting. I don’t mean that they become kings and queens in writ small. But I think we are better if we look at people who we might conventionally consider as ordinary more closely. So that’s probably why I do it. And it’s the way I’ve lived my life. I haven’t been rich. I haven’t been terribly well educated. I’ve had a rather ordinary writerly life. I come from parents who were working people, who never went to college. So where I see drama and important moral action arising is in the lives of people who you might conventionally think are ordinary.

A lot of your characters seem like failed versions of yourself.

Well, that may just be coincidental. They are certainly people that I have sympathy for. Surely it’s the case sometimes that I pluck up something out of my own life that’s a source of drama, no doubt about that. And they probably do, once in a while, share an event, share a perception. But I wouldn’t define them that way, myself. It isn’t necessary to know anything about me to read these books.

One thing that’s interesting about your characters is that they don’t ever seem to see the things you see. They’re blind to the greater picture you build around them.

That may just be the inevitable nature of all characters in relationship to their makers. Characters only exist through the particular details dedicated to them, whereas I—I have a past. I have the capacity to make them. I have necessarily a wider, fuller, more dynamic, richer view than they have. But it’s important that I not condescend to them at all. That I not heap opprobrium on them because of the fact that they know less than I do. If I can posit them as characters who know less than I do—which I think inevitably one does in writing characters—if I make something useful out of the character, something that is not just condemning them or ridiculing them, then I think that’s all right.

One issue that stands out is that you’re very sharp when it comes to racial issues, while your characters aren’t.

Well, they’re at least sensitive to racial issues, but they’re not probably as acute as I am on the subject of race.

I don’t mean to pigeonhole you as a white, middle-class male writer, but for that classification of writers, you seem to be one of the only ones who even knows that minorities exist.

Well, that’s certainly too bad if it’s true. I grew up in the apartheid South, and one of the reasons I left the South was so I could fill out my life, thereby including more people in it than society allowed me to include when I was young. So I think it’s only natural for me to try to include those people who I went forth into the world in order to try to care about. I’m disappointed that it might be that other writers don’t do that. But I am aware of what you say, that there isn’t a lot of writing about blacks by white writers. Some of it on my part is good-willed in one way and slightly skeptical in another. Issues of black America have become largely the province of black writers, and I don’t think that that’s a full enough airing of those issues. In order for American literature to truly mature, all these races have to be there. And I am as qualified as anybody else to write this. Not because I’m white, but because I’m a human being. And I’m not writing racially sensitive books. I’m just racially sensitive myself.

—David Wiley

Wednesday, July 2, 1997

An Interview with Cynthia Ozick


A cover-story interview with Cynthia Ozick, discussing her book The Puttermesser Paperswith a full transcript of the interview



Originally published in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine,
July 2nd, 1997


The Wizard, Ozick
Literary Magician Cynthia Ozick
Completes a Four-Decade Spell


By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, $23



Imagine a novel that took thirty-five years to write. In an age when writers become instant superstars and publish five books before reaching thirty, it’s almost inconceivable. But for Cynthia Ozick, age sixty-nine, half a lifetime on a book is just the right speed.

In the early 1960s, the young Cynthia Ozick (pronounced with the same vowel sounds as “Moses”) wrote a story called “Puttermesser: Her Work, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.” The story introduced lawyer and feminist Ruth Puttermesser, a character who would stay with Ozick for the rest of her life. Since publishing the story in The New Yorker, Ozick has revisited Ruth about once a decade, adding another chapter to what would eventually become The Puttermesser Papers.

“This was always conceived as a novel,” Ozick says, speaking from her home in New York, “but the labor of giving birth to the novel was extraordinarily gradual. I began it at age thirty-four. And how do I remember that very accurately? Because of the weird program I had for the novel, I smuggled my age into every chapter. … I conceived these chapters as a high point of each decade of her life, and the idea was to write the slowest novel in the world.”

Ozick included the first two chapters of the Puttermesser saga in her brilliant 1982 collection Levitation, which is where many readers got their first taste of Ruth. The first chapter finds Ruth working as a cog in the New York Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Although a dedicated city worker, she yearns for a more meaningful connection to history—a connection she ultimately invents for herself in her head.

It’s an amazing story, so complete and self-contained that almost any short story writer would be satisfied to leave Ruth where she was. But the second chapter, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” goes to an entirely new level of literature. A decade or so older, Ruth finds herself fired from her job by sinister politicos, so she retaliates by taking over the city. She achieves this by unwittingly fashioning the soil from her houseplants into a golem, a legendary Frankensteinish creature from Jewish folklore, that helps her fulfill her “Plan for the Resuscitation, Reformation, Reinvigoration & Redemption of the City of New York.” The golem helps Ruth run for mayor under the auspices of the “Independents for Socratic and Prophetic Idealism” party. And Ruth wins.

By creating the golem to help bring order to New York, Ruth mimics God sitting back in the celestial easy chair, declaring it all to be good.

“It goes way, way back to Genesis,” Ozick says, “where God creates man out of earth and blows a wind into his nostril. And Adam is made out of earth. In fact his name, Adam, means ‘clay,’ means ‘earth.’ So it really goes way, way back to the primordial infrastructure of the human mind—the idea that you can in a sense compete with the creator of the universe and create life. … This idea of creating human life out of nothing is just endemic in us.”

What’s even more fascinating about the story is that while Ruth creates, she is also created, which carries tremendous writerly implications. Ruth imitates God the creator, certainly, but she also imitates Ozick the writer.

“Puttermesser has made the golem,” Ozick says, “but the golem has made Puttermesser mayor, so who created whom? Writers write books, and it’s the fact that they’ve made books that makes them writers. It is a cycle. Your characters make you. You also learn from your characters. And you don’t know where they come from. You don’t know where they’re going. You don’t know even their voices when you start. And when you’re finished you feel very much added to—some new grains of being have augmented your own being because this stuff has come out of you. And then you’re different afterwards.”

At their zenith, Ruth and her creation, Xanthippe, turn New York into a kind of neo-Garden of Eden. But after a certain point, things begin to crumble. Like Milton in reverse, Ozick charts the rise and fall of humanity—as personified by a rapacious, oversexed golem—and even at its zaniest, the story resounds with deep pathos for our doomed race.

And if that weren’t enough, Ozick brings back the postlapsarian Ruth three more times. The third and middle chapter, “Puttermesser Paired,” finds Ruth in love with painter Rupert Rabeeno, whom she meets at the Met as he paints an imitation of The Death of Socrates. Rabeeno calls his works reenactments rather than imitations, but any way you look at it, he’s an imposter.

“I am really, really interested in impersonation—fakes and imposters,” Ozick says. “I’ve always been interested in the word ‘imposter.’ In fact, I remember my excitement as a child when I first came upon that word in a fairy tale. And I decided that my own father might be an imposter. And I tested him. Because my real father was the only one who knew the combination to the safe. ... The idea of impersonation is absolutely fascinating. And because, after all, it’s what every fiction writer does. You impersonate other people.”

But Rupert’s impersonation leads Ruth down a dangerous path. In lieu of sex, the two read to each other from George Eliot’s novels, and then from various Eliot biographies, and along the way Ruth slowly tries to mold her relationship with Rupert into George Eliot’s relationship with George Lewes. Their love for each other then becomes little more than a paper chase, an imitation of real life.

The tension between paper and life has been a central concern of much of Ozick’s work. Her 1987 novel The Messiah of Stockholm features a predicament similar to Ruth’s and Rupert’s, when a book reviewer falls into an all-consuming obsession with finding Bruno Schulz’s legendary lost novel, The Messiah. Ozick describes this fascination with paper as one of the controlling factors of her life:

“I think I once wrote a little tiny thing that might have been in a collection called Metaphor & Memory in which I said, ‘I do not like life. It interrupts.’ … Paper comes before life for me. And life does interrupt, and it torments me.”

So “Puttermesser Paired” can either be read as a cautionary tale—because Ruth gets burned in a big way—or as a triumph, because Ozick herself has created such a masterful work of imitation. Life becomes secondary, true, but who needs life when the story is so good?

The fourth chapter, “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” has been chosen for next year’s Best American Short Stories under a different title and in a shortened form. Which may be ironic, because it’s the least Ozicky of all the chapters in The Puttermesser Papers. There are no golems, assumed identities, or imagined histories here, just the tale of Ruth’s Russian cousin coming to America. It’s a great story, but it’s telling that the least fantastic chapter in the book would be the one chosen for mass consumption.

The final, chapter, however, is where the action is. In “Puttermesser in Paradise” Ozick finally knocks Ruth off and sends her to Heaven—at just shy of the Biblical age of threescore and ten. Lying in bed, reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, Ruth gets attacked, killed, and raped—in that order—by a ski-masked intruder.

“I always knew I would kill her off when she got to my present age,” Ozick says. “But I did not know that it was going to be this vicious, this horrifying.”

Even more horrifying is the Paradise Ruth finds. She’d always imagined it as a place of eternal reading and eating, but what’s waiting for her is endless ambiguity. Paradise for Ruth ends up being all things at all times—and all being as meaningless and self-canceling as the Solomonic vision of the world laid out in Ecclesiastes.

“All her life has consisted of almost hitting climax and then withdrawal or detumescence before truly hitting climax,” Ozick says. “Or let’s put it this way—climax and anti-climax. So though I did not know what her Paradise was going to be, it had to be consistent with the nature of her DNA. Her DNA is to dream, to imagine, to utopianize, and then to be struck on the head by reality.”

Ozick begins the chapter with a poem that purports to be “translated from the Akkadian” but which Ozick admits to having made up herself:


“Knit and unravel,
Commands the Gavel.
Do and undo,
Till nothing’s true.”


And that’s exactly what Ozick does with Ruth. Negating much of what we learned about Ruth in earlier chapters, Ozick writes her away “till nothing’s true.”

“I think this book as a whole is a mediation on mortality, on evanescence, on the ephemeral,” Ozick says. “It’s a little book about—not what Shakespeare means when he says ‘Ripeness is all,’ but just the moment after. … Because ripeness is all, but then the next step after ripeness is decay. Unless you devour at the moment of ripeness. But we don’t always get to devour at the peak of ripeness. … And therefore it may not be true that ripeness is all—it may be true that decay is all. And when you begin to think that decay is all, then you’re thinking about the human condition and mortality, which is the heart and soul of everything in our lives. It makes ambition. It makes tragedy. It makes comedy. Being the creature that is conscious, the only creature that knows our end… what is going to happen to us—no other creature knows it—that is why mortality dominates our lives and also makes us write. Because we’re writing against that doom.”

What makes this book remarkable—aside from Ozick’s outrageous imagination and astonishing prose—is that it actually incorporates the doom as it rages against the dying of the light. For Ruth there is a time to be born and a time to die, and Ozick funnels it all together into the same time and place. And even if nothing’s true, as Ozick writes, at least we have this amazing book as a testament to our struggle against  the meaningless doom.

—David Wiley



An Interview with Cynthia Ozick
by David Wiley
for The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine
Conducted June 19, 1997
Published July 2nd, 1997



How did The Puttermesser Papers come to be a novel?

CO: This was always conceived as a novel, but the labor of giving birth to this novel was extraordinarily gradual. I began it at age thirty-four. And how do I remember that very accurately? Because I smuggled my age—because of the weird program I had for this novel I smuggled my age into each chapter. So Puttermesser is thirty-four, and in the next one she’s forty-two or forty-six, I forget. And the next one I got a little cagey and called her fifty-plus. And the next one I got a little Biblical. As you see, I conceived these chapters as a high point of each decade of her life, and the idea was to write the slowest novel in the world. And I always knew I would kill her off when she got to my present age.

You were planning on this age?

Yes. I was going to kill her off before she hit threescore and ten, the Biblical age—just before that.

Could you talk about the chapters’ publishing history?

The first chapter was in The New Yorker. The second chapter was in Salmagundi. The third chapter was in The New Yorker. The fourth chapter was in The New Yorker, shortened and under another title. And under that title, it was chosen for the Best American Short Stories. And, I’m missing a chapter, I think. Anyway, the last one, “Puttermesser in Paradise,” was in the May Atlantic. “The Muscovite Cousin” was in The New Yorker—I’m going backwards now—under the title “Save My Child!”

“Save My Child” was in The Best American Short Stories?

It isn’t out yet. It’s next year—it’s basically an excerpt from the chapter called “The Muscovite Cousin.” That is going into I guess the 1998 Best American Short Stories, which includes the stories published in 1997.

Wasn’t some of that story taken from an essay in Fame & Folly?

I wrote a piece on Isaac Babel—I think it was called “Isaac Babel and the Identity Question.” And in there I wrote about the visit of a Russian cousin, a Muscovite cousin to me. And yes, I have to confess there is a relationship. But I also have to insist that fiction is fiction, and once this actual visit entered the world of imagination it was no longer fact. It’s very important to me that a separation be made from essays and fiction and that the essays never be used as a measuring stick against the fiction. I think this is really a kind of lethal thing to do to a writer of fiction.

How much of this did you have planned from the beginning?

The details I didn’t know, but I knew it was going to be a very slowly rising idea and that I was going to wait till I had the right formulation that would apply to Puttermesser, as opposed to some other fictions. And when some idea came to me—some fictive idea that I recognized immediately as “this belongs to Puttermesser,” and I waited for those moments. And I don’t think I really planned it to be one a decade, but it did more or less come out like that.

In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” you focus on the relationship between the creator and the created.

It is a very intriguing idea, as I clearly don’t have to tell you. It’s the kind of thing that makes—we have to think about Mary Shelley, naturally. And it goes way, way back to Genesis, where God creates man out of earth and blows a wind into his nostril. And Adam is made out of earth. In fact his name, Adam, means “clay,” means “earth.” So it really goes way, way back into the primordial infrastructure of the human mind—the idea that you can in a sense compete with the creator of the universe and create life. The idea of cloning, and particularly as applied to human cloning—it takes people’s breath away. I mean so much that Clinton said that we’re not allowed to do it in this country. He placed a moratorium on human cloning. This idea of creating human life out of nothing is just endemic in us. A lot of nature religions, like Native American—you’re in Minnesota, so you’re really close to this—Native American religions have the God himself or herself, the God or the Goddess, made out of earth. I guess it’s also related to the fact that things grow out of the ground, which, when you think about it like a visitor from another galaxy, is quite amazing. That you stick a seed in the ground and a tree comes up. And I think it’s all related to the sense of human wonder at the procreation that’s endemic in the planet.

What’s fascinating is that Ruth Puttermesser is also created as she creates. And that seems to have a lot of writerly aspects to it.

Yes. I see what you mean. Yes, that Puttermesser has made the golem, but the golem has made Puttermesser mayor, so who has created whom? Right—I think that’s quite true. Writers write books, and it’s the fact that they’ve made books that makes them writers. It is a cycle. Your characters make you. You also learn from your characters. And you don’t know where they come from. And you don’t know where they’re going. You don’t even know their voices when you start. And when you’re finished you feel very much added to—some new grains of being have augmented your own being because this stuff has come out of you. And then you’re different afterwards.

From reading The Cannibal Galaxy and other things, it seems like you’re fascinated with the tension between Hellenism and Hebraism.

Yes.

Could you talk about how this tension plays out in Ruth?

I’m not sure it is in Ruth Puttermesser. I’m not aware that she necessarily thinks that way. Do you see that?

Well, you give the golem she creates the name Xanthippe.

Well, actually you’re right about that. Yes, of course. Because it’s quite true that in Jewish folklore the golem is, as I expressed in that story, a sort of savior. And not an erotic creature at all. And it’s true that Xanthippe does turn into a Greek goddess of Eros or lust. You’re right, I simply overlooked that—a big thing to overlook. But, yes, she does turn Greek, because she does turn into Eros rather voraciously. And in that sense she’s Dionysian. And you know the split in the human mentality between Apollo, the mind, the rational, and the Dionysian, the, what shall I call it, the orgasmic—it’s really in all societies, in all religions. Puttermesser’s really on the side of Apollo and the rational. I mean it’s very clear. When she goes through the history of golem-making she’s quite interested that the chief rationalist of all, the Vilna Gaon, who was an excoriator of mystical movements that were rising up in European Jewish society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that this super-rationalist was said by folklore—merely a legend—but that a legend should rise up that the greatest rationalist of all should have created a mystical creature, this in a way comforts her. But she’s definitely Apollo. She’s on the side of rationalism, which means to be on the side of Hebraism, and not sympathetic to mysticism, and yet her creation turns Hellenistic, just as you said.

The third story, “Puttermesser Paired,” features an imposter, Rupert Rabeeno. It seems you’re really interested in fakes.

I am really, really interested in impersonation—fakes and imposters. You’re absolutely right. I mean you really have kind of hit a deep germ. I’ve always been interested in the word imposter. In fact, I remember my excitement as a child when I first came upon that word in a fairy tale. And I decided that my father—this is very glamorous, I thought—my father, my own father might be an imposter. And I tested him. Because my real father was the only one who knew the combination of the safe. So I tested my father, made him open the safe, and then I knew he wasn’t an imposter. And I knew I was, you know, acting out at the time. But you’re right, the idea of impersonation is absolutely fascinating. And because, after all, it’s what every fiction writer does. You impersonate other people. It’s also what actors do, but actors don’t make up from scratch what they impersonate, and writers do. I love the idea of impersonation. But I also have another theory about it, which has to do with the character of writers. I think if writers impersonate in life, then that is going in some way to contaminate them as writers. And I think impersonation belongs in fiction and that you shouldn’t do it in life.

Is there a little bit of Wyatt Gwyon [from William Gaddis’ novel The Recognitions] in Rupert Rabeeno?

What an interesting idea! I never thought of that. No, no. Maybe subliminally, because that’s one of my all-time favorite books. Yes, Gaddis is remarkable. He’s one of our most extraordinary contemporary writers. And The Recognitions is a great, great book, and I read it when it was new. I kept it with me and read in it and in it and in it. But not consciously here, and it’s quite interesting that you bring that up, because I have been tremendously interested in that book. But a long, long time ago, you know, when it first came out, and I haven’t read it since.

Rupert Rabeeno also seems to me like a kind of Gaddisy name.

Well, Rabeeno is really a kind of garden-variety Jewish name, you know. It’s a version of Rabinowitz without the witz.

Speaking of writers of massive novels…

Infinite Jest—is that what you were going to say?

David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann both cite you as an influence, especially Wallace. He says he has a painting of you in his house. This is kind of interesting, because you seem to revel in your obscurity.

Well, reveling in never going out of the house, for sure. If that’s what you mean by obscurity, having rather reclusive impulses, I do. I mean I do go out and sort of live a normal life, because—you remember Flaubert’s dictum, “Live like a bourgeois so that you can write like a God.” And that’s sort of related to what I said before about not impersonating in life—so that you don’t have to be a character or bohemian or weirdo in life because then it dribbles out and you waste it. But if you hoard it for the writing, and that’s exactly what Flaubert means in that remark. About influential—I have no inkling of this.

There’s a third-person essay in Fame & Folly about how you haven’t written enough and how you’re not important in any way—or I assume it’s about you.

“The Break.” Yes, that’s quite true. That is deep, deep autobiography, yes.

I think the two most interesting new writers working now are Vollmann and Wallace, and they love you. I just think maybe someone should tell you.

Well, thank you. It’s a little bit inconceivable and interesting. I’ve written—I don’t think it’s in Fame & Folly, it’s in an earlier collection—something about Cyril Connolly, and the beginning of that has a little autobiographical patch about the early years and a certain imprinting that happens to a writer who can’t get published in early years. And listening to you, I can see that you’re not only out in the stewpot, even in Minnesota, but you seem to be creating your own stewpot. And that is the most valuable thing a young writer can do. So you can have me as a horrible example of what not to do. And I’ve written about that—it’s called “Cyril Connolly and the Groans of Success.”

Did you want to say something about Infinite Jest?

No, I just had an instinct that you were going to mention David Foster Wallace.

Did you read it?

Actually, I have it on order. And there’s a big, big article about him—where did I read this—oh, in the New Republic. There’s a wonderful, long article about David Foster Wallace.

Infinite Jest is really wonderful.

Now I’m a little bit embarrassed to say that I only have it on order and haven’t read it. But you know when you’re trying to write fiction, there are periods where you don’t want to read fiction, particularly by powerful voices. Because, for me anyway, I can get to be a kind of ventriloquist.

Yes, it’s so hard to keep from channeling Kafka and Proust—and you. And Bruno Schulz. Thank you for Bruno Schulz, by the way.

Channeling—what a funny way to put it. It’s true. I think it’s the truest way to put it. Yes.

When I read The Messiah of Stockholm I thought either that Bruno Schulz was the greatest writer of the century, or else you were for inventing him. Because I’d never heard of him.

But that’s quite typical, and we really owe our knowledge of Bruno Schulz to Philip Roth, who in the Writers of the Other Europe series brought him to American, and really Western, attention. And so he is really the hero of these Eastern European writers. Particularly Bruno Schulz.

Did you read David Grossman’s book on Bruno Schulz  [See Under: Love]? It happened at almost the same time as your book.

Yes. It’s so interesting. An israeli critic from a Hebrew University called me, and he said “Do you know that there’s another book?” It hadn’t yet been translated, and it was still in Hebrew, and he said “There’s another book written at exactly the same time about Bruno Schulz.” So that was interesting.

From reading The Messiah of Stockholm and some of your other works, it seems like you’re really interested in cabalistic paper chases. Are you more interested in paper than in life?

I’m afraid so. I think I once wrote a little, tiny thing that might have been in a collection called Metaphor & Memory in which I said, “I do not like life. It interrupts.”

In another interview you told the story about how you were checking the page proofs for Trust in one hand and rocking your baby with the other. And you said you were a little shocked by the feeling that the page proofs felt more important than the life in the crib.

You know, that baby is now thirty-one, and she’s a professor of Near Eastern archeology, and she has a baby of her own. And I do see the difference, because she writes papers, she goes to conferences, and she’s, you know, your standard academic with a very heavy program at Penn State. She and her husband both are in this together, and they also took a four-month-old baby to a horrendous dig last summer. I tell you all this because you can hear from this that there’s enormous intellectual commitment, but I see in her a normality that I never had, which is that, with all this configuration of commitment, that baby is all. And paper is secondary. But you’re quite right. Paper comes before life for me. And life does interrupt, and it torments me. Very often. Most of the time it interrupts.

I’m deeply shocked by the novel’s last chapter, “Puttermesser in Paradise.” You knew she was going to die, but did you know it was going to be like this?

I always knew it was going to be a mugging, and of course that was in place in the very first chapter, with the kind of standard New York fear of muggers. I always knew it was going to be a mugging. I did not know that it was going to be this vicious, this horrifying. And that, really, is where the whole question of impersonation comes in, because in order to write a passage like that you really have to become that guy in the sneakers. You have to change your sex, for one thing. And you have to become deeply cruel and callous about life. And this is where Flaubert’s “bourgeois” comes in and my “anti-impersonation in life” comes in, because I would never murder or rape in life. But to do it in writing, I have to be candid, there is a kind of relish in making that happen and shocking oneself with how far one can go.

Are you glad she’s dead?

Yes.

Why?

Because it’s right. She culminated. She had her consummation, and she was always heading for Paradise. And all her life has consisted of almost hitting climax and then withdrawal or detumescence before truly hitting climax. Or let’s put it this way—climax and anti-climax. So though I did not know what her Paradise was going to be, it had to be consistent with the nature of her DNA. Her DNA is to dream, to imagine, to utopianize, and then to be struck on the head by reality. Because I think this book as a whole is a mediation on mortality, on evanescence, on the ephemeral. In that sense, it’s a little book about—not what Shakespeare means when he says “Ripeness is all,” but just the moment after Shakespeare gets to say that. Because ripeness is all, but then the next step after ripeness is decay. Unless you devour at the moment of ripeness. But we don’t always get to devour at the peak of ripeness, and we’re always just a little too late, so we come into the decay that follows ripeness. And therefore it may not be true that ripeness is all—it may be true that decay is all. And when you begin to think that decay is all, then you’re thinking about the human condition and mortality, which is the heart and soul of everything in our lives. It makes ambition. It makes tragedy. It makes comedy. Being the creature that is conscious, the only creature that knows our end, our goal, our aim, what is going to happen to us—no other creature knows it—that is why mortality dominates our lives and also makes us write. Because we’re writing against that doom.

That story seems to be deeply influenced by Ecclesiastes.

Well, I think everything I’ve said in the last few seconds is Ecclesiastes. I believe the human condition is tragic, because it is governed by mortality. There’s a famous piece of dialogue between two schools of thought, two first-century figures. One is the school of Hillel, and one is the school of Shammai. Shammai is a literalist, and he wants people to toe the line. And Hillel is tolerant, more easygoing, and much more understanding of human failings, and they’ve never agreed about anything in jurisprudence. You can divide them this way—mercy and justice—Hillel more on the side of mercy and Shammai more on the side of justice. They’ve never agreed on any matter that has come up before them. However—they did agree once on a subject. Shammai said, thinking over the whole trajectory of human life, “It is better not to have been born at all.” And it’s a very Buddhist point of view, actually, you know—getting off the wheel of life. Hillel thought real hard about this, and he saw the wisdom in it, and he did agree. But he added, “Yes, it is better not to have been born at all, but since we have been born, let us perform the commandments.” Namely, acts of conscience, mercy, and compassion. And unless we’re very attracted by Eastern religions, I think in the West our conscience is dominated by “but since we have been born, let us do acts of compassion.”

That story seems more nihilistic than most of what you’ve written.

Well, you know the little proverb, the little Song of Paradise at the beginning that says “translated from the Akkadian”? I made that up. That doesn’t really exist.

In the first chapter, Ruth imagines/invents her uncle. And later we find that she’s invented even more about herself that we’d taken as truth. Is she her own author?

That’s interesting. I think that’s a fascinating conceit, but I think that conceit belongs to a critical interpretation, not to the author.

I mean, it’s like you’re playing games with her existence, like there’s nothing definite that we can believe about her.

Yes—do and undo.

So what’s next?

Well, I’ve committed myself to a couple of essays. And the ceiling fell in, and it took six months of reconstruction, and before that I had begun a short story which I hope to finish very soon. It’s called “Actors,” and it’s based on my seven years in the theater. Somebody asked me, “What were you doing in fiction between The Messiah of Stockholm and The Puttermesser Papers?” And I had total amnesia, and it was very frightening to me, and then I remembered, “Oh, my God! Yes—seven years of two productions of a play.” And that taught me something about the nature of the theater and how evanescent it is and that it’s all ephemera, because it’s all on the side of experience. It’s on the side of life. It isn’t paper. So I really am committed to paper, and I did spend seven years of my rapidly diminishing span on life, which was the theater. But I wish it had been paper. Then I would have had another novel.

It was a play version of “The Shawl”?

There was a lot of confusion about that, because the producers insisted on giving it that name. It was not an adaptation, it was a sequel, and it was a political play. And in the out-of-town production it had a different name. It was Blue Light. And in the New York production it was called The Shawl. As I say, at the insistence of the director and the producers, and the director was Sidney Lumet, who came back to the theater after thirty-five years of being in movies and out of the theater. And that was kind of wonderful to work with such a distinguished and revered movie name. And Dianne Wiest played Rosa. And Mercedes Ruehl played Stella in the out-of-town version. And it was a marvel to be in that world for so long. But the play was, as I say, a political play. It was about Holocaust denial on one level, and on a more metaphorical level it was about the seductiveness of the devil—that the devil always comes with sweet talk. Also an ancient idea.

How different was it from “The Shawl”?

It used some of the same characters. It uses Rosa. Stella became the main character. But it was a sequel. It was not at all an adaptation. I wrote twenty-five versions of this play. And that took seven years—almost a decade of my life given away to something that isn’t here anymore, unlike a book.

There’s no printed version?

No. I haven’t been able to decide which of the twenty-five versions, and so I’ve kept it out of print. It’s so much a director’s medium, and the writer so much becomes an amanuensis of the director, at least of this particular director, that I don’t know if I ever do want it in print. I’m not decided.

For some reason, I’m having visions of Henry James being booed off the stage.

Well, in a sense it happened. Because the reviews in New York were very bad. They mostly concentrated on the director, not on the writer. But the play was sold out, both out of town and in New York and could have gone on and on for months, except that Dianne Wiest had another obligation. And the producers didn’t want to go on without her, because she was a very great draw, and so was Sidney Lumet. So I don’t know if it was the play, you know, or the glamour of these two Hollywood figures. Probably more the glamour of the Hollywood names. But there was enormous audience enthusiasm—standing ovations every night. It had its excitements. But the answer to the question “are you a paper person?”—the answer that I learned over seven years is yes.

Did the applause affect you?

It’s very exhilarating. It’s exciting. It’s extraordinary. I understood what Henry James was after. I had a little bit of it. Yes, it’s very heady. It’s champagne. There’s no question.

Can you tell me a little bit about your literary past, like what happened between OSU and Trust?

It’s all written about in the Cyril Connelly essay. Briefly, I can tell you that I read and read and read and read and read. And I was also writing another novel. I was writing a novel, which was going to be a vast philosophical novel. I wrote about 300,000 words of it. It was called Mercy, Pity, Peace, and LoveM.P.P.L. And my husband started calling it “Nipple” for short. And then I was making a joke that this is the nipple on which I sucked for seven years. It was like the Biblical wooing of Rachel and Leah, because seven years on Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love—that’s a line from Blake, as you probably recognize. And then I abandoned that, and then another seven years on Trust.

Do you still have a reward for someone who can finish Trust?

Yes. Actually, I met someone just yesterday, but in order to have this gold medal struck I really need evidence. And this person told me she had written a review and promised to give me evidence. So we’ll see. We’ll see whether this is just an avaricious person wanting gold. But I haven’t yet had to give anybody this gold medal. So I haven’t had one struck yet.

I love long, complicated novels, so maybe I’ll give it a try.

This one will daunt you, I think. Although in my secret self I know that I’ve never written that well since. I’m convinced of it.

I had always understood that you were unhappy with that novel.

I like it better than anything I’ve ever written. And I have to keep quiet about that, because it’s a deeply minority opinion.

Do you want me to print that? Because I won’t if you want to keep this to yourself.

No, no. You can say it. Of course you can.

—David Wiley