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…
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 interior doorways 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.
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.
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 Joséphine 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.
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.”
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.