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Interview by Carol Shields with Harvey De Roo
SOURCE: "A Little Like Flying: An Interview with Carol Shields," in West Coast Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1988, pp. 38-56.
In the following interview, Shields discusses genre, form, and her writing process as they relate to several of her works.
[Roo:] You display a good deal of formal versatility in your writing. You have published poems, short stories, novels (and a film script within one of them), and are working on a play. What dictates your choice of form?
[Shields:] This question of form! I am, to tell you the truth, more indifferent to the boundaries between literary forms than your question indicates. Recently I went to Ottawa to sit on a Canada Council Jury and discovered, when we sifted through applications, that those writers who want to apply in a new genre (switching from poetry to fiction, play writing to poetry and so on) must apply in a completely separate, vaguely second-rate competition called 'Explorations'. I was surprised, since writing of all kinds interests me—the formulations of language. Who, after all, can distinguish between a novel and a series of connected stories? It is stunning, and distressing, to think of all the critical energy that has been wasted on genre classification. Is Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush a novel or a series of essays or autobiography or what? Does Daphne Marlatt write poetry or fiction? Where are we to 'place' the prose poems that are enjoying such a vogue right now, and doesn't that very term—prose poems—wink at our confusion? There is a very real sense in which each literary text makes its own form—certainly this is the case with Mrs. Moodie. Authoritative cultural compartments are puzzling, and I can't help wondering if people don't resent getting stuck in one form, and if the plays they eventually write will be analyzed for 'poetic' structures, or their poems for 'dramatic' voice.
Then you would argue there are no significant formal differences among genres, that you achieve the same thing(s) no matter what form you choose? That each presents no challenges or rewards peculiar to itself?
Well, literature has always been defined by separation, beginning with the division between the written and the spoken, and the genres of our literature—I'm talking about officially sanctioned Western literature—evolved separately, became hardened and set, and were accorded differing degrees of respectability and assigned specific spheres of substance. Conventional theory would have us believe that poetry is a more concentrated, more musical version of prose, that poetry pops off in our heads like a flash bulb, and prose like a steadily radiating incandescence, yet we can all point to prose that is dense and elliptical, and poetry that is sprawling, extravagant, deliberately diluted, serpentine. The matter of form is not really a writer's problem, but it may put a strain on readers' expectations; we talk about a poetry audience, for instance, and believe, without much evidence, that these rarified readers will bring to the text a degree of care unknown to the more forgiving fiction audience. I like to think that these categories of reader response are breaking down as rapidly as the boundaries between genres, and that this process has been accelerated by feminist writing.
Well, this is the point of thinking you're at now. But, since you have chosen to write in different forms, I'll ask if there has been a chronology to your choice of form which is significant to your development as a writer. And, more specifically, why you have published no books of poems since your two back in the early seventies.
My early writing—that done in my twenties—consists of about a dozen highly conventional stories, all of them forgettable. Oh, very forgettable! The short story wasn't a form that interested me much, but I didn't think I could write a novel until I had served some sort of apprenticeship in shorter forms. I know now how foolish this was, and when I began, very late in my twenties, to write poetry, it was because that was exactly what I wanted to do, what really interested me. I was, for about five years, enchanted with the making of these little 'things'. (I remember once reading an essay by Gary Geddes in which he called poems 'little toys' one carries around in the head—that was exactly what I felt.) It was exhilarating. I don't think I ever wrote with such giddy elation or revised with so much ardour. I was strict with myself too. As I finished each poem, I asked myself: is this what I really mean? (Oddly, this was a question I hadn't thought to put to myself before.) There was a second question too: does this poem contain an idea? I knew I didn't want to write poems made out of the lint of unfocused feeling; my reading of such poems had made me distrustful of the form. I wanted to make hard, thoughtful, honest poems like those I had discovered by Philip Larkin.
Years later I turned to short fiction again. I was stuck in the middle of a novel (Swann); I knew what I wanted to do with the book, but didn't know how to make it fly. I wanted to talk about art and culture, who gets to make it and name it, and how it becomes established. But who in my novel was to pose these questions? Surely one voice would not be enough. I also wanted the novel to be a kind of pocket that contained itself, a demonstration, if you like, of what it was all about. Well, it was going badly, and a friend of mine, another writer, Sandy Duncan, gave me some good advice. 'Why don't you just quit', she said. I did—it seemed I needed someone's permission—and the very next day began a novel that became A Fairly Conventional Woman. I went back to Swann after that, feeling I had found a way to solve the problem of voice, that I would need not one voice but a kind of chorus, and then, once again, I ran into difficulties. The novel had become a cluster of mysteries, and the trick was to get them all working together like a set of gears. How could I set this in motion? I decided to rescue myself by spending a year experimenting with different narrative approaches.
I had in mind about twenty short stories which would come from all sorts of imaginative angles, or slants. What a wonder it was to me to step out on to the page, uncommitted to a voice and unfettered by a design—and what an awful terror. But as I wrote one story, the idea for the next was already forming in my head. It was a little like flying, or at least like being a few inches off the ground. I tried hard to keep a loose hold on these stories and allow them to take their own shape. The resulting book, Various Miracles, did not, in fact, make use of all the narrative balls I wanted to juggle, but did open up my writing to the extent that I felt I could go back to the novel, that at least some of its problems could be solved. I suppose that writing year was like a mini-sabbatical. I felt bolder for it, healthier. The range of possibility appeared dazzling—anything was allowed, everything was allowed. And I was so late in finding this out.
I met a friend one afternoon in a book store. We were both going through a bin of books, looking for something wonderful to read. 'But why are you here?' he said. 'You can just go home and write the book you want to read.'
It made me laugh, but he was partly right, I think. I am always trying to write the novel I want to read, the play I want to see, making the very thing that seems to be missing from my experience. It's not just a case of 'wanting to do it better'; it's wanting to know whether it's possible. When I started writing novels in the seventies, I wanted to write the kind of novel I couldn't find on the library shelf. Where were the novels about the kind of women I knew, women who had a reflective life, a moral system, women who had a recognizable domestic context, a loyalty to their families, a love for their children? (Most of the novels written during this period were about women who left their families, who struck off in search of 'freedom', whatever that is.) The closest I could come to a world I recognized was in women's magazines, but the language was so eroded and the sentiment so false that these stories were unreadable. I knew it must be possible to look at the real lives of women. To be contemporary without being—God forbid—hip. And to be serious without being ponderous. I hoped, anyway, that it was possible.
I love theatre, but am often frustrated by the plays I see. There is in many plays a kind of dramatic exaggeration that I find uncomfortable (and, well, I just don't believe it, all that hurling of crockery). There is also a lack of intellectual rigour, and an easy dependence on mental aberration. Now why should this be? And, more serious still, there are surprisingly few plays about the so-called middle class, despite the fact that audiences for drama are overwhelmingly middle class. I suppose the plays I've written—including the one I've just finished—are attempts to find out if this kind of play is possible. Is it possible to make a play about reasonable, sane, articulate people talking about how they survive the life they're born into?
There doesn't seem to be much tidy chronology to my choice of form; I've drifted from one to the other, completing one thing at a time and moving on, finding perhaps a shifting of emphasis with certain tensions relaxed and others brought forward. Like most writers I am always thinking: what next? And then, more worrying: will there be a next? I do want to finish a half-completed book of poems. For a long time I believed I had forgotten how to enter a poem. It may be that I have.
You imply that experimentation began during the writing of Swann. But you had played radically with perspective before: Swann wasn't the first novel to see you write from a male point of view. In Happenstance you sustain Jack Bowman as the centre of consciousness for the whole book. Was that strategy adopted out of the sense that men and women are significantly different, that therefore writing from a man's perspective would constitute a writer's challenge for you, a woman?
I think I started with the opposite view—that men and women are more alike than we think, responding similarly to experience, but perhaps expressing those responses differently. The language of men and women has been differently conditioned, as we all know—by turns covert, self-protective, flamboyant, abstract, cryptic. These differences are fascinating, and a little frightening. But, of course, I knew I had only to write about one man, not 'man', and that lightened the burden of authenticity.
In Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman, Brenda and Jack, whether talking about history or friendship, are remarkably alike, but their ideas are embedded in different language patterns, so that they only seem to be irreconcilable. I wanted these two novels to be about people who loved each other, but who remained, ultimately, strangers, one to the other. The gulf between them is language, not belief, and since most resolutions are made in silence—I do believe this—they are able to find their measure of understanding.
What kind of perceptual and technical problems did crossing that distance between female and male languages present? Why did you want to cross it? What did you think you would gain? What did you gain?
Well, one of the rewards, compensations, perhaps, of being a writer is the freedom to leave one's own skin and see with another's eyes. Old eyes, young eyes, male eyes, blind eyes. Surely there is always some refreshment in taking a different perspective. The world is made new. I think about these things all the time. And, of course, I love to set up a narrative problem and work my way though it. The solutions—or partial solutions anyway—have a way of opening up fresh questions. There is real joy in this.
Why did you make Jack an historian?
History was what I found myself thinking about at that time—what is it? What is it for? How much can it hold? But in a sense all my books have been about retrieval from the past. (I owe this insight to an astute reviewer; I wish I could remember who).
Let's go to your first novel. Small Ceremonies takes the mystery of human personality and human exchange as its subject. Would that be a fair characterization of your work generally?
Yes. The mystery of personality and the unknowability of others. Otherness. Even if we were allowed to go up to strangers and ask the most intimate of questions—and how I would love to do this—we would still remain in a state of ignorance about their lives. And yet moments do occur, as we all know, when we seem almost to enter into another body and sense something of its essence. These random glimpses appear to have little to do with how long we've known someone or the nature of what we might reveal. In The Orange Fish there is a story called 'Collision' that deals (more overtly than elsewhere, I think) with one of those moments when the barriers between two people suddenly and briefly and mysteriously dissolve.
The usual subjects in your earlier novels are women whose primary reality is domestic, but who stretch outwards from their domestic centre, and claim an activity beyond that of wife and mother. How does that extension relate to their domestic lives?
I suppose I start with the assumption that everyone in the world has a domestic life. A bed to sleep in. A bowl to eat from. Walls and windows. Something to provide light. These things, which have to be secured and maintained, are comforting but they're much more than that. More than anything else they locate us in time and space. Perhaps domesticity's ubiquitous and essential nature is the reason it is missing from so much of our literature. In writing about women who had a domestic context—Charleen, Brenda, Judith, even Rose Hindmarch and Sarah Maloney—I had no intention of creating super-women who skillfully combined domesticity with a career. Domesticity is like breathing. It goes on and on. Most people do something else besides breathe—write, teach, quilt, something. I'm writing a book now about a woman who is a folklorist in love with a man who's a disk-jockey.
In those novels, husbands and wives have 'projects' which take them beyond their identities as couples and families. Judith's work as biographer, Martin's tapestry, Jack's book, and Brenda's quilts—how did you conceive of these different projects as they reflect these characters?
Judith is writing a biography, trying to see through some of that opaqueness of personality, and Martin, less tormented than Judith by human mystery, is dallying with forms. Jack's book is a joyless task, part of the career package taken on early in his life. His real calling is speculation, not writing; he is a man who is always thinking—this enriches his life but is not directly negotiable in terms of his profession. Brenda is luckier. She loves what she's doing. Her 'career' has evolved almost whimsically, though she is already feeling by the end of the novel some of the ways in which she will be rewarded or judged. I like to write about work, by the way, and wonder why we don't see more of it in our fictions. Anita Brookner is one of those writers who is careful to include the working life of her characters. And John Updike.
You are fascinated by language in much of your work. Small Ceremonies strikes the note, exploring many aspects—biography, novels (Furlong's, Spalding's, Judith's), anecdotal 'stories' (Judith's, Nancy Krantz's, Martin's, Judith's mother's & father's), letters, even Roger's thesis. What does this emphasis on language tell us about you as a writer?
I was surprised myself at how the people in this book kept trying to define themselves through different forms of language. The various texts and tales they bore seemed to say: 'This is how I see it.' I think about language all the time. Words. Their specific weight and connotative clouds. Language has always seemed to me to be a kind of proof of our spiritual nature. Some of the stories in Various Miracles, and also in my most recent book, The Orange Fish, are about the failure of language, the abuse of language, the gaps in language, and others are about the sudden ways in which language releases our best instincts by connecting us one to the other. For example, Kay, in the story 'Times of Sickness and Health' belongs to a Talk Circle. Barbara and Peter in 'Milk Bread Beer Ice' are brought together through the repetition of the title phrase. I hear a lot of talk these days about the new 'language-centred texts' and wonder what on earth is meant by this. Surely the best writing has always been language-centred.
Your first four novels make sets of twins: Small Ceremonies is Judith Gill's book, as The Box Garden is Charlene Forrest's; but they are sisters, and both books share their attempts to deal with a loveless childhood. A Fairly Conventional Woman is an exploration of Brenda Bowman and her view of herself and her marriage, as Happenstance is such an exploration of her husband Jack. In what ways did the second novels grow out of the first ones? How do they act as companion pieces to their respective predecessors?
The first two novels touch only tangentially, meeting perhaps only in the sisters' different ways of looking at their childhood and their mother. I see Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman (Lord, I hate that title!) as fitting together like a puzzle. Both Jack and Brenda possess a partial sense of the history of their marriage, and the irony of it is that neither realizes, and never will, how close they are in their formulation. Marking off their comprehended territory, teasing it through their separate voices, was the happiest writing I've ever done. (A Fairly Conventional Woman is my favourite book—perhaps I'm not allowed to say this.)
Of course you are! But you say you hate its title. Let me name one I love: Various Miracles. What relation does that title bear to the stories in the book?
In a curious way, we carry certain important ideas the whole distance with us. No wonder writers are accused of writing the same book over and over. We are—might as well admit it—preoccupied by particular ways of looking at the world. I have always been compelled, and comforted, too, by the idea of the transcendental moment, that each of us is allotted a few random instances in which we are able to glimpse a kind of pattern in the universe. All my books, I think, even the early books of poetry, try to isolate and examine those odd, inexplicable moments. The accidental particles of our lives, for instance, suddenly align themselves, bringing about illumination, clarity, revelation or extraordinary coincidence—which are in themselves reaffirming. I suppose each of the stories in Various Miracles hangs on this fragile faith. What is one to do with such moments? We seldom speak of them for fear of being misunderstood, and I am told that our language is poor in the kind of vocabulary these events demand. Nevertheless, they must be paid attention to. They are, as my title suggests, miracles.
These transcendental moments. In your earlier books, you present a fairly realistic picture of domestic life; but in the midst of it you sometimes give your characters such moments, which refresh them and bolster them for more normal times. There is the wonderful ending of Small Ceremonies, for example, or Charleen Forrest's rush of happiness in the subway in The Box Garden. Would it be fair to say that the most important move with Various Miracles was a decision to focus on such moments in life, rather than on the everyday which embeds them? And concomitant with that an escape from the constraints of plot?
I am endlessly interested in this idea of everydayness, what exactly we mean when we speak of ordinary life. In my story 'Soup du Jour' I've tried to come at it directly (more or less directly anyway). Ordinary life, depending on how we define it, constrains or frees us. I am not, to go back to your question, anxious to abandon the material we're embedded in, but rather to reveal it for what it is—necessary oxygen. But plot—now there's something I've never been good at and haven't much interest in but which I felt in my early books I had to provide. I suppose a narrative has to have a degree of tension, but I'm finding interesting ways of providing that tension that avoid the old, artificial rhythms of convergence, catastrophe and reconciliation. It seems to me we can only accept this cycle ironically these days, if at all.
Most readers would argue that with the publication of Various Miracles, a new author emerged, radically different from that other author called Carol Shields, who had written novels to that point. Would you agree?
The praise for my recent books has indeed been offset by a certain amount of casual disparagement of my earlier novels. What can I say? One, after all, has a certain affection for previous work; it seems natural to want to protect that work and to point out ways in which it has been undervalued. There are problems in my early books, but they did deal with serious subjects; I have never for one minute regarded the lives of women as trivial, and I've always known that men and women alike possess a domestic life that very seldom finds its way into our fiction. All four of my early novels have a countertext, too, which is only occasionally alluded to in reviews, a kind of mirror commentary, though it seems awfully pompous to speak in such terms.
Beneath the apparent story is an echo of art: biography and fiction in Small Ceremonies, poetry in The Box Garden. Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman have what I like to think is a fairly innovative form—broken time sequences, correspondences of voice and incident and interpretation. The Box Garden has a structural secret too—perhaps too well hidden, since no one's ever noticed it.
Language has been important to me from the beginning; every phrase has mattered, its shape and balance and resonance. What I have learned, though, in my later books is that I can trust the reader, that I can step off in mid-air, so to speak, and take the reader along. That I don't need to tie up all the ends quite so neatly. That it's okay not to be charming all the time. That I don't need to explain everything. Maybe it comes down to being older and braver. And having a few solid books on the shelf.
I suppose it sounds unacceptably naive to say I didn't know rules could be so easily broken. Part of this has to do with being a woman, especially a woman of my generation. Also, I was somewhat poisoned by literature courses in which we were required to dismember our texts—plot, setting, characters and themes—and I suppose I really believed that writers sat down with this kind of checklist. There was so much prohibition in my schooling. Fragments, for instance. No sin was greater than to leave a sentence fragment on the page. What a surprise it was to find that many of the writers I admired, Updike for instance, used them all the time and to great effect. I was scornful, too, of so-called 'experimental' writing. Bored to death by it. (Most of it really was boring, though I think we need a certain amount of avant-garde writing to keep us alert). But after The Box Garden I decided that I was going to abandon formal plot, and the next two novels were a lot more elastic.
And what else? Reading Russell Hoban. Reading Grace Paley and Angela Carter. Films made a difference, the way they can cut and jump. And reading a certain amount of postmodern fiction—much of it deadly and pretentious, but there were glimpses (William Gass) of new places one could dive from. And I had come to a place where I felt I could risk failing, knowing that I was not going to have an enormous audience anyway. I felt I would always be able to find a publisher—because this is important, after all. And I kept reminding myself that if I wrote the books I wanted to read, surely I would find a dozen or so readers of similar temperament. I wanted to try out a few things—write a one-sentence story, for instance (I never did, but did produce a one-sentence chapter in Swann). I wanted to try writing from a void, completely masking the narrator, but haven't managed it yet. Now I am trying to make a sort of hyper-reality jump and 'bending' tone by writing about love in a serious way. It's hard. When people ask me what I'm writing I find it hard to say I'm in the middle of a love story. I keep wanting to apologize or explain. It's ridiculous.
The epigraph from Emily Dickinson that you use in Various Miracles—'Tell all the truth but tell it slant': why did you use it? What does that mean to you?
In general, I distrust epigraphs, the pretentiousness they hint at, the free ride and borrowed grandeur. Nevertheless, I was unable to resist that line from Emily Dickinson as an epigraph for Various Miracles. Of course I have misappropriated her meaning. She was talking about going at the truth sideways in order to protect herself from truth's blinding brilliance. I am talking about approaching stories from subversive directions; my 'slant' involves angles of perspective, voice, and layered perception and structure. I'm interested in abandoning the old problem-solution story—what a setup it comes to be!—and the punishment of those smug advances in self awareness—'and then John realized …'. I like endings that veer off in strange directions, rising rather than falling, or endings that make sudden leaps into the future or the past, bringing about a different quality of oxygen altogether. And I like to approach stories from multiple perspectives, hidden perspectives, from the eyes of children, through objects even or a stumbled-upon phrase: 'Wendy is back.' What I like best is to set up a story traditionally (the title story in The Orange Fish, for example) then turn it upside down or take it into another reality.
Let's move back to titles—and their role in a book. You have said that the second part of the title of Swann—A Mystery—was your publisher's addition to the finished work, that it was not part of your own conception. Do you find the term useful? Does it give us any insight into the novel?
Titles are a problem for me. Strange; you would think that if you could write a book you could write a title, but with two exceptions—Others and Happenstance—the titles of my books have been the result of editorial decisions. My original title for Small Ceremonies was—but I can't even remember, it was so uninspired. The original title for Swann was The Swann Symposium. It was decided that this was too academic and would appeal to too narrow an audience. My publisher, Stoddart, added A Mystery to the title, and I have not been able to decide whether or not this was a good idea. (The American edition, published in July by Viking, has dropped A Mystery from its title.) I don't read traditional mysteries. I don't know the expectations mystery readers bring to their reading. Swann does have what I think of as a tinker-toy mystery, the disappearing manuscripts of Mary Swann, but the real mystery, the one that interests me, is the mystery of human personality and the creation of art, a question that pops up in all my books, even the two early books of poetry—the fact that art is bigger than those who make it, that it comes from unexpectedly common clay, and that its actual creation resists the analytical tools we apply to it. I've known writers to blink when reading their own books and to ask themselves: 'Did I really write this?' It's as though a writer enters a sort of trance while working, or, by working on a book over a long period of time, is able to draw into that work a multitude of selves.
Are you saying that some of your fiction is 'given' as well as 'made'? That it sometimes just comes from somewhere and you take it down?
I've never really had the sensation that my books were 'writing themselves', although ideas do seem to come my way quite freely. I have drawers full of notes and notions, and people are always passing on interesting observations to me. But I am very conscious of making my books, wrenching them into life. They are not, in other words, 'given' to me. I've never really known what I hear some writers describe—an effortless outpouring, as though a hand were guiding the pen.
Besides the chorus you needed to articulate the problem of art and culture you alluded to earlier, were you after anything else in dividing Swann into various voices? Did it give you anything you weren't expecting?
Swann was a difficult book for me to write. Twice I stopped and worked on other books, only to return to it later. I mentioned earlier the problems I was trying to solve, the kind of integration of parts I was hoping for. How was I to do this? I had tried various narrative techniques in my early novels, first person in the first two, third person in the third and fourth. Writing Happenstance gave me some experience in writing from a male perspective. Parts of Various Miracles made use of an omniscient story teller's voice. It occurred to me that the solution to my difficulty with Swann might be a highly schematic approach using a number of different narrative stances. The most interesting for me to write was the Frederic Cruzzi section which employs a sort of splintered omniscience—my own invention, I like to think: his life as seen through artefacts, friends, dreams, reports, letters, rhetorical exercises, a tour of his house, and so on. The different styles, the different perspectives carry the four main characters through a parallel time frame, and deliver them at the same moment in time and space. Why would I create such an elaborate scheme?—because I hoped it would give the book texture and insight and, ultimately, because it gave me pleasure to write it this way.
Why did you choose to end Swann with a film script?
At last the four characters in Swann came together. I felt at this point that I was watching them, that they had gone out of my consciousness, released as it were from my controlling hand. I was left with what felt like theatre, and so I decided to end the book with a play. It didn't work. It was too confining, though I tried all sorts of ways of shifting the scenery. The idea of a film script seemed to offer a good deal more flexibility, and gave me a chance, too, to nod in the direction of crime films. I worried that readers would have trouble reading a film script—I had never read one myself—but reasoned that they would find themselves at home in the text after the first few pages. I thought that perhaps a parallel situation might be my own reaction to watching films with subtitles; for the first ten minutes I can't stand it, and then, abruptly, I forget they're there. In some ways I think of the novel as two books, the film script being the second—an extra romp and an additional point of view, and demonstration, on the making of art.
Several reviewers have been unhappy with the ending of Swann; how would you answer their dissatisfaction?
A number of readers and reviewers had difficulty not so much with the screenplay as with my abrupt declaration that all the characters, including Mary Swann, were fictional. That surprised me since I had thought that the idea of fiction as seamless illusion had long since been put behind us. I suppose, though, I knew that some readers would be puzzled, and put out, by the screenplay. I thought it was worth the risk. Swann, after all, is about appearance and reality, about the whole nature of what is fictional, what is invented. I wanted to turn the whole novel upside down, inside out. I'm not sorry.
The question of person you mentioned a moment ago: when I read Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, I felt that the first person was perfect for stories that had so close a narrative focus in the main character. But the next two novels operate just as much 'inside' main character, yet are in the third person. What is the difference to you between first and third person narration? What strategies do they help to further?
I switched to third person in Happenstance because it felt too risky using the first person 'I' with a male character. And I found the switch oddly rewarding; I felt less trapped by voice; I could stay close inside Jack's consciousness, as close as I liked, but could also move him around more easily and bring to surfaces a measure of disinterestedness. On the other hand, there's something spacey and springy about using the first person, and I've found it's useful occasionally to start things off that way and then transpose to a third person.
Let's look at your most recent book. Do you see The Orange Fish as carrying on the experiments you began with Various Miracles? Are you working out the same sorts of narrative problems as in the previous volume?
Yes and no. The book doesn't fully reflect the range of my most recent work. I had originally planned to include seven less traditional stories, my 'little weirdies' as my friend Kent Thompson calls them. (Among them was 'Dressing Up for the Carnival', 'Soup du Jour', 'Dying for Love', and 'Reportage'.) I was going to make 'Dressing Up for the Carnival' the title story, in fact, then scuttled it when my editor, Ed Carson, didn't want that story in. For some reason Ed wanted this book to be more accessible. It wasn't so much that he didn't like these stories—he simply felt they didn't work thematically with the others.
I originally intended the stories in this book to revolve loosely around the idea of ageing—something I was thinking a good deal about at the time. 'The Orange Fish' was an attempt to enter a realm of reality in which age was not linear but rather the result of multiplication. (It surprised me that the story was read by many reviewers not as a fabulation, but as a sermon about materialism and that the couple were thought to be 'real' people.)
When I read the proofs for the book I realized that the theme of ageing had been rather lost, and that what the stories shared was a view of language, how it serves and also fails us. As in Various Miracles, there were certain 'experiments': in 'Hazel', for instance, I wanted to reproduce the chorus of voices in her head—her daughters, her mother-in-law, her best friend, her dead husband—that directed her life, but that gradually faded. (I think we all carry around with us a similar tape-recorded set of directives.) 'Fuel for the Fire' was an attempt to write a non-ironic story.
This change of plan and of title. We'll assume a title provides a way in to a book, and that a title derived from one of the stories is asking us to view the whole from the perspective of that story. So, why The Orange Fish?
Does the title serve the book? In a sense, yes. The eye of the orange fish is ultimately mysterious. Each of the stories, I think, draws mystery from some unlikely object or observation or phrase. The sign Milk Bread Beer Ice, the conch shell in 'Hazel', the blisterlilies in 'Today Is the Day'.) My favourite story in the book is 'Collision' because I think it relocates the whole idea of traditional plot.
When you write, do you simply have a story to tell, or do you have a technical problem you are setting out to solve?
There's always a technical problem, and, oddly enough, the problem, like a coat hook, gives me something to hang the fiction on. For example, I had originally hoped that each section of Swann would stand alone as a novella, and that the film script too would have an independent existence. This doesn't quite happen—everything leans just a few degrees on everything else—but it is the kind of problem that I like to play with. I have a hard time knowing what sets a piece of writing on its course. Sometimes it's just a word or a phrase, sometimes a problem or a puzzle. Often a piece starts with an observation, something odd, something surreal, the one thing that doesn't fit in. I remember once writing a poem about a man I saw who was sitting on his front lawn in front of an ironing board, typing. Another time I wrote a story about an elderly woman I happened to see, who was mowing her lawn, wearing a pair of terrible shorts and a man's hat. Another story came into being when I saw a sign in a hairdressers saying 'Karen is back.' Who is Karen, I wondered, and why is her return being announced to the public? I try to enter the story at the point that interests me most, and after that it's a question of 'piecing' it together.
How does this 'piecing it together' work? Do you have any principles of development that you follow?
I write it over and over, and each time it gets longer, thicker. I think about it while I do other things, walking, driving, shopping, cooking. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a new paragraph in my head. I have the very real sense when I'm working that I'm making something, and it is this 'making' that gives me such intense pleasure. I especially love rewriting. I love, in my mother's words, 'taking pains.' It's the first hacking out of the first draft that I find so painful, and the fear, always there, that this time it won't work.
You have said that the constraints of your domestic life led you to the habit of writing only a few hours a day. Has that regimen affected the nature of what you have written?
I'm an economical writer, doing a great many drafts, but with no large abandoned projects. I suppose this reflects the time and society in which I grew up. We were taught as children to be task-oriented, to finish what we started. When I started writing seriously in the early seventies I had very little time I could call my own. If I managed to catch one hour a day I felt fortunate, and I usually tried for an hour late in the morning before my children came home for lunch. I might also, on a good day, find an additional half an hour in the late afternoon to go over what I had written, perhaps even adding a line or two. The next day I started again. This was the way my first two novels were written, and they do feel to me today a little thin. Gradually my free time expanded, but I must confess that I'm not much more productive. I can do about two new pages a day and not more. I need to think about what I am writing, let it stir. I remember that one of my children once said to me, 'Mummy, why are you moving your lips?' I was of course planning my next scene. Writing.
Certain things in writing fiction are more problematical than others. But, as you develop your craft, you get the 'hang' of them; some of them become easier. Some, however, become more difficult. What changes have occurred in this regard since you first began writing fiction? What things are most challenging for you at the moment?
I'm trying right now to write a serious novel about love, love between a man and a woman, and have discovered that the language of love has been trivialized in our society and that the literature of love is more than a little fluffy. Lovers are silly people, childish, envied but barely tolerated. How am I going to make this love credible, intelligent?—that's the question I ask myself these days. I worry, too, about age, that certain forms of creativity are taken from us, and also the bravado to bluster our way into a new piece of writing. I worry sometimes that my love of style overcomes the substance of my writing. Sometimes I see clearly enough that a piece of writing is overworked and lacking in freshness, that it is in fact less than honest, and that I've sacrificed something important merely to make the words dance. I once wrote eight pages describing a hotel lobby, right down to the ash trays on the coffee tables—the most terrible kind of indulgence, like painting a fingernail over and over. I know I'm being dishonest when I start throwing in the names of wild flowers or the brand names of cigarettes. That's when I have to sit back and remind myself of what I learned when I was twenty-nine years old and beginning to write poetry. (It's not enough, it seems, to learn these things once—we keep having to repeat the lesson, absorbing it again and again and again) I have to stop and take a deep breath. And speak directly, sternly, to the words on the paper, and ask: 'Is this really what I mean?'
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