by Lucas Flatt
Joy Williams is the author of three collections of short fiction (Taking Care, Escapes, and Honored Guests) and four novels (State of Grace,The Changling, Breaking and Entering, and The Quick and the Dead) not to mention two books of nonfiction: her essay collection Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and The Florida Keys: A History & Guide, illustrated by Robert Carawan. In formal acknowledgment of her luminous standing as a true master of American fiction, Williams has been a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and has taught at the uber-prestigious Michener Center for Writers at University of Texas-Austin and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Donning aviator glasses, a serious Key West tan, and an intimidating, if quiet, confidence, Joy Williams took the stage at the 34th Annual Old Dominion Literary Festival as if she’d just wandered in from a beachside meditation session (and, perhaps, she had). As she gathered her manuscript and tested the microphone, some in the packed auditorium couldn’t help from exchanging knowing glances, for we knew full-well that something potentially devastating was about to happen to the uninitiated and unprepared. Williams noted that she would read some selections from an upcoming collection of numbered short-shorts (details below), and launched into various accounts of The Lord enduring our world’s little trivialities and annoyances. While other selections branched off into the lives of literary icons, sailors, and thoughtful wives, The Lord kept popping into the mix to provide insight, humor, and a hint of chagrin. Some in the audience howled with laughter; others seemed stunned by Williams’ irreverence. Either reaction, in retrospect, seems appropriate. Williams work is quintessentially stunning.
Since Williams eschews computer technology, we corresponded via snail-mail, and, in the nature of that medium, Williams’ insight bypassed the usual feeling-out or friendly banter of a literary interview. Though I cringe to do it, I’ve chosen to present our “conversation” in its entirety, since I dare not edit Williams even when she dashes my writing-student naiveté against the stony shores of experience. After all, as my editor pointed out, it is easy for writing students to get lost in theory and inchoate musings on craft. While we seek, with no little desperation, to articulate our own theories on writing in the hopes of unlocking a path forward to literary worthiness, we students and aspiring writers should count ourselves lucky that our heroes simply write. Glass-blowing aside, here is the interview:
LF: Your work, line by line, moment by moment, scene by scene, and story by story is the most surprising fiction I’ve ever read. By “surprising,” I literally mean I cannot anticipate what characters will do or say. How do you do it? Do you surprise yourself when you write?
JW: I was surprised once by two lines I wrote. That is, I laughed when I wrote them. There is a character in the story “Hammer” who has a pet beaver. It is said of him: “he’d rescued that beaver and they had a real good relationship. You broke bread with my friend’s friend and you’d break bread with that beaver.”
LF: “The Lover” was my introduction to your work. I’ve read it several times now, and every time the wildness of the narrative voice frightens me, and at the same time keeps me involved in the story. How do you find and evoke that “wildness?”
JW: Gordon Lish published that story when he was at Esquire. It was much longer and he cut cut cut. Hence, perhaps the voice. He’s considered controversial but I think he had great vision. I wrote “The Lover” before I learned the wonders of dialogue, so I was wordy and writing around my weakness.
LF: Your short fiction often features a dark tone, but you manage to keep the reader laughing as well. This is a difficult balance, especially for new writers. How often do you cut a funny line because it lightens the story too much? What do you feel humor brings to an otherwise dark story?
JW: Maybe humor is just a safety net, a looking away. A type of cowardice. A lot of the fiction written today is too madcap for my taste. Even Flannery (O’Connor) couldn’t get away with some of this stuff. Nor, of course, would she want to.
LF: What inspires you to make your fictive worlds places that are alarming? I’m thinking in particular of characters like Jenny in “An Excursion” who is so afraid, she fears birds will fly from her toilet. The effect is an insight into fear. How much of this is a byproduct of writing “fearlessly,” and how much is intentional?
JW: I don’t think my fictive worlds are any more alarming than “real” worlds which are heartbreaking and cruel and senseless. But, as George Herbert urged, the truth is you write the way you can write – to the need. It’s not a comprehension of craft that drives a writer’s best stories.
LF: Relationships between characters die hard. So also do safe or comfortable notions initially held by your characters. How important do you feel it is to maintain that sort of merciless approach to writing?
JW: You can’t be too fond of your characters. I’ve said this before. You try to save the animals of course.
LF: When you aim to bring characters together, instead of tearing them apart, how to you impose conflict on the narrative? From where should that conflict derive?
JW: I’m sorry, if I thought in terms of “imposing conflict in the narrative” I would just . . . expire.
LF: In the collection of stories you read at our Literary Festival, the character of the Lord took center stage. What made you decide to work with that character, and what has the process been in defining that character?
JW: I hear the Lord is catchin’ on in fiction these days.
My Lord has rather unexceptional desires and obligations. He waits in line at the pharmacy for his shingles shot. He hangs out with wolves and bats. He finally gets to drive in a demolition derby, though in this story the POV belongs to the pink Wagoneer he’ll be driving.
The Wagoneer recognized the Lord immediately and couldn’t fathom what this could possibly mean. In terms of herself that is, the Wagoneer. She had once had a happy life of dogs and children, surf boards and fishing rods. Oh the picnics: the driftwood fires: Then it had all been taken away.
And now this
LF: How would you describe this new project that contains those “short-shorts?”
JW: I got the idea from Thomas Bernhard’s 104 stories (The Voice Imitator). None of them exceeds a page and they’re all bitter and secular in that nasty irresistible, inimitable Bernhard way. So I tried to imitate him. The Lord makes no appearance in Bernhard but He appears frequently in my 94 Stories of God, most often cloaked and concealed.
LF: What was behind your decision to place characters like the quasi-paternal mystics in “The Lover” and “Congress” within a chaotic world?
LF: What draws you towards using riddles in your work? It would be terrific in you could answer in a riddle.
JW: I don’t believe I do use riddles in my work but this reminds me of a C.S. Lewis musing:
Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask – half our great theological and metaphysical problems are like that.
LF: Your story “Train” is reminiscent of Salinger’s stories “For Esme – with Love and Squalor,” and “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish.” How intentional is that?
JW: Certainly I wasn’t trying to channel Salinger here. I do like to write about drunks and children.
LF: Who or what are your enduring sources of inspiration? How much (if any) inspiration do you find in the fiction being published these days?
JW: Don DeLillo is a huge inspiration to me. He’s an extraordinary writer with stunning skills and integrity. He’s practically developed a new language for the manners and matters of our time, our fears and frights and fantasies. He makes the novel matter.
LF: Please describe the process you go through when working on a collection of stories.
JW: I don’t have a process. I’m not blowing glass.
LF: How much, if any, revision do you go through with your work? Do you revise as you go, or when everything is “finished?”
JW: Technically, I don’t revise. I mess around on a page until I have some decent sentences and then I type them up clean on a nice fresh page and continue. I never take apart a story after I finish and redo it. With my writing students I’m always asking them to rework things and add and subtract and it doesn’t seem fair. Revision is an honorable act and I just hate it. Kafka said something to the effect that writing makes everything clearer and worse. Revision often just makes everything worse.
LF: What are your feelings about technology: email, e-Readers, the internet? Do you feel that in the end these advances help or hinder the worlds of writing and publishing?
JW: My editor, Gary Fisketjon, tells me that in three years we’ll know.
LF: What’s something every serious writer should know – no-holds-barred, feelings-be-damned?
JW: It never gets easier. If you keep doing what you’re doing well you’ll get discouraged and your readers, if you have any, will get bored. You have to do something different, better.
LF: Final question: what was in the letter Mr. Muirhead eats in “Train?”
No one passing by –
Something like that. Though Mrs. Muirhead, the one who gave him the note, did not read widely and seldom in translation.
Lucas Flatt is an MFA candidate at Old Dominion University. He lives in Norfolk with his wife, dog, and cat.