Art, Writing, and the Untellable: Douglas Messerli interviews Wendy Walker
Publisher and writer Douglas Messerli speaks with writer and artist Wendy Walker.
In the spring of 2013, Taylor Davis Van-Atta, editor of Music & Literature and an associate of 3:AM Magazine, wrote to Douglas Messerli, my old publisher at Sun & Moon Press, to ask if he would be interested in interviewing me. Douglas and I have been friends since 1983. He published my first three books, all fiction. Because we live on opposite sides of the country, the interview was conducted by email.
— WW, November 2015
DOUGLAS MESSERLI: Wendy, given the diversity and broad range of genres that your writing represents to date, it seems to me it might be useful to begin by discussing some of your youthful interests. If I remember correctly, in your university days you were involved with both art and theater. Might you describe these concerns? Did you have similar interests even in high school or earlier on? How did these interests develop?
WENDY WALKER: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing or drawing or making things, usually puppets. Making puppets was an early way into theater, in which I could control all the elements. It was the first visual/verbal art form that I felt comfortable in. Even when I didn’t write a play for performance, I was creating a character. Some of those characters helped me to imagine the excessive, sexually ambiguous connoisseurs I later put into my fiction, especially The Secret Service.
My main concern in high school was with mastering traditional poetic forms and writing essays, mostly about plays. I spent a year writing a long essay about Hamlet—for my own pleasure, not for school—convinced as I was at the time that I had solved the riddle of his character.
I spent a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is not far from the school I attended [Dalton], and I studied sculpture with an artist named Rhys Caparn, who had been a student of Archipenko. I spent a lot of time drawing and painting, as I found it necessary to balance all the verbal and analytical work of school with a practice that was physical and non-verbal, and I still do.
DM: Yes, I know what the Metropolitan means to you. One of the most revelatory visits to that museum I ever experienced was with you and your husband, Tom La Farge, where suddenly your comments revealed paintings, tapestries, and even armor to me in a way that I had never previously perceived them before. Your eye for details is remarkable, and the questions you ask are often startling. I kept feeling, “Why hadn’t ever thought of that?”
Did these same interests continue when you attended college? And how and when did this first begin to develop into writing full fictions such as your first novel (I want to say fantasy or romance, since it’s really not a “novel” in the formal generic definition.) I know you also wrote on art. Did this come before or after your turning to fiction? And how did that “turn,” if it was in fact a shift, come about?
WW: I wish we could visit the museum together more often, Douglas!
At Harvard I tried out some new interests, anthropology and art history. The art history stuck—those lectures were the only ones with a visual component, and so much easier for me to concentrate on. Since that was my major, I wrote many essays analyzing and comparing works of art. But I took the writing courses that concentrated on poetry, working with Robert Fitzgerald, the poet and translator of Homer. That again gave me a very solid grounding in traditional English poetic forms, and the history of versification, which taught me how English poetic speech evolved, and how the language works musically. I learned an enormous amount, but became increasingly dissatisfied with the small canvas of the poem, and what then seemed a very small audience for poetry.
DM: Still a small audience, of course!
WW: Meanwhile I had discovered three dazzling writers—Borges, Calvino, and García Marquez—who offered a prose as intense as any poetry. One day I was at a lecture on Genet when I suddenly understood that prose was the real poetry of the large canvas, and that that was where I had to try to go. I discussed this with Fitzgerald and he encouraged me to write some fiction. I was dissatisfied with what I produced, but the piece did contain the character who later became the Corporal in The Secret Service.
As for the practicing art side, I took courses at Carpenter Center in design and theater design, since there were no drawing or painting courses at Harvard at that time, and during the summers I attended the Rhode Island School of Design and Boston University’s art program at Tanglewood. I think it was over one of those summers that I wrote a story that I called “The Room of Boxes,” which later became the beginning of the dream journey in The Secret Service.
We could get into a long argument, Douglas, about whether or not The Secret Service is a novel. I think my fiction has to be seen as fitting into the European tradition more than the English or American one. If Calvino’s Invisible Cities or Roussel’s Locus Solus are novels, why not The Secret Service? Certainly it contains a “romance,” but Hawthorne called several of his novels romances so the precedent in American literature should be well established.
DM: Over the years of our long friendship, we have argued about just those generic terms, if I recall. But I’m not sure if such a discussion would be appropriate or even interesting in a more general interview centered upon your writing and life. Frankly, I’m not truly interested in categorizing any fiction. If Americans and the British want to call all long fictions novels, and continental Europe wants to describe all fictions as romances (Romans), that’s fine. The only problem I have is when such generic generalities get in the way of the enjoyment or understanding of fictions, such as those by Gertrude Stein, who utterly confused many of her early readers (and still does confuse readers today) by exploring almost every literary genre in both prose and poetry. Or in the case of Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood was dismissed by some for not adhering to what they perceived as the standard patterns of a novel or, even worse, those who sought to create an entirely new genre, like Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank, who attempted to create an entirely new genre, “spatial fiction,” to explain what he perceived as the abnormalities in Barnes’ and other writers’ works. Had he simply read Northrup Frye or other specialists in genre studies, he might have recognized that Nightwood, although not a “novel,” did represent a well-established form of fiction, the anatomy (or “Menippean satire”), as the author had even sub-titled her fiction on the manuscript’s original title page. E. M. Forster, moreover, found Tolstoy’s War and Peace to be a baggy monster because it didn’t fit into his notions of what a novel was. Dickens has always been a problem, finally, to novel-centric critics.
Today, when we call everything a novel, however, I suppose it doesn’t matter. But I find the “novel” a rather narrow box (if you agree with Frye’s definition of it) in which to put all of fiction. And, I think, this is a particular problem—or I should say delight—with/of your fictional creations, which purposely cross so many generic boundaries, and refuse to be pinned down.
Enough said. More importantly, what seems interesting to me in what you just said is how you perceived, at such a young age, that fiction could be (although it is surely not always) a kind of large canvas for poetry, since your works, no matter how one does or does not define them, must be described as poetic. How wonderful, moreover, that Fitzgerald was so willing to see you move away from what he was focused on. It’s also amazing to me that you were able to write a chapter from such a mature work at such an early age, particularly when I recall the junk I was writing at the same age. Can you describe a bit more in detail, how you came to the story of The Secret Service? That work seems more of a kind of writing that might have been created by a middle-aged Isak Dinesen than a young college woman. What was happening in your life that spun you into such a complex and baroque (in the very best sense of that word) fantasy?
WW: Well, to begin with, I have to say that I never thought of what I was writing as fantasy, but as the creation of a completely possible and probably true alternative nineteenth century. I had been introduced to some ideas about quantum mechanics, and it seemed to me that—I will not phrase this well enough for those who really understand physics—if an atom can occupy many points in space simultaneously, there must be an infinite number of co-occurring histories, some of them quite similar to the ones we accept as valid. If this is the state of things, then imagination is a perception of reality rather than an alternative to it. The other major problem I was trying to solve is the one of metamorphosis, how it might occur, physically, and then later on, what the result would be for consciousness if the subject transformed were human.
As for what was going on in my life, most of it consisted of the pain and frustration that make escape into books and art so necessary. After I graduated (in 1972), I put myself on a course of reading fiction and broadening my vocabulary. I made lists of words that were new to me, and I kept a notebook where I transcribed the sentences where I had found them, their definitions and etymologies. I was trying to write something every day, and sometimes I would take one of these lists and try to use all the words in a story. (I recently learned, from Daniel Levin Becker, that the Oulipo has a name for this procedure—logorallye.) One night in the fall of 1974, I sat down to do my stint, but I was having some pain, so I took what I found in the medicine cabinet—a pill for toothache—and then went back to my list of words. While I was putting down the first sentence I remember saying to myself, “If Kafka can start a story this way, so can I.” A couple of wonderful hours’ writing later, I realized I had the beginning of a book. So that was how the first chunk of The Secret Service came to be written, and a great deal of the plot is implicit in that first chunk.
A couple of things shaped that first chapter. One was my reading of Isak Dinesen and Djuna Barnes. Dinesen gave me some characters and a world of values, and Barnes gave me an example of what sentences could be. I also learned a great deal from a friend who had been a teaching assistant in astronomy and the history of science at Harvard. He encouraged me to read Giorgio di Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill, and answered many of my questions when I set about writing the essays that are embedded in the first chapter. As for the theme of subatomic particles, that was undoubtedly prompted in part by the fact that a cousin of mine, whom I had never met, Murray Gell-Mann, had won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1968 for discovering subatomic particles. He named one of them “quark” from Finnegans Wake.
DM: Through Charles Bernstein, I received the original manuscript of your The Secret Service in 1982, a work which, in hindsight, you suggested was not quite yet in its final form. I immediately loved the work, and, if I remember correctly, I accepted it rather quickly.
Sun & Moon, however, which depended upon grants and the limited sales of backlist titles, was always slow in its publication of books. I think we had originally planned for publication of the book in 1983; that same year you sent me another book, a collection of what can I only describe as the “delicious” tales, based on the Brothers Grimm, The Sea-Rabbit, or the Artist of Life. In those days, the press received a great deal of review coverage in the major newspapers and review journals—as opposed to today’s near silence—and I felt that the second book would be so appealing to such reviewers that it might put you on the literary map, so to speak. And, in fact, to a certain degree that did happen, with positive reviews in Publishers Weekly and even the usually pernickety Kirkus Reviews, and other places.
I also felt that the very brilliance and density—not to ignore the page count—of The Secret Service might put off some readers, who even back then were becoming more and more resistant to even opening up books that seemed to demand an intellectual response. But the very fact that I changed the order of those titles, publishing your remarkable stories finally in 1988 before publishing The Secret Service in 1992 must have set you back emotionally and, in your mind, in terms of your career. Of course you spent some of those years intelligently revising the earlier book. But still, and I wince in even asking you this, these long waits certainly must have affected you. Can you describe some of your emotions?
And since we now have moved on to what was originally your second creation, how did you come to write The Sea-Rabbit? You once told me that you felt the stories, in some ways, were rather close revisions of the Grimm Brothers. But in rereading their stories (in translation of course) I am stunned by the utter transformations of your writing, the jewel-like styling of your language and the kind of fluidness of your “plots.” Your storytelling, in its sometimes seeming randomness, almost has the feeling of Jane Bowles rather than the more traditional patterning of folk tales.
WW: I should say, first off, Douglas, that I have always been, and will always be, extremely grateful to you for publishing my work. I felt then, and still feel, that you saw me clearly and recognized what was of value in my writing, rather than being sidetracked by considerations of genre. I have learned a great deal from you over the years and have cherished our friendship. Perhaps because of all these things, rather than in despite of them, I found the delays you mention very hurtful and really quite impossible to understand. The worst aspect of the situation was that it damaged my credibility with my family (always excepting Tom) and my friends. I told people that a book was coming out, and then it didn’t, and I kept revising the date, and it still didn’t appear, and so on and on. Some people may have thought I was lying about these books that I claimed I was having published, but others, more charitably, probably concluded that I was suffering from some delusion of aggravated wishful thinking. I felt deeply embarrassed, very depressed, and, of course, simply angry as I saw one writer after another taking precedence over your commitment to me. However I don’t think I ever lost sight of the fact that my distress was completely negligible by the standards of twentieth-century writers’ problems, and that my luck in other respects, specifically in finding a brilliant and completely supportive literary life partner, more than counterbalanced anything in my life that didn’t go as I would have wished. I tried not to dwell on the endless delays and kept on working, and, in fact, the situation, or at least the first few years of it, worked to my advantage. It allowed me to make both the books more perfect stylistically than they were in the drafts you accepted. I went through the manuscripts sentence by sentence and caught all the little bumps and bits of clumsiness. I’m very glad I had a chance to do that. For the rest of it, my “career” and so on, I see now that I received a valuable lesson in how the world really works. It helped me to keep on asking the hard questions.
The tales in The Sea-Rabbit were a joy to write. I was teaching art full-time in a private secondary school in Manhattan and I would write early in the morning and after dinner. After finishing The Secret Service I couldn’t face starting another novel. I kept thinking about how Shakespeare used sources. I thought of taking stories from the oral tradition that seemed to contain some grain of historical truth, to explore them from within to try to discover what had originally happened. It seemed to me that all stories that impress us with dramatic truth bear witness to something that has happened that was not well understood, and which could only be explained by recourse to supernatural forces. I had been much taken with Robert Darnton’s essay “Peasants Tell Tales: The Meanings of Mother Goose,” (first published in the New York Review of Books and later collected in The Great Cat Massacre), and I started reading the Annales historians and others who were doing “history from below,” Le Roy Ladurie, Ginzburg and so on. I would take a tale from the Grimms’ collection and analyze it, figuring out what I thought it was “about”—then I’d discuss it with Tom and together we would invent a structure for telling the story. (Working closely in this way had been our habit throughout the writing of our first books—it was a way of working that went far beyond just reading and editing each other but fell short of full collaboration.) Although people have enjoyed these stories, and there has been some very perceptive writing about them, I wish more attention had been paid to their structure, as it is entirely integral to their “meaning.” For instance, it is essential that the reader of “The Cleverness of Elsie” ask—and decide—who the narrator of her story is. The same thing is true of another tale “The Unseen Soldier,” which is structured like a Mobius strip, and so on.
When I told you that I was sticking very close to the originals, that was true, in the sense that I treated every detail as a clue to be interpreted. Though every reader will bring her own experience to the stories, for me they are allegories about artistic development as a mode of survival. The writing is highly visual because for so many years I had been immersed in visual thinking, designing sets and costumes in the Theater Design MFA program at NYU. I actually did some costume drawings for the story “Ashiepattle” so that I could clearly describe what the main character was wearing.
DM: I can only apologize, as I have before. If only the press had had money to be able to produce the books at the rate of my literary appetite! That Sun & Moon Press was able to publish nearly 300 books, most of them major literary contributions, without any substantial financial support other than matching grants (some of them not devoted to publication), still seems nearly miraculous to me. But obviously, it put many writers such as you in a position of seeming jeopardy. You can only imagine how many sleepless nights I suffered, and how anxious I was to bring those books into the world.
The most angering fact to me is that once we had produced your amazing fiction, The Secret Service received very little critical reaction except for a short enthusiastic review in Britain’s The Independent. The national attention to serious literary works (never a loud voice) had clearly dwindled in only a few years.
I am terribly interested in your comments about how you and Tom share your writing in process. I had intended from the beginning to ask about what seems to those of us who are on the outside looking in as one of the most perfect relationships possible: both you and Tom have somewhat similar attractions to various literary genres, and both of you, in your writings, are remarkable stylists. You both also embrace not only tradition but are excitingly involved in what Tom has described in several small books, as “friction,” fictions that work with or against formal structures in ways similar to groups like Oulipo. You apparently both love to travel, having spent long periods of time in Morocco and Central America. And both of you, being well educated, are fluent in French. The empathy between the two of you appears to the outsider to be very special. I love my companion Howard, who is also a writer, but he certainly is not always entirely sympathetic to my kind of writing. Might you wish to comment of this?
And speaking of French and its influences, did your next collection, Stories Out of Omarie of 1994, based on the lays of Marie de France, begin out of concerns similar to those of your exploration of the Grimm Brothers? In these stories, on the other hand, I see a much more detailed narrative intertwining, almost like the Arabic patterns you describe in one of your stories. Here your tales seem far more dense and less capricious (and I do not use that word negatively) than the tales of The Sea-Rabbit. In Omarie your long tales seem almost inevitable.
WW: The reaction—or lack of it—to The Secret Service was extremely disappointing. Fortunately, a few of my friends brought in positive verdicts, which convinced me I hadn’t failed. There was one review, quite negative, in Publishers’ Weekly, that found a percipient reader in the writer Henry Wessells, who was then doing some programming for WKCR and editing a wonderful little magazine called Temporary Culture. Convinced that the reviewer had misunderstood the book, Henry ordered it and thereafter became one of its greatest advocates. It found its warmest reception in the science fiction/fantasy world. I was pleased to have reached that readership, but it wasn’t the one I’d been hoping for. I began to see how completely polarized the American fiction-reading audience was.
Meeting Tom was my great piece of luck. A mutual friend had shown him the first part of The Secret Service. I suppose that if Tom hadn’t liked it, we might not have met, but our friend, perhaps knowing how important the literary taste test would be, put that first. From the first week that we met (this was January 1978), we started writing together. Every day we would set ourselves a problem, write for about an hour, and then read the results to each other. I learned so much. Tom came up with ideas based in Renaissance allegory and rhetoric, such as the paysage moralisé. Sometimes we’d take a photograph or painting of a figure, and tell a story from its point of view. We kept up the writing exercises for years, and were very strict about it, even sticking to the routine on family visits. We also, of course, gave each other books to read (the first one I got was Beckett’s The Lost Ones). So although we initially shared a common taste for the classics and a disdain for some of America’s most popular novelists, we also helped each other to grow into new tastes.
To this day I have not met anyone else with whom I can have such—serious? profound? far-reaching?—literary conversations. To begin with, no one seems to have read the books, certainly not with such deep attention. Those of Tom’s students who read this will know what I mean.
Some difficult things have contributed to our closeness. One was the utter opposition of his family to our relationship. Another was the complete absence in the so-called literary world of anyone with whom either of us could discuss what we were doing. The poets considered narrative second-rate and couldn’t be bothered to read anything that might change their minds. The interesting fiction writers who had not given up writing lived far away from New York. The fact that we had both spent time in Europe as children also contributed to our closeness. For both of us, growing up in the 1950s in America, Europe became a kind of ideal landscape, of fascinating things to see, do and eat. We both feel comfortable traveling and indeed seek out the strangeness of truly foreign surroundings. Finally, we’ve both been willing to make the well-being of the other of paramount concern. It’s easy to say, but in practice requires a certain ruthlessness. Rilke had the perfect phrase for it: to make yourselves “the guardians of each others’ solitude.”
I am not fluent in French—I wish I were! —but it is certainly the language I feel most at home in after English. In 1986 we spent a long summer in Paris, and during that time Tom gave me Marie de France to read. You are right to link it to The Sea-Rabbit, and some of the same concerns with history were in play. But because Marie’s poems (as they are in Old French) all deal with the experience of love, I set myself the problem of figuring out what love is, as though it were an extraordinary animal I had heard about and just discovered. It was an excellent excuse to read through the literature of love, courtly and otherwise, looking to learn from Stendhal, Chrétien de Troyes, Barthes, Shakespeare, the Brontës, Plato, Donne and so many others what the phenomenon is and how to understand it. I came to the conclusion, through analyzing Marie’s poems and revising them, that love is a form of extremely compressed narrative, an unwilled and often unwilling act of the imagination. Each of the tales explores some aspect of the way love and narrative intertwine with each other, how one cannot exist without the other, how they are two faces of the same being. The inevitability you remark on is certainly an aspect of love, one that lends itself beautifully to its manifestation as narrative. On a more mundane level, I had thought, here are some sexy stories that revise a major female writer of the Middle Ages, surely this will be of interest to many readers. But in fact, the book went entirely unnoticed, much more so than The Secret Service. I might have dropped it down a well. Certainly this contributed to my turning away from fiction later on, something I have always felt sad about.
DM: We all felt sad about that decision, and I attempted to convince you, if you recall, not to give up fiction; but I also understood your frustrations. They were mine as well. And I feel things have only gotten worse in the years since—but then as we age most of us generally feel things are falling apart. I try to resist that.
Fortunately, you continued writing, creating entirely new works that related to fiction, biography, criticism, and other genres in new ways.
If I recall correctly, My Man & Other Critical Fictions began with an essay-review you wrote on the works of Harry Mathews, in which you used a collage of his own language to comment on the works. That book also contained pieces on Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Ana-Maria Ortese’s wonderful The Iguana, and other writers. The forms and languages of these pieces were truly radical, as was your approach to the “fiction” Blue Fire, a work that, while still telling a memorable story, consisted of quotes from biographies and other commentaries about the noted nineteenth century child murder of Savill Kent, and a seemingly related work, Hysterical Operators, a “critical fiction” about the “missing hours” of that murder. All three of these are what I might describe as breakthrough works in the sense that, to my knowledge, there are no other works quite like them. Although we can point to writers who might have influenced your writing—Roussel for example—I think that these are truly original contributions which take most readers, I presume, some time to assimilate. Even I, in my review of Blue Fire, had to rethink my conditioned ways of approaching narrative. Here was a story that could not be truly told, because it was never completely comprehended. How do you tell such a tale?
Might you describe how these works came into being?
WW: I did listen to your counsel, Douglas, as I always do on such matters. I had already begun, a few years before Stories Out of Omarie appeared, another novel, this one based on true events, the case of Constance Kent and “the Great Crime of 1860.” I worked on it for several years and then experienced a real crisis (which I have written about elsewhere), about the ethical nature of what I was doing. To put it briefly, I realized that turning Constance Kent’s story into an allegory of my own preoccupations was a kind of crime of narcissism. So I stopped working on the novel and did a lot of reading in an attempt to understand the difference between history and fiction, between historical truth and fictional truth. The last bit of the novel had taken off in an interesting formal direction, and I came to feel that that section, which reconstructs the killing of the child, was the only piece worth saving. I called it “Hysterical Operators: The Inspector of Factories Visits the Lover of Melodrama.”
So, I had put the novel aside, but I had to keep writing, so I started playing around with shorter pieces. I had signed up for a month-long NEH (National Endowment for Humanities) seminar on Conrad, and at the end I was supposed to write an essay on a topic of my choice. I didn’t feel that an essay could encapsulate my thought, so I asked the seminar leader for permission to use Conrad’s language to produce a critique. The resulting piece was “My Man,” my first critical fiction, about the character Martin Decoud in Nostromo. The piece is a cut-up, but a directed one that replaces the expository approach to argument with a narrative and poetic one. Also, I had adopted the hypothesis that every text contains its own critique, the way, to use Michelangelo’s notion of concetto, every block of marble contains a statue whose existence the sculptor must sense and liberate. This procedure seemed to work, so I produced another critical fiction, about Olaudah Equiano’s lost polar journal. Instead of using Equiano’s language, I used the language from polar journals contemporary with his voyage.
This all happened around 1993. At the same time I was asked to write an essay about Harry Mathews for Parnassus: Poetry in Review. I proposed the critical fiction form as an alternative and the editor accepted it. For that piece, because so many books were involved, I decided to create a landscape out of the aspects of Mathews’ books that had most intrigued me. I made my narrator a scientist/explorer relating what he finds while traveling through this landscape. This critical fiction resembled a story more than a prose poem, but I added footnotes throughout so readers could turn to the book and page “discussed.” Every author or book I have treated in the mode of critical fiction has demanded a different approach. I try to create a form which itself comments on the literary subject. Thus, for the pre-Shakespearean character of Cordeilla, I wrote a play, a Steinian one, using some of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text, and so on.
As for my stalled novel, I tried very hard just to close the door on it and chalk the years wasted up to something-or-other, but the material had sunk its claws too deep. I realized I had to find a way to extricate myself from it or I would never be able to move on. A completely different approach seemed necessary. With the help of a grant from the Lounsbery Foundation, I went to England and followed Constance Kent’s trail, exploring the houses in which she lived and where the domestic tragedy unfolded, photographing mosaics that she had had a part in creating while in prison, and going through the relevant files in the Public Record Office. I also read though the books she was known to have read, and others published between 1860 and 1865, gathering passages that had some congruence to aspects of the crime and the trial. Then I developed a formal structure, composed in part of mesostics (slightly different from those used by Cage in “Roaratorio”) and partly of texts and images arranged according to a numerical algorithm (a more detailed explanation can be found on my website). I had been reading the works of the Oulipo since the late 80s and I felt I was using their approach if not their ideas. The idea of creating a story out of pieces of texts contemporary to a subject had come to me through reading Paul Metcalf, whose books you, Douglas, had sent me while we were living in Morocco.
So the shift in direction happened quite organically. I certainly had nothing to lose by being more radical. And though I have my doubts about the intrinsic value of these works, I hope that I have mapped out some new avenues of approach that other writers will be able to use.
DM: I’d forgotten your British travels, but I recall now how remarkably thorough and intense I felt your research was. It was rewarded by such an absolutely fascinating critical text, where there are no answers, but several possibilities of truth.
Your writings I realize, now that I’ve heard you talk about them, are all built around brilliant strategies that seek to uncover the form that best relates to the subjects and issues of your literary endeavors. I think there are few writers—a major exception being Gertrude Stein, who one might argue explored nearly every genre in her attempts to communicate how life in the twentieth century might be perceived—who worked in this manner. Earlier in this interview you described yourself as always “making things,” which is another way, perhaps, of describing your process of creating structures appropriate to revealing your various topics. I presume you’re proceeding in a similar pattern for your newest work-in-progress, “Sexual Stealing,” on the Gothic novel, a section of which has been published in my on-line magazine EXPLORINGfictions [and recently in 3:AM Magazine here].
WW: Yes, the approach is similar. The piece on your blog presents many of my ideas about Gothic Literature in the traditional expository manner. I have long been fascinated and, frankly, somewhat appalled, to watch how certain texts— Lovecraft’s stories being the most obvious example—have moved over the course of my lifetime from the extreme fringe of literary taste to the center; and how “Gothic” in so many cultural manifestations has overtaken, and even swamped, Western sensibilities. I couldn’t help feeling that something very large was missing from the standard account of the origins of Gothic literature, an account that singles out the French Revolution and German Romanticism as its primary impetus. So I began reading through the works of the first Gothic novelists (Walpole, Lewis, Beckford and Radcliffe), and in doing so noticed a pattern which I call “sexual stealing”, that is, the unlawful appropriation of libidinized “objects.” The objects were sometimes living bodies, sometimes treasure or works of art, sometimes property or inheritance, virginity, freedom, life itself, and so on. Because such appropriations fill our world, escalating massively in American consciousness during the nightmare years of the Bush/Cheney presidency, an explosion and deepening of Gothic horror made perfect sense as a symptomatic reaction to, and rebellion against, a social transformation ordinary people have been powerless to stop. And when you take the long view of American literature, and consider this country’s history in relation to “sexual stealing,” it is no wonder Gothic goes straight back to the source, to our first novelist, Charles Brockden Brown. I had learned during this bout of reading that the books I’ve been referring to were originally dubbed “terrorist literature,” an epithet we might do well to revive, as it seems so astonishingly prescient of where we are now.
So, I was thinking, all throughout the writing of Blue Fire (my book about Constance Kent) about how writers, particularly very gifted young ones (Lewis, Beckford and Mary Shelley) respond to types of social stress for which they can find no ready vocabulary. It seemed to me that the first works of Gothic fiction came into being by doing just that. If you look at the language, independent of character, plot, and setting, certain preoccupations appear again and again. The mesostic constraint (as I use it, that is, taking one word from each line of text, skipping no lines) allows you to zero in on these preoccupations. When I tried the method on Beckford’s Vathek, I immediately found an anxiety about race, both black and “Indian.” In reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (which takes place in mainland Europe), I had been struck by how often the word “plantation” appeared. And in all the books, blackness, torture, absolute power within a walled-off domain, recur again and again. Incomprehensibly, most of the scholarly criticism ignored the fact that two of the four seminal Gothic authors, Lewis and Beckford, owned huge sugar plantations in Jamaica, with many human beings numbered among their “property.” I guessed that the anxieties given release in these authors’ books bore at least as much relation to what was going on in the Caribbean as to political and literary events in Europe.
So, in “listening” to the preoccupations embedded in the texts, and isolating them in fragments, I found a broken picture of eighteenth-century chattel slavery as practiced in those islands, on plantations of whose nature all four novelists were aware. What I have been doing in the book I call Sexual Stealing has been to arrange the fragments of voice and message, derived through the mesostic constraint, so that a coherent albeit fractured picture emerges. I have intercut my derived text with images and quotations from contemporary documents alluding to Maroon Wars (1665-1796), the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) and plantation life in general.
DM: For years and years you and Tom lived in a beautiful condominium on West End Avenue in Manhattan. I visited you there many times. Over the past five or so years you and Tom have made a significant change in your life (one also made by many of my writer friends) by moving to Brooklyn. And there you both have become very involved with the gallery and art space, Proteus Gowanus. Can you tell me a little about any changes this may have made in your lives?
WW: The change has been entirely positive. Life in Manhattan was profoundly lonely for me as a writer, even though I had lived there all my life, and thought for a long time I would never live anywhere else. But for a writer such as myself, who transgresses genre along more than one boundary in an entirely intuitive way, the Manhattan literary world was a wasteland. It was, and perhaps still is, divided up into clans, each one obsessed with its own territory, ideology and lineage. Throughout my contact with it, it seemed that at every turn people were primarily interested in power, not writing. Nothing else could explain the amount of hypocrisy on display or the number of lies told about inferior work. Fortunately, I have always had many friends who are visual artists, and I have almost always worked in some advisory capacity with some gallery or other. This, and some collaborations, particularly with the artist Florence Neal, have helped mitigate my loneliness and to some degree replaced the company of colleagues in my own métier.
Two things happened to interrupt this long period of literary isolation. First, in the spring of 2006, I attended the &Now Conference for Innovative Writing at Lake Forest College, and there met quite a few writers, some of whom had been published by you, Douglas, under the Sun & Moon imprint, who shared my dissatisfaction with the American literary scene. Indeed they had started &Now in response to their frustrations. This was tremendously affirming, especially since so much of their work met my standards of literary excellence. Second, in 2008, I met the artist Sasha Chavchavadze, who, with her husband P. K. Ramani, had founded Proteus Gowanus, “an interdisciplinary gallery and reading room,” in an old box factory on the Gowanus Canal. Sasha was gathering work for a show to be called “Library.” I told her about the chained libraries we had seen in England, and before the evening was over she asked me to be “a library correspondent” for that show. The association quickly deepened and developed in the direction of publishing. Tom and I realized immediately how special and indeed revolutionary Proteus Gowanus was, and decided to move to Brooklyn to be closer to it. [Proteus Gowanus closed its doors in 2015 but most of its projects continue to operate in other spaces throughout Brooklyn and Queens.]
I never would have believed that relocating from one borough to another could make such a difference in my life. I have certainly met more seriously open-minded creative people in five years in Brooklyn than in the previous thirty in Manhattan. Tom and I now run two projects under the gallery’s umbrella: Proteotypes, the gallery’s publishing arm, which rethinks gallery initiatives in the form of books, and also prints pamphlets of an innovative literary nature, and the Writhing Society, a weekly salon/class devoted to writing with constraints. Proteus is run and supported by artists who have rejected the art world and the gallery model as currently constituted. I feel I am watching the evolution of a new kind of art space, one devoted to making sense of the world and how responsibly to be in it, rather than to scoring points in some hierarchical academic game. So although I have still not really found a “literary world,” I have found a context in which I feel respected and happy. A happy ending, or rather, stopping place for the moment.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Wendy Walker‘s books include The Secret Service; The Sea-Rabbit, or, The Artist of Life; Stories Out of Omarie; Blue Fire; and My Man and Other Critical Fictions. She is co-leader of The Writhing Society and editor of Proteotypes. A book of her drawings is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in 2016.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Douglas Messerli is a poet, dramatist (under the pseudonym Kier Peters), fiction, and autobiographical writer, who, as editor and founder of Sun & Moon Press and Green Integer, has published over 600 books by numerous noted authors, including Wendy Walker. Since 2000 he has written an annual cultural memoir, the volumes from 2002-2008 now in print. My Year 2009: Facing the Heat will appear in early 2016. He has won numerous literary awards, and has been named Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 4th, 2015.