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Killing The Angel In The House: An Interview With Lisa Williams

3:AM: Your memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf, belongs to the highest form of literary criticism — that which merges literature and life itself. Virginia Woolf is obviously very important to you (hence the epistolary form), and not just an excuse to further your academic career. Could you tell us about this close relationship? Are there other writers you relate to as deeply?

LW: I started this personal relationship with Virginia Woolf when I was sixteen years old and first read Mrs. Dalloway. Although I did not understand a word of this amazing novel, I loved it anyway. I knew I had discovered something that was exquisitely beautiful, even if it was hard for me then to comprehend its meaning. In college and then much more in graduate school, when I seriously studied Woolf’s works, I felt as if she were writing about my own internal life as a woman. Woolf said she had to kill off “The Angel in the House”, that sweet, self-effacing Victorian identity, in order to write. I realized that destroying this internalized angel was no easy task, and yet Woolf helped me to see my own struggles in a much larger historical context. I believe each generation of women will battle this angel in their own distinct way. For instance, recently I was speaking to literature majors at Ramapo College about the significance of Virginia Woolf today, and I came to the conclusion that one of the ways the angel manifests itself today is in the epidemic of eating disorders plaguing so many young women. It is as if some women are literally disappearing in the quest to fit into a destructive image of femininity.

Toni Morrison is another writer who has had an enormous influence on me. Recently I had the great fortune to give her a copy of my book. She read it and told me she liked it, that it was “first-rate”, an encouragement that has meant more to me than words can express. There are also all those nineteenth-century Russian writers — Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolstoy — who continue to deepen my experience and perception of the present as well as the past.

3:AM: Your beautiful style — both plain (in a good way) and poetic — is also very unacademic: do you see Letters as a first step into the world of literature?

LW: Yes, definitely.

3:AM: Aren’t you tempted now to explore your past through fiction?

LW: I believe this will be the next step for me, and writing Letters to Virginia Woolf is just the beginning.

3:AM: Have you contemplated writing a “Letters to Lisa Williams” from Woolf’s point of view? What would that be like?

LW: What a great question… Your question brings me back to A Room of One’s Own when Woolf asks women to continue to write, even if it is in poverty and obscurity. She entreats women to write about the truth as they see it, and not as others would like it to be. I can imagine Woolf telling me to be that much more serious and committed to my own writing.

3:AM: Like Woolf, you have “dipped your pen into the past to write” about unspeakeable loss (9/11, divorce, losing a baby). It must have been a harrowing experience at times…

LW: Writing this book has helped me move beyond the past and still, at the same time, experience the enduring power of memory. I believe when we experience harrowing loss, that we have the greatest opportunity to recreate the self. Perhaps this is why I love Greek tragedy so much, since this is the ancient wisdom passed on to us.

3:AM: To what extent has the book enabled you to kill the “Angel in the House” and transform yourself?

LW: Writing such a personal book forced me to confront the angel inside me many times. I worried a great deal about offending someone. Perhaps, I constantly thought, writing so much about my body was not a good idea. And yet I did. Setting up a dialogue with Woolf helped me to get through my own self-censorship. I worked on this book on and off for a period of seven years, which partially reflects my own struggle with killing off the angel. I feel that writing the book has helped me get closer to this goal, but the problem of women being marginalized and made invisible because of their self-sacrificing role in society is overwhelming and omnipresent. Woolf acutely identified this problem, but overcoming this role is not so easily accomplished. Woolf stressed the extreme difficulty of destroying an internalized phantom. Ultimately, for this reason, the importance of killing off “The Angel in the House” remains a paramount task for each successive generation of women.

3:AM: Beyond the cathartic aspect of dealing with pain and loss, your book seems to have been influenced by what Eluard called the “dur desir de durer” (the relish with which you recreate your adolescence, for instance). This compulsion to recreate the past and make it last has been one of the most important sources of western literature, but I get the feeling that it is disappearing. Do you agree?

LW: A great writer, like Toni Morrison, in her book, Beloved, recreates the enduring reality of slavery with such courage and power. But yes, Andrew, for the most part, I definitely agree with you. It’s getting harder and harder to publish serious literature and when it is published,the problem is to get it noticed. As a result we see fewer writers out there tackling these themes of memory and the importance of the past.

3:AM: 9/11 has obviously affected the course of American history as well as the American psyche, but the feeling of solidarity that has united New Yorkers will inevitably disappear as life goes on: what would Septimus have made of that?

LW: Unfortunately, for Septimus, life could not and would not go on for him. The reality of the horrors of war intruded into every moment. Septimus is the voice of history, the voice of pain that would not be silenced by the false serenity of the present. All of those New Yorkers who lost people in the World Trade Towers must feel like Septimus. For them, the past cannot and will not recede easily into a tranquil present. Septimus would entreat all New Yorkers not to forget.

3:AM: Please tell us about your poetry and the work of criticism you are currently working on.

LW: I am presently working on a project that will explore family history within the context of the importance of the Ancestor. My own grandparents were Russian Jews that arrived in America at the turn of the century and then returned to Russia in 1931. My grandfather was a Bolshevik sympathizer, and he wanted to come back and build the revolution. My grandparents and their two young children took a boat all the way to Leningrad. They stayed for only nine months. Since they would have lost their American cititzenship if they remained in Russia any longer, they came all the way back to America again. If they had stayed, they would have surely perished in either the Purges or World War II. I am interested in exploring notions of home — of what it means to leave and return and leave once again — in the context of memory and the past.

As for poetry, I find myself always returning to it.

Lisa Williams is the author of Letters to Virginia Woolf (Hamilton Books, June 2005) and The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf (Greenwood Press 2000). She is Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Andrew Gallix is 3:AM Magazine‘s Editor-in-Chief. He writes fiction, teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris and lives his life like a string of beads tossed from a frilly balcony.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 12th, 2006.