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Promiscuous with Experience: Lynne Tillman

“You write what you want to happen or not happen. Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.”

Andrew Stevens interviews Lynne Tillman, author of American Genius, A Comedy.

Lynne Tillman and James Cañón @ KGB Bar, January 2007.

3:AM: One blog recently noted your taking the Page 69 test with American Genius. I’ve tried this myself on a few and found that page to have one or two lines only, which isn’t really a basis for forming any kind of judgement. Why do you think we’ve got to such a stage where there is this perceived need for reductionism?

LT: In these no-one-reads-fiction anymore days, I see the Page 69 kind of idea as a way to get people to open a novel, take a look, and maybe find a way into it. Obviously, one page isn’t the book, it is a gimmick, but I’m not a purist and I thought it was funny.

3:AM: You begin the book with a quote from JFK: “Life is unfair…”. Do you believe this? Aren’t some people just unlucky?

LT: Isn’t it unfair to be unlucky when other people aren’t? Often I think that “luck” is just seeing an event as an opportunity, when someone else might not. But being born with a bad heart or getting MS — that’s the unfairness of life JFK meant. He was sick himself, in serious pain all the time, being shot up with Cortisone, but the public didn’t know it until recently. He looked, as they say, the picture of health.

3:AM: Do you think you’ve been lucky with the plaudits the book has received?


LT: A trick question, yes? I’ve been very happy about them. They came about, I believe, because the editors who assigned the reviews really considered what the book was and who the reviewer was; they thought about the fit. That happened in all but one magazine. Is that luck? If it is, I’ll take it over the other.

3:AM: Do you wonder how your work is received abroad? What kind of attitude have you had to publishing in Britain in the past?

LT: I’ve lived in London, and have many friends there, so the UK’s important to me, personally, as well as in terms of writing and career. I’d like to be part of a much bigger conversation, of course, and hope my books will get translated everywhere! Translation is always a problem, though. In my novel No Lease on Life, I used jokes throughout the book, and they can’t be translated literally. A canny translator needs to find appropriate or similar ones, but when it was pubbed in Germany and China — Taiwan and China — the translators didn’t do that, so I’m sure no one understood what the hell I was doing with the jokes. In the UK, my books have mostly gotten good reviews, and some were terrific. I think the biggest mistake in my career there was that my first book was a collection of postmodern stories rather than a novel. For one thing, story collections in UK fly even less well than in the US. My first novel, Haunted Houses, would have been received with less hostility, and when it did come out there, five years later, the response was good.

3:AM: Given the times we find ourselves in and the book’s title, do you worry people elsewhere might misinterpret it?

LT: If people don’t read or reject American Genius, A Comedy because the word “American” is in the title or the word “genius” in relation to “American,” they probably a) don’t know what “genius” means and b) don’t have a sense of humor or history. Actually, a smart American friend who lives in London told me he wasn’t going to read it because he never reads books with “American” in the title now, but then he did. He wrote me that he loved it, so I guess he forgave me for my sin.

3:AM: OK. The Slate review drew upon what you refer to as “connective tissue” in themes and process, as well as your earlier ‘scene’ links with Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. Do you feel the “middle ground between Realism and Postmodern experimentation” you’ve achieved with this represents a maturity on your part? Where do you feel you’re at with your writing career?

LT: I liked what the Slate reviewer said about AGAC. I really appreciated all her insights into my writing. I’ve never felt myself to be either an experimentalist or a Realist writer. I want to find the best words, themes, and forms to use for a work, to join all as seamlessly as I can, and that can take me in different directions. There are just so many realities, which include fantasy, wishes, and dreams, and they call for different kinds of writing too. I don’t know how mature I am, but my craft is sharper, I can handle more technically, and that opens up the terrain.

This Is Not Chick Lit authors (L-R) Binnie Kirshenbaum, Lynne Tillman, Dika Lam, Jennifer Egan.

3:AM: You also teach now. Has this affected your writing since ‘back then’?

LT: I thought teaching — academia — would destroy me and my writing, so I avoided it as long as I could. In 1993, I started to teach, summers only, in an MFA program, not an English dept. I quit that. Now I have a job in an English dept., one semester a year. It doesn’t affect my writing except for time — there’s less time to write, and I can’t work on a novel when teaching. But I can do shorter pieces. Sometimes reading bad student writing just sinks me, but I like it when students seem to get it or become better readers. Mostly that’s what teaching writing can do — make better readers. We need them more than writers. There are too many of us already.

3:AM: As a facilitator almost, what do you think of the rise in what people dismissively refer to as ‘MFA novels’?

LT: There’s always been bad writing, and there always will be.

3:AM: Point taken. You mentioned your ‘maturity’ as a writer earlier. The focus of American Genius is the everyday, the mundane, the quotidian. How does this correspond to your agenda as a writer?

LT: What I wanted to do was fuse the everyday with great events and issues. I wanted to link everything — not separate an individual consciousness from a greater one, not from the grand ideas and histories that shape all of us. I felt I had the craft or technique to accomplish this fusing through long, flowing, complicated sentences which represent the narrator’s thoughts and which often turn in on themselves — the end of a sentence often contradicts its beginning. Then, I was able to shift the action of the last third of the novel, and that wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it were my first novel. I suppose my agenda is to keep thinking about what I’m doing and why, and not repeat myself, though it’s impossible not to sometimes because of the way the mind works. I want to tell stories that have meaning to people, and that of course can never be predicted.

3:AM: Were there any specific author influences at hand when you conceived the book?

LT: No, but the idea of the novel being expansive and taking up as much as it could, that was there from the start. I was thinking about work and thought from earlier centuries, the 19th century and back, when science, natural science, psychology, literature, and philosophy were inseparable. In a book like Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, published first in 1621, he talks about shoemakers and melancholy, death, feeling rejected, diet, everything. I wanted AGAC to expand and contract, move around the way we do, thinking, living, being big and little, generous and petty, and often contradictory.

3:AM: Were there any specific experiences you had and thought ‘that’s going in!’, like, to quote an example from the book, watching women choose which socks to buy?

LT: I used anything and everything that worked for the story, from watching men and women shop, insults I’ve heard or hurled, or wanted to hurl, overheard conversations; you name it, if it fit, I used it, but mostly I used my imagination, and made it up. You write what you want to happen or not happen. Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.

3:AM: Can’t think of a better ending. Really.

Lynne Tillman is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Her fifth novel, American Genius, A Comedy, was recently published by Soft Skull Press. Her other novels are Haunted Houses, Motion Sickness, Cast In Doubt, and No Lease on Life, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has published three nonfiction books and three story collections, including, most recently, This Is Not It, stories and novellas written in response to the work of 22 contemporary artists.

Tillman’s fiction has been included in many anthologies, including The New Gothic, New York Writes After 9/11, The Show I’ll Never Forget, Strictly Casual, The Penguin Book of New York Stories, and Wild History. Her work has been published in journals such as Tin House, McSweeney’s, Black Clock, Bomb, and Conjunctions, and her criticism has appeared in Artforum, Frieze, Aperture, Nest, The Guardian, Cabinet, and The New York Times Book Review.

Lynne Tillman is Professor/Writer-in-Residence at The University at Albany, and in 2006 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 5th, 2007.