“Beauty, Love and Vanity Itself”: An Interview with Diane Williams




IT IS A RAINY DAY in December as I ride the elevator up to Diane Williams’s Upper East Side apartment in the weeks before the release of her new collection — Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine — from McSweeney’s. I’ve run from the train without an umbrella and am embarrassed to arrive drenched and steaming. The holidays are nearly upon us. There is a feeling of circumspect gaiety in the air as New Yorkers grip the rails of the subway. The train has been delayed and it spurts hordes of wet passengers onward toward much needed vacations. As the elevator opens up to her floor, Williams greets me at her door in a pair of sequined Chinese slippers. Her clothing, it strikes me, is curated — at once understated and yet creatively refined, much like her home. On the walls of the kitchen are sculptures by her partner, the Swedish architect Wolfgang Neumann. They are made of broken ceramic and steel wire and remind one a bit of Klee and Twombly. Tea and several small bowls of amuse-bouche are set out on the little kitchen table — slices of apple and carrot, dried fruit and nuts. I’d started drinking Harney & Sons Hot Cinnamon Tea after one such visit, a favorite Williams said introduced by friend and fellow writer Christine Schutt.

The apartment is decorated with artwork which often punctuates the walls at surprising intervals. What appear to be children’s drawings are juxtaposed with Wolfgang’s sculptures, prints, and paintings by various artists whom I’m sure I should recognize along with the occasional candid family photograph. In the bathroom off her office (the walls of which are lined with new editions of NOON and vintage editions of StoryQuarterly) there is a knee-high wooden carving of a Santos with an outstretched palm. In its palm a coin has been glued. I wonder for a moment if I should try take the coin or add another.

Williams’s mood is warm and impending. We sit across from each other at the kitchen table. This, it strikes me, is in contrast to our customary relation. Williams was the first to rescue sections from my forthcoming novel and print them. I remember getting the call from her one day as I was driving to Massachusetts. “It’s grand,” she’d said. “I think I’ve found some sections we might publish.” Praise from Williams, as her authors will attest, is rare. She’d once accepted a story of mine and then rejected it several months later saying she’d read it over and realized, “There was nothing there.” To be edited by her is to work with an exacting chess player intent on moving words and phrases until they find their power. Often in a five-page submission she exhumes five to 10 lines which, reassembled, might make a relevant story. What she produces from her writers is inarguably excellence. There is little that gets by her. Every comma and break is deliberated over with a careful sense that the page itself is a stage which must jointly surprise and inflame.

“Wait!” she says. “Let me tell you something first. I may not look you in the eye. That may be disturbing to you.” “It’s not disturbing,” I promise. “I may have to look away in order to focus my attention. Because I am captivated by your bracelets, your expression, the pattern of your dress.” Life, it seems to Williams, is an exercise in three goals: excitement, ambition, and composition. She returns to these themes over the course of the conversation, circling back to them like a kind of mantra.

When I describe the process of moving into an old farmhouse in the Catskills, chock-full of belongings that the previous owners had left behind, she exclaims that this is a bonanza. “Silver speckled linoleum,” I say. “1950s bathrooms … I have walked into these peoples’ lives mid-throttle. On the door to the bathroom there’s their two hats from when they went to Florida — purple and blue — one with the alligator.” “Great props for your fiction!” she says. “I think the real estate agent thought I was going crazy.” I said, “Look at the hats!” And she said, “No. Look at the house!”

“I opened drawers to find pressed linens,” I tell Williams. “I feel these people are communicating to me when I look at all of their things.” And she says, “Yes, and now they are your captives and blessed that you have a generous soul.”

¤

ANNIE DEWITT: So, who is Leo Markun? [The man who penned the epigraph to Williams’s new collection.]

DIANE WILLIAMS: Ha! Well, I can show you the books! They are little blue books. They’re no longer blue, they’re gold with age. I found them at a flea market. [Sound of slippers leaving room. Pause. She returns laughing.] I adore these books!

Oh my god! They’re beautiful. What year are these from?

Here’s the copyright. But there’s no date. I don’t know.

Oh my goodness! Diane, wait! Could you read the first page of this so we can have it on tape?

Oh! Are you taping me?

Yes. Just read the first paragraph.

I might not have ever read the first paragraph!

Now’s the time!

[Reading from Leo Markun] “We know the past through memory and records. The present is made manifest by means of our senses. What of our future? Let us consider some of the questions that people ask about the ‘morrow. Or the next week. Will stocks or some other particular stock rise or fall? Will John Jones, who is in the hospital for an operation, recover or die? Will it rain on the day of the picnic? How long will Harry Doe live? Is he, in spite of being a man and according to the model of the syllogism of the logicians, therefore mortal? Somehow immortal? Who will win the war? Will the world come to an end in the year 2000?”

Oh my god!

[Continues reading] “Will Mary Jane Brown ultimately find a husband? Or will she keep on teaching school all her life?”

Wow! That’s incredible!

[Laughter]

So why did you choose these three lines as the epigraph for your new collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, out of that: “Will Harry Doe live? Who will win the war? Will Mary Jane Brown ultimately find a husband?”

Why? — because such global suspense is the theme of my life.

That must be a great way to live.

It is! It is! But it’s also often distracting and frustrating. For example, to walk down the street and catch sight of someone and think, “Is she his daughter or his wife? Are they en route to 1109?” And if someone gets in my way, and I can’t see whether those people entered the building or not, it’s just very upsetting.

Again, how did you come upon this Leo Markun book?

The Leo Markun books? — in a flea market.

In New York?

I have no idea where. Wherever we go we visit markets. These books — palm-sized — have become my intimates. They’re stacked nearby where I work. Markun assumes a splendid authority that I find consoling because he has no fame that I know of and he’s so often dead wrong.

How do you make a story? Would you liken it to assemblage art or to what the French call bricolage? Although there’s a lot of tactical effort that goes into it in terms of considering where each word goes, I’ve heard you say before that your process of making a story is more akin to producing a visual collage than it is to pursuing the traditional elements of what some might call narrative.

Well, I’ve never been able to rely on any native gift of narrative. When I try to tell jokes I have known since childhood, I usually forget the punch lines. So, I have had to develop other means to proceed. I take whatever miscellany of language I have on hand and try to make of it something that’s important to me.

Many years ago I was fascinated to come upon Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of the bricoleur in The Savage Mind. [She goes to get the book.] Here! Some of these pages are marked. — I’ll read a little of it: “The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer […] [his] set of tools and material […] [are] always finite and […] bear no relation to the current project or indeed to any particular project […] Further, the ‘bricoleur’ […] derives his poetry […] through giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between the limited possibilities. The ‘bricoleur’ may not ever complete his purpose but he always puts something of himself into it.”

So, after producing several hundred stories of my own, I thought, that’s what I am, a bricoleur. I can always go forward without an idea or subject, with perhaps only an unremarkable group of words. I can improvise and I may astonish myself with what feels like a discovery. But not everything I’ve written has come about this way. I couldn’t bear to have only one strategy. There have been a multitude of memories or events that insist upon being objectified.

I’ve seen you use the word composition in different interviews and it’s a word I’m interested in. When I teach I usually think about composition as indicating a fairly rigid structure; a formal style of writing. You use it in a completely different way, it seems to me, in the sense of inventing. Is this work more akin to creating music?

I am not a musician, but I like to imagine musical composition.

Do you play an instrument? Do you sing?

Yes, in a raggedy way. But, I do make tapestries.

Out of what?

Just cloth and a needle and thread. I can show you some.

I would love that. When did that start?

Not that long ago. Four years ago?

And what prompted it?

We were traveling in Italy. We were at a market and I surprised myself by purchasing a nurse’s or doctor’s uniform, one of those white coats, and then I bought colorful spools of thread in the little village and I just started to sew every which way. I know nothing about doing this in the prescribed manner.

The doctor’s coat?!

[Laughing] Yes! The doctor’s coat! And then I started making pillow covers and then I started making foot stool covers.

For what stool?

I’ll show you. I tell myself that it is not possible to make a mistake. This is perfect: — no plan, just stitch forward, playtime. But for me language is difficult.

Would you say language overwhelms you?

Language overwhelms me? The sound of the washer dryer … hold on … [disappears] It overwhelms me? I suppose you could say it overwhelms me. I just never feel comfortable or presentable when speaking or writing offhand. Although, before I had learned to write in school, I spent a lot of time making tiny vertical pencil lines on pages and pages of lined notebook paper.

What did you think you would be?

A wife and mother. And, I was a dancer.

What kinds of dance?

Modern dance. I also studied ballet.

How many years?

From the time I was eight all the way through my university years.

What I really loved was improvisation, free movement.

Did you ever choreograph?

Yes, a dance we performed as freshmen in high school.

Did the dance have a title?

I liked the word insouciance. I can show you the opening movement.

Would you?

I wonder if I could? [Gets up from table] Something like this! [She is in an erect posture, legs apart, hands on her hips. Her head snaps sideways percussively toward her shoulder as her legs move into a wide plié. She returns quickly to the original stiff stance.]

And was it just you?

No. It was a group of us. I was in many university performances. I was encouraged to dance professionally by teachers. My girlhood dance instructor offered me a full scholarship to study, but my parents forbade it.

Really! Why didn’t you continue on with dance?

Cowardice. And, I shared my parents’ belief that I would not have a profession.

Why?

My upbringing.

Well, that’s part of what I am interested in. You are very private and I want to respect this, but I also want to ask you questions about your background as so little is known. Where did you grow up?

Highland Park, Illinois.

Until what year?

Until I went away to university.

Can you describe the landscape?

Pretty, quiet. It is a suburb, but then it was only partially developed. The few homes there had been built in the early 1900s, 1920s. We were near Lake Michigan, Chicago. There were adjacent meadows and farms nearby that a child could explore. Places to get lost.

Do you have brothers and sisters?

Yes. I have an older sister and a younger brother.

And are they in the city also?

In the city? No.

Are they still in Illinois?

My brother is. My sister lives in Canada.

So, what propelled you out of Illinois?

My mother said, “Go east or go west but don’t stay here.” [Laughs]

Were you close with her?

She was a forbidding figure.

How so?

It is probably unfair to say she was cold, because this wasn’t always the case, but she frightened me.

But she wanted you to escape; to see more.

Yes. She had come to this country from Poland with her father and three siblings when she was four years old, but the family was so poor that she was sent to live in an orphanage until she was 12. She said that she looked around then, dumbfounded, and asked herself, “Where am I?” She was self-educated, and she became quite sophisticated.

What about your father?

I think of him as a rather grand figure. I admire him.

What was his trade?

He was the president and chairman of a successful manufacturing company that made point of purchase advertising displays. But when he was 40 years old, he decided that that he did not want to devote his life to making money. He maintained his leadership role at his company, while becoming a peace activist. He volunteered as the financial advisor to the Pugwash Conferences and later founded The Albert Einstein Peace Prize, which awarded prizes to Pierre Trudeau, to Willy Brandt, among others. My parents were absent a lot — abroad at meetings.

What is Pugwash?

The Pugwash Conferences were established in direct response to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955 that urged world leaders to find peaceful means to settle disputes. This was a congregation of nuclear physicists from all over the world with important government access who met yearly to negotiate privately and without publicity to broker disarmament agreements. Pugwash was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. My brother, sister, mother, and I went to Oslo that year for the ceremony. My father died in 1987.

Do you feel as if part of your wanderlust stemmed from this background?

I have no wanderlust other than the traveling I do while I read and write. I have to be urged to travel. I like to stay in my place and work. Although we do travel a lot …

You were saying that you came from a family where what was expected of you was that you were going to improve yourself through college?

Improve myself? Perhaps, but I don’t know. My father told me that among his friends, the most educated women were the most discontented, and he advised me to study home economics.

How did you feel when you first became a mother? Was it expected of you given the time period you grew up in?

Was it expected of me? Yes. It was.

Was that oppressive for you?

Oppressive? No. I thought that it was just the thing to do.

How many children did you have?

Two sons.

Do you have grandchildren?

No.

Are you married now?

No. I have very mixed feelings about marriage — best fit for the page.

Because it seems as if the women in your fiction are always in marriages or relationships that are traps in some way, or that these pairings only inspire performances. There’s not a lot of originality in these marriages or glamour. Or, fulfillment exactly. I always think the women in your fiction are not mocking their own circumstance, but that they are cognizant of their circumstance and they are commenting on it through their lack of emotion toward the men they engage with, which I always find fascinating.

Hm. I am startled listening to your thoughts on this. I don’t think about the women in my fiction as a class of people who behave in a certain way.

In terms of the progression from your early collection Some Sexual Success Stories through your recent work, I see a lot of focus on sexuality and the body. And then with your last book, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, there’s a critique on the commodification of the body and media. But this latest collection, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, seems like a comment on the domestic landscape. I’m thinking of the new story, “Head of a Naked Girl”:

One got an erection while driving his car to get her. Another got his while buying his snow blower, with her along. He’s the one who taught her how to blow him and that’s the one she had reassured, “You’re the last person I want to antagonize.”

I laughed so much about this one because it seemed to me a return to your early work where the story ends by coming back to this basic question:

“Is there something wrong?” the girl asked.

As a rule she blamed herself — for yet another perfect day.

Sexuality might get women into trouble even if they’re too smart to get into that trouble. And then, there’s the feeling that the perfect day is an oppressive regularity that these people incessantly return to. And I can’t help but read this in some sort of feminist way. Do you believe your work has shifted?

I welcome your perspective, but still cannot answer your question. I don’t have a political purpose while I do my work.

But you don’t feel as if you were consciously saying anything in this new collection?

Not at all.

So, in terms of the themes of this collection?

I wouldn’t know.

How about the title? I know that’s probably last to come for you.

The book’s title is taken from the story “The Little Bottle of Tears,” from the line: “How did all this end? Oh, fine, fine, fine, fine, fine.” So then I must have thought, I am not sure — end, end — Why can’t it all begin with Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, as well?

You have said that a sort of renaissance occurred for you when you realized it was okay to be ambitious, that you could be ambitious about your writing. Was this coincident with the time that you were studying with Gordon Lish and met Christine Schutt? From my generation’s perspective, there’s a lot of interest and cultural cachet that surrounds this group of people. You were all such fantastic writers and Lish was — well, I’ve read many different accounts of Lish from different people. I’m wondering if you want to give your account of that time?

Well, the wish for ambition forced itself upon me before I signed up for the Lish class. It had become imperative that I address my own conviction that I was vanishing.

Gordon exhorted those of us who studied with him to have heroic hopes for our work. This was a thrilling invitation to anyone — to everyone, to me! — no matter how modest we really were about our prospects. There was no need, he assured us, to suppose oneself a genius in order to become one. Genius is a category for any and all.

What year did you start NOON?

2000.

Can you talk about the first edition? How it came to be? Did you know it would go on to become the journal it became?

How could I know in advance that it would flourish? And it is flourishing. In the beginning I was completely taken up by all of the administrative challenges. Fortunately, Christine Schutt was my partner in this and very supportive.

Where did the idea come from? Did you just come across a story one day and say, “I want to publish this. This voice should be heard.”

I had been the co-editor of StoryQuarterly for 12 years. So, when I moved to New York in 1991, the possibility of continuing as an editor long distance for any length of time was thought implausible. When The Quarterly ceased to publish, I wanted to find a way to provide shelter for the writers I admired.

How do you describe being an editor? So many of us revere you as an editor. You have a very specific editorial style and policy. Much the way Lish did.

I was brilliantly edited during the time that Gordon Lish edited my fiction. A tiny editorial gesture can deepen and enliven text: a title change, a word change, an added phrase at the end. And sometimes aggressive intervention yields unforeseen power; the excision of a great deal of text that is strangling the whole, the rearrangement of paragraphs.

So, it’s a way of being ambitious again. To go back to that theme we’ve been talking about. A way of self-realizing.

In the aftermath, we’re, both of us, less shapeless, I guess. But more often it does not feel powerful to be an editor. I used to believe that those editors who were dismissing me must feel so powerful. But when I send something back I just feel very sad. And when I’m discarding — you know, people ask you to discard their submissions — I am aware that the work I discard isn’t that different in kind from my own bad work, which I am always in the process of producing and discarding. But, there is certainly a rewarding communion that arises when I edit somebody else’s fiction.

So, because of your rigorous editorial vision, NOON has become this celebrated annual.

Thank you!

NOON only comes out once a year. It’s not online. There’s a lot of anticipation. There has been a core group of writers that you’ve continued to publish. Is this a deliberate intention?

I am overwhelmingly grateful to have the loyalty of such distinguished writers and I pray they will never stop sending their fictions to us. However, we are wide open to newcomers. Last year’s edition featured seven first-time contributors. Just last week I received a killer story from Amanda Goldblatt who lives in Chicago. She sent a negligible cover letter. I know nothing about her.

What is an editorial day like for you?

Well, before you arrived, I was looking at some new Chinquee stories. Tomorrow we’ll have a big NOON meeting here. Unfortunately, a lot of the work will be administrative. But, then, as a team we’ll review all of the stories under consideration. So, it will be a mix of the tedious and the sublime. I usually do the editing on my own, because I think more clearly when I am alone and I read all of the submissions. But the staff carefully studies draft manuscripts and they may find “smudges” I have missed and they often have important suggestions to make.

NOON bucked the tides, I think, in terms of publishing trends. So much work goes online or uses social media platforms as a means of creating a secondary engine. What’s distinctive about NOON is that it remains solely a printed annual. And there’s a bit of — I don’t want to say secrecy — but there is mystery owing to your minimal internet presence and your desire for privacy. Is this a conscious choice?

Yes, yes, because my own writing comes first. And I never wanted NOON to get beyond me, beyond what I could manage on my own, if I had to.

Do you maintain communications with the writers you studied with in Gordon’s class? With Gordon?

My relation with Gordon ended in 1996.

Do you read his work any longer?

Yes. I do.

Do you think he’s a good writer?

Yes, I do. And, I feel an important kinship with everybody I studied alongside of in Gordon’s master classes.

I think I also want to ask you: What does it mean to be Diane Williams?

I am often asking that question. It wasn’t long ago that I sat in my living room undone and wholly vacant of identity it felt like. It was a bad week.

Are you shocked when you hear your own voice?

I am. I think that one’s social self is so dominant, that to have any knowledge of the person that we so-called “really are” is unlikely. But artists might come closer to this knowledge than many others perhaps can. We’ll be lucky or unlucky to find out who we are. Personality is muddy. But let me say that getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business.

And yet you have an incredibly elegiac, deliberate delivery style when you read. I can hear your voice in my mind. You once had us practice reading aloud before we read for NOON. So you are aware that there is a necessity to stand behind the words’ intentions.

Yes. It is really important in public appearances to do the work justice.

Do you have any perception of what your sons make of your work, or your family?

My parents were horrified. My father told me he thought I was possessed by the devil and asked me what did my husband think. My mother said she’d be supportive of anything I wanted to do with the exception of writing. As for my sons, I feel sorry for them and yet they are kind to me. They graciously and quietly endure the difficulty.

I wondered if you might define the word domestic?

I can’t do that. Silly — I first think of Betty Crocker and Fanny Farmer and Meta Given and their credos and my well-worn cookbooks. I love these women. But here again, I need my fiction to speak for me. My feelings about domesticity and about tameness are massive. There was indeed a time when I thought, I really thought that if I mastered certain heartwarming recipes — stews and meatloaves and pies and cakes — and kept an orderly home our family could secure happiness. I think an artist condemns herself to living in the wilderness.

If you had to make dinner tonight, what would you cook?

I am cooking dinner. I cook nearly every night. It will be simple this evening, since you’ve been here until late. I’ll make an omelet. Last night’s efforts gave me a bellyache — sautéed Swiss chard, roasted potatoes, chicken fillets — crispy, battered, with lemon. I love to eat and am quite hungry at the end of the day. I am always hoping that I’ll cook something delicious for us — worth eating.

Have you witnessed a great trauma in your life? Either culturally, spiritually, or personally?

Certainly, haven’t we all?

Such as?

Dear me — for starters — “Beauty, Love and Vanity Itself.”

¤

Annie DeWitt’s debut novel White Nights In Split Town City is forthcoming from Tyrant Books in August 2016. Her story collection Closest Without Going Over was shortlisted for the Mary McCarthy Prize. She is currently a resident at MacDowell and teaches at Columbia University.


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