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The Fact and the Shadow: A Conversation with Thalia Field and Laurie Sheck

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Laurie Sheck and Thalia Field are writers who train in the fire. For decades, their work has broadened our sense of what a text might do and be by mining the fissures between genres, reanimating voices from history and science, and setting match to existing forms for the sake of inventing them again. In their latest books, Experimental Animals: A Reality Fiction (Field) and Island of the Mad (Sheck), both turn their attentions to questions of morality, discovery, and the bodies in which all we animals live. For all this shared ambition, Field and Sheck had not met prior to this conversation–and so it is a particular privilege for us to share with you this literal meeting of the minds. –Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Tin House

 Tiny-House

Laurie Sheck: Although in subject matter and approach our books are very different—Experimental Animals is a highly textured collage that accrues through the uncanny juxtapositions of documents having to do with vivisection, Claude Bernard and 19th century science and literature, while Island of the Mad takes a kaleidoscopic, multi-vocal form composed of discrete, interlinked fragments involving the at first apparently disparate subjects of Venice, Dostoevsky, plague—both privilege fact as central. They display a fascination with, and I might even say a humility toward, a deep appreciation and respect for, the genius of the real. Both also embody a shared conviction that nothing is more radical or searing than the real. And it seems that for both of us, too, this orientation led us each to feel our way toward an exploratory, flexible form. And so, just as reality constantly slips free of categories, so did both of our projects.

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You’ve subtitled your book A Reality Fiction. I think of mine as a kind of kaleidoscopic hybrid. The impulse toward hybridity is, in part, an impulse toward inclusiveness. I found myself asking, how can I build a book around not one fixed center, but angles into thought? I sensed a conversation that could accommodate the textures of the mind without marginalizing or glossing over its contradictions, by-ways, doubts, swerves, inconclusiveness. A conversation I hoped would surprise and unsettle me, and from which an unanticipated, textured questioning could arise. A conversation I could learn from.

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I sense this very much in your book as well. With Experimental Animals my impression as a reader is that you let the documents both guide and surprise you even as you did voluminous archival research and chose from among an overwhelming number of documents with an intensely acute, curating eye. In choosing Venice and the plague my areas of investigation, whole worlds opened up before me, and I felt privileged to be a student of that world—part of my task was to make a place for those facts. To just let them be and be there to be noted. So, for instance, I learned there was a Day of the White Page in Venice in 1576, when after years of the plague-ledgers being filled with gruesome daily deaths suddenly there was a day when the page was left blank: no one had died. I found there was a doctor, Dr. Gaspare de Comité, who after years of recording his patients’ deaths wrote his own name in the ledger and then, astonishingly, his own time and date of death, signed and verified by himself.

Thalia Field: I am intrigued by your notion of facts and the real, and agree that there’s something particularly potent about how these concepts are themselves ephemeral, lyrical, even controversial. What I most learned from all my years researching in archives was how tenuous the notion of historical facts are—which is one reason why Darwin appears in my book. Not only does he intervene in the story of vivisection, but he has a poetic sense of the process of making and discovering history.

Also, I discovered that what was “real” in the archives (meaning what is still on paper) was always equally matched by what was missing, and so the fragments of curated text in my book serve both to stand for history (capital H and small h) as well as point to those screams and silences and gestures that history cannot or does not record. This sense of the aural is especially crucial, as it plays the role of primary mover toward action in the book—whether to silence the sounds or to save the animals making them. I appreciate how voices are equally important to the telling of Island of the Mad, as residue of the literary characters. The aural is often considered beyond history, and maybe this relates to the tentative nature of facticity.

LS: That’s so interesting. For every “fact” there is an absence that shadows it. Something silenced, powerless, lost. In your book you quote Zola as saying that a valid orientation for the novel is “Here is what exists.” And Dostoevsky, who figures prominently in part two of Island of the Mad and whose novels were criticized for being “fantastical” and exaggerated, wrote in a letter from 1869:

“…I have my own special view of reality (in art), and what the majority calls almost fantastic and exceptional sometimes constitutes the very essence of the real….in every newspaper you come across the most real facts and the most odd…but they are reality because they are facts. They occur and they are not exceptional.

Both are writing about realism but from different angles. (I’m struck that they were born only nineteen years apart.)

Dostoevsky’s point was, basically, if you want to accuse me of exaggeration, fine, but just pick up the newspaper and tell me if it sounds any less fantastical than my books. Dostoevsky’s definition of the real included psychological extremity and intensity. Island of the Mad has been referred to as having a dream-like quality, but I see those qualities as an aspect of the real which involves the material and immaterial, the visible and the invisible.

Besides, a lot of what we decide is the “real,” and indisputably “fact” may not be, so the definition is ever-thorny. One of the epigraphs to my book is by the astrophysicist Brian Greene that essentially says in the far future the universe will have changed to such a degree that there will be no stars within proximity of earth and so future astronomers will think we who claimed to see them lived in a delusion.

TF: I like your elaboration on Dostoevsky and the news because Zola was particularly obsessed with science and its materialist methods of proclaiming truth: the gory bits, the violence necessary to “expose” truth, the sacrifice for it, the collection of details that reveal the quasi-biological functions of contemporary life. Zola’s views are borrowed, however (from scientists of his time) and so I needed to equally conjure the less well-known “realism” of the anti-vivisection activists, who used direct quotation to shock readers into awareness. The journey of writing about the past so often feels partial, like hearing one then another instrument, rather than the whole ensemble.

But of course truth and totality are time’s most pernicious promises, just as your quote from Brian Greene implies. Your research has also led you to see things, real things, that become a beautiful haunting, as you create a map of events that let the characters move between imaginative and research “truths.”

LS: Well, again, in both books, the physical reality of the body, and of pain, both highlights and complicates a sense of the real, the factual. It is a reality that calls out to be noticed and reckoned with. The animals’ pain is horrifyingly real, not symbolic, each instance of inflicted and felt pain an emergency even if the vivisectionists didn’t see it that way. But there are so many kinds of pain, many of which are more chronic, even mysterious, than what the animals in EA are subjected to. The manifest, physical reality we experience through our senses can seem from certain angles the most apparent of things, but its resonances and inscriptions aren’t. And in Island of the Mad, the characters have physical afflictions that color almost everything about them and deeply affect how they see: epilepsy, osteogenesis imperfecta, fatal familial insomnia. Illness and affliction, while in many respects isolating, also tap into a kind of communal consciousness and shared experience—vulnerability is an inevitable characteristic of anything living.

There is an exquisite passage in Proust that addresses this:

“It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognize that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”

And so to circle back around to what we were saying about realism: this too is realism—this shared perplexity and subjugation to ambiguity.

TF: I was also struck by our common emphases on physical pain and its paradoxical qualities. I love the opening of your book, the establishment of the voice of Ambrose A. in pain. You seem so familiar with the language of bodily suffering, the isolation, the mental reactions. These passages in your book are some of the most vivid and shocking.

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For the animals at the center of Experimental Animals, externalized pain is the first narrative “problem” to be solved—and it was (sort of)—through Bernard’s use of curare and cutting the vocal cords—and through Fanny stealing the animals from the streets.

So pain displays not just individual subjectivity, but also how communities respond to it. That we don’t hear the animals in pain today is partly why activists have lost control of the story. Information is the key, and information must be visceral, aural, felt, in order to move us. Bodies that have become “data” do not move us to act. This is why the activists in my book, whether talking about women’s rights, animal rights, abolition, they all relied on witness accounts and quotation, while the scientists were turning bodies into graphs. The wisdom of some of Darwin’s work is how closely our pain and animal pain mirror each other. In drawing his kinships in evolutionary terms, he radically redefined the story of fundamental inter-species communication and emotional connection.

LS: We’ve been talking a lot about facts, but at the same time I’ve wondered about the sole fictional element in your book. You employ Claude Bernard’s wife Fanny as your narrator. Experimental Animals’s crucial focus on multiplicity and varied angles on a single issue is expressed mainly through its documents. While I was enthralled with the research I did, and loved the precision and unpredictability of the facts and documents I found, in Island of the Mad they are presented and filtered through the various characters and their particular needs. For example, in the book’s third section, the mysterious woman from part I reappears and for reasons having to do with her own needs, references at some length a mainstream research study on osteogenesis imperfecta which suggests a credible link between its genetic underpinnings and “a benevolent temperament.” As we were saying before, nothing is stranger or more radicle than the real. I appreciated how my characters helped me think about and manage the threat of a certain solipsism. Frieda, who is dead but able to speak after decades of silence says at one point, “But when I was finally able to speak again I spoke of myself…there would have been so many things more interesting and more important to think of than myself—conductivity, electricity, the Arctic, silkworms—Why didn’t I speak of them?

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I wonder how you see Fanny, and her role in your book?

TF: I had wanted to do the book entirely as a collage, but the archives weren’t giving me enough on Fanny. Her role in the narrative, and her role as the original anti-vivisection activist (on whose work other better-archived activists could build) made her too important to leave just to the few letters and lists that exist. I searched for years for more information on her and found only small mentions of her daughters. Finally, I made the decision to fictionalize her voice, and use her as a counter-weight to Claude’s well-known archive. It was a tremendously difficult decision, and one I still feel with ambivalence.

To your point, however, I totally agree that interdisciplinary research provides a constant antidote to solipsism: Experimental Animals is extremely personal to me, and yet is an unresolved argument in a hundred voices.

LS: Fanny serves as a kind of unifying force in the book; her voice threads through it from beginning to end. This question of how much or how little to unify a work while at the same time keeping it open and various is a real challenge. One way among many is through choosing a particular palette. Color can function much as a stage set or lighting does in theater. In Island of the Mad the plague doctors’ protective lenses are red, as is the pigment Titian smears with his bare fingertips into his paintings, and at one point a room’s walls gradually turn red. And then, because reality is ingenious and full of fortuitous intersections and surprises, I found that Dostoevsky said, “Faith is a red color.”

In Experimental Animals, although it can appear that Fanny is a unifying force, and she is, what seems to me much more important and central to the book’s overall project is the commitment to collage and the rhythms that are drawn from their precise arrangement. This, to me, is very beautiful, and like many of the documents themselves it’s what stays so vividly in my mind. As we were saying at the beginning, to be open to a set of facts involves finding a way to move within ambiguity, multiplicity, contradiction, rather than reaching for certainty or closure.

Tiny-House

Thalia Field is a professor of Literary Arts at Brown University. Experimental Animals is her sixth book.  She has published three collections with New Directions: Point and Line (2000), Incarnate: Story Material (2004), and Bird Lovers, Backyard (2010). Her performance novel, Ululu (Clown Shrapnel), was published with Coffee House Press, and she has two collaborations with French author Abigail Lang: A Prank of Georges (Essay Press, 2010) and the forthcoming Leave to Remain. Before writing books, Thalia worked in theaters in Paris, Berlin, and New York.

Laurie Sheck is the author of, most recently, Island of the Mad, and A Monster’s Notes, a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was selected by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 10 Best Fictions of the Year (2009), and long-listed for the Dublin Impac International Fiction Prize. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry for The Willow Grove, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.  Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Nation.  She has taught at Princeton, CUNY, and Rutgers, and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the New School. She lives in New York City. 

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