Unfortunately, online sales are currently unavailable. To subscribe to Tin House, please call 800-786-3424. To buy Tin House Books, visit your local independent bookstore or www.powells.com. To buy our merchandise, please call 503-219-0622
The World Within gathers twenty of the freshest, funniest, and most intriguing interviews in the history of Tin House. Featuring informal conversations with a veritable who's-who of contemporary writers, poets, and graphic novelists, these remarkable interviews offer insights into the creative process, questions of craft, and the balance between a writer’s work and life.
Featuring Sherman Alexie, Tracy Chevalier, Charles D'Ambrosio, Lydia Davis, Anita Desai, Roddy Doyle, Rikki Ducornet, Deborah Eisenberg, Nuruddin Farah, Denis Johnson, Tracy Kidder, Francine Prose, Marilynne Robinson, Barney Rosset, James Salter, Marjane Satrapi, George Saunders, Wallace Shawn, Jim Shepard, Mark Strand, and Gus Van Sant.
Claribel Alegría, Sherman Alexie, Tracy Chevalier, Charles D’ Ambrosio, Lydia Davis, AnitaDesai, Roddy Doyle, Rikki Ducornet, Deborah Eisenberg, Ellen Fagg, Nuruddin Farah, AbbieFields, Ben George, Regan Good, Tom Grimes, Ron Hansen, Heather Hartley, Todd Haynes,Denis Johnson, Anna Keesey, Ken Kesey, Tracy Kidder, Heather Larimer, Win McCormack,Christopher Merrill, Rick Moody, Chris Offutt, Carla Perry, Francine Prose, Rachel Resnick,,Marilynne Robinson, Barney Rosset , James Salter, Marjane Satrapi, George Saunders , ElissaSchappell, James Schiff, Wallace Shawn, Jim Shepard, Rob Spillman, Mark Strand, AndersonTepper, and Gus Van Sant .
"In informal interviews with colleagues, more than 20 writers sound off about their passions, pet peeves, literary inspirations and obstacles. Claribel Alegría describes to Debbie Fields her commitment to the Nicaraguan revolution and how politically conservative Salvadoran relatives burned her books; Deborah Eisenberg discusses with Anna Keesey the political ignorance of ordinary Americans and why she lacks the nerve for playwriting. Sherman Alexie explains to Bob Spillman how writing about Indian middle-class domesticity can be revolutionary and castigates Ian Frazier for colonial literature; Lydia Davis explores with Rick Moody her translation of Proust's Swann's Way, and Anita Desai reveals to Ben George that she hid her writing life from her young children and why there's so little sex in her works. Tin House laudably gives some well-deserved attention to a number of writers who aren't household names..."
"Taken in their totality, the interviews begin to snick against each other until it seems that the authors are sparring in some marvelous palaver, and that you, lucky reader, are a bystander at the greatest literary dinner party ever held."
—Nathan Ihara, LA Weekly
"It's a collection of interviews with writers that has an impossibly long subtitle and an equally high number of quality interviews."
—Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
Claribel Alegría and Abbie Fields ...........................................................7
Sherman Alexie and Rob Spillman...........................................................14
Tracy Chevalier and Ellen Fagg..............................................................32
Charles D’Ambrosio and Heather Larimer..................................................46
Lydia Davis and Rick Moody...................................................................73
Anita Desai and Ben George...................................................................86
Roddy Doyle and Tom Grimes................................................................105
Rikki Ducornet and Rachel Resnick..........................................................123
Deborah Eisenberg and Anna Keesey........................................................141
Nuruddin Farah and Anderson Tepper......................................................172
Denis Johnson and Charles D’Ambrosio ....................................................182
Ken Kesey and Carla Perry....................................................................197
Tracy Kidder and Win McCormack...........................................................207
Francine Prose and Elissa Schappell.........................................................225
Marilynne Robinson and Regan Good .......................................................239
Barney Rosset and Win McCormack..........................................................250
James Salter and Chris Offutt................................................................269
Marjane Satrapi and Heather Hartley.......................................................283
George Saunders and James Schiff..........................................................292
Wallace Shawn and Denis Johnson...........................................................311
Jim Shepard and Ron Hansen.................................................................321
Mark Strand and Chris Merrill................................................................332
Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes...............................................................340
A CONVERSATION WITH RIKKI DUCORNET BY RACHEL RESNICK
Like the lick of a whip, Rikki Ducornet’s bold, bawdy fiction leaves its mark. Ducornet rigorously explores the darkest terrain of the human condition, and her sensous and surreal novel The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, which was published shortly after we met, is as daring and satisfying a work as we’ve come to expect from her.
The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition is a dark erotic tale of a fan maker on trial during the French Revolution for her friendship with the Marquis de Sade, and for conspiring with Sade to draft a manuscript revealing the crimes of Bishop Landa, the man responsible for the destruction of the Mayan culture. Like an intricate fan, the book unfolds and creases, revealing stories within stories, meanings upon meanings. Ducornet layers in Sade’s explosive voice from prison and evokes the conquest of the New World, while in the background, heads never stop rolling. By turns playful and horrific, the book also asserts the sovereignty of imagination, celebrates books themselves, and explores the risks of passionate living and thinking.
Ducornet is the author of seven novels, (Gazelle, The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, The Stain, Entering Fire, The Fountains of Neptune, The Jade Cabinet, Phosphor in Dreamland), two collections of short fiction (The Complete Butcher’s Tales, The Word “Desire”), five books of poetry, and a book of essays (The Monstrous and the Marvelous). In 1993, Ducornet was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Jade Cabinet; that same year she was awarded a Lannan fellowship. Before embarking on writing, Ducornet was an accomplished and internationally exhibited painter. She has also illustrated numerous books, including Jorge Luis Borges’s Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and Robert Coover’sSpanking the Maid.
When I called to request an interview, Ducornet graciously invited me to stay at her South Denver home, which she shares with Jonathan Cohen, a psychoanalyst. When I arrived at midnight, my flight two hours late, she was outside weeding the garden.
Inside, we shared rosemary tea. Small, graceful, and full of sensual and earthy charm, Ducornet seemed decades younger than her fifty-six years. Her bewitching eyes were heavily lined with kohl, lending an exotic accent to her beauty. I was surprised by her breathy, little-girl voice. It is only recently, she said, that people have stopped asking for her mother when she answers the phone.
The next day was unusually hot and humid. We retreated inside the house, which was late sixties in design, with high wood-beamed ceilings—sparsely decorated but for some Javanese puppets, tribal masks, and Mexican carved-wood snakes that seemed eager to slither from the walls. The dining room was filled with light, and the large picture window revealed a sea of tiger lilies just outside. We sat down to talk at the table over juicy, white-fleshed halves of casaba and diced mango nestled amid mint leaves from Ducornet’s garden and garnished with freshly decapitated tiger-lily blooms. Fresh ciabatta bread, four-pepper goat cheese, and copious amounts of Turkish coffee completed the feast. Ducornet was wearing a gauzy red Moroccan dress splashed with wild colors, and thick silver hoop earrings. A portrait of a wax albino Renaissance man stared down limpidly on us as we talked.
Afterward we walked to a local restaurant for dinner. On the way back, a carload of boys hassled us. While I kept walking, my suspicious urban instincts instantly activated, Ducornet responded warmly and openly to the boys’ slurred queries about directions. Only when they asked if she wanted to go to a bar with them did she finally walk away. Ducornet assured me this was an odd occurrence in her upper-middle-class neighborhood. The next morning, we learned that shortly after our encounter with the boys, a woman was knifed to death only one block from Ducornet’s residence. The boys were prime suspects. I flashed on Ducornet’s thematic obsession with evil, her insistence that evil is inevitable, banal, and must be confronted in ourselves.
Rachel Resnick: How did The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition come about? Was it born in a postcoital fever dream? Did it start as a forbidden glimpse of a woman’s thigh?
Rikki Ducornet: Yes, the fan like the thighs of a woman opening and closing! I think Murasaki Shikibu’sThe Tale of Genjiand the fascination of the fan and the hidden face, the hidden body, the revealed body, and the incredible eroticism of that book were percolating in my mind. The fan maker character simply surged forth. Her voice was clear and strong and engaging. I quite fell in love with her! I’d wanted to write about the Marquis de Sade. Then when I wrote the first few pages of The Fan-Maker, I realized I was in the French Revolution and this woman was being questioned by the Comité de Surveillance. Sade was just around the corner. When I began research and reread Restif de la Bretonne, I found his voice still interesting, but also self-serving and pompous. I imagined he could have been jealous of Sade. Restif saw himself as a libertine and a pornographer, but he lacked Sade’s unbridled imagination. In fact, it was Restif who portrayed Sade as a monster. When Sade made Spanish fly candies for his whores and got them sick because he’d ignorantly used too much, Restif claimed Sade poisoned the women with arsenic. Suddenly I had one of the major villains in the book.
RR: Another villain is Bishop Landa. In the book, you draw a parallel between Landa and Sade. Yet there seems to be a vacillation about whether Sade is a monster or not.
RD: The book confronts the true monster and the false monster. The one who wrote about monstrosity was Sade, but he never committed murder. History has marked him as the perfect monster. Whereas Bishop Landa, the man responsible both for the genocide of the Maya people in the Yucatán and the destruction of their books, is not generally known. Landa was like a good Nazi. He was interested in the Mayan language and culture, and requested their books. Then, once he thought he understood, he had everything burned, because he believed the Maya were devil worshipers. So the main confrontation in the book is between the one who writes the dangerous books and the one who burns the dangerous books. And I am posing the question, who’s the real monster here? Another connection between the worlds of the Maya conquest and the French Revolution is sodomy. One prime reason Sade got in so much trouble was he was a sodomite. And one reason Landa and his Spaniards despised the Maya was because supposedly they were sodomites. Apparently sodomy was part of some sacred Mayan rituals.
RR: You’ve said that to see a writer’s work as biography is unsophisticated, and yet, one could say all your characters are on some level explorations of various aspects of your psyche. If you buy this, are you Sade? In what way? How about the fan maker? The inquisitor? Or is that my role!
RD: A writer, like an actor, takes on an infinite set of possible (and impossible!) selves. It seems to me that so much of being human is our capacity for empathy, our far-reaching imaginations. Writing The Fan-Maker, I was inhabited, turn by turn, by the fan maker, by Sade, by Restif de la Bretonne, by Landa, by Olympe de Gouges. I was seized by “their” voices. In other words, at some point the dream becomes tangible, palpable. At this point the character have bodies, they have voices. The book becomes their book.
RR: Were you thinking about theater when you wrote Fan-Maker? Because the opening reads like a play. The fan maker on trial. The spectators functioning like a chorus.
RD: Sade’s imagination functioned in set pieces; he was a spectator above all—even in his own fantasies. For example, many of the imagined scenes in The 120 Days of Sodom take place behind a peephole. Perhaps it is this distance that makes it possible for Sade to come to pleasure. In prison, cut off from the world, his own fantasies are twice removed. Perhaps this distance explains the violence of the dream. Sade liked to say that had there been a whore in prison with him, he would not have become a writer. Prison set the stage; his reverie functions as a stage; the fixed tableau, obsessive and static, defines the structure and mood of his phantasms.
RR: Did theatrical concerns inform the book in a larger way? Mentions of theater crop up repeatedly. Were you forging a link between theater’s sacred space and the sacredness of text?
RD: The novel is structured like a play—the opening literally takes place on a stage and unfolds as a courtroom drama. Language is magic; it evokes worlds of the mind and, for a time at least, manages to keep the fan maker alive. But because of its subversive power, her clarity enrages those who hear her. In the end language “damns her” and yet . . . the word will not be silenced. Sade will not leave us alone!
RR: Have you done any acting yourself?
RD: When I was a kid, I was cast in the lead role of The Bad Seed. I was worried they saw something in me I didn’t see. Ultimately I didn’t pursue acting because I wanted more privacy.
RR: Charlotte Innes has called your work “narrative painting.” I was struck by your work’s cinematic quality—the bleeding of images, the quick-cut associations like a kind of linguistic montage, the graphic freeze-frames. Do films feed your work?
RD: Just as a painter of the nineteenth century could not help but be influenced by photography, a writer cannot help but be influenced by cinema. Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room, the Brothers Quay’s The Epic of Gilgamesh, these have all had a profound impact on my imagination, as profound as the paintings of Bosch and Vermeer, or the cities, the faces, the landscapes that have touched me deeply.
RR: I loved your essay “The Death Cunt of Deep Dell,” from The Monstrous and the Marvelous. That’s a gnostic concept, right? Woman as seduction and downfall; cunt as trap, snare, coffin. I know buttocks are the order of the day, but is there a Death Cunt in this book?
RD: The Death Cunt appears once, I think, selling sweet rolls in the shadow of the guillotine.
RR: Why do the female characters die? I kept thinking of Thelma and Louise. Women break free, show each other the pink, then have to die. Maybe it’s because the chameleonlike Death Cunt wasn’t around enough to demagnetize the hostility of men toward women?
RD: If the women die it is only because so many women died—especially the strong ones—during the Revolution. The Revolution hated feminists!
RR: Again, why Sade, why now? Is the Devil’s Arsehole our new mascot?
RD: I wanted to come to terms with Sade myself. Writing a novel is such a great excuse to see how you think about something. Writing the book was a way of thinking rigorously about Sade. I can’t say I was influenced by Sade as a writer at all. What I’m grateful for was that somebody dared to push boundaries perhaps as far as they can go. And I think Sade raises important questions. For example, when he says, “Why can’t someone kill his daughter if kings can kill the children of their enemies by the tens of thousands?” he’s doing just what Swift did with A Modest Proposal: “Well, why don’t the Irish just eat their children?”
RR: Are you drawing a parallel with Sade and something in the current climate?
RD: Well, I see a link to the gnostic vision, which intrigues me. It’s a vision of the material world as a hopelessly dark place where the body is a prison, the world a cage, and so on. I think Swift’s vision fits because of his terror of the body. Sade’s fits too because despite his obsession with the body, he’s also frightened of it. And he’s convinced the world of Nature is an evil place where anything is possible.
RR: The world’s a stage, the world’s a cage. Hmm. How does the fan maker fit into that?
RD: She is a very moral being but she’s also a free spirit. While she recognizes that Sade’s vision is a horrific one, she also comes to believe it’s absolutely essential. I, too, turned away from Sade for a long time. I thought him beneath contempt, narcissistic. But I think it’s more complex. Sade had tremendous difficulty ejaculating, which I think explains in part his unbridled imagination. He was alone, he was desperately unhappy—all he had was his cock for company. He was totally engaged in masturbatory fantasies, yet he realized and played with the moral implications. What’s important about Sade is that there are no bad thoughts, no bad words, only bad acts. And I think we should be grateful to him for putting the worst evil on the page, ready to be examined with all its terrifying implications. Because it’s true that the Sadean world leads right to the Holocaust.
RR: What about when Sade trips on the power of his own fantasies, when he thinks his jack-off scribblings have given birth to the guillotine outside his window?
RD: It’s a paranoid’s worst nightmare, that one’s own dark dreams are realized out there in the world. It’s also what readers of Sade have said. What I think is, maybe if we had really read Sade, if our species was capable of dealing with the shit within ourselves, then maybe we could overcome this need to maim and torture others. So in that sense, we have to read Sade, but we have to read him responsibly.
RR: Do you personally subscribe to the gnostic vision?
RD: No. Simply: the moral dilemma gnosticism proposes is interesting: if the world is corrupt and the body filthy, if the entire cosmos is a gigantic mistake, then why bother with concepts such as freedom and responsibility? Why not, in the words of Cesar Vallejo, just blow everything and that’s it! Sade, you’ve noticed, is asking the same question. If matter is intrinsically evil, well then, why not blow everything, who cares!
RR: In Fan-Maker, you also present Sade as full of longing, tenderness even. Was that invented?
RD: It’s true. He had tender friendships. He actually had a very tender relationship with his wife and, at the end of his life, with a much younger woman. One has to make the distinction between life and books. Which is why I went to the letters. The way I see it, the letters are the voice of the man. The books are the voice of the writer.
RR: Would that apply to you as well? Your books are the voice of the writer, and distinct from you as the woman?
RR: I know Gaston Bachelard was a big influence on you. Bachelard talks about letter writing being necessarily an act of love. And also an act of reverie. Did that come into play?
RD: It’s interesting you mention Bachelard. I often do have people writing letters to each other in my books. Because indeed the letter is a space where one dreams the Other. The letter is the living reverie of the Other. Which is why letters are so important.
RR: But when Landa dreams the Other, it’s nightmarish, and dangerous.
RD: That’s right. Because he can only imagine the Other as enemy. Whereas Sade is imagining his friend.
RR: If the fan doubles for a book, and also suggests a cunt, as you have said in Fan-Maker, would you say you want the reader to fuck the book as he or she reads?
RD: Perhaps rather than fucking the book, the reader is seduced by the book, by the voice of the fan maker and Sade’s dark humor.
RR: Are you trying to implicate the reader in the book? To induce reverie?
RD: Of course I am trying to implicate the reader. A book is all about thinking; thinking and dreaming. I think a good book always induces both. An acute reverie. Questions.
RR: In martial arts, there exist war fans, weapons which when opened are studded with razors on one edge and designed to kill. Did you consciously decide to focus on the erotic possibilities of the fan and leave death to the guillotine?
RD: Yes. The fan is seduction, aesthetic delight, the infinite theater of erotic arousal.
RR: What research did you do for Fan-Maker?
RD: I read what Sade read in prison—Rabelais, Laclos. I read his letters, which are very unlike the books; Sade’s voice is bawdy in the letters, in the manner of Rabelais, and, in the manner of Laclos, very elegant. Sometimes he ties himself into knots with frustration, or he succumbs to crazed schemes. But for the most part the letters are engaging, sometimes very funny, even touching. I researched the French Revolution, of course, and the conquest of the Yucatán; I reread Diderot and Restif, and all of Olympe de Gouges—which was painful. I researched fans and spoke with a Parisian dealer. She attempted to sell me an eighteenth-century fan from China that was, in fact, ugly. I studied maps of Paris during the Revolution and dress styles and menus. I read countless letters and journals from the time and so on . . . But the book was a wild horse from the first moment, and I had to struggle to keep up with it. I was certain Sade would give me a hard time, but he showed up, panting and obese, yet somehow impressive and even elegant, every morning like clockwork.
RR: On the cover, the book says “a novel of the Marquis de Sade.” Do you consider this book to be a novel?
RD: Well, it certainly is a small novel. I write small novels. I don’t write sprawling nineteenth-century novels, much as I love those books. I’m really into concision. I think of Calvino as somebody who also writes concise, down-to-the-bone novels. I think The Fan-Maker is very much a novel, because of its scope. I seem to write very small books that engage big issues and sprawl intellectually.
RR: Is your ethnic heritage important to you as a writer?
RD: My mother’s background was Jewish, my father’s Cuban and Catholic. I could not help but be influenced by politics and the collision of cultures. We ate picadillo and we ate pastrami, and if my father introduced me to Justine, he also introduced me to Cuban music and a species of old-world dandyism.
RR: What do you think of women writers, or do you think the category “woman writer” should not be made?
RD: I think the category “woman writer” is absurd.
RR: And yet your work is celebratory of female sensuality. How does that fit with your feeling that the work is not gender specific?
RD: Any work worth its salt will cause the reader to empathize with the characters, to engage with them fully. The reader and the writer both shed their skins. They become permeable, elastic, haunted. In this way every novel is transsexual, fluid, a kind of fabula/chimera. And the reader is, too.
RR: Since dreams, reverie, and memory are so crucial to your work, I wonder what your earliest memory is.
RD: My earliest memory goes back to about eighteen months. I was happily sucking on lobster legs in a restaurant with my parents. There was a big window, light was pouring in, and I was sucking on tiny legs. Bright red and beautiful and very tasty.
RR: What’s the most perverse eating experience you’ve ever had?
RD: Eating snails I had fed thyme and parsley to for a couple of weeks.
RR: Do you think imagination is a precursor to action?
RD: Well, that’s the interesting dilemma. We’re creatures of infinite imagination. The problem is not to contain the imagination, but to make the distinction between fantasy and behavior. To make those moral choices. It seems to me that in a racist culture, and ours is profoundly racist, people need to be attentive. Because if that attitude’s not examined, you are engaging in evil. The banality of evil is an everyday occurrence.
RR: Are you a drug addict? A junkie? Pill popper? Do you drink cough syrup at bedtime?
RD: I do not take drugs, I’m not interested in the drug experience at all. But somebody gave me psilocybin mushrooms a couple of months ago and I had a wonderful experience. I was totally myself, totally rational. But there was a slight shift in my perception. I was in my house, the entire space in which I live was glamorized. A tantric experience! The material world was imbued with light. Even the bathroom tile was pulsating. “Light as knowledge!” And I wondered, what if our species had evolved with this slight shift in perception, where would we be?
RR: Are you now an advocate for consciousness-expanding drugs? Is this a new phase?
RD: I can’t even drink coffee, and I get high drinking tea. Perhaps we should all give these mushrooms a try. The problem is they wear off! And yet, one has to have an experience like that. It’s like a profound amorous experience. One says to oneself, “Remember this is possible.” It reminded me to live fully in the moment.
RR: The word glamour appears a few times in this book. Coming from Los Angeles, the self-proclaimed glam-slam center of the world, I was curious what you meant by it.
RD: “Glamours” are those phantasms created by witchcraft. To be “glamorized” is to be bewitched. It’s a wonderful term dating from the Inquisitions. Hollywood is the modern place where we are glamorized. That experience with mushrooms was glamorizing. I’m surrounded by things of potency: Javanese puppets and Mexican masks. They’re things of power because they’re involved in symbolic theaters, with potent places in people’s cultures. Under the influence of the psilocybin mushrooms, they took on their primary attributes. They were animated as they are on the stage. They were moving slightly, their bodies turning. I was bewitched.
RR: The intricate designs the fan maker painted on the fan’s mounts seem like self-contained reveries, miniature tableaux, homages to imagination, eroticism, and beauty. Were beauty and aesthetics concerns in this book too?
RD: How lovely. Yes. The Revolution made a terrible mistake, as did Castro, of thinking that beautiful buildings were not for the people. This idea that beauty is only for the precious few is a mistake that both elitists and antielitists make. It’s fascist ideology to reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. What I’m calling for is the contrary: we should surpass ourselves. We should have the wildest imaginings, experience the greatest beauty. Places of beauty are also places of mystery, places that set us dreaming—like Old Havana. And at our very best, to use Bachelard’s term, we’re imagining beings.
RR: Now I’m going to ask a series of technical questions, if I may. Do you have a writing regime?
RD: I usually write every day. But it isn’t really interesting, is it? I get up, make a big pot of tea, dance for an invisible audience for about an hour, and then I write for about four or five hours.
RR: You’re lying!
RD: I lost patience with yoga and everything else. But if I can wake in the morning and put on some Cuban music or some Ravi Shankar, I actually dance for an hour. So that’s what I do every day. Leap around the house. Get my blood going. Then I write so I’m still close to a dream state, before the aggravations of the day set in.
RR: Do you write by hand?
RD: Ink on paper, by God.
RR: What kind of pen?
RD: A fountain pen. I’m a great fan of very light fountain pens. So I can write without cramping.
RR: Since you have this background as an illustrator and painter, do you ever sketch out ideas for fiction?
RD: Yes. Sometimes I find it useful to sort of plot where people might be in a room. Or just when I’m kind of fooling around and dreaming, doodling.
RR: Do you do a lot of drafts?
RD: Yes. Things begin to fall into place after maybe five, six drafts. My early books went through ten or twelve drafts. This one didn’t. It fell into place the way I wanted it to. It had that quality Calvino talks about when he says, “light as a bird.” I didn’t want to overwork it.
RR: How do you name your characters?
RD: They usually appear with names. With the fan maker, I didn’t know what her name was. She was the fan maker until Sade wrote to her and then I realized her name was Gabrielle because he named her.
RR: What was the significance of withholding her name until Sade named her?
RD: I write very organically and it just happened that way. I liked it, so I kept it.
RR: Do you keep a notebook?
RD: I try. I have various notebooks, none of them finished. They’re absolute chaos. And I always lose them. For Fan-Maker I had a notebook from Mexico, then I lost it. But my memory of the notebook gave me ideas. What I’ve learned is, I get excited, take notes, and lose them. But if the notes are supposed to be in the book, they’ll reappear on their own. I never find the notebooks until I’m done with the books. That’s when I realize I’d had the ideas earlier.
RR: Do you procrastinate?
RD: That’s where cooking comes in. It’s very nice to be a writer who loves to cook and garden because I do procrastinate but I don’t feel guilty. How can you feel guilty baking bread?
RR: You have been called a “writer’s writer.” Do you agree?
RD: Well, I consider myself a writer’s writer in so far as I consider myself a reader’s writer. And writers are very good readers. But no. I think there are all kinds of readers out there who can read me, and they’re not necessarily writers.
RR: You’ve traveled extensively and moved often. Was there some sense of always looking for the perfect place?
RD: Recently I found myself thinking, maybe it’s Finland with all those trees. Or the Yucatán. And I love the Val de Loire. Though I felt lonely there. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Denver. It’s hard to imagine staying because it’s not mysterious enough. But I’ve come to realize that if landscape is essential to me, people are more essential. But of course I have exceptional friends scattered all over the globe. That’s frustrating.
RR: While you’re writing, do you also read other writers’ works?
RD: I find when I’m writing, and I’m writing all the time, I have to pull myself out of that space in order to read things that don’t have anything to do with the book. I did this recently to read Donald Antrim and Rick Moody.
RR: Do you like the act of reviewing?
RD: Yes. I wish I had more time to do it because I like it and think it’s important, but it takes up a lot of time. It’s demanding.
RR: One review that I tripped across said there was the “whiff of the schoolmarm” about you and your writing. How would you respond to that?
RR: You’ve talked frequently about believing in a sexual soul and feeling you have one. Can you elaborate on that and how it was manifested in this latest book?
RD: I think the sexual soul has to do with sexuality informing one’s entire being. I always think of sexuality as the heart of who one is. I think the sexual soul means one delights in the natural world and isn’t frightened of other bodies or new experiences. A sexual soul is intrigued by other cultures, delighted by new music, by the sensuous experience of language.
RR: Now you talk a lot about delight and pleasure. Does pain figure into your vision of the sexual soul?
RD: It does if you consider the pain of living. When we give ourselves over to someone, perhaps part of the exhilaration is knowing one’s entering a risky space, that one can be hurt. I think the sexual soul is one that is profoundly open to the Other. I can’t imagine a life that’s not informed by pain. It’s part of being human. I worry about our culture, which feels pain is unnatural. A culture in which people are popping pills so they can detour around pain. Then I think the entire culture enters into another, greater pain, a limbo of nonbeing—the most painful space of all.
RR: So, do you like to whip or be whipped?
RD: [laughs] I like pleasure too much . . .
RR: You have said that our society is obscene. What do you mean by this?
RD: Pornography is about objectifying the Other. It’s a way of diminishing the Other, of making the Other safe. If you’re frightened of the body, what better way to negate its reality than to render it pornographic? This is what torturers do all the time, jabbing at cunts and anuses with broken handles. Often torture is sexual. I think it’s a way of denying the Other’s intrinsic reality and beauty and capacity for transcendence. It’s like saying, “You’re just a piece of meat, and nothing more. Here’s the proof.”
RR: Do you ever consider when you’re writing that there’s a sadistic impulse?
RD: No. I write about difficult things at times, and it’s often painful to do that, but it seems necessary. I’m not doing it to be sadistic or masochistic. I’m not trying to hurt myself or the reader. I am trying to move the reader, bring the reader to a place of understanding, a place that might lead to anger, or even action. But mostly I’m trying to lead the reader to knowledge. Then it’s up to the reader to act or not.
RR: Have you read The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry?
RD: Yes, I love that book, especially how she links war and torture, and says the tortured body is a microcosm of the destruction of the country. There’s no way out; your body becomes the whole world. That’s what pain does. There’s no way of remembering or imagining anything else because you’re swept away by the intolerable reality of pain.
RR: I’m still curious about the connection between pain and pleasure, since this is very much a territory of your book—separate from the realm of torture. Do you think ecstasy is only possible if there is a nexus of danger and pleasure?
RD: For me what’s involved with ecstasy is awareness. Ecstasy is by nature fleeting. So it’s not so much danger as it is the sense of impermanence. If one loves deeply, whether it be a beautiful painting or a beautiful face or a beautiful soul, there’s always sadness springing from an awareness that this cannot last. I know there are personalities for whom danger is essential to that experience, but that’s not my way. Thought I do feel as a writer and artist there’s some territory that’s risky because it edges toward madness. Ecstasy is not far from madness.
RR: The risk for the artist then is madness?
RD: The risk is not knowing when to pull back.
RR: Does the exploration of boundaries between pain and pleasure interest you in human relationships?
RD: When people go there, it seems to be a lack of faith in the health of the relationship. I think it’s self-destructive.
RR: There are also conceivably experiential boundaries. Like how sensation feels when it’s pain versus pleasure.
RR: Is accessibility to readership important to you?
RD: I think that’s dangerous. Calvino talks about writing books that are smarter than oneself, about upping the ante, and I really go along with that. I want to write the books that I want to read. That’s my primary concern.
RR: What are you working on now?
RD: In my book The Word “Desire,” there is a story called “The Chess Set of Ivory.” This story—one of the few “autobiographical” pieces I have ever written—has become the first chapter of a novel. I lived in Egypt for a year as a child, and, after all this time, am ready to write a book informed by the memory of that place and time.
RR: Why do you end the book with an incomplete reverie, and the word sadness?
RD: The final reverie Gabrielle tells is also obviously about the book itself at this point. And it’s a sad book. I mean, it’s about the failure of a great promise of the Revolution. And the failure of love. And a life imprisoned. The risks involved in writing real books.