Taylor Davis-Van Atta: Your first two books were deemed "acceptable"—were reviewed and won awards—because, I suppose, they could be read as "social novels" in that they expose readers to a time in history, a culture, that is lost to most Americans, or is at least far from their own experience, which is valued by whoever is in charge of determining such things. But Draining the Sea and The Mirror in the Well, which were poorly reviewed, both in terms of the quality and quantity, are evidently not acceptable. Do you have thoughts about why your first two books received a good amount of attention and the second two got virtually none?
Micheline Aharonian Marcom: Yes, “social” novels where perhaps the reader can “learn” something about foreign places and cultures are en vogue—but only, it seems to me, if the book has a fairly easy “access” to the American reader. And while there’s nothing wrong with reading a book and also learning about a different time and place—I too have done that through reading Homer or Hawthorne or Taduesz Borowski or Isaac Babel—I do think we ought to be wary of taking some kind of “exotic journey to foreign lands” via a novel, of facile and superficial understandings. Books are first and foremost aesthetic achievements, and they are not a sociological or historical tract or travel guide. But books do allow for a deep connection: the consciousness of a reader with the text and story of the book—and that is amazing and radical and very particular to the mode of reading.
I think Three Apples Fell From Heaven was easier to read in some ways: it is a more “character-driven” book. Whereas, the last book of that trilogy, Draining the Sea, was less about exploring character and more about how in language trauma sustains itself and manifests. It was a “language-driven” book: strange and repetitious and seeking the unknown at the edge of the known world.
The Mirror in the Well was, I'm guessing, too vulgar for most tastes with so many “cunts” and so much cunnilingus. I think in part I was trying to rehabilitate that great Old Norse word, cunt, in the English of our time, where, especially in the US, it still has the power to shock. It’s curious how offensive it is, even in our supposedly sexually open society, to say “cunt” in literary fiction.
TDVA: For me, the artistic organization and execution of a novel is far more important any social "statement" it might make. Social novels, which I'm broadly defining as those John Hawkes wanted nothing to do with, are mainly what's being produced in the US today, and they're boring. A writer's exploration of language is what’s compelling for me. Sentences. Repetition…to the degree that words lose all meaning and before assuming new meaning. I read each of your novels as if it's a new experiment, and in each you're questioning the way in which language operates (and cannot operate). It's as if you're saying: if English cannot express the most difficult or privately hidden emotional truths, can't express the cultural toll of genocide, then you're going to draw attention to the paradox of writing in a language that cannot express truth by writing in unbeautiful, broken, corrupted language… So to my mind all of your novels fall outside of the acceptable model. Has your thinking about what a novel is and can be evolved since Three Apples Fell From Heaven? Has the exploration or interrogation of language always been what you're most interested in as a writer?
MAM: Finally, that's the issue for me: I am just so bored by a lot of current writing, I can't read it, the plots grinding along, but, as you say, the language, the sentences, flabby, like chewing gum…I'm not against realism or naturalism as a style, but so few do it really well, get the sentences to sing, are wildly imaginative, and I dislike that TV-style dialogue that is evident in so many books. On the other hand, I love the stories from The Thousand and One Nights, and Dickens and Chekhov and Bulgakov and how a wonderful and fully imagined story, written well, is a great pleasure. Left to my devices, each book for me is an exploration: how to tell what it is I'm interested in inquiring into, each form, pattern, made book by book…I follow my pen, my obsessions, and am interested in how form can be wild.
But, as it happens, I'm writing a narrative book right now and it's interesting, I’m learning in this novel to stay on top of time and move things along in a linear progression, doing it quickly to see what it looks like, feels like, and it's a story I care a lot about so that keeps it interesting: Central American migrants crossing Mexico on cargo trains to get to the US.
I appreciate what you say about my books. I think that yes, they are seeking often to make space for the unsaid and the silences of language and history. It's always been my interest to in some ways push against English, get it to “do more” in a way. Of course Faulkner is one of my big inspirations, he taught me how syntax can be radical. Wallace Stevens teaches me that too.
I guess now I've written enough books that I feel more able to consciously “play,” but still a lot of writing in first drafts is unconscious for me, I follow my inklings, my interests, the rhythms and images I hear and see.
TDVA: Your writing has always reminded me of an essay by William Gass (“Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”) in which he talks about “fiction [as] the creation of a verbal world.” In each of your books—particularly Draining the Sea and The Mirror in the Well—there is obsessive repetition of certain sets of words and images that accumulate meaning, strange meaning that makes sense only within the context of that particular novel. I'm thinking particularly of the image of the boy tied to the cypress tree in Draining the Sea. It's perhaps the most distressing image in any of your books and it comes uninvited to the narrator's mind compulsively, resurfaces, each time carrying a bit more power, more history and memory. And its repetition lends the book rhythm. Could you talk a bit about this image? It seems as if it could be the source of the whole novel. What initiated that book for you? What were you “inquiring into”?
MAM: I would say the mind is making the patterns. There's no way I could come up with the repetition “logically” in some ways, and the book is, I suppose, interested in the natural ways in which things emerge and reemerge in the mind. How trauma is a repetitive mode in the mind. That said, I spend a lot of time fine-tuning and editing my books, when I do bring my conscious mind strongly to bear and try and make sure the book holds as a thing…as a object: that it has an arc and is not ramblings but, in fact, a book.
The image of the cypress in Draining the Sea came from the trips I made to the village of Acul while visiting Guatemala in those years I was writing the novel. And I was taken to that tree, quite an ordinary tree, but I had already read about what had happened during the time of the massacre years before, and somehow that became the central image for me of the massacre. I know when writing that one of the things books do is cull the symbolic thing, or moment, which has to stand in for a whole. And so in Draining the Sea, we return again and again to the tree, hopefully each time revealing a little bit more, the world slowly coming to life, the full impact of that awful day of the massacre felt and inhabited. But you know I forget also, it's been a long time since I wrote that book. I know at that time it was central, the men in the ditch, the tree the boy was tied to. When writing about such things I am aware that there is no way my book can “record” everything that's happened, can even, in a way, “do justice” to the suffering and tragedy of that day, that era, in Guatemala, and to all of the dead. And one image has to do a lot of work, to in some manner encode the story. Most of my work has been very image-driven: a girl walking to a well in Three Apples Fell From Heaven, the orphan boys in the sea in The Daydreaming Boy, the tree in Draining the Sea…
I think in part Draining the Sea was inquiring into what feels to me like a great loneliness in America. The book begins: “We are more alone in this city—Marta.” And, as always, the ways in which conventional historical narratives don't contend with the real enough—for one thing, they don’t include what history feels like. I wanted in a way to collapse history in that book, make a book that collapsed space and even time and put two things side by side so that their relationship to one another could be felt and experienced. So in Draining the Sea the American man in Los Angeles and the Guatemalan girl from a small village are together. They were in many ways allied by history: Ronald Reagan and Rios Montt, the dictator in Guatemala, were partners, the bombs dropped near her village were made in Kansas. And in the book these relations, I hoped, could be seen. Could be felt.
And I guess I am always struck by how the language of oppressing the “other” is pretty standard from place to place. In my mind, the Armenians of 1915 and their descendants and the Ixil-Maya must be together in a book! And so they are…
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