The publication of Danielle Dutton’s SPRAWL in a new edition by Wave Press last year was a major literary event that did not receive the attention it deserved. Dutton, one of the most notable American prose stylists writing today, may be best known as the editor and co-publisher of Dorothy, a publishing project, a press with wide-reaching influence despite publishing only two titles each fall. At Dorothy, Dutton has released works by Amina Cain, Renee Gladman, Leonora Carrington, and in translation Nathalie Léger and Cristina Rivera Garza, as well as debut fiction from Sabrina Orah Mark, Nell Zink, Suzanne Scanlon, and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi. Rereading SPRAWL in the new edition—a novel that remains unlike anything I've read before—made me recall the sensation of first reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Like The Waves, SPRAWL radically reorients the reader to what the narrative space of a novel can be and do, and, most memorably, how that can feel. Consisting of a single paragraph spanning more than a hundred pages, the strange bakelite surface of the novel’s prose creates a retro-futurist scene. Is the novel set in a 1950s white-picket-fenced suburbia made ever stranger? or is it set in an ecologically doomed near-future? At its center is an impressionistic portrait of a couple consisting of the narrator and her husband, Haywood, but this is treated less as a plotted narrative drama of a relationship and more like a David Attenborough documentary studying the mating and nesting rituals of a particular specimen pair of the aspirational white middle class (if Attenborough were an alien observer). The novel is imbued with deep observational analysis (consumption as competition, even sport; the economics of homemaking and desire). SPRAWL is nuanced and familiar, yet also otherworldly and weird, with its focus on ritual, movement, and food within a cul-de-sac’ed neighborhood.
I picked up Dutton’s novel in the new edition eager to reread it anew after learning that a series of photographs by Laura Letinsky had served as an early inspiration. I reached out to Dutton to discuss the role of Letinsky’s photographs in coalescing her vision for the book. What follows is our conversation about the relationship between SPRAWL and Letinsky’s photographs, touching on the link between writing and photography, mood and style, silence and dialogue, and space and time in the novel.
John Vincler: I’ve had the pleasure of reading your novel several times now. I read it shortly after it was first published by Siglio, in 2010, and again recently in the new edition republished by Wave Books with an essay by Renee Gladman. I came to the book this time in the republished edition, at first, wanting to think about how Laura Letinsky’s photographs might have inspired the book and how, as a reader, the experience of reading the book might reflect the photographs, especially her Hardly More Than Ever series (with photographs from 1997 to 2004). I’ve read that these served as an early inspiration for the novel, but could you describe how you encountered her photographs and when you realized they were making their way into your writing?
Danielle Dutton: I first came across the photographs when a copy of Hardly More than Ever arrived at the office of The Denver Quarterly, where I was, at that time, associate editor. This must have been around 2005. I was opening the mail. I suppose it was a review copy (which seems incredibly generous, since it’s this large, gorgeous hardback), but I’m sorry to say that it never got reviewed because I stole it. Just tucked it into my bag and got on the bus. Anyway, I was already, at that time, writing the initial fragments that I’d eventually stitch together to form the weirdly quilted fabric of SPRAWL, but it was very early days, and the photographs entered the space of my writing almost immediately after I got the book home.
As I remember it, the second I saw them I knew they belonged to me, somehow, in that way that something—like a song, a place, another book, whatever—can just seem to naturally belong to whatever you’re writing at that moment. I was already trying to write a sort of eerie or buzzing domesticity, and then I saw those photographs and pow.
“On the table is a white tablecloth, a honeydew melon, two peaches, a paper napkin, two plates, two spoons, a lollipop.”
This passage near the start of the novel (page six of the new edition) is the closest, and maybe the leanest description I found that seems to have its inspiration explicitly in Letinsky’s work. There are other, more ekphrastic passages, but what I found remarkable in later re-readings, and looking for these sorts of passages, is that there are many descriptive passages, often utilizing lists, that could be Letinsky photographs. However, once I started counting these passages and comparing them with her photographs, there are more of passages than there are photographs in the series.
Could you say more about the process of looking (or remembering looking) at the photos and writing, specifically the use of particular photographs and the relationship to ekphrasis? Was ekphrasis a part of your process, explicitly? Did you feel like you were making your own photographs in writing?
I love this question and I love that photograph. In retrospect, like if I were teaching my own book (gasp!) in the class I teach called Fiction and the Visual, I would probably teach it as an ekphrastic text, but I’m not sure I thought of it that way when I was writing it.
I remember I wanted to catalog the photographs, not to enliven them. I wanted the eeriness and the flatness of the photographs to be reproduced in my text. When you read about ekphrastic poetry it’s not uncommon to read something like, “he turns the painting into a poem,” but it was much more like I was trying to turn my writing into a photograph. To me, the way to do that, just my initial impulse, was to list what I saw. I’m not sure that sounds very sensible, but my feeling was that within the larger fabric of the text, those lists appearing as they did without context would actually translate or transform something of the energy of Letinsky’s images into the book, like magic. These lists become objects within the text (which is itself a sort of object, a block of text), and that objectness was important to me, for a bunch of different reasons. To be even more practical: I kept that copy of Hardly More than Ever open on my desk for the entire year or so I was writing SPRAWL, and whenever I would sense it was time, I would choose another image and bring it in.
I like imagining the book open on your desk throughout the process of writing. And I find it funny that you say you wanted to catalog Letinsky’s photographs and not enliven them. Which is, of course, what you do. On the one hand, the list description above is as minimally matter of fact as I can imagine; but on the other, your book takes on the distinctive strangeness of Letinsky’s photographs, or a strangeness that I at least read as very much kindred to Letinsky’s work, but on a different scale. What at first glance seems, in her photographs, like banal, domestic still lives, upon further looking, quickly begin to vibrate with a mysterious strangeness that unsettles the domestic, hinting at the ravenous, the erotic, sometimes the violent, all as an undercurrent within a sort of mannered tableau. That quality is in the novel too.
Which leads me to ask, was the book opened on your desk to prompt you to write concretely about fruit and silverware, table clothes and counter tops, or do you think they led you to some more abstract quality in your prose, or perhaps they affirmed in another medium a space or mood you were already imagining? Which is to ask, did you sense a kinship deeper than a sort of descriptive transcription? I suppose I’m asking about an ineffable aspect: mood in the photographs as it relates to style in the novel. SPRAWL has one of the most distinctive and original prose styles I’ve encountered in contemporary fiction. And after several readings I still can’t quite puzzle out how it works—though it most certainly does. You create within the novel a space both familiar and unreal. I wonder if this might also relate to what you just said about wanting to turn your writing into a photograph?
I guess before, when I said “pow,” I meant all the smart stuff you just said: for one thing, yes, having her images nearby kept me constantly close to spoons and candies. I’ve been thinking about it though and I’m not sure I can say whether her work led me to a mood or whether the mood I was already conjuring led me to recognize her photographs. I agree with you that they seem to share more than the images/lists. What I can say is that having her work there kept reminding me of what I was up to. I could see it in her photographs and so I believed in it. I’ve never written anything with the same speed and confidence with which I wrote SPRAWL, and I wonder now if believing in the value of Letinsky’s work had something to do with that.
You know, the more we talk about this the more it does seem like I was imagining my narrator and her husband, Haywood, into the scenes implied in the photographs. Again, this is not something I was actively trying to do. I wasn’t literally doing this. But there is something hedonistic and wasteful and sexy and sad about the photographs, and I suppose you could also say that about their marriage.
And then of course the photographs are silent (photographs don’t talk out loud) and no one really talks to anyone in SPRAWL. People speak, but they don’t get anywhere when they do. Maybe that’s another way I was making my novel more like an object (a photograph) than a novel.
I love the relationship between the narrator and Haywood—which reminds me that Letinsky’s photographs are unpeopled still lives. But they do make you imagine what actors and actions could result in the depicted scenes. How do pieces of fruit end up being placed on the cornered edge of a table, and is that a floor lamp toppled over in the corner with only some of its cord and its wire base barely showing? The answer is surely something hedonistic and wasteful and sexy—that’s it exactly.
Your book takes the form of a single paragraph, and this makes it, as you say, like an object. And it is a like a photograph in that it is the meticulously captured world we, as readers, peer into. But it also is expansive, layered, and requires time and movement. I want to end by asking you about time in the novel. Your novel feels of the present, wholly contemporary while also simultaneously being pulled in two opposite directions: toward some mythic idealized (and thus always corrupted) 1950s Americana and at once forward to some speculative future. There are flashes in the novel that knowingly destabilize one’s sense of time. This first occurs early on: “So I stand in front of the television holding the remote control. I aim it at myself for what must be twenty years.” The book ends with a sentence of the same genus, but I won’t give it away here. It wasn’t until at least my third reading of the novel that I began to wonder if these might also describe photographs (a twenty-year-old photograph and an eighty-five-year-old one, respectively), imagined others perhaps, but certainly of a different sort than Letinsky’s. Near the middle of the novel, you have the narrator relay this: “Then I say totally different things, and then the exact same things over and over for what must be a thousand years.” Is it too much to read this as a bit of meta-consciousness in the novel? That a novel is crafted as an original creative work, but then it can only keep repeating itself. A novel moves, but it also fixes. Did your thinking about time and the novel change while writing the book? Or was time a problem at the forefront of your mind while writing?
Time was always part of my thinking about the book. For one thing, I wanted it to be of no particular moment in American history, and so to imply all of it somehow. I needed time to be rubbery, hence those lines that imply or pretend that huge swaths of time pass in an instant. The way boredom can feel. Also, something that probably no one really notices is that SPRAWL, despite all its time traveling, actually covers the span of one year, or four seasons. It might not be important that I thought of it that way, but it was important to me at the time. When I wrote SPRAWL, I was very much in this space of not being sure if I wrote fiction or poetry. Well, I always thought I was writing fiction, but other people didn’t always seem convinced. I wanted SPRAWL to be read in the tradition of the novel, but I was also at that time pretty deeply invested in thinking about poetry and poetics. I kept making these overt gestures to indicate time passing, the passage of time being the thing that made the book feel, even if in some hysterical or hilarious way, very much like a novel. What happens in a novel? Time passes. So I got really into transition words like “meanwhile” and “then” and “later.” And those time-traveling sentences. The space of a year, etc.
I like the idea that a novel moves but is also fixed. Of course, it’s not only a novel that keeps repeating itself. We keep repeating ourselves. America does. Boom and bust! It’s this terrifying reiteration that just stretches on and on, strip mall after strip mall. We can’t seem to imagine planning beyond immediate pleasure or recompense, and so we’re killing our chances to continue to exist, as a species, on this planet. That was always part of the book as well. Maybe that’s another reason why the seasons were important to me? Many of my earliest memories involve trees or plants. I love plants, and they regularly make their way into my writing—often, now that I think of it, as markers of seasonal time.
One final question: Is there an image posted above or a book open on your desk now, any particular image or set of images you are thinking toward that is kindling your current or future writing?
Two are in sight right now:
Above my computer is a painting I inherited from my dad’s parents. It’s a framed print, I mean. Anonymous. It’s got two trees in the foreground with a stream or lake carrying the eye back to a tiny cabin almost hidden in the background. The sunset is reflected in the water and while most of the painting is dark the sunset is brightly pastel: yellow, orange, pink, blue, lavender. It’s the sort of painting a person might hang ironically, but I think it’s so pretty.
The other is Kiki Smith’s Pool of Tears 2, which I’ve had as the wallpaper on my computer for nearly two years. I’ve been trying to write a novel in which it figures. It’s been slow going. I only just realized it might be Pool of Tears 1 that I should be looking at instead.
Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life, SPRAWL, and Margaret the First. Her writing has also appeared in Harper’s, BOMB, Fence, Noon, The Paris Review, etc. In 2009 she co-founded the feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project. She teaches literature and writing at Washington University in St. Louis.
Laura Letinsky, MFA from Yale University’s School of Art, 1991, is a Professor in the Department of Visual Art at the University of Chicago, and a recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship and Anonymous Was A Woman Award. Exhibitions include the Mumbai Photography Festival, Mumbai, India; MIT, Cambridge, MA; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; The Photographers Gallery, London; The Denver Art Museum, CO; Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; and The Renaissance Society, Chicago. She is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery, NYC.
John Vincler is editor for Visual Culture at Music & Literature.
Thanks to the artist Laura Letinsky for the kind permission to publish her photographs along with this interview.