August 9, 2011
Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Carolyn Black
Until I read The Odious Child, Carolyn Black existed foremost in my mind as being the woman who looks exactly like a girl I worked with at McDonalds when I was seventeen, and then I read the book and discovered she was also brilliant. I’ve met her twice, we have several mutual friends, and I’ve never met anyone as well-talked-about behind her back as Carolyn. For good reason, as I discovered when she was kind enough to conduct the following interview with me over a week last month via email.
Carolyn Black’s stories have appeared in literary journals across Canada. “Serial Love” was published in the prestigious Journey Prize anthology, and “At World’s End, Falling Off” won Honourable Mention at the National Magazine Awards. The Odious Child (Nightwood Editions, 2011) is her first collection of short stories.
I: I will begin rereading The Odious Child today, and have been looking forward to it. And I want to begin our interview by asking you the question that has been perplexing me since reading your book for the first time– where did you come from? (As a writer, I mean.) None of the standard equation “Author A meets Author X” lazy reviewer staples quite fits with your style. What writers do you regard as your influences?
CB: Writers I enjoyed reading while writing the collection, who seemed to enter below the ribcage, were Kazuo Ishiguro, AM Homes, and Sheila Heti. I read Muriel Spark throughout high school, and later Nathanael West, Eudora Welty, and Angela Carter. Sexuality, satire, and the surreal are the common elements. I read Miranda July and found her hilarious, but then had a reaction against her, so the first story in The Odious Child is almost a parody of her style, a musing about what would happen if I put a Miranda July character into a story about various degradations … would the childlike language be able to support the story? I am still waiting to have my grand passion, when it comes to influence, to tear out my hair at night because I cannot be a particular writer. I’d really like to have this, an influence whom I wanted to marry and kill, but it hasn’t happened yet although there have been some close calls. I remain optimistic, however, for I am a romantic.
I: See, this is why you’re tricky, Carolyn Black. I’ve never read Miranda July (I had a reaction against her too after seeing her movie, and decided I’d had enough Miranda July for one lifetime) so I missed the joke. I understood what you were up to though—your story is generous enough to contain its own “key” so to speak, as your narrator explains the work she does labelling exhibits at a museum:
“I pile the simple words on top of each other—like beads on a string or pennies in a roll of fetishes hoarded in a cabinet [!]—and connect them with a series of coordinating conjunctions.. The logic must surge forward, as it does when a child tells a story.”
Sometimes it’s not so much that logic surges forward when a child tells a story than the listener indulges the child in listening to a story without surges. There is reward to this of course, as there is with the spare prose of Ishiguro, Sheila Heti, and also you. But do you think that a bit of indulgence is also required on the part of a reader in order to appreciate writing like this? In addition to the usual close reading required of any literary fiction? Or do you think that all literary writers need to be indulged a little bit sometimes?
CB: Are your indulgent readers those readers whose patience is being tried in some way but, still, they persevere? I think this is what you mean. It is curious you would group writers as different as Ishiguro and Heti together, sharing a “spareness” that tried the patience. What would that shared spareness be? Inexplicability? Their works do contain dark matter. Even though Ishiguro writes from inside his characters’ heads, their perceptions of the outer world, to which we do not have direct access, are distorted. The author conceals. And Sheila Heti is not, perhaps, merely concealing, but writing a world where a hidden world does not exist. I remember reading The Middle Stories for the first time, trying to figure out what objects represented. What did the rubber doll mean? What did the flyaway curls mean? Why was a story told about a miserable dumpling that had fallen to the floor? What did it all mean? Why was the author not helping us! The writing was a big fuck you to the reader, which surprised me and made me laugh. I am so used to having everything, every motivation, explained while the plot grinds to a halt. For me, now, writing that explains everything requires a good deal of patience, if only because I’ve read so much of it; writing that resists explication seems beautiful and true.
I: I used Ishiguro and Heti because those were the examples you’d mentioned, and because they both do employ the same “pile of words with coordinating conjunctions” technique mentioned in your story. There is a tremendous amount of meaning, however, underlying Ishiguro’s spare prose— the patience pays off. But Heti, as you note, intentionally avoids subtext. Her work is indeed a big fuck you to the reader, but the message fails to impress me, surprise me, or delight me. There are enough good writers who haven’t yet given up on meaning who I feel my time would be better spent with. I see your point that “writing that explains everything requires a good deal of patience”, but I think there is a middle ground.
I get the feeling, however, that you’re not so fond of middle grounds. Your answer to Alex Boyd’s One Question Interview was fascinating (and surprised me, and made me laugh, I must say): that you don’t empathize with your characters, that to you they exist as “formal elements, not human beings”. This, of course, goes against all convention, though is probably a good part of the reason your stories work as well as they do. But for most readers, character empathy is so often a story’s main point of access. Do you ever fear alienating your readers in this? Through what others channels would you say that your best readers access your work?
CB: A glib response to your first question would be that my readers won’t feel alienated, and those who feel alienated are not my readers. In a way, this is unfortunate because the stories celebrate the alienated, so if a reader feels alienated, he or she is in the perfect state of mind to appreciate the book.
To your second question, about points of access to the book, I hope readers will respond to the humour and absurdity. Humour disarms. If I make readers laugh, they will be distracted for a moment and might find themselves accidentally reading more of the book. In the metaphor of disarmament, though, it is the book gaining access to the reader, not the reader gaining access to the book. This seems right. We do not really “enter a book” or “enter a book’s world”; it enters us. Our brains process it, parts of our bodies that manifest emotion might do so. We might change. The book wants to make love to you. The book wants to attack you. My book will tell you some jokes first.
I: All right, speaking of jokes, I just finished reading “Martin Amis is in my bed. This story is hilarious. It’s also terrifyingly real, and complex: “I have confused author with character, and character with caricature.” There are so many levels at which this story can be approached—I’ll start with the Martin Amis caricature, roaming amongst the party guests with his gaping fly, and his “shrieking falsetto” in the narrator’s ear as she writes: “all he needs to do is repeat my words back to me in that mincing voice to show how trivial, how foolish, how cloying, how trite he finds them.” I am sure that every woman author has heard this voice. But the women don’t get off so easily either— the narrator and her “sisters” are faintly ridiculous, and the reader might concede that maybe Martin has a point.
And this is why your writing is a challenge to take on, because it’s so smart that I’m never entirely sure who you’re making fun of, or if you’re making fun of me (which is fair enough, but I’d like to know about it). It’s the same detachedness that keeps you from empathizing with your formal elements, but it also keeps me from knowing if I’m doing it right, reading your stories, if I’m not just another formal element working under your deft manipulation. I guess, yeah, I’m alienated, in the perfect mindset. My goodness, you are masterful! But it’s scary to be here…
In “Martin Amis…”, what would you say manages to escape your ridicule (in the sense of having managed to escape being made ridiculous, I mean)? If you don’t write with empathy, do you have any sympathies? And what’s the state of your relationship with the real Martin Amis?
CB: I like your idea of the reader as another formal element worked by the author, although I’m not sure any author could be so deft or egomaniacal to believe it possible.
You have chosen a story where both characters are caricatures. They are the most simplified of all my characters. Both male and female writer had to be caricatures if one was a caricature. The conception of a male writing can only exist with its counter, the conception of a female writing. Neither exists in isolation, so could not exist alone in my story. I agree that this might lead to a suffocating ridicule in the story, but I do suffocate during discussions about gender and writing. People tell me I write like a man. I have not answered this question within myself; thus I suffocate. All I can say is that I am a woman, writing this writing, not a man. Maybe, when we reach a critical mass of women writing like men, we will realize that all this time it has been the men who are writing like women? My sympathies live with what happens next, after the story ends. They fall in the white space after the last sentence.
Can any reader have a relationship with the “real” Martin Amis? I only know the work and the artist persona attached to the name printed on the title pages, not the man. Money was the novel I had in mind while writing my story. And I loved it.
I: Along the lines of not-caricatures, it’s worth remarking that you stole “Baby Mouth” right out of events from my life years before I’d even lived them. (My baby was the sullen one strangers would kill themselves trying to coax a smile from in the grocery store. It got tiresome. I wondered if I’d inadvertently ruined her with my postpartum misery. Etc. She’s fine now.) Your protagonist didn’t strike me as a “formal element” here. I had a really visceral reaction to this story. Was that just me, and my experiences, or would you categorize this story a little differently from the others?
CB: I foresaw your experiences and used them without asking. I did not even credit you in the Acknowledgments. I’m sorry it is coming up now, in this public forum…. I remember how surprised, and gratified, I was the first time you told me of your response to that story. I wrote it with very little baby knowledge, but the idea of an almost inhuman baby was hard to resist. They often seemed inhuman to me, at the time. I wondered whether women with children would call me on some gross distortion. I think that story — the relationship between the mother and child, her worry of a detachment that will never end — is not unlike anxieties in the other stories, but the object provoking the worry is different. So perhaps your experience of the story is a personal one? (Whispered query: Does saying something is a formal element preclude readers having a visceral reaction?)
I: (Apparently not. You’re not in control of me after all.) I think that for visceral reasons, “Baby Mouth” was my favourite story in your collection, though what engaged me about so many of the others was the work your characters were involved in—one labels museum exhibits, then there are the women who do research for “a small scholarly publisher of a series of new books about old books”, and these all remind me of your book’s dedication to “people who love order.” I’m not sure there is a writer you’re less like than Barbara Pym (who is my beloved, actually), but her heroines and yours are alike in having these tidy jobs that require meticulousness, and take place in hushed places. I am unsure as to why stories of these people fascinate me so. What is their attraction to you as a writer? How does these characters’ work relate to the way you craft your stories?
CB: I associate the orderly, the meticulous, and those who enjoy hushed places with secrecy. They do not give much away, right away, if ever. It has to be intuited. They challenge and frustrate others, which makes them alluring as characters. They can become trapped in their inner worlds by their obsessions. I am fascinated by how such people negotiate, often unsuccessfully, between the world inside their heads and the outside world. One of your earlier questions was about gaining access to the book, and I realize that many of these characters obsess about gaining access to the interiors of other characters. Is that a hunt for empathy? Maybe they are looking for empathy, trapped in the book of an author who wants them to be formal elements…
I hadn’t made a connection between the craft of the stories and the work of the characters before. I like the tightness of that. It speaks to my own disposition more than an intentional cohesion of form and content.
I: So many of your stories— including your Journey Prize-nominated “Serial Love” and “Tall Girls”, which I just finished reading— are about sex and dating. Stories of sex and dating, of course, are the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, or at least the stories we tell ourselves in order not to kill ourselves, but they’re rarely told the way you tell them. What sets you apart, I think, has to do with what you just mentioned, with your interest in the negotiation between interior life and the outside world, which certainly complicates the connection between two people we’re so familiar with from clichés. Why do you think that sex and dating are so rarely made interesting in contemporary writing? Or are there any writers who you feel are managing to pull it off?
CB: It’s true, stories about dating can be uninteresting, but I just spent ten minutes trying to think of an example of uninteresting sex writing. I couldn’t. (I am equating uninteresting with boring.) I worked at Harlequin for three months and what I felt after a time was not boredom. I knew the journalist heroine would be stuck in the desert overnight with the cowboy and his baby, and I knew that she would wear nothing under her thin t-shirt, and I knew the cold wind would blow, exciting yet shaming the cowboy because he noticed, but I never felt bored by these repeated plotlines, only a growing aversion. Aversion makes me close a Harlequin after a few pages. We have strong feelings about sex, and if ideas in a book conflict, we close the book forcefully or throw it across the room, not the actions of the bored.
I think my book failed sex, in being too tentative. I should have gone farther, given my fascination with the body, distorted bodies, the surreal, and the negotiation between inner and outer. Sex allows for confusion between my world and your world and my pleasure and your pleasure. Normally, people consider the elision of these boundaries delusional. Normally, we are so isolated in our own bodies. Recently, I read J.G. Ballard’s Crash, a cataloguing of mechanical sex acts in wrecked cars, very physical. I also read Maria Luísa Bombal’s House of Mist, an interior monologue of desire. I’ve never read anything quite like it. The heroine lived in her head with her desire. The objects of that desire, their reality in the outside world, was irrelevant in ways that became evident by the book’s surreal end. I would like to write a combination of these two books.
Not surprisingly, this is my longest answer.
I: I just finished reading “Hysteria”, your surreal story in which a woman’s head becomes separated from her body. The woman has been suffering from a pelvic pain she’s been told is all in her head, your story literalizes the metaphor of mind and body being separable, neither head nor body is able to treat the problem on its own any better than they could whilst together. This story’s conclusion is actually incredibly moving, and stands apart from the rest of the book in its lack of detachment (attachment?) and in its didacticism:
‘“We need a new language,” the head says./ Neither head nor body wants to go back in time. They must move past [“hysteria”]—with its tone of condescension and dismissal—but it cannot be ignored either. Certain things must be said to move forward.’
Are your stories being written in that new language the head prescribes? I get the feeling that you’re writing to complicate the polemical binaries around which so many ideas of gender and feminism are argued. What do you think we have to say in order to move forward?
CB: I wish I could claim a new language for my stories, but not yet. I am working on it. In the case of this story, what had to be acknowledged and spoken was the past. I don’t think I want to be the one to hitch that to broader gender issues, although someone else might. Given that you acknowledge my writing might be trying to complicate (or reconcile?) polemical binaries (and isn’t fiction a choice medium for this?), I hope you will understand that my best mode of expression would not be a polemical statement on how we should move forward.
I: Most of your stories seemed like experiments to me, albeit rigidly controlled ones (involving formal elements, of course) with fascinating outcomes. You’ve remarked that you think of your stories similarly. Were their successes hard to come by? Were your hypotheses ever proven wrong? Was it common for a story to fall apart altogether (and now I’m thinking about the failed analogies in “Games”, “words that reach for one another and fall short”)?
CB: Often, I don’t have an outcome in mind when I start writing. I like to ask a question or pose a challenge to myself, to set the story in motion, and then see where it leads. Part of the experiment involves seeing where the story will go or what it will demand, with the final goal of engaging a reader. With some of the more surreal stories — “Hysteria,” for instance — I started by asking, “How far can I go with a premise that would be better as a knock knock joke or one liner? Can it be a whole story? Will it bore me to write? Will there be enough, and what will that enough look like? What lives under the joke?” (I take humour very seriously.) Setting gave me difficulty. Originally, the feral child lived with a family of four in suburbia; originally, the woman in the ceramics museum didn’t work in a ceramics museum and spent the whole story in a supermarket shopping for ingredients to cure wandering womb. Both characters migrated to lonelier, less public existences, perhaps because their unbelievability was more believable with fewer observers.
I: I must say that I’m impressed by deftness with which you’ve managed to basically avoid answering any of my questions, or at least in any way along the lines of what I was expecting. I, apparently, have been most unsuccessful in making a formal element out of you. Though because you seem so determined to be a human being, however evasive, I now plan to delve deeply into your personal life with the following series of questions:
What were your favourite books to read when you were a child? How have your reading tastes evolved throughout adulthood so far? What is the book you most often recommend others to read? What are you reading right now?
CB: One reason for my evasiveness is that I am a bit uncomfortable as an author talking about the work. I would like the readers to make the meanings, so if I talk about the stories, it’s sideways talk.
As a child, one of my favourite books was Michael Ende’s Momo, a fantasy about a girl who goes in pursuit of time thieves (Ende also wrote The Neverending Story). I liked the Narnia books, Tove Jansson’s Moomins, Madeleine L’Engle, Anne of Green Gables, and Edward Gorey, a rather grim author to give a child. Later, Stephen King crept in. My reading tastes are darkening and, at the moment, careening desperately, trying to find a home. Art seems more and more a hostile act: a refusal of direct communication. I’m reading poetry; I just discovered minimalist poetry through Mark Truscott’s Nature. This led me to Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems. I used to tell people to read Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, but I don’t know what I am saying these days. I hope I’ll know soon.