‘Her aura as she moved onto the stage was both casual and nervous. It was clear that she had done this before. She was not going to stumble or fumble to get the audience on her side, but that confidence was matched by a guardedness, an unease, and a way of maintaining a distance that might have been theatrical. I was not sure. In one of her books, she writes of a character: “Once she dreamed, on the night before a reading she was to give, that rather than words on paper, there were tiny objects linked one to another, which she had to decipher instantly, and turn into words, sentences, a story, flawlessly, of course.”
‘She was wearing black; she had a glass of whiskey on the rocks in her hand. Her delivery was dry, deadpan, deliberate. There was an ironic undertow in her voice, and a sense that she had it in for earnestness, easy emotion, realism. She exuded a tone which was considered, examined and then re-examined. She understood, it seemed to me, that everything she said would have to be able to survive the listeners’ intelligence and sense of irony; her own intelligence was high and refined, her sense of irony knowing and humorous.
‘I had not come across anyone like her before. It was May 1990 and both of us were touring what they call the United Kingdom in the company of an English writer. All three of us were promoting books. Although I had been in New York once and had read American fiction and seen the movies, I had never really known any Americans. Thus I could not place Lynne Tillman. All I could do was watch her.
‘One thing she said made me laugh. When our English friend spoke of London and how hard it was to live there since it was so large and one had to travel miles and miles to have supper with friends, and then, if they moved, one often had to travel farther and indeed farther to see them, Lynne looked pained at all this talk of traveling and said: “Oh, no. In New York, if someone moves more than a few blocks away, you just drop them.”
‘In one of the cities, there was a friend of mine in the audience. The following morning, as we were setting out on a long journey by car, our English colleague having found her own transport, I had a feeling that Lynne was fragile. But it did not stop her asking about my friend. I still could not read her tone and was not certain that there was not an edge of mockery in her voice, perhaps mockery at the very idea of having a friend who lived in a provincial part of the United Kingdom.
‘I decided it was time to do something.
‘“Do you like Joni Mitchell?” I asked.
‘“No,” she replied instantly.
‘“Well, my friend was like Richard in Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard.’ Would you like me to sing the relevant lines?”
‘“No,” she said again.
‘As I seemed to be preparing to sing, she appealed to the driver.
I began to sing. (I am not a good singer.)
Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most night with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright.
‘Lynne Tillman moaned as we drove north. And even when the singing ended, she moaned more in case it might start again. I gave her ample feeling that the risk was high, as I took her through the lyrics of “A Case of You,” “California,” and “Little Green.” Often, I threatened to sing the words out, rather than simply recite them, just to help us on our journey, but even the driver protested. I liked the idea that Lynne Tillman, who I thought then—wrongly, as I discovered—was the coolest person alive, had met me, a boy from a small town in Ireland who was a complete fool and had not learned any strategies to disguise this dreadful and shameful fact. It might not have helped that my reading the previous evening had given strong intimations that I had been trained in the old school to understand the importance of being earnest and that I had not gone to any other school.
‘During the days that followed, Lynne Tillman got a pain in her back. She often had to lie flat on the ground. Maybe it was caused by the English motorways; maybe it was caused by having to do a reading every night; maybe it was a leftover from jet lag. But there remained a feeling in the air that her back pain had been caused by me. The pain was not improved by my attempting at one point to pat her heartily on the afflicted region and telling her that she would be better soon. But slowly, perhaps because I was reading her book in the evenings and listening carefully to her readings, I was learning that she was a much more complex figure than I had imagined when I saw her first. She was more thoughtful and serious somehow, also kinder and more considerate and oddly vulnerable. And also, more than anything, she was a rich noticer of strange things and a good maker of sentences and phrases.
‘In the 1930s, as the writer Samuel Beckett tried to make sense of himself, he attended a lecture by Carl Jung in London in which Jung outlined the case of a patient, now adult in age, who had not actually been born, whose spirit, or essence, or essential self had not come into the world when the body did. For any writer of fiction, such an idea is fascinating. (“Sometimes,” Lynne Tillman wrote, “Madame Realism felt as if she just didn’t exist.”) For many people such a condition is almost normal; for writers it is almost a regular part of being alive in the world and a central part of the process of inventing character in fiction. In much fiction done in the years after Jung’s lecture, there is always something missing, something which has not been integrated. The point is to explore that lovely missing thing, a thing whose very absence may indeed constitute the self, the core, the ache. It is possible that the idea of a personality or a person without this flaw, or this gift, or whatever we want to call it—Beckett liked to call it Murphy or Watt or Malone or Moran or Winnie—is a myth or a dream or an image from an advertisement for something, and that it is the task of novelists to dramatize the gap between the strangeness of being alive filled with glittering and fleeting desires, filled with shattering absences, and the ideal, whole, and intolerable completed person—what we might also think of as creating the credible character. “Identity is such a fragile thing,” Tillman’s Madame Realism muses in an essay on Freud. In an interview conducted by Tillman for Bomb magazine, the artist Peter Dreher remarked: “But maybe, more important, is a feeling that perhaps I was born with, that everybody is born with: that one is somehow floating between thoughts, between literature, speaking, continents, races, and so on. I think, more or less, each of us today, maybe more than a hundred years ago, has this feeling.”
‘This feeling is inhabited with relish and sometimes with shivering awe by Lynne Tillman in her fiction and in her critical writing. Her style has both tone and undertone; it attempts to register the impossibility of saying very much, but it insists on the right to say a little. So what is essential is the voice itself, its ways of knowing and unknowing. An observation; a dry fact; a memory; something noticed; someone encountered; a joke; something wry; a provocation; something playful. This is not, as in Beckett, a way of inviting company to the dark and lonely ceremony of being. Tillman is content to put these items on the page, and hold and wield her tones, merely because they are in the world; they occurred to her at a certain time; they are part of the day and maybe the night. She is ready to admit them because they live in the mind, and she is excited by the mind, its freedoms and its restrictions, how it wanders and becomes voice and how the voice slowly takes on the guise of a presence moving from the ghostly to the almost real, as the pages are turned.
‘There is a game in David Lodge’s novel Small World in which the highly educated characters vie with each other to name famous and canonical books that they have not bothered to read. (The winner, by the way, has not read Hamlet.) For anyone writing now, or indeed for many readers, there is a serious edge to this game. Increasingly, the canon, the accepted list of great and good books, seems like merchandise, something created to be consumed, carefully packaged for you and all your family. The canon seems concerned to hold on to power, the power of the middle ground. Other voices, other systems of seeing, are excluded with something close to deliberation; they are reduced to being marginal, eccentric. Slowly then what is out of fashion moves out of print.’ — Colm Toibin
On Lynne Tillman
Finding the Question That Hasn’t Been Asked: An Interview with Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman on what it actually means to be a writer
Lynne Tillman on What to Say When People Ask You Why You’re an Artist or Writer
Lynne Tillman by Geoffrey O’Brien
Getting Her Way: The Latest by Lynne Tillman
What, Exactly, Would Lynne Tillman Do?
Smirking Obsessives: a Primer on the Novels of Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman on Andy Warhol
The Substitute: Fiction — Lynne Tillman
In Praise of Lynne Tillman
Something real in fiction: on Ryan O’Neill and Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman on Brush Fires in the Social Landscape
Where’s the Line Between Criticism and the Novel?
promiscuous with experience: lynne tillman
LYNNE TILLMAN: SAYS BYE TO REASON AND HI TO EVERYTHING
MY TENTATIVE, QUERULOUS SAMPLINGS
Lynne Tillman: Declaration of Disinclinations
Give Us Some Dirt
Buy ‘Men and Apparitions’
Reading by Lynne Tillman, 5.16.14
In Conversation: Lynne Tillman and Eileen Myles
The Intersection of Writing and Sculpture: Writer Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman: Words Are Images, Too.
Lynne Tillman reading at the Poetry Project
Interview by Lydia Davis
from electronic book review
Lydia Davis: Some writers I know are very unhappy writing, and some fly high. On a scale of one to ten, from agonized to elated, what were your feelings in the midst of working on American Genius, A Comedy?
Lynne Tillman: I ran the gamut, from one to ten. One was my not being able to find the voice that moved it all, told it. A ten was, for instance, when I was writing the séance scene, which was so wacky I couldn’t believe I was doing it. I mostly enjoyed writing the book, when I was writing it. Finding ways to interpolate all that curious information was fun, like making and solving the puzzle. As number one, I’d also include the interruption of teaching. I couldn’t just pick the writing up and put it down. Those very long sentences required a certain cadence and mindfulness I had to get back to each time. Finally, I quit one job and wrote much of it in eight months, though the whole took about five years.
LD: Do you think there’s any correlation between work that goes well or easily, and how it turns out? I mean, does work that goes well and is enjoyable to write turn out better than work that is difficult almost all the way through? What has been your experience of this?
LT: I’m not sure about that correlation in my work. A reader might feel it, which would bother me, because I want to make the writing seem effortless, at least not labored. I don’t want readers to get bogged down in unnecessary language or linguistic frills. If they need to go back to the beginning of a sentence, I don’t want it to be because it’s cluttered with verbiage that doesn’t ultimately augment and elaborate clearly even contradictory or irrational sets of thoughts. As a reader, and writer, I dislike overwrought sentences.
LD: I love the form of American Genius – what you have just described, the monologue that circles back on itself and picks up where it left off over and over again. The obsessive monologue. I’m not sure the following writers use exactly the same technique, but they are certainly cousins of yours in this: I’m thinking of Thomas Bernhard, but also, W.G. Sebald. Can you say something about how you feel about those two, and are there perhaps other writers working in a similar form that you feel even closer to?
LT: I’ve read Sebald’s The Emigrants, and some Bernhard novels. I didn’t feel close to The Emigrants, which is weird, because he’s a philosophical writer with history on his mind. Maybe this seems strange, but I thought an earlier novel of mine, Motion Sickness, which came out in 1991, had common ground with it. Bernhard is a different case. I feel closer to what he was doing. His sentences, their single-mindedness and fury, have a very different energy and speed from those in American Genius, I think. With Bernhard, you can hardly breathe when you read him. I wanted American Genius’s sentences to make room for breathing, to shift the speed at which one reads. His are always vehement, more directed, like a political tract, in the Viennese tradition of Karl Kraus or Otto Muehl. Henry James, with his bending of sentences to produce diverse, qualifying, tricky, subtle reservations, was important to American Genius, but again, I wanted something different. More contrariness, more disjunction and odd change ups – the writer as pitcher!
LD: To get back to those long sentences you were talking about – they certainly are mesmerizing as one reads them or hears you read them aloud. There is an amazing connectivity through the whole book – one sentence seems absolutely to lead to the next. When you had to pick up the writing after being away from it for a while, how did you get back into that rhythm? Did you have any special tricks or techniques?
LT: All I could do was keep re-reading what I’d already written, to find that voice and rhythm again. It’s another mind I was trying to re-inhabit, with its own peculiarities and turns and changes. I usually go back in order to go forward, but with American Genius, I did it again and again, like listening to a song over and over and being in its spell. When that happened, I felt I could continue.
LD: How do you react to the more conventional or traditional form of storytelling, as practiced these days? Do you find it to be exhausted? Or does it depend on the one employing it, the writer?
LT: I wish there were a way to avoid categories like traditional, innovative, experimental. They don’t seem helpful at all, for writers or readers. They aren’t for me. It seems to me it’s how we read, rather than what we read. This begs your question, though. Dull is dull, turgid turgid, boring boring. Much contemporary writing is formulaic, following codes of one kind or another. There’s the well-made novel, the fragmented story. I like complexity in stories, or different possibilities for interpretations, for experiencing language in all its variations. I don’t mean complexity only because of a book’s intellectual content, but also emotionally, psychologically, philosophically, stylistically. I’m thinking of Jean Rhys, for instance. If I read with excitement, do I care if it’s traditional or innovative? Roth’s The Radetzky March? Henry Adams’ Esther? Virginia Woolf. Henry James. Edith Wharton. George Saunders. You. But what is innovative? Is it style and/or the way a thought is thought, or both: what the idea is, how it gets on the page? Ultimately, it’s what your expectations are as a reader, what you want to find there, which decides whether a form is exhausted. So, yes, I think it’s the writer who employs it.
LD: Here’s a question you’ve probably been asked a few times, but I’m curious. If you’re writing in the first person about material some of which is autobiographical, how do you separate the persona of the narrator from your own persona? I mean, I never felt, reading the book, that Lynne was talking personally to me about her own life – I truly felt that an invented character was talking – but how do you achieve that necessary distance, and how do you pick and choose what “real” material to include and what to leave out?
LT: By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.
Everything’s borrowed from a big cauldron of experience, from culture. I can demonstrate that most easily in American Genius by my writing about animals, pets. Most people have them or had them. They’re emotional hot points. It doesn’t really matter that “I” had pets as a child. This was not my material alone, I knew how others felt about their animals. So I took specific events to embroider the reader into the character’s psyche and story. As to leaving out, I leave out most of it, what is too present in me, what I sense is still mostly for and about me. Leaving out is the most necessary and urgent decision when using autobiographical matter.
LD: One last question, about your life in the city! You take a deep interest in visual art, and in film, and you have been involved in both for many years, often writing about them or even collaborating with visual artists, as in your 2002 story collection This Is Not It. How do you achieve the amazing balance you seem to have, between your various non-writing activities – seeing art, going to readings and openings, meeting with artists, etc. – and the sort of single-minded focus you bring to bear on your writing, a necessarily lonely art?
LT: I’ve always wanted to do a million things; I never wanted to feel I was one thing or another, limited in any way. I think that’s why I write different kinds of novels, and stories in different styles. I decided to be a writer at eight, but I grew up with movies, TV, was taken to museums, my mother was an amateur painter, my father loved books, had an eye for color and was himself very creative. My older sisters were readers, one wanted to be an actor, the other a ballet dancer. I was influenced by all of it. Also, I’m given to melancholy and depression, so getting out, seeing art and hearing music, forces me from my tiny world into the bigger one. I admire the various ways people think, what they make and want to do to feel good. Visual art represents other kinds of cerebration and approaches to emotion. Listening to a solo by David, my husband, who’s a bass player, I see/hear forms for writing. But he always plays in ensembles of some sort. But all of this affects my writing, how I do it, what I write about. As you said, though, to write you have to be alone. I have that need also, and more than that, I need to write. I wish I didn’t, but I do.
Lynne Tillman Men and Apparitions
Soft Skull Press
‘The time is now, and Ezekiel Hooper Stark is thirty-eight. He’s a cultural anthropologist, an ethnographer of family photographs, a wry speculator about images. From childhood, his own family’s idiosyncrasies, perversities, and pathologies propel Zeke, until love lost sends him spiraling out of control in Europe. Back in the U.S.A., he finds unexpected solace in the image of a notable nineteenth-century relative, Clover Hooper Adams. Zeke embarks on a project, MEN IN QUOTES, focusing his anthropological lens on his own kind: the “New Man,” born under the sign of feminism. All the old models of masculinity are broken. How are you different from your father? Zeke asks his male subjects. What do you expect from women? What does Zeke expect from himself? And what will the reader expect of Zeke—is he a Don Quixote, Holden Caulfield, Underground Man, or Stranger?
‘Kaleidoscopic and encyclopedic, comic, tragic, and philosophical, Men and Apparitions showcases Lynne Tillman not only as a brilliantly original novelist but also as one of our most prominent contemporary thinkers on art, culture, and society.’ — Soft Skull Press
p.s. Hey. This weekend I’m using the blog to excitedly help usher the new and incredible novel by fiction master Lynne Tillman onto the planet. Men and Apparitions officially comes out on Tuesday, but it’s gettable now. Tillman is one of the very best writers America has occasioned, and her new novel might easily be her best. Perusing the post and then scoring the thing that causes it to exist are very highly recommended. ** David Ehrenstein, I echo your viva!, of course. And I agree that you are indeed correct about ‘one of the greatest films ever made’. Everyone, Mr. Ehrenstein suggests you pop over here and watch ‘one of the greatest films ever made’, an assessment with which I totally agree. As you might remember, I did a big post on Connor’s films on the murdered blog featuring imbeds galore, but the Connor Estate wrote to me and asked me to take it down because Connor didn’t want his films watched online, so I did. ** Steve Erickson, Hi. The newest Baldwin films are virtually all shorts that he has made as parts of larger projects into which he was invited. I saw ‘Les Garcons Sauvages’. I feel very supportive of what it’s trying to be, but, honestly, I bought it itself was derivative and tiresome and kind of dumb. Like Bruce la Bruce at his worst trying to imitate Guy Maddin with some dashes of Kenneth Anger tossed in. I really wanted to be excited by it. Weird you mention the Stephen O’Malley and Anthony Pateras collab. since Stephen, who saw ‘LGS’ with me last night, literally slipped the CD into my pocket. I haven’t heard it yet. Your phantom speaker issues sound promising. ** Dóra Grőber, Hi! When you say you’re anxious about Berlin, I’m guessing you mostly mean about the flight? If so, seriously, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised, I think, by how easy and only maybe slightly annoying it is. Don’t worry. You go on Monday! That’s so cool! It’s going to be a great adventure, Dóra! You’ll be so jazzed there and after. How long are you there? Thank you about the contracts, and I feel bad about whining about that here. Maybe it really will be over next week. You never know. It was nice to see Gisele (and Stephen O’Malley too). We saw ‘Les Garcons Sauvages’. I just told Steve above that I (and Gisele and Stephen) were disappointed in and kind of bored by it. It tries to do a lot with a little, which I liked, and it obviously wants badly to be magical and weird and wild, but it’s too imitative and dragged out and badly written to pull it off, or I thought so. I’d give it an A for intention, though. But the worst thing yesterday was that my ATM card got cancelled again for what must be the thousandth time. Because someone apparently tried to use its info to buy an ad on Facebook. And now I am again sans card with no money or ability to buy anything and having to mooch spare cash off friends until late next week at the earliest. Hateful. I hope your anxiety fades out magically and that you get to be productive or have fun or both this weekend. What happened? And if I don’t get to talk with you before you take off to Berlin, have such an amazing time, and I’m pretty certain you will. ** Sypha, Yeah, I have a memory from that time that tells me the cover remained the same, but, like I said, I don’t trust it completely. Yeah, Ligotti’s a thing now. I mean a well-ish known thing. I occasionally see ‘hipsters’ reading him in the cafes and stuff. ** Alex rose, It’s not bad at all, the Baldwin stuff. Thanks for getting the bear book. There are some kind of fun things in it. The Keanu Reeves interview is pretty good. Ha ha, I guess you do. ‘Wittering wrists’ … that begs for something more than a single comment-embeded sentence. What’s your weekend like? I have to write like a demon through a head cold that doesn’t want me to and panhandle for cash from friends (my ATM card got cancelled) until further notice, but I’ll be just fine. Don’t worry about me. Love you too, Dennis. ** Jamie, Hey, Hey! Yes, as you can imagine, I was all, all, all over that Disney parks street view thing the second I found out about it. It’s pretty blissful. Thank you for thinking of me. My cold doesn’t seem to going anywhere else, the bastard. Sorry about your rotten mood and the lack of sleep that rotted it. You okay now? Have you risen and shined this morning, I hope? Like I told Alex, my weekend is just lots of writing and blowing my nose and drinking decongesting tea and watching my pennies and looking for pennies to watch and … that could be the totality. Something might surprise me. What happened to, with, and inside yours? I hope yours is surrounded by a moat intersected with many pretty drawbridges. Organic cotton love, Dennis. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Oh, cool, about the Arto Lindsay sightings. I’ve only seen him solo. Or, well, it was a collaborative performance he did with the artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, but she sang with and without him. ** Ferdinand, Cool, that would be great! Thank you! Not much chance I’ll see ‘Crowd’ in Holland. I’m never budgeted into the touring except on rare occasion. Yes, big agreement about Anna Calvi and Laetitia Sadier. I miss Stereolab. I’m surprised they haven’t reformed, but I admire that they haven’t. I’ll try to enjoy my weekend, but definitely enjoy yours no matter what. ** Misanthrope, I think you’ll be glad if you do. Well, actually — nerd alert — there are two different OMD songs, one called ‘Joan of Arc’ and one called ‘Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)’, both on the same LP, and I meant the former, but I like the latter too. That metro sounds very shit. As you know from experience, the Paris metro is, all things considered, maybe the best metro system in the world. I know it’s been declared that sometimes. Now that you’re good and rested, hang ten on a frothy, big ass weekend, bro. ** Right. You know the weekend’s Lynne Tillman-wedded drill already. Enjoy it and any other thing that comes your way. See you on Monday.