‘A few years ago, I read a short essay that Tillman contributed to an anthology called The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974–1984, and I have never forgotten this passage about memory:
If we study the past we might not repeat it, we’re told, so history’s important—though we do repeat it, because the compulsion to repeat is not just an individual matter and mostly not voluntary. We return and return to familiar places, ideas, and beliefs, with enthusiasm, naïveté, and in paroxysms.
‘It’s not just that Tillman needs to return to what is familiar; she is also fixated on the way these patterns emerge. In her essays, she keeps her sentences short and to the point. In her fiction, the sentences run on and on, giving the impression of an unceasing stream. Then there are the works in which the two genres converge, which are my favorite. Her characters, whether fictional or not, are almost always lost in—or perhaps we should more accurately say lost to—thought.
‘Tillman’s debut novel was Haunted Houses (1987), in which three young women move through life without meeting one another, though their personalities and histories occasionally converge. This was followed by Motion Sickness (1991), in which an unnamed narrator travels through Europe sending (and scrapping) postcards and observing other people’s relationships coming to an end, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose; Cast in Doubt (1992), about a 65-year-old white gay mystery writer at work on a ripped-from-the-headlines crime story while living in Crete, who becomes strangely obsessed with a beautiful young woman (named Helen) living nearby and would do anything to read her diary; and No Lease on Life (1998), about a woman who just might murder her neighbors if one more night passes without her getting some sleep.
‘However, it wouldn’t be a spoiler to say that this fear never becomes fate, because nothing is quite life-or-death in Tillman’s books. Violence and other extremes do happen, and sometimes her protagonists suffer pain and cruelty or fame and fortune. (Her 2011 short-story collection Someday This Will Be Funny includes characters like John Lennon and Marvin Gaye.) But these intense experiences are not the point. It is the ordinary—the standard or expected emotions as they ebb and flow alongside transcendence or terror—that concerns her most.
‘In her nonfiction, too, Tillman often focuses on the ordinary, as in her essays or oral histories on Andy Warhol’s Factory years or the photographs of Cindy Sherman. These were both artists, she writes, who were born into extraordinary times but focused first on the mundane. By looking at works like Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, she argues, we can see moments as they were in their context, early enough in accumulating meaning that there was at least one unspoken command: Stop everything—you have to see this!
‘Tillman’s writing across genres relies on the concept of flashbulb memories, which psychologists define as the memories formed in moments of extreme surprise or crisis and shared generationally. They are the beats we use to keep time in our private recollections—a white Bronco on a highway under the afternoon sun, a disgraced president addressing the nation from the Oval Office—the extreme events that add up to an average life, a timeline of moments and artifacts shared by everyone, no matter who or where they are. For a reason, “Where were you when——?” is an inquiry that starts as many conversations as it saves. Locating our place in a world beyond comprehension is a comfort, shrinking something beyond scale down to human size.
‘Raised in New York’s Long Island, Tillman studied painting, literature, and history at Hunter College and later studied towards a doctorate in sociology. Her work as a novelist, essayist, and critic is celebrated and often cited. Her light and circular sentences have the quality of sounding simple in your head and then spiraling into complexity with every subsequent thought. They are for people who believe reading should involve as much time staring out a window as staring into a book. The winner of a 2006 Guggenheim fellowship and a finalist for a 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award, Tillman is also the favorite writer of many favorite writers, listed as an influence by people like George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Wayne Koestenbaum, and Harry Mathews.
‘Tillman is that rarity, a woman recognized in her own time. Her writing is both rarefied and accessible—an acquired taste, maybe, but one that is easily procured. Even her critics agree. In 2018, Laura Kipnis noted in The New York Review of Books that Tillman’s writing was not really her preferred style: All those “random digressions make me crazy,” Kipnis admitted, and “yet I want to imitate them.” Though she has contemporaries who share her most recognizable characteristics—such as a skill for microscopic detail and for characters with inner lives as exaggerated as they are banal—it is Tillman’s control over her scope that sets her apart.
‘She is sometimes considered among the New Narrative writers, alongside people like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. Dodie Bellamy once wrote that, at its worst, writers working under the auspices of New Narrative can be described with a single sentence: “I have sex and I’m smarter than you.” At its best, New Narrative is an expression of pure need, a literature that allows generosity to fuckups as well as fucking—the inimitable and often indescribable feeling of wanting more than you might be able to get.
‘The comparison makes the most sense in terms of timing. While the beginnings of New Narrative happened in San Francisco, Tillman and a few other writers working in New York’s downtown art scene during the late 1970s and ’80s are often folded in, and she was published by some of the presses most closely associated with New Narrative. But it’s a little harder to say if the comparison makes sense in terms of style. Tillman’s writing is truly her own, in exactly the same way that all of the New Narrative writers sound like themselves. Though this does raise the most Tillman of questions: What’s the difference? Doesn’t the time you live in become part of the person you are?’ — Haley Mlotek, The Nation
Lynne Tillman @ Twitter
Lynne Tillman @ goodreads
Recognition as a Depleted Source in Lynne Tillman’s Motion Sickness
What Lynne Tillman Thinks About While Making Tea in the Morning
Podcast: In conversation with Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman on How Feminism Has Affected Men
Lynne Tillman: an essential reading list
Lynne Tillman on the Small Act of Leaving the House
Imagining Men with Lynne Tillman
‘Coming of Age in Xania’, by Lynne Tillman
Writing “Alongside” — Not “About” — Art: A Conversation with Lynne Tillman
Lynne Tillman and the Illusion of Realism
Lynne Tillman on what it actually means to be a writer
Buy ‘Motion Sickness’
Lynne Tillman reads “For Bill Schwedler”
The Intersection of Writing and Sculpture: Writer Lynne Tillman on Roni Horn
In Conversation: Lynne Tillman and Eileen Myles
Reading by Lynne Tillman, 5.16.14
As a teenager, you write in your recent book of essays, you told your psychotherapist that you wanted to rebel. Why was that, do you think?
Lynne Tillman I could hazard a guess. I was born into a set of four people—my parents and two sisters—in the suburbs of Long Island. I was the baby of the family; my sisters were much older. I had to observe them very closely because, when you come late into a family, you must be careful. You’re late to the party. My family was also argumentative, which is a nice way to put it. Very early on I would read things and get angry. I was furious when I read an essay by Norman Mailer which referred to “lady novelists.”
What did you read when you were growing up?
I read a jumble of books, Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew, Gone with the Wind, Sartre’s Intimacy. When I was eight or nine, I loved a children’s series of biographies of women in the school library: Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Abigail Adams…I read all of them. I suppose I wanted to know about women who were as important as men, about whom I read all the time, although that isn’t something I said to myself. It was more unconscious.
Did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, even at that age. I told my mother and was not encouraged. So there was another rebellion. I was damned well going to be a writer. I had the desire to write, I knew I could do it, I knew I had to force myself to get over the neuroses that were in my way. I went to Europe after Hunter College. I knew that by staying in New York I would drown. I was so insecure.
There’s something very hot in this food.
Have some bread?
No—that is what is hot. Oh wow. Be careful!
You write in the essay “Downtown’s Room in Hotel History” about downtown New York from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the closeness of it. Has your New York changed?
People always complain that New York isn’t the same, and it isn’t the same. It changes all the time. But the difference now is drastic. Two things happened: 9/11 and the cost of living. Both are terrible. 9/11 traumatized some, who can never feel safe here again. You can’t argue with that. It’s outrageous that rents are so high, and that the division of wealth is so unequal, much more than it was just twenty or thirty years ago. That’s not just here, it’s a sad reality for Americans.
That said, the best impromptu conversations I have, in cafés or on the street, are in New York City. People expect that of each other. The level of discourse is pretty high. The humor, the action on the street—I need it for my mental health. I don’t want to have to commute for conversation.
I started thinking seriously about conversation in grad school. I loved grad school. I read Capital with Stanley Aronowitz. I read Weber and Durkheim. The ethnomethodologists, Erving Goffman especially, had an enormous impact. I learned how conversation holds society, daily life, together, and that society is in these micro-units, in the details. Let’s say we see each other on the street, and you say “hello” and I don’t—that ruptures the social fabric. Without the minutiae of social life, things fall apart.
As for “downtown”: to the Modernists like Djuna Barnes New York was a place of danger, but the downtown I inhabited was walkable, comprehensible. New York is still, for me, always about people and conversation. I don’t care if people live in Brooklyn or Queens, if we can decide on a place to meet, it’s easy. I can read a book riding on the subway. Some people ride bikes. I just wish they followed traffic rules.
You write about having to “unlearn some of what I’d been taught or unconsciously believed.” One of the things you had to unlearn was the model of being an editor like Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot. Were you thinking of becoming an editor instead of a writer?
No. But my understanding—from reading literary histories and so on—was that, if you were a writer, you started a magazine or you were an editor. That was your training area, a kind of apprenticeship. I learned very quickly that the way things get written about is one thing, and actually living those things out is another. It turned out that I was a very good editor of other people’s work and that friends of mine—older male friends, writers—made use of that. In Europe, I was helping others and not writing enough. I had to clear some space to become a writer.
I wouldn’t call myself an editor, though I have always enjoyed editing journals. Early I did Paranoids’ Anonymous Newsletter and guest-edited an issue of New Observations, which was an art magazine started by Lucio Pozzi. And it was a great thrill to bring writers to Fence who were well known and mix them with unknown or first-time writers.
You write in one essay about artists lacking “a commonality of purpose,” versus scientists, who might work together to find a cure for cancer.
Some people take exception to that. A poet said he believed that we did have a commonality of purpose. I don’t see it that way.
Is there such a thing as an artists’ community?
Community is a dodgy concept. People make a lot of my being a member of the “downtown community.” But you don’t experience life like that. A community can be loose and fast; it can be temporary. Often shared interests are self-interests.
You write about not just books but film and visual arts too. Do you enjoy bridging worlds, or do you feel torn?
As a child I was omnivorous. Then I realized I couldn’t be a painter, a writer, and a filmmaker at the same time. When I was painting in college, it taught me to think about space and composition; later, editing a feature film changed the way I worked with paragraphs. My career is weird. I have felt torn at times, and occasionally wish I were making objects—photographs, film—and not writing. Is the literary world interested in the art world? The writing I do about art and film is unknown in the literary world. Writers, generally, are interested only in art and artists as a way to find material.
And yet fictional art and artists are so often unconvincing.
It’s very hard to write about artists or to put one into words. In American Genius, A Comedy—that’s the closest I’ve come to writing an artist. Of course the protagonist is never called an artist, and isn’t one per se, but there are certain moments when she’s undoing things, which I think artists do. You undo. It’s a very hard concept for people, civilians, to understand. You don’t see the art. You see the undoing.
In 1990, for the first issue of a magazine called Bass Player, my husband, David Hofstra, who is a musician, was asked this question: “How do you know what to play?” Bass players often make up their parts. He said, “When I can’t find something to play, I find something to leave out.” I realized I do that too. Leaving out is the basis for much of my writing.
What do you leave out?
Psychology. I don’t want to explain motives. Also, in a Hitchcockian way, if a door is important for the story, I’ll put it in. If it’s not, I know a reader can imagine a door and a character walking through it. I don’t want to tell the reader, or myself, what doesn’t need to be there.
And if a sentence I like still isn’t right after I’ve worked on it for two hours, I’ll leave it out.
I’m interested in the visual description in your fiction, which is both highly precise and unreliable. Why do you think your descriptions are so often so shifty?
I don’t think the narrator in Motion Sickness is ever described. I attended a lecture at Princeton given by Thomas Keenan, about that book. A young woman asked me, “Your character is unattractive, isn’t she?” I said, “Why you do think that?” “Well,” she said, “you never describe her, you never say she’s attractive, so I assume she’s not.” What needs to be marked, and why? The heroine doesn’t worry about her appearance, and she has relationships and sex with various men. But that didn’t matter for this reader. I’ll speculate that, in my undoings, I may be reacting to the vise of physical description. I see my characters but not exactly visually. The qualities of a character I “draw” with words come into view differently. Maybe I’m hoping this allows a reader to create his or her own version.
Shopping is a problem for me. In part it has to do with feelings about myself as a body and not wanting to dwell on the fact that I have a body. Mostly I feel that I’m a head, only a head or a mind. I don’t like being conscious of what I look like. When writing, I forget I have a body.
There’s something almost willfully incomplete about some of your characters. Do you set out to write elusively?
Mostly, in life, we don’t know the whole story, do we? How do you express doubt within a statement? I think about that a lot. I’m not a realist, but I’m interested in various realities. The tentativeness of thought, the not-knowing, the stumbling around—I’d rather include all that.
Lynne Tillman Motion Sickness
‘For the narrator of Motion Sickness, life is an unguided tour. Adrift in Europe, she improvises a life and a self. In London, she’s befriended by an expatriate American Buddhist and her mysterious husband, or may or may not be stalking her. In Paris, she shacks up with Arlette, an art historian obsessed with Velazquez;s painting “Las Meinas.” In Amsterdam, she teams up with a Belgian friend, who is studying prostitutes, and she tours Italy with deeply mismatched English brothers. And, as with an epic journey, the true trajectory is inwards, ever inwards, into her own dreams and desires…’ — Red Lemonade
p.s. RIP Melvin Van Peebles. Here’s my survey of his films from just a few weeks ago. ** David, Thanks, David. Halloween is when even the worst year can’t lose. Good poem! Very appropriate to the cause and very voluptuous. Thanks, man. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Understood, but the urge to organise the naturally disheveled is strong, hence: writers. Blog: ‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s Superman’ springs to mind. Does the Nobel Prize ever have a tie? If so, it’s the future you and me, bro. ** Bill, Yes, I’ve been loading up old Cabaret Voltaire. The early early stuff. It’s nuts how many exciting books are dropping from the factories at the moment. Even for voracious me, I am already behind and scrambling. ** _Black_Acrylic, Hi. Yeah, I really liked Kirk’s Sandoz project, for instance. That’s an idea: the transcription thing. I’ve never done that, and I’ve always wondered how finessed that process is. Let me know if/how it works if you go that route. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Ha ha, yeah, I do always try to find the silver lining. I watched the recent VMA Awards last night, and I was forced to try to do that a lot. I will need to wear organic underpants beneath my necropants, but that’s fine. I’ll take it. My love of today is going to be selfish and petty because my fucking glasses broke in half and they’re feebly scotch-taped together so I can do this p.s., and my love is a wish that the store where I bought my frames still has that style in stock so I can get new ones and restore my eyesight quickly this morning, sorry, G. ** T, Oh, wow, you were part and parcel of 2015 Halloween’s particular genius. It sounds kind of awful, but it also sounds really exciting, sorry. I’m such a haunted attraction fan, and I always look at the monsters and wonder who they are and what they’re really thinking when they scream and jump at me. I became a vegetarian at age 15 partly because I had a huge crush on a boy who was vegetarian, and I wanted to impress him, but then he stopped being a vegetarian about three days later, and it would have been too obvious that I had a crush if I had quit as a consequence, and here I am a zillion years later and still a vegetarian, and he’s … who knows. I think maybe that school work thing approaches Halloween-like. My definition of the holiday is pretty broad. If I can replace my broken reading glasses frames this morning, my day might just live up to your foretelling. I hope your day is completely in focus with no assistance necessary. xo. ** Andrew, Hi, Andrew! Wow, thanks for coming in here. It’s a pleasure to see you. I remember that hayride incident. I was kind of obsessed with it and might have employed in something I was writing even. Thanks for the refresher. How are you? What’s going on? Happy very early Halloween! ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. It always feels good when Halloween starts collaborating on the blog with me. My Cabaret Voltaire love is reserved for their very early experimental stuff, late 70s, early 80s. When they added beats and went heavily electronic, it started sounded kind of samey to me. I haven’t listened to the recent albums. Kirk’s solo stuff and side projects can very good. Sandoz especially for me. Watson’s project The Hafler Trio could be quite good. Thanks about Bookworm. Mm, I’m still kind of stressed re: the hoping and fearing and all of that going on around release, but it’ll be history soon enough. Sometime next week is good for Skyping. Let’s sort it. ** David Ehrenstein, RIP Melvin Van Peebles indeed! ** Steve Erickson, Yes, the Mormon Boyz thing was an odd premise indeed, but it seemed to work. I think it’s kind of faded out now. The same people who did it now mostly do a few other, less rarified porn sites like Family Dick and others. Same stuff and models but without the religious overlay. ** Okay. I haven’t spotlit a book by the great Lynne Tillman in while, so I thought I would. Please have at it. See you tomorrow.