A Conversation with Diane Williams By John O’Brien

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 2003, Vol. 23.3

John O’Brien: Why are you moving to New York?

Diane Williams: A lot of different reasons.

JOB: Professional?

DW: Well, they’re all professional, all my reasons. For scope. And I feel comfortable there.

JOB: Is it Chicago, or is it the North Shore suburbs that don’t provide the atmosphere?

DW: Well, I really have never learned Chicago or spent much time in Chicago, although we lived there briefly. In Glencoe I feel somewhat exiled, as if I’m hiding out.

JOB: Why Glencoe?

DW: I don’t know, it just happened. We were going to be raising children, and we thought that would be a kind of sweet, safe place to live with children.

JOB: Where did you go to college?

DW: The University of Pennsylvania.

JOB: Why there?

DW: It was something my mother said: go east or go west, don’t stay here.

JOB: And you finished at Penn?

DW: Yes.

JOB: What were you studying?

DW: English literature, and sculpture, and drawing and many-ologies, and I did do some creative writing, and I had a course with Philip Roth.

JOB: Was Roth visiting?

DW: He taught there those years, maybe two or three years; he taught fiction writing.

JOB: What was Roth like as a teacher?

DW: He was excellent, very scholarly.

JOB: It was creative writing?

DW: Yes, but we would read—it’s so long ago I can’t really remember—but we would read texts. I think we read John Cheever stories and “Madame Bovary.” That I recall. And we would talk about literature, and then we would write, and discuss our work in class, and I found it very exciting. He was writing “Portnoy’s Complaint” then—it was that period—and he talked about obsession.

JOB: And after college, where to?

DW: I went to New York. I was a dancer but chose not to become a professional. Instead I did dance therapy. I worked at Bellevue Hospital in the acutely psychotic ward doing dance therapy.

JOB: Where did the dancing come from? You weren’t doing that in college, were you?

DW: I did that from the time I was eight. I danced in college too. I taught dance. When I was a girl, my teacher wanted me to study every day, to go on full scholarship, but my parents wouldn’t allow it. I was a gifted dancer.

JOB: Ballet?

DW: No, modern dance. I loved choreographing and improvising, and pushing myself beyond what I thought I could physically endure.

JOB: So you did dance therapy in New York.

DW: I did that for a while. It didn’t last too long; it was very, very depressing—very depressing. Most of the people I worked with were so heavily drugged they were zombielike, except in the wards where they were manic—so manic that they couldn’t be subdued. We were warned to never say to anyone, “Just relax.”

JOB: So you went from the depressives to the manics . . .

DW: Yes, all kinds. And then I went to work at Doubleday, and Doubleday was like heaven. I was a trainee . . .

JOB: Training to be . . . ?

DW: An editor. But in those days, when a young woman wanted to be an editor, there were two tracks—one for men and one for women—and men were immediately assigned editorial assistant positions, but women had to be secretaries. So I was sent to speedwriting school two nights a week. I had to learn speedwriting, and I had to be a secretary—I had to file and I had to take diction and I had to type and make coffee and sharpen pencils, and I wasn’t very good at any of that. My self-esteem sank.

JOB: What year was this?

DW: 1968, ’69. So I did that. But there was one moment in time when I realized I would have to turn things around: when I was asked to bring someone coffee—my boss, who was a woman—I put the coffee down so forcefully that it spilled, and then she asked me to sharpen her pencils, and I brought a fistful over to her with their sharpened points very, very close to her face. That was the end of that. No, no, I stayed with her, but that was the turning point, I think—at least I remember it as being my turning point.

JOB: So it was just old-fashioned discrimination?

DW: Terrible. But I had training there. I was trained as an editor and we worked on dictionaries and career guidance textbooks, family medical health books.

JOB: What kind of editing did you really want to be doing? Fiction?

DW: I don’t know. I don’t think I had much of a sense of who I was at that time or what I was supposed to be doing.

JOB: But you were also writing?

DW: I tried, but it didn’t really work very well. I mean, I tried and I tried. I had written some successful stories—what I felt were successful and what people told me were successful—when I was at Penn. But I couldn’t reproduce it. Actually it was a heartbreaking period; my ambitious nature was buried. I think I was very depressed and really didn’t understand why. When I graduated from college, the fact that I was unmarried was quite a shock to everybody.

JOB: That at the end of college you weren’t married?

DW: I was expected to go to college, get married, and that would be it—that would be me, being a mother and a wife would be me. But that didn’t happen, so everybody was pretty nonplussed.

JOB: How many years were you with Doubleday?

DW: Three or four years, and I did marry. And then we moved to Chicago, and I got a job at Scott Foresman.

JOB: Editing textbooks?

DW: Yes. Doing original writing and editing, putting together basal readers and workbooks at the elementary-school grade level. I really loved that.

JOB: So what was happening with your writing along the way?

DW: Nothing. I had my first child, Jacob. And he was a wonderful, wonderful baby, and he was quite independent and didn’t need much attention. I felt quite auxiliary. But I also had this sense of disappearing. The first year was terrific, because I’d been working very hard and when I quit, it was exciting, and felt like a vacation; it was thrilling. And then I felt that I was evaporating, disappearing, and I was frightened for myself. Since I had all this background in writing for children, I thought what I could do was to write children’s books. I set for myself a modest goal. I felt very humble then. I wrote three grade-B novels for children about a twelve-year-old detective, Abigail Fox, and I had a New York agent. Everyone agreed that the books were very professional, very well crafted, but that they were naive, and at that time what was wanted was “problem literature.” I really did not understand the market. And finally my agent cut out a clipping from the newspaper about a twelve-year-old girl who had hanged herself—and she asked if I could write a novel for twelve-year-olds about this. I said I don’t want to do that.

JOB: Is there any similarity between what you wrote for Roth’s class and what you write now?

DW: Actually, yes. Very short, and I think it’s good. I still admire the work that I did then. But, I couldn’t reproduce it, so the fight was to learn how to. That particular piece I had written for Philip Roth, I had sat down and boom! there it was! It was the most exquisite experience. But I couldn’t get back to that place to do that. So then it was a long fight. This was 1978, and here I was living out in Glencoe. Friends would tell me to find like-minded people. I tried to find like-minded people where I lived and I did find them, people who wanted to be writers and who were aspiring to something so-called literary.

JOB: So was that “StoryQuarterly”?

DW: Well, I met those people eventually that way. But then it was just working and working; it was a sort of grim determination to see if there was any way I could learn a process or a system. The issue was to learn how to compose and to see if I could repeat the feat. Because I was industrious, I had the energy, I had the will. I succeeded, by which I mean I developed many stories which then were published in good journals, and I was quite proud of myself.

JOB: What happened then?

DW: I met up with Gordon Lish then. I met him at a short-story seminar in Detroit. I heard him read his work there and I participated in one of his workshops. I studied with Gordon for two semesters in New York because I understood what he was offering—the special chance to become hugely conscious of how language can be manipulated to produce maximum effects. So often, in our naturally powerful speech, we only understand dimly how we are doing it, so that we are deprived of the good fortune of being in charge of it, rather than the other way around. We feel merely lucky when a burst of poetical passion occurs, where sound, sense, and purpose are locking together the way that they should. I realized that I should not have to waste so much effort with trial and error.

JOB: In all your stories, there’s an on-the-edge intensity.

DW: Well, that’s how it feels; that’s what my life is like. I really have felt that sense of being close to soul-death that some people experience, and I think there’s just a great urgency to survive.

JOB: Do you know when you start one of your odd stories where it’s going?

DW: No, no, God no. That’s the fun of it. There was a time when I didn’t believe there was very much in my own life that was worthy or interesting enough to deal with. One night some writing friends and I went drinking—not too much, because I don’t drink much, maybe one drink would do it—but I started talking about something I had observed—my children—it was the sort of experience where you see it and then say oh God, I didn’t see that, no I didn’t see that, and you immediately repress it and block it. But having had something to drink, somehow it sputtered out of somewhere, some part of me, and my friend Bill Tester said, Why don’t you write about that? I remember repeating, About that? First of all, it seemed boring because it was so close to the bone, and it was my life, it was my children, it was my house, it wasn’t this kind of something wickedly exciting, exotic, far off, not me, so . . . I decided to write about that, and that was a moment of revelation. Then I thought, now I know how to do it, now I know. It was anything in my life that I wanted to say no to—that didn’t happen, I didn’t see that, that couldn’t be. It was the revelation that I could write about what was painful and terrifying.

JOB: Didn’t that story become one of the stories in the first collection?

DW: Yes, that’s in the book at the beginning. It’s called “Dropping the Masters.” It’s the children playing with the toys while the mother watches. Children, two boys, playing obscenely with dolls—a mother watching her children play obscenely with dolls. That was the beginning. So it really is will and industry. It is an excruciating process, to feel as though I possess a craft, this ability to make fiction.

JOB: Is that still the working principle—to write about what you want to say no to?

DW: The underlying principle is the same in the sense of wanting to get to what would be personally dangerous material, but in order to succeed over and over again I’ve had to learn how to trick myself into it—some of the time, going backwards toward it to keep myself intrigued. And there are many times in the fiction when I believe I’m writing about someone else, but thinking, oh my God, what if that were me? It’s assuming a dangerous or perplexing stance whether or not I think it’s from my own experience.

JOB: That was one of the things I wanted to ask you. Is that I/she/he always the same kind of consciousness? Sometimes you’re talking about “she,” or “he,” sometimes it’s “I.” Whether it’s you or someone purely fictive, do you think it’s always the same kind of “I” that’s responding?

DW: Oh, I’m sure that would have to be true. I do believe that, unfortunately, we are bound up in ourselves, and we really can only perceive through our own eyes and our own heart, and what we see is us. We think we’re exploring exterior worlds, but we’re not, so undoubtedly it’s the same consciousness, the same voice. But the intellectual excitement is when you tap into the idiosyncratic, eccentric selfness that you know is time-bound and experience-bound—and I do believe this—that you’re tapping into the knowledge of the species. The fact is that you can find your truth, but it’s also the truth about human nature.

JOB: And you are able to take advantage of all of your own vices and failings, to use them as material.

DW: Yes, well, pain and screwing up, all that, yes, can be exploited, but also I’ve always felt that I had no memory to speak of, no really good memory, so if I didn’t have a very good memory, how on earth could I be an artist, and I always thought that a writer needed a kind of encyclopedic mind. Now, it’s the fragmentary nature of my memory that I exploit, the fact that I remember an aspect of experience that I have no idea why I would remember, you know, somebody’s shoelace rather than what they said that I was there to listen to, and the fact that when I think back on any experience, it’s so chaotic and so unintelligible that it frightens me as a person who has to perform in the real world, but as an artist it’s absolutely liberating because I have less to work with. Artistry is manipulating elements; the fewer there are, the easier the process of composing them. So I am lucky in that respect to be sort of simple, to have a poor memory, to hold experience in a chaotic way, but I used to feel apologetic for that and worry.

JOB: But you’re aware that that’s the way your mind functions and you take advantage of that fact—which isn’t easy to do.

DW: That’s what I’ve learned to do and also I’m not interested at all in any experience that I have previously organized, synthesized and formed an opinion about. All I want is to take experience and rearrange it and come up with something completely new. And so that’s the fun of it. That’s why doing the work gives me a sense of gaining some personal freedom and relief and healing—that I can take experience that I thought I had certain prescribed attitudes about, and manipulate it and then it’s completely different.

JOB: Let’s talk about process. How do you move from line to line? There are sharp leaps. There’s one story, “Pornography,” whose opening line uses a dash to take the first part of the sentence in a different direction: “I just had a terrible experience—I’m sorry.” The second part seems to come from nowhere.

DW: Well, it came from a very real place. And that’s another thing that’s fun—trusting myself, learning to trust my intuitive judgement rather than my conscious judgement. That story, I could tell you precisely how that whole thing was conceived. It is the scariest story I’ve ever written. After I had completed it, I was going around to every friend I have saying: Can I put this into the world? Is this right to put this into the world? because this is horrible, I was horrified by this story, it’s terrible, terrible, maybe it really is evil.

JOB: How did you get to “I’m sorry”?

DW: OK, I’ll tell you. I went to meet a friend for lunch and I was waiting for her to come, she was late. And when she did arrive, she came charging up to the table and said, “I’m sorry I’m late. I just had a terrible experience; I’m sorry.” And then she went on to describe what she’d seen—this little old man, a bicycle, a boy on a bicycle being hit by the little old man in his car. So when I sat down to compose, her language was in my head; her agitation, her horror—and I recorded what she said.

JOB: Your explanation of the “real” story is quite different from the story you wrote.

DW: Yes, of course. That people apologize for their terrible experiences, that people feel really guilty about them.

JOB: So what was she saying in real life . . .

DW: She would say that her meaning was different, but it becomes something else. I was really just recording what she said because it was fresh in my mind, but then I let it stay and I’m glad I let it stay, and I see how it has meaning far from the experiences that I took this story from. OK, so the opening was all from her mouth, but that business about that little old man doing more for me than any sex has ever done for me—that’s out of my mouth. When she was telling her story, I remember getting chills and feeling the hair stand on my arms for some reason. I had a physical response to her story; in real life, it wasn’t sexual, but it was an intense physical response. In writing the story, I just let my mind go, and whatever came in came in, and what came in was another experience I had that was perhaps a month previous, a week previous—driving past a playground near my house, where I saw in the distance an ambulance, and I saw a child being put onto a stretcher. Of course, this is one of a mother’s worst fears—I mean, every time I went to a playground I was sure every moment that my boy would be killed; I hate playgrounds. So I was this, and the sensation I had then was of fear, profound fear, but I can remember feeling that I almost had an obligation to feel this way; that as a moral human being I should respond with anguish to something wretched that had happened to a child, and that as a mother, that was the appropriate response that made me feel good about myself. I tried to hold onto that feeling to console myself that I was moral and had responded correctly in the situation. That was it; trying to hold onto that sensation of horror, for reassurance.

JOB: How did you arrive at the title?

DW: “Pornography”? The title came after the composing, it didn’t come before. And then another experience I had just had where I nearly hit two boys who were riding their bikes, I put that in. And then another horrifying experience, that had just occurred recently—my son taking off on his bicycle and I couldn’t stop him, and we had some kind of fight, and he was very young; I had this sense of my God, what should I do? what should I do? and feeling completely impotent—there was really nothing to do, because he was gone, and oh my God, he might conceivably just get killed. I remember at that time feeling nothing, nothing, and as a mother, I wanted to experience what I’d felt for someone else’s child on the playground—horror—I wanted to feel it, I wanted to feel sensation, but I felt nothing; I felt this calm, I felt this deadness, this numbness, which again, as a mother, made me feel guilty: Why don’t I feel something? Don’t I love my child? What is wrong with me? Do I secretly want his death? It’s alarming. And then I put together the chipmunk business because I had just seen that chipmunk running toward me. I didn’t know why I put that down, but that chipmunk suddenly running toward me and then away from me, that day I was working on the story, made me think of sexual experience, when you’re close to release and it doesn’t happen. Did it mean I could have this intense sexual response because someone else’s child was in danger, but not for my own boy? So then my own horror, what have I done here? What is this thing I have made? Here is a mother in a rage because she cannot get sexual gratification from the idea that her son might be killed. How did I get to that? This is horrible, this is horrible. Well, then we get pornography. I was really distressed as Diane Williams, the hopefully nice person in the real world. Should this be literature? Is this my business—to produce this? Is this right? Is this really what I want to be doing? And then this certainty that yes, this is exactly what I want to be doing. I am far from the only one who believes that experience teaches us that when you speak a nightmare and speak it to its limit, whatever it is, then that speech has a healing force. And if it’s speakable, if the configuration of feeling can be manipulated, can be produced, then it’s a true feeling, shared by many, and it’s the sort of feeling which should be utterly revealed. But I must say that for me—the respectable version of myself—there’s still fear, and a great deal of disgust when I see that story. Then I have to reassert myself as an artist, and say no, this is exactly my business.

JOB: Do you see the stories in the second collection as related?

DW: I think I see a beginning and an end to sort of a personal evolution, a period of time in my life where I had certain goals for myself in terms of my own growth, and certain obstacles to overcome, to get through, to get by, and that was the cycle of time in which these stories were produced. I would appreciate hearing from somebody else, someone else telling me how these stories belong together.

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