From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1993, Vol. 13.2
LARRY MCCAFFERY: What sort of writing have you been doing recently? In an interview a while back you mentioned you were working on a series of interrelated novellas . . .
SUSAN DAITCH: I’ve put those aside and have been working on a novel about Georges Melies the early filmmaker, and the Dreyfus trial. Dreyfus isn’t a character in the book, but there were elements surrounding his trial, questions of representation and reproduction, that I’d explored in The Colorist and other pieces. The camera had already been invented at the time of the trial, but photography as a means of documenting evidence was used only in a fairly rudimentary way, almost as an afterthought. An enormous number of forgeries were produced and copies of copies. I was interested in some of the characters who had been only tangentially connected to the affair. Around 1899 Melies made a film about the Dreyfus trial which was an early version of a docu drama. He hired an ironmonger to play Dreyfus, and he himself performed two roles—a lawyer who is assassinated in one scene, and in a later part of the film, as a journalist. He dramatized the trial as opposed to Lumiere’s straight-man realism.
LM: Sounds like we are already in the realm of Baudrillard’s “simulacra”—the “stand-in” for reality.
SD: Melies called these films “reconstructed actualities.” He divided his work into two categories: actualities and preconstructions. The preconstructions are more well known and involve fantastic metamorphoses, puns, transformations, dismembered body parts with lives of their own and what Andre Mauge called “salvoes of comic go-getting.” He didn’t make many of these reconstructed actualities, but the ones he did—the film about Dreyfus, about the American invasion of Cuba and the Philippines, and the wreck of the Marne—were very different from the preconstructions. They tended to comment on what he saw as the political aggression; they were very convincing, if not incendiary, when they were shot. The film about Dreyfus caused riots when it was shown and was banned in France until 1973. Documentaries about the affair were banned until 1951.
LM: Other than Melies who were these tangential characters in the Dreyfus affair? And what got you interested in them in particular—their roles in the ways the trial got represented?
SD: I was intrigued by a character who was called the “Ordinary Track,” a woman who emptied the wastebaskets from the German embassy. She worked for what was called the Section of Statistics (which was like the French CIA or FBI). After surreptitiously collecting the scraps of paper, torn-up letters, apple cores, and so on, she would bring the embassy trash (called “cones”) to a church in the sixth arrondissement for someone from the Section of Statistics to pick up. It was usually Colonel Henry, one of the forgers. The garbage did contain what has been described as “lewd and erotic fantasies” attributed to the German and Italian attaches and from these bits of garbage, some of the evidence used against Dreyfus was constructed.
LM: They were fabricating this scenario against Dreyfus even though they must have already known who the real spy was? This almost sounds like Coover’s take on the Rosenberg case in The Public Burning: history as paranoid political fantasy.
SD: Yes. I was interested in the role the Ordinary Track played in the trial because she was illiterate. The Section of Statistics was putting together its forgeries from bits of rubbish they found in her “cones,” yet she couldn’t read any of them. I’ve been interested in how people learn language or, in her case, how they survive without the written signs of language. The Section of Statistics was all about language and the more I read about it, the more inevitably Kafka-esque it appeared. Whole freight cars full of files were constructed in order to present a picture of false guilt. It is the architecture of all these fictions that my book focuses on, not Dreyfus himself. He doesn’t appear at all except though his traces, a series of very tangential and indirect fictionalized versions and references. There’s been very little fiction written on the Dreyfus affair, apart from Remembrance of Things Past and a satire by Anatole France, Penguin Island, which refers to “The Affair of 80,000 Bales of Hay.” Susan Rubin Suleiman has written that “the novelistic quality of the real story may account for its relative lack of fictional representation, since the facts themselves are so gripping what need is there to fictionalize them?” I think she’s right. My book is really Dreyfus without Dreyfus. As I’ve said, he’s not in it, some of the tangential characters are.
LM: Several different threads of connection unified the concerns you developed in your first two novels L.C. and The Colorist—for instance, your interest in the idea of representation, storytelling, the ways that reality gets “translated” into words, images, stories, and the ways people use this process for their own subjective needs or ends. Based on what you’re saying, it sounds as if these concerns are central in your new book as well. What kinds of factors have contributed to your interest in these general areas?
SD: I started out as a painter, sort of. Actually, what I was doing were more like narrative drawings than paintings, so when I began writing fiction it seemed very natural to be thinking of texts in visual terms. This was especially true in L.C., which is about how something (a text or a story) changes hands, and how it graphically or visually changes when that happens. When the provenance changes, the meaning changes as well. That led me to start thinking about the next step—how translation changes a passage, or a series of narratives.
LM: At what point did Delacroix enter the “picture”?
SD: I was interested in Delacroix because he was so much a man not of his political moment in 1848. I’d been reading his notebooks, and the idea of using a notebook as the core of another story seemed worth trying. The notebook or diary is such a subjective form, to use it pulls all the obvious questions about point of view out of the hat. Who’s telling the story? What kind of ax do they have to grind? How do they know what they know? Are they reliable? Probably not. Reading Delacroix’s notebooks suggested the idea of a traffic in documents: notebooks or letters, going through different translations within a fictional frame. What happens to texts, for both readers and translators, when the original goes through this transformation into another language? That was an important part of what I wanted to do in the book almost from the beginning. The journal is invented but would only be represented to readers through other versions, translations, never directly.
LM: What you were saying just a moment ago about exploring the way the “meanings” attached to an object change depending upon the context (who owns it, what the subject biases and reading practices are over different periods, and so on) sounds almost like a gloss on some of the main deconstructionist ideas. Were you in fact reading theory during this period?
SD: I was reading a lot of Henry James, as well, and so many of his books involve stories within stories, or you have a situation in which someone is telling a story which was repeated to him or to her by someone else who heard it from someone else before that. When I was writing L.C. I was working for the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program which I had also participated in as a student. The program was very involved in Marxist theory, psychoanalytic theory, feminism, and deconstruction. All these ways of thinking about narrative and taking narrative apart have seemed important to address in one way or another. Many feel the case for theory and fiction is a case that rests on a bucket of eels. It puts you outside the mainstream certainly.
LM: How do you mean that—simply that the sort of built-in self-consciousness about narrative that theory generates goes against the grain of most fiction?
SD: There is a desire to sink into a book and pretend that the experience is coming to you directly, to take the devices, plot, character, form, certain kinds of content for granted. The world of narrative or mainstream writing or whatever you want to call it has a lot of trouble with that idea of advancing the form but that seemed important to me. Harry Mathews wrote that “the experience is the experience of a book and not looking through a window at life. . . .Books which complete themselves more or give more apparent satisfaction to the reader by bringing things to a conclusion are much easier to put aside. The guy will go down to the ground floor and retrieve the book because he’s interested in the process and not the conclusion.” Which I agree with although if you’re a woman, rather than a generic guy, and you live in an apartment you can’t go downstairs anyway. You have a different set of problems.
LM: You once told me that Hans Haacke’s text-and-visuals pieces had a big impact on you in a certain way that might have affected your thinking about writing. Why was that?
SD: There was a kind of turning point for me in the late seventies when I stopped making art altogether, and there were many nails hammered into that particular coffin, most of which aren’t worth going into. I remember seeing Haacke’s work, especially one piece in which he had lined a gallery with reproductions of Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus and underneath each painting was the date of purchase and a paragraph about the owner. When you looked at the first reproduction, you’d read that the first owner was a friend of Manet’s who paid him 1000 francs for the painting, 200 francs over the agreed price. In gratitude Manet sent him another painting with a note that read, “There is still one missing from your bunch.” The painting changed hands over the years increasing in value. One owner committed suicide, others fled from the Nazis. By the last frame the painting is in a museum in Cologne that, in 1968, paid $260,000 for it. Haacke documented the lives of several other paintings as well and so by tracing their provenance, a narrative is unraveled. World wars, the Rockefellers, Interpol, and so on come and go. The viewer/reader rides along the paintings’ coattails—these sorts of “tags” of history and politics that fall behind as the story is told. The diary in L.C. traces a similar sort of trajectory: the February revolution, the Berkeley riots, the Vietnam War. At the Whitney Biennial in 1977 I saw Juan Downey’s video Trans Americas installation which also made a big impression on me. The installation was set up so that video monitors were arranged on a north/south/east/west axis. One was a taped performance by a Chilean group of actors who called themselves The Aleph. I think it was in part a sort of comic performance, but at the end of the tape you were told that the actors had all been disappeared. The tape had the quality of being made five minutes ago, and then the words rolling across the screen inform you that all the performers have been murdered. On another monitor was a video based on the Velasquez’s Las Meninas. Actors played the parts of King Philip and Queen Mariana, Velasquez himself, the Infanta Margarita, court dwarfs, maids, and so on. The voice over narration quoted Foucault, Kubler, described Downey’s trips to the Prado to see Las Meninas when he lived in Madrid, and explained what was going on in Spain in 1656, placing the painting in a historical context (the revolution of Portugal and Catalonia, the loss of the Spanish Netherlands—issues of colonization). It seemed to me that this was what I wanted my work to do: address historical and political meanings, and if possible, garner “salvoes of comic go-getting.”
LM: When Lucienne writes in her diary early in the novel, “How is a book like a life?” she seems to present a justification for L.C.’s elaborate, ambiguous structure of meaning/translation/false translation, and so on (a “straightforward” narrative simply wouldn’t portray the complexities of this book-life relationship). Was that in fact one of the reasons you didn’t consider developing a more straightforward narrative?
SD: That would be like writing a linguistic white elephant. I’m not interested in writing a straightforward fictional narrative about historical and political events because it creates a false conversion. To simply recreate history you court the world of historical fiction, tipping the scale toward the romance even. Foucault writes about using history paradigmatically to understand the present in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prisons.
LM: What kinds of parallels did you begin to uncover between the 1848 and 1968 periods? You must have been too young to have had firsthand access to what was taking place in Berkeley.
SD: I was, yes. My husband and many of his friends went to school there and were tear-gassed, arrested, and went to jail. He deserves a lot of credit for providing me with details about what had happened. His stories were terrific, and listening to them was one way the parallels started to become clear to me.
LM: L.C. very much has to do with class and power, the ways that ferment gets started-and the relationship of the artist to all of this. Lucienne presents Delacroix and some of the other people she meets—artists and observers of what is taking place—as having a theoretical interest in what’s going on, but as finally being only observers and artists. They seem a bit like certain “tenured radicals” or theoretical Marxists at universities today whose commitment is limited to lecturing and explaining but who never get directly involved in anything or have any deeper connections to these things. I’m reminded of the scene where Lucienne is describing the political debates she hears at cafes and dinners by saying, “For many of the guests, political debate is heavily laced with gossip, transformed to reactionary opinion and ‘Did you hear this?’ It is, for them, like discussing a play. They’re removed from the action.” This sense of distance is lessened in the later scenes with Jane in Berkeley but it seemed to come up again in The Colorist, with Julie and her photographer boyfriend’s different relationships to political conflict (and to the art that represents this conflict).
SD: In both books I was trying to question how one writes or produces art in situations of conflict. With Lucienne in L.C. I bad an interest in observing the observer, while Jane is the one who actually gets involved 120 years later. Eamonn in The Colorist is also an observer and while remembering how he had photographed the troubles in Northern Ireland, be realizes he no longer knows who he’s working for, and goes through a period of paralysis that’s a kind of crisis of representation.
LM: Is the “flattening” effect of television one of the main things producing this crisis for artists wishing to represent contemporary conflicts? A tank battle in Iraq, or a bomb set off in a Belfast restaurant, or a television movie with Arnold, or a local newscast about a kitten being rescued—all these things are presented so they somehow effect viewers equally. We’re encouraged to invest the same emotions on all of them because they’re all part of this society of the spectacle.
SD: I wasn’t really thinking specifically about television and the society of the spectacle, but it’s difficult to talk about film and photography without these issues rearing their heads. My own position, writing these things, is by definition voyeuristic, but so much American fiction is about sentimental realism, very personal and domestic in a claustrophobic way, and that, for me, has been something to avoid.
LM: I don’t think it’s any accident that so many writers of your generation are very self conscious about this issue of how to find an honest perspective once you’re no longer trying to create the illusions of realism. And this is a key area of concern specifically for you, Bill Vollmann, and David Foster Wallace, both in content (the constant focus on image-making and the ways language constructs “reality,” the presentation of the self or identity as a linguistic concept, etc.) and in the refracted formal structures and metafictional features of your work. Wallace, of course, has been very vocal about the limits of metafiction, but my own view is that writing about writing is often more than a rarefied activity divorced from the world within the word. There’s very real political and practical implications to attempts by writers who want to engage the world but to do so in a way that’s not, as you say, just sentimental realism. You could even say that this current crisis of representation is basically what “postmodernism” is all about. Certainly this sense of the variety of representations we encounter (and the confusion this brings, for both artists and ordinary citizens) is part of the whole texture of The Colorist—it even seems to inform the way its plot unfolds, the elaborate “layering” structure we were talking about earlier.
SD: I think of The Colorist as being like an accordion falling off a chair. One of the reasons it’s a plotless book is that it’s about thinking different kinds of representation through, whether comics or photography or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Everything that happens in the book goes through different filters or frames, so “plot” in the usual sense has taken a walk. Conditions of moral ambiguity, for example, might be conveyed in four different scenarios: movie, photograph, comic, museum reproduction. A resolution of that ambiguity might not be possible, but the condition itself is presented through different frames.
LM: What’s been your response to frustrations some reviewers seemed to feel about your refusal to fulfill readerly demands for plot and character development and so forth? One of them quoted the character of Loonan (the scripter of Fantomes Comics), then criticized his notions about an audience being “extraneous.” The New York Times took exception to the fact that your narrative in The Colorist “tends to be as unstructured and improvisatory as Julie’s messy life.” What’s your sense of obligation to your readers in terms of providing them with a reading experience that is structured, plotted, and so on? (Clearly this has to do with the issue of what literary “realism” means—maybe The Colorist’s refusal to provide these things is what makes it “realistic.”)
SD: Was her life messy? I thought Julie was living the life of Reilly. I think I’ve explained that the structure wasn’t improvised at all. Accusing critics of coming to your work with the wrong set of expectations, for criticizing your books for reasons that have nothing to do with your intentions may be a cry against misjudgment, but also has the ring of hard cheese. The only disturbing criticism of The Colorist occurred in the New York Times, a paper which has been criticized by ACT-UP and Queer Nation for its coverage of the AIDS crisis as being too little and too late. The reviewer charged that the book contained a lot of sleeping around in “the age of AIDS.” There was virtually no sex in the book, and this was deliberate. I never write about sex. It’s embarrassing. I don’t know how others do it. Absence of characterization can be infuriating but what is it we talk about when we talk about characterization? Characters who “come alive on the page”? What emotions are being produced? Is the reader being manipulated? Toward what end? Part of the pleasure of reading comes from these paper tigers capable of engendering strong emotion, but “character” is a concept often batted around, taken for granted, rarely explained.
In response to your question about audience, I have little idea of who my audience is or what they want, so obligations to it are up for grabs. Henry Green compared his books to newborn babies whose necks he’d like to wring. I feel a certain amount of embarrassment, lack of preciousness about my work, and would rewrite all of them given half a chance, or wring their necks. Once the books are in print I have to turn the spines against the wall. I can’t look at them without seeing a million things wrong.
LM: You’ve mentioned the influence that visual artists had on your literary sensibility when you were starting out. Were there any writers other than James and Green who had a significant impact on your work?
SD: They’re different with each book. It would be an eclectic and disconnected list. Peter Handke and Henrich Boll, Nathalie Sarraute on language and characterization. Carlo Ginzburg and Robert Darton on which histories are recorded and why, Italo Svevo for pulling the rug out from under. Walter Benjamin, too, although I’ve been told I should probably get off that Benjamin dime already.
LM: You said you had the conception of the successive transformations of Lucienne’s diary more or less in mind early on. Was the idea of a threepart structure also part of your original conception?
SD: The three sections, the triptych structure of L.C. was also soon fixed, whereas The Colorist began differently. After having written a book that required research at every turn, I wanted to write something which was more immediate. One of my sisters, who is an animator, gave me drawings from the end of Spiderwoman. I think she knew the inker. The serial was being discontinued, Spiderwoman terminated in the last frame, and that, with all its implications, seemed interesting in terms of a narrative situation. I spoke with Francoise Mouly at Raw Comics and visited Marvel as well. The Colorist was sort of like a photo-roman whose sections might be: episodes that have been elided from comics, the daily life of the man who makes reproductions for the Metropolitan Museum, and different uses of photography. The Colorist was also a record of my neighborhood, which was changing, rapidly becoming a locus for the GAP and crack.
LM: Did you feel more comfortable with one method rather than the other—or which has seemed to work best for you with your recent writing?
SD: I’ve sort of gone both ways with the things I’ve worked on since. With the Dreyfus-without Dreyfus novel, I began with five characters who had or who have varying degrees of connection to the affair. They are: Melies’s assistant, who builds the sets for the Dreyfus film and becomes caught in the riots that follow its screening; a con artist blackmailed by the Section of Statistics into creating a false correspondence for Dreyfus while he is imprisoned on Devil’s Island; a character based on two of Esterhazy’s mistresses whose chapter takes place in 1934 when the Maginot Line was being established. The fourth section is devoted to the Ordinary Track many years after the trial when she is living on the street. The fifth chapter set in contemporary Los Angeles focuses on the restorer of Melies’s Dreyfus film and a character named Jack Kews. The sections aren’t as separate as they sound. There are connections between chapters and the characters.
LM: How would you describe the initial impulse that tends to get you started with a particular work—is it a character or narrative concept, or something more abstract like a formal structure or a metaphor?
SD: A situation or narrative concept. It seems like many writers tend to choose character when they’re asked this question, but I remember Henry Green and Sartre both saying in their Paris Review interviews they start with a situation every time.
LM: When you say “situation,” do you mean in a very large sense something like an historical or political context with certain types of people in it? Or something more particularized?
SD: I think about who sweeps Stalin’s tomb.
LM: The women in your first two novels defy the usual stereotype of women being trained (or brainwashed, or coerced) to fit in to society—the whole business about women’s identities being created in response to men, the role of “the male gaze” in constructing sexual identity or image, and so on. In fact, your heroines are revolutionaries; rather than trying to accommodate society as-is (i.e., patriarchal society), they’re trying to change things. But they are never able to escape from imbalances of power that govern their culture’s attitudes. If anything, once they have “escaped” and wind up in Algiers, they’re exposed to even greater extremes of patriarchal control.
SD: In Algiers their mobility was even more limited. There was truly no Spiderwoman escaping through air ducts in 1848. Given the restrictions in Algeria, most action had to be thought action- if you believe Willa Rehnfield’s translation.
LM: When you’re in the process of writing, do you find that “themes” or “content” seem to arise “naturally” out of the narrative structure you’re working out? Or are you more consciously pursuing thematic possibilities that you anticipated beforehand?
SD: I guess the answer is that I’m consciously developing thematic material. The more you write the more you begin to find things about your own work that repeat. In everything I’ve written I found myself repeating certain things—ideas about translation and representation and how language is acquired, stories within stories.
LM: Are there other aspects of your writing that you’ve been consciously pursuing or avoiding?
SD: I’ve avoided writing about family relationships. My characters are usually people without family ties.
LM: Is the source of this reluctance primarily autobiographical (some dark family secrets upstairs in the locked bedroom) or aesthetic? For instance, having a character with strong family ties would usually drastically limit your options from a plot standpoint.
SD: We lived in a ranch house. There was no upstairs. It’s an aesthetic decision, based partly on the influence of Beckett as well as the writers I’ve mentioned earlier. The situations I map out and put characters into aren’t usually ones that emerge of family engagements, so they don’t merit dragging in aunts, uncles, and bath mats (though there are a few exceptions within what I’ve set out).
LM: Right—family relationships seem to figure fairly prominently in The Colorist. I’m thinking of things ranging from Electra’s relationship with Orion right on down to the relationships many of the contemporary characters have; and the problems various characters seem to have that are specifically associated with their mothers. It seems to me that in The Colorist you were providing a kind of psychological background for some of your characters; but rather than providing this by the usual novelist means, you gave us this through the framing devices. So we understand what’s going on inside Julie better by reading about her presentations of Electra- who’s almost her alter ego—in the comic book. And so on.
SD: Bits and pieces of this creep in. I’m still struggling with the problem of how to construct something out of language once you’ve decided not to be involved with issues generated by developed characters or whatever it is we think about when we think about characterization. Characters might be vehicles for getting the job done, telling the story, but at the same time, I have doubts about them as main architects.
LM: Certainly the old-fashioned, linear means of character presentation seem simply naive to us today. Writers have always enjoyed creating that illusion of being able to understand the character—and it’s what readers have come to expect in a novel. But it was always an illusion.
SD: There are also practical considerations (including financial pressures) that make it difficult to choose not to provide characters. Sometimes it’s as if I have two homunculi on either side of the screen. One is always saying, “Three-dimensional characters, please!” while the other says, “No way, forget it!” I’m still not sure which one has the right answer. I appreciate how seductive it is to get wrapped up in certain kinds of characters.
LM: Again, I felt that you created a “real” sense of character for the main characters in both L.C. and The Colorist, even though you were introducing your psychological “portraits” so readers could recognize the ironies and ambiguities involved in your presentation. It’s the kind of thing that James, and maybe especially Nabokov, do so well. I’m wondering, though, if you don’t feel that the whole issue of “character” has basically changed for today’s authors simply because the concept of “identity” has been so radically undermined and mediated by the media-blitz that inundates everyone today?
SD: Yes. The camera never lies, right? I don’t write very much dialogue. I don’t think there’s any dialogue in L.C. and very little in The Colorist. Dialogue, a feature of a certain kind of characterization, often seems to produce something that sounds like an echo of a film script. The columns of type, spoken language, seem much less engaging to me than thought language. There are a lot of “ready-mades” out there, signifiers found in the world of images: film, television, and advertising. These create a lot of instant identification, and I’ve tried to avoid some of that.
LM: You frequently present your characters’ thoughts through visual imagery—and in the case of The Colorist, visual imagery drawn from the media (comic books, movies, television, and so on). That seems to be an appropriate way of rendering how completely the media interpenetrates the thoughts of people living in our world.
SD: I was trying to set up a kind of intertextuality, a dialectic between the identity of the character and everything going on around him or her.
LM: This seems to be literalized in The Colorist by the “cinema hat” that you describe—the one you can wear around, with the cutouts, so that everything you see is part of your own private movie. Your acknowledgment at the beginning implies that this isn’t just a metaphor.
SD: The cinema hat was actually constructed by a friend of mine. It was a box you could put on your head. The structure was built to resemble the interior of a miniature theater. If you wore this box as you walked around, it would look like your life was the movie. He told me it’s since been lost or fallen apart.
LM: It had the little curtains that lifted up so that everything was framed?
SD: No curtains.
LM: Of course people literally see the world this way—as a movie. This general area is something I feel separates your generation from the sixties postmodernists (Coover, Barth, Pynchon, and so on). You’re more aware of the ways these media-generated “ready-mades” have been integrated into the world, and are effecting people’s sense of their own personal (if it is that) identity. It’s significant to me that, say, both you and Vollmann are so meticulous about presenting your fictions within a context of verifiable references to historical and geographical details (in your case, say, the details surrounding the Dreyfus case, or the situation in Paris in 1848, and so on). And of course some of the familiar references—to Pocahontas or Leif Ericson (for Vollmann) or (in your case) to Dreyfus or the French Commune have reverberations that your readers are going to bring to this new textual situation—it’s almost a shorthand that saves you from having to present this through another form of exposition.
SD: It also can allow history to finish the story. In Richard Powers’s Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance and Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, for example, the title almost tells you the whole story.
LM: At the opening of L.C. there’s an anecdote about the three shepherdesses who are said to be “in perpetual mourning. One longed for the past, one for the future, and a third for the present,” Like so many other things in L.C. this seems to be a reflection or refraction of something else—the narrative process involved in your writing the book, for instance, specific hints about the relationship your three narrators are going to have to time. Was this anecdote something that you went back and reinserted after you’d finished the rest of the book?
SD: I don’t remember where that story came from or what part of France it’s from. I worked on each part of L.C. somewhat concurrently rather than sequentially, but that story wasn’t tacked on as a sort of afterthought. The three sections of the book (introduction, notebook, epilogue) can be read in any order.
LM: Did you also write the different sections of The Colorist in this concurrent (nonlinear) way?
SD: There’s always a lot of going backward and forward, partly because I’m a chronic rewriter at every stage, so it’s difficult to say what came first and what was written later on. A friend once suggested my grave should read, “Don’t bother me—I’m rewriting!”
LM: You mentioned earlier that the kinds of art you were doing were mostly drawings, but not really paintings.
SD: They were sort of narrative drawings, episodic, with drawn sequential frames, all kinds of things glued on to the surface of the paper: unfolding Xeroxes of car parts, plastic body parts, calendars. Some were based on books I’d read. Some were made to fall apart over time. Most were accidentally thrown out the last time we moved. I drew a cartoon strip when I was in high school.
LM: Did that background doing comic strips make you aware of the very interesting (and sometimes genuinely sophisticated) kinds of things being done recently in graphic novels and related materials (I’m thinking of everything from Shade the Changing Man to the works of Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman)?
SD: I’d read Spiegelman and Barry, went to Marvel Comics and spoke to people who had been colorists. Even though Electra is clearly an invention and has a life no comic superhero could ever have, I looked at compatible comics. Somerset Holmes, Ms. Tree, Laser Eraser, and others to determine what kinds of situations Julie would have been coloring at Fantomes Comics while she still had her job. The name Fantomes came from Fantomas, the fictional criminal popular in France in 1911. Julie is a kind of Inspector Juve, the only character capable of unmasking Fantomas.
LM: There seems to be a definite sense of patterns repeating themselves in different forms in The Colorist, whereas in the original Top Stories version you had introduced the main elements but not developed these “variations on a theme.” Was that pretty much the nature of what you wound up doing in your revisions?
SD: Yes. Top Stories is a small press in New York whose books rarely exceed about fifty pages, I think, except when they do collections. When I first wrote The Colorist it was as a Top Story, but also, as I said, emerging from years spent in Paris 1848 and Berkeley 1968. I wanted to write something that was more an immediate reflection of what was around me. With the Top Stories version, the main elements were established: art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
LM: Was it your interest in the narrative situation you found there transferred somehow into your novel?
SD: I knew there would be several stories within the story and there would be a serial comic character who would be terminated and revived. The comic book, like the notebook in L.C., was a formal means of establishing this structure.
LM: Were you aware that Daredevil had an Elektra character (she was a martial arts heroine trained in mysticism or something like that) in one of its series for awhile?
SD: When the book was in galleys one of my students showed me the other Elektra. (The name is spelled differently.) I did read some comics to determine what kind of stories would be produced at Fantomes Comics, but not that one as far as influences on Electra might have been concerned. Most of her appearances in the book are in the stories Julie invents for herself, which are a departure from the standard superheroine situations. Electra, as she appears in Julie’s rewritten versions, is more like one of Peter Handke’s anomies. The figure of Wonder Woman on the cover was unfortunate and misleading since she in no way figures in The Colorist, nor does Electra have anything to do with her.
LM: When you introduce a character named “Electra” into a novel, obviously at least some of your readers are going to immediately bring to that character certain sets of associations drawn from high culture, while others are going to be bringing in very different sorts of pop cultural resonances—one of those potentially rich circumstances that postmodern artists seem increasingly willing to take advantage of.
SD: One of the frustrating things in writing L.C. and a few other pieces about history was that it was difficult for me to point to the tension between popular and high cultures. These were periods when, perhaps because of the infancy of print media and photography, popular culture seems less accessible.
LM: Most of your works could be described as being “historical novels” in the sense of being set within a specific historical period that forms a significant backdrop to your own story (I’m thinking of the Dreyfus period, the Paris and North African scenes of the late 1840s, their parallel in 1968 Berkeley, and the seventeenth-century period of war between the Austrians and Turks). Is there any commonality among these historical periods that drew you to them?
SD: It was different in each case. My impulse to use history has something to do with storytelling itself, the need to create comparisons. History as a kind of ready-made that can be reinterpreted or misinterpreted, and translated.
LM: So your interest has less to do writing “historical fiction” so much as using the original “ready-mades” as a springboard to your own reinterpretations.
SD: Yes. In each I tried to somehow set up a relationship between the historical sections and the parts in the present, and to chart the process of how meanings become attached to historical objects, people, events, as well as how these meanings change.
LM: How does this work in terms of the sequence of novellas you were working on there for a while?
SD: One of these was based on an event that occurred during one of the last battles between the Austrians and the Turks in the late seventeenth century. The Turkish sultan was so confident he was going to win that he brought his entire harem (about four hundred women) to the battlefield. When he lost, all the women—who had lived in purdah all, if not most, their lives—were taken by the Duke of Savoy to Vienna and “freed.” “Harem” seems like an inaccurate word because of its implications in English, so I never used it. It means hidden, which exactly expresses the conditions of the women who lived in it, but I’m afraid many people see the word and think I Dream of Jeannie. All the women lived in the inner palace whether they were cooks or the sultan’s wives, and they were all taken to this particular battle which took place in Slovenia. The story contains many echoes of what is presently going on in the Balkans. These women would have come from every part of the Ottoman empire, from Ethiopia to Iran. I wasn’t particularly interested in this period historically, but I wanted to write about how people would recreate a language and culture starting from zero, an abstract situation, I never found out what happened to them. There were many sources on Vienna and Istanbul, but when the doors opened and the characters found themselves in Vienna, the road ended, so I had to make the rest up.
LM: Your finding the popular cultures of that period so inaccessible to research seems very significant. The tendency of artists and historians from earlier periods to draw references almost exclusively from “high culture” turns out to be a major aesthetic and cultural limitation in certain ways. If those women had wound up in Hollywood or Bombay today, you can be sure there would be a trail of tabloid articles, interviews, docu-dramas, and B-movies left behind. Score one for postmodern culture. Without access to these sorts of popular forms, you aren’t able to access the particular kind of milieu that these women would find themselves in.
SD: Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. These people have found themselves shipwrecked in Europe today, and they’re greeted by neo-Nazis, not B-movies, so the situation is much the same as it was three hundred years ago. I was able to do some research in the library of the British Museum. I don’t read German or medieval Arabic, but I could read a few French accounts. There were great lists of things taken from the battlefield: camels, cannon, ostriches, and eighty women from the inner palace who’d never stepped outside of it except in shuttered carriages. I was interested how they would read baroque culture, manners, how language might be reconstructed. It’s as if they’d been taken off an island and then plunked down on an entirely different one.
LM: Your decision to use “Electra” as your comic book heroine in The Colorist, along with the many other references to mythical figures and events (the references later on to Egypt, for example, with that whole sequence of things having to do with Osiris and so forth) brings to your presentation a lot of the kinds of associations and resonances we were discussing earlier. Why not invent a completely new character—-or one whose mythic “baggage” would be drawn purely from the realm of pop culture? In other words, is it important to you in developing intertextualities to combine elements from both high and low culture?
SD: The mythic baggage wasn’t a problem and making up a character, since many comic characters have obvious ties to mythology, seemed contrived. When Jack Ladder appears, the man who makes museum reproductions, the connections are self-evident. He represents other terms of the marketplace and concerns with profit margins. Without these connections, he would appear to come out of the blue, just a man hacking ears off fake Egyptian artifacts.
LM: Your background as an artist has affected your work in terms of its “content” in certain obvious ways—i.e., your two novels, as well as the book you’re working on right now, all have visual art and artists as central figures, and all three seem to be exploring issues of sight, perception, and meaning. Do you see any analogous sort of influence that painting or the visual arts might have had on your notions of form in any way?
SD: I spend a lot of time at the movies, and parts of the books are cinematic as if I was looking at the characters through a camera. The Electra sections were written almost as if they were storyboards, and I found it useful to read what Hitchcock wrote (or said during his interviews with Truffaut) about suspense, how it’s constructed through a certain sequence of events.
LM: Back in the seventies, when you were starting out as a writer, were you reading the innovative works being written by the first wave of postmodernists—Coover, Bartheleme, Gass, Morrison, Pynchon?
LM: Do you feel any sense of being “plugged in” to a literary scene here in New York City—the kind of thing Robert Siegel was pointing to in Suburban Ambush, his book about Manhattan authors? Or do you feel as if you’re working more in a vacuum?
SD: When I hear the word – I imagine people in black, smoking Chesterfields, and talking about the –. There are so many people desperately clamoring for every scrap of attention they can possibly get, as if the whole purpose of writing, or of doing anything, is to ensure the spotlight is fixed in their direction. I admire writers like Pynchon and Salinger who won’t grant interviews and shun publicity. I’ve turned down some, wouldn’t do television (although they’re not exactly banging on my door), avoid radio, don’t like to do readings or interviews. (This may be the last one). No, I don’t feel I’m working in a vacuum at all, or maybe it is a vacuum and that’s the only way to get anything done.