A Conversation with Toby Olson By Douglas Gunn

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1991, Vol. 11.2

Not long after we began talking about this interview, and various possibilities for the shape it might take, Toby Olson and I agreed that we would avoid the conventional, taped question-and answer format that characterizes the majority of interviews that appear in journals and magazines. For one thing, neither of us felt confident we could produce interesting talk “spontaneously.” (Whether the effect of spontaneity ought to be the result of editing was a separate issue that further complicated that possibility.) For another, we’re both given to the process of revision. Because saying it the first time doesn’t seem to get it right, much of the time, and because a more interesting and more honest “talk” is produced, for us, by this reworking of what might first come out. It became a process that has much in common with what Toby calls, in a different register, positioning oneself: “much tortured preparation, quite necessary, so that finally one is in a position to speak. . . .”

The result has been more of a collaboration of writing than an interview in the traditional sense, although we did attempt to maintain the pace of an interview. For my part, I eventually abandoned the role of questioner as Toby’s responses and the format that evolved tended to draw me out of the passivity of that role and invite a more active participation. This meant my “questions” became more elaborate as I composed them; often it became necessary to retrace the steps we had taken and modify the terms of the encounter as my understanding of Toby’s writing evolved, through our engagement. As for Toby, I can’t speak for him, but the volume of correspondence containing responses, revisions, clarifications, suggestions, questions, makes me certain that the process nature of this interview was primary for him, too.

The most significant thing about this process, as it worked itself out in these pages (and, I’d bet, the most rewarding thing for anyone who reads it), is that the outcome of the exchange between us provides glimpses—I wouldn’t say insights, his writing remains enigmatic—into Toby Olson’s art more satisfying than anything I could have expected. In his novels he exposes the uncanny nature of everyday experience by refocusing “ordinary” language on the things he writes about, giving the lie to a conventional view of the world that reserves such language for an official sphere. In this interview he explores, with characteristic generosity, the history and the aesthetic responsible for these books.

DG: Your fiction gets called “experimental” a lot by reviewers and critics. It’s an expression that betrays something of a cavalier attitude on the part of the critic, and it does little justice to your writing, which is endlessly more complex than the term implies. I’d like to start this off by trying to get at what your novels do that makes people retreat behind this word. My own sense is that the quality in your writing others have called “experimental” is the product of an awareness that reality is, in reality, falsified by the simulation of the world conventional form limits itself to, i.e., the officially sanctioned version of the world. Are you conscious of manipulating linguistic or literary forms in your writing in order to discover the internal formal principles peculiar to the things you write about— events, places, characters? Present the reality of events in ways true to the events, by inventing the appropriate forms? This could account for critics applying the term “experimental” to your writing—it doesn’t fit into convenient critical categories based on conventional assumptions about the world.

TO: Well, for me present reality is almost always filtered through memory, through the consciousness of various characters as they move in some arena of places and events and attempt in various ways to come to terms with it. Even when writing in the third person I try for a consciousness that usually speaks in a way that feels coerced by some past.

I’m concerned in part with nostalgia, and I’m thinking of that as a kind of bondage, one that prevents characters from living, unencumbered, in the here and now. I’m not sure what it would be like to live in the here and now, and I suspect that’s why those characters in my novels (be they horses or people) who are able to do that are fundamentally enigmatic. They teach by example, often ostensively, point out an unencumbered world, one that might be seen as healthy, against the pathology of past-tortured minds. But they don’t reveal their inner selves in ways that would explain them. At least, I’m not clear about them. But then, I’m not too clear about any of these people I write about.

DG: Don’t you get to know them by writing about them?

TO: Coming to imagine them? Sure, but I’m fond of feeling that I don’t want to know them any better than I know people in my life, which isn’t very well when it comes, I think, to what you refer to as an “officially sanctioned version of the world” for fiction as a measure. In that world we can come to feel we know characters quite thoroughly. We can find fault, for example, when writers fail to provide sufficient psychological motivation for actions. Our expectations can be systematic, with characters as little systems in a larger one. That world (of what we might call- oddly—”realistic” fiction) is most often completely ordered, and when it isn’t a reader can find fault with the writing. Or a reader can like the writing as it is and call it things like “experimental.” Convention aside, I certainly want my characters to feel tangible, like real people in a real world, though not the “official” one you mention.

DG: Can you say something about what makes up the world as you engage it in your writing? It seems to me that a slightly skewed perspective is responsible for shaping the world of your fiction—you see this in the language itself—and I wonder if there are formal or thematic systems that you find especially effective for developing this world.

TO: Two of my models are Faulkner and Lawrence, writers whose real worlds are contained and somewhat conventionalized because of systems, of place in history and of moral/aesthetic philosophy, that somehow stand beyond the work, give it referential meaning. Could we call Faulkner “experimental” in any other than a trivial way? The system makes it clear that he had other things on his mind.

I guess I wished for a system early on, wanting to emulate these two great writers, but only over time did I come to any good sense of what it was I was writing “about.” It’s surely America; I’ve no doubt about that. And it’s an America that exists outside the European sophistication of New York, outside of cities for the most part. Its qualities are those of nostalgia, fundamental inarticulateness, and a concern with details as more complex and valuable than systems that explain them. Skill too, something about mastery of the details that make up skills, then something about the way such mastery relates (or doesn’t relate) to that larger life beyond it. Skills like golf, prostitution, massage.

So it is not only through characters struggling in nostalgia nor these enigmatic figures who are free of it that I want to get at this present that I tend to think of as luminous, as so adamantly here. I want to get at it through details, both by presenting them as the exclusive elements that make up the present and by finding in them systems of articulation such that passages of thought in prose will seem no different from the present they distinguish and name. Here’s the sentence, sentences growing into paragraphs, the struggle to position a self, so that he, she (I) might speak out purely, unencumbered. I see this struggle often in Faulkner and Lawrence. Much tortured preparation, quite necessary, so that finally one is in a position to speak. I’m sure this way of seeing things comes from my writing poetry for so many years before I had much thought about attempting fiction. Not only writing it, but reading it: Pound, Williams, etc.

DG: Because of the precision that poetry demands?

TO: More the attending, that constant focus in articulation. Really, it’s the im-precise I’m most interested in: confusions of feeling, perception. How [can I] be precise about that? Without being reductive. I think of the aquiline nose, high cheekbones, broad, honest forehead. How often it seems that the world is a vacancy, until the writer names it, invents it, takes it into his story.

But in a long, narrative poem by William Carlos Williams, the articulation of an event seems never a matter of use or anticipation. His attention to a given world in language is so acute and present that it overcomes what might in other hands have seemed in service. There is no story waiting for its particulars. And for me the same holds true in fiction that draws me, Faulkner, for example. Broad, monstrously clotted, long-winded, and excessive, but constantly energized by a celebratory pleasure in the struggle and then the ability to speak out. Right now.

I keep hearing this as a distinctly American thing; [the] result of the youth of our language? Our having to learn how to use it? Maybe the sheer weight of talk about talk in our literature points to this. Whitman. The wow factor. “Wow! I can speak out! I can say this!” I often hear the current avant-garde (what’s been called “Language Poetry”) in this way. The aesthetic there remains adamant. Still, listening to many of these poems, one gets the sense that the wow factor is overcoming that aesthetic at every turn. Usually, there’s an implied narrative base, but as with Williams the poet gets so taken up with the ability to speak out, that the particulars of the poem are received not as a service but as an immediacy.

Anyway, I came to fiction with a poet’s attitude, one that saw the struggle toward articulation as a value in the work, not just as a process of refinement.

DG: In your own poetry one certainly sees this celebration of particulars being emphasized over what you just called an implied narrative base. In a long poem like Home, for instance, or The Florence Poems, you tend to use narrative, loosely, as a kind of glue, or scaffolding, to support the poem’s language and particulars, rather than bending the language to accommodate a “story.” And in many of your shorter poems, too, the attention to the present event foregrounded against that narrative base:

winged it in the nature of Country & Western
dark bars in Corpus, you
sweet bucktoothed Mexican girl
hugged in the arc of parking lights
lit up the beach and the Gulf of Mexico

. . . or maybe I’m reading too much in. How do you see it?

TO: It’s hard for me to recapture what actually happened when I wrote the poem you quote from, though reading those particulars immediately vivifies the autobiographical circumstance. The piece, though numbered “4,” was really the first serious entrance into a series called “Standards,” poems (the rest much longer) that work off of old popular song lyrics. In a way, the implied narrative base here—though I wouldn’t use that terminology in talking about my own poetry—is the story of the song (“These Foolish Things”), taken quite seriously. I suspect that to move into the events that way freed me from concerns having to do with the autobiographical as “story,” which of course it isn’t, though memory tends to recover it as such, especially when we wish it to have meaning, even tone (its sentiment).

With Home and The Florence Poems, the approach seems to me different, different from one another as well. Simply speaking, Home faces “story” by spending almost all its time in displaying the impossibility of articulating it, in fits and starts, while in The Florence Poems, the series recognizes from the beginning that there is a narrative, then spends a whole lot of time searching for it. I mean, of course, that I was searching for it. What might be seen as a choice was leaving that search in the poem, recognizing that it was the poem. That’s something quite similar to the way I often proceed in writing fiction.

Now, in each of these cases the poems’ movement is among particulars, things and events, seldom through ideas about story, narrative, or whatever. Maybe it’s that which urges the celebratory.

DG: Well, the acknowledgment of things in their particularity, which means refusing to enlist them as elements in a totalizing narrative—this is celebration, right?

TO: For me it is, though surely others might see systems of figurative language (another kind of totalizing?) as a way to get to that.

DG: Sure, but . . . well, your activity as a poet, and the quality that emanates from the speech of the poets you allude to, is a focusing on the surface of things, the surface of language, isn’t it? I mean, rather than settling on language that directs attention away from itself, allowing the attention to wander in a conventional world of “common sense”? (I take it this is what you mean when you speak of the particulars of a poem “in service”—language in service to a given reality?)

TO: No, that’s not exactly what I mean. I brought up the language poets (knowing full well that the term is about as useless as “the objectivist poets” and even insidious in the way it homogenizes what is indeed a great variety) in order only to make the case about the particularly American in an extreme way. Maybe these poets might seem the last ones to fit into the speech context that I’ve mentioned. And maybe it’s fair to speak of these poets as often focusing on the surface of language, but only so long as we don’t see “surface” as a covering for “depth.”

DG: Well, because there is no ideal “meaning” or “depth” served by the surface of language. No “master narrative” with the authority to organize the surface of language—the illusion of such depth is responsible for the establishment of convention in the first place. What there is is that surface, and a multiplicity of appropriations of its particulars.

TO: Right, but in another language; I think we’re shifting here, no longer wanting to use “surface” as a metaphor (as I think we’ve been), a distinction usage. “Focus” too, suggesting alternative focus. But let me linger still. Williams is another matter entirely, and in a way “allowing the attention to wander in a conventional world of ‘common sense’ ” is a fine description of many Williams poems.

DG: Okay, I see what you mean: the everyday particular: the contagious hospital, the red wheelbarrow, etc. But I still would argue the word wander—our attention is sharply focused by these poems, isn’t it, by the form of the language at work in them? My point is just that if you take language for granted, assuming that its conventions are “natural,” you lose the ability to pay attention.

TO: I see the difficulty. The problem is, whose attention are we talking about? I was thinking of Williams’s, that voice in the poems at least, not the reader’s. That voice could be said to take language for granted at times, an often lovely slacking off, a loss of attention, a dreamier focus. But the reader must always pay attention, though the focus there might be elastic as well, “wander” in that sense.

Really, I was only trying to suggest a connection between poetry and fiction that interests me, to say that events in language in a Williams poem (the longer narrative ones) seem never “in service,” not to story, as if that were the world. The world that Faulkner writes about would seem a more transparently created one at first. Until you read the sentences, until you see how immediate everything is. Neither Williams nor Faulkner ever seems to be creating the world. They seem to be finding it, and out of such discovery in articulation do their stories grow. I say “seem” as if I were a reader constructing a possibility, but I don’t mean that. I mean to say I believe that actually happens in the writing, and that it’s there that we can begin to speak about sincerity. Take Robert Creeley. Can there be any doubt, both in the fiction and the poetry, that he is finding rather than creating to resolve some story?

DG: That’s the beauty of it; there’s never the sense that the writing has been composed to satisfy the demands of a “story” whose formal limits are fixed, by what we’ve been calling the officially sanctioned version of the world. Each moment in such a story, such “realistic” fiction, call it, is completely determined by an end capable of resolving all the pressures and inconsistencies that the writer might discover along the way. Not so with the writers we’re talking about. The measure of their sincerity is their willingness to focus on the moment, without coercing whatever inconsistencies might appear into the service of some narrative or other.

TO: But maybe we’re making too much of this. Really, it’s a simple matter, one of emphasis or primacy, a willingness to let story go where it may, a recognition that the tale follows, unless one wishes it to go backward.

DG: Backward?

TO: The image of a figure facing away in the distance. Is it going or coming backward? What’s being watched, the present, the future, or the past?

DG: What’s primary, then, is the immediacy of speech? If you let this fall into the service of narrative, you do a disservice to the writing.

TO: If “speech” is taken broadly enough, not just as common talk.

DG: Right. Not to cut this off, but I wanted to pick up on this emphasis on prose through poetry: things as they are when the voice discovers them and without a concern for fitting them into a system of symbols that would preserve them as universal meaning:

experiment with love starts
with a body on fire at a distance
a woman always
standing in full length across the room

Possibly the reader is tempted to refer to a symbolic order, but the image of the woman in those last two lines erases the temptation as the voice simply acknowledges the particulars of a woman, and an adventure in love. Do you see yourself coming out of the tradition of Williams, Creeley, etc., “no ideas but in things”?

TO: Well, I do, absolutely, and take those last words not as argument, but as guide. And I’d suspect that’s why the word surface, even after all our talk, still rankles: a concern that it be taken as superficiality. “. . . the surface of the world where all beauty resides.” Jack says that in Dorit in Lesbos, looking down at a rock pool surface, which is much like the conscious mind, and I’d hope that lifting the statement out of context would drain it of its particular force. Jack can only say that near the novel’s end, after a long time, in which he’s worked to position himself for speaking in various ways. This, of course, is the same for me with poetry, no symbols, no elegant language that is self-contained, extractable from the poem.

DG: I think I understand your discomfort with this business of surfaces. Jack understands that surfaces reflect the here and now, and that only here does beauty reside. The conventional understanding of surface, on the other hand, does reduce it to a kind of superficiality—something that must be penetrated before you can reside in a realm of richness and “meaning.” But the voice in your writing seems to come from a different understanding of the term, that you get from taking those words of Williams’s I quoted seriously. The result is the immediacy of speech we’ve been talking about. Do you find any particular position, or method of positioning a self, especially profitable for realizing this kind of speech? Earlier, you called it “unencumbered,” I think, “luminous.” I mean, and getting back to your fiction, what does it translate to, formally, to prepare oneself for the opportunity to speak in such a voice?

TO: Two of the more obvious places where I’ve tried to display this luminous present, or at least suggest the possibility of it, are in bathing and sex—the sensuous and the erotic—and my approach has been to establish physical environments that, though they might play some part in the narrative movement, are for the time being circumscribed, free of encumbrance, suspended in time, interludes. They seem places in which the kind of speech you refer to is possible. Not only there, of course. At times it’s more a matter of voice unsticking itself from story, emerging from some twisted ruminations. Then it might be traceable in a paragraph, how the sentences correct some clotted syntax, some painful vocabulary.

DG: Any idea where this strategy comes from? I mean, does it reflect something about your world?

TO: As a matter of fact, I think it comes very directly from my past, at least up into my late teens. As a child, I moved a lot, attending eight grammar and four high schools. When I think back, I tend to experience circumscribed places, many of them, each as a complete permanence, and it’s as if my story were a series of these places, with a thread of travel-leaving (loss) and going to (anticipation)—between them. Obviously, that’s similar to a description of the “story” of these novels.

As far as bathing and sex go, maybe it’s enough to point to their immediacy, the mind in the thing, along with the body, in the present; for me at least.

DG: So, this tension between the pure, or “luminous” present we’ve been talking about and the bondage of the past: much of what drives your writing is the struggle of various characters to escape the coercion of the past. Something that seems fundamentally related to this tension: you also see characters struggling to come to some sort of terms with death in most of your books. What I’ve been calling the “official version of the world” is based on the assumption that events frozen in a present, as they recede into the past, offer a kind of protection against death. The enigmatic quality of certain of your characters seems to come from a different understanding of the present, one that necessarily takes on death and the mystery it implies. How do you see these two struggles figuring in your writing, either together or separately?

TO: Well, of course death is a literal matter in these books, and maybe I should talk a little about plot. In each case there is an actual journey, and on these journeys characters approach, both literally and in their memories, the nature of their pasts. I mean, they actually “go back” and at the same time worry and remember what it is they are heading for. Details on the journey are of the journey, and as such almost never in the present. They’re evidence, items of understanding, systematized. They become luminous when they are free of the journey. Those enigmatic figures (Bob White in Seaview, for example) are free of the journey altogether. Bob White sees Melinda’s dying in her, in the present, part of who she is for him. And at one point he instructs her on how she might see it that way too. Melinda, on the other hand, sees her dying as a clock, and she wants to urge the journey ahead, to get herself to the place of her childhood on Cape Cod. Allen, her husband, wants to slow the journey, figuring that when it ends, she will end. Allen and Melinda’s journey is the plot. They both struggle to place her dying in the present, and it’s that struggle and not the outcome that I find of interest. Bob White is beyond the story of the book; that’s why he’s enigmatic.

DG: So the struggle to inhabit the here and now is a struggle to escape the confines of plot, to free oneself from the determinations of various personal histories?

TO: That’s the way it usually works out, though the terms, especially in the third person, are obviously more fluid than that. I mean, plot is an artifice of fiction: that specified sense of reality that stands beyond character workings, that future that is much more than anticipation.

DG: I’m not sure I understand. Maybe I asked it wrong, let me put it like this: If plot is what controls the “story” of the book, then the struggle of certain characters in your novels to live in the present is won by exceeding the formal limitations of the story. Bob White is beyond the story of the book because he doesn’t recognize the authority of narrative convention. He speaks from a place outside the story when he tries to draw Melinda out of the confines of plot. And something similar happens when Paul meets Alava in The Woman Who Escaped from Shame. Aren’t such interruptions in narrative continuity responsible for the peculiar power of these novels, to a large degree? I mean, it’s always the presence of the enigmatic character that puts the “story” into perspective for other characters, no?

TO: Well, I’d want to avoid the exclusiveness of that “always.” At times there are sentences (in whatever person) that unravel the past-bound pathology of certain ruminations, moments in which characters become free of the plot or story, as if they were outside looking in. But never completely outside, of course. The terms are more fluid in this sense, because finally I want an overriding consciousness: the language that is the world. And that language would have to contain everything we’re talking about, the past as well as the present, the future as a presence before it happens, event as meaning out of time. I’d find a pretty clear analogue for this in Dickens, that feeling that the whole of his London exists, is there even before characters come to certain byways in it. That’s what I meant by a future that is much more than anticipation. And of course his London does exist, complete at any given time, because it’s a quality of his language, and that’s there, once it’s there, almost from the very beginning.

And another thing: In all these books I’ve tried to develop image systems, presenting things or gestures that in their recurrence become emblems. Emblems and not symbols because I don’t want them to be read outside the books’ language, but only within it. At times these images mark a kind of freedom from plot or story that we’ve been talking about. At times characters might recognize the recurrence, at times only the reader might, at times I’m sure the recurrence is so embedded that only I can see it. Still, such things are part of the books’ languages. And they are not exactly in the “story” as we’ve been speaking about it.

DG: Do they represent a kind of celebration of your ability to speak out, in prose? Like the “wow factor” in poetry we were talking about? I think of the landscape architecture in Dorit in Lesbos, especially those rocks in the pool, or pond, they’ve created. That long sequence when Chen is carefully placing them in the pool using a crane, I believe it was. Or the passages in The Woman Who Escaped from Shame about the drawing of a horse, with all the legends attached to various parts of the horse. Is the function of these emblematic gestures to celebrate your ability to use language, prose, novelistic prose I guess you’d call it?

TO: No, not that. They’re really more self-consciously arrived at. I’ll know ahead that I’ll lay them in when the time is right. (One of the very few things I know ahead of time.)

But, you know, we’ve taken this ability to speak out, and this wow factor, way beyond my initial intention. I guess I didn’t state it. I mean the ability to speak out about one’s own life, or out of one’s emotional life, the positioning that allows for expression of self, even when the words are in the mouths or minds of characters. It’s one of the things that can drive you to write, can drive the writing, too, a hope that one can work into such a positioning, so that one can finally speak. It might be speaking about ideas too, as with D. H. Lawrence, ideas held so strongly that their articulation is an emotional matter as well.

DG: Okay, I think I see what you mean; I was hearing it as a literal ability to speak out, to use language without regard for received forms, which limit expression to the boundaries of a given reality. Is positioning yourself like this—so that you’re clear enough about yourself and your emotional life to “speak out purely, unencumbered”—in some sense a formal matter? How, for instance, do you position yourself in order to display the “luminous” present in sexual or sensual passages, or in passages involving unusual skill: when Ronny bathes Paul in The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, or in the golfing passages in Seaview?

TO: The positioning seems formal in a couple of ways. When Ronny bathes Paul, the event is essentially outside of the series of physical events that make up the story of Paul’s journey. It’s an interlude. More importantly, what happens in Paul’s mind and between him and Ronny during the bathing is outside of the mental events that make up the book’s story as well.

Paul has a lot to think about: the mystery of the little horse, the loss of Mary Grace, the whereabouts of his pursuers, the next step in his journey, the changing meanings of his own past. Then Ronny, who is a homosexual, bathes Paul, and in the middle of that cleansing, while Ronny is on his knees in the shower stall washing Paul’s thighs, Paul gets an erection. This involuntary gesture relieves him (and the reader too, I’d hope) of the story in his mind. He now has something else to focus on: his embarrassment and arousal, his response to another man in the here and now. Ronny notices his condition, and when he speaks, he relieves Paul even of those concerns. “That’s all right, man. It’s only natural,” is what he says. He doesn’t mean that rising up to the touch of another man is natural, but only that touch itself can cause arousal, especially when one is unguarded, free of “the story,” which includes both sex and gender. Ronny has no unusual skill in this case, but for the moment at least he is “healthier” than Paul is; then he leads him to that health, brings him into a purer present, at least momentarily. I want such interludes to stand outside the story, outside the “language” of the story. Only then can they comment upon it.

DG: These interludes are often grounded in the erotic. Another episode whose language might be said to stand outside the story occurs in Dorit in Lesbos when Coco bathes Jack, and her reaction to a similar response, or erotic arousal, is not unlike Ronny’s: ” ‘But you don’t understand,’ she said. ‘It’s just a human thing. Just the two of us here. It’s all right, all right, I’ll take care of you.’ ” A little later in the novel a curious thing happens: the narrator, relaxing naked late one night on the deck of the yacht on which he’s stowed away, finds himself lying unnoticed at the feet of one of his hostile “hosts.” As the breeze blows through the hair in his groin, he feels himself “rising”— “but just that part of me that might have risen to Coco in the tub. There’s not much difference after all, I thought, recognizing our strange sharing.” Why do you use the erotic to tie these events together?

TO: Because the erotic is pure impulse, and because in both cases the sensuous is initially confused with the sensual, as if one should not necessarily contain the other. With Coco, Jack is relieved of his feelings about that confusion, and in the second situation after some wrongheaded philosophical ruminations that were driven by his emotional response to the sensuous night at sea, he accepts the “strange sharing,” the immediacy in his body, as it responds to the figure standing above him, part of the sensuous night.

On another level, I wanted to deflate (or at least toy with or thicken) an old psychological cliche, that of the penis as aggressive member. Jack doesn’t rise to Coco in the tub, though he aggressively and mistakenly reaches out to her sensually. But on his back, naked on the deck, he does rise up. I wanted a lot in that image: Jack supine, in a coffin-like trough, his penis erect, and an erect man standing beside him at his hip, unaware of his presence. The idea might be that Jack’s rising up in this way is a pathetic aggressive gesture, a ludicrous instance of frustrated male power. But it doesn’t look that way. And Jack experiences it as a sharing. The erect penis and the erect man, two beacons in the night. And Jack has mistakenly seen himself as focal in the night in his ruminations. He has also compared this to the way he might have risen to Coco in the tub, but “just that part of me that might have risen.” And there is danger here, and possible embarrassment, and death (the coffin trough), and anonymity, and a whole lot of other ways of understanding this event, all of which might come from systems of interpretation that are outside of the novel, I’d hope that none of these ways is sufficient, and that one is finally left with only the image, an enigmatic image, maybe an emblem that is echoed elsewhere, but a reality when it occurs, something to look at, to feel about.

DG: So do you feel that you’ve succeeded at positioning yourself in this passage, I mean in a way that you’re speaking out, speaking out of your emotional life?

TO: Yes, yes I do. I’ve read the passage aloud a couple of times, I mean at readings, and I’ve felt strongly connected to it. Its rhythm, tone, the mix of feeling and idea in it, the openness of its philosophical talk. I’m certainly speaking out there, things I couldn’t say, authentically, in any other context.

But it’s the language that interests me most. Coco speaks out of a highly ritualized series of events, the details of her bathing of Jack. Her statement is designed to be formal, somewhat austere. And I want Jack’s thoughts (in that second passage) to have a similar formality, one that can only occur because of the here and now nature of the experience. I want both statements, both sections of the book, to stand outside the language of the novel’s story.

DG: Could you say more about how you’re using the term language here?

TO: Well, I’ve certainly been using it in a lot of ways, haven’t I, and far too loosely at that. But in this case I meant to refer only to story. When I say language, I mean all the systems that the story might contain—systems of thought, of recurring image, echoing events—but I mean language more literally as well. When I was writing Seaview, I found myself in a circumstance where I felt that thought and communication between men and women was impossible. I mean, there was no way to arrive at any resolution of relationship. I could have solved the plot in such terms, but the language I had was so encumbered and pathological that I couldn’t use it, in any authentic way, to resolve things. That’s when I wrote the section called “Gerry,” the chapter spoken in a woman’s voice (in the middle of a third person novel). I felt that all the writing up to that point was a way of positioning myself so that I could write the “Gerry” section. Only after I’d written it did I understand the terms of the book’s ending.

That is, of course, a most dramatic example. Most usually we’re talking about just writing up to things, working along until situation, interchange, thought, place, etc., lend themselves to what feels like something very authentic: talk and event in harmony.

DG: I have to ask you this, speaking of Seaview: How often do you get out on the links (as they say) yourself? It’s hard to image that anyone without considerable authority as a golfer could render the golfing passages in that novel with as much sensitivity as you have. (No one without considerable authority as a writer could make them as compelling.)

TO: Hard to imagine, but true! I’ve put the game aside for the last year, though I plan to get back to it soon. When I reached my peak, I played to a twelve handicap. That’s just a little better than average. One of the things that drew me to the game and kept me at it was its language, that intense and closed-off world. I’ve always loved worlds like that, people in some community, enthusiastically attentive to mastery. There’s always a journal of course, or at least a newsletter. I remember one: Newsletter of the Society of Invalid Cup Collectors (well, something like that).

When I was a kid, I worked in a collie kennel, and the woman who owned it would take me to dog shows, wonderful things! All those tools, rating systems, magical grooming products, judgments about beauty articulated in specialized vocabulary.

Golf is that way too. There’s always a new method, a new club that will better your game. Always a way to talk about the particulars of a shot in ways that make no sense at all to those not privy to the language. I hope this sense of the game comes through in Seaview. If enthusiasm could be substituted for skill, I might have some authority as a golfer.

DG: There are more languages like this than we notice, don’t you think? I’m particularly aware of a very specific, closed-off world like the one you describe, for cabinetmakers, and I know that mastery of the language of cabinetmaking—vocabulary of specialized tools and techniques, etc., materials—gives you the authority to inhabit that world in an immediate way, an intense relationship between you and the cabinet, or piece of furniture you’re building. It is a wonderful place to be. But what about the role of art? Do you think art is the mastery of languages with the potential to release us from the past into an enigmatic here and now? In Utah Lorca seems to have used her art to arrive at such a place, an escape from the encumbrances of ordinary reality.

TO: Couldn’t that be a way to address some explicit intentions in Dada, even Abstract Expressionism? So long as the here and now is enigmatic by definition, in that it’s released from the past. Simply speaking, in Utah the confrontation is between the artists and the pillagers of art. I cast Lorca as a nature artist in the book, and early on I recognized that I wanted to make her art powerful in a literal way. I wanted art itself to vanquish its oppressors. Nature, of course, is an enigmatic here and now, and to paint it is to manipulate it, to stop its present (its presence) and take it into the past. (Hasn’t something similar happened to the Dada object, to Duchamp’s ready-mades?) It’s also to disarm whatever potential power and danger it might have. Given these terms, my solution is meant to be a monstrosity. Lorca’s manipulation of nature has been figurative, but then she learns to manipulate it in a literal way. Instead of painting bees, she learns to paint with bees, and in the confrontation scene she releases this art into the world. It’s a killer art, and it takes care of business.

DG: It’s a monstrous solution in a couple of ways: Lorca’s manipulation of nature is monstrous; and, in the terms of a tradition of fiction designed to protect a conventional reality determined by various systemic frameworks, you create a monstrosity of your own when you suddenly evoke what must be taken as a fantastic world in scenes like this, or the massive cloud scene in The Woman Who Escaped from Shame.

TO: Bees can be trained. That’s how we get honey. And once, on a clear, sunny day in Colorado, I actually was confronted by a monstrously large cloud moving down a high meadow toward me. For me, these events you mention are only exaggerations of the conventional, and what makes the worlds in which they occur fantastic is the behavior of characters as they confront them. The scenes are always tableau-like, gestures ritualized, thoughts, actions, speech, all rise up to these events, and I would hope that the truly fantastic nature of these circumstances comes from the believability of characters’ experiences of, and actions in, them.

DG: I keep thinking about the ways these things are tied up with representation, and modes of representation—capturing a sense of the here and now through representing details, the role exaggeration or fantasy plays in representing the world (whose world?)—and I wonder if your feelings about representation are similar to those of a character in your latest novel, the narrator’s uncle in Dorit in Lesbos: “Very hard to shake free of simple representation. And yet representation, though of an entirely different order, is exactly what I’m after.” The effect of Edward’s painting on the nephew, Jack, I remember, is a sort of unsettling skewing of reality.

TO: Edward believes the answer is just below the surface. His is a kind of pantheistic vision. He wants to represent both the complexity and difference of surface and the synthesis of all living things that he feels is just below that, not deep down, but almost a second surface, one that holds meaning. His task is necessarily maddening. By the end, he’s trying to paint the air! Edward’s art is as much a monstrosity as Lorca’s, though both are effective and provide resolutions to the larger stories of these books. In both cases the monstrosity has to do with the spinning out of a kind of logic, one that was flawed to start with. In a way it’s my logic, and I might look to Jack’s experience with his uncle’s paintings to warn myself. My paradigm is simply that surface is always more interesting than those systems that would explain it: psychology, comparative anthropology, what have you, they’re all distastefully reductive. By more interesting I guess I mean more complex, endlessly so. But this is impossible, I mean as a view of anything. Except when one is involved in celebration. But one can’t be doing that all the time.

Still, I feel that systems often lead to immature judgment, certainly in writing and in decisions about the values of certain writing. The Portmann quotation that begins Dorit in Lesbos addresses this issue. He speaks about the surface of animals, argues against what he sees as the reductive simplicity of microscopic study. He, of course, has his own system. But it’s one that is more attractive to me, in that it works off surface.

DG: So if your subject is sexuality, for instance, which it often is, it’s the erotic surface itself that details characters’ predicaments more effectively than explorations of their psyches, etc.?

TO: That’s right. And that surface in this instance would be the ground, a dignified, adamant ground, there and beyond change through interpretation as it occurs. But it would be in the minds of those involved too. And I’d be interested in exploring that, thoughts, reactions, etc. It’s just that my attention would be on presentation of the details of the minds’ workings, rather than on some systematic understanding of what the workings meant. Let the reader bring the system. I’m concerned with how and not why. I guess I feel that leads to a better understanding.

DG: Influence of Paul Blackburn?

TO: Most probably so, though I’d not thought of him in that specific way. But, sure, his poetry teaches that, in its willingness to let the world in, celebration before processing. He’s been an influence from the very beginning. He was the person who showed me what a poem might be, who showed me what a life lived as a poet might be. So it’s hard for me to distinguish particulars of that influence. Both his writing and his attitude about writing remain measures for me. I use both to remind myself of what is truly important.

DG: Gilbert Sorrentino says your books “propose a metaphysics of sexuality”—but that it has no power outside the context of the stories themselves. But isn’t it often the erotic or the sexual that determines the language of the interludes, or arenas of event, that so powerfully comment upon the stories?

TO: Yeah, but it’s all in the larger story that is the book after all. The comment is upon the book’s specifics, and what might “power” mean in such a circumstance? That the story could be translated into the real world as lesson? Well, of course it could, but you would have to translate. I think of your own work, the way in your stories characters’ emotional limitations are so totally defined and determined in language. Yet, your stories are applicable. They have things to say about work, social class, relationship. But you got to translate. Neither of us is writing self- help books, though maybe we would like to change reader perception about life a little. Don’t you think so?

DG: Absolutely. But I think we might be talking about slightly different things. Because I’m not sure that it is necessary to translate; I’m convinced that such change in perception can come about in the experience of confronting the actual “speech” of the voices in the prose. I mean, it’s in the syntax of sentences, the interruptions of narrative progression, and so on, that writing finds what I think of as its power to make some difference in the world. When readers encounter resistance to their reading habits, they have to make decisions and choices that challenge the conventional assumptions that are responsible for these habits. For me this formal resistance is in the form of a stutter of perception that I intend, I think, as a critique of the conventional language of work, social class, etc., which tends to smooth over what’s painful, and painfully concealed, in these institutions. In your writing I think of the interludes we’ve spoken of—the experience of encountering one: not any lesson about the real world we might find in it, but the interruption of that narrative continuity responsible for an official version of reality.

TO: Well, I certainly agree with you completely and would want the same effect from my writing as you do from yours. I heard the Sorrentino reference as a compliment, that the idea in these books had no power outside them. It’s in that circumstance that I spoke of translation. I think of Lawrence, the idea: that old blood-consciousness business, surely a translation. How adamantly particular he is in the writing. The effects of those textures. Does his idea have any power outside the stories themselves? Not for me.

DG: No, right; the power—to change reader perception, or whatever—is the result of an epistemology that’s responsible for these formal idiosyncracies we’ve mentioned: the way the prerogative of “story” is challenged by the circumscribed arenas of event in your novels. Or the way you use fantasy. Think of The Life of Jesus. Don’t you think your unabashed use of fantasy there—or better, what you called exaggerations of the conventional—accounts for the power of that book more than any lesson it might teach? It’s the intrusion of a formal device in an unexpected manner and it asks us to examine our attention.

TO: There are a number of passages in The Life of Jesus that are purely autobiographical, and I tend to see these as a ground of conventional reality in the book. In one of these passages a young boy carries his ill father on his back, and when I think into my past to when I actually did that, the memory has a strangeness to it that is caused by the filter of adult sophistication. It is felt as both real and highly symbolic or emblematic: the burden of the father, etc. And the passages of pure fantasy in the book seem remembered in a similar way, because they are exaggerations of real fantasies that I had as a young Catholic boy: visions derived from iconographic material, Bible stories, confession, the dark and mysterious figures of priests and nuns. The Life of Jesus tries to redeem what I see as waste in my past through celebration, by exaggerated presentation of the materials in the mind of a young boy. It is not my past, but the attempt to construct something of value from the wasted materials of it.

DG: Why “wasted”?

TO: I mean that in the way we all might mean it, the lost opportunity, the thing unsaid. And larger things: the waste of a man’s life in continuing illness, effects of that on his son, causing further waste. We all know of such things in our own lives, and to write of them has a nice contradiction. They are thus seen as wasted materials needing redemption and valuable materials at the same time. It’s an old story: Agee, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. It’s often the task of the first novel, somehow setting the past right, before one can get on to a more purely “made” world, a system, or simply an ongoing life in writing.

DG: It’s often the task of the “journey” in your novels, isn’t it?

TO: Exactly, and in that sense each novel is after the same thing, aspects of the same thing. I’m getting close to feeling I’ve exhausted the subject, close, but not quite there yet. Maybe one more book. I keep finding energy to continue with it, mostly through explorations of point of view, but other things too. Is it the same with stories? For me, each novel had a way of opening possibilities that couldn’t be handled in the book at hand. They tended to be what got me into the next one.

DG: I guess there’s a sense in which my stories develop out of the unfinished material in preceding stories, but with me it’s more of a formal matter. I mean, certain formal problems I can’t get to or solve tend to come up again and drive the writing of succeeding stories. This is what I’m conscious of. But this seems different from what you mean when you speak of the pleasing contradiction of constructing something of value from the wasted materials of your past, in a book like The Life of Jesus. Because the practice of resurrecting memory in the form of fantasy, the way you see it in this first novel, continues, right?

TO: Everything written after The Life of Jesus has its own, though much more processed, autobiographical source, and I think that in each book I’ve been aware of this filter of memory, this way in which the past can become story. So long as there has been a ground of direct, conventional reality, the exaggerations that memory can provide seemed possible. Fantasy is not aside from us, after all, but in us, and as such has power, can define us, change us. It’s hard to vivify fantasy in the present, but it’s not so hard to do so in memory, or in writing fiction. But I didn’t mean it was that that’s kept me going as I have been. It’s the other, much closer to what you say, ways to explore the journey’s formal possibilities (that I couldn’t get to, but were suggested by a book at hand), point of view as a formal issue as well.

DG: Okay, sure, I see what you mean—the way you push the shifting point of view started in Seaview (or even earlier, I guess, in The Life of Jesus), when you get to The Woman Who Escaped from Shame, as a way of exploring the boundaries of the journey motif. These things you’re saying about the filter of adult sophistication make me think of another kind of filter, or lens actually, that of the dream, or dream consciousness. There are a number of places in your novels that seem dreamlike—much of The Life of Jesus has this quality; the apocalyptic scene on the golf course in Seaview, the tunnels in Marble, Colorado, and, again, the giant cloud scene in The Woman Who Escaped from Shame—and I wonder if you’re conscious of using the agency of the dream like you use memory, a certain strangeness caused by the filter of waking consciousness?

TO: Well, you see, use of the dream in writing would have to be a pretty distasteful strategy in my way of thinking. Ever since Freud delivered the dream into popular consciousness, it’s become matter whose value can only be seen through interpretation, and that always reductively, by way of some system. And through Freud’s system the reduction is even more radical than that (solipsistic), because it is only the dreamer who can see the dream properly. How in the world can we now read dreams in fiction in any way that releases the complexity of their details purely? I don’t think we have a chance. I’ve used only a few dreams in these novels, three maybe, and in writing them I’ve tried to undercut systematized interpretation. There’s a dream at the beginning of Seaview, and in it are items that are echoed later in the book. I tried to present them as emblems and not symbols. As that dream ends, there’s a story behind what happens.

I was staying with a friend once, sleeping on her couch, and in the morning she woke me in an interesting way. She placed a cup of steaming tea on a table beside my head. Then she gently blew the steam across my face. It was not touch, but the scent of jasmine in the tea that drew me out of sleep. The transition was so seamless that there seemed no important distinction between sleep and the awake state. In Seaview the character is dreaming, and the jasmine insinuates itself into the dream, which then transforms as he gradually comes awake, the movement as seamless as it appeared to me in life. It’s in that seamless moment where, in these books, I’d often want to dwell. It’s something about details again, how only when they are stripped of all interpretive significance do they become luminous, and maybe that feels dreamlike, I mean like a dream, not about it. Surely, I aim for details of a pure present in many of those erotic situations. Maybe it’s that that feels dreamlike, but you see that I’m troubled by “dream,” even as a metaphor in these cases.

DG: Sure, and I didn’t, mean to suggest that there was anything like an interpretation of dreams going on. But that seamlessness you speak of, it is dreamlike, like the experience of dreaming, and it’s there in a good deal of your work. The erotic situations, for sure. What about the homoerotic? It plays a central role in a number of your books—rather, homoerotic relationships do. How do relationships like this fit in to the metaphysics of sexuality worked out in your novels, and into the aesthetic that guides you in composing them.

TO: The homoerotic relationships are, invariably, models of healthy relationships in these books. In Seaview the escape from the story is by a woman into the company of women, and in Dorit in Lesbos the purest connection is woman to woman also. Gay men are the instructors of heterosexual men, and there is some hint that the little horse in The Woman Who Escaped from Shame is above the limitations of gender. That these models are the purest ones is seen as a sadness and an accusation. Sad that the heterosexuals, bonded to the past, cannot come together satisfactorily. What is accused is the social matrix, the world of values that prevents their proper joining.

DG: Do you think about these things when you write? I mean, we’ve been so formal, or theoretical here, and I have tremendous respect for your ability to move so easily in this register, talking about your writing. But I wonder how much attention you pay to these issues when you actually sit down and pick up a pencil? (Or sit down and pick up a keyboard.)

TO: Often I can’t remember just how the kinds of things we’ve been talking about came to me. Maybe they’re a mix of what others have said about my writing, what I might have thought about it after the fact. Recently, I was asked about my use of current feminist criticism in Dorit in Lesbos. Might I not want to explore that, find some congruence between what I’ve done and what is said there? In a few years, then, I might speak differently about that book.

My way has been to start with almost nothing, well, some things, but certainly not “ideas,” and then try to find an interest in development, in writing sentences and paragraphs that have some solidity and complexity, that make a language that becomes a kind of place, a tonal world that I can move around in. I’m certain you know exactly what I mean. Talking about writing has a certain pleasurable richness, but it is not at all like the richness of writing itself.

DG: Or of reading.

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