Gass on Willie

From selected interviews with William Gass. [Full citations follow.]

Jan Garden Castro: In your art, what are you interested in?
Gass: I’m interested in making a self-contained system of concepts, ideas that will then define a kind of consciousness. It’s a way of inventing a consciousness by supplying someone with the structure and content of an experience. (31)

Ramona Koval: Aren’t we supposed, though, to care about a character as a human being and not see him simply as a construction on the page? Isn’t that part of the art?
Gass: No, that’s childish. These are not real people, they are verbal constructs. To imagine that they are real is a naive mistake. People should not be confused about these things. Fiction is not a road to truth. If you want to take the road to truth you go through science or philosophy, mathematics possibly. (27)

Heide Ziegler: Now I am wondering how to describe the epistemology of language in, for instance, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. In that novella, is language objective, a cultural tradition outside of yourself that you have to make contact with, that you have to grasp and understand before you can use it, or is it subjective, flowing from the imagination as from a source?
Gass: I think you’ve brought up a very interesting philosophical issue. […] One’s language is indeed outside oneself. English exists quite apart from me and will exist when I have stopped talking. […] In another sense, of course, language is so inherent to my nature that it is, for me, the deepest and most fundamental expression of the self. […] Each individual is a series of special personal speech acts within the larger gabble. (156)

Lorna Domke: What else is essential in your writing?
Gass: The other element which also comes unbidden is the orality of it, the saying and sounding of what one could call the music of it. […] Until I find the voice, I don’t have a story. (55)

Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais: You use a visual field in your fiction, as well. You’ve talked about fictional language being a different form of language. By using a fictional language and, as in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, other graphic elements within the text, what do you hope to achieve?
Gass: It depends again on what you are up to. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was a kind of odd manifesto; it was part essay, part fiction, and part this and that. Some of the text spoke of difference: “Look, this is what images do, and this is what language does. Look at how they don’t do the same thing.” But because the images are being used in a painterly way, their use resembles that of linguistic placement. (59)

Tom LeClair [After Gass avows his tendency as a writer to write performance/spoken prose (as opposed to written/text-based prose]: But in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife…
Gass: I was trying out some things. […] Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. I was trying to find a spatial coordinate to go with the music, but my ability to manipulate the spatial and visual side of the medium was so hopelessly amateurist […] and the work also had to go through so many hands, that the visual business was only occasionally successful, and most of that was due to the excellent design work of Larry Levy, not me. Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas […] One problem, for instance, is trying to get the sense (in print) of different lines of language being sounded at the same time, or alternately, or at different speeds or pitches, as in music. (69)

Ramona Koval: What of the typographical changes in The Tunnel, the cartoons, the flags, the diagrams and the symbols. What was their function?
Gass: There are a great many functions. I have been interested in this interaction for a long time. One of the books I wrote a long time ago called Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife had to do with the non-representational opaque character of language, the difference for example between a ring made on a page of paper by your coffee cup and the words ring, coffee cup and so forth, and the difference in the power of representation and the nature of reality. In that early book I would have wanted, let’s say when I referred to a tablecloth, to insert an actual piece of the cloth, not because I wanted that reality but to show that the language is much more important. That is one of the functions of this book. (31)

Heide Ziegler: “[W]hat happens if a fiction strives for nothing but self-referentiality? Again, I would like to refer to Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, who is supposed to be the language of the imagination. This is the guiding metaphor of the text, and one could probably say that the rest of the text is subsumed under this one metaphor, that the different parts of the text constitute a fugue of metaphors subservient to the idea of the whole. Now, if a work of fiction this becomes self-sufficient, self-referring…
Gass: Oh yes, it is self-referring, that’s the idea! (160-61)

Jan Garden Castro: In Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, the lady is not any one person; she is representing what has happened to language as it is used.
Gass: She is language in a way. She speaks for it and embodies it. And that’s how she grows and gets her character. In other words, she comes out of a metaphor. If language is the medium, then I can set up the standard relation of the author to the medium as to a lover or a prostitute or whatever. And you really have to make her a kind of prostitute because language is available to anybody. She is a character who emerges only to express an abstraction. There is no person. (33)

Tom LeClair: If you were going to write an essay on your own work, what would you concentrate on?
Gass: I think I would immediately start talking about the manipulation of language, and I’d end writing just another essay on style. If I am anything as a writer, that is what I am: a stylist. I am not a writer of short stories or novels or essays or whatever. I am a writer, in general. I am interested in how one writes anything. So if I were to write about my own work, I would write about writing sentences. (93)

Ramona Koval: You have said every sentence has a soul.
Gass: Yes, a consciousness. (31)

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” ADE Bulletin 70 (1981): 30-34.

Domke, Lorna H. “An Interview with William Gass.” Missouri Review 10.3 (1987): 53-67.

Koval, Ramona. “A Conversation with William Gass on The Tunnel.” Quadrant 40.7-8 (1996): 26-32.

LeClair, Tom. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Paris Review 18 (Summer 1977): 61-94.

Levasseur, Jennifer, and Kevin Rabalais. “From Experience to Innocence: An Interview with William H. Gass.” Kenyon Review 13.1 (Winter 2001): 55-64.

Ziegler, Heide. “William H. Gass.” The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists. Ed. Heide Ziegler and Christopher Bigsby. London: Junction Books, 1982. 151-68.

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