TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 6

An Interview with Jaimy Gordon

 · Nonfiction

By John Beauregard


Jaimy Gordon‘s fourth novel, Lord of Misrule, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2010, and was a Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; it also won the Tony Ryan Award for the year’s best book about horse racing. Gordon’s previous novels include Bogeywoman, a Los Angeles Times Best Book for 2000, and She Drove Without Stopping, which brought her an Academy-Institute Award from the American Institute of Arts and Letters. She also translates from the German, especially the fiction of Maria Beig. A long-time member of the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she is on the permanent faculty of the Prague Summer Program for Writers.


I would like to begin with a question about process: how do you start? I’m thinking less of material inspiration and more about, once you have that image or that character or that feeling, how you go about breaking story. Would you describe it as more of an intuitive process, or one that is highly structured? Does it vary from project to project?

Also, if I may take this question from the opposite direction, you sat with the draft for Lord of Misrule for quite a while, as I understand, before you were willing to call it done. Was it a habit of persistence that carried you through? What would you say fuels your process?

Let’s start with the premise that I am not (and never was) going to be a writer with “author of 45 books” in her predicate. Even “author of 10 books” would sound far fetched at the rate I’m going. Maybe I developed my convictions about this because I could see from the outset, on the distant horizon, my own shortcomings, so that my convictions about this are actually rationalizations, or just excuses. Could be. Nevertheless, I believe them. The point is: I’m in no hurry and never was. To me the number of books means nothing.

I don’t start a project halfheartedly. Something about the configuration of characters and events has to feel mythically compelling to me or, to borrow your fuel metaphor, I’ll never have enough in the tank to make it to the turnpike, never mind all the way to Big Yolk. (Big Yolk is the golden city in my first novel, Shamp of the City-Solo.) Not only am I willing to work on a piece of writing for years: sometimes it takes me years to write the first sentence — although more likely I’ve squirreled away a paragraph here or a line there that is like the seed DNA of the whole project, a little node of language that eventually starts growing more sentences. This will be in a notebook I carry around for months, or years, and I’ll keep consulting it, or accidentally coming across it, and ruminating on it, and maybe writing another sentence or two, or a paragraph. Then all of a sudden one day, I have enough. This small clammy lump of fragmentary but highly potent literary protoplasm comes to life, rears up and swallows me with a gulp. Now the thing is running the show and it’s all I think about until I’m finished the book, or long story, whatever it is. At that stage of a project, I can work surprisingly fast.

It so happens that I just finished a long story — about 13,000 words, or forty-two pages — about two aging sisters who go to Lisbon for a week in search of a legendary, elusive singer of fado. The younger sister has cancer and the older sister hopes that this trip will somehow save her life. I just went back and looked at the original bit that I carried around in a notebook for a year before I got the story underway. I see, to my surprise, that nothing of it made it into the story, which opens with the two sisters, both over sixty, hunched over and climbing the very steep hill underneath the funicular called the Elevador da Glória, quarreling as they go. All the same, this little swatch of dense prose had enough contagious stink about it to keep me interested in the story I wanted to tell without (I now realize) my ever looking back at it. By the way, avian mites (not exactly lice) play a big role in the final story. Here is the unused gobbet of prose:

In Lisbon there’s a dry sarcastic breeze on the hottest day. My sweat itches me like lice. The belvederes, or miradouros, are full of flies, lazy flies, slow and jewel-like, that lick human sweat, and know exactly how to ride the air current of a swatting hand to safety, as a surfer rides his wave. And then they are back. So unless you are only passing through, better to avoid the Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara at the top of the Elevador da Glória. In Lisbon are too many fragrant miasmas to sit there waiting for any one in particular to come and make you sick.

How did you begin writing?

It was always going to be stories or poems for me — that was what I liked from the start. I was composing little ditties before I could read. I remember the first one, which I still kind of like:

I wish I was a mermaid under the sea.
I’d be half a fish and I’d be half me.

I was one of those kids who wrote stories. I went to elementary school during the fifties, a prosperous time in America when public education had ample resources to invest in the newly discovered creativity of children. My father was a lawyer, my mother a potter, but both of them were constant readers and, I really think, writers manqué. Nowadays they would probably both have gone to M.F.A. programs and avoided having five children at all costs. But they, first generation American Jews whose parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe, feared poverty as I was too careless and naive to fear poverty. Later I got to know poverty — in my racetrack years, for instance — and it had a profound effect on me, but too late: I was already a writer. Until I was thirty five, I had lots of jobs that had nothing much to do with writing, but I never thought seriously about being anything but a writer.

Could you say something about your process of revision? Especially considering the exactness of the language in your writing, do you find yourself making more minor changes, or huge, sweeping rewrites?

I never stop making minor changes and I’m sorry to report that my own copies of my published books are full of small corrections — these record my regrets, my disgust with some decision or at least my unresolved indecision, more than they constitute plans for a future edition. When I went to graduate school at Brown in the 1970s, I still thought I might be a poet. One reason that I turned more and more to the novel and stopped writing lyric poetry altogether is that, with a finished poem of one or two pages, the sense of failure on the cellular level was so claustrophobic I couldn’t stand it. Prose fiction offers more pages to turn, so many more chances to get away from a small flop or redeem a half-baked scene with a good one. The wonderful incorporation of the movement of time into the process — time is what narrative is all about — somehow saves it for me.

My meticulousness and the slow and painstaking way I construct — both invent and organize — a novel persuade me that my first complete draft is pretty close to a finished book — although I can be fooling myself. My second novel, She Drove Without Stopping, doubtless needed more sweeping changes than I gave it. It was a learner’s book in a number of ways. The manuscript that Algonquin bought was 500 pages long, but my editor, Shannon Ravenel, told me straight off that the book needed to lose 100 pages. What do you want me to take out? I asked her. You decide, she said — just make it a hundred pages shorter. Fortunately I had a break of almost a year before I tackled the revision. I was no longer wed to my handsome sentences — in fact I was ready for divorce from a lot of them — and I found that if I just stripped out the weakest twenty percent of every page, I’d make my quota and have a better book besides. And it was a better book. But when I read the novel now I wince. It has some striking passages, but as a book it needed a bulldozer, not a pruning shear.

It’s impossible not to notice the textured density of language in your work, and critics have referred to you as a “master stylist.” For me, this turns reading into an almost physically sensuous process. How would you describe the relationship between language and physicality?

I’m glad you find a physicality in my language. Good word. I was once interviewed by an astute Italian journalist, Susanna Nirenstein, in connection with the Italian translation of Lord of Misrule. She described my prose as “extremely carnal” — and I thought, yes, carnal, that’s the word, that’s just what I’m after. In my language I flirt with excess and gladly cross the line when I think I can get away with it, but I try not to lose contact with the body. Believe it or not, at some point in writing any sentence I clear away the clutter — the mere noise, the qualifiers, the prettifications, the unnecessarily latinate diction, whatever the clutter happens to be — so the corporeality of the image or idea shows through. When I’ve tried to think of who my models were, in the art of the sentence, I came up with Modernist poets rather than fiction writers. I read a lot of Wallace Stevens when I was a teenager. I read and reread The Comedian as the Letter C. I didn’t understand what I was reading and I knew it, but even at age sixteen I could not miss the sheer physicality of the syllables and the concrete though imaginary world they seemed to convey.

Who are your favorite writers?

Let’s talk books instead of writers. I probably haven’t read anybody’s complete works except the unfortunate Bruno Schulz’s, two slim volumes, translated from Polish, which I greatly admire — The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. My favorite novels of the last few years were Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and Edward P. Jones’s The Unknown World. Among younger writers whose work is made much of, who do I think is really good, i.e., fully requiting on the sentence level? Karen Russell — I loved Swamplandia. I am dazzled by every page that Kathryn Davis writes, but Hell especially thrills me. I love Dog Soldiers — actually I learn from any book by Robert Stone that I pick up. I read both Robert Stone and Samuel Beckett — how’s that for an odd couple — as tonic against uncool or mindless cliché of every kind. They have in common that they wouldn’t be caught dead parroting a stupidity, so I try, not very successfully, to be chastened by their example. Two spectacular novels of recent years that braced me to try a book like Lord of Misrule were Leon Rooke’s A Good Baby and Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice. Both these writers are brilliant with voice, brilliant at mimesis of, for example, regional dialects and proverbs, but not slavish towards their originals — rather, inventive and myth-making. An older novel rich in the same arts is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. And I learned to flaunt rather than shy away from slang from Malcolm Braly’s great prison novel On The Yard, an exemplary social novel set in San Quentin.

Read Chapter One from Jaimy Gordon’s novel, Lord of Misrule.


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