A Conversation with Dorothy Allison
Renée Olander | October/November 2002
Dorothy Allison's books include two novels, Bastard Out of Carolina, a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award, Cavedweller (Dutton 1998), a national bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (Dutton 1995), a meditation on memoir and storytelling. Her poetry and essays have been published by Firebrand Books; a new, expanded edition of Trash, a collection of stories, will appear from Dutton Plume in October. Allison's first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was made into a highly acclaimed film directed by Angelica Huston. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure was translated into a short documentary that took prizes at the Aspen and Toronto film festivals, and was an Emmy-nominated feature on PBS's POV. A theater performance of Cavedweller will open in New York next spring.
Renee Olander: You've written about issues of your life-including domestic violence and incest-in fiction, essay, memoirs, and talked about them in interviews-have you ever felt overexposed?
Dorothy Allison: Yes! About from the first minute.
Olander: Do you ever wish you could pull back some, once it's out there?
Allison: I cycle in and out of being able to handle this at all. I've always been clear that I don't have any choice. I love my family, but it's clear to me from looking at my life and observing my sisters and cousins, the moment we begin to hesitate, hide, or lie, we're damned. It's such a steep and sudden slope. I decided about 25 years ago I couldn't be like normal people and pretend I was normal 'cause I wasn't normal. Normal has no trustworthy definition in this country. There's too much shame involved in the issues of domestic violence and incest, so I don't get a choice about whether to be public and frank on the subject. Still, it is sometimes profoundly uncomfortable to live one's life as an object of other people's fantasies and fears.
One reason I love fiction is that it's the only place I have privacy. In fiction, anything could be, nothing is certain. That is the one place I manage a kind of protective hedge between me and the world. When you make real life over into story, there is a wonderful opportunity to see it outside yourself, and that can be lifesaving.
One of the reasons I live in Sonoma County is that I'm a hermit. I come out to work, and for political conviction, but most of my life is spent in a town of 1,100 people with my partner, my son, and my dogs. If I had to live on the stage all the time, I'd go crazy. People are too hungry, too desperate, and I don't have good boundaries.
Olander: Is it fair for people to ask you personal questions about, for instance, Bastard Out of Carolina?
Allison: I don't think there's fair or unfair about it; it comes with writing a book like that. People are terrified and ashamed about the subjects I address in fiction. But let's keep these categories of people clear: people who had benign childhoods and come to this material with the aura of voyeurism-they're tricky; it's tempting to slide over into the kind of resentful, shocking approach to those people. But the vast majority of people who actually come to talk to me are survivors of one sort or another. We have common ground, and then, quite often, it's wonderful to talk. People come up and say, "I never thought anybody could talk about that." There will be this long pause, followed by, "When I was four years old," or, "You should have met my." I get told completely horrific matter-of-fact stories. It's taken my entire life to get a stance to deal with that. I figure that's part of my work.
That is part of why I love fiction-it gives me a little buffer. I'm always suggesting to young writers that they try fiction, it's a little safer. Safer in both the writing and living with the writing afterward. And the reality is I haven't really written memoir.
Olander: That's how the library classifies Two or Three Things I Know for Sure.
Allison: I know. Still, it was not written as a memoir even while containing some of what might be defined in that category. Two or Three Things was a meditation on storytelling, memoir, and family. But I'm incapable of sitting down to write the story of my life. There is a tendency toward mythology in my family; it's one of the reasons I did Two or Three Things: there is nothing certain in my family except death, violence, and stubborn survival. That's a pretty good approach to storytelling, and it was in working through some of the complicated issues of truth and storytelling that I came to do the theater piece from which the book was taken.
For example, I've got a birth certificate, and the only thing I'm sure is real on it is the date and time. Other than that, I know who was there and why they were lying. There was entirely too much need for lying in my family. The funny thing is it gave me a great gift. For any story that gets told, I can always call on another set of cousins who will contradict that version. I am one of the oldest women alive on this side of the family, so everyone checks in with me, if they check in at all. We are simply a southern working class family that loves a good story more than an accurate one.
I've got a bunch of cousins old enough to have finally come out of the foster care system; I have become the only trustworthy source for these children taken from their families at three and five and seven, who have dark-edged, nightmare memories, and who come to me for me to tell them, "Oh, it wasn't that bad," or to confirm just how bad it was. They want to hear a mythology of survival.
Sometimes I provide it, more often I don't. Not all of us survived, and that too needs to be acknowledged.
Olander: Do they read your books?
Allison: Yes, Jesus. Memorize lines, quote shit back to me I've forgotten.
Olander: Have any been upset by the books?
Allison: Oh of course, but not as much as you might expect. My family adores me-the ones who were upset were older aunts who had a much more traditional sense of sin. This class stuff is very complicated, because we're a huge, sprawling, redneck, poverty-driven family, and by luck my mother married a middle class man. I had aunts who thought that was her highest achievement. Didn't care he was a batterer or rapist; he was middle class, he had a respectable family, so they sided with him even when the sonofabitch was busted and people went to hospitals-my aunts were like, "Well, you know, those people, they're different." When Bastard was published, I had cousins say, "Thank God somebody finally started talking about this shit," even as my oldest aunt said, "That was a decent man, why'd you write that stuff about him?"
Olander: Could you live in the South again?
Allison: Not with my child. My boy's nine. I'm in the process of inoculating him against the glory of redneck men-possibly you know what I'm talking about. I'm exposing him to them in careful doses and acting against the romance of it. The romance is dangerous-that drunken, suicidal glory-that, "I"m gonna die, goddammit, and I don't care." Most of the men in my family have been dogged by that. It's painfully attractive in the way of James Dean on his way to that tree. I'm worried about that because it's a big family, like spider web, and it gets all over you. So I'm exposing my son to my uncles and cousins carefully. I want him to know them, but I don't want him to be taken in by the romance. I'm telling him stories, and lord yes, my uncles were charming sons of bitches, but I take care to talk about their wives and kids, and how those families starved and wound up on the streets, how sometimes terrible things happened-they broke their babies' knees the way Randall nearly blinds his child in Cavedweller-stuff like that. Trying to give my son a balanced view is complicated. I don't want to raise a kid scared to death, and I don't want to raise a child in love with the drunken glory of suicide. How does an American manage?
And the South dovetails all that. I love the romance, but I keep a careful, clear-eyed view of it. Keep in mind that my child resulted from collusion between two lesbians, a gay man, and a turkey baster. In most of the South, that means that I am nothing to him in the eyes of the law-so you think I'm going to take him where someone can take him away from me? Ain't happening. So I come in like a stealth writer, show up with my drawl and attitude and absolutely frank, matter-of-fact approach to sexual violence, and then I leave. It's kind of nice; I feel like a night-rider.
Olander: You've written about the saving aspects of writing, story-telling, and reading; in Cavedweller, Cissy is about that, to some degree-you name titles and authors she is reading-I don't know when I've read a novel that names so many books, authors, and musicians.
Allison: Amazing, isn't it? Every writer I know, if you get talking to them, will tell you about the books that saved their lives, but you almost never see it in the books they write.
Olander: Are books you name in Cavedweller the ones that were meaningful for you?
Allison: Some, but some of the characters I create aren't me, so I borrow from other people; it's not always the book that worked for me.
Olander: You name musicians, too-Prince, Patti Smith.
Allison: Patti Smith for me! "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine." Every Southern girl should listen to Patti Smith.
Olander: Not long ago, I heard Pat Schroeder talking about what a small percentage of Americans actually read or buy books.
Allison: I heard that. But I think there hasn't been any real change. It's never been the case that there were that many readers, not in history. Actually these days it is a higher percentage than at any earlier moment in history. Even so, most people watch television or listen to the radio more than they read. The novel was a creation of the middle class. But, I've been to London, and to France, and Amsterdam -and they have a whole different approach to books and writers. In some ways it's much more comfortable. We have the star system and it gets in the way. What my editor calls the cult of celebrity-we pay more attention to the writer's life than work some- times, and that is not good for the work.
Olander: Do you still write for the same reasons that you began writing, to save yourself, to shape reality and get the story right?
Allison: Yes. I don't think that changes. Some of the stuff I need to get right changes. It gets harder to get it right-some of what I want to get right has shifted. One thing I've realized over the last decade is how much I desperately want to write a realist fiction that also captures moments of grace. That's the problem right now. I write about sons of bitches, people in dire trouble and people who f- up completely, and what continues to astonish me is that those of us that f-up completely can still sometimes have a moment of perfect grace.
Olander: Clint, in Cavedweller.
Allison: Clint yes, he had that. And Delia-she became a kind of living grace, but not in any simple way. She didn't forgive Clint. couldn't. She was almost Baptist in that, never letting go of his real responsibility for all he had done. But in the context of not forgiving, you can still achieve a kind of peace.
Olander: In the mid-'90s, you spoke about how having Wolf changed your writing. You went a year without writing.
Allison: It was terrible, Jesus, yes. It's eased off. I've accepted some of it. The battle of being a lesbian mother is that I feel I have to be perfect or I'll screw it up for every other one that ever wants to do it. For awhile, it was like, OK, I'm going to figure this out, get this right. But I don't think there's any way to figure it out or get it right, because kids keep changing every minute-the world makes such different demands of them. I don't think there's any Mama-stance that holds for more than a day or two before I seem to have to shift into a different balance point-that takes a lot of time and energy.
I've figured out in the last couple of years that I've always believed that my family-we're from another planet; in some way we were not really human beings, and the real human beings, about which novels are written and TV shows are made, they knew all this stuff from the beginning. We've got to figure it out one minute at a time, with no help, no guidance. That's how it feels, and it sometimes takes everything I've got, and that gets in the way of writing. There are moments in Wolf's life where I've been struck dumb, standing there with my mouth open, like, How do the real people do this?
That takes away from being able to go into the next room, close the door, and write a story, unless you're going to write about being struck dumb figuring it out, which I am tempted to try. As time has passed, it's gotten a little easier. I have gotten some confidence in my ability to do it-that helps, and means that it doesn't take away from the same source the stories come from. I think.
Olander: You've written that your writing often begins with poetry, or lyrics.
Allison: Yeah, bad poetry.
Olander: I was skeptical approaching The Women Who Hate Me because of the different impulses behind writing fiction and writing poems-I didn't expect it to be so tightly crafted. In an interview, you said you don't write poetry anymore-why?
Allison: I do, I just don't publish it.
Olander: Why not?
Allison: Because I love novels, I want to write novels, and pour it all in there. And there is a craft of poetry, a kind of monastic stance, I'm not capable of sustaining. I love language, love lyric, so I begin there, but I don't have the discipline to pare it down the way dedicated poets do. So yes, I write poetry and take enormous, almost erotic pleasure in it. But it shifts, and the lyrics go into the novel and alter; it doesn't become spare, which in my mind is what is wonderful and magical about poetry. I keep working, but I don't take it in that direction. I take it all into fiction. But I have a series of poems that won't go into fiction-I might have to publish them, they're fairly mean, though. They have been written since my son was born, especially in the last five years, and are based in my lived experience, which complicates publishing them.
When I did Two or Three Things, one of the decisions I made was that I'm not writing any more nonfiction about my family, because it did feel naked, too raw. And because nothing seems to change. What am I gonna do? Tell more stories about more cousins and trouble? It's more interesting to me if it becomes fiction and I can play with it, sharpen and turn it. On some deep level, autobiography does not satisfy me, so I decided when I did Two or Three Things to couch it in a form of writing about storytelling and family, and then stop, and from now on put it all in fiction. That has been a good decision and enormously satisfying, but hard to cling to, because when you do interviews like this, you get in trouble.
Olander: Do you know John Edgar Wideman's work?
Allison: Oh yes, I do.
Olander: So you know how he sometimes names characters his family members' names, or gives fictional names to characters clearly based on family members.
Allison: Yes! I wonder if his family doesn't hunt him down. Course, one thing we have in common is family in jail. It's kind of hard for the ones in jail to come get you. He's a lyric writer in the same way I am-he gets drunk on language. I suspect that man was raised in the church. And his stories are as mean as any of mine. He writes the kind of books I love-dangerous and useful, and painfully demanding on both him and those he loves-just as mine are.
One of the reasons I love fiction is that it's the only place I have privacy, because in fiction, anything could be, nothing is certain. That is the one place I manage a kind of protective hedge between me and the world.
Have you read Rick Bragg's Ava's Man? After All Over But the Shouting, it's making me enormously happy. Bragg's a reporter, but both books are memoirs. The first book is about his mother and father, more about his drunken, glorified, horrific father, but it's a southern boy's love letter to his mother, two-thirds of it sheer perfect. About a third doesn't quite hold up, but I forgive him that easily enough. He won a Pulitzer Prize after all, and got to take his mama to the dinner. Which is a great damn scene. Between Rick Bragg and John Edgar Wideman you've got some of the essential American experience of working class people. Of course, they're not girls.
Olander: I talked to Wideman about the exposure of his family in his work, and he said something like, "Well, you show the wound on your arm, but not the scar over here."
Allison: Every writer decides differently. If you mythologize it-this is the thing that John Edgar Wideman does that I admire intensely-he has created this myth of the family which you really can't call him on too much, and it's protective for his family. The story about his brother (Brothers and Keepers)-the way he told that protects his brother. I have this suspicion that all writers do this, create a fictional world that is a model of our real world. You change names, change this, change that, but you're telling the stories you know. I'm sure Faulkner was writing about his family, but we can't go hunt down Faulkner's uncles.
Olander: You've talked about being in love with language, but your graduate work was in anthropology-two of my favorite writers, Zora Hurston and Reginald McKnight, share that background.
Allison: I know a few others, but it's not a great background for a fiction writer.
Olander: Hurston went around collecting and memorizing stories and people; how has anthropology informed your approach to fiction?
Allison: I went to anthropology for something it couldn't give me. I think on some levels, so did Hurston. At least I tell myself she wanted to understand the way I did. I was so horrified by the situation in which my family found itself, I wanted to figure out how it happened, why and how. You go to anthropology for that, but it does not explain much. Anthropology led me to fiction, very deliberately. There was a point where I realized in doing ethnography how much the narrator shapes the presentation of material. That was when I started writing fiction-in fiction, I could be honest about the manipulation of character and language; ethnography sidestepped the storyteller's role in the creation. I prefer fiction. And it seems to me I've done better-you know, it's a great stance, being an anthropologist-that participant-observer role, but it is as much a creation as a self-justifying protagonist.
Olander: But you have studied fiction formally.
Allison: Not really. I read a lot. I didn't get one of those fine arts degrees. If you're going to be a decent fiction writer, you'd best get either an anthropology or sociology degree, or get a useful degree, one that'll teach you to interview-journalism, maybe. There's a reason Rick Bragg writes the way he does. If you just go get one of these little fine arts degrees or writing program degrees, it never forces you to confront your responsibility as narrator, whereas any of the social sciences make you at look the interaction between the storyteller and story. Hurston understood that. But then she and I write out of despised cultures that on some level we feel we're defending. That makes a big difference.
Olander: You've written about a workshop you attended and a wonderful teacher.
Allison: A couple actually. There was Bertha Harris of course, and I did the Jenny Moore fellowship program in Washington, DC, with Susan Shreve. It changed everything I did after.
I was writing fiction entirely in the context of a feminist-lesbian alternative community, which was wonderful and encouraged me enormously, and which created a whole body of work that is vitally important in this century. But one of the things it did to me that was problematic is that my storytelling was addressed to a particular audience and placed in a context that shaped what I could do, not always for the better in terms of the work itself. The Jenny Moore workshop exposed me to a new community of writers, one that was enormously diverse. All of a sudden, instead of talking to other lesbian feminists, I was talking to a black preacher from northeast Washington, DC, and the wife of a white lawyer from Harvard. All of a sudden, the ways in which I had been writing, the craft of the storytelling, was rendered invalid. None of the coded language of the lesbian-feminist community worked. So some of the material was suddenly plainly false. It was facile, and worse, the language was bad. It was a political language that we had negotiated, but which was obscure or false outside that community. If you work in a political community, that happens sometimes. You negotiate code words everybody understands. All of a sudden I was talking to this black preacher from the northeast-and he hadn't a clue what I meant by "patriarchy." So I had to step back, and the further back I stepped, the further I went into the kind of storytelling that defined my family-telling a lie to make a piece of truth.
I think the first story I got right, working with Susan Shreve, became "Mama," which was published in Trash. Still, I can look at it and see I didn't go far enough in stripping away that political language. That language had helped me understand the world, but it didn't help me as a storyteller. I had to learn to write for a different audience, or I wanted to.
Because the other thing is, these people were giving me stories that reflected my own in new and wonderful ways. It's like now reading John Edgar Wideman or Rick Bragg, I step across a line-a line I am welcomed to step across. So in turn, I want to welcome them across my line, tell them my stories. Literature is a conversation. If you're only talking to the same few people it gets really boring. That workshop was wonderful. I also discovered in it that I wasn't very good, which was wonderful in its own way. I learned how to get better.
I did a workshop with Bertha Harris at a political retreat before the Susan Shreve workshop. Every time you do a workshop, if it's good, at some point you'll get shaken up and see what you haven't before. Bertha made me look at the fact that I was avoiding talking about class. And resentment. You can't talk about class without talking about resentment, and since I didn't want to talk about resentment, I wasn't talking about nothing. Bertha said, "You can't avoid this shit, this is your stuff."
Olander: You have long identified yourself as lesbian and feminist-what do you think about writers who are, but who reject the labels? For instance, I once told a poet that her work strikes me as clearly feminist and she got angry-it almost ended the conversation.
Allison: I'm more sympathetic to that than I used to be. I understand the fear. Partly because of what I saw about my own writing in the Jenny Moore workshop, how stunted and doctrinaire it had become working in just the political realm. That can be a real narrow room. The problem is, if you step outside that narrow room, and bring your politics into the larger world, you can do something marvelous, even though the rest of the world sees that room and is afraid. Lots of people are threatened by a feminist political interpretation. They're afraid they're gonna get lectured, be told they're no good.
Olander: In the volume No More Masks, both Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver are absent from it, because Bishop's will prohibits her publication in any women-only volume, and according to the introduction, Oliver had initially agreed to include poems but withdrew them for the same reason-what do you think about that?
Allison: It's shortsighted. But again, if you're trying to do as large a work as you can, there's a fear of being made small. I believe that is part of what Elizabeth Bishop's will is about. I don't know about Mary Oliver, but I suspect some of it is fear of having your work cast in a narrow frame when you're trying to do something as large as possible. That's my generous interpretation. My narrow interpretation is fear, because as a culture, we disdain politics, we disdain political conviction. You get tarred with that brush, it's going to limit what you're allowed to do or how you can be seen.
In one sense I am fortunate. My attitude has been, "Christ, I got so many other limits, I'm supposed to worry about this one?" Besides, I can't stop it. I could be the most non-political person in the world, but the fact that I live with a woman and raise a child, and write as an avowed incest and battery survivor, everything I say or do is going to be cast in the feminist model. Might as well just claim the label, and take the grace of it along with the trouble.
When you talk about issues of color, class, and gender, you are talking about people who have been limited by categories so stridently that we fight them off. I don't believe that eschewing the labels is a way to fight it, but I am fortunate, and have survived so far-I know people who did not survive as writers or as members of their own families-who ran away from themselves and lost themselves. That gets left out of this conversation. I know what the labels have done to my work-how many books I don't sell, how many audiences hold me in disdain. I know people won't read me because I am a feminist and a lesbian and I'm matter-of-fact about class, incest, and violence, or try to be. It is the territory I inhabit, but it is always shaky ground.
Olander: In Feminist Writers, there's a discussion of feminists' negative reactions to The Women Who Hate Me-did you feel stung by that criticism?
Allison: I feel stung by all criticism; but I take a deep breath, try to listen, see if there's anything of use to me. There are people you can't please, and some of the criticism I get I disdain, because it's criticism of me as working class, or lesbian, or of my family or generation-ignorant criticism. But some criticism I take to heart. I have my largest goals in mind too-I want to be the best storyteller of my generation. I don't want to start small. The most useful critical commentary I got on Bastard was from Randall Keenan in The Nation. When I read his piece I realized, "Oh, he's right." It was as if my head turned slightly and I could see something I hadn't before. That's wonderful. I read in hope of that from criticism.
But a lot of reviews reflect how writers survive. Let's be blunt: most writers teach, we do journalism or reviews for money. I've done this, survived on between 3,000 and 11,000 dollars a year doing quick and dirty reviews or what might pass for criticism. You turn it out as fast as possible, try to say something in a way that an editor will buy-this constructs a lot of our criticism: it's fast, facile, witty, and mean.
Olander: You must say something negative.
Allison: Yes! Mean is easier to sell! There are cultures where writers actually have stipends or there's some kind of protective buffer-but we live in capitalism. Capitalism requires writers to survive in difficult ways. Of course, by concentrating on this aspect of reviews, I am avoiding the other fact-I mean those poems to upset people. I am not bothered by the fact that they succeeded.
Olander: In recent years, some scholarly articles on Bastard have appeared; I haven't seen much on Cavedweller.
Allison: Beginning to. It's about time. There was a wonderful conference of women writers at Dartmouth I think in '94, that Grace Paley put together, one of the watershed events of my life because of the range of women writers Paley persuaded to come, and because to a large extent it was women writers who have published and have a political conviction talking to each other-basically the students watched us talk to each other, and very quickly we forgot about the students and began to have fascinating conversations about literature. There was one moment when Toni Cade Bambarra said, "You won't know what you've done for a decade. It'll take them that long to begin to tell you what you've done." She said that was the nature of literary interpretation and of the academic machine that processes our work. She had a lot of disdain for that. At the time, I didn't know what the hell she was talking about, but I understand better now. I think she was right. For example, I think Annie Proulx is a profoundly feminist and working class writer, but I don't see articles that examine her work from that perspective. Where are they?
Olander: You don't do any regular teaching?
Allison: No, I did, but I discovered I hated the bureaucracy of it, the meetings, curriculum arguments. I hate the politics of it. It's debilitating and difficult. I can get taken over by that kind of organizing, and I have made a deliberate decision not to do it.
I was just in Minneapolis at The Loft, where I ran into a woman I'd known 20 years ago. When we met, she was working on her graduate thesis. She wound up teaching in one of these departments. This woman was a fine writer but she hasn't really published anything in two decades. She's been organizing, refining, and struggling in that department: it has eaten her alive. What she did manage to do was unionize the auxiliary workers in the college, and radicalize the different departments where they keep shuffling her about. It's wonderful and remarkable work, but at the cost of her writing. I've seen the same thing over and over. When I was at the Art Institute in San Francisco, I realized I was bad at that kind of departmental politics. It felt like to be any good would take everything I had, and if I chose to do that, I wouldn't be writing. So I keep a distance from those kinds of positions, even though I genuinely love the teaching itself.
Some people do manage it, I don't know how. You know Gregory Orr? Great poet, great teacher. We were teaching at Port Townsend last summer and I had a wonderful conversation with him about this. I suspect it is simpler for a man, specially a man who has already established his credentials, but talking with him, I began to get a glimmer of how it might be done.
Olander: I'd like to know.
Allison: It's difficult. I keep asking different people how they do it, because it seems the writing life is much simpler if you are attached to an institution. There's health insurance and retirement benefits, and a regular schedule.
Olander: Let's discuss craft: Bastard has one main character, point of view, and storyline, whereas Cavedweller has much more complexity. A writer I heard earlier this week said with every new book he sets himself a new task-did you approach Cavedweller that way?
Allison: I begin a novel because a character or dilemma obsesses me, generally a character, a person. That is separate from the point at which I begin to rewrite and shape. At the point at which I began to rewrite and shape Cavedweller, two things had happened: I had had a child, and I shifted from writing Cissy's story to Delia's-the dilemma of the mother became more interesting to me. That changed the book, but the real change took place because I had gone out with Bastard and gotten the kind of appreciation writers almost never get. The problem was that a lot of the critical response to Bastard was couched as, "Well, this is her telling her life story." The novel was assumed to be autobiography, which it was not. Being dismissed even as you are being praised did me a certain damage. So when I began to craft Cavedweller, I had something to prove. That shaped a lot of what I wrote. I wound up shaping a third person, multiple narrator manuscript in part just to prove I could do it, to myself more than to critics or an audience. The truth is that, specially when I was finishing the novel, I had lost my sense of confidence in the storytelling.
Olander: In Cavedweller, there are little political set-pieces, for instance, a pro-choice sermonette, and Amanda's horrible pro-life song-clearly pro-choice stuff coming through, and there seems to be a critique of Christianity threaded through.
Allison: I suspect the writer was raised in the Baptist church.
Olander: Have you been criticized for this?
Allison: Yes, but not as you would expect. I get feminists who are pissed off that I made Amanda so sympathetic. I mean, Amanda's an anti-abortion organizer, she's crazy as a bedbug, but I loved her, I had so much fun and was enormously sympathetic to her, and they get pissed off that she's such an interesting, sympathetic character. It wasn't any pro-choice sermonettes I heard about, but the character herself.
Olander: It wouldn't have worked if she hadn't been sympathetic, if she'd been easily demonized.
Allison: It would've been too easy. First draft was too mean and easy. I hate reducing people; I try to layer and complicate them, Amanda as much as Cissy or Deedee. I fell in love with Deedee, and then I had her shoot this boy she's madly in love with because it seemed to me that's how it works in my family. We fall in love and almost as a matter of course cause huge amounts of disruption. I have an idea of what is true about people, and that's how I try to shape my characters. I try never to create spear-carriers-I hate that, the guy that comes on carrying the spear just to get killed so the story can go forward. So sometimes, I invent by stealing real people and remaking them.
A playwright is adapting Cavedweller for the stage. It'll go on Broadway next year if all goes well. I love this woman, Kate Ryan, a fine playwright, a really neurotic, interesting, driven writer. She was talking to me about what she was doing, and I said, "You go do it, and I won't bother you. I don't want to read any drafts; we can talk, but I'll just stay out of this." Because I'm writing another book. Then she called and said, "There are too many people, and they're too interesting, I'm going to have to let some of them go." I said, "Well, let some of them go." It sent me back to reread the book. I found she was right. It's huge, there are a lot of people in it. I think I went a bit far, and it is truly two books.
Olander: What are they?
Allison: The first is Delia going back to Cayro, picking up Clint and getting her girls. When Clint dies, that's the first book. The second is Delia and how she gets those girls to be women. I thought I was doing two movements-in the way of a piece of music-when I was writing. But it's so distinct, it's two books, two-for-one.
Olander: Before it was published, you said it was about crawling around in caves-
Allison: Yes, but it's about redemption. There are two redemptions-one is Delia's, one is Cissy's. Cissy achieves hers by going into the dark. That movement is strong and deliberate. Delia goes into the dark, too-the dark of Cayro, Georgia, and the life of a mother alone. Two people crawling around in different kinds of caves. It's how my mind works. But I started with Cissy in the caves, a girl so uncomfortable in herself the only place she felt at home was in the dark inside the earth.
Olander: That's more than halfway through the book now; when I was first reading it, I wasn't sure whether the caves were simply metaphorical.
Allison: Nothing is simply metaphorical, but language is essence for me. Bastard is designed around a series of metaphors about bone, and rock, and hard; that's the language and design of the book, and it creates a strong girl character-where the bone is healed over. That metaphor designed the whole book. It's the same for Cavedweller: those caves, those dark hidden places. If I'd broken it into two books, the first would be called Delia, and only the second would be Cavedweller. But it works for both, and I am coming back around to treasuring what I did manage to do-two movements in the life of raising children.
Olander: I heard it was about Janis Joplin, and thought I missed something.
Allison: That's an entirely different book, and when I get it right, I'll publish it. It's based on the life of Janis Joplin-not biography; I don't want to write biography-I wanted to write a novel based on her life. I've been working on it, but the problem is the problem of voice. I don't have it right yet. In the course of working on that, I was writing this drunken desperate woman. I thought I was writing my Janis character. What's that magical writing that people do? I do that when I'm getting a character, I let them talk on the page. In the middle of the scene where I thought I was doing one thing, the woman just reared her head up and spoke-it was Delia. God! She was heartbroken and desperate and took over the page. It wasn't what I thought I was writing-it was so much more powerful and interesting than what I had been doing. I got 40 or 50 pages of Delia, and then stopped and said, "This ain't that." It took me a while to figure out what I had. But Delia was so interesting and alive, I went with it. It took me a little while longer to figure out that Delia was Cissy's mother.
I do a lot of story beginnings and fragments in notebooks and at my best, it's like good exercise. I have arthritis and go to the gym religiously-just to stay mobile and functional. There's a certain amount of work I have to do to keep my body going. In the same way, there's a certain amount of work I have to do that is purely about keeping myself functional as a good writer. Sometimes I set myself exercises, and sometimes I'll see or hear something and I'll start a notebook. I'll let it run. A lot of that is just muscle building. Sometimes, when I do that, it'll come alive, catch fire. When it really glows with heat-that's when I go back and work more with it. If I go back to it more than three times, I might pull it out and start shaping it. If it keeps going for 50 pages, I've got something.
Olander: So what you began with, working on Cavedweller has been set aside.
Allison: Some is in Cavedweller-all I kept of that original stuff is a paragraph or two. There is one paragraph of what I started with, and then there is the section in the beginning, after Randall dies and Delia's in the garden, where she says, "I want to go home." Those two small sections are about all I kept out of 40 or 50 pages, but they are the heart of the entire character. I got that, and then went back to craft the story. Completely separate was Cissy and the caves. What I knew about her was that she hated her mother and wanted to get the hell away from her family. I didn't know her mother was Delia until I had them in the same room and realized, "These two characters are mother and daughter." I wish it was simple. I wish I knew from the beginning, but sometimes it makes it better if you feel your way into it.
The story I'm going to read tonight-"Compassion"-I started when I finished Bastard and then it got stolen out of the car. So I was recreating and writing, I wrote to get myself over my mama dying, a lot of stuff about mothers and daughters, and I wanted to write some of the story in the hospital. I started writing about going to the hospital and letting my mother die and getting there too late-I mention that in Two or Three Things, and in the middle, I thought, I don't want to do this first person, and I started writing from the outside, three sisters being with their mother dying. I didn't get much at all. I got about eight pages. But it's haunted me for years and I kept trying to go back and write it.
I work in what I call-accordion-style writing. The approach is write-write-write-write-expand, expand, expand, expand, and then when it is so expanded that it is bloated, cut it down to as little as I can and start over. That is the accordion working. My theory is that if I use the accordion approach, expanding and then cutting back, I will eventually winnow out the weak stuff-all the chaff will be gone-I will have good, fine grain left. At one point this short story became a novella. Then I realized it was too much and reined it in. I cut a pretty solid 35-page story from what had at one point pushed 75 pages. Now I feel like those girls are alive, and there is a moment of grace-real on the page. It's what I want. Sometimes I think I make it more work than it should be.
Olander: Is it hard to render the points of view of kids, the 10 or 14 year-olds in Cavedweller-Cissy at the beginning-is that harder than adult points of view? At one point when Cissy remarks about her mother's love life, I stopped and thought-this is a sophisticated kid! Are you pushing things there?
Allison: Always. I was a smart kid-there's that. But my experience is, from a lot of reading as well as writing, that the wise child is the narrative stance of choice. We create characters who know more-it's best if they don't know too much. One reason Bone works well is that I was ruthless at throwing out anything that wouldn't work from her point of view as she gets older. In Cissy's case I think there are a couple of places where I failed. She begins the book age ten, but I write about kids in extreme situations, kids in trouble. Kids in trouble are not normal. They are more perceptive, they have to be, even as they have a genuine innocence. They know things they can't explain to themselves. And Cissy, I designed to be the child of this drug-addled, damaged family. Alcoholics and drug-addicts do not produce children; they produce quasi-adults, profoundly damaged survivors. Four-year-old, eight-year-old, ten-year-old adults. In the opening of Cavedweller, that's Cissy. She has been taking care of her mother. Delia's been sober awhile, but Cissy doesn't trust it and is wise not to. I don't know if you come up out of that kind of family, but I know what happened in mine. I was taking care of my sisters from six or seven-cooking at seven. This is a different kind of child-not our cultural understanding of children, so sometimes it runs counter to what the reader expects.
There's a negotiation about character and point of view-the reader has to believe it. At this point people will believe more about what a child understands than they would've in the '30s, definitely in the last century-the concept of a child has changed. But it works better if you have the child know less-far better, and too many people do that badly-it is hard to do right. And I think Cissy is in some ways a great failure. If her voice was perfect, the question would never arise.
Olander: How do you approach giving readings? I heard you are just a powerhouse reader-
Allison: I'm good. And it's dangerous to be too good a reader. The problem is, as a community of writers, the vast majority of whom make their living in academic situations-there is a general contempt for performance. There is a notion that if you read too well the work can't be that good. Do you know Stuart Dybek? I heard him read last summer, and it just knocked me on my butt. He reads just beautifully. He doesn't read quite the way I read; I teach a class in performance, where I construct what I can do in terms of readings. There is an understated reading form that is passionate and wonderful, and that is what I heard Dybek do. I want to think more about different approaches to reading since hearing him.
What is problematic about performance is that a great actress can overcome weak material. I know that and worry about my own tendency to smooth over unfinished work. But mostly we hear bad reading of good storytelling. Poets particularly do a form of that, almost as if they read down, deliberately flat and atonal. Perhaps we're supposed to realize how wonderful the work is, even though they make it sound terrible. That is part of the cultural prejudice against performance. The more literary the work, the greater the disdain with performance. I suspect that some of the bias is class-based. I want great reading of great writing, but I keep running into the assumption that if you're putting work on the performance, you're not putting the work on the writing.
That aside, I was raised in the Baptist Church, and listening to rock and roll music, and I took both to the art of performing my own work. I can read very, very well. But it's about finding a way to get over, it's what made Janis Joplin a great artist-the desperate need to get over-and I have that attitude absolutely. That shapes how I do performance. I know the dangers. But when I hear work I love read badly by the person who wrote it, it breaks my heart. Some time we're going to have to pay attention to this.
Twenty years ago, sitting on the floor in the Brooklyn Marital arts center listening to a poet I loved to read-someone who had prompted me in my own work-all I could think was how much I wanted to stand up and read for her. Later I heard her talk and realized that her speaking voice was stronger than the voice she had used in the reading, more lyrical and paced. It was as if she were imitating someone she had heard read-and passing on this technique that seemed to me to get in the way of the work. For writing I love, I will sometimes get past someone reading badly. I will make the jump for them-but, if you're going to read to young people, you can't always require them to make that jump. I do a lot of work with young people. In my mind I am seducing them to the page, luring them to work they might not otherwise pick up. I do the same thing with grownups, catching their attention and getting them to read about lives of people they fear or disdain. It feels like part of my job to read so well, they can't dismiss the story.
Olander: What are you working on now?
Allison: I am working on a new edition of Trash. My small press publisher (Firebrand Books) went out of business, and it went out of print, so Penguin is publishing it with some new stories. I'm pretty much done, except finishing the introduction and getting over going back more than 20 years to stories I wrote when I was very young. To read some of it took me back in my own life, which is kind of odd and demanding-something I haven't heard many other writers talk about. Now I want to go read a lot, and then get back to the novel that I set aside to do this work.
Olander: What's the center of that novel?
Allison: Oh novels are huge, novels will eat you up. It will take a couple more years to talk about it easily. I'm so envious of writers who turn a book out every other year-takes me three years minimum to get it right, three to five years if I am honest about it, and that is occasionally embarrassing. This story is set in California-the first time I've done a non-southern narrator. It's about a young woman about to graduate from college, who is smart, beautiful, and in love. She is golden in that way that the young people I meet at some of the colleges where I have taught have seemed to me. She almost shines with purpose and promise. Then just before graduation, she goes to movies with her girlfriend, goes up into a parking garage, and comes off the third level into a new life that sets aside everything she was before. Winds up in the hospital barely able to speak, and by the time she comes out has lost everything. I think I wanted to figure out something about surviving loss and change. And again, I started with the voice, this angry hurt person with this wry marvelous appreciation for the body itself.
One of the wonders of being a writer in this culture is that step outside social categories. On some level, it is the way out-out of poverty, denial, shame. You become a sports figure, an athlete, or an artist-those are ways out of our very rigid, painful class system. That has been the wonder of my life. I became an artist, and I got to step out. I can still be myself, this redneck working-class bitch from South Carolina, with all these confusing attitudes and tendencies. Troublesome. I can get away with a lot of that as a writer, and as I started writing this character I wanted to figure out, "What if you can't get a way out, what if you don't have a way out? What if you're just yourself and all of the stuff gets broken and is just taken away from you."
Then there are stories, about six stories I need to set aside time to finish, and another novel-well two actually, the one about my Janis character, and another that started when I was living in San Francisco, completely different from anything I have ever done before. Kind of scary piece of work, that one keeps calling to me-got a bunch of notebooks of that one. Then there are the mean poems, close to a book length manuscript of those, mostly narrative pieces I want to do something with before they get too distant. Oh yes, I also have three science fiction novels I started more than a decade ago-a trilogy of which the first two are drafted and the third got interrupted before I could finish. Have to finish the last one so that all three can be rewritten and published. I think that's a good decade of work.
Olander: Is there anything else you'd like to say to beginning writers, or to readers of The Writer's Chronicle.
Allison: Writing is it's own reward. It's damn hard to make a living. Some of the greatest writers of this generation are out of print and don't make a dime, but are still living in glory on the page. Day by day I know nothing more exciting than writing. Writing is writing. It's not money, it's not books, it's not adulation or awards, and on some level it's not really the reading, it's the writing. And if you're going to do this, you better fall in love with the work.
Renee Olander's poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Heart, 13th Moon, Verse and Universe, and many others. She directs the Interdisciplinary Studies Department and teaches English at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA