Interview with Mary Caponegro
By John Madera
Often syntactically baroque, expansively philosophical, and darkly comic, Mary Caponegro’s All Fall Down, her latest collection of stories and novellas, was one of 2009’s most powerful books. By this collection—and by her entire oeuvre—Caponegro evinces herself a virtuoso. Her stories betray a profound attentiveness to the foibles that bog down relationships; they brim with self-reflection.
As a reader desperate to hear sentences that are as carefully crafted as they are emotionally resonant, to follow narratives as inventive in construction as they are ambitious in scope, I often feel bereft, hoping one sentence in a paragraph will fly out so I can grab it, stuff it into my mouth. Fortunately, there’s no such shortage of these sentences in Caponegro’s fiction, an acclaimed body of work that also includes the following collections: Tales from the Next Village, The Star Café, Five Doubts, and The Complexities of Intimacy. Caponegro has received numerous prestigious awards including the Rome Prize in Literature, the General Electric Award for Younger Writers, the Bruno Arcudi Prize, and the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters. Currently, she is the Richard B. Fisher Family Professor of Writing and Literature at Bard College.
This interview was conducted through email between January and March 2010.
John Madera: The regular commentary about the novella is that it is the novel distilled, that it condenses action, focuses on only one or two characters, that there are little or no subplots that would distract from the primary one. But your novellas contradict these ideas at almost every turn. What is it about this form that you’ve found attractive? Also what are some of your favorite novellas and why?
Mary Caponegro: Some of my novellas have come to occupy their form because of miscalculation on my part; for instance Sebastian was in draft a novel, and it got cut down drastically in its final draft. The much more recent Translator, on the other hand, was initially a story; I was determined that it be a fairly small story about a man and woman in Rome, a more or less conventional story in fact; I started it as a palette cleanser for myself while I labored over my novella, Ill Timed and my still in-progress novel, Chinese Chocolate, during a wonderful residency in Marfa, Texas. The two long, recalcitrant works were overwhelming me, and I needed an escape. Ironically, the small story was so boring that it became even more of an albatross than the longer works, so after a year or more of that irritation, I switched the point of view from the female’s to the male’s and ended up metafictionalizing to my heart’s delight, which turned out to be a much more rewarding form of problem-solving for me. The Son’s Burden may even have started as a story, but then it transformed completely and I realized it needed scale—perverse though that scale may be, given the obsessiveness of it. Ill-Timed was clearer in its intention to be a novella, with two characters presiding, but as you eloquently point out, my version of novella is not strictly a conventional one, just as my version of story has seldom been a conventional understanding of that form—much as I do espouse a number of conventional elements thereof, the epiphany, for example. That in-between space is a very seductive one: more than story, less than novel, a larger canvas but not overwhelmingly large; there is a certain elegance to such a form’s combination of amplitude and economy. Especially for my very dense, demanding style, a novel can be asking for trouble. I find that as I have aged, my ideas have more often tended toward that larger canvas. But each of my books has always had one longer work. In Five Doubts it took the form of a collage and All Fall Down has two novellas. One of the novellas that was in my head as I was refashioning The Translator (which obviously nods to both Nabokov and James) was The Aspern Papers, which I had taught several times and whose unnamed narrator with his moral ambiguities was a kind of inspiration. Curiously, the form that most enchanted me early on in my career was the novel. It’s embarrassing to say that even as a graduate student I was resistant (as a reader) in my appreciation of the short story form, and at that time I had little concrete sense of the novella’s possibilities. I will refer to Kafka in the next question, but The Metamorphosis is certainly seminal. I’ve also taught several times and adore Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas.
JM: There are many fabulist departures in your work. Where do these fantastic and absurdist elements come from?
MC: The fantastic, absurdist, the fabular, the irreal: these were and remain (though I suppose in slightly different form) the touchstones of fiction for me. Kafka was my biggest influence, I think, as for so many writers, and since my twenties I aspired to create a world that felt more dreamt than lived, having seen the contemporary possibilities of this approach in writers such as my mentor John Hawkes, and being, like many North American readers of the eighties, under the influence of Latin American magic realism. When I was a graduate student in the early ‘80s, I had been exposed to the prevailing winds of mimetic fiction in The New Yorker, the ethos of Ann Beattie and John Updike, and I knew I personally did not connect with that aesthetic. I was lucky enough to have schooling, which encouraged me to do what was more natural to me, and which was suspicious of the mainstream and open to the experimental. When I crafted my fictions, the point at which one of those transformations or deformations occurred was always the moment of maximum energy for me, maximum excitement.
JM: Would you talk about your digressive style, where the impulse comes from? What are some of your thoughts about the mind, how we think; and how are these interests manifested in your fiction?
MC: Ah, the tangent. I’m sure this is for any conventional reader the most unappealing aspect of my work. There seems some perversity at work, in which I do not wish to prioritize the “point.” My interest is instead circuitousness, the abundance of possibilities, the branching. I have never been a linear thinker, and much as I covet that talent in others, I am stuck with my own more inefficient, complicated mode of processing and synthesizing, and I suppose it is just natural that crafting my narratives enshrines this. There are so many instances in life in which this feature seems an enormous disadvantage, but I am always hopeful that in art, if foregrounded, it potentially creates new opportunities. It is both a restriction and an expansion, I feel, and I try to concentrate on the expansiveness when I create. The mind and all its neural pathways is perpetually fascinating, and I aspire to being more well-versed in the science of it all, but my fiction does not derive from any specific study of neuroscience—the way, for instance, a Richard Powers novel might. More likely it derives from being immured in my own mind with all its limitations and preferences: neurosis rather than neuroscience! But the philosophical has been a rich realm for my fiction. Philosophy—or perhaps I should say my own misuse of it—has always been my catalyst.
JM: Would you talk some more about how philosophy, or phenomenology, in particular, has catalyzed your fiction?
MC: I am an utter amateur, likely nourished by those same dribs and drabs you cite. I can’t illuminate beyond saying that that when in the presence of philosophical inquiry, I am inspired. I can’t respond substantively other than through my artistic process, but I am infinitely attracted, whether it’s Heraclitus or Kant or Hegel or Husserl or Heidegger or Whitehead or Merleau-Ponty or Wittgenstein. I taught a bi-disciplinary class with a marvelous colleague named Eugen Baer during the decade I was at Hobart & William Smith Colleges; we structured the class such that it would link writing and philosophy; in fact the late Dave Wallace was so kind as to come speak to and read for the class when we studied his Broom of the System and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress alongside Wittgenstein’s Investigations, and I was in heaven. One of my earliest fiction works, “The Star Café,” came about because I was reading Rudolf Steiner’s work and it described the nature of the afterlife as a kind of experiential penance, if I remember correctly; you’d experience what others had experienced at your hands, and that was the catalyst for “The Star Café”: a man experiencing a woman’s suffering or anxiety during an encounter with him. A story in Complexities called “Epilogue of the Progeny” (published in periodical under the title “Whoever is Never Born with the Most Toys Wins”) nodded to Sophocles and tried to address whether it would be better never to have been born. The Translator, the final novella in All Fall Down, attempts to synthesize numerous disparate literary sources, including Heraclitean fragments and Zen koans, one in particular, regarding the Way. In Catholic high school, philosophy was part of the curriculum, and I recall that even though I was very resistant to the nuns’ sensationalist anti-abortion arguments, when the objection was presented through Aquinas, and Aristotle’s doctrine of substantial versus accidental change, it almost convinced me. When I studied poetry in college and was turned on by George Quasha to Heidegger’s Poetry Language and Thought, I, like so many, got hooked. I can’t think of anything more engrossing than investigating the nature of being or the nature of perception: Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception was another touchstone. Certainly thinking about process and interaction, how thinking gets thought, how subjects and objects enter each other’s space of awareness, that’s all rich fictive territory in my “book.”
JM: During one phase of his career John Coltrane began playing these swift arpeggios and permutations of the same. These were later referred to as “sheets of sound.” What he was attempting to do was to play so fast that he could infer the simultaneity of a chord, where every tone rings in unison, to get beyond the horizontality of arpeggios and reach the verticality of chordal structures. I wonder if baroque flourishes, like many of your descriptive passages, come from a similar impulse, but instead of playing arpeggios, the writer layers details as a way of mirroring the simultaneity of lived experience. Does it come from a kind of literary horror vacui, if you will?
MC: This is such a fascinating question and a brilliant metaphor. You understand something fundamental here about my style, and the “sheets of sound” is apposite on so many levels. The virtuosic spontaneity and complexity—both temporal and harmonic—of jazz, is very much how I would love my own “music” to be heard, and whenever people make this analogy I am flattered; of course my spontaneity is a crafted, labored one, and it may indeed sink like a stone in many reader’s minds. (Regarding the Gass/Gardner dialogue, I am obviously on the Gass side, and I always hope the precision of the gilding might make the difference between soaring and sinking.) I can only hope that those who love the crammed, obsessive, burgeoning sentence and narrative will respond positively. I want the clauses to riff as gloriously as they can, taking in everything, circumnavigating the perceptual globe if you will, charting every nuance, almost as if simultaneously such that it’s challenging to keep track of everything that’s coming at you as a reader. The harmonic saturation of a Coltrane sonic universe is indeed an aspiration. Much of my stylistic approach involves the recapitulation of one element in permutation: slight nuances of variation in different contexts, building narrative momentum through those accrued subtleties. I don’t want easy, digestible, bite-sized portions: spare, exiguous. I want it rich, too rich, baroque. I cherish beauty and complexity and strive to make clauses the equivalent of musical phrases—the daredevil syntactic leap—that kind of thing, but controlled; it must be meticulously calibrated. Those are the chops I care about. My own discovery of jazz at sixteen or seventeen and the serious study of classical and contemporary music as an undergraduate have always been foundational for my writing.
JM: In “The Translator”, I found the sesquipedalian disconcertingly endearing, especially when considering his emotional and psychological brutality of the young woman in the story. His love of words borders worship. And while he considers his work as a translator to be largely “insubstantial” his love of language lends great depth to his character:
I live on borders, over mountains, across oceans. I breed words of other words, I live between the lines, inside consonants and vowels and across paradigms, in adjectives and expletives, in predicates and nominatives; for languages, like lovers, are differently inflected and variously proportioned, possessing ever-shifting moods and tenses, agreement not arrived at without constant vigilance and effort.
While this is of course addressing the difficulty of translating, it can also be read as referring to the various challenges any serious writer faces. As you write, what are those elements requiring your most careful attention, the parts that demand “constant vigilance and effort”?
MC: You’ve read The Translator exactly as I would have wished: the repugnant character whose words nevertheless attract. I loved creating him, loved speaking his prejudices and desires and memories, because I was able to go for broke with language and metaphor, and to do this is, in that Coltrane sense, my favorite thing. In a multi-layered narrative about misplaced eros, the sentence, even more than usually, was my unit of eros, charting a love affair with the English language. I found myself galvanized by mapping out the allegorical character of a book: Liza was the text being translated, and hence the narrator could not claim her for his own, because he had to render her accessible to all. This compositional process demanded my constant vigilance and effort; the allegorical mapping and execution was a giant problem-solving task that took approximately three years to fully synthesize the various source texts and attendant metaphors. Every day I’d make my incremental progress toward getting my conceptual concerns to “work” organically as a plot, and making every sentence be as elegantly controlled and lyrical as possible. But it was an especially joyful process in this case; the eros was palpable—some manifestation of jouissance was delivered to me in daily increments and that sustained me. I strove to make the music of it as beautiful as I could as a counter to the narrator’s polluted soul, seeding a redemptive element into his presentation. I’m almost always solving some elaborate metaphoric schema, and in the process, or should I say as the process, striving to make every clause itself a microcosmic version of a work of art. (Translation, in the technical, non-metaphorical sense, is beyond me—too demanding!—I am genuinely in awe of those who do it.) But translating what is in my head to the page, that’s my version thereof. And it’s inevitably a very complicated, lengthy struggle.
The sentence is all for me. It is never a means to an end; it is always an end in itself, even inasmuch as it contributes to—ideally—an organic whole. I am very slow for numerous reasons, especially the time-demands of teaching, but also because the ideas that generate my fiction are usually highly conceptual and take a great deal of time to unfold, but most of all because each sentence must receive obsessive care to come out as I wish.
JM: In your essay “Lookin’ with Gass” you state that William Gass makes music out of syntax? How can making sentences be like making music?
MC: Sentences for me are all about making music, because it’s the how of what is being said that matters every bit as much and in fact more, for me, than the what. The rhythms of clauses and their relation to one another, the sonic universe that a sentence makes, the lyricism that can be crafted of the English language, such that it has the properties of poetry but narrative integrity as well—the complexity of every syntactic unit: that’s my mathematics. I want to fashion a facsimile of the mind’s music. In any case, I’m trying to make music on the page. I write out loud and thus love to perform, so that the thing I hear in my head and speak onto the page in composition can then be orally lifted back off the page and finally be fully realized.
JM: In that same essay, you wrote that it takes you a week to write a sentence. Does it really take that long? Do you write your stories one sentence at a time in the order in which they appear? When is a sentence finished for you? When is a story?
MC: It takes me a preternaturally long time to write each sentence, and thus each story, it truly does, and it’s sometimes hard to hold onto the feeling of legitimacy amidst brilliant, speed-writing colleagues and peers. But I’m on my own clock, and the beauty of the result is everything to me, so I have to craft it to my own eccentric standards, even if the product, given its over-elaboration, is likely to engender alienation among the majority of readers.
There is indeed a process of refinement, over and over, until “perfection” is achieved, but even prior to that, there is a far more complicated working through a larger canvas, of an impressionistic vision, if you will. Since I don’t think or write in a linear way, I have elliptical drafts and notes that I keep working from toward an eventual hard-won coherence, and it’s a painstaking process. You couldn’t begin to make sense of a draft of my narratives until it gets very close to the end; it’s just a bunch of incoherent notes for quite some time. So on both a macro and micro level, the work is under constant refinement, but early on I tend to grope, and sometimes I might read what I have over and over incessantly before a way to proceed occurs to me. That can be frustrating. Especially because I’m often working with a host of priorities, such as metaphoric congruence. I do let the sentences direct me on some level, but I also arrive at sentences because I’m trying to map out some philosophical idea. That’s very often how stories begin for me: some outlandishly abstract notion that I feel challenged, against all odds (and sense!) to render concrete. In my earlier work something might also begin with a line—in the manner of a musical phrase—or an image. Both the stories and the sentences are forever revisited, to try to nudge them one more increment, because so often there is something not quite perfect, something inelegant, and I determine that through writing aloud, because I need to hear the music of it as I’m crafting. Or in these years of the aforementioned novel, I am going over and over the draft to try to eliminate triteness in the voice, and it feels at times—sometimes years at a time—a losing battle. But the advantage to being a slow writer is you develop patience, and I’m a very patient and, in this respect, also a stubborn person, so I can go the distance with my dubious concepts, my inchoate vision, for better or worse. I sometimes give up on an idea, but more often I stick them out until the bitter end, long after any sensible person would have quit.
JM: A note in Flaubert’s letters reads that he “often shouted aloud (gueulait) the sentences he was writing.” His translator, Steegmüller, writes that Flaubert called the study where he wrote his gueuloir. When you say that you write aloud do you mean that you are saying the words as you’re writing? What would you call your writing space?
MC: I’m not saying the words as I’m writing as much as I’m saying the words once they’re written, and then saying them over and over to get the music right. I have no pet name for my writing space, though I suppose it is a kind of chanting chamber, but it is the place I always aspire to be, and the place in my head where I’m most free and engaged—even though the physical space in my house is situated purely functionally, if even that. I have a cheap little computer table and a cheap orthopedic chair, both of which I vow each year to replace with something grander, more befitting a grown-up writer. I need a view, and have fantasized about looking at water while I write—in fact I almost moved my studio into a closet because it is the one room that has such a view! But my platonic idea of a studio is cathected around the magical space I had the privilege to occupy for a year in Rome in the early nineties. It was called the Casa Rustica and it was a simple wooden structure with French doors looking out to the American Academy garden, and because it was the studio designated for a composer, it housed a piano as well, so I could play the piano in the interstices of writing, and that was an idyllic situation. One activity could support and relieve the other: the making of verbal music and the making of instrumental music. I think I’ve been trying to recreate that circumstance ever since, but I doubt I will ever succeed. The other kind of studio I have had at the American Academy while visiting was an artist’s studio, with a marvelous view of the city below, and because it was for a visual artist, the walls were made of a soft substance that you could tack drawings on. At the time I was still working on my Il Libro dell’Arte story, and it was invaluable to be able to hang every page on the wall, so I could see it in time, physically, and be surrounded as it were by the unfolding narrative. I yearn for a studio with cork walls so I can have my work physically laid out that way. Rather than stacked in piles.
JM: Your work concerns itself with sexuality, the tension between sex and fulfillment or the thwarting of fulfillment, and there are many erotic passages artfully composed throughout your fiction. Why this concern with sex and sexuality? Also, what are some of your favorite examples of sex and sexuality in fiction?
MC: Well, that’s a complicated question, and I imagine it probably originates in being raised Catholic and many years of Catholic school—sex being that pink elephant that you know you’re not supposed to think about, so all you do is think about it. I’ve been for the last eight years writing a novel that addresses that connection much more directly, and mimetically, than anything I’ve written before, in fact. I’m looking at an attenuated ethnicity but I’m also looking of the roots of a vexed relationship to sex and how that colors one’s whole world and life, especially through single-sex education. The pink of the elephant is my emphasis, you might say, in the novel, because it’s about the socialization of females. But all my writing life I’ve certainly wanted to address eros through language, and the most pervasive use of the erotic in my work is highly metaphorical.
I don’t know that I can summon “favorite” instances of sex and sexuality; that would have to be contextual, but I do remember, as a sheltered Catholic school girl, the frisson, or perhaps shock, of discovering, for instance, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, or even Joseph Heller. D.H. Lawrence certainly was inspirational. And I recall the standard seeking-out of some infamous sex scene or other in Ayn Rand. Then one comes to realize one’s own work is sometimes sought out in this compartmentalized way—ironic! My novel-in-progress contains a scene in which the Catholic girls discover the satanic rape scene in Rosemary’s Baby and it addresses all the curiosity and anxiety this elicits. When I was in college, I discovered Kathy Acker’s Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, which opened up more taboo-breaking literary possibilities. But Joyce was probably always at the center. Later, the erotic, lyric universe of my mentor John Hawkes was deeply inspirational. Marguerite Duras also. This is just scratching the surface.
I’m interested in the eros of language then, and that’s for me a celebratory realm, but I’m also interested in examining sexual dynamics on the level of tension and power. Thwarted desire tends to be much more fictively potent than desire fulfilled, so I’m often mucking around with that in my “plots,” such as they are. I guess I’m taking the straightforward out of sex, which was the way I was taught on some level.
JM: What do you mean by “attenuated ethnicity”?
MC: What I mean by attenuated ethnicity is a kind of upbringing in which being hyphen American (in this case Italian American) is something essentially suppressed, recognized but not emphasized, kept under the rug as it were, in the melting-pot modality of the 50s and 60s. An attitude much different than that of more recent decades. This novel deals with first, second and third generation perspectives within one family, but primarily the third.
JM: You once mentioned in an interview that your mentor, John Hawkes, “gave [you] tremendous encouragement and urged [you] to follow [your] own idiosyncratic path in fiction.” How did he encourage you? Also, what are your thoughts about the mentorship model and the classroom model?
MC: I can’t begin to say what a gift it was to have the mentorship of John Hawkes. His extraordinary support and wisdom made it possible for me to be a writer and to believe in my fiction. I had the unbelievable fortune in college of working with both Robert Kelly and William Gaddis, (favorite poet and fiction writer respectively) and I had steeled myself for the likelihood that graduate school would not offer comparable nurture, and then I struck a home run at Brown, finding the astounding “family” of the Hawkes, the Coovers and the Waldrops. Later came C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander. It was truly extraordinary. I worked on “The Star Café” through the first year of grad school, perhaps even beyond that. Jack looked at draft after draft; I don’t know how he stood it, and he reassured me that it was not pornographic, when in my insecurity I feared it was explicit in sensationalist ways. He gave me the exercise of writing Chinese fairy tales which turned into the ten tales—reduced from perhaps ten times that—of my first book. Well after graduate school, when still in Providence, I was writing my first novella, Sebastian, and during the process my father died, he helped me know how to keep writing a large work after the death of one’s father. He cared about and counseled on every aspect of life. Evenings and afternoons spent at their house on Everett Avenue were priceless, being wined and dined and edified and entertained. He was an incredibly compassionate and intuitive human being. And so much more than that. He and his wife Sophie were/are such incredible human beings. The loss is enormous. Those years in Providence through the eighties were incredibly special, centered around the perpetual literary teahouse graciously hosted by Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop: the hub of Providence’s intellectual/artistic life. A writer’s paradise, really. How lucky I was. My thoughts about mentorship are derived directly from my own experience, because I was blessed to have caring, brilliant, invested mentorship, true mentorship. I have always wanted to give that back and have structured my life around this aspiration. It makes a conflict with doing one’s own art at times, most times, I suppose. I don’t think I will ever know how to balance the teaching and writing, but conceptually and idealistically it is such a beautiful marriage, even if pragmatically it remains a conflict.
JM: I love lists, and your stories brim with luxurious ones. Where does your interest in taxonomies come from? Why do you make lists?
MC: Thank goodness for me you love lists. I can see how I might weary some readers with this compulsion, but I am committed to an aesthetic that, on some level, necessitates cramming everything in, employing gestures of inclusiveness and overabundance (even as, objectively, my realm is pretty narrow). Meanwhile, on the musical level, the incantatory power of the list is very strong. I like the talismanic effect, the ritualistic feel of it: fiction as magic. And of course the paradox is that within the context of a nonlinear, non-programmatic agenda, the list is somewhat ironic.
JM: You write virtuosic prose, a way of writing that’s largely missing from contemporary mainstream literary fiction. If virtuosic prose is purple, what color is its opposite? Why is virtuosity distrusted?
CM: Yes, alas, the virtuosic, in that sense, does not abound in contemporary mainstream fiction. I relish it when I find it. I guess the anti-virtuosic would manifest itself as some sickly, washed-out green, the one we once associated with hospital walls. I wish I knew why virtuosic tendencies weren’t trusted. Certainly the more straightforward minimalist Carver aesthetic took hold in the 80’s, and that hold had teeth. The American is not really affiliated with the Jamesian, alas for me. It’s always the Heming-way, if you see what I mean—to be reductive. The pretentious, the fussy: that’s European, old world, it’s suspect, it’s not down to earth, not spare and contemporary. I don’t know. And who has time? That may be the sad truth of it. The older I get, the more I recognize and am chastened by the hubris of my fiction’s demands—it presupposes that a reader likes to work at it, to read and reread, to be slowed down. And of course, so few readers may be inclined to. It really is a lot to ask. But I cherish those readers willing to put in the time, and those who consider it exhilarating and rewarding. A dying breed we are, aren’t we?
JM: Your stories excoriate the many betrayals of the family, the so-called microcosm of society. What is it about this microcosm that draws your attention to it?
MC: I have a rather ambivalent relation to family, it seems. I studiously avoided the sphere of the domestic in my art and in my life, not having children, not writing mainstream women’s books; but in a bizarre paradoxical way, I was interested in taking the exoticism of family, since it was so foreign to me in a way, and writing out of that, and somehow feeling responsible to the reality of most people’s daily life on some level. I felt I had to address that in some fashion, even if a very idiosyncratic one. I find the paradigms available in our society awfully flawed, and poignantly so; I do want, as you say, to skewer them, but simultaneously to honor them and genuinely mourn their imperfections.
JM: Your stories, especially “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and those found in The Five Doubts, interact often with art. Stories like “The Daughter’s Lamentation” and The Translator betray your love for architecture. All of which leads me to think of your work as ekphrastic literature. Why such interest in the visual arts?
MC: Ekphrastic literature—lovely, I like that designation. Visual arts has always been such a rich resource for me, and such a pure one, in the sense that I don’t do it, don’t teach it, don’t need to be responsible to it in the way I feel I must with literature and to a lesser extent music. So I can be in a museum, for instance, and be free, just let it enter my imagination. I don’t have formal schooling in art history, only my own research, and there is something I find deeply inspirational about the visual arts—the intensity of a non-expert’s and non-practitioner’s relationship with it. I love to collaborate with artists, which is one of the many things I relished during my Rome Prize year. To view art is the most perfect balance of stimulation and consolation. “The Daughter’s Lamentation” came out of being steeped in architecture during that fellowship year at the American Academy in Rome (an experience that remains generative) and I wanted to honor the richness of that architectural heritage as well as rag on patriarchy yet again.
JM: The Five Doubts immediately struck me as a collection of games, reaching its apotheosis in “Tombola.” Do you use constraints to jumpstart your fiction? What’s the value of using a constraint? Did OuLiPo influence you?
MC: I love OuLiPo and its authors and yet seldom am able to do much with generative mechanisms or the improvisatory on the other hand. This frustrates me. I’d love to have those hooks, those catalysts, but that’s why the “Tombola” piece was such a miracle for me, because I actually did achieve success and pleasure using the Tombola board as a generative mechanism. The cards dictated my narratives, and it was the quickest piece I ever composed: two weeks to generate the narratives from the images on the cards. Selecting and translating the periodical passages took another several weeks; I interpolated the found material to reinforce the sociological concerns and to set up a dialogue between the contemporary journalistic prose and the “innocent” old-fashioned narratives. But for me, that is really speedy, as a story can take a year and often does. In sum, jumpstarting is an anomaly for me! But I envy writing students when I throw them exercises. I am covetous of constraints, deeply so, but it seems for me it would end up shallow. I have to do things the hard way, maybe it’s simply perversity; but I do fashion constraints in the way I referred to earlier in the interview, in terms of metaphoric constraints largely. But those slow down rather than speed up my process, alas!
JM: The Five Doubts seems heavily researched, erudite without being leaden with facts. Ill-Timed also must have required some extensive study of chronic fatigue syndrome. And the narrator in The Translator is like a walking encyclopedia of classical literature. How do you approach research?
MC: I am so glad you don’t think Five Doubts is leaden, because I have always feared it reeked of research. I find it ironic that I have spent most of my writing life avoiding mimetic fiction and yet I am enslaved to fact on some level. I always feel awkward about my research, because I am spending the time a scholar would without a scholar’s skill, and in the end I might use a tiny amount of some book that I’ve labored to absorb, and of course it won’t ever draw a reader the way some conventional historical fiction might. When I’m researching, I’m always thinking how much better written that text is than my stuff—such as The New Dictionary of Birds when I did “Prima Materia.” And I am woefully inefficient, unlike most scholars; I get lost in that world, and take a long time to do whatever application to my own work I am there to achieve. I must read a great deal—whether it be Etruscan history or sports magazines or what have you—to cull what I need, to feel sufficiently informed. In Ill Timed it was more athletics and albinism I needed to research in a traditional manner; the medical material was more anecdotal, an awareness of the situations of a great number of women. One feels one’s work to be so glaringly contrastive to the effortless erudition of a Cormac McCarthy, for example: his wealth of arcane knowledge, so artfully integrated.
JM: What are some other research texts besides The New Dictionary of Birds that you felt were “much better written” than your own? How did your work contrast?
MC: I think almost everything seems to me better or more interestingly written when I’m researching, even if it’s journalism. Twice now I’ve worked from The New York Times to create collage pieces, and once from Italian periodicals, and I’ve also worked from more general audience reference books, and whether the voice is more elegant or more quaint or more straightforward or simply more authoritative, I always find myself humbled in some respect. When I researched for The Son’s Burden in Complexities, I found myself in awe of Mechanization Takes Command. But the most problematic superior, shall we say, was Leonardo da Vinci, because when I wrote the Five Doubts book, steeped in Roman and Etruscan history and Renaissance art, etc. etc, it was The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, a beautiful volume in the American Academy Library, that most haunted me. The tone had such dignity and beauty and lucidity that I became enslaved to it, achieving a relation to the words that was selective but not interactive. I found myself essentially copying his words and not managing to augment them in any effective way. I knew his voice was to be one element of a collage work, but I was so hypnotized by his voice that I couldn’t move past it or across it. It was only after a year of conversations with the amazing sculptor Rita McBride (with whom an intended collaboration per se did not evolve due to lack of resourcefulness on my part) that I realized I needed a counter-voice to Leonardo’s. Thus his beautiful writing finally fostered the antithetical voice of Salai, his apprentice, the provocateur fabricated by me to be a metaphor for the writer’s or artist’s unconscious, albeit based on the historical figure. I think that the months spent not rising to the occasion of Rita McBride’s art belatedly and displacedly helped me to, even more belatedly, rise to my own aspirations vis-a-vis Leonardo’s art, because it was she who saw the complexity and contradiction inherent in the life and work of “genius,” and especially male genius. Her more complex intellectual scope influenced me to be able to move beyond mere worship.
JM: I’m interested in your history as a reader. Before you became a writer, who were those writers that you enjoyed reading? And as an embryonic writer? And during your years developing your craft as a serious writer? And while you were writing your most recent collection, who were you reading?
MC: As a student before college, I loved Shakespeare and Romantic poetry: Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, French surrealist poetry, etc. Lots of poetry. In the extracurricular fiction field, I read, like every teen, Vonnegut and Brautigan. I think even Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, assigned for school, disturbed me at first, that’s how repressed I was; I recall perhaps being put off when I encountered young Stephen wetting the bed right on the first page! And now, in homage to both that and women’s physiology, I make sure I feature a woman needing to pee in nearly every story!
In college I discovered and devoured Modernism: Kafka, and James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Proust, Mann and Musil. All the usual suspects and then some. In the American contemporary sphere, I discovered William Gass and Harry Matthews. I fell into a swoon when I discovered William Gaddis, who I had the great honor of studying with as an undergraduate, and whose work is unsurpassable, in my opinion.
I can’t easily read when I’m deep into a fiction project, because I must spend hours in the morning and hours at night to make any progress, and during the year the students’ writing becomes my entire focus, so I’m lucky to be able to teach literature, to keep my mind deep in fiction. Ironically, I envy those who can read for pleasure, as it were. I might read a bolus of novels when the term ends and then get immersed in my novel again, acutely aware of what an impoverished landscape it offers. My recent collection, All Fall Down, comprises work composed over many years, so it would be hard in any case to recall exactly what I was reading during any particular piece within it. When I finish this novel, I want to read for a year and not touch a pen; at least I think that’s how I feel now. I lust for literature. It’s a pragmatic issue. You just yearn for a time out from exigencies. I know students and peers who read and write directly out of what they read, so they incorporate the reading into their process. I envy that.
JM: I’m bothered that so little, to my knowledge, has been written about your work. What kind of dialogue do you have about your work once it’s been published? What are you hoping for?
MC: Well I’d be delighted for you to instigate a correction. I feel very fortunate to have some American critics find me worth their while, and certainly, the more the merrier! When The Review of Contemporary Fiction published Robert McLaughlin’s essay on my work, I felt honored, because Dalkey books had been essential reading for me from my graduate school years forward. They were my source for experimental fiction. Long before that, I had come to know Steven Moore because he’d written an incredibly incisive review of The Star Café in The Washington Post, and I was thrilled and deeply impressed. The Dalkey essay meant so much to me since so much of what turned me on to contemporary experimental fiction was from them. Much of the critical attention I’ve received has been through the lens of Italian American literary criticism, so you wouldn’t be likely to know it, but I am honored to have had a number of PhD dissertations on my fiction and to have been included in anthologies or critical studies by Tonelli and Gardaphe and Kirschenbaum and others, and then to have been introduced to Italy through my fabulous Italian translator Daniela Daniele. I am perpetually honored to be studied by a brilliant group of Americanists at the Sorbonne that originated with the extraordinary Marc Chenetier, who translated The Star Café. I always say I’d rather be taught then bought, and I’ve been lucky to be taught in the experimental “canon,” and to have filled in a niche in the Italian-American one. More critical attention would be most welcome, of course, but I have no illusions about my demanding, esoteric work generating some huge readership—though I intended All Fall Down to be a bit more accessible, and so far it seems to be received as such. I’m too ambivalent about exploring the avenues some writers use to get the word out: publicists and such. I have a wonderful long-suffering Bard alum helping me assemble a web site, and even with her help I can’t seem to get my act together in that department, but I’m still trying to provide the materials so I can say at least I do the minimum! I value immensely my cult following, or whatever to call those dedicated souls who aren’t put off by my complexity and idiosyncrasy. One is lucky to be able to keep writing fiction in this commercial world, when publishing is in such jeopardy, when the future of the book remains uncertain, and all the other doom-and-gloom that is our current circumstance. Art is our solace; it’s certainly mine. And it’s a privilege to make it.