Joanna Walsh is a writer, illustrator and the fiction editor of 3:AM Magazine. She regularly reviews books for the Guardian, the National and the New Statesman, while her fiction has appeared in many publications. She runs the Twitter account @readwomen and is the author of Fractals (2013), and more recently, three books: Hotel, Vertigo and Grow a Pair. Walsh has recently been announced as one of the judges of the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize for fiction. Lili Owen Rowlands spoke to her about women writers, Freud and fairy-tale sex.
Interview: Lili Owen Rowlands
Portrait: Gabby Laurent, taken at the London Review Bookshop
Lili Owen Rowlands You’ve been an editor, literary journalist and illustrator for a while, but you’ve recently had three books – Vertigo, Hotel and Grow a Pair – come out in quick succession. What set off this writerly explosion?
Joanna Walsh It was kind of a coincidence; I’ve been working on them all for a few years. With Vertigo I had been writing the stories in a very ad hoc way with no particular idea of direction. I sent all my stories to Danielle Dutton at Dorothy, A Publishing Project and she wanted to narrow them down to ones that worked together. Grow a Pair is published by Readux and is part of a series it did on weird sex. It’s a tiny publisher based in Berlin, which does short books in English translation and some English originals.
LOR The thing about Vertigo is that it seems to deny or resist definition. Is it a short-story collection? I felt it could even be read as a novel.
JW I wrote the stories individually and I didn’t necessarily see the character who narrates the stories as continuous, although the narrator is usually a woman whose circumstances could be drawn together. I just wrote them about things I was interested in.
LOR The narrative voice feels so continuous and so distinctive. Do you resist the label of the “experimental” writer? Do you work against it? Particularly in Hotel, your memoir of sorts, which has a really interesting and distinct structure.
JW It’s always frustrating to put yourself in a box and I’m sure most writers feel like that, but the label “experimental” is shorthand for pushing beyond given kinds of narrative and it is important for me to write against things. I’ve been thinking a lot about writing being an “against” because a lot of people use the term “creative writing” as if writing is something you invent or construct. Whereas I feel that when I’m writing I’m not inventing things at all, I’m just putting them together.Experimentation does seem to imply some formal experiment and in Hotel I’d be happy to go with that: I consciously used many forms, like diaries and postcards. And in Vertigo I did use some formal experimentation too; in the piece “Claustrophobia” I work backwards with time and I really liked it in the end, because meaning in stories is often retrospective, as it is in life – which sounds like a weird and difficult thing to say – you give meaning to situations only after they have finished. Like with love at first sight: you can only say it happened after it took place and you realised that’s what happened. Verbalisation of things is retrospective. Meaning is retrospective.
LOR You write a lot about clothes – how do you rescue fashion from the clutches of feminine frivolity?
JW I’m very interested in fashion. I like clothes. I used to be an illustrator, so I occasionally did fashion illustration. I talk in Hotel about whether marriage is a “from” or a “to” – whether you say, “we’re married and from that we’re going to do this,” or if marriage is something you work towards and say, “we’re individuals and eventually we will attain this married state,” and fashion is a bit like that. It can be difficult because it’s both an expression and something seen from the outside. And sometimes when men see women doing it they see the result and think that it is very silly and frivolous to put all these things together and to care about them. But fashion – and men do it, too – is an expression – one way of trying to find ways to be in our artificial universe. Inevitably, we’re very artificial beings. Also, I like things. I like the ways meanings cluster around objects although that can also sometimes seem very materialistic and silly.
I was doing some work recently on the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić and I read a lot of her writing about how objects can be politically resistant, particularly when they are the focus of nostalgia. Ugrešić often writes about photo albums and sentimental objects. She lived through changes of regime: under Communist rule for a long time in Yugoslavia, through the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, when she left the country because she had taken certain unpopular opinions. She is concerned with the idea of exile and what exiles take with them are most often photographs, as well as objects. She is interested in the way that the personal memories located in these objects can go beyond the co-option of memory for purely political and often coercive ends. There is something quite hopeful about objects that we make or put together on our bodies and around ourselves.
LOR So perhaps we can wrest objects back from the “materialist” interpretation.
JW You’ve said “wrest it back”. I always think about Georges Perec, one of my favourite writers. His Species of Spaces is a really interesting work about how to use words to grapple with the materiality of what surrounds us. He talks about writing as a way of seeing things “flatly”; he describes lots of places. He did one piece about the street where he grew up, which he knew was about to be demolished. He says writing’s function is to “wrest something back from the void as it grows”. I like the idea of the void growing and all you can do with writing is keep a handle on some of the things that have existed contemporaneously with you.
LOR Why do you use French words in your writing? It’s the sort of thing that would make George Orwell squirm!
JW I’m interested in the gaps, the nuances of meaning that I seem to pick up between French and English. Although, of course, I can’t be sure that they are really there because I’m not a native French speaker. I’m also interested in what people are trying to do when they speak other languages. Sometimes it’s to impress people or to impress themselves, or to extend the range of what they can think about.
LOR In one of the Vertigo stories there’s a fantastic subversion of 20th-century men writing in Parisian cafés. In your story there is a woman who sees a man in a café, but she plays down her French when she orders so as not to embarrass him. Much of your writing is about travel; it’s liminal and written on trains or in hotels. Do you see your writing as expat writing?
JW That’s an interesting way to think about it. I think maybe I am doing a similar thing with setting as I am with language. There are gaps between the things that you use every day – the language you talk most of the time, or the place where you are most of the time – and how you notice things when you are out of place. That’s when you see the shape of what you are and what you are doing or what other people seem to be. For quite practical reasons I do a lot of intense writing when I’m travelling, probably because then I notice all sorts of things, or at least I have the leisure and freedom from routine to put my mind in another place.
LOR There is so much about mothers and daughters in Vertigo.
JW One of the most difficult things about people is that often they have to be both a parent and a child at the same time. These are very different roles to fulfil. I’m reading A Russian Novel, an autofictive work by Emmanuel Carrère, where he says how uncomfortable he is having to enact the roles of both father and son. He goes on holiday with his parents and also his sons (he doesn’t live with them all the time), but is thrown into this family situation of being both things when they seem to go in opposite directions.
LOR How did Hotel come about?
JW I was a hotel reviewer for a while and a few years after I stopped doing it I reflected on why I had been doing it and I wrote an essay about it. I wrote the first essay in the book and sent it to Object Lessons, because they were doing a series of essays with the Atlantic, but the essays are only 2,000 words long, so I pitched it as a book.
LOR Why did you include so much Freud in Hotel?
JW I knew a bit about Freud. I hadn’t read many of his case studies when I started but I had read “Das Unheimliche” [“The Uncanny”] and Civilisation and Its Discontents. I started writing about Unheimliche in the first essay and then I realised that Freud’s patients seemed to be spending a lot of time in hotels. They have this dislocated life that seemed to be to do both with dissatisfaction with home and striving for happiness elsewhere. In these grand Victorian hotels there seemed to be an idea that the hotel was doing you good – there were lots of spa hotels. And you still get that today, the idea that pampering yourself is something to do with curing your body or mind. Audre Lorde says self-care is a radical act. It can also be an aggressive act. The idea of putting all this effort into making yourself better, which is often, in popular culture, so that you come up to the quite oppressive standards of society.
LOR And why did you include so much about the Marx Brothers?
JW I love puns and I really wanted to get away from Freud at some point in this book. I wanted to think about materialism and Marx and the other explanations for Freudian illnesses, the social explanations and not the psychological explanations that are to some extent depoliticised by Freud. I wanted to re-politicise the book, but I realised I hadn’t really read that much Marx and I probably wasn’t going to have time to read enough Marx to get up to speed. But I knew a lot about the Marx Brothers and that is obviously a pun on Karl Marx. I was writing already about misappropriation and punning. I think what the Marx Brothers do with language is beyond a joke. Often their lines are told as if they’re jokes, but they’re silly rather than actually funny. If the Marx Brothers were like standard music-hall comedians where all their jokes made sense, then they would probably be much less good than they are. Their mis-joking and mis-punning is deliberate; it’s not that they’re clunky by our modern standards.
LOR Hotels seem to anticipate that their clients will have lots of sex. But in Hotel you write about how hotel guests become almost emptied of desire, or inhuman.
JW Hotels are spaces for desire, but that doesn’t mean desire is fulfilled. The hotel prolongs desire but doesn’t satisfy it. So what it offers is already not the fulfilment of desire, but the continuation of the promise of desire. You think you’re going to have a sexy weekend in a hotel, but the pressure to be sexy can be so great it’s anything but!
LOR It’s similar to the way sex in films is used as a signifier, as a way of showing an intimacy between characters. The act doesn’t matter.
JW People find sex very difficult to write about. Partly because the options seem to be either to describe things in very plain language or slip into outlandish metaphor. Not many people do sex writing. If people have sex in a book it’s often beside the fact of the narrative. It may be there for titillating reasons and, of course, that’s fine too. There’s nothing wrong with that – books are sexy, they have to be; that’s part of our lives.
My book Grow a Pair puts sex at the centre of the work, rather than at the margins. Sex here doesn’t just illustrate character. They are pornographic stories; the act or the exhibition is at the centre and it’s the sex that I find important in them and not the other stuff. They are like porn clips; they are explorations for me of different things that are interesting or exciting about sex.
LOR Grow a Pair is a series of fairy tales about sex. Why did you use fairy tales?
JW What I like about using fairy tales is that you can conjure things with words and it doesn’t matter if they are very difficult to imagine in any sort of realistic way. You can say, “Once upon a time there was a princess,” and you don’t need to know what relationship with her mother was like, or what size her shoes are, or how she feels in the morning when she gets up. You are in this game and you can do all sorts of things with that. I like the economy: because there are things you don’t have to say, you can make quite extraordinary leaps, which it’s difficult to do in realistic writing. At the same time fairy tales follow set patterns so there’s a comfortable expectation of structure that you can play around with.
LOR You created the hashtag #readwomen in 2014 and it was very successful. To its detriment or not, 2014 and 2015 were big years for feminism. But it was also white feminism and liberal feminism that prevailed. Do you think we need a specific movement to read women of colour?
JW I do think that feminism has to be intersectional, otherwise it’s rubbish. Reading more diversely in general is the natural extension of looking beyond the largely white male Western canon and is partly why I review a lot in translation, but I don’t want @read_women to lose the focus on the position of writers, of whatever gender or ethnicity, as women. Nikesh Shukla does a lot of work around ethnicity and literature and the fact that he focuses on that doesn’t mean that we are opposed. To go back to Audre Lorde, she wrote about trying to make our differences productive. The idea of difference being divisive is an instrument of the status quo. §
Hotel, published by Bloomsbury, and Grow a Pair, published by Readux, are out now. Vertigo will be published by And Other Stories on 3 March 2016.