Lynne Tillman is a novelist, short story writer and cultural critic. Among her 13 books are Haunted Houses (1987), Motion Sickness (1991) and American Genius, A Comedy (2006). Weird Fucks, a novella, was recently republished and beautifully illustrated by Amy Sillman. The stories recount, in elegant and stark prose, the vertiginous journeys to and from sexual encounters, rather than graphic accounts of the act itself. Weird Fucks conveys, in Tillman’s alarming and wry humour, the confusion of intimate encounters. Sillman’s tonal artworks are a perfect accompaniment; they both are and are not figurative works, just as Tillman’s stories both are and are not about bodies. Weird Fucks is a rich prose portrait of a young, adventurous woman in cities, bedrooms, parks.
Interview: Thomas Roueché and Lili Owen Rowlands
Portrait: James Welling
Thomas Roueché I was reading your short story “Twee Kamers” today, in What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, and it reminded me of your time in Amsterdam. It sounds both hilarious and amazing, but also an important moment.
Lynne Tillman Going to Europe after college was totally important to me in so many different ways. Two of my novels and a number of short stories, came out of that. Motion Sickness was my second novel, about a young American woman travelling around Europe; she’s not at home and meets other people who aren’t either – two Germans in Spain, an Irish guy in Morocco, an Englishman in Istanbul. Before I lived in Europe, I hadn’t actually understood what it meant to be an American. I thought I was a New Yorker. But then I learned, in comparison with Dutch people, say, I have American attitudes.
TR And at this time you were also working in film?
LT I was always secretly writing; I was tremendously insecure. I found myself involved in film, in a way. I got to Amsterdam from London and there were no movies to go to see! I mean, it was just horrendous. In London you could see indie and experimental stuff, mainstream movies, but Holland! It was just terrible. So we started a cinema, with a cheque from my father that was meant to buy me a winter coat, and then restarted the Dutch Filmmakers Co-op with government money. The Dutch were shocked I’d spent my own money for the cinema. They thought very differently about that. In England, there was a different English, which ultimately was the reason I had to return to New York.
TR It’s interesting what you say about British English as a different language because I feel like you like to talk British sometimes. Secretly!
LT I have a little English person inside of me and inside that, a little German man, or an enigma inside a riddle. I mean, in terms of my writing. I was raised an Anglophile: my father read Shakespeare to me as a bedtime story. I don’t write at all like an English writer, I know that, but I think some of the irony in my work comes from that sense of understatement and double dealing. You know, how the English say one thing and really mean another thing and only if you’ve lived there for a long time can you figure out what the hell they mean.
TR The way you write about Charles Henri Ford is interesting. Maybe it’s easier to travel to places now without feeling so displaced.
LT Paul Bowles and Charles Henri Ford thought of themselves as expats, maybe exiles, although Charles returned to New York and lived here for the last 15 or 20 years of his life. Paul hadn’t visited the US from 1968 on, until I think 1997, when he needed a heart operation. The “American expatriate”, its idea, has no relevance any more. Travel is much easier, there’s the internet, globalism. In early to mid-20th century America, the idea was, Europe was richer in culture, worldly; Americans could be nonconformist or escape discrimination there. But Europe has shown its own colours, right? Charles Henri Ford was just 17, in Mississippi, when he started a literary magazine, Blues and published Gertrude Stein, which was pretty incredible. So he went to Paris in the early 1930s. But everyone came running home before or during the Second World War, including those who weren’t Americans, of course. Some stayed, like Duchamp. Brecht returned.
Lili Owen Rowlands It seems like you’ve written a bit about these scenes; the Bowleses or Books & Co. But to what extent do you feel that people recognise you as part of the downtown scene? Do you feel a part of that scene?
LT I’m part of many groups, or no groups, and that’s why New York city remains great in my eyes: it’s easy to see friends, go to events, meet new people. People and ideas are the same to me, in a sense. It’s funny – in the 1960s, people were sometimes called “scenemakers”. Not used any more, right? Warhol did make a scene and also made movies from it. I’ve written about Ford and Bowles in essays and there was my second novel, Cast in Doubt, about an expatriate English-American community in a small Greek city. Gay men, mostly and the protagonist, Horace, was a 65-year-old gay man. But Cast in Doubt came out in 1992. My next novel was set in the East Village – it played off of Joyce’s Ulysses. My experiences changed; my ideas have changed, or mutated.
I write in the present, not necessarily the present tense. I write about what I’m thinking about. “Downtown” is a label that a bunch of us were given in the 1980s. It’s both correct and incorrect at the same time. It’s way too defining and very vague. It’s a lot to do with what was going on in the 1980s into the 1990s in publishing and how to sell books. There were so-called “more mainstream” people like Jay McInerney, who travelled in different circles but wrote about clubs, drugs, alcohol, and became famous. In a way it was about class, in the American sense – basically, who you knew, where had you published. See, there’s no opposite to downtown. So what is it? A lot of activity was happening in Soho, then what became Tribeca, the East Village. Artists, all kinds, could get very cheap apartments, lofts. It was a fertile period in which I began to publish, make films, give readings, edit an art/lit mag [Paranoids Anonymous Newsletter]. But whatever period you were in when you were young is fertile, exciting. Right? Otherwise you might as well be dead. I’m not nostalgic.
LOR Does it feel to you like more people are looking at the work of women writers who might have been considered downtown? You or Chris Kraus or Shulamith Firestone who have recently been republished in the UK. Do you get a sense that it’s becoming cultish?
LT It’s weird, maybe not, but some of my books were published in England, but not any since 1999. The last was No Lease on Life. Maybe I’m not enough of an American writer, that is, what is expected as “American”. I’d call myself a writer of “unpopular books”. Cults – that’s always a problem. “Quirky” gets assigned to a cult writer, not a “serious” one. Cult means a small band of ferocious fans really get what you do. That’s all. It’s what happens to so-called minorities. Women are a minority, to start, systemically. We are considered in the margins, or marginal. Why aren’t we – women, people of colour et al. – defining contemporary writing also? Then there’s the appalling attitude towards so-called non-mainstream writers. This is from a review of Mary Gaitskill’s new novel: “Her beautiful, elegant prose about ugly and inelegant sex... gave a disturbingly detailed face to the blank carelessness of 1980s Lower East Side scummy chic.” That’s how “we”, so-called downtown writers, Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles, Gary Indiana, me, say, are described, as writing with “blank carelessness”, “Lower East Side scummy chic”. We are all urban writers. But it’s as if subject matter – say, sexuality – defines the quality of writing, not how one writes.
TR It’s strange in that the downtown scene occupies a marginal position, when actually it’s much more about being in the middle of a lot of different things. In terms of the interdisciplinary nature of lots of these artists, it’s not about being on the edge.
LT A lot of lip service is given to interdisciplinarity. It’s said to be important, yet writers who do it – who also make visual work, write about art, who not only do novels but also short stories and essays, who have occasionally made films – these writers and artists are harder to grasp and I believe harder for critics to write about. You know what you’re getting when you buy a Cormac McCarthy novel! I also think there’s a notion that those who work in different mediums aren’t as serious at writing as they should be. That’s the stain of interdisciplinarity, not the reality that someone might be talented in several areas. But yes, the middle, right, in the middle of things, not on the edge. What’s happening now is very “downtown”.
TR Tell us about the republication of Weird Fucks and its genesis. Doesn’t it now incorporate the work of the artist Amy Sillman?
LT Amy Sillman is a fantastic painter. I finished that book and it was the first longish thing I’d ever written, 62 manuscript pages. I was extremely happy as I’d worked on it for two years and then I met Lisa Baumgardner who had a magazine called Bikini Girl, which came out of Club 57 where she was hanging out. You could say it was a punk publication. When she said she wanted to publish Weird Fucks, I assumed it would be a little indie book, but then she published it in something like six-point type. My novella in 13 chapters was reduced to six or seven pages. It was a little bit like Spinal Tap, where the model of Stonehenge is tiny. That was 1980. I gave readings from it at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and lots of clubs, so people heard it, but hardly anyone ever saw it or read it. Absence Makes the Heart was the first of my books to appear in England, an eclectic group of stories, and Weird Fucks was in it, but printed as if it was just one story and completely overlooked. Actually, that book was a disaster, really. In England, the critics, if they did look at it, called me “some kind of intellectual Amazon” and the stories were “spiky”, “postmodern fictions”. My reputation in England started off in the abyss. Perhaps if I’d called the book Weird Fucks rather than Absence Makes the Heart...
Weird Fucks isn’t about the sexual act, it’s more about that act within a particular context, the atmosphere. I was very interested in what the atmosphere around having sex was: how it happened with these men, where and what happened before and sometimes after and so on. It’s now been republished by New Herring Press, which is a small indie press that does terrific books. They thought, and I thought, that Amy Sillman would be perfect to do the artwork and it came together and was published beautifully with money from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. So, now people have noticed it.
LOR So what does Amy’s art bring to it? Is it like another weird fuck? Is it like a new relationship? Or a new atmosphere?
LT Well, she’s made these tonally different works – rectangles and squares. The paintings’ colours are muted, greys, browns, off-whites, the shapes entangled. There’s an atmosphere in them. It seems to me to have that kind of mood of murky understanding and contingency between and among the shapes, and it works with the writing much better than anything figurative could have. The shapes don’t turn into people, say, and in this way it’s a response on the part of the viewer: what do these shapes mean in terms of relationships?
Much of my writing is oppositional; I’m writing in opposition to something, sometimes it’s inchoate. Sometimes not. In Weird Fucks, I was writing, in part, in opposition to a certain kind of sentimentality about how women represented their lives or how women’s lives were represented. In both Weird Fucks and Haunted Houses I wanted to write in what I thought of as beautiful sentences, but also harsh and severe ones. My idea was that women, girls, are constructed, right, and it is very harsh to live inside those lines. It’s hard being a girl. You know, it’s a very, very rough life, though different from the roughness that’s always been associated with boys’ lives.
LOR When you wrote your first novel and it was published and you saw it in the bookshop, you said you felt it was narcissistic to write this book that would just be lost among all the other books you hadn’t even read. Does it still feel like that?
LT I didn’t mean it was narcissistic to write it, but once you had, narcissism reared its ugly head. This was from a highly ironic piece on the “first novel” and was collected in What Would Lynne Tillman Do? There’s so much emphasis on the first. I only somewhat exaggerated the sense of defeat you feel when your first book comes out. In many ways, it doesn’t get better. Maybe it gets worse, because you’ve “been there, done that”, and why can’t I feel differently... Any writer worth her salt – salt was once worth a lot, wasn’t it – is going to have anxiety about each book she, or he, writes. Every book to me is beginning all over again. That’s nothing new to say, writers say that, but depending on what you’re trying to do, for instance, there’s more or less of a very blank slate. I’m finishing a novel now, Men and Apparitions, writing in a way I’ve never done, in terms of structure, subject matter, style, so it’s definitely new to me, whatever it is to somebody else. It’s very hard doing it – it’s almost worse than writing my first book, because it seems that it shouldn’t be this hard after so many years. If all your life you wanted to be a writer – and I did from the age of eight – when your first book comes out, you do think it’s going to take care of all your problems. But then it turns out to be a problem! Seriously! §
Weird Fucks, published by New Herring Press, is out now.