A few years ago, I got a glimpse into the mind of Lynne Tillman. She and I were with mutual friends, wandering through New York City, seeking out a space that was large but quiet enough to talk in. Eventually we found an empty Japanese restaurant. After fielding our modest order (a couple of appetizers and a round of complimentary green tea), our server snatched up the menus, muttering as she walked off, “Thanks… for nothing!” Still, we stayed. Then came the inspired moment: Lynne suggested we tip gratuitously—somewhere between 50 and 75 percent—the idea being that our server would be saddled with the guilty knowledge that she had performed her job poorly, and then been rewarded for it. Irony, surprise, and artful mischief: such is the singular sensibility of Lynne Tillman.
The Woodmere, New York, native has made a three-decades-plus career out of her uncommon ability to blur the line between fiction and critical thought, producing five novels, five story collections, and four books of nonfiction, a highlight of which is the 2014 National Book Critics Circle finalist What Would Lynne Tillman Do? Erudite and formally adventurous, the essay collection is divided according to the letters of the alphabet and features insights into many of her artistic heroes, including Andy Warhol, Paula Fox, Edith Wharton, and Jane and Paul Bowles.
In her recent collection, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, Tillman writes: “It’s only a story really should read, it’s a way to think.” The book displays her knack for turning thought processes into scintillating literary works, many of which were originally published as art criticism featuring the fictional character Madame Realism, whose name is Tillman’s “retort to surrealism”—Sir Realism—and the movement’s positioning of women as both “deified and secondary.”
Her early books (the 1980 novella Weird Fucks and 1987 novel Haunted Houses) chronicle the lives of young women—friendships, near-perfunctory sex, revolving-door relationships, Oscar Wilde—and their rebellions against their educations as women. Over the next three decades, Tillman’s focus has widened to include both wryly self-reflexive perspectives on art and culture, such as in Madame Realism, and contentious viewpoints, such as those of a fictional Justice Clarence Thomas (“He’d talk if he wanted,” she writes in the story “Give Us Some Dirt,” “and he preferred not to”). Tillman has also furthered discursive nonfiction forms, such as her Frieze essays on the revolutionary aspects of the birth control pill and the “sick joke” that is the current American political situation. Her forthcoming novel, Men and Apparitions, about an inquisitive, photography-obsessed ethnographer named Ezekiel Hooper Stark, will be published by Soft Skull Press in March 2018.
I first met Lynne in the snowy winter of 2010 at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where I was struck by her active listening, warmth, and unexpected skill at Ping-Pong. This interview took place six years later, in a variety of situations: a hotel restaurant, Central Park, the MoMA café, her third-floor walkup in the East Village, and finally, over the phone. —James Yeh
I. Dark Optimism. Bright Pessimism.
THE BELIEVER: What is your writing process?
LYNNE TILLMAN: [Laughs] Terrible. Terrible.
BLVR: Do you first write by hand?
LT: No, all computer. When I try writing something by hand, it looks juvenile, like a ten-year-old would have written it—which is when I left my handwriting behind. But somehow I get things done. Because of my anxiety, I think. And then also, what else is there to do?
BLVR: Well, one could just sit in the park and watch the seals in the sunshine.
LT: Look, I mean, why not? Why not? You do have to wonder about your own drive.
BLVR: Many of your essays are quite short—two or three pages. They move quickly, decisively, elliptically. What about this very short nonfiction form appeals to you?
LT: I’m bothered, as a reader, when I feel the writer is filling in too much. Again, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, I think writers are providing a kind of template or platform for thinking and imagining. The seven-hundred-and-fifty-word essay is something I’ve been doing for Frieze. And it’s hard.
BLVR: What is it about seven hundred and fifty words?
LT: Well, it’s not fifteen hundred, when you have more words for quoting others, say. I’ve always liked elliptical writing, whether it’s Kafka or Paula Fox, and I’m often bored by writers who explain too much. I think that becomes journalism. Mostly I don’t try to explain to readers who somebody is—I just write about the somebody. I’m thinking through ideas. And I have the sense that, if you’re reading this, you have some interest.
BLVR: How much has your Frieze work informed your forthcoming novel, Men and Apparitions?
LT: You know, I’ve been mixing fiction and nonfiction for a long time. That’s part of the history of the novel. What the Frieze column has done is embolden me. I was hesitant at first to do a column, to express my opinions. It’s been helpful for me to put forth statements and ideas not through a character. And it’s made me more willing to take more risks. Writers don’t want to appear to be stupid. I don’t know—maybe people become writers so that they can prove that they’re not. Of course getting a book published doesn’t mean that they’re not stupid. [Laughs] At a certain point you have to stop trying to prove something and write because you need to think about something and want to communicate, in a very broad sense. There are very many ways in which we communicate. And often it’s with grunts. I was talking to my students at the University at Albany about how often they use fuck in a sentence. Saying to them, “You could find other words.” They explained that each time they used the word fuck, it was differently inflected, although they didn’t put it that way. And I thought, OK, they’ve got an argument there.
BLVR: There’s the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words.” So does that mean a novel about an ethnographer who specializes in pictures is worth a hundred thousand words?
LT: I don’t believe a picture is worth a thousand words, unless they’re very confusing words. One of the things that my new novel, Men and Apparitions, is about is the illegibility of photographs, how we don’t know what they mean, and how pictures don’t tell us.
BLVR: Throughout your work, you’ve used a character’s thinking, which is often about concepts—the nature of love, desire, meaning, modernity, postmodernity, intimacy, capitalism—to advance the story. How did you develop this technique?
LT: Really, it’s going back to: what is it these characters believe? Even if it’s not expressly indicated, what is motivating them, what animates them, what is important to them? What is it that your novel is about? That was a way to develop character for me. I remember when I was writing Haunted Houses, I divided the girls not by what they looked like—because I never indicated that—but by words that I attached to them. Abandonment was one I attached to Grace. I had different concepts I associated with them, and then different ways their narratives would take shape because of the concepts I identified with them.
BLVR: You regularly include passages on the ideas of notable figures—Dalí’s on sexual freedom, Burroughs’s on freedom, Freud’s on “hysterical phantasies.”
LT: I learned to write from reading. I had no writing classes. It’s part of my thinking as the writer-author, reading, but then I also want to bring this into my characters, who also read and think. There’s that great quote from Virginia Woolf—it’s very simple: “…books continue each other.” I think when you’re a writer, you’re also, hopefully, a reader, and you’re bringing those earlier works into your work.
BLVR: Perhaps some writers fear invoking the work of others.
LT: I’m not interested in safety. A great risk in writing is imagining you have something to protect. Playing it safe to placate someone or something. People talk about compromise, but often people don’t even know when they’re compromising, because they’re not conscious of contradictions. The thing about influence—it’s more like: what’s in your mind? What is it you’re trying to communicate? I’m not just interested in the thoughts I have, but also in others’ thoughts, and why not carry those forward? That’s why American fiction can be so thin. All these fears, like not seeming to be original—I mean, hell, most stuff isn’t. The question is whether you can articulate your thoughts for the moment in which you’re living, which is a different time. Say them in a newer way. There are new events, and language changes—sensibilities change. We are writing in and of the time we’re in. Oh, it’s a weird time.
You find yourself saying, “You can’t believe it,” “This is disgusting,” “This is horrible”—it’s as if there’s no new way to say it. Every day there’s something else that’s unspeakable. I’m thinking, How can I think about this in any way other than almost generic horror? In that way it’s stymieing. I often think about Ad Reinhardt, the great abstract painter. He continued to do his work through the terrible McCarthy period. And he also made these wonderful, very savage political cartoons. He figured out ways to address the moment, but also to attend to his aesthetic in painting. I think political situations usually work their way into my writing, but not necessarily in an explicit way. The environment is so chaotic now. There is someone so entirely unreliable in charge, and reliable only in the fact that Thing—I don’t say his name—is a pathological narcissist. He’s going to do whatever he can to defend himself and whatever will make him look good. That’s what matters to him.
BLVR: I had an interesting interaction with a stranger right after the election while using the bag you made for Triple Canopy magazine with the slogan “Dark Optimism/Bright Pessimism.” I remember her reading the text and giving me a funny, even vaguely disapproving look.
LT: I don’t know what the point would be in not being able to laugh at the predicament. That’s why our comics are important: they’re pointing things out and laughing at the same time. There have been horrible, horrible times in history. They’re mostly horrible times. [Laughs] But not to laugh? Not to find humor in something like dark optimism/bright pessimism—I think that’s sad, frankly. And there is that famous quote from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political philosopher, who said, “Optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” So you can think everything is dire, but you act as if there’s possibility. I see children coming into the world as an expression of this. Sometimes, not always—it can just be somebody that wasn’t on the birth control pill or didn’t have access to abortion. But I usually see a wanted child as a sign of optimism, and I like that.
BLVR: You’ve said you don’t distinguish between fiction and nonfiction, in terms of writing. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about the differences—if any—between the two for you in terms of process?
LT: In either case you’re trying to turn something that’s so-called reality into something that is abstract, which is words on a page. For nonfiction, I would say that the process can be more arduous. But nonfiction gives you subjects. Writing fiction I can have more fun, but I have to invent my subject. [Laughs]
BLVR: As someone who’s been doing both, I have to say I find nonfiction easier, because the problem is already set for you.
BLVR: I feel the form is a lot more determined, too.
LT: I think I would disagree with you there. I still do believe that form and content are very much related. I think throwing away some of the rule books on that is a good thing.
II. Tired of Desire
BLVR: In What Would Lynne Tillman Do? you write of your correspondence with the writer Paul Bowles.
LT: It was, in a way, part of a tradition that won’t exist anymore. I think—I’m going to speculate—because of MFA programs, student writers get to know professional, “grown” writers as teachers in an institutional setting. The teachers-writers become mentors, or not. But for those of us who didn’t do MFAs, our contact with writers was more haphazard; it certainly wasn’t institutionalized. You didn’t know if you were going to meet writers, and that was important. Not so much that they could get you published, but that there was a sense that meeting older writers was a rite of passage, and if you were lucky, you’d be in a line, a tradition might pass on to you as if by osmosis.
BLVR: Do you think something is lost now that almost all writerly correspondence is via email?
LT: If you never had it, you don’t feel you lost it. I think the slowness of exchange is over, and the idea of waiting for a response—that’s gone. People don’t want to wait. It’s all this instantaneity. That’s fine. But it also makes writing different, if you’re writing for an instant exchange compared with being able to have time for more reflection.
BLVR: The book uses the alphabet as an organizing structure, and you use it in your interview with Harry Mathews as well. I have some alphabet questions for you, too. For c, I wanted to ask you about curiosity.
LT: Without it a writer is dead.
BLVR: D is for desire and death.
LT: Desire is a word I’m tired of. I’ve been living with that word for years. Yes, of course, we’re all desiring machines. I have sometimes wondered what people would want, if there were no advertising. And death, what other subject is there? It’s the subject. It’s our subject. It’s the great human dilemma, that we die and know we will.
BLVR: For e, I have encyclopedic.
LT: Wanting to know all kinds of things is perfect for novelists, because novelists are generalists. We’re not specialists in anything, except, hopefully, writing.
BLVR: F. Would it be too crude to ask about the passage about loving one’s own farts in American Genius, A Comedy?
LT: I’m not discussing those anymore! An end to them.
BLVR: G is for ghosts. I was struck by how present they are in your work—Chet Baker, Charles Henri Ford, Andy Warhol.
LT: Whether they’re ghosts of great writers or people I loved—some died because of AIDS, others under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to forget these people, ever. That’s very much a part of my still being alive—to remember those who aren’t here anymore. Ghosts is obviously in the title Haunted Houses, my first novel, which came from H.D.’s book Tribute to Freud. She wrote, “We are all haunted houses.” I think that’s certainly true, if you live with conscience and memory.
BLVR: My h one is happiness.
LT: I think more about being content. Not complacent. Being content would mean to me being happy with things that have happened in my life, with my friendships, work, love.
BLVR: You use “J Is for Jokes” in the essay collection. Do you have a favorite joke?
LT: I have many favorite jokes. But after I wrote [the 1998 novel] No Lease on Life, and I wrote so many jokes into it, I forgot most of them. Jokes are great capsules of information. I think they should never be censored. They often are offensive—and we’re offended by different things—but I believe deeply in what Freud wrote of their relationship to the unconscious, which is that jokes come to help us. We laugh so as to dispense with, or to express, some ambivalence or discomfort with the things around us. That’s what laughing is: a release. Laughing and crying are very similar. Sometimes people go from laughing to crying, or crying to laughing. I remember being at someone’s wedding and she couldn’t stop laughing, through the whole ceremony. If she’d been crying, it would have seemed more “normal,” though.
BLVR: M is for Motion Sickness, your novel. Motion Sickness and Cast in Doubt are both about particular experiences living abroad. Do you feel the importance of a writer living abroad has changed over the years?
LT: For me, the experience of not living in America was recognizing that I was American. You don’t think about yourself being so culturally encoded, so nationally stamped; you don’t discover that when you’re a tourist for a month. You see how you reflect the place you’re from. When I came back from living in Europe, I was very struck by how I didn’t see America as the center of the world in the same way. It’s very easy to slip back because America is so powerful. But any place you live is the center of the world—that’s a Hopi Indian saying I quote in Motion Sickness. That novel, which was my second, came out of what being an American was and what being displaced meant. I wanted to think about national identity, and about carrying your country on your back. I wanted to think about this postmodern time we’re in, where borders are porous and the nation-state is changing. It’s changing even more than the period in which I set Motion Sickness. Sometimes when I walk down the street in New York, I try to see it as if for the first time, or with foreign eyes. You know, how strange a street looks in a place you’ve never been before.
BLVR: There’s that classic New Yorker cartoon of a highway sign with the phrase “Entering New York” and three lanes labeled as: “Advanced,” “Intermediate,” “Beginner.” What’s the first thought when you hear “New York”?
LT: Home. Like E.T. I want to go home.
BLVR: O, obvious. In WWLTD, you write of your poem to yourself: “Do the obvious.” Are there any other mantras you’ve had over the years?
LT: I guess I have, but I can’t remember because I haven’t said one to myself in a while. I’m getting confused with Johnny Cochran’s summation for O.J.: “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” [Laughs] No, that’s not what I say to myself! “If the sentence doesn’t fit…”
BLVR: …you must omit?
LT: If I have to work on something for too long, then it must be wrong. At a certain point, if I’ve worked on a sentence for about an hour, then I realize that it’s probably not the right sentence and means I’m trying to make something fit that’s ungainly.
BLVR: What happens then?
LT: Then I must omit. But I did have a little jingle for that. “Do the obvious” is funny. Barbara Ess, who is an artist who was in a band called Y Pants, a punk band in the early ’80s, came up to me on the street one time, and she said, “Do you have any lyrics? We need some new songs.” I said, “Well, actually, I do,” and I wrote it down for her: “Do the obvious, you won’t forget it. Do the obvious, you won’t regret it. Obvious, obvious, obvious.” The refrain was “Don’t be afraid to be boring.” And they did it as a dirge. [Sings the line in a deep voice]
BLVR: It sounds sort of like Nico, the way you sing it.
LT: It is on their CD. They reissued it. Of course people should be afraid to be boring.
BLVR: Sometimes people aren’t afraid enough to be boring.
LT: Boring people don’t know they’re boring. That’s the problem with boring people.
BLVR: Well, everyone’s interesting to themselves. Or is that untrue?
LT: I think some people are not interesting to themselves. They’re the sad, resigned folk. When people call themselves ordinary—“I’m just an ordinary person”—you do wonder what they mean, because people who call themselves ordinary occasionally turn out to be serial killers. Beware of those who say they’re ordinary.
III. How about No?
BLVR: S is for surprise.
LT: Mary McCarthy wrote in an essay, not a very well-known one, “Settling the Colonel’s Hash”: if the writer isn’t surprised, then the reader won’t be. I think that sense of surprise, that you don’t know where something is going, or what’s going to happen, even as you write, that you’re making it up as you go along—that’s important to me. It’s not a question of shock or surprise in a gimmicky way. It’s that as you read, you become more deeply into something and [into] what happens, and become more involved and engaged, you’re learning something or you’re appreciating something or seeing something differently—that’s what’s surprising.
BLVR: Flannery O’Connor wrote about that, too—that she didn’t know what the characters were going to do until they did it. Do you do much plotting?
LT: I think about material that could work in the novel or story as I’m writing. I see if I can get there through what’s happening with the character. But it’s by inclination. It’s not “At this moment this will happen.” Usually with my characters you can’t tell what has induced them to do anything. That’s because, from my understanding of reality—which is always subjective—everything is overdetermined. There’s not usually one reason why we do anything and, in fact, often we don’t know why we’ve done what we’ve done, especially what we have said or why, for instance, in conversation, which can be very tricky. Finally, we say something and think, Why did we say that? In retrospect we might know.
BLVR: Do you think memories of embarrassment are in the fabric of someone who becomes a writer?
LT: Probably Freud would say yes. There does seem to be some relationship between not being able to forget and writing. I don’t know many people who are writers who say they have a bad memory.
BLVR: T is for teaching. While I was in grad school at Columbia, Richard Ford warned us: “Teaching will kill the thing it is you use to write.” How has your teaching career impacted your work?
LT: If you’re a “good” teacher, somebody who is responsible or careful, teaching takes time. Teaching is performative. Students nowadays evaluate you and there’s a lot made in these evaluations about how you perform. Maybe you don’t have the greatest delivery in the world. But you know a lot, have a lot to offer. So that’s pretty unsettling. We’ve become so image-based and performance-based as a society. You have to be ready to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! at any moment. I’ve read a lot more short stories because of teaching and I’ve learned a lot more about the short story because of teaching. So it’s been helpful to me in that way. What I don’t like about teaching is hearing myself say the same thing. I mean, you just want to sort of shoot yourself after a while. But you don’t have a million different ways of thinking about what you have been thinking about for many years. And then there’s the truism that you’re only as good as your students. If they’re not into what’s going on, it doesn’t matter who you are.
BLVR: For w, I just have women.
LT: I was, from an early age, a feminist. I had two older sisters and a mother. It never occurred to me, growing up, that girls were not as smart as boys. When I was ten years old, I used to read from my sisters’ library. One had a book of essays, and Norman Mailer wrote one on “lady novelists.”
BLVR: Just the phrase rings with contempt.
LT: That’s how he described them: “lady novelists.” I was completely infuriated. I think we have to try to reckon with the great sweep of history and change. The column that was in Frieze [“Below the Belt,” about the gender politics of pants] had to do, in part, with the birth control pill. It was revolutionary. Yet nobody thinks about it. But when you free women so they can choose to have or not to have, or to conceive—that’s something that, for millennia, women couldn’t do. Biology was, in many ways, destiny. We wouldn’t be talking about gender if women could not control their pregnancies. The idea of equality is misunderstood. I wouldn’t ever argue that everyone is the same, but that differences should not be hierarchical. Attitudes and expectations have been imposed on both men and women. For instance, men had very little to do with the raising of their children before the women’s movement. The women’s movement has freed men to become more active as fathers. From what I understand from all the men I know who are fathers who take care of their children, they love it. We’re living in a period of transition, but change can be much slower than we want, with unintended consequences, and can also be happening without our seeing it.
BLVR: I couldn’t think of any words with x in the beginning, so I used x in the words. Sex, excess, exact, excrement—any of those?
LT: We are animals. Our sexual organs and our excretory organs are in the same places. We make love and shit and piss in the same areas. That does kind of bring it all back home.
BLVR: So, y.
LT: Y is for yes. Ulysses pissed me off. When Molly Bloom just says, “Yes I said yes I will Yes.” And I’m thinking, You should be saying no, Molly. How about no? Saying no is great.
BLVR: “I would prefer not to.”
LT: I feel closer to Bartleby than I do to Molly. Maybe that says a lot about me. Or maybe it doesn’t, whoever I am.