Diane Williams studied with Gordon Lish between 1985 and 1986. “I recall his saying that my work was so other? out-there? eccentric? that if he attempted to publish it at Knopf, he might not get any of his other books through,” she says. Lish would eventually get his hands on The Stupefaction, a collection of stories and a novella, and publish it at Alfred A. Knopf in 1996, but not before Grove Weidenfeld published Diane’s first collection, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate, in 1989, and a second, Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear, in 1992. She published two more story collections containing novellas: Romancer Erector with Dalkey Archive Press in 2001, and It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature with FC2 in 2007. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, a collection of stories, was published by McSweeney’s in 2012, and a seventh collection – its title and publisher revealed by Diane at the conclusion of our interview – is due out next year.
In a review of The Stupefaction, Ben Marcus writes, “These are stories in which every sentence is potentially a revelation, a devastating summation, an entire story smashed together into the confines of a line, a sentence, a paragraph.” Diane’s prose pieces are the briefest of fictions, yet each one covers major ground. Reading her is like being hit on the head. Fundamental requirements of the text are coded, revoked, or absent completely. When reading a Diane Williams story, I am instantly trying to orient myself, locate the contextual connective tissue I need to continue reading. But Diane goes where she pleases, often without warning. She shows us what’s possible on the page, and that to classify her work in any genre would be a futile pursuit.
Diane and I spoke through email in November and December. The following is the result of our exchange.
In the novella “Romancer Erector” the narrator says, “I have storyish ideas but no story in me.” Has the real Diane Williams ever said anything slightly resembling this?
Diane Williams (DW): I don’t think I said it. I think Ben Marcus told me this years and years ago. Not one hundred percent sure. We could ask him. Of course, in his case, it certainly isn’t true. It’s crazy brave to say so. I couldn’t bear to say so.
Jason Lucarelli (JL): The genre of short short fiction has been called “a vehicle for expressing all those scraps of experience that are fascinating but too thin for a traditional “rising-conflict-to-resolution” story” by Charles Johnson; “neither poetic prose nor prosy verse, but the energy and clarity typical of prose coincident in the scope and rhythm of the poem” by Robert Kelly; and “a structure of words that consumes itself as it unfolds” by Joyce Carol Oates. Could you take a stab at defining this ephemeral story form?
DW: I admit that the definition of a literary genre doesn’t interest me. Language gathered into a composition is vivid and consequential or it isn’t.
JL: How do you see this type of fiction functioning differently from one that sustains itself for more than a few pages?
DW: Examples of prose fiction (from every or any era) as displayed in nearly identically-sized, squat stacks of text will vary so fundamentally in ambition and quality—topic, music, engineering and structure that their similar height and width are irrelevant tools by which to classify them. Would anyone create a genre for small paintings?—and a special technical term for these? How about giving a Robert Ryman, all white painting (9 ½ inches X 10 inches), Paul Klee’s Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black (15 inches X 15 inches) and Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare (10 inches X 9 inches) the same designation? Further, would you want to ask how these small paintings function differently from Rembrandt’s Man in Oriental Costume (5 feet X 3 1/2 feet) or from one of Cy Twombly’s vast paintings in the Bacchus series (10 feet X 15 feet)?
JL: It takes me a good while to read through any collection of your “deceptively simple stories.” As I imagine all readers of Diane Williams do, I am constantly re-doing re-read-throughs. Sometimes I feel more barred by these “indigestible remnants” than others. Do you see these barriers yourself, or, how do you see them?
DW: I hope to see these barriers as you describe them—otherwise I’d be stirred up once by the story, but never again. How unlifelike to understand perfectly.
JL: Is uncovering what feels new important to you?
DW: Yes, uncovering what feels new is very important to me. I’ve been advised that boredom is healthful. It defeats me.
JL: Reviewing The Stupefaction Ben Marcus writes, “One does infrequently sense that the brevity of a particular piece enacts unfortunate injustice to the world it has started to invoke. At these rare times the length is itself a genre that Williams adheres to over the deeper demands of the story at hand.” I think this appears as a common critique of stunted prose pieces. Two parts: What is your defense? How do you know when a piece is finished?
DW: I don’t have any defense to offer in the face of Ben’s criticism. If, as he says, my stories, in rare instances, fail—likely they do. I celebrate his words “at these rare times.” If such criticism were leveled at all of my work, I’d be extremely disappointed.
Anyone’s short fictions may succeed or fail. We’d need to review specific stories.
How do I know when my story is finished? This is as difficult for me to answer as: how do I know if it began advantageously—or, how do I know if it was carried forward into its most promising direction? These are the ferocious challenges. Which ending to choose is particularly vexing.
I’ve read about a chimpanzee named Congo who loved to paint, and if anyone tried to take a painting away from him too soon, he’d have a tantrum. If, however, he considered the painting completed, no amount of coaxing could persuade him to continue with it. I only pray I’ve inherited the same or similar trait that is of use here.
JL: Many authors I love stick to writing stories. Yet your novellas—composed of hyper-precise shorts—The Stupefaction, Romancer Erector, and On Sexual Strength seem to elongate the “latitude of implication” of your “miniature fictions.” The condensed leanness of the novella seems suited for Diane Williams. Is the novella an underrated form? What are a few of your favorite novellas?
DW: Hmm…a great maxim, poem, story, novella, novel, essay—the great ones—they’re all great. The Pilgrim Hawk—a novella by Glenway Wescott—is a favorite.
JL: When we talk about fiction we sometimes talk about authors who lack plot and authors who lean on plot. If an author lacks plot, what replaces plot? Sam Lipsyte says, “You need motion, of course, always motion, always momentum, motion or the semblance of motion…” What’s your stance?
DW: A splendid plot cannot rescue a project spoiled by deficient language. And, of course, Sam is correct. A reader needs a compelling reason to move forward word to word—some would say even phoneme to phoneme—sentence to sentence.
JL: After the completion of your first and second books—This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate in 1989 and Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear in 1992—you said you saw an “end to a sort of personal evolution” and “certain obstacles…overcome.” Later, your collections Romancer Erector in 2001 and It Was Like My Trying To Have A Tender-Hearted Nature in 2007 seemed like two different artistic feats, with It Was Like My Trying To Have A Tender-Hearted Nature representing a real leap in your story construction in terms of how much you might successfully leave off the page. Do you see an evolution between those books now? What obstacles are recently in your way as a writer?
DW: I looked at the titles you refer to so that I could answer your question with good will and yet am unable to give you my reflections on any artistic evolutions. I don’t proceed with abstract goals and I do not enjoy my own analysis of my work. When I once referred to “obstacles overcome”—I likely meant life challenges.
What obstacles are in my way as a writer? That’s easy to answer. Everything that has ever stood in my way still stands there—insufficient character, confidence, intellect, ingenuity.
JL: As you wrote during your early years at the University of Pennsylvania and later when you studied under Gordon Lish, what authors did you turn to who aligned with your concern for brevity, the least of all the literary devices you leverage? Who do you turn to now?
DW: I’ve never searched out particular writers aligned with my concern for brevity. I have no special concern for brevity. I’d rather view the shape and size of my results as the fruit of the tree. Somebody—perhaps Maillol?—said, “I am like a pear tree. I make pears.” I’d be equally delighted to announce that I am an acorn. At Penn, I read with fascination Chaucer, Cheever, Kafka, Flaubert, James, Shakespeare, Philip Roth, and, god, I am leaving out all of the poets here and an avalanche of other author names—many anonymous. Such a list has always seemed to me impossible and certainly misleading. Early on, yes, when I was writing my first books, I was overjoyed to discover Sharon Olds, Kawabata, Freud, Jung, Davis, and Lish. My taste in literature has always been eclectic. I do love Murdoch, Singer, Anderson, and Brookner. Of course, I am infatuated with every author we publish in NOON and am equally eager to read works of history, anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, psychology…and so on.
JL: Yet brevity shapes, structures. My fascination with your work is partly because of how much you accomplish in such a short space, and when I think of short short fiction, I think of something Rusty Barnes says: “Somewhere between the linear narrative and the post-postmodern fracturing of narrative there might be a third way, dependent on its brevity as its primary descriptor.” On the other hand, a favorite musician of mine, Ryan Adams, commenting on his 1984 7-inch, says, “The brevity of those songs…is irrelevant to the structure and the content.” And so I ask you: how can this be so?
DW: Perhaps it remains a mystery why—but brevity is impactful.
JL: I understand you were trained as an editor at Doubleday and went on to Scott Foresman. You co-edited StoryQuarterly and are the founding editor of NOON. Who are some of the great editors you have learned from over the years? Who helped hone, specifically, your editorial eye for fiction?
DW: My early assignments often involved radical editing. I worked in educational publishing at J. G. Ferguson (a subsidiary of Doubleday that produced career guidance texts, cookbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries) and I can’t recall much guidance. At Scott Foresman I created primary reading materials and discovered my affinity for what the company defined as the immature mind. Research at the time proved that children under the age of nine could not manage abstract concepts and we were, therefore, directed to keep our language concrete. This meant we avoided history altogether! I have no idea if this theory is still current. In addition, I worked for several years at SRA (Science Research Associates, then a subsidiary of IBM) where I also developed elementary educational materials.
The great editors I have known? Well, of course, Gordon Lish was my teacher and the editor of my fiction for many years. I have often spoken of the cardinal importance of his influence on my writing and editing life.
And who forgets her first published story? Nearly ten years before I studied with Gordon—it was Dan Curley who first edited my fiction—the esteemed editor of Ascent. He informed me that I had managed to interest him in a thoroughly repugnant woman (I had thought she was hapless, but still appealing) and that if I’d make the recommended changes, he would publish the story. He attached several pages of single-spaced line edits.
Nowadays, I am very fortunate when Christine Schutt reads and comments on my new work.
JL: Your work with education materials and the concrete language of your target audience, did this influence your writing then, and was this effect lasting?
DW: I did not write my own stories during this period, so I can’t say.
JL: Can you talk about the importance of frequent contributors to NOON’s success? What do you make of the success NOON brings its frequent contributors?
DW: I am not sure I understand the question. NOON’s purpose is to feature singular fiction. If Deb Olin Unferth, for example, is generous enough to keep sending her fiction to us, then we are eager to keep publishing it. We are equally keen to discover new, distinguished voices. NOON 2015 introduces the first published work of Susan Laier and Mary South. And 2015 includes five first-time contributors: Darrell Kinsey; R.O. Kwon; Erin Osborne; Kevin Thomas; and Kristof Kintera. We continuously celebrate the success of NOON contributors.
JL: I’m excited for the new issue. My question comes from the feeling of opening a new issue of NOON and seeing these familiar contributors. To name only a few of my favorites (because every author in NOON is worth mentioning): Anya Yurchyshyn, Greg Mulcahy, Chiara Barzini. NOON authors share something special. What is it they have in common?
DW: Consummate artistry, courage, ambition.
JL: Are there plans for teaching in the near future? When might a meager me, say, make his way to New York for a class instructed by Diane Williams?
DW: Hardly a meager you! I don’t have any plans for teaching at present, but if enough interested parties were to come forward, I might consider this in the future.
JL: You have a new collection due out soon. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?
DW: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is due out from McSweeney’s early next January, 2016.
—Diane Williams & Jason Lucarelli
Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.