Joanna Walsh (also known as the flâneuse Badaude) is a British author with a number of other creative identities. She is an illustrator, a fiction editor for the notorious webzine 3:AM (slogan: “Whatever it is, we’re against it”), and also runs the award-winning twitter account @read_women. I had the pleasure of corresponding with Walsh towards the end of the summer and into the fall about a couple of her recent publications: Hotel (published in September with Bloomsbury) and Vertigo (out in October with Dorothy, a publishing project). Her pornographic fairy-tale cycle, Grow a Pair (Readux Books), launched in October as well, and although we do not touch upon it much in the following, it deserves a spotlight too:
Grow a Pair is a feat of imagination: It is not a rapunzel plant stolen from the witch’s garden, for example, which sets these stories in motion, but a dick stolen from the witch’s dick-bush. Gender congeals and then is swiftly liquidated; sex-parts are set free to roam. Three big, secluded, forest-dwelling dicks attempt to construct three cunts, not out of sticks and straw, but out of matchsticks and Jell-O. The second dick wouldn’t know a real cunt if he saw one; the third dick would, and sees one, but decides he prefers Jell-O. Do I detect a trace of cultural critique? Most definitely, though it is laced with other meanings which do not settle. I could précis and précis, but I won’t go on: the pleasure’s in the details, in the small twists and turns.
Hotel hits upon a more tortured mood; it is both philosophical and enigmatical. There are different ways you could summarize what’s going on in its pages. The speaker (the book is a memoir, but a creative memoir) is a reviewer of hotels who finds herself ‘hotel surfing’ for a fairly prolonged period of time, partly to escape a marital shit-show at home. The writings which spin out of her stay muse on the nature of ‘home,’ the nature of ‘the hotel,’ the possible presence of the home in the hotel (or ‘Hometel,’ as one of the pieces is called), of the hostile in hospitality, of the hospital in the hotel, and so on.
Vertigo, a short story collection, meanders through a number of different scenarios: A woman out to purchase a dress in Paris ends up reflecting on what it means to appear to another, and on the conditions of appearance: Does one, by dint of having become habitual for the other, also become old? A petulant man waits for his order in an oyster restaurant, ready to strike out, the woman across from him notes, at anyone: at the waitress, or even at her, for his delayed meal. Young mothers are birthed by their children, become other people and perhaps self-estranged, not least because they are defined relationally, after their children are born. Each story in the book is acutely psychological. Each story is aglitter with pain and insight; often enough the pain it depicts arises on the part of women and in response to male behavior and the conventions of a heterosexual (and asymmetrical) world.
A similar kind of pain saturates Hotel. I think it is true to say that, in both Vertigo and Hotel, you can cut frustration with a knife. Something feels about to blow. But these works give us intrigue in addition to bleak affect. One of Walsh’s great gifts consists of the impeccable observations and novel phrases she hands us: “There is a hole in my side into which someone else’s desires fit” (Hotel); “There is nothing to do with this time but put some alcohol into it” (Vertigo); “I am anxious to redistribute—especially—food I know diners have previously rejected: leftovers, anomalous items: boiled carrots, a spoonful of hot sauce, a single tinned apricot. I do this by introducing them into stews, pâtés, and other dishes. These additions are not in the original recipes and sometimes they ruin a meal, though in ways the eaters can scarcely identify” (Vertigo); “Perhaps he is not the burglar I’ve planned for but a junkie, a drunk, a psycho. I am more comfortable with a drunk or a psycho: his passion, when I counterattack, will answer mine” (Vertigo). Moments of blazing perspicacity, creativity, intelligence, and dark humor are insanely abundant in her writing; they pop at every turn: like nails in the sand: like diamonds in water.
— Natalie Helberg
Natalie Helberg (NH): I thought we could begin with Vertigo. It seems to me that the stories in this collection spiral around a set of related ideas. In the story which shares the collection’s title, the narrator tells us “Vertigo is the sense that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space.” It is a state, she says, without anchorage, in which one pitches “forward, outward and upward.” In a sense, ‘vertigo’ is linked to relocation, particularly to perspectival relocation: what we saw from there, we now see from here. In line with this, “Vertigo,” which is, for the most part, written in the first person, includes italicized paragraphs which switch the mode of narration to the third person. Displacement is a prominent theme throughout the rest of the collection as well, as is misplacement (one story’s narrator, for example, suggests that she is “not the right teller,” the right narrator; the children in the story “The Children’s Ward” “do and say nothing childlike” and there is the sense that they, perhaps, do not belong there, in the ward, at all).
Were there particular themes — relocation, displacement, misplacement — which catalyzed the writing, or did you discover them in the writing after the fact? To what extent do you write with an idea in mind?
Joanna Walsh (JW): It’s interesting that you mention relocation and displacement. I’m fascinated by prepositions, words that tell us about where we are and about our relations to other things—or people. Prepositions tend to be vague: they can mean several things at once and are often grouped differently in different languages. I wrote a story, “Hauptbahnhof” (in Fractals), about German prepositions, in which the narrator is always confused about how to locate herself, especially regarding a man she (believes she) is waiting to meet.
I’m interested in kinds of subjectivity, especially in relation to the people we live with. I’m not sold on some of the methods we’ve been given. The French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes that subjectivity is essentially relational (prepositionary?), that “Who are you?” can only be answered with “and who are you? Can we meet? Talk? Love? Create something together? Thanks to which milieu? What between us (entre nous)?” (“The Three Genres”).
I don’t ‘envisage’ my work. I’m not a writer who sets out to construct something according to a proposition. I’m attracted to the idea of chance but, for me, to set it up in my writing would itself be a less organic, more formal exercise. I see my work as finding things out, as excavating, drawing things together, more than as constructing something. It’s a delicate process, like threading a needle, and like threading a needle you have to keep very still when you’re doing it, and make just the right sorts of movements.
I notice common themes in my stories often only after I’ve written them: I could do a critical reading on myself. That kind of exercise can be fun, and sometimes it’s useful: I notice things I should pursue. But I’m very obliging, far too ready to create theories around my writing in response to questions, like a patient who is ready to talk about herself in the third person with her doctor, and this is tempting, but it’s also dangerous: she could die from it.
NH: When you say, above, that you’re “not sold on the methods we’ve been given,” do you mean the methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings, or the methods we’ve been given to conceive of subjectivity?
JW: It’s difficult to separate those two, because I think the idea of ‘methods we’ve been given to be subjective beings’ already involves some concept of subjectivity, so I mean both. I guess what I really mean is that I’m annoyed by the popular idea that a self should be a united thing. I’m always trying to find ways to reproduce the effects of subjectivity in writing: the way different moments can coexist within it, how time for a 45-year-old is different from time for a 5-year-old, and how time is also distributed across place through all sorts of things like actions and habits, so spaces become different too.
NH: The fact that you’re interested in prepositions makes so much sense. The works you sent me seem focused—on inter-subjectivity, yes—but also on language itself: its parts, its forms, its genres, on figures of speech, and so on. In Grow a Pair, synecdoche becomes playfully literal: In one tale, a princess is waiting for her one true cock, which could just mean she’s waiting for a prince-guy, if ‘cock’ stands in for him, but the cock in the tale is severed from the prince and becomes autonomous. There is textual support, moreover, for the idea that it was an autonomous nuisance all along. It is a whole unto itself, not merely a part standing in for a whole.
JW: Well, that’s reverse synecdoche, perhaps… I think I sometimes have a problem seeing the big picture, but yes, I’m attracted to ideas around wholeness and fragmentation, and boundaries. Well, I refuse to pull myself together…
NH: In both Hotel and Grow a Pair, you seem particularly fascinated with the pun. In Hotel, part of this fascination seems to be linked to an interest in the Freudian uncanny, which implies both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the homely and the unhomely (the familiar in the unfamiliar, the unhomely in the homely). Freud, of course, appears in the text, and his notion of the uncanny is mentioned. The text’s linguistic play fortifies the connections between dissimilar concepts like home and hotel, hospital and hotel, and so on: “Dora is a physical case. / KM is a mental case. / I am always escaping. I am no more than a suitcase.”
JW: I’ve been told that etymology and puns are not reliable roads down which to develop arguments, but I can’t resist them. A pun is a sideways move on language: homonym rather than synonym. Hotel and hospital really do share a root name, as religious institutions once served as both. I like it when language peels away from meaning and engages in other kinds of relations with itself. Maybe it’s a kind of escape, or, because both meanings remain present, something that only looks like escape but is an idea held in tension: even unrelated meanings evoked by puns sit side by side and the reader can’t help but make some kind of link: that’s a reader’s job. I’m probably occasionally guilty of using homophones to leap from one side of the road to another (and maybe they can go no further), but most of the puns in Hotel deliberately convey joint meanings. The suitcase pun sounds like it’s at the lighter end: sonic and throwaway, but it also goes back to Pan(Dora)’s box (all women are cases of one kind or another).
NH: Hotel is marketed as part memoir, but the chapters in it become so fanciful, with movie stars (Mae West, Groucho Marx), continental philosophers (Heidegger), and names associated with classic psychoanalytic writings (Freud, Dora) turned into characters, too. The chapters sometimes have the feel of an essay, but at other times they take on something like the form of a screenplay (e.g., we’re given a cast of characters and their roles before several of the texts get going). The lines the recognizable characters are given are sometimes quotations from their own writings. That being said, I thought your use of Heidegger activated a sense of the uncanny in the text as well: When Heidegger shows up, discoursing on home and dwelling, he seems both entirely appropriate (since the chapters in the collection pivot around the notion of ‘home,’ which they are trying, to a certain extent, to unfold) and odd (since Heidegger used the language of ‘home’ and ‘dwelling’ to hit at something entirely unrelated to the more everyday sense of home which Hotel seems preoccupied with): You’ve spliced Heidegger—very fruitfully—into concerns which are foreign, or unfamiliar, to him.
JW: It was important to me that Freud, Heidegger, etc., as characters, said only what they wrote in their texts (I like the idea of trying to re-hydrate a person from his or her dry pages). I’m also interested in misattributions and misquotations, though, in Hotel, I always let the reader know when there’s no reliable source for a statement.
Heidegger seems to be at war with nouns, and at home with verbs; Heidegger’s is an interesting crusade against language. His idea of dwelling is etymological: the path it goes down in English is very different from the path it goes down in German.
NH: I feel I should insert a sheepish laugh here. I guess I should quit trying to analyze your texts/prove, so to speak, something about them/pin them down/make them solid and scrutable. I understand that that can be a very violent gesture (it’s so limiting!). I think a lot about interpretation and what it means to track motifs and themes and try to put them together. It’s one of my favorite ways to engage with texts, and often I can’t help but do it (there’s a kind of hermeneutic pleasure, I think, I’m pursuing), even though I realize that a good text isn’t one that lends itself to definitive interpretation, and even though I recognize that any interpretation I come up with must ultimately dissolve. The act of interpretation is for me something like a game; it is a way for me to engage deeply with a text at a given time (it provides a focus for my attention to the text), though without exhausting the text, and while leaving open the possibility that I will return to the text in a different way in the future.
JW: I find family resemblances and Venn diagrams useful ways of visualizing meaning, and I think you can use these to think about reading too. It’s probably inevitable that each reading will draw particular things from a text, so that a reader can use, as a handy way of categorizing it, a memory-tag—but with good writing this will shift if you reread, or even as you remember reading. The best texts are open to a range of interpretation: anything that starts and ends with the author’s intention will die very quickly, or its words might become purely decorative: then you can put it on a T-shirt and things become less about how the text is read and more about what it looks like: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. But while there’s a reader, even of a T-shirt, some kind of meaning’s always waiting, like the faces that form in clouds, or the patterns in the carpet.
NH: I want to go back, for a moment, to the fact that, in Hotel, you’re using theorists as characters and redeploying what they’ve written as dialogue. It seems that part of your creative process is connected to a reading practice. Your writings seem to have steeped in theory to a certain extent; they seem to have, to use your language, drawn theory in. You mentioned Irigaray informs your concerns with subjectivity as well. How do you see the relation between reading (theoretical and other works) and writing? I know Kathy Acker is one of your influences, and that for her the two acts were indissociable.
JW: I like theory (as a—for want of a better definition—‘creative’ writer, am I even allowed to say this?). I like theory that’s written as if it’s ‘creative’ writing. I like Christine Brooke-Rose, and Maggie Nelson, and Denise Riley and Anne Carson’s criticism as well as their poetry and fiction. They acknowledge what language does even as they are using it: they don’t try to pretend it’s some kind of neutral tool. I like Acker’s methods. They’re not straight cut-up (maybe that’s an involuntary pun). In The Childlike Life of The Black Tarantula, there’s nothing coldly experimental about the way she rewrites classic texts, and the result has in no way the alienating effect of many other cut-ups. But her work, commenting on what it remakes, is always criticism as well as fiction. I like her emails with McKenzie Wark, which are all voice—voice whose artifice is very natural and whose naturalness is very artificial—which constantly undermines itself and turns itself over: it is irreverent and then surprisingly reverent by turns so that, in some ways, she seems to be holding a conversation only with herself.
NH: It’s funny that you mention the correspondence between Acker and Wark. I’m just reading that. The idea that Acker seems at times, in the correspondence, to be conversing with herself is interesting, too. There’s a line from Hotel that seems to be haunting me: “I have suspected for a while that some people talk to the page because there is no one else they can talk to any more.” The writing scene that Acker was embedded in in San Francisco was and continues to be very community-based, so much so that the communal scene itself often enough becomes the subject, the content, of the work: writerly names are named in the writing itself and in a way become signatures which indicate where the reader can place this work on the literary map; ‘gossip’ gets in and becomes art, even becomes explicitly framed as art (I’m thinking of Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto and even, in the broader American scene, Matias Viegener’s 2500 Random Things About Me Too). Anyway, scenes like that are conducive to such fruitful collaborations and dialogues: there are others to talk to, and this talk may make it onto a page. Then there are writers like Anne Carson, the lone wolf types (though she is constantly communicating with the dead writers and thinkers she loves, constantly incorporating them into her own thinking and art). I wonder if you might tell us about your own relation, as a writer, to community. When did you begin to write, and, when you did begin, were you surrounded by others who wrote, or did you only begin to come into contact with writers later on? Are you a lone wolf type, or do you have writing relationships which fuel your practice?
JW: The emails show Acker as lonelier than I’d have expected: she complains about it (though this might simultaneously be a seductive pose, and I do often think of works of fiction—in which I’d include emails and letters—as really elaborate secondary sexual characteristics). When I started writing, I was completely on my own. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, and I didn’t think of the things I was doing as ‘writing’ in any formal sense. One of the reasons I’ve stayed with writing is the people. I used to be an illustrator: that was lonely. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because some illustrators have a different approach to using words. I suspect I also found it isolating because of the economic structure of illustrative work: there are no ‘readings’: you seldom connect with your audience; work is usually commissioned in response to writing, often as the last stage in a publication process, and you rarely meet the author, get to exchange ideas or influence their end of the process. Some illustrators work in studios, but I prefer to work alone, with access to collaboration and discussion when I need it. I like emails and all forms of disembodied communication (except phone: I like writing, really: g-chat, Twitter; I’ve fallen in love by email…). I find talking face-to-face intoxicating—with the right person. There are a few people I write to about writing and the writing about this can itself become something creative: a game, something with a texture of its own…
NH: I’m curious about what your relationship to the materiality of a text or book is, especially in light of the fact that you’ve worked as an illustrator. Do you relate to creative writing—text on a page—as if it is a visual object, a thing, for lack of a better word, with a visual dimension which sits alongside its other dimensions? No one would ever space an illustration you’ve handed over to them differently, for example, in the way that they might space a piece of text you’ve handed over to them differently, or change its font and so on (though maybe poetry is conventionally more respected than prose as far as preserving the original spacing goes). It’s unusual for writers to have a hand in designing their own books these days—it’s just not how we divvy up the labor, culturally. Do you ever find that division—writers versus designers—frustrating? Could you speak to these questions in connection with Hotel, which seems to sit on the page in a very interesting way, perhaps partly because of the way that short quotations are interspersed, or distributed, between the text’s paragraphs?
JW: I find writing different from illustrating: the gaps are in different places: I don’t mean literally, but the gaps I use as a writer to work with the reader. Illustrating other people’s texts, I find myself playing around these gaps. I don’t illustrate my own work because that would involve somehow second-guessing myself as I was writing.
The page layout in Hotel is excellent: those chunky chapter and section headers, and the elegant, slightly square, page format. It was very important to me that the ‘screenplay’ parts of the book—where characters like Freud and Heidegger have ‘conversations’ with the narrator— looked like a screenplay: centered, in a Courier font, with the names of the speakers in capital letters. When I sent my final manuscript to Bloomsbury, I had formatted it very carefully. They proofed it, and sent it back to me with all my formatting equally carefully removed… luckily they were happy to put it back.
I’ve never experimented with breaking up the page in ways that are outside the conventions of typography, but I do find paragraphing, use of italics, line-spaces, etc. important: I think most authors do.
NH: The ‘fragment’ seems to be one of the central forms you’re using in Hotel. There’s also another form that’s marvelously conspicuous: the postcard form. Two pieces in the text, “Marriage postcards” and “Postcards from 26 hotels,” are assemblages of postcards. These postcards are, of course, not literally postcards, so I wonder if you could elaborate on what they are: How are you conceiving of them, and how did you stumble upon them or invent them as an organizational unit for these pieces? They seem related, in some way, to the fragment, though they come with a different set of associations: They imply an addressee, for example, and actions of sending and receiving in a way that fragments do not, or at least do not necessarily.
JW: The “26 postcards” were written at the beginning of the process of writing Hotel, as a kind of warm-up exercise, though I didn’t really think of them in that way at the time because I don’t like to formalize how I write, so maybe it’s better to call them one of many approaches I tried. In the end I put them at the end of the book, though there are also some postcards half-way through. There are lots of approaches to communicating with an unseen correspondent in Hotel, because there’s a lot in the book about the difficulties of communication, and especially the difference between talking (and the ‘talking cure’) and writing, and also corresponding. There’s a lot in the book about email, and g-chat as well as postcards. Dora writes a suicide letter, then, attempting no harm against herself, puts it away in her desk where her parents—to whom it is addressed— discover it. I quote Freud, who “remembered seeing and hearing that among people with hysterical mutism, writing vicariously stood in for speech. They wrote fluently, more quickly, and better than other people did.”
NH: You mentioned that, when you started writing, you were hesitant to conceive of what you were writing as writing. I wonder whether you could elaborate on that. Was this because the form the writing assumed was unconventional, or was it because you didn’t think that what you were writing about was the stuff of ‘real’ writing, or something else? I’m curious about how our conceptions of ‘real’ writing are formed and about what informs them. In an interview you did for The Fem, you spoke of rendering seemingly insignificant experiences in words as a feminist gesture of sorts. Other writers have felt it necessary to invent, inhabit, and validate forms of their own. Is the writing you are doing now continuous in any way with the writing you were doing earlier on and which you did not, then, conceive of as legitimate writing? Has your conception of ‘real’ writing shifted over time?
JW: It was definitely to do with my conception of what writing was, and a conception of what a person like me might be allowed to write. I have a degree in English literature, but I had no framework for reading as a writer. I was not inspired by a lot of the writing I saw around me: this is partly why I now read a lot in translation, as well as a lot of books published by indie presses who are more willing to publish unconventional works. The realist novel is just one form amongst many.
Ideas that stood in my way (as they do for many women) included a notion of what was important, what could be discussed, and where, and how; the idea that writing about family, domesticity, and romance should be confined to certain genres (even to special places, and ways of writing, within the ‘genre’ of literary fiction); as well as the notion that literature should be ‘improving’ or tell the reader about something ‘interesting.’ This is why I’m so interested in writing female voices that are internal monologues. At the moment I’m writing a voice that doesn’t know itself, that has no real vocabulary for expressing its desires, or identifying its distress, but which is able to reveal these nevertheless.
NH: Your interest in internal monologues is definitely apparent in both Vertigo and Hotel, though both texts also make use of other modes of narration as well. There are pieces in Vertigo, for example, which expertly navigate and exploit the fine line dividing the first person and the third person point of view. I mentioned the title piece, “Vertigo,” above. Another piece, “Vagues,” seems to start off in the third person: an oyster restaurant is described in detail, the narrative voice comes to fixate on a man sitting at one of the tables, but eventually the third person gets sucked into a first person perspective: The woman sitting across from him, who has been narrating the whole time, speaks of herself: she says ‘I.’ We only realize that she’s been narrating once she does. The shift in point of view perhaps helps to convey the woman as a particular kind of self, one that risks being forgotten (though everything, the whole narrative world, is filtered through her).
JW: Yes, I’m interested in how we use language to convey ourselves, when words are such worn-out, borrowed things that it’s easy to think of ourselves in the third person. It’s pretty much impossible to use language without quoting, if not directly, then by referencing a sensibility: you find yourself talking like a newsreader, or a teacher you once heard, or whatever (to quote Vertigo, “I say ‘you.’ Of course I mean ‘me.’”).
NH: Could you tell us more about your next project? A voice that doesn’t know itself, that lacks a vocabulary for expressing its desires, but which somehow conveys them seems like it would be very challenging to write! How are you approaching the task?
JW: I want to do something new (to me, at least) in every project, so I don’t think about approaches beforehand: the writing process is all about evolving techniques to cope with what I’m exploring. In the next thing, I’m writing about a teenager, someone whose memories are limited in terms of timescale but are still very sharp and intrusive. She’s relatively well-read, so has a wide vocabulary, but has little of what people would conventionally call ‘life-experience,’ though she has experienced her whole life up to that point. I want to look at the quality of that overlooked experience, and at how she expresses it, knowing, herself, that it’s not conventionally valued.
NH: It seems that both Vertigo and Hotel are circling around the figure of a distressed, even suffocated, female subject. In Vertigo, this figure is manifest as a number of different characters (that is, in the different stories that make up the text), while in Hotel, it is manifest as one subject, whose subjectivity is itself distributed across, or manifest in and as, a number of different textual forms (postcards and diaries, among others). There is even definite crosstalk between Vertigo and Hotel on the subject of home—the former text includes the rather dark consideration of home and family history, “Claustrophobia.” Hotels are not alien to Vertigo either. They—the infamous ‘they’—say that some poets write the same poem their whole lives. I wonder what your own relation is to returning to familiar themes in new ways. Repetition with difference. The new project sounds like it might, to a certain degree, be this kind of return. Do you have any reflections on what is sometimes the need to write and rewrite and rewrite (or any other concluding thoughts)?
JW: Well ‘suffocated’ is a good word, because I think I do have a thing about breathing, like in the claustrophobia story, and in Hotel I write a lot about Freud’s patient, “Dora,” who stops speaking: speech being another thing that comes out of the mouth. I’ve had attacks of claustrophobia a few times, including one where I was staying somewhere and had to sleep downstairs on the sofa, because I couldn’t stay in the bedroom; I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, but even at the time I found it quite funny.
Someone I once met told me, “You just write how you write.” He was a writer but quite a different sort from me, and I didn’t know him for long but that stuck with me: why worry? There’s no point writing anything that’s not felt urgently. I’m always writing about home and family, and love, and escape, and identity; I think those are big enough topics for anyone.
–Joanna Walsh & Natalie Helberg
Joanna Walsh is the author of the story collections Fractals (3:AM Press; 2013), Vertigo (Dorothy, a publishing project; 2015), and Grow a Pair (Readux Books; 2015), in addition to the creative memoir Hotel (Bloomsbury; 2015). She also illustrates, edits fiction for 3:AM, reviews books for various journals, and promotes writing by women using the twitter account @read_women, which received the Women In Publishing’s 2014 New Venture Award.
Natalie Helberg won the 2015 Robin Blaser Poetry Award. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.