An Interview with Lynne Tillman, by Brian Gresko
February 3, 2014
Sentence connoisseurs hold Lynne Tillman in high regard. A virtuosic stylist, Tillman writes sentences that weave and twist, sometimes telescoping upon themselves such that a reader ends up in unexpected territory or finds that the end of the construction somehow contradicts the beginning. They come so close to capturing the quick pulse and spiraling nature of thought that they seem to lift off the page and speak—and what stories they tell. Tillman’s inquisitive, neurotic characters hold forth on music, politics, art, and culture while dropping hints about frustrated desires and past traumas, and these clues gradually congeal into a narrative. In Tillman’s most recent novel, American Genius, A Comedy, as the protagonist ruminates at length on topics from the Manson murders to skin diseases, a mystery of sorts unfolds regarding her setting—an ashram, an artists’ retreat, or a mental institution, it’s not entirely clear—her companions, and past wounds caused by her mother and a cat. From her first novel, Haunted Houses—reissued by Red Lemonade along with four of her other novels—to last year’s collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, Tillman has explored how the mind creates and understands history both personal and cultural. Slice spoke to Tillman in hopes of uncovering the seeds of inspiration for her unique work. It turns out that the author’s tastes—from Marilyn Monroe to Michel Foucault—are as wide-ranging as those of her characters.
Who were some of the authors who inspired or influenced you to start writing?
I was eight when I decided to be a writer. I remember my father reading to me at night, things like Shakespeare’s plays. I think my father’s love of English literature communicated itself to me. I remember learning to read and write and putting things together. It was incredibly exciting. Also, I’m much younger than my sisters, and they had quite a number of books around that I remember looking at. But there were no specific writers very early on.
Later, what I read and how it influenced me became a much more conscious thing. Haunted Houses, my first novel, is influenced by Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies. It’s not that the writing style is like hers, but her way of writing about women was unique. In tone and style it is just so anarchic. She showed me that you can have toughness, seriousness, and hilarity all at the same time. Women’s lives were usually written in a much more controlled, socially proper way. But the way in which she writes people in rela- tion to each other, in terms of conversation and dialogue, is so unusual. It’s just an amazing novel.
The fact that she wrote as and when she did—the novel was published in 1943—made me feel more optimistic about trying to do what I was going to do in Haunted Houses. Voice is a central concern in your fiction.
Do you think that hearing works read to you at a young age played a part in that?
Yes. My oldest sister was studying to be an actress and went to the High School of Performing Arts. She would do a routine for me sometimes to make me laugh. When I was ten, she took me to see a play based on Sean O’Casey’s I Knock at the Door. It was like a reading, though without scripts. The Irish actors all sat on high stools in front of a black drop cloth with no props. There was nothing but the words and the actors’ voices. That was an amazing experience for me.
And you can’t underestimate the importance of television, which we got when I was three. As a kid I would also lie in bed and listen to the radio, and adults talking. I was listening to sound all the time. Intonation is very important to me.
Today you have all these people writing on the Internet and sending you email messages, and some of them are just tone-deaf. They are not thinking about tone and about what it feels like to get that message. I spend a little more time when I’m writing an email, especially if I feel I’m saying something that might be troubling. I’ve gotten emails from people who seem so upset and angry, and when I call them later they say, “I didn’t mean that.” These people are usually not writers. But as a writer I’m aware of these things.
Is the tone of the narration something you’re attuned to when you’re reading literature? Are there writers whom you admire or like because of this?
I like a wide range of writers, from Patricia Highsmith to Samuel Beckett, and Chekhov’s stories and plays, and Eugene O’Neill’s plays, and Barbara Pym, and detective novels of all kinds. Often the writers I like sustain a kind of voice from one book to the next, and I admire that, maybe because I don’t think that I can do it.
I start with a specific character who thinks in a certain way and sounds a certain way and gets me engaged in larger ideas. Obviously it’s the same person writing this stuff, so certain themes and attitudes return from book to book, but I try to at least trick myself into thinking that I’m not doing the same thing. Because then I think, “What’s the point of doing it?”
You’ve written extensively about art. How have painting and visual art influenced your writing?
In college I took all my electives in studio art. At the time it was important to me, not in terms of the direction of my writing, but because, psychologically, making art was very different from being in the English department. I was interested in thinking about approaching a canvas and seeing what I could do to it as opposed to approaching a page. I felt much freer about art because I had license to do whatever I wanted; I wasn’t an art major, and I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. There was some measure of freedom in that.
In the English department there were some very nasty professors. The way literature was taught made me feel excluded from the possibility of ever writing anything. It wasn’t that I compared myself to the great writers, but I did have a horrible teacher, who was a Joyce scholar. In one class he said, “By the time Joyce was your age, he had already written Dubliners.” And we were just in college. That infuriated me.
Have you ever found the direction of your fiction changed by something you’ve read?
Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March had a very big impact on me when I read it five or six years ago. It did not influence my writing in any direct way—he was writing in the 30s, and in German, so I read it in translation. But the experience of reading that book, his ability to write about three generations and create an ethos for each, elated me. I think a lot about the experience of reading a book. I think about how Roth was able to achieve so much in that novel.
Do you think about how a reader is going to experience your work while you’re writing it?
When I’m writing, I think, “How much can I put in? What do I decide to leave out?” That has something to do with the experience of the reader, but first you the writer experience it. I’m thinking, “How does it read to me?” as I’m writing it.
After that, it’s completely out of my hands. That’s the magical and destructive thing a writer has to face: control is much more of an illusion than you imagine.
Have you ever duplicated another author’s voice, either in an act of homage or unconsciously?
When I was in my late teens, I found myself writing a story that was directly influenced by Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which I guess was on one of my sisters’ bookshelves. Stein’s style was hypnotic, but it wasn’t a conscious decision to copy her. When I recognized it, I was able to stop, but she did influence me.
Years ago, The Village Voice asked me who was my greatest influence, and I wrote about listening to Ray Charles when I was eight. His range, repetition, intonation, and rhythm were really important to me. I would dance and sing along. You can’t get different voices on the page without paying attention to rhythm.
*This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 11 of Slice. To purchase a copy of the issue, click here.
Author photo by Nan Goldin.
Brian Gresko is the editor of the anthology When I First Held You, which features twenty-two critically acclaimed novelists writing about fatherhood, forthcoming from Berkley Books/Penguin in May. His work has appeared on Salon, the Atlantic.com, the Paris Review Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and theRumpus, among numerous other publications. He can be found online at briangresko.com.
Lynne Tillman is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Her fourth collection of stories, Someday This Will Be Funny, was published in 2011 by Red Lemonade Press. Her most recent novel is American Genius, A Comedy.