I first met Lynne Tillman nearly 20 years ago. Since that time she has provided unwavering support and inspiration as a friend and writer. Her devotion to literature, as a medium generated by language and ideas, is tenacious. Her essays, novels, and stories rove and detail emotional, intellectual, and linguistic terrain like nobody’s business. Her latest novel, American Genius, A Comedy, dismantles myths about America, genius, and comedy, and is perhaps the best book I read in 2006. Below are excerpts from a conversation we had this fall:
Lynn Crawford (Rail): I am fascinated by the heroine in American Genius, A Comedy (AGAC). She fastens herself to personal routines and rituals (the book’s first sentence mentions bathing and food), but at the same time closely, obsessively, studies the world around her (she is, after all, a historian) and extrapolates on what she sees and knows. Can you tell us about its title?
Lynne Tillman (Tillman): In the 18th century, genius meant a force of nature. It means also, even today, the spirit of a person or place. I was thinking about the Enlightenment, about inventiveness, human capacity, ingenuity, and since this is a book about history, American history especially, I wanted to refer to the American experiment. In a way the community she’s in is an experiment, maybe any community has that capacity, but what she’s doing there is unknown, maybe unknowable, even to her. Genius embraces many ideas that the novel handles. Thinking about a force of nature as a way to think about how human beings handle their affairs in a daily way and the larger issues of democracy interested me a lot. Things are in our control only rarely, and why and how we do what we do is part of our nature—by this I’m being a little ironic, but the novel does deal with the body in a way I’ve not done before. And the body—I guess it’s right to call it a force of nature. Certainly, we can’t control it as we’d like. I’d say it’s out of our hands, because I love the metaphor.
Rail: Speaking of things that are in and are not in our control, each of your novels is distinct. The narrative voices differ, yet each text is carefully controlled by the author, in a way that reminds me of a great stage actor inhabiting different roles.
Tillman: There’s nothing harder to explain than writing voice and character. Obviously, voice is created with words, their rhythms, in phrases, there’s control of sentence length, and so on. Voice and character fuse, don’t they? The character of the narration? Character in some ways exceeds voice, because a character may become imaginatively embodied to the reader. Readers often visualize characters, and I don’t as I’m writing—and often not as I’m reading, unless they’re described exquisitely. For me, the voice comes first; from that, a character—or speaker—develops. But the voice is words on paper; it’s aural only in the sense that I’m working with sounds, internal repetitions, rhyming. I don’t work with typical notions of motivation or causality for characters, but I am engaged in making characters seem credible, possible, unlike some of the by-now traditional avant-gardists. I think those ideas are exhausted, by the way, not the novel. But that’s a whole other discussion. I don’t develop characters psychologically, or for what passes as that. In American Genius, A Comedy, and to some extent No Lease on Life, I pushed to do it psychoanalytically; this again relies on voice—speaking in a session, the character talks itself into being, through its articulations and mistakes. I use mistakes. So I have thought about acting, how the writer enacts the characters as words animated. I use what to me seems apposite in language to the putative character. Always the character is built with words, the voice is words. It’s interesting that Beckett wrote both plays and novels. He could hear his characters.
Rail: Humor figures in all of your works in a way that reminds me of Italo Calvino’s take on comedy. He said that comedy is “a way to escape from the limitations and one-sidedness of every representation and judgment.” [1.]. Your work is so much about how a thing can be said in more than one way. Do you use humor consciously to achieve this, or is it more of an organic outcome of how you think and see the world?
Tillman: It can’t be completely conscious, but in No Lease, I wanted to foreground the joke, which is, as Freud showed us, like the dream, full of social and unconscious meanings. I do know that either by irony, which acts through negation, or through comedy, I’m able to write more than one idea or attitude at a time. I like to undercut certainty in whatever way I can and slash away at pomposity, if possible. Sometimes the pomposity of writers amazes me. When writers foster belief in themselves, not the text, and put themselves and their thoughts forward as admirable and smart, there’s some terrible, complacent writing. We all have to work against our desire to be clever. But the best writers—Virgina Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, James, Jane Bowles, with her one brilliant novel— labored to bring forward the writing. Kafka’s a model of self-criticism and disgust, which I admire. By the end, seeing myself and what I write as ludicrous, that’s my goal. I’m being sort of funny now.
Rail: So in a way, humor can be a location. You seem intent on locating your characters and their narratives. The heroine of American Genius is a historian. Horace, in Cast in Doubt is an ex pat. In No Lease on Life, Elizabeth is solidly placed in New York (there is such a THERE there) and navigates her tiny apartment and dirty street with a hilarious and brilliant brainpower. Could you talk about ways your work explores the notion of place or location, physical and mental?
Tillman: I’ll focus on American Genius. Though I’ll say that generally I see character and context as relational, subjectivities inside places is important to my thinking. We behave and live differently in different places and cultures, our backgrounds also locate us—in specific families, psychologies, religions, ethnicities, and all of this affects how and what I write. In the new novel, the setting is not named, I’ve left that open to interpretation; but it is a bounded community. It is in America, it’s American; and my narrator/protagonist—whose name isn’t revealed until late in the novel, so I won’t say it now—is a former American historian. This allowed me to have a character who knew and thought about American history, which, sadly, not enough Americans consider, but is present in our lives. Think about states’ rights, for example. This community let me examine, through narrative, questions around democracy, for instance, and much more. Also, by not fixing what it was, I could create an uneasiness about place, about where one is or what we are. I wanted, from the beginning, to write a novel about being an American now, living here now.
Rail: American history, any history, is vast, and you do tackle vast topics. At the same time, you take a detail, emphasizing it to make a larger point. For example, the eggs thrown off the roof in No Lease on Life. In American Genius, skin, the largest organ of our body, is a concern for the narrator.
Tillman: I think that’s true. Life and writing are in the details, right? Sometimes the way to make a novel cohere, when you don’t rely on some of the conventions, is by tropes. Repetition of images and ideas can do a lot of work in constructing a narrative. With skin, in AGAC, I was able to accomplish, in my mind, several things: one, the form of the novel replicated the way skin contracts and expands. I wanted the novel to breathe, to go way out there into the biggest issues, like race and racism in America, and then back to the minute, like a bad dinner party or a facial. Skin also represents a barrier, a seeming barrier, between us and the world. It isn’t really, because everything affects the skin and slips through too. It’s not a barrier, it’s more a palimpsest—everything gets marked. I wanted to talk about sensitivity—to food, to environment, to others, about oneself—and again, skin worked. Blushing, psoriasis, bruisesI could have done more with black and blue marks, I realize nowall the writing about textiles, the oldest industry, perhaps, and what is worn next to our skin. Skin let me work with all these ideas and make layers of meaning.
1 Italo Calvino, THE USES OF LITERATURE, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1980, p. 63