LYNNE TILLMAN with Caroline Ball

Lynne Tillman
Someday This Will Be Funny
(Red Lemonade, 2011)

Lynne Tillman is a rare hybrid of fiction writer, essayist, art critic, and teacher. She is the author of five novels, one of which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as three collections of short stories, a collection of essays, and two other nonfiction works. A professor and writer-in-residence at the University of Albany, Tillman is equally known for her artistic collaborations as she is for her widely-anthologized fiction. Her most recent work, Someday This Will Be Funny, is a piercing and virtuosic collection of short fiction pieces—each reveling in the intimate, shocking and transient. Here she discusses experimentation, structure and her constant battle with language with Caroline Ball.

Caroline Ball (Rail): In a lot of your stories there’s a sort of distrust of language and a distrust of the effect of using certain words, and of words becoming vehicles for certain emotions. There’s a feeling of distrust in the background. And that’s a struggle that all writers have, naturally. But it did make me curious about your editing process.

Lynne Tillman: You know, I don’t really think of it as editing. I just think of it as writing. So as I write, I’m writing again, or rewriting. And after I write a few sentences, let’s say, I’ll go back and look at the sentence and see if I think the sentence works, if the language is interesting. Can I find a better word? Because often, well, I think it was Allen Ginsberg who said, “First thought, best thought.” But I don’t believe that. The thought might be interesting, but the articulation could be different. So I’m always trying to ratchet up the language and find the word that says more than the one that comes to mind. Obviously sometimes the word that comes to mind is absolutely fine, as appropriate and as good as I can get it, but often it’s not. And I often find that I’m always working to get better verbs. I think that it’s so easy to go into the “to be.” And then you find other things that have more impact and more dynamism, in a sense. People comment on the movement in my sentences and I think it’s often because I’m looking for verbs that are more compulsive.

Rail: So you write a few sentences and you look back, effectively working two sentences ahead? There’s a sense of that in your writing, a stacking up of prose.

Tillman: That’s right, because the choice of one word will affect the next. I know friends of mine who go through a whole draft of a story, or kind of map it out. But I don’t do that. I can’t map out. I don’t know what the map is, you know. The map is the words or something. I’m very focused on language. And the distrust of it, well I think it’s interesting how language shifts and why we begin to use different words. I think about this a lot. My husband and I were listening to Robinson Crusoe on CD as we were driving upstate. It’s fascinating how style or language changes, and the question I always ask myself is: Why? What is it that compels writers to find other ways to say things? It’s this very intricate relationship among all these different entities and they’re inextricable. So language is as unwieldy and inconstant as human beings are and that’s where the distrust lies.

Rail:: And that’s natural. How does this come into play when you’re teaching?

Tillman: Well, you’re teaching students to think about the language they’re using, and not to simply see it as natural. You’re teaching students to think about how they read, which is as significant, if not more significant, than how they write; so you’re teaching students to be aware that not only do they use language, but language uses them. You become conscious of the way in which language uses you, no matter what you’re saying. It’s really interesting—the speed of communication is so fast, and so the question of tone and tonality is completely submerged in these text messages or whatever. It’s almost atonal. You’re not supposed to read into it.

Rail:: It’s just information now.

Tillman: Yes, and for writers who are thinking about tone, it slows you down.

Rail:: Speaking of tone, I was really struck by a sense of musicality in your writing. I often felt a particular word would sort of set a “key” to a piece, and it would evolve harmonically. Do you feel like there’s a sense of harmonic structure evolving as you’re writing?

Tillman: I’m certainly very aware of sound, and the sound of words. I really work off rhythms. I have to watch myself not to do it too much, but just enough. The musicality is something that I’m glad you find there. That matters to me a lot. Like a lot of fiction writers, I read and listened to a lot of poetry and went to a lot of poetry readings and I think the differences between poetry and prose are harder and harder to discern—the line break supposedly being the way of discerning the difference. But of course a lot of poets aren’t working with line breaks in a musical way. And the prose poem also. I rely much more in a sense on poetic structures or resonances than not. I guess I’m always foregrounding words. There was this essay that Michael Wood wrote in Bookforum and he said something that was very interesting to me—which is what good critics do. He said that my characters are made up of words. Obviously, all literary characters are made up of words, but they’re thinking about words also. And it’s true they’re thinking about what they’re meaning as they say it. So, that also may come from my intense interest in psychoanalysis.

Rail:: There’s also that same distrust of images. A lot of characters are concerned with the difference between what they’re seeing, and what’s reality, and how images convey reality.

Tillman: I’m very involved in the visual culture and I think about it a lot. The novel I’m working on has a lot to do with image. Image, self image, images of others, falling in love with images, how words are images, images of images of images. It’s this hall of mirrors that we live in. It’s funny because I’m not a person who really distrusts other people. Maybe deep down in my deepest heart I do, but I think mostly with encounters with people, I don’t feel like I need to be looking behind me. I mean obviously I’ve had very horrible experiences with other people as I’m sure they have had with me, but when I’m writing something else is happening.

Rail:: A lot of characters seem to have a sense of foreboding throughout the book though, and there’s a sense that something terrible is happening to them somewhere else, somehow. It becomes one of their obsessions in lots of ways.

Tillman: I read aloud a story about the analyst (The Unconscious is Also Ridiculous)for the first time with Deb Unferth and Tom McCarthy and it was a very interesting reading. After I finished reading it I thought, this is really perverse, this story is so perverse. And I always wonder. The stories from my point of view are very different. There are different kinds of stories. There are some that seem much more naïve, and some that seem deeply sophisticated. It’s curious to me.

Rail:: It’s such a mix.

Tillman: How does that seem to you as a reader? Do you think, now this is strange? Do you want the story?

Rail:: Well, it’s exciting to read your work because you just don’t know where it’s going to go. You get the sense of following an idea, like a treasure hunt, right through all kinds of different fragments and loops. And somehow you get to this organic whole and you feel like you don’t know what just happened—but you still have the feeling of completeness. But that happens in such different ways in every story.

Tillman: When I was putting it together to give to my publisher, the extraordinary Richard Nash, I was thinking to myself, this is weird. This is so weird. What are people going to think, maybe they’re going to think it’s too all over the place.

Rail:: It works, though.

Tillman: But I must say that has been a happy surprise.

Rail:: I don’t know how you feel about the word experimental. It doesn’t feel like you set out to do something completely new, but you have. Is that result secondary?

Tillman: It’s an interesting thing because there’s been an argument among the people who read me: is she experimental, isn’t she experimental. I just tried to work with the idea that I had for the story. I’m not trying to... Experimental to me is a genre. I’m not trying to make it one thing or the other, I’m trying to do the best I can with this work and see where it goes. Let the form and the content be at play.

Rail:: There’s no sense of you trying to create a new groundbreaking format at all, but yet you are in a certain way.

Tillman: I’m not a purist and I don’t think there’s a way to tell a story. There are many ways that one can go and maybe that’s where that distrust comes from. Maybe if I were more certain I’d feel I could trust what I’m doing more. But I’m not.


Caroline Ball