The Ministry of Whimsy Interview

This interview, conducted February 3-6, 1998, appeared in abridged form in Leviathan 2: The Legacy of Boccaccio.

Ministry of Whimsy: "Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-aged Woman" is a courageous and beautifully written story. It speaks to gender and artistic issues in a very sophisticated and yet down-to-earth way. How hard was it to write this story?

LTD: In memory, writing "Portrait" was an unalloyed pleasure. But going back to the journal entries I made in January-February, 1989 while writing it, I discover another story entirely. In the earliest entry, I mention that with "H.'s story" my biggest task is deciding what to exclude. In another entry, dated February 2, I write, "Feel as though the writing of `Portrait' is not so much an act of production as a careful moving and picking my way barefoot through an expanse of gravel littered with glass. Finding the way. While trying to snatch glimpses of the ocean occasionally visible through the trees. The sense of it on the horizon, just out of sight. While having to stare mostly downwards at the shards ready to tear my feet to bloody shreds. Always this sense that I don't know if it's going to work or not. Is it too polemical, for instance. Perhaps it's my difficulty with Margaret A. that's shaken my confidence? Except in a way I am confident... & having decided this will be one for myself & [my first reader] I won't even consider submitting it: otherwise I would have censored myself at at least one point I know of. No, two points that I can think of right now." The first entry I wrote after finishing the story, dated Feburary 11, records my first reader's disappointment it-- and describes my discussing with her how H. is a "utopic figure" for me and how the story "must necessarily be argumentative since H. stands in opposition to the norms of the world that people like me find it difficult to stand up to[...] It helps me to see that someone could create without reference to the public world-- resisting the legitimacy that rests solely in commodification. I.e., in the world we live in, commodification is the criterion of legitimacy. and it simply isn't possible to behave as though it isn't without being `argumentative'-- since it directly contradicts every force operating in the "real" world[...] Creating a character who can actually get away from the doxa of legitimacy-- and who can do so consciously and cogently (and argumentatively) helps me, it gives me another reality to refer to in opposition to the one that presses hard down on my body and mind every second of the day and night... and in a way it eases the need to argue constantly against the doxa-- assuming I can think of H. and feel H. has done some of the work and created this other place where there's space in which to breathe..."

Ministry of Whimsy: ... and how does it fit in with your other work?

LTD: In some ways "Portrait" is a metacommentary on the enormous body of my work (some few millions of words) which is not considered "commercial" and thus has not seen print. It explains to myself (and to others) why it's necessary for me to both acknowledge and continue to produce work that doesn't "exist" in the "real" world, as H.'s musician "friend" says about the work she has not exhibited. H., of course, takes a more extreme line than I do, since I market my work as I can and am willing to live with the consequences. Writing "Portrait," though, was in some ways necessary to keep me honest-- to make it impossible for me to not write a story merely because I know it's unlikely ever to be published, and to remind myself that publication is not an accreditation of worth but only an arbitrary sign of its value in our capitalist economy.

Ministry of Whimsy: Any story is an amalgamation of the deeply personal and what the writer pulls in from the outside world. What ideas expressed by H. especially hit home to you?

LTD: It's a commonplace that creative work demands discipline. But the productive effect of following a set of rules-- whether of conscious or unconscious imposition-- is less recognized. Highly conscious of the productive effect of rules, H. uses them to avoid getting caught up in unconscious sets of rules that almost inevitably produce cliches, and to examine her own relationship to the rules that run most aspects of our lives generally. As a child, I understood very clearly the proliferative effects of form (and, consequently, of structrual rules) for composing and improvising music; as a writer, I'm preoccupied with these effects. Roughly two-thirds of the time I work with standard narrative structures, struggling against their internal logic because I want to tell stories that are largely invisible and inaudible or barely thinkable to most readers. It is easier to tell new stories using nonstandard forms free of the logic trees embedded in the standard forms. Still, I do mostly use the standard forms for telling stories because most people refuse to read stories that don't seem to be instantly familiar and comprehensible. H. would say that everyone is as rule-driven as she is-- only most people are unaware of it and thus exercise no agency in choosing the rules they obey-- and of all things don't want to know this about themselves.

Another of H.'s preoccupations is the lack of attention paid to her work itself, as opposed to its framing by curators and projections of her artistic personality. Again, this points up the importance of the familiar in determining how people take in creative work. I find that one is often allowed to be emphatically, loudly oppositional exactly to the extent that one makes reaction against the status quo-- and not subtle exploration of territory (old or new)-- one's central focus. Loud, blunt opposition keeps the terms of the argument familiar, the grounds of dissent easily pigeonholed, and the status quo itself more or less in control. Whenever, however, I attempt to get away from the dominant or hegemonic frame of reference and develop ideas without respect to the issues already in the forefront of public consciousness, I find that editors (and other readers) usually tend to suffer what Oliver Sacks calls "scotoma." In his article "Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science," Sacks discusses the frequent neglect of work that falls into the blindspot of its field. When scientists read research papers with results that don't conform to the gestalt of what they already know, they frequently simply "forget" it, however valuable the research might be. The "process of accommodation," Sacks writes, "of being able to create a mental space, a category with potential connections-- and the readiness to do this-- seems to me crucial in determining whether an idea or discovery will take hold and bear fruit, or whether it will be forgotten, fade, and die without issue." This is a problem many of us writing feminist science fiction face. Subtle challenges to a reader's unconscious assumptions tend to simply slide off to the side, unregistered. And yet feminist science fiction is developing in such interesting ways that it now has its own terms of reference-- apparently invisible to most of the science fiction readership. This is another reason most of my work must go unpublished. H. refuses to have her work distorted by being framed by a set of terms she has no interest in. I don't go so far, but I bear H.'s statement of this problem in mind when I get rejections that indicate that the editor doesn't see that I'm exploring new territory and thinks the "idea" in the story was exhausted by a story some (male) writer wrote twenty or thirty years ago.

Ministry of Whimsy: Do you think that most writers experience uneasy tension between the highly personal act of writing and the subsequent marketing of that work? And do you think these two elements are out of balance in the genres of science fiction and fantasy today, what with all the shared worlds and Star Trek novels?

LTD: Yes and yes.

Ministry of Whimsy: What qualities do you most value in good fiction?

LTD: I'm not sure that I can express what I value most in good fiction in terms of qualities. I love being provoked into thinking, feeling, and seeing the familiar in new ways, and into making interesting connections that I previously missed. I love being drawn through a narrative by rhythms and textures I can't resist. I love navigating my way through several layers of a narrative as though feeling my way through a maze. I love reading stories that speak to aspects of my experience I've myself been groping to understand. I love fiction that combines emotional power with aesthetic elegance and intellectual intrigue. And above all, I value fiction that challenges an oppressive ideological status quo even when doing so makes a "happy ending" impossible.

Ministry of Whimsy: Who are some of your favorite writers?

LTD: I could list many writers, both men and women, whose work I read with interest and pleasure. I hate to exclude any of them, but a more manageable list would entail those writers whose work gives me most of what I need, want, and crave. In no particular order, novelists would include Carole Maso, Dorothy Richardson, Toni Morrison, Christa Wolf, Christina Stead, Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, Violette LeDuc, Samuel R. Delany, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Ore, Anna Banti, H.D., and Susan Daitch. Lately I've been reading much more short fiction than novels, though, and have been finding it more interesting and adventurous. Writers whose short fiction I especially seek out are Isak Dinesen, Mary Scott, Angela Carter, Carmel Bird, Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, Rebecca Brown, Lynda Sexson, Rachel Ingalls, Mary Butts, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kelley Eskridge, Janet Kauffman, Mary Caponegro, Grace Paley, and Nicola Griffith.

Ministry of Whimsy: What projects are you currently working on?

LTD: I have two large-scale projects immediately at hand. Perhaps I should note that I also have three unfinished novels in the background besides something like a dozen unfinished short stories and several essay projects among which I circulate my attention. Novel-writing, for me, demands my total attention and acquiescence to a certain daily rhythm that can't be broken for anything. Because I find it increasingly difficult to resist taking breaks to write short fiction, I haven't finished a novel since 1993. That may be about to change-- once I've finished the book project that's currently taking most of my attention. This project is a collaboration with Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge which involves my criticism of their short fiction (four stories each) and discussions of how I see their work fitting into my view of the interesting turn feminist science fiction has taken since (roughly) 1990. At this point, it looks as though the book will include dialogues and trilgoues in addition to Nicola and Kelley's stories and my essays. We're thinking of the book's structure as resembling that of a documentary film, where pieces of interview are cross-cut rather than whole interviews provided in a discrete block. It's a lot of work. It's made me realize just how much more time it takes to understand a short story than it does to understand a novel. Short stories are so compact, so elliptical (even when their manifest content is crystal clear) that they require extensive unfolding and unpacking. It's no wonder that novels get almost all of the critical attention to be had. Short stories are just so much less obvious.

Pending is a novel project that will require a research trip I'm planning to make this summer. Last summer while visiting my partner's family in St. Martinville, Louisiana, I conceived a passion to write about Amelie Sandoz Duchamp de Chastaigne, the mother-in-law of my mother-in-law's mother-in-law. I already have a structure in mind for this novel that will include documentary evidence (including photographs), personal reflection and historical analysis on the one hand, and a (traditional) fictional narrative on the other. European family lineage is never posed in terms of a series of daughters-in-law; I intend to make such a lineage visible and real. Since 1970 I having been hearing stories about the family that presented the Duchamps as aristocrats with money. Last summer I made the curious discovery that dating back to at least the early 18th century (and a medieval castle in Tours), the Duchamp family has repeatedly relied on the fortunes of the women they married-- this though family stories have never considered them "real" family members (these outsiders who have, of course, always been the mothers of the "real" Duchamps). Amelie Sandoz was particularly important to the fortunes of the family-- and has had especially bad press in family anecdotes. She was of the last generation unable to speak English and until her death held the purse strings of the fortune she brought into the family. The working title of this book is "The Haunting of Amelie Sandoz"-- because she is haunting me-- and I intend to haunt her. Once I get started on this project, I expect to do nothing else until I've finished it.

Publication Date: 
1998