TEXT review

Tin House Talk: Writers on Writing

review by Helen Gildfind


The Editors of Tin House Books
The World Within: Writers Talk
Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon 2007
ISBN 9780977698967
Pb 356pp USD16.95


Tin House is a literary quarterly based in Portland, Oregon. As well as publishing fiction and poetry, this magazine publishes interviews with writers and graphic novelists from around the world. The World Within is now packaged as one of four titles in Tin House’s The Writer’s Series collection, along with Plotto, The Writer’s Notebook and The Story about the Story. The World Within compiles twenty-three interviews, including ones with Nuruddin Farah, Barney Rosset, Roddy Doyle, George Saunders, Ken Kesey, Tracy Kidder, James Salter, Gus Van Sant and Francine Prose. Interviewers include Abbie Fields, Elissa Schappell, Ellen Fagg, Todd Haynes, Rob Spillman, Regan Good, James Schiff and Carla Perry.

One of the most striking pieces in this collection is Heather Larimer’s interview with Charles D’Ambrosio. This interview begins with her narrative recount of driving out to Philipsburg, Montana, an ex-mining town where D’Ambrosio (‘hard to reach and possibly crazy’, 47) sleeps in abandoned mine shafts and spends his days combing the landscape for junk. Upon arrival, Larimer tells D’Ambrosio she wishes to spend the day doing whatever he usually does: they go off into the wilds to ‘shoot his gun’ (48), explore mines and wander the ghost town’s desolate streets. Despite this ominous narrative opening, their subsequent dialogue unfolds in a captivatingly casual and intimate way. In interviews like these, it is clear that the interviewer has ‘read’ her subject well, bringing a deep knowledge of D’Ambrosio’s biography and writing to her conversation in a way that allows her to reveal glimmers of his eccentric and painful mindscape, as well as his unusual – but fruitful – writing practices. D’Ambrosio sticks to writing essays when he feels like ‘poison’ and is only able to treat himself and his fictional characters ‘like shit’ (53). He writes fiction when he’s not being a ‘shithead’ (54), for he sees fiction as something that a writer has to ‘haul’ from themselves ‘without relief’ (53), something which requires an excess of love and kindness and an egoless absorption in another’s story. Interviewers like Larimer seem to bring a similar sort of love and absorption to their craft of interviewing.

Likewise, Rachel Resnick’s interview with Rikki Ducornet reads like a conversation between friends, moving as it does from the nuts-and-bolts of a writer’s research and rituals (Ducornet dances for an hour before settling to write) to talking about such absurdities as magic mushrooms and Ducornet’s hand-raised dinner snails. Ducornet discusses the evolution of The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition (Resnick asks, ‘Was it born in a postcoital fever dream?’, 125), which began with the eroticism of the fan itself (‘like the thighs of a woman opening and closing!’, 125). After falling in love with the fan-maker, Ducornet got to know the Marquis de Sade by reading what he read when he was in prison. Her thoughts on obscenity, pleasure and the ‘intolerable reality’ of a body in pain are insightful (139), as are her thoughts on the destructive objectifications of pornography as opposed to what she calls the ‘sexual soul’ within us all, which ‘delights’ in experiencing the ‘natural’ world (137-38). Her forthright views lighten up an interview that traverses complex and often dark themes (‘Bullshit!’ is her response to being called school-marmish; ‘absurd’ is her summation of the category ‘woman writer’, 137).

The collection also includes interviews with writers in less common genres, such as the Iranian-born graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi, and Lydia Davis, a translator who also writes her own fiction. Satrapi talks about how the international language of images has allowed her to ‘assimilate’ (285) into Western culture. She talks about the ‘nice kind of creative narcissism’ which is the ‘basis’ of all artists (as for egocentrism, ‘that is bad’, 289), how humour is ‘subversive and against all hating’ (289) and how laughter is the ‘highest level of understanding’ (289). Like Narrudin Farah and Claribel Alegría, Satrapi writes from the perspective of exile. Davis offers insight into the world of the translator – that writer who attempts to break the exiles that language barriers can create. She gives us direct insight into the obsessive perfectionism upon which a good translation depends, whether that ‘good’ translation is one that strives to make itself sound as if it is the original text, or one that strives to retain a ‘flavor of foreignness’ that never lets a reader forget what they are reading (77). Davis attempts to create texts ‘through’ which a reader can see the original’s content and style (78), no mean feat considering that one of her largest projects – one that saw her wrestling with single words for days – was translating Proust’s Swann’s Way.

Other interviewees include the politely labelled ‘senior’ writer James Salter, who, when asked if he’s ever had a break from being a writer, says ‘why would you want a break?’ (278). Denis Johnson gives insight into novels that have taken decades to write, the freedom of not caring about self revelation in fiction (‘you should write only about those things that you would never confide in anyone’, 191) and the problem of writing other people’s stories (‘it’s not tricky, you either do it or you don’t’, 191). Anita Desai talks about respecting the privacy of her characters (‘at a certain point your characters shut the door and vanish’, 92), the problem of writing ugly characters, and the cultural differences between living in – and writing of – India and America, countries with opposed perceptions of individual autonomy. Tracy Chevalier talks about the cultural divide between eras, discussing the difficulty of staying true to the social and psychological realities of her historical novels’ characters. Chevalier also voices irritation at ‘the arrogance’ of her male writing peers ‘who feel they can make a big sweeping statement about American culture’ in their novels (40). She sees books such as Franzen’s The Corrections as ‘big sky scrapers’ (‘the great penis in the sky’), unlike novels by writers like Atwood, which make sweeps of the psyche and are more like ‘horizontal art galleries’ (41). It is a great strength of this collection that such diverse writers – with such a diversity of concerns and opinions – speak so confidently alongside one another.
I usually read interviews with writers whose work I have already read and enjoyed, and I was unsure if I would relate to the Tin House collection as I only know a few of its subjects. The sense of genuine emotional and intellectual engagement that radiates from these interviews, however, plus their focus on universal issues such a politics and craft, has shown me how such a collection is, in fact, a really good way of broadening one’s reading horizons. I can think of no better recommendation than to say that The World Within has left me excited and inspired by writers whose work I am yet to read, but am now determined to.



Helen Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has had essays, short stories, book reviews and poems published in Australia and overseas.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo