Interview with James Lewelling

James Lewelling, author of Tortoise (Calamari, 2008), and I had been carrying on an email conversation for a while when it occurred to me that a good deal of what we were discussing would make for a great interview. So we decided to start one officially.

Q: Talk to me about your interest in what is nowadays called genre fiction: Wilkie Collins, for example. Dracula.

JL: When you go to a book store in Abu Dhabi (there are about five of them total), you tend to find the paperbacks divided into two groups: mass market airplane type fiction and nonfiction and, hopefully, a large section of Penguin classics (which happen to be about a quarter of the price of other books for some reason). Because of this, I've found myself reading a lot more classics than I think I would have otherwise. Also, I discovered that in general, I have much more enjoyed the Penguin Popular Classics (like Collins or Bram Stoker) than the straight classics. It makes you think twice about the superiority of "highbrow" literature. I mean the kind of thing one tends to read in literature classes, or more precisely the kind of book one reads with the expectation (shared by both reader and writer) that the writer is smarter or in some way more authentic than you are. Genre work is generally not like that. You are allowed as a reader to be more complicitous in the experience. You don't have to be ashamed of your expectations but are open to be pleased with having them fulfilled or even denied in an unexpected way. (That's the whole trick. Surprise is, for me, one of the great pleasures of narrative and can lead to all the other aesthetic effects. After all nothing focuses one's attention more than a surprise.) So I ended up revising my attitude toward genre. As a very self-consciously literary writer, I had pretty much looked down on genre and thought of the conventions that make up genre work as cheap tricks to be avoided or undermined at all costs. (Even though I myself first enjoyed reading as a teenager by devouring as many science fiction and adventure stories as fast as I possibly could.) But now, I take a friendlier attitude. I think "serious" literary writing should transcend genre more by working through it than against it. Take the idea of suspense, for example. People will deride a genre work as a "page turner." (Actually, if I remember correctly I think I insulted one of my teachers way back in grad school by describing a book of hers I had just read as a "page turner" but actually I meant it as a compliment.) And they may be right (think of Dan Brown's shameless use of empty suspense devices in the Da Vinci Code (e.g. "He could not have known that what he was about to see would change the face of history forever!" etc. . .) but that doesn't argue against suspense as a worthy aesthetic effect. It just says one ought to do it better. Really I think good literature should be at least as compelling as "genre" fiction often is on all levels and then go further. Think of Crime and Punishment. That's a page turner if there ever was one and a better book for its adroit manipulation of suspense. I do think there is a great value to writing books that explore aesthetic boundaries even at the risk of becoming unreadable. But literature is much larger than that. The perfect book (?) I think should master genre conventions in order to transcend them. Dracula, I think, comes very close to doing that (and in using what might have already been considered an outmoded form, the epistolary novel.)

Q: Book reviewers and critics seem too often to divide literary fiction from genre fiction (and to denigrate the latter) based upon subject matter (what I would call sociological concerns) rather than linguistic artistry. Do you agree or disagree? Do you find a writer like Collins as worthy of our attention as Dickens or Trollope or Hardy?

JL: I don't think I would distinguish the two in that way -- based on the subject matter. Like you, I would go more for artistry. I guess it depends on why one reads. I don't think there is anything wrong with reading fiction in order to learn something about "sociological" issues (e.g. life in different historical periods or the lives of people who are distant from the reader sociologically, or critical perspectives on the social life close to a reader.) Fiction is great at bringing those things to life and probably in general not much more misleading than nonfictional works on the same subjects. However, I don't find that to be a more "literary" concern than reading in pursuit of aesthetic experience. Just the opposite, I think of fiction (both in writing and reading) as an artistic rather than documentary or educational experience. And I think that's where fiction really lives -- in the aesthetic pleasure it brings rather than as a "window to the world" or a very sophisticated kind of journalism. After all that is what makes fiction fiction -- that both the reader and the writer understand that it's not true. (And what a great game it is! Far better than the banal and I think, in the end, sterile, game of "I am more true than you.") I haven't read any Trollope or much Dickens (I confess), but I do love both Hardy and Wilkie Collins. I don't think Collins should be denigrated for being more fun than Hardy. You can play and play well in a major or minor key. Or more to the point, some of the very best books I've ever read (like Beckett's Unnamable or Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds and quite a few others) manage to be works of genius without being "about" anything at all.

Maybe the critic's distinction is more based on how a work plays with the convention of what you might call "representational verisimilitude." I mean by that the way a lot of what might be called "serious" (worthy) literature claims to tell stories that represent what is actually going on in the world at a given time and place. That heightens the transparency of language, obscures the willing suspension of disbelief and gives stories a certain kind of emotional weight (which the work may or may not deserve). I mean it's much easier to put over a sentimental or pretentious narrative on a "real world" subject that people feel they ought to be interested in before they have even picked up the book. (The recent string of initially successful but later found to be fraudulent memoirs is instructive on this point, I think). Other works embrace the game of fiction and feel little need to make such claims. In any case, in my opinion, what makes a work great is how well it masters (as opposed to being mastered by) whatever conventions it invokes to create an aesthetic effect.

Q: You and I have talked about our reactions to what we have called "coarseness" in modern fiction. One can take this to mean an abundance of profanity and obscenity, to be sure, but perhaps one should also include an overly nihilistic approach to life in general, a kind of degradation of the human condition. Talk about your feelings in this matter. What constitutes gratuitous coarseness to you? Are there writers you find too coarse, or writers who use coarse material artistically? Do you think there is any interplay here between books and movies?

JL: I guess I think "coarseness" in all the ways you've described it above had at one time (say up through the first half of the 20th century; Henry Miller, all those French guys etc. . .) this iconoclastic cachet to it, more or less as a reaction to the perceived "politeness" of 19th century literature. And I think you will read books written even now that try to invoke that cachet. (To be harder, grittier, coarser than what one, supposedly, expects from a book). But I don't know; at this point, it seems to me that it's pretty much all been done and in all media as far as I can tell. I guess the idea of using coarseness as a form of transgression has lost force for me as a reader anyway. In fact, it's become a cliché. On the other hand, the coarse aspects of human experience are completely fit subjects for literature as they have been forever (think Rabelais or Chaucer or Euripides) but not for "shock" value or as some guarantee of "authenticity."

Q: What about Tortoise's form? Did you stumble into the prominent usage of repetition, which both echoes an ancient writer like Homer and suggests a perhaps more contemporary insistence on "nailing things down," creating an anchor which keeps the narrator from flying away into space? Or was that a deliberate choice related more properly to style and voice?

JL: It was definitely a stylistic choice. Repetition is just too good a device not to play with. I became enamored of repetition, I think first, in reading Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Something Happened a long time ago. In those books, the repetitive voice gives the narrations a manic, absurd, kind of on-the-edge -of-insanity quality that I found very compelling. (And of course, the feeling of being trapped in an obsessive loop of thought and language.) I also like the way Beckett uses repetition, but with his work what struck me more than the obsessive quality was his rhythms. He sets up rhythms and plays on small variations of tone, diction and sound. (I'm thinking of The Unnamable). It's a lot like listening to jazz. (Really, if you read the book aloud some day, you'll be amazed at how carefully he orchestrates the variation of inflection from sentence to sentence. He can do that partially because of repetition. If the actual words stay the same, the reader is encouraged to look elsewhere for the small changes that create the narrative pull.) Later I came to read Thomas Bernhard's work. It's amazing how he uses repetition for quite a few things but most strikingly, for me on my first encounter, to build momentum in narrations where not much at all happens in the conventional sense. I remember feeling, while reading Concrete, that it was like riding on a train. For a long time, the scenery just creeps by but all of the sudden (without knowing precisely when you changed gears) you find yourself moving at 100 miles per hour. (Again it's using repetition to manipulate rhythm. Once you get a rhythm established by repeating some phrase or group of phrases, you can vary the amplitude, so to speak, by varying the distance between repetitions. It works like a drum.) Of course, it all goes back in some way to Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose etc. . ." Repetition emphasizes the plastic (meaning non referential, non transparent) qualities of language. It gives language back its physicality. I think when that gets pitched to an extreme, you get this absurd mystical pay off where you are looking at these words you know but they just don't seem to mean anything. It's especially interesting to me if the phrases are commonplace or even clichés. It's kind of like discovering a piece of furniture in a room you've been living in for ages but never noticed before. It can be very funny and a bit horrifying too. So in Tortoise, I tried to be aware of all these qualities of a repetitive voice and take the best advantage of them that I could.

Q: What about the layout of the book, in which the sections are separated by white space rather than indented like paragraphs? Is this a nod to normal Internet-based layout, or is it a way of breaking the reader's attention into discrete pieces of narrative?

JL: Definitely the latter. I like to think very consciously of paragraphs as formal units. For me, the paragraph in prose is kind of like the verse is in poetry, and for that reason, I like to set them apart from each other.

Q: Tell us a bit about your daily life. You live in Abu Dhabi, yes?

JL: I do. I'm kind of a house husband. My wife, Lisa Isaacson, teaches literature here at Zayed University. I teach part time at New York Institute of Technology's Abu Dhabi campus at night and take care of my two little girls in the afternoons. I write in the mornings when they are at school.