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THAD: Do you ever listen to music when you're writing?
LYDIA: Oh, never, I can't listen to music of any sort when I'm writing because I just find it profoundly distracting. Because I play music. I played for years and years, and I had plenty of time to write. What I actually do is practice the piano for six hours at a stretch, instead of writing.
THAD: To warm up?
LYDIA: No, just to avoid writing. Writing is very frightening, difficult. And so I would work very hard on other things. And so, as a result I, when music is on, I really listen to it. I can't help myself. I listen so closely and really follow each line in the music.
THAD: I know your eldest son is interested in dee-jaying. Do you ever listen to his mixes? He does techno and house?
LYDIA: Well, he's done a lot of that, and I listen to them occasionally. I can see why he likes certain kinds of music, certain pieces. But I find it still to a be a little ... empty. And I just keep going back to Bach - I'm very satisfied by the complexity of Bach. My husband is much more assiduous about keeping up with what's being composed in the classical tradition now, and so he'll hunt down recent work that has come out of Russia or somewhere, and bring it home. And that's quite exciting.
THAD: Do you have anything above your desk, around you, that you have a fetishistic relation to, in terms of your writing?
LYDIA: My bulletin boards. I have three bulletin boards above my desk and it's just a hodgepodge. But that's really due to a lack of time. When you see these beautifully-designed studies and people really taking care to get things framed and arranged, and design a good system ...
THAD: You don't have any particular image?
LYDIA: Well, what I have on the bulletin boards are images that please me ... like postcards of towns in France. I'd say that's one, a fetish ... shepherds, little towns in France, pictures of Beckett. [laughs] I tried adding other pictures of writers I admire, but it didn't quite have the ring of authenticity! The ones of Beckett are the ones that I could live with happily.
THAD: Beckett has this reputation of being either a saint or a hermit, but I find him really funny, at least when I'm reading him. I find myself laughing aloud a lot. I don't expect to, and then I find it really funny. Do you? And do you read Beckett still?
LYDIA: I do. I remember having a very strange experience reading Beckett. I ought to be able to quote the sentence but of course I can't. It was one of those sentences in the novel, Watt, where he's working out a proposition, all the different ways in which something could be done - or all the different orders in which something could be done. And I started by laughing, and then in the middle of reading the sentence and in the middle of laughing I went directly to crying. This has never happened to me before or since.
LYDIA: But it made me, I mean, it was at that moment - you know how people always say laughter is close to tears?
LYDIA: That that actually happened. But of course that can't happen unless the humor is turning on something very serious.
THAD: A lot of times I find myself laughing aloud when reading your work but I'm not sure I should be. Do you think of yourself as a humor writer in that sense? Setting up a laugh? Or is it just something that comes out of ...
LYDIA: It just happens. It comes out of the material. It comes out of what the material is and how I see it emerging. And I never thought that I was a humorous writer until I began giving readings, when people started laughing. And they laughed consistently. And I guess that what I tried to do, what I thought I was doing was adopting a certain kind of view that was very sincere, even if it was kind of adopting another persona, one of being sincere.
THAD: So sincere, it's funny.
LYDIA: Yeah. If you adopt an odd persona, tell odd things sincerely and seriously, it can end up being funny. But I definitely never set out to think, -Now I'm going to write something funny.- I don't think I could.
THAD: I remember one part that struck me as funny was early on in The End of the Story, there's a line about - but I should set it up. [reads from novel]
If someone asks me what the novel is about, I say it's about a lost man, because I don't know what to say. But it is true that for a long time now I have not known where he is, after first knowing and then not knowing, knowing again and then losing him again. He once lived on the outskirts of a small city a few hundred miles from here. He once worked for his father, a physicist. Now he may be teaching English to foreigners, or teaching writing to businessmen, or managing a hotel. He may be in a different city, or not in a city at all, though a city is more likely than a town. He may still be married. I was told that he and his wife had a daughter and that they named her after a European city.
[laughs] That part about the city was really funny to me in the overall context of narrator's bitterness toward this man, and I remember thinking of these unflattering city names - Hamburg, Frankfurt ...
LYDIA: That was just taken purely from a friend of mine who did name his daughter after a European city. I don't remember whether it was Madrid or Paris or ...
THAD: Rome ...
LYDIA: ... right. And I guess it seemed, maybe I made a choice at that point in favor of humor, when I decided not to name a specific city. It was more funny, actually.
THAD: What about rewriting? Did you ever feel the pressure exerted by the Beat writers - that "first word, best word" approach? Where you felt guilty or inauthentic for revising?
LYDIA: Never. I played with that when I was in college. Just to put a long scroll of paper in the typewriter and start typing.
THAD: Like Kerouac did for On the Road.
LYDIA: Right. And I enjoyed it tremendously, but at the same time I was taking the Thesaurus and just writing a short piece about death or drunkenness that would include as many terms from the Thesaurus as I could fit in. So I was doing all sorts of experimenting.
THAD: So that's never been a problem for you, that notion of the true American art as raw and ...
LYDIA: No, because I'm really sort of the opposite and I really resist that idea. I respect and admire certain writers who go about it that way, but I can't myself. I tend to revise and revise and revise. Most of the time. I do believe in not stopping to think when you're actually writing. I believe in just charging straight ahead and letting it be a mess, and putting an X instead of a word if you can't think of what the word should be, but you know what rhythm you want.
THAD: I would never have thought that about you. It all seems so polished.
LYDIA: Oh, there are definitely moments when I use -XYZ- just to keep the momentum until the thing is finished in some form. And then I start going back, and I go back again and again and again, even into the galleys if I see a word that's wrong.
THAD: That obsessiveness certainly comes across in your work. A lot of your writing, the bulk of it, seems to be generated by trying to get more and more precise, to explain something correctly. Which runs counter to this writing workshop clich?é:show it, don't tell it.- That analytic component is what makes your work unusual these days.
LYDIA: Right, I think so.
THAD: What about creative writing programs?
LYDIA: Well, I think it's gone a little too far. I mean, it's good to have writing classes and for students to take them, but majoring in creative writing seems ... I think those years should be spent really learning hard information. Getting a deep knowledge of some field - literature, biology ... The same hours could be spent really packing it in.
THAD: Do you think it's possible for a writer to have a business on the side in some way, and not have to starve?
LYDIA: Oh, yeah. I actually am in favor of writers not earning a living from word-related things. When it comes up with students, I try to encourage them to pursue other careers.
THAD: Like what?
LYDIA: I don't know. For me, I always think of being a landscaper, being outdoors, working with plants ...
THAD: You've done an incredible amount of translating. Can you survive on that?
THAD: You translated Maurice Blanchot's novel, Death Sentence. He's so famous for being a recluse. Did you ever get to meet him?
LYDIA: I wanted to meet him very much. I felt a very close connection to him, and he wrote me very flattering, very humble letters, in terms of the leeway I had with his work. -These are your works, these translations are yours to make,- and so on. Part of that was just French formality and politeness. But part of it, in his case, was really genuine. So I felt this connection with him, but he really never saw anyone anymore, not even people who had known him for decades. But I thought he might make an exception just because I'd been translating his work. So I wrote him a note when I was going to Paris, saying I would be there on such-and-such a day and was staying at this hotel, and wanted to call him. I said I knew he rarely met anybody, but was hoping he would make an exception and so on. And I wrote it in plenty of time. But I went there and didn't hear anything from him and went back to England where I was staying. And once I was safely back in England, I received a letter from him there, saying that he was sorry, but he never met anybody. But I was amused at the way he carefully made sure it all stayed on English territory, and not in Paris. But I'm quite sympathetic to that.
THAD: What other writers do you admire?
LYDIA: One writer is Lucia Berlin. She's not very well known. But she's worked for years as an emergency room nurse's aide. Or something like that. So obviously she not only gets many sort of ready-made stories from that, but she is also closely in contact with people all day. As a contrast to the writing, when she's obviously going to be more or less solitary. I don't think she's doing it anymore, but she did it for years. And Grace Paley is a major one, in terms of short story writers.
THAD: What do you like about the work?
LYDIA: It's the understanding of human nature. The humor, the concision, the compression of the stories. The energy that comes from that compression. I heard her read the other night and there was one line in the story that I probably have slightly wrong, but it sort of sums up what I like about her work. She's quoting a character who is talking to the narrator and who says something like, -My father, may he rest in peace, is, thank God, dead.- The way that sentence is constructed shows you, even if I have it slightly wrong, it shows you the sort of tightness of control she has over a single sentence. And in that sentence she combines the contradictions and complexities and the humor. And I admire the way she's produced her stories. She hasn't written a great deal. She's been living, spent a lot of time living, and the stories seem to be fruit of a lot of rewriting and rethinking and great care in the craft.
THAD: You yourself, for a long time you were seen as a short story writer, and now you've published this novel, The End of the Story, which sounds so final. So how do you see yourself, as a short story writer or as a novelist?
LYDIA: As a short story writer who had a momentary lapse and who is back doing what she is supposed to be doing [laughs].
THAD: So that's it, no more novels?
LYDIA: Actually, I have one other long book, projected somewhere in the future, that I'm working on now, though very much in bits and pieces. And that, you could call it a novel in the form of a French grammar book. Or you could call it just sort of inter-generic - part grammar book, part commentary on language, part continuing story from chapter to chapter, with humorous asides. I don't have a name for it, but it's not a novel.
THAD: What about readers, audience, for that sort of project?
LYDIA: Well, that's what got me discouraged the other day. Every year, more readers of the sort who would appreciate this book are dying. Not that there aren't younger people coming along who would read it and appreciate it. But every year, say, an intelligent woman in her '70s now, who was maybe an English teacher or a classics teacher in her lifetime, wasn't a writer necessarily, but was an avid reader and an intelligent one, who would get a kick out of this book, is dying. And every year it takes me to write it, more of them are disappearing and I don't know if the younger generation ...
THAD: Because of the form ...
LYDIA: Well, yeah, partly because it's a language lesson. It poses as a language lesson and so it would appeal to all those - I think of them mainly as women, but men, too, I suppose - who loved to learn foreign languages and
travel. You know, the traditional sort of idea of getting into another culture.
THAD: But then again so much of your work is about the absolute present, the here and now, the given. And you don't seem at all in the category of writers who bemoan how beside the point their imaginations seem in the face of all the outrageous events that occur every day, that sort of make fiction redundant.
LYDIA: No, that's true. You certainly don't need some extraordinary event. Just taking a very mundane event and reporting on it in your own peculiar way of seeing it is extraordinary enough. That's very true. And, well, I don't know if this is an example of the mundane and how you write it, but say a photographer comes to take some pictures of you in your house ...
THAD: For example.
LYDIA: For example [laughs] ... which could be used for an interview. And you could just say, -He had to set up his equipment in the garden so he could do his work. We chatted, and he said he was from Germany, and we talked about Germany. But he's living in Miami now, so we talked about Miami." And you could spin it out in a sort of linear fashion, or you could put it into one sentence. You could start a story, for example, by saying, "Hey, there's a German from Miami in my garden!"
LYDIA: Now, that's all done with language. It's the same material. But you can either string it out along the lines of this boring, quotidian life, or you can condense it. It's all in how you write it. And that comes from who you are. And who you are comes from how you deepen your own interests. But I'm not sure you're going to be able to use that example for this interview.