A Literary Round Table With Michelle Latiolais
Something Between a Lit Celebrity Roast and a Best Case Post-Reading Q&A Session
Michelle Latiolais is a writer long admired by her peers, but one whose work has yet to find the wider audience it deserves–in part because Latiolais has little time or interest in self-promotion. There’s no website, no social media game, no careerism. She’s too busy worrying the only thing worth worrying: what’s on the page. That’s where we come in. We figured we’d worry the bullshit for her, because not only is she one of our favorite writers, she’s one of our favorite people: generous to a fault, lovely as the dinner parties she throws and tough as the advice she gives. Her latest, She, is a whizzing L.A. cloverleaf of a book, as beautifully wrought as it is heart-wrecking. But how best to celebrate and promote it? After some mostly-idiotic back-and-forthing, we settled on something between a lit celebrity roast and a best case scenario for a post-reading Q&A session: an interview given by the ringers in the room, the writers in the audience, all of them who, like us, have been moved by Michelle’s work.
–Matt Sumell & Max Winter
One of the layers in your work that I’ve always found compelling is the consistent meditation on words as signifiers with multiple and often conflicting significations. Rather than serving as digressions, these reflections perform useful work in developing characters and even sometimes advance the plot. How do you manage to enact rigorous linguistic decoding without it turning arid or losing the thread of your storytelling?
When I was a very young child, maybe four or five years old, well before my parents’ divorce–which happened or began to happen when I was six–I was standing with my father, looking at some ruins, broken columns with their capitals overturned on the ground. It must have been a painting, but in fact I don’t remember that part, don’t remember whether we were actually in some kind of park, or even salvage yard, but there were ruins and I said that I liked looking at them. My father said, yes, and do you know there’s a wonderful word for that feeling, or that pleasure in looking at a fallen time. Not a destroyed time, not rubble from a war, but just the slow and steady and not particularly unkind work of time on the things humans build. Desuetude, he said, he taught me, and because I had a lisp as a child because of an uncut frenum, he made me say it, but I would have said it anyway, and many, many times, because it told me that things inside me, states of being that would become increasingly complex, and increasingly difficult to articulate, had words. Words! And to my young mind that honored something inside me, gave me a credibility with myself.
In “Dentist,” instead of just saying that his office is furnished in Danish Modern, you use the actual names of the designers of various pieces Hans Wegner or Kurt Ostervig etc. Is this an extension of the value you place on accuracy in language in general? Though some authors might do this to establish authority, I feel there is something else at play for you.
Leave it to you, Alice, to fathom a deeper energy in specificity, in naming the actual makers. So many issues are at work here, not the least of which is the fact that the artists, and what they specifically envisioned and designed and made, were there doing all of that first, and then someone (or ones) ran in and threw a blanket label over it all, Danish Modern or Magic Realism, terms which mean exactly nothing specific. But also, this dentist, he would know who had designed what, and he would have chosen based on discretion; he’s a perfectionist, and has been a very fine dentist. The term Danish Modern seems to abide, and would actually seem to mean something now, in the world of this story, but who knows—other than the museum curators, or high-end furniture makers—who the hell Hans Wegner and Kurt Ostervig are/were? Who comes to this dentist any longer? Who even recognizes all the elegant and exacting standards by which he practiced dentistry?
STUART DYBEK & ELIZABETH TALLENT:
SD: I’m wondering about the effect of lyric poetry on your work.
ET: I am struck by your style’s indifference to convention. Your cadences are unmistakably yours, the way a poet’s are, and your syntax has the freshness and force sought after in lyric poetry. I know that at the University of Colorado you took a double MFA in both poetry and fiction. Are there aspects of your style you see as reflecting poetic practice or the significance, to you, of certain poets?
I remember when I first read poems by Gerald Manley Hopkins. I almost couldn’t get enough, and I understood what he was doing because I heard it. But I wasn’t a very good Ph.D. student, because I could not have cared less what it was called, sprung rhythm, whatever, whatever, listen to that language:
Sometimes a lantern moves along the night.
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
And the visual evocation; and the person seeing; the thoughts, questions, and night as a vast body of water, all down darkness wide; and the wading light; and the cameo moment or image that the human eye can’t help but be interested by; and all of the Ws, wonder, where, with, wide, wading; and this has a riveting effect, too, a staying power or register, a sound being tapped over and over that makes the ear attend. I was just gaga.
So many great writers started as poets, William Faulkner, John Hawkes, Charles Baxter, Ben Lerner, John Williams! Oh, the double MFA came from the University of California at Irvine, where James McMichael taught me how to read.
SARAH SHUN-LIEN BYNUM:
She captures in a nearly uncanny way what Los Angeles feels like to me at this moment–everything from the rhythms and textures and lights and smells to the ever-fluctuating sense of bleakness and plenitude–and it also made visible to me lives that go largely unnoticed, lives happening at the edges of the city, as I think of it, and at the periphery of my vision. I’m wondering what are the books that have defined this city for you?
My father suggested I read John Rechy’s City of Night many, many years ago now. It’s a powerful and painful novel, or book, and it has a two-part or two-level structure. I wish I had it here at the house so I could make sure my memory is serving me, but the way all of the different characters are in that book, unforgettable characters. And there’s a daytime in the book, sure, the fucking sun always always always shining, and there is a city of night, a demi-monde, a population of people trying to live with some gram of honesty about who they are, what they want. It starts with a childhood dog dying, too, and a Catholic mother, and who gets to go to heaven, and who is shut out . . . and the book is a painful reckoning. That novel was very powerful for me, and I’m so glad no one ever said “she’s not old enough to read that, or that’s about homosexuals and crossdressers,” et cetera, et cetera, and so heaven forbid I read about a world different from my own. My father just said, City of Night will interest you.
The arrangement of the stories, the structure of the book, the title itself, She—and its falling off on the far right side of the book—the absence of a table of contents, the breathless transitions: Did the book invent itself? Put another way, did the subject inform its structure?
I don’t know that the book invented itself. I’d hate to give the little fucker that much credit, but I did try to answer to what it seemed to want to be, and of course so many, many books gave me license: The Wild Palms by William Faulkner, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway, Green Apples by Eudora Welty, The Basement by Kate Millett, The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard, and so many pieces in those two amazing Avant Pop anthologies by Larry McCaffery. My friend Steven Moore gave me those many years ago and they blew my mind, how much gorgeous brazenness with form and language.
There are writers, I’m sure, with very organized minds, who know beginning, middle and end, and how that’s all going to unfold . . . but that sure ain’t me. And it took me a while to just give in to the cesspool method of my mind, to just follow all of those eddies about until I began to see some sort of consistency or likeness or organizational schema that might have just enough structural integrity to lend coherence, to aid coherence.
I view She as more a novel than a collection of novella and stories. Do you? Is this a world that you will revisit and if so, may I go with you?
But Percival, you’re the mind-blower of all time when it comes to structure, or to letting a book complicate itself in the manner it damn well pleases to, or needs to! I learned a whole lot of chutzpah from you! I learned from you that a book could be going along, behaving itself . . . and then explode in the reader’s hands; I learned a book could stand up in my soup and spit it back at me before I had time to close my eyes; I learned from you a book could make me laugh and the oxygen I took in laughing cut like knives. If I start writing examples of what your writing has taught me this answer would go on for days.
I think I’m more and more loving the word “book.” For years now I’ve used the word piece, as in this piece of writing, rather than slotting it into genre or some catch-all word for form. First off I don’t care what anyone calls it, though yes, yes, I understand there are certain contracts between reader and author that get set up, or supposedly so, when the reader is informed that this is a memoir, this is non-fiction, or this is a short story. Is that always a good thing, though? Is the reader then saddled up on the wrong horse? Or is the reader sitting backwards in that saddle? Or maybe going on horseback into that book’s world is total insanity! I don’t think people should read product; I think people should experience as closely as possible an individual mind’s language, and experience the work of that language on its own terms. So often a work suffers or readers are belligerent about that work because it doesn’t satisfy some set of expectations created by its marketing or its labeling. That’s a really discounting, if not violent, way to read. And this is just one of the reasons we have a very self-righteous population of readers who only read history, or biography, the real deal, the genres where the facts reside, the hard truths. That’s a profound misunderstanding of what serious fiction does. Many fine historians, or writers of non-fiction understand profoundly the ability of narrative to capture much more closely the complexity of a situation, an event, individual characters within that event, all the various chemistries at work.
But, for me, She is much more of a novel than anything. I loved that William Faulkner considered Go Down, Moses a novel.
Raymond Carver once described fiction as bringing the news from other worlds. I thought of this in terms of She, how this young woman boards a bus in pursuit of other worlds, other stories. But for her it’s not casual—the experiences she has with each of the other characters and the city of Los Angeles become the matter she uses in her reconstruction. Can you talk about how you thought about the ways in which all many worlds come together in one life? Do you think of this as a story of undoing (conscious removal of the old place, the family) or of creation? Or both?
She’s learning as fast as she can learn, and from very small events often, but a long passage that I felt very invested in but also very embroiled by was her meeting with Julien Stoke, a character who registers in her only in certain ways but who is primarily a complete conundrum to her. She knows everything she’s been taught about homosexuality, but of course, she has never met a gay person. She can’t read him, his inflections, his sense of humor, his refusals—she just really can’t fathom what she needs to fathom here. And in my mind, absolutely Julien Stoke is going to take her in, sudden as her appearance in his life is, he would never let her spend the night in the garage or anywhere outside. For how many years have gay people had to secretly find their community! Runaways are not unusual in the gay community, I surmise. I think the reader may be more resistant to her walking in that house than Julien would ever be. Now, Oscar might throw her out, but Julien Stoke wouldn’t, but she can’t understand him at all. I wanted the mash-up of the two worlds, and her upbringing can’t be removed immediately. She’s negotiating her past within her new present as fast as she can, but she can’t shed everything, and what she really can’t shed is the nasty charge, the hiss of the word “abomination.” And I wanted to see if I could write this fairly quiet scene, and fairly long, I don’t know, perhaps too long, but there’s this word menacing the passage, floating below the passage, and it’s a word that she doesn’t even really understand the meaning of, or what on earth is being called that, and yet it puts her back on the street and at the close of day.
Some readers get confused and/or annoyed by a story or narrative that refers to a character mostly or even exclusively by he or she, the pronoun, instead of a proper name. I am not among them. I think when a writer can do that and do it well, it somehow creates a simultaneous sense of strange intimacy and something that’s alluringly inscrutable. Did using “she” in this book just seem, at first, the natural way to go, or did it evolve, and how do you answer people who (may) ask you about it?
There’s several questions here, and the first one about readers and what a reader might get fussed over came up a lot this summer for me. I think workshops have a lot to answer to with respect to how writing is being received. I think workshops are creating policemen instead of receptive readers. I have no interest in reading a product tailor-made for me, which is something that would have to begin in presumption. A presumption of who I am, what I want, and how I think. I don’t even know that, let alone somebody writing a novel or a short story to this set of presumptions about “the reader.” I want to read the emanation of an individual mind; I don’t want to read a product, and I certainly don’t want to read the product of twelve people around a table. That is terribly confused food.
I am a real “roll-over” of a reader; I’ll roll over for anything in writing if it’s done on its own terms and done forcefully and with purpose. (I have that phrase courtesy of some auto mechanics who once told me how they referred to women. “You can tell them that a car needs practically anything and they’ll roll over for it.” I was suing their bosses.) I’ve decided that being a roll over is a real virtue when it comes to reading the work of others. Since when do we get invited to dinner and tell the host what to cook?
Your characters are often so gifted with their hands, with skills— sewing, flowers, food making, cleaning, often domestic skills acknowledged as art. This creates a satisfying tactile life on the page, but it also speaks to the tactile life off the page. Do you think writers benefit from time working with their hands? What is the relationship between writing and craft, hands-on craft? Is there one?
I know so many writers who are also fine pianists or . . . do you know the surrealist drawings of Rikki Ducornet? So stunning. I love knowing that Gertrude Stein had a box of buttons that she just loved running her fingers through. But really, I think writers benefit from just about anything and everything if they’re paying attention, and if they’re then capturing perception on the page. Not just the right words, not just the lexical, but the perception with respect to something. Tactile life, as you so wonderfully say, Aimee. That usually starts in the world and then gets used or translated to the page. Or it gets fathomed on the page. I am a real idiot and I really need the page in order to work things out, to understand something, or to think about it.
Something else, too. Process. Work has process, and wonderfully so, and writing is a constant participation in a process, but it’s infinitely mutable, too, which is a virtue and a real menace. So, I think it’s valuable for writers to have something to do with a beginning, middle and end. That line of preserved peaches on the tile countertop, as yet unlabeled, the jars still wet from the canning kettle—that’s very satisfying, and very good, too, if you haven’t decided that you’ll never eat sugar again, or some such aversion-of-the-week. But writing is never done, or it is, but it’s not as good as it could be, or perhaps this? perhaps that? the what-ifs, so crazy making. It’s always a frontier, and one must take up the responsibility of that frontier, how to see it, how to preserve it, what to make of it. That’s ever exciting, but that’s ever exhausting, too.
So, perhaps writing about work is a kind of wish fulfillment for me, something that a character does and does well, and is defined by . . . but it’s not writing, the work of writing, which just never leaves one alone.
What trends have you noticed recently about female narrators in fiction? What did She respond to, or carve out space for, as you were working?
I love this question, and perhaps have too much to say about it, and so I’m going to be brief and incendiary. I am reading a lot of utterly hapless, hopeless, almost moronic characters who are getting referred to as female or women, or sometimes as girls . . . but they happen to be in their late 30s. Dipped in pulchritude and set out on parchment paper to solidify.
Images in your writing often have an uncanniness while at the same time belonging naturally in the lives and work of your characters—I think, for example, of the campus chapel transformed into an enchanted clearing in the woods by the floral designer in A Proper Knowledge. Luke, the novel’s protagonist, “reads” the floral installation for the character of its maker. I bring this up because I think it’s got something to do with your characters’ way of being charged with an unusual degree of potential revelation. They have the promisingness, not of fictional characters who seem designed to be understood, but of compelling people encountered in the real world, whom you may or may not succeed in knowing more intimately. Can you talk about the part image plays in your conception of character?
I think in the presence of Elizabeth Tallent, both the person and her writing, it is best to shut the fuck up and just listen to her, and to read her, and to read her over and over again, and to try to learn. That’s what I did. If there is anything in my writing, it’s because Elizabeth Tallent taught me what could be done, by example, and then by her incandescent abilities as a reader. I went to school on the story “Prowler” in Honey, and a few years earlier I had gone to school on the story by William Faulkner “Barn Burning.”And I was gleaning ways by which I could capture my perceptions, which often seemed completely alien . . . and different than what others seemed to be seeing. I just always thought I was remarkably dumb, and that abides, but I also began to have some confidence that what I was actually trying to capture on the page—all the many warring layers within any human psyche—might be worth capturing, might be valuable as a study of human ability or disability.
Maybe that’s another mistake workshops often bring about, “consistent characters.” Isn’t the achievement multitudes, to quote Whitman, not homogenization, which is lovely for milk, but just odd for a human character?
What are the destroyers of the pleasure of writing, or what are the destroyers of (the pleasure of) writing?
I have no idea what you might mean, Christine, by the “pleasure of writing.” I find it painful, never as good as it might be, time consuming, and then, even then, not ever enough time spent. It’s menacing, won’t let one sleep, insists on its importance when one is pretty sure absolutely nobody will “like it.” Then a copy editor says, “The writer fails to distinguish between which and that.” Oh gee, yeah, I’ll get right on it, watch me restrict a few clauses! And one is screaming in one’s mind, “anything else, anything at all, you might have thought felicious, maybe my excellent use of the indefinite article.” Pleasure? Christine, I’m struggling here.
SARAH SHUH-LIEN BYNUM:
How do you remain so attentive to your students while also making work of your own, which is so clearly the product of intense reflection and close observation and a deep interiority that I imagine is not quickly or easily accessed? How do you shift between the modes of teaching and writing?
I feel squeamish answering this question, because to do so suggests I earned this question, or am accurately described herein . . . but I really had some excellent mentors, starting with John Williams (Stoner, Butcher’s Crossing, Augustus) and if I mentor well, it’s because I was mentored so well by others who came before me, and who were remarkably generous, Oakley Hall and MacDonald Harris, too.
I also can’t answer this question for other reasons. I will just sound tired, and the writers who have come through the Programs In Writing do not make me tired; they invigorate me, they feed me, they make me laugh all of the time, they delight me, their work delights me, and sure, sometimes, occasionally, they exhaust me, but they are lifeblood. So, my tiredness, my fatigue, has to do with old truisms, who in the institution is supported, who isn’t, who is used up and spit out, who gets research funds, who doesn’t, who is blah, blah, blah. Let’s just leave it there. My sister said to me when she first read She as a manuscript, “do you know how much there is about education in this book?”
I don’t think I do shift between the modes of teaching and writing well at all. I don’t answer the phone for long periods of time, and I hide, but I sometimes go for months without being able to get in my head enough to write my own writing.
GLEN DAVID GOLD:
Here’s something that comes up both as workshop leader and as solo person trying to put words on the page: “All the best writers are a tangle of fear of failure and fear of success.” Discuss.
Maybe that’s our job, to make art of failure, to understand our own and our characters’, to map how it came about, to experience it again and survive it better this time, or be utterly destroyed anew . . . but be able to get up out of the chair and walk to the window and look out, oh, the first crocus, look.
I once had a fortune cookie that said, “You will never have to worry about money,” and I thought, well, true, I’ll never have any to worry about! I can honestly tell you that it has never occurred to me to be fearful of success, though I’ve thought many times of Louise Bourgeois saying that she was very happy she didn’t become successful or famous—can’t remember which word she used—until she was in her eighties. Just instinctually that means to me that one wants psychic space in order to work, and that success can really mess with psychic space. It’s in your head, and can be very damaging.
It seems to me that if a workshop’s purpose is to scrutinize the work at hand, a good workshop leader also keeps one eye on the writer that may one day be. How do you negotiate these two things, the present-day work and the future writer, at a time of such disparity?
No one writes 24/7, or if one does, there’s a whole set of other problems. So absolutely, remaining very, very cognizant of the human lives doing the work, that matters to me a great deal. And I think, last time I checked, they’re dependent upon each other, and often in very deep and painful and troubling ways. The writer has to do all of the work of the writing; I can’t help much there. I can read, but I can’t help with the writing. Nor do I really have any responsibility for the writing. I have tremendous commitment to the writer, but the responsibility for the work is all theirs. I do try to listen, by which I mean really listen, and I constantly tell myself to shut up and listen. I think it’s my better life as a professor, and now one getting on in age, to listen more, to profess less, to speak less, to guide more carefully, more quietly . . . no, no this cliff over here, go over this one, not that one.
She is mostly in close third person, with each chapter belonging to one character’s “mind,” but two chapters near the end are in first person. I’m really interested in the effects of each kind of narration, and in the thought process behind the decision. Would you talk about the decision to switch to first person near the end, and then return from it again?
What were the books that were on your mind while you were writing She—not just direct influences but the books that were hovering around?
I was so worried in writing “Spa,” that she would just be so hard, so tough, mean even, and she’s really, really sad, and smart, she’s smart, and part of her sadness is how cavalier young women are about their lives, their opportunities. She’s lost someone she really loves, and who loved her, and loved all of that mind of hers, but also kept her tempered, or not tempered, that’s not the right word, but kept her incisive without heat. Now she’s burning herself up, her life is, her animal anguish at the loss of him. Anyway, I just thought that if I wrote her from the inside all of this would be more understandable. I wrote “Spa” originally in that close third, and then I didn’t think it worked; it became accusatory, judgmental of her—we could push her away too easily. Maybe we still can.
And then in projecting the she of She into the future, I did not think she would be cavalier about her life in any way, or her opportunities, nor would she make restrictive decisions for another young girl or young woman, but I imagined that the woman of “Spa,” wouldn’t appear sympathetic to her, or as someone who could provide cloister and succor and wisdom. The woman of “Spa” could, and she would most definitely, but would she appear that way to a young women? I have fathomed for many years how women become the enemy of women, are perceived as such. And are, very often, unfortunately.
I don’t think I can ever reconstruct the textual terrain—it’s always a bit crazy around here, and then there’s a point in which I make myself finish all 10 books I’ve started. That’s not an exaggeration. There are always lots of manuscripts here, too, which engage me fully as a writer and a reader, and that’s very different than “just” reading. I do know I was prowling about in John Bowlby’s two books, Attachment and Loss, because Elizabeth had sent them to me, and pretty regularly I just pick up Dubliners and read it again.