Joanna Walsh on Sex Writing, Freud, and (the) Marx (Brothers)
In Conversation with the Writer-Editor-Illustrator-Founder of #Readwomen
British writer Joanna Walsh’s work pulls you in unexpected directions. Readers in the United States can now get a sense of her literary range with the recent publication of two books. Hotel, released as part of Bloomsbury’s “Object Lessons” series, shifts from the deeply personal to the abstract and intellectual and back again as it considers the space alluded to in the title. Walsh moves from observation of a specific period of her life to more wide-ranging cultural musings, repeatedly returning the reader to a sense of the author, to a sense of a body occupying the space about which she is writing. “During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave,” she writes on the book’s first page. And Vertigo, released by Dorothy, a publishing project, is a collection of memorably disorienting short stories. Their settings might be quotidian—a beach, a clothing store—but the perspective from which they are considered is anything but.
Walsh is also the fiction editor of 3:AM; she’s an illustrator, and she’s also behind the #Readwomen Twitter account. We spoke via Skype about her two latest books, as well as a handful of related topics. Though in Walsh’s hands, virtually any topic can be related—it’s what makes her work so compelling, and so impressive. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Tobias Carroll: Both Vertigo and Hotel recently came out in the US at about the same time. Were they written at roughly the same time, or is coincidental that they were published within weeks of each other?
Joanna Walsh: It’s coincidence, really. Vertigo is stories I’ve been writing the last few years. I had a very small story collection in the UK in 2013 and there are about four stories from that which have changed a bit, a little bit of rewriting. And then Hotel was commissioned. I had an essay which I wanted to write about hotels and I sent it to a few people and Bloomsbury were the people who were interested and asked me to go off and write a book proposal. It’s the essay that’s on Granta at the moment; it’s that and a bit more. So I sent them the first 4,000 words of Hotel and they said, “Yes, write a book proposal and get back to us.” So that was kind of—that was commissioned, and I wrote Hotel last year in quite a short period of time. And the Dorothy Project said they wanted to do the stories a little bit after that, and so I spent a lot of the early part of this year just kind of working on editing those and putting them together in different combinations.
TC: In terms of Hotel, how did the finished book differ from where you had expected to go with it?
JW: Grand hotels, I suppose, started to become a big thing in the 19th century about the same time as Freud and Marx were both writing. And so I was very interested in whether their theories could at all fit with hotels. I’d read quite a lot of Freud, and I realized very quickly that yes, Freud fits very well. A lot of his patients were hotel dwellers. They tend to be rich. Because a lot of them were Jewish, they didn’t tend to own a lot of land.
But then I thought about Marx, and I wanted to have kind of a materialist balance to this, a different approach, because you can get very into Freud and it can become all-encompassing and it’s very tempting only to think along those lines and not to think about things from the outside at all.
But then I realized I hadn’t really read that much Marx, so I decided instead I could make it about the Marx Brothers, and particularly this movie called Room Service. It’s a strange Marx Brothers film because they didn’t write it. It was a Broadway hit and they optioned it and made it into a film. So it’s a lot less funny than other Marx Brothers films, but the disjunction between the way they usually act and the way these parts are written by someone else is quite interesting.
TC: Vertigo has been described as a collection of linked stories. Was there one that sort of began that whole cycle, or did you realize there were these connections between them after you had written several?
JW: In this slightly early collection, which was published by a very, very tiny publisher in the UK, there are a few that treated things in a similar way. I sent a lot of my stories to Danielle Dutton at Dorothy, mostly because I’d read Nell Zink’s book and although our writing is very different I admire her writing so much and I admire the Dorothy Project and their sensibility.
Danielle and I had a lot of back-and-forth and realized that the ones that we were both interested in making a collection out of were ones that were really quite… I don’t always write realistic stories, but these are ones that are rooted very much in everyday life. But in a quite close focus, a reexamination of everyday life. So “Summer Story” was in that, “Half the World Over,” “And After”—those were in Fractals in the first place. So yes, they were stories about things that I’m very interested in and they collected themselves together, really.
TC: “Claustrophobia” is structured in a series of “Minus ___ Years” sections. Was that something you had in mind from the outset?
JW: It was something that I wanted to do. What I’m always trying to do is experiment with subjectivity, and a lot of that involves perceptions of time and the way that moments appear at the same time in our consciousness. We can’t have a conscious moment without some kind of understanding of what has happened to us before. I think repetition is something that’s very important in perception. So I was trying to find ways to do that. I’d read a few things that experimented with things going backwards or not quite going in a very linear direction.
I’m writing a kind of collection of essays about online relationships or about an online relationship and the way that that kind of affects your sense of identity and your sense of yourself in place because online tends to flatten things. Everything seems to be simultaneously available and you can skip between things. I guess that’s what we hear about the way people read now. They skip between lots of short things instead of progressing in a linear fashion through one long thing. I don’t know the creative possibilities of digital, because I don’t know if I’ve seen that successfully realized yet, but certainly I’m interested by the way that it interacts. It doesn’t necessarily make the way we think different, but it kind of links up with something which is already there: the non-linearity of our thought processes and of our perceptions and our identities.
TC: Do you see any parallels between the sense of displacement that can come from an online relationship and, say, the sense of displacement in space—and from one’s family—that you write about in Hotel?
JW: I certainly write a lot about travel and a lot about communication. So I write a lot about online communication in general and then a lot about people being thrown together in places where they can’t get away from each other.
TC: Do you generally begin a story with a character or with a setting or with sort of an image? I feel there’s a handling of material objects in some of the early stories of the collection that I found memorably disconcerting–the way that clothing is described in “Fin de Collection,” for instance.
JW: I’m interested in things. I was an illustrator for years. That was my first job really, apart from little jobs that I did like teaching and stuff. I keep notebooks and a lot of my stories happen when I find I’m writing about the same thing, I’m making notes about the same thing. So there are observations; there are thoughts. That’s the way they come together when I’m writing something. I’ll often check back through them to see if there is anything I’ve forgotten that’s going to work very well here because I am probably going to be writing about similar things. Things are going to come up. I don’t think, “Oh, right, he does something and after that . . .” It’s a backwards process. It’s an excavation process. It’s about finding things in what’s already there and what I’ve already noticed.
TC: Are there any experiences you’d like to write about where you haven’t yet determined what the best way to write about them would be?
JW: I’ve started writing another book I’m kind of excited about. I don’t know how long it’s going to be yet, if it’s going to be a novella or a novel, but it’s a long fiction thing. I’m always, always very, very interested in not being able to speak. I write a lot about this, about Dora, and I found I was very interested in Ophelia and she kept coming up. I didn’t want her to because when I was younger I kind of hated Ophelia because she dies and she’s also very decorative and very pretty and is unable to take any action except that. And so I didn’t like that, because I thought that was kind of a role model and she was presented as a tragic heroine and I didn’t like it at all.
But she keeps coming up all the time through not speaking. And interesting, you know, of course Dora was written through a man, through Freud, and Ophelia was even more fictional. Freud didn’t really have much control over Dora. She did leave his analysis, although he did have control over how he described her and how he broke her down. But it was both a controlling act and a generous act because he’s such a good storyteller. There’s so much ambivalence in how he writes Dora. It’s very interesting.
I think I like writing about the unspoken. I like writing about people who don’t speak. And there’s a really great bit in Hamlet where Gertrude describes Ophelia dying, and she says she was incapable of her own distress. She talks about going down the river as one incapable of her own distress. She couldn’t even understand how to describe the trauma that she was going through. And I’m very interested in that and interested in how a character would use language who was unable to use language to describe her own distress. And that’s the next thing I’m working on.
TC: In Hotel, there are allusions to the writings of Joan Didion and Wayne Koestenbaum. Were there any other writers whose work you had wanted to allude to, but weren’t able to?
JW: Well, probably Jean Rhys and E.M. Forster. I mentioned Forster briefly, but I think Rhys tells a very pertinent story. She writes about women in her novels, and her female characters often live in hotels. They’re called hotels, but they’re really guesthouses or boarding houses. They’re not at all glamorous. In the early 20th century it was actually cheaper to live in a hotel but it was fraught with rules. You usually lived with a landlady. And rather than the guest having a pleasurable experience it seems that the guests are very constrained by rules and very much by appearing in public and being able to appear in public at breakfast and dinner behaving in the right way. And also, you know, living in fear of being able to pay the rent. Of being found to be proper. To be clean. To be full of sexual propriety. Not to misbehave.
TC: If someone read Vertigo and Hotel, where would you suggest they go next in terms of reading your work?
JW: I have another book out with an English-language publisher in Berlin, Readux Books, and that’s a book of pornography. Well, it’s 9.5 pornographic fairy tales. I’m interested in writing sex. I’m interested in it because it’s one of those things that’s notoriously difficult to describe. It also does lots of things with language that I’m very interested in. It’s suggestive. It’s a speech act because it’s interested in doing something directly to you while you’re reading it as well as describing something, so it has several functions I’m interested in. And it’s fun and I like fairy tales.
I would like to say it was a fun thing to write, but in the end it turned out to be a very unsexy thing to write. You know, really it’s writing about sex rather than straightforward pornography and it’s not as much fun to write because I ended up having to write most of it when I was very tired and it was the end of December and I was slightly ill and I’d gone on a residency. I was on my own with my dog and it was freezing cold and I was in a place I didn’t know. And I didn’t have time to finish it off, so I ended up writing it very quickly during this time. But I’m very happy with it. I think it has quite a lot of things in it that, again, afterwards, you realize “Oh yes, now I realize why I was writing that.” And you discover things about what you want to write when you’re writing it. I discovered I wanted to write a lot about indeterminate sexuality, about metamorphosis, about physical changes. So there’s that.
TC: What do you generally read when you’re not writing?
JW: I read a lot of stuff online and then I go back to books and then I go between the two. I read, you know, a lot in translation because translation is certainly giving me a lot of models for writing. I’m also involved in a prize for writing by women in translation which I’m trying to set up with a few other people in the UK and Germany and Ireland, because the amount of fiction by women that’s translated into English in the UK—I think it’s the same in the States—is much lower than the amount by men.
I’m sure there’re a number of factors in that, including one of the main practices which is looking back at prize lists—it’s only recently that they’ve been anywhere near equal in the UK. The Women’s Prize for Fiction was set up in 1996 to counter this idea that most of the time it was only 10 percent women on prize lists. So you get all these writers who’ve won a number of prizes, and you know, obviously they’re the ones who are going to get translated and more of them are going to be men. So it’s one of those things that just happened and we need to do something about it.
I really love translation. If you’re looking for things I really like, I really like Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found. She’s a Korean writer. That’s her first book translated into English, and I think there are two more coming soon. I’m really interested in her, the way she plays around with time. She’s certainly been an influence on my work. Marie Ndiaye, who is a French writer living in Germany. I read the Lispector stories. They’re amazing. You know, Lispector is someone who’s doing great things that interest me very much or was doing things that interest me very much and she was extraordinarily skilled with the way she deals with interior voice and certain swerves and plot when indeed nothing seems to be happening at all. She’s very playful. I love that.
Photograph by Wayne Thomas.