On Solitude, Compromise, and Publishing That First Novel
Merritt Tierce in conversation with Anuk Arudpragasam
Merrit Tierce is the award-winning author of the much and justly praised Love Me Back; Anuk Arudpragasam is the author of a gripping debut called The Story of a Brief Marriage. They recently spoke about solitude, compromise, and the jump from writing to publication.
Merritt Tierce: Your book arrived in the mail one afternoon. I am routinely uncaptivated by contemporary fiction and deeply conflicted about blurbs; I did not remember if I had agreed to read the book or notice by whom it had been sent, nor did I know you or of you, but I was no doubt reluctant to return to my own writing.
I was standing on my front porch. I opened the book and read the first paragraph and then shut the book. A scientist planted in my bushes—in a blurb-blind, let’s imagine—to research the blurbing habits of fiction writers would have seen this same sequence from me many times before. But this time I had not shut the book out of disinterest. I had shut it because I had a physical reaction to what I’d read. I had goosebumps. The handle of my front door looked different. I felt afraid. I was thinking something like I will read that story but it wasn’t a thought in words so much as it was a physical reality inside my body. Which I’m coming to realize is what I want from fiction. I want it to jar me. To rough me up, even. To not be gentle. In the great blurbwashing of American letters many books are advertised to do this, to terrify or haunt or move, but they really don’t.
The first passage of your book commits to the physical, to trauma, to a frame of reference in which a six-year-old who is about to have his arm amputated is considered safe. Your beginning is a six-year-old who is about to have his arm amputated and has already, previously, lost a leg. All right: this is war. There’s no easing into it. No turning away from it. Yet in your storytelling the gruesome and the tender are married, briefly, in line after line. Here I could say My question is how do you do that? but that’s not an honest question—I think it’s simply what you do as a writer, and to ask you about the mechanism of it would be to deflect or deny the art of it. I think my real question is how do you live? With the sensitivity that can then create, in words, a feeling so deep and real in another human–?
Anuk Arudpragasam: Thank you for saying these things, Merritt, but it’s difficult to know what to do with praise, and difficult not to respond obliquely. The depiction of violence in the novel was something I thought a lot about. There were all sorts of questions, as you can imagine—when do depictions of violence become prurient, when do they become exploitative? And then depictions of this kind of violence often involve a kind of posturing on the part of the writer, who in staging such violence in their work is saying to the reader, in effect, that they know more about the real world, how hard and cutting it can be, that they are going to show the soft, naive reader what life is really like. I was aware of this false knowingness as I wrote that amputation scene—my life is a life of privilege, and I only know of such realities second-hand—but at the same time that scene was necessary, I felt. I did not want to dwell on the violence of the war in and of itself, but at the same time I felt I had to, since this violence formed the context of the specific conditions of life I wanted to write about. It had to be clear that this was what was happening to the humans I was writing about, to the members of my community that historical circumstance had separated me from and whose condition was one this book was attempting and, inevitably, failing to understand. So I started with violence and ended with violence, but most of the novel takes place in the space between these violences.
I’m not sure I can tell you how I live, but I can say that the hours I am able to write each day are the hours in which I feel most unconstrained by the falsity and compromise that is an inescapable part of participating in this world, and which neither I nor anyone I know has been able to avoid. The fact that in writing I am able distance myself, temporarily, from this falsity and compromise means that I value this time very greatly, and as a consequence that there is a certain impatience in my writing, an impatience for the state in which the so-called real world is left behind. This impatience is present in many of the writers I most admire, like Robert Musil, Nathalie Sarraute, or Peter Nadas, though in many writers I admire, say W.G. Sebald or Javier Marias, it also coexists with a kind of patience, a patience that knows that what one is looking for is not a moment ultimately but a mood, a mood that comes of its own accord. I lack this kind of patience, and it is something I am trying to cultivate now in my writing.
MT: Last week I met a man who used to be a merchant marine. He worked on boats for some years to save money and then bought a cabin and the land under it in Alaska. He lives there with two dogs and reads and writes. He reads two hundred books a year. I have imagined this kind of deliberate exit as the only path away from falsity and compromise, the only way toward the noncontiguous state of patience–
(I had been writing to you from a small study room at a university library where I am not a student, and a student just knocked to say she had reserved the room. I feel often that my life as a writer is a continuous performance piece in which I am searching for the cabin of patience, and in each next scene either I have just entered it and must leave, or I discover an empty glade in the reputed location, or I forget or can longer defend why I sought residence there.)
A writer I respect, who spent 17 years writing in his garage before his work was noticed, has advised me that finding the mood you mention—fostering that patience—requires a kind of self-hypnosis. After all this time he can, at will, drop into it. So I think your effort—to cultivate the patience that can allow the mood—is necessary; and thinking about this effort may contribute something significant to my own concern with understanding what the practice of writing is. I do not use the word practice in the sense that is meant when one says “the practice of medicine” or the “practice of witchcraft”—I do not refer to a system or vocation. By practice I mean the repeated exercise or action that develops a skill. I have thought that to play tennis I would take lessons, learn the basic forms, and then devote myself to perfecting my execution of those forms. This would be the practice of tennis. I have been unable to construct an analogous set of habits, regarding writing, though I am desperate to. The standard wisdom—to be a writer, write—strikes me as crude, useless, and true. Because of course one must write. But I do not think that to write a quantity of words, about anything, motivated sometimes only by obligation, would of itself cause refinement; yet all ideas come out of the work itself, another artist has said. Yes. In your book you create sculptures of sensuality—you present the routines that attend biology (trimming one’s nails, bathing, defecating)—as almost stand-alone objects, made of words. I like imagining these as etudes. Practice. I wonder what you consider the practice of writing to be?
AA: The ideal of complete withdrawal from the world is appealing, but on serious consideration it is, of course, something of a fantasy. I’m highly fascinated by all the rejections of the world found in the various Indian religious traditions, but I can’t help but feel that at the end of the day our language, thoughts, habits, and memories are constituted by the so-called real world. We carry the falsity and compromise of the world with us into isolation—the falsity and compromise of the societies in which we live, the falsity and compromise we had to learn in order to survive or participate in these societies. Physical isolation in and of itself, I feel, does not get rid of this falsity and compromise. What’s true in the fantasy of withdrawal though is that something really does become visible in the silence of solitude that is important to understanding the falsity and compromise of the world around us. I suppose this is what you had in mind when you mentioned that man in Alaska. Unlike him, though, I don’t think physical isolation is necessary for this silence, at least not complete isolation. What is the point of complete withdrawal from the world? So much of what matters to us is found in the world—we want to leave behind falsity and compromise, so we can be alone with what matters to us, but by leaving the world behind completely (if that were possible) we leave behind both. There is something too violent about completely rejecting the world—Buddhism is the paradigm of this kind of violence. The withdrawal I favor is partial and temporary: I do it by closing the door to my room and, if there is sound entering from outside, putting on ear plugs.
I don’t want to romanticize solitude, though, and withdrawal is not always necessarily a matter of withdrawal into a private or silent self. Sometimes it is a withdrawal from one social world into an alternative one, from the “center” to one of the “peripheries.” Where one withdraws and how depends on the particular falsities and compromises one wants to escape. We cannot escape them totally. Our societies are imperialist, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and much else, and from the moment we are born we are heavily implicated in their oppressions. Our societies inculcate false ideas about what to hope for and what to value, of expectation, anticipation, and possibility, of human contact and human feeling. Falsity and compromise is so central to human life that it can never be transcended. The question shouldn’t be how to remain uncompromised or how to remain true, but in which ways we should refuse to be compromised, and in which ways we should refuse to be untrue. In a way all this is obvious, but I mention it in order to say that writing, for me, is one of the ways I have personally chosen to reject falsity and compromise. I’m not sure what exactly writing is a refusal to compromise on, but I have no illusions about the significance of this refusal. It’s just a small, personal refusal, one that involves silence, and a certain kind of patience, and a certain kind of impatience, one that gives me a small but reliable solace. Most people have their own solace, and this just happens to be mine.
MT: Yes, there is a way in which withdrawal is simply denial, and therefore can have no positive effect on any falsity or oppressions—by positive I mean not automatically “good” or “beneficial” but, minimally, a movement toward, a resistance, an entry north of zero—a withdrawal, in being whatever is not an engagement with, thus becomes a line item in the column of complicity. In the same way that a person who could vote but chooses not to has thereby cast a ballot for every outcome they might later oppose.
That said, and in full recognizance of withdrawal as a false proxy for transcendence, I claim as worthy the occasional protection and support of the artist in any circumstance the artist defines as Away, for the specific purpose of accelerating or enriching whatever internal, impermanent withdrawal from the world may nurture an honest perspective on it.
But there is also a way in which withdrawal is a luxury; the wealthiest people in this world can buy the most space, to be inserted at will between their own physical self and that of the next nearest person. The poorer one is, the closer one must live to not only all the other human bodies but to every material reality, be it animal, plant, street, weather, wall. So it may be that the poor must confront a heavier psychic load when it comes to bearing out, asserting, claiming the worth and meaning of the individual, inasmuch as discomfort or proximity cannot be easily mitigated; the ability to obtain space and comfort and safety furnishes the illusion that an individual may matter, inherently, when in reality we are dependent on one another to create—to enact—the sovereignty of the individual. A reality I feel your book investigates: we are ill-equipped; we are beset; we are singletons. No consciousness like an individuated consciousness could be more perfect to admit and sustain the glory of another individual, or more definitively unable to.
The idea that “compromise is so central to human life that it can never be transcended” indicates the appeal of the hero, in popular stories—that agent who remains uncompromised, in this world but not of it, or the actor who does somehow transcend the centrality of compromise. While I feel somewhat tender about the attraction of such figures I like to think of literature as the setting for a more useful struggle—to grant as true our inability to transcend falsity, and to find out how, then, to live.
You spoke of writing as a private, personal act; yet of course it is the publication of your writing that causes us to speak about your writing at all. The solace you mention accrues directly, and maybe exclusively, to you, unless and until the words are bound and distributed, and then it may transmit in some way to someone else. I am on the other side of a first book, and along the way I have grappled with the meaning of publication, the trappings of it, with how to hold on to the integrity of the private act. This question might be premature, given that your book was so recently published, but how do you understand the connection between writing and publication? Or what is the reason for delivering the words as a book to the world, for you the writer, or for the world? Or how do you gird yourself, to make what begins as a private, modest refusal, as a habit of mind, as a mode of living, into a public tangible fixity?
AA: The connection between writing and publication is something I think I am still trying to understand. On the one hand, publication has been a strangely silent event. Nothing changed on the day the book came out: I woke up as usual, ate, drank, started reading for the class I am teaching this semester, and my day went on much as days usually go by. This was an expected disappointment. On the other hand, ever since I found out I would be published, which was almost two years ago, I have found myself more content than before, more secure in what I do, as if all the writing I did outside my life as a PhD student no longer had to be justified on the basis of my private conviction at all. This has changed me, made me a happier person and more pleasant to be around.
One distinction I’ve been learning to make recently is between the logic of literature and the logic of literary success. It’s a false distinction, in a way, but I’m finding it useful. Both literary quality and literary success are important to me, but for different reasons. Literary success, as everyone knows, is independent of the literary quality of a work, based on all sorts of factors that have nothing to do with the writing itself. I have a strong sense of what makes a novel enriching to read (a sense shaped, obviously, by novels I have read and certain individuals I have been in contact with), and insofar as they don’t share my literary sensibility I doubt that I will be much affected by the response of others to my writing, whether positive or negative.
There are many reasons for reading and writing, obviously, but I have my own, and being criticized or condescended towards or scoffed at by people who read and write for different reasons than my own means no more to me than being praised by them. This is not to say, at all, that I’m not vulnerable to the opinions of others. I am not only a writer, and I write not only for the sake of writing. I write also for success, for recognition, for respect, and I am always pleased when someone responds positively to my writing, pleased in the way a child is when it is told it is beautiful, or funny, or clever. I recognize this desire for recognition, but I try to separate it from my desire to write well. Writing of actual worth, I feel, is almost always fated to be ignored.
A very close Jewish friend of mine told me once of a story in some mystical Jewish text about how the weight of the world is borne on the shoulders of 36 righteous individuals, but that none of these 36 people will ever be known or recognized, not even to themselves. It might be a little simplistic, but I feel this way about writing too. I do believe there is great writing (almost all of it, I feel sure, written in languages other than English and the major European languages), but I feel it will never be given full recognition, and that I will never have the fortune of coming across it.
Writing all this down it is clear to me how obviously problematic my thoughts are, but this is what I seem to believe at the moment. Perhaps I will work through these contradictions as my novel spends more time sitting on shelves, or perhaps I won’t. I don’t really place a high premium on consistency.