Danielle Dutton: On editing Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo
Joanna’s work broke down into two ‘tones’: one very funny, with a little Flann O’Brien shenaniganism; the other stark and haunting, akin to the Nouveau Roman but utterly new
Joanna Walsh: “What Joanna ultimately created in Vertigo is very special,” says her US publisher Danielle Dutton. “It is not only the range of the voice, but also the graceful orchestration of the book’s many parts: the way themes recur and develop, the way chronology and pacing maximise every effect”
Probably the most interesting thing I can say about the genesis of Vertigo is that it did not come to us as a book, and what I first fell in love with was not its bookness. That all came later. Joanna wrote to us after having read and admired some of our authors – Nell Zink and Amina Cain, in particular – and said she wanted to send us some of her own writing. Knowing her work as a critic and an activist, I said, Please do! What she ended up sending was a mix of stories, quite a few, which broke down (roughly) into two different “tones”.
One tone was very funny, with a little Flann O’Brien shenaniganism, while the other was stark and haunting, more in the mode of the Nouveau Roman, perhaps, but contemporary, utterly new. This latter tone could also be playful, or comic, but in a sneakier, more mathy way – I loved it. I fell in love not with a book, then, but with a tone, or style. Call it a voice. With manuscripts, what matters most for me is always the prose itself – sentence by strange, glorious, unsettling sentence – the energy in it, its freshness of thought and phrase. When I read Joanna’s submission I knew I wanted to publish that voice, all the different registers it could hit, all the different experiences it managed to fold into itself.
I proposed she isolate the stories that seemed to share that voice, and rework them toward even greater common ground – not a novel, but a single narrator, even if not explicitly so, taking us through something like a story cycle. Bringing the pieces together in this way, and locating all the incredible things this voice was doing more explicitly within a single consciousness, would emphasise, I thought, the range of this voice, rather than diffusing it between different characters – a single voice containing multitudes.
That was what I asked for, but what Joanna did was even more artful and exciting. She has not only a great writer’s mind but a great critic’s mind as well, and I think this makes her particularly good at establishing a productive distance between herself and her writing. Even the most personal and affecting subject matter she can treat as emotional material, rather than as emotion itself, which means she is able to take the material-of-life and truly bend it to her aesthetic will, re-organising it into original fictional shapes, creating original effects, and she can keep doing this, bending and re-bending, until she arrives at something totally unexpected, utterly her own.
What Joanna ultimately created in Vertigo is very special. It is not only the range of the voice, but also the graceful orchestration of the book’s many parts: the way themes recur and develop, the way chronology and pacing maximise every effect. She introduced hints of an over-arching narrative, just enough for the book’s energy to gather around. For the energy of this book is of the existential sort, a delicate sort of energy, and too much plot would drag it down.
We were thrilled with reviews of Vertigo in the United States (it was called “a feat of language” in a starred review in Kirkus, and the Huffington Post called it “as strange as it is compelling”), and it has been gratifying to see how well the book is being received now in Britain and Ireland. We think it’s wonderful that a book by an English writer first published by a St Louis-based press in the US is June’s Book Club pick at the Irish Times. The heartening conclusion I draw from that is that smart, adventuresome readers are everywhere.
Danielle Dutton is the US editor of Vertigo and founder of the publisher Dorothy