Joanna Walsh interview: ‘I spent a long time deliberately not writing’
The author of Vertigo talks with Paul McVeigh about the influence of France, her prolific output of slim works, being an editor and reading aloud
Joanna Walsh: French culture seemed to offer something more open, both cerebrally and sensually, than Anglo culture. So I undertook to teach myself French by reading Simenon novels. I still worry that my vocabulary might be tinged by 1950s gangster slang. Photograph: Lauren Elkin
Some of the stories in Vertigo are set in France and you are working in Paris at the moment. Do you have a special relationship with the country?
I’m doing a bit of teaching for the University of Kent right now, who run part of their creative writing school from the city. My relationship with France (with Paris mostly, though I like other places too, and have just finished a story set in Marseilles, which will appear in Kevin Barry’s next Winter Pages anthology) is typical in that it started with an obsession I couldn’t define, which I unfolded only after I’d engaged with it. I became interested in French culture: the movies, Godard, Varda, Melville, Clouzot… the writing, the ideas… It was at one of those points when I was looking for new directions, and French culture seemed to offer something more open, both cerebrally and sensually, than Anglo culture. So I undertook to teach myself French by reading Simenon novels. I still worry that my vocabulary might be tinged by 1950s gangster slang.
Another foreign writer, Gertrude Stein, spent many years working in Paris and I thought of her a number of times while reading the stories in Vertigo. I wondered if she was an influence and who were the writers you identify with.
Stein, who said, “America is my country but Paris is my home town,” also wrote, “everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.”
Maybe that relates to your first question. Yes, I love Stein, the way she plays with words materially and as systems, though they’re never completely divorced from the idea that they refer to something off the page: they are separate from reality, and not real, but also really there… She seems interested in the ways we can know things through words, which is one of my big interests too. But I read Stein after I started writing, just as I began to read Beckett’s prose works because people told me they must have influenced me (I’d read all the plays as a teenager…).
But “identify with” is a different question. My life is rather different from Stein’s. I’m interested in the question of identifying with writers – of their lives being in some way attractive, and how that crosses with their work. I recognise things that Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Nell Zink, and Ann Quin have written about their lives, though this is a dangerous and somewhat silly game, especially for any woman, as the lives of women have changed in radical ways since some of these women were living and writing.
It occurred to me while reading your stories that the way you, like Stein, played with words and the repetitions and variations of sentences seemed apt for our modern times. The short attention span the current generation is accused of and the reader rushing ahead for the next plot point is scuppered by the pausing in a moment and the insistence of the prose to stay with an image or thought.
That’s a very interesting thing to say. I like, sometimes, to play with things “in real time”, for example in my story, Vagues, there’s a lot of repetition as the bored narrator scans her environment, then scans it again. I’m not only writing about tedium, I’m trying to explore and replicate the feeling of that experience for the reader.
In the last eight months we’ve seen three books from you – that’s a lot by anyone’s standards, never mind a debut author. How did that come about?
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I did spend a few years working on the books, but you’re right: I write quickly. I’ve only been writing with any idea of publication since 2012, but I spent a long time before that in a state of deliberately not writing, of not wanting to put words to things, so that when I started, I had a lot of things to say. I not only didn’t want a “career” in writing; I actively told myself it was inappropriate.
I’m not very interested in the model of fat books, or books that an author spends a long time writing – not that I disapprove of it as something other people don’t do brilliantly, but it’s not for me.
In some other countries, it’s normal the think of a writer producing a book almost every year. In France they say, “C’est comment, le dernier Nothomb?” or whatever (“how’s the latest?”), and I love the way César Aira works too (around 80 short books in 40 years). Why shouldn’t reading a book be like going to the cinema: something that only takes a few hours, and that some people do every week. A paperback often costs less than a cinema ticket.
I think, perhaps, I’m fundamentally not a “novelist”, which is difficult, as that is so often synonymous with the word “writer”. I have urgent things to say, and I’m not sure it wouldn’t be a detour for me to do this via conventional ideas of narrative or character – but I also can’t stand the measured tone of many essays: I don’t come from a place where too many things are set in stone. I write hybrid things: my short stories are always ideas stories, often explicitly so – they can occasionally sound like literary criticism or a Wikipedia entry – and I love to write creative nonfiction or whatever you want to call it, but my work in this area resembles story as much as essay.
You’ve spent many years working at 3:AM magazine as an editor. How do you navigate the switch from editor to writer? Has this experience helped or does it hinder?
I’m moving on to editor-at-large status at 3:AM now, because, as well as my own writing, I’m starting a PhD, but I’m very happy with the work I’ve done there. I’ve published a few writers (including Eley Williams, Martin MacInnes, and Owen Booth) before they got book deals (Owen hasn’t, but it’s only a matter of time). I feel I have made something at 3:AM that has a particular flavour, and so perhaps expanded, in a small way, the aesthetic of fiction in independent magazines.
As we can’t pay (no one at 3:AM, including the editors, is paid) I decided deliberately to try to find work that I thought had little chance of being published commercially, and I combined that with my own interest in writing that has an experimental approach to language and narrative. I love editing other people’s work and, yes, I do think it helps with a similarly distanced, rigorous and also positive (that feeling of, yes, something can be done with this!) approach to editing my own work. Encountering exciting new writing has also broadened my own tastes. I also edit for Catapult.co, and I’m about to start on commissioning a book of essays, working with Gorse journal.
You wrote in an Irish Times article that when giving one of your books to some neighbours you apologised for them being such a downer. When you read recently at the Greenwich Book Festival I was struck by how funny your writing was – admittedly, I didn’t realise just how funny until I heard your delivery. Why did you choose to highlight the “downer” side than the humour?
I read my own work deadpan. Someone once read one of my stories for me at an event and I was struck by how apologetic the reader had made the narrator’s voice, which seemed to be an attempt to make it more immediately “funny” – there’s a certain kind of humour I see a lot which is to do with women being apologetic about their lives. I don’t identify with that sort of voice at all. My narrators are not apologetic. I do tend to think life is funny, except when it’s very terrible. I write most often about what Freud called “common unhappiness”, which is often absurd, but which makes us unhappy enough.
Unlike some writers you seemed to relish reading your work live and, as mentioned, it brought a new understanding of your work when I heard you read. Do you enjoy the experience as much as you seem to?
Yes! And only partially because I’m a show-off. Mainly I like it because the connection between the text – via the reader-aloud (who doesn’t have to be the writer)– and the listeners adds a whole different dimension to the experience of silent, private reading. Also, as I write for sound, and read each story aloud to myself many times while writing it, then I edit for rhythm, and kinds of rhyme etc, so it’s great to hear that take shape when a story is read live.
Do you think the performance element uncovers something of the playfulness in your writing that may not be as evident on the page? Or does your enjoyment of the reading perhaps add something that isn’t on the page at all?
Oh that’s difficult to say... I don’t know whether anyone would read those stories aloud the same way I do. I think it’s all there on the page in things like the line breaks, and full stops. But I’m also a believer in “death of the author”, which is not so dramatic as it sounds: it only means that the reader is a contributor, along with the writer, to the “meaning” of any work, including the tone etc.
You’ve received high praise from both sides of the Atlantic. How does this affect you and your writing?
My books have, so far, been picked up first outside the UK: in the US, in Germany (by a US editor). I also work regularly with Irish publishers and journals. I have a great UK publisher, And Other Stories, whose main focus is on books in translation, and this seems right, as many of my influences are not books written originally in English. I’m hugely grateful to a number of more established writers I admire who have supported my work, especially Deborah Levy, Chris Kraus and Dubravka Ugresic – as well as the writers who’ve written about Vertigo for The Irish Times this month: Julian Gough, Sarah Griffin, Rob Doyle…
Praise gives me confidence. Of course I’ve had the odd bad review too. But as someone who didn’t start off writing with the idea of “being a writer”, I’m always moved, and even surprised, whenever my work seems to make some kind of connection.
Throughout June, we shall publish a series of articles by the author, writers and critics exploring Vertigo, culminating in a live interview with Irish Times journalist Laura Slattery at the Irish Writers Centre last week, which will be made available as a podcast on irishtimes.com on June 30th. Readers are invited to read along, comment and engage.