Joanna Walsh: ‘Life is a kind of palimpsest. Sometimes you scratch through the pages’

‘I don’t like making things up in an effortful way: I’d rather examine what’s there’: The author of Vertigo discusses her work with fellow writer Rob Doyle

Joanna Walsh: “I like the idea that a story is not only an evocation, but an invocation: a story as a ritual act”

Joanna Walsh: “I like the idea that a story is not only an evocation, but an invocation: a story as a ritual act”


Rob Doyle: One of the immediately striking things about Vertigo is the style. The stories are very short and composed of sentences that never do anything obvious – you always have to be on your guard. There’s this startling, swerving quality. In the acknowledgements you mention Deborah Levy, who this quality reminded me of. Can you say a little about the development of your writing style, particularly in this book? What kind of influences came to bear on it?

Joanna Walsh: I think I probably like language that works against itself. Or I probably like characters who are having arguments with themselves. I don’t believe language is a very solid thing. When I’m asked about why I write like this, I often go back to that interview Miriam Fuchs did with Christine Brooke-Rose where she asks her about “utterly other discourse”, which is something Brooke-Rose talks about in her book Amalgamemnon. She says it’s not so much her method or aim, but the woman character saying things publicly to her annoying boyfriend then goes back to this internal monologue, which is utterly other. But the phrase seems to stick around her work, as she wrote several books in this kind of internal monologue: it seems to go beyond this particular character. It’s all about language working against itself, having several purposes according to its uses…

RD: And you think your stuff is akin to this “utterly other discourse”?

JW: Well, I like to write internal monologue… I didn’t set out to do this. I was at the Adelaide Lit-Fest recently where I did several events with different writers, and I don’t know whether it was down to the curation of the festival, but all the women writers I met had written about women whose “not-saying” was central to the plot and/or style of their books: Catherine Lacey, Lauren Groff…

RD: Most or all of the stories are internal monologues from a woman who seems like the same character – same age, leaving a bad marriage, just out of one etc. Reading both Hotel and Vertigo, and some of the stuff you’ve said in interviews, a fairly dark view of love seems to emerge – transactional, power-based, calculative. And marriage in particular comes off badly. I wonder if you see it – marriage – as inherently mutilating.

JW: Yes, I’m increasingly extreme about this. I read Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory recently and the bit that I found devastating was not when she described any of the more extreme events in her life, but when, after making the controversial movie, Baise-Moi, she retreated into a conventional relationship, and made nothing for a number of years.

RD: Oh yeah, I found that fascinating too… She seemed to say she was cowed into it, in a sense.

JW: Did you follow that outside her book? I only read her very brief account – something about wearing pink cardigans. Or maybe I’m making it up.

RD: So you don’t think marriage/conventional relationships are possible without mutilation?

JW: There’s a bit in Drowning in Vertigo where I talk about how the husband/wife relationship in that story is like wires pegged between the two bodies, which is something I keep thinking about – more than when I wrote it. I’ve come across many bizarre behaviours of that kind both within my own relationships, and other people’s, but it’s difficult to move outside conventional relationships and construct something entirely new. I wrote on Ann Quin for Music & Lit Mag recently. She was someone who tried this, both in her life and work. I do think increasingly that life and work are related. I’m not sure you can write anything radical without considering the way you live.

RD: Didn’t she kill herself, by the way? Or am I thinking of someone else?

JW: If you read Quin’s interviews, as well as her fiction, she seems to have led a relatively unconventional life in a number of ways. Yes, she did – she went swimming in Brighton in 1973 and didn’t come back. I don’t know enough about her life to know too much about that…

RD: I have a tiny biography/critical book on her here which I keep meaning to read.

JW: I haven’t read a bio. I tend not to like bios because they make life into linear patterns.

RD: I love bios! It always turns to shit in the end, no matter how great the life!

JW: Noo ugh!

RD: The body collapses...

JW: But they’re so linear!

RD: Yes, but so is life!

JW: Only on one level. Why can’t they go sideways?

RD: Cradle to the grave!

JW: No, life is a kind of palimpsest, and sometimes you scratch through the pages.

RD: Even Norman Mailer or whoever is left wheezing into a tube, with no more illusions.

JW: De Quincey said palimpsest. Have you read him?

RD: That was the name of Gore Vidal’s memoir...

JW: Have you read that?

RD: Yes, I adore De Quincey – people need to talk about him more. The only 19th-century writer who made me frequently laugh out loud.

JW: He’s a standard in psychogeography, if you read that sort of stuff. Where he’s treated with great solemnity. Which bits did you laugh at?

RD: I read a bit of it, I seem to remember him describing how he and JFK were getting sucked off side by side in a jacuzzi.

JW: Oh I thought you meant de Quincey.

RD: Yeah, I did. But the above bit I meant Vidal…

JW: That’s non-linearity for you.

RD: I got confused.

JW: Instant messaging is not linear you see. I quite like that.

RD: Yes… but we’re getting sidetracked from the interview.

JW: No – relevant. I was thinking about the question about my influences. I feel most writers have a feeling they start with the idea of conventional narrative and work back or forward from that. But when I started writing I found I couldn’t really write a sentence that made much sense and I wondered why (despite having done an English Lit degree). If anything I’ve come in from that to become at all comprehensible.

RD: Right. So presumably you studied tonnes and tonnes of classically English, straight-laced novel narratives...

JW: I’m less “minimal” than I started out. Yes, I did time myself as to how many pages of a Victorian novel I could read in 10 minutes, because when you’re doing a term on them, that matters.

RD: Fuck… I’d read one page max. So you started out writing longer, fuller, less sideways sort of stuff?

JW: No, not at all. I think I was writing stuff that left so many gaps for the reader it was difficult to make sense of it at all.

RD: I continually feel anxious about how slowly I read, how much more I’d get read in life if I read faster.

JW: Yes, sometimes I think of taking one of those speed-reading classes. But better would be to be able to insert a microchip with Tristram Shandy on it.

RD: You still leave lots of “gaps” in your writing, but in Vertigo it works, it’s not frustrating.

JW: I hope in Vertigo (in all my writing) there’s a tension, which comes from a sense of audience.

RD: Yes, I was reading travel journals I wrote a decade ago today and there was this exact same reading-microchip fantasy.

JW: …a bit like doing some kind of stand-up. Yes, microchips would be great.

RD: In Vertigo, the men don’t come off that well. Generally they sort of collect or trap women in their conceptions of them (“enclosed women screaming” etc). Yet the women are fixated on them, often resentfully. I read one review where they said something like, “There aren’t any men”, but clearly there are! Though all the stories are narrated by a woman, the same woman perhaps.

JW: Well, the men don’t get much time to have their consciousness explored by the reader. I don’t think the women are any better really.

RD: The women in these stories seem to me to be locked in relentless war with each other. There’s more suspicion, resentment, envy and hostility between them than towards the men.

JW: I don’t know, they probably don’t like anyone much!

RD: It reminds me of Nietzsche’s remark that women aren’t yet capable of friendship – because of the severity of the sexual competition between them.

JW: I’m certainly interested in pecking orders that happen in oppressed (for want of a better word) groups. I hate the idea of providing role models.

RD: To me it was interesting, though, because no-one seemed to talk about it, at least in the press/reviews I read. I wondered whether it was out of a sense of tension or awkwardness caused by your status as a feminist (with #readwomen and so on) and what people thought they were supposed to take ideologically from the fiction – yes, as if they were supposed to find “role models”.

JW: I think I’ve said before to you that I find most feminism depressing. It’s continuously depressing to think you have to fight up to a ground level where some people don’t think it’s normal to cut off vital bits of your sex organs, or believe you’re not capable of working effectively in certain professions or whatever. There’s something depressing about the necessity of making the women who’ve got through into heroines of some kind too…

 RD: Right…

JW: #readwomen is to do with expanding online space for women’s voices in writing… which doesn’t dictate what it is they have to say. There are three people doing the tweeting and it’s what they happen to notice on any particular day. It would be naive to think they covered every angle… it’s a very small resonance chamber…

RD: Do you still do that, by the way?

JW: Yes, I still do it – I tried to stop at the end of 2014… I never really wanted to start a campaign… Occasionally I get messages from people (both men and women) who say it’s changed the balance of their reading habits & they like it!

RD: Yes, I can see that.

JW: It’s all about widening reading tastes… which means it’s widened mine too – I’ve probably read more fiction in translation from all over the world because of it.

RD: Because of your background studying English literature, and because I imagine you (tell me if I’m wrong) as someone who’s a bit alienated from much of the English literary tradition, are you only interested in shorter, “sideways” narratives, or have you considered, say, writing a novel?

JW: Ha. I’m a bit allergic to the word.

RD: Novel?

JW: Yes. I know it goes beyond that, but there seems to be an Anglo-American core that tries consistently to work around certain ideas of character/world/plot; words like “creating” and “rounded” and “believable”, where stories are told to elicit certain things but there seems an inflexibility as to how they can be told; what stories can perform or embody before they get round to “telling” you something. It seems such a lot of work!

RD: Let me ask you about a couple of individual stories. Although stories is not really the right name, I think – they’re sort of meditations, disquieting postcards or something.

JW: I like postcards. I use postcards in Hotel.

RD: A really short one, And After…, is among my favourites. It’s not a story at all, doesn’t have any characters really. It’s more like a witty sort of prayer… What was the spark that led to that one?

JW: I like the idea of prayer. I like the idea that a story is not only an evocation, but an invocation: a story as a ritual act. I don’t like the idea that words do nothing, that they remain between the pages. I don’t like the “descriptive tone”. Description is not a separate act… Okay, that story was partly a yearning… for a place. Do you know, it’s slightly about Hitchin in Hertfordshire, where you’ve stayed I think.

RD: Oh yes, for the film. A nice enough place but huge UKIP banners used to greet me when I got off the train.

JW: It’s about that sort of place that seems to function, but I couldn’t work out how. I used to live near there during part of my childhood and everything there seemed to run smoothly. I lived on the edge of a new town in this bit between a village and a sprawling development of new houses that expanded across the fields in between the ring road and my house. There were lots of skeletal, unfinished houses; it was eerie… but a place that was already finished, a market town… I also wrote that story when I’d dislocated my elbow in a stupid way and as a punishment I made myself cycle to the hospital for checkups, and the area round the hospital was like that too.

RD: Summer Story is more straightforwardly a story, and more straightforwardly sad – about rejection, romantic failure. Were all of these written around the same time, or over a longer period?

JW: The stories were written between 2012 and 2015. I have quite a short history as a writer.

RD: Yes, that’s something else I was going to ask you about…

JW: I wrote those stories about being married, just when I stopped being married, and there are more things I want to write about that, but now that kind of living is past in a different way from the way it was when it was so close, so now I have to think about whether there are any narratives possible for the way I’m living now. Not that I’m obsessed with myself; I’m just interested in whether there are ways to write about what I experience, because I don’t like “making things up” in an effortful way: I’d rather examine what’s there.

RD: Sure, I can relate to that. We’ve talked before about “autofiction” and so on, how a lot of the most interesting stuff one reads these days is in that vein… We talked earlier about your increasingly aggressive views on marriage and all that stuff. If it’s not too personal a question, did you feel that being married was constrictive, stopped you from being a writer? It seems that you started relatively late, and have, as you say, quite a short history…

JW: The constrictive zone of marriage didn’t work at first, because it made me think that taking the “authority” of being a writer was somehow immoral. Then a little later it worked quite well, though it didn’t make me happy, because I did writing, and led a more regular life which meant I had lots of quite boring time to use up.

RD: Really? I always thought someone raising a family would have no time at all!

JW: At first, I spent a lot of time looking at things very closely and not allowing myself to write anything about them, not to “speak” about them. There are certain zones where time expands: when you have young children some bits of it are a lot like being a young child, which can be very boring too. And it made me discontent too, and I’m still discontent, but being discontent and unable to move is a particular thing.

RD: So do you think you’ll always write about the present conditions of your own life?

JW: I’m writing about other things… but at the moment they’re all linked to experiences I’ve had, though not necessarily present or recent. When I was talking to Chris Kraus recently she said she was done with writing about her recent life because she’d done it all, but that she was going to write about her childhood/parents. She had no interest in making people up.

RD: Do you read more fiction or nonfiction?

JW: I read a lot of stuff that’s neither fiction nor nonfiction.

RD: What’s an example of good stuff you’ve read lately in the neither-fish-nor-fowl category?

JW: I love Anne Boyer’s stuff. She’s so political; she just comes out and says it. But because she’s a poet she can express things succinctly (verging on the elliptical). Combining these makes for a terrifying clarity, and honesty. She writes about her life. Garments Against Women is good.

RD: Sort of Marxist?

JW: Yes… combined with all other sorts of theory, philosophy etc. I have a big pile of books. Well, several. I think they’re the microchips. I like to have them near me. Maybe I will absorb them into my body some day. They’ll turn into a sort of papier mache paste while they sit by my bed, and when I wake up I will have eaten them.

RD: Yes.

JW: These are the things I’m not reading.

RD: Tell me some of those.

JW: 1000 Plateaus; King Kong Theory (actually finished it); Summer of Hate (Chris Kraus)... Sidewalks (Luiselli).

RD: Summer of Hate is a great title – so obvious, so right.

JW: The Savage Detectives.

RD: That’s a great one!

JW: The Mare (read it for review) by Gaitskill; De Witt, Under Major Domo Minor; Theory of the Great Game (surrealist writings); Hot Milk (Deborah Levy), not finished yet; 121 Days (Audin); The Natashas by Moskovich. Oh, a few Dublin Reviews…

RD: Oh, cool.

JW: I know Yelena Moskovich – she’s in Paris.

RD: Enviable name.

JW: Rutkoff – Imaginary Magician (read it for review).

RD: Okay… Thanks for the interview. Shall we call it a day?

JW: Yes, don’t want to go on until I come across other books by people I know. I can see a few…

This interview was conducted over Skype instant messenger. 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 on Thursday, June 23rd, at 7.30pm, which will be made available as a podcast on on June 30th. Readers are invited to read along, comment and engage.

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