The burning desires at the heart of Joanna Walsh’s stories
Whether fiction, essay or a mild porn fairytale, Walsh’s writing hums with desire
Joanna Walsh: “Embarrassment is very restrictive and it governs our lives in a way that we think it’s too light to do. It’s a heavier thing than we think”
Ensconced beside a roaring open fire on an afternoon otherwise dominated by torrential rain, Joanna Walsh is talking in a rapid, associative manner about a subject that excites her more than most: the uncontrollable flexibility of the written word.
In short, funny and unclassifiable books, such as Grow a Pair, Hotel and, most recently, Vertigo, Walsh has made the playful exploration of language her primary aim.
Whether it takes the form of fiction, essay or lightly pornographic fairy tale, Walsh’s writing is typically investigative and experimental, concerned equally with form and content, and always finding ways to imaginatively marry the two.
Jokes, farces and Freudian slips rub up against more serious observations about family, love, desire and everyday life.
“I love puns,” Walsh says with a smile. “Especially really terrible ones.”
Vertigo is a remarkably intimate book, not in the sense that it divulges the deepest, darkest secrets of its characters, but in the way it presents a series of minds working through some seriously stubborn, knotty questions.
The stories are inconclusive, their direction and purpose difficult to decipher and their impact subtle but lasting. The reader often occupies a space very similar to the narrator, poised at the edge of a life, watching it go by, understanding that, as Walsh says, “there are certain distances from which things just don’t seem to make sense”.
This rare closeness between reader and narrative voice, the sense of being with that voice rather than being told something by it, is one of the book’s most intriguing achievements.
Ideas and observations
Walsh is in the habit of jotting down ideas and observations in notebooks and on her computer. The initial stages of her writing process involve waiting for these notes to coalesce into “clumps” and for threads to form between them. Eventually these clumps get extended, written up and shifted around until they take on a pleasing shape. She describes the process as one more of excavation than creation, a subconscious process of “waiting until you recognise what’s there already”.
“I spend a quite lot of time lying in wait for my own thoughts, lying in wait for my own feelings and then trying to recognise them when they come along,” she says. “It’s like, what I’m really enjoying about this day isn’t that I’ve achieved a great thing or finished a piece of work; what I’m really enjoying about this day is that I’ve got really nice socks on, they’re comfortable and my feet are warm. It just seems like a path that makes sense to follow intuitively rather than consciously, rather than decisively.”
In person and in her writing, Walsh talks about “smoothness”, about the work that goes into making life tranquil, into making sure everything fits into place. With their uncannily calm surfaces, the stories in Vertigo enact this smoothness and question it, asking just how far one can restrict and repress unruly desire before it starts to eat away at the mind, before it starts to turn on itself. Many of the stories feature the frictions of intimate relationships – husband, mother, children – beginning to wear away the narrator’s sense of self.
“The stories in Vertigo are mostly interior monologues of women, and I do think that women in particular do sacrifice a lot to keep that smoothness going,” she says. “What they sacrifice is the ability to speak about their experiences out loud, which is actually quite a big thing to sacrifice – to be able to tell your own story and to not need to rely on the narratives you’ve been given by others. I think this might be one of the reasons why a lot of women, even now, turn around in middle age and say, ‘That is not what I meant at all’. That’s why it’s important to tell your own story, to engage with your own story as a narrative, as something that is constructed.”
The question of money
One of the most interesting threads running through Vertigo is the way Walsh deals with the question of money. It’s quite unusual to find a book that engages head on with questions and anxieties around earning and spending money.
Some of Walsh’s narrators take unabashed pleasure in their ability to squeeze pennies into pounds, and the politics of how money functions in everyday situations is never neglected. Walsh understands money not as something abstract but as something that filters into every corner of one’s life and is not to be taken for granted.
“Like most writers, I’ve had very limited resources, but you find it becomes a habit and then you start taking pride in it – I’ll end up a miser if I’m not careful,” she says with a laugh. “The thing that stops people talking about what things cost in monetary terms, which also means what things cost in terms of life, in terms of how hard they’ve had to work, in terms of what kind of physical and mental injury it has cost them to gain this money, is that it’s terribly embarrassing. Embarrassment seems like such a light effect, but it’s very restrictive and it governs our lives in a way that we really would think it’s too light to do. It’s a heavier thing than we think.”
Walsh circles again to desire, a word and idea that is “always in the air” in her work. In Vertigo, desire is the turbulence below the surface, causing waves in the minds and lives of the book’s characters, causing embarrassment, tension, sometimes even a strange kind of ecstasy.
“I think people find it very difficult to identify what they do desire because we’re so dominated by these narratives that tell us what our desires should be,” says Walsh. “I’m very interested in the idea that we can’t identify our own desires.”
This constant questioning and examining of desire – sexual, financial, aesthetic, familial – is at the heart of Walsh’s writing, and the confusions, the gaps, the silences that emerge from this inquisition often give that writing its form. At the far end of this process are the desires of Walsh’s readers, an undefinable mass of energies that Walsh is keen not to second- guess or undermine.
“I’m very interested in what a reader expects of a work, and a reader very often expects to be moved,” she says. “There’s the idea that you’re supposed to get something out of it, that you’re supposed to undergo an emotional journey. I very deliberately don’t let my readers undergo emotional journeys that bring emotional satisfaction, quite often. Which is a bit mean, isn’t it?
“On the other hand, I don’t really think that’s what books are for. But I am interested in how readers expect to engage both with ideas like character, which I have big problems with, and the idea of narrative as an emotional movement – how that works, which it does in all sorts of ways. I do want people to be moved by my work, but not necessarily in one direction.”
- Vertigo is published by Tramp Press