Stop Up Your Ears and Secede: An Interview with Noy Holland

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Like so many luminaries of contemporary American literature—Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver,  Barry Hannah, Joy Williams—Noy Holland came to readers through Gordon Lish’s editorship at Knopf; her first story collection, The Spectacle of the Body, was published in 1994. In the twenty years since, she has been a singular presence in American letters, her unsettling, acutely wrought fiction praised by writers and critics ranging from Michiko Kakutani to William Gass to Brian Evenson. Others of her generation have had more fame, but among writers Holland is recommended constantly, her rhythmic, lyrically condensed prose described with distinct awe.

Holland’s second and third story collections, What Begins With Bird (2005) and Swim for the Little One First (2012), were published by FC2. FC2, or Fiction Collective 2, is an independent, collectively run press—distributed by the University of Alabama—founded by writers disillusioned with the state of commercial publishing. It’s said that the press’s founders expected their venture to last two years at most; in 2014 it will celebrate its fortieth anniversary. Holland now serves on FC2’s board, and the press publishes six new works of “artistically adventurous, non-traditional” fiction a year—a list including works by Ronald Sukenick, Diane Williams, Kate Bernheimer, Susan Steinberg, Michael Martone, and Stephen Graham Jones, among many others.

When I talk to writers about Holland’s work, there’s often one story they can’t get over. “Orbit,” the novella in her first book, is named time and again. Another writer who is an evangelist for her fiction has read only the first story in that first book (“Absolution” and it begins: Me and him, we’re lovers. Sure, I know, he’s a crazy motherfucker. And I’m the Banana Queen of Opelousas). It’s so perfect, he says, he can’t bring himself to read more, just always reads that one again. Another names “Rooster, Pollard, Cricket, Goose” from What Begins With Bird, a story I once spent the better part of a year rereading. Holland’s new collection, Swim for the Little One First, surely will wield like power over new readers: the devastating title story, for instance; or “Milk River”; or “Merengue”; or any one of these twelve.

Over the course of the year from summer 2012 to summer 2013 I had the pleasure of corresponding with Noy about her new book and all things fiction.

Hilary Plum 

 

Hilary Plum: The other week in a moment of inattention I locked myself out of my house for most of a day and ended up in the library reading Grace Paley’s Collected Stories. I had meant to be reading your book (on the desk back inside) and so was holding your stories in my head as I read hers, and later vice versa. A word that kept coming to mind, as a riddle to puzzle over, was domestic. Paley’s stories are in the kitchen, the neighborhood, the site of daily family life, but the whole world and its politics are always present—this is one of the miracles she performs. Your stories, too, are so often of the family, its bonds of love and obligation and the urgent claims of kin, of the body to its own. And yet in each story a world is called up around the life of the family we’re seeing.

The word domestic is too often used to belittle, to name something as women’s and lesser. And yet also means: of an entire nation, everything that takes place within its borders. I wonder if this word resonates with you, too. It leads me to ask you questions like: Is the family at the center of the world of the story? Does each story have its own borders, its own map of what’s within and what’s outside?

 

Noy Holland: Yes, yes, yes. Perhaps yes to everything with the exception of a story having a map, which to claim might be like claiming that I know where I am going before I set out. I know where to go by going, somebody said. I want porousness between the outside and the inside, the permeable body. The body, it seems to me, lives most clearly in the domestic sphere, in the cycles of the nursery, the kitchen, the barnyard. In part, I look to fiction to restore something of the physical life so depleted by living in this country in this part of this particular century. We live together and among and the intimacy of the family and the terrible estrangements are to me endlessly vexing and compelling. Clearly, the kitchen and the barnyard are not exclusively the terrain of women, but it’s true what you say that people saying domestic often do so from meanness of spirit, a low-level feverish disdain of the feminine. The intimate. The erotic that is not limited to sex between grown up creatures. Sex, death, desire. A family, like a nation, inevitably has its holdings, its history and its secrets and its code. And while we likely wish to protect all these, we know our privacy isn’t really privacy, that our secrets speak to the secrets of others, our stories, we hope, reverberate or sometimes smash up hard against the stories of other people. I’m honored that you found reason, even if only because you found yourself on the wrong side of a locked door, to think of me in a breath with the wondrous Grace Paley.

 

HP: In an interview with Lance Olsen and Trevor Dodge in their Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing, you say that you “write from word to word, favoring sound over sense” and that “sentences generate themselves, and generate stories, and distort stories truly and mindfully.” You regularly teach a seminar tellingly titled “Usage is more powerful than reason.” I want to ask you about this question of sound and its generative power in relation specifically to character. Elsewhere in Architectures of Possibility, there’s an interview with Samuel Delany, in which he says, “I’m interested in characters only as each is a locus for allowing certain sorts of sentences to be uttered—by the character or about the character.” This seems to me related to your statement about sound but not in fact necessarily the same. Your stories offer a profound experience in sound, but I’d argue that even as sound generates the characters, it still belongs to them; that is, the voice of the story is of the characters, rather than acting as master of them; one could not (or at least I cannot) think of them only as a “locus” for sound. Can you talk about how the forces of sound and the forces of character come together and/or distort one another?

 

NH: It’s good to talk and think about such terms as “character,” so long part of the lexicon of making fiction. The term tends to promote soft-headedness, as when writers giddily declare that their characters “tell them what to say”—as though the task of the writer is to transcribe, obediently and accurately, a voice issuing from the great beyond, from a separate and living entity, a sensible, articulate mouth. “Do you hear voices?” asks the doctor. I say yes. What I hear is the muttering phantom, the mouse gnawing at the door. The wind in the mind of the trees. Nothing mindful or coherent. From the muttering, I try to make coherence: people call this voice, but why not call it character? If character is a locus which allows one to speak… “certain sorts of sentences?” Suppose I observe or remember in a person a quirk, a gift, a flaw. An exemplary tic. How does that tic or quirk or flaw influence how a person perceives and therefore words experience? The worded experience, the linguistic field, is character and voice at once, a record of perception. So, yes: I go word by word by ear for as long as I can, according to my awareness of what I’ve said and did not mean to say. And yes: this is messy and inefficient and—worst—insufficient, particularly in longer fictions. Insufficient because you don’t get structure by keeping your ear to the ground. You have to stand up, and I never want to do so too soon, never want to see too far or control too much, which for me feels deadly. The ordering impulse is crucial but I don’t want it to be dominant or inhibiting. When it’s dominant the terms we commonly use—character, voice, plot, setting—begin to make sense; the story bleeds out; it’s anybody’s. More chatter in a chattering world. Better to refer to character as fixation, maybe, a knotty impulse. Distortion. Exaggeration. A simplification. Clarissa is going to have her party and Anse wants his goddamn teeth. 

Character starts with the alphabet. Letters: words: sentences. Any individual human is immensely complex and contradictory and it would be sheer tedium to encounter this complexity, fully and accurately recorded on the page. “Fleshed out,” I believe the term is. It baffles me to hear readers speak of their convictions about character. I just can’t believe (Sally, Suzie, Sammy) would do such a thing. That this makes no sense doesn’t trouble me; what troubles me is that it’s crippling. Character is a function of language—a collection of errors and deviations that resonate with certain behaviors. As with every other element in fiction, it is a record of a writer’s decisions. Delaney’s word “locus” sounds right to me here, but I would not go so far as to claim interest in character only as each is a locus: I don’t feel the clarity of division between his purely linguistic impulse and the psychic mess of being human. Character is a construct which issues from the human animal, from blended and conflicting impulses, not simply the mouth and ear. I draw from lived experience (those muttering phantoms are my people, beloved and confusing). If being alive were not so volatile and mysterious, if it were sensible and divisible, I expect I wouldn’t write at all.

 

HP: That’s beautiful. So that now I want to ask you about some of the rest of that old (tired?) fiction lexicon. I’ve been thinking about something you said in your first answer: how fiction may help restore the physical life we’ve been growing distant from. As we read “Milk River,” the final story in Swim for the Little One First, we hold onto the question of what war it is the boys have gone off to—the answer is there when one needs it, but the question tells us all we need to know, about generations of men and women and distant wars and the bloody history of the West. When I read your stories I have to remind myself that contemporary technology is usually absent; the world of the story neither requires nor desires it. There is a deeper sense of time, the past is right here within the present, and a preference for what one might call timeless nouns, so that when quite specific details appear—Twizzlers, PCBs—they have a striking potency.

The stories in this collection are set in very different places, but these settings are usually offered in landscape, wildlife, language, occupation, rather than being named outright. I’d say that the stories begin deep within a place and its language and so don’t need to name it as an outsider would. All this leads me to wonder: how do you navigate such details and acts of naming, these anchors to time and place? How do you think about the story’s disclosure of information (the stuff of verisimilitude?), what the story may or may not choose to provide for the reader (or for itself)?

 

NH: I find it endlessly exciting to work in a form where so little can be controlled. No matter how strenuously a writer controls the story, he or she simply cannot control or predict—or sometimes even wildly guess at—the associations a reader might bring to the terms of the story, particularly the specifics of place and character. The specificity of Lincoln, Nebraska; the specificity of Alice McGlynn (by which I mean, simply, the name Alice McGlynn); April (Mr. Eliot) or Monday morning (you sure look fine). Alice was somebody’s dog or somebody’s aunt or somebody’s imaginary friend and I lost my best hat in Lincoln. Mostly, to my mind, these specifics—the stated specifics of the story, and the incidental specifics the reader brings—create noise, a needless contamination, a fruitless congestion. In conversation, the effect is of a listener who cannot wait for a speaker to shut up so that she can tell her Lincoln story. I say, Keep it private. Keep it quiet. Make a world. (I let Twizzlers appear because, what a name; I like the sibilants.)

“Milk River” is very much about departing from the actual; the father and daughter in that story live in a necessarily invented world. They cannot live with what has happened to them, with what is happening now. So the short-hand of named facts is untrue to the story, and belongs to what is, for this father, this daughter, unspeakable. They are suffering loss after loss, and so live estranged from the certainty of people who traffic in facts. In lived experience, such authority (I am thinking of the person at the dinner table who remembers most precisely, or the official with reams of data at hand) tends to trump and usurp the experiences of others: the encyclopedia wins. The rational mind; the objective truth. I like to think my work allows for something more spacious and inward and permissive.

 

HP: The words spacious and inward and permissive have been echoing in my ear through the days it’s taken me to write back. I want to think more about the form that allows all three. I’ve been considering the composition of Swim for the Little One First: twelve stories, half of them what we might call very brief (to be encyclopedic about it: fewer than 1,500 words). So, the story frees itself of the external, the clamor of specifics, the burden of reams of data; it allows its own world. If we’re to talk about how the story does this, some words might be: elision, brevity, even efficiency. I suppose I’m returning to my first question—the story’s borders, what’s in and what’s out. And I’m echoing my last question, too, how your stories begin deep within, never in that too-common way take us by the hand and dutifully play tour guide: instead, we just live here

I wonder, then, if you could talk about the brevity or the shortness of the short story. Maybe this is a way to talk about the wider role, the ongoing life, of the form. We seem to be in an age when in the culture the novel has gained some kind of advantage over the story—in the chatter of reviews and prizes and the bizarrely stubborn idea that a writer starts off with a book of stories then “graduates” to the novel. Could you talk about the relationship between and possibilities of these two forms—the long and the short—whether out there in the world or in your own life and writing? Another way to say this: where has the short story been and where is it going?

 

NH: The short answer to your eloquent question is that the short story has been all over and there’s no telling where else it will go. All over, but not everywhere. It’s not an exhaustible form, any more than the novel is or the poem. The story’s relative lack of popularity baffles me somewhat, particularly given the frenzy we live by, the scarcity of what is known as free time. Free time. Think a minute of this as an imperative. In a novel the clock is commonly heard ticking. In short stories, some, particularly in very short short stories, we hear the one breath with which the story is told. A life passes, as with Edward Loomis’ “A Kansas Girl”—that’s a model. Another model is of a moment that expands and does not advance. Compression, release. A moment, an observation, a sensation. A voice in the dark: pick me.

The notion that a writer “graduates” from the story to the novel is demeaning to both forms: it makes of two things one thing; it asks the story to submit to the demands of a novel (here we get the tour guide); it makes the story a means to an end. Practice. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and Honored Guest; Jesus’ Son and Reasons to Live; Last Night; Nightwork; Airships; I Would Have Saved Them If I Could; The End of Free Love; Farewell, Navigator; Pastoralia; Stories in the Worst Way; Criers and Kibbutzers, Kibbutzers and Criers; Stories in an Almost Classical Mode—please. These are not practice. The sprinter is not in training for the marathon. The love affair isn’t a marriage. (Is there something in the culture’s affection for the novel that is cousin to our bossy mid-country piety: eat, drink, and be married? Could be.) The culture and the industry will do what they do. No use arguing. Better to stop up your ears and secede.

Novels are not better than stories but some writers are better novelists than story writers and the other way around. Sometimes we don’t come to know this: we don’t live long enough or we’re busy or we are pressing our ears to the ground. There, I’ve rhymed, which means I should stop, but I want to say one thing other. One thing other that writers who write stories enjoy is a wide green world of contraband effects: distortions and errors and inventions and quirks likely to be, in the long-haul of a novel, tedious and exhausting. Lucky us—who needn’t coddle, conform, mind the clock, name the baby, or turn the lights off. We can move if we wish and stay if we want and paint every last thing yellow.

 

HP: Yes: and I’m so happy to get this list, which will now be my summer syllabus. I’ll use this word, syllabus, to pivot on: I want to ask you about your work as a teacher of writing. (Since I was, through what seems like crazily good fortune, your student, in UMass Amherst’s MFA program.) I wonder—to continue the last question—whether you witness young writers arriving with certain inclinations or passions or ideologies about the short story, and how those may change over time or in contact with one another, and what all may happen in the space of the workshop. I suppose by “short story” I just mean “fiction.” 

And I want to ask generally about your experience as a “student” and then a teacher of fiction: how the work of teaching may deepen or challenge the work of writing. I know that some of your teachers, such as Gordon Lish, have been significant forces in contemporary literature and so perhaps also in your own work. From experience (to sum up inadequately!) I know that you lead your students to delve into the stuff of language, help them cultivate a deep and precise attention to the manifold possibilities of each sentence, help them hear better the rhythms and resonances of prose. I wonder if you could talk about how you approach this work, or what the work of a teacher of writing is or can be.

 

NH: Let me say, first, how grateful I am to teach in a program that attracts so many terrific writers. Among the writers who come to study at UMass, I find more difference, more in the way of rangy inclination, than anything I would identify as an ideology. Of the ogy words, maybe pedagogy is the worst, and closer. The MFA workshop model has been practiced for so many years now that writers tend to arrive with sometimes intractable expectations about that. It’s not a great model, not year after year; it can be confusing, wearying; it airs the idea that art is collective, like committee work: discuss the problem, offer a fix, tally a vote, go home. Story doctors. I get very restless with this. So I often persuade (coerce?) the writers who come my way to embark on an alternative; to consider naming elements of fiction differently, and to listen to what other forms of art may have to say about the art of fiction. It can be hard for fiction writers to shake loose of the prospect of a commercial breakthrough—bidding wars and lavish prizes, the love of tens of thousands of readers—but mostly the writers gathered here in Amherst keep their minds on the work at hand, on the prospect of an aesthetic breakthrough, a sublime paragraph, a blissful recombinatory moment. They are often feral, and as often kindred.

It would be thrilling for me to imagine that I have given any one of my students a measure of the gift Gordon Lish gave me, his obsessiveness about language, the liberating call he sent out from the wilds of his nimble mind. Gordon is brilliant, and my debt to him is enormous. He gave me permission, and a fiery, durable faith. I try to offer, in my often convoluted way, a humble version of that blessing.

 

HP: Lastly, I’d like to ask something about the “future of fiction,” but maybe we can duck the grandiosity of that phrase. You’re on the board of FC2, publishers of “artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction” who in 2014 will celebrate their fortieth anniversary. (Disclosure: FC2 published my own novel.) What in this moment most enlivens you about your work there, what is the ideal role that such a press can play? I’m interested to know, too, if there are new works that you’ve encountered recently—whether through FC2 or elsewhere—that have seemed especially urgent or inciting.

I want to cheat and make this two questions, about both the public world of fiction and the private: I wonder what feels most urgent to you right now at your own desk, in your new work.

 

NH: I’m something of an alarmist on the subject of the environmental realities of the planet, human greed and myopia and selfishness, but I’m far more optimistic about the future of fiction and the unbounded wilderness of writers’ minds. FC2 has helped keep such wilderness pristine, shielded from the pressures of the marketplace, since the dim dark ’70s. It’s a feat. The press keeps books on the shelves for decades. That’s something, particularly in a throwaway era hungry for what’s new. I like to think that FC2, simply by enduring, has helped encourage the proliferation of independent presses crucial to the literary polyphony we enjoy. As to your question about the private and the public, I can’t draw a line within the work. Renegades in art in any form are speaking against conforming pressures much bigger than they are; even the most private art has public implications. I read with the greatest pleasure those writers who are unafraid of this equation, whose fascination with private conditions of being leads us to enduring philosophical and spiritual questions. Of these, of late, what has been most enlivening for me are Joseph Cardinale’s The Size of the Universe, Joy Williams’ State of Grace, and Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy. Your novel does this: it’s a chronicle of friendships shaken by madness, war, a burgeoning population. A fusion of the private and the public. Of course there is, too, the public nature of work done beyond the page, a version of literary activism, community service. I think of my work at FC2 this way. It matters to me to be a decent citizen, even though I’m something of a hermit by nature. I’m grateful and indebted. So I pitch in, activate my gratitude, happy for the chance to help good books into the world.

 

 

Noy Holland’s collections of short fiction and novellas include Swim for the Little One First (FC2, 2012), What Begins with Bird (FC2), and The Spectacle of the Body (Knopf). She has published work in Conjunctions, The Quarterly, The Believer, NOON, New York Tyrant, Fairy Tale Review, Western Humanities Review, and Post Road, among others. She has been a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council award for artistic merit and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She has taught for many years in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts.

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (FC2, 2013). She has worked for a number of years as an editor of international literature and serves as contributing and book-review editor with the Kenyon Review. With Zach Savich she edits Rescue Press’s Open Prose series. She lives in Philadelphia.