An Introduction to the Interview
by Kendra Tuthill, Managing Editor
DOROTHY ALLISON, WRITER-ROCK STAR, CULT ICON, LOVES MUSIC. She listens as she writes, something I might’ve guessed if I’d had the second to think about it, reading breathily through the crescendo of Bastard Out of Carolina and calming down, enveloped and sweaty-palmed inside the denouement. Closing the book, I heard Bone’s southern cadence bumping like a dance up my spine. I wanted to have a mama instead of a mother. I wanted to peer out through hard black eyes.
______It’s not that I really wanted to be Bone, of course, but just as music stitches itself to the air, Bone is nailed to this life and fitted to her body in a way that I can’t say is true for my friends or me.
______In Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison designed and populated the set with her focused attention and a practiced imagination that resulted in a fiction that seems truer than reality. Despite Bone’s twisted hardships, it would just be so great to be such a real person (who is made out of fiction). When reviewers say her characters are real, they don’t mean they’re based on real people from Allison’s childhood (though that may be true). They also don’t have to mean that Allison writes dynamic characters (although that is most certainly true). Her characters in Bastard out of Carolina, Cavedwellers, and her short stories are alive. They drive, smoke and get drunk, dance, steal and punch, lie, fuck and get carried away by God and music and the melodies of their own profound, spontaneous wisdoms. And when you finish an Allison piece, you don’t want them to go away yet.
______Dorothy Allison is the sort of writer you tell your friends about. You’re glad to have her books on your shelf. Bastard out of Carolina is one of those novels like 1984 (only not at all), that explores and justifies a system of thought so tangled it can only be sensed abstractly or understood by reading this book. When you understand Bone’s mean masturbation and her mama and Daddy Glen’s disturbed relationship, (the white-trash problems we’re taught to dismiss as preventable accidents), you pass on the book saying, “It’s like Bastard out of Carolina. Just read it.”
______In the following interview, Dorothy Allison elaborates on her life and writing. We learn of the story-telling habits of her childhood, about the importance and difficulty of balancing the work of writing with the teaching of writing, about the music that moves her, and the constant, almost finished state of her current novel.
Interview questions prepared and conducted by Kendra Tuthil.
-You are known for being a life-long storyteller, like Bone. Could you share a story with us that you told as a child?
- I had two younger sisters and more cousins than seems reasonable. My mama often left us with our aunt Dot who had seven children, two sets of twins, and very often any number of other cousins who would be staying with her. I wound up as the babysitter/storyteller because the oldest cousins would take off and there I would be with the youngest trying to keep them from being too wild. I retold stories a lot—things I had read or seen, quite a few horror movies—things I had seen on creature features—vampires, werewolves and witches who ate body parts (yum, yum). I found that scaring the cousins was the best way to keep them distracted. Monsters always worked. Still do I think—though we have different notions of monsters these days.
______I did get in trouble for my stories—though I think some of that was due to the cousins retelling the really nasty parts and adding more detail. But then when I was around eleven, I made up my version of a scary car wreck story—telling all about the legendary imaginary cousin who walked home after going through the windshield of his daddy’s truck. He of course did not realize he was dying, holding onto his bloody neck as he walked, making it all the way up the front steps to the porch before collapsing, letting go of his grip on his neck and the head rolling forward into the doorway to turn and stare up at his mama. I have this vague memory of details about the eyes and the sound of the head on the wooden steps. It did not matter that it was impossible. My cousins believed every word that came out of my mouth. There is a wonderful intoxication in being listened to so fiercely.
______But that story was pretty much the end of my being the involuntary babysitter for Aunt Dot—specially after one of the cousins woke up yelling ….”The head, the head.”
-To write stories is certainly different from telling them. How did story telling help you become the writer you are today? What challenges did you face as you took the oral form to the written form?
-You can be pretty sloppy as a storyteller, but you have to be terribly exacting on the page. It was only as a youngster that I was a storyteller. Once I became a teenager I became the usual withdrawn sullen eyes-of-god creature that all teenagers manifest at some point. I just watched and swore to remember. And I star
ted writing stories, dreaming that the act of making stories might actually accomplish something.
______In some ways I became a writer due to two things—sleeplessness and wanting to make sense out of what did not make sense. My family did not make sense; the world did not make sense. There was so much injustice and grief that I could not sort out. I knew that my mama was a good Christian and that she worked incredibly hard. But I also knew that no matter how hard she worked, it never seemed to make any difference in the material conditions of our daily live. We were barely managing to survive, and how could that be right?
______It seems to me I spent an enormous amount of time lying awake telling stories in my head—writing novels on the ceiling was how I thought of it. AND it was writing, not telling. I thought those stories in sentences, paragraphs, and pages. I would rewrite them in my head—seeing the words shape up above me. Trying different ways of telling the story and then starting over, literally drafting and revising, and playing with words until I would get a sentence that would give me a shudder of excitement. That’s good, I would think, and keep that sentence. I literally memorized some of the stories I later wrote out.
______That is absolutely different from telling stories, or even thinking through telling stories. I prepare readings by making an edited version
of what is on the page. That version is designed for sound, for breathing and pacing. Reading a story out loud helps you edit it, clean it up and revise it, but the read-aloud version has to be tighter in some ways than the version on the page. You can seduce with the eye or the voice—it is in the pacing that the difference shows most strongly.
-We love your books, stories, poetry and essays and admire your writerly well roundedness. What projects are you working on right now? Where are you in the process? Could you share your present difficulties and delights?
- I am in the middle of half a dozen short stories—some almost finished but not ready for me to let go of them, some only fragments working toward a draft. I actually think this is going to be a book of stories, almost all of which are set in western Sonoma county in California. This is a place where I have lived for almost two decades, and I started writing about the people and the community when we first moved there. It’s an outlaw community, in the sense that there are a lot of people who are old hippies, ex-drug dealers, former musicians or artists, many of whom live ‘off the grid’ and make their living in interesting ways about which they never say much. People refer to ‘river trash’ and there are a substantial number of displaced southerners living back up in the hills and hollows along the Russian River. It’s just a world of story and I started drafting all kinds of pieces that focused on these astonishing characters. I did not think about publishing them, but I would occasionally read a draft. One of them we worked up as a theater piece when I was at Emory last year. That was when I realized that some of the scary people in the story were no longer alive to embarrass or to get mad. I’ve published one now—Jason who will be famous—in the summer issue of Tin House, and I am thinking about letting go of some of the others.
______I am also finishing a novel—again not ready to let go of it because it does not seem right to me. I might be the slowest novelist still intending to publish. It seems to take me about a decade to finish a novel and let go of it. Fortunately I have more than one going at a time, so there is overlap in time frame, but it gets embarrassing to be so slow. I say I am finishing “She Who” and someone is sure to ask me if that is the same book I was finishing the last time they saw me. Yes, I admit, and go hide in the bathroom.
______Then I write poetry all the time, mostly fragments in my notebook, and show almost none of that to anyone. I let poetry sit a long time before I will read it out loud or print a version to show anyone. The other difficulty is that most of my poetry goes to narrative. It carries over into a story, or I begin a story to do what I did in a draft of a poem. I have this notion that a lot of good fiction begins as bad poetry—it certainly does for me.
-How does a novel first come to you, and what do you do once you’ve got your idea? Is there a pattern to your process? If so, what is it? (Do you edit as you go? Do you write the story in order?)
- Oh god, a novel does not come to me. I drag it out sentence-by-sentence, character-by-character, and throw away most of what I write. Yes, I edit as I go—which is why it takes so damn long. I should be better at this, but I am not. I am obsessive, insecure, desperate, and maddened with language every time I sit down with these people.
-What is the difference between an artist and a critic?
- I do not actually know the answer to this. I have done book reviews, and essays in response to books and stories I have read—many because I have been asked to do so, or needed the money, or wanted to champion some piece of work I thought was being neglected. But I am not a critic.
-This fall you’ll be the McGee Professor and writer in residence at Davidson College in North Carolina. Will you be holding fiction workshops? If so, how do you critique a piece? What will you say? What won’t you say? Could you share a story with us about past criticism you’ve received?
- The best thing I can do as a fiction instructor is to be completely frank with the writer. There are so many lies in the process of getting the truth. Well-meaning or kind lies are all well and good from family members, but from other writers they are terrible sins against the enterprise. How can you know how the piece works if everyone tells you it is wonderful, while you suspect it is not—especially on page six, or forty-two…
______I begin all criticism with what works in the piece, what I like, and then work myself toward the hard truths of what does not work, what I do not believe, and what interrupts my going forward into the story. My notion is that my job is to help the writer make it a better story—while trying to keep the individual style and voice intact. I am not interested in homogenizing the thing, or forcing a writer to smooth out everything. I want to be surprised and delighted—and it gets tricky to be critical while also eing encouraging enough to keep the writer from despair. I know for a fact that if most writers knew how much work was going to be involved in revising and crafting a piece of fiction, they would run screaming into the nearest Starbucks to get a job as a barista.
______The worst criticism I have received is simply that bland ‘its nice’ crap that says nothing, or that infuriating blank-faced note you get from editors who say ‘not for us’ but nothing else. Cowardice is awful. But I am not sure that is what is going on all the time. I think there are editors who don’t really know how to respond to what they read. You get to where you like the difficult ones who make these flat out outrageous comments just because it gives you something to play off or resist.
-How do you choose the right person to read your work, to give you feedback?
- I think that is different for every writer—but I have learned over time to be choosy about who I let read a manuscript and when that can happen. Most people can not stand the process—the long drawn out nature of getting a novel right—at least the long drawn out process that I take to get it right. I suspect other people are much more sane about their process, and in better control. But I have what I have I do have a number of friends and fellow writers that I know I can trust—but each has a unique place in the process. Some are great for bouncing story ideas and some are wonderful for encouragement. Some are almost in the category of editor, and a few can even help me with line work. My partner, Alix, is a great reader and a great proofreader but I can only bring her into the process maybe twice in a manuscript—otherwise I waste her talents and burn her out too fast. She might see a very early draft, but then won’t see it again until it is almost done.
______Cheerleaders are necessary at different points in the process, but then one needs more substantial response. A few are good for asking the best questions and pushing me forward. Some have to be avoided until the work is well established – those are the ones that will ask the most profound questions or make the most devastating comments and some of that is enough to stop a manuscript cold. I learned the hard way that a book can stop, and I do nothing that will make that happen if I can prevent it.
______She Who stopped for three years. I thought I would lose my mind. When I got it going again, I sent out some of the new material to about thirty other writers and asking hem what they thought. I had lost all faith in the story and needed to know if I could catch a reader again in these fragments of people and events. The response was wonderful and of course awful, because then they all wanted the book, and I was starting almost from scratch with the same people I had had before, and a few more, and all of it to rewrite. I think some of them are still mad at me because it is now a couple of years later, and I left them there with just those two chapters.
______I do know and work some of the best editors in the business and when the work is far enough along, I am shameless about going to them for help. I send off sections reworked as stories to journals where I know the editors and know they will give me good response—the kind that will help me keep the work going. It helps to get a sense of the story from different perspectives, and it also provides feedback from readers who will talk to me about the story they read. The questions they ask sometimes tell me what I have done—both good and bad.
-Without romanticizing your life as an author, I’m wondering how you found your place in the literary world. Did you have to carve out a little space for yourself? Was it already there?
- I am a lucky woman. I became a writer among other writers. More than that, I became a writer in the early women’s movement when there was a whole world of journals and magazines and broadsides, and poetry and fiction readings, and discussion groups and activist networks that took poetry and fiction seriously. There was this sense of an audience waiting for the work, that the work was important, that the world would be remade in response to a poem or a perfectly phrased paragraph.
______How can I not romanticize that? It was an affair of the mind; it was a long drawn out exhilaration in20language. It was a moment in time and it is past, and I mourn every baby writer who comes up these days in a world in which writing and story and language is devalued, or just made pedestrian.
______Story, for me, has biblical resonance. What I hear in my brain is basso profundo—even when it is laughing out loud (maybe especially when it is laughing out loud). But I work to hang onto that sensibility. I make it possible by living a life that for all the travel and speaking I do remains that of a literary hermit.
______Let me be clear. I am one of those people made happy in a room empty but for shelves of books. I like people, but love being along with my books. I deliberately make that possible by setting aside days in which I try not to have to talk to people or do all that business and correspondence that eats up so much time and energy. Or I put barriers between the world and myself in order to live story in my head.
______Yes, I have an iPod—but a third of it is stories and poems—spoken word that I seek out and collect. I treasure those and love to listen to them. There is a secret though about how I really use that device. I have arthritis and I need to walk to fight off being crippled, so I grab the iPod and go walking. But sometimes I do not have it turned on. A lot of times on airplanes or in public places I will have the iPod in a pocket and the earphones in my ears. But the device is silent. I am thinking. I am watching. I am living a story in my mind.
______Don’t tell too many people, please. I like it that wearing the iPod keeps people from talking to me too much.
-You are loved as much as your work. Being shy in my young adulthood, I resented the fact that books no longer seemed to stand on their own, that I would one day need to stand before my audience and give a reading. I could not hide behind my work and say, “Just read it!” Readers seem to need a face and personality to back up these stories. What do you think about this? Does being a published writer give you the chance to set a larger impression on this world because everyone’s looking at you? Or did video kill the radio star?
- I get a chill down my back every time someone says to me ‘you’re a rock star!’ which they do say, hard, as that is to believe. I know I read well. I love well-told stories, and I love to read a passionate version of the manuscript for an audience. But I am painfully aware that with a little talent, it is easier to flash up a weak story in an audio version than it is to fix everything on the page.
______I want with all my soul to be good on the page. That is what will remain. But I also know that I being a good reader of my work gives me access to a whole range of audiences I could otherwise not reach. I will go off and do a talk at an organization or a university and make contact with a whole new audience and that is good. I doubt they would pick up the books for the titles or for my picture—me with my grey hair, tired eyes and wide butt. No, I need them to stand still long enough to hear me read the story, or find some way to get them to open a couple of pages and read a bit. As a published writer with a reputation, I have some ways to do that.
Still, it all comes down to the book itself—how good the work is on the page. The problem with all that emphasis on personality and publicity is that it has so little to do with the work.
______Maybe when they start offering short stories on iTunes the way they sell songs now, that will change. That is coming along pretty quickly As I said, I love and collect audio versions of stories. But the ones I truly love, I go find in a printed version. I want to read them with the voice in my head.
______And the simple truth is that I want the books to be what people remember—the words on the page. It is the work on the page that comes alive for me, it is what I learned to love as a girl. Talking, being charming, telling people surprising things in a matter-of-fact outrageous manner—all that feels to me like what I learned to do as a waitress. I was a teenager earning those quarters with a smile and a laugh, and there was something painfully humiliating about that process. It earned me enough to get me through college, but it made me feel like I was selling my soul in little bites. Some days when I am staggering with exhaustion and standing up to read a fraction of a story because the organizing committee tells me at the last minute that I can’t read the whole story—just fifteen minutes please—and then answer questions, I want to put my head down and weep. Giving myself away in bites is not what I worked so hard to achieve.
______What we make on the page feels to me like substantial magic—not connected to the world of commerce. It is not momentary. It is endless, or can be. It goes on forever and reaches past those we can see to those who will come long after. Maybe. That’s as much as we can hope to achieve—that maybe. Maybe ages from now, these stories will still be alive and making a difference. Maybe it will be the audio versions on fine wires people will threat through their hair, but I am betting on the tactile fetishizations of paper and fonts. I am betting we will be read.
-As an artist, do you feel you hold any responsibility to change our culture? Do you have a mission? What is it?
- Oh, I have a sense of mission—leavened by an outrageous sense of humor. I do hope to help bend that arc toward justice—you know the one Martin Luther King talked about. I hope that in story I can make real the kind of people too often held in contempt—girls and poor people, southerners and queers, desperate ambitious outsiders. If I do it well enough, perhaps I can make a difference in how the great mass of people see all of us and nudge my readers away from hatred, fear, and resentment toward understanding and awe.
-Other than literature, what art forms influence your writing and enhance your life? And how?
- I listen to music—bad and near bad, and sublime. I listen to or at least play in the background alternative country, singer songwriters creations, story songs, and narrative Rock & Roll songs. I love Steve Earle, John Prine, Lucinda Williams, the drive-by truckers, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Mary Gauthier, Nancy Giffith, Marshall Chapman, Roseanne Cash, Minton Sparks and more than I can list here. Good old girls and unpredictable deep voiced boys are my favorites. But a few years ago I heard Bach played on the violin and found myself crying without embarrassment. It led me to classical music which is like learning a new language.
______I am away from home for months this fall – living a bachelor life in North Carolina and some nights I set the laptop on the desk and play those Bach selections while triggering the photo slide show that has pictures that include every snapshot I have taken or been given for the last twenty years or so, as well as scanned versions of all my mama’s black and white family photos. I just listen to that music and let images flicker past me till I start thinking in story and have to pull out a notebook and write.
______I think it’s a better bad habit that drinking.
- What lifestyle choices have you made in order to continue writing? When is writing difficult for you? When is it easiest?
-Writing is never easy. It is sometimes ecstatic, but it is always difficult. Publishing is more difficult that writing, and there is a problem with trying to make your living from publishing. Most writers don’t make enough money from their books to pay their way. That is particularly so for literary novelists, and for those of us who are slow writers. You have to find a reasonable day job, or make some hard choices. Twenty years ago I made the choice to walk away from my decent job and risk everything to take three years and finish that novel. I did not expect to make any money. I expected to hustle and struggle and make my way the best way I could. Nothing was certain, nothing could be predicted except that I would spend everything I had to do the work I needed to do. I did write that novel, and was shocked to suddenly find myself suddenly on best-seller lists and g
oing from bookstores to small colleges to community centers as this suddenly famous novelist.
______It was not what I expected, and I got off my feet for a while. I had, in the way of things, also fallen in love and we had made a child which made my life very much more complicated than it had been living in a cheap apartment writing stories and publishing reviews and articles to pay the rent. The year before Bastard was published, I earned just about $11,000 and thought I was doing pretty good at that—and I was.
______My partner and I and our baby son moved to a small town in northern California when it became obvious that the choices I would have to make to afford living in any urban center would make it impossible for to me to write the books I wanted to write. I had a painful terror of raising a child in poverty. It was one thing for me to take a vow of poverty to do the work I wanted to do. It was another to shape a child in that life. There were a couple of years in the nineties, I was on the road almost constantly to earn money. Now we tell people we live in the low-rent area of Sonoma county, but that is partly a joke. There is no low-rent up here, but there are some reasonable choices. We got an old house that we could fix up over time. I drive an old car we hope to keep it running as long as possible. We don’t go out much. We live frugally, budget and plan.
______I also think that the issue of trying to sell what you have made out of your own nervous system and audacity feels enormously complicated and suspect. At the same time, the only way to get the time to do the work is for the books to sell. Teaching is somewhat the same. I love teaching. I love the process of discovery with young writers, seeing them find voice and passion and encouraging them to shape their ability to make powerful stories and use all their talent for language and discovery. There is little that is as wonderful as being of use in that process—but it is also completely exhausting in the way that writing is exhausting. You have to read on so many levels and be completely forthright and honest while framing what you say so that you encourage the writer’s best impulses, not the easiest or the most accessible. I wind up telling young writers to get a decent day job, one that does not bleed them of their ability to write.
______The problem is that some work bleeds from the same place where you draw energy to write, and teaching is one of those jobs that does that—even as it puts you among other writers and gives you lots of energy and encouragement to do your own writing. It is a matter of balancing your work and your work. Your contract with those you teach, and the institutions that sponsor you in that work, is absolute. You have to give full value, and I want to that—to be of use to those I teach. But I also want to be able to do my own writing. It has taken me years to be able to develop the muscle to do both in any kind of reasonable time frame. At least when I go off to be a writer in residence I can design a teaching schedule that breaks the week so that I can read student manuscripts and teach, then take a break and be able to do some of my own work on other days.
______That is never easy. It has to be done and done again, and shored up. You have to learn to say no which is a talent with which I was not endowed. I credit what little ability I have acquired to say no and go back to my own work to my editor, Carole DeSanti and my agent, Frances Goldin. They know where I am broken and what it takes to get me to get past that.
- If you couldn’t write, what would you do?
- Starve. Go mad. Become someone I do not want to be—full of rage and bitterness. That is not something I want to think too much about. Maybe I will raise dogs and write lyrics to scary country music songs.
-What question do you always wish an interviewer would ask? Could you answer it now?
- Has it been worth it—being so naked in the world—to accomplish what you wanted to do in the writing?
-Thank you for this interview, Dorothy. Anything you’d like to tell this next generation of writers?
- Write me some true stories. Scare yourself along the way, take revenge, earn your own forgiveness, and now and then give me a sense of vindication. I want our lives to be reflected in our fiction—all the complicated messy stuff, and I want now and then to laugh out loud—at least as much as I weep. Try to give me a little chance to do both. Publish it if you can, so we can all read it, but you can always send me what you write. Google me, my address can be found. Sleepless nights, you might get me though.
Cover Photo of Allison by John Foley
Dorothy Allison grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, the first child of a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who worked as a waitress. Now living in Northern California with her partner Alix and her teenage son, Wolf Michael, she describes herself as a feminist, a working class story teller, a Southern expatriate, a sometime poet and a happily born-again Californian.
Awarded the 2007 Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction, Allison is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
The first member of her family to graduate from high school, Allison attended Florida Presbyterian college on a National Merit Scholarship and studied anthropology at the New School for Social Research. An award winning editor for Quest, Conditions, and Outlook—early feminist and Lesbian & Gay journals, Allison's chapbook of poetry, The Women Who Hate Me, was published with Long Haul Press in 1983. Her short story collection, Trash (1988) was published by Firebrand Books. Trash won two Lambda Literary Awards and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing. Allison says that the early Feminist movement changed her life. "It was like opening your eyes under water. It hurt, but suddenly everything that had been dark and mysterious became visible and open to change." However, she admits, she would never have begun to publish her stories" if she hadn't gotten over her prejudices, and started talking to her mother and sisters again." Allison received mainstream recognition with her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, (1992) a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. The novel won the Ferro Grumley prize, an ALA Award for Lesbian and Gay Writing, became a best seller, and an award-winning movie. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Cavedweller (1998) became a national bestseller, NY Times Notable book of the year, finalist for the Lillian Smith prize, and an ALA prize winner. Adapted for the stage by Kate Moira Ryan, the play was directed by Michael Greif, and featured music by Hedwig composer, Stephen Trask. In 2003, Lisa Cholendenko directed a movie version featuring Krya Sedwick. The expanded edition of Trash (2002) included the prize winning short story, "Compassion" selected for both Best American Short Stories 2003 and Best New Stories from the South 2003. Dorothy Allison was Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s Distinguished Visiting Professor, Spring, 2008. In 2007, she was Famosa in residence at Macondo in San Antonio, Texas. 2006, she was writer in residence at Columbia College in Chicago. Fall 2009, Dorothy Allison will be The McGee Professor and writer in residence at Davidson College, in North Carolina. A novel, She Who, Is forthcoming.