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The Intuitionist 

Joy Williams on coping with the literary life, not coping, and why pessimists write short stories

Thursday, Nov 25 2004

On book tour in November for her new collection of short stories, Honored Guest, Joy Williams was bumped out of an airport security line and searched. Apparently, a chemical residue was found on the outside of her bag and on a notebook. It was probably Off!, she says, as she sprays her writing room with the repellent. "I was there for 30 or 40 minutes, as they rummaged through my bag and all the bright literary aphorisms I’d collected in this notebook. They must have thought they had a serious nihilist."

Nihilism, however, is too beggarly a description of Williams’ literary sensibility as evidenced in her three novels, three story collections and two works of nonfiction. It’s true that some of her more pronounced concerns — environmental degradation, soul-sucking materialism, human indifference, alienation and ineffectuality — are neither solvable nor transcendable. It’s also true that she tends to locate much of her work in places most of us politely avoid — at least, until we end up there: sickrooms, mental hospitals, rest homes, pistol ranges, dog parks where coyotes nip in for snacks. Her newest characters include a junior high girl whose mother’s dying is going on and on, a woman who falls in love with a lamp, an adage-spouting marksman, and various deeply conflicted dog owners. Williams’ writing is every bit as funny and idiosyncratic, brilliant and finely wrought, as it is devastating.

Consider the first sentence of the title story: "She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny and you had to be careful in this milieu which was eleventh grade because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left twenty-four suicide notes and had become just a joke."

The stories in Honored Guest span a 12-year period during which Williams was also writing her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Ill Nature, a collection of essays on the environment. I interviewed her by phone and fax while she was on book tour, then teaching creative writing for a semester in Austin. Otherwise, she lives in Tucson, Arizona.

L.A. WEEKLY: Your experience with airport security reminds me of when Ian McEwan was held up at the Canadian-American border for 26 hours last spring. He told the audience at Caltech that Americans can now rest assured that they are safe from British novelists.

JOY WILLIAMS: Oh no, we’re not. If only that were the case! Ill Nature was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and Martin Amis’ collected essays won that year. No. I don’t think we’re safe at all from British novelists.

You wrote the Honored Guest stories while you were working on your novel The Quick and the Dead. Did you write them as ideas came up, or did you move to short stories when you needed a break from the novel?

Oh, probably both. When I was working on the novel for some time, I would sometimes turn to a shorter form. I don’t think any of them provided a release — have you read about Paul Bowles when he was writing The Sheltering Sky? At some point, he wanted his main character to die, but he just couldn’t do it. Then he wrote a short story, went back to his novel refreshed and was able to do it. Well, that never happens to me.

I’m a great admirer of your short stories, but I have no idea how you do what you do, or even how you might get started on a story.

I don’t have a clear grasp of that either. And I’ve got to be honest. I’m supposed to be on a panel at a book festival with Robert Olen Butler. Just the two of us. The title of the panel was "Literary Stars of Today." And I kept saying, "I’m not going to be on that." Then they changed it — I’m sure it was not because of my whining and whimpering — to "The Art of the Short Story," and that’s almost worse. I mean, what am I going to say on the art of the short story? I don’t really know. I’m going to have to think about this. Sometimes I just start with a metaphor and then circle out from there, if that makes any sense.

I don’t quite know what to think of stories. I do think a story should affect you in a totally different way, say, than a novel or a poem.

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