The Intuitionist

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.

What way would that be?

Pessimists write stories. You can quote a poem, memorize it, it’s accessible and pleasantly ephemeral at once. A novel is a chummy companion — long-winded, maybe, but goodhearted. Good stories are dangerous. A good story produces a subterranean explosion. Its methods are distortion, displacement, distillation. A story’s nature is to locate itself in that moment, that incident, where the past and the future of the participants are perceived. It gives the form a sort of heartless quality.

One of the things that happens in your stories is that people start out one place and they end up someplace else they could never have dreamed of — often someplace treacherous. Like Janice in "Charity," who’s on vacation in the Southwest with Richard, probably had no idea that she’d end up in bed with most of a strange, semihomeless family.

Sometimes when I’m teaching, I see my students get so sentimental about their characters. I think you’ve got to be willing to destroy your characters in a short story. You’ve got to get their life, if not the beginning, then the middle and the end. You wrap them all up somehow. They do go on, but you’ve got their essence. I’m done with my characters by the time I’m finished with a story.

I’m interested in the confidence you have in your associative abilities, so that you’re able to have these stories go to such strange, unpredictable places.

I think intuition and those correspondences are so important to a writer, so important, and I don’t know how you’d nurture them or how you keep them or renew them. And I think a lot of writers don’t depend a lot on them and they’re actually in better shape in a way. [Laughs.] Nothing then can dry up, they’ve got a narrative gene, or something: The train leaves, without relying on associative bursts.

You imply there’s a distinction between the narrative gene and a writer’s ability to work with associations, intuitions and correspondences. . .

Well, I think that writers are constantly working against their strengths. Whenever I find I can do something fairly well, I begin to think of it as a crutch and a gimmick. I think lots of writers — and I think I’m one — once they know how to do something, want to avoid it, and try to do something else, get at it some other way.

It’s like what Tolstoy said after publishing War and Peace: I vow never to write such trash again...

Or Katherine Mansfield, who totally dismissed her work. She wanted to continue to write, but she wanted to write only stories that would be worthy enough to show to God.

I’d rather die than write under that kind of pressure.

Yeah, well, a hemorrhage came soon after that.

If writers are constantly working against their strengths, what are you working against (or toward) presently?

Upon reflection, I would have to be crazy to want to work against any strength I might think I have. But when a strength becomes a mere habit of style, it shouldn’t be utilized.

You write about places and things most of us would prefer not to dwell on: sickrooms, rest homes, pistol ranges, taxidermy museums, landscapes in the throes of environmental degradation, hopeless parents, brutal kids. Writing about it puts you right up against this stuff. I’m wondering, how do you cope?

I don’t cope very well!

One of the blurbs on your novel The Quick and the Dead says that "the brilliantly controlled style [is] informed by a powerful spiritual vision." What do you consider the spiritual elements in your fiction — and your nonfiction, for that matter?

That word. A boulder in the path. Meister Eckhart said that the angel, the gnat and the human mind all have an equal model in God. Which would mean wolves and trees and boulders too. Then Meister Eckhart went on to say that God is nothing. So there we are.

My essays may have a bit of fire-and-brimstone fervor. But if you can’t screech and carry on and exhort in an essay, where can you? Stories have to be a lot more subtle.

Katherine Mansfield found spirituality in her pursuit of Gurdjieff’s teachings. As I said, she professed nothing but scorn for all she had written previously and wanted to write only those stories she could show to God. She died at Gurdjieff’s establishment in France of a massive hemorrhage. For a writer, spirituality has its perils.

HONORED GUEST: Stories | By JOY WILLIAMS | Knopf | 224 pages $23 hardcover


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