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 Id 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. Its true that some of her more pronounced concerns
environmental degradation, soul-sucking materialism, human indifference, alienation
and ineffectuality are neither solvable nor transcendable. Its 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 mothers 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, were 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 dont think were 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 dont 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 couldnt
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.
Im 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 dont have a clear grasp of that either. And Ive got to be
honest. Im 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, “Im not going to be on that.”
Then they changed it Im sure it was not because of my whining and whimpering
to “The Art of the Short Story,” and thats almost worse. I mean,
what am I going to say on the art of the short story? I dont really know. Im
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 dont 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, its
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 storys 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,” whos
on vacation in the Southwest with Richard, probably had no idea that shed end
up in bed with most of a strange, semihomeless family.
Sometimes when Im teaching, I see my students get so sentimental
about their characters. I think youve got to be willing to destroy your characters
in a short story. Youve 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 youve
got their essence. Im done with my characters by the time Im finished with
Im interested in the confidence you have in your associative
abilities, so that youre able to have these stories go to such strange, unpredictable
I think intuition and those correspondences are so important to
a writer, so important, and I dont know how youd nurture them or how you keep
them or renew them. And I think a lot of writers dont depend a lot on them
and theyre actually in better shape in a way. [Laughs.] Nothing then
can dry up, theyve got a narrative gene, or something: The train leaves, without
relying on associative bursts.
You imply theres a distinction between the narrative gene
and a writers 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 Im one
once they know how to do something, want to avoid it, and try to do something
else, get at it some other way.
Its 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.
Id 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 shouldnt 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. Im wondering, how do you cope?
I dont 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 cant 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 Gurdjieffs
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 Gurdjieffs 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