Joanna Howard is the author of On the Winding Stair (Boa editions, 2009) and In the Colorless Round, a chapbook with artwork by Rikki Ducornet (Noemi Press). Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, Chicago Review, Unsaid, Quarterly West, American Letters & Commentary, Fourteen Hills, Western Humanities Review, Salt Hill, Tarpaulin Sky and elsewhere. Her stories have been anthologized in PP/FF: An Anthology, Writing Online, and New Standards: The First Decade of Fiction at Fourteen Hills. She has also co-translated, with Brian Evenson, Walls by Marcel Cohen (Black Square, 2009) and, with Nick Bredie, also co-translated Cows by Frederic Boyer (Noemi, forthcoming 2011). She lives in Providence and teaches at Brown University.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
A fair amount of your book, On the Winding Stair, is absorbed by a world of ghosts that overlays and is not-totally-invisible to the living world. Like a transparency placed on a picture. First things first: do you actually believe in ghosts and have you ever had experiences with specters and haunted houses?
I do believe in ghosts, but they fail to appear to me. I am seeking the ones I know, but they just won’t give me the time of day. Much like how the person you like the most ignores you to the bitter end. I’m much more likely to haunt than be haunted, and to wonder if I’m being seen. Also, I believe in ghosts in the way someone who is out of your life returns in another guise, or how someone who is literally dead seems to be replicated in another person who is living, in their mannerisms and gestures, even sometimes in their way of dress. These are the most powerful encounters I’ve had with ghosts, especially since the living individual does not know he is being inhabited. So it is like a private secret.
I try to avoid what gets said on the backs of books, no matter how exciting because I want an unadulterated experience of a book. In this case, I failed because I very much like the three authors who had nice things to say on the back of your book. Gary Lutz comments on your tendency toward ghosts and says something about how your characters sort themselves between “the haunters and the haunted.” I think this is keen for a number of reasons, one of which, is that “the haunters and the haunted” describes a border, or ravine separating realities in many of the stories. What or where is the border for you between a reader’s imagination and the text?
Because narrative clarity is so tenuous in my work, the reader’s imagination is pretty vital to sort out things like progression, movement, even things that probably should be pretty straight-forward such as character or location. I often think that my characters are wandering in a shifting landscape, one that is recognizable if the reader is familiar with it, but which is also dissolving in a mist. I spend a lot of time thinking about projection, how much of our lives we spend trying to make some meaningful narrative of connection out of the very few details the people around us are willing to give up. I can create an elaborate fantasy out of very little information, so it is perhaps not surprising that my fiction ends up asking the same of a reader.
A big part of the pleasure of On the Winding Stair for me is how object-heavy these stories are and how unusual (and often outdated as technologies) objects that appear are. There’s a hurdy-gurdy, a tartan blanket, an Irish mail handcar, a caravan, doubloons, a mussel trestle, a cloissonne earring in the shape of a fish, vaudeville stage acts, pyracantha, epaulets, a poster bed veil, scrims, olive linen, a cider ruin, a pink mutt, a gourd helmet and something spectacularly called a, “misery salad.” In these rich worlds, there’s a stark relation to absence and poverty—evoked in addition to ghosts—captives, bastards and “pale, hungry girls.” There’s also a damagedness, ruined beaches, suicidal Spanish gypsies. The combined imagery makes me contemplate the beauty of decay and disintegration. Are these tensions a comment or meditation on beauty for you?
I think I am often obsessed with an object which I see as distinct in its genre, much as I like a character who is both a type and an absolute aberration of said type. In the absence of an understanding of what constitutes identity, one substitutes the material details of identity: we are marked by our material trappings in so many ways. To instill objects (or even locations) with this much burden is begging for disappointment, as objects are inevitably lost, damaged or ruined, and so these objects invoke a kind of anxiety. To fixate on a type, a boxer for instance—as in the piece I am currently working on—creates a similar problem for inevitably he can’t remain totally as such (injuries are inevitable, boxers retire young), and because I am romantic, I like to dwell as much on the former thing, the former boxer. His damage is his aberration and distinction, in this case, and it calls so much critical attention to his origins.
In addition to the beauty of ruin and decadence, I can’t ignore the possibility of a social commentary that particularly reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s association in A Room of One’s Own with poverty and nourishment to the imagination (or lack thereof). In a world and an economy where most of us have to spend most of our time working (and one’s attention in what time for entertainment is leftover is often drawn to TV or the web), what time is there for reading? I admit, that’s bit dramatic of me. But, there have been periods of my life in which I didn’t have time to read or if I did, I was too exhausted to focus my attention. To ask the question more broadly: this collection seems concerned with how imagination survives in impoverishment, so how does imagination survive in a world that doesn’t value imagination for imagination’s sake (and instead prefers imagination applied to productivity, technological ingenuity, etc…)?
This issue is of genuine concern to me, and I think it comes literally from growing up poor and filling in for material lack with imagination of material decadence, hence the obsession in my work with baroque décor and artisanal niceties. I think imagination is rarely valued for anyone other than children because it is seen as impractical or naïve, but I don’t feel this way. Perhaps because I tend toward cynicism and misanthropy, I use imagination to combat these things and to draw myself back into positive contact with individuals. These days if someone tells me I have a great imagination, I assume that they are raising one eyebrow. Imagination is connected with magical thinking and psychological projection, two things that breed awkwardness in a cocktail conversation. Beyond this, imagination is attached to enthusiasm, which is doubly awkward. For all that we dismiss things that don’t earn us money, at this cultural moment, I think the fear of having an awkward moment is much more damaging.
Just as this collection is fascinated by the object world, it is also fascinated by technology (though old technology, rather than new), I think. I think too of, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” and the world’s fascination with technology at the World Exhibition in Paris, 1900. Our (real) world is one that is perpetually fascinated by technology. And while I would most definitely not classify this work “steampunk” because it’s not (exactly) science fiction, I would suggest it grapples with a fascination with the old/vintage/antiqued and the development of technologies. How do you think the material object of “the book” will or will not change in response to technology? Is the book soon to be antiquated?
I am so tremendously flattered to have anything in my book labeled steampunk, I can barely focus on the question. I love obsolete technologies, for the same reason that I like former objects, and former character types. The book to me is always already antique, in the way that commercials are as well, because the marketing is worked into the design as artifact. Often, it seeks to trigger a past moment, and sell through nostalgia. I become nostalgic for the Old Spice commercials from the 70’s, and lo and behold, someone is already producing new retro versions of these before I even recognize the desire. Right now, there are so many book presses using retro comic or cartoon imagery, nostalgic photography, and antiqued fonts; these books are designed to look antique because it triggers our desire to own the object that is like the object from our past. It’s hard for me to imagine a movement entirely away from the book object, because there will always be those among us, no matter how reliant we become on the current technologies, who will still fetishize objects and want to possess them as such.
It seems to me too that your worlds are only possible because they’re literary—could only exist as fictions constructed of bizarre and beautiful vocabularies, although they don’t physically and logically operate too far from the margins of what we might identify as reality. There are creatures of dubious existence like mermaids and ghosts, and paradoxical, ethereal events occur. But none of these details are “absurd” in the sense that these fictional worlds are unstable. To the contrary, they seem to develop an immediate internal logic and are rather disciplined in staying true to whatever that internal logic may be. There’s a dream at work, but I am continually made aware that it is language and not experience. How important to you is it that the reader is made aware of the fact that he or she is reading, or made aware of the materiality of language?
Again, this is quite a conscious desire for me. I do believe that as writers we have chosen our medium, which is language, and should get to know it in its fluidity, its elasticity. The idea that I would try to create something in language that could be done better in film or in a visual artwork is nutz to me, although I have so many students that are going for that sort of thing. “I’m trying to write this like Frank Miller’s Sin City” they say, and they may get the flavor of the text of that work, but they fail to realize that the images of the model text were vital. I think it is fine to say I want to make something that has the effect of a graphic novel, but in language, especially if you intend to see just how to make the language do the work of image in its own right, but even that it is strange to me. I’ve just always been interested in the texture of the medium I’ve chosen.
I can never predict where a story in On the Winding Stair will end up and after reading the entire collection the stories are couched in my mind kaleidoscopically: I can’t keep them distinct, they form and reform in different patterns in my memory and I can’t locate their beginnings and endings, only their twists and tangibilities, because these stories of yours wind. Some of them seem to be able to keep going infinitely and others stop abruptly. In your writing process, how do you know when to “stop,” that is, how do you know when a story has arrived at an “ending”? What, exactly, for you, is an “ending”?
Finding an ending is the most difficult part of the writing process. For me, at this point, two things dictate endings: culmination of image, or dissipation of obsessive thought. It’s intuitive and always comes from the language. Bottom line, if I have been working with an image across a piece and it starts to feel sufficiently layered or labored, I feel I am coming to the end of something. Or, if I have had an obsessive idea or thought across the text, and it is starting to ease up, I feel I am coming to the end of something. For instance, I have an end line in which is a girl is described as “severed and refitted.” When I thought of this language, I was obsessed with it, and I wanted to find a narrative that explained to me why a girl would seem first severed, then refitted. When I had the story in mind, I worked toward the end line. Often, these obsessions of language recur later when I’m working on a new piece, and I might realize that I needed to go further in something that I’d already completed, but I am not one to go back and rework old love affairs.
Not unlike the overarching story structures, your sentences wind in a disturbing way. From the first story, “Light Carried on Air Moves Less,”: “In the center of that plain, where parched pasture grass muled, low and reedy, and sucked the humid thickness from the air till it was pinched and light and porous, a loose-ended portion of train track sat on its chalky rock pile, plank ribbed, veined with dark steel rails.” Like the warped dichotomy haunter / haunted, it seems the relationship between subject and object is mostly intact, but disturbed some. Passive objects are active (and even a bit aggressive, even if beautiful—the grass that sucks the air until it pinches), and subjects are sort of fragile, as if the train tracks are dependent and subservient to the rock pile that holds them up. What is your interest in the form of sentences?
Again, this is as much intuitive as anything. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to say something without really saying it, like trying to phrase a request to someone in which their acceptance is inevitable because it is worked into the assumptions of the language of the request, and because ultimately, I really want them to do what I want them to do. Manipulation through the medium of language. In a story like the one described above, I just wanted to overemphasize how languid and still everything was, and yet how much desire was present even in the inanimate objects, the desire to possess.
There’s a romance as well as a sense of nostalgia or grief (and even danger?) to the epigraph that gives the name to the collection: “On the winding stair / your dress rustles. / Candle burning quietly / In the dark room — / A silver hand / snuffs it out” (Georg Trakl, translated by Keith Waldrop). Trakl himself—disturbed, Bohemian, tragic, youthful—would not be out of place in the work. Did you write the collection with the Trakl poem in mind, or did you discover it later as a possible title? Given that your sentences seem to slip into the edges of poetry, how influenced or not were you by working with Trakl’s (or Keith’s?) structures?
I was hugely influenced by Trakl, especially the way a single line of his poems would often contain an entire narrative, with rich gothic elements, asylumns and castles, and these poems inevitably lead to despair and grief. I am a hopeless romantic. I was seeking a title for the collection, and kept striking out. At the time, fortunately, Keith Waldrop gave me some of his Trakl translations knowing I was a fan (of his and of Trakl). I had read an earlier version of this epigraph poem which had been translated to say “on the spiral staircase”. Of course, when I saw what Keith had done with it, I realized there was something so sophisticated and yet clear, the stair becomes active rather than the passive recipient of a common descriptor, and suddenly it said everything I wanted to say in the book.
What forthcoming works do we have to look forward to?
I’m working with an artist called Chemlawn to do something for the Kidney Press, an artist’s book in limited edition. Chemlawn does the artwork for Birkensnake magazine, and she is phenomenal, very, very strange, so I am excited to be working with her. That text is about my fixation with boxing and/or a visit to a refuge for exotic birds. I’m also trying to finish a novel, about a female filmmaker and her stable of strange actors.
Read Joanna’s Assemblage here: http://www.zingmagazine.com/joannahoward.pdf