Taking in everything from linguistic dystopianism to Freudian whimsy, the stories in Joanna Walsh’s second collection, Worlds from the Word’s End, are alternately playful, melancholic, subversive and wistful. The collection demonstrates the wide range of Walsh’s writing, and her continual desire to shift the boundaries of conventional storytelling. From the mid-European detachment of Hauptbahnhof to the playful fairy tale Simple Hans, Worlds from the Word’s End marks Walsh out as one of our most inventive authors.
Here, she talks to Minor Literature[s] about the impact of technology on storytelling, autofiction, and demystifying the role of the author.
In many of your stories, from Fractals (2013) and Grow a Pair (2015) up to your current collection, you examine the influence of technology on the way we communicate; this is perhaps most directly addressed in the title story from Worlds From the Word’s End. As a writer, how do you incorporate these changes in discourse into your work, and what challenges do you face?
It a no-brainer. We live via technologies–and always have: writing is the original technology if by technology you mean an artifice created to replace or extend a human function–and each technological shift creates different styles of language that facilitate (and hamper) our uses of it, and its uses of us. Language that wants to section itself off as ‘literary’ is dead. Interesting writers keep a close eye on changes in the ways we speak and write to each other, as well as how this speaking and writing changes us.
As you showed with your novella Seed, you’re very open to experimenting with digital storytelling techniques; what sort of possibilities do you think new technologies open up for your work, and how can this help to move literature forward?
I’m not interested in the digital reproduction of the conventional book form. If I’m reading a ‘book’ I prefer print. I hope digital offers a huge number possibilities that do not already exist in print for representing experience via words, most of which I know nothing about. In Seed, I’ve used digital to explore written ways of telling developed by modernist and postmodernist writers, and in feminist and posthumanist thought, that challenge conventional linear notions of time and memory, and conventionally coherent subjectivity (aka ‘plot’ and ‘character’).
You’ve already published short fiction, digital fiction, creative non-fiction (Hotel) and the A7-sized Shklovsky’s Zoo, amongst other forms; do you see yourself as a sort of ‘format agnostic’? Or is there a particular form you’d like to focus on in the future? Equally, is there anything you haven’t yet tackled which you’d like to try?
Form seems to arise to fit individual projects, or projects to fit situations. I’m flexible, and innovation is always also response, depending on collaboration, funding opportunities etc. But Hotel was a challenge to genre rather than form. If it began as response, it became deliberate, which makes me less an agnostic than an iconoclast. It started as an attempt to tell an autobiographical story outside the bounds of ‘memoir’. Traditionally memoir seems to concentrate on the subject. I’m only interested in myself as a starting point for discussing something wider.
Following on from this, you’ve previously said that in the Anglosphere, the terms ‘writer’ and ‘novelist’ are almost synonymous. Do you think there have been any negative consequences from having moved between styles and formats early in your career, or is this something you’ve ever worried about?
I started writing with no expectations of a ‘career,’ conscious of not having written books that fit into easily saleable categories. But I haven’t been a writer all my adult life, and the idea of writing ‘the next book’ for the sake of writing the next book makes no sense to me. If that became the case, I hope I could walk away from it. But I hope I’ll be able to continue as an ‘amateur,’ like Clarice Lispector… though I also hope my amateurism has a long course 🙂
Autofiction has been an influence on your work; at the moment, the most prominent autofiction writers, such as Chris Kraus, Michelle Tea and Sheila Heti, seem to be based in North America. Do you think there’s something in the British literary scene which discourages this style of writing, and if so, are we likely to see that change?
The UK reviews of Heti’s How Should a Person Be were almost unanimously negative, usually due to a perception that it is ‘narcissistic’ to write about yourself. I don’t see much change to that yet, but I meet (and teach!) people who want to read (and write) something they can’t quite define: a take on their own story, but not memoir or biography… and I spend a lot of my teaching time giving them permission to write what they want. But my influences don’t come only from North America, but also Europe, particularly France: NDiaye, Garreta, Duras, Sarraute, Ernaux…
You’ve spoken previously about the importance of authors talking about how they make a living, if not solely from their work. Do you think there needs to be a process of demystifying the role of the author? And is this a shift that you see happening?
Going back to Lispector: though she claimed to be an ‘amateur’ writer, she was a successful journalist, producing hundreds of columns on a variety of subjects for Brazilian newspapers. Perhaps her amateurism resided in her ability to separate paid work from play. “A professional has a personal commitment to writing. Or a commitment to someone else to write,” she said. “I insist on not being a professional. To keep my freedom.
When I read novelists in newspapers complaining they can’t make a living as a writer like they used to, I usually find they are living the sorts of lives I wouldn’t want to live, writing the sorts of works I wouldn’t want to write. They are ‘authors.’
If there’s any mystery left around the position or author (rather than around the practice), I’m be happy to see it evaporate.
But who is paid, and what they are paid, to write, is never neutral. These are things we need to question, and re-question. It is nice to be paid for something you’re skilled at, but the relationship between money and art can never be entirely ‘demystified,’ or art would become static. Fair returns should be paid to people whose work is sold,’ but that’s a commercial proposition. If writing can be weighed out and paid for per word, I don’t want to know what that exchange rate is.
But, to answer your question: in practice, I have earned a living from journalism and teaching and, at the moment, PhD funding plus the occasional grant or residency. I don’t make much money from writing books, nothing like the UK living wage, but this has made my practice wider that it would have been were it easier to comfortably make a living by producing books.
What’s the relationship between the stories in Worlds From the Word’s End, and those in your previous collection, Vertigo? Was there a particular feeling you envisioned for each collection, that influenced your choice of stories?
The stories for the two collections were mostly written concurrently – I had not idea that they’d be collected into these two volumes. Danielle Dutton of Dorothy made the initial selection of stories for Vertigo, selecting those with a hyperreal focus, about women in family relationships. I realised that the remaining stories had something in common too: a concentration on wordplay and abstraction. With a little work, they formed what I hope is an equally coherent collection.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
It sounds wanky, but I’m not attached to particular objects, though I for preference I will live in a pleasant—though easily-reproducible—environment (a few nice clothes, a reasonable laptop, good coffee & decent alcohol please). I’m happy being temporary, in anonymous spaces, in other people’s houses. And I like to say goodbye to things. Recently I destroyed a lot of my artwork from when I was an illustrator because I have less storage space in my new place. I had a few twinges about that after, but it was probably the right thing to do because I felt it was at the time. I don’t like to go to writers’ houses, but I was in Prague with someone who wanted to visit Kafka’s house, and it’s now my favourite writers’ museum: so beautifully designed, around so little of him. I’m horrified how writers are interpreted via their ephemera: burn it all!
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
This week? Maybe Joni Mitchell’s Carey.
Thom Cuell is senior editor at Minor Literature[s]. @TheWorkshyFop