F.P. – In an interview, John Hawkes explains: “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”
How would you relate this statement to your own conception of writing fiction?
Mary Caponegro – Here is my response to John Hawkes’ infamous assumption that “the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.”
I see myself as very much a member of this renegade school, writing against the grain of the mimetic mainstream. I consider myself an avant-gardist, an experimentalist, (and admittedly in this case, a sentimentalist)—as these words are those of my mentor, John Hawkes, who gave me tremendous encouragement and urged me to follow my own idiosyncratic path in fiction. For twenty years, I’ve done so, striving to avoid concession to the status quo, and yet at this mid-career juncture, I do find myself adopting a more moderate stance: I find I have a far greater tolerance for traditional fiction, that I am better able to appreciate and learn from it than I was in the past. I no longer see the tenets of conventional mimetic fiction as precisely the “enemy,” though I deeply appreciate the rhetorical stance of Jack’s mini-manifesto, and his wish to underscore the disparity between what now might be referred to as “plot-driven” or “character-driven” fiction and fiction which foregrounds voice and time and texture. The former feels not “enemy” but “other.” I think that in conventional fiction, the language functions as a means to an end: the material with which one tells the story. The reason one reads such fiction is to “see what happens” or to identify with the characters.
In the fiction I write, on the other hand, those aspects are ancillary—which doesn’t mean I am indifferent to them or consider them intrusive to my craft, but simply that they are not my highest priority. I work from ideas and images and abstractions—from an impulse to conflate the sensual and the abstract, and from an impulse to generate a species of music. For a writer such as myself, who wishes to blur the line between fantasy and reality, a crisp delineation of character and setting, etc. would not serve my purpose—whereas the creation of a mood or texture might be utterly crucial. Plot might be quite intricate, but in ways likely comprised more of nuance than event. I suppose that in my work, character tends to become merely a prop for voice, and often there are very few characters, perhaps only one speaker who refers to other characters and whom the reader experiences only through that “central intelligence.” But when characters do figure, they might have quite defined attributes. My interest is, I think, to explore them more from the inside out than from the outside in, if you will—laying bare their psyches through involution of syntax, as if syntax itself were the objective correlative—rather than giving a host of external details from which the reader can deduce internal “truths.” One could view my work as a fiction of the psychological epiphenomena of event. My tendency toward abstraction may be felt by some conventional readers to hold them at a distance, but I hope the psychological intensity compensates for this.
In sum, I no longer feel it strictly necessary to view or define fiction (my own or others’) in terms of “this camp” or “that camp,” although my artistic allegiances have been crucial in my development as a writer, and I am deeply grateful to my mentors and their kin, who did the literary trailblazing that enabled me to have more options. I want to be certain that my own baroque, fragmented, convoluted ways do not turn as predictable or monotonous as the tried and true techniques of conventional fiction felt to me when I began to write—that my artistic proclivities or ideologies do not become inadvertent limitations. That danger may well be the greater, more immediate enemy!
F.P. – When you speak about “the involution of syntax” as the “objective correlative,” as T.S. Eliot said, to “express emotion in the form of art,” this brings to mind your latest publication: The Complexities of Intimacy. You express the complexities of intimacy between people in your use of syntax. In the way you articulate the intricate nature of relationships between people, can one say that in some respects, you are closer to Virginia Woolf or even to the French writer Nathalie Sarraute than to, let’s say, Robert Coover or other contemporary writers?
Mary Caponegro – This has an interesting kinship with a question I was answering of Daniela Daniele, my Italian translator. She was interpreting my work as rooted in modernism versus some more contemporary American movement such as so-called “avant-pop”, just as you are seeing a kinship to Woolf. (And even if this didn’t make sense to me, I would be likely to believe two such brilliant women as you and Daniela!) And indeed I concur, though paradoxically during my formative writer years I found Virginia Woolf too “blurry” and preferred the radical route of Gertrude Stein or James Joyce. Yet my own impressionistic avenue is probably much closer to Woolf’s, and isn’t this often the way with writers: the strongest kinships aren’t necessarily the conscious ones. Bringing Robert Coover into the mix brings me back into mentor territory, as before, with question number 1. It’s hard for me to be objective, and it is difficult to put myself against these writers I consider masters. But I can say or try to say in which ways I am Coover-linked and which ways not. Certainly his example helped me occupy with confidence that anti-mimetic camp. His work and his support gave me permission to eschew the conventional 20th-century short story’s tactics and use instead irrealism and the fabular. (He from the start saw what was philosophical in my fiction’s intent.) One had abundant example of irreverence, which was quite valuable, although I suspect my fiction is at least as preoccupied with reverence as irreverence. The parodic isn’t quite as strong an impulse in my work, and the marvelous bravado that thumbs its nose at conventional morality and propriety in Bob’s work has a magisterial over-the-top brio that I’d consider different from the baroque impulses of my fiction, focused as they seem to be on intricacy and delicacy. The ambiguity of fantasy and reality is very much Bob’s territory; deconstructing reality is his legacy, I’d say, and I am honored to inherit it. My use of the burlesque is far quieter, however. Bob is also a profoundly political writer, and I am not that. He makes extensive albeit stylized use of the vernacular as well, and my stuff is so stiltedly formal.
I believe I mentioned during the “Imagination Alive Imagine” Paris Conference  Conference organized by Marc Chénetier, University... my wish to “feminize” the legacy of my mentors. Despite a great resistance to such terms and gendered categories in general when interpreting literature, I was certainly aware of having mostly male predecessors in the domain of American metafiction, with Angela Carter as an obvious exception. And you may recall I was distressed by an essay by Wendy Steiner that seemed to categorize metafiction as a male and obsolete domain, and love and beauty and down-to-earth-ness as the female province. My intent was and is, I think, to fully inhabit the unreal with all the aspects of my writerly consciousness, including gender. I was quite disinterested, as a young writer, in anything that had the whiff of domestic fiction, and yet to deconstruct domesticity is exactly my project in the Complexities of Intimacy volume, as you see. Intimacy does seem to be what larger-than-life metafiction leaves out, because it is not part of the “big picture.” The exploration of psychological and emotional nuance would not, I think, be meaty enough for that mission/project. But it is very much my project.
When I think of some younger writers I admire, and who are well-known, like David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, and Jeff Eugenides (of whom the latter two also enjoyed Jack Hawkes’ mentorship), I think there is a much greater accessibility in their work, though it isn’t strictly speaking, mainstream fiction. Part of this lies in the embrace of popular culture and utilization of a certain comic mode. My comedy is more oblique, less of this world, I think, than theirs. It has the renegade’s impulses but in less overt ways. I recall that Robert McLaughlin (in preparation for his essay on me in the current issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction) also noted that I seem in some way to fit in with the Dalkey Press authors by virtue of my experimental leanings, and yet, in some sense he found challenging to define, I was unlike them. That too would seem to corroborate your analysis.
F.P. – Could you comment on your preference for short fiction rather than longer pieces, at a time when some writers publish what Tom LeClair has called “the Systems Novel” (in The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction)?
Mary Caponegro – Why short?
This is such an interesting question. While my writing (with its baroque inclinations) would appear to be all about excess, it doesn’t tend toward conventional longer forms, i.e. the novel. (It would be quite convenient if it did!) Sometimes I think it will, but something always shifts and the length becomes novella or longer story or collage instead. I’d love to read that book you mentioned, because the systems notion intrigues me, and I think of my fictions as dense, intricate systems composed in quite unsystematic ways! I was very flattered when years ago, Steven Moore, then the associate editor at The Review of Contemporary Fiction, reviewed The Star Café for The Washington Post with statements such as the following: “Short ‘fiction’ is more apt than short ‘stories’ because Caponegro avoids the well-trod path of the well-made short story for the yellow-brick road of Borgesian ficciones.” And while I don’t kid myself that my fiction will ever achieve anything close to the power of that of Borges, I do strive for that density and multi-valence he achieves. Ironically, I have strayed rather far from small pieces recently, and am working on unwieldy longer ones, but part of the unwieldiness involves their resistance to novel form! So often what would, I suspect, require novel-length in other writers’ hands, requires for me more layers instead of more length. Hence my utilization of non-linear or non-narrative means, such as the collage, or pieces that absorb “found material” or research in the manner of a collage.
I’m fascinated and compelled by intricately knotted strands or skeins of imagery and ideation. And I greatly admire some of the meganovels that seem to have proliferated in U.S. fiction in the last years. But I can’t imagine ever being a 600 or 800-page person. I am (and suspect my reader is) exhausted by 8 pages of my stuff!—into which I try to cram what might be the equivalent of the material of a whole novel. But I can’t slow it down or spread it out, can’t let it breathe, although perhaps I’d be the better writer for it (the more accessible one, at any rate). I’ve come to consider my trademark, or at least my tendency, to be cramming everything I can into a particular fiction, making a surfeit of imaginal detail that overwhelms and doesn’t necessarily delineate as much as heap suggestion upon suggestion, and heap fantasy upon reality such that a reader can’t quite discern. The resultant psychic overload, if you will, might suggest vastness or mass through depth or breadth. If I were to unpack each image, or idea, or relation in the story, perhaps a novel would be born, but I don’t choose to and don’t know how to work that way. Interestingly, a dear colleague of mine, George Saunders, said to me after a recent reading, at which I read the story “Ashes Ashes We All Fall Down” (Conjunctions special fiction issue), “boy, there’s a whole novel in that story.” And that, to me, is the ultimate compliment; I’d love my best readers to find in each story the novel-between-the-lines. I guess I’m ultimately more interested in a novel through inference than in an explicit conventional novel. (This has some overlap with earlier questions, doesn’t it? Excuse me if I’m being redundant.) My notes for any story seem entropic, elliptical (as I’ve mentioned before), a swirl of connectivity. And I’m never happy until every little thing I want to include is inserted, integrated. It’s very much the way my mind works, I’m afraid: a swirling consciousness such that any single thought gloms onto other thoughts and leads me in ten different directions at once. And yet by the end of a story or its epiphany, I want it to be tight, so that all that burgeoning excess is contained, controlled (a calibrated swirl if you will), so as to seep into the reader’s consciousness and hopefully not dissipate too quickly. I had another colleague who was a superb, organized administrator because he dealt with one piece of paper at a time, then it was off his desk, each item in turn. I can’t seem to follow that model. My desk is always cluttered: analogue of my mind, and that clutter inhabits my fiction in a quite compulsive way. Crafted clutter, you might say. And that’s as close to system as I get!
F.P. – In “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” (in A Convergence of Birds), you picture Joseph Cornell and Emily Dickinson meeting and sharing bits on their art and life. The diary form and many narrative changes give the impression of catching snatches of rare moments, intensely arranged around typographical blanks. I am curious to know how you worked on this piece. How did you put your vision together in such an improbable and thrilling dialogue of sorts?
Mary Caponegro – You are indeed thorough! To find all the scattered fictions! I’m so flattered you would bother to dig up everything. As to the “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” it was a solicited work—this is rare for me, because I have no talent at writing for a specific occasion or on a pre-ordained subject. And yet when Jonathan Foer wrote and asked me if I would contribute a piece to a book he was putting together on the bird boxes of Joseph Cornell, I couldn’t resist at least trying. I love Cornell’s work, and had had the luck of getting permission to use one of his images on my Star Café book cover, so it seemed worth a try. These are the kind of “assignments” I imagine other writers can “toss off” in a day or week. For me to create that piece in four months was astonishingly expedient! It took all my attention, and I did copious research, because I didn’t have enough imagination to simply riff off one of those intriguing images and come up with a powerful literary product. So I took, as I often do, the tedious route, and reacquainted myself with the work and life of both Cornell and Dickinson. (The latter’s work I love as well.) I immersed myself in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and in Joseph Cornell’s journals. I wanted to create a dialogue between them, and (as is also often the case), I felt I needed different layers and some kind of fragmentation. I came up with the conceit of the two meeting in the “afterlife” with the box Cornell created for Dickinson as the vehicle. (I seem to gravitate toward these “spiritual” metaphors; the Star Café was supposed to represent the life of a man who had turned into a woman and then at the end turns back into a man.) I knew having them meet in the afterlife would risk the piece being precious, and I fear it is precious, but I had to take that risk. I wanted the voices to include lines of Dickinson’s own poems, as well as fictional Cornell journal entries based on the rhythms of his actual journal entries. Their fictional dialogue (which you are very kind to call “thrilling” rather than boring!) constituted another rhetorical layer, and I wanted each to feel as “authentic” as possible. The final layer was the abstract voice. This entailed a point of view that looked down (alternately) upon both of them with an omniscient, detached eye, yet focusing on the aspects or events that seemed to me most poignant or most evocative. Thus paradoxically the abstraction meant to convey the most emotion, the greatest intimacy and vulnerability. I took quite some time to get the proportions right, or what I considered right, and the piece was much longer than it was supposed to be. Eventually it had to be cut some, which was probably good. I find that this sort of arranging of voices requires more meticulous crafting than writing a linear narrative. I’m annoyed with myself when I take on these forms, because it’s always a battle, but the muse doesn’t give me much choice. I am very glad you see glimpses of “rare moments” and a feeling of intensity, because I was aiming for this marriage of the ephemeral and the eternal, the interior life that is implicit in an object, an artifact. The biographical elements in a work like this are much more interesting and come much more “naturally” for me than does explicit use of autobiographical elements.
F.P. – Reading “The Daughter’s Lamentation” and other sections of The Complexities of Intimacy, I cannot help wondering in what respect you work from autobiographical material. How do you integrate fiction and autobiography?
Mary Caponegro – This issue of autobiographical material is interesting. When I was a fledgling writer in college, I studied poetry and wrote many bad “confessional” poems. My earliest undergraduate attempts at stories drew, as most students’ do, from experience, but only these. My orientation as a mature fiction writer has always been toward invention. I tend to avoid the autobiographical in all but the most oblique ways. Obviously it is my sensibility that informs all the stories, but rarely is it my direct experience that informs them. This is of course the opposite of most mainstream fiction writers. I can cite once again my (very much non-mainstream) mentors, who themselves invented against the grain and away from the autobiographical. I am fascinated that you note “The Daughter’s Lamentation,” because its pseudo-memoir format does seem to elicit assumptions in readers. I remember reading it in Woodstock, N.Y. and a member of the audience asking me afterward about my architect father and my experience as a ballerina! Then, after it was published in periodical, someone brought to my attention that the story had the honor of being listed in the “100 Other” essays in the back of The Best American Essays, indicating that whoever does the selection for those volumes saw my piece of fiction and assumed it was non-fiction! (This citation was flattering, on the one hand, and troubling, on the other, given that the story’s motif is incest, and I wouldn’t want my father’s memory tainted in this way.) I think the publishing craze over memoir in this past decade makes people particularly attuned to autobiographical resonances, especially when they concern potentially sensationalist issues. When I write, I often consider the experience of others with the goal of some “universal” relevance, but I have always felt it would be a kind of “cheating” to use my own in any direct way. For this reason I suspect many critics find my work too abstract. I know it can also be regarded by those unreceptive to experimentalism as narcissistic or indulgent. And yet it is never about me! This question is especially pertinent in this period of my artistic development, because my writer’s “mid-life crisis” has me questioning all my writerly habits, as I mentioned in earlier responses. Lately I have wanted to challenge myself by tackling subjects or approaches I would have previously eschewed. Curiously, the subject matter that would be most natural to your average first novelist is to me most foreign. But in the collection I am working on now, I have included one story that involves an adolescent girl in Catholic school. This is so close to my own life that I would never have gone anywhere near it before, considering it unworthy and uninteresting. But I felt at this juncture of my life the need to explore that subject matter. So we’ll see what happens. Another story published in Conjunctions a year or two ago (called “Ashes Ashes We All Fall Down”) dealt with a mother dying of cancer. It was not my mother, nor was I the model for the protagonist, but I “allowed” myself to write it, “despite” the fact that my own mother had died of cancer. In this way, I let my own experience inform a story in ways not customary for me. I never want to stray from impulses toward the philosophical or metaphorical, but neither do I want to have a fiction so research-laden that it alienates people or seems divorced from the human. So in this phase of my career, I am occasionally dabbling in a realm closer to home, as it were. But my concern, as an inventor/writer, has always been and remains to make a fiction whose high degree of artifice is offset by a visceral and an emotional intensity. I want that which is not mimetic to carry the charge of the mimetic, the emotional charge. I want the invented psyche into which a reader is squeezed to be so powerfully emotive that it displaces the real, and becomes a disconcertingly (even overwhelmingly) persuasive surrogate reality.
F.P. – There is a great deal of humor and at times a form of derision in your work. How important is this to you?
Mary Caponegro – This may be the most complex question of all. I would say, Françoise, that the comic element in my fiction is quite important to me, though it may be elusive for the reader. I would be curious whether people consider me in any fundamental way a comic writer. In the U.S., it seems there is an overt form of humor that has popular appeal. I think many of the writers who are successful have a humorous aspect in their work. There is an almost stand-up comedy flavor to some of contemporary American fiction, and a gift for the one-liner is worth its weight in gold. My work is in an altogether different category, but I don’t know what category! I revere the tradition of black humor, à la Beckett. And those who consider Kafka a comic writer might be those toward whom I aim my comic fiction. I suppose this inclination might fit along an eros/thanatos continuum for me. Some of my work, the more overtly comic work of mine, is firmly in a black comic mode, e.g. “The Father’s Blessing,” though its excesses and preoccupations with the grotesque might put its comedy in a less sophisticated slot. Ditto with “The Son’s Burden.” There is a tiny piece of mine published in the final issue of the magazine Sulfur, called “Odradrek, or The Cares of a Family Woman,” (a play on Kafka’s “Odradek” story) which may be the darkest story I’ve ever written. But then there is a lighter—or should I say brighter (as I don’t find myself very successful at levity per se) species of comedy in which I would place, for instance, my novella Sebastian—a more ebullient comic mode that seems to gravitate toward the erotic, the celebratory erotic, let’s say. Whereas the eros of the story you mentioned in another question, “The Daughter’s Lamentation,” is a darker, more disturbing eros. But even that story, intense and sober as it is, through its very obsessiveness, might instantiate a further outreach of black comedy. The Star Café story is a comic mode between those two, I’d say, because the protagonist Carol’s naiveté puts her in a comic circumstance, even though the story is aiming for mystery and some kind of gender negative capability! I think of the Five Doubts book along that aforementioned continuum as well, because the opening story, “The Apprentice’s Mistress” (“Il Libro Dell’Arte”) is meant to offer an ebullient, over-the-top parodic statement, examining gender and representational art, metafiction, etc. It too is meant to be a celebration of eros, excess, and the baroque. Its “flip side” is the final piece, the collage called “Doubt Uncertainty Possibility Desire,” in which the obnoxious apprentice is the voice of death, fear, doubt, evil: the black magic version of the first piece’s white magic. The theme of the grotesque in the Leonardo piece is the perverse view of nature which battles with Leonardo’s “edifying” creativity. For Salai, who is indeed the embodiment of your word derision, death is ever ready to render unstable all his master’s creative enterprises. He is the annihilator, though he tells some truths too. In the Five Doubts book, the other collage piece, “Tombola,” means to employ yet another comic mode, with its pseudo-folkloric narratives that try to capture the humor and poignancy of the rituals and traditions of the Neapolitan game-board images they seek to animate. When you mention derision, I think also of the tool of self-deprecation in some of my narrative voices. “The Mother’s Mirror” uses this mode through the device of the royal/humble “we” to manifest an almost-annihilating humility or modesty. As usual, I’m trying to take a gender stereotype, the self-sacrificing female (as The Star Café’s Carol was the passive female), and imbue it with a certain degree of self-consciousness, so that what is these days called “agency” is ambiguously constituted, half-realized, half-unrealized in the narrator’s psyche. Of course derision (still using your word in, I hope, the intended way) is not restricted to my female narrators. Sebastian and Tommy Smalldridge (“The Son’s Burden”) have more than their share of derision from the cosmos. Thus it is not only females who suffer under the “reign of patriarchy,” to put it grandiosely. Well, the more I go on here, the more it’s becoming apparent that humor does matter to me considerably, and does play an important role in my fiction, and while alas it doesn’t seem to make my stories any more accessible, it is a means by which I try to lighten the oppressiveness of their characteristic density and intensity. I am fond of thinking of Calvino’s prized lightness in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium essays, but I fear that I may “weigh in” on the side of the turgid and the unwieldy! But I’d prefer to let you be the judge!