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Diane Williams will never be conscientious

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New and editor Diane Williams is often described in epic terms. Jonathan Franzen hails her as “one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde”. Ben Marcus calls him “a hero of form: sudden fiction, flash fiction”. What does it mean to be a hero? “I was proud of myself as a hero should be proud, who risks his life, or who does not risk his life, but who saves someone, anyone! Williams writes, in his story “Marriage and the Family”.

I would describe Williams as the writer who saved my life – or my soul, if such a thing is believed to exist. Williams began publishing fiction in her 40s, after stints as a dancer and textbook editor, and after raising two children in Chicago. His first collections, “This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate” (1990) and “Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear” (1992), speak with a savage comedy about how “obliging” women suppress their sexual desires and ambitions, and how they meet the annihilating demands of husbands, lovers and children. His latest collections, more playful and metafictional, reveal how fear and pleasure assert themselves in domestic situations: the terror of facing a squirrel with a severe erection, the delight of having sex with a woman named Diane Williams. Now, at the age of seventy-five, Williams is releasing his tenth collection, “How High? —That High” (Soho Press). His work increasingly turns to the petty cruelties of death and aging, but the pain of living is always alleviated by its absurdity, the sheer stupid luck of simply existing.

“One of the deepest reasons I do my job is that I don’t want to speak the way I speak,” Williams told me recently, of his reluctance to give long talks. His stories, many of which do not exceed a page, suggest that what is not said between people is still more powerful than what they have the capacity to articulate. Williams studied with Gordon Lish (and, before that, with Philip Roth), but his minimalism stands out for his sublimity and spirituality, his ability to evoke the laws of a world apart. We can see the influence of his convictions in the pages of NOON, the magazine she publishes from her apartment in New York, which publishes some of the most interesting short story writers working in English: Lydia Davis, Christine Schutt, Anya Yurchyshyn, Vi Khi Nao, Kathryn Scanlan, Gary Lutz, Lara Pawson, Lucie Elven and Souvankham Thammavongsa, to name a few. Williams and I spoke three times on Zoom, and we corresponded by email regularly for several months. Our conversations have been combined and edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to start writing fiction in your early forties?

Oh, my God, I mean I forgot! Because sometimes I forgot, and it scares me, but I can go back and remember.

I wanted answers to questions I didn’t know how to ask. I felt quite unloved and failed. I read books and it led to failed polls after college. I read Freud, which brought me to Jung, to psychology, philosophy, anthropology, history. I gave myself permission to have disproportionate ambitions – to tackle the great mysteries of life – to heal myself, to educate myself. And I thought I could speak as loud as anyone who ever spoke.

You said you wanted answers. What were the questions you wanted answered?

These eternal questions: is there a god? If so, what kind of god? Why are we here? How to live well? I had had a religious education, but it too was broken.

How? ‘Or’ What?

The indoctrination turned out to be too thin. It was parochial and sexist: devoted girl, wife, devoted person. God is benevolent, and so on.

What is the opposite of being conscientious?

The opposite is to be a wild person. And you can be a wild person on the page. I always thought it was my obligation, to allow the wild person to access the page.

Why be a wild person on the page rather than a wild person off the page?

You cannot be a wild person in life. This is madness. I have no interest in madness. I have an interest in being in a romantic relationship. How are you doing that? Find stability, have the most joyful and productive life possible?

In life, I am hungry for reason, courtesy, happiness, love. Others may have a taste for more adventure.

And how do you give the wild person access to the page?

Free a person who will recklessly speak the truth, on the one hand. Good manners are of no use here. Try to advance the lawless region of the dream, while trying to maintain the plausibility of waking life.

I don’t have a lot of patience with the surreal in fiction, or with science fiction, which is the surefire way to welcome the savage. I’m much more interested in following the adventures of people who barely or courageously deal with the circumstances in which we are all stuck. I have a deep admiration for those writers who seamlessly link the incredible to a world we recognize. Isaac Bashevis Singer and John Cheever both do these wonders. I read somewhere — John Cheever discussing how best to perform this magic, what he learned from John le Carré. It was to introduce a simple and humble object in the vicinity of the fantastic. A filthy woman’s belt, for example.

But savagery usually encompasses the unspeakable – an insistence on talking about what is too hard to say. When we reach that point of “Oh, no, That was it !“There is horror. But then there is the relief and sometimes the triumph – I did something about my injury.

Everything you just told me about your writing philosophy, would you impress him on a writer you edited as well?

We always measure plausibility and authority. And, yes, I say very often: “We have to go further. You’ve barely climbed the ranks for diving. Sometimes when I’m afraid the writer will never find the end, a new title can save the day.

Your stories have amazing, sometimes very funny, titles: “My Female Honor Is Of A Type. “Oh, my God, the Rapture! “The real Diane Williams captured the whole of Freud.” “Cat.” “The fuck.” “The penis had been pretty decent.” Why is that?

The title is his first chance—Please listen to me! It’s a call, the first chance to bewitch after writing a story, doing all that work. Here is the opportunity to create more involvement and latitude.

Gordon Lish used to urge us with “If you wanna piss with the big dogs.” . . . “Which seemed pretty sexist to me, but was still, to me, exhilarating at the time.


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