After publishing my Sixty Morning Talks interview collection, I have begun work on a more focused, single-press interview series, offering a comprehensive oral history (a cinéma vérité, in prose) of Nightboat Books’ diverse and ambitious output over its first decade of publication. For this newer project, it particularly interests me to track interpersonal and intertextual constellations that have helped to shape the work done by Nightboat’s authors, publishers and designers. Nightboat will publish this interview collection late next year. This interview focuses on Fanny Howe’s Radical Love and other works and took place on January 8.– Andy Fitch
Andy Fitch: Just now, when we tried to talk, and kept getting kicked off Skype, you had begun the conversation by describing Kazim Ali’s “unexpected arrival” in your life. Could we please start there, with you describing that arrival, and the first couple of decisions you and Kazim made together?
AF: Each novel in Radical Love first appeared on its own (and not necessarily in this particular order). But I also feel that a new, composite book has emerged in the process of assembling this collection—a composite being not so different, in some ways, from the composite being of friendship, of sex, of dialogue, of understanding/misunderstanding that often appears when two of your characters come together. Could you trace the birth of this composite intertext? How aware were you while writing, or shortly thereafter, of what binds these novels together? And what role did Nightboat itself play in prompting or shaping this collection? How did this five-in-one format arrive into the world as a workable concept?
AF: Indivisible, Radical Love’s concluding novel, presents names as sacred—attached, like destinies, to individuals before birth. And by this point in the overall collection, these faceted accounts of complex, contradictory characters extending across multiple narratives (even Hart’s Parts Chicken restaurant recurs, in multiple moods) serve to present a broader investigation into questions of essence, of identity, of the individual person’s integral value (less provisional, perhaps, than one’s “personal values,” which seem to change from plot to plot). I’ll have plenty of questions about Radical Love’s simultaneous blurring/reinforcement of identity. But first could you describe what writing these books, these characters, has taught you about the individual’s value? Did placing single characters into multiple novels help you to explore elements in individual existence that might transcend any one isolated story or perspective? Also, if you consider it worthwhile, could you describe your decision-making process as you realized that, though you already had completed a given novel, you hadn’t finished with a given character? Did you face resistance, perhaps internalized, perhaps from publishers, perhaps from your projections of what future reviewers or readers might say, as you stuck with Tom, or Roisin, or Kosta?
AF: In terms of the fluid subjectivity that arises, even as certain characters stick around, I know people often have asked about how/why your prose interchanges first- and third-person pronouns, or masculine and feminine genders, within a single narrative account. I’ve read you describing your desire to render the malleable and fleeting nature of subjective selfhood. And one of the most mysterious and fascinating manifestations of this desire comes, for me, from how dialogue here often doesn’t add up to a simple A-B-A-B exchange. Sometimes in a subtle, often undetected way, two separate characters’ statements will get spaced as one single line, for one single utterance (suddenly: perhaps just once in a much more expansive conversation). As a result of this single glitch, the whole exchange gets skewed. The reader might think he/she encounters, let’s say, Kosta defending his position, but actually reads Roisin critiquing it. So again, a third being emerges, which we could call perhaps dialogue, or the triangulated reader, or confusion, or all three. As in the case of our own lives, we can’t even rely on the accuracy of the court transcripts, let alone of the testimonies provided therein. So multiplicity abounds within any one single novel, a multiplicity beyond the sum of that novel’s individual parts. But by then putting these narratives all together, did you wish to take that process much further, and have each book-within-the-book echo off each other? Given, for instance, your interest in film (to which I’ll want to return), would you like your reader to undergo the literary equivalent of attending an auteur-inflected director’s series at the Brattle, watching let’s say 15 Cassavetes films over two weeks, seeing the same actors, sometimes playing almost the same characters (though sometimes playing their opposites)? And how, within this context, does Radical Love’s prospect for multi-perspectival viewing again refer back to spiritual practices you have absorbed along the way?
AF: Still on this topic of multiple planes or perspectives dynamically coexisting within your work: the reproduction of handwritten entries in your first Nightboat book’s The Lives of a Spirit section reminds me of what happens in Radical Love with pronominal and conversational vectors. Spirits’ handwritten lines will sometimes arrange themselves in perpendicular fashion, will sometimes invite appreciation as calligraphical arrangement, rather than any straightforward reading for content. So again I think of your consistent explorations of what can bridge a concrete and an abstracted world, a lower and an upper world, a sacramental world (in Indivisible, arranging flowers, serving tea can serve this liminal role of ministering both to secular and spiritual considerations). And I’d love to hear more about the reader’s place in stitching together these multiple worlds. Does your reader at least sometimes get to adopt an angelic presence, shepherding your characters (or being shepherded by them) between such worlds? Or more broadly, and inverting familiar presumptions characterizing poetry as “difficult” and realist fiction as “easy,” what can reading The Lives of a Spirit (confronting, simultaneously, your elegant, evocative, elliptical prose and your dense, clustered, embodied handwriting—spirit and body at the same time) teach us about how to read (metaphysically, anti-metaphysically) Radical Love?
AF: Of course, in The Lives of a Spirit’s handwritten passages, the word “insane” also features prominently, in all capital letters. Could you likewise discuss the place of mental illness, of mental disturbance, across the composite Radical Love text—with such states perhaps offering a liminal vantage, a portal to what you have at times described (quoting Gianni Vattimo) as an “infinite plurality”? This last phrase sounds Nietzschean to me. But it also echoes Du Bois’s conception of “double consciousness,” pointing towards further topics of gender, race and class vantage that I hope we’ll explore.
AF: In terms, once more, of dualities, polyphonies, schizophrenia arising within and across these texts, I hope that, by now, scholars have written whole dissertations on the vertiginous lyric passages that suddenly emerge, then expire in your novels. Such sequences (which seem so characteristic of your work that I almost fear approaching them, assuming you’ve said it all before, or have deliberately refrained from doing so) play out with interesting variety across Radical Love. Italicized, strophe-like passages appear in the first couple of novels, evoking Greek choruses, Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (for me, at least). Then, in Famous Questions, perhaps the novel here most concerned with film, this heightened realism takes a different form, with characters such as Kosta, Roisin, Echo offering dramatically scripted, overly articulate statements far beyond the range of most spoken or written conversation—thereby putting added weight, as film does, on dialogue. Then by Indivisible, these rhapsodic eruptions seem more integrated, more embedded into the novel’s intricate narrative textures (its first sentence, for instance, simply states: “I locked my husband in a closet one fine winter morning”). So again, dozens of potential questions here, but, to start, could you discuss the drive (as you construct a narrative with scene, character, structure not so different from nineteenth-century models) towards these sudden swells of poetic prose? Do they arrive on spontaneous impulse amid the writing? Do they emerge out of shrewd calculation concerning what a complicated textual sequence needs for further contrast, for accent? Do these utterances emerge fully formed in a rush, and then get left mostly untouched? Do they begin as a disjunctive swerve in a rough draft, then later get elaborated into kaleidoscopic flourishes? Do you sense that such moments of alterity gradually get more integrated (less disruptive) from one novel to the next? Or does it make no sense for me to track any such overall trend? Aside from possessing overlapping plots and characters, do you consider the form that each of these novels takes quite self-contained, irreducible, dependent upon your distinctive experience writing each discrete book? (And in terms of broader trends, our present conversational format prevents me from asking any number of potential spinoffs, like if the formal wildness in the early novels gets echoed by the experiential/descriptive wildness of the California border in Indivisible).
AF: With impressionistic surfaces and sequential/narrative depths still in mind, could we return to film? I’ll love, for instance with Tom, how we see such different facets of his character from one novel to the next, with Indivisible, let’s say, so haunted by the enigma of Tom’s earlier life, a life which Radical Love’s preceding novel, Saving History, in fact had traced—with the reader, again, either exceeding or policing Indivisible’s narrative constraints: “cheating” by knowing more than this latter novel does, or feigning/undergoing forgetfulness, oblivion, in order to stay obedient to the present fictional confines. And I feel that film makes us perform this role of mental ventriloquy more than most media, continually shifting from one flickering perspective to the next, leaving it to the audience to make meaning cohere, or to let it not. So that’s one other way I see Radical Love operating like film. And still in terms of film: this collection also contains countless arresting, completely lovely descriptions of faces, surfaces, light. It’s hard to pluck representative quotations from the many books we’re addressing, but here’s just one that stands out: “Mimi wanted my advice about criminal behavior because I was white, and she perched on the sagging side of the bed with her face turned toward the window where reflecting shadows off the water then gathered onto her cheeks.” Or, just for the most fleeting of California references: “Outside, bees, butterflies, a hummingbird, bobbed in space and light.” So I’d love to hear more about film. I think I mentioned Cassavetes before because of picturing Kosta’s mother always smoking on camera, but Radical Love’s own cinematic references tend toward the European. But again, if I try to imagine Kosta’s films, I picture something more like Stan Brakhage, maybe Jonas Mekas. And Indivisible begins to approach gendered questions of the particular struggles that a neglected female filmmaker faces. Could you speak to any of this, to your own filmmaking, to your lifelong engagement as a film viewer, to what nobody has yet noticed about how film steeps its way into Radical Love and into your writing more generally?
AF: For yet another way to look at film here: when I think of sweeping metaphysical claims made or intimated in Radical Love, I think of Famous Questions closing on its conception of truth as the meeting of two people who share the same story and can agree on its meaning. Or, earlier in that novel, Roisin describes the Holy Spirit as a spatial continuity stretching from Earth to heaven, but which she calls “time.” Or again, in Indivisible, time and space get seamlessly stitched together: “It was early spring when the forsythia branches were yellowing up for the arrival of their flowers. The reservoir was scalloped behind a chain-link fence. The air was between black and oyster.” In each such case, the poetics of incarnation, the parsing between personal freedoms and plotted destinies, feels fundamentally Catholic, but also like what anybody thinks about or experiences while watching film—with its familiar yet never fully fathomed conflations of stillness and motion, image and sound. So the question might be: anything else to say about the metaphysics of film, about making, watching, embodying film as Catholic/post-Catholic spiritual practice?
AF: Wow, we haven’t even reached children yet. Indivisible says that “The feel, the smell, the weight of the child, these are properties that have great intrinsic power of their own, and make each child special, each one different, each one lovable to one person and not to another. Never to meet a child you love like that—this would be a real sorrow.” I think I’ve never met a child like that (perhaps just because I’ve never held any one baby for long). So I could just ask you about my own lack. Or children of course can embody in a flash the tensions between freedom and destiny we discussed earlier. Children and God seem the primary spectators, if any exist, across these novels. Children and parents swap roles throughout, perhaps most strikingly in Lee’s worried relation to her desperate mother Felicity in Saving History, perhaps most movingly in Nod, with the image of the Madonna and the crucifixion scene overlapping, with Mary looking down on the baby Jesus just as the dying Jesus looks down on your young character Cloda. References to the security that children provide, to the safety one might feel (or should be able to feel) holding a baby safe, arrive consistently, carrying autobiographical implications. We have more than enough possible approaches to the place of children in these novels. Which approaches feel most fresh to you now? Or alternately: having read multiple interviews you have done over time, it interests me how you have continued to present yourself as a mother of children. No mother myself, I tend to think of motherhood, at least of children, more as a temporary station than as a permanent vocation. Could you speak to your permanent motherhood, and if/how it corresponds to your permanent childhood, permanent siblinghood?
AF: Siblings stand out as another consistent motif here, certainly sibling rivalry, the deep feeling, as described in Indivisible, of being the one whose desire never will be fulfilled, of being forever second (here actually referring to a class-bound friendship between two girls). And Radical Love’s sibling rivalry even seems to play out between the cities of Boston and New York, between the East and West Coasts. So I would enjoy exploring how questions of family, of quasi-biblical sibling relations/rivalry between, say, Irene and Cloda, Tom and Dan, get confounded and expanded across these multiple books. But I have a hard time sticking just to that one straightforward topic of sibling rivalry without brining in Radical Love’s overlapping considerations of race. Race remains, this collection tells us, “our most absurd social issue,” and again manifests here in multiple family scenes: with instances of real or allegorical siblings claiming to enslave each other, with foster-children arrangements at one point compared to slave-based kinship systems. So we could separate a few discrete threads to pursue here. But, if you feel up for it, I’d love if you could discuss your explorations of family in terms of your explorations of race, and vice versa—both as an autobiographical element, of course, and as an ongoing pair of entwined concerns across these novels. Here I do think, for instance, of Faulkner, for whom no examination of one of these topics ever would exclude the other.
AF: Gendered relations appear equally prominent throughout these texts, with Tom, at one point, telling Hennie she has had to live with a particularly lousy generation of men (I know my mother would agree), but also of course with such concerns transcending any one specific historical moment. As I read through each of these novels, sometimes thinking of their protagonists as, in your own terms, “failed American women from the twentieth century, the anonymous saints and geniuses who couldn’t make a living,” I wondered how you would present Radical Love’s characters carrying over into the current century. Which associations, let’s say of men to rage, still seem biologically determined, presumably independent of cultural or historical specificity? Does the fundamental question asked by Famous Questions (“Why can’t our children be safe?”) still rest upon Roisin’s preceding question (“How do they justify their cruelty to others, these men we know and don’t”)? And/or, do you see Radical Love, in the future, offering an introduction to specifically twentieth-century problems, rather than to the timeless concerns that certain nineteenth-century novelists might have claimed to address? Also, a whole phantom question arises that I can’t formulate: about your experience knowing that you would write these five overlapping novels, and then be “finished” with fiction. I’d love to hear anything you have to say on that very distinctive writing process.
AF: Before moving too far from topics of male violence, I feel that what you refer to as “the assassination period” remains a consistent point of reference, one that never gets the time it deserves. Could you flesh out the historical/political/cultural/psychological pivot you see occurring in this period—perhaps in your own life, or perhaps in your characters’? What significance does the assassination period pick up specifically in the lives of “failed American women from the twentieth century”?
AF: I’d also love to conduct an entirely separate interview on your relation to Freudian psychoanalysis: on both your emphatic disavowal of an unconscious (a disavowal not so different, at moments, from Freud’s own in certain of his formulations) and your consistent depiction of characters not knowing their own histories, their own memories and corresponding impulses. I also think of the “I” in Nod putting her doctor to sleep. I wonder about your own lived and literary/philosophical relation to various therapeutic practices.
AF: Finally, all of the red mouths, the sensuous mouths, the revelatory mouths make me think I’m in a Caravaggio painting. What haven’t you already said about mouths?
In 1986, Sun and Moon published The Lives of a Spirit, which I wrote in a two-bedroom apartment I shared with several children and one other adult in Boston. I moved to San Diego soon after that, and for the 13 years until 2000 I wrote fiction at a white heat, for I was desperately homesick and unable to adapt to the Southern California landscape.
Until then, the publishers of my fiction had been Avon Books, for both pulp and experimental, and the Fiction Collective. Then in California I was very happily attached to Sun and Moon and wrote the novels that eventually appeared in Radical Love.
During the second Gulf War, I met Kazim Ali in a café across from The New York Public Library, to talk about The Lives of a Spirit. Afterwards, Nightboat reprinted it, thanks to Kazim, and that reprint gave me the wherewithal to look back at the other five novels. Lives is the only one of these books that I remember writing. It came from an immersion in Victorian novels that I had loved since childhood. I wanted to experience such happiness again, and to dig for the foundations or remnants of the world we had just left. A world of luminous words for objects, subjects, repressed feelings, a grammar and syntax that rhymed with walking, sleeping, reaching, nature. I had to put my ear to the ground. I wanted to experience the vibrations of a language I remembered as my first, to unearth the words from my own skin.
I remember where I sat while I was writing it, and what that felt like.
As for the rest: amnesia.
I have read your questions which are like sparks from a firework and am unable to reply to most of them, not knowing anything about these books, only that I sat in bed with a notebook, whether in San Diego, Los Angeles or London or Dublin, and wrote them without a plan. I have no memory of imagining them, or even of revising them, though I know I did a lot of that. I would begin each one the way a train leaves a station and only by the second or third station did I have the wit to pause long enough to look back to see the inevitable path I was on. This was the story path. What, when, how, where, why. But it was horribly close to the way I lived, which is, let’s face it, why I can’t remember it.
With deep respect and love for a good story, I let the characters and the circumstances bounce around on their journey freely, and analyzed, this way, the power of chance, the place of it, and wondered, as I did every minute of my life, if there was meaning buried in happenstance, a design. This is where we get to the introduction of insanity (excess meaning) into my stories, and my attraction to a next stage of evolution (salvation) trying to burst through. I remember spreading pages all over the house, and moving them around with my feet.
A reader once said to me, “You are Tom.”
Tom is the baffled, self-lacerating, lonely failure, monastic and priest who wanders through more than one of the novels.
I only have a little to say to your beautiful array of questions, and that is that I love my novels, I cherish them, I revere them, and suffer for their neglect in my hands. Since I don’t know where (in myself) they came from, in terms of intention or plan, they are at the mercy of a panpsychism that spreads into every spore. Like me, my characters are monastics who never find and are lovers who have no lover. They come out of reading philosophy and theology, most of my passionate novel-reading having been done by the age of 30. Then it was the Hindu philosophers and Aquinas, Augustine and Buddhists, Arendt, Agamben and Weil, Gnostic gospels and liberation theology. My novels, as my poetry is now, were accompanied by these books, after having been first founded in the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Marguerite Duras, Julio Cortázar, the Russians, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. But when I stopped reading fiction, and turned to spiritual texts, I also turned to film as the best way to get out of this world, fast, and still see the details.
And that’s all I can say, Professor Fitch.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Talks, Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Wlaks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. With Cristiana Baik, he recently has assembled the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.
Fanny Howe (b. 1940) grew up in Boston and attended Stanford University. She raised her three children in New England and traveled between there and California for many years, teaching. She is Professor Emerita in Writing and American Literature at UCSD. She has written many books of poetry, including Gone (University of California Press, 2003), Selected Poems (UC Press, 2000), The Lyrics (Graywolf Press, 2004), and Come and See (Graywolf, 2011). She has also written novels, five of which have been collected in one volume called Radical Love (Nightboat Books). In recent years, she has won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, an award for her poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has written two collections of essays, The Wedding Dress (UC Press, 2003) and The Winter Sun (Graywolf, 2009). Her most recent collection of poems, Second Childhood, was a Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and the Man Booker International Prize.