Angela Woodward interview with Meg Tuite
DAMN! Each and every time I read over these three flash pieces, “ Parallel Stories, by Peter Nadas,” “Liner Notes to Charles Ives’ ‘Psalm 90,’” and “Several Ideas for Stories that Are not Stories,” I am drawn into the beauty and rhythm of the language and how the narrators submerge us into these fascinating worlds and yet keep us above water, as well, with the writer working indents, paper, sentences and words.
I am sad to say I haven’t read “Parallel Stories,” by Peter Nadas, but am now completely obsessed with possessing a copy. I need to quote a few lines from this story and then hope that you will give us the inspiration for the birth of this piece. I feel the lust for this book like I did when I first got my hands on Bruno Schulz’ two collections. I don’t think I was able to breathe when I opened and became fully saturated by “Sanitorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass,” and “Streets of Crocodiles.”
“Late that evening, after the phone call from my mother, I again lowered myself into Parallel Stories, by Peter Nadas, taking the twisting staircase that hung from inside the front cover. I emerged into the darkened urinal, where the crowd of men still held their cocks in their hands, all as if just finished pissing or just about to piss.”
“Other sounds penetrated through the narrow sentences. The inky lines shuffled against each other like dice or moccasins, lovers arguing from their requisitioned corner of the flat. Page swatted page, the yellowed European paper arrogant and crinkly with its load of fine rectangles.”
I’m not sure you should read Parallel Stories. You might feel dipped in poison. It’s an extraordinary book, over a thousand pages long, that he took seventeen years to write, and it’s so long because those men are standing in that urinal getting ready to do something and not doing it for a good hundred pages at a time. Beautiful sentences, the longest, most drawn-out scenes of near stasis, a kind of horrid sexual pungency, that’s what you’re in for. It was a very unusual experience, reading that book, where I hung somewhere between pleasure, fascination, and repulsion. Nadas is Hungarian, and apparently has a reputation in Europe that he does not enjoy in the English-speaking world. All the reviews I could find were scathing. So I thought maybe I should write a review. I wanted to capture what it felt like to read the book, and finally I thought I could do that better in a piece of fiction. A review has to be logical, and provide evidence for an opinion, but I wanted to get at the feeling of sitting in a chair uninterrupted and reading all afternoon, and finding I’d hardly made a dent in the thing. Well, even if you don’t read the book, you should see it, and pick it up. It’s probably the heaviest book I’ve ever attempted to read. The physicality of it, its weight in my hands, the space it took up on the table, was very much a part of the experience of reading the words.
Charles Edward Ives was one of the first composers to work with musical techniques, experimental music, even though these works were largely ignored and they touted him as ‘An American modernist composer.’ He was plagued with health problems and one day in 1927 told his wife that he could no longer compose. ‘Nothing sounded right.’ I’m going to add another brilliant quote from this piece you’ve written, Angela, but the entire piece is a composition of exceptional music that transports the reader. If you haven’t read Bruno Schulz, then you must. I am reminded of his work when reading yours. Tell me how you chose him as your subject for this piece?
“He had the wherewithal to start his own insurance company, yet the work itself, he said, raked over him like a giant harvester of fatigue. Each day accumulated dry boredom and lassitude, until it surrounded him at five o’clock like a haystack. In the morning, when he unlocked the frosted glass door and found Teddie’s typewriter still slumbering under its hood, he kicked a few wisps of dismay out of his way. By noon, it coated his arms and pressed in on his chest.”
Ives is a composer I never listened to, assumed I wouldn’t like. Then I heard this piece, the Psalm 90, on the radio while driving to work one day, and was struck by it, and by the announcer’s comment that Ives had worked on it for thirty years. The piece itself was hard to find, and I went into a frenzy trying to get hold of it, and reading books on Ives. I thought I had a whole novel in me. But it condensed down to this little piece, these pseudo-liner notes. Everything in it is true, that is, he really did run an insurance company, his wife was named Harmony, the story at the end, about the men singing in the train station, comes from his biography. The same way the “Parallel Stories” piece is fiction but could serve as a review, this one is a story, but is absolutely reliable as a guide to Ives and to this particular piece. It’s closer to an experience of listening to Ives than an explanation of the music.
“Several Ideas for Stories That are Not Stories,” is micro-story upon micro-story that all produce a full range of visuals that any novel should be lucky to produce. I love the trio that you’ve given me to read. How do all of these fit together for you? Again, I quote from this last exemplary story.
“A story told by a tree, in long, slow eloquence. Except that telling is one element I’d like to get rid of.”
“A recording of the breaths between sentences, with the words themselves expunged, though this one’s probably been done, those musicians so daring, endlessly attracted to noise and nothingness, while I am so stuck on the lips, the tongue, the napkins, the bird, the itch, the hangnail, the thistle, the sheepdog, the clock, the whirr, the cassette player, the harbor seal, the crudescence, the strontium, the bar bell, the”
These three stories are recent, from last year, though I couldn’t get the “Parallel Stories” one to come out right, and it hung around in many unsatisfactory versions. Then somehow I figured out what it needed, and it came together. The instinct to link it to the other two stories followed immediately. I like these as a set. I think they’re each okay on their own, but small, and so odd. I feel like the stories aid each other in this grouping. They are all about the limits of telling, where there’s a narrative frustration. You see that from different angles by reading the three together. In each case, there’s a kicking at the machinery, where the narrator has a lot of passion or feeling that doesn’t fit into a conventional narrative. Taken in isolation, I think these stories might seem like playful experiments, which they are, but the three together have a more sustained philosophy.
I have to say I find them compelling as separate entities, but pack a powerful punch together, no question. Can you give us a history of your writing career? When did you decide writing was your passion and how did it all come to be?
I’ve always written, but I’ve had various periods of convincing myself that not writing would make the other parts of my life that were difficult less difficult. When my children were small, I would wake up in the middle of the night wanting to write, and lie there telling myself that sleeping would do more for the common good. As a result, I neither wrote nor slept much. Things picked up for me around 2005, when I started in on my first book.
What was it about Ravenna Press that worked for you? Two books, three years apart?
Ravenna has a strong aesthetic that goes through its whole backlist, whether it’s poetry or prose. There’s a flavor or sensibility to a Ravenna book, though the press represents a broad range of titles and authors. I’ve enjoyed a great working relationship with Ravenna’s editor, Kathryn Rantala, who is a wonderful poet. I trust her judgment immensely. My books are hard to classify. The collection, The Human Mind, is twenty short prose pieces all connected thematically to thought or thinking. They could be called poems, and it’s hard to call them stories. The issue of classification never came up with Ravenna. The book just was what it was. The novel, End of the Fire Cult, also takes an unusual form. It’s about two imaginary countries that a couple has dreamed up together, and the conflicts between the countries tell the story of the breakup of their marriage. One editor of a journal that was considering publishing an excerpt recommended that I put more of the real world in, because that would be more appealing. Kathryn told me not to listen, and the excerpt came out elsewhere. There’s a quiet confidence to Ravenna Press books that’s not trendy, but will last.
I love that the books stand on their own without having to be classified. What are you working on at this time?
I have a big piece that’s more or less a novel in the form of a series of lectures on geology. The lectures spring off into lots of directions, so though you will learn something about continental drift, there’s also myths and erotica and a version of The Island of Dr. Moreau. I don’t know when that will be done. Then I have something coming out in a few months, again from Ravenna, a three-author book in their “Triple” series, that will feature me, Norman Lock, and Brian Evenson. I’m really excited to be in such good company. Norman’s Grim Tales is one of my favorite books ever, and Brian is such a master.
Another book I look forward to getting my hands on. Who are you reading at this time?
I’ve been reading Janet Frame, a New Zealand writer I knew about but somehow never read before. Now I’m ashamed of all the time I spent not reading her. I’ve also fallen in love with the work of Magdalena Tulli, a Polish novelist. Her Dreams and Stones is my favorite, followed by In Red, which came out in 2011. Both these writers are daring acrobats of prose form, astonishing what they can do. But their lightness and playfulness is anchored in a deep, real-world nastiness, and that makes sense to me.
I’m a huge fan of Janet Frame’s work. Pure brilliance. Are you multi-lingual, or do you read in translation? What is your background?
I’m a scavenger, not a scholar. I read in translation. I’m really interested in modern European writing, but I don’t know more about it than anyone else.
Do you have a specific work ethic? Time of day and word count to accomplish? Or does it come as it may?
I have a demanding full-time job and family responsibilities, so time is always short. My current system is to write every morning for about twenty minutes. I do what I can do in that time, and come back to it later in the day when it’s possible. I’ve also been really lucky to have had some wonderful summer writing residencies the past few years. The time spent away, with nothing else to do but write, has made a huge difference in what I can accomplish.
Would love to hear about your day-to-day life? Where do you live and does the terrain inspire your work?
I live in the beautiful city of Madison, Wisconsin, which is surrounded by lakes. I find the water calming. I love being so near it.
Thank you so much, Angela, for sending Connotation Press some of your exceptional stories! You’re work is inspirational and unforgettable! WOW!