The Millions Interview

To the Depths of the Darkness: The Millions Interviews Annie DeWitt

By posted at 6:00 am on September 9, 2016 0

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If I had only one word to describe Annie DeWitt’s prose it would be “equine” not only for the elegance of her sentences but also because of their strength and poise. The threat of danger lurks too — a subtle awareness that at any point a scene might buck and kick and tear away deep into the thicket.

DeWitt’s writing has always been intrepid: I recall from the first time I read her work in a writing workshop with Diane Williams its intensity and lyricism and mystery, her characters ability to seduce, as in, to make you want to listen to.

Her debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, doesn’t diverge in this sense. The book is set in Fay River, an isolated town where the closest neighbors are also the only friends, “a fact established by proximity and common denominator.” There are horses here, too, to be ridden and groomed; here nature seems boundless and because of this more fearsome too. It’s in Fay River that Jean grows up while living with her parents and sister, Birdie. White Nights is a coming-of-age tale, yes, but one that looks unflinchingly at what it means to be a young and come into one’s own, at what it means to be a woman and mother, at the responsibility and loneliness and disillusionment that so often comes with adulthood, at the varieties of feminine desire, at adolescence and the newfound thrill of sex and empowerment, at the secrets that are known and those that remain hidden.

White Nights captures so tenderly this sweet spot of falling into adolescence, the first luscious taste of independence and, with it, vulnerability and endangerment too.

The Millions: You mentioned in an interview with Luke Goebels for The Believer, that you are both fans of “bringing a radical eye to the page.” I’m curious to hear more about what this means for your writing and specifically in this novel. After reading White Nights in Split Town City I wonder too about the presence of a radical ear, as well as a radical “I”?

Annie DeWitt: I love your point about the radical “I.” And too a radical ear. I grew up learning to play classical music via the Suzuki method. I try to bring that same kind of radical ear to my work — I am constantly evaluating the sounds of words — both lyrically and sonically. Where do they mesh? Where does the tone or the pace shift? What section should be played “Lento,” “Legato,” “Fuerte,” “Fortissimo,” etc.

My understanding of the radical ear was solidified for me in Mrs. Hull’s sitting room in front of a piano in a small split-level house in 1998. I remember the first time I sat down and played for her. Afterward she was appalled. Mrs. Hull had an air of distinction about her, or at least wanted to cultivate one. Her husband’s Dartmouth banner hung over the front couch — even though he probably hadn’t attended since the ’50’s. The piano was a chestnut colored baby grand and was always finely polished and covered in stacks of classical music books. She was British. Or, at least she seemed British in my mind. She was also a piano teacher. She was not a warm woman, but she did not lack imagination. She opened up one of her classical music primers and said we’d have to start from the ground up even though I’d been playing for 10 years at that point. For the following week I was supposed to practice Mendelssohn’s “Song without Words.” As I played she sat next to me and dictated the piece as one would a story: “Close your eyes,” she said. “Imagine…here you are on the proscenium. The curtain is drawn. The crowd is hushed. The red velvet at your back. Then in marches the troops!” Another day she taught me how to play by thinking of the sound patterns a sewing machine makes when you press and depress the petal with your foot.

covercoverI’ve always admired writers who embrace the radical “I.” I don’t mean radical in the way of “outlandish.” I mean an “I” that is truthful, that hasn’t been seen before. That has something to tell. This could be a very quiet “I” like in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (which I adore). Or, it could be an entirely inventive, postmodern “I” as in George Saunders’s Pastoralia. Or, it could be the kind of drunken, religious, plain spoken “I” of Barry Hannah. Or, the visual and journalistic “I” of James Baldwin or the empathic eye of Flannery O’Connor.

In many ways I think the radical “I” comes down to empathy. Being an empath means that when you look at person you can’t help but hear his/her story unfold. A person on the side of the road next to the bus station as you drive by. Their life, their loves, their hardships grab you by the throat and shake you.

coverToo, I’ve always admired people who live fault forward. Courageously. Without fear. When I think of Baldwin writing Giovanni’s Room, I am struck by his courage. Not only because he was writing about a man leaving his fiancée for another man in Paris — but too for the depth and honesty of the feelings the book conveys which in turn feel universal. On a basic level, it’s just another love story. And on another, it’s about living a revolutionary act.

The radical “I” is about a desire to show the backside of life — the complexities, the places where the self falls apart — without embarrassment.

TM: Fay Mountain, where the story unfurls, is so isolated that there’s only one other younger family living within proximity to Jean’s, which means they are friends by default. I’m struck by how Fay Mountain is a character, idiosyncratic and cut off, and more vulnerable to natural woes — infections, fires, the people who set them, failing bodies, unchecked desire. What was important to you in depicting this rural mix of feral and refined? And what writers of the rural and works do you feel your book draws from and/or engages with?

AD: When I think of writers who engage with place I immediately think of the start of Hannah’s story, “Waterliars:”

When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.

I’m glad it’s not my name.

This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.

Whenever I teach the story, I always say — what’s the most important line in this opening? “I’m glad it’s not my name.” That says it all. The whole point of the story is that encountering the truth is the hardest thing to do. That this man is named Farte — “with a great French stress on the last syllable” — in this small town in the American South, immediately casts him as an outsider. It’s such a small detail but it shows that he’s going to be forever beholden to this fate of not fitting in with the locals. And yet, Hannah immediately turns that on it’s head and says — don’t feel too bad for the guy — “he’s a great liar himself.” Lying, of course, being an asset in this town. A way of “passing.”

I was drawn to Fay Mountain in White Nights for the same reason — here were a lot of simple truths, and rumors, and “better paid liars” as Hannah says so eloquently, living on the small rural road where I grew up. These people were difficult to encounter and yet their stories — plain as they may be — begged to be told. In the middle of “nowhere” all you have is the self and the self’s encounter with the world. People living in isolation understand that.

TM: For me, White Nights conjures an element of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, specifically Jean’s childhood filled with silences and seemingly endless days of abandonment, and also — much differently, a crisis with domesticity. When Jean’s mother abandons the family Jean is left to wander without much oversight. Could you talk more about the space that loneliness and vulnerability occupy for Jean, and the others too? How does it empower her too?

AD: It’s interesting to hear the word “abandonment” used so frequently when talking about White Nights. I think of the mother’s leaving in the book as Jean’s great opportunity. The thing which allows her to encounter the road, and everyone living on it for better or worse, without filter. I’ve always been interested in what people call “maternal instincts.” We are raised to think that this is something instinctual to women. I find this to be a fallacy. There are many ways in which one can be “maternal” without having children — one can teach, raise plants, rescue animals, become political, write, speak, sing. To me these are all “maternal” acts — as they represent a way of caring for the world. And yet once you become a mother you are tasked with the very real challenge of raising a life. The mother daughter bond is essential. However, it sometimes fails.

Think of the “Strange Situation” in which a mother leaves the room and then reenters and the psychologist watches how the child reacts in the mother’s absence and then again upon her reappearance: It’s the strength and continuity of this first bond which defines attachment — how we are then able to go on and function in adult relationships. Jean is in an interesting situation. In many ways, the mother is the victim of society’s expectations. I think so many women born in the ’50’s experienced this — the idea that they must somehow grow up to be mothers — that this was the imperative. I feel for the mother in White Nights, as this is an imperative which I myself have not met. As I approach my mid-30s I deal with this lingering question everyday — what does it mean to not have children? However, for Jean’s mother, this question is even more imperiled — for her the question becomes, “What does it mean to feel the burden of having to care for the children you’ve already had, when society never truly gave you the choice to decide if you wanted to ‘mother’ at all.”

TM: I was seduced by Jean’s mother’s charm, much like everyone else in the book. But as a mother figure Ania’s ambivalence about mothering and domestic upkeep leaves something to be desired. Ania believed that interesting people lived lives “whose subsistence required very little upkeep, yet whose true thriving was provided for by acts of excess.” Inevitably, this perspective leads to a fraught mother/daughter relationship. I’d love to hear more about this tension for Ania, between her responsibilities for family and her ideal life, how Margaret’s friendship provides a foil, and the possibilities this opens or closes for Jean.

AD: There is something seductive about this mother — she “flips every switch in the house” upon her return. Margaret too feels this pull — particularly in that scene where the mother is buttoning Margaret into her coat and runs her fingers through the elder woman’s hair. White Nights is all about exploring these unprogramatic, hidden tensions — woman to woman, adult to child. These types of taboos. To me, “attraction” is a very interesting word — it implies something sexual, but also intellectual. The mother in this book is attracted to Margaret for her intellectual freedom, for the fact that she’s British, smoked cigarettes, never had children, and is “othered” by her “purebred old world blood.” For the fact that she reads Didion and Yeats. Of course, Margaret is a photographer. She is allowed the freedom to capture the world from behind a lens rather than be captured by it. She tries to teach Jean that in the scene when Jean spends the day with Margaret in the lawyer’s house.

And yet when Margaret asks Jean what she thinks of the photo they’ve developed together, Jean reads the photo literally and says, “I’ve never been much good at diving.” In that moment, Jean experiences a great disappointment in herself — she knows this is not the answer Margaret was looking for. Margaret is all about encouraging Jean to harness “her intelligence.” To think independently.

And yet, ironically enough, Margaret at one point is challenged by her own freedom — her alcoholism. She kills Wilson with her car. I wanted this scene to represent the central question in the book — how and when are women victims or victors of their own agency on Fay Mountain?

TM: A difference in values: Father states that one’s ultimate goal in life should be “authoring something authentic” while for Mother it’s closer to the Didion quote: “Style is character.” How does this tension play out regarding art, creation, upkeep, and by extrapolation, mothering? In this way too I’m curious about her relationship to the Georgia O’Keeffe print Ania buys—it seems that she wants to be both artist and image, but can one be both?

coverAD: The idea for the O’Keeffe print came from Didion’s great essay on O’Keeffe in The White Album. What initially drew me to this essay is its humor.  The section in White Nights is paraphrased from Didion directly, Margaret says to Jena’s mother, Ania:

O’Keeffe attended art school in Chicago, The boys there were always encouraging her to abandon her practice and become an art teacher or a live model. One even went so far as to pint over her work to show her how the Impressionists made trees. At twenty-four O’Keeffe said she moved to Texas because there were no trees to paint.

The section ends with Margaret’s remark:

When the men asked her why she painted “Red Hills” instead of her traditional flowers, O’Keeffe replied, “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”

I mean — could there be a better come back? “A red hill doesn’t touch anyone’s heart.”

I think I relate to this line so fiercely. With White Nights I didn’t want to write a “feminine” book that was going to touch people’s hearts — I wanted to write a book that wasn’t afraid of going to the depths of the darkness of which people are capable — and showing that in the plain light of day.

I often get the comment that my work feels “masculine” in some way. I find this humorous. Women too can see the world for exactly what it is. There’s this great line in an interview between Marguerite Duras and the French journalist Xavière Gauthier which was transcribed in the book Woman to Woman. Duras is talking about her novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein. She recalls:

I was experimenting with this blank in the chain. On the inside there’s an extraordinary surveillance so that nothing escapes. But what’s its about is simply noticing…the accidents: that is, a displacement, a voice.

She calls these blanks “anesthesia’s — suppressions.”

TM: What seemed most radical to me in White Nights is how female sexuality is depicted so openly and variously. The reader is privy to the way that Ania’s beauty empowers her while Jean’s, as a young girl, makes her more vulnerable. We hear the sounds Ania makes having sex through Jean’s ears, and we watch as Jean haphazardly experiences her first forays into desire and sexual experience. Despite the transgressions against Jean, the novel doesn’t veer into shame or judgment — or even dwell there. This restraint seems like an authorial call, and one that perhaps also comments on the haphazard experiences that accompany sexual awakening.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on navigating all of this.

AD: I recently read this quote by Lao Tzu: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” White Nights sets out to explore this distinction. To me, transgression is about the ways in which love makes you vulnerable, courageous, deceitful, intoxicated, alone. I think sex for Jean at this stage is an enigma — one which she walks into out of a deeper curiosity about the adult desire to be both wanted and free. She understands that sexuality is a captivating and capturing force. She sees her father watch the light between Callie’s rear and the saddle as she trots off down the road and remarks on how he both “fears and admires it.” I think Jean too feels a kind of attraction and repulsion at the idea of adult love. She sees how it has trapped someone like Otto Hause — his dying wife, his son who will never leave home. And too she sees how it is something which both defines and entangles her own mother — making her the center of attention but yet harnessing her to her role as wife and mother.

Jean’s first encounter with the male gaze happens when Otto Hauser watches her play the piano from the vantage point of his porch in the evening. He sees her through the window and — though he can’t hear the sound she makes — he imagines the sound based on her body movements. In that moment, Jean understands sexuality to be about a kind of “fame which nearly embraces you.” This, I think, is a dangerous rubric for a young woman. To feel that her power is relegated to her physical self — an area in which Jean feels somehow inferior to both her mother and her sister, Birdie. In many ways, Otto Hauser provides Jean the basis to “prove” that she too can be captivating. That she too can be more than a brain. That she can somehow toss off her intellect. This is what saddens me the most about this moment, that Jean doesn’t realize that it’s actually her intellect and her ability — to play a sonatina — which captured Otto’s Hauser in the first place. That indeed talent itself can be a draw.

I’ve always been interested in the Sontag quote that beauty itself is a talent. Though I’ve always thought of Sontag as a great feminist and one of our most inspired thinkers (and transgressors!), I think there is a danger inherent in this idea that beauty is a talent rather than simply a gift. How do you define beauty? Is it culturally relativistic, etc.? Of course it is. To me, raw physical attraction itself can never have the kind of gravitas of human intellect. But, I too am an aesthete, and am often completely subjugated in the face of raw beauty of any kind — human, artistic, architectural, linguistic etc.  — as Sontag was. In many ways I feel like what she was saying was, “Human relations are based on attraction. Even friendships are based on a feeling of being drawn to some quality in a person which you yourself desire to possess.”

TM: We met in Diane Williams’s fiction workshop at the then Mercantile Library, now the Center for Fiction. I recall vividly how Diane urged us to write into spaces that terrify us  and mention this now because one thing I admired most about White Nights was how scenes slipped into terror while depicted so tenderly, with such awareness. I’m wondering if this was a lesson you took to heart, or were there others?

AD: One line from a recent interview on craft I did with Diane for The Los Angeles Review of Books will always stay with me. She said, “Getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business.” I couldn’t agree more.





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