#CountdowntoPub - The House of Being a Writer: Peter Markus and Lindsey Drager on Books as Spaces, Gender Creativity, and Play
This conversation took place over a 24-hour email exchange between February 25th and 26th, 2017.
PM: What a strange and strangely beautiful book. I really loved the time I got to spend inside The Lost Daughter Collective. And I do mean “inside.” To read this book is to step inside a kind of house, an interior space with many doors that lead to many different rooms and other doors that open up to windows and spaces within this house where we are held aloft, as if suspended, levitated, transcended. What a wonderful way to spend time inside such an experience as words take on the heft of brick, mortar, skin, flesh. All this talk (above) about the house that the book in my hand made me feel that I was placed inside makes me think of both Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space and also Hafiz's notion that “Our words become the house we live in.” At times as I read The Lost Daughter Collective I felt the way I am made to feel whenever I pick up and step inside The Poetics of Space, though that book is a book of: What? Philosophy? Literary criticism? Poetry, if nothing less, nothing else.
LD: It is fascinating to hear you speak of the house/space/room/womb of the book and/or fiction, as much of the time I was working on this project I was very closely reading The Poetics of Space. Too, I think of Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction” which I was not consciously reading then, but which does seem to resonate now that I look back at my favorite lines: “The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life.”
It seems that a book that has an inside might inherently be concerned with the outside, which I do think is absolutely at work in The Lost Daughter Collective. The politics of doors and rooms: who gets in and who is left out. And in that sense, I guess there is a way that it is also, perhaps, an essay, which is yet another way to read Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and—I might argue—your own Inside My Pencil . . .
PM: Speaking of, in an essay that appeared on the Michigan Quarterly Review blog you write:
“I am interested in prose that works as narrative, that lives in the clefts between fiction and nonfiction, between work that creates and work that critiques. I am interested in writing that does not construct character or story-world, nor attempt to re-construct a past; rather, I am drawn to writing that exposes all narrative’s instability by confessing its own failure, work that foregrounds its own artifice, work that from its beginning is already performing dénouement, that word that translates from French to English as untying.”
This seems to speak better than I might be able to speak to what I see as being done, or undone, in the telling and the making that is going on behind the curtain of The Lost Daughter Collective. I'm always curious how writers become the writers they've come to be.
To speak even further to this, I'm intrigued by the portrait of Charlotte, the girl who grows up and out into the world and discovers the Language Museum and its interior world made of books and through that space becomes a writer herself. This forbidden fruit becomes the thing we seek. If I were to ask—as I am asking you right now—would you speak a bit to your own relationship to how you came to language and came to be not only a reader but eventually and ultimately a writer?
LD: In some ways this is the one and only question! Thank you for asking it. When I was very small, I was diagnosed with asthma. I had to undergo three treatments a day and it was difficult work, living always on a precipice, dreading the moment the throat would close and I would fight for breath. In order to get through the treatments, I would read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince over and over, and copies lived everywhere in the terrain of my small world, in all the places I might need to pick up where I last left off. In many ways The Little Prince does all the things you point toward above: it is a book that is a poem and a treatise, a science fiction tale and a philosophical investigation. And it absolutely acknowledges a narrative’s instability from the very beginning: “I do not want anyone to read my book carelessly,” the narrator says. “I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories.”
I remember lying in bed at night working so hard to relax, working urgently to move the anxiety toward the margins of the mind so that the airways would not swell and close. I don’t know if it was part of the therapy then, but my doctors and parents had convinced me that half the illness was down my throat and the other half was in my head, and if I could just concentrate on relaxing, I could begin to exercise control. I remember focusing on one strange line from the book, a line that I know now is one of the reasons I have chosen to spend most of my time within and alongside language. It is a line that crystalizes and makes kinetic everything that perplexes me about the literary arts. This is how when I was small and sick and struggling to breathe, words kept the passages from my mouth to my lungs clear.
The line is this: “Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: Is it yes or no?”
What is interesting to me is that going back to the text now, I see that I had remembered it wrong, in a way: the “it” does not refer to “the sky,” but some referent outside of this set of sentences. That I remembered it like this, though, speaks to the slippery phenomenon of the text-reader-author triad, how the story is crafted inside of and between those three points, like a constellation. That is something of what got me into this mess: the relationship between breathing and language, order and dis-order, the body and the mind.
PM: Every book is written, I would argue, in conversation with some other book. As writers, in other words, there are certain books that we carry as we move our way through the rooms of the house of being a writer. The Lost Daughter Collective is a book that makes use of such classic texts and archetypes (the dualism that exists between the two losses of daughter: the dead and the missing; the Dorothy and the Alice). What other books made The Lost Daughter Collective possible for you to tell, or maybe a better word for possible would be necessary for you to write it?
LD: I have said elsewhere that I believe bibliographies are inherently intimate, as they acknowledge the voices that have—quite literally—entered our work. I considered including a bibliography in The Lost Daughter Collective, but ultimately thought that might disrupt the way documentation—particularly academic texts—are satirized in the book. So thank you for this question, which is an opportunity for me to pay credence to the texts that operate covertly here, that loiter spectral just beneath the surface of this strange project. The most obvious three characters offer the book’s epigraphs: Lewis Carroll’s Alice, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy, J.M. Barrie’s Peter. But, too, in the fissures lives Pan of Greek Mythology, whose body occupies a liminal space, like Peter’s child. And Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf—all women writers with difficult scholar fathers. As we mentioned, the speaker of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space as well as Blachot’s The Writing of the Disaster haunt this book through excerpts from the Room Scholar and Wrist Scholar’s books. The stories of missing girls I watched as a child on Unsolved Mysteries are as present here as the ideas and concerns raised in Judith/Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. This book would also not have been possible without Jeremy Tambling’s On Anachronism, Daniel Punday’s Narrative Bodies, and Freud’s short chapter “Creative Writing and Day-Dreaming,” as well as the conversations I’ve had with transgender children.
While these other texts made this book possible (as you so beautifully put it), it was a distinct lack of stories or books or voices that made this book necessary. I take this up more exhaustively in my attempt at the book’s artist articulation, which is available here, but the bottom line is this: I believe we need more literary fiction that features and celebrates gender creative youth.
PM: I love the playfulness of this book—the force and scope of the imagination behind its making—and yet, though playful in its invention, the book takes on some pretty serious issues in regard to gender, the family, that which gets said and that which remains unspoken. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship, as you see it—if you do see it as such—between the notion of play and the more serious notion of the literary or Literature in the realm of scholarship, or even just the book-object as an artifact/artifice made to last (a book made of ice, maybe, that we know will melt when the weather warms and yet still the ice sculpture gets—out of duty, necessity—made)?
LD: So much of this book asks that we re-negotiate the binaries of play/work, creative/critical, artist/scholar, and I am dedicated to collapsing these distinctions in everything I write. I believe the critical can create and the creative can critique and I aim to write in ways that vacillate along the spectrum. That said, I do think that the act of creating—which is also, often what scholarship does, by the way—requires play; it requires diversion and deception. There is a line in Freud’s “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” which notes that the opposite of play is not that which is serious but that which is real. I am plagued by this notion and in my mind it has come mean that play begets The Real, and I think I am drawn to literary forms that acknowledge this, forms like satire and parody and fabulism and magical realism, genres that overtly acknowledge, in a variety of ways, the artifice that is inherent in the literary arts. Of course writing is a serious endeavor, a way of exercising our humanhood in the world, but also: look at how absurd it is! We take a fixed set of black marks and rearrange them on a white page until they mutate and morph into mental images that make the consumer forget that they are engaging with abstract symbols and then, if things go right, different states of catharsis are conjured physically. When you think of it like that, this work is nothing other than play, a very intricate, very sophisticated play that results in very tangible, very visceral responses. That is essentially the work of the writer (critical or creative): to make bodies emote through code. When this happens successfully, the place where the work ends and the play begins is obfuscated.
PM: We are the stories we tell, some would like us to believe. We are the stories that we are told. In your book you write: “We think that we tell our stories. But I am here to tell you: our stories tell us.”
Later in the book there is this sentence as it relates to stories: “We do not tell our stories to share; we tell our stories to warn.”
Where do you—as the maker or teller of the larger story being told here—sit or even fit in with this?
LD: I believe stories can be a catalyst for social change, and I think we have a responsibility to tell the narratives that are not being shared in order to widen the scope of the human story. I also believe we need to do this through forms that challenge the reader on the page in order to prepare them to be challenged in their minds. Narrative has a unique power in that it permits us to enter the consciousness of a someone else. As readers we are asked to enter and occupy another life, where the “I” on the page is transposed over the “I” that is the reader. I can’t think of many other forms of art that authorize this strange adoption, to call someone else’s mind our home, to lodge and loiter within the psyche of another. This is what makes fiction the instrument through which we can instill empathy; by inviting, and then insisting, readers navigate the world through bodies they do not inhabit outside of the storyworld.
I do think we tell our stories to share but I also think a good writer of fiction can leave readers unsettled by the time they close the book, unsettled by the experience of accessing worlds, minds, and bodies they are not. And in this way, I also think we tell our stories to warn. For me, good stories—stories that shake you in the marrow of your being, that force you to be re-calibrated wholly and fundamentally—are essentially cautionary tales. They say: This is not us yet, but it could be. The Lost Daughter Collective is one such story, and I hope that if nothing else, readers leave recognizing we have a responsibility—as neighbors, as citizens, as human beings—to listen. That is how this book began: when I was young, a child came to me to say she thought she was a boy. I chose to listen, and it has changed my life.