An Interview with Danielle Dutton
Attempts at a Life is the debut work of author Danielle Dutton. An experiment between words and language, image and imagination, this story collection challenges the reader to go beyond the words on the page and into the minds of each character, to examine each word, phrase and syllable and its purpose within these dense pages. A modern day Gertrude Stein lurks in the prose stylings that make these works 100% Dutton.
This new work representsthe limitless possibilities that exist in blurring the lines between various forms of literature. Dutton, who has recently completed her Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing spends her time playing with words, editing those of others as the Associate Editor at the Denver Quarterly, and finding time in the midst of teaching at the University of Denver and Naropa University in Colorado, to work on her own fiction.
We talked on the phone about Attempts at a Life, why she obsessively edits her own work, how we create our own narrative to dreams, journaling, lucky numbers and 17th century texts and authors like Margaret Cavendish. Danielle Dutton is as simple and complex a person as her writing is and here we get to catch a glimpse at how stories in Attempts at a Life come to fruition as well as her views on literature and the poetics of writing.
You quote Gertrude Stein in the introduction to your book: “And it is necessary if you are to be really and truly alive it is necessary to be at once talking and listening, doing both things, not as if there were one thing, not as if they were two things, but doing them, well if you like, like the motor going inside and the car moving, they are part of the same thing.” How do you feel the work of Gertrude Stein has influenced you as a writer and as a reader?
When I first read Stein’s work there was this amazing sense I had of being given permission. To play, to innovate, to insist on something without apologizing for it. I find her endlessly generative and funny and obnoxious. Tender Buttons and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”: the energy of her mind and in her language always makes me want to sit down and write. And I love teaching her work… count on it for an interesting classroom experience.
Many of your stories feature heroines, often based on past literary heroines like Jane Erye or Virginia Woolf’s Mary Carmichael. What is it about past classics and their characters that you find so inviting when it comes to your own work?
Partly, it has to do with how much I’ve internalized these characters over the years, how they live on in me after I’m done reading. But it’s also about the writers, the strange way they might have of forming that character, or forming a sentence. I don’t think I’d want to have dinner with Woolf, say, or Henry James, but I do have this need to communicate with them in my own way. And I’m often just so amazed at what I find in a book when I read it for the second or 10th time. Or when I return to it after many years and suddenly notice all these bizarre things I either never noticed before or forgot. Then again, I’m also attracted to absences in a text, to what isn’t there, or to what is almost there, sort of glittering on the periphery… that was the case, for example, with The Scarlet Letter, which, obviously enough, inspired my story “Hester Prynne.”
William Carlos Williams is one author who can be difficult to read. His “Spring and All” influenced your “Sprung.” What quality does his writing possess that you feel inspires you when you teach and/or write work of your own, whether they’re shorter or longer works?
Hmmm… I just think he’s brilliant. He overwhelms me. So far when I’ve taught him my students have really embraced the work. Either they haven’t found him all that difficult, or they just thought he was a lot easier than Stein!
Several stories in this collection of yours were previously published in literary journals and magazines. I wanted to know if you wrote additional stories for the collection once you knew it was going to be published by Tarpaulin Sky or were they already written and not yet published?
When I sent the manuscript to Tarpaulin Sky it had been basically done for quite awhile. I’d been working on it for a few years, and it went through many versions. I kept reorganizing it and restructuring -- maybe cutting things, maybe revising pieces -- but I didn’t add anything, or there was nothing added after the manuscript got accepted. And, happily, most of the pieces in it, I would say the majority anyway, had already been published or accepted for publication by the time Tarpaulin Sky took it.
Yeah, I recognized a lot of pieces in this collection as ones I’d previously read. I noticed some of the little changes you made to some of the pieces as well, which made some of those pieces even better, like “A Room with a Corpse.”
That’s so funny. I have a hard time grasping that people actually read my work. That sounds obnoxious, but what I mean is that it’s this sort of mysterious, magical thing… your work goes off and you don’t get to sit there and watch people read it, but, apparently, occasionally, they do, which is good. And it’s extra nice that you recognized the changes I made. You were really paying attention!
You have stories that are as short as a page and others that vary more in length. I think when things are so compressed, like they are here, every detail counts. The stories are important. Everything down to word choice and punctuation matters. After this collection was accepted at TSP, did Christian Peet, the publisher, ask you to make revisions or did you go back and do them on your own, if at all?
Christian didn’t make any major edits, but even after he accepted it, I continued to go back and mess with it. I’m a pretty obsessive editor. I enjoy that process -- fiddling with the language, picking up the rhythms. So I guess I took it upon myself to continue editing, which hopefully wasn’t too annoying to him. He and a few people at TSP did proofread the manuscript, of course, and in proofreading there were a few questions people had for me about clarity, unclear syntax. Some of the time, I kept my original wording, and maybe half of the time I took their notes and made a change. If it doesn’t make sense for someone or if it irks the reader somehow... I’m not wedded to everything. Well, I’m wedded to some things. Oh, and I seem to always misspell the word grey. I spell it the British way for some reason and with total regularity. I don’t even know which is which right now. Another odd thing that Christian noticed is that I tend to hyphenate words that don’t need to be hyphenated because they are just two separate words that a normal person wouldn’t hyphenate or they’re actually one word that doesn’t need a hyphen. Christian had an interesting theory about it, that maybe it has to do with how close I am to texts that are a century (or more) old. There’s a lot of rabid hyphenating going on in those books.
It’s probably happening on a completely subconscious level for you.
Yeah! Now I see it! Now I see that I do it all the time. I’m constantly asking myself, “Does this need a hyphen? What am I doing?” It’s like a sickness.
As an editor at the Denver Quarterly, you’re used to editing stories and pieces for your issues. How has this process been for you, having a fresh set of eyes like Christian’s to look at the various pieces in your collection? Do you find that you’re someone who has an easy time with criticism, whether good or bad?
I think my reaction has a lot to do with who’s giving me the criticism and how seriously I take that person’s opinion. I’m thinking about having just finished graduate school and having been in a lot of workshop-type classes where certain people’s responses, whether positive or negative, are really meaningful to you and others’, for whatever reason, whether personal or aesthetic, just aren’t quite as important. Christian I took very seriously, of course. He’s been an amazing reader to have. Overall, I’d like to think I’m open to criticism. I guess I get emotional about certain things, but overall I do find most feedback useful. My husband also writes and he’s a fantastically insightful reader for me. Even if he gives me feedback that’s frustrating at first, it almost always leads me someplace new and more interesting in the long run.
Do you tend to go to your husband, Marty, during the work-in-progress phase or only after you’ve completely finished do you feel like you can go to him for advice? Do you wait until you’re at the end of something for the advice?
If by the end of something you mean the end of a book or the end of a project, no. I don’t wait that long. If the end of something means the end of an idea or a movement, then yes. I might wait until some piece of something has come to a kind of fruition, but I go to him pretty quickly in terms of the larger process. I work best when I can bounce my ideas off things. I write off other texts a lot, for example, and, in some way, having Marty’s input is like having another kind of text, the text of Marty’s mind or something. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in having things push me in different directions and the sort of chance occurrences that might arise because someone or something has pushed or provoked me in a peculiar way. I’m not always that infatuated with my own ideas. I’m curious how what’s around me might come out in my writing. The possibility inherent in that is what attracts me, as opposed to the probability of what might happen with me alone in a room. So I don’t always start with a very strong idea of what a piece will be about. Usually, I start with some small thing, maybe just a word or phrase or shape in mind… my hope is that things will start bouncing around, or pushing me around, as I write.
I think it’s tough to write with a very thought-out, specific idea in mind. Maybe for a novel, you’d have to have a more concrete set of ideas, but for short stories or prose poem-type work it seems better to be open, as you are. Things do change when you sit down to write and that is the inviting part of the process. Sitting down with an open mind is key.
It is for me. This is something I often talk about with students. Sometimes you can be so wedded to an idea you have for a story that what you end up writing doesn’t have much life in it. You’re feverishly pounding away, trying to get to some final climax you’ve come up with, and you aren’t letting interesting material arise as you go. So, yeah, I’ll talk with students about how to loosen that grip. I know when I first started writing stories I had a very tight grip, and it could all feel really forced and uncomfortable.
Are you someone who writes down your ideas or has something with you at all times for that impromptu idea that comes into your head?
Not really. Well, I kind of do, occasionally. There’s this project that I’m working on now that I’ve had ideas for for about four years… over those four years I’ve had a notebook I’ll jot things down in, but they don’t usually end up being all that useful or important to me later on. I journal in my brain. I’ll think about something for a really long time. It might not be a plot or a character, but just an idea about something... this really loose idea, and I’ll think about this idea and then months later I’ll start writing and it’s as if I’d been planning for it because everything starts pouring out.
Dreaming is one of the few things that will cause me to write down some ideas when I wake up.
Yeah, the dreams in Attempts at a Life [“Dream Stories (Starring Michael Peirson)”] were dreams I’d written down upon waking. And yet the way they read isn’t totally true to what I dreamt. Part of what’s interesting to me is how you make a narrative out of a dream as soon as you start to tell it; it becomes something it wasn’t as soon as you start to speak or write.
Getting back to what your initial question was about journaling, though, I have really horrible memories about keeping a diary when I was younger. I actually had a boyfriend in high school who read my diary and read some stuff that was really painful to him and he confronted me about it. He came down the stairs holding my diary like some kind of after-school special. It was awful. I hate thinking about it. Ever since then I don’t think I’ve been able to write down my thoughts privately with any kind of sincerity.
I wanted to address what you were saying about the way we go about narrating our dreams. The Michael Peirson stories are great because you make the reader feel like the Michael Peirson in your dreams could be in any of ours. There is an odd yet familiar quality to him.
We might all be dreaming about Michael Peirson all the time!
With your story “Everybody’s Autobiography, or Nine Attempts at a Life” is there a reason that you chose the number nine?
There’s no numerological or cabbalistic reason for it. I think I’d written 14 of them originally... I can’t remember. Marty and I had just moved in together in Chicago, and I remember I showed him the story when he came home from work one day and he read it and felt like there were too many sections or like some of them should be merged together. So then it was “Twelve Attempts at a Life” and then “Eleven Attempts at a Life,” but finally I settled on nine. Actually, nine is my favorite number, it’s my lucky number. When I set my alarm, the numbers have to add up to nine. I never really thought about that before. Maybe it does have some numerological import after all!
I read that story initially in Fence magazine and loved it. It’s not just nine versions of various lives any of us could have led at any place or time, but it’s the attention to detail that you give to each of these characters that makes the story so much more interesting to read. You note in your “Some Sources” section of Attempts that you use material from Revolution of the Word in the piece. Do you find that, when you read, other works inspire you or some word or line or phrase sticks with you so that you...
Want to write to it?
Or work the material into your story?
Not really. It’s much more collage-like. So with that story, it was almost like I entered this weird state of mind where snippets or words could just jump out of Revolution of the Word and accost me and so I’d type them and then they’d send me in some other direction or to other words or snippets. I’m trying to connect the dots while the dots are simultaneously pushing me here and there and here and there. That said, when I wrote “Mary Carmichael” I had been reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for probably the fourth or fifth time and suddenly on this particular reading something stuck in my craw, so much so that I immediately went over to the computer and started writing from it. It was like I had to write about it, I was just so in love with it at that moment. But I think that’s the only piece in the whole book where I did something like that, where the borrowed phrase or line came first.
I think there are a lot of rules writers place on themselves when they sit down to write and it’s refreshing to hear that your process comes from such an organic place and a general love for language and wanting to be the best you can be. You push yourself to make your own narratives that are in some ways a small homage to another author’s work without “stealing” it. You’re very honest about where your inspiration comes from and how you connect your narratives.
I feel like what ends up happening is finally mine. It hopefully doesn’t act like the thing that I’m stealing words or phrases from. I think the highest compliment for me is when someone says that something I wrote made them want to go write. I’m really interested in that kind of generative energy. In some sense, I think that’s what’s getting me going, the energy in other people’s writing, and if that’s coming through my writing and out to other people, making them want to go do something, that’s the coolest thing.
When you read stories that are submitted to you at the Denver Quarterly, do you feel that same energy from some of those submissions?
Yeah, when I like something I get very excited, almost as excited as if I’d written that great thing myself. I get really invested in these pieces. I feel like editing is just a further extension of being a writer for me, so is teaching. They’re each just different ways to be in love with literature and the things it might do in the world.
Is that what propelled you towards getting your Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing?
I guess I really like school. I always have. In some sense, I’d planned on being in school a long time, even before I knew what I wanted to do. When I found out that I could do a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, it just made complete sense that I’d do it. Also, I wasn’t an English major as an undergraduate and when I was doing my M.F.A. I felt under-read. I had this intense desire to fill in those gaps in my understanding. Of course, doing the Ph.D. did fill in some of those gaps, but it also confirmed that there’ll just always be new gaps. In general, though, the program at Denver has been great for me. I think maybe I lacked a certain amount of confidence in my ability to think and talk about literature, and doing the Ph.D. has at least given me a bit more confidence or clarity.
I really like how honest you are about that. Everyone wants to be well read and respected for their writing as well as being educated about literature. We all worry about the way we appear to others and having the desire to learn more about what we think about literature. No one ever wants to feel like the odd man out of a conversation.
I think we all feel like that at different times in different situations. One of my friends in the program at Denver who was a couple years ahead of me said that when she was done, it wasn’t that she felt she’d learned everything, but she’d learned enough to know not to be so intimidated by other people. I mean, there are a few freaky geniuses out there -- I do know a few freaky geniuses -- but they’re freaky geniuses… I try not to compare myself to them.
In the back of your book, you note that one of your stories, “20C Pastoral,” uses material from a Louis-Ferdinand Celine text that you found on a collage given to you by a friend. I’m curious to know about this gift, about what caused you to incorporate the material or the idea behind the material into your work.
I’d had the collage for quite a while before I wrote that piece. I’d always loved it, but I’m not sure what made me pick it up that day and start messing with it. It’s actually a small box that has been collaged onto. Maybe the fact that it’s a box makes it extra interesting in terms of story and narrative, because parts of it are hidden, the text wraps from outside to inside, so it’s seductive, you have to open it and turn it around and move through it in a way that you wouldn’t with a flat piece of paper. But, yeah, the box sits on my desk and I think there might have been paper clips in it at some time. I just started obsessing over the words on it one day, and I wrote the piece without knowing whose words they were. After the fact, I asked this friend of mine where the text had come from, and then I knew.
You also have a novel called SPRAWL coming out from Clear Cut Press. What’s this novel about?
It’s a novel, but an untraditional one. As with Attempts at a Life, in it I’m interested in both the poetic qualities of language and the seductive nature of narrative. In a way the novel is about suburban America. There’s one narrator in it who moves through her suburban world and chronicles what she sees. She’s a sort of rhapsodic chronicler. It’s hard to explain, or I guess I’m not very good at talking about it yet.
So, would you classify this novel in terms of length more along the lines of a novella?
In terms of the length, I guess depending on what sort of tradition you come from, it could be called a novella or… well, I’m not that worried about page length. I call it a novel. I feel like it’s more about the intention. I suppose I intended for the book to be taken seriously the way novels are taken seriously. I don’t really like the term novella…
Do you feel it takes away from or allows people to be...
It seems to allow people to dismiss a work to some extent, like it’s somehow lightweight. So I guess I’m actually insisting on the fact that it’s a novel. It doesn’t matter that it’s short.
It has depth and really that’s all that is required of good novels.
I hope it has depth. I can say that I’m drawn to fairly slim novels… but it does seem weird that I would insist on calling it a novel since I’m pretty happy to blur genre distinctions. Maybe I haven’t figured out why it’s important to me to call it a novel.
What, aside from SPRAWL, can we expect from you next?
I’m working on a book about a writer, Margaret Cavendish, who lived in England in the 17th century. She was this really fascinating, mad person, and what she wrote was also mad and fascinating… poetry and philosophical texts and proto-science fiction. She was a genre-blurrer before there were even distinct genres to be blurring. This is the project I was mentioning earlier, that I’ve had in a notebook for the past four years. I’ve been having a really hard time deciding what I want the book to look like. What form I want it to take. I think part of that problem has been that I sat down with the intention to write about something specific instead of just sitting down and letting the language come out and following it. This seems to be much harder for me, and the book has gone through some really drastic transformations. But I think I’ve finally located where I want it to exist. Over this past winter I started to have a really good time with it. But I have a hard time writing when I’m teaching. I tend to stop writing whenever I start teaching, so right now it’s on hold again. So, yeah, hopefully that’s what you can expect from me next. It’s called A World Called the Blazing World.
I’m really interested in how people pick their titles. I like to come up with a title and then make the piece revolve around the title. It’s hard.
I think it can work. I often come up with a title long before a piece is done. It’s some loose sense you have of what the piece should look like or feel like and then you’re aspiring towards your title. It’s magnetic.