On Monday 11th December 2017, short fiction writer Diane Williams visited the University of Westminster to give a reading and to talk about her writing processes in conversation with novelist Toby Litt. The evening was introduced by Leigh Wilson from the University of Westminster’s Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture. Diane Williams then read from selected collections of her fiction, including Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, published in the UK in 2016 by CB editions.
In the ensuing conversation, Williams spoke candidly about her writing and her writing processes, in response to Litt’s insightful comments and questions. Williams’ short stories are minuscule fragments of strangely unsettling and wittily observed realism, always with an uncanny and unnerving twist that leaves them open and on the verge of beginning anew just at the point at which they ought to offer the closure of an ending. Her short form fictions range from a few sentences to two or three pages, and their brevity is part of their crystalline form, giving them the precision and density of poetry. On this ultra-short-form, Williams remarks that, ‘I work to my skills … Six pages feels like a saga to me,’ insisting that her writing is about ‘writing what you can, writing “my way” rather than anybody else’s way… not trying to fit a particular literary genre’. This ensures, she says, that your writing is your own, its distinctive rather than imitative.
‘Writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’
Part of what makes Williams’ short fictions so fragmentary and unsettling, however, might be her sense that she is ‘writing to fracture what I knew, to open up new perspectives.’ For Williams ‘[my] stories issue from a sense of pain or fright or bewilderment, of not feeling like I belonged in my own house’. It is that sense of the uncanny that carries over into the bewildering realism of her works. Toby Litt commented on how that is implemented formally in Williams’ writing, saying: ‘Diane Williams’ sentences are bendy: they don’t go where you expect them to’. At the level of the sentence, Williams admits that, ‘So much of my writing is reorganising the connections between sentences. … To keep a lively pace, I don’t want to get bored’. The emphasis here is on re-writing, the vital importance of redrafting, restructuring and reshaping the words down to the finest detail of the connections between sentences to maintain pace, interest and innovation. To continually shift expectations and ‘fracture what [we] knew’.
As a final thought, Williams added: ‘My theory is that one ought to be able to say anything about anything’ in literature. ‘I have to pretend to be bold’. Diane Williams demonstrates this theory again and again in her fiction, embodying a pulsing, fleshy eroticism of both form and content in her intense rhythms and choice of subjects. In addition to Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Williams read from her 1992 collection Some Sexual Success Stories, which she has been editing for her forthcoming collected works. If you’re not already familiar with Williams’ writing, now is a great time to get to know her through her books.
Thanks to Diane Williams, Toby Litt, Charles Boyle, and everyone who came to this illuminating event at the University of Westminster.
Diane Williams has been publishing her wholly distinctive short fiction in the US for the past quarter of a century. She is the author of eight books, including a collection of her selected stories, and is the founder and editor of the literary annual NOON. Her most recent book, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine was published by CB editions in 2016 and is the first UK publication of her new book of stories.
Toby Litt is the author of five books of short stories and ten novels. His new novel, Notes for a Young Gentleman, will be published by Seagull Press in December. Toby’s most recent book is Mutants: Selected Essays, also published by Seagull. Toby teaches creative writing at Birkbeck College. He blogs about writing at www.tobylitt.com.
Despite the almost impossible brevity of each of these stories, it’s taken me a long time to read Diane Williams’ Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine partly due to my hesitation to start writing this review. The stories are unsettling. An endorsement on the back cover tells us that ‘The uncanny has met its ideal delivery system’; another states that Williams’ work is ‘not for first reading but for periodic immersions in a world perfectly real but strange’. Both of these statements encapsulate the strange otherness of these stories and their ability to bring us closer to ourselves through the oblique lens of familiar estrangement. But perhaps neither explicitly addresses the thing I personally found most troubling.
‘She had been lucky in love as she understood it. And that night – some progress to report. Something exciting afoot. She has a quarter hour more to live.’
For me, the upper-class voice and vocabulary created a character with whom I found it difficult to empathise and identify. I found the tone of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond similarly problematic to assimilate. Both Williams and Bennett have created collections of discomfiting short stories with unsettlingly aloof upper-middle class narrators whose narration resists empathy and affect almost entirely. Williams, with her sharp and caustic brevity and her focus on an accumulation of unrelated episodes within a single ‘story’ seems to have perfected the style.
As a prolific reader, I’m used to fictions that engender empathy and identification with, and assimilation of, the narrator’s character as part of the unconscious process of reading that I’ve been practising since childhood. But Williams’ characters and narrators in this collection are not designed to be empathised with – they present disconcerting everyday experiences with which we might identify, in a way that’s designed to be distant and aloof, a way that prevents our easy assimilation of another life as our own and holds us at an uncomfortable distance. This is not a fiction that we can consume in colonial fashion, incorporating its riches as we gorge ourselves on the text. It holds us off, and that’s an unsettling experience in narrative fiction.
At the same time, the stories open us out onto ourselves. Asking us to sit with that twingeing irritation that Virginia Woolf described as located impossibly between the shoulder blades in An Unwritten Novel. Showing us the things that we find most troubling because we know they’re also part of ourselves but we can’t quite convince ourselves to acknowledge them, let alone reach through to alleviate them. So they sit there, troubling: resisting both assimilation and alleviation, just being there as a patch of rough and broken skin at the edges of our consciousness.
‘In a luncheonette that I took cover in, I overheard, “Yes, I do mind …” – this, while I was raising and re-arranging memories of many people’s personal details, tryst locales, endearments – faces, genitalia, like Jimmy T’s, or Lee’s, which I pine for.’
It’s a consummate skill to be able to produce this sort of resistance in a reader, when every literary convention dictates empathy and identification.
As global and national politics becomes increasingly defined by grotesque hyperbole and empty excess, literature is demonstrating its razor-edged potential for the subversive through its movement towards the understatement. Even Williams’ idiosyncratic crisp, upper-class vocabulary feels essential here: language like this enables us to explore thoughts of increasing subtlety and complexity, and to risk losing that suddenly feels chilling beyond measure.
‘She carves with a sharply scalloped steel blade, makes slices across the top of a long, broad loaf of yeasted bread for the dog who begs and there’s a cat there, too.
She holds the loaf against her breast and presses it up under her chin. But this is no violin! Won’t she sever her head?’
CB editionspublishes short fiction, poetry, translations and other work which, as the Guardian noted, ‘might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers’.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow
Sally-Shakti Willow is researching for a practice-based PhD in utopian poetics and experimental writing at the University of Westminster, where she also works as research assistant for the Contemporary Small Press. Sally’s poetry is included in the #NousSommesParis anthology from Eyewear Books; the experimental collection The Unfinished Dream by Sally-Shakti Willow and Joe Evans was published by Sad Press in October 2016. @willowwriting
*The Contemporary Small Press is celebrating the first ever Republic of Consciousness Prize for small presses by reviewing a range of titles from the long- and short-lists throughout early 2017. The Republic of Consciousness Prize was established by writer Neil Griffiths to support and reward adventurous new fiction published by small presses in the UK and Ireland. The judges have selected some of the most exciting and innovative new fiction to highlight through their long- and short-lists, demonstrating the breadth and depth of high-quality literary fiction currently being published by small and independent presses. The winner will be announced at an award-ceremony held in conjunction with the Contemporary Small Press at the University of Westminster in March.
The Contemporary Small Press interviews writer Lara Pawson, whose book This is the Place to Be will be published by CB editions in September.
Lara, you were at the first Contemporary Small Press Symposium run by the University of Westminster in February 2015, how did that event impact on your decision to choose a small press publisher for your book?
Massively. I went to that because I’d seen something tweeted by Tony White, the writer who also has Piece of Paper Press. I went, very much inspired by Tony, and I went because I though I know that small presses are doing interesting things, I want to learn more about small presses. At that point I had written my piece that has now become the book, This is the Place to Be, which was initially called Non-Correspondence, and I wrote that in 2014. So it wasn’t that I’d gone there looking for a small publisher. I’d gone there because of Tony White and because of the kind of work that I’m working on – I’m working on a novel at the moment – and the way that that is progressing, I feel that it probably won’t fit with a conventional ‘market’. My hunch is it’s more likely to be taken up by a small press. So I went with the hope of meeting like-minded people, seeing what kind of people were in that world, a bit of ‘networking’, and also that I might learn something. And I did feel really inspired by it.
Afterwards at the book fair, I went around all the tables looking at the books, and when I got to the CB editions table Charles was standing there, I saw The Notebook by Agota Kristoff. I had seen that performed by Forced Entertainment at Battersea Arts Centre the year before, and I said ‘Oh my God, you’re publishing Agota Kristoff’ I told him I’d seen it – incredible play. [Then we started talking and exchanged contact details and stayed in touch] and he said to me ‘if you’ve got anything you’d be interested in publishing with me, just send it my way and let me have a look’ And I didn’t really think much more about it until a year ago when I was on my way back from Wales and I was in the car with a former performer, who had performed with Forced Entertainment, and he had asked me about my work and I was telling him about the Non-Correspondence monologue, and he said to me ‘why don’t you get it published as a book, that sounds like it’s a book’ and when I got back I thought ‘oh I should get in touch with that man Charles’.
And I think that, going to the symposium, I just felt very excited that there were a lot of people there doing very interesting, brave things. In a world that you quite often feel is closing in on you all the time and you have to conform and you have to compete with all these people to get your product into the market, there I was amongst people who seemed to be interested in the work for what the work is and I felt very liberated and excited by that. So when Charles said yes he’d publish it, I just felt like I’d hit the jackpot, even though I hadn’t literally hit the jackpot in terms of dollars. I felt very lucky. These people are doing very interesting things, and they’re sort of creating what they want to exist.
Now that I’m working with Charles and CB editions I’ve been slowly making my way through some of the books he’s published, and I’ve just been astounded by how great they are. All these wonderful things that are being produced. In the world of the small presses, it feels like you’re creating something and I think when you live in the over-developed world, which I like to call the northern hemisphere and especially the UK, you kind of feel that everything’s been done, and it’s closed and locked – and I think for me what that conference, the symposium did for me, and did again last week and that’s why I went again because I thought I know it will open my eyes, it’ll open my horizons, and this time I heard about Commune Editions and I thought I really want to explore all of these things.
What’s your experience of being published by CB editions?
I’ve only published one book before this book. The book that’s being published by CB editions is called This is the Place to Be, my first book was called In the Name of the People and it was about Angola, a non-fiction, published with IB Tauris, so I’d already had a lovely experience of working one to one with my editor, and it was a very positive experience. So it’s kind of, again, incredible to be working with Charles and it’s even better than that was. Because Charles is basically a one-man-band, he does the design, he does the layout, he does everything. So I sent him my text, he had a read, he gets back to me, we go for coffees, and it’s been a very personal microexperience. Instead of spending so much of our lives sitting behind screens and not being in touch with people, or being in touch with people miles away. We both live in London so we meet in town for a coffee or something and we talk about various stages of the book planning. It just feels very close up and intimate.
CB editions tend to have uniform covers – they used to be those beautiful brown covers, but Charles has recently changed that, and I entered into that process while he was in the middle of making that change. So in fact my book when it comes out won’t look like lots of the other CB editions books, but Charles sent me some suggestions of how it could be and was very happy for me to choose. Then I went to his house where the books are produced and I sat in his front room with his cats and we looked at different covers on the screen and looked at fonts and it was great. I met his wife who’s a painter and I felt like it was a really special day, and I found myself thinking ‘why can’t all books be produced like this?’ It was really good fun. I just love the fact it’s such a personal experience.
I think the small presses are much more flexible and there’s a kind of speed and elasticity which feels in some ways much more appropriate in a way to the world that we live in where everything changes so quickly and you can produce stuff online and produce a digital book ‘like that’ [*snaps fingers*] but these small presses are producing hard books, quality paper books, in months, so I really love that. I’m quite impatient and I’m quite spontaneous so for me that’s just great.
I remember at the first symposium you were angry at the suggestion by some panellists that writers and small press publishers shouldn’t expect to make a living from it and should accept poverty as a choice in exchange for the privilege of writing non-mainstream books. What’s your opinion on that now and can you clarify your thoughts for us?
The idea that it’s noble to not be paid. What’s noble about not being paid? It’s important, we all have to live, we all have to get by in the world, and I think that the idea that writing and producing works of art, be it fine art or writing or poetry or theatre or whatever, that the people who produce it don’t need to earn a living from it is something I really dislike. I think it’s just a sort of fanciful idea, presumably reproduced by people who either don’t appreciate art and don’t think it has a value or by some people who have a lot of money and don’t need to be paid for the work they’re doing or what they’re creating. So I don’t think we as writers and artists and people who are producing this stuff should encourage a culture of not earning. I think it’s a real problem.
That said, in a way you might accuse me of hypocrisy but I also understand that here I am being published by a very small publisher. I’m not being paid huge sums, I am being paid a sum of money for it, but a very small sum of money. Certainly not enough to live off or pay my mortgage with. I have an agent, who did send my book to another publisher that didn’t want it, I suppose I could’ve gone around looking for more big publishing houses with more money. But I think with this particular book, because it was originally written as a performance, as a looping monologue that was performed at the Battersea Arts Centre as a kind of theatre-performance-sound piece I never expected it – and I was paid for that by the way, I was paid a sum of money for that piece of work and I was paid again when it went to Brussels, so I got paid for the times that that was produced. But when it became a book – I never expected it to become a book and it’s been expanded a bit, it was initially 20,000 words and it’s now 35,000 words, so still very small, but when it became a concrete plan that it was maybe going to be published as a book, I saw that as a bonus, as a kind of surprise and so I wasn’t thinking primarily that I must get lots of money out of this. My priority was that I wanted it to be published with a publisher that was respected for the quality of writing that they produced.
But I feel really strongly about being honest about the money side of it. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I wasn’t a partner with someone (my husband, I’m married) who has a full time job. If he was not earning money there would be no way that I could do this. I’d be doing other things as well. I do do other things to earn money but I don’t earn enough to live off without my husband’s contribution. So I’m fortunate, I don’t think it’s a model that should be pursued. I don’t think it’s something to be proud of. I don’t think it’s noble not being paid. I think I’m very privileged and fortunate and it’s not fair on people who haven’t got money or haven’t got a partner who can support them, what are they supposed to do: just sort of think it’s noble to produce a book and breathe in air? People need to live. And you need time to write, you can’t work full time and write. Some people do do that, but it’s a really hard thing to do.
So I’m just very uneasy, particularly when I hear academics, who are very often on salaried jobs, talking about the idea that it’s somehow superior not to be paid. It’s not true, we need to live. It’s elitist, it’s exclusive. There’s a minority of people out there with private money, but we don’t just want work to be produced by those people, we want work to be produced by everybody, so that we get a mix of voices and input. So yeah, I really bristle at people who promote poverty, I just think it’s bullshit.
Will you be looking for a small press publisher for your third book?
The publishers that are producing books I like are often small presses, but not only. There’s plenty of good books produced by the ‘normal publishing industry’ that I really like. There’s lots of books that get produced by all sorts of publishers that I really like. But the books that sort of fire me up, apart from the old classics, tend to be with the small press. So I might well [look for a small press for book 3] but I’m also quite mindful that I’m anxious to make a bit more money out of it. People said to me once you’ve got your first book out you’ll make loads of money on your second, but that has not been the case. And that’s not a criticism of CB editions for one minute, but it’s not as simple as that. I’m beginning to think that maybe, given the kind of writer that I seem to be, or seem to be becoming, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be that mainstream, and I’m going to have to accept that. But I also think that small presses are influencing the mainstream presses, so who knows. Eimaer McBride’s book is a classic example of that, but there are plenty of other books and I think people are beginning to realise there’s quite a big desire to read those books. So to be honest I’m not sure.
What would you like to see in the future from the small presses in general, and for your book in particular?
I hope with This is the Place to Be, that it will reach people, that it will reach readers, I’d really love it if it gets reviews by mainstream newspapers in Britain. With my first book it had quite a big readership, especially in Portuguese. What for me is really wonderful is writers getting in touch with you from Mozambique, or someone in Spain or someone in Canada, and they’ve read your book and it’s moved them and affected them and they write to you – you cannot beat that sort of feeling of something you’ve produced touching people.
I feel very nervous about this book, because I feel like I’ve really let it all hang out, I’ve really exposed myself, and in fact after I’d initially written a first draft, I gave it to my next door neighbour who’s a writer, and she really liked This is the Place to Be, and she said to me, ‘You’ve got to read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, your book’s really like that.’ I hadn’t heard of Maggie Nelson until then, so I then read her book and I then felt really nervous because I thought Maggie Nelson’s book was so good. I though oh shit, my book’s not good enough. But I suppose there were overlaps, and felt that if I could reach people with my own writing, I don’t know. In some ways I just feel like I’m so amazed it’s being published. I’m so happy it’s being published with CB editions. I’m so happy with the few people who’ve read it and their response to it, that if it keeps going like that then frankly I’ll be dead chuffed. The writer Joanna Walsh read it and very generously endorsed it, and I was just ecstatic for about 48 hours because she’d read it and liked it.
In terms of what I hope for the small press, I hope that they keep going, I hope they survive. In the climate we’re in right now, not simply that we’re in this weird, ‘Are we going to Brexit or not’ moment but the fact that in the economy we’re looking at even more austerity that presumably is going to be a bit of a threat to people working on small presses. And if we pull out of Europe is that going to affect the funding because a lot of these small presses, I don’t know who funds them, but a lot of CB editions books are written by European writers, translated by people into English. To what extent is this whole Brexit moment going to affect the publishing houses? And Other Stories produce lots of books written by people all around the world. I imagine this [Brexit] is a bit of a threat to [publishers]. On the other hand, I think people quite often rise to the challenge – so it’s a threat and it’s a crisis but it might make us all fight back a bit more. Because when you put up barriers, people create ways through it. I’m amazed by the number of young people who are behind a lot of this stuff, and I think wow, they’re really pushing back and creating a lot of this stuff and it’s happening.
Look out for our forthcoming review of Lara’s new book This is the Place to Be from CB editions.
Language, as she deployed it, was neither a line cast nor a bullet fired. It was a catholic mechanism: the sharp twist of a pilot biscuit into the waifish body of a Christ. A word, placed on her tongue, became flesh. One night it was almost morning, I could almost see her, every sentence a necklace she was pulling out of her mouth, tangled in smoke.
The life you decide to live, the moment you choose to make and break or mould anew, the connection, the relation, the self that disappears or materialises from the decision made in the present. In these eleven unique short stories, May-Lan Tan traces the contours of lost, outcast, lonely, rebellious, transforming and confused individuals in moments of being, their essences written as an exquisite cacophony of voices that capture snap shots of lives being lived. Yet, these traces are not always positive, fully outlined or even concluded as Tan unearths the scars, the abject, the breaks, and ragged edges of the moments these lives have fragmented – the squashed potentials, the missed chances to grab and embrace certain relations and connections. The characters continuously wrestle with what could have been, should have been and what is.
What are the “things” proclaimed in the title to make and break – the self, others, memories, the sexual; the body? We are met with a collage of characters in metamorphosis. Through poignant, banal, sexual, terrifying, inarticulate experiences they mould themselves into new skins, surrogate skins and the skins of others they wish they could wear, if only for a moment. Sometimes the characters simply shed their old skins, in occasionally violent or risky ways, in the hope for something changed, something more like their interior selves underneath, or, in the story of the parallel and juxtaposing lives of two Laurens, who share a name and similar tragedies, for a freedom from those ruling their skin. It is intriguing the way Tan sets up dualistic characters, the Laurens, the Twins and the actress and her stunt double, toying with subjectivity and what makes a person an individual – the choices they make, the lot they’ve been given, the experiences they’ve had and the people they’ve encountered.
But no matter what, each character seems to hold the tension of always fighting with who they are and what they seem to be, a tension that I’m sure will resonate with many. One character bravely turns the choice that haunts her into a positive, “I think I’m lucky. Most people never know exactly what they’ve missed”, instead, she’ll never be able to un-know, to forget. Whilst another character boldly states, “I want to be the breaks” when in reality she is:
the coyness, the wheedle, faked passion, icicle tears, small betrayals, the accommodating orifices, the warm welcome and the long way back. I’m the pout, the prettiness, and dreams of the real thing. I am hard knocks and lost loves. I’m just like a real person – in a movie. I’m how much it hurts and how much that’s part of it.
Throughout each story is the constant tug and pull of subjectivity, blurring characters into what an individual is, ought to be, is expected to be, fails to be and never can be. Tan plays with notions of self, both artificially constructed and individually worn, culminating in a refreshing piece of literature that is not afraid to be real, flawed and full of unknown endings and possibilities. Rather than tightly wrapping up all the questions and outcomes of each character, Tan skilfully shows that no-one is above the human condition of constantly living as a question mark.
Tan sculpts language into different forms and styles, with lyrical and viscerally raw, cut-throat meaning crafted through intertextuality, layered so finely with the episteme of theory (aptly highlighted through a few of her titles and expressions), feminism, notions of identity, observations, desires and decisions.
Kissing Julia was like kissing language. Her tongue was a flame, licking phoneme and diphthong. She swallowed me like a sword […] Her body a city: I carved a key out of soap, found the trapdoors and learned the secret knocks. I drew a map and held it inside me, the dark, oily street running through me like veins. I chalked hopscotch grids on pavements and wrote on walls.
Her characters become the embodiment of all these experiences that build up their strength, whilst equally creating fragile breaking points, as fragile as the candy glass that pretends to be real glass in the seventh story.
Words become like flesh, carved out, so richly shaping essences of living, of being, that they leave the taste of possible lives lingering on your tongue long after you finish turning these pages. Reflections turn inward, apt parallels are made as you’re reminded of all the “could-have-beens” that have faded from your own life and how just maybe, life could be lived differently, if you gave moments, “things,” their potential to make and break.
There is so much that could be said about this collection of stories, spanning temporalities, territories, spaces and subjectivities, but truly it is best to read them for yourselves and find the meanings that sink their teeth into you and hold on long after turning the last page.
About the publisher:
CB editions publishes works that “might otherwise fall through the cracks between the big publishers” – short fiction, poetry, translations and other works of notable worth that have a unique and fresh perspective. CBe titles have won a fiction prize, a translation prize and three poetry prizes and have been shortlisted for other awards. 2014 was one of CBe’s highest-profile years in which many of their authors were receiving notoriety and consideration for awards, and during this time May-Lan Tan’s Things to Make and Break was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.