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Between the Covers Danielle Dutton Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 60 literary publishers and now they offer e-books in accessible formats through their ebooks for Everyone collection. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover and buy exciting contemporary Canadian literature all in one place. Check out All Lit Up at www.allitup.ca. US readers can also shop All Lit Up close to home and save on shipping when they purchase books from its Bookshop.org affiliate shop. Browse selected titles at bookshop.org/shop/allitup. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Uche Okonkwo’s A Kind of Madness, a collection of ten stories set in contemporary Nigeria. Says Chigozie Obioma, “To read Uche Okonkwo’s A Kind of Madness is to have an experience: of complex characters grappling with life’s many troubles, of a robust culture, of history, of the battle between the domestic and the public, and all the big themes of life woven together.” Adds Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, “While each story is a world of its own, the collection is at once hilarious and heartbreaking. This is a delightful debut.” A Kind of Madness is out now from Tin House. Before we begin today’s episode with Danielle Dutton, one that speaks to so many things that have been long-standing interests of mine from questions of form in relation to the real and the fantastical, form in relation to finding, breaking, or inventing a form that most reflect you as a writer, questions of representation whether of consciousness or of the non-human other, and much more, before we start, I just wanted to mention, since Danielle is co-founder and editor at one of my favorite presses, Dorothy, that there are three as of yet unclaimed reward tiers that pertain to today’s conversation. One is a bundle of three Dorothy books, Rosmarie Waldrop’s only novel, and Amina Cain and Caren Beilin’s latest books. Another is a bundle of five Dorothy books, including The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington and a book by Renee Gladman among others. Finally, there’s a bundle of books from Danielle’s own past catalog of publications. There are a ton of other things to choose from too and everyone who transforms themselves from a listener to a listener-supporter gets the resource email with each episode and can join our ongoing brainstorm of who to invite in coming years. You can check this all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Danielle Dutton.

[Music]

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, writer, and editor Danielle Dutton earned a BA in Medieval History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a doctorate in English with a creative writing focus from the University of Denver. She’s been an editor at Denver Quarterly, a managing editor, production manager, and book designer at Dalkey Archive Press, and an instructor in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. In 2011, she joined the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis where she is co-director of the Center for the Literary Arts and where she teaches graduate and undergraduate fiction writing, as well as creative critical courses that emphasize cross-genre and interdisciplinary approaches. Her own writing could also be described as both cross-genre and interdisciplinary as well. Her debut fiction collection Attempts at a Life picked as one of the Ten Great Titles from Underground Presses by Time Out New York, is described as operating somewhere between fiction and poetry, biography and theory, and Daniel Handler for Entertainment Weekly called it, “Indescribably beautiful, also indescribable.” Dutton’s second book SPRAWL, again borrows techniques across genre, this time fiction, poetry, and photography, and has been described as a verbal still life. Kate Zambreno describes it as follows, “Danielle Dutton’s SPRAWL reads as if Gertrude Stein channeled Alice B. Toklas writing an Arcades Project set in contemporary suburbia. Dutton’s unnamed housewife roams sidewalks and manicured lawns like one of Benjamin’s flaneurs, reminiscent of the contemporary urban walkers of Renee Gladman’s stories or Gail Scott’s My Paris. But this novel is like other works, and it is not—it is both unabashedly voracious in terms of literary sources and an extraordinarily original text.” A finalist for the 2010 Believer Book Award and originally published by Siglio that year, SPRAWL had a second life in 2018 reissued by Wave Books with a new afterword by Renee Gladman. In 2016, Dutton wrote the historical fiction Margaret the First, imagining into the life of the 17th century Duchess Margaret Cavendish, a poet, playwright, philosopher, and prose writer, including writing one of the earliest examples of science fiction. Despite its period setting, Margaret the First has been described as, “A contemporary novel set in the past,” and by Kirkus as, “More poem than biography.” Lucy Ives in The New Yorker says, “In Margaret the First, there is plenty of room for play. Dutton’s work serves to emphasize the ambiguities of archival proof, restoring historical narratives to what they have perhaps always already been: provoking and serious fantasies, convincing reconstructions, true fictions.” Dutton’s fiction has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Harper’s, NOON to Fence, and has been anthologized in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Danielle is also the co-founder and editor of one of my favorite presses, Dorothy, a publishing project, a feminist press that publishes two books a year, almost always by women, a press which she co-founded and runs with the writer and her partner, Martin Riker. Dorothy has published, among others, many past Between the Covers guests, including Rosmarie Waldrop, Cristina Rivera Garza, Caren Beilin, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Sabrina Orah Mark, and Kate Briggs. If it had been possible, I would have interviewed Leonora Carrington and Marguerite Duras for their books with Dorothy as well. In 2020, Riker and Dutton won the Golden Colophon Award for Paradigm Independent Publishing from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. It’s with much anticipation that I welcome Danielle Dutton to Between the Covers to discuss her latest book just out from Coffeehouse Press called Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, a most anticipated book of the year with everyone from Literary Hub to Bookshop to The Rumpus. Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other is described by Kirkus in its starred review as, “A shimmering and perplexing work, reminiscent of the form-smashing thrills of writers like Lydia Davis and Anne Carson.” Kate Briggs adds, “Danielle Dutton is a writer whose work I wait for. When a new book comes, I keep it very close, marveling at how her writing combines such extraordinary acts of precision, drawing forth strangeness and new presentations of beauty, with her own singular and searching, expansive style of intelligence. Her growing body of work is among the most formally inventive (and therefore essential) I can think of, and Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other is a vital, enlivening addition to it.” Finally, Cristina Rivera Garza says, “Pieces included in Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other are not short stories or essays in the strict (and limited) sense, but spells, incantatory hallucinations, organically shared phantasmagoria, bodily immersions in materials worldly and other-wordly. It is a book and yet it is definitely way more: a field of irruptions. This is Dutton at her best yet.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Danielle Dutton.

Danielle Dutton Thank you, David. It’s extremely nice to be here.

DN: Your most recent book continues your tradition of creating a new form or collaging different forms. There are four sections. As the title Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other suggests, the outer sections, the sections that bookend the book are various modes of storytelling. But in a “normal book,” whatever that is, we wouldn’t expect to find between them the sections Dresses and Art. Dresses or Sixty-Six Dresses I Have Read is just that, 66 numbered excerpts of scenes with dresses from books you’ve read. All the writing here is not by you but others but of course, gathered and curated by you. The art section you could call literary criticism and/or philosophical essay about how you see the relationship between visual art and fiction within your own work, and why called A Picture Held Us Captive, which also has a previous life as a standalone chapbook, so one may think hearing my description here that maybe you just threw together whatever you had on hand since your last book. But that’s not the experience of reading it at all for me. There is a disjunction, gap, or reorientation and resetting at the beginning of each section as we get our footing on different terms each time. But there’s also the sense of the book as a book, not even a collection for me but a book, which I don’t think should be true. You haven’t created interstitial material to justify the presence of the dresses or the presence of the extended meditation on ekphrastic writing. There are still gaps or holes to leap over, yet there is also, I would say improbably and mysteriously a sense of wholeness for me. I know you wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the book by Joanna Walsh you published Vertigo, about how her work came to you as lots of small pieces that in no way at all suggested a book but which you wanted to publish and that the two of you worked on creating the bookness of it. I guess I wonder if you could speak to the bookness of Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other if you see it that way. I guess just more generally about how you see this book cohering or perhaps alternately as a book that also allows things to cohere and not cohere.

DD: Well, I’m glad it didn’t wind up feeling to you just like a book where I shoved together everything I had written since my last book. I suppose there’s a way in which that’s true. It’s not everything I’ve written since then but I’m a very slow writer and I also don’t have a lot of time to write, so it is most of what I’ve written since my last book came out. I didn’t always see all of these things as being in conversation with each other. I was just working on different things and trying to find my footing and figure out what I was doing after my last book came out, which was so different. After my last book came out, I had a period of being completely unable to write for about two years, which is a pretty long time. I just felt completely depleted. I just felt like I had nothing to say or I had no interest in writing. It was a very scary and weird feeling for me. I also felt weirdly overexposed or something and I just wanted to retreat inside I guess, I don’t know. Then I slowly started writing different things and I just followed them all wherever they were going. I definitely am one of those people who writes into unknowing. I’m interested in not knowing. I’m interested in being surprised. My last book came out in 2016, then there were these few years of no writing, then I started writing and I would say about four or five years ago, this book started to form itself in my mind. After that point, I agree that there’s no clear interstitial material but to me, I mean if you were to read the book 50 times like I have all the way through, it has become clear to me that there is all this interstitial material. Even the way you describe it as being full of holes and gaps, I mean there are literally holes and gaps in all of my stories. I mean I’m constantly talking about holes. There are holes everywhere. So I’m really interested in form in general. It just occurred to me that that didn’t have to be at the level of just each individual story. I feel like each piece is formally strange. I started feeling like, “Well, who says the whole book can’t be formally strange and intuitive?” That was really interesting to me. I think too in my stories, something that’s become clear to me is I’m not interested in smoothing over that formal strangeness, handing a clear conclusion, or making it easy. I’m not interested in negating the confusion or strangeness of my experience in a story form, even though I’m extremely attentive to form. That just started growing out of the book itself. To me the parts are all really clearly talking to each other, I mean there’s lots of collage going on all over, just the Dresses piece is the most overt about it. There are also lots of dreams. I think a lot of my stories are dreamy or literally have dreams in them or they came to me in dreams and the title Sixty-Six Dresses I Have Read came to me in a dream.

DN: Oh, my gosh.

DD: It also feels connected in that way, like just this strange dreaminess of my experience in my life I think. It all fits really easily in my mind but when I found the title, I was like “Aha, you do it.” [laughter]

DN: That’s great. Well, back in 2011, Christopher Higgs at HTML Giant asked you to describe experimental writing or to speak to what is experimental about experimental writing and I loved what you said. It feels related in multiple ways to your current book. You said this 13 years ago now, “Last night on the phone my dad and I were talking about fundamentalisms and the possible future explosion of the planet. He was saying how important it is do be able to dwell in doubt, to assume you don’t know it all, to embrace ‘the fertile void.’ He said, ‘Certainty is for shit,’ which, despite the fact that we were talking about the possible future explosion of the planet, made me feel a bit better about the fact that I really don’t know how to answer this question. So in the spirit of uncertainty I offer Robbe-Grillet’s idea that ‘[a]ll writers believe they are realists. . . . each has different ideas about reality. The classicists believed that it is classical, the romantics that it is romantic, the surrealists that it is surreal. Each speaks of the world as he sees it, but no one sees it in the same way.’ For some reason, this was one of the first things that popped into my head when I read your question, Chris. Right or wrong, I’ve always thought of this notion as particularly sane.” I read this as a preface to hopefully have you read the opening of your book, not only because as we’ll soon see, you are still 13 years later thinking about the end of the planet but also to set up a series of questions by me and others. If we could, let’s hear the opening of the opening story Nocturne.

DD: Okay. I just have to say that was so funny. I completely forgotten about that. I mean as soon as you brought it up, I remember it but that was an actual blast from the past and a very cute conversation with my dad who has dementia, and we don’t get to talk quite like that anymore, so it’s nice to hear that. He’s a smart, interesting person.

[Danielle Dutton reads from her latest book Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other]

DN: We’ve been listening to Danielle Dutton read from her latest book Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. In engaging with Ursula K. Le Guin’s work over the years on the show, both the three times she was on as a guest, then the 12 conversations with others for Crafting with Ursula, the question of realism came up often and in different ways. Most broadly, her argument that for most of human history, stories were fantastical and imaginative, whether the Odyssey, Beowulf, Don Quixote, or Hamlet, and that portraying the world without the imagination, without what we imagine, without what isn’t “there” is actually the most unreal thing of all. But thinking here of your meditation in the opening of the book on the end of the world, not just the human world but for so many other creatures, Le Guin also took this argument further, arguing that the rise of realism as a literary form emerged with the industrial revolution and with the coal-powered steam engine with the way we found a way around the obligations of a reciprocal relationship to the Earth. That for her, fantasy can be defined as moving away from anthropocentrism and realism toward it, with Le Guin poking holes in the idea that to be “realistic” is to center the human experience with everything else, either at the margins of the story or more often not in the story at all. When I think of the opening paragraph of this story, the opening of the book that leaps sentence to sentence back and forth without warning between points of view, between the mother’s thoughts and the son’s backseat questions and comments, the first experience of not having my footing yet of things not grounded in a stable voice but a series of interjecting ones, one might be tempted to call this experimental but I think it would be more accurate to call this more realistic. I think of the first time I encountered this sort of interruption of thought, it was in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I think we could draw a line from there all the way to Kate Briggs’s book with you that I talked to her about where she, I think, quite daringly makes the relationship between the protagonist and her baby, the default relationship where everything else that happens in the book is the interruption. I love how this opening enacts the activity of the black hole, this notion of splitting and swallowing up. But even if there wasn’t this resonance between what the boy is saying and what the words are actually doing, it does feel like simply being in the world with other people is more closely evoked this way, the way you, Wolf, and Briggs in different ways are doing this with these integrated speech acts, dropped lines of thought, and even as the protagonist here in Nocturne becomes more worried about the state of the world as you continue to read, the scene itself disappears altogether. It gets swallowed up by our thoughts, which happens all the time to everybody. We’re always lost in our thoughts. We have thoughts swallow the scene and we’re no longer really in the car. We’re barely in the car. The more I think about the writing adages that are about so-called realism, like “Show, don’t tell” or “[Write in scene],” the more artificial they seem. But this is my long-winded way of soliciting your thoughts as a writer and teacher of writing about the experimental and the real or about the imagined and the real in your own work.

DD: Oh, I mean, I just love so many things you just talked about there. Sometimes, I co-teach with a wonderful professor named Melanie Micir, a class called Fiction of the Anthropocene. I feel like I say that word wrong. We teach Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. He talks very similarly as Ursula Le Guin about the rise of realism and the rise of industrialism, and what happens to the fantastical in that arrangement. We teach Le Guin in that class as well, is it The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction? Is that what it’s called? This idea that rather than the hero’s journey, like a linear quest, it could be the gathering, instead of the one who hunts, the one who gathers and just puts things together. I really think of the Dresses piece as a story in that sense. Okay, but the question you’re asking, well, so you asked me as a teacher, and as a teacher, I am just, well, I would say that this is probably true as a person and that’s pretty clear in everything we’re talking about with this paragraph but I am an extremely open person. There’s not a lot of black and white in my experience of the world or the way I teach or think. A lot of my students come in really committed to fantasy writing, fan fiction stuff, or “traditional realism.” I just want to support them and meanwhile introduce them to a bunch of other stuff. That’s pretty much how I think because most of my students—I teach a lot of undergrads, as well as grad students—aren’t going to go on to pursue being writers, so I just want to support them being writers and being engaged with language, and being engaged readers of the world in different ways and readers of literature. Just trying to give them as much as I can and support them the best I can. I don’t have a lot of opinions. I just taught Jhumpa Lahiri yesterday and my undergrad students always love her and love the warmth and the groundedness of her realism which is just so impressive and so well done. It bears almost no relation to how I experience the world I guess and how I’m trying to put that down on the page. It’s hard to see how your own realism, and to go back to that [inaudible] idea, it’s so hard to see yourself and how you experience things, I mean my husband as a discussion partner has helped me see sometimes how my writing is extremely connected to my experience of the world. I mean I just don’t have a lot of pure sense of internal and external boundaries that I don’t know if other people do either but I also experience the world with a huge amount of anxiety. Not always being clear on where internal and external boundaries are, it can be extremely problematic for me as I navigate the world but it also can be just like when I’m not in a fearful place, like really wonderful, freeing, and joyful, I think all of that is coming out in my writing. A lot of what reads as traditional commercial realism feels to me just like a style someone put on, not all that real at all. Yeah, I’m very delighted to be put in some kind of tradition with Virginia Woolf and Kate Briggs. [laughter]

DN: I would think so. In the spirit of questions of bookness and questions about story, we have a question for you from the fantastic and fantastical Sabrina Orah Mark who was recently on the show for her book of memoir/fairy tales Happily, which just won the National Jewish Book Award and who is also an author you have published, her book Wild Milk, whose description goes as follows, “Wild Milk is like Borscht Belt meets Leonora Carrington; it’s like Donald Barthelme meets Pony Head; it’s like the Brothers Grimm meet Beckett in his swim trunks at the beach. In other words, this remarkable collection of stories is unlike anything else you’ve read.” Here’s a question from Sabrina for you.

Sabrina Orah Mark: Hi Danielle, this is Sabrina Orah Mark. Congratulations on Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. I am so grateful for this new gorgeous, brilliant book and for the coven of Dorothy’s you have assembled. In my heart, we are always meeting. I want to ask you about everything but for the sake of time, I’ll ask about plot. This will only take 1000 years, I promise. As always, first a poet, I’ve mostly understood plot as the ground where the story buries its secrets most deeply. If a good story has plotted well, it can keep its secrets even from itself. The plot in my mind is where the body will eventually go. The plot is the whole, perhaps even like the black hole where you begin Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other in a scene I desperately love. Your cover suggests four plots to me, like the four chambers of the heart but each needs the other to keep the book alive. I think I might have just accidentally described plot as both the grave and the heart but I have a hunch you’re okay with that. Your stories often forget their stories, go essay, go theatrical, go art, and seem to grow from patches, dots, petals, and rumbles. Your person changes and change back, and changes again. At a moment of great suspense, you write, “The fifth part should go here, but it never does.” Is it because a fifth chamber would be too much for a heart to bear? What if anything comes after Other? If there is a fifth part somewhere, what is that fifth chamber’s relationship in your mind to plot?

DD: Oh, my gosh, Sabrina. I love Sabrina. First of all, I wrote that copy. I might not be prouder of any copy I’ve ever written for any book. [laughter] It was like the goofiest copy and it’s so dated, pony head but it was so exactly right. It felt so right to me at the time. I love Wild Milk so passionately. Sabrina’s one of those people who cannot be boring with words, like in an email and anything, and another one of the Dorothy authors is Caren Beilin where it’s impossible for her to be boring for one second, for one sentence. [laughter] They are just so delightful. Oh, my gosh. Okay, plot. Yeah, this is so hard to answer because I have somehow found myself as a teacher of, like half the time, I’m teaching people fiction writing and the other half, I’m just teaching whatever bonkers stuff I want to teach. I had to teach myself how to teach people to be or whatever, to teach a class about fiction writing because I did not do creative writing as an undergrad. I didn’t even know there was a thing called creative writing, a phrase I really strongly dislike. Then I started writing out of a place of just accident and desperation in my early 20s. I was spinning out of control of my life and this person suggested that I apply at MFA programs. I was like, “What are those?” I went to The Art Institute, which is an art school and I did a few writing classes but mostly, I did bookmaking and filmmaking, sound classes, and fiber arts. Then when I took a creative writing class, it was like Matthew Goulish, who’s an amazing performance artist and has this company in Chicago called Goat Island, he teaches this beloved class called Systems of Writing and it’s full of just artists of all kinds, painters, sound artists, whatever, and some writers. Then we just write crazy weird stuff, then the whole class is you deforming and remaking other people’s writing. No one ever taught me how to be like a fiction writer or a creative writer. Then I went to do a PhD at Denver on the suggestion of a teacher I had in Chicago, who taught in the program at Denver, the amazing poet Ben Ramsey. I went there mostly because I just didn’t know that much about literature. I hadn’t even been an English major and I did really know anything past Jane Eyre, like anything, so I went to fill in all those gaps in my understanding of literature and Western literature I should say specifically since it was an English major, not complete or anything and while there, I mostly was taking a class on Renaissance poetry. I took the historiography in poetics of the 17th century, which is where I started reading Margaret Cavendish. Yeah, I had to teach myself what people mean when they talk about plot. I teach it in a bunch of different ways, talking about traditional definitions of plot and also weird things about shape and form. But my writing has almost nothing to do with any of that. Like the place from which I write or the place inside of me that is a writer is a place that I keep very separate from any of this, from being a publisher, from teaching creative writing. What I do as a writer, I don’t think about any of that. I have no idea what plot means to me as a writer. I don’t want to think about it. [laughter] It’s just such a triggering word, plot, for a lot of people, for different ways, for different reasons. But in terms of the fifth chamber of the heart, what might be there is my next book to be honest. I’m working on a new book. The reason I say that is because I think for me, every book is just an opportunity to try something. I mean, inevitably, I’m still me but I’m not that interested in repeating myself stylistically or formally. I’m always trying to carve out some new weird shape or thing and I am doing that, and it is again completely different. I just want to say that’s what the fifth chamber, after Other, comes this new thing.

DN: Well, staying with chambers and shapes, in many interviews, you’ve talked about how you often start with a shape, a sculptural shape that you want to write into rather than a story and that you’re more interested in shapes and spaces than in plot. I think of how Margaret the First began as a Georges Perec-inspired spatially organized book, like his book Life a User’s Manual, or your interest in Renee Gladman’s work, both as a publisher of her and as a writer, whose work could be seen as exploring a poetics of space. Thinking of this, I wanted to leap from part one to part three from the section called Prairie to the one called Art and spend some time with your meditation on visual art in relation to your own work. A section that’s just honestly amazing and a topic that you’ve obviously thought a lot about in an embodied way for a long time. You’ve taught a class called Fiction Individual, your book SPRAWL is deeply engaged with photography, and Amina Cain, when she interviewed you about Margaret the First, says that the experience of reading you can often feel like encountering a painting. You’ve imagined fiction as a staging or curatorial space. You’re compelled by the idea of hanging a real painting in a fictional room, which I love. You meditate on the concept of defamiliarization in this section, that visual art for you often makes the world seem strange. When the world seems strange, it compels you to write. In other words, engaging with visual art is deeply generative for you as a writer. You look at the word ekphrasis etymologically and rephrase it as speaking outside oneself. But what I love the most about this is that ekphrastic writing that most interests you is an engagement in language in written text with visual art that is not only not descriptive of that art but also not subordinated to it. It’s bidirectional and you give examples of this. You talk about John Keene’s story from Counternarratives called Acrobatique, that in giving dimension and interiority to the acrobat in Degas painting, it changes how we see the painting forever more. There’s this bidirectional influence. Maybe we could say that Keene is defamiliarizing the painting. You talk about Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden, a book that you published where Léger tells her own story through an investigation of the life of filmmaker Barbara Loden and her film Wanda where not only did Loden base Wanda on a real-life woman that she had read about in the newspaper but she herself plays Wanda in the film that she’s directing, and how Léger’s story, Loden’s story, and Wanda’s story become, in your words, an infinity mirror of women in pain and seeking, which makes me think of what you’ve called your favorite discovery when you were doing all your research on science for Margaret the First. He stumbled upon something called the Theatrum Catoptricum, a mirrored box meant to multiply reality against itself. This idea of hanging a real painting in a fictional space to invite a reader into that space to engage with it and this notion of writing into a space or writing into a shape, and where the space almost seems to be conjured as a place of encounter between two different art forms or more than two, I’d love for you to talk more about this, either about shapes versus plots or spaces to make other art forms strange within fiction or about this infinity mirror, which also feels very much connected to this current book we’re talking about today too. 

DD: I love that infinity mirror. I tried so hard to make it fit inside Margaret the First. There were so many weird facts and contraptions that I had to let go of as I was writing that book, which yeah, it began as a totally specialized idea with all these gardens and like a murder mystery or something. It was like I completely resisted making it a linear, chronological narrative for years, which is part of why it took me so long to write it. Then eventually, Margaret just won out. I mean, in the end, Margaret was what I was interested in and all these contraptions but I was so sad to lose that contraption. I wrote it a bunch of times. It all exists somewhere but not in the book. What your question makes me think about is like, “Why am I like this? Why do I think about fiction like this?” And the thing that comes to mind is, this is so weird but when people used to read to me when I was a kid, one thing that was read to me quite a lot was Goodnight Moon which I find wonderful and completely horrifying for some reason. But Beatrix Potter stories and I was particularly taken with the one with Hunca and Munka, I think Hunca and Munca, it’s a tale of two bad mice. Do you know the story? 

DN:  I don’t.

DD: It was my favorite. I don’t think it’s because they’re naughty, because naughtiness made me very stressed out as a child who got in trouble a lot. There’s a dollhouse in the story and I was obsessed with it. I was obsessed with dollhouses. I had a dollhouse in my room and already there’s a little fictional world inside of the space in my room, which I spent a lot of time in, making up stories inside of that space, moving my dolls around and just thinking by myself whatever the little narratives were. Already, I feel like the very beginnings of my imagination with storytelling are spatial. Then with that story, I wanted it to be read to me over and over as I recall. I wasn’t that interested in what was going to happen. I liked the feeling of there being a plot because there’s something seductive and soothing about that, like being led through the events. I liked that as a background feeling. But what I was really interested in was thinking about the dollhouse inside the story, The Tale of Two Bad Mice, and wanting to go inside the dollhouse inside the story. I feel like that’s what I always want fiction to be like. I like the background feeling of narrative but I feel like most people want narrative in the foreground. I just want it in the background. That was when I realized, like when I first started writing, people were like unsurprisingly, maybe given how I described how it came to writing, you didn’t have to track in a genre I think at The Art Institute either, so I wasn’t sure what I was doing, am I my writing poems, are these stories that I have released?” I wanted that feeling of time passing, that seductive, weird feeling of being pulled along, that childhood story feeling. But what I wanted in the foreground was spaces to think inside of, to explore, or to get lost in. I’m thinking about Kathryn Davis right now as I’m talking, like her fiction does this so amazingly. She’s such an incredible writer and specifically the dollhouse in Hell. I’m thinking about her novel. I don’t really know if I’m answering your question right now. 

DN: Well, I’m going to ask listeners to hold on to this notion of your desire to go inside the dollhouse within the story because I have a question I want to ask you shortly about this or maybe we could just spend more time with that impulse. But before we do, I had two quick questions I wanted to ask you to talk about regarding this notion of bi-directionality, a non-subordinated relationship, so engaging with say visual art with fiction where it could change your perception of the visual art when you’re no longer in the fiction for instance. One of the things I wanted to just raise to have you talk about was your project with Richard Kraft, which came into being with a method that you both modeled after a cross-disciplinary collaboration between John Cage and the dancer, choreographer Merce Cunningham. Could you just speak briefly about this very bizarre methodology that you and Kraft had together of image text, and an unusual model I think really for how to do this together? 

DD: Yeah, so Richard approached me. He was working on these collages of this Polish comic book. The comic book was about Capitan Kloss, who was infiltrating the Nazis but there are Nazis all over it. It’s very World War II masculine and he was exploding it with all of this completely different imagery from a bunch of different places. He asked if I would write texts to go with his images but he didn’t want them to be descriptive. He didn’t want them connected in some obvious way. He was really interested in disruption and explosion and wanted whatever I offered to further disrupt the flow of everything, which he was calling a comic opera. I was familiar with some of his work. I had an image template in my mind from other things of his. It wasn’t like I was working off of nothing. He’s very invested in John Cage’s work. He’s edited John Cage’s diaries for Siglio Press. He suggested we work like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and not talk about it at all and have no communication about this project at all as we were working on it. Yeah, I say in that essay that I felt like I was working eksphrastically but with the work I had never seen. I had just had him describe it to me. He told me what he was trying to do. I had the spirit of the work to work with but not the images themselves. Then this changed at the end that I wound up incorporating some of the language he uses, like there’s weird language in his images like, “I am a big girl! I sing!” from a children’s primer or something. I wound up incorporating some of that text. But mostly, I was just working in the space of collage. Then I wound up working specifically with John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s work because it had them entered our project. I used them as source material and their lives, and their work as well. Yeah, so we were just being bonkers together but we wanted something bonkers as the end result, so it seemed right to work in a bonkers way. Then the book is indeed pretty bonkers I would say. 

DN: [laughs] It really is bonkers. Well, before we leave bi-directionality and also infinity mirrors, I wondered if you could, in its broadest strokes, retell the really crazy story you tell in the book about Ben Lerner’s reverse, ekphrastic tale.

DD: Oh, my God. 

DN: That feels like it becomes a paragon of this desire for a bi-directional engagement between art forms, not only within a fictional space, which seems what the aspiration is in what you’re writing in this section of the book. But outside the fictional space in the world, it’s like it’s an improbable, maybe ideal utopian bidirectional result.

DD: There’s no way I can get it right. [laughter] It’s so confusing to me in this bi-directionality that I wrote it and I would go back obsessively to check my sources to see if I was right about which thing had come first, and how it had occurred. When the essay came out as a chapbook, I did send it to Ben Lerner and I didn’t say, “Did I get this right?” But he was like, “Oh, thanks for sending that to me. I enjoyed it.” I was like, “Okay, I’m going to just assume that it was right.” So let’s assume I got it all right but he wrote the story. I even literally have to look at it. He wrote a story called The Polish Rider and it’s about a painter who loses her painting in like an Uber, taxi, or something in New York and calls her friend, a rider, who bears some resemblance to Ben Lerner and they look frantically for it all over the city, like tried to trace it down and they can’t. The writer in the story is like, “What I’m going to do is write something to replace the missing paintings.” It’s like the story is ekphrastic about the paintings but it’s like I write about it as this utopian idea of the text actually replacing the visual image, standing in for it in some way, like housing it, encompassing it but being this other thing that has it within it and is in place of it, like as if you would hang the story on the wall and the painting would be in there somehow, and that just gives me weird, nerdy goosebumps, the idea of that. Then it just kept going because then they actually, this was, I guess, Ben Lerner’s friend, an actual painter and she read the story, then she painted paintings based on the paintings he’d half fictionally described that she painted in the story, so it just kept going, this collaboration. It’s an actual collaboration between a writer and a painter but not in any traditional sense you might think of that’s like one subordinate to the other, like description or what I tend to think of as a kind of boring version of ekphrasis. I can’t even fully describe it.

DN: Am I right that she’s painting, in real life, paintings based on his language-based descriptions of missing paintings of hers, then I think he writes another story.

DD: Yes, called Late Art.

DN: Yes, that’s so wonderful.

DD: And about all of this. What is fiction and what is not fiction inside and outside of the stories is very ambiguous. Like, “Are the paintings that she painted based on his fictional paintings fictional in the real world?” I don’t know. I really want that to be possible. [laughs]

DN: Okay, so to return to this desire of yours to go into the dollhouse within a story and also to just conjure back to Sabrina’s idea that a plot hides its secret, maybe even from itself, which seems to be like an interesting relationship to knowledge, a tolerance, or capacity for not knowing as one tells, so think about both of those things as I ask this question. There was a tweet recently by the poet Aria Aber who grew up in Europe. She said that her European professors encouraged these long, windy, and complex sentences full of Latinate phrases and how this was exactly the thing her American professors hated. Others chimed in on this tweet, a writer from Australia who had moved to the states saying the exact same thing. That they had to change their sentences here to make them more concise and direct. The poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha saying, “It definitely helps us perform knowing.” The poet Alina Stefanescu saying, “There is, in my opinion, a sort of neocolonial anima in that declarative, clean, direct, linear sentence hygiene. It makes us feel as if we know.” I say all this because the thing that most defines your work for me and that I most love about it is a sense of nestedness, not linearity, of nested realities, not just or mainly nested clauses within sentences but I’m imagining that you like nested clauses and sentences based on who I know who you like to read, but nested worlds within worlds, like this dollhouse in the story, not just the world of another’s art hanging on the wall but in a million ways I think in your fiction. I think one could call this very much in the spirit of Borges. But really to me I think it is evoking how we live and experience life, and consciousness, not that Borges isn’t, I mean I think there’s this idea of if that’s happening, it’s experimental or fantastical. But I wonder if it’s just a closer way to the way consciousness works. For instance, in one piece in the book, in this current book, you simply have the protagonist remembering while driving, reading on the beach, which gives us the person driving the car, the experience of being on the beach, and the experience within the book that is being read. You do this a lot. A protagonist in another story is listening to a visiting writer give a reading while also thinking of a video game narrative, of a game that her daughter plays, and where her family might be. Near the end of the book, we again have a character reading within the book. This time in bed where this person says “Then I get to a sentence about how the narrator can’t sleep. She turns on her bedside lamp and starts to read a book. There we are, both awake and reading, the narrator and me. Something crazy happens. He’s like, ‘I’m there,’ or like, ‘She’s here,’ like something has fallen through.” Then she realizes she has read the book that the character is reading within the book she is reading. Of course, this reminds me of the splitting of the black hole at the beginning and of being swallowed by the hole, swallowed by what we read or by various spaces we disappear to in our minds that aren’t the ones we are literally standing in physically. But I wonder about this interest in a larger way of nested worlds that you’ve already spoken to a little. But I wonder if you have more of a story of why this occurs again and again in your work or if anything else in what I just presented back to you sparks some thoughts for you. 

DD: Oh, my gosh. That’s such a great fun question. On some level, this is a thing I’m not conscious of doing. That is just something, I guess, that’s integral to me and my experience, and I don’t know how I put it down. But just to connect this back to your earlier question about realisms, I mean yes, 100%. This is my experience of the world that is both fascinating and anxiety provoking for me. It reminded me of two things. I read and listen to a lot of Buddhist teaching and Buddhist Dharma talks, and books. I was reading a book by the American Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg. I think that’s where this comes from. She described how sometimes it’s like life is on a big screen, then you are like a sports commentator as a square, like a smaller square inside of that screen and it was such a relief to me to have that metaphor to think about because sometimes I can become very anxious when I feel extremely conscious of the various levels of experience that I’m experiencing simultaneously as simple as like you’re teaching a class or doing public speaking but there’s this other commentary running through your head and you’re you’re feeling very split between those. Sometimes it’s more than two. Sometimes it’s not just one big screen and one small screen. This is how I move through the world. Like I said, that can be really interesting, and maybe this is why I try to put it down and capture it in a form, a form that I’m not going to resolve. By putting it down, it’s like I can be near the strangeness of that or the mystery of that experience, holding it close without getting rid of it or becoming overwhelmed by it. It’s like just putting it down is useful to me somehow. That is one thing that comes to mind. Then the other thing is just that there are a lot of holes in this book and I dream about holes constantly. I mean, that’s probably something so ridiculously Freudian or whatever. [laughter] But I dream about houses and holes constantly. Frequently in my dreams, I move into a house that we have bought sight unseen and all the people have left all of their things in the house, and I move to the house exploring it and calling out, “Look what I found,” or there’s a door that leads to a secret hall, I mean this is a very regular dream for me and it’s very close to the experience I want to have when I’m reading. Then sometimes there’s a big giant hole in a room in the house that we can’t understand or a hole in the yard out front and it’s in an inexplicable space that we’re drawn to but terrified of, very normal in my dreams. Like I said, I move between dreaming and sleeping, and all these different layers pretty regularly in my life and I don’t want to get rid of that. I mean, I feel like that’s where a lot of my writing comes from. I’m not interested in getting rid of it or cleaning it up or something.

DN: Well, we have several questions for you that I think speak to this quality in your work in different ways. But before we hear them, I was hoping you could read the short piece called Acorn in the final section called Other.

[Danielle Dutton reads from Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other]

DN: [laughs] That story is just incredible. We’ve been listening to Danielle Dutton read from Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. Okay, so we have a question for you about the ways I think your books are infinity mirrors or nested narratives from past Between the Cover’s guest, Caren Beilin, who was on the show for the book you published of hers, Revenge of the Scapegoat, a book Sheila Heti described by saying, “Her books have the natural authority of those artworks that are strictly, rigorously themselves.” Here’s a question for you from Caren.

Caren Beilin: Hi, Danielle. It’s so good to be here with you and David. I’ve been thinking about your citational practice, which is at times earnest or concrete, or it’s fantastical. I don’t know. But one instance of my unknowing where I don’t know if you are referring to a text that exists occurs in the story These Bad Things, which refers to a story collection that the narrator recalls reading from to her son when he was seven or eight. But it’s never indicated as a story collection for children. It’s just something she reads to him, realizing at some point that it’s quite brutal. Perhaps it’s inappropriate as it includes people in rags, desperate people walking along a road, starving people, refugees made out of oil, sand, clumps of garbage, and teeth which seems to me to be a major figure of this work, the misfit of reading to our children what could not have been written for them, namely brutal, unjust violence, the end of nature, of life, our sick world that in your writing breaks out into a rash of its flowers. Yes, it is so very awkward to read to all children these horrible things the adults keep writing, yet I want to contrast this incredible moment in your book with, for me, one of its most surprising moments, which is entry 54 in Dresses, a collection of writing on dresses. Entry 54, “‘Did I say blue—and slinky?’ As Elizabeth nodded, Jessica continued. ‘It has a handkerchief hemline and—wait till you hear this, Lizzie— spaghetti straps and a neckline so low. Todd will be panting.” Sweet Valley High, is this the only citation from a children’s author? I’m curious. Danielle, do you know what a handkerchief hemline is? Writing for children I find offers a more tumultuous evocation of drives. It makes such an imprint and I truly yearn to go back to that version of evil. How I yearn to want to make Todd to please Todd, to do anything for Todd, to love my own twin or other self through the conduit of the specter of Todd’s juices or whatever. How amazing that you included this moment. Your book is not for children, I don’t think it is in its drive toward a reckoning with consequence, with what is happening and it’s gestures of repair up to and including your giving half the proceeds of this to the Missouri Prairie Foundation, an attempt to conserve remaining prairies and native grasslands. Please feel free to reflect on any of this. But I suppose my question for you if it helps is what are the texts, the citations from childhood that you might be, in a sense, always trying to rewrite, maybe in a sense to cite now as a writer writing for that reckoning adult?

DD: Oh, my God. I feel like I called Caren into being by mentioning her with Sabrina.

DN: You did.

DD: See what I mean? They both can’t be boring for one second.

DN: It’s wild. That was my experience with talking to Bhanu too. Bhanu, Sabrina, and Caren Beilin, when they speak, there’s this sense of it being written already, not written in a stilted way but written really artfully composed, at the same time being spontaneous.

DD: I know. In fact, I used to just beat myself up about it because I’m not like that at all. When I taught at Naropa, I taught right after Bhanu one day, one semester. Her students would come into my class and they’d be like, “We need a little time to recover–”

DN: [laughs] To recover?

DD: From how incredible Bhanu is. I was like, “I mean I get it.” I think she was teaching a class on modernism. I was like, “We have all this material that we have to cover.” But yeah, they’re both amazing. Okay, Caren just asked like five questions and I will attempt to answer them. Also, this lets me say that my own child was extremely important to the writing of this book. My own kid is all over this book. He is an extremely interesting person. I think in a way, I couldn’t write for a while and I probably started writing again I think because he was so weird and interesting. He gave me ideas but yes, in These Bad Things which is my child’s second favorite story in the collection, he has read this, so there’s one child that was written for it. That book that gets referenced is a real book. The reason I don’t cite it is because what I wrote is too far removed from it but it originated with him reading to himself, a story from a Joan Aiken collection that was sent to him by Kelly and Gavin of Small Beer Press. They sent him a few books and he was reading that, and he was describing it to me. I have to admit, he’s just going on and on, telling me what he’d been reading and I was half listening, then it got stuck in my head, then I started writing about it a year later. It didn’t really feel like it was connected but it was a real book. Yes, I know what a handkerchief hemline is as well. I did read Sweet Valley High books when I was a small girl child in the 1980s. They definitely affected me. Am I citing them now? I don’t think so. Oh, my gosh. What was the last question though? What was she asking me?

DN: About enduring childhood citational references that you might be always returning to.

DD: I mean, I’m always returning to that feeling of the dollhouse. I do actually write about Beatrix Potter in my first book, Attempts at a Life. I was a big Beatrix Potter fan. I was a big fan of stories about fairies. I was just a real reader. I was in my room alone a lot reading books. I also read things I shouldn’t have been reading. I read all of Anne Rice’s books in the 80s, including her erotica as a child but I don’t really feel like that’s in me. I mean I don’t feel like it’s there necessarily anymore except for the Beatrix Potter, then Jane Eyre was a huge influence. I’ve been obsessed with Jane Eyre my whole life, which is another thing I wrote about in my first book. 

DN: Well, I love that Caren brought up your citational practice, which feels on the one hand like a call-and-response between you and all the books that you love, and the intertextual nature of it reminds me of Cristina Rivera Garza’s notion of what she calls the disappropriation of materials, of making our debt visible. Also, I think of how it actively participates in archive building and community-making against forces of erasure and marginalization. It feels like a perfect segue to now talk about the second section, the most overtly citational section, Sixty-six Dresses I Have Read. We read the 66 excerpts without knowing what they are excerpted from unless you flip to the back of the section to find out. But all of these 66 passages, all of these words, not yours but making up one of the four sections of your book are obviously words you’ve chosen, excerpted, ordered, and curated, so your spirit is very much here. But my question for you or one of them would be why Dresses? I have thoughts and theories about this but I’d rather hear yours. Why Sixty-six Dresses I Have Read rather than 66 breakfasts I have read or 66 baths I have read? For that matter, is there a significance to 66?

DD: No, there’s no significance to 66. Like I said, the title came to me in a dreaming place, which is where a lot of my thinking about writing happens when I’m half awake, half asleep, and lying in bed. That happened and I’m sure I ignored the majority of the thoughts that came to me in that way. But for some reason, this really stood out and seemed important when it flashed into my brain. Why Dresses? I mean, so I keep thinking about how, when I was writing Margaret the First, one of my favorite things to do in that book was to imagine Margaret’s dresses. She was famous for having a wild style. But what most of her dresses looked like, it’s been lost. There’s no record. I had no idea what she was dressing like, so I made her dresses extremely fantastical. I think she has a dress, my favorite one is a dress meant to look like the forest floor, which I imagine is covered in mushrooms, beetles, and stuff. That was extremely delightful to me. I mean I think that’s what initially got me sinking somewhere deep down in my brain, not that consciously about dresses and literature, and how the things of women’s lives, usually women’s lives, are often considered frivolous or not important enough to spend time on or not like the real stuff of literature. I think all of that was in there when I was thinking about it but then also, it’s just the case that the writing about dresses often is just full of drama, violence, and beauty. It became clear to me that this was worth pursuing. As soon as I started thinking about it and looking at actual examples from the books that I had around me, I became very compelled by the project of doing it, like obsessed with it. Then of course, I like arranging things, and that curatorial space, it felt like that too, like a gallery of dresses I was making. Someone called it a closet at one point when they read it and I thought that was really funny, like a literary closet. Yeah, I was immediately compelled by it, even though the idea for it came from some semi-conscious place in my mind. I want to know your ideas though.

DN: [laughs] Well, one thing I think of with Dresses as persona, that when one steps into or out of a dress, one is moving into yet another version of a curated space, like any clothes that we choose to wear, not just dresses but here are very gendered choice as you’ve just mentioned. Definitely, there are excerpts that I think explicitly speak to persona, a dress “Like Garofalo in Reality Bites,” but also dresses flying away like they are alive on their own, almost as if the dress itself is not the mask but is the spirit or both the mask and containing its own spirit. In a way, thinking about dresses is a way to think about identity and what gets obscured or foregrounded in identity through whatever we step into, not necessarily a dress. But I wanted to ask you in that spirit about characterization in the book because for instance, this isn’t related to Dresses but the Dresses section makes me think of it, maybe this is one example of what you mentioned in your first answer today about how all these pieces echo off each other, which I think they do. But for instance, for characterization, most of the humans in the book are referred to generally, the boy, the husband. They’re more like characters in fairy tales in this way, classically like the way we would find characters in fairy tales. But the plants, birds, and insects, perhaps in the spirit of these particular passages about dresses, which are very articulated, these very different and particular evocations of dresses, all of the non-human life are named very specifically and sometimes almost scientifically, and their names are also italicized, so they leap out against the rest of the story each time one is named, almost as if you were cataloging them much like you are cataloging the dresses. Talk to us a little bit about these choices of characterization.

DD: I didn’t even realize that until you just said it. Well, something I’ve often felt weird about my writing is that I don’t have a lot of people. There’s not usually a lot of, in that realist sense, recognizable scenes of humans talking to each other with names and saying recognizable things. I guess I’m just not that interested in that. People seem so amorphous to me or my own experience of myself is so amorphous. I’ve just never been interested in it. For a long time I thought, “Oh, this is why I’m not a real fiction writer because I can’t do that,” or “What does it mean about me that I don’t put other people?” It’s usually just consciousness moving through a garden or something. I guess I finally decided, like landscape animates me and interests me in a really specific way, I want that to be okay. It’s okay that my narrator thinks more about plants than people around her sometimes. I mean my own experience is often very solitary. When I walk outside, I do literally say out loud, “Good morning,” to the various things in my yard, squirrels, different birds, the tulips. I talk out loud to the stuff in my yard. I’m hyper-conscious throughout the day of the trees and the plants around me. I’m thinking about them. I feel like I’ll tap them. I’ll touch them when I walk by and I’m not sure why we expect that we’re always privileging the human in our experience. I mean I just don’t experience the world and I never had from a very young age, I felt like this about whatever, like the whole landscape around me. I guess that’s part of an answer. There did at some point become a really conscious effort to think about some of what I was doing as kind of a field recording as I am extremely despairing about disappearing habitats and the potential future exploding of the planet, to echo my dad. There are a few stories in particular where like the story installation in the Prairie section began for me as a kind of field recording of a spot on the Missouri River. Like what would it be like to have a short story be a field recording and to think of it that way? Then it moved off into unexpected bizarre places. But that was what I wanted it to be because it’s so hard to visit these things they call prairie remnants and it’s almost like you’re going to a gallery instead of a natural space because they’re these closed off spatial forms in the landscape that’s like, “Now the prairie starts, now the prairie ends.” What’s inside of that, it’s like a fictional, non-fictional space to be inside of this preserved prairie land and it’s very weird to me and was really generative. Then in the last piece, the play Pool of Tears, field recordings are actually part of what it’s about, like recordings of extinct birds in New Zealand, for example, and how when you listen to a field recording of an extinct place, is that a fiction now? Can I build a fiction to hold on to these things that I’m scared of disappearing? What does that do? What does it mean? I don’t know. But I guess that’s kind of an answer.

DN: Well, before we leave the dresses section, this isn’t really related to what you’ve just spoken about but I just have to say I experienced joy that one of the excerpts was from Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities, which is a book I just don’t ever hear anyone talking about. It was my favorite book of that year. It was just really thrilling to see it cited and excerpted.

DD: I love that book and I teach it. That fiction individual course that I teach, that’s a book I always teach in that class and it’s got such an interesting relationship. The image-text relationship is so specific and unique. Yeah, it’s a really powerful, wonderful book. I highly recommend it.

DN: [laughs] Me too. Okay, so we have a question for you from yet another one of your Dorothy authors and hopefully one day Between the Cover’s guest, writer Amina Cain. Early on, you published her story collection Creature and much more recently, her first non-fiction called A Horse at Night of which Celia Paul said, “The cadences of Amina Cain’s writing have entered my brain like the sound of the sea. She gently sifts through a thought or a feeling and then, just as gently, discards it to move onto another. Sometimes, she returns to the same thought and feeling before again moving on. Her language is utterly compelling. I have written down the list of books that she cites in A Horse at Night. I want to read all of them.” Here’s a question for you from Amina.

Amina Cain: Hi, Danielle. Hi, David. I’m a bit addicted to your writing, Danielle. So when you publish a book, it’s a real event. I know I’m going to be able to experience language differently, fiction differently through your eyes. It’s really pleasing. While reading Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, I felt a strong presence of dreams, sometimes laced with anxiety, especially in the first and fourth sections of the book, Prairie and Other, so that this feeling of dreams encloses the book on both sides, which I love. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about dreaming and I’m wondering now what your relationship to dreams is or perhaps if you see a relationship between your writing in this book and your dreams. Do you ever write down your actual dreams? Or do they ever come into your writing? I’m also curious now if you’ve ever done that thing where you wake yourself up in the middle of the night to write or if you ever write early in the morning in proximity to sleeping? 

DD: Amina, I’m also addicted to Amina’s writing and I love that Celia Paul quote about Amina’s book, and I love Celia Paul’s book Self-Portrait. It’s so fun. Amina is actually the Dorothy author who I cannot read when I’m writing because that cadence, that very specific Amina cadence is so distinct that I feel it pulling me, like I just can’t, it’s so strong. She has such a unique pro-style. Okay, good reading, Amina. Yes to dreams. I guess I’ve already talked about dreams a little bit in this conversation but yeah, I have always had an extremely present and rich dream life filled with nightmares, yes, lots of anxiety but also full of delight. I’ve always thought a lot about my dreams and sometimes inflict them on other people in conversation. Yeah, all the dreams in the book are actually my dreams that I had and built them out to write about. But it’s more than just the content of my dreams. There’s this space between being awake and being asleep that is a very important part of how I write. I tend to think that if I think of things in that halfway space, then they’re correct. Like they were coming from something important to me. I usually follow the advice of my brain in that space. But now I forget what the rest of the question was.

DN: Do you wake yourself up at night? 

DD: When I was writing Margaret, I would often wake up in the middle of the night and have to get up because I would solve a problem in my sleep. But most of the time, I’m too lazy to do it, then I regret it later. But that book was such a puzzle for me and it was like, “I had to finish it.” If I solved a problem in my sleep, I would fly out of bed at three in the morning and come in, and try not to wake anybody up. Our house is really creaky, so the second you step foot out of bed, you’re waking up everyone in the house. You have to really want it. But yeah, dreaming is a huge part of the book.

DN: Well, let’s stay with Amina’s question about dreams a little longer and I want to see what your thoughts are about me trying to connect it to my first question about bookness, and about how these four parts could hold together. Because like so much other writing advice that you don’t follow, people always warn against writing dreams within stories, at least in America, right? I see dreams all the time, especially in work that’s from Europe, Latin America, or other places. But it is a truism that you’re not supposed to write your dreams here. But they are over all of your work, not just in this book. You’ve described the third and final section of Margaret the First as dreamlike. She’s actually dreaming in it in that section. As you’ve just mentioned, this book has multiple dreams recounted but also has waking sequences that feel dreamlike. There is a dream that brings things together like nothing but a dream could I think. One that brings together the story the protagonist’s son had told her with a memory from her own childhood and the fact which she didn’t consciously know that a herd of cattle amasses at night in the pasture on the far side of the woods while she slept. It makes me think of a quote by Hélène Cixous, which goes, “When I don’t write, I sleep, and when I sleep, I dream, and when I dream, I write.” There’s a porousness between the waking and sleeping world in your work where a ghost story in your work, a myth, and something from science about climate change that nevertheless might seem fantastical, blurs with the strange things dreams do in our sleep. But I wonder about this notion of dreams as maybe another way in which maybe a curatorial space where different things can be encountered. I don’t know if it’s a fictional space or a more true space but does this bring up any more thoughts for you?

DD: Yeah, I mean, also thinking about bookness as you said, well, I told you I have this recurring dream for many years. It’s very common where I bought a new house and I’m delighted to be opening doors and finding new rooms. There’s this great book by Amaranth Borsuk called The Book where she talks about book history and book design, and it’s really interesting. There’s someone she quotes in there that I can’t remember now, talking about how a room is a series of spaces. I just said a room is a series of spaces. A book is like a room. It’s like a series of spaces and I really wanted that to be true in this book. Like you were going from room to room and they were all in one house but there was that feeling of opening a door and being like, “I don’t know what is going to be in here.” I think that’s true from story to story but it’s very true of the parts of the book, which is so much I’m realizing, like those dreams that I have all the time. I’m not that interested in interpreting dreams, which is funny. I don’t care for anyone to tell me what they mean. It’s the very fact of their strangeness. I don’t know why we would discount them as any less meaningful. We spend so much of our lives asleep and thinking in this way. It feels as valid a way of relating to the world as anything I’m doing while I’m awake. It’s still me and it’s maybe more me in a way than the boring thoughts I often have throughout the day.

DN: Maybe this will be too over-determined of an analysis but I like this notion of not being interested in interpreting your dreams in relation to say like Sabrina’s idea of a good plot hiding its own secret, maybe even from itself but also like when Mary Ruefle on the show is saying, “I’d rather wonder than know,” this other relationship to knowledge, which I want to maybe see about connecting the holes, tell me if this seems crazy. If we think about the possibility of dreams and waking dream-like sequences, being a connective tissue between these four disparate or seemingly disparate sections, also these dresses as spirits or dreams that can sense nearby unseen cows, we start with the black holes and the black holes according to the sun, causing an ever-splitting-ness of things. We get this notion of splitting during one of the scenes of split attention, in this case, maternal split attention. But the book continues to return to holes as you’ve already alluded to with your fascination of holes. We get holes in Siberia, the mega-slumps that have subterranean forests that haven’t seen the sun in 45,000 years. We get the circle within a wolf’s head and it’s like a hole or a portal but it’s also part of a dream. The dream of having a wolf head but the head is a sketch where the rest of the body is a real body but inside the sketch of the wolf head is the circle or possibly hole. Inside the circle is a second wolf and inside the wolf is a forest. Then finally, I’m thinking of the avocado that is genetically engineered to not have a pit and thus also doesn’t have a hole where the pit would be. There is this strange thing here in that I think the avocado parable is suggesting the hole is important. That the bringing together of these parts in your book happens in a hole preserving way. But it is at the same time doing the opposite of what black holes are doing, the opposite of splitting in my opinion. There’s a coming together that’s hard to point at. Here, I think of your contemplation of Renee Gladman about translation in the book where she says, “Translation is amazing, because it presumes that there is something that needs to be carried from one place to another. But, where is that thing?” In a way, it feels like only through a dream space, the Cixous sequence of “When I don’t write, I sleep, and when I sleep, I dream, and when I dream, I write” could one bring together and hold together these things. It feels like a working against the splitting without denying the whole that makes an avocado an avocado or a Danielle Dutton story a Danielle Dutton story. Please push back against any of this but I’m curious if this generates any feelings or thoughts for you.

DD: Yeah, it generates feelings of love. [laughter] I love that reading so much. I mean I hadn’t even thought about the wolf with the circle and how that’s like a hole in a portal. Obviously, I wrote about the avocado and not having a hole where the pit was genetically modified to not be but I mean, to be honest, when you say all of that, I just think, “Yes, I love it. That sounds exactly right.” I had never gotten there. I resist interpreting the work in a certain way. I could feel that I was putting all these things and I could see things but I didn’t take any further steps to make the kind of argument you just made but I loved it. That was completely delightful to listen to. Thank you. 

DN: Well, that makes me happy. Well, I wanted to talk about gender in this book and more generally in your work. Your press Dorothy publishes primarily women with the exception of one book by a man who wrote under a female pseudonym. Also how when you were working at Dalkey Archive Press before you started Dorothy, that overwhelmingly submissions came from men and you wanted a press that particularly encouraged women to submit. When Kate Zambreno interviewed you in Bomb you say, “In one way my books don’t seem to have all that much to do with each other, but then again, from book to book, it does seem I have a desire to investigate female lives, not to represent them in some exterior way, but to burrow inside them and start to crack up what’s calcified there, to press against repression or restriction, or even narrative itself, to press against whatever is holding that life too tightly.” Then later in the same interview, you say about your book Margaret the First, “I guess it’s clear that in some sense I wanted to help Margaret Cavendish explode out of stories that had been told about her, out of that and into a wider space.” Margaret is a proto-feminist writer, the first woman to be invited to the Royal Society of London, a rare woman of her time to publish under her own name, and who, like Virginia Woolf, had an incredibly and unusually supportive husband. This exploration of female lives continues in Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other, not just with the Sixty-six Dresses. I think of the three nested ways the artist and writer Mina Loy is presented on the street in an iconic photograph, and in her own writing and how you say at one point, “After all the words of hers I’ve read, all those poems, when I think of Mina Loy, I think of a pretty face,” which makes me think again of persona and the dresses, and the multiple excerpts in that section where men are trying to remove dresses of women being nothing more than something to be unwrapped. There’s definitely an atmosphere of menace, possible menace, or the uncertainty around safety in this book, in the opening passage of the book that you read of the men at night stepping out of the wallpaper and into the room, then later a character getting lost in the woods alone as a woman, and most notably the stalker/fan in the story about taking one’s child to the pumpkin patch. There is an atmosphere of threat and precarity that’s almost like a negative version of this sense of interjection between nested realities, like a series of feminist tales nested within the atmosphere of patriarchy, maybe like these delimited prairie remnants. Can we spend a moment with this element of the book, a gendered anxiety that becomes a type of weather in some of these stories? An anxiety that also blurs or bleeds into other anxieties in the book, most notably the end-of-the-world anxiety.

DD: Anxiety is very unfortunately the main weather pattern that I am frequently dealing with. It’s not a very interesting answer but I feel like this was something that I maybe 20 years ago didn’t want to talk about or write about but I have become so accustomed to it and I think it’s really important to talk about. It makes sense to me that it started to make it into my stories in really overt ways because I have become much more open in talking about how it’s affecting my life, which is a lot. I mean it’s not writing as therapy, like it doesn’t solve anything, but it fascinates me to try to get how I feel moving through the world a lot of the time onto paper, to capture it there. It’s funny that story, My Wonderful Description of Flowers, one of the ones you just mentioned, the anxiety that several women wrote to me afterwards and were like, “Is this how you feel? Because it’s how I feel,” is kind of what they are saying. I was like, “Of course, it’s how I feel. How else would I have written it?” But it was also interesting to hear them say, “This is pretty much how I feel moving around the world, terrified for my child, terrified for myself.” But in this totally ambiguous, nebulous way, I don’t even know what. That’s the thing about anxiety, like what is it even attached to? It’s just this weather pattern of fear that you’re living in. That’s a big part of what’s going on in the book. I think that I wanted this book to be my coming out as a person who didn’t want to hide my experiences with anxiety and I don’t as much in my life anymore either, like in casual conversation. That’s a part of what’s going on there. Then the gendered experience is, I mean I just live in the world, this is who I am moving through the world, so I’m sure I’m sometimes imagining threats that aren’t there but I also feel like I’ve been conditioned to sense those threats. I mean the place I grew up in, I did grow up with a feeling of threat from men feeling fairly constant. For example, I was a latchkey child of the 80’s and from a very young age walked home from school alone through a walnut orchard, and I feel like that already feels like a story I would write. I would walk through the walnut orchard by myself or sometimes around it because there was a dog that would run through the orchard and if I was feeling scared of the dog, like farm dogs, I don’t know if you know them but they’re terrifying, so sometimes I would walk around the orchard but then I was on the country roads and it was very common, I was a small child, like teenage boys would yell things and I felt very threatened in my body all the time. That’s just where I’ve been for a long time. Yeah, sometimes my fears were real for a reason and sometimes they weren’t but it’s just there now wherever I go. 

DN: I’d like to spend the rest of our time together asking a couple of questions more about the non-human in your work, the non-human that unlike the human gets named. I really love how you engage with it, not only the ways from the opening pages we’re made aware of non-human timeframes and scales, so the black holes on the line, “Once upon a time, all matter in light where were one,” or the non-solar 45,000-year-old Siberian megaslump forest. But even more so, the way you portray the interaction between the natural and human worlds because, in all of the attempts to be in nature in the book, there is this sense of human encroachment. In one story, there’s the sound of the leaf blower at the river and a tractor, and the line when she’s lying in her tent, “Three feet above her body now is the sound of her ragged breathing and far up in the open sky is the noise of a plane she can’t hear.” In another story, they’re camped near the camp bathroom with its light, smell, and the noise of the laundry machine, and these scenes are often tinged with a little fear, certainly annoyance, not of bears or cougars but of what humans one might encounter. But there’s also the opposite in at least two ways. We have in the city a fox darting out in front of a car, asserting its presence within the human narrative and we also have Agnès Varda’s notion of the landscapes inside of us, which is evoked by the dream of having a wolf head, which is a human rendition of a wolf head but which has a second wolf inside its head and within that wolf the forest. But also the Metis scholar who talks about her grandfather, whose rental house was on the prairie and he drew dream horses right onto the walls, horses that according to her keep running wild in the house even after his death, so a house to keep a prairie alive on the prairie. I was hoping maybe you’d read a passage from a different place in the book than that, then talk about your considerations about how to represent or employ the non-human in your work in relationship to the human. These questions of natural and unnatural are human and nature, which feel like they break down in your work.

DD: Okay. This is from Installation.

[Danielle Dutton reads from Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other]

DN: We’ve been listening to Danielle Dutton read from Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. Do you have any thoughts about this troubling of the border between the capacity to go to nature seems to be interrogated in this, like the very notion of, “I’m going to go out into nature” seems like it is an impossible task in this book. 

DD: I don’t think there’s nature somewhere. I don’t think of it that way at all. There’s no binary. It’s so dangerous to think of it that way because it places nature somewhere else that you don’t have to worry about. But it assumes that there’s some pristine pure space that’s okay as opposed to where you are that’s covered in trash or something and petrochemicals. It’s like I definitely think of the planet as just when I do my loving-kindness meditation, it’s for all creatures everywhere with many legs and two legs, and four legs. This is just how I think about my, I don’t know, my place in the universe or something. There’s that. Then there’s also just my innate since childhood fury at how we take space, how humans take spaces and just assume our right to every space everywhere. I grew up in a place where there are a lot of people who hunt and fish, for example, a lot of farmers, I mean this is the kind of cultural space I grew up inside of and I just rejected it totally. As far as I can remember, as far back, I feel like, “Leave animals alone,” not only, “Don’t eat animals” but just, “Don’t even go look at them.” The idea of a safari is absurd to me but then at the same time, I don’t want to be separate from them. I don’t know. I hate zoos. I hate the idea that we make a spectacle out of nature as this separate thing that you would go look at and eat your hamburger, and stare at an ostrich or something in its fake container. Yeah, I just have a not very intellectual but physical rejection of this way of seeing the world. My neighbor, my lovely nice neighbor is always trying to kill squirrels and he puts out bird seed for the birds, and they’re rodents, like how you could think of one animal as like the disposable one or something. I just really think that being able to do that with one animal is like I don’t know. It makes it not that hard to think about a person that way. I just don’t know how we can treat life like that at all. I think that in terms of naming the flowers and not the people here, this wasn’t like a conscious thought but now that you’ve asked me to think about it, I just feel like we already take up so much space. I’m just not that interested in our space-taking. I’m interested in our experience of space but I feel like naming the flowers everywhere and naming the animals is like pushing back a little bit and giving them a little more space inside of the space that I’m making. I don’t know things. I just make things and feel things. That’s my interpretation. It’s very hard for me to articulate it clearly.

DN: Well, it feels like you just named all these different types of light that feels connected to the way you very specifically are naming all these nonhuman creatures in the book. It feels like an honoring and a giving over of space. But what’s really interesting to me is near the end of the book in the Other section, there’s the one-act play that you’ve already referred to called Pool of Tears and it is the opposite of naming in a strange way or in some ways, it’s the opposite of naming but it seems to aim at a similar effect for me. It has a quote by Parul Sehgal that goes, “What is it that story does not allow us to see?” and later an Amitav Ghosh quote, which seems to address what Sehgal is posing as a question that goes, “Recognition is famously a passage from ignorance to knowledge” but where he says recognition, he doesn’t actually mean the discovery of something new but a harkening back to something prior. The Pool of Tears includes both human and animal protagonists in this play. But whereas in the script, we get the name of each person speaking and a colon, then what they say, just like you would in a script, with the animals, we get the name of the animal, then blank space where something there is either silence or incomprehension on our part. You might get a whole page of this emptiness where we might get duck, colon, blank space, then owl, monkey one, monkey two, goose, rat, dodo, pigeon, and sloth with no words, then we arrive at Alice more specific but with words. I found this play incredibly moving. I would just love to hear more about it, about where this came from in your brain. Because it feels like it’s doing the same thing from the reverse position. You’re foregrounding what story doesn’t let us see but in a way it feels like we still can’t see it, even with that foregrounding in the story.

DD: Yeah, so my answer, I’m totally interested in however anyone wants to read it but my answer is that the animals are all talking. We just can’t hear them or we can’t understand what they’re saying. Also, we’re the readers of a play and there’s an audience in the room, and the audience talks and they say that they can’t understand what they’re saying, so that’s their experience is that there’s noise but there’s no communication happening. Then they can only understand Alice is what the audience members say, except Dodo, like Dodo never says anything because dodo is extinct. I did have a logic behind it in my head but I don’t think that it’s that important to the piece. It was just like my rules for how it was working as I wrote it. Where did it come from? I mean, it might have started with the new avocado and I did literally hear on the radio somewhere someone talking about the new avocado. I don’t remember if they called it that or if I made that up. I can no longer recall. But I just remember being completely horrified, I mean by the idea that we would change the fruit so that it was easier for us to deal with it. It’s just so ludicrous, not only for all the reasons that are obvious but also because if you are smart enough to do that, shouldn’t you go do something more useful? I don’t have the abilities to do useful scientific things in the world. But if you do, I feel like, “Go do those things instead of wasting your time on something like this.” [laughter] I mean this was part of what drew me to Margaret Cavendish was her just deep, ill-informed suspicion of science and the idea of progress, which is like a feeling that I also ill-informed feeling that I share with her. Yeah, it might have started there. It was something I started writing in a different capacity, then it merged with my scene the Kiki Smith Pool of Tears 2  where I guess it’s Alice and all of these animals swimming in a pool of tears, and somehow, once I saw that piece, it just turned into this play with the characters of Alice and the various animals who I named. I just decided who they were based on the image, which is not a painting but I can’t remember exactly what it is, a drawing or something. It’s again one of those pieces where I was like, “What am I doing? I don’t know.” I can only work on one thing at a time and I often don’t really understand what it is I’m doing or why but I will know when things are right and wrong, then when they’re done, then I finish with my weird thing. I think that part of how I work is that it’s like my brain is slowly collecting things, then they’ll start vibrating together and if I have enough of them, then I can start to sense that shape that you were talking about that I often refer to and when I start to see that, it’s just I just know these things belong together and these are often the references but I’m using an artist, a painting, scholarship, or whatever it is, ideas from other people that are just vibrating together, then I just create a strange, weird dreamlike space for them to do their work together. I don’t want to have too much of a hand in trying to control what that work is and this piece is a very good example of what I’m talking about how I work. I think in other pieces, I hide it better but this one probably remains inexplicable but hopefully, the vibrating is working anyway, that hole or whatever we were talking about. 

DN: Do you want to say anything else about prairies, which perhaps like the animals in the play who are both there and not there is a real presence in the book, and also an absence? I mean given that you’re donating half the proceeds to the Missouri Prairie Foundation as you say it in the acknowledgments and as Caren referenced but it almost feels like this could be the shape you’re writing into if we’re talking about starting with a shape.

DD: Yeah, I mean I am not from the prairie. I grew up in California in a rural area but not a prairie area and when I moved to the Midwest originally, well, to Chicago, I didn’t know anything about the prairie, but then when I was working for Dorothy, I lived in Downstate Illinois for four years and that’s where I encountered a lot of prairie activism, people trying to preserve prairie spaces and became very curious about this adjacent wildness. It’s adjacent to many small towns in the Midwest or just a small drive away. It intrigued me, then I started visiting prairies. They call them remnant prairies, which I find fascinating. The experience of being inside of them is so wonderfully overwhelming, strange, and specific that I just became addicted to prairies and learning the names of all the plants inside them, and the birds you see and there’s a peculiar sound inside of a prairie that’s very, I mean it’s very windy on the prairie and the plants can come up taller than my head. So you’re inside this waving body of plant material and there’s the red-winged blackbirds trilling. It’s just like a full sensory experience. It smells dusty and earthy in an interesting way. The prairie just felt extremely generative to me and the fact that they were remnant prairies like I’m talking about, I couldn’t help but think like because I was also thinking and going to a lot of art installation spaces, it felt like I kept returning to this art installation called The Prairie which was like disturbing but interesting to me and that was very generative. I feel like in a lot of ways, that’s what got me writing again. The prairie was my motivating force. The Missouri Prairie Foundation is just really cool. I have no affiliation with them. I just really like the work they do and follow what they’re up to, and think it’s great, so I just thought, “Why not?” Yeah, prairies are good. 

DN: Well, let’s go out with a little writing advice for listeners. Could we go out with a reading of Writing Advice?

DD: Oh yeah. I thought you were going to ask me for actual writing advice. 

DN: This is actual writing advice. [laughs]

DD: Oh, my God.

[Danielle Dutton reads from Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other]

DN: It’s so good, Danielle. Thank you for being on the show today. 

DD: Thank you. I mean your questions, David, incredible. I feel very honored. Thanks so much.

DN: I feel honored too.

DD: It’s a pleasure.

DN: We’re talking today to Danielle Dutton about her latest book from Coffee House Press Prairie, Dresses, Art, Other. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. 

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Danielle Dutton’s work at danielledutton.net. The bonus audio archive contains many readings by writers who made cameos today or were mentioned today. From Sabrina Orah Mark reading Bruno Schulz’s story Birds to Caren Beilin discussing and reading from Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet to a late night hushed tone reading by Bhanu Kapil of many, many things including from her own notebook. The bonus audio is only one possible and ever-growing benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the Tin House Early Readership subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year, months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.