Kavchak: For readers new to your work, I'd like to offer the following quotes from your book of artistic reveries The Monstrous and The Marvelous for a bird's eye view into your aesthetic:
Like the moon, the novel is a symbol and a necessary reality. Ideally it serves neither gods nor masters. Philosopher's Stone, it sublimates, precipitates, and quickens. House of Keys, it opens all our darkest doors. May the Pol Pot persons of all genders and denominations take heed: to create a fictional world with rigor and passion, to imagine a character of any sex, place, time or color and make it palpitate and quiver, to catapult it into the deepest forests of our most luminous reveries, is to commit an act of empathy. To write a novel of the imagination is a gesture of tenderness; to enter into the body of a book is a fearless act and generous.
And finally, what is your most exacting description of your work:
It is a poor reverie which invites a nap.
Let us imagine the novel as a kind of savage beast (that springs upon us) not to rend but to rescue us from death.
What we ask of writers is that they guarantee survival of what we call human in a world where everything appears inhuman. Literature is like an ear that can hear beyond the understanding of the language of politics.
All my books investigate the end of Eden and the possibility of its reconstitution. I see them as Books of Nature and, because they are descriptive and painterly, as vanitas and archetypa, too. (I suppose also, that because they all brood over singularities-ogresses, hunger artists, murderers and sirens-they could be said to fit into prodigy literature.)
As a way of introducing readers to your newest (and in my opinion, most tender and voluptuous) book Gazelle, just released from Knopf, I'd like to ask you to apply that final description to the main storyline and themes of the book. And feel free, also, to add anything at all you want about the book-what inspired it, why you chose the 1950's of Egypt for the locale, etc.
Ducornet: Throughout Gazelle, there are potencies that animate the book. Many of these are rooted in my own deep memories of Cairo in the 50's when I lived there for a year with my family. The ivory carver's shop. Its smell of henna and ivory dust. The little blue figure of Horus that enters into Lizzie's erotic reveries-a thing I also coveted. When Lizzie notices the pencil-thin line that travels from her navel to her sex, and vamps before her mother's mirror. Some are inventions. Sakkiet pressing rose petals into wax-the acute sensuality of that. When the devin tells Lizzie: It is your time. When her lioness of a mother simultaneously ignites and deflates the sporting club's lunch crowd. When Lizzie flirts with Ramses Ragab and knocks her glass bracelets against her teeth.
Gazelle is about the disintegration of a family, of a child awakening to erotic life, of the difficulty of acquiring an identity when one's parents are both neurotic and fascinating. It's also about beauty-the necessary charge of aesthetic delight and its fleetingness. And the book is about betrayal.
Kavchak: I love how you describe those moments as potencies-and to illustrate in a much more concrete, vivid way just exactly what you mean, I'd like to set down one of the scenes we've both claimed as one of our favorites: when Lizzie's mother ignites and deflates the sporting club's lunch crowd.
From Grilled Pigeon and Counterpane Wars
Kavchak: Like Lizzie in Gazelle, nearly all of the children in your books suffer some kind of damage at the hands of the adults in their lives. This damage, in most cases, through the compassionate ministrations of others or the characters themselves, is healed and transformed by the end of the book. The most profound injury happens to Nini in the Fountains of Neptune, when after learning the truth about his parents marriage and subsequent murders from the ogre-like (though exceptionally compelling storyteller) Toujours-La', he falls into a coma that spans 50 years. When he awakens, his transformation is brought about through the gentle and inspired spiritual guidance of Dr. Kaiserstiege, but also through a revisitation of his childhood. He creates, along with an imaginary friend, an elaborate and exotic kingdom whose environment he is able to order and control completely-could we all have been so fortunate.
As I ate, I wondered what it would be like to be that beautiful. To have the power to set the air ablaze with a simple toss of the head or sideways glance, a glance whose path I followed now as it scorched the faces of Naguib's spanking new navy and army men, the faces of their painted, huffy wives-the faces that Mother (could it really have been unknowingly?) was lighting, one by one, like lanterns.
Women were getting up, pressing the creases from the bosoms and bellies of their silk dresses, rising as lightly as they could, although Mother had made them feel as weighty as waterlogged battleships-pampered, souring women stepping precariously to the ladies' room on spindled legs, to put the pieces of their blasted vanity together again as best they could, having been cruelly, murderously undone by that maddening, dizzying, unstoppable incandescence of my mother's! I watched as, brooding, they returned, having failed utterly, their girded flesh expanding even as they crossed the room, their bottoms defeated, those gloomy bottoms! Mother's presence on that spiffy verandah was a thickening medium that resisted all female progress. When they managed to reach their tables, kicking themselves for having abandoned their quickened men-men who were humming happily to themselves, men who were absentmindedly caressing their own gleaming moustaches-these unhappy women, burdened by my mother's beauty as if by sacks of camel dung and bricks, women whose day had been ruined, who, as they glowered over cooling plates of roast lamb, considered stabbing their dewy-eyed husbands in the heart with their own forks-these women wished all manner of corruptions upon my mother.
Corruptions of air, diseases of wasting away, pestilences, goblins in the attic, injury; that her skeleton be replaced by that of a goat. These women wished dishonor upon my mother, the spilling of blood, disfiguring surgery-as all the while their men, all Copts (the Sporting Club served liquor) recognized in Mother's body a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that to enter there was to flourish, to be anointed, to be renewed. (Not that her bed was a place in which to tarry, mind you!)
Soon I would discover that Cairo was thrashing with a mass of legends about her, the Divine Fact of her Prodigious Beauty, her Appetite for Love that, or so I suppose, marriage to Father and its limitations had revealed to her, but . . . how long had this been going on?
I'd like to explore this idea of transformation in terms of the most heartless, tyrannical and perverse characters in your books: Toujours-La' of The Fountains of Neptune, Tubbs of The Jade Cabinet, Bishop Landa of The Fan-Maker's Inquisition, Fogginius of Phosphor in Dreamland, Septimus in Entering Fire, and nearly all of the religious characters and villagers in The Stain. All of these characters possess this tremendous damaging energy or death force resulting from the brutality and oppression of the times they lived in, whether at the hands of their parents, dogmatic religion or social circumstances that could have been, had they had different lives, transformed into a positive life force. Is this a theme you were conscious of exploring when writing the books? And is this why, with most of the characters, you give them some of the most darkly humorous moments and at times, treat them sympathetically?
Ducornet: Toujours-La' is an ominous figure-he's a sadistic drunk who takes pleasure in terrifying Nini with his tales. But he is also essential to Nini's humanity because he is the one who dares tell it as it is. As time passes, Nini comes to realize that unlike those who profess to love him, only Toujours-La' recognizes his need to know the truth. In this way, Toujours-La' is like The Marquis de Sade: his stories are hard to hear. But if we are to understand who we are and what we are capable of, we need to listen. In our culture, especially at this time, there is a great deal of emphasis on forgetting and not understanding. It seems to me that we must acquire the practical courage of an informed and fearless memory if we are to progress and if we are to survive.
Landa, Septimus, Tubbs-these characters are exemplary of the contagions that plaque us. And if they are sometimes funny (and the laughter is very dark!) it is because their motives are so transparent. They long for control in a vastly mutable universe; they dream of a perfectly flat world. From their bloody towers any insurgency, any anomaly would be visible at once. A ludicrous, a lethal vision! It is thanks to these guys that our planet has become lethal for our children. But they, too, were once children. We must remember that.
Kavchak: Of all your books, the most provocative would have to be The Fan- Maker's Inquisition and The Stain. They are what some, if they made the critical mistake of not reading the books carefully, would call subversive. The Fan-Maker's Inquisition because it treats with utmost empathy the notorious Marquis de Sade, and The Stain, because of its unflinching ridicule of organized religion and, as one reviewer at amazon.com put it, "everything we think of as good." What is your definition of subversion and how would you defend these two books against it?
Ducornet: But my books are subversive! Each and every one of them is about the need to question abusive authority and dogmatic thinking-including, as in Gazelle, the neurotic dogmatisms that interfere with our autonomy.
In The Stain, a child is born with a birth mark that sets her apart and leaves her vulnerable to abuse of all kinds. Another outcast-Pere Poupine-cherishes her and offers her the path to selfhood. At the novel's end, we know that Charlotte will not only survive, but flourish. Perhaps the reviewer you mention was unable to read the book because of my vicious portrayal of an abusive church. A church that mis-uses the word good just as our president mis-uses the word freedom.
When I teach writing, I always begin by asking my students to banish all dogmatisms-political, religious, theological, neurotic-in order to write from a truly thoughtful place. Writing well is about thinking fearlessly. Else why bother? And thinking fearlessly is by its very nature subversive.
Kavchak: Your plots range in time and place from the mythical Birdland of Phosphor in Dreamland, to 1880's small-village France in The Stain, to 1950's Egypt in Gazelle, just to detail a few, and your work as a whole has been described in so many terms it's dizzying: surreal, Manichaean, Rabelaisian, magically real, fantastic, bawdy, darkly humorous, linguistically explosive, exotic, erotic, innocent and depraved, startling, profusely sensuous yet succulently moral. This inability to precisely define the parameters of your imaginational worlds seems to me the highest compliment an artist could receive. Who and what were your earliest and most compelling imaginational influences?
Ducornet: First of all, I'd have to say the painters I loved as a girl: Bosch, Breugel, Dali, Ernst, Vermeer. And all the fairy tales I devoured: unexpurgated, ferocious, magnificent, terrifying, exhilarating. Ceram's Gods, Graves and Scholars. Isaac Dinesen whose portrait-that birdlike face!-was the first I ever painted. The films of Cocteau. And always and above all, the Alice books. Because she is always triumphant. The mad world of despots is a bad dream from which she decides to awaken. I wish that were true for us all!
Kavchak: One of the most amazing things I've learned about you throughout my research is that you began your adult life as a visual artist and only started writing after becoming morally outraged over the torture of a pregnant leftist agitator following the coup d'etat in Greece in the early seventies, torture which caused the woman, tragically, to miscarry. The result of this outrage was your first book of poetry, From the Star Chamber. Outrage also informs your first novel, The Stain. Robert Nye, writing for The Guardian, said this about the book: "This is the most brilliant first novel I have read in years . . . Rikki Ducornet's real talent is for language. She is a minor lord or lady of it, achieving abstruse, comic effects by a kind of clowning classicism. The Stain is a very odd, accomplished and memorable novel by any standards." This is some pretty strong praise for a first novel. How easily did this book come to you, and how did this experience inform the way you've gone about creating your subsequent books?
Ducornet: The Stain was set into motion by a dream, and inspirited by my life in a small village in France's Loire Valley, where I lived on and off for twenty years. The abuse of the working class in the village was extreme, and they, in turn, abused their children. The Church controlled the political life and the majority of the population voted for the Neo-Nazi Le Pen. But the village was also mysterious and deeply rooted in a complex historical past. For me the mix of light and shadow, beauty and horror, banality and wonder was of irresistible potency. I wrote The Stain in a fever that lasted three years. Sometimes the book terrified me and I had to put it away, weed the garden, take a long walk. Sometimes it made me laugh out loud. Many of the characters are based on real people; events-such as the wedding-are close to things that happened. When Angela Carter read it she said: "I write from books. You write from life." I don't think that is necessarily so, but she had seen the village and had recognized it.
I've not lived in Le Puy Notre Dame for over twelve years, but last night I dreamed of yellow peach leaves scattered across a country road in an early fall breeze. I woke up submerged in longing. When I left that place, I left a piece of my marrow behind.
The Stain is the first book in a series on the elements: earth, fire (Entering Fire), water (The Fountains of Neptune) and air (The Jade Cabinet). The others were swept up in its wind.
Kavchak: The Complete Butcher's Tales, critically acclaimed by the Toronto Globe and Mail as a "collection of contes surrealists" in the tradition of Breton, Borges, and Kafka, is one of my favorites-for the velocity of the language and plot lines-all so brief but packing extraordinary psychic and magical punch-the wildly experimental voices and the flamboyantly creative characters and locales. Surrealism, according to some theories, has tended to emerge during some of history's bleakest times and, by association, during some of the bleakest times in the writer's personal life. Does this describe your impetus for writing the book, or is this just too general of a theory?
Ducornet: The tales took hold of me. Sometimes in the village I'd see something crazy-like a bottle of brandy with a bright red rubber nipple on top or the grocer tossing orange peels at his wife's bottom, or a neighbor talking to the ghost of a dead T.V. star. The village was surreal. There were beetles in my garden the size of mice. Some of my neighbors believed in devils and witches. Rockets were shot into the air to ward off thunderstorms. I was very active in the international Surrealist movement at the time and I couldn't have been living in a better place.
Kavchak: I read somewhere recently that you'd retired as Novelist in Residence at the University of Denver. What a loss to what would have been your future students. I imagine you as an extremely empathetic, animated and infinitely inspiring mentor forever eschewing canned rhetoric and methodology and encouraging your students to push past all pre-conceived notions of what makes for great Art (as you said yourself so well earlier). If I've envisioned your style correctly, I'd guess that teaching for you was invigorating, satisfying, but also time-consuming and creatively exhausting. Is this what fueled your decision?
Ducornet: Yes. But I do love teaching and continue to do brief stints at the Vermont Studio Center, or Brown, or Bard, Naropa Centrum and so on. And I've also started painting seriously again. I'm working on a series of twelve paintings devoted to cabinets of curiosity.
Kavchak: You've enjoyed friendships over the years with two women writers whose work I admire and respect considerably-Angela Carter and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. How has your relationship with each of them influenced your life and work over the years?
Ducornet: Angela died years ago, but her work is of such unique quality it is clear it will persist. I loved the subversive-that word again!-nature of her intelligence. It was thanks to Angela that The Stain was published by Chatto and Windus in England. "They will love it!" she said. "The British love eccentric novels!"
Angela always refused simple categories and definitions. The same can be said of Clarissa. They are both what the French call "tonique." That is to say: a breath of fresh air, refreshing, disruptive, salutary.
Kavchak: In one of our phone conversations we both expressed a fascination with the stunningly original and bizarre work of David Lynch. Just what is it about this man's mind that makes him so morbidly but irresistibly compelling?
Ducornet: He's a visionary! Just look at what he does to Los Angeles in Mulholland Drive! The living have become a toxic sea. A metaphor for the entire planet, perhaps the entire universe. I think he's a closet Gnostic. But even if he isn't, his vision is gnostical. His America exemplifies the material world-an aberration, an acute failure. It's ruled by bitter and vicious lesser powers in variable guises-for example Lost Highway's Mr. Eddie and someone who must be Satan and who spawns lethal seductions in the doubled form of Alice-Renee. Alice-Renee is a literal black hole, a death cunt-to use a phrase of Coover's. All this is scary, but it's something we recognize. Lynch's dark planet is ours, after all, and that is why it's so compelling. And then there is always the possibility of transcendence, embodied by Lula, for example, in Wild at Heart, or Merrick in Elephant Man. These two are empowered by their seemingly infinite capacity for love and for delight. Lula's moral lucency and sexual heat always manage to burn off contagion, just as Merrick's infinite sweetness makes him immune to all those who plague him. It's a moral vision-in the best sense (nothing churchy here!), and that's why it is so interesting and so necessary.
Kavchak: Later in that same conversation I asked if you believed, like I do, that we are poised on the cusp of a cultural and artistic renaissance, because, I think I added, "We certainly can't go on this way much longer." You responded, "Yes I do," and "No, we certainly can't." I know what I meant, but would you do us the honor of clarifying what you meant?
Ducornet: Earlier when I said that the world has become lethal to children, I was thinking not only of AIDS, of cannibalism in the Ituri Province of the Congo, of child soldiers, of teenagers so mired in despair they blow themselves up in buses, of the rise of militarism and rogue capitalism-the list is endless-but also of the unprecedented pillage of our planet's resources, the poisoned elements, the unique creatures that vanish as we speak. Recently in The Guardian I read about the fatal loss of tiger habitat in India due to the illegal mining of soapstone. When tigers have less value than talcum powder, it is high time for a renaissance! For a renaissance suffused - to take a line of Rilke's-with brilliance from the inside. We've been ruled for far too long by irrational and impoverished minds. What if we made our renaissance-and it would have to be a revolution-in the light of our children's desires?
Kavchak: Five of your books were published by Dalkey Archive Press, hailed as the most prestigious modern literary press. For the edification of ambitious writers aspiring to follow in your footsteps, could you fill us in on the criteria for inclusion on their list and who you recommend as the most exciting, compelling voices on that list and why?
Ducornet: In her beautiful Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson writes: I am writing this book because the act astounds me. It is an act in which the mind reaches out from what is present and actual to something else. This might well be a mantra for all the authors on Dalkey's luminous list. Where else, for example, can you find all of Harry Mathews' fiction? Including the hilarious and mysterious Conversions - that great philosophical comedy. Both comedy and philosophy-so hard to come by these days-abound here. Djuna Barnes, Robert Coover, William Gass, Arno Schmidt, Ben Marcus, Susan Daitch, Flann O'Brien . . . And the Dalkey Archive introduced me to many essential writers I had never heard of before: Wilfred Nolledo, Marquerite Young, Severo Sarduy. His Cobra, in which he proposes a tender and outrageous and exhilarating vision of a transvestite universe. The renaissance of which we spoke takes nourishment and inspiration here.
Kavchak: In 1993 you were the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award, an honor shared by such writers as Robert Coover, Bradford Morrow, Leslie Marmon Silko and Cynthia Ozick, just to name a few. What does this award entail and how are recipients chosen?
Ducornet: The Lannan descended like an archangel out of nowhere and allowed me to take a leave of absence from teaching. I wrote Phosphor in Dreamland unimpeded thanks to the Lannan Foundation. Their ways are mysterious. Their phone call made me weep. With astonishment and gratitude. I'm not a well-known author. Yes! How?
Kavchak: I know the following is usually an impossible question, but I'm going to ask it anyway-who is the one writer whose work has influenced and inspired you the most and why?
Ducornet: Lewis Carroll, without a doubt. One of the most subversive writers of all time. Check out Humpty Dumpty in the dim light of the current presidency.
Kavchak: And another impossible question-which one of your own books is your favorite and why?
Ducornet: I'm not certain I have a favorite. Because, if they are all very different and self-contained, they belong to an entire vision, a chimera, a living, breathing creature. Perhaps an anomaly! But if I must choose, it would be The Fountains of Neptune because it is the most dreamy and the one I'd give, if I could, to Gaston Bachelard whose Water and Dreams inspired it.
Kavchak: My favorite, without a doubt, is your book of short stories The Word "Desire." To have all the longing, all the erotic lushness, all the beauty, sadness, intelligence, social relevance and fearlessness with which I am so taken in your longer works so brilliantly condensed, quivering with life, but most of all-transformation. I will never forget the schizophrenic but poignantly logical "we" of "Roseveine" as he contemplates the destruction of his tyrannical, murderous father:
What had precipitated such instantaneous death and fossilization that the inks sacs had not ruptured or rotted? We wished such a calamity upon Pere. How We should have loved to see him reduced to stone! And when Roseveine described the kraken, its arms the size of mizzenmasts, its suckers the size of pot lids, raking sailors from ships and shell collectors from the coastal rocks, again We imagined Pere's instantaneous ruin. However, such revengeful thoughts caused us pain. It was impossible for the Butcher of Madagascar to fall to pieces at our feet: those pieces would reanimate and flourish! Instead of one, a thousand thousand would surge forth and more: a Butcher for each second of the day! For a moment the sky darkened; I heard a beak snapping in the air, a beak studded with an infinite set of teeth. But then Roseveine took up a pearl. It sparkled in her palm like a tiny, pristine world and caused us to smile once again.
And later as he witnesses Pere's actual destruction-through a well-deserved and singularly creative act of defiance-by Roseveine, of course.
But this charmed moment was interrupted by a roar from Pere, the shrill voice of Pere's nurse, a seismic thudding that seemed endless and held us frozen in terror and surprise, and then the sudden appearance of Pere himself seething with rage and nearly bursting from bathrobe and Moroccan slippers. Anchored to the doorframe and with all the strength he could muster, Pere, visibly approaching exhaustion, bellowed:
Of course there are many more such delectable moments in the book, but I fear I have taken up too much of your time already. I'll conclude with one more of your quotes from The Monstrous and The Marvelous-a sort of invocation for the artistic renaissance we crave and imagine so intensely. But before I put it down, I'd like to thank both you and Michael Neff for the opportunity to study and talk with you-it's been wonderful.
"What is that Jewess doing here?"
Again Roseveine's laughter percolated through the air. Standing to face him, she gathered her skirts to her bosom and spreading her legs pissed profusely, her amber water a stunning spectacle recalling the engravings We had seen of the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi and Tisisat on the Blue Nile. Not surprisingly, her piss had the smoky fragrance of Lapsang souchong. This sublimely anarchic act hurtled Pere into the vortex of apoplexy; he did not survive the afternoon.
I like to imagine that Adam's tongue, his palate and his lips were always on fire, that the air he breathed was kindled to incandescence each time he cried out in sorrow or delight. If fiction can be said to have a function, it is to release that primary fury of which language, even now, is miraculously capable-from the dry mud of daily use. So that furred, spotted and striped, it may-as it did in Eden-scrawl under every tree as revelation.
About the Interviewer
Lisa Kavchak is the Interview Editor at WDS. She can be reached at