A few years ago I was sitting on my couch at eleven p.m.
just having finished a novel—I don’t remember which one—when I picked up Dorothy Allison’s
Bastard Out of Carolina. I’d intended to read the first page or two, go to bed, and continue
it the next day. I stayed up until four. As the saying goes, I could not put this book down.
What held me, though, was not just the compelling saga of Ms. Allison’s protagonist, Bone, but
the novel’s immaculate construction and language, which is not only lush and precise, but utterly
without ego. Dorothy Allison brings her talent, insight and hard-won craft to the task of
allowing her creation to speak her own truth.
Marina Lewis: What are you working on now?
Dorothy Allison: A novel.
ML: Do you want to tell me anything about it?
DA: Actually, I rarely want to talk about novels in progress. It’s complicated.
ML: When you work, do you work from a template or an outline, or is it a process of discovery?
DA: At best it’s a process of discovery. Sometimes it’s a process of Please God send me the discovery—so no I don’t use outlines or templates. It’s a huge and constant battle amongst writers. I have all these friends who work from outlines but mostly they tend to be genre writers: mysteries, designed novels. Most literary novelists that I know just sit down and go.
ML: What strikes me about Bastard Out of Carolina is how beautifully constructed it is—almost like a three dimensional object—every sentence in its right place, marvelous accumulation and interaction of detail, setting, and character.
DA: That’s the revision process.
ML: In your short-story collection, Trash, there were some passages and sections that made it into the novel—how did you revise the material as you moved it from story to novel?
DA: It took me a long time to teach myself how to write a novel. I was writing stories, in part, to find the voice. And at one point I think the count was thirty-nine drafts. It took a long time to get the voice right, and some of the stories I published along the way were attempts to get the voice right—some of them worked, some of them didn’t. I wrote a version of one of the stories for the anthology High Risk, but that is actually a variation that didn’t carry through to the novel—it was a variation of the voice and if you put them side by side you can see the difference. Actually, it’s hard for other people to see this; it’s easier for writers because we’re used to doing this kind of thing, and seeing small changes in voice. It’s very difficult to write, because the trick of the novel is that it’s all being told to you by a thirteen year old girl who’s just lost her mother, but you don’t know that when you’re hearing the story, and I didn’t figure out that that’s where and when she was telling it until about halfway through the process. And then there’s the work—the work is to take apart and pull out all the stuff that doesn’t work and all the stuff that’s excessive and wanders. There are hundreds of pages that I pulled out—whole stories. There was a long, long section where she [Bone] went to the juvenile hall—it’s about two hundred pages, at least, of the girls in the juvenile hall, but it didn’t work in the novel. That’s the process of revision and finding what is really necessary in this particular story.
ML: And did you do that by yourself or did you work with an editor?
DA: Mostly by myself—at the very end. It took me about ten years. I had never written a novel and I had to figure out how to write a novel. I had been writing stories and the stories were getting longer. Then I actually got a contract for the book, probably about six or seven years into the process, and I had enough of a story that I could say: This is a draft. And I had published the story in the Village Voice—I don’t even remember the name of that story anymore [“A Bastard Out of Carolina,” 1986], but it is essentially the first chapter; it’s the story of the birth certificate and that whole struggle. And it’s a romance. It’s a trick, that story. The trick of that story is that it’s a retelling of all of the family legends I was handed about my mother and my stepfather, about how they married and how I was conceived and born. I got that pretty well done early in the process. The meat of the rest of the book, though, that took longer. And the actual finishing up was three years, and I did work with an editor, a really fine editor, Joy Johannessen, who had tried to buy the book, but failed. I had a friend act as my agent, because I needed money, and I needed time to finish the novel. And he got me a contract with Dutton, but in the process of getting that contract Joy Johannessen, who was an editor at Grove, had been on the book. Now this is how publishing works, in my experience: you sign a contract and it all goes to hell. They fired Carole DeSanti, who had bought the book, the day after my check cleared. They fired everybody. They just basically emptied out Dutton and started over. But that meant I didn’t have an editor. They would assign me editors and I would get a call and a nice little note: “Hi! I’m your editor.” And I’d never see these sons of bitches. They’d go away. I think I went through seven in three years. I only actually got to know two of them—a very nice man whose name I’m now forgetting, and Rachel Klayman, who was the editor with whom I finished the novel. But during that time I became friends with Joy Johannessen, and she said she really liked the book and wanted to work with me on it. So she would read drafts and we would talk. She’s an extraordinarily gifted editor and it was a wonderful working experience. It had nothing to do with the publishing house that I was actually preparing the novel for.
ML: How did you get that contract in the first place?
DA: It was on a proposal, and on the story that appears in High Risk [“Private Rituals”]. The story that was in the Village Voice was the first story that they ever selected for the VLS, the Voice Literary Supplement, and it won some awards and was reprinted, but I was very concerned about how I wanted to handle the whole issue of incest and sexual violence against children, and that’s not at all in the story that won all the prizes, so I needed a story that would show them how dangerous the book would be and how I was going to do it. I came in thinking that that would be a big problem and that I would have to fight them, but that was not the problem. At all. They were not afraid of the material.
ML: How did you even get to the point where you thought that you could do this?
DA: A novel?
ML: Writing, period.
DA: The women’s movement. I am an accident of history. I wrote stories and poems—I wrote a play in verse when I was a kid. I wrote a lot of stuff that my mother thought was brilliant; my mother was convinced that I was a genius. It’s really nice to have your mother think you’re a genius. She saved everything. Partly because I was an illegitimate child, for me to be a genius was a vindication of her. She was a good Baptist, so I’m her sin. But I knew no one who wrote. My mother was a waitress; my stepfather was a truckdriver. No one in my family had ever graduated from high school. I did it, in part, because my mother kept telling me I was a genius, and Of course you’re going to graduate from high school, Of course you’re going to go to college. No one that I knew had ever gone to college. But my mother kept saying this was what was going to happen, so that was the assumption, pretty much from when I first started school.
ML: Where did you read books? Were there books in the house?
DA: There were books in the house. Just because people are poor doesn’t mean they don’t read. She loved books. She loved mysteries and adventure novels. She especially loved those novels that have pictures of stern looking men on the cover with large guns. So I read all of those. I have a thorough grounding in Mickey Spillane and John D. MacDonald and Reader’s Digest condensed books, which she would get in trade. She used to do a lady’s hair in the neighborhood who’d give her books, and then I would get the books. And when I was a girl in South Carolina you could trade books at these trade-in stores, and you could trade in ten and get five, eight and get three. And that’s in fact how I learned to read, trading constantly. And then I learned to babysit, and scare children, and earn money and buy my own books.
ML: Did you get reinforcement for your writing there?
DA: No. I got reinforcement for being a human being. I studied anthropology. The people who were writers tended to be very sensitive young men with antique cars. I wrote a poem about it. Very sensitive young women, very thin, very Raphaelite…um, no. I became an anthropologist and a political organizer and activist. It was during the heyday of the anti-Viet Nam war movement and the beginnings of the women’s movement. And I discovered anthropology and I loved it. I wanted to figure out what the hell was going on—how in the world did these people set this thing up? I didn’t understand why…anything. I didn’t understand my mother. I didn’t understand my family. I didn’t understand how things worked, and I wanted to. And anthropology gave me some tools for figuring things out. But, you know, I was young and romantic and foolish, and I didn’t look closely at what it is that anthropologists actually do. So I graduated with a B.A. in anthropology, with which you can become a really good waitress. And that’s what I did, I became a waitress. And a nanny for a rich family.
ML: How was that?
DA: I learned how to scrape shit off walls. Rich people raise some pretty scary kids. It was…interesting. I had a scholarship to Columbia, but it wasn’t enough money, and I didn’t have a coat still, so I basically worked all over central Florida for a year and then I took a job with the Social Security Administration in Tallahassee. This was 1972 or ’73. And that’s where everything changed.
ML: In what way?
DA: Because when I went to Tallahassee…there’s some stuff I’m leaving out. I’m a lesbian. And I had a long history of falling in love with unfortunate women. I loved drug addicts and alcoholics, which pretty much follows on being raised in my family, where all the men are alcoholics and all the women fall in love with them. But when I took the job in Tallahassee, I took the job, in part, to try and figure out: How can I not do the same thing all the women in my family do? So I got to Tallahassee, took this job, got an apartment, and I think the second day I was in Tallahassee I went to the Women’s Center on the Florida State University campus, because I had read in one of the free papers about things that happened there and I thought, I am not going to just get another girlfriend and drink and be crazy.
ML: What precisely do you mean by “bad”?
DA: Sentimental, explanatory, defensive, trite, banal, unwittingly humorous. Every definition of bad you’ve got. The beginning of being a writer, really, is about letting yourself write all that stuff, in ways that are not about any kind of discipline or shape. It was just like: Let’s open the floodgates and pour it out. And I think in a lot of early writings of the women’s movement that’s exactly what happened, and there was this whole concept of suddenly allowing women’s voices free expression, so there was a bias against shaping or editing or revising. It was always supposed to be immediate, raw and real. Mine was pretty immediate, raw and real. But even I could tell that it was pretty bad.
ML: How did you then begin to move toward discipline and shape?
DA: I became an editor at a magazine. In fact, I became an editor at Amazing Grace, which was the first place I ever published. Bad poetry. We published, I think, two issues.
ML: In your extensive reading, did you read as a writer? Did you unconsciously absorb things, or were you overtly asking, “How do they do this…?”
DA: Eventually I got to “How are they doing that?” But no, I was a kid who didn’t like where I was. I was in danger where I was and I didn’t want to be there so I lived in books. You get that habit early on and you’re pretty compulsive about it. I read everything that I could get. There were some limitations of access and cash. But I pretty quickly discovered that I could write reviews and get books, which short-circuited that cash aspect. It’s amazing how many publishers will give you a book if you write a review. Also, I was living in places where my living expenses were low. I lived in lesbian and feminist collectives for a long time. If you share a household you can put a lot of money into books. I read everything I could. Read a lot of anthropology, read a lot of sociology, read any book I could find that a woman had written. I had a couple of years when I wouldn’t read men—I was a separatist.
ML: Who did you get really excited about?
DA: Oh early on in the early women’s movement—all those lesbians and working class writers, all the Diana Press books, all the Daughters books, and that means everything from Blanche Boyd’s book Nerves to Rubyfruit Jungle, but also Muriel Rukeyser, the poets—I used to get these huge, mammoth anthologies. Some of these chapbooks would come around and you’d throw yourself on them like they were lifelines. I still remember the glory of that—the Little Magazines. I went from Amazing Grace in Tallahassee and up to Washington D.C. and joined the staff of Quest, which was a feminist political theory magazine, but I was reading and trying to write stories, so I was reading an enormous body of fiction and poetry. I didn’t actually like political theory and didn’t want to write it, and every time I tried to write it, it turned into a short story.
ML: Who are you reading right now?
DA: Right now I’m reading, in manuscript, a book by Abigail Thomas called A Three Dog Life, which is a memoir, and it’s gorgeous. And I’m reading Sonny Brewer’s A Sound Like Thunder. It’s in galley—he wrote The Poet of Tolstoy Park, which is a fine novel, but this new book—God, it’s gorgeous. I just got an e-mail from him—it’s coming out in a few months—and he got a blurb from Harper Lee. Harper Lee hasn’t given blurbs in thirty years. That’s what I’m reading now. And short stories—lots of short stories. And the stories here at Columbia College. The stories are wonderful. I don’t know how they found the people I have in my workshop, but there are evenings when we’re reading stories, and I just want to sit back and say, “O.K.—you guys just keep reading and I’ll shut up. They’re really wonderful. I don’t get enough short stories—I read a lot of novels.
ML: Who have you read and liked in the last few years?
DA: People I’m making the students read. Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Tayari Jones. She had a novel last year called The Untelling, and she won awards for her first one. It’s about a little girl growing up in Atlanta during the child killings. She’s a fine, fine novelist. I read a lot of first novels because I love the discovery of a new voice. And I read my friends. The good thing about being a writer and not going crazy is that if you live long enough you make a lot of other writer friends. So I read anything that Ann Patchett sends me, or Elizabeth McCracken, lots of women. And lots of guys. I read Jim Grimsley. I love Larry Brown deeply, sorry to have lost him. And this year I discovered Ron Rash. He’s tremendously gifted poet, short story writer, and a novelist. I love triple threats. And he, in fact, is from Jocassee County, which is up above where I grew up in South Carolina. I found his stories about a year ago in Chatanooga. I get insomnia, and I read at night, so whenever I go to these writers gatherings I hit the sale tables and I found three chapbooks of poetry by Ron Rash in Chatanooga last spring, and I realized about halfway through Among the Believers that I knew what he was talking about. I knew the landscape, and some of the things he refers to in the poems I recognized from stories I heard when I was a girl. It was so surreal. Then I discovered that he had short stories. Then I found the novels.
ML: One of the most fascinating characters in Bastard Out of Carolina is Daddy Glen. He’s very carefully drawn so that the reader experiences the rejection he suffers from his father as well as the tenderness he’s capable of. This makes his abuse of Bone more devastating because Glen isn’t just a black and white villain set up for the reader to despise. Can you talk a little about why it’s important as a writer to give fully rounded psyches to characters who may do despicable things?
DA: Usually the discussion is couched in the terms of this panel that they had at Columbia College’s Story Week, and it was a great panel and we got to some interesting stuff, but the way the discussion is usually framed is, “Writing the Unlikeable Character.” And one of the things I said is, “You don’t have a story if you don’t have any unlikeable characters. But really I don’t think it’s about an unlikeable character, you’ve got to have a sonofabitch, you’ve got to have somebody who does something that puts everything else in motion, and if it’s just so simple, that they’re evil, were born evil, always a bad kid, kicked dogs, slapped girls. But that’s bullshit. I have known, in my lifetime, maybe two people I could put that application to. They just started out bad and they got worse. But even them, I could see some reasons why.
ML: When you were working with that character and seeking to understand him and create a fully rounded character, was that at odds with your own feelings toward your stepfather?
DA: But Glen isn’t my stepfather. It’s not a memoir.
ML: It’s a separate thing for you?
DA: No. It’s not a separate thing. You bring to a book your life. And in my life I have a monster. That’s just it. My real stepfather has never acknowledged any responsibility for anything he’s done. Even getting arrested. Nothing has ever gotten him to take any responsibility. The choice he’s made in his life is to blame anything that’s ever happened to him on someone else, including us when we were little children. He went to see a psychiatrist at one point and the psychiatrist told him the problem really was all those strong women in the house. He was talking about three girls ages five, seven, and ten.
ML: When you wrote Bastard Out of Carolina, did you have your child yet?
ML: Did you have your son when you wrote Cavedweller?
ML: Did that change you as a writer and as a reader?
DA: It changed me completely as writer. It changed me as a person. When I wrote Bastard I was operating under the assumption that I would never have children. I can’t have kids; I had syphilis as a girl. I’m sterile, which is another story. So I always wrote as the daughter, and that’s a very strong voice. My partner Alix gave me a child. But I had never imagined being a mother. And I was very unsure and hesitant and fearful. But I fell in love with my son, completely. I spent the year that Bastard was published, which was the same year my son was born, traveling and talking and teaching and trying to write, but this whole enormous thing was happening—my whole world was shifting under me. I had already started Cavedweller. I had a good, big chunk of the cave sections written, and a great deal of Cissy, a girl really angry at her mother, a certain amount of the other girls, but I didn’t have Delia, other than in outline form, and it was when Wolf was about a year old that I got Delia in the back going: California, Southern California, I gotta go home. And in part because I had to keep going off, because we were so poor—you can be a really famous writer and not have a dime—and I would go off to teach to earn money and ache to get home and miss my boy so much. I started writing about that missing him, eventually, and feeling my way into Delia. It took a while. But it meant I was writing as a mother. Everything changed. It made the book very different. Larger. It really is two books I think, or at least it has assumed that shape in my mind. It took me about a year after it was published to figure that out, that I had two novels, and one was the girls’ and one was Delia’s. And I like the idea of writing the two sides of the story and making them into one book. I think I didn’t integrate the two sections well enough.
ML: You’ve talked before about the necessity that a writer to go to a place of peril, or fear, in his or her work. Is that easier or harder now that you are a mother? Are you still able to go to those places?
DA: Sometimes. Sometimes not. That’s a large, complicated question. (Long pause). No. Not always. Not always. It’s hard to talk about because it’s very hard to talk about writing block, when it stops, because I have written all my life, from bad poems to journals, but I had about four years where trying to write was just something…I didn’t really believe that this could happen to me. I used to read all this stuff about writers and they’d talk about depression and not being able to write, and I figured O.K., that’s a big issue for those kinds of people, those middle class, privileged sons of bitches that lived those lives. Not me, not my kinds of people, we don’t do that. My mother used to tell me “We don’t go crazy. We kill ourselves now and again but we don’t go crazy.” And I was wrong. Completely. Now I think some of that was defensive. I used to be terribly afraid of it, so I would always be writing different things, I’d have different stories running. But I hit a point where nothing would catch up. Nothing would burn, nothing would—everything was flat. And in fact I would look back into the manuscript that I had been writing and it was just all of a sudden flat on the page. And everything that I wrote—flat. And for a while I thought, O.K., I have a problem, let’s just wait this out. Perhaps I’ll start riding bicycles, perhaps I need to eat more fruit, perhaps I should go back to church. It went a long time. It got very, very bad. The world stopped making sense. The world only makes sense to me when I make a story. And I’m still not sure why it happened to me, and all the dimensions of it, but it reached a point where it just wouldn’t work. And I’m clear that there is a problem with this whole concept of being fear-based, but some of that is about growing up afraid and getting used to fear being an engine that motivates you. So some of going to the “scary work” is based in thinking that I have to push to that place where I’m afraid, to get good work done. So I started thinking maybe I need to re-think that and look at other stuff. But I still can’t tell you what happened to me and I can’t tell you why it started to change. I do know there came a point where it started again, I could start making story again. I’m still tentative and uncertain and aware that it could stop. Before I didn’t really think it could. But I don’t always go to the scariest place now. It is still the case that if I care about the story, it’s terrifying, and the writing itself takes that sweaty I gotta get this right feeling. That’s working again, and that feels to me like a muscle that I can use, and I just pray that it doesn’t go slack again.
ML: What’s your teaching situation?
DA: I love teaching. I’m a good teacher. It’s hard to say that, but I seem to get a good response, and I love the work that I can push young people to do. And I love what I know about story structure and language and character. It took me a long time to get a sense that I was capable of transmitting some of this stuff and able to help other people. But that’s just fear, and feeling inappropriate in the world, and learning to value myself as the teacher, instead of always the student. And I’ve done it for many years. That I could still do even when my writing was stalled, although it got to be a problem because if you’re not writing and you’re teaching, you feel a fraud, and after a while I had to pull back.
ML: How do you manage your writing time? Do you have a writing routine or do you write in long jags?
DA: I have a discipline. I have a routine, and the discipline and routine is regular and steady. The actual truth is that you hit a point where it catches fire and you go—and you go as long and as hard as you can until the fire burns out. So, yeah, both. Now there’s all that work you can do—there’s re-writing, there’s revision, and there is simply filling in the holes in the manuscript, and that you can do on a steady schedule, and I have a life that’s organized around getting that done. But the truth is, the kind of writing that sings and lifts off the page happens when I can get a little distance from the world, and that tends to be the middle of the night or after I’ve had a break from being intellectually engaged with people. It really does seem to be about pulling back from the world into that story place. You can’t do it if you’re too exhausted. Well, I can do it, but it’s like grinding your gears down. So it’s difficult to balance the two. That and raising a child. I have friends who have kids—as a feminist it’s very hard for me to be truthful about this, but having a child and raising a child is a couple of books that I’ll never write. It’s just that much energy and time and emotional resilience that goes into raising a sane, healthy boy. It’s tricky.
ML: Don’t you think the books you do write are better for it?
DA: This is the comforting thing—one of the things I tell myself. I do think it’s true But I do know that when my son was born I had a lot of writer friends who said, “Well, you’re over.” And who treated me as if I had betrayed something, as if I’d made a choice to raise a child instead of making a choice to be a nun for art. I never wanted to be a nun for art. I never wanted to be poor for art either. I don’t think those are reasonable demands to make. And it does shape a particular kind of literature that, in the long run, I don’t think is as strong and powerful as those of us who lose a couple of books learning this shit.
ML: Are you affiliated with a particular university?
DA: No, I can be had for cash. Like most writers! No, I have a schedule. Up until this year, the longest I could go was five weeks; when my son was little it was five days. As he got older, I could be away longer, and as we’ve managed to organize our family life and get some help—godmothers, and a great aunt—you need a lot of help to raise a good kid. But now, because my son is thirteen, this was the year in which we agreed I could go and be here for the semester. I’ve been able to go home for a week each month, otherwise my son would have flunked out of Algebra. He apparently has decided that my being away means he doesn’t do homework.
ML: Have you considered a permanent position?
DA: Not in California. The California university system is broke. I’ve been offered teaching jobs but they pay so poorly and would take so much time and energy…I can set this schedule up and still be able to write novels—teaching short stints in other places. One of the dirty little secrets of Schwarzenegger’s California is in what terrible trouble the schools and universities are in. We’re almost bankrupt. I have friends who teach, literally, at four different colleges and are always in their cars. No one is getting any benefits and no one is getting paid enough. It’s a sheer struggle to survive as a writer and teacher in California. It’s really hard, but I just can’t pull my son out of this really strong family network that we’ve created.
ML: How much of this created family includes your birth family?
DA: My two sisters are my family. I have more cousins than God made grains of sand and I’m always discovering new ones. It really is an enormous family, but it is an enormously damaged family. I’m the oldest living woman in my family, which is horrifying, because my mother was one of six girls, five boys. My mother was considered pitiful because she only had three kids. My aunt Dot had eleven. There’re a lot of us. But we die, of the diseases of poverty: alcoholism, cancer, stroke, diabetes, emphysema. So I don’t have any living aunts, and my last uncle died last year. But my partner Alix has her aunt, so aunt Mary is GrandMary, and fills in because my mother is dead and Alix’s mother is dead. Both my sisters have been astonishingly and strongly supportive, and my sister June came to visit when my son was born. She wanted to make sure I knew how to diaper and feed him, and she rewired the electrical system in the bedroom. For a teeny heterosexual girl she’s remarkable at that stuff. And my other sister was the one who was like: Well, this is how you do it, and you can’t really ruin him. And I’m close to them, but the rest of my family is scattered, so what we have is what, in fact, many Queer people have, which is a family of friends. At this point I have writer friends, women writers, who I have been trading work with for over thirty years, and that’s a family.
ML: There’s a scene in your story, “The River of Names,” where the sister is hitting the crib, striking the mattress right next to her crying baby son, and she cries that she swore she’d never be like that. How do you reconcile loving a mother deeply, yet not wanting to be like her?
DA: You are encapsulating the conversation that my two sisters and I have had since leaving home. We all loved my mother. We understood a lot of what happened, and what most people do not understand is how deeply nasty and complicated it got. But we don’t want to live her life. And the biggest conversation is: How do you grow up being treated like an animal and not raise kids that you treat like animals? And in that story, the scene in which the sister is smashing the mattress to avoid hitting the kid, that’s a scene that actually happened in my life. What is astonishing to me is, in fact, how successfully we have managed. Because the myth is that battered children become batterers—that damaged children raise damaged children. And there is a lot of that stuff that is very hard to overcome: sneaky, subterranean, nasty stuff. I chose to have a child with Alix because I looked really hard at Alix, and at the point at which we made Wolf, Alix had been sober seven years. She’s been sober more than twenty years now. She’d been sober long enough that I could say, O.K., this is a grownup. I knew how determined and strong and gentle she could be.