Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Q+A with Editor: Trinie Dalton

Continuing with our Fall/Winter list, we're pretty excited to announce that we'll be doing a new book by Trinie Dalton, called Baby Geisha. As of now, we're thinking the book will be out January 2012.

This is the first time we'll be working with Trinie. Her work has been praised by Ben Marcus, who describes her as "a writer of high spirits and unguarded vision." Michael Miller, in Time Out New York, said in a review of Trinie's book Wide Eyed (published by Dennis Cooper's Little House on the Bowery imprint at Akashic) "one of the many reasons to read Dalton is that she treats dreamlike fantasies not as look-at-me-I'm-weird performances but as magical rebuffs to the hassles of everyday life."

(Above picture by Jason Frank Rothenberg.)

Before I read Baby Geisha, I was familiar with your writing from Arthur Magazine. I loved Arthur. Along with Punk Planet, they were my favorite magazines – and you’ve been published in both. They came across like a community unto themselves, championing this vibrant and diverse spirit that covered everything from lifestyle to films, writing, music and concerts, skateboarding, and gardening. Just reading the magazine felt like you were part of something. I know Arthur has continued and is really active online, but what's a reader to do – is there anyone carrying on that community-in-a-magazine spirit? Where can you point us?

was and is a valuable resource; I was initially attracted to its format (newsprint, channeling early Rolling Stone) and to Jay Babcock’s genuine editorial vision. Whenever I’m feeling glum about the state of magazines, Jay, who has weathered it all, sends me some mini-magazine email with a photo of the latest snake he’s found at his desert abode paired with say, news from the music front contextualized by news from counterculture pioneers and I feel at home again. Printed matter or on-line magazines? They can both provide that sense of community indeed. Nomadic community is seemingly where it’s at, it’s what the Internet promotes as long as you tame the time spent staring at the screen, but I admit I have difficulty with that physical remove and isolation. That’s why I live in cities; I can read web-based magazines then exit my office into the tactile world to discuss what I’ve read face-to-face. Communication can happen in any format, as long as it’s innovative. Arthur, for me, has provided context; learning from cultural predecessors, studying their decisions based on their circumstances at the time. It was always about bridging generation gaps. Placing my artistic decisions in context helps me to stay positive and forward thinking. While I find it important to voice my political opinions through art, I increasingly want to temper that with invitation and gratitude in mind - negativity is so tired. Live human interaction is ultimately what enacts positive change. That’s why I prefer to team up with magazines and publishers who I feel are building communities in radical ways; that’s why I sought Two Dollar Radio out. I know that when I do readings from my Two Dollar Radio book, there will be humans in the audience who I admire and who share like-mind. While I’m not under the illusion that I live a completely free life, I do feel obligated to exercise conscious choice surrounding my creative output. When I first started making books I didn’t realize this was going to become a cause of mine, but over the years it has come to be of utmost importance.

There are many, many magazines, art galleries, and music labels around the world who are hosting cutting edge communities. Lately, I’ve written for a few magazines that are gorgeously produced: ANP Quarterly, Theme, and Paris/LA, made by Dorothee Perret in Paris, who used to be with Purple. I was proud to contribute to a very cool Australian lit journal called The Lifted Brow this past year, and a Canadian lit journal called Here & Noun. Both of those journals are affiliated with vibrant young communities in those countries. I adore Bookforum, and have high hopes for the new Los Angeles Book Review, that will be called LARB on-line. Then there are artists’ book publishers, like North Drive Press and Picturebox, who filter printed matter through art gallery systems. Hybrid, cross-medium community builders. Paper Monument for art criticism. CANADA Gallery and Solomon Projects, both in New York, are galleries I’ve kept up with, both supporters of printed matter. Family Books in LA, a crucial resource for printed matter lovers. The Social Registry and Paw Tracks are my go-to musical resources, if I’m not pilfering free international mix-tapes off of blogs. And this is only to name a few in America. Even while magazines are folding, there will always be artistic and literary community in various forms and modes. Or more argument now to make your own, right?

You straddle the art world - where you've worked on books for McSweeney's and Picturebox - and the literary world – where you've published books with Dennis Cooper's Little House on the Bowery imprint at Akashic, and a novella with Madras Press. Do the two balance one another out and inform the other, or are they two separate creatures entirely where they help to balance you out?

I seek total integration. I have a pattern, now, of alternately building visually oriented books and text-based books. Books are things. I think of them as objects, and I like mine to vary widely. I have a corny fantasy about having a bookshelf of my own books someday, on which each book looks different and has wildly diverse content. Picturing that shelf, admiring how the books look teamed up as a suite. I was so excited, for example, to publish my last novella with Madras Press, who offered me a miniature format. Each time I make a book, I care about what’s inside and what it says obviously, but I also think it’s critical to consider that book’s material value, what it communicates from a design standpoint. Ugly books give me nightmares.

Sweet Tomb is a fairly tale about a witch. The novella you published with Abrams, A Unicorn is Born, is a fairy tale told from the unicorn’s point of view. And from what I’ve read of Wide Eyed (without actually having read it), it too was fantastical. Baby Geisha feels much more grounded in its surrealism than what I had anticipated. The stories don’t seem to dote on the fantastic, but present these surreal twists – such as ‘Millennium Chill,’ in which a woman discovers her body heat is mysteriously linked to that of an old beggar woman - in very subtle and assured ways. Does Baby Geisha signal a shift in your approach, or is it merely part of your balancing act?

A big shift. Yeah, I have been on a fairy tale/horror binge for several years, and I finally feel like I’m turning the corner. I’m glad. I just had to see it all the way through so I could fathom how fantasy and concrete realism can be close allies. I felt for a long time that fantastic writing was somehow more untethered to the real, but now I’m not so sure. Again, I sought total integration. I was just completely obsessed with Kristeva and fantasy-horror’s relationship to the erotic, in part because my husband, Matt Greene, makes art about that. What are the boundaries between fantasy and the real? They’ve been pretty hazy in our world. Here’s one thing that changed me: a close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s Mysteries and Manners. In it, she says that, “it is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners,” manners being those concrete details — depictions of the real — in story. “Mystery through manners…” I had never heard a modern author seeking deep metaphysical mystery through realism before. Well, sure, Robert Musil, Bruno Schulz, Robert Walser, and a handful of other personal faves. By deep mystery I mean, mystery about our relationship with the planet, not anthropocentric mystery. I get sick of thinking about humans quickly, as we only constitute about 1% of what’s happening in our universe, if that much, and it was refreshing to me to hear O’Connor critiquing Henry James’ idea that modern people should aspire to know nothing of mystery, to be completely rooted in humanity. That notion makes me feel like hurling myself off a cliff. In her opinion, great literature seeks to embrace and express mystery through its mimicry of actual mannerisms. Mystery — fantasy — through the real. And with that, the borders between fantasy and realism were completely transgressed in my brain. Suddenly, I saw them as two good means to the same end. This made me excited to write real human situations again.

One other reading further propelled the shift: Mary Gaitskill made a comment in her introduction to the 2009 Best New American Voices along these same lines. She writes that a short story’s greatness resides in its limitations: that stories can be “a small moment that acts as a secret door to a great house that turns out to be not a house at all, but the illusion of an understandable structure in a vast sea of forces that we live with every day without seeing.” Yes. It’s that vast sea of forces I was seeking through fantasy and fairy tale, and it thrills me to think of getting at it through realism, or surrealism, for awhile. I think I completely stopped caring about labels and boundaries, and have been trying to indicate human imaginative potential, as framed out by metaphysics, links between the body and spirit.

You’ve taught courses on bookbinding and bookmaking – have you ever considered starting your own press?

I’d love to start my own press if I ever had the money to do so.

At NYU, you teach a course on “Book As Art.” I’m definitely mired in the daily e-book debate, which is mostly uninteresting, but I can see the road diverging, where e-books won’t be “books” (“novels”) but boiled down, Cliff’s Notes versions of their print counterparts. And all physical books will be elevated to artifact, with a new-found emphasis on classy design. Featherproof Books and Chin Music Press seem to be leading the way with this. They can publish a book of stories, but then they have to blow it up through their design into something more ambitious and complete. What are your thoughts, and do your students care about the evolution of the book?

Featherproof is neat, I agree. Yes, my students are absolutely interested in these debates. There is concern among urban twenty-something artists and writers that they are losing something by living their lives digitally. Not as if they’re going to give that up, but they do have a sophisticated ability to view the situation externally. Living two lives, one digitally and one in your body, causes a kind of splitting I think, a schizophrenia. My students navigate this in such interesting ways. The work I see in my “book as art” classes deal almost exclusively with students questioning the disappearance of print. That’s not to say that young authors and artists pine for the past or are Luddites about it; they see the need for physical printed matter alongside digital reading. The book as archive, the book as physical object, the book as artifact. Haven’t books always been about this? Think Hogarth Press. We just hadn’t been talking about books that way for some decades.

If your writing were clothes, I wouldn’t be hip enough to wear them. It’s incredibly stylish. Here’s an example, from the opening story in Baby Geisha, 'Jackpot (I)':

“On our room's balcony, Pandora was shoving ice cubes up her pussy. She was impersonating a slot machine, one where no man can hit the jackpot. I wiggled in for a good view while deep funk played. Four people huddling around a lady crotch-melting ice cubes might be criminal in silence or sleazy with techno. But funk was making the scene revolutionary. Zeus, wrapped toga-style in the crisp white top sheet he'd yanked off our bed, called Pandora's pussy an antique clock. I guessed he meant her body was timeless and beautiful, which it was.”

Is there a writer whose style you could wear?

Too many authors to name. Virginia Woolf. Jane Bowles. William Gass. Fernando Pessoa, Clarice Lispector. Sarah Manguso, Amy Gerstler, Barry Hannah, Grace Paley, Mary Ruefle, Eileen Myles, Benjamin Weissman, Lynne Tillman, Richard McCann. Syntax is everything to me.

(Above picture by David Dodge.)

You can purchase our Year 5 Book Subscription for just $45 through Sunday, February 6. That's the five books we'll be publishing between May 2011 and March 2012: You Are My Heart and Other Stories by Jay Neugeboren; Seven Days in Rio by Francis Levy; Damascus by Joshua Mohr; Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton; and a fifth title to be announced tomorrow!!!


Barbara Browning said...

Trinie, I'm excited to read your book. And can I take you to lunch where we can share some $2 Radio love?

popzeus said...

This is great news!