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Lynne Tillman

  • Interview by Emily Stokes
  • Issue 3
  • Free Radical

Lynne Tillman grew up in Woodmere, New York, and attended Hunter College. Her first novel, Haunted Houses, was published in 1987—a narrative about three girls who, for all their proximity on the page, never meet each other, their adjacent chapters like ships in the night. Conceptually bold, Tillman’s writing is often described as “experimental,” but it is never cold or sterile. “The writing is very open and human,” writes Lydia Davis of Tillman’s work. The human is you, too—there’s no easy escapism in Tillman’s stories: “They return to the reader’s mind, to the way you live, the way you make decisions.”

Voice, in Tillman’s work, is more immersive than plot; readers may be surprised to be gripped by so little. Motion Sickness (1991) is an intimate, fragmented travelogue written by an unnamed, strangely anonymous young American. No Lease on Life (1998) follows the thoughts of a proofreader troubled by noise and her East Village neighbors. The setting of American Genius, A Comedy (2006) is either a mental institute or an artists’ colony. Tillman’s emphasis on thought in process is also evident in her nonfiction—her columns for Frieze and her collections of essays, the latest of which, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemonade), includes conversations with Paula Fox and Harry Matthews, essays on Edith Wharton and John Waters, and personal anecdotes about conversations with strangers at the MoMA cinema, and being mistaken for Jane Bowles’s daughter.

Tillman is wary of being described as a member of the downtown New York scene, perhaps due to not wanting to be pigeon-holed or “historicized.” But she is an important character not just in the literary world—in which she is admired by authors fellow writers A.M. Homes, Jonathan Lethem, and Rachel Kushner—but also in her city, as a teacher to students at The New School and the School of Visual Arts, and as a former editor of Fence, where she edited the fiction for eight years.

When we met for the first time, I was struck first by her beautiful face, wild hair, and simple but stylish clothes (black trousers, white shirt with a Peter Pan collar, good shoes). I later noted her curiosity and wry humor, and made a bid to be in her crowd. More recently, we talked over a fish supper in SoHo about the notion of community. A few days after our conversation, she posted a message on Facebook to inform other users that she had reached the maximum number of friends permitted by the social networking site; Facebook was allowing her no more. “I find this awkward to write,” she wrote, not wanting to ask people to “like” Lynne Tillman. “But there it is, social media makes its demands.”

Emily Stokes

As a teenager, you write in your recent book of essays, you told your psychotherapist that you wanted to rebel. Why was that, do you think?

Lynne Tillman

I could hazard a guess. I was born into a set of four people—my parents and two sisters—in the suburbs of Long Island. I was the baby of the family; my sisters were much older. I had to observe them very closely because, when you come late into a family, you must be careful. You’re late to the party. My family was also argumentative, which is a nice way to put it. Very early on I would read things and get angry. I was furious when I read an essay by Norman Mailer which referred to “lady novelists.”

What did you read when you were growing up?

I read a jumble of books, Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew, Gone with the Wind, Sartre’s Intimacy. When I was eight or nine, I loved a children’s series of biographies of women in the school library: Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Abigail Adams…I read all of them. I suppose I wanted to know about women who were as important as men, about whom I read all the time, although that isn’t something I said to myself. It was more unconscious.

Did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Yes, even at that age. I told my mother and was not encouraged. So there was another rebellion. I was damned well going to be a writer. I had the desire to write, I knew I could do it, I knew I had to force myself to get over the neuroses that were in my way. I went to Europe after Hunter College. I knew that by staying in New York I would drown. I was so insecure.

There’s something very hot in this food.

Have some bread?

No—that is what is hot. Oh wow. Be careful!

You write in the essay “Downtown’s Room in Hotel History” about downtown New York from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the closeness of it. Has your New York changed?

People always complain that New York isn’t the same, and it isn’t the same. It changes all the time. But the difference now is drastic. Two things happened: 9/11 and the cost of living. Both are terrible. 9/11 traumatized some, who can never feel safe here again. You can’t argue with that. It’s outrageous that rents are so high, and that the division of wealth is so unequal, much more than it was just twenty or thirty years ago. That’s not just here, it’s a sad reality for Americans.

That said, the best impromptu conversations I have, in cafés or on the street, are in New York City. People expect that of each other. The level of discourse is pretty high. The humor, the action on the street—I need it for my mental health. I don’t want to have to commute for conversation.

I started thinking seriously about conversation in grad school. I loved grad school. I read Capital with Stanley Aronowitz. I read Weber and Durkheim. The ethnomethodologists, Erving Goffman especially, had an enormous impact. I learned how conversation holds society, daily life, together, and that society is in these micro-units, in the details. Let’s say we see each other on the street, and you say “hello” and I don’t—that ruptures the social fabric. Without the minutiae of social life, things fall apart.

As for “downtown”: to the Modernists like Djuna Barnes New York was a place of danger, but the downtown I inhabited was walkable, comprehensible. New York is still, for me, always about people and conversation. I don’t care if people live in Brooklyn or Queens, if we can decide on a place to meet, it’s easy. I can read a book riding on the subway. Some people ride bikes. I just wish they followed traffic rules.

You write about having to “unlearn some of what I’d been taught or unconsciously believed.” One of the things you had to unlearn was the model of being an editor like Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot. Were you thinking of becoming an editor instead of a writer?

No. But my understanding—from reading literary histories and so on—was that, if you were a writer, you started a magazine or you were an editor. That was your training area, a kind of apprenticeship. I learned very quickly that the way things get written about is one thing, and actually living those things out is another. It turned out that I was a very good editor of other people’s work and that friends of mine—older male friends, writers—made use of that. In Europe, I was helping others and not writing enough. I had to clear some space to become a writer.

I wouldn’t call myself an editor, though I have always enjoyed editing journals. Early I did Paranoids’ Anonymous Newsletter and guest-edited an issue of New Observations, which was an art magazine started by Lucio Pozzi. And it was a great thrill to bring writers to Fence who were well known and mix them with unknown or first-time writers.

You write in one essay about artists lacking “a commonality of purpose,” versus scientists, who might work together to find a cure for cancer.

Some people take exception to that. A poet said he believed that we did have a commonality of purpose. I don’t see it that way.

Is there such a thing as an artists’ community?

Community is a dodgy concept. People make a lot of my being a member of the “downtown community.” But you don’t experience life like that. A community can be loose and fast; it can be temporary. Often shared interests are self-interests.

You write about not just books but film and visual arts too. Do you enjoy bridging worlds, or do you feel torn?

As a child I was omnivorous. Then I realized I couldn’t be a painter, a writer, and a filmmaker at the same time. When I was painting in college, it taught me to think about space and composition; later, editing a feature film changed the way I worked with paragraphs. My career is weird. I have felt torn at times, and occasionally wish I were making objects—photographs, film—and not writing. Is the literary world interested in the art world? The writing I do about art and film is unknown in the literary world. Writers, generally, are interested only in art and artists as a way to find material.

And yet fictional art and artists are so often unconvincing.

It’s very hard to write about artists or to put one into words. In American Genius, A Comedy—that’s the closest I’ve come to writing an artist. Of course the protagonist is never called an artist, and isn’t one per se, but there are certain moments when she’s undoing things, which I think artists do. You undo. It’s a very hard concept for people, civilians, to understand. You don’t see the art. You see the undoing.

In 1990, for the first issue of a magazine called Bass Player, my husband, David Hofstra, who is a musician, was asked this question: “How do you know what to play?” Bass players often make up their parts. He said, “When I can’t find something to play, I find something to leave out.” I realized I do that too. Leaving out is the basis for much of my writing.

What do you leave out?

Psychology. I don’t want to explain motives. Also, in a Hitchcockian way, if a door is important for the story, I’ll put it in. If it’s not, I know a reader can imagine a door and a character walking through it. I don’t want to tell the reader, or myself, what doesn’t need to be there.

And if a sentence I like still isn’t right after I’ve worked on it for two hours, I’ll leave it out.

I’m interested in the visual description in your fiction, which is both highly precise and unreliable. Why do you think your descriptions are so often so shifty?

I don’t think the narrator in Motion Sickness is ever described. I attended a lecture at Princeton given by Thomas Keenan, about that book. A young woman asked me, “Your character is unattractive, isn’t she?” I said, “Why you do think that?” “Well,” she said, “you never describe her, you never say she’s attractive, so I assume she’s not.” What needs to be marked, and why? The heroine doesn’t worry about her appearance, and she has relationships and sex with various men. But that didn’t matter for this reader. I’ll speculate that, in my undoings, I may be reacting to the vise of physical description. I see my characters but not exactly visually. The qualities of a character I “draw” with words come into view differently. Maybe I’m hoping this allows a reader to create his or her own version.

Shopping is a problem for me. In part it has to do with feelings about myself as a body and not wanting to dwell on the fact that I have a body. Mostly I feel that I’m a head, only a head or a mind. I don’t like being conscious of what I look like. When writing, I forget I have a body.

There’s something almost willfully incomplete about some of your characters. Do you set out to write elusively?

Mostly, in life, we don’t know the whole story, do we? How do you express doubt within a statement? I think about that a lot. I’m not a realist, but I’m interested in various realities. The tentativeness of thought, the not-knowing, the stumbling around—I’d rather include all that.

I was thinking about Helen’s private diary in Cast in Doubt, which her friend Horace is desperate to read and which ends up being rather disappointing. Do you keep a journal?

No, but I’ve read many of Virginia Woolf’s.

I like when Woolf interrupts herself. She will be writing about the past, and then about rescuing the pages of her diary from the trash where she has just accidentally dropped them. That strikes me as something you do too.

I love that too, though I wonder whether, in fiction, it might interrupt the reader’s pleasure.

The jokes in No Lease on Life are very good interruptions. You collect funny verbal incidents—like the proofreading error that led to a “tony Bennett School” becoming the “Tony Bennett School.”


More wine?

Emily Stokes and Lynne Tillman

Yes, please.

Emily Stokes

Lynne Tillman

David, my husband, hears a lot of jokes on the bandstand in between sets. Musicians are the last of the jongleurs or whatever.

Do you write every day?

I don’t. Deadlines force me. I have to, I must, give myself a deadline for my novel. I’m going to. The thing is, being published isn’t the reason to write. I think sometimes I go to the end of something simply because I have to figure it out, for myself.

Emily Stokes is a writer and senior features editor at T: The New York Times Style Magazine.

Photo by Lynne Tillman.