Influenced is an interview series featuring authors talking about the works that influenced them.
See our complete list of conversations, including:
Thick Skin, where authors talk about negative reviews, from both critics and readers
Pixelated, the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined author chat
A Bit Contrived, interviews with real authors about improvised books
The Art of Commerce, exploring the intersection of literature and the marketplace
Episode I: "Put your stink on the page. Make your page smell like something. Make it smell like you."
In this installment, I speak with Annie DeWitt about Barry Hannah's Hey Jack, Marguerite Duras' The Lover and Kenny Rogers.
I’m with Annie DeWitt, three months before the release of her debut, White Nights in Split Town City (Tyrant Books). Annie co-founded the literary journal Gigantic, and her writing has appeared in many great places—Believer, Tin House, Granta, Esquire, Noon, on and on. She’s also about to be the first installment of Influenced, a series with writers on the work that spurred them on, and that they find most influential. So: what are we talking about today?
Kenny Rogers. Barry Hannah's short novella, Hey Jack, and Marguerite Duras' classic on the body and intimacy, The Lover.
Rogers was a curveball but I'll take it. Also, some might say he hit his hey-day in the 80s, which is when both Hey Jack and The Lover came out. What gives?
Ha! Hay day might actually be the perfect title for this conversation—maybe that's what I should have called the book! I think that's a large part of what this book is about: the contrast between growing up in a rural town where what you see of people are the distant outlines of their bodies hunched over tractors hauling hay in from the fields—and then the kind of pre-internet era space that the easy 90's embodied for all of us who came of age in the 80's and 90's.
And yet there's a timelessness to both of those novels that I really adore and which I wanted to try and capture with White Nights.
I think it's the feeling that human experience is universal—that ultimately we all share a common story and that writing is really about excavating that common story in your own best, most authentic, voice.
Can you give the one-sentence synop of each title? And maybe also Kenny Rogers.
Well, I can tell you what IMBD says about the Lover and then I can tell you what I think it's about. They say: "Set in 1920s colonial Indochina, a pretty, virginal French teenager meets a handsome Chinese playboy from a respectable family. Going against the conventions of their respective societies, the lustful pair begin a torrid affair in a seedy Saigon neighborhood."
I would say: The Lover is about faces—the two faces of adolescence: the kind of knowing intuition you have about the adult world—power, money, sexuality; and then the desire to remain a child forever, free from responsibility and able to view the world as if its always a series of images just about to develop on the horizon.
And Hannah is about what Hannah is always about: alcohol, sadness, physical remove, love, and a town full of people who are experiencing those things in extremity.
And in a way, I think Kenny Rogers is just Barry Hannah's collection, Airships, set to music.
Ok, so in other words, White Nights is these two in a blender.
Ha! You know the one thing my partner and I actually own in the kitchen is a blender from the grandson of General Patton. That and a 1950's blender owned by the founder of the Copacabana Club, so maybe blenders are a good place to start this conversation.
But, in all seriousness, I don't really think of White Nights as a blend of those two as much as I think about the act of reading as being like overhearing adult conversations and thinking about the way they sound - those authors have that kind of reverence for me. I listen to their words when I read them, even silently, and they stay in my head after I go to bed at night.
How close were these works, and works like them, to your creative process? Is it something you're consciously considering?
They were very close to me—both talismanically and musically. I like to think of myself as a fairly judicious reader—but when I'm working on a project I tend to only want to be surrounded by the voices that speak to that story or book. I only want to hear those voices in my head. And then I try my best to be in conversation with them directly.
When I was writing the first draft of White Nights, I was living in a 7-foot wide studio on the Upper West Side with one window and a small desk.
I took Barry Hannah's Hey Jack out of the library. Sam Lipsyte had recommended his Yonder Stands Your Orphan. And I'd always loved Airships. But Hey Jack had this special quality to it. It was short and kind of prismatic. Every sentence was just so perfect and it read at a halogen pace. I couldn't put it down. I must have reread it twenty times by the time I was done. Sometimes, when I was stuck on a sentence, I'd read a little bit over again and them try to speak back to him.
Really? Twenty times? And this was midway through the draft?
At least. I can be a bit obsessional. It really was like trying to create a chorus in my head—I needed to get the balance just right. The tenors, the bass. The high notes, etc.
Was this as a reader or a writer?
Both, I think. But I think when I was working intensively on the first draft—I knew it needed to have one sort of continuous voice so I started reading for that voice. Trying to become infected by it.
Duras infects me in the same way—though her voice is very different. She has this kind of direct confrontational quality to her works that are both philosophical and yet highly observational, which I've always found highly seductive. She was part of that French school of writers—the nouveau roman—like Robbe-Grillet and such who said they wanted to write books that didn't have any psychological interiority. They just wanted to observe the world visually. That's something I really relate to. I start all the classes I teach with the Fredric Jameson quote "The visual is essentially pornographic." I think that's what I like so much about Duras—she's visually pornographic in that she reveals details about the body and the landscape so plainly they feel almost graphic.
And this is something you try to capture? That seems like a trait that would be impossible to consciously will upon yourself. It's effortless.
That's funny! I feel like trying to will a big psychological novel upon myself would be impossible! In a lot of ways I feel like writing is the opposite of effortless. I tend to work on each sentence till I get it just right. So, basically writing a novel was a premeditated act of self-torture. It took me seven years and now when I look at it I think—that's it?! It's so slim! Where's the rest?!
This may be a bit odd to ask, but in any sort of 'judgment' stage of you writing, when you try to look at your work with the clear eyes of someone who hasn't written it, how much are you _comparing_ it to those works you've admired?
Oh gosh, yes! I am always always judging my own writing—not so much by the work of others—but by how it sounds out loud. I am definitely my own worst critic!
I want to go back for a second to the idea of being infected by another's voice. Do you ever feel like you might carry it too well, that their voice will become yours?
No. Never. I think voice when you're really writing well, which is rare, is something that you can't just riff off of. To me, it's about something deeper, a kind of personal retelling where you're putting your own guts on the page. I tell my students, put your stink on the page. Make your page smell like something. Make it smell like you. Like what you ate for dinner. In that way, no two voices can ever be alike. They both stink differently.
No two people stink in the exact same way. Agree with you there. But there's a danger zone there, no? Of trying to be inspired by another work?
I don't think so. Though I know that anxiety exists. A lot of my undergrad students always ask me that about their work. I give them this assignment called "Knowing Plagiarism" where they have to read a paragraph by a writer they love and then try to intentionally rip that voice off and rewrite it in their own voice. It's amazing! What always ends up happening is that what they write never sounds anything like the residual text—rather it just allows them the permission to create.
That's interesting: the permission to create. What is that undoing? Why do you think that exercise works?
I think part of what trips us up as writers is that our anxieties get ahead of ourselves. I know I felt constantly plagued by that question: am I good enough, is this idea that I could be a writer just delusional thinking, will this book ever get published, etc. And somehow allowing yourself the freedom to write in response to a writer you love allows you the permission to elevate your own work in your own eyes and ears to that level. It opens the floodgates.
Diane Williams said this once to me in an interview: "Personality is muddy. But let me say that getting up and shouting out the rawest stuff of life is a formidable business."
Did that have anything to do with you reading Hey Jack 20+ times?
I think that has everything to do with reading Hey Jack twenty times. In the sense that if you feel like there's someone else out there shouting along with you, you start shouting louder!
I know you don't mean to invoke the idea of competition, but it makes me think of besting something you once loved, and of growth. Are there works you once found seminal or inspiring, but now attach to an earlier version of yourself as a writer?
I think I tend to treat books like relationships—I never outgrow the experiences they gave me. Even when I break up with them, I do everything I can to still remain friends.
But there are plenty of childhood books which definitely shaped me. This one series in particular comes to mind: James Harriet's All Things Great and Small. It’s about a rural English veterinarian who travels across the British countryside in all weathers to treat large farm animals. That taught me how to tell a lot of small stories about people in a town and somehow made all those small stories feel like one larger story. I guess that's what they call a picaresque.
I think that's a great ending point, Annie. We're out of time, but I can't thank you enough for coming on, and your words.
Thank you! Super thrilled to chat. Thanks so much for having me.