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Episode LIX: "The frog is the thing"

Published 8/3/16
In this installment, I speak with Anna Heyward. Topics include "deciding" to be a writer, calling yourself one, heroes, strains of American writing, the frog and his theories, curiosity, poetry & more.

Today I’m with Anna Heyward, an Australian writer with words in The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times and more, covering dance, art, business and more. To start us off, let’s get a fast-forwarded montage of your writing career, starting with the first book that impacted you as a reader, to today.

Oh, dear. Because I don't think I can answer that, I'll just try and pick some books, not "the" book, and one of them is definitely Wuthering Heights. Another one is a tiny, Australian book called "My Brilliant Career", which is kind of a coming of age novel, but instead of coming into a great life/becoming herself, the protagonist sort of fails and ends up in a life she doesn't want. I try to read it again every year. One of the things I remember being shocked by when I first read it, age 10 was that she addressed the reader—there are sentences like "do you know what it's like to have X, Y, Z?"—and I don't think I'd seen that before, an explicit acknowledgement that she was writing to communicate.

Wait, I'm going to get it from my shelf.

Ok, it's not there.

I remember now that I gave it away at a party I had. I often press it on people. Old habit of a bookseller. I'm like, you have to take it. I guess whoever it was wanted to be polite.

Ok, so. My Brilliant Career. Both demolishing plot arcs and the fourth wall. And so you decided: Hey, I'd like to write.

No, I never decided that. I kind of still haven't "decided" it. It's just, I suppose, a reflex that you don't not do. I don't introduce myself as a writer. I hate doing that. But maybe at this point it's disingenuous.

The people who do that are usually the worst.


Disingenuous to not introduce yourself as a writer? At some point the introduction serves to define how you make a living. And that's how you make yours, no?

Well, in part. I have day jobs—what I think of as my waitressing jobs—in a commercial art gallery, where I write for them, and in the copy department at The New Yorker. Those take up most of my time, but they both relate to writing I suppose.

You've skipped over the part in the montage where you get writing published in The New Yorker, and where you get a job there.

Ha. Well, I guess what I mean is, I'm still very much a non-writer member of society who does other things, and I like that, too.

Is it your goal to be a writer member of society? So when you sit down in our big communal cafeteria your badge lets you get the best pudding, etc.?

No, I don't have that as a goal. My goals never related to such things. Only ever: to try to express such and such, to see if I could write such and such a story, to see if I could make such and such humorous, etc. Like the story I've been working on in fits and starts over the last six months. It’s a really weird, niche story that didn't have an obvious model, or way to be told. I wanted to see if I could make it...I'm not sure if I could make it coherent, maybe.

What is it?

I'll send it to you when it's out



Who are your nonfiction heroes?

I like De Quincey. An Australian writer called Helen Garner…I just this morning read Mark Singer's Trump and Me for the second time.

How do you see the perception of Australian writers in America?

Well, there isn't much of one, I don't think. It's a tiny place, kind of like the country equivalent of a small town. Do you have a perception?

I was expecting more of a "there are so many great writers there and we ought to pay more attention to them" sort of answer.

Ha! There's a lot to pay attention to quite honestly. I could probably name three or four Australian writers that I vehemently believe deserve attention they aren't getting.


Some of my favorites already get attention. Les Murray, for instance. Everyone knows him. Gerald Murnane, Helen Garner, Jeremy Chambers, on the other hand I wish more people knew.

I think it's harder for writers of America's mirror countries—Canada, UK, Australia, NZ—to gain prominence here. If we're going to go elsewhere, we want the culture those writers exist in to be sufficiently different. If we need a passport to go there, they better speak another language.

I think I know what you mean. There's some obscurity to say, literature in translation, that helps you feel like you're accessing something else. Maybe it has to do with voice. Young American writers are often obsessed with the development of a voice above other things. At the very least, I think there's a strain of that in the MFA…school of thought.

Why do you think that is?

That’s hard to say. Maybe because some of your great writers, recent ones, have operated that way. Like whenever I read a slush pile, as I have done in various jobs here in the States, I often feel like they can be sorted into piles—the George Saunders pile and the David Foster Wallace pile, for instance.

Oof. Hard to say which is worse. Can you define each?

No, I would not like to do that.

Ha. Okay. And this sort of thing doesn't happen in Australia, you're saying?

No, not really. There just isn't a dominant trend like that, because if you're an Australian reader you're reading books from everywhere, in a way that American readers don't have to, I think. But I'm not sure about any of this. I don't usually compare things to Australia.

I have a sneaking suspicion this has something to do with genre delineation, but I don't know enough about the Australian lit scene. Here, I think, you have 'literary fiction' separated only by the presence of a dominant, clear, differentiated voice.

I'm not sure I believe that, but here's the thing—I don't spend time thinking about those questions because they're sort of academic, and if you're writing you can't be thinking about where what you're doing fits, because that isn't productive. You look at what you look at. I don't think of myself as a literary critic with a handle on what defines literary fiction and non-fiction, because I'm scared that having those questions in the forefront of one's mind can make what you do slightly prescriptive. Do you know what I mean?

Of course. Though I don't think considering these questions exempts you from not thinking about them when you're in a piece. Or that someone has to consider themselves a critic, literary or otherwise, to make ephemeral decisions about why things are the way they are. I do agree that an academic mindset usually doesn't lead to anything in the realm of creation that's worth consuming.

Yes, you're right.

That's all I want to hear. Do you come from an academic background in writing?

No, I developed an allergy to academic writing that I'm only just getting over.

Me too. Though I don't think I'm close to getting over it. What did you study?

History, English, French, but I hated the English degree because of the trends in some of the departments I studied in.

Such as?

Many of my professors were still living under the aegis of French theory. Derridean. Foucauldian. A lot of Lacanian. And I just reacted so strangely against it. I'm kind of contrarian and I hated the way those theoretical approaches totalize everything. How unromantic they are. In a way, you already know exactly what you're looking for, and you just have to find it. I’ve explained it this way before: it feels closed off to the world in a way that books, and other forms of criticism, don’t. I knew there was a problem at times when I could understand every word in a sentence of literary theory, but I couldn’t understand the real meaning of the sentence itself. I used to think that it was my fault, but eventually I started thinking, no, actually, it’s the sentence’s fault. It’s not truly built to be understood.

That's why there's Barthes.

There's an essay by Frank Kermode. The title, I wish I could remember it, but he starts with a sign that a biologist has on the wall of his lab, "Theories pass. The frog remains." As in, the frog is the thing. It's what you're concerned with. It will stay what it is even as your thoughts pass over it, and you theorize it, and you conduct experiments on it, and you try to find different ways to understand it. You can turn it into whatever you want in your study of it, and so can the other people studying it. He raises the danger in certain strains of critical thinking of replacing the frog with the theory.

That's not bad. Undermining in all the best ways.

Theory can jostle, try to become the central thing. And I guess I started thinking, "this isn't what I came for," and probably that pushed me toward doing primary, rather than secondary things, as in, being a writer, not an academic. Because truly, I would kind of love to be an academic, because my favorite thing to do is read. My second favorite is talk about what I've read. You would think that's great grounding for an academic! But my first hand experience was that in academia you're often elbowing and making the case for the importance of what you're doing, i.e., killing the frog. But maybe that was just my bad luck. Plenty of brilliant academics who don't wreck what they write about.

What is the most frog-like thing you think you can do with your career as a writer? That is, what would be a frog on its own? I think (hope) you know what I'm trying to say. Hard to speak within that specific metaphor.

Ha! Again, sorry to give an annoying answer, but I truly don't have one, except that I will

try to write about things that I want to understand better. So that will mean journalism. Beyond that I might be lying to you, which I would hate to do.

Well that seems to be the proper opposite of the thing you're actually allergic to: the pretense of knowing.

Yes, but things also change every six months. Two years ago I would not have thought about writing about what I'm now writing about. That's why it's fun, right? You get the next piece of information, it changes you. You go toward it and then—you're doing a new thing. You have a new job description. Like maybe I'll be a spoken word poet the next time we speak.

You know, I doubt that.

Well we can do a follow up to confirm.

Though, I think that's as close to a frog any of us can get.

Poetry? For sure. In my mind the greatest thing that can be written is still a poem. Like if you're the best and purest writer, you're a poet. Or rather, you're writing poems.


Well, that's when you're just using language. You're not bothering with information. You're writing. Nothing else. (I’m not a poet.)

I don't think I can agree with you here, but we're nearly out of time, and why not end on discord?

Right. Maybe when we finish I'll think more about that and also disagree with myself.

I hope so! Thanks for your time and your words Anna.

Sure! This was fun.