"When we really like a book, it's often because its rhythm is similar to our own—to our heartbeat, our breathing, the way we walk. I think that's what draws us to certain writers and not to others even though we know they are great."
Roberta Allen's latest collection of stories, The Princess of Herself (Pelekinesis), offers us a lens into human distortion. In humorous and sharply clipped prose, she takes us through a landscape of characters squarely in denial of who they are.
Allen's own life and career trajectory have exposed her to a variety of people, places, and modalities. Born in New York City to a Russian gambler father, she grew up in the Ansonia Hotel long before its rooms were converted to condos. She resided in the West Village in the early 1960s before traveling alone to Europe, where she married a German sculptor and lived in Athens, Amsterdam, and Berlin. She returned to the U.S. and became an exhibiting artist, showing sculpture and conceptual drawings with the John Weber Gallery and in solo gallery and museum shows in Europe and Australia. At age thirty-five, Allen embarked on her writing career, publishing nine books that include story collections, experimental fiction, and writing guides. A catalogue raisonné of her artist books has just been issued, following a 2016 exhibition at The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library in La Jolla, California.
John Zinsser You told me before that you had come to writing through art.
Roberta Allen All my conceptual art used image and text. So it wasn't that big a leap. I began writing stories in 1979 while making conceptual art. I started with short shorts.
JZ Tell me about the writing course you took with Robert Phelps.
RA He was a very popular teacher at The New School. He was also a wonderful editor, author and translator, especially of Colette. He was one of the founders of Grove Press but sold it early on. He was like a mentor. He just loved my writing. His praise really spurred me on. I took his course in the early '80s, when I was already sick of the art world. I felt more at home writing. It just seemed simpler. And I didn't have to see people. I could send out my writing and I never had to confront them. My first publication was in an anthology called Contemporary American Fiction, with John Ashbery and Walter Abish, which was a great start.
JZ How did The Princess of Herself come about?
RA My other books have mostly been about odd incidents while traveling to foreign (sometimes remote) places, mostly by myself. This is the first collection that doesn't take place on my travels. In this book, we're in a village in upstate New York where I had a cottage for several years. The characters live there full-time and come from the city. A lot of them are retired. And they have money. When I lived there, I was exposed to people my age who sometimes seemed as foreign to me as those I met on my travels. There seemed to be a disconnect between me and them and between them and each other. Often, what they said, what they did, surprised me. They inspired my characters.
JZ Why did you want to write stories about people who delude themselves?
RA I come from an extremely dysfunctional family. My father, who committed suicide when I was seventeen, was the sane one compared to my mother and grandmother. I think choosing to write about these characters, who are certainly not as extreme as my family, is still my way of trying to figure out—at least unconsciously—who my mother and father and grandmother were and what made them behave the way they did. I include myself in this exploration. You don’t escape from a family like this without scars. I often attract people who are also scarred. Or just odd. They feel familiar. Looking back, I can laugh about a lot of stories I remember from my past that were anything but funny at the time.
JZ Most of the stories are set in a small village in the Catskills. What inspired these kinds of story about that place?
RA This village in the Catskills reminds me of living for a brief time in what was West Berlin in the sixties. It was an isolated place. Of course, this village isn't isolated in the usual way since it’s so close to New York. It feels like an escape from the city and I think the people who moved there from the city saw themselves as being free of their pasts. I could be projecting. Maybe because I only lived in this village part-time I could have the kind of distance that I had writing stories about my travels. In the Catskills, I felt like I was on an extended trip to a foreign place. I could take it in with fresh eyes—it was new. I’d never lived in the country before. The people who came into my life were new but what made them interesting to me were their quirks, their idiosyncrasies, their delusions—things I emphasize in the stories. They’re no different to me than the odd incidents I wrote about in previous story collections that took place on some of my solo trips to third world countries. Writing itself is a journey to discover what I know that I didn’t know I knew before writing it. It’s every bit as exciting as actually taking a trip.
JZ Are some of your observations in the book based on real experiences you've had?
RA Yes, but I consider all stories fiction. Because our memory is different all the time and what we remember depends on when you're writing a story. It doesn't matter how much you think you're sticking to the reality. Stories are shaped as much by what you've forgotten as they are by what you remember.
JZ How did you go about naming the characters, for example, The Dutchman or The Green Haired Woman?
RA I wanted to think of a single trait or profession that was often made-up that would still be that character to me. I've never used actual names in a story. Never.
JZ I notice that you make overt mention of your own choices as an author. For example, where you say, "Should I mention…"
RA I think of all stories as an exploration. The questioning is just part of that, especially when it comes to writing and to memory. At one point a character is reading a story and he says, "It didn't happen like that." And, "I didn't say anything like that." I've always been interested in the workings of the mind. Both my mind and the minds of others.
JZ It asks the reader to be aware of the decisions that the writer is making along the way. Is this reflective of your writing process?
RA I'm always digging into the story as I write it, often to see what the story really is about. I start with a rough draft that has some urgency. Then I do multiple revisions until I feel like I know where the story is going. To get there, I am always taking things out that feel unimportant, adding to what's there, taking things out again, putting things back—on and on, while questioning the story in my mind or on paper. That sense of urgency always has to be in the story while I work on it. Rhythm is very important to me. When we really like a book, it's often because its rhythm is similar to our own—to our heartbeat, our breathing, the way we walk. I think that's what draws us to certain writers and not to others, even though we know they are great.
A single story could be many stories. I am always playing with possibilities, as I do in my conceptual art as well. There are many ways that I could construct the narrative using the same incidents. In Raymond Queneau's book, Exercises in Style [Exercicis d'estil], he offers up a very simple situation he tells in ninety-nine different ways. I love this book, because, I think, yes, that's exactly right. So if somebody asks you how autobiographical it is, yeah, sure, it's autobiographical, but it could be told any number of different ways. One friend of mine called them "anti-stories."
JZ "Anti-stories" because they willfully work against the sort of veracity of what happened? Or because they are against the norms of fiction?
RA They're not the way that fiction normally works.
JZ You insert yourself as the author more than I am accustomed to. It's a kind of hyper-awareness of the telling. It's an objectifying of the process of writing.
RA I don't see it as objectifying. Just the opposite. That's the really personal part of the process.
JZ To me it's very much about form.
RA The form of each story grows out of my musings and free associations as I revise. What I decide to leave in are usually details that are odd or absurd. And I don't really think that these characters are that different from real people. But they are sometimes more extreme in the way that I present them.
JZ So, any person who you encounter could become one of your characters?
RA I never write about people I am close to. I write about people I've observed. Humor also plays a role. The humor comes from a kind of blindness. All my story collections and my novel seem to deal with people who can't see themselves clearly. Sometimes, the narrator is also blind to herself.
JZ Certainly in fiction, film, television, photography, we are now in an age where "truth" and "fiction" are plied against each other.
RA Not plied against each other—merged.
JZ Has your work always maintained a tension between truth and fiction?
RA I mean, every story is a questioning—more so in these stories perhaps. Sometimes I just know I want to write something. But I really don't know what the idea is until I actually start writing it. Then it really becomes an exploration. I never plot stories. If I knew the plot beforehand, I’d never write the story. The closest I get to plot is the retelling of an incident or incidents but I never know where that retelling will lead me.
JZ To take the examples of the short ones: Isn't there something performative about a little piece of something?
RA Performative? No. But the stories are visual.
JZ You leave a lot to the imagination by only revealing seemingly minor incidents and details about the characters. The reader has to interpret a lot based on these kind of incisive moments. You're not filling out all of that information into a 300-page book. It's like 200 pages fell out of the book.
RA (laughter) More like 275 pages fell out of the book! What I'm digging for is the essence. I don't consider these incidents minor. Other than trauma, what is life but everyday incidents? I isolate incidents to give them more power. I don't give details that aren't absolutely necessary. I think the reader can more easily connect to the stories that way. But the language must be precise. A story can't work without precision.
JZ But you did kind of find yourself moving from these shortened stories to longer stories?
RA The longer stories in the book are the ones I wrote later or they were revised so much they have little to do with what was there initially. It's interesting to me how much these stories changed once I had the book assembled. I really didn't see how much I was going to revise. At first, I thought, well, all the stories are published in literary magazines and anthologies. Then I went back and looked at them. All but one I revised. I think I'm a stronger writer than I was when I initially started writing this book. In the longer stories I questioned more. I felt there was a larger context. I don't think I ever enjoyed writing a book as much as this one.
JZ Do you usually "enjoy" writing? I don't think of that as a verb that most writers use.
RA I love writing. Yes. Very rare that I don't. I love revising even when it takes a long time. It's a challenge. I have files with who knows how many drafts…. I mean, I probably have to get rid of some of them. I don't print them out anymore. But I have enormous numbers of drafts of almost everything that I've ever written.
JZ What other writers have influenced you?
RA The two major ones are Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector. I found Lispector in the '80s. Now, she's very big and she's an amazing writer. I was ready to go to Brazil to meet her. She was already dead by then, but I always saw her stories and her novels as really writing consciousness.
JZ You have categorized your fiction as "experimental." That creates quite a different expectation from what I encountered when I received the galleys of the book. Because the book spoke to me quite plainly. I think any reader could enjoy it.
RA I think it’s more accurate to call my stories—certainly the longer ones—experimental auto-fiction. Yes, it's easy to read. Experimental doesn't necessarily mean difficult. My novel, The Dreaming Girl, is experimental but very easy to read. My writing is coming from conceptual art which is a very different place to come from than that of most writers. I learned how to write by writing statements about my conceptual art during the eight years I showed with the John Weber Gallery. My work wasn't that difficult to understand but it was difficult to write about. My statement in 1980 for a show at MoMA PS1 sounds rather poetic to me now in comparison to earlier ones about redefining common signs. I wanted my writing to be more personal. Writing fiction was a relief. It freed me.
JZ So what is your definition for fiction?
RA Fiction is what feels real. It has to feel real no matter what is written or how it's written.
Allen's solo show of new work will be on view at Minus Space in Brooklyn from November 4 to December 23, 2017.
John Zinsser is a painter and a diarist. His show, Lives of Greta Garbo, opens at Von Lintel Gallery, Los Angeles, in September. He teaches a lecture class about New York art exhibitions at The New School.