Angela Carter. Photograph and copyright: Tara Heinemann
Angela Carter is a British novelist and short story writer whose works include: The Bloody Chamber, Nights at the Circus and The Magic Toyshop. She also co-wrote the screenplay with Neil Jordan for The Company of Wolves based on her short story of the same title. Ms. Carter’s most recent collection of short fiction, Saints and Strangers was published in September by Viking Penguin. The following interview took place over the phone, late one night in September, between New York and Iowa, where Ms. Carter is teaching at the Iowa Writers Program.
Rosemary Carroll How do you like Iowa?
Angela Carter Actually, we like it a lot. This area is uncrowded, with many trees and not much else for miles. This is where the great glacier was held up, right around here, and the land formations are unusual. You can watch a pickup truck drive along an unmade road and see the dust rise from the tires and settle back down. You can’t often do that elsewhere because too many other things happen.
RC I know that you lived in New England for a while, but I presume this is the first time you’ve really spent in the Midwest. Do you find it very different?
AC Yes, it’s quite a surprise. There is so much open space. I hadn’t expected to see so many small rural farms—there’s not much of that left in the United States, is there? It is very low and quiet. We—I and my young man—have a yard here and our son loves it. We watch him turn brown playing in the sun. He has taken to catching crickets and keeping them in a cage. I wonder if there is some rule that people who eat whole foods shouldn’t allow their children to imprison crickets.
RC A vegetarian corollary.
AC Yes, that sort of thing.
RC From reading your books, I had the sense that you have an impression of America as a land that is ultimately somewhat disorienting—a place where the light and the heat are so intense that they are almost crippling or mutating. America comes across as a place where things happen to people and people are not in control, or aware, of their own lives. Is that accurate?
AC I’m not sure. I know what you mean though. I think maybe you’re referring to the short story, The Cabinet of Edgar Allan Poe, the bit about the “laser light of the republic.”
RC Yes, that and The Fall River Axe Murders.
AC Well, they were both written while I was living in Providence, Rhode Island and the area fascinated me. I just walked and watched and listened. (Europeans are often like that around Americans though—like dogs watching their masters.) The atmosphere was so permeated with the Republican virtues. It admitted very little. The feeling was of a place having been chosen and of there being no possibility that the choice was not absolutely correct.
RC And yet in Passion of the New Eve there is this wonderful depiction of the American desert as a place where transformation is easy, almost infinitely possible, even if it’s not a desirable transformation.
AC I think the transformation in the novel was certainly desirable. I have actually seen the desert here, though. I made the great cross-country trip Americans always say they want to make. In 1969 my husband, my first husband, and I drove across the United States in a Greyhound bus. We went from New York to San Francisco, by way of New Orleans because we were both fond of the jazz music from there. We went south to El Paso and then through the desert to California. The whole trip only lasted six days but it was quite an experience.
Stills from The Company of Wolves. Courtesy of The Cannon Group.
RC I have been wanting to ask you whether you liked Neil Jordan’s film version of your story The Company of Wolves?
AC Well, I wrote the script, you know.
RC You and he collaborated on the script, didn’t you? I imagine the collaborative process would be very difficult. It reminds me of something William Burroughs once said to the effect that to collaborate is to lie.
AC Oh no, we got along very well. We are good friends and I enjoyed doing it. I’m just sorry for Neil’s sake that the movie didn’t do better commercially. I was afraid that would really hurt his chance to make future films. But his new movie, Mona Lisa, is doing very well, so he’s hitting the high spots.
RC But the end of the film Company of Wolves is so different from the story.
AC I was furious about the ending. It wasn’t scripted that way at all. I was out of the country—in Australia when he shot the ending and he told me that it varied somewhat from the script. When I went to the screening I sat with Neil and I was enjoying the film very much and thinking that it had turned out so well—just as I had hoped. Until the ending which I couldn’t believe—I was so upset, I said, “You’ve ruined it.” He was apologetic.
RC How had the ending originally been scripted?
AC After she encounters the wolf at her grandmother’s house and what has happened becomes apparent she wakes up. Her body elongates beautifully and she does a perfect swan dive into the floorboards which turn into the surface of a body of water that swallows her. But that proved impossible to film. They tried covering the floor with water, but that didn’t work and she couldn’t just dive into the floor.
But even if it wasn’t possible to end the film as planned, I wish he had ended it right after the part where the white rose turns red.
RC I prefer the way your story ends—with her lying in grandmother’s bed between the wolf’s paws.
AC I do, too. Neil kept trying to convince me that his ending was potentially more ambiguous than it seemed. He maintains that her screams when the camera is panning the outside of the house are screams of pleasure, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way to me.
RC I think men frequently have the mistaken belief that women are screaming in pleasure rather than in terror.
AC True. Perhaps the problem is that Sarah Peterson is not a very explicit screamer. In any case, I really did like the movie as a whole. I try to think that the falsity of the ending won’t even be noticed—everybody in the audience will be looking for their shoes and it will go right by.
RC I read an interview with Neil Jordan recently in which he asked what prompted his transition from writing fiction to making films. He said it was related to an increasing awareness on his part of the extent to which his prose had always been affected by cinema. He became more and more obsessed with the look and shape of things and began to feel that prose was an inadequate method of conveying these concerns. Is that a feeling you share? Do you have any desire to do more writing for film?
AC I enjoyed working on Company of Wolves with Neil. And I have done some other work on scripts. When I do it I like it but I have no great desire to seek it out. Right now, Granada Television is making a film based on another work of mine, my second novel, The Magic Toyshop. I’m quite pleased with it actually. It will be a television movie, at least initially, and so, of course, the budget is much lower than it was for Company of Wolves. The cast includes this wonderful English actor, Tom Bell, have you ever heard of him?
RC No, is he going to play Finn?
AC No. He is cast as the uncle. He specializes in heavies—gangsters, Nazis and so on. He has a fantastic knack for portraying motiveless malignity, he will be just right. The director, David Wheatley, has worked mostly for British television—what drew us together was a film he made ages ago about the Brothers Grimm, that was full of terrific imagery and invention. David started out as a sculptor, oddly enough. We had a lovely time inventing imagery for The Magic Toyshop. He has a real feel for the book.
RC I love that book—it is such a stunning evocation of adolescence. The scene in which Melanie is trapped while climbing the tree in her mother’s wedding gown is perfect—it completely captures that feeling of uncertain anticipation. This is an underconnectedness of events and you don’t know which one is dependent on the other but you know that there is an incredibly important relation between them and it is all very wonderful and frightening at the same time.
AC You liked that? I’m glad. I am hopeful about the movie. I don’t think it will suffer from the small budget, because that story shouldn’t really require so much money to realize on film.
RC I think that is true. Besides, a lower budget doesn’t always translate into a good movie; in fact, the inverse is sometimes true. Do you feel that your prose is affected by cinema?
AC Since I’ve become a mother, I don’t go to the movies much. But certainly the way I view the world has been influenced by them. I think that must be true for most writers. The early Godard films had a very strong effect on the way I observe and see the world. They are extraordinary. And not just Godard. For example, I think of Barbara Stanwyck’s descent down the stairs in Double Indemnity. First, you see the stiletto-heeled shoe then the ankle with the chain around it, then the legs and the full, rich shine of her stockings. You know she is going to be a femme fatale long before you even see her face.
RC Have you seen Hail Mary?
AC No, I refuse to. I could hardly believe Godard would do such a thing. I’ve read about it and I saw clips from it on television and all I could think of was “Jean Luc, you have crapped upon an entire generation.”
RC What is your favorite movie?
AC You mean my favorite movie ever, of all time.
AC I would have to say that it is Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, with a script by Jacques Prévert and extraordinary performances by just about everyone who was anybody in the French cinema: Jean-Louis Barrault, Arletty, Maria Cesarés … It is the definitive film about romanticism; and about the impossibility of happy endings; and also about the nature of monochrome photography, and the character of Pierrot in the Comedia del Arte and lots of things. It is an enormous, cumbersome, comprehensive world of a movie, and one in which it always seems possible to me, I might be able to jump through the screen into, and live there, in a state of luminous anguish, just like everybody else in the movie.
RC Much of your work seems to exist in the borderline area between consciousness and dreams. The stories are dreamlike in structure and share other qualities with dreams—symbolic transformations, ritualistic, referent use of name and language, and the fulfillment of unexpressed, or even denied, desire. Do you keep a journal of your dreams?
AC I don’t dream. Rather, I never remember my dreams and on the rare occasions when I do, they are completely banal. Last night, for example, I dreamed that I woke up and went to the bathroom.
But this resemblance to dreams is deliberate, conscious as it were. I have studied dreams extensively and I know about their structure and symbolism. I think dreams are a way of the mind telling itself stories. I use free association and dream imagery when I write. I like to think I have a hot line to my subconscious.
RC One of the themes that recurs is concerned with a sort of cataclysmic upheaval in childhood. Were you uprooted when you were a child?
AC All English children in my generation were, at least all those living in London. I was born in 1940. My mother left London carrying me in her arms with my 12-year-old brother. Almost no one remained actually living in London at that time. We went south to Sussex and stayed there for a while. Then we went to live with my grandmother in the country in the North. My mother would stay with my grandmother and I for a few weeks and then commute to London to be with my father and then return to us. But I remember this as a happy time somehow.
RC That is interesting to me—that you grew up essentially as an only child in a house full of women. The aspect of your work that I most appreciate is this unique sense of real love for, and protectiveness towards, other women. It is something that I look for in women writers and almost never find.
AC What you say about the feeling toward women makes me happy—because it is very important to me. But I don’t understand your comparison to other women writers. What do you mean?
RC Women writers frequently adopt a tone or an attitude toward their female characters which is somewhat negative and ungenerous. It comes across as either whining self-indulgence or congratulatory, stolid self-reliance. There is so little compassion.
AC To whom do you refer?
RC Let’s say, Joan Didion, for example.
AC Yah, boo, sucks. Although I am a card-carrying and committed feminist, what I would like to see happen to Joan Didion’s female characters is that a particularly hairy and repulsive chapter of Hells Angels descend upon their therapy group with a squeal of brakes and sweep these anorexic nutters behind them despite their squeaks of protest. Like a version, dare I say it, of the rape of the Sabine women. And bear them off to hard labour in the grease pits. Or else ten years compulsory re-education in the coffee plantations of Nicaragua might do the trick, make those girls feel there are worse things in life than running out of valium. Except what lousy fun it would be for the Angels. And the Nicaraguans might feel with justice it was a particularly foul CIA plot.
Actually, I think Joan Didion is an alien from another planet. Can we talk about a real novelist?
RC To take a somewhat less obviously despicable example, then—Doris Lessing.
AC She is quite an odd one, too. But as far as her feelings toward women or women characters go, they don’t seem objectionable.
RC She seems incapable of finding sustenance or delight in the company of women. There is such an absence of joy.
AC I wouldn’t limit it to her women characters, though. Some people think life is worth living and others really don’t see the point of the whole thing. She is one of the latter—it is her entire view of the world,
RC The only woman I can think of, off hand, who is different in this respect is Jane Bowles.
AC Now you’re talking. She is wonderful, extraordinary. But what a tragically sad end she met—it is, I suppose, a particularly poignant example of the terrifying fatality of being a woman.
RC In the Sadeian Woman you stated that in Sade’s work women do not exist as a class and are subsumed into the general class of the weak, the tyrannized, and the exploited. There is a suggestion that this denigration is connected with the fact that the reproductive aspect of female sexuality was completely devalued in Sade’s culture. Assuming that is valid, its antithesis leaves us with the earth-mother-goddess as the essence of the “valued” woman. And that is a somewhat problematic role model for women in the 20th century.
AC Or any century for that matter. Societies have never placed a very high value on the reproductive capacity of their women. The productivity of land, the availability of natural resources, the fecundity of thought, these are the things that must be valued.
What concerns me is the fact that the actual physical aspect of this has been ignored for so long. Statistics are compiled about infant mortality. What about maternal mortality? I have three close friends who have had children within the past several years for whom successful childbirth would have been impossible five years ago. All of them would surely have died. I have been reading a collection of Chinese short stories written in China in the 1920s. The only woman writer in the collection died in childbirth at the age of 34. And in so many parts of the world this situation is still unchanged. The reality of it is ignored, or not focused on. Women have not had a voice until so recently and even now this issue is not one with which the women’s movement seems concerned.
RC Had you always wanted to have a child?
AC No, never. They had to drag me, kicking and screaming, into the labor ward. I kept insisting that it was too late, that I was too old for such things.
RC Has being a mother changed your perspectives?
AC No, not really. Well, it has changed my life. We have so much less time than we did. His father’s life is just as changed as mine.
But Alexander, my son, is a wonderful little person. He is going on three. I am getting used to having these great numbers of people in the car that are all his friends, his made-up friends. He is amazingly busy all the time, and that is hard work.
But we both feel the impact and the joy and the strain. I don’t think that Alexander has a greater effect on me necessarily. That is part of the myth of sexual difference.
RC What is the myth of sexual difference?
AC The idea that maleness is normative and that women’s difference from men is somehow pathological. This mythology lends itself, for example, to the idea that there is some mysterious connection between women and madness when in fact women are no more specifically connected with madness than are men.
RC I wanted to ask you about mythology in general and its place in your work. Reviewers and critics frequently stress the presence of mythological and fabulist elements in your fiction. Yet, you have said, “Myths deal in false universals to dull the pain of particular circumstances.” Do you think this critical emphasis is misplaced?
AC Yes, but I understand how it’s happened—there is something classy about invoking myth, it implies you’ve got a college education, people like to spot myths, it makes them feel good. That’s fine. I am interested in the way people make sense, or try to make sense, of their experience and mythology is part of that, after all. I’m a Freudian, in that sense, and some others, too. But I see my business, the nature of my work, as taking apart mythologies, in order to find out what basic, human stuff they are made of in the first place.