To preface this conversation, I’m tempted to just repeat my blurb of Danielle Dutton’s new book, Margaret the First, but instead I will just fill in the part that was cut. It goes something like this: “Ever since I read her brilliant book of miniatures, Attempts at a Life, and SPRAWL,her ecstatic portrait of a nervous housewife, I’ve told every serious reader I know that Danielle Dutton is a genius (this is the phrase that was cut), one of the most original and wonderfully weird prose stylists of our time.” “Genius” has become mostly an empty and suspect superlative when applied to literary talents, but I like thinking of it as sharing the same etymology as “generosity” (as both derive from the Latin generōsus, meaning “of noble birth”). It seems the right word to describe the brazen feat of tenderness Danielle pulls off in Margaret the First, her visionary portrait which rewrites the life of the much caricatured seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. And a genius that has for its roots a deep generosity also encompasses Danielle’s literary vision, including the books she has put out with her publishing project, Dorothy, which in only a few years has become one the most important protectors of urgent, weird, philosophical, non-market-driven literature—including Renee Gladman’s Ravickian series, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler, and Amina Cain’s Creature. On the eve of Margaret’s publication, Danielle and I spoke about her decade-long possession writing the book.
Kate Zambreno While reading Margaret the First, which traces the life of Margaret Cavendish in a series of miniatures, I thought of that line by Baudelaire: “Genius is childhood formulated with precision.” The beginning scenes conjuring up the moodiness and apartness of a brilliant child were incredibly rich for me, with language that reminded me of the early scenes of Jane Eyre—which reminds me of the condensed reading of Bronte’s book in your first collection, Attempts at a Life. How did you enter this imaginative space of Margaret’s childhood? Was this part of the possession, to try to think about Margaret’s childhood, and her voluptuary love of the beautiful and the strange?
Danielle Dutton The wonderful thing about writing Margaret’s childhood was that there wasn’t a ton of information about it. The biographies give you the same basic facts about the young Margaret Lucas, but the facts get thicker as she gets older, writes letters and books, is written about. Without so much to go on, her childhood seemed like an open field, so I felt free to play around in that space, and to write some of my own experiences of childhood into it: pastimes, horrors, daydreams. Actually, something that had to happen for me in general to write this book was that I had to let myself into Margaret, and Margaret into me. For a while I kept treating her as a historical figure instead of a character in my novel, which was odd, because from the beginning I’d been so drawn to her, felt like I related to her despite the centuries separating us, to her ambitions, her awkwardness, her bookishness, etc.
KZ That makes me think of Susan Sontag describing Anna Banti’s Artemesia, another novel about a misunderstood and famous female artist from history (the Italian Baroque painter Artemesia Gentileschi): “Never has the passion of novelist for protagonist been so intently formulated.” Was your desiring to capture Margaret somewhat like a love affair, as Sontag reads Banti’s possession?
DD Yes, absolutely, writing this book was like a love affair with Margaret—a tempestuous one too. And then when it was over and final edits had been made, I slipped into a kind of post-breakup void that took me some months to climb out of.
KZ I don’t think enough has been written about the mournful void a writer enters into when the intense labor of a project is done. I can think only of Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, setting off walking “in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” This also reminds me of that Joy Williams quote: “But a writer isn’t supposed to make friends with his writing. I don’t think.” To counter that, there’s a quote from a novelist you have referenced, who said that he considered all of his past books ex-lovers—which I guess is what I just suggested. What do you think?
DD That might have been me talking about Harry Mathews, who has this funny bit in his essay “For Prizewinners,” where he says that whenever someone comes up to him and praises one of his books it’s like someone praising his ex-wife. But yes, it was mournful, and I really did not expect it to be. I’d worked on this book on and off for a long time, and there were days when I thought I couldn’t wait to be done with it. Yet when it was finished, really out of my hands, I suddenly had this feeling like I didn’t know who I was without it. Who was I as a person and as a writer, who for so long had been immersed in the particular language of one particular book? But as for what a book is to you once it’s done—an old friend, an ex, a child, a stranger, a second cousin? My guess is it’s different for every book. I go through periods of feeling quite put off by my own books, then I’ll have these epiphanic-seeming mornings where I want to press them into people’s hands, and then late nights where I’ll hardly recognize them, and around it goes. My impulse, really, has been to step away from them once they’re done. Only I’m not quite there yet with this one, or with Margaret.
KZ Is it partially because you’re still invested in the problem of Margaret? There is the text, Margaret the First, and then there is the original figure, this complex artist and personage in history. I’m curious whether what Virginia Woolf writes about Margaret of Newcastle in A Room of One’s Own, the problems Woolf felt she poised, catalyzed the work (the word catalyst: like a chemistry experiment, like what Chloe and Olivia worked at together). What do you think about what Woolf says about Margaret in Room, do you think she demonizes her?
DD Well, there’s that passage about Margaret in A Room of One’s One, and then a whole essay called “The Duchess of Newcastle” in The Common Reader. The essay is more sympathetic, but in both Woolf brings the hammer down fairly hard. Still, it’s Woolf, and even that short passage in ARoOO includes one of my favorite lines about Margaret: “What a vision of loneliness and riot the thought of Margaret Cavendish brings to mind! as if some giant cucumber had spread itself all over the roses and carnations in the garden and choked them to death.” So Woolf’s take on Margaret absolutely affected my own, but I don’t see Margaret quite as Woolf saw her. For me she is that awkward cucumber, but also the roses and carnations. She spreads. She crushes. She’s crushed. Margaret is the whole garden.
KZ Speaking of Margaret’s gardens, this is an ornate time you’re conjuring up—the gardens, the inspirations from the Versailles court, the patches women wore on their cheeks, the wigs, the clothes, Margaret’s books. Was this partially what drew you in, to create your own world with hers? Your texts are often inspired by visual forms (the photographic tableaux of Laura Letinsky with SPRAWL), and Margaret’s descriptions are quite awash in the sensual, in the catalogue of objects. In some ways the form of Margaret felt quite visual to me, like a collage, and like a collage thinking through juxtaposition, blending different time periods. I like to imagine you thought of her excesses and eccentricities (which also marked a time) and thought of how it would be written as lists, in catalogue form.
DD Oh, I was deeply drawn in by the sensuality of the world I was reading about, then creating or conjuring. Much of my time researching Margaret was time spent on seventeenth-century garden design, for example, or the types of flowers they would have had available to them in the winter in London, or the types of mushrooms that grow in Sherwood Forest, or the sorts of desserts she might have eaten in Paris. I didn’t find this sort of work tedious at all. It was how I got myself into that world, through small and tangible, often edible or wearable, details. So the Margaret I came to see developing on the page was always very much part of the physical world around her, or more like tangled up in it, which makes sense as she herself had all these complicated ideas about matter and animation. I don’t know that I ever thought of any of it as a list, though I like the idea. Actually, wait—when Pat Strachan and I were working on the edits, she sent me a typed up list of certain words she sensed I was overusing. She didn’t do a search, she just felt these words were appearing more than they probably should, and the list itself was wonderful to me. I was fascinated by the out-of-context story it seemed to tell about my book. I can’t find it right now, but it was all sensual, even a bit frothy. Something like: pink, silk, window, glass, feather, silver, storm.
KZ In the book we proceed from childhood quite quickly into Margaret’s adolescence and puberty, and then womanhood, marriage, the painful and repetitive attempts to get pregnant (which yields some of my favorite writing in the book, like the catalogue of curatives that points to the absurdity and futility of that process). Underneath is this bursting to create, to make art. One of the remarkable aspects of Margaret, and all of your work, is your mode of writing straining against this circumscribed life in ways that are both witty and mournful at the same time.
DD It’s funny, in one way my books don’t seem to have all that much to do with each other, but then again, from book to book, it does seem I have a desire to investigate female lives, not to represent them in some exterior way, but to burrow inside them and start to crack up what’s calcified there, to press against repression or restriction, or even narrative itself, to press against whatever is holding that life too tightly. Then again, even that rambling and awkward thought is so much more definite than anything I would think to myself when I sit down to write. The truth is I don’t quite know why I write about the body and gender. I imagine it’s something I can’t articulate any other way than through the writing of these lives.
KZ Your characters are often taken from fiction, such as the Jane Eyre piece I mentioned, or if not explicitly, they seem inspired by literary archetypes (the suppressed suburban housewife in SPRAWL has always read like a contemporary Mrs. Dalloway or Madame Bovary to me). And the title of your first book, Attempts at a Life, has somehow characterized your entire published oeuvre so far—a beautifully strange and syncopated biography-as-fiction. Do you see this as your project, “Attempts at a Life”? And what about the project of rewriting or reframing literary history interests you?
DD I think my whole project of being alive is trying to figure out how to be alive! I laughed all the way through Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? for the same reason. How should a person be? I’m sure I don’t know. I try one way, I try another. It’s exhausting. Reading has been such an important part of how I’ve tried to understand how to be in the world, and I suppose writing is another way of doing this. Maybe I understood Jane Eyre as a reader but not yet as a writer? Maybe reading is never quite enough and I want to keep living inside the books I love? Actually, I think this question connects up to the last one. My “Jane Eyre” was really written out of desire to burst Jane out of Jane Eyre—which, to be clear, is one of my favorite novels. There’s another story in Attempts called “Alice James” about the sister of William and Henry; again, I wanted to bust her loose from her own biography. Same goes with the story “The Portrait of a Lady”—how I wanted to help Isabel Archer escape from James’s spider web! And I guess it’s clear that in some sense I wanted to help Margaret Cavendish explode out of stories that had been told about her, out of that and into a wider space.
KZ Thinking of the material conditions necessary to create art that Woolf writes about in A Room of One’s Own, this conversation we are still having: Is writing always a slow process for you? Is this solely due to the contingencies of time? Do you think when you’re not writing you’re also somehow writing?
DD I would love to think that when I’m not writing I’m also always writing. This would be a huge relief! But since I’ve had a kid, it feels less and less true. My life feels more compartmentalized. It’s not that being a mom doesn’t influence how I write—it does, and I think it was an important part of my writing this book actually. But when I’m “being a mom” I’m in a really different headspace from when I’m “being a writer” or even just “being myself.” I now can see clearly the difference between that compartmentalization and how things worked when I wrote my previous book; back then, everything kept weaving its way back to the writing. Waiting for a bus. Watching TV. Walking down the street. Somehow the whole world felt relevant to my writing. Maybe that had something to do with being younger? Maybe it was because I was writing a book set in a contemporary space versus one set in the seventeenth century? But I do suspect it’s also because back then I didn’t have anything else to do but think about my book. I mean, I had to teach classes and wash myself, but I didn’t have to get a little human in and out of a bath, and to bed on time, to school on time, to keep him safe and happy and well-fed, etc. But to answer your first question: yes, I suppose I have come to think of myself as something of a slow writer. For that matter, I also think of myself as a slow publisher. This is something of a revelation I’ve had over the past decade or so, and it’s confused me a little. Coming off of SPRAWL, which only took me about a year to write, I was thinking of myself as a fast writer. In general, when I was younger, I wanted to move quickly from experience to experience without getting stuck. But I’m interested now in what happens when you sit and watch, in attention as a kind of radical act.
KZ It’s uncanny you write that: “attention as a radical act.” I’ve written down some version of that phrase, fairly recently, in my own notebook. I also like Simone Weil’s line: “Attention is prayer.” What does it mean for a work of art to inspire that sort of attention, when so much of experiencing the world now, the physical landscape of the world as well as the Internet, is about distraction? And for the actual making of a work of art, the actual writing, being about watching, being still, the gaze?
DD The instances I’ve been most interested in are works where what would normally be thought of as “dramatic action” is basically thrown out, and the “act” of the work is an act of attention, the reader engaged in attending to the world of the story. Into this category you could put some of Robbe-Grillet’s work, or Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” or Piotr Swezc’s small novel Annihilation, which basically takes the reader on a charming guided tour through a Polish shtetl prior to WWII, at some point implying almost as an afterthought that this whole village, its everyday life and inhabitants, which you have just come to know, will soon be firebombed to nothing. It’s the simplest gesture: the book forces the reader to attend to this place in all its particulars, its life, and then, practically off the page, destroys it. It’s a devastating book.
KZ There is also something radical about slowness in a work, suggesting a life where writing is about process—not product. I’ve been thinking lately about a quality of buoyancy in writing that has something, perhaps, to do with not only texture and rhythm but the immediacy of the voice, the performance. But the kinetic, buoyant quality of a work like Margaret doesn’t reveal this slow struggle of authorship. Can you characterize more the process of writing and rewriting this book? Was the form and language always apparent to you, or did it go through many different metamorphoses and drafts?
DD God, what a relief to hear that it doesn’t show that struggle. The truth is the book was a struggle to write, but I’ve come to think it had to be—in part because it’s about the struggle to write and the constant nearness, for any artist, of failure. I began writing it way back in 2006. But it seems hardly fair to say it was this book I began. Is this book the sum of all the books I thought it was going to be along the way? I thought it was going to be a novel about the year 1666, with Cavendish as just one character. And I thought it was going to be more fragmented, less of an arc of a life. I never imagined it then as a kind of portrait of her, a fictional biography, but it moved more and more in that direction as I wrote, as she basically took over all my other plans. So, yes, many changes, many drafts. For a while it was in six sections and each section took place in a different garden. For a while there was a murder mystery involved, but sort of off the page. I mean those iterations have left so little a trace on the final book that it’s pretty much just hilarious they ever existed. They exist for me only, like little phantoms. As for the language, one of the oldest pieces in the book is the beginning of the final part, where she’s staring out at the snow falling at Welbeck Abbey. I wrote that way back in 2006 or 2007, thinking it would be one of the Margaret Cavendish sections of that imaginary novel I never wrote about 1666. So, yes, in a way, the language of the book, or one of the languages of the book, was there all along. It was the form I had to come to over time, and once I found the form I still had to find my way to Margaret. Or maybe finding my way to Margaret was how I found the form.
KZ I love the idea of former iterations of a book that exist only in phantoms. But then there’s a writer like the Argentinean novelist César Aira, whose work I also see yours in conversation with, who moves forward with each of his works, moves forward without interrupting. What’s striking for me about Aira’s work (and yours) is that there’s a suddenness to it, an immediate quality, which I can also link to the shorts of Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, while also somehow a denseness, a “sublime patience” (quoting from Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, which you first introduced to me). And thinking of Episode and Margaret, both are historical novels that play with genre, in Aira’s case the speculative scenario of a fictional nineteenth-century landscape painter somewhat in the mode of Alexander von Humboldt. Both books are also quite short, while taking on, in some ways, an entire life of an artist, like a movement of expansion and constriction and the same time.
DD An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is a such a gem of a novel. It’s so entirely itself, doing only what it wants to do, and doing that exact thing gorgeously. It’s nice to think of Margaret in conversation with it. But writing Margaret was obviously not a “flight forward.” Aira is curious to me, the persona he puts out there, the writer as character, his “procedure,” the whole “publish first, write later” wink wink stuff. I remember reading an NYRB article about him and the headline was “The Novelist Who Can’t Be Stopped.” I thought: Yes, he’s a machine! There’s no off switch. But the books are good. He’s a good machine. And I should say, I teach Aira frequently and like talking about all of this, find it instructive, both his work itself and his ideas about writing and art. But I just don’t relate to the “flight forward” very much. I would have, I think, if I’d come across him ten or fifteen years ago. But there was something luxurious to the writing of Margaret, which I don’t think I would have felt if it had been all quickness and speed.