An Aesthetic of Immediacy: Kate Zambreno Interviewed by Julia Bosson

A diaristic exploration inspired by Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life.

Kate Zambreno's book, To Write as if Already Dead, with a pale cream color with an overexposed, fading image of a scull.

In the opening chapters of Hervé Guibert’s novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, he writes, “I’m beginning a new book to have a companion, someone with whom I can talk, eat, sleep, at whose side I can dream and have nightmares, the only friend whose company I can bear at present.” Writing, for Guibert, who is documenting his AIDS diagnosis, offers a paradoxical intimacy, one that provides companionship while permitting absolute solitude. 

What complicates this equation is the presence of the reader. In Kate Zambreno’s To Write As If Already Dead (Columbia University Press), which she sees as a study of Guibert’s novel, she calls attention to the acts of reading and writing, using the form of the notebook to give life to the dynamics between the two. In this book, she maps a constellation of ideas, illnesses, authors, travels, friends, betrayals, and artists, taken from Guibert’s orbit as well as her own. What follows is a book that reads as an extended conversation between two writers.

Like much of Zambreno’s work, To Write As If Already Dead is highly attuned to the pleasures and possibilities of writing. She builds off Guibert to hint that while writing can take the form of companionship and solitude it can also be both and neither. Writing, she suggests, can offer privacy as well as communion. It can both mark the passage of time and obfuscate its progress. Writing can be a sketch, a failure, a confession, an expression and a negation of the self. Writing can come from the body, writing can replicate the texture of thought. Writing can be walking, a way of seeing, a physical space in itself. And for Zambreno as well as Guibert, writing can also serve as a missive of urgency: “Writing is a way to mark an ‘I’ before it is extinguished.” 

—Julia Bosson


Julia Bosson I was actually first introduced to your work from the Susan Sontag piece that came out in BOMB in 2016. 

Kate Zamberno I wrote that piece in a notebook—it felt so slight and fun, almost prankish in its digressions that I thought, I want to call this fiction. I felt like I was getting away with something. And I sent it to Mónica de la Torre at BOMB. Then Mónica ran this weird text and image project I did with the artist B. Ingrid Olson, where she framed these prose meta-introductions as part of her show at the Albright-Knox. Screen Tests would not exist if BOMB had not published those pieces. 

JB Sontag as a figure recurs throughout much of your writing, but often with regard to her notebooks. Reading those, or Kafka’s journals, or Guibert’s Mausoleum of Lovers produces an entirely different experience of literature. In some ways, I think I enjoy Susan Sontag’s diaries more than her critical work.

KZ It’s a good parlor game—what do we like more, a writer’s “masterworks” or their diaries? Sontag’s diaries are in a way more interesting than her essays. They are so pedantic, showing the fervent desire to think, and more saturated with ego, with the self and its discontents. 

I would almost say I prefer Virginia Woolf’s diaries to some of the novels. In the diaries, you get the sense of a mind in doubt, you get the sense of time. There is a wrongness to people’s diaries—I think that’s what makes them compelling. Woolf is different than Sontag in that Woolf is really aware of a future reader when she was writing the diaries. Sontag was less so.

Photo of white woman with short, curly hair and bangs in a black blazer, with her hand under her chin

Photo of Kate Zambreno by Heather Sten.

JB The notebook has a particular relationship to time. It can reflect the sense that writing is a process that happens through accretion, the accumulation of days. The present tense of the notebook also serves as a particularly useful mode for writing through a time of emergency. Drifts is in many ways about the perception and the measure of time, as is To Write As If Already Dead. 

KZ I was always interested in Guibert’s sense of time in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. It feels like a document written out of absolute necessity, an experience desperate to be communicated. Guibert wrote his illness texts so quickly with tremendous speed but also with such difficulty. We always get a sense of mortality and the deadline, the immediacy of a body in the room. We get a sense of the passage of time.

I’m interested in work which is ephemeral because time is ephemeral. So how can we actually make time and the body the subject? That’s one reason I am drawn to the Japanese “I” novel, like Yūko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, which came out in the late ’70s. Within the structure of fiction, there is still the sense of time passing, of seasons changing, the mention of the cherry blossoms, the Japanese concept of mono no aware.

In my book, I quote this line from Guibert’s Compassion Protocol: “It is when what I am writing takes the form of a journal that I most strongly feel that I am writing fiction.” To the Friend seems like a notebook but is intensely shaped and structured. Some readers think sometimes that if a work feels like a notebook that it comes from a notebook, as opposed to desiring a quality that is like a notebook. 

JB That suggests the trouble notebook forms pose to genre. You mention that one of Rilke’s alternate titles for his novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge was “Journal of My Other Self.” That is such a perfect answer to the question of the genre of a text, which could be litigated forever. 

KZ It is so boring. 

JB So boring!  

KZ Have you ever read the New Narrative anthology Biting the Error? There is an essay in it by Renee Gladman who writes about the tradition of a doubting, stuttering “I” waiting to speak. To me, Drifts and the Guibert study are narratives in which there is an I who is me and not me. The tradition is not something I’m inventing. I’m paying homage. And that question of “Well, is it a novel?” is something Guibert got a lot as well. 

I don’t want to spend too much time on the concept of autofiction as it’s permeated the contemporary discourse, although I will say there is a sense it’s been invented in the now, as opposed to coming from the inheritance of New Narrative, which was mostly a queer American movement, or the French autoportraits like Guibert or Duras, or even Sei Shōnagan’s Pillow Book, or a work like Audre Lorde’s Zami. It is telling to me that the takedowns of Drifts were by literary men very much in the establishment who protested that Drifts is not a novel. And there is no awareness what gatekeeping that is. Who gets to decide what a novel is? Isn’t the novel in itself a capacious form, a form where something new is happening?

JB I’m interested in how that stuttering “I” relates to failure. A lot of your work contains discussion of the act of not writing, or a stalled project, which might enact that on a micro-level. There was a line from an interview you did with BOMB when Heroines came out: “But I do like the idea of writing as essaying in the tradition of Montaigne, to essay as to “attempt,” revealing the failure within the form. I tend to think of my own writing this way, a work like Heroines, which I regard as a failure, but with a sort of swollen and tender pride.” 

KZ I was so young. There should be a ban on bringing out Montaigne and the tradition of essai as attempting when talking about first-person writing! 

JB I’m wondering if in this quote you are saying that if an essay is an attempt, it has a failure built into it. Is there permission for failure in nonfiction in a way that fiction doesn’t have?

KZ I don’t think it is a difference of genre. The truth is, whether something was called nonfiction or fiction was based in part on what the publisher wanted—I like keeping the works unsettling in terms of what they are, or capacious. I asked for the Guibert study to be Fiction and Essay but I didn’t win (I got it for Screen Tests). Whether my work is fiction or nonfiction isn’t about the truthfulness of facts, but about deciding to have a slippery or uncanny or speculative quality to it. In poetry you can have a speaker who can be fiction or nonfiction, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely encompasses both.

That Heroines interview has got to be one of the first interviews that I did. I stand by it although I think I maybe fetishized the concept of failure too much. All my works point to the making of them as I am interested in the act of writing and the labor of being a writer. Commercial fiction is often viewed as successful based on whether it’s successful for the reader, and hence, successful as a commodity, which nowadays means, can it cross over and become another medium, can it be optioned for film or TV, can the author appear on a talk show, either an evening talk show or a morning talk show, and talk about it. I am resistant to the idea of commodifying narrative where the reader is given everything and the writer is performing for the reader. I am more interested in uncertainty, in doubt, in pointing to the play in creating a work.

One of the artists I write about in the Guibert study is Sophie Calle. In all of her books, there is the creation of the work. It is a conceptual postmodern impulse perhaps, to point to the notebook, point to the durational quality of a work, point to the excesses and failures.

Drifts was framed by its publisher as being about someone who can’t write a novel. That was only a small aspect of the book and it surprised me that it became the narrative. There was also such play and pleasure in the notetaking, the desire for literature, for a book that is ongoing, and there was a real mischief in the refusal of that. I think that connects to the desire to resist the glossy expectation of a text. 

JB And the notebook as a form resists polish, as it speaks to an act of incompletion. I realized looking through your work how many of your epigraphs have to do with the love of the sketch rather than the finished product. In To Write As If Already Dead, you use the quote:Studies are often more beautiful than labored final versions.” In that sense, the notebook offers the opportunity for multiple selves, a splitting of the self at every juncture. 

KZ I think when you talk about a certain aesthetic of immediacy, people assume that you don’t meticulously shape your own work, which of course I do. I love how Daniil Kharms, who wrote his work from a notebook, would say that he wanted his writing to have a slight error. In Guibert’s book on photography, he writes a fragment about Goethe’s Italian Journey, how impressionistic it is. He compares it to Kafka’s diaries. He doesn’t want a landscape that feels too overdone, he wants something to feel like a sketch. 

When I wrote Drifts, I carried the concept of “sketches of animals and landscapes”, which is the name of the first half, based on an unfinished Dürer sketch, around with me. That’s what I want literature to be.

JB One of the things I really love about your work is how you pay attention to the lived reality of being a writer and the avenues through which writers make money, particularly through the university. One consequence of the insecurity of adjuncting is how porous it makes you. If you are teaching three different classes at three different universities, that is a lot of other people’s words and experiences that are coming in. It can be wonderful, but it can also overwhelm you. 

KZ The writing world is exploitative and hierarchical and models the white supremacist capitalocene. There is a monolith of writers going into debt studying writing, of writers then teaching at those universities not able to make a living wage or to have health insurance, of writers working for various media entities and publishing companies (and working for them by being published by them) who have no rights, no time off, no sick pay, no health insurance. We think of writers as doing it for the art, for the vocation, which is true, writing is a vocation. But it is also labor, and exploited, precarious labor at that.

There is a conversation happening now through novels of the crisis of the adjunct life, which I would include Drifts in, about attempting the life of a writer or thinker. I hope Drifts captures the beauty of the connection but also the extreme exhaustion of that impossible life. In both Drifts and the Guibert book, I am trying to ask about the possibilities and impossibilities of literary community. I’ve been rereading Silvia Federici on the concept of the commons, as well as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s work on the Undercommons, which encompasses adjunct faculty, grad students, and non-tenured faculty. That is partially what I am thinking about for current work, the psychosis of the university and the undercommons of adjunct life, as well as the incredible joy of being with children in the commons of Prospect Park. 

By the way, I know from Jordan Kisner’s New York Times profile that Silvia Federici walks regularly in Prospect Park. My goal is to run into her, and to have a conversation with her. 

JB Wanting to run into Silvia Federici in Prospect Park is something of the opposite of the desire in the Sontag piece.

KZ I do! I do want to make friends with Silvia Federici. I want to take a walk with Silvia Federici and talk to her about care work, and the concept of the commons. I have been thinking about the life and work of Maria Montessori lately, as well as other progressive educational communities like Reggio Emilia. I want to ask her what she thinks about that and its dissemination now within expensive and exclusive private schools in the US.

To Write As If Already Dead is available for purchase here.

Julia Bosson is a writer based in Berlin where she is at work on a book about the writer Joseph Roth.

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