Can we incorporate and treasure and be nourished by that which we do not understand? Of course.
— Joy Williams
It was a fresh day in May, and there was the aroma of morning coffee. Sydney was doing its splendid early-winter thing, with glittering weather, sun on water and on old pier timbers, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2017 was underway. All around the wharf precinct writers were going about the work they must do. The time for writing had given way to the time for promotion, for connecting with readers, for public speaking, and for selling books. Readers were out in force, keen to connect with their literary heroes. Like others in my demographic (a common one at the Festival: middle-aged, female, bourgeois, avid reader) I was keen for the sessions to begin. My tickets had been chosen based mainly on the writers with big reputations, the international stars, as well as on their genres. At the risk of an accusation of elitism (always a risk in Sydney) I preferred that troublesome pigeon-hole known as literary fiction, though I was not averse to some creative non-fiction too.
In a waterside café that combined shabby chic décor with the truly shabby timbers of the old wharf, my first cappuccino of the day had arrived in a thick blue crockery cup. Two friends who had been at an opening session the night before were reporting their impressions. The session had been entitled ‘Origin Stories’ with writers on the panel asked to discuss the books which had originally inspired them to write. My friends had been pleased with Ian Rankin, but puzzled by Joy Williams. Apparently she confided nothing at all of any novels or essays that had inspired her, and instead read out something about how lonely it was to be a writer (Time Out later called it “sermon-like”). Moreover, she wore dark glasses throughout the indoor evening event. My friends hadn’t yet read anything by Joy Williams and it sounded like they probably wouldn’t now. They mused about why she’d been so prickly, so unagreeable, and why she wanted to hide her eyes. They were annoyed that she’d refused to stick to the agenda. After all, they had made the effort to attend, and had paid for tickets. They thought her dark glasses, and her aloof refusal to cooperate, were a sort of literary persona that she’d adopted. “A kind of Bob Dylan of the literary set,” one said.
I gazed thoughtfully into my coffee. I had tickets to a couple of events with Joy Williams over the next few days, based principally on the fact that she was a big name from the USA. I knew only one of her stories, “Chicken Hill”, which I’d heard on The New Yorker Fiction podcast. It had seemed darkly funny and a bit impenetrable. But the dark glasses were news to me. We all three puzzled over Joy Williams, without making much progress.
“Chicken Hill” is about an old woman who is visited by a strange neighbourhood child. The child is revealed — though that is too strong a verb — as a visitor from, or symbol of, the afterlife; or perhaps she’s death itself. Despite the story being discussed on the podcast by author Dana Spiotta and editor Deborah Treisman, I found it perplexing. It seemed to be full of symbols and suggestions, and it was hard to sort out the memories from the reality. But in the end, it was clearly a story about a death, told in carefully chosen language that seemed beautiful to me.
Explaining Joy Williams, or not explaining her, is a common pursuit of literary critics. A 2016 review by James Wood is headlined: “Her fiction is easy to follow, but hard to fathom.” Being a conscientious critic, Wood works away at the stories until finally he believes their meaning is revealed to him. “I sometimes feel that Joy Williams’s words don’t entirely fit in my head,” he says. Others are less concerned with working out exactly what is going on in a Joy Williams story and are happy enough to accept the mystery and the bizarre moments. Jerusha Emerson has written in a LARB review that the stories “demand a reader’s participation, a leap of faith.” At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, on a panel discussing short stories, Williams told an anecdote. A story of hers had been accepted by The New Yorker. The magazine had offered her an extra $300 to read the story, which was fine. Then, she said, they offered another $300 to explain it — she laughed at this idea.
“If you have read even half a story by Williams, you know that she is God-saturated” says blog writer Nick Ripatrazone. Religion runs through her writing with a light hand, unsentimental, and often leavened with humour. In her novel “The Quick and the Dead” the character Carter is constantly visited by his irritating dead wife, Ginger. Their conversations are funny. In “99 Stories of God” the Lord turns up at a demolition derby, or in line at a pharmacy counter to get His shingles shot. Under the humour, Williams explores a subject we often prefer to avoid. As the woman in the 99th Story of God says: “Maybe she should just go directly to the question most everyone had and visualise from there. What’s going to happen after I’m dead?”
Though Williams’ work has sometimes been described as dark and nihilistic, to me it seems far from that. The moment between life and death is explored with a subtle and reverent hand, funny and poignant, often mysterious. Williams has said: “Abstraction in fiction is supposed to be bad, but it can be the struck match that illuminates. Much of a writer’s work is to unexpress the expressible, as well as the opposite.”
Like Williams, I was raised in a family in which religious faith was a strong part of life. I found that it stood me in good stead. I encountered no reason to question it as an approach to living; that is, until a moment, around my 40th birthday, when my marriage was heading for divorce. On a particularly downcast day I went to an early morning church service to seek comfort and the inner strength to deal with the vicissitudes of life, as they were presenting themselves just then. Why it should happen on that morning rather than any other, I don’t know, but some sort of epiphany occurred. It dawned on me that all the prayer in the world wasn’t going to get me through these troubles. I needed to stand on my own feet and deal with the challenges myself. The idea that ‘God’ could save me was suddenly and blindingly revealed as highly unlikely. But despite this rather sudden abandonment of a religious approach to life, I’ve always read with interest when a writer thoughtfully explores the questions of faith, whether it’s the analytical philosophers (mostly, it seems, atheists), historians of world religions, or fiction writers. It seems to me that the existence or otherwise of ‘God’ is not the most useful question. The most useful enquiry has something to do, I think, with the value people draw from their religious beliefs: what are they looking for, what do they need? Do they find it? And religious or not, there is an intense interest in the mystery of that liminal space that separates life from death.
Williams has spoken often about the moment of grace, a concept she associates with the writing of Flannery O’Conner, who was a devout catholic. I like this quote of Williams: “I think the beauty of the short story is that it finds the moment in the character’s life where the past and future combine, usually in a terrible instance in the present that illuminates everything and yet shuts everything off, too. Flannery O’Connor described it as a moment of grace that’s offered and is either rejected or accepted. That was her pivot. I think that’s very beautiful. You can’t beat that.” The moment of grace, for Williams and O’Connor, is associated with a moral or spiritual striving or choice, often pertaining to the afterlife. When asked directly, by a Paris Review interviewer, about links between her writing and religion, Williams spoke of the Bible’s use of imagery and the universality that could be achieved: “What is conjured, as it were, transcends words completely and speaks in another language.” But not everyone focusses on religion in Williams’s writing. Others see magic, or alchemy. James Wood calls her details “surreal, magical, hallucinogenic.” When he finally figures out Joy’s stories, he says: “A good number of Williams’s stories turn, I now see, on the question of hallucination, on facts and details that perplex the reader but make private sense to the characters.”
Williams has said that short stories rarely offer consolation, “but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.” If the moment of grace does come, it comes, as Flannery O’Connor described it, as “an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected…The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.”
I wonder about focussing on religion in modern fiction. My coffee companions of the morning expressed some reluctance about reading Joy Williams because they’d heard of all her strong references to religion. It wasn’t that they minded people having beliefs, they said, just that they were not attracted to such things. Despite having arrived at a personal atheist position myself, I’m still interested in the religious motivations of people, and in any solace they take from beliefs and ritual. Perhaps I envy them. But for a contemporary writer, like Williams, will a focus on religion put off a whole cohort of potential readers? Will they, like my friends, move on to the next author who explores subjects of more interest to them? Didn’t I make my own selection of Writers Festival tickets based on a few literary prejudices — against genre fiction, for example? “I believe that God is (and must be) a transcendent presence in any worthy work of art,” Williams has said. Concerns about putting off readers don’t seem to have deterred her.
I looked up Joy Williams’s biography. She was born in 1944 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and grew up in Maine, the only child of a congregational minister. “Preachers and coal miners, my genealogy,” she said in her Paris Review interview in 2014. She received a BA from Marietta College and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Ray Carver was in her poetry classes. At Iowa, she met Fred McCormack, her first husband. They moved to Florida and in 1973 Williams wrote her first novel “State of Grace” in a trailer parked in a swamp near Tallahassee. It was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Paris Review published several her first short stories (Paul Winner calls them the “earliest, weirdest” of her stories). Famously, she was edited in the 1970s by Gordon Lish. By 1974 Williams had divorced and remarried, to Rust Hills who became editor of Esquire. They were married for 34 years and divided their time between Connecticut, the Florida Keys, and Arizona. In recent years Williams has taught at the University of Wyoming. She has led a somewhat itinerant life driving between these areas of the USA, often in a truck and generally with dogs. She’s a great animal lover.
She’s become known for a certain eccentricity. She doesn’t own a computer and dislikes email. Appointments with her must be arranged by phone (she uses a flip-phone) or by postcard. Her home in Arizona doesn’t have a TV or air-conditioning or the internet, and she types all her manuscripts on a set of seven Smith Corona portable typewriters. She took up wearing the dark glasses after an incident when giving an address some years ago. She found she had misplaced her prescription spectacles and so used her prescription sunglasses instead, then found she liked wearing them for public speaking. Dan Kois speculated in an article in 2015 that maybe she likes the “remoteness” they give; perhaps they’re a symbol of “an eccentricity that makes everyone else uneasy but Williams more secure.” In Sydney, the glasses did make some people uneasy; but they also ensured that she was talked about around the Writers’ Festival.
On another Festival panel, another anecdote from Williams: there is only one thing worse, she said, than never being accepted by The New Yorker, and that is being accepted only once. There was some awkward tittering amongst the audience. No-one seemed sure if Williams had or had not been accepted by The New Yorker more than once. She brought up the same point in her 2014 Paris Review interview, talking about her own story “Taking Care,” written in the 1970s when she was at a writers’ retreat at Yaddo:
“…I send the story to The New Yorker. I receive a nice letter in return. Rather, it begins nicely and admiringly but ends on a somewhat accusatory note. The story is insincere, inorganic, labored…. I send it to a new magazine called Audience…Its fiction editor is Rust Hills. He loves the story. He is utterly moved by the story.”
In these words of Williams’, I’m searching to see if it really is important to her that she was accepted by The New Yorker so infrequently. Is there a note of chagrin? Of rejection? I conclude that there probably is. In fact, Williams did have one story accepted by The New Yorker in 1981, a story called “Summer.” At the time of her Paris Review interview this was the sole instance of The New Yorker publishing her, though it later went on to publish “Chicken Hill” in 2015, and more stories since. This slightly uncomfortable topic provides a glimpse into the fraught quest for publication (or perhaps it’s more about acceptance), and the related question of whether it’s possible to make a living from writing literary fiction. Williams has earned her living over the years from teaching and journalism, but not from the publication of her stories and novels. In 1987 she was contracted by Random House to write a guide book to the Florida Keys and it went through ten editions. She has said: “That’s the only book I’ve ever made money from.” It’s infinitely depressing to realise that there is no living to made by a writer with a career spanning 40 years, whom The Washington Post has anointed “the literary heir to Anton Chekhov and Flannery O’Connor,” and whom James Wood has called “celebrated.” Dan Kois also bestowed accolades in 2015: “Her three story collections and four darkly funny novels are mostly overlooked by readers but so beloved by generations of fiction masters that she might be the writer’s writer’s writer.” And yet she’s never made money from the sales of her literary fiction. A sobering thought indeed.
Williams has published four novels to date. After “State of Grace” was issued to acclaim in 1973, she published “The Changeling” in 1978. It incurred some harsh reviews, which she seemed to take to heart since she didn’t publish another novel until “Breaking and Entering” in 1988. I baulk when I learn that a writer is silenced by a bad review. It’s as if we readers have been denied something. She was asked about that review and confirmed that “it did succeed in shutting me up for a while.” Her fourth novel “The Quick and the Dead” took even longer to appear. It was published in 2000 and was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. I read it recently and was touched by its fierce eco-warrior themes, by the comedy, and by the quirky characters. Williams’ fiction has been described by Paul Winner as “appealingly strange” and full of “dark undercurrents.” Both are good descriptions of “The Quick and the Dead.” While I was reading it I discovered an anecdote about it. Apparently, on one of her cross-country trips, car thieves broke into Williams’ Bronco and scattered the typewritten pages of the manuscript on the ground. There was no copy. I finished the novel with a sense of holding a precious treasure that had escaped destruction by divine intervention.
Williams is celebrated for her numerous short stories which have appeared in magazines, been anthologised, and been collected in “Taking Care” (1982), “Escapes” (1990), “Honored Guest” (2004), and the mega-collection “The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories” (2015). Her book “99 Stories of God” (2013) is a collection of brief stories, some no more than a line, and the longest only a few pages. Winner has said that “Many [of her short stories] have attained cult status beyond the normal anthologies—”Traveling to Pridesup,” “The Blue Men,” “Rot,” “Marabou,” “Brass” — and are frequently passed around M.F.A. departments with something like subversive glee.” Also passed around (especially on the internet) are Williams’ “8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story,” a list of rules she produces for interviewers from time to time, and which she pulled out at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2017. During her one-on-one interview with journalist and historian Kate Evans, she seemed ill at ease at first, reluctant to be sitting in the spotlight in the gloomy pit of the small Wharf One theatre. She wore her dark glasses (of course), and an impressive pair of cowboy boots. She prickled a little at the interviewer’s questions, and after a while tried to turn the tables and began good-humouredly to ask questions in return. Kate Evans ploughed on. Williams read some wryly amusing snippets from “99 Stories of God.” It had been announced at the start that no questions would be taken. In her Paris Review interview some of this reluctance to speak about her working processes also comes out: “I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril.”
In the Festival interview, as her prickliness softened (I did wonder if it were a kind of ‘interview persona’), Williams was asked about her famous “8 Essential Attributes.” She seemed pleased to be asked and shyly unfolded a slip of paper from her pocket and read out the famous list. I scribbled down the rules avidly, though it’s possible to find them easily with an internet search. The images of the list online often show it in its typewritten version. The list is didactic, not mere suggestions. Perhaps it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an author at work; or perhaps it’s an affectation. Either way, it’s surely useful, both to aspiring writers and to readers looking to understand Williams’ stories.
“8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story”
(And one way it differs from a novel)
- There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
- An anagogical level
- Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
- An animal within to give its blessing
- Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
- Control throughout is absolutely necessary
- The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
- A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.
A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.
When she was asked in her Paris Review interview to define a short story, Williams described it as “devious” and said that “good stories deal with… the horror and incomprehensibility of time.” She also said: “I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages.” She makes the process of writing a short story sound profound and difficult. No doubt it is. An essay of hers entitled “Why I Write” (collected in “Ill Nature” 2001) begins: “Writing has never given me any pleasure.” This essay was first published in a 1991 anthology “Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction.” It paints a bleak picture of the writing life: “The writer is never nourished by his own work, it is never satisfying to him…” and much more in the same vein. I wondered, reading this essay, if it might not have been the “sermon-like” piece that she had read out at her opening session at the Writers’ Festival, the one that had left my friends unimpressed. Williams has joked that perhaps, like her father, she needs a pulpit to take about with her to speaking engagements.
But why does she write? Williams’ response is characteristically vague: “Good writing never soothes or comforts…it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face…The writer …writes to serve…something. Somethingness.”
But Williams has, on many occasions, used her writing as a political activist. “The Quick and the Dead” is an example of fiction with political content, though it’s far from polemical. Williams may hide behind dark glasses, resist interviewers and deny questions from her fans as she did at the Festival, but she is unafraid of a public profile when it comes to certain causes. She is known for her devotion to animals and to ecological issues, and has addressed these matters in non-fiction essays and journalism as well as in her fiction. She was asked about this in her Paris Review interview: “these days we continue to suppress, ignore the horror, the cruelty, the evil of the slaughterhouse. Such a simple thing, to not take part in such evil.” When asked what writers can do, politically, she replied with a mixture of despair and anger: “Possibly not much. An environmental writer, Derrick Jensen, says salmon don’t need more books written about them. They need clean, fast water and the dams to be busted up.”
Williams began writing journalism after she had published several books of fiction. She wrote on themes of contemporary injustice for magazines with wide readership, and her articles had titles like “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp.” She has credited her foray into journalism with loosening up her writing: “Those magazine essays did not require any stealth of execution. Unlike with the stories, where my real interest lay in illuminating something beneath or beyond the story itself, I could be forthright, headlong.” “The Killing Game” (1990) was about the cruelty suffered by animals in hunting. Its subtitle was “Why the American hunter is bloodthirsty, piggish, and grossly incompetent.” It’s collected in Williams’ book of essays “Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals” (2001), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. There are other essays in the collection which unsettle and challenge, and Williams has said that she believes this is what writers should be doing. The essays have predictably attracted plenty of disagreement. It’s interesting to consider the efficacy of fiction in such political fire-zones — Williams’ polemical essays are direct attacks, while her fiction, though it might tackle the same issues, comes at its subjects more obliquely. And the fiction is surely also doing more things at once.
While I was writing this essay, my old father was admitted to hospital in the night. He had a worrying cough he couldn’t shake, and the doctors were concerned about his heart. Days of hospital visits followed, interspersed with reading Joy Williams. Critics have commented that her stories repay re-reading. “Chicken Hill” opens with the confusion of a befuddled old woman, the appearance of the precocious child, a symbol of death nearing. I re-read the story; I visited Dad. The Emergency Department at the hospital lost his hearing aids. At ninety years old, he was in a fog of confusion. “What’s the date?” a handsome doctor in a pink shirt asked him. Dad looked blank. “What’s your address? Do you have a cardiologist? What year is it?” Dad had a go — maybe it was…1986?
Sometimes his old grin appeared and he tried his charm on a nurse; sometimes he reached out a wobbly hand to me with tears running down his cheeks. The doctors didn’t seem to think his life was in any danger, but at ninety, death is always close. Like the character Ruth in “Chicken Hill,” whose childhood memories come back to her clearly and more real than the world she inhabits, Dad couldn’t remember the day of the week, but he told the bemused doctor “I worked at the factory for twenty-five years and never took a sick day…” The story seemed crystal clear to him, but it was becoming foggier to those of us at his bedside.
The next day I watched as another doctor lifted Dad up to a sitting position to place a stethoscope on his mottled old back. It seemed so vulnerable, the skin covered in scales. In “Chicken Hill” Ruth’s young visitor carries a large, grubby pink backpack, which Treisman speculates might be a symbol for the skin of a body, about to be abandoned. Ruth, in the story, takes the backpack, curious about what is inside and determined to scrub it clean with “a good bar of soap.” She finds it empty, and gives up on cleaning it: “Whatever. Sometimes you try to fix something and it ends up more broken than ever. Or broken in a different way.” At the end of the story, death comes for Ruth. Its curious harbinger, the strange child, is now something else, or perhaps she’s merged with Ruth herself. The approaching end is announced:
“I believe,” the girl said, “and it saddens me to say this, but I believe we’ve come to the end of our options here.”
On Dad’s third day in hospital yet another doctor tried to engage him in a discussion about resuscitation if his heart should fail, a serious conversation if ever there was one. Dad explained cheerfully that he had seen the train crossing on the hill outside the window, and it had been full of circus animals, giraffes and camels and elephants. Parts of Williams’ novel “The Quick and the Dead” are set in a nursing home. She exploits the dark, dark humour of old minds wandering. One old lady says to the young girl volunteering: “I want you to get me out of here and drive me away, out in the desert into the sun-steeped scene of a bigger, darker world.” An old man asks Alice: “What meat mollifies the howl of famished shades?” But Alice has been working at the home long enough to know that “Words don’t even mean their opposites here — they could mean anything.”
Reading Joy Williams’ brave and solemn and funny stories that concern themselves with questions of life and death, the afterlife, and the mysterious divide between those states, provided me with a curious solace. It’s not that she has convinced me to hope for an afterlife (even one where Cole Porter and William Blake have their own areas, as in ‘The Quick and the Dead”: “there might be some multi-sectional partitioning of the Beyond. Why not?”) But there is something about the clear-eyed and unafraid contemplation of the mysteries of that fearful boundary that has helped me to look in the eye the inevitable approach of death for my old Dad. I suspect that he may have got there before me. When I said that I’d see him tomorrow, he replied: “I’ll be here, or in the cemetery.” That was one of his lucid moments. He smiled when he made the remark. Dark humour is useful, as Joy Williams certainly appreciates.
Williams has said: “Why does the writer write? The writer writes to serve — hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve — not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace which knows us.” She never promised consolation from her writing, but I found it there. It was, as she said it might be, consolation that came from an unexpected quarter.