Joanna Howard is the author of On the Winding Stair (BOA Editions, 2009) and In the Colorless Round, a chapbook with artwork by Rikki Ducornet (Noemi Press). Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, Chicago Review, Unsaid, Quarterly West, American Letters & Commentary, Fourteen Hills, Western Humanities Review, Salt Hill, Tarpaulin Sky and elsewhere. Her stories have been anthologized in PP/FF: An Anthology, Writing Online, and New Standards: The First Decade of Fiction at Fourteen Hills. She has also co-translated, with Brian Evenson, Walls by Marcel Cohen (forthcoming from Black Square, 2009). She lives in Providence and teaches at Brown University.
Michael Kimball: I like the way that you often build long, complex sentences out of a string of clauses, especially, say, in a story like “Light Carried on Air Moves Less.” Could you talk a little about your thinking behind that?
Joanna Howard: For each of the stories in On the Winding Stair, I began with a particular sense of a rhythmic pattern: at times fractured and truncated, as with “The Tartan Detective,” at other times undulating, and almost breathless as with “Light Carried on Air.” The initial rhythmic instinct drives the sentence length, so that I have a sense of having completed a thought based on the need for a rhythmic pause. Beyond this initial rhythmic constraint, which is perhaps arbitrary or perhaps organic, I like the cause-and-effect relationships built up out of strings of clauses, so that a detail is presented, commented on, resolved to some degree, until it triggers the next detail. I have always liked the way the word “sentence” refers to a grammatical grouping, but also has a definition related to judgment and punishment of criminals: something which indicates verdict, as well as duration. This is how I think about sentences.
Kimball: So let’s take the opening of “The Tartan Detective” and talk about that rhythmic pattern:
“Inside this house, a precipice. The vacation repeats itself: the flight arrives late. Stationed in the inn, light breaks through the pale slatted blinds of the bedroom, carefully tucked into eyelet and down.”
I like the way the colon from the second sentence picks up the comma from the first sentence—a little bit of punctuation that balances the rhythm of the first two sentences. And I like the way the rhythm of the third sentence picks up the rhythm of the first two, but also seems to be spinning wider and wider outward, longer phrasings with a similar rhythm. And I love some of the acoustic things that are happening, the way “vacation” in the second sentence becomes “stationed” in the third sentence and then leads to a few other long-a words. Could you talk a little more about these three sentences, what is going on within them and from one to the next?
Howard: It worked just as you suggest, although the sound patterns come subconsciously, and then I move back from each analytically before going on to the next sentence. The method is one I’ve heard described as “consecution,” which I believe simply refers to sentences that build consecutively, but are driven as much by their grammatical markers as by their narrative content. It is not uncommon for me to begin with a sentence that disrupts standard grammatical expectations. The truncation, which removes the subject and verb, gives me increased flexibility with the surreal image. The second sentence takes the initial two-part structure of the fragments and builds a mirror structure, this time with two independent clauses, reliant now on concrete action rather than ambiguous or surreal imagery. Then, I like to break the pattern, the instinct being entirely sound based. I liked that what I was hearing was a kind of drone effect, with slight blips. These three sentences gave me the structure and the narrative of the story. I knew that from the elision of the two fragments of the first sentence, and the omission of a controlling verb tense, I was going to have a narrator who worked in notation (hence a detective or spy), and who had difficulty sorting out time. The second sentence suggested two narratives, running side by side, at times canceling each other out, at times building on images one from the other. Because my tendency is to hover in a space of indeterminate or partially obscured images, discipline dictated alternating these with concrete elements, so the third sentence locates the narrator, gives her a ruling tense, and the slatted blinds of film noir, but reversed, to focus on the light. I knew I was working with repetition and inversion. Funny result, given that when I sat down to think about why there would be a precipice inside this house, my narrative mind automatically assumed I would be writing a story about a couple having marital problems, maybe an affair taking place. This precipice turned out to be quite different.
Kimball: I love how much you pulled from those first few sentences, what that gave you in terms of structure and narrative and voice. That second sentence and the idea of two narratives, is that how you found your way to the parenthetical text that runs through the story or did that happen another way?
Howard: The parenthetical text was one I had brewing in the back of my mind for a while. It is a version of Michael Powell’s film I Know Where I’m Going about a girl who thinks she is going to marry a rich man, then gets sidetracked by a poor soldier on leave. Before I figured out what the second narrative would be, however, I had several sections of the main narrative (the girl detective/spy) and I left gaps, knowing that something would go there, even if I didn’t yet know what it was. Because I was still working on the theory that the main narrative was about a relationship gone wrong, I wanted the second narrative to be a sort of wild romantic fantasy, which I guess is why this film popped into my mind for the second narrative line: it’s a story in which the Scottish landscape seems to be conspiring to bring the lovers together. As I started to run the piece parallel, I began to see openings for connection between the two narratives. There was a way in which both pieces took up notions of fidelity, loyalty, and allegiance. There was also this notion of knowing where one is going, desiring to control the path our lives take, however inevitable it might be. As I worked to draw out imagistic and language chimes between the two narratives, the plot trajectory of each narrative adjusted. The game for me was to discover, within these two seemingly disparate stories, some common ground.
Kimball: I love the way those two stories come together. And I keep thinking about the other story you mentioned, the one with the couple having marital problems that didn’t get written, did that become another piece?
Howard: I think many of my stories are about couples having marital problems or relationship problems; it is just often the case that one of the partners is a ghost.
Kimball: Ghosts, I have to ask about “Ghosts and Lovers: a novel in shorts.” I love things that play with form, so tell me: What was the thinking behind the subtitle?
Howard: “Ghosts and Lovers” came out of a failed project to make a million dollars with what was, at the time, the hot ticket: a globe-trotting female first-person romance with epistolary chapters and recipes. However, when I began to write the chapters, they were coming out very short. Despite their conventional intention, they were still possessed of certain weirdnesses I can’t get beyond: fractured, gapped narrative, tentative, at best, cohesion through repetition and variation, emphasis on image, and character types rather than full-blown characters. Because I had sketched out a plot summary of the trajectory of the novel (something I had never done before, and have never done since), I was able to work them as a cycle of pieces, and because I had been spending a lot of time thinking about what constitutes a “short-short” versus what constitutes a “prose poem,” I wanted to put some of my thinking into play with the form. The subtitle was something I couldn’t resist because it does give me the image of a novel wearing shorts, as if it were in a Nair commercial. It is perhaps the most whimsical thing I’ve ever written, and because the narrative arc was already in place, I felt like I could let the individual pieces operate organically, so that some stand alone, and others are there as supporting columns. It gave me more freedom, and allowed the piece to come much more quickly than anything else I did in the book.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).