It is the rare book of political intent (if I may label it such with honesty) that resists didactic strategies and self-righteous overtones, opting instead to patiently construct, sentence by sentence, character by character, a complex edifice of response around which the reader slowly but necessarily comes to shape a response of their own.
Hilary Plum’s first novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, published in the spring by FC2, opens with an impersonal account of an external event: a newspaper description of the accidental or self-inflicted bombing death of the novel’s absent main character, Z. Like many news accounts of marginal deaths, the passage is chilling for its brevity and lack of concern. From this dispassionate and violent origin, the novel emerges onto a plane of humanity that I find unmatched in most contemporary works. As the four alternating narrators reckon diversely with the absence of their co-activist and friend, each finds space for subtle examinations of memory and for probing assessments of their past and present selves. In the former, we see the underpinnings of the need to respond to the second Iraq War that they shared with Z; in the latter we understand the impact of that need to respond on lives that both are and aren’t ordinary in the wake of Z’s definitive response.
This fictional necessity to respond (inescapable after the death of a close friend, but, as the novel makes plain, absolutely escapable for most people after the deaths of anonymous citizens in faraway countries), which is underpinned by and productive of reconsidered and reoriented habits and beliefs, proves when observed to be productive itself of a real-life necessity to respond. What begins with the destruction of a fictional skin ultimately gets under mine with a subtlety that assures its lasting impact.
Throughout the weeks and months of this interview, which was conducted via e-mail, I was (and remain) grateful to Hilary Plum for the intense consideration she gave to each question, and for the depth, elegance, and probing honesty of her responses as we discussed sentence-making, characters as “forces of sound,” the impact of naming, and the advantages/disadvantages of publishing with a smaller press.
Andy Stallings: Would you describe your relationship to the sentence? (As a unit of thought, as a compositional prod, as an artifact of language, etc.)
Hilary Plum: Like so much it starts with Woolf:
“Yet in a novel, which covers so wide a stretch of ground, an ordinary and easy type of sentence has to be found to carry the reader on easily and naturally from one end of the book to the other. And this a woman must make for herself, altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it.” (from “Women and Fiction”)
What a command: and this a woman must make for herself! It took a long time to learn to make the sentence this particular novel wanted, and I couldn’t have done it without Noy Holland’s years of guidance, her preternatural ear. Yet once I succeeded, that sentence seemed such a precious thing, the result of so much intense creation and intensive revision that I clung to it. When I revisited an early draft of the novel, I found that I’d forgotten about Woolf’s easily and naturally: my sentences were so poised that the novel no longer seemed like a living place but a well-polished statuary. I had to rough things back up, let them learn again to be resilient. Many of my favorite images and metaphors weren’t tough enough; touched, they shattered. I had to learn, then, to cut the fragile, the precious, the too-heightened emotion. To keep only the best of what intensity arrives at — not to crush my thought, in Woolf’s words, but neither to distort. It took some years to learn that the beautiful can also be called distortion.
So — perhaps I do believe that each work requires its own type of, its own archetypal, sentence. One can’t describe that sentence, but it is a music that may pulse through the whole, through the great variety of sentences that each work will comprise. Though we cannot say just what that sentence is, we may listen and through years of work create a world from this essential rhythm. In my work I begin with a sort of emotional tone and an ear toward the sentence (and aren’t these related, if not the same? Here I should quote Frost): structure, plot, even character, come after. In They Dragged Them Through the Streets, with its four narrators, the characters didn’t distinguish themselves until years in; the early drafts were attempts to find the tone and the sentence, the resonance of the emotion, which would then later be shaped into distinct voices and events.
Right now I am reading (for the first time) Gass’s The Tunnel, and although every kind of prose may yet appear in that novel, I think one still feels something we might call its sentence: within the beauty and sinister energy of each sentence, an essential echo.
I should say something about psychology, or philosophies of language. Why the sentence? It’s not tied to breath; it’s further from breath than the line. It’s a unit of thought, then, as you say — but one wonders if it’s a natural one, or if it seems natural because it’s what we know. When we try to make a home deeper in its rhythms, access the music that precedes the meaning (to steal a phrase from Joseph Cardinale), we realize that although there may be a place where thought lives beyond the sentence, unconstrained by the sentence, it’s no easy thing to get there. Whenever we narrate, the sentence appears to imprison us (see: Beckett and his frantic comma splices); we can’t escape the grammar that structures our world. And so we try to find some form that we may believe, at least for a time, “takes the natural shape of our thought.” Is that true?
I take it then that the relationship between this archetypal sentence, a novel’s tonality or everywhere-echo, and what might ordinarily be called the “voice” of any narrating character, is for you an uneasy or unstable accord, perhaps even a matter of form. That is, given that the four narrators of They Dragged Them Through the Streets do in fact each demonstrate a coherent sentence of their own, each an echo away from or sharding of the novel’s primary sentence, there must be (at least, but let’s keep grounded) two distinct, and not inherently compatible, modes of sentence-making in your process: one that is central, and discovery-oriented; another that is organizational (?), and form-oriented.
Is this accurate? I’m curious whether you feel any tension in this divide. Once the archetypal sentence is — felt? intuited? anyhow, present — do you then feel any anxiety around the necessity of shaping that sentence, or what probably is a host or hive of sentences, to meet the demands of individual characters? I suppose, in a way, I’m also asking what your relationship is to character.
Uneasy and unstable, yes; and a matter of form. I recently posed to another writer a very similar question, about the relationship between the “forces of sound” and the “forces of character.” Which means that I should be able to answer this, but also that I probably can’t, or I wouldn’t have been hoping someone wiser could just explain it to me.
Which is why I now wish to just nod along to William Gass and his discussions of character — such as this oft-quoted description of Mr. Cashmore in Henry James’s The Awkward Age: “Now the question is: what is Mr Cashmore? Here is the answer I shall give: Mr Cashmore is (1) a noise, (2) a proper name, (3) a complex system of ideas, (4) a controlling perception, (5) an instrument of verbal organisation, (6) a pretended mode of referring, and (7) a source of verbal energy. He is not an object of perception, and nothing whatever that is appropriate to persons can be correctly said of him.” Or elsewhere, Gass describes a character as: “any linguistic location in a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence, say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary.” (Now I admit, I am a bad student and came across these quotes in the midst of others’ essays, so I haven’t read Gass’s criticism properly at all.)
I once wrote an essay on how characters and naming functioned in works by Raymond Carver, Gertrude Stein, and Noy Holland. It was preoccupied with just this problem: how do we understand, how do we “meet” the body that is proposed by the name of the character in any work of fiction?
And: where does “voice” come from, to whom does it belong, within any passage of prose? When it can resonate at once from multiple sites: author, narrator, one character or another — sites that themselves are never truly distinct. They are only as distinct as each sentence proposes they be, a game whose rules any sentence can renegotiate. Fictive characters don’t have bodies to speak from, so the idea of “voice,” as it might resonate from any body other than the author’s, is myth, game, fiction. The sentences propose a character and the character proposes more sentences. At least this last is how it feels to me, that each sentence has a way of suggesting a character and one writes instinctively in response: who might speak this? Who would see this or put this this way? And what if this comes next? It’s hard at any moment to know where the language is coming from and where it’s going; what forms it wants to echo off of; whose language this is. This is why I phrased my question as one of “forces of sound” and “forces of character” — as we write we are subject to both, and though we may momentarily harness them, they are so much larger and older than us, and as they push us around we may not even be able to tell them apart (if, that is, they are different at all).
When I began this novel, I didn’t even distinguish between the narrators; I simply inserted a page break and commenced in the voice of another “character.” What a mess it must have been to read. Then I labeled them: an initial marking the top of each section. The characters gradually became more present to me, and I could see ways of shaping their sentences to be theirs. The five characters were always there, but earlier on they were vaguer, suffused by and diffuse within the larger text. I want to say they became more distinct, but what can “more distinct” mean?
To me the question of naming is fundamental to all this — the way Gass discusses the name “Emma Bovary.” The names we use for characters are in fact the characters (we may instead use monikers, such as “the reporter,” or “father”; though by some system we will alternate nouns with pronouns): they are the means by which the characters manifest in each sentence and paragraph and thus the entire fiction. Too often the names of characters clunk and clang around — Barbara picks up the plate; Dennis turns to his wife, Lottie. When I used only initials to name my characters (A, F, V, S, Z) I felt more in control; I felt that the characters’ interruptions within any sentence were quieter, that I could better hear the rhythms by which the fiction was operating. This resistance to naming is, others have strongly suggested, an idiosyncrasy; but I’m not alone in it, and one can see traces of such anxiety throughout the world of fiction.
As I began the novel I was very hung up on the fact that as soon as one names a character one forfeits control — after all, I know several Barbaras, so I picture not the Barbara you have created but also my own. I wanted to maintain more authority, by resisting the pull of familiar names. I’m not sure this is an admirable impulse; maybe it makes me a bit of a dictator. In general I find the use of names in fiction quite false; we do not use names in our lives as they are commonly used in fiction (does Dennis ever think “my wife, Lottie”?). How we name each other is a battleground of intimacy. All this preoccupied me during the composition of this novel and continues to. In my current work I rarely name characters, and when I do, I rely on names that are unusual, overtly symbolic, or which free me from doing some other labor within the story.
I suppose all this is a long way to say that characters are made of words and names too are merely words, so the same mysterious forces that govern our relationship to words, to sound, to sentences, the rhythms of language, also govern the construction of fictive characters and the threading of names throughout the text. I do want to write about characters; I am inclined toward at least fairly traditional, I think, characterization. The battle occurs in how one conjures those characters, clause by clause and sentence by sentence, and yes, scene by scene.
I suppose I find your “forces of sound” more meaningful as a description of character’s texture than what has always seemed to me a bit of a resignation in the paraphrase of Gass I’ve sometimes encountered, and which you repeat, that there are no characters, there are only words. For one thing, “forces of sound” allows a musical metaphor to emerge, which in the case of They Dragged Them Through the Streets is illuminating (resonant?), and answers somewhat your question about what “more distinct” can mean. Often in music it can seem as though one hears a distinct note that’s not there as clearly as the notes that are – a tonality around which the sounded notes arrange themselves, a center of sorts, though absent. I think of your four narrating characters as tuning their own distinctness around an absent center. As forces of sound, they thread pitch against and around one another and through “present” and “past,” describing the parameters of their experience of the absence they surround. Z is a note that can never be struck.
I wonder — did you ever imagine he could be? If the others emerge, are made — as sounds, as narrators, as novel — from his absence, would his presence in some way unmake them?
I am both thrilled and left a little anxious by this musical metaphor. Anxious because I have no musical ear, so I can only nod vigorously without feeling that I truly know what you mean, or that I’d ever have been able to construct such a rich idea myself. This novel thinks a great deal about siblings, so I’ll say: my brother is a gifted musician, and while I tried to be musical as a child, I ended up abandoning it as his realm, not wanting to lose in the competition with him (naturally all was competition). Don’t we form ourselves like this in relation to siblings? For those who meet us later in life, our brothers and sisters — the first members of our generation — are themselves, I think, an absent center.
But this question is about Z. Others have asked me this too. I never wrote anything from his perspective. Each work of fiction must strike its compromises with the artifice of the form; for me, for this novel, to offer Z’s voice would have seemed a violation. How could I imagine his loss if I was at the same time letting him live like and among the others? No — Zechariah’s and Jay’s deaths were at the heart of my impulse to write the novel, and so I had to be without them, just as the four narrators do.
Yes, Jay. They Dragged Them Through the Streets creates for me an interesting circumstance regarding Jay, regarding the war — in reading the novel closely, I am aware of it as a book dealing with the second Iraq war, and specifically with the concentrated response of a group of people who see around them a lack of response to that war, and want through their planned actions to make such a lack of response less possible. In fact I’m strikingly aware of it, it’s one of the novel’s primary and present themes. However, when I step away from the novel, what I’m left with are impressions of characters, of lives — S’s work at the shelter, Z’s absence, V’s illness, etc. The sentences and the lives work their way into my being, in a way that the war somehow doesn’t.
Even though, for a given reader, there are many possible responses to the war as rendered here, I’d imagine you’re aware of mine as a possible one, and an ironic one. Maybe ironic is wrong — maybe indicative, or implicating, is more appropriate. For me at least, the novel creates the conditions under which I’m forced to view myself as implicit in the ambient range of non-response that causes your narrators to attempt action, and at least indirectly, implicated in Z’s absence.
I don’t mean to suggest anything like an understanding of your intention in this — what I’m interested in is how you situate this book in terms of the Iraq war. What would be the conditions under which it succeeds for you as a political act? Would that involve anything specific or general on the part of the reader? Or is it in your range of expectations and hopes for the novel at all?
I’m slow to reply to this question, having been interrupted by a period of illness, which is something that happens continually: I have a “chronic illness.” I know I’m not answering your question but this morning it seems right to offer my thoughts as they lead into that answer. Through the weeks and months when the illness is at its worst and day after day I can do nothing, none of my own work (really shouldn’t that be “work”; but I don’t want to be too annoying), the aim is just to hold onto an idea or two and ride out the storm. I can’t bring my full attention to these ideas or do anything about or with them, but can try to just keep a thought circling, aloft, as the illness lays into whatever period of time and degree of ability it will. I am lying down, confined; the thoughts are circling. That seems kind of accurate. My point is that I have been sitting with this question and so while when you first asked it I was struck by its difficult wisdom and intimidated, I have now come to some peace in my ignorance. (This is the kind of lesson that self-help books might claim illness offers — radical acceptance, etc. — and so while I cringe a bit to say all this I do think it’s true.)
What I mean is, I don’t think it’s right for me, or at least I wouldn’t know how to, suggest ways the book might succeed as a political act. That’s up to other people, insofar as it might occur to them. I like your thoughts about it all very much and feel deeply grateful for them. But your question: how do I situate this book in terms of the second Iraq war? Hmm. This book is the result of me situating myself in relation to the war. I was twenty-two when the war began and what I couldn’t believe about it was: one, that it was going to happen — despite massive global protests; despite the transparency of the lies on which it was so grotesquely based — and two, that the culture, the America in which I lived and to which I belonged fully, wasn’t even going to care. Wasn’t even going to observe it in any substantive meaning of that word. I thought — naively, but who wouldn’t want to be so naïve? — that at least this war would cleave our culture, would force it to see itself, would like the war in Vietnam galvanize and incite and render asunder. It didn’t. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been fought by less than one percent of the US population and have as you know proven to be — beyond the clichés of us and them, of terror and security that our national dialogue has fed on — of relatively little interest to the wider culture. (E.g., and for god’s sakes, we cut our taxes while fighting them!) We know they’re happening but they are perfectly easy to ignore, and for ten years our politics have approached them with what is for the most part a remarkably brutal and arrogant complacency.
As I conceived of the novel I thought: well, what if I just observe the war, myself, every day, what if I sit with it each morning and write about a group of people to whom it is urgent, who are in themselves a culture that observes and mourns this war? I don’t mean the culture they might form is ideal or “right,” but maybe that it’s authentic, at least to me. I mean, an authentic use of the subjunctive. So that was the endeavor or the experiment from which the novel resulted. This was of course (like all writing) very much a personal act, a private practice that has only just become public (how suitable is the word publication). At one point in a workshop someone said to me, I just don’t see this kind of activism happening in response to the war in Iraq; she meant this to some degree as criticism. I thought, yes. Because that’s the act of imagination I was trying to perform, or to live in.
The novel does reflect and reflect on the fact of the war as distant, muted within public discourse, knowable here only in mediated forms, through journalism and testimony. I have no direct experience of the war in Iraq and was trying to consider this lack, this absence of experience, this searching for knowledge. So it doesn’t surprise me that the thought of the war slips through a reader’s fingers, is an absence when they might have expected a presence. I don’t want to comment on that further because I think anyone who happens to read the book or this interview should be allowed to experience both however they like and to judge that experience, and its political resonance or lack of, however they like. And also, I don’t mean what I just said: I think of course I experienced and we all experienced the war in Iraq, as a war our nation waged, in our names, its blood on our hands. Maybe here we (those of us who are not veterans or reporters, who were not there) are only beginning to comprehend the forms in which it will haunt us, the force of our national moral failures. There of course people haven’t had the luxury of waiting, but have had ten years of horror and aftermath.
But I think your question describes (beautifully) an essential problem that I keep struggling with: how do we know what happens elsewhere, beyond the horizon of our knowledge, events in which we are essentially implicated but of which we are essentially ignorant? Or maybe ignorant is the wrong word; the question is how we may know. At one point They Dragged Them Through the Streets poses this question as: How can I remember what I never knew? Which may be as close as I’ll get to saying what I mean (or the whole novel is, or maybe my next one will be, or the one after that, if I am lucky enough to keep on . . . ).
You sent They Dragged Them Through the Streets to FC2 as a first choice publisher, rather than working through agents or aiming to publish with one of the big publishing houses. Despite its surface differences from the novels I generally associate with larger presses, it does seem like the subject matter of the book (not to mention the quality of the writing) could have made it a good candidate for that kind of distribution. Could you talk about why you felt FC2 was the right press for this book? If I can make the assumption that a large publishing house offers advantages in terms of exposure, what advantages does a smaller press offer to a novelist that make it desirable? And what has the actual experience of that publication been like for you?
I have such admiration and gratitude for FC2: what extraordinary work they publish year after year. In these golden days of the small-press explosion, there’s a growing selection of independently run and aesthetically bold presses, but FC2 is one of the oldest and most formidable. They’ve given us books by Noy Holland, Kate Bernheimer, Susan Steinberg, Stephen Graham Jones, Diane Williams, Joseph Cardinale, Lance Olsen, Matt Kirkpatrick, Melanie Rae Thon… I’ll stop, but I could easily go on. Who wouldn’t want to join such a list? It’s been an honor — especially because FC2 is a collective, so as an author there one knows that one’s work has been read and championed by writers one so admires. There is, then, a feeling of community.
When I was looking to submit the novel, I couldn’t quite reconcile myself to the idea of an agent. At the time this was one form that my larger doubts about literature’s relationship to “the market” assumed. I don’t feel this way presently, after a few years’ experience; now I see how it could be nice to work with the right agent, how it might be useful to have an ally and advocate.
Exposure is, as you note, an ongoing issue, open question. We’re in a particularly rich and diverse time for publishing, more books a year than ever, and the wider literary culture can struggle to keep up, sift through, do justice. Excellent books can get entirely ignored; some mediocre books can stay in the spotlight for surprisingly long, since everyone wants to have an opinion about the book everyone is having an opinion about. And most of the novels everyone talks about today will be forgotten a decade from now, as will most of those no one talks about. In response to what it seems fair to call my novel’s utter lack of public reception (penny dropped into a bottomless well, etc.) — it’s had one small and unfavorable review, otherwise echoing silence — I feel the same thing as anyone would or everyone does: disappointment. And then embarrassment at that disappointment: just what had I expected? I’ve worked in publishing for nine years; I know the system represents exactly no one’s values and certainly not mine, so why did I think it might serve me? Yet the ego hungers beyond reason.
Is there anything in that disappointment other than ego? Sometimes I think there is: I think that one does wish for community, and this is not a merely selfish desire. That we may desire through our writing to have served, and finding readers may feel like confirmation of this. Of course, if writing is service, it is that whether anyone reads the book or no. And in any case we may neither control nor know what a book offers and to whom—books are independent creatures, slowly burrowing into the world and rarely reporting back. To state the cliché: writing is hard and solitary work and I think we all wish, in moments, for some reward. But no one needs me to point out that that reward doesn’t exist, not meaningfully. There’s just the day and whatever work we’re doing.
But I too am mortal, afflicted with desire. So — large house, small house, your question. The problem I come up against is that most (though of course not all) of the books I read and love are published by small to mid-sized houses. So when I go looking for community, a home for my work, it’s natural to look there. But then, one thinks in other moments, why not try to be read by more people? Especially as a woman — I worry about the reverberations of my checked ambitions. I wish that the last twenty years had gone differently in publishing and the bigger houses hadn’t been bought up by multinational media corporations; I wish that their tastes retained more of their old audacity. Good work still happens in and comes from those houses, but circumstances can be heavily stacked against it. Every season there are those books that get praise piled on them that one tries to read and — oof. I don’t want to excuse small presses wholesale from this problem; not everything that independents publish is necessarily amazing. But the flaws are different and/or exist for different reasons. I can get grumpy, though, when the small-press world gets too pleased with itself, sings that we’re all in this together song: too many indie presses are appallingly bad about publishing women, and indie presses also may not always do that well by their authors.
I don’t know — I’m left with more questions. Like: where and what is this community I mention? Why do I keep using that tired word? I don’t know what the better word might be — but we need a way to talk about the encounter in which the private act of literature meets the public, and all that can happen there, and how to nourish the best of that happening.
Andy Stallings lives in New Orleans with his wife, the poet Melissa Dickey, and their three young children, Esme, Curran, and Galen. He teaches creative writing and poetry at Tulane University, and is a co-founder of PXP (the Poetry Exchange Project) and a co-editor of THERMOS Magazine.