Annihilation is such a comedy-killer

Lucy Ellmann

This interview appears on Issue Zero of LONGITŪDINĒS.

You lived your life between the US and the UK and set your books in both countries. The novelist Lisa Zeidner claims England is more open to your ‘brand of literary experimentation than the United States’. How do the US and UK influence your identity as a writer?

Having a foot in both countries has been both a source of material, and cause for confusion. Not just for me but my publishers. There have been times when the proofs came back with American spellings changed, without my permission, to English spellings. They all had to be changed back. I’ve perversely clung to my Americanness though America is actually now a somewhat foreign land. For instance, I say ‘thank you’ too much when I’m there. Americans don’t know what to make of me, in person or in my novels – neither do the British. But I like being an outsider.

I guess I’m more comfortable with British humor (humour). The dumb American sitcoms I watched as a kid can’t compete with Monty Python. But there’s an energy to American wordplay that the British lack. I like Seinfeld! You see? My allegiance shifts around.

The Goldsmiths Prize recognised Ducks, Newburyport (2019) as a work that opens up ‘new possibilities for the novel form’. Previously, you have been described as ‘one of modern literature’s most well-kept secrets’. Did you expect the reception Ducks got? Did you feel this book would have exposed the ‘secret’?

My previous book, Mimi, was in some ways my most conventional. I really wanted to get a message across, my quest for a return to worldwide matriarchy (the much more natural system of governance that seems to have prevailed in prehistory). So I went for a fairly straightforward story, and even included a wealthy character, the narrator, in deference to the adoration of wealth in more commercial fiction. These were big concessions! It was also a wish-fulfilment novel with a romance and a happy ending (ie, the world makes progress towards matriarchy). I was miffed that the book got a fairly low-key reception, including an insultingly glib review in the New York Times that killed the book in the US. There were also some traitorous reviews by supposed feminists in the UK, knocking the whole idea of matriarchy. How can anyone object to matriarchy? It’s the most logical solution to all our problems. But it hasn’t happened yet, despite my efforts.

After that experience, I ditched the soapbox and decided I’d only write what I most wanted to write. And that turned out to be Ducks. I have been fascinated by the response. I’m writing for me only from now on. It’s silly to do anything else.

As for stretching the novel form, somebody’s gotta do it. Actually, everybody should.

Ducks is a one-sentence novel propelled by the refrain ‘the fact that’. How did it come to have this form? How do you start a new book?

I usually start with self hatred, chagrin about my lack of ideas and ability, and general sourness about life in general. Throw in a good sprinkling of misanthropy. I build from there, by amassing little notes and trying to get some idea of what’s on my mind at present, and how it might take the form of a piece of fiction.

There were years of preparation for Ducks but it really got going one morning at dawn, when I wrote a few pages of ‘the fact that’s and decided I liked the effect. I was curious to see if a whole book could be constructed using that phrase. The one-sentence aspect began to seem right to me later on, as a way of imitating human consciousness, which I don’t think is very lavishly punctuated. I allowed commas only, for sense.

Cover of Ducks, Newburyport

At one point, the narrator says, ‘the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff’. How did books change you? Who would you be if you’d read genre fiction instead?

An imbecile. I hate to think what kind of writer I would be if I’d never encountered Rabelais, Sterne, Austen, Dickens, Hardy, Zola, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Melville, Nabokov, Tutuola, Bernhard and Jelinek. And a few other things. You form yourself through what you read, which is why it seems unfortunate that people settle for so much bad stuff! I like books with a wide scope, a freedom of exploration. Generous books, not cramped or scheming. Genre fiction is not free enough. At its most commercial, it’s enslaved to capitalism. Why this insatiable love of murder? I also hate the lazy notion that reading is escapism. I think literature should be constantly enlivening, surprising, and confrontational.

I’m a terribly fussy reader, and really don’t like being disappointed. Since becoming a novelist myself, I see all the cracks, and they make me uncomfortable. If the first 50 pages don’t grab me, I don’t finish it. My mother dutifully finished every book she started, but I feel life’s too short.

You say you’re not particularly well-read in contemporary fiction, and are more interested in ‘how people thought before the atom bomb debased us all’. Could you tell us more about it?

Sifting through all the stuff that just got published is tricky. Much of it repels me. And I don’t like reading contemporary work when I’m trying to write my own stuff. But there’s another reason too. Given that humanity, patriarchy in particular, has caused the ruination of the natural world, I have begun to prefer to read about more innocent times, before my birth, when there still seemed some chance for nature, culture and civilisation. When people still knew how to love. Now we just grind along. I want to read about the way people thought before we all knew we’re doomed. And when passion could be felt for something other than guns, madmen and the apocalypse. It’s exhausting to live in the modern world, isn’t it? The pandemic has joined up with the ongoing nuclear bomb threat. It’s such a comedy-killer, I find, annihilation – though Dr. Strangelove is wonderfully funny.

Smollett wasn’t worrying about the atom bomb or climate change – the world still seemed full of promise to him. It’s not that all contemporary fiction deals with these dark subjects, of course. Far from it. Many novels dodge serious issues, for the sake of sales, or escapism. But, underneath, we all know what we did. We betrayed nature and made the whole world bleak.

In Man or Mango? (1998) you write, ‘Nuclear bombs, fluorescent lights, burning witches at the stake, deciding animals have no emotions – only men could have come up with such ideas’. In Mimi (2013), the title character notes that, ‘what women need is less scrutiny of how they look, not more nose jobs.’ In response to criticism for the length of Ducks you said, ‘Essentially, I think it’s time for men to shut up completely’. Why do men still call most of the shots? What would a world more suitable for women look like?

Yes, that got me into a bit of trouble. I was really targeting male reviewers, not necessarily all men. Though it might be nice if they all quietened down for a while. No one can seriously believe men are in any way superior to women. Masculinity itself seems incredibly fragile – it’s always in doubt and under threat, always having to be bolstered, renewed, acclaimed. Emasculation lurks behind every corner apparently. Yet we put these emotional wrecks in charge of everything? Men still have things all their own way. And they won’t give up power unless we snatch it from them.

A world more suitable for women? Oh, boy! Women would control all the money, all governments. Socialism would prevail, obviously, with free healthcare, childcare, education, tampons, abortions, weekly wine allocations, and an annual universal income. The current financial, industrial and military complexes would disappear, while poverty would become an oddity of the past. Climate change would be reversed, as much as possible (too late, too late!). Planes would be grounded (how I hate them). Cars would be abolished (ditto). Men would do the dishes. Voting would be compulsory. Beauty contests would elicit pure bewilderment. The matriarchal lunar calendar would be reinstated, the number 13 respected once again. Women would get all the best parts in movies. Male-oriented porn would be wiped from memory, replaced by erotica that properly venerates the female orgasm, one of the biological wonders of the earth. Phallic skyscrapers would be dismantled in favour of round, low domed buildings that better suggest the female form. Wild animals would be free to live wherever they want, unharmed. All chickens would be free-range and ornery. Everyone would know how to make pie. And the arts would be the whole purpose of existence.

Ducks offers a striking depiction of motherhood. At one point, the narrator says of her daughter, ‘the fact that she’s got me so spooked and frazzled I’m scared of all young women now, because when I look at them I see another potential mother-hater’. Why is it important to talk about motherhood? How does this affect our conversation about womanhood?

Hatred of mothers is an important foundation of patriarchy, which is a pro-death cult deeply at odds with life-givers. As a result, in most societies today mothers are ignored, their needs are not met, their voices not heard. Mothers are positioned to suffer: they are isolated, coerced, restricted, impoverished and forgotten. In addition, daughters are subtly taught to hate their own mothers (and, in turn, to hate themselves). An essential tenet of feminism has to be the resurrection of a decent quality of life for mothers.

But that doesn’t mean that I feel actual motherhood need be promoted. I think the benefits of parenthood are much exaggerated, and those of contraception disastrously undervalued. Given the hostile environment in which we all live, motherhood can be bad for women, depriving them of many advantages. Most of all, it may deprive them of the ability to organise a united attack on patriarchy, because they’re just too damn busy dealing with their individual little nuclear families. (I do admit that, nowadays, many men contribute to childcare, in guilty imitation of the drudgery women have long endured, but that’s a side issue.) Now that we face the total destruction of the environment, thanks to human consumption, it seems a good time for people to reconsider whether they really need to participate in the instinctive urge to procreate.

Years ago I started a short story about a spider concerned with the vibrations of its web on a windy day. I never finished it, I could not completely separate myself from the spider. Why are there very few animals in fiction? In Ducks you alternate the story of an unnamed narrator with that of a mountain lion. You do this even more surprisingly in the brilliant Dot in the Universe (2003). Then comes Tom the Obscure (2014). Why draw these parallels between humans and other animals?

Most humans have nothing to do with any other creatures but mosquitoes and cockroaches. We don’t respect animals, aside from the ones we consider good-looking, and our own pets. We like to laugh at them. A million penguin videos exist for this purpose.

Christianity and behavioral scientists are good at propaganda. They convinced everybody that animals are nothing to do with us, that animals are all instinct, have no thoughts or emotions, no rights, and that they don’t even feel pain. But animals are thoughtful beings, and no more instinctive than we are. This wretched hierarchy we set up (with humans plopped right at the top) has only furthered patriarchal terrorism. What we need, before the whole of the natural world collapses around us, is a sense of commonality with other species, not difference.

The absence of animals in literature is tragic, unnatural – and dull. Moby-Dick has the balance about right. Black Beauty isn’t too bad, as far as I remember, and probably had a good effect on horse welfare. But who needs Kipling animals, or Aesop’s fables, or anthropomorphic novels about rabbits? I’m especially suspicious of stories in which the animal has to die. That is just a way of reasserting our authority over other creatures. It’s tricky to find ways of including animals in fiction, but it needs to be done. Finish that spider story!

You taught Creative Writing for years, and now, with your husband, the writer Todd McEwen, you run Fiction Atelier, an editing service that offers individual feedback to ‘serious writers of fiction’. You don’t believe Creative Writing courses are particularly useful, but that writers need editors. What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Todd and I were both thoroughly disheartened by our encounter with teaching Creative Writing at university level in the UK. The workload scuppered any chance we had of doing our own writing, and we didn’t even get paid enough to survive! We were dismayed by the lack of ambitious assigned reading, and most students’ acute ignorance of the history of literature. One student thought Agatha Christie was a contemporary of Jane Austen’s. And we disagreed with our colleagues’ reliance on workshops as a way of helping people. It’s terrible to see students wasting their hard-earned money like this. Most CW courses, I suspect, are a fraud. By the time we quit, I felt like calling the police.

My husband and I never had to endure such a constricted and mendacious approach ourselves – we learnt how to write by reading and writing, and studying literature. Writing is not really a communal act. It’s very private and mysterious. Once you produce a novel, what you need is one sensitive editor you can trust. Not a whole barrel of indiscriminate or competitive peers, all poised to diss your embryonic creation. It’s also a dangerous idea to submit yourself to the vagaries and brutality of an academic institution. Writing is an art form! It shouldn’t be taught like engineering.

But our editorial service is now on hold because of the coronavirus. It feels urgent to concentrate on our own work for a while. No telling how much time we have left. For the same reason, we’re cooking a lot of spaghetti carbonara, a dish Todd has in my opinion perfected.

© Lucy Ellmann. Interviewed by Antonio Gambacorta
Photo © Amy Jordison

Lucy Ellmann

Lucy Ellmann was born in Illinois and moved to England as a teenager. Her first novel, Sweet Desserts (1988), won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Her most recent, Ducks, Newburyport (2019) won the Goldsmiths Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She has also published Varying Degrees of Hopelessness (1991), Man or Mango? (1998), Dot in the Universe (2003), Doctors and Nurses (2006), and Mimi (2013). She now lives in Edinburgh.

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