I: Individual Collectivities
Karla Kelsey: In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf writes of wanting to see how the fictious female writer Mary Carmichael might “set to work to catch those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone.”
These unrecorded gestures are nothing less than the “strange food” of “knowledge, adventure, art” and Woolf shows us that representations of female engagement with this food are perilously absent in the literature of her time. Not only are these gestures absent but female lives have been so over-written by patriarchal versions of female gesture that they can only by captured by the “talk of something else, looking steadily out of the window.” Each time I re-visit these passages I find them perilously contemporary!
Counteracting this, your books Attempts at a Life, SPRAWL, and Margaret the First share a voracious exploration of such “strange food,” creating windows into the lives of female characters, both historical and imagined, as they hunger and eat. Attempts at a Life operates in short pieces, vignettes that draw on a cast of characters including Jayne Eyre, Alice James, Madame Bovary, and Hester Prynne. SPRAWL is an ekphrastic response to Laura Letinsky’s contemporary domestic still lives and pulses with the rhythm of the body as your narrator circumambulates her suburban neighborhood: “I appear to be free from design or discretion. It is an easy discovery of the ‘feminine.’ I walk through the doorway wearing my aggressively orange hat. I do it over and over.” Margaret the First delivers a complex portrait of celebrity culture through the ambition, sensibility, and brilliance of a 17–century Duchess. What a variety of vital “strange food” you’ve created for readers, and I have yet to mention the lives of books you’ve published since 2009 via Dorothy, a Publishing Project!
My question here for you has to do with technique: Woolf suggests that in order to capture the “strange food” of female life, writers need to “look out the window,” developing alternative techniques to those used in conventional narrative writing. What are your thoughts on this notion? Do you have any favorite techniques?
Danielle Dutton: For days now I’ve been trying to think of something smart to say in response to this generous question, but the truth is that I operate as a writer and in some ways as an editor very much inside a space of instinct. There’s a kind of silence there. It’s something I’ve spent a decade or so trying to “overcome,” because so many aspects of the job of being a writer and certainly being a teacher of writing demand that we articulate how it is that we do what we do and why. But I write the way I write . . . because I do. I’m not trying to not write some other way. I’m thinking about how Eileen Myles talks about how most of the interesting work (they’re talking about in poetry) is being done by female writers. They aren’t saying that all work by female writers is better than all work by male writers, but that—okay, I’ll just quote them: “Female reality (and this goes for all the ‘other’ realities as well—queer, black, trans—everyone else) is more interesting because it is wider, more representative of humanity—it’s definitely more stylistically various because of all it has to carry and show. After all, style is practical. You do different things because you are different.” I believe I write toward that “strange food” because I am strange and have always felt strange and estranged, as a girl and a woman, for sure, and also no doubt because of certain inherited mental health struggles, and also because I grew up Jewish in a conservative/Christian small town and (despite the presence in my childhood of plenty of good people) was made to feel like an outsider. All of this is as much a part of my technique as a fiction writer as is the fact that I read Gertrude Stein for pleasure and am not very adept at writing plot. Maybe reading people like Stein and Woolf, maybe just that practice is its own way of looking out the window? Looking differently. Maybe I’m saying that one of my preferred techniques is to look past whatever is at the center, to center myself on the periphery instead.
II: Collective Entries
Extended versions of these original questions can be found here.
The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?
Danielle Dutton: Yes, I’ve experienced the call, but the object was placed in my hands, I didn’t have to search for it, unless taking a PhD course on the poetics and historiography of the seventeenth century qualifies as searching, and maybe it does. Anyway, as I remember it, only one of the books we were reading was by a woman. Other shorter writing by women was taken up, but it was confessional-spiritual-biographical, which was less interesting to me. Only one woman had written a natural-philosophical utopian text that rivaled, for absolute strangeness and wild imaginative power, the books of the men on the list. Going into that class I knew the names of, and something about, all the men whose books we’d be studying, but I had never heard of Margaret Cavendish. Her work totally electrified me. Why had she been forgotten, at least compared to her male contemporaries? The answer seemed obvious and yet oddly complicated, as she herself was odd and complicated. Virginia Woolf compares her, in A Room of One’s Own, to a cucumber, spreading all over the garden, choking out the pretty flowers. So a teacher handed me the archival object (teachers are archivists, a syllabus a highly-charge political shoebox/bookcase), but the call was emotional, mine, deeply felt. I felt lit from within by an urgent indignation. My response was to write her a book.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?
Danielle Dutton: Honestly, the most powerful experience I had specifically in terms of the overlooked or silenced nature of my archival subject was after the novel was finished, encountering people who had never heard of Margaret Cavendish but who now, because of my book, had begun reading her work and finding it and her as incredible and weird and necessary as I did.
But another thing: in terms of working with historical erasure or silencing, the most difficult thing I encountered was an actual silence. After asking to be asked to visit the Royal Society of London, whose ideas and methods she’d been attacking in her work for years, when Cavendish did go, she said nothing. She famously just thanked them for their presentations and left. A mystery. In various texts I read, scholars speculated: What happened? What was she thinking? Why did she leave without a word? The scene of Cavendish’s visit to the Royal Society was the last scene I finished in the book, and I wrote it over and over trying to get it right. Of course I can’t know whether or not I got it remotely right, and that gets at the danger of these silences, our intrusions into them. In fact, my impulse originally was to leave it as an absolute silence in the book, but in the end I had to admit that wasn’t the kind of book I was writing. So I decided to try to articulate the moment without interpreting it, to show her there, acknowledging her silence in that room and filling the empty space that silence leaves on the page with what others made of what it meant (in particular her contemporary, the diarist Samuel Pepys, who was 100% dismissive: “A mad, conceited, ridiculous woman.”). I suppose ultimately I refused to fill it, because I don’t have the words to fill it, and I don’t think I should, I think her silence was huge and fundamentally private.
Perhaps then my advice is that some silences can stay.
Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?
Danielle Dutton: I feel fortunate that the feminist archive I most want to see in the world is the one I’ve been creating for the past ten years, via Dorothy, a publishing project. When it started, I wouldn’t have thought of my work as archival—more like building a family (is a family a kind of archive?)—but now that we have a healthy list “behind” us, it has a sense of history as well, and a different kind of responsibility. But I want to feel that time makes the process of curation looser, not more strict. That the list is always expanding outward, though following its particular DNA. One thing I’ve felt all along is that each new book that we add to the archive somehow alters every other item that was already there, and itself is subtly changed by its inclusion. In this sense THE ARCHIVE IS ALIVE.
III: Exchange Question
Poupeh Missaghi: How has your work with the archive, this engagement with a remnant from the past, shifted the ways you carry yourself in the present moment or imagine possibilities for the future?
Danielle Dutton: Thank you for this question, Poupeh. There are different ways I could answer it based on different archival engagements, so I’ll center it, for myself, around my work with Dorothy, which is active, ongoing archival work, less an engagement with the past than with an ever-shifting present. Each time we add a new book to the press’s list there is a subtle rearrangement. An accommodation. A making-room-for. It doesn’t feel to me as if this is only in my head. Like when Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest was added, suddenly something new could be seen in Suzanne Scanlon’s Promising Young Women, or how Amina Cain’s work speaks to Renee Gladman’s, or Leonora Carrington’s stories are cast in a new light with the addition to the list of Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk. For me this rearrangement, this changing personality of the list, often seems the truly essential work of publishing, a gesture ultimately as meaningful as the particular fate of any one book, and this is perhaps why I feel okay using the word “archival” to discuss what on the surface would seem to be the everyday work of publishing new books. It keeps me engaged both forward and backward in time, and it has practical implications. For example, when we’re in the process of choosing books (we only publish two per year) we really do think both backward and forward, to what this body of work wants or needs. We might try to gauge: Does it want a reprint? A translation? A debut? Etc.
It also just occurred to me to add that within the Dorothy archive is a triptych of books by a real-life archivist, Nathalie Léger! Her writing overtly engages archives and archival work in the tracing of women’s lives (her own, Barbara Loden’s, the Countess of Castiglione’s, etc.). Two of those titles are coming out this September (2020) and among other things your question makes me think about how the project of those books rhymes, in a way, with Dorothy’s larger project.
Danielle Dutton is the author of several books, most recently the novel Margaret the First. She is founder and editor of the feminist press Dorothy, a publishing project. Born and raised in Central California, she lives in St. Louis with her husband and son.