‘like one long utterance’: dwelling in S P R A W L and ‘the taboo of suburbia’

In this wide-ranging and fertile conversation poet Laynie Browne talks with the author Danielle Dutton about her new book S P R A W L. We learn how responding to photographs, everyday objects, consumption and the built environment helped lead to the construction of a solid but perspicacious text. Meanwhile we see how a narrator might seem to live inside us, and start to glimpse how a book itself can become a kind of place.

: What was the beginning of the project S P R A W L? Did you start with a question, an image, other influences, etc? Also, please talk about some of your formative prose influences. I’m wondering both about classic long dead authors and the very contemporary. Was there a moment when you read a work of experimental fiction which made you want to write prose? I’ve just been re-reading Pamela Lu’s Pamela, for instance and was wondering if that book was important to you.

DD: In terms of beginning S P R A W L: Yes! There were Laura Letinsky’s still lifes in her book Hardly More than Ever. There was a class I took on American poets of the first half of the twentieth-century, and subsequent conversations about a poetics of the city. There was reading: Thomas Bernhard, Georges Perec, Diane Williams, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein. There was 9/11 and a war. There were trips back home to visit my family, and new subdivisions, and fewer fields. I had a mess of questions: what would the poetics of sprawl be like? What does it mean to be in America right now? Do we really need this many Office Depots? Also, formally, my first book is a collection of short pieces, many of these broken into their own smaller sections, and I had a palpable desire to write something without any breaks.

There was no one author or text that made me want to write, but there were many who made me love to read. I was a big reader as a kid. And I liked to write stories, but I didn’t do it with any regularity (I remember two, in particular, both of them melancholy and both of them of sci-fi; one got eaten by the vacuum cleaner because I left it under my bed). In college I wrote horrible, sad poems. I never thought I was a good writer and never thought of my writing as anything more than a private kind of outpouring until I took a night class at UCLA when I was about 23. This was when it was confirmed for me that writing was a thing people did now, still. We read Dave Eggers’s book, and Lorrie Moore, stuff like that, stories by living people about people alive right now. I was a history major in college and I’d gravitated to nineteenth-century novels and historical romances (and, obviously, a little science fiction) when I was a teenager, and it was only when I was 21 and working in a bookstore in England that it occurred to me, seriously like a retarded epiphany, that there were people alive who wrote. Within about a year or so of taking that class at UCLA I enrolled in the MFA program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’d say this is where I started to be formed, or to form, as a writer, or as the writer I am right now. There was a lot of emphasis on exploration and experimentation, in the best possible sense, and on connections between writing and other art forms. We read everything from Gertrude Stein to William Gass to David Antin to Clarice Lispector to Rilke and Wittgenstein and Anne Carson and Ovid. Several years later I encountered (and was taken by!) the work of Pamela Lu and Renee Gladman. Yes, I’m sure that they and other contemporary writers of “experimental prose” have had an influence on me, but I can’t say how.

LB: What was it like to co-habitate with the narrator of S P R A W L, in your brain?

DD: I don’t know for sure how to articulate it . . . but I think that the narrator of S P R A W L felt less like a wholly fictionalized character than any other character I’ve worked on. It was like pulling a thread from a sweater and watching it unravel. I began to experience moments of my life in the voice of the narrator, and then I’d hurry home to get it down. I think it was something like putting her on, like a mask that looks peculiarly like myself, and playing/becoming her for a while. But, then, she’s still in there. And she was in there before I wrote it too. I guess the writing of S P R A W L was her time to rise to the surface of my mind.

LB: One thing I especially appreciate about S P R A W L is that it doesn’t take a stand, doesn’t grossly judge, but kind of like still life, lays it all out. And I often associate an imagined suburban “character” and a life concerned with so much consumption and display with a lack of reflection, as if objects were masks or substitutes for thought. But your narrator is beyond the thick of things, in it and outside it in such interesting ways.

I was wondering when you first began to be interested in the idea of sprawl and when seeing the still life pieces connected with the idea. There is also such a great sense of catalogue in the book, which works with all of the objects. And the way that the text avoids and fragments dialogue I also found fascinating, utterance being often at the level of single words, exclamations almost, and often out of context, which makes for interesting juxtapositions. Also, it feels so seamless, like one long utterance. Did you write it that way, or more in sections that later combined?

DD: I think I’ve been interested in sprawl, in a really loose, vague, general way since I moved away from the town I was born and raised in to go to college (in Santa Cruz), and then away (to England), and then away again (to Los Angeles), and again (to Chicago), and every time I came back, my hometown was changed. I’ve been watching sprawl happen there in a really vibrant (for lack of a better word) way for the last fifteen or so years, and I think I was able see it differently (differently, say, than if I’d never left) because I would be gone for these stretches of time, and immersed in very different landscapes, and because I have a nostalgic sense of the “proper” outline of the town, of where the fields are, the orchards, and so when I’d come home and there’d be a Walgreens where the walnut orchard had been, and a new subdivision where the strawberry field once was, and a four lane road where there was no road, with six new churches, and three new Starbucks, and it just would hit me, like in my guts, in a really profound way, as wrong. Nevertheless, this is the place I come from, for better or worse. So that’s kind of a background of feeling that had been there for a while.

And then I happened, randomly, on this book of photographs by Laura Letinksy. They’re images of everyday detritus: Tupperware on a kitchen counter, plates on a sideboard, flowers wilting in a vase beside unwrapped candies. The objects in the images are normal enough but there’s something just off about the photographs, in a provocative way. They’re beautiful and strange.

I don’t remember when I first sat down to begin writing the book, but I think I had the photographs there when I did. I often wrote off the photos, cataloguing them, as you mention. I didn’t want to enliven them in a way that would change them (at least in my mind, my sense of them, or their tone of strangeness, a kind of flatness, but a flatness that hummed for me), so I’d just list them, list everything in a photograph, and then keep writing. In terms of the overall composition, I wrote initially in bursts, often just a page or so, and then I started stitching them together, like a quilt, smoothing out the transitions, and then a character and a narrative started to emerge from it and I kept on writing with her in mind.

LB: I’m thinking about avoidance and disassociation and the taboo of suburbia, how you really turn that on its head, and that’s what I find so interesting. And the process and the project as you describe its evolution is no less interesting—though not at all necessary in order to appreciate the book. S P R A W L is so wonderful in the way it forces a re-seeing of something seen habitually in a certain locked way. I’m always interested in unlocking perceptions. This seems to me one of the most useful things writers can do—provide new ways of seeing outside of preconceived notions while also exploring those notions.

I’m wondering if, like so many, you’ve spent time demonizing suburbia, hating it, being embarrassed by it, feeling disgust—and if so how these experiences eventually played into writing about it. There seems something shameless and shameful about suburbia as subject, which is useful. So I think lots of people try hard to avoid thinking about it and I’m interested in what this says about modern culture, and about an inability for people to evaluate lifestyles and impact on environment, health, consumption, etc. It seems to me that not looking is really dangerous and that we are in a time when that is prevalent and therefore disturbing that people wouldn’t want to take a closer look. I’m thinking about how your speaker in S P R A W L believes in the purity of the institution of a lawn for instance.

Another question, how to make people look at what they don’t want to see? And was that something you thought about with this project, or not?

DD: I’ve definitely spent some portion of my life being embarrassed about where I grew up. My mom moved from NYC to LA in the sixties, as did a number of her girlfriends from the east coast, but my mom wound up following my dad (who is actually from LA) up to the Central Valley a year or so before I was born. They divorced when I was two or three and when I was growing up we (my mom, my little brother, and I) would go down to LA almost one a month to visit with her friends. Their lives seemed so glamorous and urban to my eyes. The funny thing is, the friend we stayed with the most, and her family, lived in Northridge. Which is so not LA, as you well know, to anyone who actually lives in LA. They had the most beautiful, gracious home high up on a hill and you could see the whole San Fernando Valley down below you, which during the day meant a sort of smogging view of sprawl, but at night meant twinkling light galore and this is still, in my whole life, one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. It filled me with butterflies and a naive sense of possibility and life, which is so sweet and silly and banal when I think about it. Like any little kid seeing the “big city” for the first time.

I think “not looking” is a huge part of contemporary American life in general, in the suburbs and the cities and small towns. One thing this immediately brings up for me, personally, is the issue of meat. It’s plain that the factory farming of animals is cruel to animals, is horrible for the environment, and is not totally necessary from the perspective of human health. But people gobble it up, in the suburbs, in cities, all over. I talk about this with people I love, people who do eat meat, and it’s such a fraught conversation. These are educated and kind people who seriously don’t want to examine this aspect of their lives. Obviously, for me, taking a sincere look at the factory farming of animals necessitates an ethical refusal. I realize I’m probably coming off as a righteous ass, so let me say that I’m not arguing that everyone everywhere needs to be a vegan, and of course I too look away (I close my eyes and use disposable diapers on my son, for example). I’m just saying that it’s important to look at the systems that make our lives work. A friend of mine recently became concerned about “what we must ignore in order to be consumers,” as she puts it. Her ideas are more nuanced than this will make it sound, but the result is that she decided that for one year she wouldn’t buy anything made in China. She’s been tracking her progress (it involves a heck of a lot of research before each purchase) on a blog. I’m really impressed by her work and her desire to observe and make plain. Or take the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Some people I talk to, and a lot of the posts I see about it on Facebook, speak only about the evil of BP and oil companies in general, but obviously we all have some responsibility, all of us who drive our cars and ride in airplanes and drink water out of plastic bottles. We gobble and gobble. We live within a huge (capitalist) system that promotes gobbling (consuming rapidly and without thinking) and it’s really tempting not to look at it because it’s depressing as hell.

Anyway, this is all me ranting, as opposed to me trying to write a novel, which is a really different thing. I do think one thing that the book seems skeptical of—and I’m seeing this more in retrospect—is the idea of Progress, with a capital P.

LB: Yes, suspicion of “Progress,” and progress as consumption seem key. It is curious that characters completely caught up with objects enable objects to absorb or become the narrative. I was thinking about this in relation to Aaron Kunin’s wonderful novel The Mandarin and the lineage of the “it” novel (which Kunin introduced me to), in which common objects are foregrounded and narrate and recollect their own adventures. For example Crebillon’s The Sofa (1742, French) recounts the many amorous adventures from the point of view of a Sofa, and the soul of a young courtier imprisoned within it. I think that S P R A W L fits this lineage in a subversive way—not in that it narrates the tale of the object or that the objects narrate, but in that the objects and the catalogue occupy so much mental space of the speaker that they do blot out and obliterate other narratives. One way to view the speaker is as a montage of objects talking. She is consumed by her consumption, if that makes any sense.

Where to next, from shame to how to counteract perhaps. In your opinion is writing a remedy? How does writing fit into your sense of citizen?

DD: I’m not sure what I think S P R A W L (or any of my writing) has to do with being a citizen, but I love this question. I’d like to think that writing is part of the way I’m a citizen, a good one—in addition to calling my congressperson, for example, or returning my library books, or helping an old lady cross the street—certainly this would make me feel better about spending so much time alone with my computer. But I don’t know . . . I don’t know that it is any kind of remedy for anyone but me, and I hope that my work doesn’t function in any overtly responsible way. But I do like to think that it could offer a reader at least a moment of frisson, of estrangement, a la Viktor Shklovsky’s notions of defamiliarization, in which she might re-see the world, if briefly. I think this re-seeing is crucial to being awake in the world, and I agree with something you said earlier—about unlocking perception—that this is one very interesting function of art. I admire the work of writers who aim for their writing to be overtly political and alive to social justice and I admire the work of writers who abhor the idea of their writing functioning in this way. I don’t know yet where I fit on that continuum.

LB: I think certain work, because of its innovative quality, goes beyond genre to create vibrant and spacious possibilities for writing. I tend to gravitate towards work which falls into this category—which is really beyond category. For instance the work of W.G. Sebald comes to mind and the poem/novel Language Death Night Outside (recently translated from German by Rosmarie Waldrop). I’ve been thinking about teaching a course on novels by poets, and would put your work in that category. I wonder what you would think about that. Would you object? Do you think of yourself as a cross-genre writer? Did you always write prose? Are the writers who were most formative to you all strictly prose writers?

DD: I’ve been thinking of teaching a class on poetic narratives, too, narratives that move in poetic ways, I guess, rather than in strictly linear or causal ways. I do think S P R A W L would fit pretty naturally into such a course, or a course on novels by poets. I don’t think of myself as a poet, though, and I’ve never been called a poet by other poets . . . I mean, in classes, for example, when I “had” to take poetry writing classes at the University of Denver, I felt like an outsider; not unwelcome, but outside it somehow. But then I don’t always fit right in with fiction writers either, so maybe I do aspire to that space you’re talking about. A little genreless . . . concerned very much with language but also with narrative, if not so much with plot per se. I liked the conversation about “prose” that was going on in the anthology Biting the Error, primarily in Renee Gladman’s contribution. Renee herself has most often been talked about as a poet; most of her work is listed at Small Press Distribution, for example, as poetry, though most of what she has written is prose concerned with narrative movements . . . and this is interesting to me. I recently started a press called Dorothy, a publishing project and our first title is Renee’s novel (note the generic distinction!) Event Factory. I think it’s good to think about Renee’s work as fiction. It’s provocative. Renee’s writing provokes fiction. I’d like my work to do that too, I guess. And Dorothy, a publishing project’s website says we’re dedicated to fiction (not to experimental prose or cross-genre writing or anything else), so I guess I do have some stake in fiction as a thing, in reclaiming it, I guess, from so much boring work, so many crusted-over ideas. I think I’m still working it all out for myself. It seems a little uncool to be concerned with genre these days, but there you go. And, yeah, the writers most formative to me were all prose writers, mostly fiction writers, so I think that’s a big part of this. There’s a kind of sense of inheritance, a ground I feel emotionally invested in (as a reader), that I want to continue to cultivate and provoke (as a writer and, now, a publisher).