... from the moment I sat down and began the first text segment of A Lesser Day, which opens with a father dying and ends with the sounds of a distant television drifting down a hallway to the ears of a frightened child in bed, I was working strictly from my own memory. And the interesting thing was, the closer I adhered to what I remembered, the freer I felt to focus on the words themselves, their rhythms and repetitions. It enabled me to develop the book in a formal sense: with its fragmented narratives, recurrent leitmotifs, and negative spaces or gaps in the narrative that seem to resonate with the unarticulated.
The interview is no longer online—here it is in full:
THINGS I’D RATHER BE DOING — INTERVIEW WITH ANDREA SCRIMA
John Kenyon, June 10, 2010
J.K. Reading this, I assumed it was nonfiction, but it is listed as fiction. Does either designation do justice to the story being told, or is a different classification required to accurately describe its contents?
A.S. Most of the material in A Lesser Day is autobiographical, although I’ve found the nature of autobiography to be a slippery one. I’m not even sure it’s correct to equate autobiography with nonfiction, given its subjective nature. Although I have some difficulty with the category “memoir”—to my mind memoirs are written by public personalities with eventful, tumultuous lives bent on setting the record straight or exacting revenge—I made the decision at some point to call A Lesser Day a memoir. Despite this, the Library of Congress has catalogued A Lesser Day as a work of fiction. Spuyten Duyvil Press responded by listing the book both on their fiction and their nonfiction pages.
Actually, A Lesser Day is my second book; the first book is an unfinished novel. In writing it, I was concerned with revealing as little as possible about the people I’d based my characters on—people I care about and whose feelings matter to me—and as a consequence, much of the task entailed inventing settings and essentially lives to explore the psychological phenomena I was obsessed with at the time. But then a strange thing happened. The more I strove for fiction, the more revealing the writing seemed, the more naked, even—and it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I was never able to resolve this, and I abandoned the work after three or four hundred pages.
On the other hand, from the moment I sat down and began the first text segment of A Lesser Day, which opens with a father dying and ends with the sounds of a distant television drifting down a hallway to the ears of a frightened child in bed, I was working strictly from my own memory. And the interesting thing was, the closer I adhered to what I remembered, the freer I felt to focus on the words themselves, their rhythms and repetitions. It enabled me to develop the book in a formal sense: with its fragmented narratives, recurrent leitmotifs, and negative spaces or gaps in the narrative that seem to resonate with the unarticulated.
And so, in answer to your question, I really don’t know what classification best applies to this book. In any case, the closer I stuck to my own memory, the more “fictional” the writing became, while the further I delved into fiction, the more revealing and autobiographical it seemed. But I can imagine that many writers experience this; the existing categories don’t really approach the true nature of writing, as far as I can tell.
As a visual artist, you communicate one way. Now, with the written word, you must communicate in a different way. How did that shift affect the story you were able to tell? Could you tell this story through visual art, and how would what is communicated differ?
No, there are things I’ve found I’m only able to do in writing. I’m seeking answers to some basic questions, and this process takes place in language as opposed to color or line or compositional form. I’ve discovered something odd, something I’m almost embarrassed by: I don’t seem to be able to think very clearly in words. I have to write to fully understand what I think, which is very different from the artistic process, in which I need to turn off the inner noise and empty my mind as much as possible.
Each discipline carries with it its own available content. In my writing I’m interested in exploring memory, family relationships, childhood, the lonely inner space of the self. It would never occur to me to explore these themes in my art; for me, art doesn’t need to be “about” anything. The formal language of the medium carries with it its own inner logic and manner of storytelling, which remain largely abstract.
The passages, though brief, are rich with detail. Was that your visual artist’s eye at work?
I think my visual sense informs my writing to the extent that in seeking to create mental images in the mind of the reader, I try to be as precise as possible about how these images unfold, how they follow one another in sequence.
Installation view of This small sacrifice, museumakademie berlin, 1998.
At some point in my artistic work, I had arrived at a synthesis of word and image in the form of text installations, which were essentially stories I’d written and painted onto the walls of exhibition spaces, thousands of letters wrapping around walls, running in and out of window wells and doorways and composed such that the period of a sentence would end at a light switch, for instance. It was a way of choreographing the reader/viewer through a space. This period culminated in an installation I did in Dresden about a woman’s recollection of a man she once loved. She realizes that she’s begun to forget him; she scours a photograph for any power it might still possess to conjure his living image. It was a visual work that consisted entirely of writing which sought to convey the fugitive nature of the remembered or imagined image.
I don’t think, in referring to myself, that I can speak of an artist’s eye or a writer’s mind or sensibility; it’s all interwoven, in the way that all human beings speak and see and think in terms of words and images. It’s only different in that I actually use these various disciplines in an active way.
The oft-quoted knock against music criticism is that it is like dancing about architecture. In similar fashion, it is difficult to accurately convey the depth of a work of visual art through words. You were trying to do so to some degree with your own work here. Did that give you a different perspective on arts criticism and reportage?
In A Lesser Day, I describe several newspaper photographs I’ve incorporated in my work. I was interested in what kind of parallel mental image I’d arrive at through sheer description: this is happening in the foreground, this is happening in the background; people’s arms are raised in a certain way, their bodies are positioned in a certain way. I wondered whether a ghost of the original image might result, or a shadow; how far from the original image the description would take me in spite of my efforts at neutrality, at accuracy. There are also passages in which I’ve described the painting process — but this is all very different than trying to describe a work of art. To my mind, the descriptions here are analogous to the process of writing itself, of making sense out of non-sense. Art criticism is another task entirely, with a stake in power relations and an object’s relative value as a commodity on the art market — or, often enough, the relative commodity value of the artist herself.
I’ve written about art on a number of occasions, most recently for the website of A Gathering of the Tribes, a small arts organization on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A few friends of mine had a show of drawings and asked me to write a review. I enjoy doing this on occasion, although I prefer to write essays and not criticism per se. I’m not interested in judging art or in promoting anyone; I’m only interested in trying to think my way inside the work, to adopt its logic as a set of cognitive parameters and understand it from within, as it were.
The shifting “you” in the text is jarring at times as the reader must work to determine which “you” is being addressed. This confusion shifted the context on a given page, adding layers to what was being shared. Was that your intent, or is that a happy accident of the more minimalist narrative structure?
I’m glad you’re asking this. Actually, the entirety of A Lesser Day is addressed to one or another “you.” It’s a book written in the first person singular and addressed either explicitly or implicitly to an unnamed person I’ve felt emotionally close to at various points in my life—my father, a series of lovers, or a version of myself at some particular age. The shifting “you” is a construct I happened upon very early in the book; it reflects the sense that so much of what we tell ourselves when we’re alone is actually directed at a specific recipient, and that while this person might change periodically, the inner monologue carries on, like an ongoing appeal or tribunal.
It seems this same story told in a different way could have been a much different book, placing much more direct emphasis on inter-personal relationships and socio-political issues. You touch on things tangentially that in a more conventional book would be addressed head-on, seemingly intentionally focusing more on “lesser days” than on those that were monumental. Was that the intent from the beginning or was there a process of stripping things away at any point?
I agree, there were a number of potential books to be had from the same subject matter: the events in Berlin immediately after travel restrictions were lifted and East Germans began pouring into the city; the dismantling of the GDR I’ve alluded to, for instance in the segment about the former East German state circus, which was bought up by an entrepreneur less interested in the circus’ history or the welfare of the animals than in making as much money as possible. Or the East Village of the ’80s: the danger we lived in at the time; the drug deaths and this collision with inner city brutality and poverty. Or, I could have developed each of the characters and then let them interact with one another to reveal their natures, as in a novel. But I wasn’t interested in writing a novel; I was more concerned with the way life leaves a kind of sediment in the places we’ve lived—the way location encapsulates memory—and I sought to express this through the book’s structure and form, as well. And so it wasn’t as much a paring down as a formal choice to restrict myself to a particular narrative structure in which the larger historical reality hovers on the periphery, ominous but still extraneous to the workings of the inner self.
Everything from the book’s size and layout to the name of the publisher had me thinking this was an import from some small European press, something the sections set in Berlin helped to reinforce. Yet, at its heart, this is an American story about identity, loss, creativity and travel, though one told in a non-traditional way. In a way this feels like a genre of one, but in another it is very much of a piece with contemporary American literature. What space does A Lesser Day occupy on the literary continuum to you?
That’s an interesting question. I’m gratified that you recognize A Lesser Day’s place in contemporary American literature. Identity, especially cultural identity, cuts close to the core of what it is to be American, whether we’re the descendents of slaves or relative newcomers, second-generation Italian or Irish or whatever. At one point in the book, the narrator—who has her possessions crated and shipped following the loss of her childhood home—ponders the odds that the overseas trunk accompanying her immigrant great-grandparents during their original sea voyage to New York, where they settled in the Bronx 117 years previously, might have actually departed from the very same port in Hamburg. We are always looking for home, it seems. And so maybe it’s this sense of loss that makes the writing of American exiles so urgently, paradoxically American—Gertrude Stein comes to mind in this regard.
Yet for an exclusively American sensibility weaned on colloquial language and its self-referential manner of plugging into collective TV history and the like, the minimalist narrative structure of A Lesser Day might present a problem. If you look at the past century of works written in the English language, however, you find Virginia Woolf constructing fragmented narratives 80 and 90 years ago—not to mention Joyce, of course. Personally, I feel a strong kinship with Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Christine Schutt’s Nightwork. European literature has also had a deep impact on my writing—Natalia Ginzburg and Marguerite Duras in particular; Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald as well. But there are so many German authors that have either never or only scarcely been translated into English, like Marie-Luise Kaschnitz, who wrote a book titled Orte (English: Places or Locations) that was published in 1973, the year she died. It’s a beautiful book somewhat similar in structure to A Lesser Day.
It bears mentioning that only a small press would have given me the freedom to cultivate each individual aspect of this book—from the cover design, photography, size, and typography to my decision to put an excerpt on the back cover and not a string of redundant blurbs. Nava Renek and Tod Thilleman, themselves authors, have joined forces to make Spuyten Duyvil one of the most inspiring publishers on the independent scene. I feel a true affinity with Thilleman’s Gowanus Canal, Hans Knudsen and Renek’s No Perfect Words, two exceptional novels that undermine narrative structure to reveal the deeper meaning inherent in form—and so this, too, has become a context for me, a literary home. It’s not about a niche or an experimental ghetto, however; it’s about contemporary literature as it survives within or in spite of the shifting priorities of present marketplace conditions: what we expect of our literature as a culture—and where we want to take it as writers, as critics, as publishers.
To my mind, American literature must be evaluated in a broader context. Important contemporary writers like Anne Enright and Colm Tóibín should be included in our literary discourse—but because they’re Irish, they’re considered foreign, which is absurd. The same goes for the Scottish writer James Kelman. Compounding this is the short shrift given to translation, a vital task left to smaller presses like Dalkey Archive, Spuyten Duyvil, and Twisted Spoon, who were one of the first to publish Andrzej Stasiuk in English. This has isolated American literature from the rest of the writing and thinking world, which is not, I believe, where we want to be.
Having completed a significant writing project like this, is there anything you’ll take back from it creatively to your visual art? Is there more writing in your future?
I write because there are things that can only be expressed in words, or because language is required to fully explore something I need to understand. And when I make art, it’s because words fail to express everything we’re capable of experiencing or perceiving. I try to identify the medium that is most conducive to a particular aesthetic or emotional concern, although this is not the cleanly organized conceptual approach it might sound like. On the contrary: it’s largely aleatory. It’s difficult for me to negotiate these different processes and states of mind; for the most part, I’m governed by gut instinct. Often enough, I find myself working in the one and longing for the other, hard-pressed to distinguish between my own limitations as a writer or visual artist and the limitations of the medium itself. I’m a purist by nature, I long to do one thing only, and so perhaps I’m working towards that, one day.
I believe writing has become for me what painting used to be: a kind of being-in-the-moment process that connects me to my own thought patterns and associations as they surface in my mind. Writing is the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to do, yet I seem to be moving more and more in this direction.
I suspected I was a writer when I realized that the books I was reading had a far more profound impact on the development of my painting than anything else. Literature peels away the layers of my stupor and makes me alert to myself. It seems obvious, but it was like a miracle for me when I discovered what it means to share a language—the fact that words are, despite all their vagaries, a common currency.
A Lesser Day was rejected at least 75 times until Spuyten Duyvil Press took it on board. So my threshold for pain is considerably higher now, my faith in the way a book eventually finds the right people to support it has increased, and my determination to see my literary works through to publication has only grown. I guess we’ll just have to see. In any case, John, I’d like to thank you for your insightful questions and observations—it’s been a pleasure to have this conversation.