Jane Alison on Desire, Ovid & Miami Beach

A Conversation with the Author of Nine Island

The back-cover copy of Jane Alison’s Nine Island (Catapult, 2016) identifies it as “an intimate autobiographical novel,” which seems both exactly right and entirely inadequate. The book — which tells the tale of a recently-divorced translator of Latin who’s reassessing her life from the vantage of a high-rise apartment in the Venetian Islands of Biscayne Bay — is as candid, contemplative, hilarious, and affecting as that description would lead one to hope. It’s also quite a bit stranger than one might expect, in the best possible sense: allusive and elusive, it conflates its narrator’s restless mind and its louche, peculiar setting to produce an effect that’s vibrant, slippery, erotically charged, and slightly menacing.

Born in Australia, raised in the United States and elsewhere, Jane is the author of three previous novels and a memoir about her complex upbringing, as well as the compiler and translator of Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid. (Here I should mention that Jane was also my MFA thesis advisor at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina.) She was kind enough to avail herself of the wi-fi on a northbound Amtrak train to answer my questions about process, influences, classical studies, rock music, and a certain punctuation mark perhaps best left to experts.

Martin Seay: Although new fans will have no trouble enjoying it on its own, Nine Island is a particular treat for those of us who are familiar with your earlier books, in that it draws together a number of elements that appear in them. Its autobiographical content, for instance, recalls your memoir The Sisters Antipodes. The concern with human responsibility toward a fragile natural world that’s so central to Natives and Exotics has a supporting role here. Even the book’s narrative circumstances — a play of conflicting desires set against the tropical backdrop of Miami Beach’s Venetian Islands — bring to mind the (Italian) Venetian episodes of The Marriage of the Sea. And then of course there’s Ovid, about whom more later. In a novel that’s (at least in part) about a writer taking stock of her circumstances, these intertextual backward looks seem entirely fitting, but they got me wondering: where did Nine Island begin? The finished book can be characterized as many things; which one was it first?

Jane Alison: It began five years ago in a moment of fantasy-while-walking. I was walking the Venetian Islands one evening, thinking of Ovid (whose sexual stories I was translating), when I passed a modernist bungalow I coveted that had been empty and for sale for several years, and thought about the hundreds of times I used to walk by the house or the dorm room of a boy or man I craved, and suddenly, just as I passed the empty house, a tall, striking man appeared in the doorway. This created an instant Vox-esque fantasy: me, the man, a flirty exchanging involving “woman” in different languages, me stepping into the house, door shutting, ah. I actually stood still on the road, seeing a novel open up before me. Something about a woman who walks and fantasizes, a woman involved only with old men, dead men, far men, gone men, and the ultimate old dead far man, Ovid. It took another year or two for the other parts of the novel to appear, though, the more substantive parts about women’s bodies + desire + time, something I tried to work out through the figure of the hourglass pool that the narrator swims in every morning.

MS: Nine Island is a work of fiction, but (as I mentioned above) much of it is obviously autobiographical, and it doesn’t drop a ton of hints about exactly where reminiscence and confession are supplanted by pure invention. (In fact, it employs some classic anonymity-granting devices — e.g. the naming of several characters, including the narrator J, by their first initials only, as well as the use of evocative nicknames for the men in J’s life — that bolster the impression that what we’re reading is more reported than invented.) While I will not ask how factual Nine Island actually is — as doing so seems unsporting and obtuse — I am curious about how you came to conceive of it as fiction, and how you wrote it to operate as such.

Or, to approach this another way: I recently came across Deborah Eisenberg’s review of the reissue of Magda Szabó’s The Door, a novel that’s narrated by what seems to be a minimally-fictionalized version of Szabó herself. Eisenberg writes that despite its autobiographical content, The Door is “unmistakably a work of fiction, with fiction’s allusive and ambiguous purposes and effects;” I thought that was nicely put, and probably applicable to Nine Island as well. Are there aspects of it that you consider essentially fictional?

JA: Deborah Eisenberg has put that beautifully (and The Door is a wonderful novel). I’m one of many writers hoping that soon an era will dawn in which literature will either drop the current names for itself or find the right ones (see Geoff Dyer’s essay in the Guardian). Fiction = name for content; nonfiction = name for what it is not; poetry = name for form. Not Linnean distinctions. I will be in a bind now trying to say what is essentially fictional about Nine Island, having thrown out those names; I made a stab at conflating the categories by calling the book a “nonfiction novel.” But how about this: its fictionality or “made-up-ness” lies more in form than content, with willful mixing of Ovidian re-makes, faux-chemical equations, bits of pure brain-junk like counting . . . Yet similar or more extravagant moves happen in Bruce Chatwin’s books or Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family or Anne Carson’s NOX or Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts, which are more likely to be called “nonfiction” — so, sorry, it looks like I can’t say what is essentially fictional here . . . A certain freedom might be part of it, going back to Eisenberg’s “allusive and ambiguous purposes and effects.” A verbal gesture can be made to set the mind making associations, wheeling into the sky. But in any case: fiction comes from Latin fingere: to touch, handle, stroke; to form, fashion, frame, shape, mould, model, make. In all of these senses is the notion of material being handled, something that already exists, whether it’s wax or clay or memory or life being lived or thought about right now.

MS: I’m surprisingly satisfied by that answer! The book’s maneuvers in the space between confession and invention are also in keeping with a major element of the plot: J is a translator working on tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Nine Island itself seems artfully suspended at the midpoint of metamorphosis from lived experience into fiction. While I think a concern with myth — and more generally with transformations and enchantments of various sorts — is evident in just about all of your work, it’s worth noting that your engagement with Ovid has been particularly longstanding. In Nine Island, J associates her youthful discovery of Ovid with the beginning of her romantic life and its attendant complications; his works become a lens through which she interprets the novel’s events. Your writing in Change Me and The Sisters Antipodes suggests that this is drawn directly from your own experience.

Rather than having you paraphrase material that’s rendered so vividly in the novel, I’d like to go a different direction and ask you to talk about Ovid as an influence on your life as a writer. Do you feel that reading his work affected your decision to begin writing fiction? A more general question: your undergraduate academic background is in classical studies, and I recall you making the case for classics as being competitive with (or superior to!) the ubiquitous English-lit degree as academic preparation for creative writers. Do you mind revisiting that subject here, with particular reference to your own work?

JA: Actually, reading Ovid at nineteen sent me straight to drawing. I didn’t think of writing fiction for almost a decade after first reading Ovid, and it happened only then because I was trying to illustrate Apuleius’ story of Amor and Psyche and decided to rewrite it; from then on I stopped drawing and wrote. But two immediate points re classics: in my grad seminar at UVA now we’re looking at excursions in narrative, in particular at texts that resist the “dramatic arc.” First we looked at the king of dramatic arcs, Oedipus, and really appreciated its stern form. Then we found so many other things to take from it beyond the dramatic arc: the super-compressed timeline and space, for instance; shifts among speeds even in a purely spoken — not narrated — work; perforations in space via dialogue; countless new possibilities for a “chorus;” etc. And on Ovid: aside from the perfection and strangeness and truth of his stories in Metamorphoses, one of the ruling sensations in reading that book is the tension between stasis and change. Narrative exists in the flux between them, which he not only shows hundreds of times but makes the very subject of his great work.

(Have attached an Ovid drawing from those days, gruesome and youthful as it is. Wish I still had a copy of the Nassau Lit that published it and a few others, because one was printed back-to-back with a poem by David Duchovny.)

MS: While Ovid is the writer whom you’ve most obviously invited to join you in the pages of Nine Island, I also kept imagining the novel exchanging knowing winks with a few works from eras nearer to our own: Renata Adler’s Speedboat in its anxious humor; Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red in its fresh and elegant use of myth. About a third of the way in — as I took note of the tropical setting, the proliferation of sinister and conspiring characters, and the persistent atmosphere of deferred eroticism and sexual menace — it occurred to me that I might be reading a rather ingenious riff on a gothic novel, with an aging Miami high-rise standing in for a crumbling castle in the Pyrenees and the figure of the ingénue supplanted by that of a woman in middle age. Were there other works or other writers that were helpful inspirations or navigational aids as you were composing Nine Island?

JA: Yes, to Speedboat, although even more to Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever and Marie Redonnet’s Hôtel Splendid. Also, yes to various works by Anne Carson (who first taught me Ovid), including The Beauty of the Husband and Eros the Bittersweet. But nothing gothic, I think . . . Much as I’d like to claim that piece of ingeniousness, I think it’s yours. A starting point was William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and, through it, “Sailing to Byzantium.” Also favorites like David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus, and hard not to have Jean Rhys in mind, or Edna O’Brien, or, in a very different way, Nicholson Baker — the fantasies and madcap parsings. Plus some rock-and-rollers like Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull, the Clash, Iggy Pop (“Platonic”). I was thinking of paintings, too, Annunciations and repentant Magdalenes especially.

(Actually, Hôtel Splendid might be your riff on a gothic novel.)

MS: I don’t know Hôtel Splendid; I’ll check it out. But, wait, rewind: how in the hell did I not know that you studied with Anne Carson at Princeton? This seems like a significant lapse on my part (and also like information that it’s possible to make too much of, so I’ll fight that urge) but it also leads me to another question. You have a diverse and distinguished career as an educator, one that includes traditional university classrooms, at least one low-residency MFA program, workshops at Bread Loaf and in Switzerland, and your current position as Director of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, surely among the most highly-regarded such programs in the country. Is the process of teaching writing difficult to square with your own practice as a writer? Aside from the obvious merits (money) and demerits (time), has it been helpful and/or burdensome to divide your attention between these two related pursuits? Are there teachers or educational experiences that have been important to you that you’d care to say more about?

JA: I doubt that Anne Carson remembers me from one semester in 1981, but she and her course affected me powerfully. (I think she was working on Eros the Bittersweet at the time.) Ten years after Princeton (years spent working spottily as an illustrator, freelance editor, editorial manager, proposal- and speechwriter), I had great writer-teachers at Columbia: Mary Gordon above all, Richard Locke, Robert Towers, Carole Maso. It’s amazing how often, when I’m teaching, my mind goes straight to how they did it as a test to make sure I’m on the right track. As for my own teaching, I spend half my time anxious about it and the other half utterly energized. Working with exceptionally smart, talented students is good for the mind. It’s stimulating and crucial to see what they’re reading, what new angles on literature they’re taking: how they’re pushing at the edges of this enterprise.

MS: To pick up a couple of threads from earlier: I’m very intrigued by the decade you spent as an illustrator prior to becoming a writer — and also by the idea that the switch to writing was initially just a strategy for continuing a particular project, which suggests that these methods are broadly applicable to the same ends. Would you say that illustration still informs your writing process, and if so, how?

Similarly, I’m interested in your citation of rock music as an influence on Nine Island. For many artists, I suppose, it’s helpful to be receptive to approaches and influences that have little formal relationship to their ultimate medium. (I once heard the composer John Corigliano say that he’ll sometimes draw a piece in colored pencil before he writes any music for it.) The proto- and post-punk artists you mentioned above seem like a great fit for the book’s tone and mood, but I’m curious about how they found their way in, and how you think of them as functioning.

JA: I did only a little illustrating. Just wasn’t and am not very good. But I still draw sometimes because color pencil on paper is so pleasing. I do think of color in writing, though, as well as lighting, chiaroscuro, the visual composition of a moment, etc.: the visual arts have informed the narrative arts just as much as music has over the centuries. And on music: well, those songs are in my head all the time. Hardly an evening passes when I don’t hear David Bowie (“Time and again I tell myself I’ll stay clean tonight”) or Iggy Pop (“Immoderation seems to suit her best / but then I turn around and she’s very delicate”) or Chrissie Hynde (“Anger and lust . . . my senses running amok”). Partly the words are stuck in a brain-groove, but partly (I think) they’re telling me something. And then there’s the pure sexiness. Their words are in my character’s mind just as much as words of Ovid or her mother or her friends K or N are — all the same texture. Plus they add a soundtrack to the whole, I think, another layer for free.

MS: A question that most of us despise, but that I, with apologies, will ask anyway: what’s next? I recall that after Natives and Exotics came out in 2005 you were contemplating a nonfiction sequel of sorts about Scottish plant-hunters in Australia circa 1800; is that something that’s still taking shape?

JA: Nope: that project turned into the memoir I wrote about my doubled, half-Australian family, The Sisters Antipodes. I was trying to write about tropical exotics transplanted in the north — palms and tree-ferns taken to Scotland — but a friend (Robert Polito) suggested I make the narrative more personal. So I added a layer about little Australian girls being transplanted in North America, and their story nudged the plants off the page. I still love that material, though, so who knows. I have two projects now. One I’ve worked on a long time and am overhauling: a (possibly “nonfiction”) novel about Le Corbusier’s obsession with Eileen Gray and her house on the French Mediterranean. The other is a book-length essay about using patterning and other design elements in narrative, like coloration and striping — but above all, about finding structural forms other than the arc. Spiral, escalator, panopticon, chain, fractal: lots of ways to build a narrative.

MS: One last thing: an assertion I cannot resist making. You use exclamation points often, and you do so more effectively than any other writer I can think of. It seems as if your prose should be bubbling over like a hastily-opened bottle of tonic water as a result, but that’s never the case: it’s always sharp, elegant, exquisitely controlled, and frequently very moving. I can only think to attribute this to your extremely well-crafted sentences, but that explanation seems insufficient. How do you do it? Have you always done this?

JA: Thank you, and so funny you’ve asked this. A brilliant grad student just this past week gave a presentation on exclamation marks in Nicholson Baker’s Mezzanine: what they signify tonally, whether they’re ironic or sincere. I was going for a sort of dark mania with mine. The exclamations were meant to show a giddy fending off of horror. Writing in the first person about a character quite like me was hard: whenever she was earnest or self-conscious she repelled me. Exclamation marks (and avoiding personal pronouns) tore a shell off her, which somehow made it easier.

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