Joanna Walsh Is Setting Language on Fire
The author talks about her new story collection and how words can change reality
Trying to classify the writings of Joanna Walsh is nearly impossible. In 2015, she had two books released in a relatively short period of time: Hotel, part of the Object Lessons series of short books, examined the title structure from a host of angles–physical, theoretical, and cultural. Then her story collection, Vertigo, delved into characters’ complex psyches, pushing into layered psychological landscapes and exploring questions of memory, guilt, and obsession. The two books did a stunning job of establishing Walsh’s range as a writer and the intellectual rigor with which she pursued her chosen subjects.
Her new collection, Worlds From the Word’s End, shows a very different side of her work. Here, she explores numerous permutations of language: the title story is set in a near future in which the way humanity uses words is in flux, while “Exes” takes the concept of homonyms and suffuses it with a sense of intimacy and regret. We spoke about the new collection, its connection to her earlier work, and its incorporation of various unlikely pieces of literary history.
Tobias Carroll: There are a number of recurring themes and motifs in Worlds From the Word’s End, including spaces for transit and decidedly literary dilemmas. Did you have any overarching themes in mind as you began to put this book together?
Joanna Walsh: The stories were written independently of each other over a number of years. When I sent Danielle Dutton at Dorothy all my stories a few years ago, she chose the stories with a hyperreal focus, that dealt with the fine detail of the operations of women’s lives within families, for Vertigo. The remaining stories seemed to have something in common too: something to do with how words adhere to things, and the points at which language touches, and takes off from, reality.
TC: The title story of Worlds From the Word’s End deals with questions of language and communication, and involves a paradoxical narrative, with sentences like, “I’m writing to you so you’ll understand why I can’t write to you any more.” What are some of the challenges of writing in a metanarrative way like this?
JW: I find it natural. I’m a writer because I know that language is a borrowed or stolen, imperfect and communal attempt to create meaning. It’s best not to take it too seriously, but it’s also good to take that unseriousness as seriously as possible.
TC: How did this particular story come to be the collection’s title story?
JW: I went through lots of titles with the publisher of And Other Stories, Stefan Tobler. He was concerned that people would muddle the ‘Worlds’ with ‘Word’s,’ but nothing else seemed to fit, and then I realized I liked the idea that the title might be confusing or difficult to say, because it hints at some of the things I’m trying to do with words in the book. I like language that doesn’t only represent something for the reader, but that asks them to engage in some kind of surprising way. Most of my previous books have had one-word titles, so I was excited to have a whole phrase.
I’m a writer because I know that language is a borrowed or stolen, imperfect and communal attempt to create meaning.
TC: The story “The Story of Our Nation” was first published in 2015. Since then, questions of national stories have become even more paramount in nations around the world. Did you find any unexpected resonances as you revisited it for this book?
JW: “The Story of Our Nation” is a satire on, amongst other things, the kind of voluntary self-data collection we’re asked to do online: there’s also a bit of gaming language, so there’s the notion of the amount of control we have over creating an environment that might be entirely artificial (and how, in such an environment, do we deal with nature, which is beyond our control?) and, perhaps oddly, a kind of awareness of shows like “The Great British Bake Off” — you have that in the U.S. now I think — which attempts to construct a kind of idea of Britishness. Since I wrote the story, patriotism has taken a very sinister turn. Yuri Herrera called Worlds From the Word’s End dystopia as a room in your own house, and, yes, my dystopias are domestic. I was interested, and continue to be interested, in collusion: how people act in everyday life according to ideas that limit or harm themselves and other people.
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TC: Several of the moments of connection make for interesting juxtapositions, like how the kidnapping narrative of “Enzo Ponza” segues into the portability of the title character of “The Suitcase Dog.” What was the process like of ordering these stories?
JW: I’d really never thought of that! I wrote “The Suitcase Dog” with Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog, and Stein’s Identity in mind: what can a dog know, and what can a person know of themselves via a dog, how can I use language to describe a dog’s experience. I’ve read that an Oulipian writer (I think) wrote a series of poems using the only human language pets know: “sit” and “treats” etc. I’ve never been able to track these down. Perhaps they don’t exist.
TC: “Like A Fish Needs A …” opens with an epigraph from Flann O’Brien. Do you see these stories as working in a similar vein to his, balancing metafiction and the absurd?
JW: I love everything about O’Brien apart from his deep strain of misogyny. I was partly responding to this: trying on the absurd tradition, which has also often had difficulty dealing with women, via a woman’s body. It felt both affectionate and rebellious.
TC: The conclusion of “Bookselves” has a wry humor and candor that struck deeply at the heart of this reader. Did you have an archetypal bibliomaniac in mind as you wrote that, or someone more specific?
JW: This was another story that reacts to a story: in this case Georges Perec’s Winter Journey (Un Voyage D’Hiver), and the alternative title of Bookselves is Un Voyage Vers (A Journey Toward), in the tradition of the Oulipo’s series of stories written after Perec’s work, which describes a man who discovers a book that appears to quote many famous sentences from French Literature, before he discovers that the book was published before any of these works. He loses the book, and is unable to find it again. Lots of the stories in Worlds are, in part, reactions to other works. I guess they are, as you say, metafictional. All my work processes the influence of other writers, but this is often only a minor part of what I’m trying to do; in Worlds it’s upfront. I did think of particular details I’ve noticed from mine and other people’s book habits, but no specific person or collection in mind.
TC: You’ve written a book called Hotel, and several of the stories here deal with hotel life. Do you see this collection as being a continuation of (or variation on) themes you’ve addressed in previous books?
JW: I continue with themes, though I always hope to vary them. I like writing about domestic spaces, and I like writing about the spaces we create for ourselves when we want to be rid of them. I’m sure I’ll continue to do this…
Language might be a tricky and treacherous tool with which to intend anything, but, as well as a fault, that might be its saving grace.
TC: The narrator of “Two Secretaries” makes it clear that, unlike her coworker, she is a clerical assistant. What first drew you to questions of titles and how people’s descriptions of themselves affect how they’re perceived?
JW: I spend a fair amount of my time out of the U.K. and whenever I come back I’m horrified by the false consciousness that seems still to exist around class: the British royal family seem so much in the media, so central to people’s lives; fictional TV programs are often about aristocrats, and are aspirational. I’m sure this contributes to preventing people from seeing their own circumstances accurately, and being able to act. My “clerical assistant” would rather live a circumscribed life, identifying with her workplace superiors, than see her existence more, as Perec wrote, “flatly.”
TC: Has the process of revisiting these stories, where reality can make language malleable, had any effect on the way that you’ve used language in the time since then?
JW: In Worlds From the Word’s End I was thinking more of the ways language makes reality malleable, or some kind of interchange between the two. I like the word malleable, which means “something that can be hammered.” It makes me think of the Russian writer and theorist Viktor Shklovsky who, in an essay in 1964, wrote that is as difficult to use writing in propaganda, as it is to use a samovar to hammer in nails. It’s not absolutely impossible, but that’s not what a samovar was designed for. Language might be a tricky and treacherous tool with which to intend anything, but, as well as a fault, that might be its saving grace.