Lynne Tillman: Imagination, Art & the Internet

Interviewed by Liz Axelrod, Editor-In Chief

“She could do with her body what she wanted, everyone knew that; the body was just a fleshy vehicle of consequences. Her mind was virtual—free, even, to make false separations”— From “The Substitute” a story in Lynne Tillman’s latest collection, Someday This Will Be Funny.

As a New School Professor, Lynne Tillman brings a fresh angle to her courses. In her close reading seminar, students look at writing from many different angles: through the camera lens, via the film director’s eye, and into the novelist’s vision and writing process. As a fiction writer and essayist, Ms. Tillman’s work brings to mind freedom of expression, masterful creation and a love of language. Tillman’s novels include No Lease on Life, Cast in Doubt, Motion Sickness, Haunted Houses and American Genius, A Comedy. Her first collection of short stories, Absence Makes the Heart was followed by The Madame Realism Complex and This Is Not It. Her nonfiction work includes The Broad Picture, a collection of essays that were originally published in literary and art periodicals, The Velvet Years: Warhol’s Factory 1965-1967, and The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co.

Lynne Tillman will be reading from Someday This Will Be Funny at the 12th Street Online Launch at Barnes & Noble on Thursday, March 31 at 7:00 p.m., and discussing writing and media with Ross Kaufman, an Academy Award Winning documentary producer whose short film “Wait For Me” can be found by clicking on the Audio and Video link above.

12th Street Online crafted this interview over the internet, via email.

12th Street Online: You’ve studied theories of different media, such as film and photography, as well as writing. How has that affected how you approach the scope and scale of your work?

Lynne Tillman: All art forms have specific materialities, problems –scale, for instance, in a photograph, framing in both film and still photography. Painting is usually done on a flat surface, in a rectangle or square. Then there’s color, positive and negative space. Questions of time exist in all forms. So, thinking about these questions in various art forms and practices, I might subject my writing to them; I can borrow or steal an idea and try to adapt it, or be helped by ways visual artists have made their work. Other imaginations soothe me, and spark my own.

12th Street: Do you find that your stories favor certain “styles”—narrative distance from the subject, pace, length, time-frame, genre, etc., or does the style vary depending on the story?

TiIlman: I try to find a shape or style that fits the story I’m telling. But the story I’m telling necessarily develops along with the way it’s being told. Usually I have no idea of how I’m going to write it. I’m hoping to find it as I proceed, word by word. I consciously try to come up with ways of approaching a story that challenges me, in any way I can, mostly to keep myself interested.

12th Street: As an artist and a professor, do you feel a certain responsibility to educate and enlighten through your words? If so, do you feel the Internet is an appropriate place for this?

TiIlman: That’s a lofty question. I do the best I can to engage my students. I’m never sure what they’re hearing, how what I’ve said is being received. People take what they need when they need it. Teaching writing is passionate for me, though. The other day, in my undergrad Albany writing workshop, I was trying to get across why using “as” the way they do, very frequently, to indicate simultaneity, often wrecks the sentence’s dynamic. Also, that both parts are not equally significant. I could have been doing CPR on someone who’d stopped breathing, I got so worked up. Maybe my passion about writing, and to write, is what means the most. I insist on their thinking about words. The Internet is already a classroom, no better or worse than the non-virtual kind.

12th Street: What are your thoughts on Social Media such as Facebook and Twitter and Literature, and the mixing of the two?

TiIlman: We’re at the very beginning of this technology, like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, I guess. Everyone’s playing with it. Remember hypertext? I like the way movies use the tech as soon as they can — Sandra Bullock in The Net in the late 80s, at the computer….No one would watch that movie with interest now. What will keep us involved in one form or another? It’s a big unknown playground. What we do with our lives, getting and losing jobs, having ideas, feeling like failures, falling in love – these things will continue. I wonder always how the new technologies affect consciousness. Movies are cut much faster than they used to be: how does that affect the way we think? I’m on Facebook and ambivalent about it. Erin Moure, Cary Loren, Suzanne Snider, Jacob Wren, and Jeff Nunakowa are some friends who write beautiful, intriguing entries. I’ve tweeted twice. There are some people following me on Twitter, but there’s nothing to follow.

12th Street: Do you have any favorite websites or online publications bookmarked?

TiIlman: I am a completely irregular user. There are too many. The New York Times, HTML Giant, The Millions, YouTube, of course, The Rumpus, Artforum, Fence, Netflix (does that count?), Daily Kos, Salon, I stop by those once in a while. Al-Jazeera is amazing. Friends suggest something; I go to it for a minute. Dennis Cooper’s blog, Nayland Blake’s, my niece Rebecca’s blog, my friends’ daughter, Claire’s blog–she’s a wonderful, very young writer, the weather in Albany, weird stuff that pops up. I’m totally inconsistent.

12th Street: What do you think about the Kindle, Nook, and E-readers versus books?

TiIlman: What counts is that people are reading. I thought I’d care, but I don’t care how. And in terms of royalties: I haven’t noticed the hit. LOL! I read the physical object but I’m sure I’ll get one of those devices. They look great for traveling. I like to wait for the very best available to come to market. It’s too soon for me, and choice is a funny thing.

12th Street: Some have compared this time to the invention of the printing press and the boon of knowledge it brought to the public. How do you feel about the time we are living and our rapidly advancing technology? Do you see it bringing us closer?

Tillman: The most dramatic consequence of this has been what’s happened in real time, real politick, in Egypt and the Middle East. Facebook and Twitter are helping their revolution happen and continue. The speed at which it occurred, compared with revolutions in the West in the late 18th and 19th centuries — years between them — the instant dissemination of logistics that allowed people to gather — it’s unique in history. But technologies do not make human beings better or worse, kinder or meaner: it’s about who’s using it and why. Some people will always be stalkers, some running organizations to help people in Japan. The technology is neutral.