Sunday, May 15, 2022

reading in the margins: Joy Williams

Thanks to a tweet by Denver poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert, I discovered a craft essay online by American writer Joy Williams, “Uncanny the Singing that Comes from Certain Husks.” What emerged, very quickly, was Williams’ quick wit and dark humour, and a particular kind of wisdom, hard-won and practical. I’d not heard of Williams prior to this, but I became curious. In a 2014 interview I found with Williams for the Paris Review, conducted by Paul Winner, she displays that same wit and humour, as well as a kind of evasiveness, although that might be too strong a word. It is the way she responds indirectly to his questions, using Winners’ prompts as jumping off points into further thinking. Her mind, it would seem, simply moves too fast.


I think of the Internet, the sheer volume. Cynthia Ozick wrote recently about the influence of this environment, all those Amazon customer reviews.


Who writes those?


Anyone. People who may, in an earlier age, have written letters to the editor.


It’s one thing when it’s a restaurant. I mean, they can destroy a restaurant overnight. To do that with books?

Williams is wonderfully present, deeply engaged and comfortably outside the mythical inner-circles or goings-on of big name authors, of which she might even be one. She presents an aura of practicality and confidence; doing her work in her own way, conducting her own silences and spaces, and building up her own solitudes, from where she is able to contemplate and create her best work.

I like the way she references Alice Munro as part of the interview, so wonderfully evocative and charming in her descriptions: “That nice Canadian writer who recently won the Nobel—beloved, admired, prolific. Who would deny it? She said she had a ‘hellish good time’ writing. This could be a subject for many, many panels. Get a herd of writers together and ask them, Do you have a hellish good time writing? Mostly, I believe, the answer would be no. But their going on about it could take some time.”

Responding to my follow-up, Elisa recommends I begin with Williams’ novel, The Quick and The Dead. I hesitate to attempt to read a novel during pandemic lockdown, predominantly for the fact of our two wee children are underfoot, in the midst of their online schooling. But the summer will soon be upon us, my wife reminds. You can sit outside, then. Elisa also points me to a November 2020 profile on Williams in the New York Times by A.O. Scott. Scott writes of comparisons made between Williams’ work with that of John Hawkes and John Barth, Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis, and to Raymond Carver, who studied writing at the University of Iowa at the same time as Williams. He writes:

Not that she needs their company. Her protean aspect — her manner of showing both a realist and an experimental face, sometimes in the space of a single page — exposes the limitations of such sorting. The bird evades capture, even in a notebook. Capture and evasion, not incidentally, are what she writes about most.

Given my own leanings toward Davis, perhaps this article does provide me with an answer of where to begin: her collection of micro-fictions, Ninety-Nine Stories of God. My searches also uncover options for a new novel, published in September 2021. That might be a later step. On my part, I quote the first two sentences of her essay as part of a short story I’m working on, slipping her lines just underneath the railings. They fit just fine.

1 comment:

BDR said...

Check out her novels, especially *The Changling,* uncanny, remarkable, funny, frightening