An Interview with Diane Williams

Mary Elizabeth Dubois, Issue 42

When I first read Diane Williams’ collection Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine a couple years ago, I wanted to be her friend. To be fair, kinship between author and writer is not what makes writing good, nor is the voice behind the writing unconditionally the voice of the writer. Still, there was something about her stories that made me feel closer to some writerly entity, that made me want to know the person behind them, and, most importantly, made me excited about fiction again.

This excitement has to do with freedom. Diane and I have been writing back and forth for a couple weeks now, and in the spaces between our conversation I realized that there was a question I kept forgetting to ask her: do you hate fiction? Or, obversely, do you like fiction? It was only after sending her this exact question (in its twin formulation) that I realized the reason I kept forgetting to ask her was exactly what made her writing so wonderful. Diane’s stories are outside the normal conversations we have about fiction; her stories evade definition (fiction, poetry, memoir). This evasion is brave, and creates associative freedom for both reader and writer. This evasion is art.

Of course, as you’ll read in the next two pages, Diane did answer these questions. We also chatted about dance, tapestries, horizontal lines across the width of a single piece of paper. We talked about dreams, and The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, which will be published by Soho Press this fall. Diane is a masterful writer, but she’s also a unique and courageous person. We are lucky to have her interview, and we are lucky to have her in this contemporary moment.  

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What was your education like? What did you study? Do you feel like any part of this influenced the way you write/your work? Or was there a nascent desire to write, even before school? 

DIANE WILLIAMS: Well, I hope I am not done educating myself.  However, I can only recover my education, in order to describe it in any detail, by writing my stories.
Every event that taught me a lesson I will never forget is revealed in my fiction.  
I did love to sit with a pencil, before I was school age, and make row after row of tiny, neat vertical lines across the widths of sheets of paper. I can still recall my pride while doing this.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you see any overall trajectory in your work, any threadlike progression or growth between collections? Is this a question that even matters to you?

DIANE WILLIAMS: This question matters a lot to me.  I don’t know the answer to this question. Do you know the answer to this question?  
I have a fantasy that I might one day find a book with the title: The Life and Works of Diane Williams, So far, as reported by a gentle and generous god, who will make clear to me, among other things, the overall trajectory of my work, the growth between collections, and who will clarify and resolve all of the mysteries in my life, provide consolation for the tragedies, and predict a happy future.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you think that would make you happy? To know?

DIANE WILLIAMS: I’ll take the chance.  I especially want a happy future, and easy deaths for everyone I love.
But if you are thinking I’ll just end up with sausages stuck to the end of my nose – like the foolish woodman and his foolish wife with their foolish wishes in the old folktale – well, that did occur to me.  By the way, it’s fun to say the word foolish so many times.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: The other day, a friend commented on the violence in your work, particularly in Excitability. Do you perceive this violence? Do you feel the need to justify the violent parts of your work? 

DIANE WILLIAMS: Why in the world would I need to justify the violent parts of my work?  

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I recently finished reading Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty. Some of the shorts in this collection, in particular, felt like dreams. Do you ever write dreams?

DIANE WILLIAMS: I never use my dreams in my fiction.  I resent my nighttime dream life. No! -- resent is too feeble a word.  I dread my dreams, which more often than not are nightmares.
Once while wide-awake, I was carried off into a dream world populated by a parade of monstrous and exotic people. It took all of my will – it was impossibly physically strenuous -- to get back home.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: How did you get back home?

DIANE WILLIAMS: I saw my walls, the rug, my chair.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can you tell me a little about The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

DIANE WILLIAMS: I am astonished that I have this book.
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams is a big book out from Soho Press.  It is nearly eight hundred pages, and it contains over three hundred stories. Sixteen of these stories are new stories and have not previously appeared in any of my books.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I read in another interview that you were a dancer. Do you feel like dance has influenced the way you write/think about writing? Any other hobbies that change[d] the way you write? 

DIANE WILLIAMS: It would be a great thing if dance could influence the way I write and think about writing.
Improvisation gave me the most pleasure when I danced and I felt as if I could not make a wrong move. Whereas when I write -- all I ever do is make wrong moves and then I try to right them.
However, I do consider a finished story tantamount to a musical composition, and yes, while reading it aloud or silently, this experience – I might be able to say – feels like dancing.
In the evening these days, I stitch with threads of different colors and weights to make tapestries.  And I do this, often with no forethought, to create shapes and designs with these tiny, straight-line marks. And this I guess is very like a return to my first attempts to write.

WASHINGTON SQUARE:  Are the straight-line marks pleasing to you?  Do you like looking at them?

DIANE WILLIAMS: Yes, I love how they gang up.  They’re horizontal, vertical, in waves, or in eddies -- busy inside of a design.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Would you want to answer one more question? It’s one I’ve always wanted to ask you. Do you like reading fiction? (The original formulation of this question, years ago, was: do you hate fiction?)

DIANE WILLIAMS: Goodness, Yes! – is the answer. I wonder why you might have thought I hated it…

WASHINGTON SQUARE: There’s something about the experience of reading your writing that, for me, more closely resembles the experience of reading poetry. So, I guess the question has more to do with if you dislike a specific kind of fiction, or if fiction is even the right word for what your stories accomplish. Or if it is exactly the right word, and you’re just redefining it. 
Of course, there’s no necessary correlation between what you like and what you want to write. 
I know when I first read your writing it excited me because I had grown tired of certain kinds of conventional fiction/your writing was doing something unique and brave that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. So maybe in a way I’m projecting my own experience onto yours. I should probably just be thanking you. Thank you for opening up new possibilities, and for throwing a rope down into my nihilistic well. 

DIANE WILLIAMS: I am grateful to you for thinking of a way to best explain your otherwise mysterious question.  And I very much appreciate your salute to the way I write!