Today is the joint Cathy Day/Angela Woodward reading, which is part of the Carr Reading Series. The event starts at 4:30 in the Author's Corner of the Illini Union Bookstore and is free and open to the public. Ninth Letter fiction editor, Philip Graham, spoke with Angela Woodward recently about her work, including the stories that appear in vol. 7, no. 1. Here is part one of their conversation.
Philip Graham: Your first book, The Human Mind, is a collection of very short stories, prose poems in many ways, which explore the interiority in a serious and yet at times playful way. Your new book, End of the Fire Cult, carves out similar interior territory, though this time as a novel. How did you make that leap between short form and an extended work?
Angela Woodward: Saying something about my own work has been relatively rare for me, and I have a strong sense of being only the writer -- I groped around, saw something, heard something, and mashed it into words, but I'm far from being able to step back and think about what I've done. Nevertheless, I was there at the creation, so I'll try to draw on that.
The Human Mind is a collection of short prose pieces about thought and thinking. It reads to me as one complete piece in 20 parts, but the link between each is mostly thematic. A few characters recur -- William James, Robert Hooke, and the "I" speaker -- and I deliberately repeated words, so that they resonated as they went on. I suppose most of those pieces can stand alone, but my hope was that they gain strength and complexity by being read together. I have always liked the short short form, and some of my favorite work has been these little one and two-page things. But they were always one-offs. There's something really satisfying about saying so much in so compressed a form. But on the other hand, I'd like the reader to spend time and linger. When I wrote the first piece of Human Mind, "The Human Mind," I was struck by it being far better than the other junk I was writing at the time, and I had the idea I could keep going with more pieces. Then I wrote that book in a desperate couple of months, because I was so afraid I would lose the inspiration. I had to be inspired all over again for each piece, and they had to hit hard, and be as good as the ones that came before, for it all to fit together. By the end, I thought I had achieved the flash-fictionist's dream, in keeping the intensity of the miniature, but in making an extended work out of them. And I had done something else I had longed to do, which was write about thought in a way that was passionate, embodied and heartfelt. At least that's what I hoped to pull off. This theme of interiority, as you put it, is probably the strongest link in all my writing, and The Human Mind is probably my purest, most dead-set for that.
End of the Fire Cult is also concerned with interiority, in that most of the "action" is in the countries that the husband and wife imagine. A little bit happens in the real world, but the unraveling of the marriage is all played out between their invented lands. Like Human Mind, the book began with the first piece, "Intellectual Property" dashing itself out and seeming to have more behind it. I wrote a couple of pieces, and then wrote almost all of it in one month, where I work uninterrupted at a writers residency. Though there is a whole story to Fire Cult, which I knew at the beginning had to go towards a particular end, I still thought of the work as proceeding in tiny prose-poem-like pieces. Almost all of them came in at under three typed pages, and I set that as my limit -- if it was taking longer than three pages, then it probably wasn't good. The exceptions are some of the "Fire" chapters, and "Arachne," which is kind of a turning point. But mostly I was working out of a similar sense of form as with Human Mind. I had to have fresh inspiration over and over again, all of it was improv, it was written very quickly. I'm not sure I would call Fire Cult a novel, though I don't know what else to call it. You can call it a novel, please do! That would make me a novelist! But for me, the two books are very similar, and it was not much of a transition to do Fire Cult after Human Mind. I had gotten really well rehearsed in the miniature, and so able to play with it in a couple different ways.
PG: The wife and husband in your (well, why not, let's call it a novel!) novel create between them, as you mentioned, a private world of competing countries, each having its own traditions and histories, and the development of this world echoes the couple's marital struggles. Could you talk a little about how this world echoes the couple's marital struggles. Could you talk a little about how this world expanded for you as the author?
AW: The immediate inspiration for the beginning of the book was a student of mine from China, who became a good friend. He told me about this disputed mountain, which I gather lies between China and Korea, and the bit about two-thirds of the mountain belonging to one country seemed so odd and hilarious to me, and also that countries would fight over rights to this holiday. My friend was quite passionate in claiming rights to this holiday, outraged that others would say it was theirs. I didn't see why a holiday couldn't be shared, but to him it was an affront. I never did any more research than that, but wrote the story the next day. As I said above, this piece, like the beginning of Human Mind, seemed to arrive full force, and I felt obligated to see what else was there.
It also arrived, not so surprisingly, during the waning days of my marriage. By the time I really set to work on it, my husband had moved out. I did not want to write about my divorce, but I thought that if I avoided it, I wouldn't get past the feelings I was awash in. It seemed unavoidable, so I made myself go right at it. A lot of what I wanted to recover in the writing was the happiness and creativity of love. The playfulness of some of the "Words" and "Literature" chapters, and the one about fireflies, gave me great joy. They may have sprung from remembered love and anticipated love, more than the drained-out marriage, but that all belongs together, cyclically, and I wanted to get at that. I still find the very end of Fire Cult extremely sad, but I don't know if overall it's a sad book. I hope it takes the reader through a range of feelings, and explores a lot of strange nooks along the way.
Part 2 will be posted tomorrow. To read excerpts from End of the Fire Cult, pick up a copy of vol. 7, no. 1 in our webstore.
And don't forget to stop by the Author's Corner at the Illini Union Bookstore today at 4:30pm to hear Angela Woodward and Cathy Day read. It will be a great time. Hope to see you there!