An Interview with Diane Williams

Kevin Sampsell
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Diane Williams is the author of several excellent collections of short stories, including Excitability, Romancer Erector, and many others. She is also the editor of the literary journal Noon.

—Kevin Sampsell


DIANE WILLIAMS: I am often told by people who meet me after reading my books that they are afraid of me. Of course, I understand this, because I am afraid to meet nearly everybody!

THE BELIEVER: Who have you been afraid to meet?

DW: You! You’re one of them. You!

BLVR: How do you think I feel? You’re like an enigma to me. I have often wondered what, as they say, “you’re really like,” since you’ve inserted yourself—or at least the narrator “Diane Williams”—into your fictions.

DW: Inserting myself into my fiction as “Diane Williams” is my way of frightening myself even more so, which apparently has been one of my goals.


DW: I was once asked by Adam Phillips if I did a lot of readings and I answered that yes, I did, but that these appearances were difficult and I suffered shame. So he said, “Then why do you do them?” And I answered, “I guess this must be perverse.” He said, “I think you want to make something out of your shame.” I still find his comment comforting and illuminating. And then, not much later, at a Q&A at Syracuse University, a student asked me a related question: “Aren’t you embarrassed to walk around if you know that there are people looking at you and thinking about what you’ve written?” I answered him something like this: “Well, you know this is fiction! And I can take the cover that this is fiction! But really, I can take no cover.” I said that literature ought not to be the haven for tea time conversation, for polite speech—that most of us are nearly obliterated by all of our opportunities for polite speech, that without the resources of dreams and literature—and psychoanalysis for the lucky few—the consequences are surely dire. Well, I said something like that.


BLVR: Your work does warrant closer reading than most fiction, even most flash fiction, to get to a good picture in the mind as to what is going on. What is your opinion of a reader who responds with “I don’t get it”?

DW: The exclamation “I don’t get it!” doesn’t seem to me a pertinent dismissal. We could say that about any of our challenging circumstances. To try to reproduce something I understand would be a big bore.What does it mean? What is it about? These are fair questions. I can’t help asking them. I’d like to be provoked into asking those questions with the belief or with the promise that there will be a reward for my own exertions. The worst outcome is that my mind will be less inert for a time.


BLVR: Do you read other writers’ stories and wonder what parts “really happened”?

DW: Yes. I like to conjecture that I am getting the really, really real story about them when I read other writers’ stories. I go around assuming there’s not much of a difference between fact and fiction. I told the judge querying me for jury duty that I didn’t know the difference, so I couldn’t be very helpful. He said, “We don’t want people like you on our juries! You are dismissed!” I was horrified.


BLVR: Have you taught writing?

DW: I have taught at both Bard College and Syracuse. I’m afraid I was quite harsh at the outset and not inclined to permit group discussion. I have been told by a former student, now a teacher herself, that she relates tales in her classes about my severe reactions to clichés. She also remembers how I took a splendid sentence out of the mouth of a student who was speaking about her intentions for a story and wrote her spoken sentence—with all its redundancies, incoherent elements, hesitations, all of its eccentric rhythms—on the chalkboard, declaring this to be her most and only successful sentence she’d composed for the story to date. Finding out what one sounds like is too shocking for some to bear. Once some of us know, we may wish to deny that voice permission to be heard and then that is very sad. The luckiest of us have many voices.

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