Dorothy Allison was born in Greenville, South Carolina. She has published two novels, Bastard Out Of Carolina—a National Book Award finalist in 1992—and Cavedweller. She has also published a memoir, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, an anthology of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature and a collection of poems, The Women Who Hate Me. Trash, featuring some of Allison's earliest stories, with a one additional new story and a new introduction, "Stubborn Girls and Mean Stories," has recently been republished. She regularly teaches classes, workshops and seminars at universities around the nation and is a member of the board of PEN International. Dorothy Allison lives with her family in Northern California. She is at work on her newest novel.
Robert Birnbaum: I've met a lot of people from North Carolina, but I haven't met anybody from South Carolina.
Dorothy Allison: (laughs) Never met Pat Conroy, huh?
RB: No, I haven't. Or William Styron or James Dickey. Or Strom Thurmond.
DA: Oh God. Yes, there is that. But then again I've never met some of those North Carolina wonders.
RB: Really, why is that?
DA: Because South Carolina and North Carolina—it's almost like the North and the South—there's a huge class distinction.
RB: I remember reading Fox Butterfield's book, All God's Children, about a teen killer incarcerated in a New York State prison who was from South Carolina. So as a relevant digression, Butterfield gave a history of this hardscrabble place, South Carolina.
DA: It is a hardscrabble state. I still have family, although for the most part they have scattered and decimated. It's a rough place. But pretty. Very pretty.
RB: Well, there's Hilton Head.
DA: (laughs) There's Charleston. But it's just gorgeous. It's red dirt, lush, astonishing. I was back at Furman, which is a little Baptist college, where they are all obsessed with Faulkner. They had me come in and speak briefly. So I spent a couple of days wandering around Greenville. It is a gorgeous town, gorgeous area and a gorgeous landscape, and it is completely impossible.
RB: Why the class gap?
DA: It used to be entirely textiles and cotton, and the textile industry crashed in a big way. Now, it is beginning to shift over to electronics, and they have all these plants where they have all these gizmos and wiring. So there's new industry, but it's the same thing. There's no unions or representation. Very low pay. The tax structure is very arcane and odd. And that means that mostly, the people suffer. The schools are unbelievably bad. There's one state worse. That's Mississippi. I used to think, "Thank God for Mississippi. They are more uneducated than here."
RB: I couldn't let this pass. You mentioned that they are obsessed with Faulkner at Furman College.
DA: Oh, totally. The whole South is. I'm not that fond of Faulkner. He's a nice guy, but (laughs)—it's as if there was only one writer.
RB: Well, do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
DA: Yes, absolutely. Southern working-class writer.
RB: How many of those are there?
DA: There's a substantial number but we don't usually get recognized as a category.
RB: Who else is in that group? Larry Brown?
DA: Larry Brown, yes! I did a panel with him at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, called "Grit Lit." It was Larry Brown, me, Lee Smith.
RB: Lee Smith? She's considered a working-class Southern writer?
DA: Yes and she defended it. Bobbie Anne-Mason also was on it, and she immediately stood up and said that she didn't belong on this panel, that she was middle class with a vengeance. We all decided we would talk to her anyway. But I adore her.
RB: Is Tony Earley a working-class Southern writer?
DA: I would say.
RB: Would he consider himself?
DA: Well you know I haven't asked, but I would.
RB: Brad Watson?
DA: I would say.
RB: Wow, that's neat!
DA: (laughs) It's not as bad as you thought.
RB: No, no, no. I didn't think it was bad at all. I think it's neat to come up with a new category. Usually there's a bit of defensiveness about being labeled and being labeled a Southern writer.
DA: Ordinarily they talk about black Southern writers and don't speak about them as working class. I lump us all together as working class.
RB: Who would not belong in that group? Reynolds Price?
DA: Not at all! (laughs) Not Robertson Davies. Armistead Maupin.
RB: Allan Gurganus?
DA: No, middle class. But I love Allan. A great writer. Serious about the enterprise.
RB: Anyway, you are a long way from South Carolina now.
DA: Yes, as far as I can get.
RB: I wasn't thinking geographically. But tell me about republishing these stories, Trash?
DA: Essentially, the press went under. This was the first book of short stories that I published. The rights reverted to me, and I didn't want them to disappear or be hard to get. And then my editor said we could bring them out if I could finish a new story.
RB: The new story was the last one in the book, "Compassion"?
DA: Yes, it took me a long time to finish it. I had to keep stopping to work on novels.
RB: I guess that's where the money is, maybe?
DA: I don't think only about money.
RB: A bad joke.
DA: Money is a tightening and horrible issue. Once you start writing novels it's hard to go back to short stories, For me—I've known people who can do both. In fact "Compassion" is a long short story.
RB: Let me see if I got this right. This is the third…did you rewrite these stories…
DA: I did not rewrite them.
RB: Did not rewrite, re-edit?
DA: I did, but then I decided that was wrong, and we went back to the original copy. As I was rewriting them it suddenly [occurred to me] "I'm a different person. I would write the stories completely differently." There was the realization that I shouldn't do that. Now, I'm still tempted. They're half done.
RB: You have a vision of somehow making them better?
DA: No. The vision is of making them more contemporary. And also, they were written when I was very angry. A lot of them were written, really angry. I'm a little less angry. As you get older you get less angry. And there are different things that I do now than I did in these stories.
RB: These are the stories, you wrote them on yellow legal pads and then put them away and years later came back and published them.
DA: These are the stories where I taught myself to write.
RB: Then that publisher went under, and now this is their third life. You didn't rewrite any of them?
DA: I did rewrite them, but you'll never see those. Actually, it's very odd. I thought, "Oh I should update this and explain that." And then I realized I don't want to explain that or change the story. Also, it's kind of a cheat. Poets are always rewriting and putting out new editions. I remember the Marge Piercy book she did about how she revised poems, with different versions of different poems over time. It always felt to me like it was cheating.
RB: (laughs) That sounds right—that it is cheating. If you wrote Cavedweller today you would write a different novel.
DA: Yes. The story line would probably change. I'd break it into two novels and completely redo it. But, you learn that later. It's part of the problem in writing novels. If you take a long time, the impetus that you started with alters—the story alters, the characters change. That can be a really great thing but sometimes its arbitrary where you decide that it's done.
RB: Let's see, it's taken Donna Tartt 10 years for her second novel—eight years for her first.
DA: Yeah, she's my role model. (laughs) But they don't let me get away with that. Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo took nine years. Of course, nobody gave me a MacArthur [fellowship]...
RB: Did she get one? I'm still waiting for mine.
DA: Absolutely. And she deserved it.
RB: You should get one before me.
DA: Ahh, I don't think you or I are going to get one. They get you when you are young or they don't get you. Do they give it to us old established…
RB: Damn, I'm broken. My last hope. I guess I'll start playing the lottery.
DA: Do I know? Nobody has ever told me a thing.
RB: I'm going to talk with Senora Cisneros. Apparently, the audiotext of Caramelo was read by her also, all 12 hours of it. I'm looking forward to listening to it.
DA: I love audio and I love to do them.
RB: I take it there are audio versions of your work?
DA: Of all of them.
RB: You don't feel like it's a bastardization of your writing?
DA: No, no. I think it's a continuation. I love reading and I love reading well. I really work at it.
RB: I think at first it was seen as a lazy way out.
DA: The issue is whether it's been abridged or not. I was totally shocked when they sent me the abridged version of my work. It was appalling. We fought and fought and fought. And they finally gave me a really firm page limit. I had to find a way to meet it—it nearly killed me. So then I refused to do them. I wouldn't sign a contract unless I could do them unabridged.
RB: We've been hopping around a bit. I want to get back to these stories. What was it like to reread these stories that you had written so early in your writing life—these old stories which I assume were very close to your troubled youth?
DA: It's funny. I don't think about them that way. When I reread them I remember where I was and what I was doing when I wrote them. Sometimes that coincided with some difficult family times, but mostly the writing gives me a great sense of pleasure, enormous pleasure.
RB: So you are not reading these as journal entries or as autobiographical footnotes?
DA: No, no no. They're stories. They're separate. In some cases I've lost the impetus of what started them. Some of them are barely recognizable because I retell family legends over and over again. And I play with what is legend and what is true. Mostly because nobody knows. That was the problem, sometimes, especially in the family stories. In the last decade I have been contacted by some nephews and cousins and people who were taken away, especially kids who went into foster homes. There are a number of those who are obsessed with tracking down the whole family and finding out the truth. I have one cousin who's just a pain in the ass. She is always trying to find out what really happened. She's sent me things that now I know things that I didn't know other than the family legend. It's had an impact on how I think about some of the stories.
RB: Is it troublesome that because your work has been identified as autobiographical and you are out in public so much as a speaker and teacher?
DA: It's tricky. It's troubling sometimes. I expected it. I always expected it. From the moment I made the decision to write about incest—I figured, "Okay, big trouble. They are all going to make extensive assumptions. Even more than I'll give them in the work." And then there is always the issue of who else gets revealed in the writing, family members and lovers. For me, I always knew that I was writing stories and taking it away from writing autobiography. I don't think I'm capable of writing autobiography. Even in the memoir, Two or Three Things, it's not really a memoir. It's a theory piece about storytelling in which I retell stories and then research some of them and come to the conclusion that it's almost impossible to ever find out what's true in my family. Story telling is something we all do, in response to different situations. The problem is that I find sometimes it's as if the work or the craft of what I do, disappears, "Oh, you're just telling what happened." And then there's the back of my brain that gets testy and thinks it's all about class. If a rich person tells about their Boston Brahmin family, the craft of it is emphasized. But when poor white trash talks about violence and rape and lesbianism, she's just telling stories.
RB: Maybe it's because the wealthy Brahmin lives aren't that interesting?
DA: Rick Moody is the contemporary Brahmin who's writing about his family and retelling stories in the way that I do. He's a gorgeous writer. But it's always assumed he is writing with great craft and deliberation and choosing. Except when he wrote about his sister.
RB: In the introduction to Trash, you resent that people stereotypically view Southerners as storytellers. Why would you resent that?
DA: Because they think it's not about deliberate storytelling. They think we are all gifted. It's the dancing dog theory. It's not that the dog does it well, it's that the dog does it all. So when you have poor white trash telling stories, you know…when I was a kid they had Ma and Pa Kettle. The first time I saw those movies I was appalled. I realized it was all about the mythology of stupid Southerners and that I was going to have to deal with this the rest of my life. You can't win. If you write well it's because you were raised on the Bible and on the porch with your Grandma, who told you stories. Of course, you were inculcated…it's not like you did any work to learn how to make this any better. And they don't think that we edit. They don't think we are deliberate…the dancing dog.
RB: It strikes me as amusing that some writers will characterize what they do as professional lying.
DA: It's a little tricky. I was raised in the Baptist church so I have trouble of being proud of being a liar. But God knows, I'm a good one. God does know. (laughs heartily).
RB: Why do people want to appreciate fiction and then also want it to be true?
DA: They want it to be true more these days then they used to. That's peculiar. I think we have reached the point where we no longer honor storytelling so much.
RB: I wonder if it's because writers seem to be much more public?
DA: A friend tells me it's because of the personal computer. Now everybody thinks they can write. Because they have Spellcheck—and Microsoft telling them that this sentence should be reworded.
RB: You don't buy into the notion that everyone has a story to tell.
DA: I actually believe that but most people shouldn't try to write it.
RB: (laughs) Aha! Storytelling and writing are not co-equivalent.
DA: I started out as a writer as a feminist. Working with feminist magazines we really strongly believed that every woman had a story to tell and every woman should be encouraged to tell her story. That meant that we didn't edit. That was a sin against the woman's life story. And it made me crazy. I would be working as an editor at these little magazines and stories would come in, some of which were fascinating and so badly written you couldn't get to the story. That drove me to believe in editing and rewriting and then shear years putting in time as a volunteer editor drove me to have a sense of outrage at having to read this bad stuff. It really will break you. You really have to believe in the worth of the work, otherwise anybody who is just a charming fool can get over on you.
RB: I remember cinema verite. Theoretically, it seemed interesting. But then you realize you don't want to watch someone sleep for eight hours on film.
DA: You do it once, to see the difference from edited and shaped stories to wide open ones. Do know what it's like to diagram a Southerner's sentence? You put a Southerner to tell you a story and if you don't rein 'em in at all—it will go on for hours. "I got to tell you how he got that car before I can explain to you about the car that…" And you lose where the story began and you end up on some other place entirely with some other branch of the family. That's Southern storytelling. Good storytellers learn which parts to throw out and which parts to sharpen, to drop all the subsets and get to the point.
RB: I take it you read out loud as you are writing?
DA: It has to sound good. I'm more in love with the sound, sometimes. That's a flaw in my work, occasionally. And I'll trash it up when I read out aloud.
RB: I'm told confession is a good thing.
DA: I'm trying to get better. I'm not as good as I want to be.
RB: Who do you think is really good? What pantheon would you like to join? I noticed that you blurbed Patricia Henley's new novel [In The River Sweet].
DA: I did. I love her work. She's doing brave things. About people different from herself. I love language and if you give me a language that really sings on the page—you can get me much easier than with a complicated plot. I like interesting people but if they talk interesting. Patricia Henley's people and the descriptions of the river, and the grass and the barns, just made me fall over dead in my tracks. I have a friend, Ann Patchett. I'm in love with Ann, in part because I saw how she grew muscle. I read The Patron Saint of Liars and I thought, "This is really good." And then I read Taft and I thought, "This part is really good but why didn't she do that?" And then I got to be friends with her. This last book that she wrote. Bel Canto, is such a huge leap for a writer to take. It made me believe if you keep working these jumps will just happen. I love that. I want to jump like the one she made in Bel Canto. My model is Toni Morrison. I want to be that good and that strong on the page all the time. And to do what is important to me versus what other people want to read.
RB: You work is translated into 12 or 13 languages.
DA: How can they do that?
DA: I have friends who read French and Italian and they verified those versions. I have a friend who is Norwegian who is not very impressed with the Norwegian version. I met a young woman from China who is really appalled at the Chinese translation and I met a woman from Japan is doing a better translation, she says. But could I judge them? I did notice that woman from Japan had a slight Southern accent, as if she learned English reading me.
RB: What is your sense of who the international reader is?
DA: Literary. In Germany and Japan, it's feminist. I have three different publishers in France. I'm a best seller in France—Me and Jerry Lewis. Let's let it go. You go to France for a book tour and all the translators are from New Zealand or Australia. Very weird. And they keep kissing you. So I kiss back.
RB: The translators?
DA: The French.
RB: A lovely people.
DA: And I had groupies. I had a tall blonde groupie in a long black leather coat show up at one of my readings and I had to say to her, "I'm really exhausted. This is all very nice. I love the compliment, but go home honey."
RB: Have you slowed down, at all?
DA: Yes. But, it's because I had a child.
RB: That will do it.
DA: He's 10 now so I am picking up speed again. He's starting to have his own life (laughs).
RB: Why did you name your son Wolf?
DA: We were going to name him Michael.
DA: It was going to me Michael Allison Layman. He had to be named Michael for my partner's uncle who helped her get sober. I didn't like it. It sounds like a law firm. I kept trying to get something like Trey or something startling. I got a little drunk one night and suggested Wolf…I don't even remember who suggested it but we decided that would be it. That would be the balanced part. So he can grow up and be a lawyer and be W. Michael Allison Layman. Or he can be Wolf and be a biker.
RB: So you are picking up speed again. Meaning you working on another novel?
DA: Yeah and I have a bunch of short stories but I can't publish them for about a decade. I promised my sister.
RB: Oh, because of familial themes?
DA: Yeah, and the kids. But I'll get to it.
RB: Are you ever going to write a science fiction story?
DA: I have. How'd you know that?
RB: I read a lot…
RB: I used to love science fiction but I gave up on it in the early '70s with Frank Herbert.
DA: I still read it and still adore it. It's trickier now and it's different. I've been writing a series for years. I do it for fun. I started out doing it very seriously because I used it to teach myself how to write a novel. And I was afraid of it so I did the Dickens thing and I had subscribers. At one point I had 28 subscribers to the novels. I stopped at some point. Now I get threatening letters, "What happened?"
RB: How many chapters did you finish?
DA: 29 chapters. It's a 3 book series. I haven't figured out where the book breaks. It's fun. There's whole lots of sex and death and poetry. My ideal for writing science fiction is Dahlgren [novel by Samuel R. Delaney]. But I don't get enough time, especially since I had a child.
RB: You live in Northern California. But you do a lot of writer's conferences and teaching. Where are you teaching now?
DA: Next month I'll be teaching at Ohio State. I go and do a Master's class, generally. Anywhere, from 1 to 5 weeks residence…
RB: Will you continue to live in Northern California?
DA: Living there is partly for my son. He's the child of lesbian parents and it's a very comfortable community for him. He's not the only one. He's got friends who have lesbian mommies and friends who have gay daddies. So it's much easier and I don't want him to get ruined. I take him to the South very deliberately and carefully. But boys in the South—a whole different world.
DA: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Especially in my family (laughs). It's just that the "good ole boy" tradition is too tempting. Next thing you know he'd be a stock car driver.
RB: (laughs) He has a good name for that.
DA: I moved to this place were I live now—about an hour and a half above San Francisco. It's a small town and relatively inexpensive and I can take longer to finish books. If I lived near a big urban center I'd need to make more money. I can't really figure out how to do that.
RB: Money, huh?
DA: It makes you write books too fast. We did live in San Francisco for a few years, to live near Wolf's dad. The result was I was never there. I was on the road constantly just to earn the money to make that mortgage. Why do we have to make these kinds of decisions?
RB: You are teaching people who aspire to become professional writers…
DA: In two different categories. The kind of thing I did at the Maui Writer's Conference. I picked Maui pretty deliberately. Maui is a mainstream and popular writer's conference. Mostly, I go there and teach—in the retreat. And that means I work with people who are working on romances and adventure novels, science fiction, and mystery. But for the vast majority I go to universities and work with literary programs—a particular kind of writing. Maui is the absolute opposite and somehow it balances out for me. Then I get to look at what's happening in the marketplace and make my decisions about how much, if any, compromise I want to make.
RB: What about the aspirations of the students in the literary programs? Why do they want to get into something that at best means worrying about the decisions that you were talking about?
DA: They don't expect to make a killing. Some do. One of the first things is I say, "Get a decent day job that won't eat you alive. If you think you are going to make a decent living as a writer, ask yourself, why I am here teaching you?" I make a fair to decent amount of money off my books but not enough to live on. If you want to write literary novels you better love the field and you better have something in mind that you want to accomplish that isn't about a large bank account or a 401k. It ain't happening. The thing that makes me angry and really complicates it—it is in some ways almost a vow of poverty to write literary novels that ignore the marketplace element. I find that to be tragic. It was shocking to me when I went to teach in Italy—and I've taught in France and been to visit in England, outside this country the approach to literature is remarkably different. Most countries have a system by which literary writers can at least live and write. In this country it is entirely shaped by the marketplace and, most of the literary writers I know teach. Some of them are good teachers, but a lot of them are not. But they have to make a living. It does have an impact on our literature.
RB: Pop culture makes so much noise in this country, that if anybody can remember there is such a thing as literature, they can barely concentrate over the din.
DA: Well…I like pop culture. One of the characteristics of my life as a writer is that I read everything. I have a little trouble with mysteries and I have a little trouble with these endless books where people kill each other, I get a little bored with serial killers. I like the impact of the reading audience on the writer. It just makes better books. Otherwise all those professors at universities would write better. They don't. They write really boring books.
RB: Well, I see pop culture as driven and shaped by consumption and marketing. How many books do you find in which it's the author's grand feat to mention legions of brand names?
DA: Look at the book clubs. Look at the Oprah list. I think she created a brand-name literature that is actually substantial and educated an audience that would not have reached for those books. A lot of her audience would have reached for romances and mysteries. And that's wonderful and that's pop culture too.
RB: I'm not saying that pop culture is necessarily bad. I'm saying that it can be overwhelming. Big movies are really big. As local columnist Alex Beam once pointed out to me, the culture seems to be able to handle only 4 or 5 books at a time…
DA: I think it can handle a few more. But I do think there is a limit and it's definitely having an effect.
RB: You've been called a Zen red neck?
DA: Zen Baptist. Much more complicated. I'm also a Zen red neck. Somehow I'm making peace with all of it. But it's day by day.
RB: Are you a religious person?
DA: You know, I am. It's kind of complicated.
RB: I'm sure. I just read Tim O'Brien's new novel [July, July], and I thought of you because his book is about a reunion of a Class of '69. In writing these stories and now republishing them—my god.
DA: My God...
RB: That's a long way to look back. And we all have various thoughts about how far ahead we dare look.
DA: I'm not sure we're gonna last much longer at all (laughs). Me, myself, personally. I have so much work to do, occasionally, I'm daunted. I can't see past the work. But I'm determined. I promised my partner when we made our boy that I'd live to see him grown and gone. No alcoholic junkets.
RB: What would be the age of majority? 18 or 21?
DA: You see we gave birth to a boy. We figure with him, it might be 25 or 30. Boys are different.
RB: The images in the first story, "River of Names," are quite haunting. I wouldn't have thought it would have to do with numbers, but to mention that your grandmother had x number of children her children had y number…
RB: And then the notion of them disappearing in tragic, banal and terrible ways.
DA: Haunting, yeah.
RB: And you have a cousin who is tracking everyone down?
DA: She has. Though some of them are scared of being found. Some of them won't speak to her. Some are really offended at the notion.
RB: Genealogy is not a big thing?
DA: Not a big thing among white trash, no. Red necks don't want to be found. It ain't a family in which we have many things we can boast about.
RB: Well, there's you.
DA: There's me. My uncle that made the newspaper when he put his Pontiac through the barber shop. That's pretty impressive. And my uncle who killed his wife. And got away with it. Killed a second one and didn't. It's an interesting family. Pretty American. Pretty much normal America as far as I can tell. Except that we tell the story, most people don't. It used to be I'd call home and one of the lines that my mother would laugh about would be "Who's in jail?" And she'd laugh and say, "Now why do you ask that?" and then she would tell me who was in jail. But she hated that I would ask it.
RB: You could have asked who graduated high school?
DA: Yeah, who got a scholarship? That never happened. "Who's pregnant?" That's the biggie.
RB: Have you sold this new book that you are working on?
DA: Yeah. I know that I shouldn't. I'm deeply, deeply jealous of my friends that have day jobs that support them and who don't have to have a contract. Although, I think I need a contract and somebody waiting. Otherwise, I'd never finish. Deadline pressure helps me.
RB: How long is it going take to finish what you are working on?
DA: I'm almost done.
RB: Meaning the first draft?
DA: I'm trying to deliver this year. That means we'll do some struggle. So, what can I tell ya. I lost a couple of years in the middle. I had a difficulty.
RB: Is it a big book.
DA: Yeah. I may throw a whole bunch of it out, but it's pretty big now.
RB: Big big?
DA: Yeah, God help me.
RB: Are you happy with it?
DA: I'm happy with parts of it. Enormously happy. But that's all I ever am. That's the best I can get. I always have to let it go. That's a big problem. It's the worth of working with my editor and my agent and people I trust because I never feel that it's done. I never want to let it go. I'd still go back and do something with sections of Bastard.
RB: And, after the novel you are almost done with?
DA: I have a novel I set aside to do this one.
RB: How do you do that?
DA: Easy. It goes cold.
RB: You don't go cold. The thing goes cold.
DA: And I shift to something else. When other human beings talk about this (laughs), they talk about writer's block. But for me it just feels like, all of a sudden, it's dead writing. So I stop messing with it and go do something else until it comes alive again. Part of the delay syndrome.
RB: No one can accuse you of procrastinating.
DA: They can accuse me, but I have a defense. And the bad poetry syndrome. You have to write a lot of bad poetry to get a good line of prose.
RB: I don't read poetry anymore.
DA: I binge on it sometimes. I'll go a whole week and just read poetry. And read a lot. I tend to mark things that really stay with me. Sometimes I copy them out and put them up on the wall and keep 'em with my notebooks. Great poetry is like food. It's food that really feeds your muscle. Then great poetry really triggers writing in me. It makes me want to write fiction. I don't think I can match the poetry.
RB: Well, thanks.
DA: This was fun.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing