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Off the Page: Joanna Scott

With Joanna Scott
Author of Six Novels
Thursday, March 11, 2004; 1:00 PM

I discovered Joanna Scott when I read one of her stories in The Paris Review. It was as intricate and complex as a novel, yet as clear as a stone in water.

Immediately I went to find more of her work: first her story collection, Various Antidotes, then her novels. She takes on science and the natural world, both expansively and in miniature. In the opening of The Manikin, a single owl comes to realizes it must fly south early this year. In this moment, Scott traces the mystery of instinct.

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By now, she has published six novels and been awarded a MacArthur grant.

Scott was online Thursday, March 11 at 1 p.m. ET. to talk about her work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello book lovers and welcome to Off the Page. We have Joanna Scott with us today from Italy, and we're ready to get to the first.question.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you have many ideas for novels? How do you narrow your ideas down into the novel you choose?

Joanna Scott: So far in my years as a writer, I have had a lot of ideas, and a lot of deadends. So I find myself writing in one direction and then another, and sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn't. I feel there has to be a certain amount of improvisation as I'm writing, which means any idea or any commitment to a project is risky. It involves time, it involves gathering of material, and sometimes it just doesn't work. Sometimes it does. As I'm starting out on a project, I can't tell if it will click or not. If it will keep generating its own future, in a sense.

It partly has to do with the independence of the characters, the strength of the voice. If I feel there's a distinct voice that can deserves to keep speaking, that has a music of its own, a rhythm of its own, then I find myself seduced by the voice that I've created, but that I feel that I'm hearing from elsewhere.

There's a point I set for myself, and it's an arbitrary point, when I think no matter happens I'm going to finish that book. And that's when I get to page 100. I have to see it out.

There are two points of exhiliration for me, when I'm writing. There's the point of reaching page 100, when I think, I've got something here. And then there's the point when I write the final word, and I say, OK, that's done.

Althought I once heard William Gaddis say he wrote long books, because he didn't like them to end. And I can understand that.


Carole Burns: Why do you suppose you turn so often to the past for your novels? What is it that the past tells us--or that so intrigues you? Joanna Scott: Partly it's different. It requires discovery. So I go to the past to learn something. Partly I think I like to imagine a fictional reality for an actual reality that's been lost. Just like I try to give voices to characters who can no longer speak, I try to animate something that existed at one point. In a sense, I'm trying to animate the dead. I can't do that, so I move into the fables, the make believe, of fiction, where we all know, readers and writers, that the ghosts are inventions. But it's a wonderful pretense.

Telling ourselves that fiction is in a sense true and at the same time not true is essential to the art of ficiton. It's been at the heart of fiction from the start. Fiction offers both truth, and we know it's a flat-out lie. Sometimes it drives a novelist mad. Sometimes it energizes us. Sometimes it's mathematical problem we have to deal with, the truth and the falsehood of fiction.

I love seeing in some of the early novels delcaration of truth. So Defoe saying, what i'm writing here is truer than history. It takes a lot of bravado to say that, and it also poses a puzzle. We need to think about the action of interpretation when a writer who is lying tells us he is telling the truth. But it's an exciting stance, for both readers and writers. And it becomes more complex as we grow older and become more mature readers. I feel as a writer, I'm addressing this in each book a little bit more precisely or deeply or obsessively, the relationship between the truth and the flasehood of ficiton is something I keep wanting to write about in my work.


Bethesda, MD: How many books did you write before publishing your first? Did you ever consider yourself primarily a short story writer?

Joanna Scott: Oh, maybe 20 or 30.

More seriously, I kept trying to write a book, and tried and tried and tried, and did, and that was my first book. But I didn't finish an entire manuscript, and I know many writers do. It's a learning process to write a novel then put it away, and move onto more mature work. For better or worse, the first novel I wrote was published.

Long ago, I actually thought I might be a poet. Then I changed my mind, and I started to work on stories, through college, through graduate school. And worked hard, felt dissatisfied with the work I was doing, and finally I began a story with the line, "I will tell you how it was." And that became the first line of my first novel. Somehow that insistence that I was just going to tell you, no matter what, made the imaginative possibilities of fiction suddenly available to me. But that meant that before I knew it, I was no longer a short story writer, I was a novelist.

But I still write stories, and I try to write with many different forms. I've tried to write for the theater, I still try to write poetry, I write in short forms and long forms.


Gullsgate, Minn.: Joanna Scott: Have you ever gone back to an old short story--found it to be actually three stories underdeveloped and torn apart the original in order to create at least one powerful one (at least in the eyes of the writer)?

Joanna Scott: I've gone back to old stories, and I've rewritten them as new stories. I've actually rewritten them as novels. Arrogance began as a story. I was determined after your second novel to go back to stories, so I began a story about the girl who had accused Egon Schiele of perversity, but then I found myself dealing with such immensely rich material, and so fascinated by the characters who were just hinted at in the story, that I stuck with it and wrote a novel. But I like the idea of ripping up one story to make three stories. That's productive.


Washington, DC: With so many books now written, is it any easier? Is there familiarity in the sources of inspiration? Is each book still a new challenge, or are there patterns you recognize in the writing that help you through it?

Joanna Scott: It's something I have been asking myself in recent years. Is this getting easier, or not? I think mostly not, is the answer to that question. If anything it's getting harder.

I've been spending my days wandering through Florence, gazing at great art, and thinking about the muscular expressive art of a great artist like Michelangelo and the quieter restrained art of a great artist like Del Sarto. He was called the artist senza errore, the artist who makes no mistakes. And I have found myself wanting to strive for that kind of gentle perfection, the restraint, the polish, a more tranquil beauty. Perhaps less expressive beauty, but still provocative and mysterious.

So, the general aesthetic challenges I set myself hopefully get harder. I want them to be harder. The blank space between the end of one book and the beginning of the next is just as blank as ever. But I think I've learned some things over the years.


Carole Burns: One of the things I like about your work is how expansive it feels. It's not at all a close first-person voice. It feels like George Eliot to me. Do you think that kind of voice is less common these days? Why do you like it? Joanna Scott: Probably what's generating that sense is that I move between characters. My first two books I was very close to my main character, stuck inside their head. And then with ARROGANCE I broke into many different voices. I introduce many different characters, and that helped me to develop a confidence to move between different characters, between different voices.

But once I wrote ARROGANCE, I was done with that form. I don't want to repeat myself. I'm just getting close to finishing up a new novel right now, and it feels like, That's it. I'm done. I'll never write another book. And the only way I can write another book is to tell myself, I'm going to do something different. Even as I'm learning from what I'm writing, I have to leave the work behind and start from scratch. I feel that very strongly with my work. I don't want to keep writing the same book. Or even if I did want to, I wouldn't have the discipline to do that. Some writers have done just that, and have done it successfully over thousands of pages. I want to keep trying out new things, new forms, learn something I didn't know before.


Washington, D.C.: Can you tell us who your favorite authors are, both current and past?

Joanna Scott: There's the short list and the long list. Some of the contemporary writers I feel nourished by include Nadine Gordimer, Maureen Howard, WG Sebold, John Berger, Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, Steve Erikson, Ricki Docornet, Michael Cunningham, Edward P. Jones, Kathryn Davis. All these writers share one thing, and that's the ability to do something new with narrative form.

In terms of writers I keep going back to, the list would include Dickens, Woolf, Chekhov, Faulkner, Beckett, Calvino. To name a few. I find my interest in them keeps changing, depending on what I'm working on or what my concerns are for a particular project, or for my life as a teacher. So one year I become absolutely obsessed with Chekhov. The next year it's Beckett. The next year it's Faulkner. But at any given time I'll be naming different writers who I feel are my strongest influences. The list keeps changing as I keep changing.


Washington, D.C.: You seem so very prolific!; How do you do it?

Joanna Scott: I don't feel prolific. I've been writing for 20 years, and how many books do I have? Seven? Is that prolific?

OK, if I am prolific, it's because writing is a nervous habit for me. I can't help it. I do it, and I do it obsessively. I'm cursed. It drives my famiily crazy.


Carole Burns: Thanks so much, Joanna, for visiting "Off the Page." In two weeks, we have a double billing of writers John McNally and Stuart Dybek, with a show live from the Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago. See you then. Get announcements about upcoming authors on "Off the Page" by signing up for our e-mail list. Email me at offthepage2004@yahoo.com.


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