With Annie Dillard

Sunday, June 24, 2007

From her 12' x 16' wood cabin in the Virginia mountains, Annie Dillard spoke with Daniel Asa Rose in an exclusive phone interview.

So you granted Book World your only in-depth interview for this book. Was it because of that affair we had back in '82?

[Laughing] It slipped my mind. Refresh my memory.

OK, it wasn't technically an affair. It was a dance. We were at a mutual friend's publication party, and suddenly you yanked me onto the dance floor with these immortal words, "Now let's see what you're made of."

I said that? Usually that's how I got men to play Ping Pong with me. It was good for four points.

Well, it sure worked on me. I was intimidated the whole dance.

What were we dancing to? Fast or slow?

Fast. Disappointingly.

I can't dance anymore. Total knee replacements. I can't do anything anymore. I'm 62 now.

For me, you'll always be the way you were then: svelte, incandescent.

I kept growing through my 30s! I don't know why. Now I'm shrinking, of course. At the doctor's the other day, the form asked, "How tall are you? How tall were you?" I said, "I didn't come here to be insulted!"

Let's talk about something else that has continued to grow: your writing. This last book is about an actual affair.

Yes, but it's such a small book. It's heavy paper, big margins.

But it's very deep, very still and pure. Assertive yet playful. You've pared back your style to its essence.

All my books started out as extravagant and ended up pure and plain. This one was over 1,200 pages at one point, and I just pared it back -- boy did I -- by the syllable. I lost some of my best metaphors, but they had to go. It's a little silly to finally learn how to write at this age. But I long ago realized I was secretly sincere. This one was as pure as I could make it.

There's almost no dialogue.

That's because I can't do dialogue. So I [solved that] by making Lou [the wife] a non-talker, known for her silences.

It's both pared down and lush.

Don't say lush, it hurts my feelings. It's mean and lean.

There IS toughness there. It's generous without being sentimental.

Absolutely! It's beautiful without being lyrical. It's much better than anything I've ever written.

What pleases you?

Well, for one thing the story itself is so whiz-bang I wanted to do it justice. And for another I haven't read it over so I can imagine it's terrific.

The jacket copy calls you "a gregarious recluse." Does that make you an introvert or an extrovert?

A toss-up. When I first read the words introvert and extrovert when I was 10, I thought I was both.

I get the feeling you live your life in a state of extended exaltation.

That's what my husband says, and he's been married to me for 20 years. I'm a housewife: I spend far more time on housework than anything else.

Are you ever tender?

Of course! Jeez! I loved my students, 'cause they're all mad at their parents, and yet they need tenderness. I gave them that.

The rhythm of sea waves permeates the book. Short sentences rolling in one after the other, such as the sea you describe as "a monster with a lace hem." Were you near the ocean when you wrote it?

Heavens, no. It's best for me to be as far away as possible in time and place.

How did you achieve that effect?

A whole hell of a lot of it rhymes, though I don't expect anyone will notice. You can add punch to a paragraph by ending with a true rhyme.

You write equally of what it's like to leave a lover and to be left by one -- betrayal from both sides.

What was cool about that was that Lou comes to realize her feelings [of rejection] were not caused externally; they were hers, she was responsible for them, and they were optional. She could change.

It's such a passionate ode to love of various kinds: marital love, parental love, love of stars, seals, even death. Your love has just kept going, hasn't it, through book after book?

That's the point, isn't it? Love and beauty overlap.

Ultimately, though, you say that Lou is "studying not love but consciousness." That's your whole oeuvre right there, isn't it?

It is.

You ask, "Because the lovers forget and reimagine each other, is love then wholly false? How false? Thirty percent? Sixty percent? Five?"

Forty percent.

Is that your answer?

No, all my books are a series of questions.

So how's your Ping Pong these days?

The hand remembers. It's a really good way to get to know someone quick.

Daniel Asa Rose is a frequent interviewer for Book World.

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