Interview with Dorothy Allison

This is not my interview–I will have some up one of these days, though–but one by Susanne Diet­zel from Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty, con­duct­ed in 1995.

When I taught a writ­ing course using what I called White Trash Lit­er­a­ture maybe ten years ago, near­ly every author we read was met ini­tial­ly with skep­ti­cism and ennui–another themed writ­ing class. Most of the stu­dents had tak­en the class because of the sub­ject mat­ter, though, think­ing I don't know what–that it would be an eas­i­er grade? And for some of them it was–it was a tough class to keep on topic,because I had so much to say and and a cap­tive audi­ence. But the one book they were uni­form­ly floored by was Dorothy Allison's Bas­tard Out of Car­oli­na. Like many inex­pe­ri­enced read­ers, stu­dents thought nov­els were true a great deal of the time, if not always, and this book, and the har­row­ing film made from it, stuck to their brains like bur­dock, and rein­forced this mis­take, and it took some talk­ing to dis­abuse them. And the film show­ing was one of the few times I had mul­ti­ple walk-outs. As I said, what struck them, always, was what they termed 'bru­tal hon­esty.' They respect­ed the text too much to ques­tion or dis­cuss it, except for a cou­ple vol­u­ble quick wits who made fun of it. So I was glad to see Diet­zel deal­ing with that aspect of Allison's work specif­i­cal­ly in this interview.

This inter­view was con­duct­ed as part of the annu­al Zale Writer in Res­i­dence Pro­gram at the New­comb Col­lege Cen­ter for Research on Women at Tulane Uni­ver­si­ty in Novem­ber 1995. This year the pro­gram com­mit­tee had invit­ed award-win­ning nov­el­ist Dorothy Alli­son, who is most famous for her nov­el Bas­tard Out of Car­oli­na, to be the Zale Writer-in-Res­i­dence. Dorothy Allison's work is secure­ly locat­ed on the bor­ders of south­ern and work­ing-class lit­er­a­ture, with deep roots in fem­i­nist and les­bian-fem­i­nist activism and politics. 

Dorothy Alli­son is the author five books of fic­tion, poet­ry and non-fic­tion and the win­ner of numer­ous lit­er­ary awards. She grew up in Greenville, South Car­oli­na and Flori­da and now lives with her part­ner, son, and dogs in north­ern California.

This inter­view was con­duct­ed by Susanne Diet­zel, a Vis­it­ing Schol­ar at the New­comb Col­lege Cen­ter for Research on Women and doc­tor­al can­di­date in Amer­i­can Stud­ies and Fem­i­nist Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta. She is now a Vis­it­ing Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Women's Stud­ies at Tulane University.

This inter­view was tran­scribed by Kel­ly Don­ald and Michelle Atte­bury, and (only slight­ly) edit­ed by Susanne Dietzel.

Susanne Diet­zel- Dorothy Alli­son is an award-win­ning poet, nov­el­ist, and essay­ist. She is also an activist in fem­i­nist and les­bian fem­i­nist pol­i­tics and, lat­er on I want to talk a lit­tle bit about the con­nec­tion between writ­ing and pol­i­tics. She has pub­lished five books, the first was a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries called TRASH came out in 1989. Her sec­ond book is a col­lec­tion of poet­ry called THE WOMEN WHO HATE ME, poems 1980–1990 that came out in 1991. Dorothy Alli­son is most famous for her nov­el BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, which came out in 1992, and won the Lamb­da Award, and was nom­i­nat­ed for the Nation­al Book Award. She fol­lowed that one up with her abso­lut­ley won­der­ful col­lec­tion of essays called SKIN that was pub­lished by Fire­brand Books in 1994 and here is her newest book, called TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW FOR SURE, which is a mem­oir about fic­tion­al and real fam­i­lies com­ing to terms with each oth­er and with their his­to­ry. Dorothy Alli­son grew up in Greenville, South Car­oli­na and Flori­da and now lives in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia with her part­ner, child and dogs. 

Susanne Diet­zel- What I find most strik­ing about your writ­ing is your bru­tal, but lov­ing hon­esty. As a read­er, you just come to love, but also hate your char­ac­ters. Your fic­tion then is to some extent relent­less, because you take your read­er right into those expe­ri­ences. But again, I kept com­ing back to the themes of hon­esty and love that I think are real­ly the foun­da­tion of your writing. 

Dorothy Alli­son- I have a the­o­ry about writ­ing fic­tion. I often run into young writ­ers who ask me the ques­tion "How can you tell those ter­ri­ble sto­ries about peo­ple? How can you make them seem almost real, or live­able or love­able?" And my the­o­ry is that if you cre­ate a char­ac­ter and if you tell enough about that char­ac­ter, even if you are cre­at­ing some­one who is a vil­lain or some­one who does ter­ri­ble things, if you tell enough about them, then you have the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lov­ing them. And that if you tell enough about a char­ac­ter, even if you use a char­ac­ter based on peo­ple you know, you don't cre­ate an act of betray­al. It is when you use char­ac­ters in small ways that you betray them. The key is to make the por­trait as full as pos­si­ble and it is not pos­si­ble if you lie. It is not pos­si­ble if you try to hide. And the thing that writ­ers hide is them­selves. I don't belive you can be any good as a writer if you're try­ing to hide your­self. So, I get told a lot that I'm bru­tal­ly hon­est. I essen­tial­ly think that I want to do it right, and I don't believe that you can if you try to shave off any mar­gin of safe­ty. If you're try­ing to be safe, you got no busi­ness writ­ing. If you're try­ing to con­trol what hap­pens, you real­ly don't have a whole lot of chance. The only thing you can con­trol is to cre­ate as full a por­trait as pos­si­ble. Then you can make peo­ple seem human. But you don't real­ly get any safe­ty in that. And you don't get to lie — except of course that you are telling great lies.

Con­tin­ue read­ing.

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2 Responses to Interview with Dorothy Allison

  1. Johnc640 says:

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  2. Rose Hunter says:

    What a great inter­view! I haven't read Bas­tard Out of Car­oli­na, although I read Trash many years ago. I loved what she said about telling enough about a char­ac­ter, even a vil­lain, so that there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of lov­ing them.… "It's when you cre­ate a char­ac­ter in small ways that you betray them."So true I think. Thanks for post­ing this.

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