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.