Lynne Tillman’s work encompasses disparate forms, genres, and styles; the result is one of the most singular bibliographies in contemporary American literature. Her latest novel, Men and Apparitions, is centered around on an anthropologist pondering questions of masculinity and exploring his own personal and familial histories. I met with Tillman to discuss her latest novel, the line between essays and fiction, and more.
With this new novel, you’re filtering a whole lot of theory and art and culture through the perspective of your narrator. This is something I’ve always wondered as a reader and as a writer: how do you do that where you have to figure out how you feel about this, but also how this character looks at it and interprets it?
Sometimes the character is a definite not me. Sometimes I let Zeke, Ezekiel Hooper Stark, assert ideas and theories that if I, Lynne Tillman, were writing an essay, I would not claim. In some sense, you can never separate entirely how you think. You can think against how you think, but you have to know what you’re thinking in order to think against it.
I constructed Zeke word by word, thought by thought. The more I did that, the more I found how I thought he would respond, what he’d believe. I didn’t have an outline for this novel. I never do write in that way. I had certain ideas that I wanted to work with and think about through Zeke.
Was there any initial idea that everything else evolved out of, as far as something you wanted to filter through his perceptions?
That notion, we live in a glut of images. People have been saying that for years. and now it’s intensified so much with social media and the internet. So I thought, how would you tell the story of that? And one of the great things about fiction is that one can work an idea through a character. You take an individual, and to me, Zeke is very much an individual, and you build him with this idea in mind. This is somebody living in a glut of images.
In terms of the images, how did you go about creating all of these family portraits from a fictional character that punctuated the book–especially when you get into his uncle and the images of the man in drag from mid-century. Where did all of those come from?
Those two I borrowed from a friend’s collection. And most of them are from two bags of photographs that I found in a antique junk store. An entire family, from 40s, 50s, maybe some 60s, in those old fashioned little albums with covers and staples. Very small pictures.. I got them for 20 bucks.
I’ve also collected photographs. Primarily postcard photographs, but others, too. Then a friend of mine, who’s a video maker, filmmaker, Josh Thorson — he collects found photographs off the street, and lent me a box of those. So I used a couple of those. Primarily they were from these shopping bags.
Had you already started work on the book when you got those?
I had started work on the book, but always knew I was going to use pictures. How could you not? That seemed to me so specific. It wasn’t just using pictures to have pictures. Although illustrated books had been around from the beginning.
As someone who likes Sebald and Teju Cole, but I feel like this differs in the sense that they’re found images. They’re not necessarily photos that you yourself took and worked into it. That element almost feels like a collage.
Three of the images, the diving ones, my father shot back in the 50s or 60s. I think either in Key West or in Miami. But I love them. It’s not that he had a great camera, but he shot them as quickly as he could.
I was visiting my parents the other week and looking at their photos of their parents. Sort of a similar thing of many, many decades worth of familial photos.
And what will happen to them.
I’m an only child and I don’t think I’m going to have kids, so yeah.
That was one of the sadnesses of these two bags of photographs. I do write about this idea that we collect these things. We never look at them again, or some of us might. Then, they might just get thrown out when the house is sold. It’s very curious. We have this desire, we Picture People, as Zeke calls us, to take the pictures. To have these photographs, to save them, and then there’s no thought as to what happens to them.
I think the fact that Zeke is in his late 30s is also significant. I have a bunch of photo albums that end right around the time that I got a digital camera. I’ve found myself thinking, should I print out a bunch of these things that I took, so I have that artifact and I’m not dependent on something else.
It is a question now. We all have so many on our phones and why do we take them? Why do we need to commemorate a particular moment and then three days later delete 12 or something.
Earlier, you’d talked about Zeke being a singular figure. In structuring the book where, by the very end, there’s this chorus of many other voices of all these other man who are being quoted, was that an intentional way to eventually have him be subsumed by something greater?
I’m always interested in having a character within a larger framework. I wanted to make Men In Quotes, which is a kind of ethnographic study Zeke does. I didn’t know how I would put it in the book. I didn’t know whether it would interrupt the book, the narrative part of the book. I consider it part of the novel, of course. How would I do it? Then I realized if it came at the end of the book we would then see what Zeke had been working on when he wasn’t working. Then, also, I was so curious myself about lots of my male friends, and how feminism and the various kinds of feminism had affected them.
What I realized was that there’s no feminism without its so called obstacle, the power structure. Then, how is that reality on the ground, the actuality of people’s lives, men’s lives, being affected by these waves of movement, especially since the 60s.
It sounds like you’ve been working on this for a while, but it also seems like very, very timely reading it in 2018. So did contemporary events end up dovetailing with your work? Were you noticing different kinds of resonances with the outside world?
I’ve been noticing this for years. The Me Too movement, and Never Again, this is all great, and has been preceded by and happening in the so called modern era, I would say, since the birth control pill. When you allow women to control their pregnancies, which we know for millennia women couldn’t, that’s a new ball game. It’s only been 60 or 70 years. That’s nothing, in terms of time. But I think that’s the foundation of change, because frankly, we wouldn’t be talking about gender if women didn’t have the freedom to live different kinds of lives. You’d get pregnant again and again, or be worried.
So, this has been on my mind for a very long time. I mean, I was an eight year old feminist. What bothers me a lot are the stupid generalizations about women who are feminists in whatever form or version. There are very many different kinds. The ideas that everyone hates men, for example. Here I am, a writer, who’s female. Who’s urban. Who grew up in the suburbs. Who’s heterosexual. Who’s been with the same man for many years. I have lots of friends, male and female, and I wanted to take on this challenge, the glut of images, new men, the role of photography and pictures in the question of gender.
I wanted to talk about the character of Zeke’s uncle and namesake, and the fact that that character is one of the characters who exists, I don’t want to say outside of gender, but has one of the most complex relationships to gender in the book. Did you know from the outset that these two characters were going to share a name and that there was going to be that implicit comparison established?
Yes, because I had written a short story years ago for a catalog for a show called “Shoot The Family,” which was curated by Ralph Rugoff, an American, who lives in London, and now the director of the Hayward Gallery. So his show was photographs by contemporary photographers of their families, usually. I was asked to contribute to the catalog and started thinking, who could tell this story? I often write stories in relationship to contemporary artworks. So I wrote this character who was unnamed, but who then became Zeke, for the novel. He had an uncle or a great uncle who didn’t know that his wife went to the bathroom, until they got married. He didn’t know women did, which, I found so astonishing happening in the early 20th century.
Well, there’s still a lot of sexual ignorance. It’s just really bizarre how there’s so much sophistication in some ways and so much ignorance in other ways. The idea of that initial short story was about family resemblances. I think that’s really interesting how friends of mine have sisters and brothers, and you see a family resemblance, and yet, feature by feature there’s nothing there.
I think it’s the strangest thing how genetics, and also environment work. I have two older sisters. Six years and nine years older than I. I sort of grew up in a different household. Sometimes I pass a mirror and, if I look out the corner of my eye, I see a trace of one sister or the other. But we don’t share any features.
There are also references to multiples terrorist attacks that Zeke’s both seeing when he’s younger in New York and then when he’s in London. How did that end up getting worked into the novel on top of everything else?
That is what’s called a fortuitous coincidence. I realized that I had Zeke in London. And I realized in terms of my time line for hime that he was there at the time that the terrorist bombings occurred. I thought, this could be what sends him back to the States. I hadn’t planned it, but then I saw it as an opportunity. That’s what often writers do.
For instance when I wrote Cast in Doubt, which was my third novel, I was very interested in Roma, and in the gypsy movement. The novel takes place on Crete and there were many gypsies who were living there. I discovered certain things as I was writing the novel, reading about Roma, and the name Roman was often used, and it also means novel in French. My protagonist, Horace, who is a 65 year old gay man, writes mystery stories under the name Stan Green. He’s also writing his “real novel.” On a quest to find a missing friend, he comes upon a gypsy encampment and here’s this young handsome boy called Roman and, to him, he’s a novel. You know, you just work things in.
But I developed Great Uncle Zeke to bring in another history and also surprise. He’s a heterosexual transvestite. That shocks his wife.
The way that the story of Zeke’s life slowly emerges out of all of his musings on different parts of life made for a very interesting structure.
I wanted there to be a relationship between and among all aspects. I wanted what he thinks, his work, and what his life is to interact. I wanted very much that they’re not separate and they’re not separable.
As someone who also writes a lot of non-fiction, does that blurring reflect questions that you’ve run into as you’ve moved between the two?
I think, psychologically speaking, what we’re interested in is embedded in us early. We find directions because there have been impetuses early in our lives. Whatever field you go into, even if it’s the most abstract kind of mathematics, if you talked with that mathematician, she or he would probably tell you a story that happened when they were very young that made them very curious about numbers. This is something else, but I also find that it so interesting that there’s no physicality, no physical space, for the mind and the unconscious.
I’m glad that you mentioned Zeke’s narrative continuing. One of the things in creating his voice was to make that voice carry into the so-called nonfictional engagements, though also fictional, in his life. The way he’s talking about photography or ethnography, that was hard to do. To maintain his voice, because it’s not a textbook, what you’re reading is from his point of view. So, when one recent review emphasized that it was essayistic, I understand it, but if you put these parts and his storytelling together, built of these different things, I consider it as Zeke’s articulating his thoughts. But I guess in some way that looks like an essay within a novel. I don’t know. What do you think?
When I think of a essay by a fictional character, I think of something more like the Ali Smith book Artful. I would say that there are works of fiction that are essayistic, and I think if someone told me they enjoyed your book, I would direct them there, but I also don’t think it’s this is necessarily an example of that.
When I think about DH Lawrence and, oddly enough, I do lately, he has these passages that go on about ideas. I don’t think anyone would call his work essayistic. So, what is the novel? What can you do with a novel? I think you can do a lot of things. Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is a novel and yet it’s kind of a document of its own kind.
I guess any novel is also a kind of document of something. Of a sensibility, maybe.
You were talking a little earlier about the influence of childhood stories. I found it interesting that, since this is a book dealing with gender relations, there’s a repeated image of praying mantises. This might be because I just finished reading a novel in which one praying mantis devouring the other is a set piece in one scene…
Well, the female does after sex. Not always, but enough.
I think for whatever reason I thought it was always, so reading this novel has cleared that up for me. I found that to be a very interesting primal childhood memory, almost reassuring in its place in the narrative.
When you’re creating your character and you’re making that character particular, there are things in that child’s life maybe no other child has experienced, but may have experienced something like it and as unique, or that was inflected in such a way because of the way his or her parents reacted. I’ve always been fascinated by praying mantises but never wrote about them. Then when I did more research about them, I was even more excited. They are prehistoric. They’re like little dragons or something. Then, once I started writing about them, I began seeing them. David and I have a little house upstate and suddenly in the backyard I began seeing one every summer. I actually petted one on the head.
Oh my God.
She or he was on the fence and very still. I was looking at it and of course their heads do turn. It was looking at me. We stayed like this for a while. Then I just did it. It didn’t run away. I’m anthropomorphizing, but it has seem to have this human quality. It was pretty early on in my life when I first saw one, and I thought about it, but then seeing them again was amazing.
The novel’s title and then the ethnographic study that closes it out have titles that echo one another. Did you have both of those titles in mind from the outset?
Not Men In Quotes. That came when I started doing it and I thought, “Well, these really are men in quotes.” It had so many entendres, I couldn’t resist it. One moment I thought, “Maybe I should call the novel Men In Quotes,” but the word “apparitions” doesn’t get used much. There’s something that incorporates photography, the images, fantasy. So, it just seemed right to me.
You know what’s interesting? No one yet has attacked me for writing from a male point of view. No one has said, “Oh, this is not like a guy.” It’s interesting. In fact, it’s almost been taken for granted in the reviews. One woman, I assume she’s a young woman, writing for the Portland Mercury, was really interested that I’d written it from a male point of view and hooked it to the present moment. What did you think about representation?
I found his voice believable. As someone who is, I think, I’m a little older than Zeke is, at no point did I think, “Oh, no. This seems completely off base.”
I’m really glad. I teach writing in Albany in the spring and if you say to your undergraduate students, “I want you to write from the point of view of a boy if you’re a girl or girl if you’re a boy. Young man, young woman, whatever.” It’s the girls who say, “I couldn’t do that. I don’t know what boys think.” I look at them and say, “Of course you do. You don’t know what all boys think, but you can think about a boy. You can create a boy.” The boys, the young men, are less troubled, because they’ve been reading books by men who make female characters for years, for as long as they’ve been reading.
It’s interesting. I do find I think I’ve read far more instances of female writers writing believable men at the center than vice versa. I don’t necessarily know if I would say that’s better than the reverse or just that there have been some really egregiously bad female characters written by men at the center of books.
Can you say why you think?
I think there have been certain books where it’s seemed like a man was writing the object of his desire as a character. I remember reading one book a few years ago, with this young, beautiful woman who was falling for an older writer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that shudder-worthy from a woman writing a man in one of her books.
Is it because women censor themselves so much that they would be very careful not to overdo it?
I don’t know.
About writing one’s desires…. There are the Silhouette novels, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the outline Silhouette gives, or used to give. I don’t know even if they’re published anymore.
I have not seen them.
The hero has to be dark-haired, the heroine, blond, etc., it’s all mapped out. It’s a long list for that kind of romance novel, playing on a common fantasy of what a man will be, he’ll appear on a white … When you read the Brontës or Jane Austen, they’re writing men. One thing they do so brilliantly is establish point of view, from within a society, class, say. Their men are firmly situated in a position. That in a sense creates the character, along with that character’s psychology, but first, in Austen, you always know the position before you know the individual. It’s always the undoing of the position or the seeing through it or rebuling it which changes the man. Now I’m thinking of George Eliot and how her work factors all of that also. I still haven’t read Daniel Deronda. I must read that sometime. You’ve read that?
I read it a couple of years ago, yeah.
Is it wonderful?
I really enjoyed it.
I reread Middlemarch not too long ago. Amazing how she worked into the novel the problem in the 1840s of a new tax. There are so many possibilities for what a novel can be and can do. I’m consumed with trying to open up that space, the novel, because I think it can handle so much more than what’s usually done with it, now. Thank goodness for independent presses which encourage that, allow for that.
Photo: Craig Mod