Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life and S P R A W L. Her fiction has appeared in Harper's, Fence, NOON, Places: Design Observer, and other publications. An assistant professor in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, she is the founder and editor of Dorothy, a publishing project.
This interview was conducted through email by Interview Editor April Hanks. Of the process she said, “I was first introduced to Danielle's work when a friend gave me a copy of S P R A W L. I loved the unique style of the book and found that it was unlike anything I had ever read before. I was so excited when given the chance to interview Danielle.” In this interview she discusses her works, the shape of her writing, and her growth as a reader.
Superstition Review: You take on many roles: author, professor, publisher. What have your various roles taught you about writing?
Danielle Dutton: No doubt those different roles do teach me different things about writing, though on a conscious level I register their influence more in terms of how they shape me as a reader. I think I can say with some confidence that I am a better reader now than I was even five years ago, and editing and teaching have both had a lot to do with that. I'll tell you a couple of things that I have felt influencing my writing lately: watching TV and listening to my son make up stories in the bath. As someone whose primary interest as a writer has never been the driving force of a linear plot, having a three year old has been very instructive. He constantly asks for new stories, and if I spend too long on description, for example, he will sharply recall me: “But what happened one day?”
SR: S P R A W L opens with a quote by Thoreau. “At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” What does this quote mean to you and what led you to choose it?
DD: I really like the language of Walden, but I have to admit that taken out of context I just found that line funny. To my ear it sounds a bit like the opening of Pride and Prejudice. How obvious that a single rich man must want a wife! How obvious that we will cover the earth with our houses! It's not fair to Thoreau, of course, that I've forced him into that joke.
SR: I was intrigued by S P R A W L's unique format. It is both prose and poetry and the text lacks paragraphs. What led you to this style?
DD: One thing I've noticed is that I crave different fictional shapes to work inside of, and the shape of what I'm writing will first please and then exhaust me and so push me into the arms of a different shape for the next thing I write. My first book is made up of very short stories that are themselves often broken into smaller segments, and after it I felt a strong desire to slide all the way through something without any bumps or stop.
But, more specifically: I decided early on that a single paragraph (sprawling yet contained) was the right shape for a book interested in the “poetics of the suburbs.” Suburbia can feel so claustrophobic and monotonous (I traversed a stretch of it outside St. Louis this afternoon and felt almost immediately trapped: the miles of asphalt, the parking lots and strip malls, the offensive bumper stickers, the chain stores, traffic). Anyway, I'm interested in this particular landscape, how pervasive it is and the fact that so many of us (so many people I love) live inside it. Of course, suburbia isn't actually monotonous, or it isn't simply that, and I hope the book isn't (or isn't only) either. I did consciously work against the form, too, trying to make the language (its movements) surprising and various.
SR: One of my favorite lines from S P R A W L is, “I am all sorts of things in themselves: I am in character, I am in mint condition, I am in my head,... I am in control, I am in the way.” What role does identity play in your works?
DD: I'm not sure I know how to answer that, but I'm happy you liked the line. I do identify strongly with particular characters in books that I love reading, and this is what my first book was mostly about, about writing myself out of that identification, in some way. With the narrator of S P R A W L . . . I did identify with her, yes, but she also felt very separate from me. She was like a delightful (and somewhat wicked) mask I could put on and then take off again.
SR: In the acknowledgements for S P R A W L, you mention that you were inspired by Laura Letinsky's photos. Could you expand on how these photographs inspired your work?
DD: I'd just started writing the book when I stumbled across her work. I was struck by it. It seemed to me her images captured something of the quality of domestic life that I was hoping to capture, something about being on the edge, inside a certain chaos, on the verge of being rotten—yet her images are so striking in their near-rottenness, beautiful actually.
SR: You have not only a Master's degree, but also a Doctorate in writing. How do you feel your education has helped you as an author and how has it shaped your work?
DD: The closest I can come to answering is to say (again) that I think of myself first of all as a reader, and this sense of self inevitably shapes my writing. The really tangible thing graduate school gave me was time to write and books to read and other writers to write around, and all of these were (and continue to be) very meaningful to me.
SR: In an interview with Siglio Press you mentioned that your fiction begins with a “desired shape” instead of a plot. How is plot necessary or, conversely, irrelevant to crafting this desired shape?
DD: To my mind, plot is shape. This is how I teach it to my students. No matter how obviously plot-driven a story is or isn't, there is no shapeless work of fiction. For example, a modular story that doesn't rely on causality to build tension might gesture to climax in some other way, some stylistic building of tension and release. I don't think most people would call that stylistic gesturing plot (not in any traditional sense), but it seems related to me, somehow.
SR: Attempts at a Life is a collection of short stories whereas S P R A W L is a novel. How does your approach differ for a novel and a short story?
DD: In both cases I felt I was stumbling along, feeling my way into whatever shape the book wanted to be. So my experience writing one was in certain ways quite a lot like my experience writing the other. Something banal I could say about it: when you're writing a novel you have to focus on the same story/shape/thing for a longer time. When writing stories, I'd move in bursts; I'd be perplexed and charmed by the things I wrote, but only for a short time; it felt okay, because of the nature of my relationship to them, to let them remain somewhat under-diagnosed, abrupt, perplexing. It is harder, I think, to figure out a way to extend that easygoing passion when you come back to something week after week for a year or many years. So for me at least writing a story was something like a fling, whereas writing a novel is more like a marriage; you come to know much better what you're doing and what you want, where things are working and where they're weak; meanwhile certain aspects remain hidden, even as you stare at them day after day. I'm not sure that what I'm saying is actually true, but it can feel true.
SR: Describe your writing space.
DD: I write on a laptop on a desk in front of a window that faces a brick wall. This wall has a stained glass window in it. The window has squarish purple flowers that remind me of the work of Charles Rennie Macintosh, whose very rectilinear designs I was infatuated with just after college when I lived in northern England and visited in Scotland. Often, a woodpecker comes and pecks at the grout between the bricks.
SR: Many of the stories in Attempts at a Life are related to literary characters. For example, there are pieces about Jane Eyre and Hester Prynne. How have these, and other literary heroines, influenced you?
DD: The women I write about in Attempts at a Life are all characters who have moved me as a reader, whether because I felt an abiding love for them (Jane Eyre) or because I wanted to break them out of the story they seemed trapped inside of (Isabel Archer). In my daily life I am not very romantic or star-crossed or spectacular or pitiful, but in my secret inner life I sometimes am, and this is something I likely learned from inhabiting such dramatic stories as a girl.
SR: Your writing has been considered both fiction and prose poetry. How would you define your work?
DD: I consider myself a fiction writer, but that's probably a boring answer.
SR: Dorothy, a publishing project—your publishing company—mostly publishes works by women. Most of your stories are from the perspective of or about women. Why do you focus on women in your work?
DD: I'm not sure how to answer this. I think that if a male writer wrote mostly about men and ran a press that mostly published men no one would ask him why he focused so much on men. The contemporary publishing scene provides sufficient examples to support this assertion. I suppose that's one reason why I focus on women.
SR: The Dorothy website says that you want to publish books that are “uniquely themselves” and that “convince [you] that they are, themselves, wonderful.” How does a book convince you that it is unique and wonderful?
DD: By being, in fact, unique and wonderful. I can usually tell within the first page or two whether or not a given manuscript is going to convince me, which means that what I'm most excited by is a writer's ability with language. Then I'll keep reading to see whether or not that writer is able to do something else with her ability, to make interesting structural shapes, to be smart or funny in what she does. When I find a manuscript like this it is almost immediately physically overwhelming. My heart races. I might feel a little nauseous. I'll wish I'd written it myself.
SR: The books Dorothy publishes are very aesthetically pleasing—they are small and feature unique art. How do you think the look of a book influences the work itself?
DD: Thank you. I realize what I'm about to say will sound ridiculous, but for me, when a book is ugly—and I mean, basically, that it bears what I consider to be a bad cover and the interior layout is also badly done—I will resist reading it for as long as I can. I've done this with an embarrassing number of important and wonderful books. Obviously my beautiful might be the next guy's weird, and a beautiful cover can't make a bad book better, but it still just matters to me how a book looks, how it feels, how it rests in my hands; it's part of the pleasure of the experience of reading a book.
SR: You completed your third book, A World Called the Blazing World, last summer. This book is about Margaret Cavendish. What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
DD: I actually haven't finished it. I'm close. Over the years I've done a lot of research into the period: books about the Royal Society, Samuel Pepys's diaries, biographies of Cavendish, monographs on her work. I've also followed tangents into subjects that randomly sparked my interest, such as seventeenth-century garden design: boxwood hedges sculpted into the shapes of whales or sheep.
SR: What are you working on now?
DD: As I near the end of what is basically a historical novel, I've started writing much more decidedly contemporary pieces, pieces interested in contemporary art, for example, and in current scientific discoveries, and also in certain personal experiences I've never written about before. It's fun. I'm excited to be inside this new thing and figuring it out.