The Venom of Snakes: On Diane Williams

August 19, 2021 | 3 books mentioned 1 5 min read

“No writer’s life is pain free,” Diane Williams says early one morning while discussing her forthcoming book of stories, How High?—That High. “Marketing aside, just doing the work is so punishing. It’s an athletic ordeal on every level.”

Williams is speaking via Zoom from her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she writes six days a week. She is bathed in light from a window with a view and framed by bookshelves and an art collection (twice profiled in the Paris Review). Paintings and prints share space with sculptures and a crimson plague doctor mask Williams calls “terrifying.” Every piece is personal and tells a story, and she enjoys telling them.

The mask she found in Stockholm, at Drottningholm Palace theater, one of the oldest opera houses in the world. “Sadly, some of the artwork I live with every day gets tamed—loses spirit,” she says. “But not this mask, and its strength provides strength for me.”

The 34 short stories of How High?—That High, Williams’s 10th work of fiction, reveal an artist who, at 75, shows no hint of being tamed. But a common subject for Williams—pleasure—may be more complicated now than it was in her earlier books. The first story, “Upper Loop,” begins with, “I am trying to think if there’s any reason for having fun anymore on any level?” In another, “O Fortuna, Velut Luna,” a character considers “the upcoming loss of all kinds of pleasure.”

When asked if placing pleasure in a fretful context signals something new, Williams laughs. “Pleasure is really important,” she says. “I’m all for it!”

Both on the page and in person, Williams likes complications, contradictions, and conundrums, so she goes on: “And I’m very concerned about pleasure—I hope it’s a good sign. There have been periods in my life where I’ve struggled with sadness, with regret, with shame, with a lot of very burdensome feelings. I must say I’m happier now, which comes as a big surprise. I think that joyfulness is so precious when it occurs that it’s worthy of study in a way that I probably haven’t felt interested in or capable of doing before now.”

Pressed to explain what may have driven this shift, Williams resists.

Readers familiar with her work will recognize this reluctance to explain. Williams has been called a minimalist but, like the iceberg’s tip, beneath what is visible lies immense hidden depths. From her time in the ’80s studying with Gordon Lish (editor, most famously, of Raymond Carver), she learned how to make language strange again, and to leave ample room for the reader.

Williams can chronicle the whole messy business of living and falling in and out of love and falling ill and dying with an electrifying economy. “If you’re not telling the reader what to think every moment,” she says, “they need to take the experience and make something of it, rather than be limited by the limitations of the writer.” She snakes an arm around an imaginary body and pulls her in, explaining that “the writer’s primary assignment” is to hold the reader’s attention, from a story’s title to its terminus.

Some of the pieces in How High?—That High, such as “A Type of Vertigo” and “Popping,” are vivid portraits in miniature, and tornado-like in the way that Williams bears down to reveal only a moment or two in a fully imagined life. The effect leaves her characters and readers stunned. In 12 slim paragraphs, “Popping” contains decades of shared illness and care and still turns on the sly amusement of a kitchen appliance “considered by many to be the greatest toaster ever made.” Some stories are interrogative: a character in “Finished Being” tries to make sense of why a “solid square of cement-hued cement” has drawn her respect. Some entries, such as “Harriet Mounce,” feel like memories or regrets of something or someone lost. Metafiction at times breeches the surface. Existential inquiries appear, as in “What Is Given with Pleasure and Received with Admiration?” whose central character “is drawn forward—but by what?”

coverUncertainty has attended Williams’s work since her first book of stories was published 31 years ago. From then—1990’s This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate—to 2018’s The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, a 784-page compendium that she calls “the very big book,” much effort has been made by critics and interviewers to attempt to define what exactly this writer is doing with her pens and Mead notebooks.

She’s been called “avant-garde” and “experimental,” a word she dislikes. In an introduction to the very big book, author Ben Marcus writes that “most of us are doomed to hunt for sense” in the stories we read, but Williams’s stories “show us how little we can know.” Her stories “defy logic” and “thumb their nose at conventional sense,” he notes, “or even unconventional sense.”

The stories hum with their own mad logic, prizing “the enigma and the uncanny,” in Marcus’s words, above narrative. In composing a story, Williams says that her focus is on the “call-and-response tension” from one sentence to the next and the “acoustical maneuvers that keep it all together.” She compares the work to creating a concerto, with her goal being to produce fiction that has “the characteristics of great music.” Her stories demand such an active engagement that they are almost collaborative. To take How High?—That High onto a subway or beach is to risk missing your stop, or a coming tsunami.

Asked about her writing process, Williams explains, “It’s just words. As simple as, ‘Now we’re going to go.’ Or ‘Do we have to?’ Or ‘I don’t have it.’ Just putting down language so that I can see my handwriting.” Then she circles what stands out on the page and numbers the circles in search of “logic and momentum.” Then she types it, prints it, and gets to work, composing so many drafts that the story’s folder can be “a foot high,” she says. She keeps these folders near.

“It’s easy for writers to romanticize what they’ve done when they feel they’ve done something great, and think ‘I can’t do it again,’ because they can’t remember the labor it took,” Williams says. “It’s not magic.”

After 30 years of work, some writers grow lazy; Williams has grown more potent, like the venom of certain snakes.

When asked if stories come more easily now than they used to, Williams explodes with laughter. “No,” she says. “Oh no. No no no no no. They don’t come easily. No.”

She repeats something she says she heard about practice from an editor at Noon (the literary journal Williams founded with Christine Schutt 21 years ago): “You sit and you do it—that’s art. And that’s my only relation to it. I just have to do it. Because to anticipate it and to have an idea of how it will be is hopeless. I’m not congested with ideas or schemes of any kind. Or inspiration. It’s really just going to the clay and making something.”

Williams extends and works her fingers in the air in front of her. “That’s all I have.”

Bonus Links:
People Are Strange: Diane Williams’s ‘Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’
A Year in Reading: Diane Williams

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

is the author of In the Course of Human Events and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book All-American Murder.

One comment:

  1. I suppose I could be more aware, you’d think that easy, but I’m not and so I’m so thankful to The Millions and to Mike Harvkey here for giving us a heads up that another Diane Williams book is coming out. I always get a little goose-burst of something a bit weird with my verbal imagination reading new DW. This is a great essay, laying a path for the unfamiliar and the rest of us to feeling impatient for this read. Thanks so much to everyone involved at MM for this piece.

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