Rikki Ducornet is the author of seven novels, including The Fan Maker’s Inquisition—a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year—and The Jade Cabinet, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award. In 2004 she received the Lannan Literary Award in Fiction. She has also published six collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, and a book of nonfiction. In addition to her work as a writer, Ducornet has illustrated books by Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges. Her lithographs, drawings, and paintings are exhibited widely.
Centrum: How does the process of writing work for you? How does your writing germinate, and then come to fruition?
Rikki Ducornet: My first novel, The Stain, was set into motion by a powerful dream. That dream unleashed enough energy to fuel four novels—and this to my astonishment. I was an artist, after all, not a writer. Entering Fire, Phosphor in Dreamland, and The Fan Maker’s Inquisition were driven by an irrepressible, irresistible voice. Writing a novel can be a little like speaking in tongues! For example, I woke up one morning with the phrase “A fan is like the thighs of a woman: it opens and closes” running through my head. My novel’s narrator, a fan-maker, had arrived fully formed and clamoring for attention. She kept me busy for two-and-a-half years.
As a girl I lived in Cairo for a year, and my most recent novel, Gazelle, came from memories of that extraordinary time and place. It took decades for the book to surface. The process of writing is as mysterious as it is dynamic. Sometimes I think of it as alchemical—transforming the stuff of life into something new, possibly clairvoyant, hopefully lucid.
C: You paint and draw, in addition to writing. Is your process of painting similar to your process of writing?
The art I dream is always technically impossible, unless, perhaps, I
knew how to work in virtual reality. Then I could recreate my dreams:
things made of minerals, water and flames! For me the creative process
is always about exploring new territories, blind and without a map. As
with writing, I have no interest in repeating myself, although I do
return to museums of natural history and old books on botany and
biology for inspiration each time—just as I return to Gaston Bachelard
when I am writing a novel. But each picture, each book, is its own
creature. And if my painting is not driven by words, my writing owes a
lot to painting—Vermeer’s luminosity, Goya’s deep shadows.
a recent visit to Brown University I saw a series of marvelous virtual
reality projects—I’d like to call them ‘events’—that made me realize,
once again, how infinite, how mutable the process of the imagination
is. It is perfectly possible that there will always be new vocabularies
and new ways of seeing and being in the world.
Do you think that virtual-reality experiences like that, and forms of
electronic communication, will ever take the place of “the book”?
I think there is something profoundly satisfying about holding a text
in one’s hands—a book, or a clay tablet, or a piece of knotted string.
And although the new technologies are fascinating, there is no reason
why the book will not persist—that is to say, if anything persists the
current madness! After all, the cinema hasn’t destroyed our love of
reading, just as photography has not destroyed painting.
C: When did you first start writing fiction?
Late. When I began my first novel, I was close to forty. I had been
writing poetry and odd, short fictions, but it wasn’t until that book
seized me by the scruff of the neck that I realized I was a writer. It
felt like coming home. The process was terrifying; I was scared to
death for over three years! But also a little giddy with pleasure.
C: You’ve traveled all over the world—as a child, as well as an adult. Did those experiences have an influence on your fiction writing?
An enormous influence. My father was Cuban and his birthplace, Havana,
held an immense fascination for me. It was a stunning city, and I think
its architecture ignited my longing for mystery and complexity. As a
young adult I lived in Algeria for two years right after the War for
Independence. Very few people know that the French used more napalm in
Algeria—at the border between Algeria and Tunisia—than the United
States used in Vietnam. Torture and genocide—these exemplified that
war. I saw what this had done to the Algerian people and, for that
matter, what it had done to the French. These are things one cannot
forget. The novel I am currently writing is about this.
One of the things I love about your novels is that they are so full of
other voices and other cultures. Sometimes a place that writers are
told we can’t go is writing from the point of view of someone else. For
example, an Asian told he can’t write from the point of view of a white
Texan, or a European told she can’t write from the point of view of an
It breaks my heart when one writer tells another what she can or cannot
do. I once knew a woman, a professor of literature, who said that
Flaubert had no right to write Madame Bovary because he was a man. Such
dangerous foolishness! This is just another form that dogmatic thinking
takes. And it seems to me that the imagining mind—which is also a
profoundly human mind—must be unfettered, boundless. To write from the
perspective of another’s world demands a generous and a rigorous leap
of the spirit; it demands empathy and mindfulness. Writing is so much
about subverting dogmatisms of all kinds, above all the ones that
insist you cannot go there! You must not say that! Writers need to go
anywhere, to take anything on. And the only rule is to do it well.
a young Navajo writer asked me if he “had to write Navajo.” As if every
member of his tribe were a brick in a wall without an autonomous,
living imagination. He is a writer of real capacity and he was being
made to feel guilty for his unique and restless way of being and
creating. I told him that not only did he have the right to write about
anything at all, but that it was his responsibility to himself—and to
his world—to do so. To, as Italo Calvino asks of us, “dream very high
dreams.” I asked him to imagine a novel about Heian Japan written by an
American Navajo. What would that, could that, be like? The idea
delighted him. To tell the truth, I often feel our species is terrified
of the unfettered imagination. Perhaps because it is a place of such
sublime privacy. I really think that to write responsibly with an
unfettered imagination is one of the most moral things a person can do.
New at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference this year is an emphasis
on the creation of new pieces, rather than the workshopping of old work.
It is a great idea. The worst thing that can happen to a writer is to
be workshopped to death. Ideally, a workshop should be a place where
the writer feels invigorated and safe enough to take risks. The first
time I taught at Centrum—and I had a great group of talented and
delightful people—I proposed they create an encyclopedia of an
imaginary place. The group was eager to experiment and the project took
off in really exciting and novel—and unexpected—ways. They invented a
geography, a history, religious festivals, a mythical imagination,
nursery rhymes, erotic play, philosophies, mountain ranges, banquets,
music—and, above all, were writing without the burden of preconceived
ideas. It was an exemplary exercise in a kind of lucent playfulness!
And it was tough because within the week they had a good-sized
manuscript to give cohesion to. I loved the experience we shared, and
the writing was very, very good.
C: As a teacher, what do you hope that students take away from their time with you?
RD: A new
fearlessness. The awareness that writing really matters, even now (and
perhaps more than ever!). That writing is a place to think. That a
moral vision is part of it. That their responsibility is to their
imaginations, the demands of the work itself; that the work must be
allowed to reveal itself as it is being written and not burdened by
received ideas, dogmatisms of any kind. The understanding that writing
is a marvelous vehicle for transformation.