Proclaimed “one of the finest writers of her generation” by the Boston Globe and “simply stunning” by the New York Times Book Review, Dorothy Allison’s first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. Her best-selling second novel, the critically acclaimed Cavedweller, won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for fiction. A chapbook of her performance work, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, was selected as a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review. Allison’s small press books include Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature; Trash; and The Women Who Hate Me. Allison serves on the advisory boards of the National Coalition Against Censorship and Feminists for Free Expression.
Centrum: What is the process of writing like for you? How does an idea make its way from initial impulse to finished work?
Dorothy Allison: For me the problem isn’t beginning. I can begin a story without any problem at all. But the problem is that the process of writing novels takes so much time that by the middle of it you’ve got all these balls in the air. The difficulty is finishing, making all those balls come down in that perfect charming manner, complete, and done gracefully. How that is done varies a lot by book. When I teach, one of the things I tell my students is that in my experience the accordion method—expanding and contracting—works. Expand the story, based on language—language is the thing that I fall in love with—then look back on it and take out a lot of that language. Expansion and contraction. I widen widen widen and narrow narrow narrow, cutting out what is not truly serving either the story or the language or the character. I think perhaps that there are easier ways to go about it, but it works beautifully.
The wonder of writing is the magic of focus, and the intrusion of glory. You do all the grunt work, get your scene, build your characters, realize your place, drop yourself into that place through language into those people, and through the intrusion of magic, all of a sudden it all becomes real. It can be a sudden phrase, a realization of how it could go, or the perfect language that you’ve been waiting for, sometimes for years. It’s almost unexplainable. You make it happen by putting everything in place for it to happen.
C: What techniques do you use to put everything into place?
At the bottom line you read. You read enormously. I don’t know any
writers who didn’t begin by reading. You train yourself to fall in love
with the good stuff. And the good stuff is the writing that is so real
you absolutely believe in the existence of the place, and the people.
Instead of making up a story, you’re watching or hearing a story from
another reality. You’re seeing something that is not only beautiful but
astonishingly powerful and resonates with your life. Stuff that
resonates with your life is where your best language comes from. My
experience is that you start with your real life, and then move on from
example, an old and dear friend of mine died two weeks ago. Without
warning, in his sleep, of a heart attack. A little while before he
died, we had gone out to dinner in northern California, in Humboldt
County, and it was a lovely time. We talked about writers and readers,
and all the books we loved, and then at the end of the evening, we
talked about the silly kinds of stuff that you talk about, at the end
of evenings. And one of the things that came up was, How would you like
to die? I said that I wanted to die doing something I love, but in my
sleep too, and my friend ended up dying in his sleep.
started the story by writing that dinner, and I started with the real
person. My heart is still broken and I miss him very much. I started
the story two or three days after I heard he died. And now I’m seeing
it change. It’s no longer my friend in the story, but someone else.
Different things are happening. I started it because I was hurting, and
there was the comfort of language, but now it’s becoming something
else. [In the story other] people are listening to the conversation and
it’s about what they are thinking. It begins with the personal and moves out wider. I believe in that process.
hard to talk to young writers about things like this, sometimes.
Especially when they have one great story that they want to write: what
a shit their mother was, or what a monster their lover was, or how
their father never understood them. Yeah, begin there, but wait
for the intrusion of the magical, so that you can step away from the
people you know to the people that you are discovering.
C: What do you enjoy about teaching writing classes?
The discovery of young writers. Watching them discover their stories.
Listening to them. The greatest thing in the world is to listen to
someone who’s very passionate about their story, but keeps getting in
the way, and to do a critique so that they see their story in a new
way. Then you have to send them away with a new-found intensity and
focus and see what they come up with. Those who have fully dropped into
the story will come back practically shaking, with all this new,
astonishing stuff, with alive dialogue. Oh my God, there’s nothing in
the world like it. And you think: I did that. I made that
person look deeper. I gave them that nudge. It’s a perfect feeling,
pushing them in the right direction. It requires enormous focus.
thing about being a writer is that you’re isolated. You work alone.
[Laughing] That’s why we go crazy. The glory of being a writer is in
finding a great editor or a great teacher, someone who can see what I’m
attempting to do, and go, “Oh, I see,” and push me. Without that
person, you lose the ability to really see where it’s going and what
you’re doing. You want someone who is really listening, who will say,
“I see it! I see it!” and will push you deeper into the story. It’s a
huge demand on people, of course, stories in draft are in fact draft,
broken in places, perhaps missing connecting tissue. A writer who will
really read the story and look you in the eye, and be really present,
is difficult to acquire.
C: Do you think a person is born with the ability to write fiction, or is it something that can be learned and taught?
I believe that you’re born with talent and ability. But lots and lots
of people have talent and ability who don’t know how to train
themselves to use it. It’s the same with athletes. You can have the
hand-eye coordination and reflexes, but without the work it doesn’t
mean anything. And that’s the use of writing workshops. Learning to put
in place the situation to trigger the intrusion of the magical. That’s
what really good workshops are about.
C: Could you talk a little bit about your next novel, She Who, forthcoming from Riverhead Press? Is it similar or dissimilar to Bastard out of Carolina and Cavedweller?
very dissimilar, although it’s similar in its language because you
can’t escape your language. It’s set in California, and there are three
women protagonists. The central character is a young woman who is the
victim of an assault, who loses her life and has to start a whole new
one. She spends eleven months in a coma. When she begins to recover,
she does not remember who she is and she has to recreate her life. That
process is really fascinating to me, and complicated. While she’s in a
coma, her mother becomes an anti-violence activist. She’s a tremendous
organizer and public speaker, nunlike in her dedication and ruthless in
her activism. As her daughter begins her recovery, the thing she least
wants in the world is to be dragged into that by her mother. The
daughter wants a safe life. The struggle between a mother and a
daughter occurs in most of my fiction. And the final protagonist is an
El Salvadoran nun, who is raising her daughter, the same age as the
survivor of the assault. The nun has known violence, she runs a goat
farm retreat for people who have encountered violence. The story is
about the struggle between the women. It’s about being destroyed and
C: What were some of the moments in which you felt the intrusion of the magical as you were writing this novel?
When the story stopped, and I couldn’t go any farther. I was working on
the story, and my editor loved it, and so forth, and when I saw I was
nearing the finish I decided I needed to go to an actual recovery
center and make sure I hadn’t written complete fiction. I went to the
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and discovered, magically, that
almost everything that I had written was true to what I had seen in
I’m still not entirely sure what happened, but at that point the story
stopped. What I had written seemed to me beside the point, and I
couldn’t work on it for two years. Never in my life had I had two years
when I wasn’t writing. I think I went a little crazy. I kept trying to
find ways back into the story, and being minorly famous, it’s hard to
say in public “I’m a writer but not writing.” I didn’t tell anybody
that I was in trouble. Well, very slowly, I started telling people.
I started writing the book again is when the third woman found her way
into the story. Three-fourths of what I’d written I threw away and
started over. When she started speaking, she was so strong and her take
on all of it was so completely different that it was as if the tide was
going out and the rocks had come up and I realized, Oh, that’s where it
was going. But you couldn’t see it when it was all covered up.
the new book, that’s what I’m finishing. You have to be willing to
trust the process, but the process can really drive you crazy.