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Bill Johnston Interview [Read This Next]

In case you missed it, last Friday, as part of the RTN feature on Tulli’s In Red, we posted this interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston.

Here’s the opening:

Lily Ye: I should start off by saying that I’m not actually that familiar with the other works of Tulli, so I wanted to ask you where you thought In Red fell in her progress as an author, since I know you said that Dreams and Stones was more of a prose-poem, and then later on she moves into a more narrative structure, so where do you think In Red falls?

Bill Johnston: In Red is actually [her second novel], Dreams and Stones was the first and then there was In Red, and then the novel which is called, in English, Moving Parts, and then Flaw is the last one. Tulli and I actually disagree about Dreams and Stones. She still calls it a novel, and I tend to think of it as a prose poem, and you know, I think that would be an interesting argument or discussion in terms of genre. I think for me, a book which doesn’t really have any characters, like human characters, is hard to describe as a novel, it’s a book of ideas—I’m talking about Dreams and Stones—and it has a kind of a story arc which is kind of what she, I would imagine, is what she was thinking about when she described it as a novel. I mean, it also has a fundamental underlying conflict like you find in novels, or particularly dramatic works, but in Dreams and Stones it’s much more to do with the conflict of metaphors, is the city like a tree or is it like a machine? But it’s still very far from anything that we would think of in normal parlance as a novel.

I think with In Red she starts to adapt more elements from traditional novels, and do very interesting and very original things with them, but still we have people, we have people who say things, we have conversations, we have a plot, we have a setting, we have you know a lot of the traditional elements that even today are in most novels, in most books that are called novels. So In Red is kind of the first time that she does that, she has something we might call dialogue, she has these characters, she has a plot and so on. I think her third book, Moving Parts, is a little atypical. That’s the one that most people refer to when they talk about meta-fiction, which was one of your questions that we can talk about in a moment. That’s a book which is very difficult very complex, and I think in a sense she returns to the narrative formats in Flaw, and Flaw is the first of her books that has like a single story arc, that begins on the first page and ends on the last, over the course of a single day, but a lot happens there and you have some kind of unity of plot and place, and time and so on. I mean I guess one could argue that it almost plays out more like a Greek tragedy rather than any sort of novelistic piece. All of her books are really short, many people might consider them more novella length, but definitely Flaw has this single story, the feel of a novella or short novel, In Red is still sort of groping toward that.

You can see In Red has an interesting structure, it’s in three parts, and in each of the parts the central town of the, the setting is somehow different, in one it’s very cold in the other it’s very tropical and so you got these three almost sort of self-contained different takes on what goes on there, but they’re also related in terms of time, and there is an overall time arc that takes us through maybe through the, I don’t what it’s supposed to be, maybe the first half of the twentieth century or something like that. And not characters but relations between characters whether it’s master and servant or fathers and children and relations, they pass from one part of the book to another, so it’s a book which does have an overall unity of structure and has many more of the elements which one would think of as a novel.

I’ve been reading Proust recently, and I see strong echoes of that kind of writing in what she’s doing and obviously what she’s doing in In Red is not imitating the great realist and modernist novels, but she’s taking a lot of elements from them in order to, in a sense, highlight the unusualness of her own writing. But there are scenes, you in the scene where Natalie Zugoff kind of flounces off the train station expecting all the men around to pick up all of her, what is it, 15 suitcases and so on. That’s straight out of Proust, that scene. Clearly in terms of realism and in terms of the authorial voice she’s very different from those writers, she’s very much a writer of the early 21st century, it’s just interesting to see her folding in those more traditional elements, to point out what’s unusual.

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