Lynne Tillman: "I don’t think I’ve ever redeemed a story or character"

The legendary author's latest novel, 'Men and Apparitions', is out in the UK today.

by Charlie Porter
29 October 2020, 4:49pm

Lynne Tillman is an idol of mine. It’s what she writes. It’s the way she writes it. It is her exploration of ideas, her ceaseless questioning and curiosity. Lynne Tillman writes criticism and writes novels and the two exist concurrently. She is such an inspiration to me: how to break from presumed forms of how writing should be.

As often happens with those pushing for difference, her work is not seen as widely. This week, for the first time in 22 years, one of her novels is being published in the UK, even though in that time she’s put out many books in the US. It’s titled Men and Apparitions, originally published in the US in 2018, about a 38-year old American male ethnographer called Zeke Stark. Lynne uses the book to think through photography, gender, what we see, how we see ourselves. Anyone interested in art, the image, ideas should read it. As they should her other works never published in the UK, particularly her 2006 novel American Genius: A Comedy, or her 2014 collection of essays What Would Lynne Tillman Do?

Lynne is currently based in upstate New York, I’m in London. Usually when we meet to talk it is over wine. Because of Covid-19, we’re on FaceTime. When I call, she’s on her porch with a tame-ish squirrel she calls Rusty. I assumed Rusty was a he, but Lynne said she thinks it is female. I apologised for misgendering. “Gender just is funny, isn’t it?” she said. “We live in a hilarious time.”

Lynne headed inside, settled down and we started talking.

Lynne Tillman: People don’t necessarily look for ideas in novels. It’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It’s just something that happens. Some of us look for those things. Most don’t. Charlie, what does i-D want?

Charlie Porter: I want to write about how much permission I get from what you do. I’d love to give other people that permission, particularly writers just starting out, or readers wanting to push themselves.
You see, I’m much more interested in what you think. I just wrote the book, I’m merely the author.

I’ve read Men and Apparitions now twice. A key moment for me comes about a quarter way through, where you have Zeke say that “fiction is NOT falsehood”. It’s like you’re setting out what a novel could be.
It drives me crazy when fiction writers themselves say, this isn’t a true story. A story is true, which is different from fact. It is like life. It’s not saying this is life on the page, this is exactly what happened, because we don’t have access to that. We have writing.

When I read a novel, I’m always thinking: what is the writer trying to tell me? That’s why I find your writing so permission-giving: It’s so rare for me to read fiction which is so clearly trying to tell me something.
Years ago, when American Genius: A Comedy was sent to an editor, she wrote a long rejection letter that included this incredible sentence. It said, “I don’t know what Lynne is trying to teach me”. The idea that she was so disturbed that anyone was trying to teach her something. She wouldn’t have been if it were a male writer. I can’t imagine her writing that to a big male writer. Not that I’m a big female writer, or whatever I am, an unfortunately gendered person who tries to break down those genders in her own way.

How are the ideas you explore in fiction different from those you cover in criticism?
The main difference is the use of character. In Men and Apparitions, Zeke is not Lynne Tillman. Am I dealing with ideas that I’m interested in through him? Yes. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to parrot my thinking. It’s a lot of fun to write against what you think. And then you go on from that and write a story you didn’t live, maybe some you’ve experienced, and some you haven’t, and you just imagine it.

You started our conversation talking about giving permission. I’m really interested in this idea of writing that gives permission. I’m told that many younger writers feel that I gave them permission through what I’ve written over the years. Particularly women writers, or gender neutral, trans writers, because of my emphasis on thinking and consciousness and ideas in my work. Then you think, from whom do I need to get permission?

To me writing is alive, but so often it’s presumed to be a set form, like it’s unchangeable and could never change. It is so vital to write in a way that means something, that has the intention of doing something, that gives permission to others to try.
The problem with meaning is that no matter what you write, your intentions don’t make meaning. You can only try. But the great thing about readers is they bring to it their own interpretations of what you’ve written, finding meanings you didn’t imagine. Your work becomes a platform. It can illuminate their own ideas.

To me it’s like you’re not looking to have overt meaning. You’re not scared to explore ideas and not need to bring them to overt conclusion.
You’re saying something about right and wrong. Exploring ideas in writing doesn’t necessarily lead to you being right or wrong. In journalism, you’re meant to take a position and you’re supposed to be right. All these so-called pundits need to be right about what they’re saying. It isn’t really educational for me to read someone who needs to be right. I want to understand in a way where there’s no way of being secure, but here are some possibilities. Fiction really allows for those possibilities.

You can tell so many fiction writers have a presumption they’re going to be right in their fiction or writing. You can tell it from the first word.
When writers use their fiction to make themselves a big deal it’s pretty obvious and pretty repulsive. The word “redemption” is something I really have trouble with. Editors often want you to redeem the characters at the end of a book so that people feel, I don’t know, good about themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever redeemed a story or character.

And always breaking gender.
I remember speaking to a guy who’s a PhD student, he was 25, and he’d never read a book by a woman. That idea that you read from your gender, from your sexuality, is abhorrent to me. Because the unconscious, I think, isn’t gendered like that.

I do know that, when I was eight years old, I read every biography of a woman there was. I needed to find women who were in books. Of course, they were all very good people, so that’s a problem. Worthy people. Where are the unworthy? I guess I have to write that.

Men and Apparitions was published on 29 October in the UK through Peninsula Press.