Interview with Mary Caponegro


Posted at 12:00 on Jun 1st
By Duncan Barlow
Interview for Astrophil Press by Mary Caponegro


When I first bought Mary Caponegro's book
The Complexities of Intimacy
I was struck by the cover art. It had a Brother's Quay feeling to it and at the time I was doing research into the Quay's approach to adaptation of absurdist literature into stop motion movies. I was excited to read it, but once I got into the book, I found myself rejecting it. I had entered Caponegro's world with expectations and because of this, I was not allowing it to become. Laird Hunt gave me an interview of Caponegro where she spoke in great length about her sentence writing. I read the interview in amazement. Her dedication to the line made me feel like a hack. As if, as a writer, I abused my sentences, sent them into the world unloved and unprepared. I immediately returned to her book and embraced it on its own terms. I allowed Caponegro to teach me how to read her work. This was an important lesson to me. Not only did I gain a new favorite writer, but I learned that I must accept each line on its own terms. That I shouldn't read work within the narrow confines of my own experiences. As I teach Caponegro's work now, I explain this to my students. I explain that Caponegro's sentences are individual planets that compose a strange, but beautiful universe. I've had the pleasure to see Mary Caponegro read a couple of times and to meet her. She is a captivating reader, who adds life to her stories through voice and presence. Moreover, she is a funny and kind woman who gives her time to strangers such as myself. Caponegro was kind enough to answer five questions for Astrophil Press. Please enjoy.

What was the impetus for you to begin writing? Was there a particular fascination or problem with language that inspired you to write?

I think fascination with language and problems with language are perpetual inspirations for me as a writer, but the impetus to begin was unrelated to any philosophical preoccupations that became important to me later. My beginnings were, I suspect, motivated by that least sophisticated and most narcissistic of concerns: desire for self-expression. My early scribblings were extremely jejune and insipid--although I had a thing for sentences from the start. I remember winning some sort of best sentence prize in grade school.

You have a reputation for working on stories for a very long time before publishing them. As a reader, I can see your attention to detail in stories like “The Daughter’s Lamentation” where the construction of the sentences seems to correspond with the subject matter. One can almost get a sense of the shape of the house by the way in which the sentences read. Is there a way to describe your method by which you construct your sentences or even the piece in its entirety? And when you write, do you attempt to connect form and content?

I do work for an agonizingly protracted period on each narrative I produce, and I’m thrilled that you see the architectural features of “The Daughter’s Lamentation.” I tried to build the story as a dwelling, an irreal dwelling in which one could grope one’s way from room to room, but never other than precariously, because this house of horror’s instability would never let a mind or body rest: a deformation in process, if you will. Marriage of form and content is everything to me; I a card-carrying modernist in that sense, always after organic form, and I suspect Pound, Eliot, Olson, and Creely are more foundational for me than for most fiction writers. Form as extension of content rings permanently in my brain. Sentence construction is the microcosm of the narrative form for me, and I am obsessed with syntactic density. I write out loud, aiming for a musical fluency that will cumulatively yield a broader shape out of consecutive carefully constructed musical phrases. This is perhaps a different kind of labor than a conventional fiction writer’s design of plot, crafting action within space and time. I am trying to do that too, in my own fashion, but my spatiotemporal dimensions are a bit more fluid and more specialized at the same time. Structure is crucial, but I often seek out unconventional ways of structuring my narratives; they might range all the way from dramatic presentation as if a play, to a collage form that employs found material. They might be monologues or tales or parables. Metaphor is at least as important to me as a story’s surface, and allegory intrigues me. The last novella in my recent collection, All Fall Down, called “the Translator” is an allegory, and building it—embedding all its layers to achieve the kind of multivalence that excites and challenges me as a writer-- gave me several years of ecstasy (along with the concomitant agony of course). Much of the work in that collection is closer to a conventional mimetic model though, so I don’t by any means eschew fictive conventions—especially because I don’t want to repeat what one might call past “experiments.” I want to “make it new” each time, if possible.

When people discuss your work, they often use the words “experimental” or sometimes even “difficult.” I don’t get the sense necessarily that you trying to be extremely experimental. What do you think it is about your writing that causes this reaction?

This very process I just referred to in “The Translator,” this careful crafting of an allegorical and in that case metafictional layering, such that every sentence has a musical integrity and every gesture matches up with some larger metaphorical reading, is presumably what makes the work have the reputation of difficulty, because nothing is given to the reader; you must think your way through the experience; you must be comfortable with negative capability, and this is quite the opposite of how our culture operates. The marketplace seems to offer a perpetually dumbed-down version of the reading experience. At the same time, the older I get, the more I can sympathize with someone’s need to have things spelled out, and I fully understand why after a long, hard day, a narrative of mine might not be a reader’s first choice! For myself, I obviously prefer demanding fiction. The eros of reading--as of writing--for me, is the challenge of looking ever deeper; the more layers the better, the more rich the experience and the resonance. But the irony of course is that this is what probably turns most readers off; it’s too complicated. You spend years creating a finely wrought, intricately designed artifact, and then someone takes one look and thinks, what am I supposed to do with that?, where would I put it?, why is it so fussy?, etc.


You asked about experimentalism. Experimental was a useful label for me when I started writing fiction seriously. When I was in high school and college, it appeared that John Updike was king of fiction in the U.S., and I knew that model had no relevance for me. When I was in graduate school in the early eighties, minimalism (in the sense of Raymond Carver) had become the vaunted model. Again, for a budding maximalist, this was not capacious enough. I was fortunate to be able to go to Brown where Hawkes and Coover and others saw and practiced fiction against that grain, and you certainly knew you were doing something that did not conform to the mainstream; thus experimental as a category seemed to designate that apostasy, and link to the legacy of the avant-garde. Like all labels, it’s limited, and nearly three decades later, the bifurcation of writing “camps” is less fruitful, I find. I think there is more variety out there, despite the ever-more-commercial publishing industry, and I think hybrid forms and irrealist gestures are more accepted now, less radical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. I am amazed by the ingenuity of the various writers who have absorbed experimental gestures into their narrative approaches. At the same time, I sometimes feel those gestures can be shallow ones in comparison to the pioneers of experimentalism.

You’ve now had experience working with a large press like Norton and a smaller press such as Coffee House or Lost Roads. How has this experience been different for you?

Literary fiction seems in greater peril today than when I started publishing, and I fear for my students. As for my own experience, I have been fortunate to be able to work with editors who believed in my work and its value, against all marketplace indices. Lost Roads was my beginning, and nothing is more important for a writer than the initiation, I think: someone soliciting your work, ushering you into the world of readership. To me, writers like C.D. Wright and Forrest Gander –or Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop—who operate from their basements these labors of love—are heroic. Writers themselves who put time and energy into supporting other writers—it’s astonishing and inspiring. When someone whose work you respect takes a chance on you, it’s humbling and empowering. At Norton, the editor Amy Cherry was no less supportive and that’s the true miracle. Of course Norton remains, to their immense credit, an independent press. But I was astonished and grateful that Amy maintained an interest in my work, and considered me connected to Norton well beyond my single paperback, which was kept in print over a decade. (Now The Star Café has reverted back to Scribner, I believe, who did the hardback, and I am not certain, but I think in that form it remains in print, two decades later.) I am so grateful. At Coffee House, where I’ve been fortunate to have my most recent two books, the care they put into every stage of their publications is awe-inspiring. Chris Fishbach is a very astute editor, and Allan Kornblum is utterly committed to a vision, and it is very much a family there, with a highly skilled and dedicated staff—so different than the typical cut-throat major press model. They care deeply about every book and every author. Meanwhile, I guess the publisher who took the biggest risk of all was Marsilio, who did my book Five Doubts, with beautiful color plates for each story. (Each story was connected to an Italian artwork.) It was a very esoteric collection, and it’s sad to think of all those color images getting pulped, since it went out of print, but I’m eternally grateful for them taking on that book, which, if we’re employing simple labels, would be called my most “experimental.”

As technology shapes the marketplace, artists in multiple genres claim to feel the blowback of digital media devices such as mp3 players and portable movie players. Now that the publishing world has viable candidates for a digital reader do you worry that the book will go the way of the LP where the physical object is replaced by downloadable files, or do you think authors on small presses will have to worry about this less? Has your publisher asked if you’d be interested in having your work available for download and do you think it might help your work get into the hands of a new readership?

Look, I’m probably the least reliable person to ask about these issues, because I have a very uneasy relationship to technology, and I cherish the book as an artifact. I mourn already its loss, in anticipation, but if I were more resourceful, I’m sure there would be potential advantages. I haven’t been asked by my publisher about downloading, as far as I know, but of course I want to do everything possible to invite readership. Distribution, as we know, is often the issue between small presses and major presses. If this gap could be narrowed in some way, that would be fruitful. And yet the self-entrepreneurial expectations placed on young writers, on any writer trying to keep up with the culture, are distasteful to me. Anything that would help writers to be valued for their literary contribution rather than their market value would be well worth considering, but to me it seems immensely complicated. I feel quite the dinosaur when it comes to the tools younger writers employ and I have been trying for a year to cooperate with a long-suffering website builder to craft a rudimentary site, because I understand that such things are necessary in this era, but I just can’t get with the program somehow. I’m every day more of an anachronism! But I keep writing, and always will.

Mary Caponegro | duncan barlow

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