Carol Novack Interview Lynda Schor Lynda Schor BIO Carol Novack BIO
An Interview with Lynda Schor

By Carol Novack

CN: I'm delighted to interview you as our Issue 7 featured author, Lynda. You're a true Mad Hatter writer, unafraid to take stylistic and thematic risks and brilliantly, hysterically, "over the top" satirical. The Mad Hatters adore "over the top" writers who don't play croquet by the rules.

LS: Although I hate talking about myself and my work, I'm grateful to be interviewed for Mad Hatters' Review, a really innovative and gorgeous magazine, and one of the rare venues for truly experimental work. I wish there were more "mad" magazines around.

My favorite interviewee is Andy Warhol, who always just stood around pretending to be an idiot, giving the shortest, most inane responses to any questions about himself or his work, pretending to know nothing. The cumulative effect is that soon the interviewer begins to seem like an idiot. And soon we, the viewers or readers, begin to comprehend that we should be concentrating on the work itself rather than the interview or what the artist thinks. That said, I love to read artist interviews—the way I love gossip—to see how many coffees they have a day, how many lovers, how many hours they work, how they get grants, how they were abused as children, etc.

CN: Well OK, I'll resign myself to apparent idiocy, but I won't ask you how many lovers you've had, Lynda; that's a subject I'd prefer to discuss over a lusty Cabernet, and of course, it's quality, not quantity, that counts, assuming one can count in the first place. When did you say you were returning from that village in Mexico ?

I'll begin by asking a different, but possibly no less intimate question. How has your writing changed stylistically or formally or content-wise through the years?

LS: After the 70's, America seemed obsessed with the spare, the slender, the simple, the neat, the under-control kind of writing, which I feel is related to Spartan attitudes, America's Protestant beginnings, a relationship to our diet culture, and a turnabout from the anti-war, experimental and hippie culture of the 60's and 70's, with its often purple prose (Coover, Pynchon, Barth) and the new overtly sexual writings of women.

I think it's impossible to not be influenced by trends, and the preferences of the current culture and the publishing world. So I think my writing has become sparer, neater, more likeable, less sexually explicit. Political correctness has had its negative effects on me as well as everyone else. I think perhaps I channel some of my badness, my nastiness, my obsession with things people don't want to think about, the ugly, the poor, the political, into more experimental forms. These forms, even when I'm satirizing the forms themselves (such as the soap opera, the list, informative articles, art reviews) keep the contents under control.

CN: Do you think that offbeat literary women writers have a tougher time than offbeat male writers? How seriously does the publishing and literary world take offbeat satirical writings by women?

LS: I think whatever women are doing—and women are publishing a lot of books, some of which are experimental and offbeat and satirical—we have to remain nice, and we have to be "acceptable." The cuter we are the better. I think that right now the visual art world is way ahead of the literary world in terms of anything wild, weird, difficult, non-narrative, and transgressive. I'm talking about the U. S. now. Transgression in language or ideas will be less accepted from women authors. The male story is still the main story, and the male story structure is still the acceptable story structure.

Satire is often mean, and satirizing sex (from a woman's point of view) can get disgusting and anti-romantic, or anti politically correct. Probably only about 30% of the American population can recognize that satire is funny. And that it might be funny and dark at the same time is too disturbing. People (and I'm generalizing) seem to think they have a right to be protected from being insulted or disturbed, and many feel empowered to censor what's disturbing rather than to just stay away from it. That said, it's hard to tell what people will really accept, as the publishing corporations are the gatekeepers between the writer and the public, and the publishing world is about money and fear, mass markets and bottom lines.

CN: What's the riskiest thing you've ever written? Do tell!

LS: I'm not interested in anything that isn't risky. I've been sued, and I've lost friends. I've written stories that haven't been published until 20 years after they were written. In a story called, "Eva Braun's Last Tragic Abortion," I describe, in great detail, Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler having sex on their final evening alive. It took 25 years for that one to get published.

I'd say, though, that my riskiest story was about race and class. After a number of responses to the story, I decided to hide it away in the dark, somewhere where some of my most unacceptable ideas simmer. Maybe in 20 years I'll send it out.

I am very interested in and influenced by the "bad guys and gals," such as Henry Miller, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, Kafka, Lidia Yuknavitch, William Burroughs. I love Shelley Jackson's writing. I'm attracted to the innovator, the nasty, the bad, the sexy, the dingy and disgusting, the wild and surrealistic.

CN: Have you more or less moved away from "erotica" in your "mature" years?

LS: When I began writing it seemed very important to write explicit material, as it had all been so hidden for so long. It seemed crucial as a woman to begin to own the language of pornography, and the colloquial, and also to combine the high and the low. We all have bodily functions, and it seemed important to express that.

Sex is such a rich topic. It is so much in our lives, and in our thoughts and in our bodies. So many of our drives have to do with sex, so many of our needs are related to it.

Anything—politics, power, desire, ambition—can be expressed through sex. During any sex act we can show our characters at their most vulnerable, in their neediest and most infantile states. They can be revealed at their most basic and at their most perverse.

For a time, and a very exciting time it was, there was a great market for explicit material, especially from women, from gay women and men, from other minorities. But in the spare and nice and politically correct Reagan 80's, the only blossoming was business, finance and corporations.

I have not really given up writing erotic material, but sexual images, and erotic writing is so ubiquitous now that it just doesn't have the same transgressive punch. Though writing sex and writing about sex is still one good way to tell certain truths.

CN: You have a degree in visual art, not in writing. How has being a visual artist influenced how you write?

LS: I see my writing in images and one of my challenges is using words as a medium to describe visual images. I'd like my stories to be visual and vivid, and to be remembered as if they are films. My story structures are visual to me. I could diagram them as drawings. I love to think about how the medium of paint and the medium of words are alike, and how they are different. I've never wanted any written work of mine to be illustrated. But I have been using photos and drawings and diagrams as elements that need to be understood the way words are. I like photos that are slightly blurred—like in W.G. Sebald's work—that add mystery, rather than adding a pictorial version to something being said. In writing I use the visual art techniques such as pastiche and collage. I also write many stories about visual artists. I want my writing to be like the art of Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Jasper Johns, Egon Schiele, etc.

In the past, writing was for a tool for expressing something I wanted to express, and doing visual art (painting, printmaking, photography) was a tool for expressing other aspects of myself. I didn't see that there was much connection. My visual art was also sunnier, prettier, I think. But now the visual and the writing have moved closer. My writing has become as abstract as my visual art, my visual art subjects have become darker and more political, and much more satirical. I am happy with my writing and my visual art when the connections vibrate just above or below the line of comprehension, as in an Ashbery poem or a Bacon painting.

In "Sex for Beginners 2," I used the graphic (visual) material instead of words to say something of their own. The graphic or pictorial sections may be inexplicable, but they say something visceral and visual that is related to the written sections. And they are all related to sex in the same tenuous ways.

CN: What are your favorite stories in your most recently published book, The Body Parts Shop?

LS: I never really think in terms of liking or loving any of my stories. Some of them take a while for me to like. Some I like a lot right away, and my excitement about them fades. I get to read a few of the shorter ones again and again when I give readings, so I sometimes get to appreciate them before I get totally sick of them. Some of my favorites in The Body Parts Shop are, "Still The Top Banana," "Bowerbird," and "Coming of Age." All of those are about class among other things. Right now I am coming to really like the story "The History of My Breasts." It's about a woman with the largest, most beautiful breasts in the world. It's a satire, yet also a collage of power, oppression, art and the body, the fleeting nature of beauty, and of taste and style. It's about youth and mortality, feminism and its opposite, with an underlay of Kafka's "The Hunger Artist." Originally it had a sad, unhappy ending (I love those) but somehow right before I finished it, a perversely happy ending occurred to me that seemed absolutely right.

CN: All of your stories are spectacular, Lynda, but I read "Coming of Age" several times because I loved it so much. I was bowled over by the way you depicted your first-person protagonist's real emotions of maternal love, powerlessness, bewilderment, alarm and self-denigration, in the face of her "tough" teenage "whore" daughter's seeming self-satisfaction and independence, and . . . finally, fragility. But what is remarkable is that this beautifully crafted character study of mother and daughter dwells within what we realize in the end is an absurd surreal landscape. Thus the piece goes beyond the borders of a well-executed "realistic" New Yorker type story into the realm of the experimental.

Can you talk a bit about that story and your earlier classification of its theme as bearing on class? Can you tell us what inspired you to write "Coming of Age?"

LS: If it's OK, I'd like to start with your last question and move backwards.

I wanted to write a story about that hideous moment when one's child is very young and vulnerable, but thinks he/she is very grown up. It's a moment that seems very frightening to the parent, who understands mortality and danger, while the kid feels newly powerful. It's also a moment when the child really doesn't have to listen any more, or follow any of the rules that the parent imagines will keep the child safe. It's a very autobiographical story, though it isn't "realistic." I'm not interested in portraying anything in a "realistic" way—whatever that means. I'm interested in believability. All my stories are somewhat surrealistic, and grossly exaggerated. But that protagonist is me in an incarnation, and the daughter is mine in many ways, though not all ways. My real daughter is not a prostitute dating a senator's son who has graduated from Harvard Business School, for instance. "Coming of Age" is successful, and unusual for me, (I write very long stories and love to add any related material I can find) because it covers a lot of issues, but it's pretty short. It's extremely concentrated.

So still going backward to your question, Carol, about how "Coming of Age" bears on class, I guess I really meant American capitalism. I am always aware of how family members become separated by huge differences in income, as that's one of the stories of my family, but that's only touched on in the story. What IS there is the generational difference between the parent and the child—the different interpretation the child has about all the things her mother did during her youth, and all the things her mother felt were important are nothing to her daughter, who has different morals, different standards and different goals. The child's values are materialistic. Because she has a bigger, better apartment than her mother, it doesn't matter to her that she's a prostitute who the mother feels is being exploited. The daughter thinks her mother has been exploited by not being paid enough for her writing, and for living in a crummy apartment with only one window. The daughter would agree maybe that a prostitute can lead a sordid life—but when she owns a business, exploiting other workers (prostitutes too) and making a lot of money, running her enterprise like a C.E.O., her prostitution is institutionalized, she is a success, and she has the material proof of that success. The daughter says, "How am I exploited? I'm the one earning a great living, who's getting rich, who has great clothes, and a great apartment . . ."

CN: Can you give our readers a few of your favorite lines and/or paragraphs, ones that made you delight in your own brilliance and/or make you laugh out loud?

LS: I don't read my writing after it's been published. So unless I'm giving a reading, I never see my stories again. Those that I read aloud are usually the shortest, and the least disgusting, and sometimes the least interesting to me. Looking through The Body Parts Shop, I don't see anything I'd like to quote as brilliant when I try to separate it from the entire story. I don't have my earlier books (Appetites—reissued by Hamilton Stone Editions, or True Love & Real Romance ) here with me (I'm in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), but when I read from those early books, I am truly shocked. First I think, did I write that? I think it IS really brilliant and funny. I begin to laugh and enjoy the writing. Then I think, was that really published? Then I'm shocked that I had the guts to be so disgusting, so open, so sexual, so revealing. My laughter becomes louder, embarrassed laughter. Then I blush and run and hide under my table. After I have enjoyed, yet become embarrassed by myself, I start to see how my writing could use more editing, how it needs to be cut here and there to be sharper and tighter—no, best not to go back. Best not to look again.

CN: Thanks, Lynda! I don't think that any of us "serious" writers is ever completely satisfied with her/his creations – there's always something to revise. But I did find many linguistically brilliant lines, phrases and concepts (not to mention keen perceptions/insights about our absurd American values) in The Body Shop, and I'm looking fast forward to reading your earlier and future works.

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last update: June 25, 2007