(A little bit of the two writers’ exchange at 192 Books in New York a couple weeks ago. Read the rest here.)
Dyer: I was talking to someone last night, and I said about these essays of yours that there’s no telling what you’re going to say next. And that carries at the level of the paragraph—you’ve got no idea of what’s going to happen next, and so it’s got that weird version of suspense—then within the larger structure of the thing, that turnaround in the opening story when you talk about your teenage years as an evangelical Christian, and within the paragraphs, each sentence can be followed by something you’re utterly unprepared for. And that’s exciting.
Sullivan: I’m glad you think so. I think it sometimes has to do with changing substances in the middle of a piece, moving from coffee to a cocktail or something. [Laughter] And then there will be a random-seeming, very abrupt change.
Dyer: The key thing is—and this is something we have in common—with these abrupt reversals or changes, the tone can accommodate that, so there’s this overriding kind of cogency.
Sullivan: I agree. I was wondering about that in the context of your career as a whole because it seems that very early on, you decided that the form of your work—that would give it a coherence across the different genres you’ve worked in and the different approaches you’ve tried—would be your voice and also just the circle of your interests. That’s the thing that has become the real signature quality of your work—that confidence that the shape of your own thoughts will be enough to give a formal structure to your books. How early on in your writing did you begin to feel this way, and what gave you the confidence to do it?
Dyer: It’s funny. I think that so often, what can give one the confidence, weirdly, is a kind of despair. Despairing of being able to do anything else. Or maybe that’s hyperbole. Maybe it’s more like resignation, really. Of just arriving at a particular style, which is what you default to given all the other things that you can’t do.
For me, I’ve always found that I was so susceptible to influence but so unable to sound like the person I was being influenced by. So it always ended up sounding like me, even when I was under the impression that I was writing this beautiful, Anglicized version of Barthesian French. It was still just this—weirdly—Gloucestershire English. I’ve said this before, but it’s so true. I think it’s been so determining for me, this absolute inability to tell a story, or to think of stories and plots.
And sometimes, as can happen with any critic, I’ll then go too far, and I’ll take my own inadequacy and use that as a rod to start beating other writers over the head. I’ll say, “Oh, I just don’t like X’s books, or it’s too story-driven.” And then that becomes some weirdly inappropriate thing. But if you can’t think of stories, then what are you left with? Well, you’re left with structure and voice.
And what about you? Do you feel that the style you’ve arrived at is some sort of compensatory thing? Did you start out to be a straight-down-the-line novelist?
Sullivan: No, I never did. And I really relate to what you said about helplessness. Because you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests, even when they don’t go the way you’d want them to, out of a kind of politeness. I’m often sheepish about forcing my obsessions on the reader, but I know that when I indulge that, I write better. So that became the guiding thing in my work is that I kept indulging that.
Dyer: That’s something we have in common. Too often, self-indulgence is used in the pejorative sense.
Sullivan: Let’s reclaim it! [Laughter]