Tree People or Sea People: An Interview with Wendy Walker

Editor’s Note: Wendy Walker has appeared twice so far in my column Invisible Books. I first covered her debut collection of short stories, The Sea-Rabbit (Sun & Moon Press, 1987), then I reviewed her novel The Secret Service (Sun & Moon Press, 1992). I’ve now had the pleasure of corresponding with Wendy, so please enjoy this interview with a true talent and a delightful person. All of the accompanying art is by Wendy Walker. The featured photo above is by Wendy Walker and Tom La Farge.

George Salis: In an interview, you said that in high school you “spent a year writing a long essay about Hamlet—for my own pleasure, not for school—convinced as I was at the time that I had solved the riddle of his character.” Do you remember what that ostensible solution was?

Wendy Walker: I can remember the overall idea but not the details. I was trying to find parallels to Hamlet’s situation in Greek drama, and came upon Aeschylus’ Orestes, who was ordered to kill his father Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, by Apollo. It seemed to me that Hamlet’s early line “I am too much in the sun” hinted that his father, the dead king, was to some degree supernatural. According to my reading Hamlet was most able to act when the Ghost of his father was hovering nearby, as in the climactic confrontation with Gertrude. Although the Ghost does not appear till a little later in the scene, Hamlet impales the person hiding “behind the arras,” supposing it to be Claudius. A less violent example of action occurs at the end of the first act when the Ghost, having left the battlements as the dawn comes up, makes his presence known from underneath the floor: the Ghost joins Hamlet in urging the two men who saw him first, to swear never to reveal what they have seen, or to show any understanding of the “antic disposition” Hamlet has decided from that moment to put on. The Ghost’s appearance has caused Hamlet to conceive the character he will from that moment play, one dominated by three different types of madness. The complexity of this character will eventually allow Hamlet to accomplish the vengeance his dead father demands. According to my reading, the first type of madness was an extreme sexual nausea, the second, a performance of madness consisting of much brilliant wordplay, and the third, a kind of divine inspiration to action in the vicinity of the Ghost. If the riddle of Hamlet’s character consists of his inability to act, it seemed to me that if you see the Ghost as more active, almost like a puppeteer, the deferral of revenge becomes a matter of the structure of the play rather than a failing of the protagonist’s character. Now, rereading the play, I’m not sure this is a ‘solution,’ but I found it very interesting at the time.

GS: Are there fairy tales that you would like to rewrite but haven’t, perhaps potential B-sides to The Sea-Rabbit? Or did you touch on every one you wanted to write about?

WW: After I finished The Sea-Rabbit, I went on to write more tales in a similar vein based on the lais of Marie de France, a 12th century poet and contemporary of Chretien de Troyes. Those tales became a book called Stories Out of Omarie.

I have thought of trying another set based on Japanese sources, because that is an aesthetic world I would like to explore. So yes, I would like to write more tales, theoretically. But I have found that one can’t always just decide to write a certain kind of thing because one likes the idea; a more urgent impetus has to come from within. What I write is usually what I have no choice about, what has chosen me, as it were. And the same goes for whether I am writing or drawing—if the energy is flowing in one way, it usually isn’t flowing in the other.

GS: Are there other fairytale treatments that you admire by other writers?

WW: Of course! Robert Coover’s “The Dead Queen” and Briar Rose, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, especially “The Fisherman and His Soul,” and among works dealing with the realm of faerie, the anonymous Childe Ballads, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin and the obvious texts by Keats, Christina Rossetti and Shakespeare. But I don’t read by genre, I choose what I read on the basis of how the author uses language. That kept me from reading Angela Carter for many years, because I couldn’t read her sentences without wanting to take a pencil and improve them… Finally I got over that and read her stories about five years ago. I was very impressed by some of them. But I think that in general modern versions of fairy tales place too much emphasis on sex, and ignore other meanings, perhaps on the false assumption that the oral storytellers, being illiterate, couldn’t compose anything very sophisticated. One of my interests in the oral tales is the way in which they intertwine the mechanics of survival with the mechanics of telling a story and with artistic creation more generally.

GS: You sketched the various highly-stylized dresses of Ashiepattle for your story of the same name so that you could then describe them within the fiction itself. I wonder if this is a common practice among fictionists who are also artists, but my question is: what are some other moments in which sketching or drawing has helped you in your work?

WW: When I started writing I knew of only one writer of fiction who was also an artist, Michael Ayrton, whose novel The Maze Maker, about Daedalus, I loved. I still can only think of a few, unless you except Blake: Leonora Carrington, Bruno Schulz and Alasdair Gray. Ayrton definitely used his experience as a sculptor to help him describe Daedalus’ creations, but I have no idea what my contemporaries do. In the 70s and for many years thereafter people who practiced more than one art were looked at askance, as not being serious, or somehow violating an unwritten code. There was a general belief that one couldn’t really be good at more than one thing, that one had to make a choice as to where to dedicate one’s energies. So I made sure that my friends who knew me as a writer had little sense of my involvement with visual art, and when I was teaching studio art, I kept the fact that I was a writer a secret for as long as I could. In the 90s when cross-genre and interdisciplinary work became more common, the prejudice against polymathy grew more difficult to maintain.

But as to the question of what moments drawing has helped me in my work, the answer is all of them! The great value of learning to draw is that it teaches you to see, and the more you draw the more you see. So that when you start to write, your verbal visualization is soaked in the experience of drawing and painting, as well as a knowledge of art history and architecture. To give a particular example, one’s sense of verbs can be heightened by the practice of gesture drawing, in which you draw not what the thing looks like in terms of shape but what it is doing (even if it is quite still), where its energy is travelling. And anyone who has tried to learn to paint knows that seeing color as a painter is a revelation compared to how one saw it before.

One of the cardinal rules of drawing—to draw what you see, not what you know—can also be applied to writing. We think we know how things look, but if you try to draw something based on that knowledge, you are usually displeased. On the other hand, if you try to draw what you are observing as though you were encountering it for the first time, as if it came from another planet, you will find some truth in the result. This rule of observation can be easily transferred to writing.

GS: Like the dresses you sketched, I consider your prose to be baroque in the best way. The common word to describe such writing is poetic. But I wonder if by comparing prose to poetry when it’s written beautifully is inaccurate. Do you think there’s another way to get across the notion of poetic prose other than resorting to poetry or music (melodious, mellifluous) or ‘purple’ prose, a term used by those who prefer their prose a communist gray?

WW: I have long argued that poetry is not a matter of genre but of intensity of language. When poetry was written in stanzas with rhyme schemes and strict meter, it made sense to talk about poetry and prose as distinct from each other, but now it makes no sense. There are swathes of Clarice Lispector that can’t be called anything but poetry, and the same can be said for Melville, Woolf, Faulkner, Genet, Barnes, Nabokov, Calvino, Ortese, and on and on. At least one poetry anthologist, the great Jerome Rothenberg, has included prose writers in his collections: DeQuincey, Diderot, Sterne, Stein. If you are talking about literary writing, I hold there is only one standard, consisting of exactitude, intensity and music.

GS: The Secret Service, published by Sun & Moon Press in 1992, the year of my birth, as it happens, is your first published novel and so far, but maybe not, your last. Harper Lee wrote only one novel because she claimed to have said everything she wanted to say. But you, thankfully, didn’t stop creating, you simply abandoned the novel and traditional fiction as your primary form of expression. Do you see yourself ever returning to that form or do you see it as something that perhaps is as exhausted as it is exhausting to write? In fact, I just stumbled on a bio of yours which states that you were working on a novel titled The City Under the Bed, which “deals with war, anamorphosis and photography.” Has this novel been tucked in and put to bed, has it metamorphosed into something else, or will it at some point rise like Lazarus? What other novels are you hiding?

WW: The City Under the Bed will remain, I’m afraid, an unfinished ms. I worked on it for several years and then a family member became ill, I was called upon to help, and by the time the whole crisis was over, more than a year later, I had completely lost my connection to the book. Or, to be more precise, I had lost the connection to the person who had been writing that book. So I had to move on to another project. But since you are asking about novels, there was another, previous novel, the first version of Blue Fire. I had started the book as an historical novel about the Road Hill murder, a famous 19th century case that inspired the creation of several genres: true crime, the country house murder mystery and sensation fiction. A couple of years into the writing, I became troubled about the fact that I was turning the protagonist’s story into an allegory of my own experience. This struck me as unethical, so I took a deep breath and spent a year or so trying to understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. When I started writing again, I framed the material in a new form that was not fictional, but also not at all in the usual non-fiction mode. So you could say that I kept trying to write novels, and kept getting side-tracked in one way or another.

If the energy and time were there, I would love to write another novel, but my overriding interest is in the development of literary form. In the visual arts, artists strive to push at the boundaries of expression, and that is an expected gauge of one’s seriousness. In the literary world, there is tremendous pressure to stick to old genres and conventions. But I feel strongly that the pushing at boundaries is part of the writer’s job. Literary forms have to evolve to be able to cope with new kinds of experience and new ways of conceptualizing problems. In The Secret Service, I inserted a medieval romance—a Grail quest and a katabasis—into the center of a 19th century Wilkie Collins style novel. At first, I had wanted to break the novel into halves, like Wuthering Heights, but then it became clear that something was needed in the middle, to address the protagonist’s experience of crisis. The book has been criticized for the long central chapter, but I have been puzzled that no one has recognized what it is, which I had thought was rather obvious. So a rather simple formal innovation seems to have stumped readers, most of whom are not accustomed to thinking about literary form.

GS: I’m wondering: 15 years is quite a long time in terms of novel-writing. What factors, internal and/or external, contributed to that length of time?

WW: I’m not sure where the remark about 15 years came from. I think I said 10. I didn’t spend 15 years continuously writing The Secret Service, but it was about that long between when I started it and when I stopped fiddling with it. I started it in 1974 (I think), wrote the first two chapters, got stuck, and then went back to graduate school for 3 years. During that time I didn’t write any fiction, but my studies (in theater design) certainly contributed to the book when I took it up again. There was another year after my father died during which I wasn’t writing. When I started up again, I worked on it continuously until I finished it, another four or five years. In 1983 I was urged by Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee to submit the ms. to Douglas Messerli of Sun and Moon Press even though it wasn’t finished. After a long silence Douglas accepted it and promised to publish it two years later, but the two years turned into ten. Because of the endless postponements, I had plenty of time to make the book as perfect as I could, so I went through it sentence by sentence making sure every word worked. I also had time to write the volume of stories that became The Sea-Rabbit, or, The Artist of Life. When I showed it to Douglas, he thought it would make a better debut book, and published it in 1988, promising to put out The Secret Service the following year. But it was 1992 before the novel appeared. Needless to say, all those years of delay were tremendously demoralizing.

GS: Early on in The Secret Service, the character Polly says the following regarding a character’s essay about the mechanics and science behind transforming (people) into objects: “Even Rutherford came to derive a curious satisfaction from the utter silence with which his essay was met; he concluded by its reception that it bore the birthmarks of an idea whose time had not yet come.” I’m going to assume that the general silence surrounding your work did not give you a curious satisfaction but do you think that your corpus bears birthmarks of one or more ideas whose time has not yet come?

WW: I was very disappointed by the initial reception of The Secret Service. At the time there was a much wider gulf than now between the science fiction/fantasy community and the so-called literary one. Most of the book’s early readers were from the former group, and I was gratified by their attention, but it wasn’t really the audience I was looking for. From my own so-called literary community there was radio silence and incomprehension. At that time, there was a kind of turf war going on between poets and fiction writers, with the poets claiming that narrative was inferior to poetry. It wasn’t until a new generation came up and the hard and fast genre borders had indisputably dissolved that the book really began to be appreciated.

As for being before its time, it is at least possible that The Secret Service and The Sea-Rabbit as well as Tom’s The Crimson Bears/A Hundred Doors and Terror of Earth contributed to the rise of “fabulist fiction” as it is now called. If our books didn’t contribute (through lack of readers) to this trend, they certainly anticipated it.

As I mentioned above, I have purposely tried to introduce new ways of telling stories, incorporating criticism and historical materials in ways that must appear unfamiliar but may be adopted by other writers in time.

GS: What object would you metamorphose into and why?

WW: If I thought trees were objects, I would say a tree. In the 60s, my walk to school used to take me past a beautiful stretch of Central Park where the trees poured over the wall from high above. When I started to draw them, my godmother told me that people were either tree people or sea people—she and I were tree people. I recently dedicated The Camperdown Elm, a book of drawings and text, to her memory.

In The Camperdown Elm, I reflect on the connections between drawing and writing and the ways in which they influence each other. Of course, drawing and writing constitute one single or two separate activities depending on what language you happen to be born into. In Japanese and Chinese, learning to write is largely the same as learning to draw—indeed, calligraphy is considered to be the higher art form because it is abstract and deals with pure form.

GS: Quantum physics and other scientific phenomena exist within your novel, including parts of a pseudoscientific paper on the nature of aether and how it can be manipulated for the purposes of metamorphosis. In your work as a whole and perhaps in general, how do you view the relationship between art and science?

WW: When I began the novel, I was troubled by how few contemporary ‘literary’ novels had any concern with science. I was thinking about Poe, and his interest in all sorts of scientific developments: electricity, magnetism, ballooning as a mode of travel and so on. Dealing with science certainly didn’t interfere with his being a great stylist. And in our time, the same was true of Stanislaw Lem.

I’m particularly interested in how eras in science and art define a worldview, and limit what can be thought. So that when a Galileo or an Einstein or a Caravaggio or a Duchamp comes along and upends that worldview, suddenly all sorts of ideas become possible which previously were literally unthinkable. Such figures exist in literature too, but the ones who come by recognition most easily are poets: Marlowe, Whitman, Rimbaud. Fiction writers who innovate formally are very unlikely to get the James Joyce treatment during their lifetimes; more often they are subject to character assassination, perhaps because prose narrative hits closer to home, implicating the value of the stories people tell about themselves. Think of the critical receptions of Emily Bronte, Poe, Melville, Woolf, Raymond Roussel. Most readers balk at having their worldviews overturned, and their reactions range from refusal to hostility.

GS: This question comes from Mark Monday: “Many of Marie de France’s lais may be read as protofeminist. What are your thoughts on that and did that impact any of the choices you made when retelling those tales in Stories out of Omarie?”

WW: Yes, they are certainly protofeminist. I don’t see how anyone could disagree with that. But that doesn’t make them in any way programmatic or didactic, as is the work of Marie’s contemporary Christine de Pizan.

As to my own engagement with those tales, which many scholars see as Christian allegories, I was drawn to them not by any political position they would enable me to take but by the questions they enabled me to explore, such as what is the nature of love? What is the nature of storytelling? Is love a form of storytelling? and vice versa? To the degree that I was able to investigate these questions, I believe I excavated and amplified ideas embedded in Marie’s language. As with all poetry, so much of the original fails to survive translation.

Marie’s lai “Chevrefeuille” (“Goatleaf” in my version) describes a clandestine meeting between Tristan and Iseult in the forest; it is completely about reading, and that is impossible to miss in the original text.

A few years ago I read R. Howard Bloch’s The Anonymous Marie de France (University of Chicago, 2003) and was pleased to find that Bloch’s explications of the lais corresponded closely to my own. In Stories Out of Omarie, many of my retellings function not only as tales but as criticism of the Marie’s lais, which are also retellings. This aspect of the stories looks ahead to my next book of short pieces, My Man and Other Critical Fictions.

GS: You are clearly a linguaphile. What are some of your favorite words and why?

WW: It’s as hard to pick favorite words as it is to pick favorite books. I am partial to words essential to old processes of painting, sculpture, metalworking and so on, the names of ingredients and tools used in studios before artistic media were manufactured industrially: glair, sinoper, lac, orpiment. And also to words that do not descend through Latin, which tends to deplete mystery and music.

GS: What is a book you think deserves more readers?

WW: There are so many. If I had to pick one that was criminally neglected and misunderstood it would be Johnny Stanton’s novel Mangled Hands. The protagonist is a Huron boy in 17th century North America who travels with a Jesuit priest. The book is written entirely inside the boy’s point of view, which is entirely alien from anything a person of European descent might recognize, then or now. It’s a speculative cultural complement to Naked Lunch and Confessions of an Opium Eater.

GS: Your husband, Tom La Farge, is also a writer. Are your fingerprints to be found in his works and vice versa? What’s it like to be married to someone who is a creator in the same vein, perhaps the same soul, as yourself?

WW: I think Tom and I are more collaborative than most couples who are both writers. Our attention to each other’s work goes much deeper than reciprocal editing to what might be called reciprocal conceptualization. When writing our first books in the 80s (The Secret Service and The Crimson Bears/A Hundred Doors) we had daily conferences, and these conversations allowed each of us to have ideas we couldn’t have had alone. Our imaginations were travelling in the same direction and this made involvement in the other’s work deliciously addictive. During the years that we were writing in the same vein our styles became more similar, but except for a phrase here or there we never wrote each other’s text. Sharing reading knowledge also played a huge part in what we each were able to accomplish. Tom put Marie de France’s lais into my hands, and I used to imagine a kind of phantasmal lineage of that moment and the one in which his great-grandfather, John La Farge, pushed Balzac on the young Henry James. These moments make great leaps possible. Yes, Tom’s fingerprints are everywhere in my fiction, and it is the better for it.

Many writers have some collaborative arrangement they keep secret out of fear that it might compromise their image of solitary genius. Hawthorne’s stories were written in close collaboration with his sister, but whoever hears of her? As with most things, the truth is infinitely more interesting than the lie.

Meeting and marrying a ‘creator in the same vein’ was my greatest piece of luck. I have my best and most willing reader always beside me, as well as someone to learn from.

Photo credit: Courtney Mooney

Wendy Walker is the author of The Secret Service, two volumes of tales, Blue Fire: a poetic nonfiction, My Man and Other Critical Fictions, and The Camperdown Elm, a meditation with drawings. She is the editor of Proteotypes and co-founder of The Writhing Society, a salon for the practice of writing with constraints. Her drawings can be found in the flatfiles of The Kentler International Drawing Space. Her new book, Sexual Stealing, with an introduction by Daniel Levin Becker, is forthcoming from Temporary Culture later this year. Wendy lives in Brooklyn with her husband and literary partner Tom La Farge.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at

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