Written on the Body of the Tiger: An Interview with Rikki Ducornet

George Salis: How did you conceive the tetralogy of elements? Were there intimations from the start or was it a mist that cleared away with each book?

Rikki Ducornet: A child of chance, the tetralogy was sparked by an encounter in a meadow with a spellbinding jackrabbit and an ensuing dream that released so much energy I wrote each morning for ten years. One by one the books revealed themselves—a process I can only describe as irresistible. A fervent reader of Gaston Bachelard, I realized after I had finished The Stain and began Entering Fire that I was on my way to four books, each belonging to an element.  

GS: There is a sentence of wide-ranging philosophical and literary significance in The Fountains of Neptune: “The purpose of myth […] is to both reveal and conceal. To tell what we have seen and disguise it, to mask God’s forked tongue.” Could you talk about this notion, perhaps unwrap it or elaborate on it? How does it relate to the way you create art and how you conduct yourself as a reader and admirer of art?

RD: My studio work and my writing are intuitive. By this I mean I engage a practice—and it is rigorous—that initiates revelation. It depends upon revery, a deep looking. The kind of looking that gave Ernst his talismanic Loplop and Borges the tiger that marked him for life. I was thinking of Nature’s book, that sacred book, written on the body of the tiger. The book that, as Cortázar reveals to us, can be read in the migrations of the eels. Myths are rooted in the sacred Erotic, the idea that all things contain the breath of life. The earliest Egyptian glyph for the willow—a tree that grows by the water, contained Hathor’s power, and this because the Moon is reflected upon that water. The willow’s healing medicine was also contained in the glyph. I cannot help but wonder about the Books of Nature we each carry in our genes, the forms that persist encoded there, the ways in which they inform our imagining minds.

GS: You write myths or what one might refer to as texts with mythical dimensions and in them you also write about myths that are harmful, such as the belief that a furry birthmark is indicative of Satan, a concept explored in your first novel, The Stain. Is the suspension of belief, or disbelief itself, an inoculation against harmful myths?

RD: Magical thinking of another kind! If Borges’ tiger and the willow glyph offer a deep looking, a poetic way of knowing, the magical thinking that convinces an entire village that a girl born with a birthmark is Satan’s child leads to a dead end. It is the kind of magical thinking that tyrants use to their advantage. 

GS: Anyone who has read your work would know that your prose is as poetic as any poetry. When a reader can have poetry in the very meat of their novel, where does that leave poetry proper? Similarly, in your case, how do you know a poem is a poem and not a piece of poetic prose and part of a larger whole?

RD: Realms without borders! These forms are fluid. Cortázar’s wondrous From the Observatory opens: “This hour that can arrive sometimes outside of all hours, a hole in the net of time…” Is this poetry? Poetic prose? Does it matter? Does it matter that the book is an essay on one man’s passion for astronomy and an essay on the migration of eels? That it is cinematic, an extended revery? During a public conversation with Harry Mathews some years ago, Robert Coover said: “It’s…it’s…ineffable! Isn’t it? It’s…it’s…like singing!” He was speaking about writing. Harry, delighted, said: “Yes, Bob! Like singing!”

GS: Could you talk about the nature of blasphemy? In Phosphor in Dreamland, for instance, there is a twisted inquisitor, as it were, who in his religious suppressions has something of a psychotic climax while masturbating “his purple member, as gnarled as a dry lump of ginger,” and imagines that he, among other things, “ejaculates into the wounds of Christ” and “ejaculates into the anus of the Pope.” Of course, these thoughts are attributed to a fictional character, they don’t belong to you as such, only in the relationship of the author. Yet perhaps I can be devil’s advocate and ask the clichéd question: Is anything sacred? Is there such a thing as crossing a line in fiction? Additionally, is blasphemy necessary? I can imagine that some religious believers might be as overtly offended as they are secretly exhilarated by blasphemous thoughts because they come with such puissant weight. In this case, I believe the only ‘sacred’ thing is an artist’s vision, despite how blasphemous it may or may not seem. I’m also thinking of Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece The Satanic Verses, which has a character named Mahound, a derogatory word for the Islamic prophet Muhammed. Yet few (non)readers noticed amid their mouth-foaming that the novel includes this exposition: “To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise, our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be the medieval baby-frightener, the Devil’s synonym: Mahound.”

RD: And if it is all sacred? Each atom, each tiger, each willow, each migration of eels? Why is it that—existentially compromised apes that we are—we cannot sustain an enchanted delight in the world around us? After all, each one of us arrives full of wonder and enchantment. Why is this wonder betrayed? Why is it that all that makes the world worth the wanting is on fire? Blasphemy is the sport of inquisitors and oilmen!

GS: How does one get into the sexual mind of the opposite sex, as in Netsuke and other works?

RD: I use my human mind.

GS: Wendy Walker once talked about how she illustrated the dresses of Ashiepattle so that she could better describe them in her reworked fairy tale. You also have tremendous artistic abilities beyond the written word. Have you ever, like Walker, used your art to better describe? Conversely, have you ever described to better illustrate?

RD: I have attempted to use light in my fiction the way Vermeer does; I have wanted that lucency, transparency. Bosch influenced my writing of The Stain and The Fan Maker’s Inquisition. Those infernal orchestras! My most recent book, Trafik, was influenced by Wes Anderson’s animations.

GS: You’ve illustrated the words of Borges, Robert Coover, and even Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast. How do you decide which specific image or images to pluck from a given work and what kind of style you should use? Did Coover, for example, give you free rein when working on Spanking the Maid?

Illustration by Rikki Ducornet for Robert Coover’s Spanking the Maid (1981)

RD: I have loved illustrating other people’s books. Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” especially. But I like the idea that readers will see their own cinematic version. However, Fowzia Karimi just published a fabulous memoir/novel called Above Us the Milky Way, beautifully illustrated with her own paintings and family photographs, and the effect could not be more wondrous!

Bob made no demands. He trusted me, I think, because he said we shared a vision, and we were both obsessed with metamorphosis!

GS: Your literary loves are quite clear. Thus, could you talk about your love of other artists and illustrators?

RD: The first time I ever went to a library, I was eight years old. The first book (I should say spine of a book) that caught my attention was The Misfortunes of the Immortals, written by Paul Éluard and illustrated by Max Ernst. Max Ernst has had an immense impact on my imagination, and recently Wangechi Mutu, an artist Max would have greatly admired, and who, along with so much else, has transformed collage in extraordinary ways.

GS: What’s a novel you think deserves more readers?

RD: The Changeling by Joy Williams. Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass. Two great American novels.

GS: In the spirit of your tetralogy, could you recommend a novel or another kind of work that relates to each of the four elements? Perhaps you used them for research or perhaps they are only related after the fact by coincidental theme.

RD: Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and Water and Dreams have had, and continue to have an impact on my thinking and my writing. My teaching!

GS: You have a novella forthcoming from Coffee House Press titled Trafik and you’re currently swept up by the force of a work-in-progress titled The Plotinus. What can you tell us about them?

RD: Trafik was written in warp drive and provides a wild ride through the galaxies with Mic, a robot with a passion for Al Pacino and Al’s plumbing, and Quiver, an astronaut in love with a virtual redhead she glimpses when running each morning in a virtuality called The Lights. It will be out in April. The Plotinus will follow in September. It takes place in a prison cell; everything that happens, happens in the narrator’s head, except for one eroticized hornet.

GS: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an interesting factoid. This comes from Wikipedia and I was wondering if you can shine some light on its veracity or lack thereof because, as you can see, some citations are needed: “Ducornet is the subject of the Steely Dan song “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”[10] Steely Dan singer Donald Fagen had met her while both were attending Bard College.[10] Ducornet says they met at a college party, and even though she was both pregnant and married at the time, he gave her his number.[citation needed] Ducornet was intrigued by Fagen and was tempted to call him, but she decided against it.[citation needed]

Additionally, the lyrics of the song seem quite problematic, particularly these lines:

“You tell yourself you’re not my kind
But you don’t even know your mind”

Is this something that has bothered you, particularly because you can’t reply in defense?

RD: We met in the coffee shop. Why the heck would he have known I was pregnant? I had been going to listen to the music at the Red Barn; it was phenomenal. He gave me his number, I lost it, but! whenever I walk into a sushi restaurant or an airport and hear it, I think of it as a koan, and I think he was right. At the time I did not “know [my] mind”!

GS: Lastly, you’ve talked about a flattening of the arts, of culture, and more. Has it gotten flatter since or are you beginning to see some formations of dimensions? Is the future bleak and bleached or is there something that can be done to counteract the flattening, to give it color and depth?

RD: My apologies! I am answering your questions after too many months, and so much has happened. Answering in the time of COVID-19. The flattening is palpable in a country suffocating beneath the knee of a madman who is at war with everything alive. But we are also seeing an extraordinary awakening, the realization that we must reconsider everything, that we have lost our way, lost it long ago, and that there is very little time to come together as one people, to salvage what we can, to learn to embrace the other, to cherish the world’s children, the creatures, the creative thinkers, and save our one very small planet, a planet unlike any other. I fear we cannot animate a graveyard; that we have no choice but to find a new way of being—and find it right away!—inspired and inspirited by loving kindness and rooted in a fearless looking into ourselves. As Bachelard said, “Poetic revery, unlike somnolent revery, never falls asleep.”

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A transdisciplinary artist, Rikki Ducornet’s work is animated by an interest in Nature, Eros, and the transcendent imagination. A writer and a painter, her novels are published in over a dozen languages and her paintings are exhibited internationally, most recently with Amnesty International’s traveling exhibition: I WELCOME. Her awards include an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. Find her website here.

George Salis
is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows 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 FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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