Angela Woodward is the author of three books and the recipient of numerous awards. This year she will have two more books published: Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc Press) and Natural Wonders, winner of Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize (FC2/University of Alabama). Natural Wonders centers around an awkward mistake: Jenny, misreading a moment, merely shakes her husband’s hand as she leaves for the morning. This error grows in magnitude after she finds her husband dead from a heart attack. The structure of the book blends her husband Jonathan’s lectures about ice ages, pre-history, and astronomy with Jenny’s telling of their life together. The narrative’s pieces seemingly rub against one another, like positively charged magnets. They simply don’t want to touch or fall neatly into place. You sense a connection but are uncertain about the bond—the result captivating you from beginning to end. Finally, Woodward’s prose, full of shimmering sentences, is graceful, an absolute delight to read. In this interview, Woodward discusses her reading and writing habits, how she designs stories, and the poetry of prose.
Jacob Singer: Can you tell me about your reading and writing habits surrounding Natural Wonders?
Angela Woodward: I read tons of source material for this book. It started with a Time-Life book on the ice ages. I have no idea why I was reading it. I found it in the library of the college where I work, but it’s written for younger students. It’s popular science, not a textbook, so I don’t know why it would have been in our stacks. It’s really well written, though, and I got interested in retelling some of the stories in it.
Since it’s geared for non-specialists, perhaps for scientifically minded kids but not scientists, the focus is on the people involved in the science as well as the theories and events. So for example in the first chapter of Natural Wonders, the Swiss scientist Agassiz has a hard time convincing the English there’s evidence of the ice ages all around. It was in this book that I got the little nugget where he shows them a hill that’s been scoured by a glacier, and they tell him little boys have slid down it for years, and polished it with their backsides. It seems such a reasonable refutation. They’ve seen the little boys, but no one has seen a glacier in this spot. This kind of incident, a clash of beliefs, really interests me, and the Time-Life book was full of these stories. Everything about the mathematician Milankovich, the frozen mammoth in the final chapter, the Snowball Earth theory—it all came from this one book.
I also read all kinds of other books to fill in gaps, where I needed to learn more about something. I read a lot of anthropology, archaeology, particularly feminist takes on these sciences, and autobiographies of scientists and travelers. I had so much good stuff, and I couldn’t use it all. A lot of tales about people traveling in Siberia were so compelling, and I tried and tried to weave that in, though it didn’t fit and didn’t make sense. There’s a lot out there, though, about the solidity and certainty of the explorer, suddenly overturned by inexplicable events.
As far as how I approached this book, I wrote a lot of the initial chapters in short bursts, whenever I had the slightest break in my work day. I wrote some at a residency on Norton Island, off the coast of Maine, which gave me a profound sense of the creepiness and unknowability of nature. Back at home, I got up early and wrote every morning before work, for about half an hour. I do that every day, no matter what, and though it’s not a lot of time, even getting a few sentences done makes a difference to me. I wrote a lot of the book’s ending at another residency, the Wormfarm Institute in Wisconsin. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who made those residencies possible. It’s such a gift to an artist, to be left alone to work, especially if you have a demanding job and a family. To leave that behind even for two weeks has been vital to me.
JS: How did the book change during the revision process?
AW: This book started out so complicated. I didn’t know what it was, or why it couldn’t be everything. It had a set of chapters interspersed throughout that told about a traveler going to the ceremony of some indigenous people in Siberia, and a terrible accident. Then it had another story about a disastrous archaeological dig. The relationship between Jonathan and Jenny was really fleshed out. And then it had bits and pieces of the chapters you see today, that have whatever flavor they have, a more folkloric feel, whereas the rest of it was sort of novelistic. It was a huge mess. It, and I, reached a point of collapse and implosion, and I started over completely. It was like making a patchwork quilt out of a bunch of nice but worn-out clothes. I kept certain sentences, and in some places made new stories out of some paragraph I’d saved. Some of the raw material was the same, but it had all been cut down and repurposed.
After that, it had a better structure, and I pieced it together and wrote about a third to a half of all new material. Even after that, it was still pretty shaggy. I did another major revision, where I took out the traveler’s story, which I had broken up into five chapters that spanned the book. I really liked it, but I was insane to try to fit it in. I had rewritten it so it was something that happened to Jonathan, except the era didn’t make sense unless it’s fifty years earlier in Siberia. I didn’t want to produce something that worked on the reader like an intellectual puzzle. I want the writing to be felt first, and maybe puzzled over later, but I didn’t want the reader’s first reaction to be worrying about being smart enough to sort the structure out. The structure should just support the material, and I think at last I simplified it enough.
JS: What was the first scene that you wrote?
AW: What is now the first chapter, the earth being created in 4004 B.C. at nine in the morning, might have been the first one I wrote, pretty much like that. But when I decided I might make this big sprawling novel out of the material, I put another piece I’d written a little earlier as a stand-alone short story in front of that one. It was called “Things That Can Be Done to Skeletons,” and it skimmed over a lot of the themes I later unpacked more slowly. So that one was really the first.
JS: Tell me about the idea of the missed kiss and Jonathan’s death? This scene is a keystone moment in the story. Did this come about early on in the writing process or did it surface as you continued to write and revise?
AW: I can remember composing that sentence, on a day when I took a little break in the middle of my work day, snuck away somewhere quiet, and wrote for half an hour. It resonated a lot with me as soon as it appeared. Jonathan and Jenny’s whole relationship is encapsulated in that moment. There’s nothing really wrong between them, and yet when he wants to show her physical affection, she veers away without thinking about it. They’re still so close, and yet they don’t connect. It’s a mild domestic scene, the goodbye kiss, nothing passionate or dramatic, but she absolutely rejected him. Initially, that sentence cropped up just once, but as I worked on ways to make the material cohere, it seemed like one of the moments Jenny might return to in her mind. And then it becomes more significant in retrospect, when it becomes clear at the very end of the novel that the non-kiss was the last time she saw him alive.
JS: The narrative structure of your book blends a semester’s worth of Jonathan’s lectures about ice ages, pre-history, and astronomy with the love story of Jonathan and Jenny? Can you tell me a bit about how this structure came to be?
AW: As I explained, initially this was a kind of fractured set of loosely related narratives that I had to junk. The idea of each chapter being a lecture finally held the disparate pieces together. I had to lose a lot of material that I liked, and that was well-written, but that didn’t fit with Jonathan’s course. For example, I had a chapter about a man who shot and stuffed tons of birds and shipped them back to England—another Siberia story—and another about the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews shooting the knees out of gazelles. These related thematically, but Jonathan wouldn’t have fit them into Earth and Prehistory. So the lecture series gave me a means to sort out what I had. It was not a challenge, but a gratifying solution.
The lecture structure also lets both protagonists speak. Jenny is telling Jonathan’s stories in her own way, and the voice shifts between his and hers. She’s in a way his puppet master, a ventriloquist. That let me both stay grounded in the earth science and let out her playful and irreverent takes on things. I got a balance of masculine and feminine, art and science, and also the earth’s story with the story of the marriage. I was able to find room for most of what I wanted to explore, within a reasonable container.
JS: One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading this story was attempting to piece the lectures together with the love story. Because different pieces didn’t neatly fall into place, I was constantly shuffling scenes around in my head—somewhat like a puzzle—in order to see the big picture. Nothing seemed to neatly fit together but I could sense there was something that tied smaller scenes together. Can you discuss your sense of aesthetics with regards to unity/disunity and open/closed narratives? This seems to be one of the aesthetic concerns of “innovative” texts.
AW: I’m so glad you started out with “pleasurable,” because pleasure is what it’s all about for me. I would say all my reading is pleasure reading, because I don’t read anything I don’t immensely enjoy. If I don’t feel strongly, I just stop. I can read some pretty dense theoretical or philosophical work, and feel the pleasure of complex ideas. I love detective novels, and I’m constantly amazed at the skill of authors who can create such a surprising, riveting plot, and often a great sense of unity in the gang of characters, the bit players on the murder squad. There are authors whose prose I find miraculous and I read and reread them: Thomas Bernhard, William Gaddis, Magdalena Tulli, who create a whole world out of a narrative voice. Whatever I’m doing as a writer, I hope the reader will fondle the words, marvel over the sentences. I want to make a beautiful contraption. Beautiful is not pretty. It includes ugliness and terror, too.
Given that I enjoy and admire really disparate types of writing, I don’t know if innovative/traditional is really the way I think of my aesthetic. I do want surprise, and openness, as a reader and a writer. That’s what I find most engaging, that space for interplay between the creator of the story and reader of the story. I would hope that I left a lot of room in Natural Wonders for you to see what you want to see in Jonathan and Jenny’s relationship, and in the fate of the Earth. If it was a neat allegory, you would have to deduce what I meant and what I thought, or gotten my lesson out of it. I don’t want that. I like that you’re juggling the pieces. I would hope that anyone could get some satisfaction out of the small scenes and the larger scheme, whatever that is, and not have to know exactly how the parts line up.
One book I returned to for guidance throughout the three or four years of writing Natural Wonders was Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies. That’s the one where mute travelers are thrown together in an inn overnight and tell each other their stories using tarot cards. Calvino doesn’t waste much time establishing how these people came together or why they’re mute, or how the cards get laid out. Each story is so interesting in itself that it keeps you reading, though it’s hard to say what the overall narrative arc is. That book inspired me to go ahead and tell the stories I wanted to tell, and hope that readers would enjoy them enough to not worry about the container they’re in. That’s not to say I don’t have a pretty strong perspective on the material, but I’m willing to risk readers finding different paths in and out of it.
JS: Can you talk about the poetic use of language in Natural Wonders—both at the level of the word and the sentence. You use both extremely well. I felt I was in a specific universe with a specific dialect of English based on scientific lingo. Here’s an example of what I mean:
The students have the formula for phosphorus and manganese in their notes, but they’ve missed his explanation of the mysterious materia pinguis. Again it was the Swiss, and some of their French and Italian neighbors, who couldn’t help but stumble over fish bones, sea shells, whorled nautilus, high on the mountains where they could not have been washed by any sea. Sometimes these figured stones lay in piles, layer upon layer, as if a whole abandoned beach had been thrown up under the goat pasture. The most convincing explanation for these odd replicas of marine animals was that a mysterious plastic force under the earth produced them in coincidental mimicry. Jack Frost painted the windows with meadow flowers, and these were inorganic, in no way derived from vegetable life. In the same way, the materia pinguis concreted under the earth, shark’s teeth, scallop fans, created by this underground petrifying juice.
AW: No matter what the piece of writing, it’s created out of words. Writers are only working with words. That’s all we have. We don’t have ideas. We don’t have images. We don’t have scenes. We don’t have characters. The illusion of all those things can be crafted out of words, but those other things—the ides, the images—are by-products of language. Words in themselves have sounds and sense, and they shift and change in relation to the other words around them, both in their sound schemes and how they’re yoked grammatically. I’m never not aware of that baseness of language, even as I try to do quite complicated things with it.
Take one of the sentences you quoted above: “In the same way, the materia pinguis concreted under the earth, shark’s teeth, scallop fans, created by this underground petrifying juice.” The materia pinguis stands out, in italics, as mysterious and Latin, and it also delivers that incredible moist clump of consonants in pinguis. Then that’s followed by “concreted”— such a nice verb. It’s both simple and little unusual, and it’s describing a specific physical action, of coming together and hardening, taking form. Then we have a little row of noun-as-adjective modifying noun—shark’s teeth, scallop fan—followed by two modifiers and noun: underground, petrifying juice. That sentence has a rhythm and a concussiveness, with “concreted” paired with “created” so the hard c’s hit three times, and the cree, cree doubles. We can visualize everything more or less: not the materia pinguis, which we have to get the definition of from context, but the fossils are apprehendable in our mind’s eye, and so is the juice, at least hazily. We might not have seen an underground petrifying juice, but we can imagine some white oozy junk when our eyes flick over that description.
A sentence like that is sensual in a lot of different ways, and that, in a bigger sense, is the world Jenny is creating out of Jonathan’s science. On the micro level and on the macro level, that sentence is Natural Wonders. It’s an explanation of an outdated geological theory as well as an explication of Jenny as the mastermind behind Jonathan’s notes, with her strong aesthetic sense overruling his pedantry. That’s their marriage, too, that she, knowing nothing of his science, is nevertheless able to work in concert with him—though only after he’s dead.
I don’t usually look at my own work in such detail, and I’m certainly not thinking all those thoughts as I’m sitting at my keyboard writing. But this book seems to have a resonance from the way the words are put together that puts its whole world together. I would say that anyone whose writing really makes an impact is doing that too, though in lots of different ways. This may be why much writing advice is so useless. Only a few rules are applicable to only a few styles. I will always take any advice I can get. I’ll always see if something makes sense to me, because it can’t hurt. But I’m not aiming to make a movie with my words. That’s just one approach.
JS: What prose writers turned you on to writing at the level of the sentence? Would you talk about your progression as a prose stylist?
AW: I had very little coursework in creative writing, and I seem to have missed that whole minimalism thing. I think my background in music might be what led me to the way I think about writing sentences. I studied the violin seriously for much of my youth, and I attribute my sense of the sound of words to my musicality. I like verbs. The idea of getting rid of all “to be” verbs has been useful to me. Again, other writers use “to be” verbs all the time, and it’s fine, but for me, my writing seemed to get sharper when I made deliberate rearrangements to find an active verb. It forces some creative solutions.
In terms of my education as a writer, I may owe more to Thomas Bernhard than to anyone else. I read him when I was in grad school, though not as part of coursework. I wasn’t intending to be a writer then, or I hadn’t quite figured out how I could do that, so I was studying something else. I was felled by the first book of his I read, which was either Gargoyles or Concrete. He breaks that most fundamental writing rule: show, don’t tell. Yet he tells in a way that creates a vivid world out of its unstoppable cascade of prose. It felt like the earth stood still when I first read him. The inescapable track I thought I was on vanished. He opened up immense possibilities. His writing is so courageous. That’s what the student writer should take away from a master like Bernhard. Not to imitate his style. That would be false. His subject matter and his style are inextricable. He found a way to tell what he had to tell, though it has almost none of what we might be taught to do. There are scenes, and images, and dialogue, though they’re subsumed within giant sentences and paragraphs, so you have to work backwards to find them. I don’t know. Every writer on earth doesn’t need to invent their own style, and style for the sake of style is pretty vapid. But Bernhard wrestles with language in a way that’s fundamental to his project. He’s writing about rotten, corrupt, vicious systems, and he can’t do that using polite, conformist language. What he’s saying requires spewing, and so he spews with elegant, controlled mania. He doesn’t do it to sound original. His voice is original, unique, because it arises out of the particular virulence of his perspective.
I suppose, underneath it all, this is my problem with the label “innovative” or “experimental” fiction. It presupposes, somehow, that the innovation is formal, concerned with form. “Let’s try writing in a new way.” I would say my fiction is enormously innovative, particularly if you look at my short fiction collection Origins and Other Stories (Dzanc) coming out at the same time as Natural Wonders.
It’s innovative because my take on the world is what it is, and what I need to say doesn’t much concern sentiment or even rationality. Though I admire traditional narrative very much, especially in the excellent detective novel, I can’t write that way because it doesn’t serve my project. I’m not messing around with form as a kind of game, but I’m expressing odd and overlooked things, sometimes fierce and lonely things, and it takes an unusual approach to language and structure to get at those things. I’m overturning and looking under things, coming at them from oblique angles, and play with language and structure helps that happen. There’s play and pleasure and freedom in it too, but the innovation doesn’t exist for its own sake.
Jacob Singer’s work can be found at Electric Literature, Curbside Splendor, and Anobium. He is currently finishing a picaresque novel inspired by corporate conspiracies, punk rock, and video games.
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