Carol Guess is the author of the novels Homeschooling, Switch, and Seeing Dell; the books of poetry Love is a Map I Must Not Set on Fire, Tinderbox Lawn, and Femme's Dictionary; and the memoir Gaslight. But we can certify personally that she is brilliant, because she was our very first writing teacher, back in the day when our arrogance was utterly untempered by the milk of human kindness and we made boys cry in writing workshops. She was the first person to say to us, "That's good. Now make it better," a lesson that has stood us well in the intervening decade. We've stayed friends over the years and it has been a delight to watch this truly gifted human being produce more and more fantastic books. You know that moment you can point to in your life and say, "There! That's where I started Figuring Shit Out"? That moment, for us, was the first class we took with Carol.
[NOTE: Interview is in the first person! Is that weird? We might start doing it more! Kind of fun, the first person! Sometimes the royal we is exhausting to maintain.]
I've been reading your work over the last decade, and although I love all of the books individually, taken together they become this extraordinary aggregate body. Like a lot of my favorite writers, you return to the same questions and the same people in different incarnations--like a one-woman game of Telephone, where each iteration changes subtly but significantly. Do you think all writers have a single set of obsessions? Is there a question you're trying to answer with your work?
What a great question, or set of questions, and thanks for the kind words. I do feel propelled--physically--toward something, but I hope I never figure out what it is, because that's probably where the writing stops. I started out as a dancer, in classical ballet, and what I loved about dance was the relentless drive toward perfection. It was understood that critique was a good thing, a roundabout form of praise. There was just such a sense of striving in that world, and an understanding that art was religion. Writing is pleasurable, but it's serious play. I feel very pushed to do it, although I don't know why. So the obsession is really with writing itself, as a physical act, sensual, in my hands and mouth. Beyond that, the themes in my work circle around secrecy, sex, contemporary American politics (especially permutations of feminism and queer activism), and displacement.
I love the telephone metaphor! (Scary flashback here to sixth grade performance of "Bye Bye Birdie.") My characters always seem distinct when I'm in them, but after I've finished a book they blur into one voice. I think most of my fiction can be broken down into two threads--a sincere, naive protagonist clinging to what she understands as integrity; and a second protagonist who gets to play around with all the bad habits Sincerity Girl is afraid of. I like watching what happens when they intersect, fall in love, crush each other.
In poetry there's also a divide, but it's aesthetic, not narrative. One of my goals as a writer is to write beautiful sentences--for each sentence to stand on its own as something lovely. In poetry I'm always torn between the impulse to make meaning and the impulse to make music. I don't know if there's a connection to Sincerity Girl and Girl of Bad Habits, but perhaps.
You've built a solid career as a writer without ever going through a corporate publisher. Was that a deliberate choice?
Remember that conversation we were having the other day at dinner? About politics and writing, about corporate publishing versus indie presses? Can we have that conversation now? Because those things keep me awake at night. You asked me once about my circuitous route through publishing, sidestepping corporate presses and Big Book Deals, publishing with indie presses, doing back alley book tours. Writing experimental books full of queer sex and political critique. I never avoided corporate presses or bestseller lists; they avoided me, and still do. I had an agent, briefly; she asked me to infuse my books with plot, to emphasize things that might sell. I said no, and that was that. I've sought out publishers who welcomed what I was doing, who didn't ask me to change either my aesthetic or the progressive content of my work. I like to think this means I've found an independent audience, too: people committed to reading as ecstatic or subversive.
I love the publishers I've worked with, and I'm excited about my forthcoming books with indie presses: Doll Studies: Forensics, with Black Lawrence Press; Darling Endangered, with Brooklyn Arts Press; Willful Machine, with PS Publishing. I don't know what it's like to work with a corporation on an artistic project, but I imagine there's more distance. I like this small, friendly world. Just today I got a freebie book in the mail from Publishing Genius because I ordered Joseph Young's Easter Rabbit. I mean, they sent me a free book, just because. Because why not? After Rose Metal Press published Tinderbox Lawn, I became friends with Kathleen Rooney, and we started exchanging work. She introduced me to Kristy Bowen, and I started reading Kristy's poetry, which is stunning, and then Kristy did a chapbook of Doll Studies. Recently I sent Randall Brown an email, telling him how fabulous his online blog FlashFiction is, and he asked me to do a few posts, and now I've got a piece coming out in his new venture, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. It's a community, often virtual and not presence-based, but still--community. We're influencing each other; we're reading each other; we're excited about each other's art. I doubt this happens with a mainstream book or formulaic genre fiction. Does that make me sound like a hippie? I'm not wearing overalls. I swear I have lipstick on.
The exception to this, my daydream pink fuzzball fantasy, would be writing for TV. I developed this fantasy after watching all five seasons of The Wire, and then sitting down and watching them all again. I can't get over how excellent that show was; it made me stop talking trash about TV. So if I'm ever in a position to reach a wide audience by participating in a television or film project I really believe in--yes. I'll go for that. But again, nobody's knocking on my door, and I don't know which doors to knock on. It's not about money, it's about quality. The writing on The Wire was top-notch--better characterization, dialogue, narrative flow than most print fiction. It's not selling out if what you're making is art, and you've got control over the political content.
So there's an indie publishing community, and I'm in it, and I'm not so lonely anymore. There's this sense of helping each other out that feels good to me--supportive, not cliquish. But what this means is that my books and publications don't make money, so I support myself by teaching. It functions for me as a day job. I mean--it helps to have tenure, but nothing about my writing or identity changed because of tenure. I was out on the job market, and I've always written texts with queer and feminist ideologies. Teaching for me is largely about empowering students to speak, to think of themselves as subjects, not objects. As artists, not passive consumers. I don't think you can teach people to write, so there's a conflict for me about the concept of workshop. But much of what I do is teach Queer Studies to undergrads. I only teach two creative writing classes each year, and I make sure they're not formalist workshops. We do weird stuff, and my students make art that surprises me. Right now my graduate Fiction Writing students are watching live dance rehearsals and thinking about muses and music. We read a lot. We talk about what we read.
I've been feeling more and more that writers are discouraged from being openly political, in particular genre writers; there seems to be this intense culture where writers aren't supposed to "offend" people with any potentially horrifying opinions--like, you know, that undocumented immigrants are human beings, or what have you. Even contemporary "literary" fiction seems really divested of any kind of politics (not coincidentally, in my opinion, since we have the most terrifying political atmosphere since Jesse Helms proposed mandatory tattooing of HIV+ men). Would you agree with that?
Yes, I absolutely would, at least in relation to mainstream American publishing. I think Sarah Schulman is right that novels with lesbian protagonists are more accepted by British publishers. Of course, any broad statement about "literature now" runs the risk of sounding arrogant or slighting all the folks who are off in the margins, making great art. But I do think there's a trend toward ironic detachment, apolitical content. Writing about nothing. Writing that uses irony as an excuse to regurgitate the same sexist, racist, heterosexist litanies I'm so tired of hearing. Somehow, with ironic detachment and lots of non sequiturs, being sexist, racist, and heterosexist is all kinds of cool again. But not really, at least not to this reader. I get mad when this stuff wins big awards, but it's a comfort to see challenges to that aesthetic. I'm thinking of Shane McCrae's Mule, just out, a book that's both beautiful and politically charged; I'm thinking of Maggie Nelson's hybrid texts, both passionate and progressive. I just throw myself into reading what I love.
What are you reading now?