The Rumpus Interview with Jane Alison

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While Jane Alison was hard at work translating a series of erotic passages into plain, charged English for her fifth book, Change Me: Stories of Sexual Transformation from Ovid, another story kept modifying the page layout. A parallel narration would increase the margins, demanding more and more space to accommodate a shapeshifting side ledger that tallied each myth’s romantic score. In every line break on every screen, Alison started seeing the story of an aging woman’s love life, and whether or not it was ending.

Alison scattered her translations of Ovid’s stories across two summers in Miami like so many petals, pressing the best of them into Nine Island, a slim volume of first-person fragments that toss and turn over whether a woman’s final erotic act is to transform, voluntarily, into stone.

Narrated by J, Nine Island is about a woman on the brink of withdrawing forever from romantic love. J’s been around the block—as a lover and as a pedestrian—more times than she can count, though she’s still counting. Finding herself and other initials in the retirement capital of the world, J engages and disengages with old flames and elaborate fantasies from inside the model ship of her glass-bottle apartment building. As J trains her eyes on every detail of her lush condo and its fragile inhabitants, she concludes that she may have come to the end of a romantic dirt road, one she walked almost entirely with deadbeats and distant loners. She doubles down on her resolve, loses it, makes friends, rescues pets, texts her mom, and does her work, all while fantasizing about men and drinking alone.

As she swims her last laps in an hourglass pool that is about to be drained, J tries halfheartedly to let go of her desire for the love she’s always wanted. Yet despite all her best efforts to satisfy it, her erotic imagination continues to thrash, breathing impossible life back into the unending search for something to hold, be it marble or flesh, echo or stone.

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The Rumpus: I’m surprised blurbs focus on what happens in Nine Island, that it takes place in a condo, what the condo looks like, where J goes, what she does and with whom. The book didn’t strike me as much about what actually happens as it is about what something happening feels like. Is that what puts the novel in autobiographical novel?

Jane Alison: It wasn’t meant to be so much autobiographical as it is about things that are mostly true. I do some messing around with things, not necessarily about me but about place and people and the things around. It is about the “me” character, as I was temporarily re-inhabiting that person.

There hasn’t been much yet, but people are talking largely about things that happen. Whereas for me, what was very important was how it’s presented. I was coming at this from the point of view of form, almost above all. I suppose that’s what a lot of writers do, and then they realize that’s not what anyone else cares about. Readers care about what it’s about, which is also important.

I was more interested in the interface between this external world that’s being observed pretty closely and this imaginative, too-internal internal world, and how the two meet on the surface, on the page and the screen that J’s writing on.

nine-island-coverRumpus: Did you write Nine Island while working on Change Me? It seemed to be inspired by episodes of transformation in your own life, at a crossroad moment where questions of aging and desire and sexuality start to hit the pavement of mortality. Were these events happening underneath Change Me, scenes from reality that you needed to revisit afterwards?

Alison: It was really all concurrent. I’d started making all kinds of notes that had to do with walking in Miami and all of the things I would see. I’ve always wanted to figure out how to do a walking story. I’d never figured out how to do one and have it work or be interesting or have anything that it’s about.

Rumpus: You succeeded.

Alison: Well, finally! Thanks! So it started out as something about just plain walking, the houses and the duck and the plants and everything. There was no form at all, beyond something that was sequential. I was writing Change Me at the same time. Then I suddenly had to move away from Miami for about five months because my mother had this accident. I would go back and forth from Miami to Annapolis, where my mother lived, while trying to do the translations of Ovid. Meanwhile I was taking more notes for what this thing was becoming. In Nine Island, I compressed that all into a much shorter time, those two summers were compressed into one. When I got done with Ovid, I turned full force into this thing.

Rumpus: J is retiring from love.

Alison: Yes.

Rumpus: And like so many people who go into retirement, she doesn’t really retire as much as meditate on retiring and consider retiring and attempt retiring and quit retiring. Is anyone done?

Alison: Ever? In the world?

Rumpus: In this way, retiring from love? Can you put it away?

Alison: You can do a sample polling on anyone right now and they’d say, “Yes, goddamnit!” And then tomorrow maybe something else would happen.

I can name one other person who is done, but I think she’s not. I know that I have been, and I’m obviously not. You see the stories of people in actual retirement homes who all of a sudden, you know, something happens and they’re having this brand new blossoming affair. So I don’t know. I suppose you retire from trying. If you retire from trying, you think, “Maybe love will just come my way if I don’t want it anymore.”

Rumpus: You trick love by attempting to retire once and for all, as a lure.

Alison: When you’re waiting for a bus, the thing to do is smoke a cigarette.

Rumpus: “It’ll come when you’re not looking.”

There’s a whole layer to the book about fantasy. J’s friend K pops in and out regularly with the recurring line, “An active fantasy life is good.” Towards the end, J poses the hypothetical question, “Yeah, well, what’s wrong with fantasy?” and ambivalently answers herself just as soon, “There’s nothing wrong with any of this.”

Is fantasy okay? Is it fine, to the degree that J is living a fantasy life?

Alison: She’s obviously trying to talk herself into the idea. This is all she seems to have.

I was reading something last night by Charles Baxter about Gatsby, on this same phenomenon of preserving things in a state of fantasy. He was talking about how fantasy is patently not engaging with the three-dimensional world. I can’t say that fantasy instead of the 3D world is fine or good, but I know in my own life I have certain people I’ve kind of fixated upon to the point of pure fantasy. Then there’s such a dilemma when here they are, and they’re getting ever less and less like the way the fantasy has them.

I don’t think you can have an imagination without having fantasy, and you can’t have that rich a life without an imagination. In order to have a real life of any romance, there has to be a level of fantasy.

Rumpus: Do you think the people you love or desire or are the most attracted to are the ones that most inspire fantasy thought when they’re absent?

Alison: It would make sense. They needn’t have beauty, but they are the ones that have stirred your imagination. They’re going to be populating your mind in a way that someone that hasn’t done that obviously wouldn’t.

There’s a quote that I learned in college a million years ago. “Happy, thought I, is the man who can, in one and the same embrace, hold both his love and the object of his love.” Holding the feeling that you have and all the images that you’ve got and all the fantasies and romantic associations while also holding the actual core person that’s been saddled with all of this.

That was one of the problems with the Narcissus figure. Here is a face looking at a face, and the problem is the image of the thing is never actually the thing. You try and grab it and it’s not there. It’s water. It disappears.

So I suppose you’re asking a very good question about this relationship between fantasy and actual love, and how do they ever co-occupy the same room. What that quote I just recited probably wrongly says is, we don’t.

change-meRumpus: J and her mom have this phone exchange where J is trying to make her mom realize End of Life stuff, to convince her that she needs to start thinking about her future practically. And her mother says, “Maybe I just don’t want to think about it.” She wants to escape into the fantasy of still being present, really. She’s still here, and would rather focus on thinking of her life as something that will continue on and on.

Meanwhile J’s being interrupted by text messages, which I thought were fascinating. You wrote those simply as a blue glow, incorporating what it feels like for your phone to interrupt you, for texts to act as conduits. There are a lot of technical, writerly questions that get asked about how to render technology like that. How did you integrate communication with people who weren’t there in a way that made them feel so present?

Alison: It was tricky. I knew that it was really important, because this was the kind of communication this character was having a lot. She’s not with people much. It is through screens or through phones. I originally envisioned all the texts and emails looking just like the passages from Ovid, looking just like the lines of poetry or the songs in her head. To me they were all the same texture, these other voices that come in and immediately start working with your own voice. Stuff is all in our mind so often. J’s got this kind of running voice, and then something will come from the Devil or Sir Gold or K or her mother, and it just adds automatically. It becomes part of the same text that’s going on constantly. That is what her world is, at once the things she’s seeing that are 3D, but then also these words that are still in her head, or new words that suddenly come in, or an image that just appears. I was trying to get all of that together in the same place, her obsessive counting, those things that just occupy the skull.

Rumpus: You came at this with a certain approach that you wanted to accomplish in form.

Alison: I actually had kind of a crisis. I’d written three novels and a memoir. I was working on the Ovid. I was teaching a lot. Teaching writing puts you on the point of a pin in terms of what you want your own writing to be. Like a lot of writers, I just got sick to death of conventional fiction. I absolutely couldn’t stand the illusion of reality and plot. I just couldn’t stomach it. I wanted something that felt not as true as memoir, but pretty true. I did not want to be totally exposed in a memoiristic way, where you’re also responsible. I wanted it to be as honest as possible a way of dealing with a fictional landscape, without having a third-person narrator who’s going to be telling things, which I just found patently false. I knew it would have to be first-person because that’s the voice that I could believe in, and yet it made me ill because I’d never written in the first person except for the memoir. So it was not just formality, but also the truth value between fiction and nonfiction. How you can capture a kind of reality that has a form and momentum that fiction might have, but is nevertheless really trying to be true.

Formally, I’ve really been so moved by so many writers and books—Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson, Jenny Offill’s book Dept. of Speculation, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever—books that have this way of inhabiting a self, doing something that was largely true but yet had the magic of fiction. They all seem to need to be fragmentary in some way, so I knew that fragments were going to be part of it. In any given moment, you’re either capturing the narrator thinking or she’s actually writing, you get the sense that she’s writing on a screen. She’ll be transcribing Ovid and then stop and have to transcribe what she sees across the way. I really wanted to inhabit a mind that was inhabiting a place, trying to see and understand and find herself in it.

Rumpus: What story is J seeing, amidst all of her stubbornly heterosexual desire, when she finds herself surrounded by so much violence against women? What does she make of that violence? What role is that thread playing?

Alison: The violence kept coming in because it does.

Rumpus: It feels like that, in life.

Alison: It’s always a bad year for girls being raped and killed, but we had an especially bad one here at UVA last year. I was really working on this hard when a young student was abducted and raped and killed. It seemed so relevant because of the interface between Ovid and all the girls who are raped. In Ovid it means something a little bit more interesting than just plain rape, but it still looks like rape. I saw a connection between the things that happen to girls and their bodies and the violence against them that is sexual, and then the thing that happens to women who are older and their bodies, that may no longer be sexual.

There’s this hourglass pool that J’s always swimming in. An hourglass means a lot of things. One thing is the hourglass figure a woman has. An hourglass also marks time going by in the sands. I kept coming back to that as a central image for a female body in its relationship to desire and time. That’s the core of the book, for me. Being in that pool, swimming in that pool, and being that hourglass yourself as a female body.

Early in the phase of being in a female body, there’s all this desire that comes at you, a lot of it hostile, a lot of it dangerous, a lot of it ruinous. And then later, same body as far as you’re concerned, but it now becomes something that is aging. It no longer seems to be attracting or even feeling desire in the same way.

You can’t be in this world of Ovid, with girls being chased and girls being raped and girls transforming and escaping or not escaping, and be a person who is a female in the world and filter out Hannah Graham being raped and killed. So many girls are. That actual violence in the world is feeding in while I’m translating this fantastical stuff by Ovid, all while inhabiting my own body and thinking about what’s happened to it, what it’s doing now and what it wants.

Rumpus: I really felt how, even if J were trying to tune out the quotidian incidents of violence against women around her, she wouldn’t be able to do that and continue translating. The translation would highlight that violence, because she’s seeing it in what she’s working on.

Alison: It’s true. When you get immersed in whatever you’re writing, the world does suddenly get so filtered through what you’re writing. And then of course what you’re writing then filters the world right back.

Rumpus: Speaking of immersion, there’s a lot of water.

Alison: There’s a lot of water in everything I’ve ever written. There’s always oceans and pools.

Rumpus: The pool, the bay, the hurricanes that come out of nowhere, reflections and mirrors, the Echo and Narcissus story. What do you make of that, in your work?

Alison: I don’t know! I was born in Australia and grew up in the foreign services. I had this kind of trans-Pacific life. I think I was always sort of oriented towards here’s Australia and here’s America and here’s the Pacific. I lived in South America. I feel as though I’ve always looked with great interest at these continents and the water around them. I grew up flying over oceans and moving and sailing. My first memory is on a ship from California back to Sydney. Water is just a natural place of home and not home.

I can tell you one thing, I never saw Mary Zimmerman’s play of the Ovid.

Rumpus: It was my thesis.

Alison: It was?!

Rumpus: It has tracks of characters. It’s an ensemble of ten and each actor will play about five of the fifty or so parts tracking through it. Every time you would hit different moments in Nine Island that reminded me of Metamorphoses, I would smile inwardly.

Alison: One thing I gather, having read reviews, is that she really caught the central thing in Ovid, which is the water. She had a pool onstage.

So much transformation happens in water. Narcissus looks at his face in the water and that’s the locus of his transformation. Salmacis attacks this boy Hermaphroditus in the water and rapes him there, and that’s where they become a single bisexual being. It’s a liquid zone, this in-between thing.

I just find water extremely attractive and rich for imagination. You have the surface, you have the depths, you have the different coloration, you’ve got the things that might be in there, the things you can see from above. Sharks, for instance. It just seems like a zone of unbelievable possibility.

Rumpus: The relationship between J’s friend N and her husband P seems like it is—almost—the argument against retiring from love, that this is the mate that you have in an End of Life phase who will take care of you until the bitter end. Their romance seems to be summed up in this one phrase that P says really heartbreakingly towards the end about meeting and falling in love with N, “I looked over, she looked up, that was it.”

What is there, in that romance between P and N? What do they have that J doesn’t? Are they a romantic ideal? Are they more troubled than they seem, because so much of what happens does happen behind closed doors, and we only see them in these few exchanges?

Alison: When J first watches them, they are the opposite of an ideal. They’re the model she has for, like Echo and Narcissus, “A woman who wants and a man who wants nothing.” He seemed so complete, and she was just this kind of skinny, angry-looking thing. J had to keep watching them to learn that her rigid idea of female and male positions is wrong. If they begin for her as that horrific pairing, by the end, even though at that point they actually still look that way—J sees them walking through the park and it’s like he’s just guiding a skeleton—visibly it’s the same exact thing she saw in the beginning, but she now knows there’s so much more. There’s some wonderful, sustaining, true connection between them. She ends up using them as the model for Baucis and Philemon, the two that twine together as trees. So whether or not they are a romantic ideal, she’s learned something.

There’s a scene that I wrote rather late, where J’s in the elevator and P’s about to get on but he realizes that his wife is still out talking somewhere. He jumps back off to wait for N, leaving J alone in the elevator. J just gets the sense of this beam between them, like the beam in the elevator doors that you put your hand in to stop them from closing. What’s between them is this extraordinary, powerful thing that she hasn’t felt. She sees a need to have that. It’s something to admire.

In love, there’s a fluidity between these two different poles. One person’s powerful this minute and then the other one is. I think that’s what their story is about, that the state of love is this constant flux back and forth between who’s saving and who’s rescuing, who’s wanting and not wanting, who’s needing and who isn’t. It’s always going back and forth between two people who are actually attached.

Rumpus: What should J want? Should J want?

Alison: Those are hard questions.

Rumpus: I can’t wait.

Alison: I’m gonna stick to J’s guns and say she shouldn’t want anything. She should be able to not want anything. However, I know perfectly well that you can’t not want anything and live.

You have to want something or you’re finished. That’s what perfect means. You’re finished.

I want J to not want anything because I know it’s painful to want things, but I also know completely well she has to want something in order to stay alive.


Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor of @Longreads. She was a rep at the American Booksellers Association for years, as well as the social editor for IndieBound, a nationwide local first movement. She lives in Harlem and tweets as @CusickCatherine. She lives in Harlem and tweets @CusickCatherine More from this author →