Lynne Tillman on writing, rhythm, & her ongoing relationship with the art world

By Jane Ciabattari

The opening act in the NBCC’s “Urban Mirrors: New York, New York” reading by NBCC award winners and finalists at the New School on September 23 was Lynne Tillman, who has been interviewed by Lydia Davis and Geoffrey O’Brien, and who has been part of the downtown art scene for years, and also part of the state-of-the-art Red Lemonade publishing scene (her four novels are all newly published this year by Richard Nash's new press). She was crisp, clear, provocative.

She read from her 1998 novel No Lease on Life, which was an NBCC finalist in fiction. The novel takes place in the course of a 24-hour period on June 17, 1994, and was Tillman's reframing of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Elizabeth, her main character, lives in the East Village, and the novel is filled with setpieces drawn from that setting and urban jokes of the time. The section she read juxtaposed Hector, the building super, Saul Wachtler, the scandal-ridden chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, and a shaggy dog story in which Elizabeth deciphers the meaning of “No Menus” signs in lobbies to a non English speaking tourist.

How did she research the novel?

With a tape recorder, Tillman said. She walked down the street and captured details of the buildings, the pizza place, the liquor store, other  landmarks. She tape recorded people she knew from around the neighborhood, and used texts compressed from these conversations throughout the book. Elizabeth is watching the Knicks game on television when it is interrupted by an insert of the white Bronco driven by O.J. Simpson. “It's just part of the night,” Tillman said.

I asked her about her author's bio on Amazon, which in ways mirrors her work. It begins like this:

Here's an Author's Bio. It could be written differently. I've written many for myself and read lots of other people's. None is right or sufficient, each slants one way or the other. So, a kind of fiction – selection of events and facts.. So let me just say: I wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old. That I actually do write stories and novels and essays, and that they get published, still astonishes me.

The bio concludes with an extraordinary definition: “Writing is a beautiful, difficult relationship with what you know and don't know, have or haven't experienced, with grammar and syntax, with words, primarily, with ideas, and with everything else that's been written.”

I asked her about the importance of rhythm in her work (notable, for instance, in her short story “The Substitute,” in her new collection from Red Lemonade, Some Day This Will Be Funny). Where did it begin?  “Listening to Ray Charles as a kid….Because I’m not a plot driven writer, rhythm will carry the day with my writing, keep it moving along… I’m influenced by poetry. And the idea of breath. You can’t have a long long sentence that goes on forever. The reader has to breathe. There’s got to be a moment.”

Like Frank O’Hara and Frederic Tuten, Tillman has had a rich collaborative relationship with artists and written regularly about art, through characters like Madame Realism and the Translation Artist, characters that today bring to mind the avatars developed online. Her ongoing relationship with the art world began early in life–“I did some painting at Hunter College…I was an English major and history minor, but took all my electives in studio art.” She described the process of collaborating with artists, which  is central to the stories in her collection This Is Not It, which includes collaborations with Smith, Barbara Krueger, and some twenty others. She also explained her idiosyncratic approach to art criticism.”In 1986 I said I wouldd never write just art criticism, that I didn’t want to foreground the art and forsake the writing.” 

And what is she reading now? Diane Arbus: A Chronology, from Aperture.”It’s from her diaries and letters and work notes. She was an amazing writer. If she hadn’t been a photographer, she could have been a writer. It’s beautiful and interesting to anyone interested in photography….Her work is so complex, what she’s representing, and she was there. She knew it. “

Here's video of Lynne Tillman reading, and of our conversation.


Coming next week: Act Two of NBCC's “Urban Mirrors: New York, New York,” at the New School. Three-time NBCC finalist David Hajdu talks about Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, the park bench on 103rd and Riverside, Bob Dylan, his wife Karen Berlin's remarkable talent, and the two novels he published under a pseudonym.