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Organic Choreography: An Interview with Jane Alison, Author of Meander, Spiral, Explode

This post is the third in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Jane Alison, author of Meander, Spiral, Explode.

Jane Alison was born in Canberra, Australia. Her first novel, The Love-Artist, was published in 2001 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and has been translated into seven languages. It was followed by two further novels, The Marriage of the Sea, a New York Times Notable Book of 2003, and Natives and Exotics; a memoir, The Sisters Antipodes; and a nonfiction novel, Nine Island. She lives in Charlottesville and teaches creative writing at the University of Virginia.

Ruth Joffre: One of the qualities that excites me most about Meander, Spiral, Explode is its wisdom—that knowledge that comes from reading texts, living with them, teaching them over the course of many years. I got the sense, reading the book, that it was the product of a life spent immersed in literature, which made me wonder: how long did you spend writing it? And how did your relationship with the texts mentioned in the book change over time, either while you were writing or while you were working up to writing the book?

Jane Alison: I spent two concentrated summers writing the book but, as you guessed, had been working on these ideas for fifteen years. The text that first spawned ideas ultimately leading to this book was Sebald’s Emigrants, which set me exploring spatiality in fiction. I think I had a straightforward (simplistic) understanding of spatiality until only a year or two ago, when spatial form met natural pattern, and then everything changed—and I was able to retro-fit the ideas of natural patterns to books I’d otherwise seen as spatial and unconventional but not yet formulated more about.

RJ: Oftentimes, reading Meander, Spiral, Explode felt like sitting in an extremely rigorous graduate level creative writing seminar. Many of the essays seem to be built around or at least drawn upon actual lectures you have given in the course of your pedagogical career. If so, how did you go about adapting lectures meant to be delivered live into texts readers could experience outside the classroom? If not, how did you refine these lessons and theories over time?

JA: You’re right: most of these essays came out of seminar and workshop talks, both grad and undergrad. But those talks were loose—and they were discussions, not strictly lectures—so turning them into essays held some sweaty surprises.

RJ: You open the book with an account of how Irish designer Eileen Gray designed a villa on the southern coast of France, how she observed the paths and motions she and her housekeeper followed around the house and used this “organic choreography” to design her villa—nature meets architecture. We see architecture again, most notably, when you discuss Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, which draws its structure from its setting—architecture meets literature. Did your relationship to architecture and to manmade spaces (both in and out of literature) change as you looked for this “organic choreography” around you? If so, can you provide an example?

JA: Here I should admit that I’ve spent my adult life in close relations with architects; a decade ago, my then-husband, an architect and urban designer, introduced me to the story of Le Corbusier and Gray. Corbu’s ideas about the architectural promenade and his method of creating and controlling the viewer’s pathway through a built space both fascinated and irked me. So when I learned about Gray’s more organic methods, developed in reaction to him, of creating a space drawn from natural movements, I loved her at once. I’ve been working on a book about the two of them for some time and realized toward the end of writing Meander, Spiralthat in Gray I had a perfect key to this idea of “organic choreography” in narrative.

RJ: In your book, you examine eight patterns of narrative, including the three from the book’s title. But before you examine those patterns, you pause to discuss what you call “Primary Elements”: point, line, texture; movement and flow; and color.Most craft books, as you note, would say the primary elements of fiction are character, setting, and plot, so reading about these three elements felt a bit like rewiring my brain in order to think about text differently. Did you feel like you had to push against or unlearn that more traditional understanding of the elements of fiction in order to write this book successfully? How do you see your craft book engaging with craft as it is traditionally taught?

JA: Luckily for me, I began writing fiction with no training in those traditional views; I studied Latin and Greek literature, before “elements of fiction” existed and had been codified and where, for instance, you could find a scientific treatise in epic verse or stories painted on a drinking-cup . . . Classic fiction guidebooks offer much wisdom, for sure; I’m just leery of prescriptiveness and categories that don’t seem logically differentiated. My book most wants to reduce elements of narrative to something closer to language and syntax, with their sounds, speeds, tensions, and rhythms, and to rid writers of the obligation to create and follow plotted conflict.

RJ: In the chapter called “Point, Line, Texture,” there is a fascinating section where you break down Vikram Chandra’s “Shakti” using underscores, hyphens, and dots to visually represent summaries, scenes, and still spots. This visual shorthand was intriguing and almost thrilling, and I kept hoping to see it again elsewhere in the book. Is this something you do regularly (invent new diagrams for understanding patterns in fiction)? How do you use these diagrams (both as a writer and educator) to enhance the understanding of craft?

JA: I wondered whether that chart would make sense and am glad it did. An earlier version of the book had another chart, too, which went with the discussion of color in Tobias Wolff’s Barracks Thief. I’d counted the color-words in each chapter and made a chart showing them, finding red concentrated in just a few areas. But we couldn’t print color inside the book, and even the designer’s ingenious ideas to get around color couldn’t get the effect across, so we cut it. But, yes, I like to use diagrams–am an incurable counter and parser–and often ask students to draw the shapes of narratives.

RJ: You’ve written that W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants was the first book to show you an alternative to the traditional narrative arc. Your examination of his work forms much of the chapter on “Networks and Cells,” one of the eight patterns examined in the book. Do you recall: what was the second book to show you an alternative pattern? How did you go about gathering the different works mentioned in the book and organizing them into these eight patterns?

JA: The second book that showed an alternative was Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, which I understood then as largely a stealth photo album–she got rid of all the photos she was supposed to write about and instead made a narrative about a photo that didn’t exist. But she develops the story so slowly . . . with more digressions than forward motion, that I later saw that the natural pattern it follows is a meander. The next book was Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River. This one I first saw as purely spatial—separate narratives with no strictly causal or temporal links among them, making you read across the whole. Now I read it more specifically as fractal: there’s a lyrical prologue that works as a stem whose dynamics the other four narratives replicate at different scale.

I examined these three books for the first graduate lecture I gave, in 2003, which was on nontraditional narratives. Then I grew more curious about the idea of design in narrative—that is, how decisions about repetitions, symmetries, viewpoint, imagery, etc., could only be perceived as a unified whole intrinsic to the project once you’ve finished reading a novel: then you can look back and see how it’s organically cohesive. After several years, I realized that my various readings and theories were clustering into ideas about design and pattern in narrative overall. It was only when I’d begun drafting this book—and realized that I needed to know a lot more about pattern—that I discovered Peter Stevens’s brilliant Patterns in Nature and saw that certain patterns recur at every scale: meanders, spirals, explosions, etc. And those patterns, I realized in something like ecstatic shock, corresponded to the ones I’d been groping toward in the books and novels I was examining.

RJ: Perhaps because I studied with Alice Fulton, who is deeply interested in fractal poetics, some of the patterns in your book (fractals; radials or explosions) seemed to me to have a distinctly poetic sensibility. You touch on poetry briefly in your discussion of Anne Carson’s Nox, but the book is primarily devoted to fiction. Do you think there is more overlap between the eight patterns in your book and those found in poetry? Moving forward, do you intend to explore those poetic patterns as well?

JA: I think there’s a lot of overlap between these patterns and poetry, as well as nonfiction. Poets have explicitly deployed the Fibonacci sequence (which engenders spirals), as well as other fractals; and essayists speak easily of spiraling form and seem even more willing than some fiction writers to work in crots, or prose stanzas—that is, cellular form. If I were a poet and had a chance in hell of speaking intelligently about poetry, I would explore this—but no.

RJ: A number of recent or forthcoming craft books approach structure and form from a different perspective than your book. I’m thinking specifically of books like Shapes of Native Nonfiction (eds. Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton), which examines basketweaving as a (literary) form, and Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making (eds. Amanda Galvan Huynh and Luisa A. Igloria, whom I interviewed here), which examines transformative poetics. These works and others speak to a large body of writing by women and writers of color who work with alternative forms and structures. You mention a few such writers (for example, Sandra Cisneros) in your book. Are there other writers of color not cited in your book whose works you think fit into one or more of your eight patterns? How do you see your theories of structure and form engaging with that large body of writing?

JA: Other works by writers of color that might follow the patterns I describe: Ondaatje’s Divisadero could be a spiral, Teju Cole’s Open City, a meander, John Keene’s Annotations might be an explosion . . . My book is actually something of a memoir or accounting of the first texts I read that began to help me evolve ideas about alternative structure, starting fifteen years ago—the texts that rooted themselves in my mind as examples of something different I wanted to figure out. The first in this journey were (as I mentioned earlier) Sebald’s The Emigrants, then Marguerite Duras’ The Lover (meander), and Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River (fractal). These were followed by Cisneros’s House on Mango Street (spiral), Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (explosion), and Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity” (cells). These texts’ unusual structures are what drew me first, but of course I recognized that most of these authors write from positions of cultural betwixedness or alienation, from a discomfort with certain ruling conventions—and, indeed, over half of those first texts were written by people of color. The new books you mention are—tellingly?—about authors of color working with alternative structure in nonfiction and poetry, but not fiction; I’d be really interested to see specific explorations of the latter.

RJ: One thing that becomes abundantly clear when you examine the genre of craft books as a whole is that they are predominantly white and male. This seems to me to be an extension of the bias that exists in both publishing and pedagogy, where women and writers of color still have to fight to be heard. As an educator, what strategies have you developed to ensure discussions of craft are inclusive of everyone?

JA: Like most writing teachers I know, I make sure that readings in my classes include a range of voices, backgrounds, stances. Sometimes a text’s specific craft elements themselves allow discussion to grow more conscious of questions of inclusivity (and the inverse). One example: Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River, a novel that portrays the transatlantic slave trade’s fracturing of lives, family, and culture, does so through a correspondingly fractured/fractaling narrative structure, so the form is essential and organic to the content. Another example: Marie Redonnet’s Hotel Splendid, a novel about one woman’s dire battle with forces eroding a building, is composed with an equally relentless system of small, battering waves of action; reading it alongside Hélène Cixous’s “Laugh of the Medusa” opens discussions about forms that “feminine writing” might take, ways that it might, for instance, resist a traditional climaxing arc.

RJ: Finally, what are you working on now?

JA: I’m going back to the novel—probably a nonfiction novel—about Eileen Gray and Le Corbusier and the house she designed on the south coast of France that drove him wild. I’ve written it three times and would like to get it right.