Are you really going to lead with that?
So what is your debut novel, Twister, about?
In Twister, a small Midwestern community grieves the loss of a young man killed in a war. Coincidentally, or not, there’s also a huge storm coming. The story opens with Rose, the soldier’s mother, but then broadens to include a number of other characters—Rose’s estranged stepsister, a neighboring family, townspeople who appear at first glance to be less connected to the loss. In retrospect, I think I wanted to explore how a community copes with momentous change and existential threat—the germ of the story first appeared on the page during the long build-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Will they survive it? And if so, how will they be changed?
Twister has quite a few points of view. Not just Rose, but we also get into the heads of her stepsister, Stella, the neighboring Brown family, and some odd ducks like Scottie Dunleavy, the local eccentric, and Stella’s husband, Ward, a businessman with a secret. Why so many?
I wish I could tell you it was all planned in advance. But the multitude of voices is just how the book came to be. It felt like an unfolding of a sort. Or like I was an anthropologist hiking around an imaginary Midwestern town—my own mythic version of such a place—taking notes from the locals. Though Rose is the glue, the heart of it, no one is “the hero.” All of them are flawed and have the capacity to transcend their limitations, albeit imperfectly and fleetingly. No one character is more deserving of happiness and peace than any other. I was a little surprised and quite pleased to discover that.
I also wanted to delve into how communities pull together, or fail to, on a daily basis—love and betrayal and secrets and grudges and misunderstandings. The book has major external pressures: the death of the soldier, Lance, and the storm that’s bearing down. But the undercurrents intrigued me just as much. What do these people see in each other that they might not be able to face in themselves? And how does what is seen tell us as much about the perceiver as the perceived?
This point of view question is connected to why I write in the first place. Why do we bother to write and read fiction? Especially in this age of binge streaming and endless status updates, when it often seems as if the world could not care less about books. For me, it’s a question that can only be answered by another question (which is stolen from Salman Rushdie): How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story?
Or to put it another way, we are all each other’s problem, we are all each other’s responsibility.
When did you decide to be a writer? Or, more precisely, to take writing seriously?
I was always an avid reader and an introvert, much more comfortable interacting with the page than talking directly with people. A characteristic shared by many writers! Aside from some heartfelt poems about unicorns, written circa 1980, I didn’t write creatively until my mid-twenties. I fell easily into being an English major in college, largely because everything else seemed confounding—but wait, I can read novels for credit? Sign me up! As part of that I read a lot of literary criticism that I have now thoroughly forgotten—but at the time, I think it really put a damper on any thoughts I might have had about risking creative writing myself.
Then in my mid-twenties my mother died and that was, shall we say, a galvanizing factor in my decision to sign up for a creative writing class at UC Berkeley Extension. I didn’t fall into that class, I was propelled. I had absolutely no way of verbalizing this then, but I needed a structured container for some of that lostness, confusion, grief; an antidote to the wordlessness.
Also, I just really needed to do something different. Life became unrecognizable for a time. I became unrecognizable to myself. What better time to branch out beyond unicorn poems?
What makes you angry about the world? Does writing help with that?
Ha! How fun. When are you going to ask me a hard question?
There are so many ways to come at this question I don’t even know where to start. Shall we talk about war or climate change denial or the subjugation of women or racism or homophobia or income inequality … etc. But here’s a thought. I am currently reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, a classic. I have a teetering stack of to-read books and this is the one I picked: a turning back, a revisiting. Berger talking about art and image and commerce and capitalism. Why am I rereading it now, in the lead up to my first book publication? There’s something here that I apparently felt the need to revisit, even if I didn’t know what it was when I pulled it off the shelf.
I think it has something to do with systems in our world that seek to grind us under their jackboots. I think it has to do with the marketplace and art’s uneasy, fraught relationship to it. Berger points out that it has always been a rigged game, in his survey of oil painting and ownership and its co-option by the advertising industry. Art has always struggled to survive and make new meaning. As Berger puts it, “…the struggle was not only to live. Each time a painter realized that he was dissatisfied with the limited role of painting as a celebration of material property and of the status that accompanied it, he inevitably found himself struggling with the very language of his own art as understood by the tradition of his calling.”
It’s an old story, but that doesn’t make the challenge less urgent. So in answer to your question, I am thinking about the pressure put on writers and artists—but not just artists, all humans—to consume and produce and then consume some more. To scramble to find some assigned value in a marketplace that is both inordinately vast and tragically limited.
I think it’s very worrisome that many talented writers cannot find homes for their books; and that so many good books don’t find a readership. What can we do about this? I think we need to be awake to the forces in our culture that seek to minimize us and separate us from one another. That requires constant work and vigilance, and even so we may not win. But the struggle itself—to be awake and to see and to speak about what we see and feel—that’s where art has real power. That has value that cannot be assessed in the marketplace.
So there’s my kernel of hope.
Can reading a good book change a person? Make a person better?
A great book can undermine two conditions that I think we need to guard against because they are all too common: the anesthetized heart and the smooth brain. By that I mean life is rough, we have one million distractions and endless reasons to numb ourselves. Reading and writing, carving out time, quiet, space, engagement, introspection, empathy, that investigatory impulse—this can shore up the parts of our selves that need shoring. People die miserably every day for lack of what is found in poems, to paraphrase William Carlos Williams. There’s a reason most writers can quote that line.
So, yes. I don’t think a novel or a poem can save a life. But then again, I also think over time, through accretion, maybe literature can save a life. Maybe it saved mine. I’m open to that possibility.
Are you a woman writer? A queer writer? A West Coast writer? An Irish-American writer? A frequently disgruntled and bewildered writer?
I am a writer. We contain multitudes.
Does that sound flip? Identity matters. I proudly claim all of the above. It’s likely formed my work in ways I can’t even see. However. I think a lot of writers get squirrely when asked the category/identity question because underneath it another question often lurks: Which subset of like-minded, familiar-looking, similarly-experienced people might enjoy your work?
To my mind, the best art traverses boundaries. Or attempts to. I’m talking about boundaries within the artist as well as between the work and the reader. That’s what keeps me reading books and going to plays and checking out art galleries, that sense of an artist reaching beyond themselves. And that feeling that a work is talking directly to me, but a much bigger me—less predictable, more exploratory.
There is a very good dog, Fergus, in the book. Do you like dogs?
OMG, dogs! DAWGS!! The. Best.
Thank you for that very thoughtful question.
What books do you think every sentient being should read?
Are you trying to give me hives? You know I have trouble choosing even what to make for dinner. But here goes, a list that springs to mind today as I type (which happens to be a sunny day in November). I’m tremendously grateful for everything Toni Morrison and Michael Ondaatje and Marilynne Robinson have written. Anne Carson and Octavia Butler and Kathryn Davis can blow my mind in the best way. Recently, the poems of Brenda Shaughnessy and Claudia Rankine and Richard Siken have felt indispensible. I think The Age of Innocence is a perfect novel. And So Long, See You Tomorrow is also perfect, but in a completely different way; as is Beloved.
Isn’t it interesting that a “perfect novel,” if there even is such a thing—which is, of course, highly debatable—is always uniquely perfect, a singular event? At least that’s the way it feels, when you’re lying on the couch with the just-finished book splayed on your chest, stunned and grateful and summoned toward something you didn’t know was there.
Anyway. I love books and would love to sit here all day thinking about them. But I’ve got to get a move on.
Right. Figuring out dinner. What are you making?
Lentil soup. One I’ve been returning to somewhat obsessively because it has two essential, glorious qualities: it’s delicious and easy to make. From The Zuni Café Cookbook. Here’s the recipe.
GENANNE WALSH lives in San Francisco. Her debut novel, Twister, was awarded the Big Moose Prize. Excerpts have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Blackbird, and Red Earth Review. Her other work has appeared in Spry, BLOOM, Swink, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College.