Living Up to the Legend: Dorothy Allison on Storytelling, Cussing & Family Secrets
The author best known for Bastard Out of Carolina talks about getting older, writing about the forbidden and using humor to survive.
Getting an interview with Dorothy Allison is easier than you’d think. You just email her at an AOL account, and she responds two days later. We did have to work around her physical therapy schedule (she had a major health scare a few years ago), but otherwise she was accommodating and responsive. Turns out the working class writer with the potty mouth is also charming and deeply funny.
Our interview was related to her scheduled appearance at this year’s Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to ask Allison about being a Southern writer, her best known novel Bastard Out of Carolina or the backlash that can come from exposing your own family secrets. We covered a lot of ground by phone from her home in Northern California, and she’s one of those people you could sit and talk to forever, although she did finally have to get back to the work of writing.
If it sings on the page, baby I’ll tell you lies. I’ll tell you lies ’til I don’t even know where the truth begins.” – Dorothy Allison
I would put her in the category of Southern women writers like Ellen Gilchrist, Shirley Ann Grau, Bobbie Ann Mason and Kay Gibbons. It was an honor to interview one of the Southern literary greats that is still living, although Allison would tell you that coming from a poor, working class background sets her apart. And it’s what takes her work beyond the Southern lit genre into a place where it’s OK to talk about class and sexuality no matter where you’re from.
Now age 66 (she turns 67 next month), Allison is a survivor of physical abuse and incest. She is a lesbian and feminist activist, a mom and teacher. “But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family …” she wrote in an essay included in her 1994 book Skin. She began writing and still writes to make sense of her upbringing, forgive her mother for not protecting her and give other writers permission to tell their stories.
See Allison in New Orleans March 30-April 3 for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. She’s also being inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors on April 15 and serving as the Roy Acuff Chair of Excellence at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, next year.
DRAGGING HER BUTT TO THE TENNESSEE WILLIAMS FESTIVAL
DOROTHY ALLISON: I’ve been going to the Tennesse for more than 20 years and I trust absolutely the organizers and I do whatever they ask me to do, which is not the case with anything else in the country. I go to all of the panels that I can drag my butt too. I’m a diabetic, so I can’t eat beignets anymore, but I drink black coffee. It is a wonderful gathering. (She is pictured below in a tribute reading at the 2011 festival.)
ON GETTING OLDER
DOROTHY ALLISON: Few people are as old as I am. I’m older than some dirt. It’s amazing. I never expected to live this long … The thing about being a published writer and getting older is that you become the grand old lady and then they invite you to come toss your gray hair at them. Toss my gray hair and cuss a lot. I think I live up to my legend as much as possible.
DOROTHY ALLISON: I tend to, when I go off to universities, I really try not to cuss. I really do try and I always announce at the beginning that I might swear, but if so, I apologize. Every once in a while, the ability to genuinely cuss creatively is a power writers should encourage, but be creative about it. Don’t just say the same old fuck, fuck, fuck all the time.
MAKING PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE
DOROTHY ALLISON: The reality is pretty much my whole life wherever I show up there is some part of me that is completely unacceptable. If I show up at a literary gathering, they tend to be uncomfortable with the fact that I’m a lesbian. If I show up at a lesbian gathering, they don’t really want to talk about class or the South. I really love talking about working class literature, which is one of the main ways I think about myself as a writer, but a lot of times working class literature focus doesn’t want to talk about region or sexuality, so pretty much wherever they invite me I bring the parts they’re most uncomfortable with.
I think it’s part of being a redneck from the South. It’s a defensive posture, but it works for me.
DOROTHY ALLISON: Something nobody ever seems to understand is that I have a tremendous sense of humor and I’m always doing these panels or doing a talk or go to a program, and people will come up to me after and say, ‘you’re so funny. I didn’t know you were funny. I thought you’d be tragic.’ I’ve had enough tragic, girl.
I actually do believe that humor is one of the life-saving approaches that particularly Southern working class people use, so here I am honey. Get used to it.
TELLING STORIES & LIES
DOROTHY ALLISON: What makes a good story? Now, there’s two different concepts. There’s good story talking. We’re all trained to talk story and to talk story engagingly, but good story on the page has to have a really confident, engaging voice and that is nowhere near as simple as people would like to imagine. I work with a lot of baby writers. I believe in baby writers and I encourage the hell out of them, but getting them to relax enough to have a fairly engaging voice in the story is the hard part. It’s very, very difficult. Writers will take me on journeys I absolutely do not want to go on, but the voice catches me and pulls me behind them. That’s a lot of what I try to work with when I’m working with young baby writers. I don’t teach as much as I used to, but that’s the core of it.
Frankly, there are a lot of fantasies about all us Southerners who were given stories by our grandmothers on the porch. My grandmother lied, and one of the things I think that makes a good writer is that you figure out they’ve been lying all along and then you start sorting out what are the true stories and then you figure out that true changes all the time. There are stories I’m willing to tell now — now that I’m older than dirt — that I would never have been capable of telling you when I was 25.
WRITING BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA
DOROTHY ALLISON: I’m a slow writer and it generally takes me a decade to let go of a novel and finish it, and it took me a decade to write Bastard. The essential challenge was creating the voice of that child, because she’s still, even at the end of the novel, a child. Making a believable and engaging child voice. She doesn’t know everything, and that’s a lot of the desire in the story. The other part of it is it’s not a memoir. It’s a fiction. I put everything in there that I knew about being an incest survivor and surviving child abuse, but you can find out more about my real life if you read the book I wrote Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. It is absolutely verifiably true in every case. I even got my sisters to sign off on my quotes from them, but Bastard is a novel. It bears true in the sense that I used a lot of my own experience, but I created the Boatwrights as a way to talk about my family without actually putting them on the page and humiliating them.
TELLING FAMILY SECRETS
DOROTHY ALLISON: There were some difficulties. There were some painful moments. The thing that I try to tell baby writers, if you’re going to steal people — and when you write about your family, you’re stealing the essence of them and putting them into these imaginary characters and they will see pieces of themselves — if you’re going to do that, you have to absolutely be able to stand in the room with them and let them yell at you. But that comes out of being raised Baptist more than being a writer. But also because if you do that, if you actually stand in the room with your sisters when you’ve written this novel, astonishing things can happen and it can deepen your capacity for storytelling, because they’ll tell you the stories you don’t know.
It’s tricky. It’s a working class family, my family, and had a long history of violence, but very, very secretive in the way that people are when they’re trying to survive violence. When I wrote that novel, it provoked necessarily conversations that people had been avoiding for decades. With my sisters, it was a completely positive thing because it gave my sisters a language to talk about things that we had avoided talking about. You can’t fix that kind of damage, but it meant that we could talk about it and it meant that we could look at the younger generation and put in place some protection. Again, that stuff is deeply complicated. It’s really awkward to be essentially a writer, a novelist, a liar and at the same time be a feminist activist and an incest survivor, because one has to be extremely pragmatic, forthright and holding the world accountable, but the other, the storyteller, you know if it sounds good, if it sings on the page, baby I’ll tell you lies. I’ll tell you lies ’til I don’t even know where the truth begins.
WHAT SHE’S WORKING ON NOW
DOROTHY ALLISON: I have fallen into a new book and it has taken me over in that way that sometimes can happen. First time in my life I have been writing a novel in chronological order, which is wow, I should have tried this before. It’s so much simpler.
It’s called 1971 for right now. It’s about a woman who’s oldest and dearest friend gives her a very complicated gift. He gives her 1971. I would say you’d have to think of it as magical realism, and I just can’t even explain it more than that. I’ve read a couple of sections of it and boy it’s fun to watch people’s mouths fall open because it’s something completely different. I have friends who are mystery writers. They always tell me that you have to be able to describe your novel in 25 words or less and my mouth falls open. It took me 50,000 words to write this book. I can’t reduce it to 25. At some point you have to think of it that way, but not right now. Right now I’m just drunk on 1971, which was an amazing year by the way.
FOLLOWING UP BASTARD WITH CAVEDWELLER
DOROTHY ALLISON: I suppose when your first novel has gotten all that attention it puts a whole lot of stress on the second novel and that did create a lot of complications, and I think I should have taken another year and did a little more work, but I didn’t and there it is. But I know where it began. I started by writing about Janis Joplin. I wanted to write a novel about Janis Joplin because she is to me a working class girl heroine in a very tragic story, but I found I would start with Janis and it would move away and something else would happen and then Janis became Delia. It’s really hard to explain how story happens for some of us. It’s like your mind plays tricks on you. What would happen if Janis Joplin had had children?
It’s very funny, there’s a passage in the Bible about the bones rising up and I always think of that when I’m writing characters, because you might begin by stealing someone, someone in your family or someone that you’ve seen or been momentarily fascinated by, but it never stays that person and it always shifts as you create a character. It’s like the bones rise up, enclose themselves in flesh and the next thing you know it’s not Janis Joplin, it’s Delia and she climbs on a bus after her husband beat her up and the next thing you know she’s in LA and you’re writing a whole different story.
CAVEDWELLER ON SCREEN & KEVIN BACON
DOROTHY ALLISON: It was basically Kyra Sedgwick bought it as a project. So I’m related to Kevin Bacon, her husband, and he plays Randall who dies in the opening scene. She made one really good decision, which was to only tell the first half of the book and that was smart. Actually, after I looked at it, I realized the novel itself is two stories that I should have written as two novels. She did a decent job. The kids were great. And then there was a Broadway production, a musical. They made the mistake of trying to do the whole book, and it was just too much material. I actually own two of the CDs. I might be the only person in America.
WHAT DOROTHY ALLISON HAS IN COMMON WITH FLANNERY O’CONNOR
DOROTHY ALLISON: Yes, we’re very different, but at the same time I can see the relationship quite clearly. She tells forbidden stories. Think about “The Misfit.” She wrote the first serial killer short story. So I think in terms of her fearlessness about the forbidden that we have something in common, but also I love her language. A lot of what I love about Southern writing is the language, the pacing, the vernacular. It sings to me much more than Yankees. Poor Yankees. You’d think they never had any decent grandmas.
READING BOOKS FOR PERMISSION
DOROTHY ALLISON: Reading books that you fall into, the essential thing that happens is it gives you permission. If you are a baby writer, it gives you permission to write stories as brave and large and engaging as the people who’s work you have fallen in love with or really touched your heart. If you’re not a writer, if you’re just a human being working deadly hours and it seems to me that I was always reading on breaks when I was a waitress and reading underneath the desk when I was a receptionist and reading to not be in the world that I was in and being invited into worlds that were so rich. That’s what I think novels do for you and that’s what reading novels did for me. It’s not that simple. They talk about us as if it’s simple, but it’s not that simple and that made me want to write novels in which the people were complicated. And it gives you permission. I don’t think I would have ever written Bastard if I hadn’t read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. It was like somebody cracked my world open when I read that book.
WHAT SHE’S READING RIGHT NOW
DOROTHY ALLISON: A friend sent me a big bunch of Val McDermid. I’m reading Patti Smith’s M Train. I’m re-reading Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks ’cause I love him to death. Somebody sent me Emily St. John Mandel because I had read a novel of hers called Station Eleven. It’s a science fiction novel, so I’m reading her new one The Singer’s Gun. I always have a stack of books. There’s a stack in my bedroom, there’s a stack in my office and I recycle them. I live up here in Northern California and there are readers in my neighborhood and we trade books around. They all seem to read mysteries and every once in a while they complain about the novels I share.
ALMOST DYING AS A CURE FOR WRITER’S BLOCK
DOROTHY ALLISON: I had writer’s block for a few years, but dying seems to have fixed that. I really recommend almost dying but not dying.
Photo credits: Dorothy Allison from focusfeatures.com; Christian LeBlanc, Darrell Bourque, David Hoover, Grace Zabriskie, Mona Lisa Saloy, Jeremy Lawrence, Dorothy Allison, Carroll Baker, Janet Daley Duval, Shirley Knight [hidden behind John Waters, who is reading], Armistead Maupin and Robert Olen Butler at the 2011 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival by Ellen Johnson.