Rosaire Appel is the author of transiT and Mabel in her Twenties from FC2. She was interviewed by Jacklyn Attaway for FC2.
They were called French New Novelists — Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, Sollers, Blanchot and then Duras … This was in the mid-seventies. I read them in translation and fell in love with the language of translated French. It’s clean, non-colloquial, has a simple rhythm (not all translators achieve this of course). And Beckett. Eventually I came to Gertrude Stein. All of these used narrative strategies to investigated common reality in ways that opened up new possibilities for writing/thinking. For experimentation. For getting beyond what I already knew.
I was looking for ways to keep the momentum going and the language alive, and I still look for these — old ropes can’t be reused. (Art is a rope one makes to pull oneself out of hell — hell being the daily drone and mire of habitual thought and reactions.)
Lately I read mostly science.
What FC2 writers have you read/ enjoy reading?
I’d say Stufloten and Tarnowski. They both used language consciously as an exploratory tool to construct works that don’t exist outside themselves, fictions in the best sense.
Your bio mentions that you are a visual artist as well as a writer. I can definitely see your profession as an artist shine through your fiction: You paint a very precise picture with your writing and in some situations, purposely obscure details to create mood. Also, you design the artwork for your novels: The cover and leaf art for transiT and Mabel in Her Twenties, and the interior photographs for Mabel in Her Twenties. For the sake of the interview, could you tell us how you utilize your career as a visual artist in your fiction?
I don’t actually make much distinction between visual and verbal arts — they’re just different tools for a process of exploration that takes many turns and remains unpredictable. I move back and forth between visual and verbal work even in a single day. As for putting verbals and visuals in the same space, on the same page, I like playing with the tension of this combination, it sets up an internal competition for attention, both adds and subtracts in the work and so forth. I’ve recently been experimenting with animation videos, bringing the verbal and visual even closer …
Your novels have a very “Victorian” aspect. Even though I realize that the setting could be anytime, including the present, there’s something about your writing and the situations into which your characters run, for example the importance of the train station and courting rituals of Mabel in Her Twenties and the outdated book on survival in the tropics and living conditions on the unnamed island in transiT, that evokes a very turn of the century Victorianism. Did you intend to generate this sensation within your readers? If so, do you feel an attachment or strong affection for this time period?
In Mabel in Her Twenties I considered the era my mother grew up in — early 20th century. It was unfamiliar to me, the formality, the rules of behavior, straight customs and so forth. I read sociology and etiquette books and reinvented stories my mother had told. Using a non-contemporary era made it possible to fabricate and imagine rather than recreate what I already knew. When I write what I know, writing becomes an exercise rather than an exploration. In other words, writing turns into a tedious activity bound by rules and formalities, rather than something alive and reinvented with each sentence …
I know the unnamed island in transiT is an element of the author’s creative imagination, but I have to ask … is it Jamaica? The whole time I was reading transiT, the same foreboding and sensual mood that permeates throughout Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea swept over me.
For transiT, third world tropics with its unfamiliar customs and discomforts, I used my own experiences of travel (early sixties, Central America) as well as research, old travel guides and so forth. I was interested in writing something that didn’t/wouldn’t close, that remained open, yet present, sensual rather than cerebral …
You’ve written two novels for FC2, Mabel in Her Twenties and transiT; have you published through any other organizations/ companies? Also, are you working on something at this moment, fiction and/ or visual art?
After transiT is one called Radio Oil, sections of which have been published. The voice is contemporary, global, threatening, fragmented — liquefied. I also publish under the name Rappel.
I have a cache of chapbooks, visual and/or verbal and for the past year I’ve been making ebooks, an excellent format for both words and images, easy to distribute.
In addition to that “Victorian-esque” mood, transiT evoked a 1920s/ 1930s feeling within me (very ex-patriot Hemingway or Camus’s The Stranger). Perhaps it was the cafe setting or the sense of being a stranger in a foreign land, but a wave of nostalgia/déjà vu dominated my perception as I read this book. Were either of the two listed above influences for transiT, or am I bringing in my own psychological noise?
Hemingway and Camus — sure, they were influences but early on, before I started writing. I was very drawn to the clean, cool language of Hemingway’s stories — and the translated French of Camus. You’re causing me to remember a lot of literature that I’ve loved over the years, like remembering old friends, their ambience, texture, moods — their stories.
In the first chapter/ section of transiT, you make a very powerful statement: “In every condition a future must follow systematically on the heels of its present, one insists. It must arrive with verbal promptness, be rationally consumed without anxious reflection — or vanish into its own wrapping” (9). Later, you state, “A shadow is merely some shade in transit, a plane of parallel, unconnected, absent light. His voice is merely sound in transit moving steadily over old tracks” (21). I gathered that these two statements somewhat underlined the mission/purpose (if I may say mission/purpose) of your book. Are these statements, and transiT in its entirety, a commentary on writing and the creation/presence of a story? For instance, could one say that in writing, “a future must follow …?” Also, does story exist everywhere there are shade and sounds moving in transit?
Yes, it’s true what you’re saying here and where you’re going with the statements.
With the man pushing his glass to edge of the table, the story of the Chemist and his wife, and the mention of light, sound, and motion traveling in waves, you bring a sense of science and in many cases, physics, into your writing for transiT. You mentioned earlier, you are reading a science books at the moment. Were you reading any particular science texts before or at the time you were writing transiT? Are there any specific science texts that influenced transiT?
I was just starting to read science at that time — or hadn’t quite started, but the interest was there and my curiosity had already started. What are things made of, what is water, what is marble, what is glass …what is a wave, a particle, a second?
Throughout the novel, there is the voice of the traveler/transient: She pictures herself at home. The place called home starts out as a sentiment small as a slide, but eagerly focused. It illuminates the whole room. […] An abundance of detail fits into the picture, she enters it fully, is safe in its lap (67). This is the voice of the stranger in a foreign country. Is this the person that, throughout the text, is the observer and eavesdropper? Is she the narrator, the ultimate filter through which we encounter not only the stories of others, but her own feelings of disconnection? Also, what is your relationship to her?
To my mind there are actually several observers/eavesdroppers in transit, thus the character roles remain open — open in a way that they can’t when one is at home in a routine of familiar settings.
The dialogue of transiT is very much the conversation of relationships. Major issues are left out, and it is implied that the person “to be hearing” the statements already knows the important details. I actually found myself “straining to hear” more. Even though I was only receiving partial information, I could feel the tension in the dialogue. In your writing, how do you create that sense of eavesdropping, curiosity, and disorientation?
Confession: After reading transiT, I find myself listening in on people’s conversations (more so than I already did, vicarious person that I am, “Miss. Brill”) in public places.
Yes, listening is fascinating — and also becoming aware of how just a few hints evoke complex structures. This has a lot to do with the quality — or availability I should say, of one’s imagination. Receptivity. Being in a foreign/unfamiliar place makes one more alert and receptive to all kinds of things that, if one lived there, would be commonplace and unnoticeable.
Your last statement: “The surface, as if it is liquid, trembles, deflecting what passes beyond it” (133). Is time like liquid? Uncontainable, flowing, and moving in waves? Are stories/ histories like liquid as well?
Again, I like your reading of transiT and your questions, even though I’m not going to get into specific interpretation. You know, writing — constructing a verbal body — is such a strange convoluted process. One starts with an inkling and grows it, becoming intimate with it. At some point the growing turns into composing. The whole process is very incestuous.
What I mean is that the book — this narrative — is inextricably part of the thinking/imagining that went into it, and the thinking/imagining is inextricably part of the verbal material it became. Now, as a book, it is a separate entity, an object in its own right. How you read it is how it is. The thoughts it provokes are products of your own interaction with it — yes, the reader makes the book what it is.
Your writing displays how your characters almost “tip-toe” around issues, and how we are viewing the relationship as outsiders. In conversations between loved ones, everything is inferred. We can’t completely understand the relationship because we don’t actually feel what the characters are feeling. You state, “Still words had been cut and spliced together some sentences forcibly filled to the end” (16). In addition, you say, “Words were there to be used however one used them as best one could. […] Through words one extended obscure satisfactions to their final outcome through words one excluded” (57). By using this archaic language of etiquette, are you conveying that love and relationships have their own language and etiquette separate from daily speech?
Well, love relationships do have separate languages and etiquettes but there is also this to consider: our way of talking about things/our ways of telling our stories make things the way they are, and if we always hear things said the same way, those things lose their vitality and power — like a picture that’s been on the wall for five years is no longer noticed when you walk through that room. In a sense, it’s not that stories get old, it’s that the ways of telling get old.
I like — and appreciate — your close readings of Mabel, and these are excellent questions — but they’re not for me to answer. Mabel was written from the inside of it, non-intellectualized. The kind of language it uses isn’t a stylistic overlay on something that existed prior to it — Mabel was made through the rhythm of its own language.
Interpretation and the finding and figuring of symbols are for the reader at this point. A work changes when it leaves the privacy of the author’s desk — just as it changes as it leaves the author’s mind and moves onto the paper. What comes to be written is actually a malleable substance, open to interpretations. Since I’m the writer of it, however, one could tend to give my thoughts about Mabel an authority, limiting the range of possible readings and shorten the life span of the book. But at this point, my interpretations and reading would be no more valid than yours.
Can you give me a little of the story behind your writing of Mabel?
I worked on the book for four or five years, developing the thing, writing, rewriting, honing it into being. It was of course a huge amount of work and finally I got to the point of a final version. It was quite long, around 300 pages. I started reading it through — but after getting a little way into it my heart sank — it wasn’t at all what I wanted, somehow I’d taken a wrong turn and hadn’t realized it … I had actually killed it. The thought of having wasted four years on a dead end sent a chill through me — but I knew it was true, I had to face it and either give up the book entirely or rewrite the whole thing from scratch, reinvent it as I went along. I’d had enough of Mabel at that point, was ready to move on — but I turned around and just rewrote the whole thing off the top of my head, never looked at the old manuscript again. The writing this time around was more like talking since I knew the material so well. Also, this rewrite used a completely different energy from the first write, the energy this time was fueled by a chilling knowledge of failure — which made me push the language farther, demand more of it: both the language and the story had to live on the surface of the page.