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3 Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison Carolyn Megan/1993 From Kenyon Review 16.4 (1994): 71–83. Reprinted by permission of Carolyn Megan. In March 1993 Dorothy Allison’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, nominated for the 1992 National Book Award, had just been published in paperback, and she was at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a reading tour. She answered the door to her posh suite dressed in T-shirt and jeans saying, “Look at this place! Grace Paley stayed in this room!” Readers were lining up in city after city to hear her read, but she was still becoming accustomed to her fame. Her work includes collections of poems, The Women Who Hate Me; stories , Trash; and essays, Skin. A novel, Cavedweller, will be published in 1995. She lives in northern California with her companion, Alix, and their son, Wolf Michael. CM: You’ve said you began Bastard Out of Carolina as a poem. It seems there are a lot of roots of Bastard in your collection of poems, The Women Who Hate Me. Does all your work begin as poetry? DA: It’s what I always do. Almost everything I write begins in some lyric form. It’s how I began; it’s how I learned; it’s what I do. Almost never does it continue as a poem anymore because I have become much more interested in narrative storytelling. There are places in Bastard that are tone poems that somehow survived the editing process. My editing process is extensive. I go through a lot of rewriting. CM: It sounds as if you use your sense of sound and language in coming into a narrative. Does that change how you think of the narrative? 4 CONVERSATIONS WITH DOROTHY ALLISON DA: No, it doesn’t. I think of it all as the same process. What was different was moving from short stories to a novel in terms of structure and language . It became such a larger canvas. Well, I don’t know how in the world I thought I knew what I was doing. I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. Maybe you just throw yourself in with total immersion. My trick was to get a book contract. With a book contract, you either give them their money back or finish it. On sheer nerve I started it and taught myself to do it. It changed everything, because a lot of the forms that I had learned in terms of working with poetry and short stories just did not apply. CM: So when you come into a novel, are you using the same sensibilities you came into your poetry with? I would imagine working in poetic form you begin with hearing the language. DA: I work a lot more with dialogue, which is the thing I moved into more and more from the poetry. But you can look at some of the earlier poems, and there are places where that happens. In The Women Who Hate Me you can see where people talk. But moving into short stories, what I would do is to get first the dialogue, and with the novel that became central. In a large sense, the book [Bastard] is structured so that at different points people are primarily talking. And they all tell stories, and they have a way of storytelling that in some way parallels gospel music. Like choruses that repeat . . . and essentially they repeat each other’s stories to a certain extent. Just different versions. There are a whole lot of stories about the Cherokee greatgranddaddy , and they all had their own view about it and they each had to have a different voice. So it became like a series of tone poems, slowly pushed further and further, getting into those characters. And everything was constructed around what these people, who were essentially the aunts and uncles, were giving to this Bone: a sense of who she was in the world— what her possibilities were. CM: And Bone seems to save herself by telling stories. There’s a scene in Bastard where Daddy Glen has broken Bone’s clavicle, and Bone imagines an elaborate scenario in which she forgives Daddy Glen and then dies. DA: Oh, high drama. CM: So storytelling speaks to Bone’s survival. DA: That’s what I intended. It becomes a technique whereby she retains a sense of power in a situation where she has none...


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