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83 Dorothy Allison Laura Miller/1998 This article first appeared in, at An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission. It’satoss-upwhichqualityDorothyAllisonhasingreatermeasure—strength or charm. She’s needed plenty of both to fight her way out of the desperate circumstances into which she was born. Her riveting, semiautobiographical first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, portrays a dirt-poor Southern childhood in a family notorious for its violent, hard-drinking men and troubleprone women. For Allison, these crushing circumstances were intensified by a physically and sexually abusive stepfather and, eventually, the discovery that she was a lesbian. She left home and devoted years of her life to feminist activism and collectives, although her refusal to toe the line sexually (or to keep quiet about her penchant for what she calls “rough trade”) often made her an outcast there as well. She also began to write stories and essays whose fierce eloquence instantly gripped anyone lucky enough to discover them in alternative newspapers and books published by the small press Firebrand. Then, in 1992, Bastard was published to ecstatic acclaim, particularly a full page in the New York Times Book Review in which George Garrett proclaimed the novel “as close to flawless as any reader could ask for” and “simply stunning,” and praised Allison’s “perfect ear for speech and its natural rhythms.” Bastard became a bestseller, a perennial favorite of reading groups, and was made into a 1996 film directed by Anjelica Huston for TNT (although TNT owner Ted Turner, in a brief, capricious “decency” campaign , refused to televise it—it premiered on Showtime). The success of Bastard lifted the lifelong outsider from relative obscurity and penury to literary fame and middle-class comfort, much to her amusement. Allison’s long-awaited second novel, Cavedweller, concerns Delia Byrd, a rock ’n’ roll singer who abandons her career and returns with her third daughter to the small Georgia town where years earlier she had left two 84 CONVERSATIONS WITH DOROTHY ALLISON older children with the husband who nearly beat her to death. Allison spoke to Salon in the dining room of the bustling Victorian house in San Francisco where she lives with her lover, Alix, their young son, Wolf, and several extravagantly affectionate dogs and cats. LM: Tell me about Cavedweller, the glimmer that was the beginning of this book. DA: I had Cissy in the cave. The notion was of somebody in such trouble that the only place she was going to feel safe was in this hole in the ground. And I had the notion of a woman who, in order to redeem herself, basically buries herself alive. And, of course, rock ’n’ roll. I’ve been wanting to write a novel based on the story of Janis Joplin. Not a biography, but about that whole complex of working-class self-hatred and female masochism and selfdestruction and great talent. Delia grew out of that. LM: Cissy is someone most at home in total darkness, and it’s not a coincidence that the two women who she goes down there with are lesbians, even though Cissy doesn’t get that. DA: She’s in the dark in more ways than one. In this decade there is a lot of information about lesbians. But there wasn’t before this, especially not in small towns. And so what happened is that you couldn’t quite get it. It didn’t quite register. You knew you were weird. And the first time Cissy gets a spark is with these girls, but she hasn’t got any language or any concept to understand why she is mad for them. LM: Bastard was a book about getting out, while this is in many ways a book about going back home. DA: I think a lot in terms of what I am missing in books that I want. And I am missing a story of redemption that I find believable. Lyrical, but believable. I find Delia’s redemption believable. I’m in awe of some of the women in my family. We’re like these girls [points to a newspaper article about women on death row]. In my family, it is pretty traditional that we all commit some unforgivable sin and then spend the rest of our lives trying to redeem it in some fashion. And the romance of self-destruction: I truly do not know why some of us can resist it and...


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