Washington Post Book World –cover article
Living in the Virginia mountains in a 12’ x 16’ wood cabin (“when I first moved in it seemed so large I wondered, ‘what am I going to do with all this space?’”), Annie Dillard granted an exclusive in-depth phone interview about her new novel, "The Maytrees," concerning a trio of lovers who live bohemian lives on the dunes at the end of Cape Cod. She munched on cherry slices (“glorified gum drops to which I’m addicted”) while Carolina Wrens chirped in the background.
So you granted Book World your only in-depth interview for this book. Was it because of that affair we had back in ‘82? And don’t pretend you don’t remember.
[laughing] It slipped my mind. Refresh my memory.
OK, it wasn’t technically an affair. It was a dance. We were at a mutual friend’s publication party. You and I had just published spoofs on the same page of the North American Review, and suddenly you yanked me onto the dance floor with these immortal words, “Now let’s see what you’re made of.”
I said that? Usually that’s how I got men to play ping pong with me. It was good for four points.
Well, it sure worked on me. I was intimidated the whole dance.
What were we dancing to? Fast or slow?
I can’t dance anymore. Total knee replacements. I can’t do anything anymore. I’m 62 now.
For me, you’ll always be the way you were then: svelte, incandescent.
I kept growing through my 30’s! I don’t know why! Now I‘m shrinking, of course. At the doctor’s the other day the form asked, “How tall are you? How tall WERE you?” I said, “I didn’t come here to be insulted!”
Me, too. I can’t reach things.
I can reach everything because of all the insoles. They’re like nurses’s shoes.
Let’s talk about something else that has continued to grow: your writing. This last book is about an actual affair.
Yes, but it’s such a small book. It’s heavy paper, big margins …
But it’s very deep, very still and pure. Assertive yet playful. You’ve pared back your style to its essence.
All my books started out as extravagant and ended up pure and plain. This one was over 1200 pages at one point and I just pared it back, boy did I, by the syllable. I lost some of my best metaphors but they had to go. It’s a little silly to finally learn how to write at this age. But I long ago realized I was secretly sincere. This one was as pure as I could make it.
There’s almost no dialogue.
That’s because I can’t do dialogue. So I [solved that] by making Lou [the jilted wife] a non-talker, known for her silences! (laughing)
It’s both pared down and lush.
Don’t say lush, it hurts my feelings. It’s mean and lean.
There is toughness there. It’s generous without being sentimental.
Absolutely! It’s beautiful without being lyrical. It’s much better than anything I’ve ever written.
What pleases you?
Well, for one thing the story itself is so whiz-bang I wanted to do it justice. And for another I haven’t read it over so I can imagine it’s terrific. [laughing]
The jacket copy calls you a gregarious recluse, which I assume are your words. Does that make you an introvert or an extrovert?
A toss-up. When I first read the words introvert and extrovert when I was ten I thought I was both.
I get the feeling you live your life in a state of extended exaltation.
That’s what my husband says, and he’s been married to me for 20 years. Even though I still sit around eating glorified gum drops. I’m a housewife: I spend far more time on housework than anything else.
Are you ever tender?
Of course! Jeez! I loved my students, ‘cause they’re all mad at their parents and yet they need tenderness. I gave them that.
The rhythm of waves permeates the book. Short sentences rolling in one after the other, like the sea you describe as “a monster with a lace hem.” Were you near the ocean when you wrote it?
Heavens no! It’s best for me to be as far away as possible in time and place.
How else did you achieve that effect?
A whole hell of a lot of it rhymes, though I don’t expect anyone will notice. You can add punch to a paragraph by ending with a true rhyme.
You write equally of what it’s like to leave a lover, and to be left by one. Betrayal from both sides …
What was cool about that was that Lou comes to realize her feelings [of rejection] were not caused externally, they were hers, she was responsible for them and they were optional. She could change.
It’s such a passionate ode to love of various kinds: marital love, parental love, love of stars, seals, even hypocrisy and death. Your love has just kept going, hasn’t it, through book after book?
That’s the point, isn’t it? Love and beauty overlap …
Ultimately though you say that Lou is “studying not love but consciousness.” That’s your whole oeuvre right there, isn’t it?
On page 34 you ask, “Because the lovers forget and reimagine each other, is love then wholly false? How false? Thirty percent? Sixty percent? Five?”
Forty per cent.
Is that your answer?
No, all my books are a series of questions.
So how’s your ping pong these days?
The hand remembers. It’s a really good way to get to know someone quick.
(For New York Magazine)
After a hiatus of 15 years, Annie Dillard published her second novel, “The Maytrees” last week to high acclaim – and confided to intimates that she’s hanging up her cleats. “I’m tired and retired,” declared the famously reclusive author (she’s refused to appear on Oprah, shuns book tours, rarely meets her critics). “I worked so hard all my life, all I want to do is read. I don’t write anymore.” “Don’t or can’t?” she was asked. “Don’t. I had my innings. I’m glad to go out on this book.” Sometimes described in her younger years as a candle burning at both ends, at age 62 she sounded somewhat burnt – still brilliant, but a bit done in. “What might be nice, though,” she allowed, “would be to take all my never-used metaphors and just throw ‘em up in the air for other writers to use.” “Why don’t you take six months and do nothing but read yourself?” she was asked – “go through all your rough drafts, collect the gems that never saw print, and publish them in a book that writers could steal from. You could call it ‘Grab Bag.’” The author took a moment to consider. “I like the title “Free For All,” she said.