“The levels of the story seem to levitate.” In conversation with Lee Upton
It’s funny how I remember things. The tiny delicate-looking man in the bar in Malaysia—when we were always traveling somewhere after the baby died and before Gladys came along. That man approached us with such friendliness and courtesy. He was wandering around in the bar wearing a brown suit. “How good to see fellow countrymen,” he said. His accent was British. I laughed and told him we weren’t his countrymen. “Ah, so I’m among the formerly colonized,” he said. “Excuse me, but how good to meet you!” And there it as: that elaborate courtesy we liked so much—and ebullience too, a lightness in his nature like that of a man used to meeting new people and being welcomed. We were on our second scotch when some couples arrived and took the next table over—they were British like him—and one of them said, “He’s playing you for drinks.” We looked at our charming new friend. What had we been talking about? His adventures in Kuala Lumpur, I think—and he transformed instantly, cowering, sinking lower at the table. “You here, sponging again,” someone at the next table sneered at him. And for the first time I really saw the brown suit that the man at our table was wearing and how it was frayed at the cuffs and dirty. His jacket was too small and heavy and buttoned up despite the humid weather.
But you. You ordered the man at our table another drink and said, loudly, “What a gift you’ve got, man, for a story. My wife’s hair is standing on end!”—which was a joke because I was always washing my hair right before bed and when I woke up in the morning my hair had these funny cowlicks. And then we both were laughing, and we made sure to laugh at every joke our new friend told us because, even if he was sponging from us, he was our guest and one of the things we hated most was to see someone made to feel ashamed.”
–From “The Floating Woman,” The Tao of Humiliation (BOA Editions)
JOANNA KENYON: So many of the characters within this collection appear to be grappling emotional crisis—whether the crisis is more immediate, as it is in “Touch Us” and “The Undressed Mirror,” or occurred some time ago, such as in “Let Go” or “Floating Woman.” These moments of emotion appear to be so dreadfully inexplicable for the characters who are experiencing them, and I find it fascinating how you allow their confusion and distress to inflect the stories with a kind of eerie unpredictability. As you write, to what extent do the emotional centers of these stories influence or steer the narrative structure? How do you tend to approach the development of structure, scene, or plot in your short stories?
LEE UPTON: I tend to write about vulnerable people who are wounded in some way. My stories often begin when I’ve discovered a voice and then a situation that a character can’t ignore. Sometimes the stories develop as if actions ripple outward, not only from a character’s immediate situation but from that character’s memory of a past situation that rhymes with a current crisis. The characters have to make readjustments about their view of themselves and others as the outer world impinges on their inner worlds.
Some of my plots grow as characters learn to become honest about their own feelings, which may mean that they’re tearing down the scaffolding of an ideal self. The characters may know how they’re expected to feel, but that’s not how they feel. Sometimes they haven’t initially valued their own lives. The story then puts them through an experience in which they struggle toward a realization, a realization that is stubbornly their own. They may learn to honor a quiet insistent voice and to test it—to see if it’s a true voice or a deceptive one. Even when there’s sadness engrained in my stories and in the characters’ revelations I want the plot to suggest an enlargement of life, a means of defeating despair.
Beautiful writing has been committed to questioning epiphanies in fiction—by Charles Baxter and others, writing that I admire and that has been persuasive. But I can’t forego the pleasure of epiphanies in my stories and the ambiguities that resonate within those epiphanies. The nature of an epiphany in actual life—at least as I’ve experienced epiphanies myself—is transitory and fragile, a fleeting experience that eventually has to be rediscovered and reclaimed. Not all of my characters experience epiphanies, but when they don’t I always hope that the reader will.
Some stories in The Tao of Humiliation arrived quickly. Others have been lived with and experimented with obsessively. Often when I find a particular rhythm, a particular voice or way of looking at the world, I puzzle my way through a set of circumstances that might prove promising. But so much of the work of writing stories takes place at a subterranean level. What I can’t answer about my own life is what most invites me to write. A story has to keep some of its mysteries intact even from its author.
JK: Yes, the idea of epiphany certainly seems fraught with peril at times, as so often in life such moments of realization flee or seem false as soon as they’re found. And yet, if a writer works with the emotional center of people who are searching for answers, it seems important to allow the characters to sometimes experience these moments. I wonder how, as the writer of such stories, you know when to keep following your characters in their crisis, and when to hope that the reader will understand instead? How do you perceive the reader’s experience in relation to the struggles your characters are undergoing?
LU: I always hope that the orchestration of scenes allows the reader to move toward that realization almost simultaneously with the character. Some characters don’t reach an epiphany, but then I hope that the reader understands what the character doesn’t yet understand or may never understand. That is, I hope there’s enough evidence in the story for the reader to discover what the character ignored.
Each story differs so markedly. It’s almost as if I have to listen for echoes, to listen to determine if the story will still somehow reverberate after the final sentence. Even epiphanies are only partial. As in most experiences, there’s always something more to discover beyond what’s been revealed.
JK: Three of the short stories within this collection, including the title story “The Tao of Humiliation,” are set within a strength-building wilderness camp. The protagonists of these stories—Everett, Anselm, and Clint—have been and continue to be humiliated by various lovers, friends, and co-workers who are important to them, and all three are clearly uncertain what the strength to bear such humiliations and the resulting grief would even look like. This theme of humiliation and strength echoes through many of the other stories as well. To what extent do you feel that grief and humiliation are related in your characters’ lives? Do you feel that finding new strength allows your characters to find resolution?
LU: My characters seek strength, sometimes in the wrong places, but their seeking, to my mind, dignifies them at a certain level. New experiences of humiliation render them strange to themselves, and sometimes they’re renewed by the experience.
It’s as if humiliation teaches us how to be human among other humans—that is, humiliation can teach us a humbling awareness of our flaws. Our idealized self is crushed in a moment of humiliation—as if humiliation is a “way” of sorts, a way toward or through experience, a kind of stripping down as the social self isn’t accepted or is derided or held in contempt. We can’t be humiliated alone; it takes other people. But when characters are diminished by others sometimes they rise to a level of heroism and attain a heightened sense of the value of their own lives. When humiliated, these characters stand outside themselves and see what others see. They can then choose to be ashamed or to accept themselves and find compassion toward themselves and those around them. Humiliation may even turn them against solipsism. They are forced to move outside themselves, to be shocked into a recognition.
I think of grief as a deeper experience than humiliation, but humiliation has its own particular resonance and its own lessons to impart. The fact that some of these characters are in mourning softens them and lets them begin to see the threat of humiliation as something they must pass through and withstand or be changed by.
JK: From reading previous interviews you’ve given, I understand that your original writing passion was for poetry, but that over time you have embraced writing in multiple genres. Reading your fiction, I can see in the immediacy and lyrical movement a startling influence of poetry, so I wonder if you could talk about how working within multiple genres might open up the potential of writing for you. To what extent do you feel that fiction and poetry, as well as other genres, might have strategies and approaches to teach each other?
LU: I very much like working in various genres. In my experience, different genres call for different ways of thinking about and experiencing language. A strong poem is a kind of investigation of how language can operate upon itself, and has an irredeemable strangeness to it—even if the language seems simple, or maybe especially if the language approaches nonsense.
Fiction often does different things with time than poetry does. Even if the chronology of a story is scrambled there’s a sensation of sliding forward through scenes. Usually the language isn’t so relentlessly tacked to syllables as in poetry. In fiction, a sequence of actions and reactions unsettles what was formerly fixed in a character’s perspective. In fiction we may be made conscious of how time does its work on us and how cause and effect may be interconnected. Poetry more often uproots language in compressed ways, but that act of uprooting is what, in fiction, my characters often do to their own long-held perceptions, and so the genres are doing some of the same work—at different speeds and through different means.
To be a writer who works in both genres sometimes elicits suspicion, as if the writer is short changing one genre or the other, but I wouldn’t want to stop writing in any of the genres I work in. I find a lot of happiness amidst the frustration.
JK: I agree that writers who work in multiple genres are often viewed with suspicion, perhaps due to a desire to keep literary categories distinct and the markers of different genre forms clear-cut. Are there particular authors or artists out there who inspire you to buck against such standards?
LU: Yes. These are among the authors that I’ve found especially inspiring on multiple levels and who are (or were) both poets and fiction writers: Thomas Hardy, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Muriel Spark, Roberto Bolaño
JK: In “Touch Us,” the protagonist Iris ceases to want to be touched by her husband after a prolonged illness. In “The Live One,” ghosts “are restless because they don’t have a relationship with their bodies anymore.” In “You Know You’ve Made it When They Hate You,” the two principle characters also have conflicting emotions about their appearance and movement that unconsciously steer how they interact with those around them. Often it seems your characters long for the physical, even as they feel disconnected from or discontent with physicality. How do you see embodiment and physicality playing a part in your writing? What draws you to the body as a theme and focus?
LU: Yeats said that we’re “fastened to a dying animal.” Yes, and a living unpredictable animal too. I can’t help but think of bodies as mysterious. It’s as if the body, which is always with us, is elusive. You learn to walk, and before you know it you hit puberty and can hardly recognize yourself. Every decade—it’s like slow motion surgery. Disease grows in us and we’re initially unaware of it. We listen to television ads and the side effects of medications are so numerous and deadly that it hardly makes sense that anyone would fill a prescription. And then there’s the issue of contagion—we catch one another’s illnesses and even one another’s feelings, and our feelings play havoc on our bodies in a recursive cycle. It’s just endlessly interesting to me: bodies. Endlessly troubling and sometimes exhilarating.
Our bodies are time stamped, and we don’t ever get entirely used to them, given the rate at which they surprise us. It’s almost as if sometimes the body is this wise and miraculous force–and sometimes the body is a good natured naïve clown that gets into trouble, as if the body is an innocent open to malignant forces. Maybe that’s why people take so many selfies. There’s the repeated and always dashed hope that maybe we’ll at last capture our own physical image. Instead, photographs just seem to baffle everyone all the more.
“Touch Us” is a story that means a great deal to me. I worked through the story in multiple versions, including a previously published version with a dramatically different ending. Finally, for this collection, the most resonant ending of the story unfolded. The story’s primary character is not “healed” in any conventional sense. Instead she begins to yearn to practice a form of kindness toward her own body. What fiction and poetry can do is to reveal to us or enact—in new ways—how our bodies may be colonized by certain expectations, how we can be at war with our bodies, how judgmental we can be about our bodies.
JK: The story “Touch Us” was one of my favorites in the collection, so it’s intriguing to know that there are different versions out there as you sought a new direction for this collection. In the end of this version, I wanted to cheer (I somehow felt proud of Iris)… as it seemed as though someone who was stuck made an important step. I understood that not everything was solved in Iris’s life, but so often that first movement out of painful stasis is the most difficult to find. Could you talk about the previous version of this story, how you continued to draft, and how you knew when you had found the most resonant ending? How common is this process of re-drafting in your writing?
LU: That makes me so happy—to know that you wanted to cheer for Iris. I pretty much fell in love with that character and couldn’t abandon her. What I ultimately did: I kept returning to earlier portions of the story to see if there was something I was missing, some key to what Iris’s ultimate fate should be. I kept re-reading the story, adding layers of complication. Finally I experienced that wonderful surge of energy when disparate elements in a story resonate and you feel that the story shouldn’t end in any other way. It’s as if many stories are mystery stories, and inadvertently you’ve dropped clues in earlier drafts. You try to keep working your way forward, then trace backward, then move forward again and, if you’re lucky, at last the levels of the story seem to levitate and you stop before you spoil everything.
JK: As reticent as I am to pull a spoiler, the end of the collection holds my favorite line—one I find myself continuing to ponder: “There was only one truly inexplicable mystery left, and I knew myself well enough to claim it: I would forgive…” This idea of forgiveness—of others, of the self, and of the body—seems crucial to the arc of both the individual stories and the collection. How do you feel that your characters come to forgiveness? To what extent did the theme of forgiveness, and your characters’ ability to achieve it shape the ordering of this collection?
LU: Forgiveness does seem like an inexplicable mystery. Some of the characters in the collection are almost beyond forgiving others. They look at what has happened to themselves or others with wonder, with a new knowledge that may not quite include forgiveness. It seems to me that the primary character in the final story can be forgiving—in part—because her art is the art of acting. She puts her body before others continually, to be seen, to be interpreted, and so at some level she understands the nature of the transgressions committed against her. The protagonist of that story will always love her friend because—despite her own difficulties—she will always love the art they share.
Find a copy of The Tao Of Humiliation on Indiebound
A poet, fiction writer, and essayist, Lee Upton is the author of thirteen books. Her poetry appears widely in such venues as The Best American Poetry, The New Republic, American Poetry Review, and The Atlantic, and more than three dozen of her short stories have been published in various places. Upton’s awards include the Lyric Poetry Award and The Writer/Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Pushcart Prize, and the National Poetry Series Award, among many others. She is currently the Writer-in-Residence and a professor of English at Lafayette College.
Joanna Kenyon teaches creative writing and composition at Whatcom Community College, where she is also the writing editor for their journal, the Noisy Water Review. She received her MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and writes prose and prose poetry, as well as creating artist books and other hybrid works.