Joanna Walsh

An Interview

Maeve Mulrennan

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Joanna Walsh has published three books, Hotel, described by the New York Times as part memoir, part meditation; the pornographic fairytale collection Grow a Pair, and a short story collection, Vertigo.  She also runs the Twitter handle @ReadWomen. She was recently in Galway, Ireland, to read at the 2016 Cúirt International Festival of Literature.  Her latest collection,Vertigo has recently been published by Tramp Press. It was first published by Dorothy, a publishing project [i] and independent press in the United States. Joanna approached Dorothy as she knew they would make a good match. Walsh says of the partnership:

“Like Tramp Press, they’re women oriented but don’t commit to always publishing work by women. They publish two books a year, the same as Tramp Press and like them it’s also run by two people, so there are similarities. Danielle Dutton, Dorothy’s editor put the Vertigo collection together with me. I sent her the work because she’d just published Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper and I loved it, so I looked up their back catalogue and I thought this is just a really good place, I’d like to work with them. I sent her all my stories, some of which are quite different to the ones that ended up in Vertigo. She decided to put works about marriage, family, relationships and the domestic together, they had unifying themes and a similar voice so we worked together on the selection.  I like working with small presses, they can often take more risks than the bigger houses.” 

Joanna Walsh had previously met Tramp Press co-founder Sarah Davis-Goff in 2015 at the Mountains to the Sea Festival in Dublin, where alongside Davis-Goff, Sinéad Gleeson and Anne Enright, Walsh participated in a panel discussion on women and writing. The writer then returned to Ireland almost a year later with Vertigo, reading in April of this year at Galway’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature alongside Kirsty Logan. Walsh enjoys the public side of her career, saying that:

“I like performance; I like reading my work aloud, I like discussion and debate.  I’m quite a public person in that sort of way. As part of the British Council’s UKMX 2015 literature exchange last year we spoke about what it is to be a public intellectual. In England it seems that writing and reading are very private things, an alternative to the public sphere. I’m not a party political writer but certainly political.”

The role of the public intellectual may be something not considered essential in the UK, but the idea of all reading as private and linear is a relatively recent perspective. Walsh recently attended a lecture on 18th Century writing in the Sheffield art and literature festival ‘Opening up the Book’ where she also gave a paper; “Richardson’s Clarissa was printed with sheet music attached and contained passages from other books - which we would now consider postmodern techniques, but in the 18th century it was common practice. It was seen as added value; you got the book and you got to play the song.” This conjures up an image of families in their drawing rooms reading for hours, stopping, discussing and picking up on points relating to contemporary politics in novels. Public reading was also popular – Dickens in particular was a fan of this. There was also a boom in newspaper and pamphlet publishing, with many novels starting their lives as serials, published relatively cheaply, making reading, and subsequently publishing, especially for women, a way of accessing and participating in the public sphere.  As well as discussion in the private sphere, satires, fan-fiction and critiques were often published in response, for example Shamela by Conny Keyber / Henry Fielding. Walsh says of this dynamic publishing context; “It’s extraordinary how much activity around one book there could be. It is something I think we are starting to think about again now.”

Vertigo has been described by some reviewers as cinematic, with the short stories creating a series of layers so that the book as a whole is a palimpsest of the point where characters’ inner lives interweave with their relationships. When asked if this layering and interconnectedness was her original intention, Joanna responds; “It’s how I write really. What I’m concerned with is the experience of reality standard narratives.I think a lot of storytelling isn't about how we experience things but how we experience storytelling. I've written a book of pornographic fairy-tales, I’ve deliberately used traditional narrative structures so I’ve nothing against that. What I’m trying to do in Vertigo is think about almost anti-narrative really, putting things together and exploring how people actually experience reality.”

Vertigos characters, mostly women, when compared to other authors’ short story characters stand out for being realist and hyper aware of the other people that share the intense environments presented. I dared to compare these to some of Miranda July’s characters, who would be very quickly challenged by the cast of characters of Vertigo. Walsh agrees somewhat; “My characters aren’t necessarily nice people but I think that's part of the noticing they do - and they do a lot of noticing. Some of July’s characters often find similar things happening but meet these things with a sense of optimism and hope. I’m not sure mine do, they just move through it. They do have moments of joy, I don’t know if they’re interested in the long term.”

The author worked with Danielle Dutton on the order that the stories were presented, however as a reader she approaches short story and poetry collections differently: “I’m not a linear reader - never a very linear person to begin with! -  I don’t read stories collections through from beginning to end.  I’ll read the first one and then dash around, unless I’m reading for review in which case I have to pay attention. I’m interested in non-linear reading and writing. At the moment I’m reading Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, published in 1963, but I was slightly disappointed in his alternative options, there are only two: either you can read it straight through or you can read it in his proposed order. So you start at chapter sixteen or something and then at the bottom it says which chapter you have to go to next. I enjoy reading it like that but I feel that’s just as controlled a way of reading as reading in a linear way right from the beginning. I would have liked to see something that gives the reader more input, but that’s much more possible digitally.  I’m about to begin work on the digital novel for a practice-based PhD and one of the things I’ll be exploring is structure. I want to see if you can make books that truly work in nonlinear fashion and if so, how.” 

Walsh is collaborating with technical experts and is currently sorting through material to send them to begin experimenting with, with the aim of creating algorithms that create more options and possibilities for the reader to create their own experience of a story. She is looking at the potential for stories to be three-dimensional within digital space: “I like the idea of a book that is cubed, 3D somehow...” She does see digital co-existing with printed forms: “I want a print version. I love the democracy and accessibility of the paperback, where a wide range of readers will go into a shop and pick up the same book. The print version of my book will differ in structure from the digital: I like the idea there will be no ‘definitive’ edition.” These techniques echo the early days of print and the art of bookmaking, and the book as an art object rather than a vessel for an artwork. Digital has also made it possible for books to come back into print, something which Walsh sees as a further way to make work accessible to wider readerships: “It’s also good for keeping things in print through print on demand. I did an introduction for a new edition of Christine Brooke-Rose short stories [ii], a book that has been unavailable for years; the only edition was in 1970.” ”

Walsh’s interest in the non-linear and the potential of writing as a 3D medium links to her interest in language’s potential as an abstract form rather than a tool of communication: “It’s interesting to think about language not being used for communication. I’m interested in glossolalia, words produced by people who claim to be possessed by the divine spirit, it happens a lot in American churches (you can find recordings on Youtube), people talking, they say in the tongues of angels. It’s interesting to think of a non-communicable, non-utilitarian language, pure expression. I’m always interested in the point where things become useless!”

Walsh manages to balance her reading: aside from reading for review, her personal reading includes creative theory, philosophy and non-fiction, although not conventional biography:

“I don’t really read biography; I think too much of it is bound by how people think lives should play out. I would like to see more experimental biography. I read personal essays; I think that’s akin to the experimental biography. I’ve just read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts for review in The New Statesman [iii] and I like that. I like how Nelson slides between forms: academic writing, prose, art writing and poetry. I really like Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women which is a lyric essay, or a poem perhaps, or whatever you want to call it, about being a single mother in the US where there is little social security, working several jobs.” 

 “I deliberately tried not to be a writer for ages because of this idea of authority. I just did that thing - whats important about your opinion, whats so special about you, why should you have the right to do this? - I started writing seriously - by which I mean seriously committing to it - when a few things happened in my personal life that i couldn't deal with except by writing. It was one of the situations where I thought, this is what I have to do. That makes me feel very secure as a writer, because it’s not a decision I ever took rationally, or for money, or because I wanted a career in it. It was a very deeply emotional and personal decision. I tried everything I could to not be a writer, but it still happened.” 

It’s one thing to write but another to present it to an audience. For Walsh it was questioning the authority of the author. When asked if writing changes if there is no reader, Walsh replies; “For me it would be to some extent the same thing, although I wonder how I would write if I knew it was not going to be read. There is such a practice as private writing. I write diaries or journals or whatever and I think I would continue to write that kind of thing not necessarily because I wanted ever to read it back but just for the practice and self-amusement of putting things into words.”

As well as writing, reviewing and working on one-off publishing projects such as her 2015 collaboration with Piece of Paper Press, Joanna Walsh has dedicated time to connecting with literature and writers through social media, namely through #ReadWomen. She says of the importance of social media: “I didn’t come from a writing background and I might not have become a writer without social media. It was as simple as not knowing which writers I’d like to read whose work might make me see my own work differently. Being on social media I gained a lot through dialogue with other writers and readers. I really value that. With #ReadWomen the focus is different: I’m a campaigner on behalf of other writers, and when I see changes small interventions can make, it makes me very happy.”

For all the benefits, does Walsh think that it creates a false sense of activism or engagement in people? Social media, in some circumstances, changes how people engage with politics. Online civic engagement can transcend into the non-virtual world, however many people will voice their opinions on social media but then just go back to their lives. Walsh takes a more optimistic stance; “Yes you do have a lot of armchair politicians and clicktivism - you click on a petition and then feel you’ve done something – but people need to open and challenge their minds all time in order to make decisions. So that process of looking, liking and reading on social media plays a great part in that. Hopefully they will go and do something but not everyone can do something in every area. I think #ReadWomen has had an effect for some people. I have had feedback from people who have said that it has changed their reading habits—both men and women. But it’s important to make the distinction between reading and writing,” Walsh stresses, “It’s important to read and publish diversely in every way but I think it’s also extremely important for writer to write what is important to them. I write a lot about women, I’ve written very few stories with male protagonists - I’ve written a couple, and I’ve written some where you don’t know the gender. My reading is much more diverse than this.”

#ReadWomen has created a forum for women writers and people like the Irish Times’ Eileen Battersby have been championing novels in translation from publishers such as Pushkin Press. Walsh has found novels published outside of the Anglo-American model important to her writing: “We are still certainly dominated by Anglo-American big thick books in the genre of realism, so I’ve been very allergic to the idea of writing a novel, but I read work in translation, probably mostly from Europe but from across the world too - which gives me different ways to think about novel writing and its potential.” Walsh’s style has some similarities with Japanese writing, in particular Banana Yoshimoto’s and earlier works by Yoko Ogawa, their short novels inhabited by clean language structures which reveal characters’ deep inner worlds. There can be a sense of space in Japanese writing, a term called ‘Ma’ – that is also seen in Walsh’s new collection. 'Ma', a sense of space within structure, a pause or gap, allows for the reader to access the layers, subtleties and interweaving of narrative within each story and across the collection as a whole. So Walsh won’t be writing a doorstopper novel anytime soon: “Mine will be one that you try to use to hold a door open but it slips right under!”




Joanna Walsh is a British writer and illustrator. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Stinging Fly, Gorse, Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2015, Salt Best British Short Stories, and elsewhere. Fractals, was published in the UK in 2013, and her memoir Hotel was published in 2015. She writes literary and cultural criticism for The Guardian, TLS, The New Statesman, and The National, and is fiction editor at 3:am Magazine. Joanna created and runs the Twitter hashtag #readwomen, heralded by the New York Times as ‘a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers.’ Vertigo (2016) is published in Ireland by Tramp Press.

Praise for Vertigo

“Supple, floating stories that unfold like memories almost too painful to recall in an affectless voice that can be digressive or disarmingly direct but which is ultimately devastating.” - The Believer