Saint Annie grants a rare interview & reveals why she retired
New Yorker editor David Remnick has scored a coup, or at least a scoop, by interviewing the reclusive Annie Dillard for the magazine’s radio show. The occasion is Dillard’s retrospective essay collection, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. The book has spurred a flurry of speculation in the literary world about Dillard’s retirement, notably a strained essay, “Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?”, by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic positing that Dillard somehow boxed herself in with her mystical interests.
So the key question Remnick asked was why did she retire from writing, some years ago now, to spend her days painting? She wrote by hand, she told him, and one day couldn’t remember where she was going with the start of a promising sentence she’d left the previous day on her legal pad. Short-term memory loss, in short, is her explanation for her retirement from writing. Dillard, now 71, does not sound, in this rare interview, to be a victim of Alzheimer’s, as has been rumored. She sounds sharp as a double-headed tack.
Of her books, she prizes most my favorite: For the Time Being (reviewed). She marvels, “Writers adore that book,” but then she’s always been a writer’s writer. In it, she said, she bites off a big chunk of her preoccupation with human existence. All I can say is it’s in my pantheon as one of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Remnick questions her about her spooky essay “Total Eclipse,” which she reads from and analyzes. She explains her goal was to invoke the experience of the eclipse in readers. But the challenge was keeping them reading—dense description of the long event and Dillard’s reaction would lose them, she felt. Hence her decision to keep returning to the eclipse, repeating, each time at a deeper level, her experience of the power and primeval horror of the light’s loss.
The Abundance at first strikes me as redundant, the “new” in the subtitle a marketing ploy, but then again it collects stray essays like “Total Eclipse,” which appeared as part of Teaching a Stone to Talk but has taken on a life of its own in collections and in pdf form in classrooms. A nice surprise heading the collection is the eloquent Introduction by Geoff Dyer—tied with Anthony Lane as my favorite sardonic Brit—author of the hilarious Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence and the delightful essay collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.
In his introductory essay, which appeared on Lithub, clearly the postmodern appeal of Dillard’s genre-defying nonfiction drew Dyer to Dillard:
Dyer says D.H. Lawrence and Rebecca West were two of the writers who prepared him for Dillard. Though Dyer and Dillard have both written novels, it was her nonfiction that galvanized him. She showed him how a writer can go deep in her work, he writes, “by stripping it of a lot of the clutter—the furniture of character—required by the novel but the physicality of story-telling has to remain strong, has to be doubly strong, in fact.”
Genre-resistant non-fiction may be a recognized genre these days but Dillard awoke to its possibilities—and attendant difficulties—back in the early 1970s when she was writing what became Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “After all,” she noted in a journal, “we’ve had the nonfiction novel—it’s time for the novelized book of nonfiction.” Easier said than done, of course. As she puts it in The Writing Life, “Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it?” . . .
“What kind of book is this?” she asked herself of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a question that will continue to be asked for as long as the book is read. We read it, in part, to find the answer and, after we have read it—this is the great thing—are still not sure.
Dyer’s authorial persona is of a slacker, a stoner, a failure, but that’s in comedic tension with his own work, which belies that, and the Oxford man leaves evidence, in stray lines, of his own spiritual interests. He may overstate when he calls Dillard a comedic writer, suffused by the “comedy of rapture.” She’s got a goofy sense of humor, no doubt—Dyer calls her “pretty much a fruitcake”—but in my reading she takes her altered mental states seriously or at least hungers for them.
He’s on firmer ground when he makes connection with her as a nature writer—he is too, covertly. In the midst of a riff during one of his aimless comedic journeys he sometimes meditates upon or describes nature in the most arresting way.
So no wonder—and so neat—to discover he too is a Dillard fanboy.