Rikki Ducornet Interview
(author of Phosphor in Dreamland)
by Alexander Laurence
For those of you who haven't read Rikki Ducornet's amazing fiction, this is as good place to start as any. Rikki Ducornet is truly one of the great writers of our time. Reminiscent of Angela Carter, but as unique. Her stories are surreal, imaginative, elegant, aggressive and subtle. It is fun entering these worlds and getting lost and returning back feeling transposed, violated. Rikki Ducornet has a satiric and literary quality that is always interesting and moving. She is also the author of a quartet of novels: The Stain, Entering Fire, The Fountains of Neptune, and The Jade Cabinet. She lives is Denver, Colorado.
Alexander Laurence: In Phosphor in Dreamland, I was very interested in the sculpture in the shape of a frog. It seems that is a good image for much of your work which often combines the natural world, pleasure.
Rikki Ducornet: I was thinking about Sheela-Na-gig. In archaic sacred spaces of Ireland, she was represented squatting in a coital position; sometimes she is given form as a frog: that seemingly perpetual fornicator.
AL: Where do you start off when writing a book? In a creative writing class the teacher would tell the student "Write about your experience." I don't get that sense from reading your work.
RD: Everything I write is informed by experience--experience not limited to the street, bathroom, and kitchen, but that includes dreams and reveries, ideas and conversations, an interest in philosophy, in gnostic heresies, in politics and so on. For example, Kafka's phrase: "All language is but a poor translation" had much to do with the writing of The Jade Cabinet.
AL: So you don't start out with a plan or an outline?
RD: No. I work organically: one idea engenders another. I work intuitively: the book is a landscape I am exploring for the first time without compass or map. Each book is its own unique process and each is a voyage of discovery. Dreams are signposts or luminous beacons along the way; I am far too interested in the process to straight-jacket it by a pre-conceived plan.
AL: How did the new book start out? I would think that Phosphor appeared suddenly...
RD: Phosphor in Dreamland started off as a different book. This was the first time I had an idea in mind, rather than a seminal dream or voice. I had a Cuban grandmother who was a mythomaniac; I intended to write about her phantasamagorcal Cuba. But in no time at all another island appeared--Birdland--and a city--Pope Publius--inhabited by a crazed wretch--Fogginius--who would not shut up. I started writing the book from my point of view as a child listening to grandmother's stories. When Phosphor appeared on Fogginius' stoop, the book took off.
AL: There was a footnote referring to Pulco, and the fact that he deserved a book of his own. Will that happen or is that too literal minded?
RD: It won't happen. Above all I wanted to suggest such a book. I like the idea of a potential book about Pulco because it implies that despite the Inquisition, Pulco will flourish.
AL: You started out as an artist. How did you decide that the art would take a back seat and the writing would begin?
RD: I didn't decide. The first novel, The Stain, seized me by the scruff of the neck, as did the ones to follow. But I continue to draw and one day I will get back to painting. This is something I have promised myself.
AL: How do you see yourself as fitting in with the Post-Modernism dialogue and Post-Modern writing? I say that since you were included in this Avant-Pop anthology which includes several writers, most having to do with this dialogue.
RD: The "fit" is an accident. If I "belong" with the Post Modern tribe perhaps it is because I am so taken up with the idea of fiction as an infinite process of mind and fascinated with the idea of mind as a process of fiction. Perhaps this is why I write about madmen so much. And as you know I perceive fiction as a species of magic: words engendering worlds.
AL: That reminds me of The Aleph?
RD: Borges' Aleph is, among other things, a wonderful metaphor for the mind of the writer. Like Borges, I am interested in Kabalistic texts, that metaphysical delirium which is an attempt to find the word, or, rather the letter potent enough to precipitate a cosmos. My characters are often seen thrashing about in metaphysical deliriums!
AL: I was also wondering how the Surrealist movement has informed your writing?
RD: The great surrealists: Breton, Eluard, Ernst, Toyen, Mansour, Tanguy--have all been a profound inspiration. They led me to Freud and to alchemy, to the aborigine paintings of dream time and to aesthetic experiments of all kinds including collage.
AL: Are you at all interested in pastiche, plagiarism, or appropriation?
RD: No. I am bored by pastiche and have no patience with plagiarism. Recently Max Ernst was called a plagiarist but in fact he created a new art form from preposterous, sentimental, and trashy newspaper images. He subverted them and made something interesting, evocative and strange which led to a new way of seeing. Yet the collages are only a part of his oeuvre which is startling and vast. They are like what the Kabbalists called "skipping and hopping" -- ways of disorganizing the mind to make room for startling and informing visions.
AL: Also Max Ernst never passed off other's works as his own. We all knew right away that he was taking magazine and newspapers and making these collages.
RD: That's right. The material he took was literally raw and transformed--one could say transformed--by the artist's imagination. Just as Harry Mathews may use disarticulated fictions or scientific works, whatever, as a species of fantastic alphabet with which to spell something entirely new. But back to plagiarism--doesn't it seem to you like a drab academic exercise? Not to say dishonest! It's too easy. Good art takes time....
AL: Yeah. It's like Post-Modern connect the dots.
RD: That's right. Like number painting.
AL: Do you think that a writer only needs to concern herself or himself with writing one good sentence after another, and that plot is secondary?
RD: Plot is not secondary but essential, the heart of the matter, the bright web that connects all the elements and causes them to throb and shudder.
AL: What has been the general reaction to your books, if any? Do people at all think that certain characters as thinly veiled disguises for the author? Or has there been any specific incidences of interest?
RD: To my delight, the books have reached sensitive and fearless readers who are interested in unusual ideas so that reviews have been thoughtful and often inspired. This said, someone once wrote to me that she had been so terrified by The Stain she had burned it! And in France a group of Pied Noir Petainists left a reading from Entering Fire in tumultous rage. Occasionally I receive an ominous letter from the far right. And at the height of political I correctness was villified for Entering Fire. It is very unsophisticated to think that the author's biography is revealed by characters.
AL: In Phosphor in Dreamland there is a character who has all these visions. This is my favorite part. "Jangling with keys, Secundo--on fire, the little image winking in his lap--lifts his robes and, grabbing his purple member, as gnarled as a dry lump of ginger, ejaculates into the flames of a public execution, comes in rooms full of wizards wearing peaked caps, ejaculates into the mouth of a witch, into the cup of the Holy Grail; ejaculates into the wounds of the Christ, comes in the hair of witches, comes in rooms carpeted with the flayed skins of choirboys, comes beneath the bloated feet of a hanging man, is embraced by apes and green monkeys, ejaculates into the Pope's miter; ejaculates into the anus of the Pope."
RD: Orthodoxy brings out the scatalogical in me.
AL: Pretty strong stuff. I have always thought that the language of religion and witchcraft was sexy. It fits in well with this landscape. You get a sense of its being dreamlike and sensual.
RD: No--those are violent images--neither sensual nor dreamlike. But they are--if profoundly anti-clerical--playful too. As I said, I have received angry letters. Someone once wrote: "You know a lot about the devil, but do you know about Jesus Christ our lord?
AL: What did you say in response?
RD: I didn't. The country is veering more and more towards repression. As a moral and an imagining being I cannot help but feel threatened. One way of dealing with orthodoxy and bad faith id black humor.
AL: How does the idea of myth figure into your work?
RD: Myth takes many forms. For example, the idea that the Free Market can regulate itself is a myth. Or that economic growth is good and necessary. In The Jade Cabinet, Radolph Tubbs exemplifies such myths.
AL: As a french speaking person, have you ever tried to write directly in french, and how has this influenced your books?
RD: The sound of french, french slang and french thinkers--above all Levi-Strauss and Bachelard--have all influenced my work. In France I wrote in English--it was my "secret language."
AL: Could you talk about how you met Angela Carter and what you're relationship to her was?
RD: I was working on an anthology with a Canadian publisher, called Shoes and Shit. The idea was that great fiction could be about any subject. Robert Coover suggested I write to Angela Carter and sent me The War of Dreams. I wrote a letter to her in England. I was living in France at the time. We started corresponding. She visited me in France. We had an extraordinary time together. We had similar interests like Sade and Alfred Jarry. We shared a love for the Surrealists, for Freud, Dada, the Magic Realists and Rabelais. We bacame friends. Angela was extraordinary.
AL: Is there any book that made you stop and think "This is it, nothing could be made that is better?"
RD: Recently: The Journalist, The Virgin Suicides. Eccentric Spaces. All Bachelard. All Proust. Madame Bovary. One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Tale of Genji. All Dinesen. The Castle. The Sheltering Sky. Gerald's Party. The Mulatta and Mr. Fly. All Yourcenar. I could go on and on! Kiss of The Spider Woman. All Borges. Shame.
AL: How do you conceive of the body as it realates to the world and how politics try to control it? How does the freedom of the body fit in to the picture?
RD: In order to love the other, the stranger, the mysterious aspects of the world; in order to be a free being, an autonomous, fearless and imaginary being; in order to embrace and protect the natural world and to create for oneself and for others the space in which transformation and creation are always possible, one must love the body, the mutable, the fragile, the mortal body. I believe in the sexual soul.