The first time I encountered Diane Williams’s sentences, my heart started pounding and a prickling started up at the hairs on the back of my neck. A story by Diane Williams is unmistakeable. Her characters’ roiling glee and despair, their desires and fears, are rendered with such hairline precision that the reader can sense whole consciousnesses—or unconsciousnesses—pulsing under every sentence. Through her own work, as well as her years as an editor (first at StoryQuarterly, and now as the founding editor of NOON), Williams has distinguished herself as one of our strongest masters of the short form. Her newest collection, Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, is available now.
— Andi Mudd, managing editor of The Believer.
McSWEENEY’S: Your stories are frequently very, very funny. Do you want to make your readers laugh for any reason beyond the simple joy of it?
WILLIAMS: They’re funny. Good to hear you say that. Well, I think they’re funny. Comedy trumps tragedy, doesn’t it?—if it could only serve as a way of life. The simple joy of laughing is not so simple.
McSWEENEY’S: There is a picture-book quality to your stories, particularly in their fine and thorough descriptions of food and objects and animals—the kind of descriptions I remember from the very first books that were read to me, the ones I knew by memory before I could read them myself. You’ve talked about having written for children in the past, and I wonder if you intend this connection or if it is a product of your goals for a text.
WILLIAMS: Oh, that’s a consoling memory—being read to as a child. Although, far, far back—I remember not understanding a word of it. Nonetheless, I entered a trance—aware enough of my strong desire: I don’t want to fall asleep while you are giving me so much attention.
My foremost concerns, then and now: Don’t fall asleep. Stay alert and… I wish I could be very interested in anything.
I hope such goals for myself transfer, for the reader’s benefit, into the fiction I produce.
McSWEENEY’S: You and your colleagues at NOON are always pushing at the edges of contemporary literature with the serious and strenuous work you publish, but your own work can also feel elemental to the point of timelessness. Do you tend to think of your work in relation to that of your contemporaries?
WILLIAMS: Of course, I think of my work in relation to my contemporaries. I publish the fiction of many of my distinguished contemporaries, that I, too, would call timeless and elemental. But I don’t think of their fiction in the moment when I struggle with my own because of those painful distractions—competition and envy. It’s best to keep dead heroes at hand instead—Spinoza, for example, and his propositions, or Carl Gustav Jung interviews—or an array of myths and legends.
Elemental and timeless. You are very generous when you say this about my work. I can only pray it might sometimes be true. What are the features of such texts? Moral ambiguity? Complexity? Brave probes into the mysteries. Robert Alter, for one, has written persuasively on this subject.
McSWEENEY’S: Did you have different intentions or hopes for Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty than you did for your other books?
WILLIAMS: Different intentions? Hopes? No, I didn’t have different intentions or hopes for this book. I have only one compelling intention —I must make valuable use of my time! Try, try, try!
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