A Conversation with Gail Scott

SQ: Gail, the first thing I noticed about The Obituary is that it feels like such a wonderfully seamless continuation of My Paris, only this time, set in Montreal, in Mile End, in particular. Further, I note that you have perfected your representation of a kind of thinking and writing: sentences laid and overlaid with syntactical gesture and flaneurial texture…but more basically, my first question is about the face in the window–is it simultaneously the face in the window in 1980s Montreal and 90s Paris and Mile End in 2003?
GS: I feel that I am ever reaching toward the question of how to write in the moment the writing is written. Each novel offers a new challenge in terms of how to grasp, as much as possible, the moment at hand, that is both the everyday and full of the conversation with others about thinking (writing). Since starting to write prose « fiction, » I have, like so many contemporaries, written with the awareness that both spoken and written, lines, phrases, theories, are borrowed, Kathy Acker was my first mentor in that respect. Formally, or even stylistically, speaking, I take what is punctually useful to me, often to cast it off or to give it diminished importance later. What is left accumulates into the writing subject “I” am becoming over time. I feel, with The Obituary, that I have achieved something I have been reaching toward as concerns novel time, as well as the question of who speaks when one speaks, which is the real puzzle of the novel. A way of moving forward with voices coming in from everywhere including the past. Very à propos, I like to think, in the particular context that is Montréal, is that this book totally sounds like Montréal now. They sentenced me to 20 years of…(trying) to misquote the Cohen song about taking Manhattan.
SQ: Can you elaborate a little on what you mean by “novel time” and what this novel has taught you about it?
GS: There is a false idea of how time moves forward in being and in consciousness that impacts the way people are taught to read novels, or to expect from cinema narrative, etc. This notion of narrative is changing in all forms of culture, but a lot of criticism has not yet noticed. A lot of novel critics still obsess with what a work is about, and forget to look at the question of what has been done to the sentences, for example. In My Paris, I invented a sentence based on present participles that allowed time to go back, yet “forth” through the present within the space of each sentence or section. This became the time of she who dissolves into the crowd, who seeks no or minimal agency, which seemed a useful contribution to the whole business of travel writing. Those little sentence fragments, motored as they were by present participles, had the effect of diminishing the speaking subject as well as rendering the verb less forwardly active. One of the ways The Obituary is an extension of My Paris has, precisely, to do with how different layers of time work together (somewhat nurtured by Walter Benjamin’s brilliant notion of how the past under only certain precise circumstances [revolutions, or sudden moments of awareness] gets productively telescoped into the present). I already knew when I started this novel, whose main question is “who speaks when we speak,” that I was not interested in a unary narrator because that implied a certain notion of time (memory, ”history”) that I felt wrong. I learned in the early drafts of The Obituary that breaking Rosine into some of her parts was a way to help to re-distribute novel time. There is the woman on the bed or in a city bus; she is allowed brief moments of nostalgia, but is also, via her bus trajectories, going somewhere. There is the PC lesbian at the bottom of the page citing historical documents. There is virtual time via the cop hacker lurking in the stairwell and occasionally capturing fragments of Rosine’s diary or letters on his monitor. There is the antic dance of the hyper-erotic Rosine animus, a horny “fly on the wall”; and so on.
SQ: This book was a long time coming. It’s also a book that reaches further back in time than your other books do, and if I may say, it seems more personal, or more specifically historical. I keep coming back to the photographs over the table, for example, and the haunting (and revisiting Spare Parts I read echoes of course). I know that your work is particularly embodied and political at the same time, but here the haunting seems, if not personal to you, then somehow more personal to your character.
GS: To write a novel that, in its exploration of language, does some of the work of poetry, yet also some of the work of the novel, is to get pulled in different directions until one finds a way to write over the top of the gaps. When I was a journalist, I wrote an article a day and it was good writing and people would pick up their newspaper and read a few paras and throw it away. It seemed too hard on the trees, and a waste of writing time. I decided to become a « real writer »–that meant in my mind to explore the question of writing in its relationship to time–only to find myself surrounded by people grinding out a book a year. Okay, if you are essentially writing bedtime stories, people need to fall asleep, but it seems wasteful otherwise. Of course, no sooner do I say this, than I think of delightful exceptions, people like Nathalie Stephens, Catherine Mavrikakis, to name but two, who write incredibly fast, and who really think in their writing, writing that would not be as good if they put on the brakes.The Obituary does deal with a more personal past. I needed to figure out, formally, how to get voices coming into the story that had essentially been mostly repressed in my family and in society, or, at least, that came in slant. This repressed story is, of course, relevant inasmuch as it has happened in so many families on the continent. I absolutely did not want to do a roots or a quest novel. I’m not against the airing of identity issues in writing, I believe even writers who claim not to do it, do it on some scale. But what struck me about this narrator with the partly repressed past of her family was her difficulty in establishing a sense of community in the extremely ghettoized city that is Montréal. I wondered if people with hybrid or multiple strands in their ancestry often seem to need to choose sides. Otherwise they find themselves dancing in two different directions at once. It was painful to think about all the what-ifs in my ancestry and interesting to find a way to shape that into some kind of telling.

SQ: I was thinking about the trajectory of your engagement with the novel, roughly speaking, from Heroine to Obituary the sentences/syntaxes become increasingly self-conscious. After your reading last night (at Drawn & Quarterly), Eileen Myles mentioned the dome-like structure of the reading (you read “The Crypt’s Tale”). I was noting too, the way the sentences seem to assemble in the air like wires. And if one closed one’s eyes one could bleed into pure sound—almost. But more directly, one can’t be in Montreal and not be cognisant of the electrical grid and how it acts like a net, a very loose net, but a net overhead. This grid feels allegorical. Not as oppressive as the net of wires that seems to keep Center City in Philadelphia firmly rooted to the ground, but it’s an interesting analogy where your writing is concerned (in wealthier neighbourhoods the wiring is buried, right?). Put another way, one encounters Obituary as an elaboration of knots. One has to feel one’s way through the sentences piecing together the speakers, the subjects, and in doing so one can be very richly rewarded.
GS: The word self-conscious is virtually impossible to translate into French, and can be a bad word in English. Which would imply that self-consciousness is an issue in English, a non-issue in French. It’s true that the focus in my recent prose is somewhat sentence to sentence. I like to think of each sentence—as much as possible—as a performative unit. A call. The space between the sentences is where the audience or reader bridges with her energy, and in her way, the gap. My debt to poetry has to do with resisting the passive reader. But if I’m not writing in poetic lines, it’s because the sentence is also in immediate relation to what comes “next”. It is in in some kind of relation as well, to the voices of “the real,” be they scraps of conversation from the street or textual citations. And all these sentences are moving into a pattern that hopefully ultimately will expose a moment in time. I do like the idea of electricity, somewhere in the novel I say ours is, relatively speaking, the most lit-up city on the continent. But all that electricity does not keep these pseudo ghosts pinned to street level, the sky is present and very close and busy with bird and cloud and weather. At any rate, the grid pattern you suggest might initially challenge a reader who wants a classic narrative progression. But more and more readers are tired of that. Readers who spontaneously read with their ear will hopefully find music, then a mystery, then a story. Eileen’s suggestion of a dome pleases me because it is a shape that gathers toward the sky.
SQ: I find your relationship to Montreal, Canada, and New York particularly interesting: on the one hand you are clearly writing Montreal, and a particular Montreal at that, but you also seem very much outside of Montreal, and Canada, in aesthetic conversation with a group of writers situated primarily in New York and the Bay Area. How does that work?
GS: There is a network of formally radical writers across the continent that is comprised of writers from both Canada and the US. I can’t help but notice that Christian Bök, Lisa Robertson, Rachel Zolf, Nathalie Stephens, Steve McCaffery, many Canadian writers spend a great deal of time in the US. You also, Sina, have spent some very productive years in the US. My earliest writing influences were québecois, energy coming out of the very radical period that followed the Quiet Revolution, and gathered into such great writing as Prochain Episode, and subsequently Brossard’s Picture Theory, the France Théoret of Nous parlerons comme on écrit, etc. These latter two I have worked closely with. There came a moment, however, where I needed to speak with other writers in English about what I was doing in my writing, and the experimental prose networks were growing exponentially in the US, while we were connecting more with directly exploring identity and regional issues in Canada. . The two are not necessarily contradictory, by the way, as queer and new feminist writing have shown eloquently. It was my friendship with Carla Harryman that initially led me first to San Francisco and all the amazing prose writers living there. But were I living in an English-language province, no doubt my itinerary in prose would have been different;it was the radical experiments happening in québécois writing that somehow, paradoxically, meant I would end up talking to people in the US. I think of myself as basically a Montréal writer. I should add that, particularly of late, I have become very interested in Indigenous writing, there is so much amazing work being done, one of the best-kept secrets north of the 49th, since a lot of it is not getting the exposure it merits.
SQ: Erin Moure suggests that your work on the sentence is the most important since Stein, the most original. This is notable in My Paris, but here you seem to move beyond those easy comparisons into a realm of your own engagement. The Steinian play is there in language, syntax, layering and unlayering, but it also feels like a kind of end-game–or that you’ve achieved your goal. Where do you see your investigation going from here?
GS: Very kind of Erin Moure to give my sentences such high praise. I would say the overall challenge in writing for me is to get the sentence to do the work of poetry, yet to take on, in its shape or its relation to other sentences, some of the work of prose. In terms of sentences, My Paris was easy compared to this project and I did fear that the syntax of that novel risked becoming an end-game, that is, that I would never move forward from the syntactical devices I used in My Paris. Then I fell back on my usual approach of taking what I learned from one project to apply to the next one without painting myself in a corner of henceforth writing in present participles. The syntax is quite varied in The Obituary, the different takes on sentences linked to different shards of Rosine, but also to family speech patterns, to the surveillants in the stairwell, and various other ghosts, all enunciating together, I hope, as counterpoint. Stein went all over the place with syntax of course, learning in part from Picasso, who painted in so many different ways, to go with the flow of the moment. She is one writer who definitely did not allow herself married to genre, nor any particular device, as is evidenced by her ever evolving sentences and formal experiments. All her work was fed by a radical aesthetic ethos which may have had something to do with her lesbianism, since her politics were otherwise not particularly radical. But there was absolute commitment to a radical, experimental, aesthetic, and it is one many of us share.
SQ: In terms of texture, how do you decide how much history will puncture a narrative and for how long? You like a slow boil, and I assume one can say you like a slow boil in the reading process too. That the reader will wade through, attaching images and words as she or her acclimatizes to the amplified perspective you achieve in your prose. I’m thinking of the relationship between Scott the former journalist, Scott the mystery writer, and Scott the experimental author: where and how do you negotiate your relationship with your reader?
GS: If history (but what is history?) seems to puncture the narrative as you put it, it implies something not only about the writer, but also about the expectations of the reader: a reader’s desire for seamlessness, for example, which I’m presuming is not your case, since that would be a fairly conventional approach to the question of the novel. Or a kind of anxiety about narrative time that some readers have. Somebody once told me that the best way to read My Paris was to get on a subway somewhere in, say, Brooklyn, and sit reading til the utmost stop on the uptown line. Rachel Levitsky has taught My Paris in prison. It’s only work to read if you approach it as work. My Paris and The Obituaryare both books you can step into and sample a few pages at a time, for the language. My hope of course is that eventually the reader will read it from end to end and that it will be an experience of pleasure and discovery. I like the idea of books that can be read over and over and over, each time delivering up some new treasure, some new meaning. The relationship between the different kind of Scott writers is a mystery to me. Journalism taught me to observe, to listen, and to use language economically. Scott the Noir writer is a purveyor of doubt. And Scott the author cares most about language and how it works. Thank you for your very perceptive questions.SQ: Thanks Gail. I think we need to carry this on in the new year…I’ll be back in touch.


Gail Scott’s new novel, The Obituary, a kind of ghost story with a fractalled narrator set in a Montréal triplex, is out from Coach House (October 2010). Her other novels include My Paris, about a sad diarist in conversation with Gertrude Stein and Walter Benjamin in contemporary Paris, Main Brides and Heroine. Spare Parts Plus 2 is a collection of stories and manifestoes. She is the author of the essay collection Spaces Like Stairs and, with Nicole Brossard et al, la théorie, un dimanche. The new narrative anthology Biting The Error, edited with Bob Gluck, Camille Roy, and Mary Burger, was shortlisted for a Lambda award. Her translation of Michael Delisle’s Le Déasarroi du matelot was shortlisted for the Governor General’s award in translation [2001]. She is co-founder of the critical French-language journal Spirale (Montréal) and Tessera. You can find her here.