canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Michelle Orange

Michelle Orange is a writer from Toronto. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney's and other publications and has been collected in The Best Sex Writing 2006 and Mountain Man Dance Moves. 

She is the author of The Sicily Papers (Hobart Press, 2006) and the editor of From the Notebook: The Unwritten Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a collection found in issue 22 of McSweeney's.

The voice in The Sicily Papers is frank and charming, her voice is quirky and compelling, never taking itself too seriously. 

Part travelogue and part autobiography, the letters show our protagonist improving her Italian, warding off unwelcome advances, having trouble with the laundry machine and document her reactions to such literary texts as Madame Bovary. 

The interlocutor is referred to as B. and remains rather mysterious. His letters are longed for but her sign offs nor the bodies of the texts ever mention love. As strange and separate as one is in a foreign country, so too is B. foreign to the reader. 

The following interview was conducted via email in December of 2008.

See also - 

Interview by Angela Hibbs


AH: How did you decide which letters to include?

MO: I included all of the letters that I wrote on that trip.

AH: Did you edit the letters?

MO: I pushed for minimal-to-no editing. I felt that if there was any interest in a project like this, a large part of it would be derived from the idea of presenting the thing almost fanatically intact. Obviously I changed a couple of names and identifying details to protect privacy, but I'd say fewer than a dozen words were left out. Once you start "editing" your own letters you enter very tricky terrain--it would become a different kind of book and compromise the intention of Elizabeth Ellen's (the editor of Short Flight/Long Drive books) project. It has a very specific aesthetic ambition--that of being an essentially ambitionless book. It is what it is, and although I definitely white-knuckled through the initial decision, that was freeing to me. And I think there is a degree of beauty in its integrity.

AH: How would you feel if B published his end of the correspondence?

MO: I can answer that quite accurately: I would have no particular feeling. I have had things that originated as correspondence to me show up, either whole or in fragments, in published form. I prefer that to having things that *I* have written in confidence mined or massaged or flat-out boosted, although both are regulation moves, I suppose, in literature. All of the things that F. Scott Fitzgerald lifted from Zelda's letters and journals--he claimed those as his own, he claimed their *lives* as his own, in terms of the material they generated. I can't imagine what that did to her.

I liked the idea of engaging with the question of using personal experience--either in fiction or nonfiction--as material, because I think about it a lot: do we privilege certain modes in terms of their ability to penetrate and convey the truth of an experience, and if so why and to what end? Or is the whole idea of the ultimate truth or parameters of any story (or let's say any story extracted from actual experience) futile, and does my militancy about including every last typo and margin note simply highlight that? I don't know. I've written in all sorts of modes and transformed all sorts of experiences, and I still don't know. Sometimes accessing what feels most truthful takes agonizing level of work and attention, and sometimes it's so effortless that it's a whole separate agony.

With this book it's like: here, here's the whole thing, the document, and are you any closer? In one way the letters are the whole story--literally they are that, technically nothing got left out--but in another way they are merely raw material, waiting to be transformed into perhaps a better or more incisive or more literary or more expansive or more "truthful" version of what happened between those two people, or to that one person, on that trip. If anything, I feel uneasier writing fiction in which someone I know is thinly disguised--or even valiantly transformed into a hybrid of several people--knowing that if that person comes to me I can hold up this grubby little immunity card. I don't really get the distinction, on an ethical level. But I know a lot of superior-feeling fiction writers who hold it very dear.

I looked at it as a minor but insistent experiment, and it has been interesting to see how people, particularly writers, have reacted. I find it interesting, for instance, that you asked this question.

AH: How do you conceive of Italy as a character in the book? Obviously it is more than a setting, it is integral to the distance between the interlocutor and the writer. Could you discuss the role Italy plays in the book and any feelings of outsiderness that comes from being in a non-native country and how that would impact the writing of letters to someone who is in or near the writer's native country?

MO: Oh, I can't claim to have really conceived of anything--certainly when I wrote the letters publishing them as a book was the farthest thing from my mind. Oddly I have always felt more at home outside of Canada--and now New York, I guess--than I have in situ. I have quoted him before but consider this Canetti bit "The most peaceful place on Earth is among strangers."--I am that, or I used to be that. There are of course obstacles, language being the biggest and most obvious one, but even that can, in the right frame of mind, supply the insulation that a touchy mind needs to settle down. I felt, from the first trip I took there in 1999, that Italy is my home, and so perhaps in my writing about it I try to introduce either a general or specific reader to my home and in some way to myself, my best self. That's all very gory and sentimental, but at the simplest level that's probably it--why I keep returning there and why I have felt compelled to write about the qualities that compel me and what happens to me there.

AH: To what extent would you find it useful to think of "The Sicily Papers" as an autobiographical project? What makes it the same and what makes it different?

MO: I'm not sure--I think that's up to the reader to decide. I look at the book now and I think what a strange, specific little time capsule it is, and it's very hard for me to take a step back and see what kind of autobiographical value it has. Obviously parts of me must be in there, but I think at least equally it is a narrative project, and to me that is one of the interesting things about letter-writing, and especially collected letters. One shapes one's self as narrator and one attempts to shape one's ideal reader as well; many of the narrative elements are in play. And then once a third party--you, the reader--is involved, everything shifts again.

In as far as I don't think there's any interest in presenting the world with an autobiography of moi, if pressed I'd hold that the interests of the book are more aesthetic and...I don't know...philosophical, and leave the rest up to the reader. I am currently reviewing a collection of Graham Greene's letters and I started out leaning toward the feeling that letters are perhaps the purest form of autobiography, but now I have my doubts about that. But that could ensnare me in a much longer answer and I am trying to control myself.




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