Notes on Craft | Missouri Williams | Granta

Notes on Craft

Missouri Williams

After a series of seizures in my temporal lobe, I started to forget words and say sentences backwards. Eventually it felt as though my mind had been wiped clean. I couldn’t hold onto my memories and my thoughts drifted all over the place. For a while I felt lost in conversation – it was hard for me to remember what had been said – and so I started to write instead, in long, obsessive sentences which constantly circled back as if driven by the need to confirm each and every thing that had preceded them.

I kept on writing this way until I had a book. The book and the characters inside it have the same problem, the problem of doubt. Nothing is certain in The Doloriad. Nobody can trust their interpretation of reality, not even for a moment, and this is painful to them. And it is their desire for certainty that compels them to hurt others. They want to be confirmed in the things they want to believe, and this is matched by a refusal to accept the things they do know, the lives they see around them. Because of this The Doloriad is an expression of two opposing forces, doubt and certainty, and this dynamic plays out even at the most minute level of the prose. It’s the characters who have accepted uncertainty whom I envy the most. The things that have happened or been done to them mean that they think differently. All their associations have been broken and the similes they reach for make no sense. But the loss of memory, language and reason also pave the way for new conditions of being. The children in particular make new connections; they find new values. And so they learn how to live in a different kind of world, one that’s less human but more inclusive.

I’ve always been interested in what disaster opens up. In all my writing things are loud. The world is bright, flat and full. It was important to me to try and place people, animals and objects on an equal plane, as equally enigmatic and unknowable. It’s more than wanting the reader’s attention to be drawn to everything at once – I wanted them to feel crushed by the weight of the setting, to feel what it is like to be shut out from a conventional way of seeing things. I wanted everything about the book to be remorseless.

A lot of people have told me that The Doloriad is a violent book, but it doesn’t feel violent to me, not really. I’ve always seen what it describes as somehow belonging to the realm of the mythic, of having this impersonal, fated quality that softens its actual content. For me, the absurdist elements, the implausible stories – like Get Aquinas in Here, the television show the children watch in which a medieval saint is called upon to solve very modern problems – explode the story away from everyday life, and the biblical and classical references exacerbate that. It’s as if everything is happening on a plane of being that we have no access to. Or maybe it’s just that I don’t have enough imagination. But my characters don’t have that kind of imagination either. They’re both close and very distant at the same time, like the heroes in an epic. At times I even find the violence funny; it’s so excessive it’s almost silly, they have to suffer so much.

I always feel as if my characters come to me fully formed, as though I’m recovering a memory, or being guided by some strange force. When I write them it’s as if I’m taking orders. Both with The Doloriad and my short stories, I have the sense that I’m writing backwards, that everything is already there, as it is, and I’m passing it on. And when I feel this way, the only thing I doubt is my ability to do it well. For once, everything else is certain.


Image © Curt Smith

Missouri Williams

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