The Salon Interview - Dorothy Allison

Laura Miller interviews Dorothy Allison, author of 'Bastard Out of Carolina' and 'Cavedweller'


Laura Miller
April 1, 1998 1:15AM (UTC)

It's a toss-up which quality Dorothy Allison has in greater measure -- strength or charm. She's needed plenty of both to fight her way out of the desperate circumstances into which she was born. Her riveting, semi-autobiographical first novel, "Bastard Out of Carolina," portrays a dirt-poor Southern childhood in a family notorious for its violent, hard-drinking men and trouble-prone women. For Allison, these crushing circumstances were intensified by a physically and sexually abusive stepfather and, eventually, the discovery that she was a lesbian. She left home and devoted years of her life to feminist activism and collectives, although her refusal to toe the line sexually (or to keep quiet about her penchant for what she calls "rough trade") often made her an outcast there as well. She also began to write stories and essays whose fierce eloquence instantly gripped anyone lucky enough to discover them in alternative newspapers and books published by the small press Firebrand.

Then, in 1992, "Bastard" was published to ecstatic acclaim, particularly a full page in the New York Times Book Review in which George Garrett proclaimed the novel "as close to flawless as any reader could ask for" and "simply stunning," and praised Allison's "perfect ear for speech and its natural rhythms." "Bastard" became a bestseller, a perennial favorite of reading groups, and was made into a 1996 film directed by Angelica Houston for TNT (although TNT owner Ted Turner, in a brief, capricious "decency" campaign, refused to televise it -- it premiered on Showtime). The success of "Bastard" lifted the lifelong outsider from relative obscurity and penury to literary fame and middle-class comfort, much to her amusement.

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Allison's long-awaited second novel, "Cavedweller," concerns Delia Byrd, a rock 'n' roll singer who abandons her career and returns with her third daughter to the small Georgia town where years earlier she had left two older children with the husband who nearly beat her to death. Allison spoke to Salon in the dining room of the bustling Victorian house in San Francisco where she lives with her lover, Alix, their young son, Wolf, and several extravagantly affectionate dogs and cats.

Tell me about "Cavedweller," the glimmer that was the beginning of this book.

I had Cissy in the cave. The notion was of somebody in such trouble that the only place she was going to feel safe was in this hole in the ground. And I had the notion of a woman who, in order to redeem herself, basically buries herself alive. And, of course, rock 'n' roll. I've been wanting to write a novel based on the story of Janis Joplin. Not a biography, but about that whole complex of working-class self-hatred and female masochism and self-destruction and great talent. Delia grew out of that.

Cissy is someone most at home in total darkness, and it's not a coincidence that the two women who she goes down there with are lesbians, even though Cissy doesn't get that.

She's in the dark in more ways than one. In this decade there is a lot of information about lesbians. But there wasn't before this, especially not in small towns. And so what happened is that you couldn't quite get it. It didn't quite register. You knew you were weird. And the first time Cissy gets a spark is with these girls, but she hasn't got any language or any concept to understand why she is mad for them.

"Bastard" was a book about getting out, while this is in many ways a book about going back home.

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I think a lot in terms of what I am missing in books that I want. And I am missing a story of redemption that I find believable. Lyrical, but believable. I find Delia's redemption believable. I'm in awe of some of the women in my family. We're like these girls [points to a newspaper article about women on death row]. In my family, it is pretty traditional that we all commit some unforgivable sin and then spend the rest of our lives trying to redeem it in some fashion. And the romance of self-destruction: I truly do not know why some of us can resist it and some of us can't, why some of us kill our children and some of us try to send them whole into the world.

I don't believe that God does it. I don't know that I even believe in God. Some days, when I feel really tired, I kind of believe in God because it would be easier. I don't believe in fate, except some days. And I don't believe that fighting really hard and sacrificing necessarily makes a difference, but sometimes it does. I sometimes wonder how our family has survived at all. I feel that about working-class women and families, that some do everything and lose everything. And some don't. I just don't see enough of it in literature. I don't see enough honor paid.

How are Delia and her family different from the Boatwrights, the family in "Bastard"?

In terms of the working class they are one step up, because Grandaddy Bird had that piece of land. But I basically write about the working class in the way that, I think, Flannery O'Connor wrote about the middle class. There's a whole lot of range in there that is not usually recognized. I just don't think I could give you suburban middle-class families. I just don't think I can write them believably. I admire them. I envy them on occasion. I am trying desperately to raise a middle-class child, you know.

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Have your own experiences as a parent affected --

Yes, God help us all! I can write about kids now without feeling like I am completely making it up whole, because now I see more children. And I begin to realize how unique my perspective on kids is, because I grew up with kids who were either so damaged you couldn't tell what they were thinking, or really smart kids. I was really smart, and the other kids around me, in order to survive, were all pretty sharp. Now, when I meet these kids who are so young and so fragile, I don't understand them. My boy is very intelligent, but he has got a tenderness. He has been protected. He has never been thrown on himself so severely that he had to get sharp. There is some kind of soft place in them that I don't quite get.
Do you think it is a middle-class kid thing?
No. It's about safety. I think if my mother hadn't married my stepfather, we might have had it. But we didn't. Fate went the other way, and we got sharp and damaged.

Of course, you don't want children to have to go through things like that, but on the other hand, you have so much respect for that sharpness and resilience.

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I'm watching it. I'm watching this thing because it's a dangerous idea. I remember reading a short story years and years ago, a science-fiction story about parents in the future who wanted to raise genius children, and the way you did that was so heartbreaking. It was all about yelling at the kid, locking all the doors, refusing to let the kid have books and all of these calculated abuse strategies which were designed to produce a genius. I don't think it works. I think kids are a whole lot more complicated than that.

Cissy is a big science-fiction fan, like yourself. In an essay in "Skin," you write that you're about to confess something really, really embarrassing -- and it turns out to be your passion for science fiction! What did it mean to you as a girl?

Every kid I meet who's a reader has got something like that, their fantasy world. And science fiction is the best, especially for girls because it's the one place where you can do the forbidden. You pick it up because it's not about living in this place, where there is nothing that you can be or do, no adventure, no stepping out. The world is sitting on you like a horsehair blanket covering your head. Science fiction is where you can be anything. You can transgress in terms of gender, in terms of the body, in terms of imagination. You could be anything. I adored it, it was my safe place in my 20s. It was my whole imagination. I have not just a novel, but three linked science-fiction novels, and I have to finish them very soon.

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You are very out about being a lesbian and other renegade aspects of your sexuality, and yet, in a funny way, your lifelong love of science fiction may be your last dark secret.

That's because it's an area in which there is a huge amount of contempt, partly because of the fantasy element. I subscribe to a discussion group on the Internet for feminist science-fiction writers. I barely qualify. I've published a couple of science-fiction stories. But I am a writer, and I am a science-fiction fan, and I get to have amazing conversations with Vonda McIntyre and Nicole Griffith, writers whose work I absolutely adore, who have been writing science fiction for 20 years or more and who get no respect. They are doing serious work. Their work is an assault on conventions so enormous that it is very much more dangerous, sometimes, than writing about lesbianism, which is essentially about love and romance.

I first met you before "Bastard" came out, and now things are so different. You're a mom and you actually have a comfortable, secure life. Back then, things felt like they were a little bit on the edge.

We were barely surviving. We were kiting one credit card to pay for the other. But you keep that quiet -- don't tell nobody. No, you learn to live with uncertainty and poverty if you are going to be a writer. I'm still very blunt: If you want to be a writer, get a day job. The fact that I have actually been able to make a living at it is astonishing. I know so many great writers who can't and, oh, it is not about justice. I am trying to carry it off with grace and a sense of humor.
You must have found a whole new readership, too.
I did a reading in Marin, the month after [the New York Times Book Review's rave for "Bastard"] came out. And, you know, I have been reading in public and doing my stuff for years, but I went to that reading, looked around the bookstore and realized that it was almost entirely people that I didn't know a thing about. Straight white people from Marin. They drove up in their BMWs and came in to have a look at me. And I was just shitting myself with terror. It was like, oookay. We are all loving books. We are going to do this.

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We are not in Kansas anymore, in a funny reverse sort of way.

It's very interesting to me. They will give you a little room, you know. They get a little nervous every now and again, but I am very good for them. I am like a diuretic. Got to clean out all that stuff. I figure if they give me room, I'll give them room. I am not going to try to be nobody different -- and they wouldn't believe it if I tried.
Your life must have changed pretty quickly.
Well, yes and no. I was still poor. All that stuff happens and everybody thinks, whoa, she's rich. That was a bad couple of years just keeping balance, materially, emotionally and psychically. But I live with good people. My lover is -- we are not talking salt of the earth, we are talking the entire state of Utah. Good, solid people. And I have been doing this a long time. I think I would have been in real trouble if I had been young, because some of this stuff will really mess you up. I have seen it happen. Let me tell you, adulation is a remarkable drug. A whole lot better than any I ever tried as a young person. God. I mean look at me! Come on!

What do you mean by that?

When I go out and do these gigs, people show up and they all look at me like, she's the writer? She's the famous one? I just wrote a piece about it for one of the women's magazines. It is an article called, "Who I Am and Who I Think I Am." And it's about being sent somewhere, going to a really nice hotel and arriving late and they don't want to give me the room.
They look at you and they think, she's not the kind of person ...
This bitch is going to steal the sheets! Until they know you are The Writer, they treat you like dirt. It is a very, very effective way to remind you what kind of margin you are getting and what kind of margin you wouldn't have.

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You've given a lot of years, and too much of your health at times, to different causes. You worked too hard for a long time.
Not too hard, just as hard as I could. But that's about masochistic self-destruction -- I didn't drink, I worked hard.
And then you started to be able to set limits.
I'm not terribly good at it. I am getting better. I started having pneumonia. The fifth time I had pneumonia, I realized that, in fact, I had to listen to people and make some changes. But it is very hard. God, it's hard. It is like changing the habits of a lifetime.

I just did this writer's conference, and these beginning writers show up with those little brown envelopes in hand. Oh, God. And I am used to it and I have standards and sometimes I am pleasant and sometimes I am a little rude. But basically, I don't carry manuscripts home. I just can't. For one thing, my back won't handle it. The suitcase becomes too heavy. But I am not mean. I saw a couple of writers, when people came up to them with their brown envelopes, they went off, hysterical. That instant rage is because you said yes 25 times. The 26th time you have to beat the kid to death with his manuscript. Better to learn to say, "I can't read that right now." But there were a couple of times there when people showed up and tried to hand me manuscripts and instead of screaming I burst into tears.

The people you work with will force you. You know, when you sign a contract and they give you money, it will come down to the time when they want what they paid for. They built their timetable around it, and they are going to kick your ass if you don't deliver. I also have to say no to doing benefits to the point that I am gone every weekend. My agent is my mama substitute. She will call me up and say, somebody called me from Touluca County and they said you promised to come and do a benefit for a battered women's shelter. Did you do this? Well, yes. And then she yells at me. And then she will help me make it happen. She forced me to limit it so that I don't do more than two a month. I just kept getting sick. It was the only excuse that I could give. Physical collapse is the only justified reason in my head for not doing these benefits when you can actually be of use.
I felt that way about leaving New York City for San Francisco. I don't know any other way to put it, but I have got a strong bone in me to keep me alive. And in these situations, some little voice says, get out. Do a geographic. I left New York City to survive.
You really felt that the amount of work you were doing there was that dangerous?

Well, not just work. Let's not forget sex.
It takes a lot of that to kill a person.
Oh, you'd be amazed, you do it right. No, it was New York City. You send trash to New York City, we go so bad. I went so bad. I mean, in order to justify how much exhilaration and adventure living in the evil city was, I destroyed my immune system with overwork and, let's get real, using drugs to keep maintaining. I was basically doing huge amounts of coffee and other stimulants and drinking to get myself down enough to rest. And not sleeping. You can do yourself enormous damage. And it wasn't just activism, but also working at Poets and Writers, writing for the Village Voice. No, honey, it was going to readings. It was drink another cup of coffee because somebody is doing something interesting and I want to see it. And dating every piece of rough trade I could get my hands on. Oh, land. I near killed myself.

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But it was fun?

Enormous passion, even in the work. Even in the most grody, awful work. I used to do the computer organizing at Poets and Writers, which was deadly, deadly, but also an enormous joy. When you've grown up thinking you are a worthless piece of shit, and well, when a piece of shit goes to New York and gets a job, exhilaration happens. I had so much guilt about being in a place where I was happy. Or almost happy. I'd call home, talk to my mama, talk to my sisters, and feel, thank you, thank you, Jesus, for letting me get here. And then the wave comes in of "I should be dead." I don't think people ever talk about how strong that wave is. Boy, it is a biggie.
The guilt of getting the things you have always wanted?
The guilt of being a survivor. You know, I hadn't gotten all the things I had always wanted. But just to get out of that world. And I have a lot of family that never had anything working, managing a convenience store and raising three kids.

Although you make managing a convenience store into something positive in "Cavedweller." It becomes Dede's vocation, the one thing she's really good at. This is the kind of book that some people might think of as being a women's book, but what these women are after is never the romance, the pairing up, that drives most women's books.

I can't write what I don't believe in. And while it is true that I got the best woman in the world, I don't think love saves you. It helps a whole bunch, but ... I couldn't write that kind of romance.

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Do you feel pressure to tell a certain kind of story?

I just did an interview with a gay paper in some unnamed Eastern city. We won't identify them. First the woman gets on the phone, tells me how much she loves my work. And then you can hear her taking a breath: "I don't want to offend you, but don't you feel that a lesbian writing about straight people the way you do is a betrayal of the gay community?"

Oh, I forgot to ask you that!

[Laughter.]

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I had this moment when I wanted to say, "Eat shit and die, bitch," you know? She had such a tiny concept of the community. I am sick to death of people who think that lesbians don't have family. People who think queer writers don't think large in terms of their own lives. I mean, I can't write purely about sex -- although it is a lot of fun. I don't think being queer is purely about sex. That is what they think. These young journalists are like 20, and they think that the gay story is coming out, sexual adventurism. Or the queer person in struggle with the community. They want you to write the vindication of queer people.

So, no, I don't think it is a betrayal. I think it is an affirmation. I took a deep breath, and I did not scream at that child. Maybe little squeals.

Like you said, there is always going to be somebody who is pissed off. What was it like seeing "Bastard Out of Carolina" made into a movie?

It was very weird, frightening. I only sold it because I thought they wouldn't do it. I wouldn't have taken the money if I thought they were really going to make the movie. Everybody promised me that they never make the movies they buy the rights for.

They never do.

They never do. They did. I was terrified, because before Anjelica Huston came on, there were a number of different directors. There was the one that did "Mi Vida Loca."

Allison Anders.

Allison Anders. I liked her. We had a great time. We talked about illegitimacy and feminism and working-class families, and she was a hoot and a half. I thought, hey, this one is not going to make a movie that I will then have to kill myself over. But then she left and Anjelica Huston came on. Then I got scared again because I admire Anjelica Huston as an actress, but who knew what the hell she would do. Allison Anders is working class. She is in my territory.

And Anjelica Huston is a long-legged movie star.
Exactly -- so, ooof! She invited me down to her house. I had gone off to do a benefit somewhere, so when I flew in I was so exhausted I could barely see. She sent a limo to pick me up. And I kept thinking: Stay awake. Remember, all your friends are going to want to know about this. She was extremely reassuring. She talked about the book. She talked about Bone and Annie and Boatwright with an enormous passion. She started crying. So I was a little more hopeful. And then I met Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was equally passionate and sincere. They were both very sincere. They both cried. They both kissed me -- very soft-mouthed girls. But you know people with good intentions can still fuck up. And then they sent me the "draft" of the movie. And I just lost it.

I had been worrying about the movie the way a novelist worries, which is about which parts of the story were they going to cut out. And I was worried about what they were going to do with the violence, that it would be a really gratuitous, offensive, violent thing that I would then have to hunt somebody down and kill them over. I had not thought about the fact that they were going to go to South Carolina. And that they were going to shoot in the countryside where I grew up. And that they were going to shoot in those houses. And that the landscape they were going to photograph was going to hit me like a car. I couldn't watch it. It had so little to do with the book. It had everything to do with my childhood. It completely ... I was just ... I couldn't. So I couldn't judge it. I hadn't registered that they were going to do it well enough that it was going to feel to me and smell to me like my childhood -- and make me want to go out in the yard and throw up.

I've never heard a novelist say, I didn't like the movie because it was too true!

But I can't say that. I can't think about it in terms of like it or not like it. I couldn't handle it. When other people would ask me about it, I would say I missed some of the family because a lot of the family story and all of the places in which Bone Boatwright has agency were gone. So it was, in many ways, the victim portrait that I had hoped it wouldn't be, but at the same time the violent scenes, and especially the rape scene, were done so well. So well it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was done exactly how I would have wanted it to be done. So, when all the bullshit hit, I was like, we're backing her.

When Ted Turner decided the movie was too much for his cable channel?

I said, we are backing her all the way. I said evil things about Ted Turner when reporters called and I praised her to the skies.

Considering that you've always felt like such an outsider, who would have thought they'd make a movie out of one of your books?
Well, it is a hoot. Your whole family gets excited. My family ... Let's be real about my family. They don't read. One of my sisters did read the book. I am now convinced that one of them didn't. I think she just looked to see if she was in it. So there was never any big deal about it. When the movie happened, it was a big deal. Relatives checked in that had not been heard from in this lifetime.

Were they happy or were they ...

They loved it! Isn't that a hoot?


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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