Dorothy Allison has been writing most of her life, but until she turned 24-years-old, the acclaimed author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller, set fire to every one of her stories, letters and journals.
"In 1973, I was living in a lesbian-feminist collective and the women there helped me to realize that I didn't have to burn my work, that I could write things down without fear of what might happen to me," says Allison, whose words are still on fire, several years and two novels later, with haunting images and memorable characters that burn themselves into the minds of readers and critics alike.
Allison will make a rare appearance in Chicago next week for Columbia College's Story Week Festival of Writers, where she will read from her new novel in progressa work that promises to be full of the indomitable women characters and harrowing life situations that have become the author's trademark.
Read more story below....
Certainly, Allison doesn't set fire to her manuscripts anymore, though, she does admit they undergo quite an extensive editing process.
"It's a huge, wandering manuscript and half of it will likely disappear before it's completed," she says of her new novel, during a recent phone interview from her home two hours outside San Francisco.
"It's a story about what I call 'golden children' and what happens to someone whey they stop being golden. You know, for some reason, I always manage to teach at places like Stanford where my students, of course, tend to be astonishingly privileged, wonderful kids, who have no clue that they live in this privileged existence. These are what I call the 'golden children.' It is my bias that people like me, who come from poverty, are stronger than they are, but is that the case? I wanted to explore the idea of what happens if you take one of these golden children and strip them down. This story is about a 22-year-old girl named Casey, who is a graduate of Stanford that is planning on going to law school. She is an attractive, baby dyke with a girlfriend. But one day, [ through a series of events ] she is thrown off of the 4th level of a parking garage and hit by a car. She loses ten years of her memory and doesn't remember any of her education or her girlfriend."
The author admits that the novel will take at least another year to complete, citing the demands of raising her eight-year-old son, Wolf, as one reason for the book's delay.
"I get the kid off at 7:05 and he comes home at 3:20, so I write when he is in school or in bed," she says with obvious affection for her son. "I used to be that rare breed of privileged person, 'the single lesbian' and gosh, what a lot of time and emotional energy we have!"
Another factor that robbed Allison of valuable writing time was her arthritis, a condition that, in some respects, worked its way into the author's new book.
"Suffering from arthritis I had to learn to deal with chronic pain. So, I went to the gym and got a muscle-shirt gym faggot trainer and did the butch thing and began channeling this different part of my personality. Before, when it came to physical pain, I was very femme about it. I would say 'oh honey, this hurts!' But I learned to get stoic and stubborn about my pain, and I used that in creating the character of Casey. In the beginning she is quite femme, but later after she wakes up from the coma, she becomes butch as a way to deal with her new surroundings. The spelling of her name changes in the novel three times, to signify these different versions of Casey."
In Allison's essay, "Believing in Literature," she says that when she was very young, she imagined that Literature ( with a capital L ) was "a city with many districts, or it was like a great library of the human mind that included all the books ever written." The most important quality of that library or city, according to the author, was its "enormous diversity."
"I cruised that city and dreamed of becoming a part of it," she writes.
The first step in becoming a citizen of Literature, claims Allison, is to create a definition of 'good writing.'
"If you want to write good fiction, I am convinced you have to first decide what that means," writes Allison in her essay.
Her current definition of 'good fiction' ( which she says is constantly changing ) centers on poetry.
"I'm going back to poetry more and more with this novel. I want my work to sing, I want my words to be lyrical. It's no longer sufficient for me to have our lives and stories documented accurately and sufficiently. I want my words to have power."
Allison's notion of 'bad' or weak fiction, especially where gay and lesbian literature is concerned, is rooted in a little idea she calls false "nobility."
"We tend to be a little more noble in our writing than we are in real life," she says with a good-natured laugh. "Take break ups. Since our relationships are not legally sanctioned, our breakups can be that much more horrific. You would think that would work its way into our fiction, but these stories that deal with break ups always show us as being so reasonable! I don't know many people who are that reasonable in these situations—gay or straight!"
When asked who she sees, when looking out at an audience that has attended one of her readings, she responds with what can only be described as pleasant exasperation.
"God help us! Who can guess!? I have a huge, suburban middle-class audience. I look at them and sometimes I don't know if I will even know how to talk to them! But, we discuss writing and our mutual love of books. I think it used to be easier to predict your readers, but not anymore."
"I hear people at my readings say that I have told their story and they are so grateful," she says after a brief pause. "And sometimes you just want to cave in from the enormity of it all. I wind up taking a lot of people out for tea, after those readings, let me tell you!"
For more information on Dorothy Allison's reading and participation in Columbia College's Story Week Festival of Writers, March 26-30, please call ( 312 ) 344-7611.