Lisa Williams is the author of Letters to Virginia Woolf and also The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. She is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and lives in New York City. In an interview carried out via email last week, Lisa kindly answers my questions ...
Mark Thwaite Letters to Virginia Woolf came about because of 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror - what drove you to want to make a literary response? And why this epistolary form?
Lisa Williams On 9/11/2001, I found myself on a playground in New York City with my 16 month old son. The day was simply perfect - the sun danced playfully overhead in a sky without even a cloud. And yet in a moment, our lives changed forever. Even now, four years later, I can still say, that none of us have ever been so carefree again. My husband was working close to the World Trade Center, and for a while I wasn’t sure where or how he was. Fortunately he was okay, but that time of uncertainty also changed me forever.
I found myself in those days after 9/11, thinking deeply of Virginia Woolf and the importance of her anti-war views. I returned to her pacifist manifesto, Three Guineas, where she writes: “A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life.” Woolf dared to imagine a world without war and asked us to work tirelessly for this vision. At that time, I was also re-reading Mrs. Dalloway. In Woolf’s shell-shocked soldier, Septimus Warren Smith, I found words to describe the experience of all those young people who go off to war and come back completely shattered. In Septimus Warren Smith’s inability to leave the horrors of war behind, I felt as if Woolf were prophetically peering into the devastation of the twentieth and twenty first century.
I had been working on my letters to Virginia Woolf for years, but after 9/11, I could finally see the structure of the book clearly. I know my book would begin there, on the playground, on that exquisitely beautiful day that contrasted so drastically with the terror and destruction we would all experience.
I chose the epistolary form for its intimacy. In my letters I felt I could speak personally to Virginia Woolf, as I reflected on her enduring importance as well as my own experiences with war, childhood, adolescence, childbirth, and divorce.
MT Why letters to Virginia Woolf and not, say, William Blake or Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot ...?
LW For so many years I had been reading and studying Virginia Woolf. When I was sixteen years old, I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time. Although I didn’t understand much of what the book was about, I loved it anyway for the sheer loveliness of its musical language. I felt as if Woolf’s words were simply dancing off the page. While my life is obviously very different from Woolf’s, for a long time, it seemed as if she were writing out the deepest interiority of my own mind. In her novels, essays, and journals, I found words to describe my experiences as a woman. When I was in graduate school, and started attending Virginia Woolf conferences, I realized then that many, many other women felt the same way.
I started writing Letters to Virginia Woolf as a way of exploring the deep connection I felt to this great writer. Woolf said she managed to kill off The Angel in the House, but could never write about her body. These words had great significance for me. I realized, through Woolf, how important it was to “kill off” that internalized, female self-identity that wants everyone to always like her. In responding to Woolf, I wanted to try and write about my own body - specifically the difficulty of deciding to become a mother at a later age and the ensuing humiliation and desolation involved in fertility treatments.
I realize now that I turned to Virginia Woolf as a way of trying to resolve a deep personal crisis. As a young woman, I found myself still shattered by my parent’s divorce and remarriage to other people, even though this event had occurred when I was an adolescent. Immersing myself in Woolf for so many years helped me to heal and reconstruct a self that would turn to writing to make sense of the past.
MT You are an expert on Woolf ("The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf"). How do you think Woolf's standing is now? Do you think modern readers should still read her?
LW I believe Virginia Woolf’s standing is stronger than ever. And yes, I also believe, it is imperative for modern readers to continue to read Woolf. Her themes transcend time and national boundaries. Woolf’s language and artistic achievements continue to inspire us.
MT Have you been pleased with your book's reception?
LW Yes, I have been quite pleased with the book’s reception. Many Woolf scholars have contacted me to tell me how moved they were by the book. For instance, recently Jane Marcus, a world renowned Woolf critic, wrote to tell me how she loved my book. At the same time, I wrote Letters to Virginia Woolf for a wide audience of readers who may not necessarily be familiar with Woolf. Readers who have not read Woolf can relate to the sections on motherhood, fertility, war, 9/11, childhood, and adolescence.
MT Your Woolf book is also a book on Toni Morrison. Is she oneof the most important recent (female) writers? Who else, in your opinion, shouldwe be reading?
LW Toni Morrison is definitely one of the most important living female writers. My favorite book of hers is Beloved, an exquisite and haunting book about the horrors of slavery, particularly for the black female slave mother. By the way, I had the opportunity to give Toni Morrison a copy of Letters to Virginia Woolf when she came to Ramapo College of New Jersey, where I teach, as the commencement speaker. When I met her a couple of months later at the Toni Morrison Conference in Ohio, she told me she liked my book and said my work is interesting. This really meant so much to me. I can’t even express in words how moved I was by her encouraging words.
There are so many incredible writers. I love Nadine Gordimer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, J.M. Coetze, Alice Walker, Mariama Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo, just to name a few. I am also constantly returning to the nineteenth century Russian writers--Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.
MT Your is an anti-war book, a pacifist book. Your views echo, to some extent, Virginia Woolf's (particularly in her essay Three Guineas). How do you think she would have viewed the war on Iraq? How do you view it?
LW I am certain Virginia Woolf would have been against the British and American invasion of Iraq. Especially since there has been no proven connection between Iraq and 9/11, the war in Iraq is based on a series of falsehoods. In fact, we could say that this war has increased the risk of world-wide terrorism. When I think of all those young people destroyed by war, I keep returning to Woolf’s shell-shocked soldier, Septimus, who was completely shattered by World War I. Through the character of Septimus, Woolf is making a statement about the insidious nature of war for all times.
MT Do you read m/any literary websites? You certainly seemed to have been well-received in the blogosphere!?Is that important to you? that What are your favourite sites?
LW I have been very happy that so many excellent literary blogs have been interested in seeing my book. I especially enjoy looking at ReadySteadyBook, Scarecrow, Book Coolie, The Elegant Variation, Book World, Scribbling Woman, Beatrice, Moby Lives, Book Girl, Chekhov’s Mistress, Quarterly Conversation, Splinters, Buzzwords Blog: 3AM Magazine, The Cusp of Something, Reading Matters, and Bookslut.
MT Who is your favourite writer/book? What is the best thing you have read recently?
LW My favorite writers are probably Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, as well as those nineteenth century Russian writers. Recently I read Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin. It is a wonderful tribute to Dostoevsky’s continuing and haunting influence on the present moment. I also loved Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup.
MT What are you working on now?
LW I am presently working on a book that explores the lives of early twentieth century Eastern European immigrants to the United States. This book is concerned with the enduring presence of the ancestor.
MT Anything else you'd like to say Lisa?
LW Thank you so much. I really enjoyed this interview.
MT Well, thank you!