A Conversation with Angela Carter

ANGELA CARTER © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

© Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos

By Anna Katsavos
(From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1994, Vol. 14.3)

Crammed in with all the other gear packed for a ski trip was my copy of Angela Carter’s newest novel, Wise Children. Because sheer exhaustion made it difficult for me to stay awake past nine o’clock, I didn’t get to finish the book, which in a sad kind of way turned out to be a good thing.

A week later I returned home to a stack of unread newspapers and very sorrowful news; while I had been struggling with moguls, Carter had succumbed to cancer. Though my dealings with her were limited (a few letters, phone calls, and two personal meetings), the sense of loss that I experienced was deep-felt. I immediately went for my copy of Wise Children, and for a long time gazed at the picture of the author’s smiling face on the inside jacket; it was the same picture as the one in the Times’s obit. Mixed in with my numbness was a peculiar sense of gratitude that there was something new she could say to me still. I began to read, but my thoughts kept reverting to that crisp November morning in 1988 when I had the pleasure of chatting with this woman over breakfast.

We met in the lobby of a well-known New York hotel, where she introduced me to Alexander, her son, who was off with his father to spend a few hours sightseeing in the big city. (Their arrangements—to meet at noon by the big clock in front of F.A.O. Schwarz—made me chuckle; recalling the clocks, magic, and toys in Carter’s fiction, I thought that New York’s own magic toyshop was, of course, the most fitting place to meet.)

My interview with Angela, as she insisted I call her, was to my surprise like visiting with an old friend. We talked about our young sons; we sized up the company around us; and we made one sexually loaded comment after another, each of us trying, like comedians in the spotlight, to get the last laugh. Not surprisingly, she won, hands down. I was having so much fun that I nearly abandoned the interview questions that Angela so graciously and patiently answered before we parted. We hugged, I thanked her, and she urged me to write to her if I had additional questions; I did, indeed, but many of them will remain unanswered.

ANNA KATSAVOS: In “Notes From the Front Line” you say that you are not in the remythologizing business but in the “demythologizing business.” What exactly do you mean?

ANGELA CARTER: Well, I’m basically trying to find out what certain configurations of imagery in our society, in our culture, really stand for, what they mean, underneath the kind of semireligious coating that makes people not particularly want to interfere with them.

AK: In what sense are you defining myth?

AC: In a sort of conventional sense; also in the sense that Roland Barthes uses it in Mythologies—ideas, images, stories that we tend to take on trust without thinking what they really mean, without trying to work out what, for example, the stories of the New Testament are really about.

AK: In modern poetry women openly use traditional figures of patriarchal mythology, figures like Circe, Leda, Helen, not only to reinvent them but to retell their stories, as you say in The Sadeian Woman, “in the service of women.” To what extent do you rely on traditional mythical figures in your writing? Are you drawn more to a particular mythology than to another?

AC: I used to be more interested in it. I’m not generally interested in doing that. I mean I’m not terribly interested in these particular characters. The second novel that I wrote, a very long time ago, The Magic Toyshop, has a whole apparatus about Leda and the swan, and it turns out that the swan is just a puppet. I wrote that a very long time ago, when I really didn’t know what I was doing, and even so it turns out that the swan is an artificial construct, a puppet, and, somebody, a man, is putting strings on the puppet. That was ages ago, over ten years ago, when I wrote that. The idea was in my mind before I had sorted it out. But I just stopped using these configurations because they just stopped being useful to me.

AK: And yet in Heroes and Villains myths are not seen as extraordinary lies designed to make people unfree but rather as something necessary and useful. Donnaly promises to make Jewel a politician, king of all the Yahoos and all the Professors, saying, “they need a myth as passionately as anyone else; they need a hero.”

AC: When most people are writing over a period of years, what they think they are writing about and what they believe in is a continuum; it’s not “specktic.” I’ve been publishing fiction since 1966, and I’ve changed a lot in the way I approach the world and in the way that I organize the world.

Heroes and Villains was quite an important book for me. One of the quotations in the front is from the script of a film called Alphaville, made by Jean-Luc Godard. It was a favorite film of mine of the late sixties; there’s a computer in Alphaville that says the thing that’s quoted in the front. [“There are times when reality becomes too complex for Oral Communication. But Legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world.”] In these times myth gives history shape. When I wrote that novel in 1968, this was a very resonant theme that I am not so sure of now.

I think that Godard was using the word myth in the same way that Barthes is as well. The film Alphaville uses one of the greatest gangster heroes of French cinema, but it projects a sort of trench-coat, Philip Marlowe character into some sort of antiseptic city of the future, and I really think that he was meaning myth in the terms of somebody like Bogart or Philip Marlowe. You know, you try things out and you try things out, and you figure out after a while when they’re not working or they stop working or maybe you no longer think it’s true. I just became uninterested in these sort of semi-sacrilized ways of looking at the world. They didn’t seem to me to be any help.

AK: What about Fevvers in Nights at the Circus? Would you say she’s out to create her own myth?

AC: No, Fevvers is out to earn a living. Everything she says in that direction is undercut by her mother, but the stuff that she says in the beginning about being hatched from an egg, that’s what she says. We are talking about fiction here, and I have no idea whether that’s true or not. That’s just what she says, a story that’s being constructed. That’s just the story of her life. Part of the point of the novel is that you are kept uncertain. The reader is more or less kept uncertain until quite a long way through. When she is talking about being a new woman and having invented herself, her foster mother keeps on saying it’s not going to be as simple as that. Also, they have quite a long conversation about this when they are walking through the tundra.

One of the original ideas behind the creation of that character was a piece of writing by Guilliaume Apollinaire, in which he talks about Sade’s Juliette. He’s talking about a woman in the early twentieth century, in a very French and rhetorical manner. He’s talking about the new woman, and the very phrase he uses is, “who will have wings and will renew the world.” And I read this, and like a lot of women, when you read this kind of thing, you get this real “bulge” and think, “How wonderful…How terrific,” and then I thought, “Well no; it’s not going to be as easy as that.” And I also thought, “Really, how very, very inconvenient it would be for a person to have real wings, just how really difficult.”

Fevvers is a very literal creation. She’s very literally a winged spirit. She’s very literally the winged victory, but very, very literally so. How inconvenient to have wings, and by extension, how very, very difficult to be born so out of key with the world. Something that women know all about is how very difficult it is to enter an old game. What you have to do is to change the rules and make a new game, and that’s really what she’s about.

That novel is set at exactly the moment in European history when things began to change. It’s set at that time quite deliberately, and she’s the new woman. All the women who have been in the first brothel with her end up doing these “new women” jobs, like becoming hotel managers and running typing agencies, and so on, very much like characters in Shaw. There’s a Barrie play called The Twelve-Pound Look, about a woman who spends twelve pounds on a typewriter, and she gets that twelve-pound look in her eyes because she can now have everything…. By the time I wrote The Sadeian Woman, I was getting really ratty with the whole idea of myth. I was getting quite ratty with the sort of appeals by some of the women’s movements to have these sort of “Ur-religions” because it didn’t seem to me at all to the point. The point seemed to be the here and now, what we should do now. And that is when I started getting ratty about it.

AK: What is your definition of speculative fiction, and do you consider yourself part of such a tradition?

AC: Well, I have had some following in science fiction. I didn’t read a lot of science fiction when I was younger, but there was a whole group of science fiction writers in Britain in the sixties, who really were doing very extraordinary things with the genre. They weren’t writing about bug-eyed monsters and space at all. One of them, J. G. Ballard, coined this phrase, “inner space.” I was quite profoundly affected by them. They are all still working, and Ballard is, I suppose, the most important. Michael Moorcock has written more books than anyone else in the history of the world, two shelves. It seemed to me, after reading these writers a lot, that they were writing about ideas, and that was basically what I was trying to do.

Speculative fiction really means that, the fiction of speculation, the fiction of asking “what if?” It’s a system of continuing inquiry. In a way all fiction starts off with “what if,” but some “what ifs” are more specific. One kind of novel starts off with “What if I found out that my mother has an affair with a man that I thought was my uncle?” That’s presupposing a different kind of novel from the one that starts off with “What if I found out my boyfriend had just changed sex?” If you read the New York Times Book Review a lot, you soon come to the conclusion that our culture takes more seriously the first kind of fiction, which is a shame in some ways. By the second “what if’ you would actually end up asking much more penetrating questions. If you were half way good at writing fiction, you’d end up asking yourself and asking the reader actually much more complicated questions about what we expect from human relationships and what we expect from gender.

AK: Are you moving towards stories that are less elaborately speculative?

AC: Yes, I suppose so. The stories in The Bloody Chamber are very firmly grounded in the Indo-European popular tradition, even in the way they look. A friend of mine has just done a collection of literary fairy tales from seventeenth-and eighteenth-century France, things like the original “Beauty and the Beast,” which is in fact from the oral tradition. There’s this long history in Europe of taking elements from the oral tradition and making them into very elaborate literary conventions, but all the elements in that particular piece, The Bloody Chamber, are very lush.

I was looking at it again last week. I read from it for the first time in ages the other night, and I thought, this is pretty cholesterol-rich because of the fact that they all take place in invented landscapes. Some of the landscapes are reinvented ones. “The Bloody Chamber” story itself is set quite firmly in the Mont Saint Michel, which is this castle on an island off the coast of Brittany; and a lot of the most exotic landscapes in it, the Italian landscapes, were quite legit. “The Tiger’s Bride” landscape, admittedly, is touristic, but it’s one of the palaces in Mantua that has the most wonderful jewels, and that city is set in the Po Valley, which is very flat and very far out, so in the summer you can imagine the mist rolling over. The landscapes there [The Bloody Chamber] are quite real. Even the werewolf stories are set in some horror-filled invented landscapes, but there’s more a kind of down-to-earthness in those stories.

AK: Isn’t that what makes them work?

AC: Sure.

AK: At the reading you gave in October 1988 at the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, you spoke about the private pleasure of writing, of playing games with the reader. What sort of games do you most enjoy playing with your reader?

AC: You probably noticed a lot of them. I’m doing it less, actually, because I have less time. I’ve noticed a very definite shift in my works, a most definite shift. Although sometimes when I read the stories that I wrote a long time ago, I think, “Oh goodness, how could I have thought of that?” I find myself thinking much more simply because I’m spending so much time with a small child. [At the time of the interview, Carter’s son was five.]

I was reading “The Company of Wolves” the other day, and there are a whole lot of verbal games in that that I really enjoy doing, “the deer departed,” for example. People very rarely notice these when I’m reading them, but I think if you read it on the page. There was one thing in the movie The Company of Wolves, when the werewolf-husband says he’s just going out to answer a call of nature, and one of the critics wrote to me and said, “I didn’t even notice this the first time.” That’s the sort of thing I like doing. These are sort of private jokes with myself and with whoever notices, and I used to enjoy doing that very much. There are lots of them in Nights at the Circus, which was intended as a comic novel.

I’ve always thought that my stories were quite loaded with jokes, but the first story that I wrote that was supposed to be really funny, out and out funny, was a “Puss-in-Boots” story in The Bloody Chamber. I mailed that to a radio place, and they censored it. (It was done on what we call Radio Three, an art channel, which uses a lot of material from BBC Radio and World Service that you don’t get here.) They cut it! They removed, according to the producer, about half a spool of bed springs!

AK: In the afterword to your short story collection Fireworks you write that “the limited trajectory of the short narrative concentrates its meaning. Sign and sense can fuse to an extent impossible to achieve among the multiplying ambiguities of an extended narrative.” Do you see yourself staying in this genre?

AC: It’s more difficult. That kind of laconic work is actually more difficult. I know a woman who’s a poet, who claims to have started perfecting the haiku form only since she had her daughter because she doesn’t have time for anything longer. I know what a haiku is supposed to do, and I can only say life is too short for haiku for me. It’s too complicated a form, and at the moment (children are discursive), I find myself discursive.

AK: In the short story “The Loves of Lady Purple” you say, “she [woman] could not escape the tautological paradox in which she was trapped; had the marionette all the time parodied the living or was she, now living, to parody her own performance as a marionette?” How does this apply to women in general, and more specifically, to the woman writer?

AC: I was much younger when I wrote that. It’s a very elaborate story. That was one of the first actual short pieces I ever wrote, and I was still very solemn in those days; I was a solemn girl. I looked at the story again because I used it in an anthology I did a couple of years ago. It was trying to say things about something that still possesses me quite a lot. Let me put it like this. I was discussing the Borges idea that books are about books. What then was the first book about?

A little extension of this is that I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about a gay couple we knew, and I said their relationship seemed to be sometimes a cruel parody of heterosexual marriage. My friend thought for a while and said, “Well, what’s a heterosexual marriage a parody of then?” It’s the same sort of question put here. What’s the original? And it’s a very good question that I was asking. How do we know what is authentic behavior and what is inauthentic behavior? It’s about the complex interrelation of reality and its representations. It has to do with a much older thing. I suppose it comes back to the idea of mythology and why I talk so much against religion. It’s because it’s presenting us with ideas about ourselves which don’t come out of practice; they come out of theory. They come out of pure theory, and that’s what that is about.

There’s a story in The Bloody Chamber called “The Lady and the House of Love,” part of which derives from a movie version that I saw of a story by Dostoyevsky. And in the movie, which is very good, the woman, who is a very passive person and is very much in distress, asks herself the question, “Can a bird sing only the song it knows, or can it learn a new song?” Have we got the capacity at all of singing new songs? It’s very important that if we haven’t, we might as well stop now. Can the marionette in that story behave in a way that she’s not programmed to behave? Is it possible?

AK: What about the label moral pornographer that you assign to Sade?

AC: It’s not very pleasant for women to find out about how they are represented in the world. They find out much more about what their real existential status is from pornography, and it’s very unpleasant. It really is. It’s enough to make women give up on the human race. One of the things about Sade is that he did know he was a pervert. Most people in the pornography business are under the impression that they’re normal, and he knew perfectly well that he was a pervert. It constantly comes up (another unfortunate choice of phrase) that he knew perfectly well he was a pervert, and I think that he was upset about it. Most perverts are very, very proselytizing. He proselytizes a little bit for his perversion, and suddenly he realizes he’s doing something dreadful. But moral pornographer was a phrase that got me into a lot of trouble with the sisters, some of the sisters.

AK: In what specific ways do you see yourself helping to accelerate “the slow process of decolonializing language,” which you discuss in “Notes From the Front Line”?

AC: Just by working and by thinking quite hard about what I do. I was doing a piece of writing, an appreciation of this artist, Barbara Kruger, who does photo montage with text. One of the most radical things about her is that she assumes that most of the people who are going to be looking at her pieces are going to be female.

One of the texts on one of her pieces says, “Your moments of joy are constructed with the precision of military strategy.” Well, I know that she doesn’t mean me. She uses “you” and “we” a lot. When she uses “you,” I know she doesn’t mean “me” just by reading the text because it isn’t true of me, and it doesn’t work. Obviously anybody could read her. You don’t have to be a woman to understand what she’s saying, but you have to position yourself in a certain way to understand her pieces, to see what she’s getting at. It’s very, very difficult to describe this bias in language to men. And it’s not so much the fact that it’s a sexed language, it’s not like French or German, but there is a bias of discourse which usually does presuppose the interest of the organizing gender. It’s something that’s easy to fall into. It’s a question of presupposing the interest of women who can read you, of not presupposing that all human communication works on the assumptions of a few.

AK: What is “the death defying double somersault of love” in Nights at the Circus and does it work?

AC: No, it doesn’t work. It has to do with risk taking and it doesn’t work. It’s risk taking of the highest level and it very often, and quite usually, leads to tears before bedtime, as my mother would have said.