This conversation took place in March of 1996, shortly after the
publication of The Ravenous Muse and The Red Shoes and Other Tattered Tales. The first book is a collection of passages from some of Ms. Gordon's favorite books, a testament to the pleasures of food and literature. The second is a radical reworking of an earlier book whose original publisher had failed to appreciate its strange and wonderful beauty.
Since then, the imaginary guidebook Paris Out of Hand has been released, as well as Torn Wings and Faux Pas, a "flashbook of style" that will help you remember the difference between affect and effect, or lend and loan, with the irreverent exoticism that permeates all her books. There are few people who can make learning about language and literature as amusingly sensual, or sensually amusing, an experience as Karen Elizabeth Gordon.
RH: Reading The Ravenous Muse, it's clear that it was a labor
of love for you. Tell me about its origins.
KEG: I'd noticed that in all the literature I read there are
wonderful, palpable passages that relate to food. Some of them take
places at meals, of course, but often food is not the subject of the
passage, although it has food-related imagery in it. I wanted to take
these passages and couple them with my sense of the muse as
always being hungry and demanding, pulling things out of writers.
I include passages from several authors who are not necessarily
well-known that I feel deserve a much wider audience, especially
the Balkan and Slavic writers.
RH: Can you tell me a bit about the heavy emphasis on writers
from that region?
KEG: I originally went to Paris in the early 80s because I had
written an epistolary novel with Julio Cort&aague;zar's wife, Carol
Dunlop. Shortly after I returned to Paris from London after Carol's
death, I ended up in a Balkan inn that looked like a French hotel. I
was reading Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita on that trip
back to Paris, and it set the tone for my reading for months to follow.
That winter I read a lot of Slavic writers in English or French
translation. I feel an affinity with them; there's always a mixture, even in
contemporary writers like Tatyana Tolstaya, of a certain amount of
compassion, irony, and dark humor. And often the narrator's very
playful, playing with the fact that he or she is telling you a story.
RH: That sense of playfulness is evident throughout your work.
When I look at The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, for example, I
get a real sense of the fun you have playing with different pieces of
text and imagery, and an affinity perhaps with the surrealists,
especially the collages of Max Ernst.
KEG: He was definitely a model. I had always wondered how
he did those collages; they were actually illustrations from cheap
Victorian tabloid novels. The visual elements have always been
important to me; I spent the first two months on The Deluxe
Transitive Vampire thinking about how I wanted the book to
look: the type, the size, the use of illustrations in the margins...
RH: There's a sensuality of detail to the work there, which also
comes through in the writers you've selected for The Ravenous
KEG: The passages are very vivid. Some of these writers are so
vivid that their passages are hallucinogenic. That's why I feel that
this book is really about imagination and the act of creation rather
than about food. I feel the imagination is terribly important in
enhancing our experiences. Everyday life doesn't have to be as
quotidian and literal as people assume.
In a book, you can go anywhere. The Red Shoes is being called
a novel, but it's a book that allows you to wonder in non-linear paths.
Footnotes redirect you to other pages. And you can pick up The
Ravenous Muse, open to any page, and start reading.
RH: It shares that quality with The Dictionary of the
Khazars, by Milorad Pavic, who appears in your collection.
KEG: I actually had the honor of reading the first chapters of
that novel before it became a novel in English. A friend sent me a
copy of a literary review in which they appeared. I was absolutely
knocked over. I said to myself that this was what literature was
supposed to be. It seemed both very ancient and very modern.
I knew Pavic would be an important part of The Ravenous
Muse because bread and salt and wine occur constantly in his
pages, and as I was putting the book together, he fell into place in a
few sections, and ultimately he has the last word. When I do
readings, because that passage is about a couple eating and kissing in
front of 120 dead people, who have been dead for 2,000 years, I
have my friend read the passage, and I lead the audience in
smacking and kissing with the dead people, then I read my final
commentary about death as one of the ravenous muses that
constantly demands from us that we outlive ourselves through what
we create in life.
RH: The vampire has become one of the most common areas
through which writers and other artists explore themes of sensuality
in the last century. How has it come to play such a vivid role in your
KEG: The vampire is totally unambivalent about its desire.
We're part envious about being able to desire so completely, and it's
also flattering to be desired by the vampire. The Transitive
Vampire came about because of Julio, who was an absolute
vampire fiend. When I first arrived in Paris, he carted his collection
of vampire stories and ghost stories to the mantel in the guest
bedroom. Although I already had the vampire character in the book,
I was still fumbling for a title when I picked up a copy of the
annotated Dracula at three in the morning.
RH: Are you a night person?
KEG: Very much so. Hopelessly. I just love that time so much.
It's unfragmented and velvety. My mind is very free at night. When
I wrote the Transitive Vampire, I was often up until six every
When I was in Paris last summer, and doing research on Paris Out
of Hand, an architect friend of mine would take me on drives
through Paris at two in the morning, so I could see how the city was
put together in ways you really can't see when you're walking in the
daytime and taking things in detail.
RH: Tell us about Paris Out of Hand briefly.
KEG: It's a fictional guide to the city. Almost everything is
invented: hotel names, street names, even historical personages. I
have fictional museums, too. The Museum of Lips and Books, the
Museum of Gastronomy But Not Tasting, the Museum of Doors.
There's even a little church of marionettes that nobody has ever seen
that I find out about from a drunken marionette. My experiences of
Paris are very much present in the book, but the locations are made
up. They become real by the thoroughness and vividness of the
descriptions, and the wonderful integration of text and images. The
images were created by Nick Bantock and his partner, Barbara
Hodgson, who had originally approached me to do the book.
RH: Getting back to The Ravenous Muse and its authors, the
short author biographies at the end of the book are another element
that shows off your sense of playfulness.
KEG: When the book was finished and had been copy-edited,
my editor suggested that author biographies would be a good
addition, since one of my main purposes had been to get people to
read these authors. She gave me ten days, and they were exactly the
ten days I'd already consecrated to finishing Paris Out of Hand.
I simply couldn't say so-and-so was born in that year, wrote these
books, and died, so my apartment was strewn from end to end with
books about these authors to find the right information. I could often
find something in their lives that would fit into the theme of the
book, or a marvelous quote like Graham Greene's description of
reading Flann O'Brien: "I read it with continual excitement,
amusement, and the kind of glee one experiences when people smash
china on the stage."
RH: Flann O'Brien has a special significance to another book of
KEG: Yes. His book The Dalkey Archive is where Dalkey
Archive Press, the publishers of The Red Shoes, got its
RH: Tell me about the history of The Red Shoes.
KEG: The book was originally called Intimate Apparel,
and it came about at a time when I had a somewhat ambiguous
contract with Times Books, where the editor on my first two books
had gone. They wanted me to do a word book, and I ended up
completely unable to do the sort of book they wanted, an educational
book that could be filed in the reference section. The dictionary form
I used was a structural gesture towards honoring what they were
expecting, but the definitions were overlapping stories. I was miffed
when they decided to sell it as a reference book, because to me it
was a work of fiction. They even got a call from the Library of
Congress, wanting to know if they had categorized it properly.
Dalkey Archive had been wanting to publish this book for years after
it had gone out of print. After we got in touch with each other, I
completely rearranged the order of the book, added a list of dramatis
personae, a new afterword by one of the characters, Yolanta, who
was based a lot on my own experiences in Europe. And I retitled it
The Red Shoes.
It's very much in the spirit of some of Dalkey's other books; they
publish many of the French writers who took part in the OuLiPo
movement, including Jacques Roubaud. The writers in that
movement were extremely erudite, sophisticated, and philosophical
but also knew how to have fun with that. A lot of their books are
based on structural tricks. Raymond Queneau wrote an entire book
based on the structure of a cathedral; Georges Perec wrote a novel
without using the letter E.
RH: It says in the author blurb here that you divide your time
between northern California and Paris.
KEG: Uneasily and unequally, I always say. I have a life in
Paris that goes on behind my back even when I'm not there. I have
things in storage in two different places, and some of my dearest
friends are there. I go when I can, but I'm never able to finish a book
in Europe, because I always run into practical frustrations. Even
though there are some English libraries, I still have trouble finding
all the books I need, and until the advent of the laptop, I could never
find a typewriter I could use. So I start books there and then come
back to California to finish them.