“A Hallucinatory Clarity”: Marcus Pactor in Conversation with Angela Woodward

Angela Woodward works both unlikely and widely known history into her slim fictions. In her new novel, Ink, she weaves together (among other things) the origin of PDFs, the transcripts of Abu Ghraib detainee testimonies, the life and work of Francis Ponge, and the strangely moving lives of typists. The result offers a brief, memorable tour of some disturbing varieties of human experience.

Woodward is the author of four other works of fiction. She won the FC2 Doctorow Innovative Fiction prize for her novel Natural Wonders. Her short fiction has won the Pushcart Prize and been anthologized in Dzanc Books’ Best of the Web.

I am grateful to her for her time and generosity.

Marcus Pactor: I imagine many writers, having chosen Abu Ghraib for a subject, would compose scene after brutal scene. But you have only culled a few sentences from transcripts of prisoner testimonies and inserted them into chapters largely about the mundane lives of the typists of those transcripts. Moreover, you never narrate the typists’ responses to their work. That is, the novel features neither direct presentation nor conscious processing of the infamous tortures. What led you to this distinctive approach?

Angela Woodward:  I didn’t see how I could write about it from a closer perspective. My novel lets the detainees speak for themselves, through the excerpted testimony, but I’m not in a position to speculate on what the violence meant to them, or to the American soldiers who were there. Their stories aren’t mine to tell. The perspective that’s validly mine is that of the witness at a great remove.

The scandal at Abu Ghraib was this unmissable, horrifying thing in the early 2000s that you couldn’t not know about if you were an adult in the U.S. at that time. It’s hard to believe it happened, that out of the whole tangled war that came after 9/11, Americans ended up committing spectacular, well-documented torture inside a prison that had been the site of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in Iraq. Like most of us, I didn’t live through it in any way except as someone raising her kids and going to work. But you couldn’t not know this had gone on, you couldn’t not be shocked. Then the whole thing came up again around 2015, with a fight over the documentation—what was going to be public, even though we’d already all seen the photos. I had a job at the time where I wasn’t a librarian, but my office was inside a library. On my breaks, I would sit on a comfortable couch, looking out a picture window on a peaceful woods, and scan The New York Times. I felt this huge disjunction between the world encompassed by that relaxing couch and the world of the testimony in the newspaper, these horrible acts that at that point had been written down, translated, put into formal documents. That sense of myself sitting on the couch looking on gave me the germ of the novel.

I kept Sylvia and Marina from directly confronting the material because I wanted to avoid bringing the story down to their personal, individual response. That would have diminished the project. Like, what if they sprang out of their chairs and said, “We’re not typing this shit!” What would that have got them? Some temporary moral superiority, maybe, if they distanced themselves from the process. As if they could not be implicated if they chose not to be. I didn’t want to provide an easy out for them. Instead, their lives are invaded by the detainees’ statements in a symbolic sphere. They feel it even if they don’t speak about it, and you can see their lives bent by the material they type. Their office has a suspicious pee smell. The soap in the restroom makes their hands stink. Eventually what happens to Marina’s daughter parallels their experience of typing the statements, and ours of looking on, as the news consumer—and as the reader of the novel.

MP: I have always admired the way you compose syntheses of fact and fiction. In Ink, these syntheses take the form of short essays on, among other things, ink, blood, PDFs, and Francis Ponge’s “Soap.” How much of these essays is the result of planned research and how much from the books you have at hand while you are composing? What compels you to draw this variety of subjects into your work?

AW: I researched while I was writing, if that’s what you mean—I didn’t have years of background in the manufacture of ink and decide to write about it. And the search to learn more is part of the narrator’s story. Ancient recipes for a truly dark ink that stayed dark were lost in the Middle Ages, and there were lots of false starts with recipes for ink that starts out black but then fades, or an ink that actually incises the paper so a document kept for a long time eventually becomes a sheet full of letter-shaped holes. These were marvelous discoveries I made as I went along. I’d read Francis Ponge at least ten years before I started Ink. In my early attempts to get this book to cohere, its theme seemed to be liquids—ink, blood, urine, soap, plus a lot of other stuff that fell away. Ponge came in with my soap chapters, and then I made him more of a focus as I learned more about him. The fact that he’d been in the Resistance, and then never drew the explicit connection between his trouble writing his poem on soap and his experience with crimes and their washing away—I needed to delve deeper into that.

As for why I’m drawing a variety of subjects into my work, there are several reasons. In this book there’s a need to wind towards the central horror and not go right at it. I’m almost inverting the subject by exploring all this stuff that’s not the detainees. It’s also part of my pleasure as a writer. I’m interested in disparate threads, and also in making the leaps between them. I admire the way a poem can flash from subject to subject and connect them into a lyric moment. I’m trying to do something similar in prose.

MP: The previous question suggests exactly one essay is devoted to each subject, yet you come around to many of your subjects multiple times, as though the essay can never be finished. This harkens back to Ponge’s own difficulty with the composition of “Soap,” his need to repeat himself, to attempt many different approaches, to explain his procedures and failures. Did you experience a similar difficulty while writing Ink?

AW: I don’t think the repetitions, or rather recurrences, signal that the narrator hasn’t gotten it right. It’s that there’s more to be learned. And also the narrator’s essays are working in explicit counterpoint to the narrative of Sylvia and Marina, which does move forward inexorably. The narrator says at several points, we need to slow the women’s story down, we need to delay. I’m aiming for a gradual spiral towards the crime involving Marina’s daughter, allowing the reader leeway to take in the day-to-day repetition of these women’s lives, how they sit down every morning and listen to these tapes, hear similar statements one after another, “After that they beat me with a broom and stepped on my head ….” I hope you encounter ink, and blood, and urine, and the detainee statements, and the Netflix breaks, a little differently each time. If you’ve ever walked one of those labyrinths that are laid out in pebbles on open ground, you know you double back on your own path as you move towards the center. So a chapter on ink should strike you differently when it comes towards the end of the book than in your first encounter. And there’s more each time—the traveling ink seller and his donkey, the Canadian police dog locating a drowned man. Some of the best stuff doesn’t hit until the third or fourth exploration of the topic.

I included a couple passages that are note-like, not formed into sentences, and look consciously unfinished, along the lines of Ponge. These caused tremendous trouble to my editor and copyeditor. I had no idea it was so hard on the rest of the world, for me to create these little ruptures! Many emails back and forth about how these had to be set and punctuated. A lot of what the narrator wrestles with is what she feels is her duty to be clear, contained and legible. She’d rather throw it all on the floor, to demonstrate her outrage. But that doesn’t work. Sort of like if Sylvia and Marina walked out. So she sticks to it, because she wants to tell you something. Though Ponge is a key figure in Ink, my project is not the stuttering mess of “Soap.” After all, he took twenty years to sort of not complete “Soap.” Though I’ve been musing on the detainee transcripts since 2015, this novel took about six months to write—plus another year or more to rewrite it, but still, it’s whole and composed and coherent.

MP: Your fiction has always wonderfully depended on the power of digression from one subject to another, so the aforementioned essay on PDFs describes not only the history of its subject but the loss of a friend and the careful manner in which the writer reads library books in the tub. Do you have a sense of where you’re going when you digress or do you just follow the words? How do you know when digressions are necessary? Does the verb “know” precisely describe the action I am asking about?

AW: I don’t know. The digression is spontaneous, but also not. I had things that struck me in my research that I wanted to include, I had the need to extend the time, to divert and prolong, and also there’s very careful composing and ordering. I moved things around, took things out, decided we needed to learn more, for example about Ponge’s friend and editor Jean Paulhan. At one point the narrator complains that she doesn’t get enough credit for her craft, that she’s responsible for “sweeping the street as well as conducting a parade over it.” So I don’t want to say I’m digressing through intuition. I pretty much know what I’m doing, even if I couldn’t tell anyone else how to do it.

MP: I’m thinking now that this novel of 152 pages is composed of Abu Ghraib transcripts, the stories of two typists, essays on a variety of subjects, and digressions from those essays in any number of directions. How were you able to keep all these elements clear in your mind, much less effectively develop them in such a compressed work?

AW: I had a hallucinatory clarity when writing this novel, once I had invented Sylvia and Marina. The piece already had a narrative voice, the “I” that’s writing about ink, and getting her car fixed, and going to Thanksgiving dinner with her siblings. Then it had a “they” with the two women and their adventures. Their story is tied tightly to the other material. When the narrator writes about urine in a somewhat Wikipedia way, it’s when Sylvia is typing the statement of a detainee who describes his head being pushed into urine on the floor. There’s blood, there’s a bloodhound, and ways trainers acquire human blood to train tracking dogs, and there’s also a detainee with blood covering his chest. The narrative stays pretty close to these couple topics. The rhythm of the piece arose out of this need to detour, wander, awaken your curiosity, rather than shoving your nose into something you’ll recoil from. I was able to hold to this focus through writing and then rewriting the novel. For the reader, it may wander, but I always knew where I was heading.

MP: Your sentences’ blend of detachment, clarity, and specificity are well-suited to the novel’s aforementioned essayistic form. But do you write sentences to match your form, is the form a result of your sentences, or is it foolish to believe in such a linear progression from one to the other?

AW: Hmmm. I do believe there’s a close correlation between the crisp, dry style of the sentences and the form of novel as a whole. The one creates the other. My style in this book is more contained than in my other works. I was much more conscious here of taking out unnecessary words, which otherwise isn’t a preoccupation of mine. A lot of writers have been schooled in that, but I somehow missed the whole minimalism movement, and didn’t even know it was a thing until recently. Mostly, the syntax of the detainee statements influenced me. Their sentences are spare, formal and specific. The men don’t go into how they felt—except in one instance—but just list what was done: “He hit me hard on my chest and cuffed my hand to the window of the room about five hours and did not give me any food that day.” Everything I wrote had to create a frame for that.

MP: Ponge wrote “Soap” during and after the Nazi occupation of France. In it, he says “the marvelous thing” about a good soap-and-wash is that “one comes out of it with cleaner hands, purer hands.” This statement hardly applies to any of the typists’ efforts to clean either with soap or spray cleansers. What makes their situation impossible to remedy?

AW: The thing about Ponge’s essay/poem “Soap” is that he was essentially unable to write it. Within the published version, he includes his notes on what a hard time he’s having, his intent to give up on the manuscript, and then multiple versions of lines that just don’t come off. They’re really bad, and he knows it. This was a man who was able to write with masterful compression about doors and snails and stones and anything else he set himself to. “Soap” is really different from his other works in that it stumbles so terribly, and then he muses on its stumbles, on how obtuse and incomplete and inadequate the work is. It’s a failure. The experience of reading “Soap” is completely different than reading for instance his poem “Water.” There he has astonishing insights, and it’s beautiful and alluring. With “Soap” he’s asking us, what happens when we don’t manage to get it all cleaned up? What if we stay in the mess while we keep looking for an answer?

I haven’t allowed Sylvia and Marina an easy solution to their situation. As I said above, if they actually confront how repellant their work is and decide to quit, they’ve enacted an individual solution. They could take themselves away from this horrible record of torture. I think the reader might be relieved if they did that, the same way the narrator’s brother gets upset during Thanksgiving, claiming the Abu Ghraib story is over because some people are in jail for what they did. Readers might crave that kind of narrative closure—it’s over, it wasn’t me, those people are to blame. I’m not interested in some bad people being locked up. I’m trying to get us to confront what it means for us citizens to be comfortable, to be happy, or bored, or caught up in petty squabbles at work or family dramas at home, and to keep ourselves at arm’s length from the imperial might that makes this comfortable or happy or boring life possible. I don’t know what the answer is. The novel is a rumination. I take you close to the issue. But I can’t solve it. I don’t know how to get out. I don’t know how to be a good person. I haven’t figured it out. I’m a failure. I don’t know anything. But my intent is to have written something that helps you look at yourself, and maybe see more clearly the world we’re living in.

Marcus Pactor is the author of Begat Who Begat Who Begat (Astrophil Press) and Vs. Death Noises (Subito Press). The latter book won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. His story “Megaberry Crunch” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. His work has most recently appeared in Always Crashing and 3:AM Magazine. He lives and works in Jacksonville, Florida.

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