A spy in the fight club of love—Joanna Howard on epistolary fiction, cage-fighting, and her new book.
I was hooked, gaffed, netted (many seafaring verbs come to mind) by Joanna Howard’s writing when I first read her chapbook, In the Colorless Round, a collection of short tales published in 2006 and faced opposite sketches by Rikki Ducornet. It’s rare for me to feel so absolutely submerged in language, even as a gossamer-thin, high-test narrative line pulls me forward. Then I fell in love with the specters, sailors, waifs, ingénues, and matinee idols who populate Howard’s fiction collection, On the Winding Stair (Boa Editions 2009), a book that pressurizes recognizable genre tropes until a morphogenetic change occurs and figures never before encountered begin to haunt the language.
Howard’s new book, Foreign Correspondent, just released by Counterpath, is a different kind of stunner. The architectural sentences that characterize her earlier work are certainly here, but the world they create is ultra-modern; here the decadence is the decadence of late capitalism, and keen attention to objects becomes a vexed commentary on the allure of the commodity-form. This novel incorporates multiple modes of address as reporter Johnnie James attempts to make authentic connections through various correspondence, reaching toward others in language and in life, and discovering always the distance inherent in desire. It’s a remarkable book—a series of ironized, slyly hilarious glosses on twenty-first-century American culture and a poignant and philosophical investigation of human relations like love, longing, and the potential for violence or tenderness when bodies finally touch.
I corresponded with Howard about how she composed Foreign Correspondent, about her narrative strategies, and about her obsessions, which include film, philosophy, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Joanna Ruocco I was struck by the way the fragments—conversations, letters, dispatches, ripostes—accrete to give this book the impression of a journey, even though they aren’t arranged in strict chronological order. And, also, not very much happens! Johnnie James goes on assignments, communicates with her friend (another Johni), interacts with the philosopher Alphonso, goes to jiu-jitsu class, and begins and more-or-less ends a letter-writing campaign to a cage-fighter from her hometown who responds infrequently and then not at all. Yet somehow I felt the peaks and troughs of intensity that I experience when I read a more conventional, plot-driven novel. For me, this is achieved through the way that correspondence itself becomes the book’s subject. There’s a playful style here that veers between “high” and “low” registers. It’s pleasurable and surprising to turn a page and find pop culture in the clinch with philosophical musings on other-directed subjectivity. I wonder how you conceived of this project and how you began to organize the material. What was the seed of this book? Did you think about creating narrative tension and discharge as you arranged the pieces? Johnnie James occasions all of this language. In what way is she a character for you?
Joanna Howard The book really began to come together around the form and the figure. At a certain point in my life it seemed like all my friends were elsewhere, and our significant exchanges had to either come via correspondence or not at all. It’s a real test to see how long you can sustain a relationship with only your words, and I’ve often felt that those who are particularly skilled at the explosive, evocative, and engaging letter have the best chance of keeping these tenuous relationships working. The pandering, proffering pleas and promises run right alongside the mundane reports and de rigeur formalities. Receiving a letter from another person where style was not only being carefully considered but deployed with great art is just as exciting as the construction of language pyrotechnics in your next reposte! I began to chastise myself for pouring all my creative energy into regular letters to a few individuals. So I turned my attention to the form itself and what was so attractive and beguiling to me about that form, and also the way in which it opened up a longing that was never being filled.
That the book became a high-culture and pop-culture collision seemed to me befitting of the way correspondence lends itself to so many registers with only a slight shifting of salutation or alignment on the page. The manipulation and shifting of these forms—letters, post-cards, email, communiqués, telegrams, texts, whatever—is never questioned. It’s a last great bastion of the avant-garde. Johnnie emerged naturally from this.
JR One of the things that is so interesting about the text is the way it flirts with the private and public, personal and professional, how as a novel composed from scraps of addressed language it achieves a kind of intimate openness. This book is for the anonymous reader, the stranger, not for the addressees of the letters that constitute it, yet the reader manages to feel the excitement of reading what wasn’t intended for her or him: someone else’s love letters, someone else’s densely coded exchanges. I think you’re doing titillating work with the epistolary form!
In addition to the letter form, I see you working with formal devices, plot elements, and images adopted from cinema. The title of the book, Foreign Correspondent, comes from a Hitchcock film, and references to the film abound in the text. Several stories from On the Winding Stair also engage with movies. What’s your relationship to film and how does it influence your practice as a writer?
JH I have always been an avid movie watcher, even as a very small child, and there is something fascinating to me about films that captivated me as a child which still captivate my imagination today, though perhaps in a very different way. Hitchcock, John Ford, George Cukor, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder especially—these were strange filmmakers and strange films. They involved sensational plots, exciting distant locales, or weird scenarios in spectacular architectural spaces. The modernist house perched on the edge of Mt. Rushmore from North by Northwest, or the crumbling Hollywood villa from Sunset Boulevard, the Victorian sea-side hotel compound from Some Like it Hot, Professor Higgins’s spectacular wall-papered library with a running catwalk in My Fair Lady. Growing up in a rural area of the country—Oklahoma—these distant, incomprehensible worlds captured my attention and continue to enter my mind when I sit down to write.
JR The ruined windmill from Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent! I love the passage in the book when Johnnie’s fantasies about future assignments lead her into the movie’s landscape. In Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, reporter Johnny Jones goes to Holland and gets embroiled in an international conspiracy that results in a world war. In your Foreign Correspondent, Johnnie never really goes anywhere. Rather, she more or less stays in place and it’s her desires that cross the boundaries, generating danger and intrigue. She’s thinking, and suddenly characters appear out of Hitchcock. We’re pulled out of time and place and wound into a spiraling mini-story of espionage that involutes into another story and so on until the fade out.
Foreign Correspondent is the perfect title for this book, not only because of the movie, but also because the phrase itself bespeaks an unfulfilled desire. Johnnie James (unlike Hitchcock’s Johnny Jones) is not a foreign correspondent. She is a domestic correspondent, writing primarily about varieties of contemporary lifestyles assembled out of purchasable conveniences. She often mentions luxuries, niceties . . . all sorts of frivolous, intimate, feminized items. The words “lady,” “dude,” “girl,” and “guy” crop up again and again. The novel seems to me explicitly engaged in questioning gender performance and ideas about women’s writing and social roles. The “domestic” as opposed to the “foreign” correspondent has a feminine valence. When Hitchcock made Foreign Correspondent in 1939, the world of international intrigue was a man’s world (though of course they had their leading ladies). Johnnie James is a reporter in a different time, but she’s still pigeonholed by her gender. Then she becomes obsessed with a fighter, with a male-dominated sport. She is, in a sense, in love with the Bricktown Butcher, and in another sense, she wants to be the Bricktown Butcher. You figure gendered desire in all its myriad complexities, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the way gender functions throughout the book, in terms of character, narrative, etc.
JH Johnnie is being pushed to peddle feminine niceties to her feminine readership, while the Bricktown Butcher is trying to peddle a certain kind of masculine product. Perhaps it is the era when I grew up—the prominence of films like Tootsie, or the fact that my mother read aloud to me from Gloria Steinem or Ms. Magazine—that gives me concern about the way, several decades later, there are still places where strict, normative gender roles and gender isolation are not only maintained but carefully guarded. The way in which this is connected up to the market economy is also alarming. (Are there really a half dozen reality programs about shopping for a wedding dress? And why have I watched them all?) Those of us who question such normative structures, but who find ourselves undeniably drawn back into those structures, may have some things to think about. The book makes a bid for investigating that impetus. Johnnie for me was an excellent vessel to tackle this because as a research reporter her openness, intrepidness, and research skills allow her to investigate anything that captures her attention and to penetrate communities where she would naturally be ostracized.
JR Through Foreign Correspondent Johnnie James considers the “distant foreign body, unapproachable, across a great gulf of time or space” and how this figure ignites enthusiasm, or opens the floodgates of passion. The book raises questions about our relationship to what is distant and what is close at hand, about how we identify ourselves in relation to our regions and our homes. One reason Johnnie James feels compelled by the Bricktown Butcher is because they share a hometown. She even worries that her fan letters to him might seem more like fan letters to a place. Is the most compelling thing to us the thing that is at the same time intimate and distant, both familiar and foreign? Is our love for people ever separable from our love for a particular lilt in their language, a particular network of associations, a social and regional context, the way we read them and what we read there?
JH When I was starting to write, I was urged constantly by teachers to write about my home region. I found it very difficult because my mind was captivated by imaginary things: a kind baroque fantasy image and language where realism of any kind was suspect. The cadences and patterns of my region were dull to me. Moving away from our homes, what returns to us is not just nostalgia, but a recontextualization—the desire to infect our new region with the old. Although I was constantly encouraged to watch Westerns with my father, I found them dull, sexist, and racist. I saw no space for me there. Years later, I find myself forcing my friends to watch clips of Ben Johnson, to hear the drawl of my region.
I also get fatigued by the folksy clichés of rural Midwestern and Western characters, and wanted to do something to play both with and against types. I wanted to demonstrate through Johnnie’s obsession that this return to home, as if it were a foreign place, is more than just romanticizing our hometown, or having nostalgia for the objects and images of the place we grew up. The desire to connect to a foreign body isn’t always as simple as having an unquestioned romantic longing for the exotic. There is something more complicated in these instincts, and Alphonso Lingis’s philosophy pointed me in that direction.
JR Johnnie James interacts with a philosopher named Alphonso in the book. Alphonso is, and is not, Alphonso Lingis. I love the way bits of the philosopher’s writing appear between fantasies and fan letters. Writing this book, how did you think about the intermixing of such language? How did you think about the distinction between the “real” and the “fictionalized”? For example, you, like Johnnie James, are from a region, a potently non-world-historical small-town place that forever smacks of local flavor. How do your own experiences and thoughts filter through this text? What makes it fiction as opposed to essay or memoir?
JH I am from the same region as Johnnie and grew up with people like the Bricktown Butcher, but my interests and career also draw me close to things like philosophy, film, and fiction writing. That there are figures in the book who are based on people who exist in the world is unquestionable—I do enjoy having a conversation with namesakes, for instance!—but the connective tissue that allowed all these very disparate characters to overlap and come together is the fictional framework. Since I often work through techniques of collage, I am used to making narrative bridges between pieces of text that don’t necessarily go together. I wondered about the mixed registers of this book, but also, I couldn’t let it stop me moving forward. Rather than feeling forever and always like a displaced person, I have to make inroads for the differences to collide and exist in juxtaposition.
Italo Calvino writes in Six Memos, “In an age when other fantastically speedy, widespread media are triumphing, and running the risk of flattening all communication onto a single, homogenous surface, the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language.” Such elements are asked to correspond, to enter into conversation.
JR The Bricktown Butcher, this resilient fighter who is more of a hero for being a local hero, still battling in the embattled place Johnnie James left behind, is a cipher. Johnnie James fills in the blanks, puts him in fantasy situations. He’s everything she can’t go back to. But fighters, and fighting, isn’t just a metaphor in this text. There’s a potentiality located in grappling bodies that feels absolutely material; in touch, there is a true instance of boundaries exceeded, empirical flesh responding to empirical flesh. Johnnie James starts to strike and grapple in her own right. I imagine this is the only hybrid-form, innovative, small-press, Mixed Marital Arts (MMA), novel in existence. What got you interested in cage fighting?
JH I can’t ever remember a time when I didn’t want to watch boxing matches, and I loved kung fu movies, especially martial artists like Jean-Claude Van Damme. I did grow up with a lot of people who thought fighting was a good career choice and who ended up with very damaged bodies later in life.
I’ve always had some small involvement in some form or another of martial arts, but more recently, with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I found a particular fascination both in the way that it forces the body into the world, and in the way it combines things like fluidity, balance, and positioning as much as strength or speed. I am not naturally athletic or naturally competitive at this sport—I think most of the time my instructors want to choke me unconscious for real—but I am committed to the struggle it presents for me: to learn to flow around adversity, rather than barrel through it.
Joanna Ruocco co-edits Birkensnake, a fiction journal, with Brian Conn. She is the author of The Mothering Coven (Ellipsis Press), Man’s Companions (Tarpaulin Sky Press), A Compendium of Domestic Incidents (Noemi Press), and Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych (FC2).
Listen to Joanna Howard read from Foreign Correspondent on counterpathpress.org.