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.