Friday, July 29, 2011

Carey Wallace talks about singing, inspiration and The Blind Contessa

I first heard Carey Wallace at the fabulous Word bookstore in Brooklyn, where we were doing a group reading. Not only did she read from her exquisite new book, The Blind Contessa's New Machine, but she sat in front of a keyboard and she sang. I was so gripped, I forgot my own stage nerves. I could have listened to her read and sing forever.  I'm thrilled to have Carrie here.

I had the rare pleasure of hearing you sing at Word in Brooklyn and I came up and told you afterwards how haunted I felt listening. So tell me about crafting songs. How is it different for you than writing a novel?

Songs and books come to me in almost completely opposite ways. In both cases, I have a strong sense that I’m discovering something, rather than building it – that the process is one of searching for something that’s already there, rather than gathering pieces, laying plans, and hammering it all together. But because books take such extended concentration, I’ve followed a practice of discipline in writing for all of my adult life: I write for two hours every working day, whether I have any desire to or not. Songs, on the other hand, tend to arrive unbidden. I don’t go looking for them, I just take them as they come, and when they do, I write them anywhere I happen to be, over the course of several days, mostly by singing the pieces I’ve got over and over in my head until the missing lines or sections emerge. Once the writing process is finished, the reaction you get to songs or books is also really different: even people who’ve loved you for years tend to blanch when you mention you’ve got a novel they might like to read, but total strangers want to hear your new song.

Each song in your gorgeous CD refers to a literary work. What made you choose the books you chose?

Since my songwriting process is so mystical, the books actually seemed to choose me. When I wrote them, last summer, I was living in Michigan, caring for my mother in the small town I grew up in, as my first novel came out. The songs, and the books, that emerged from that time were about family, especially mothers, about hope for a world beyond this one, and about how the worlds we’ve left behind haunt us. The books all in some way intersected with these themes, and I mined them for images as I explored those themes in my own life.

The Blind Contessa, your novel, is this achingly beautiful novel about love and imagination. What sparked the idea for this novel?

Carbon paper. I was actually writing an early draft of a noir novel set in Detroit, and wanted to make sure that the carbon paper I planned to use in it wasn’t an anachronism. When I looked up the advent of carbon paper, I discovered the story of the invention of the typewriter, which was invented at the same time by the same man (carbon paper was used in the original machine to make the image of a letter on the page). The elements of the story: a blind woman, an eccentric inventor, the hint of love triangles, and the typewriter itself seemed clearly the foundation of a novel.

What was it like writing a first novel? How is it different from your writing life now?

There are a number of candidates for my first novel: a fifty-page tome, heavily influenced by Dumas and full of flounces and French names, that I produced in the fifth grade; a full-length novel about a kid who sells his parents house, and takes the money and four of his friends to Disneyland that I wrote in college; and Choose, a forking paths novel about predestination and free will that was printed in an extremely limited run by a now-defunct press in Detroit in 2006. By almost no definition but the commercial one is The Blind Contessa’s New Machine really my first novel. Interestingly, in the golden age of American publishing, publishers generally recognized that it took three full-length novels for a writer to come into their own, and, because those publishers didn’t face the same financial constraints as publishers today, they were committed to nurturing their authors through that process. It’s stunning to see how many significant novels are the third book of an author who was nurtured through this process, among them The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms – and how little resemblance these mature books bear to the first novels that preceded them (This Side of Paradise and Torrents of Spring). I get quite sad about what great books we may be losing today because writers are now expected to accomplish their apprenticeships on their own. In some cases, the fight sharpens us and makes us stronger. But I believe many of the literary treasures that emerged from previous generations might never have seen the light, or perhaps never have been written at all, in our current climate.

What's obsessing you now?

Hydroelectricity in Paraguay. A good friend of mine is about to defend her brilliant dissertation, which I’m now editing, on the topic, and it’s actually incredibly fascinating: Paraguay shares the world’s most productive hydroelectric dam with Brazil, which is something along the lines of New York state damming Niagara Falls and then trying to split the electricity equally with Rhode Island. The story has all kinds of other amazing details—a priest who becomes president, hidden caches of torture records—but also wide implications for the pressing question of what it means to be a state in today’s shifting global world, and the future of negotiations around borders, energy, and the economy throughout Latin America.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

How can your readers get a copy of Songs About Books for themselves?

First of all, Songs About Books isn’t for sale – it’s a gift, part of the celebration surrounding the paperback release of The Blind Contessa’s New Machine. Anyone who wants to can download all the tracks for free at And if they’d like a super-beautiful actual CD, which is full of antique photographs of people holding books, they can send me something in trade. So far I’ve traded CDs for everything from translations of Italian poetry, to a box of pasta and homemade marinara sauce, to a single perfect rose from my favorite flower-shop owner. (Trade directions can also be found at the address above.) In September, I’m going to begin posting the trades in a gallery on my website, to share all the beautiful things, but also to create connections between the people who made them – so if you’re an artist yourself of any kind, be sure to include your website with whatever you send, and I’ll make sure to link to it.


Robby said...

I really enjoyed reading this, because I also experiment with both prose and songwriting. I loved the way this interview read. My overtired teenage brain is impressed.

Denise | Chez Danisse said...

Wonderful trade concept for the CD. I love the variety of what has been traded so far.