“I’m only experimental to people who would only read a certain kind of novel,” Lynne Tillman tells me over coffee on what I was told would be one of the last days of winter. “But to certain writers who see my commitment to narrative, they think, ‘Oh, she’s a narrative writer.'” Tillman’s right, of course. Her fiction, while not what you’d expect to find in airports or considered “easy reading” by any means, is slow moving, deliberate, and word-for-word perfect. That’s why she’s one of America’s best writers — and probably why she has been one of its most underrated since the time before her 1987 novel, Haunted Houses, was released.
Part of the same class of New York authors that includes Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker, Tillman has put out enough work, and taught enough students, that the gospel of Tillman is strong. Her work is difficult to categorize, so she tends to be called either “experimental” or a “minimalist”; from time to time, you’ll also hear people call her a “writer’s writer.” But Tillman has been writing long enough to put this all into perfect perspective: “Passion is neither minimal nor maximal or experimental,” she says. “I have a passion for writing.”
“A couple of years ago, out of the blue in a magazine, I saw a full page ad that simply said, ‘What Would Lynne Tillman Do?’” A.M. Homes told The Daily Beast in a 2012 interview. Homes was discussing her use of Tillman as a character in her novel May We Be Forgiven, after seeingthe ad in the pages of Dear Dave, the art and literature magazine edited by Stephen Frailey, head of the photography department at the School of Visual Arts, who has been running the poster campaign to get subscribers to the magazine for the last five years. Eventually, somebody — maybe a loyal student, her publisher, or maybe even Frailey; it’s unclear who exactly — apparently felt the need to ask the city at large what Tillman would do, and started wheat pasting the posters on buildings across lower Manhattan. They became so popular that they not only inspired a Tumblr that showcases the poster as street art, but Tillman also borrowed the slogan as a title for the newest collection of her nonfiction, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?
“I’m telling you about Lynne Tillman now as objectively as I can — whoever she is as a writer,” Tillman says, discussing her career over the last ten years — a career that she admits owes a lot to the independent publishing entrepreneur Richard Nash, who has not only published her last few books, but, as Tillman puts it, still speaking “objectively” about herself, “He’s changed her career.” Nash first published her at the indie press Soft Skull, then focused his own indie imprint’s attention on her work, both past and present. This latest collection, out April 8 via his new imprint, Red Lemonade, collects essays for every letter of the alphabet, from Edith Wharton and Paul and Jane Bowles to “1995.” Named after the year when she wrote it, the latter is one of the earliest — and still among the best — commentaries on web culture. With fresh eyes, she writes about nearly everything: film, New York, Chet Baker. Tillman even interviews the German painter Peter Dreher about the paintings of the same empty glass he has been creating since the early 1970s.
Although she says that 1998’s No Lease on Life is her “only New York novel,” Tillman is the classic Manhattanite writer who has seen and done it all, from working with artist Kiki Smith on a small booklet containing her story “Madame Realism” paired with Smith’s drawings (Tillman notes that the little book was the first time Smith drew the sperm that pop up in a lot of her future artwork) to crafting haunting stories in both the long and short form. The scope of her work varies widely, ranging from Haunted Houses‘ affecting chronicle of three characters’ evolution from girlhood to womanhood to the short story “That’s How Wrong My Love,” in which Tillman simply writes about watching morning doves from her window. (It is one of the most reflective and meditative few pages of writing I’ve ever encountered.) Tillman leaves nothing out her work; everything she writes is like a neatly packed suitcase full of ideas for the reader to take with them on a short trip. She is interested in the psychological in an almost Hitchcockian way; what her characters are thinking, what that thinking might mean, and the psychological effect people (especially loved ones) can have on those around them.
While her new book makes this an appropriate time to celebrate her nonfiction, Tillman is a fiction writer first. Her fiction is the work of an author who takes meticulous care of every single word, like a painter making sure every brush stroke has meaning. She recalls that she would stop writing her last novel, 2006’s American Genius: A Comedy, for several months at a time. It’s one of those clichés, the obsessive writer and her work; with Lynne Tillman, though, this thorough attention to craft is a big part of what makes her work so difficult to put down.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Tillman’s career — aside from her longevity, process, and fans so adoring they will illegally plaster posters bearing her name onto building walls — is her willingness to work with small publishers and upstart journals. She mentions Gigantic magazine in our conversation, and tells me that even while she was putting out novels with major publishers, she was still committed to publishing in smaller magazines and presses. This is what has kept Tillman’s work innovative, and, along with her teaching, has increased her influence on today’s literary landscape. Former students speak her name as if it were a prayer, with writers from Jonathan Lethem to Colm Tóibín (who provides the introduction to the latest book) singing her praises. Tillman has always just wanted to write; all writers want to do that, but many understandably lose sight of things beyond their next paycheck. She admits, “The number of sales just didn’t compute” for the bigger publishers, so they stopped giving her book deals. Her enthusiasm for smaller operations helped keep her work from slipping off the radar when the big guns turned their backs, and it serves as a good lesson to writers: if you keep writing, keep producing, there is a community that will help you get stuff out there.
Tillman has kept writing. Though she admits that her process can be long and arduous, with lengthy breaks spent trying to figure out the book’s next turn, the collected works of Lynne Tillman are there for readers to discover while she works on her new novel, which “is told from the point of view of a cultural anthropologist.” Her novels are just waiting for more readers to discover them, as are her collected short stories in This Is Not It and Someday This Will Be Funny. And Bookstore might be the greatest work about a small bookstore ever written. Tillman’s account of the now-closed Upper East Side Institution Books & Company includes the musings of Susan Sontag, Fran Lebowitz, Calvin Trillin, Amy Hempel, and many others. The fact that she’s still chiseling out great fiction, that she has such a strong body of work, and the publication of her latest collection of essays all prove that Lynne Tillman is the type of living writer whose work has been criminally overlooked for too long. But she has finally reached a point at which the reading public has caught up with what’s she’s been doing for all these years.
Tillman understands why success can be a slow burn, and why it has taken people so long to come around to her work. “You write a book and it moves slowly through the culture, if it moves at all,” she says. “If it has any meaning to anyone, it takes a long time.” But like Renata Adler, who experienced a belated renaissance last year, Tillman’s work is ready to be embraced by a new generation of readers. After so many years of waiting for her writing to find its way to more readers, the answer to the question posed on the posters stuck up on buildings in Manhattan and on the cover of her new book couldn’t be more clear: What would Lynne Tillman do? Lynne Tillman would just keep writing.