“A Pen Warmed Up in Hell”: Joy Williams at the Paris Review

The great Joy Williams is interviewed by Wash U grad Paul Winner in the Summer 2014 issue of the Paris Review. Love this opening anecdote about her giving a craft talk at a university. Instead she discussed Kraft cheese.



What would be the point, she said,

to discuss the craft of Jean Rhys, Janet Frame, Christina Stead, Malcolm Lowry, all of whose works can teach use little about technique, and whose way of touching us is simply by exploding on the lintel of our minds. It is not technique that guided them. Their craft consisted of desire.

We are American writers, absorbing the American experience. We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and the ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen–in Mark Twain’s phrase–warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.


My favorite Joy Williams book is probably her 2001 novel The Quick and the Dead; Domenica Ruta’s excellent review over at NPR gives a fine overview.

Winner concludes the anecdote:

She smiled, thanked the audience, and sat. There were no questions. A student at the reception wondered aloud if tonight’s craft talk could have destroyed future craft talks. “I hope so,” her friend said.

About eplundgren

Adult Services Provider and coordinator of the STL Scribblers group at Central Library in St. Louis, MO.
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