There Was an Incident: A Conversation with Millicent Dillon

by Mark Swartz

Millicent Dillon 2

Millicent Dillon is the author of four novels and biographies of Jane and Paul Bowles. At ninety, the nuclear-physicist-turned-writer is hard at work on a memoir — excerpts of which have been published by The Believer and Narrative — as well as a new novel. In the words of Lynne Tillman, “Millicent Dillon’s fiction is superb, so intelligent and clear-eyed. She’s not ruthless, but honest.” What follows are highlights from our email correspondence from the past few months.

How did your work as a nuclear physicist affected your writing?

When I decided to major in physics in 1940, I didn’t have any real sense of why I was doing what I was doing. Now I think the science itself was an escape from the difficult emotional world of my childhood and youth. Physics itself gave me great satisfaction because of the accuracy of the answers that told me how and why things in the physical world behaved as they did. That must have been very reassuring to me in terms of the stability of the world and also in terms of the protection the mind afforded in life, as I must have though of the mind at the time.

When I went to work in a laboratory during the war, the work was dull and repetitive and not demanding of intelligence in any way. At that point, I think I threw myself into trying to learn something about life. I was only eighteen at the time and my judgment was not at all developed.

When the announcement was made of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, I was stunned. That this science, which I regarded as rooted in logic, and at the same time capable of a certain mysticism, could produce something so shattering and so destructive had a profound effect upon me. Several years later I went to work in Oak Ridge and there I became involved in the scientists’ movement opposed to any further development in atomic research. That movement was not successful. So that was one part of my life.

Your short story “Wrong Stories” begins: “There was an incident; I have told it but I have not told it right. The core of it is what eludes me, and yet the core of it is what’s stayed with me these ten years.” I have read all or most of your fiction, including A Version of Love twice, but those lines were what hooked me, twenty-two years ago. When you wrote that opening, did you know already what the incident was, or did you start with that sense?

I knew the incident, being told about the boy on the sidewalk. It had happened to me some years before and remained in my mind as intangible and strange as well as demanding of attention. At the moment of hearing it, strangeness suddenly leaped out of ordinary life, insisting on recognition. Something about death obviously and about how we talk about death in life. It must have been in the seventies. I had not been writing that long.

I began this story laboriously. I tried telling it one way. I would think, “Now I have it.” But then time passed and I knew I did not have it. I tried again, another way of telling. That too felt right and very soon I began to know it was “wrong.” After many months and probably years, one day the thought came to me that the story was the story of my trying to tell this story. Once that happened, I knew the telling was right.

The other day I checked out the D.C. library’s copy of Dance of the Mothers and was wondering how you feel today about what you wrote in 1991 about an old woman being “pregnant with untold story.”

When I read that book again recently, I remembered very little of it, almost as if it were written by someone else, and I was very surprised by that quote. Now that I am truly old — I feel exactly that way. If I think about The Dance of the Mothers, having so recently reread it, I see how in all of its darkness, it is also trying to reflect something of the time, the hope for relief after the War and the Holocaust and the atom bomb.

Along with the atom bomb, psychoanalysis is another subject that runs throughout your work.

If I try to look this question historically, I have to remind myself of the profound power psychotherapy had in the forties and fifties in the U.S. culture, in particular psychoanalysis as Freud proposed it. Even earlier, Freudian psychoanalysis had been taken to be crucial to the understanding of human behavior by a large sector of the “intellectual” elite. By the forties and fifties it had made its way tenaciously into the popular culture. You only have to see Spellbound or even Now Voyager to understand how deeply it had penetrated into the movies.

There was a way, I think, that Freud’s approach at that time had come to be more than a theory of behavior. It represented a philosophy that had spiritual power as well. Further, it had an absoluteness in its application, so, at the time, to argue against it and its implications often brought an accusation of trying to avoid one’s own inner problems.

I say this now, though at the time, I too was caught up in believing it was a kind of final answer.

Were you drawing on personal experience?

By the end of the War, I knew I had to search elsewhere for my work in life. And suddenly, as I was trying to decide my answer to this question, I began to experience a serious psychological disturbance. Now my illness would be called panic attacks. Then, according to the psychoanalysts, I was suffering from anxiety hysteria and needed psychoanalytic treatment. (Hysteria is a term no longer used.) It lasted for some years. In the sessions, over and over, I could not find the words to speak of what was troubling me. I thought of myself, as well, as someone without an imagination.

And then, after some years, I suddenly found myself with an intense drive to write fiction. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know how one could “invent” a story. I did not realize then that inventing is not simply making something up out of whole cloth.

I published my first story when I was in my early forties. But it was not therapy as therapy that made me a writer.

Was A Version of Love a rejection of analysis?

I decided to reread the novel, which I hadn’t read since its publication over ten years ago. I was again surprised, as I had been surprised in rereading The Dance of the Mothers. On this reading, what leaped out at me were the lives of the three men. (I had thought the book was about the woman.)

So I find in answering your questions that my “idea” of the novel I had written is only an idea, that in the writing the novel became something else. I think I am back to the question of Wrong Stories again. Is every story a wrong story in the sense that the story itself (or the novel itself) accumulates meaning and intention independent of the writer?

You are better known as the biographer of Jane and Paul Bowles than as a fiction writer. Were they literary influences on you?

How writing the books on Jane and Paul affected my own work, I do not know. Those long hours with Paul, spent in that strange environment of Tangier, were certainly the first time I had ever been able to deeply investigate the relationship between another writer’s life and work (Jane’s and Paul’s). Paul had a very strange and compelling quality, as I tried to show in You Are Not I. Some kind of strange merging of selves — his with yours — was always going on with him. So I had to both submit to it and fight against it.

Of course what brought me to Tangier was Jane’s work and the deep sense I had, even the first time I read it, of an intense relationship between her writing and her life. The relationship between one’s life and one’s writing had from the beginning been an obsession for me. Perhaps doing the biography was the way for me to begin to clarify that.

I do not see that the work of either of them has affected my own writing in terms of language or structure. He was a master of the controlled work. In her work, she was at the mercy of her own great talent and of her own life.

Writing, I was at the mercy of I didn’t know what.