Annie Dillard's For the Time Being

Interview with the author

Annie Dillard — generous about praising other people’s books
  • Annie Dillard — generous about praising other people’s books

Author: Annie Dillard was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and reared there. (You can read about that rearing in An American Childhood.) She received a B.A. and M.A. from Hollins College. She married. She divorced. She went West to Bellingham, Washington, where she served as Writer in Residence at Western Washington University from 1975 to 1978. She wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which in 1975 was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Twenty-five years now since her first book, Dillard is author of ten more volumes, including her newest. She has never been out of print. She is married, mother to a teenage daughter. She lives during fall, winter, and spring in Key West and in summers on Cape Cod.

For the Time Being; Alfred A. Knopf, 1999; 205 pages; $22.

Dillard writes in the author’s note that introduces her book: “This is a nonfiction first-person narrative, but it is not intimate, and its narratives keep breaking. Its form is unusual. Its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere. Its pleasures are almost entirely mental.

“Several subjects recur and resume in each of seven chapters. They are: scenes from a paleontologist’s explorations in the deserts of China, the thinking of the Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe, a natural nicety of sand, individual clouds and their moments in time, human birth defects, information about our generation, narrative bits from modern Israel and China, and quizzical encounters with strangers.

“A trip to Israel and visits to an obstetrical ward comprise its chief first-person accounts. Another sustained narrative is the paleontologist’s story, and another recurrent setting is China. Teilhard de Chardin and the Baal Shem Tov dominate the thinking about an individual’s place in the buried generations of humans, and in eternity.

“By the third or fourth chapter the disparate scenes, true stories, facts, and ideas will be growing familiar. Together they make a complex picture of our world. Does God cause natural calamity? What might be the relationship of the Absolute to a lost schoolgirl in a plaid skirt? Given things as they are, how shall one individual live?”

For the Time Being’s material, as Dillard notes, is not “intimate,” not in the sense that Dillard confesses to peccadilloes and tattles on friends and ex-husbands. But it is intimate. Imagine that you are overhearing someone’s conversations with God, someone’s prayers. For the Time Being, in that way, is intimate.

When a sentence or paragraph wows me, I turn down the page corner where that sentence or paragraph is so that I can return later and reread. By the time I was 30 pages into Dillard’s new book, I’d turned down enough corners that the book, when I put it down, had ceased to stay neatly closed.

Dillard is one of those writers whose work I so admire that I dread interviewing them. I always think, before I dial up the telephone numbers of these men and women, “I should leave them alone to do what they do so well.” So that one morning recently when I dialed Annie Dillard’s number in Key West, I felt particularly intrusive.

Mary Cantwell once wrote about Annie Dillard that “her response to what she sees and feels and hears is so intense as to make one believe she is speaking in tongues.” I said to Annie Dillard that in book after book and particularly this book, it seemed what she was doing was trying to write the ineffable.

“Yes,” she said, “I always am. There has to be something sufficiently interesting to get you started.” She laughed, then, as she would many times during our talk. She said, “Ineffable, by definition, means you can’t ‘eff ’ it.”

One recurrent place to which Dillard takes the reader in For the Time Being is a hospital nursery where newborns are washed. I asked about that experience.

“That was fun. When I had a baby, I remembered that more distinctly than anything. As I was recovering, which was about half a day, one of the things I remembered most distinctly was seeing that place where that happened at the Yale/New Haven Hospital. I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen.’ They were just washing them like dishes. I thought how wonderful it would be to have that job. Because you would be right at the well of mystery, of holiness. Catching them in the first place would be very cool, but anyone could wash. I could actually have a chance at such a job.”

Dillard has been keeping reading journals, commonplace books, since she was in her 20s. Those journals, she said, are “where I get everything from.” The book takes its title from lines in W.H. Auden’s A Christmas Oratorio.

... But, for the time being, here we all are,

Back in the moderate Aristotelian city

Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry

And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,

And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

But the book, said Dillard, “really owes everything to Evan S. Connell, Jr. I have never met the guy, but I have read that book — Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel — maybe five times. The genesis of this book was, ‘I want to try to do that, but in prose.’ Although his ideas are entirely different from mine. His idea is, ‘Aren’t people idiots because they are so credulous?’ and my idea is, ‘Isn’t the world holy?’ But that doesn’t matter,” said Dillard, laughing, “because everybody in the arts is interested in surface technique, it doesn’t much matter what the person says.”

I asked if Dillard, while writing, often surprised herself. She said, “I wish I did more. Sometimes everything just comes out great, and the work will surprise me. But I wish I did more. Sometimes something I’ve known for 20 years just comes and astounds me. You have a whole bunch of themes, and you get them wherever possible, and there are some connections that you have not even made yourself — dumb luck.” She added that she always “knew where the book was going. Absolutely.”

Before she writes, I asked, did she carry on a mental conversation about what she was going to write? “No,” she said, “It’s in the room where it lives, and then sometimes at night just before I go to sleep, in that halfway state, I will think of something else that can go in or some wonderful connection that can be pointed out, and I will scribble out little notes about it. But mostly I am putting out brushfires on the surface of life, which consists of mail, teenage daughter, husband with two heart surgeries.”

Dillard said that she was sorry that more people didn’t more easily see the humor in this book, which, she explained, “I think I’ve been writing humor all these years. People read this book as so gloomy, and there is so much stuff in it that I think is hilarious, but they are so overwhelmed by the gloominess and so depressed by the stuff that they’ve never thought about that they are not in the mood to have someone tell them jokes, and they don’t even notice them. I thought, ‘Maybe at least the fact that it’s short will help.’ ”

Dillard turned then to other people’s books. She asked if I’d read Jim Harrison’s The Long Road Home. “Boy,” she said, “can he ever do it. He is so good!” She asked if I knew of a Santa Barbara writer named Nora Gallagher “who wrote a book called Things Seen and Unseen. This book came in the mail and she was talking about inclusive language and the liturgy. I thought, ‘C’mon, lady, I am not going to read this book.’ But I did. Turned out to be one of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s hysterical. I laughed out loud maybe a hundred times and I cried twice. She is so funny.”

She asked if I’d ever read Denise Giardina. “She’s a Christian intellectual who grew up in coal-mining camps. Her first novel was about a coal strike, and her second I didn’t read, but I am told by Lee Smith, whom I much respect, that it’s wonderful. And her third I did read, and it is a masterpiece, a novel about Bonhoeffer, and it’s called Saints and Villains. I started raving about it to Ann Beattie, who happens to live almost next door here in Key West, and she read it, and she doesn’t know anything in particular about Bonhoeffer, and she just loved it.”

I said, after Dillard recommended many more books, that I loved the way she was generous about praising other people’s books. She laughed. “Well, there’s no use plugging the dead. That’s what I mostly read.”

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