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This interview is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

A Conversation with Carol Mavor Emma Wilson
READERS OF THIS MAGAZINE will be familiar with Carol Mavor’s work. I’ve long been drawn to her books because of their attention to the senses and emotions, both in the material she treats, and in her intimate, blossoming writing. We had the chance to meet in Cambridge last November and to share thoughts about childhood, about art objects, and about grief. We met in my college room where Carol was instantly drawn to the books around – Marie Darrieussecq, Lydia Davis – and to the paintings on the walls. The text offered here is an excerpt from what turned into a longer conversation.

EW: I want to start with childhood. Your work has looked so closely at the mothers and children in the photographs taken by Julia Margaret Cameron. Alice in Wonderland is one of the nursery books in your writing. What about the child Carol?

CM: I’m an only child and that has influenced the way I think. In her fabulous essay ‘Onliness’, Alexandra Schwartz notes that the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall claimed: ‘Being an only child is a disease in itself.’ And it is true. ‘Onliness’ is melancholic. But is is also a loneliness that you can indulge in, make something from. As a child, I spent a lot of time alone in my room (door closed) making things, dressing up, daydreaming, arranging things. I had space: physically and emotionally. But it was also boring. Adam Phillips defines boredom as ‘desire for desire’ and that sums up how I felt as a child. I longed for siblings to distract me, but I had none, so I had to make something out of nothing, as Donald Winnicott might have put it. When my parents took me on one of their long driving trips – from Los Gatos, California, all the way across America – my time alone in the back seat felt interminable. I had desire for desire. My onliness coupled with the loneliness of the great expanse of America (the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton National Park, the enormous state of Texas), opened up a blank space for me to fill with my imagination. But I wasn’t a child who read a lot of literature. That would come later. However, my father would read to me every night. As an only, I could choose the book and we could take as long as we liked. He was very devoted to me and unusually nurturing. One of the many books that my father read to me was Alice in Wonderland. As a child, I found it irritating, but it made an impression on me.

EW: Was the visual important when you were a child?

CM: Yes, I made things all of the time. I turned everything into an art project, even if it was a maths assignment. Before doing my phD, I did a BA and an MFA in Fine Arts. My way of writing today is an extension of a lifelong interest in looking at pictures and making them. I sometimes call myself an artist-historian.

EW: I love the image of a child in a car on a road trip, looking at this moving landscape around her, in her own world.

CM: Automobiles were so large back then. Our car became my art studio. I used the shelf under the back window as a drawing table. There were always melted crayons in the back of the car.

EW: You are interested in artworks themselves as sensory, as pleasurable, in the sensuous represented, but also in the consumption of art as a sensual act. Do you identify your work with feminist strategies?

CM: While at university I became very interested in the cult of the girl-child. I made wild sculptures and paintings that were about eating her up. I filled cake-decorating bags with acrylic paint and squeezed it out like a pâtissière, making insane paintings and drawings of excess sweetness. Some became stage props for my performance art pieces, which were inspired by the feminist artist Eleanor Antin, who was one of my teachers. When another teacher of mine, the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, looked at my girl-work, he said: ‘You should read Alice in Wonderland.’ That was a real turning point. Alice would become my heroine. I also studied with the classicist Page duBois, who changed my life. Her course, on ‘The Body’, introduced me to French Feminism, so that’s where my sensory writing voice comes from. Quite quickly, I learned that Hélène Cixous had written a mad and turbulent introduction to the French edition of Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and The Hunting of the Snark. So I got hooked on Alice and French Feminism.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, photograph, Zissou in the Air, 1908

Jacques Henri Lartigue, photograph, Zissou in the Air, 1908.

EW: In your work since Pleasures Taken the attention to childhood has drifted towards boyhood. Your book Reading Boyishly has been a key book in thinking what it means for women to write of boys. What shifted?

CM: There’s a personal answer to that. When I had children of my own, I had all boys: three of them! And people were always telling me to let go of them; stop touching them; stop paying so much attention to them; cut your apron strings. They would not have said such things if I had girls. I found their anxiety about my boys to be very disturbing. Reading Boyishly is my bold (very long) reply. It seeks to rupture our culture’s over-anxiousness about the ‘mama’s boy’. In the book, I read the literary and photographic outputs of Proust, J.M. Barrie, Barthes and Jacques Henri Lartigue (all eternal adolescents), as ‘umbilically’ tied to the maternal. For example, Barthes lived with or near his mother for his entire life (when he was an adult, there was a convenient trap door connecting their two apartments). Although, he never shared his work with her, his writing was modulated by her approach to life. He describes her personality as having ‘an assertion of gentleness’. In Reading Boyishly, I argue that Barthes’s writing, it too, has ‘an assertion of gentleness’: that was his writerly maternal outcome.

EW: You started an interest in childhood relatively young in your career as an academic.

CM: I guess it’s the pleasure and the freedom of childhood that always interested me. But I didn’t want that prettied-up childhood, I wanted to resist that, especially with the girl. We might recall ‘Alice’ as sweet in a Disneyfied blue and white smock, but in Carroll’s hands, she’s malicious. She’s ‘Alice Malice’, as she shrinks and grows her own body through Wonderland.

EW: For me one of the most radical achievements of your work for feminism is your conception and realisation of a maternal subjectivity, of the mother as a desiring subject, as sensory.

CM: Yes, mothers are desiring subjects! With Barthesian ‘fingers at the tip of my words’, Pleasures Taken touches upon Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs of the Madonna and Child as revelling in the tactility of bodies in blurred and tight foci. Cameron’s model for the Madonna was most often her maid and helpmate, the beautiful Mary Hillier, draped in sensual cloth, skin exposed, hair tousled and tangled as never before in the history of art! And partially naked children everywhere. Even the photographs themselves feel touched all over. You can see fingerprints and strands of fallen hair that have been carelessly caught in the wet collodion of her glass-plate negatives. Likewise, my book Becoming embraces the Victorian photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden (who gave birth to ten children). Hawarden’s huge homoerotic photographic output of her gorgeous adolescent girls taken in their South Kensington home come as a surprise. One wonders how it felt for the mother-photographer to take these pictures of her daughters in layers of skirts, shoulders exposed, corseted, barefoot, wearing the pants of a page boy, hair down and loose, hair tightly coiled and braided, hands gloved and ungloved, often touching each other with subtle erotic drama.

EW: Looking at the works that follow Reading Boyishly, Black and Blue and Blue Mythologies, it feels as if there is a drift towards a reckoning with melancholia, with loss.

CM: Reading Boyishly is quite a happy book even though it’s so long – I don’t know if you can be happy for that long! – there’s a kind of lightness to it and joy to it which I intended and I’m proud of, but I also felt a responsibility to be serious. Black and Blue is a very sad book about living with the wounding memories of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, and the regime of racial hate in America. And the mother creeps back in. My mother had Alzheimer’s when I was writing this book. Her struggles with memory became my entry into memory and forgetting. I have always been moved by that moment in Proust, not when the narrator’s grandmother died, but the more devastating moment: when his grandmother no longer recognised him.

EW: Where he begins to lose something of himself because he is no longer recognised by his grandmother.

CM: Yes. So my Proustian experience of being forgotten by my mother, a loss of myself, was a way into bigger narratives of devastation. I have never experienced anything like the Holocaust or what happened at Hiroshima. But I cannot ignore it. All I can offer is this bruising affect: a wound that is both inside and outside at once. We often discover bruises without knowing how they got there. A bruise is black and blue and this is where the title of the book comes from.

Tsuchida Hiromi Damaged lents with one frame

Tsuchida Hiromi. Photograph. Damaged lens with one frame. From the series The Hiroshima Collection (1979–82). Although the body of Moto Mosoro (fifty-four at the time) was not found, a part of her burned head was discovered on September 6, one month after the atomic bombing, at a place 1,500 metres from the hypocentre. This was taken from an eye socket.

EW: In Black and Blue you think about what the punctum means in sensory terms and how it impinges on flesh as well as on the mind.

CM: Yes, Barthes names that detail in a photograph that personally wounds him (his mind and his flesh) as punctum: it is a speck, a little hole or a bruise.

EW: You have been speaking about personal experience as informing one’s ability to be responsive to mass trauma. This makes me think of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour and its weighing together of two traumatic experiences. The film is so much about what one can connect or not connect. How do you work with connections?

CM: I collect images, readings and experiences, which I hold onto for a long time. As Proust notes: the calendar of facts does not correspond mechanically with the calendar of feelings. Deleuze picks up on this in Proust and Signs. As we march through time, we are apprentices to signs: only some of these signs will later develop into significant meaning, even art. I like to be an apprentice to signs, waiting to see what will amplify later, what will be connected. Even what will never connect. When I saw Hiroshima mon amour many years ago, I didn’t understand the film at all, but I was moved by it. So it stayed there, not just in me, but of me (as Proust might say). I had the same experience with Chris Marker’s Sans soleil. I tucked it away too. Decades later Hiroshima mon amour and Sans soleil surfaced as significant and developed into two of the bruises in Black and Blue. And of course Proust was important for Resnais and Marker.

EW: I love that sense of layering, of thinking about something over time.

CM: And especially with things I don’t understand. And maybe I never will, but I want to get into that world.

EW: I want to ask about the way that you edit images together, the visual montage giving a film-like series of dissolves or a Surrealist jolt to the senses.

CM: I like the idea of putting objects next to each other to cause a jolt or a vibration that makes you as a reader, to quote ‘my boyfriend’ Roland Barthes once again, a ‘writerly reader’. I do not want to force feed my readers, like a goose being readied for pâté. I want my readers to stay hungry, writing along with me, desiring more.

Photograph Wristwatch

Tsuchida Hiromi. Photograph. Wristwatch. Ibid. This was found in the water, 150 meters downstream from the Motoyasu Bridge, east of the Peace Memorial Museum. It shows the exact time of the bombing. The owner is not known.

EW: I was really struck by what you said earlier about the lightness of Reading Boyishly. You valourise lightness, joy, elation in childhood. You carry that lightness, happiness, beauty into the very materiality of the book. I love the cream and blue design of the book. It makes me nostalgic for childhood fabrics and objects.

CM: Yes, touching things. I think that book even has a good smell to it. This is where I must say something about the designer of Reading Boyishly, Amy Ruth Buchanan (who also designed Becoming and Black and Blue). I met her when I arrived to teach many, many years ago at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She came running up to me in her polka-dot dress and Jane Morris hair, exclaiming: ‘I hear you’re teaching a class on the Pre-Raphaelites!’ She was in the first class I taught. We got to know each other and eventually she became a designer at Duke University Press. We worked very closely together on Reading Boyishly. Amy’s choice of paper, the light blue for the typography, the ribbons of text and bubbles of images on the opening chapter pages – so full of lightness and air – are such sensitive and innovative responses to my writing. But the book is also very heavy and square. We wanted Reading Boyishly to also be a fat mother book. It is an art object, with the heaviness of the mother as well as the lightness of the child. With this same kind of intimacy Amy and I worked on Black and Blue. It was Amy’s idea to have the profile of the woman from Chris Marker’s La Jetée on the cover of Black and Blue: she felt that is seemed like an image of my mother as a young woman.

I’m having a similar experience with Reaktion Books. Currently, I’m working with Simon McFadden (who designed Blue Mythologies), on my newest book: Aurelia: Art and Literature Through the Mouth of the Fairy Take. He’s really gone to town with the design. It’s full of gold and surprising typographical innovations. He has given the book the fairy dust to make it fly.

EW: Can you say more about the new book.

CM: The title is a play on the word aurelia, meaning golden in Latin. But it also sounds like aural and oral: highlighting the fairy tale’s oral history and its penchant for eating, as in the refrain from Grimms’s ‘All Fur’: ‘My mother she killed me, my father he ate me.’ The book intentionally seeks out emotionally challenging forests and underground worlds and speaks to them through the lens of the fairy tale. For example, taking off from the magic of Cinderella’s glass slipper, I find the controversial ‘Oskar’ (from Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum) refusing to grow in Sean Graff’s photograph of an elfin, fetal-looking boy behind glass.

EW: I associate the name with Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia.

CM: That’s in the beginning! It’s everywhere. Nabokov has written a beautiful short story called ‘The Aurelians’. Gérard de Nerval has a novella entitled Aurélia.

Photograph Sean Graff, untitled. Photograph, c.2005. As featured in Aurelia (Reaktion, 2017

Sean Graff, untitled. Photograph, c. 2005. As featured in Aurelia (Reaktion, 2017).

EW: I’m interested in your connection to the work of very recent artists.

CM: I’m also a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art in Photography. Talking to artists gives me many ideas. Everything I write I usually have tried out in a lecture for the RCA. I pocket ideas from artists there like Esther Teichmann, Jonny Briggs and Sarah Jones, who also appear in my work.

Photograph Over-spilling milk. Still from Carol Mavor and Megan Powell

Over-spilling milk. Still from Carol Mavor and Megan Powell, Full (2015).

EW: I wanted to ask about your move into filmmaking.

CM: I’m interested in the idea, coming from Chris Marker, of the ciné-essay. My film, Full, is the story of a mother and her son who stops eating. It is chock-full of still photography and cinematic scenes: cocoons, sprouting mushrooms, a bowl of over-spilling milk, a field planted with two hospital beds, an empty nest being torn in two, an anxious mother, a quiet father and a tight-lipped boy. The emphasis is on a mother who loves too much, a father who is shut out and a boy’s unstoppable willpower. It takes on the drama and terror of a boy’s anorexia through poetic imagery and language. I also think of the film as a cine-poem. It was a collaborative project with Megan Powell, a very talented photographer and cinematographer. Together, we created a very controlled world in black and white that allegorically represented the crisis, using images of starkness and excess.

EW: I think there’s something so moving for the viewer seeing this orb-like, spectral, imaginary world. You acted in the film.

CM: That was Megan’s idea for me to be in the film. It was a really good idea because I was always available. There was a practicality to the choice. But it is also my own story. It is something that happened to me and one of my boys. You might call it autofiction, part autobiography and fiction. Autobiography (or even the literary ‘memoir’) cannot touch real emotions like fiction: autofiction is a response to this paradox. Full is my response to what happened to to me, to my son, to us.

Photograph The boy who preferred not to eat as played by Ronan McAuliffe Still from Full.

‘The boy who preferred not to eat’ (as played by Ronan McAuliffe). Still from Full. Ibid.

EW: It’s such a sensitive film about anorexia.

CM: That’s where Adam Phillips has been so helpful to me: both as a mother and a writer. Through his work (especially his essay ‘On Eating and Preferring Not To’, which takes its title from ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’) one understands the anorexic as a position of extreme self-control, which also controls everyone around him (or her). In the film, the mother’s position is complex. She seems to almost cultivate the anorexia as a way to stay close to her son. His disease, like a flower in a garden, is tended to very carefully by both mother and son. And it feeds them. Did she cause it? Is she making it worse? In Full, anorexia is an eating disorder troubled by the ‘disease’ of love.

EW: That says one of the things I find most exhilarating about your work that you will take your reader/viewer into a very complicated place and allow a range of different feelings.

CM: That’s important to me in writing, making and teaching. I think morality is the enemy! It doesn’t have to be right or wrong. I want to expose different possibilities. I believe in taking action, but I don’t think there’s only one way to do that.

Photograph Jonny Briggs The Other Side electron micrograph of the indentation of a full stop on my late grandmother’s note pad 2013

Jonny Briggs, The Other Side (electron micrograph of the indentation of a full stop on my late grandmother’s note pad), 2013.

EW: I wanted to ask you about your writing process. Do you write journals?

CM: I have lots of notebooks. I never throw them away – although, I might cut them up. In my journals, I write about a range of experiences, which may or may not develop into a book or an essay or a work of autofiction. I also collect images and draw in these books. There’s a disorder to my collectomania, but when I write something out by hand, my thoughts are made more memorable. I can write anywhere and I enjoy that. I love writing on airplanes or trains, so that’s where the notebooks are useful. Even when I print out my typed writings, I cut them up with scissors, rearrange them, draw on them, paste them together in new ways. I do work on things for a very, very long time and come back to them.

EW: There’s such intricacy, such precision in your choice of words.

CM: I appreciate you saying that. I had a PhD student (Eva-Lynn Jagoe) who came up with the idea of the erotics of tininess, and that had an effect on me. Likewise, Barthes’s exploitation of the close reading (the tiny punctum is an example of this), expands the idea of the erotic. I want my writing to have that same kind of closeness, that intimacy with both my readers and objects.
                                                                                                       Cambridge, 10 November 2016

This interview is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to
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