Interview Series: MAKING — A Conversation with Carey Wallace
The inventive, imaginative Carey Wallace is our third interview in a series on Making. Along with family, I had dinner with Carey in NYC while on the No Man's Land tour. She's as bright and whimsical in person as in her lovely, celebrated book — The Blind Contessa’s New Machine — which you must read if you have not already. Enjoy.
Charlie Peacock: Where were you born?
Carey Wallace: New Haven, CT, where my father was a grad student. But a few years later we moved back to Michigan, where I spent my childhood in small Midwestern towns.
CP: How does place inform your making today?
CW: I write both songs and stories. Music transforms the place it happens in, or even releases us from it. But to succeed, a book has to replace the whole world. My experience of writing music is of singing along with an unseen voice. My experience in writing books is actual travel: I go to some other world, observe what happens there, and then write it down.
CP: What about people? Any particular people you point to as imaginative, creative influences — whether you knew them or not?
CW: Since I was old enough to understand there were other artists in the world, I’ve felt like I’ve been in conversation with many of them, both living and ostensibly dead — most of whom I’ve never met. Some of those conversations have been about craft, but perhaps more importantly, many of them have also taken the edge off of my loneliness, not because I belong among their ranks, but because the simple fact of their existence is such a great comfort: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Scott and Penelope Fitzgerald, Cortazar, Hawthorne, Dumas, Christina Rossetti, the Brontes, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, John Prine, Bach. I’m also grateful to the artists who have been part of the fabric of my actual life, especially the members of the Hillbilly Underground, who join my brother and I for the retreat we run in Michigan each summer. Among those in particular is a woman named Lauren Garfield who is one of the most extraordinary voices I’ve ever encountered, both as a singer and as a woman, and who has been a huge encouragement to me in my life as an artist.
CP: Beautiful. I love the diversity in your list of influences. Staying on that track, allow me to tease out another historical character of influence. There are many people who associate themselves in some way with Jesus or call themselves a follower of His. I’m curious, when you talk about Christians, or say that you are one, what exactly do you mean by that? How would you explain it simply?
CW: People much wiser and braver than I am have spent lifetimes wrestling with this question, and I am profoundly suspicious of contemporary attempts to distill the unspeakable complexities of the life of faith into sound bytes, pop songs, and political platforms — especially when the upshot of most of them seems mainly to be the accrual of money and power, or the creation of “in” and “out” groups, all of which seem totally antithetical to my understanding of the gospel. At the same time, I believe the gospel is almost excruciatingly simple, and fully expressed not in any brand of dogma but in the complete story of the life of Christ, which perhaps only a child can fully understand.
CP: A wise and brave answer. Now, what exactly do you make? I know you make many things, from moods to songs to books, but in all your making what would you want to highlight?
CW: I make a lot of things: books, music, dresses, dinner, friends. My most recent book is The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, a novel loosely based on the invention of the typewriter, which was invented by an Italian count for a blind woman so that she could write him letters — although most interesting to me as a writer was not the romance that blossoms between them, but the vivid imaginary world the Contessa creates for herself when she discovers she can still see in her dreams.
In September, Clarion books will release The Ghost in the Glass House, a novel about a 12-year-old girl who falls in love with the ghost of a boy who can’t remember who he was before he died. And my most recent EP is Songs About Books, an album my brother and I produced of covers or songs I wrote about other people’s books, including Wise Blood, Ender’s Game, and Sweet Bird of Youth. We made it to celebrate the Penguin release of The Blind Contessa, so it’s available as a free thank-you download at Bandcamp. Or people can participate in a trade project for it, by sending me something they made in exchange for one of the beautiful physical albums. The trades for that have been spectacular: everything from a woman showing up on my doorstep one afternoon with homemade marinara sauce to handmade pottery sent by a man I’d never met in Thailand. I think the greatest compliment you can give a work of art is to make something in response to it, so I’m especially delighted to see all the things people produce in exchange for the CD.
CP: Tell us about your favorite tools/materials/places you use in making? Let us in on your process a bit.
CW: I’ve got a deep affection for manual typewriters, and I like to work on them. As a writer, you don’t get to put sound on tape or smear paint on canvas, so it can be very satisfying to make a lot of noise and see ink appear on paper at the stroke of your key. I also make tiny handmade editions of my books, never more than twenty, and sometimes as few as two, using silk covers and really gorgeous handmade endpapers — I’ve got a special weakness for Italian marbling. I also love all the gear associated with music, in particular a pair of Cascade Fathead microphones my brother sent me to record with when I broke up our home studio in Michigan by moving to New York. And the vast majority of my writing happens in the corner of my couch, in two daily blocks of two hours each, on a very pedestrian computer.
CP: As an exercise in self-understanding as a maker, give me a handful of separate, individual words that describe your creative work.
CW: Beautiful, demanding, generous, strange.
CP: In closing, when you dream of a better planet and culture, what does it look like? And specifically, where do you place yourself and your work in the ongoing culture-making conversation?
CW: Like everyone, I have occasional inchoate longings for a better world, but I’ve never envisioned a total program for what that world would look like because I’m too busy trying to understand this one. And many of the visions I have heard people offer for a better world seem to suffer from a lack of understanding of this world: everywhere from relief work, where donors often inflict aid without first listening to the voices of the people they’re trying to help, to doomsday proclamations about the death of culture from both the right and left, which seem blind to what I see as constant outbreaks of thoughtful culture from all kinds of unexpected quarters.
I believe art doesn’t need to make an argument for itself, and that, outside of a small group of professionals whose livelihood depends on debate about the nature of art, everybody know this. One way or another, we all dance, sing, write, act. And when we’re done putting food on the table and a roof over our head, the first thing we do is reach for a book, turn on the radio, pick out a show. Art in all its forms is intimately connected with every aspect of all lives. We sing when people die. We dance when they get married. Even sports events and video games incorporate music, dance, images, theater. The things I make are only my participation in that constant, unstoppable swirl of creation. This world is already beautiful and good. It’s just a question of where we choose to look. And that simple choice: not to ignore the evil and suffering in the world but to fight to find the beauty in the midst of it may actually be how we “change the world.”
Carey Wallace is the author of The Blind Contessa's New Machine and The Ghost in the Glass House, and the founder of the Hillbilly Underground, a working retreat which draws artists from around the world to rural Michigan each summer. She was raised in small towns in Michigan and lives and works in Brooklyn.