The short-story writer and editor Diane Williams is often described in epic terms. Jonathan Franzen hails her as “one of the true living heroes of the American avant-garde.” Ben Marcus calls her “a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction.” What does it mean to be a hero? “I was proud of myself like a hero should be proud, who risks her life, or who doesn’t risk her life, but who saves somebody, anybody!” Williams writes, in her story “Marriage and the Family.”

I would describe Williams as the writer who saved my life—or my soul, if one believes that such a thing exists. Williams began publishing fiction in her forties, after stints as a dancer and a textbook editor, and after raising two children in Chicago. Her early collections, “This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate” (1990) and “Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear” (1992), speak with savage comedy about how “dutiful” women repress their sexual desires and ambitions, and how they respond to the annihilating demands of husbands, lovers, and children. Her later collections, more playful and metafictional, reveal how fear and pleasure assert themselves in domestic situations: the terror of confronting a squirrel sporting a stern erection, the rapture of having sex with a woman named Diane Williams. Now, at the age of seventy-five, Williams is releasing her tenth collection, “How High?—That High” (Soho Press). Her work turns increasingly to the small cruelties of death and aging, yet the pain of living is always lightened by its absurdity, the sheer dumb luck of simply existing.

“One of the most deeply felt reasons I do my work is that I do not want to speak the way I am speaking,” Williams told me recently, of her reluctance to grant long interviews. Her stories, many no longer than a page, suggest that what is left unsaid between people remains more powerful than what they have the capacity to articulate. Williams studied with Gordon Lish (and, before that, with Philip Roth), but her minimalism is distinctive for its sublimity and its spirituality, its ability to evoke the laws of a world apart. One can see the influence of her convictions in the pages of NOON, the magazine that she edits out of her apartment in New York, which publishes some of the most interesting short-story writers working in English: Lydia Davis, Christine Schutt, Anya Yurchyshyn, Vi Khi Nao, Kathryn Scanlan, Gary Lutz, Lara Pawson, Lucie Elven, and Souvankham Thammavongsa, to name only a few. Williams and I spoke three times over Zoom, and we corresponded by e-mail regularly over several months. Our conversations have been combined and edited for length and clarity.

What compelled you to start writing fiction in your early forties?

Oh, God, I want to say I’ve forgotten! Because sometimes I have forgotten, and it spooks me—but I can go back and remember.

I wanted answers to questions I didn’t know how to ask. I felt quite unloved and failed. I read books and this led to probes that had stalled out after university. I read Freud, which brought me to Jung, to psychology, philosophy, anthropology, history. I gave myself permission to have over-the-top ambitions—to tackle the big mysteries of life—to heal myself, educate myself. And I believed that I could speak as noisily as anyone who had ever spoken.

You said that you wanted answers. What were the questions you wanted answers to?

Those eternal questions: Is there a god? If so, what sort of god? What are we here for? How to live a good life? I had had a religious education, but that was shattered, too.


The indoctrination proved to be too thin. It was parochial and sexist: dutiful daughter, wife, dutiful person. God is benign, and so forth.

What is the opposite of being dutiful?

The opposite is being a wild person. And you can be a wild person on the page. I have always felt that this is my obligation, to permit the wild person access to the page.

Why be a wild person on the page instead of a wild person off it?

You can’t be a wild person in life. That’s insanity. I have no interest in insanity. I do have an interest in being in a loving relationship. How do you do that? Find stability, have the most joyful and productive life possible?

In life, I am eager for sanity, courtesy, happiness, love. Others may have a taste for more adventure.

And how do you give the wild person inside access to the page?

Deliver a person who will recklessly tell the truth, for one thing. Nice manners are of no use here. Attempt to bring the lawless region of dreaming forward, while trying to maintain the plausibility of waking life.

I haven’t much patience with the surreal in fiction, or with science fiction, which is the surefire way to welcome the wild. I’m much more interested in following the adventures of people who barely manage or bravely manage the circumstances that we’re all stuck in. I have profound admiration for those writers who seamlessly bind the unbelievable to a world we recognize. Both Isaac Bashevis Singer and John Cheever work these wonders. I read somewhere—John Cheever discussing how best to perform this magic, what he learned from John le Carré. It was to introduce a homely and humble object into the vicinity of the fantastic. A grimy woman’s girdle, for instance.

But wildness usually encompasses the unspeakable—an insistence on speaking what is too difficult to speak about. When one reaches this point of “Oh, no, that’s what it was!” there is horror. But then there’s relief and sometimes triumph—I’ve made something out of my wound.

Everything you’ve just told me about your philosophy of writing—would you also impress this upon a writer you were editing?

We are always measuring plausibility and authority. And, yes, I very often say, “You have to go deeper. You have barely climbed the ladder for the dive.” Sometimes, when I fear the writer is never going to come up with the ending, a new title can save the day.

Your stories have astonishing, sometimes very funny titles: “My Female Honor Is of a Type.” “Oh, My God, the Rapture!” “The Real Diane Williams Has Captured the Whole of Freud.” “Pussy.” “The Fuck.” “The Penis Had Been Plenty Decent.” Why is that?

The title is one’s first chance—Please listen to me! It’s a beckoning, the first opportunity to bewitch after I’ve written a story, done all this work. Here’s the opportunity to create more implication and latitude.

Gordon Lish used to exhort us with “If you want to piss with the big dogs . . . .” Which felt quite sexist, but was still, for me, exhilarating at the time.

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