Crank Up the Volume: Carola Dibbell Discusses Two of Our Favorite Things

Carola_DibbellSome of fiction writer Carola Dibbell’s earliest work includes short stories in The Paris Review and The New Yorker. However, for those of us who cherish a smooth beat equally as expertly navigated syntax, Dibbell’s name might be most recognizable for the music writing that she published for years in The Village Voice, including essays reviewing several New York super-acts in their prime, such as Blondie, Run DMC, Lou Reed and Patti Smith. Now, in her latest piece of short fiction “Rini’s Child” (published in Black Clock 16, on shelves in February 2013), Dibbell has created the narrator Inez, whose unforgettable voice and unique dialect guides readers through a catastrophic near-future riddled with infertility, distrust and pandemic. Recently, Dibbell let us pick her brain about “Rini’s Child,” the subject of music and books and how these two favorite interests of ours might (or might not) influence each other.

BLACK CLOCK: You wrote rock criticism on and off for thirty years and have spoken before about the leakage between fiction and music writing. Can you explain what you mean by that? What role has music played in your fiction?

In the early seventies, I was surprised and impressed by the rock writing in Dave Marsh’s and Lester Bangs’ Creem, and a little later in the Village Voice music section, edited by Robert Christgau, my husband. In this fledgling and disreputable form, you could be vulgar, personal, amateurish and formally ambitious all at once and actually be read. It gave me a chance to do things with the voice and tone and disorder I was already exploring in fiction that was not actually read. It took longer for me to bring those rock critic elements into my fiction except, I suppose, that writing about pop led me to contemplate genre fiction. Then, in the late nineties, when my fiction was going nowhere, I made a conscious decision to let the rock critic write the fiction, sort of, and the fiction changed a lot. Music itself is a different question, which I will get to later.

BLACK CLOCK: Do you think that music critics approach writing much differently than other writers?

CAROLA DIBBELL: I suppose I’ve read jazz or rock reviews that evoke rather than analyze their subject in a way book or film criticism is less likely to, but I wouldn’t want to generalize. It’s also true that describing a sound is a special kind of challenge. And reviewers of beat-driven music sometimes need to deal with the critical question of whether the piece under discussion makes you want to get up and move, which might not come up so much in other kinds of critical disciplines. Though it could.

BLACK CLOCK: In your latest story, “Rini’s Child,” the narrator, Inez, has a unique speech pattern. What particular genre of music, if any, did Inez’s speech develop from, and how has that music been specifically emulated within the story’s prose? Did you plan this in advance, or did it happen naturally while you were writing?

I invented Inez for the novel “Rini’s Child” is adapted from, The Only Ones. I wanted a character who would work interestingly inside the premise, which is, briefly, reproductive experimentation in a dystopic setting, with the narrator a “donor” who ends up an unplanned mother. As a writer, I was getting sick of my arty bohemian protagonists, and as a parent dealing with onslaughts of standardized tests, I was also pondering intelligence. Inez’s voice is mainly about her as a character—apparently ignorant, possibly damaged, but extremely observant for all she expresses herself so awkwardly. I spent years loving punk, where stiffness was often a positive thing, so perhaps that influenced my vision of her stiffness and jerky rhythms, but my distaste for literary smoothness goes way back, and I am always messing with rhythms and rhythmic logic. While I was getting into the voice, one hip hop line kept rolling around my head: “My mind is playin tricks on me,” from the Geto Boys. Not sure it gets across written out, but spoken it has an almost but not quite conversational beat I wished I could incorporate into Inez’s flow. Don’t think I ever did, though. There was really a lot of trial and error while I figured out what I was doing, especially with the grammatical quirks.

When I was extracting “Rini’s Child” from a chapter in the novel, I did think about how songs work, especially the kind where the volume cranks way up in the last verse. But that build is also a convention in some science fiction stories—and, just to be clear, I thought more about Bruce Sterling and Ursula Le Guin than any kind of music as I conceived this project. Sometimes it’s more about the vision and ideas than the sound. Theodore Dreiser’s masterful gaffes and epic outsiderness. Doris Lessing’s courage. I actually think about her all the time.

Did any other genres of music influence the way you construct your narratives? Any specific artists or groups that you’ve spent a lot of time listening to over the years?

CAROLA DIBBELL: There was a point in my life when I thought my literary voice was related to what female groups like the McGarrigles or the Roches were doing. These days, as my writing voice gets odder, I feel more affinities with Brazilian Tom Zé’s wavery, scratchy vocals, or possibly the Velvets’ offkeys and bluntness, but that’s pretty subjective if not totally out to lunch, and I’d be surprised if anyone even knew what I meant by it. I often like projects that use or simulate ambient sound, like Los Lobos’ work with Tchad Blake, or Cornershop, and I sometimes try to bring that feeling or flavor into my writing. I’m currently smitten with the great unknown Cincinnati band Wussy, who have almost nothing in common with what I do, except maybe low-rent settings.

How about the other way around: has any literature affected the way you listen to music?

There is a lot of chicken and egg in the influence question—and we haven’t even talked about cartoons and movies—but it’s possible my love of Dickens affected my taste for cockney punks.

BLACK CLOCK: When the word “prose” is used to describe fiction writing it might generally be assumed that the language is not particularly metrical, lyrical, or musical. However, your writing is obviously very sound conscious. Should we call it something other than “prose”?

I think almost all prose has some music in it. I tend to prefer less obviously musical prose—Defoe over Fielding, Hammett over Chandler. Lists, facts. Detective procedurals. With some exceptions, if it’s not verse and has a plot, I call it fiction, and I hope that’s what I wrote in “Rini’s Child.” But I’m glad if readers notice and care about the rhythms, which I put so much work into. On the other hand, if they didn’t notice and liked the story for some other reason, I’m glad, too.

BLACK CLOCK: Do you actively listen to music while writing?

CAROLA DIBBELL: I never listen to music while writing and rarely while reading. In my daily life, though, it’s on pretty much all the time.

BLACK CLOCK: Are there any specific songs, artists, or albums that you think produce the same mood as the story’s language?

There are certainly artists who make sounds that remind me of some of what I try to do. MIA using young aboriginal voices on Kala. Cornershop—say, Handcream for a Generation, and Los Lobos spinoff Latin Playboys as well as their Colossal Head. Pere Ubu’s dissonant and jerky Dub Housing. In spirit, the scuzz and scrappiness of Maureen Tucker’s solo work is on some kind of wavelength, and “Babydog,” from the Raincoats’ Looking in the Shadows, is a great song about infertility. But look. Why not just give Wussy’s Funeral Dress II a listen? What’s to lose?

What are you working on now and where can we look for your writing in the future?

CAROLA DIBBELL: My agent is currently shopping The Only Ones. I’m feeling around a few new ideas but not sure what I’ll do next. It could be something quite different.


Carola Dibbell lives in the East Village with her husband, the critic Robert Christgau, and their daughter, Nina.


By Adriana Widdoes
an Editorial Assistant for Black Clock and an MFA Writing candidate at CalArts

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