Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Michael Joyce on the Moment of Writing


The New York Times called Michael Joyce’s afternoon “the granddaddy of hypertext fictions,” while The Toronto Globe and Mail said that it “is to the hypertext…interactive novel what the Gutenberg bible is to publishing,” and Der TAZ in Berlin has called him “Der Homer der Hypertexte.”  He since has published numerous hypertext fictions on the web and on disk, including “On the Birthday of the Stranger” featured as the inaugural work for the online version of the Evergreen Review; Twilight, A Symphony, on CD ROM, and Twelve Blue, on the world wide web, both published by Eastgate. His most recent print novel is Was: Annales Nomadique, a novel of internet, 2007, published by Fiction Collective 2 (FC2). His Liam’s Going (2002) was reissued in paperback by McPherson and Company in 2009.  An early novel, The War Outside Ireland, won the Great Lakes New Writers Award in 1983. Recently he has been collaborating in multimedia work with LA visual artist Alexandra Grant and has taken more and more to poetry, with poems appearing in nor/ (The New Ohio Review), The Iowa Review, New Letters, Parthenon West, New Review, and Gastronomica among others.  SUNY Press and Michigan have published collections of his short fictions, prose pieces and essays about technology. He is currently Professor of English at Vassar.

Hot Metal Bridge:  What drew you, initially, to the world of words and has your passion changed over the years?

Michael Joyce: I grew up in a large American-Irish family in South Buffalo New York and the family table and larger family events were filled with words.  It is a passion that has only grown with my own family and teaching.  Indeed your email with these questions showed up on my iPhone at the beginning of an evening of family stories and jokes and poetry in New Jersey with my brothers and their families, my sons and their cousins, seventeen of us in all, that eventually stretched to dawn (long after I had retired).  Next week my brother Tom, a wonderful poet, writer and teacher, has a more definitive biopsy for what is preliminarily identified as a lymphoma then begins the assault of chemo. Yet for that evening he talked easily of Godamer, Rilke, Bob Dylan and Shaw,  while simultaneously conducting a madcap Marx Brothers-like IPA ale tasting, trying to make sense of his and our lives as Godamer’s Vollzugswahrheit, even as he embodies it.

HMB: For those of us who aren’t very familiar with the field, could you speak a bit about hypertext and its contributions to the field of literature and art, and what it was that drew you to this medium?

MJ: Hypertext used to be opaque and now it is transparent: the “ht” in “http.” When it was opaque, I used to say it was reading and writing in an order you choose, where your choices change the nature of (the experience) of what you read.  Its contributions to art or literature aren’t mine, or anyone’s, to say but if one wanted to begin to speculate a good start would be with Kate Hayles’ book,  Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, //

What drew me to this medium, long before the web existed,  was almost an idiot’s insight. When I first came to use a word processor as a novelist in 1982, I was drawn by the simple ability to easily edit out something that, say, showed up on page 200 but really belonged on page 50 without retyping the whole manuscript. Not long thereafter I realized that “belonged” was fairly problematic since some part of me obviously thought it belonged both places. I began to wonder whether a computer might allow someone to write a novel where texts appeared at different places according to time of day, the season, reader’s choices, etc. It was way premature to find a program that accomplished this and so Jay David Bolter, then a classics scholar and computer scientist interested in Homeric storytelling, and I set out top create Storyspace for then then-new Macintosh in 1984. My hypertext novel was published as a “test file” in the first ever international hypertext meeting in 1987.

HMB:  In light of the fact that printed materials are decreasing in number, do you think that hypertext will beable to reinvent itself or become more prevalent?

MJ: It couldn’t be more prevalent if you count–as I do– everything from ATMs to Twitter as hypertext, and another definition of hypertext, dating well before computers (to say the “real” Joyce or Pound or Stein), might be language that constantly reinvents itself.

HMB:  What do you love the most about writing?  What is the most frustrating?

MJ: I love the actual moment of writing. What frustrates is how what one aspires to never matches what one achieves. In this I draw consolation from the philosopher Gabriel Marcel who wrote that an artist “with lucid sincerity he compares what he is really doing with what he aspires to do” thus resulting in “a mortifying comparison more often than not.” Garbriel goes on to say that this “amounts to saying that value never becomes reality in a life except by means of a perpetual struggle against easiness.”

HMB:  You’ve been a professor of English, and now the Chair, at Vassar College for years.  Do you find that teaching fuels your creative work?

MJ: Fuels, yes, enable, no. Teaching at Vassar is immensely satisfying but also demanding and I find it hard to accomplish much during an academic year.

HMB:  What would your advice for young writers be?  Would you encourage them to write in all genres as you do?

MJ: I was with you up to the “as you do.” I encourage no one to do as I do, since what I do is idiosyncratic, mercurial,  confused and confusing, dense. The question of genres has of course simply become permeable in our time.  It’s a truism to note that narrative poetry and narrative are often indistinguishable (Lydia Davis told my students that if someone thinks of her short fictions as poems that’s just fine, and vice versa).  Networked works only emphasize the hybridity and permeability– not to mention the polyvocality– of interlaced and imbricated forms. It was something like this that I was after in my recent Fiction Collective 2 book,  Was: Annales Nomadique, a novel of internet.