An Interview with Michael Joyce

The author of Liam’s Going talks about the writing of his latest novel, his characters, on being a “Joyce”, the big themes, on hypertext and his own celebrated hypertext works, the natural weaving of voices in Liam’s Going, on the limitations (and strengths) of the electronic, Storyspace – a computer program for creating hypertext which Joyce co-created, and his two as yet unpublished darker novels: “What are often called postmodern elements are in fact the facts of life for most of us who have to raise our children, lead good lives, love others, or otherwise work at making meaning in our lives without the benefit of any grand vision of how the fragmented moments of our lives fit together or what comes next.”
Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: What inspired Liam’s Going?

Michael: I suppose the impetus came from taking my own son to college but I also had this image of a woman and her son in mind. I was thinking of the kinds of hopes and dreams that even a happy, successful woman often puts aside to raise a family.

Magdalena: Tell me about Cathleen. Did you create her poetry from her character or did you take your own poems and create Cathleen’s poetic muse out of them?

Michael: What a lovely question! I think Cathleen is a better poet than I am since, while I do write poetry, it is largely occasional, not something I ever think of publishing. She has a clear idea of her own talents and the poetic world she inhabits but worries less about those extraneous issues than the fundamental connections, like sinew, between her poetry and her life.

Magdalena: You hint at James Joyce (the “great novelist” studied by your Frenchwoman). Tell me about his role in your work, and perhaps in your life? Is it difficult to hold the name of such a giant author? Or is he your ultimate mentor?

Michael: Anyone named Joyce who attempts to become a writer after James Joyce is something of a blessed fool. That said, it isn’t difficult to have the name, or to be a blessed fool. When I was young it was something of a delight to think of the connection (in name only, we are different shoots of a rhizomic line) and as I aged he indeed become an important voice in my ear, what someone once called “a beloved predecessor.”

Magdalena: Talk to me about some of the big themes underlying Liam’s Going: secrets (the impossibility of “knowing” each other), the tragedy of death, of how wecreate meaning in our brief lives?

Michael: Thank you for this question. I have a firm belief that the big themes in all our lives come from the small, necessary attentions of the heart. As someone of American-Irish descent, I am fond of good-byes and all those other bittersweet events which call us to look at our own lives. In my family whenever anyone went on a trip we lined up as if they were sailing off to the South Pole, our eyes filled with mixed tears, of sadness and joy alike, suddenly aware how near was the edge of the world. You can imagine the emotions a wake brought out, or someone heading off to a new life of any kind, marriage, college, or the city.

Magdalena: You’ve been touted as one of the world’s most celebrated hypertext fiction writers and have also written and lectured extensively on the use of hypertext. Tell me more about the medium – why it appeals to you – its power.

Michael: Its power is the power of conversation with a text (and increasingly, in these times, with sound and image and movement as well). Obviously any heartfelt and complex text puts us into conversation with it, but the computer gives the writer an opportunity to make that process more available, more shifting and subtle.

Magdalena: Tell me about the creation of some of your more well known hypertext pieces: afternoon, a story, WOE, Twelve Blue and Twilight: A symphony.

Michael: Most people think of hypertext fiction, if they think of it at all, as something like a children’s choose-your-own-adventure game, or a
game of some kind. Because genuinely interesting hypertexts are, as I said earlier, more like conversations, they take on a musical quality, like a fugue. When you create hypertexts, as with any writing, you try to keep the possibilities of the story open for as long as you can, letting the characters and situations unfold in their own space and time. Like Liam’s Going, my hypertexts tends to be about love and loss, about women and men in places which evoke memories and promise possibilities.

Magdalena: Liam’s Going is a more traditional novel than your hypertext work, but in what way does it owe its structure those postmodern hypertext strands that you employ in your other work? (the “musicality and mortality of recurrence” you speak about in a previous interview on The War Outside Ireland).

Michael: Because Liam’s Going is told in alternating chapters of a woman and her husband, and because they each are brought by the event of their son’s going to consider their dreams and hopes for him and themselves, there is a natural weaving of voices not unlike hypertextual weaving. The Hudson River also provides perhaps one of the richest traditional American landscapes for interwoven histories and stories. I like how the landscape around here can suddenly turn to eddy or valley, transforming the world in a turn. What are often called postmodern elements are in fact the facts of life for most of us who have to raise our children, lead good lives, love others, or otherwise work at making meaning in our lives without the benefit of any grand vision of how the fragmented moments of our lives fit together or what comes next. Liam’s Going is a novel about not being afraid of what comes next.

Magdalena: Is it a relief to be able to work with a “single” story as you do for a printed text, or is that (the concept of a “single story”) just an illusion?

Michael: Perhaps the best answer, given what I just said about how the world can transform in a turn, is that it is a relief to work however briefly with the illusion of singleness of any sort. What makes rites of passage– like going to college, the empty nest, and so on– so rich for us is how they force the complication and noise of our lives to slip away if only for an instant. Whether an illusion or not, these passages let us focus upon what is most important to us. Births and deaths and falling in love do this but for brief hours. In this novel the drive for Cathleen and Liam, and the waiting for Noah, and each of their memories and dreams, extend that brief hour.

Magdalena: Are there some serious limitations which hypertext writers have to cope with? Do you find for example, in the main, that these works pay more or less attention to traditional and still critical narrative techniques like characterisation, narrative voice, person, etc?

Michael: Another great question! Some of the early critics of hypertext assumed (often without benefit of reading hypertexts) that hypertext
writers didn’t feel the need to attend to character, voice, suspense, foreshadowing, etc.. But when you cannot be certain that any two readers will read the same texts in the same order, or at all, as is true in writing a hypertext, you must attend to these important elements of any writing in quite a different way, spreading them out if you will, or rather suffusing a writing with them. That is in some sense a limitation but also a great joy.

Magdalena: Would you say that hypertext works (and indeed the best of modern literature in general) tends to play with things like characterisation, narrative voice, person etc, or is it mainly confined to plot variations?

Michael: Plot variations (in the sense of the lady or the tiger, or which window across the way do you look into) are, I think, the least interesting aspects of hypertext fictions. I’ve often used the image of a cocktail party or, better still, overhearing others at a restaurant as you sit having dinner with someone you love . The interest for us in these situations, as in fiction, is to what extent our own lives take place in similar or different terms than the lives around us, and how living among others transforms the way we see ourselves.

Magdalena: Are readers, in the main, still resistant to electronic works of art? Do you feel that there is a reader who will always want to hold the pages of his or her book, and follow an author directed plotline?

Michael: Sure. I am one such reader. The book is still and will always be a compelling and entrancing doorway. Yet even the “traditional book” in our time admits multiple voices, fragmented narratives, visual and textual variations . Also the book makes its way in a world where gas stations have interactive video at their pumps, airports and supermarkets have CNN, and CNN has websites and chatrooms. The book can be a quiet get-away but it can also be full of noise. The same is true for electronic fictions which inevitably will be able to be held in our hands and will offer us intertwining and multiple and mesmerizing choices, both author directed and of our own devising.

Magdalena: Where do you see the “future” of the book moving?

Michael: I seem to be one reply ahead of your questions, sorry. As I suggested a moment ago the book in whatever form it takes, traditional pages or so-called (ugh) electronic appliance, will occupy a future which we can only live in present tense. Surely some version of e-books will take the place of the kind of books which are utilities. For instance my son reads his Zagat restaurant guide on his Palm Pilot while I carry mine in my knapsack. Meanwhile any of us would, I think, rather have a good readable telephone directory which perhaps included the whole state (or country or world) and didn’t take up the space the yellow pages do on the end table.

But there also will be books which tell stories, recite poems, and evoke dreams in the way our own dreams do, filled with half-starts and surprising leaps, long interludes and swirling rapids. Also there is a whole generation of readers, who have grown with video games, channel zappers, cell phones, instant messages, email, and so on who will long for stories of that kind of immediacy and interaction, complication and mystery. Electronic fiction didn’t come down from heaven on a UFO, it is an extension of the way the “traditional” book opened itself up through the 20th century and now into the 21st.

Magdalena: Tell me about “Storyspace”.

Michael: Storyspace was, and is, a computer program which allows writers to visualize the web of their writing, make rich and complex links easily, and translate these texts (fictional or otherwise–many educators and scholars hav used the program to serious purpose). With Jay Bolter, John Smith and, in recent years, Mark Bernstein at Eastgate ( which publishes the program, I helped develop Storyspace as a way to tell “stories that changed each time you read them.”

Magdalena: Tell me about some of your ongoing or new projects. What can readers expect to see next from Michael Joyce?

Michael: I have completed but I am not yet ready to publish two different, darker novels. In a world as dark as this one is right now, on the brink of needless war, I’m not so certain I want to tell dark stories just now. One thing that makes me happy about Liam’s Going is how readers have responded to its lack of violence, psychological or actual, and how willing they are to enter into what one critic called my “fiction of becoming.” That is what I want to continue to write and publish, work that calls us to our hopes and possibilities, our becoming; work that points out our complication in a world where politicians see only fairytale good and evil; and finally work which gives lie to the comforting delusion that we merely stand united when what is best about us is how we stand as multiple, particular and interdependent.