Q&A with Alice Attie on "These Figures Lining the Hills"

Alice Attie will join us at Book Culture 112th on Thursday, March 3rd to talk about her new book, These Figures Lining the Hills. In the meantime, check out our Q&A with her below!

Alice Attie is an artist and a writer. Her book Harlem on the Verge, documenting the transformations of Harlem, New York, was published in 2001.

1) How did you come to write These Figures Lining the Hills?

Many of the pieces that comprise this small book - These Figures Lining the Hills– were culled from recent journal entries.  I began the book initially in response to a question put to me by the extra-ordinary force behind Seagull books, Naveen Kishore:  The call was to write about notes, notes that we write to ourselves, in journals, in notebooks, perhaps notes that we imagine writing, fragments of notes, notes in margins, and notes, perhaps, that are not written – Naveen requested, as he often does, for his incomparable catalogues, a meditation on the art of keeping notes.

I have been keeping journals for 47 years, sometimes day-to-day, or week-to-week, month-to-month.  When Naveen initially put this invitation forth, I thought about Kafka, for whom the diary, the notes, the letters, the meditations, were places where the mind could spill without self-censure.  I wrote to Naveen:  In the journal “It is essential to be present to oneself.  Maybe the task of writing is to find the place where one is entirely oneself.” From Kafka that I culled the opening quote of this book: "It is impossible to say everything, and it is impossible not to say everything."

I culled from recent notebooks.  I added.  I took away.  I pared down.  I chiseled.  I numbered and arranged These Figures Lining the Hills. Poems, entries, meditations on the works of others.

2) What are you currently reading?

Currently I am reading Foucault, working my way backwards through his writings. I began, enthralled and inspired, with his late lectures given at the College de France.  The lectures are an extraordinary, scholarly, and, ultimately, very personal study of the history of the care of the self. I am also re-reading the first volume of Proust.  Each reading becomes, of course, a new one, a deeper one, one which gives further voice to Proust’s unparalleled capacity to observe everything - from details of seeming insignificance to great questions concerning love, loss, jealousy, and childhood. I am reading Alice Oswald’s Dart, again. Reading Derek Mahon.

3) Do you have a personal favorite book of all time? If so, can you share it and tell us why?

I don’t think I have a single favorite book as I am constantly falling in love with new and old works.  To the Lighthouse and As I Lay Dying are the two that come instantly to mind, and Beckett’s Trilogy.  The collected poems of Wallace Stevens is a volume that is always on my nightstand and in my suitcase when I travel.  Credences of Summer, for instance, is a poem I can never visit enough.  Several contemporary books have stayed with me as favorites: Stoner by John Williams, Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

4) What’s next? Any upcoming projects in the works that you can tell us about?

I have recently begun working on two new books – One work will be comprised of small prose pieces, inspired primarily by paintings in the Flemish wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The other book begins with excerpts and responses to three texts: Roland Barthes lectures on “The Neutral” – Michel Foucault’s last course, given in 1984 at the College de France, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, and two essays in a collection of the non-fiction of Jorge Luis Borges.