Each year the American Academy of Arts & Letters grants eight prestigious Academy Awards to outstanding writers. One of the 2008 recipients was Rikki Ducornet, who replaced Ernest Gaines as UL's Eminent Writer-In-Residence. Ducornet is not only a writer, but an artist, teacher, traveler, and thinker. She is also, surprisingly, the subject of Steely Dan's hit single, Rikki Don't Lose that Number. ultoday.com spoke with her recently. [Addendum: in 2010, Rikki left UL for personal reasons. She was replaced as Writer-In-Residence by Kate Bernheimer.]
Her book The Jade Cabinet was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for in 1993. In addition, Rikki's novel The Fan Maker's Inquisition was named 1999 "Book of the Year" by The Los Angeles Times. She has received many other awards and accolades, including a Lannan Literary Fellowship in 1993, The Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Fiction in 2004, the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters in 1998, and the French Prix Guerlain for Gazelle in 2007.
Tell us about yourself.
I guess... I started off as a painter, and was taken by surprise to discover that I was becoming a writer. I started as a poet, and a writer of flash fiction-- brief fictions, maybe a paragraph, a page, two pages long. And then I was seized by the scruff of the neck by a novel. Because of a dream.
Now I have seven novels, and I just finished the eighth, a novella, really very short.
I'm painting again, seriously. I had a show in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This guy has a wonderful gallery called Pierre Menard, named for the story by Jorge Luis Borges.
I've done a new series of paintings for a show here, it just opened at W. Stephan Gallery. It made sense to me to get a local gallery, because I've been painting here a lot. For the show I did last year, everything I painted was done here.
Why Stephan Gallery?
I was attracted to what she was showing there, and it's a good space. And I like the owner tremendously.
You began writing seriously at 40.
Yeah, I guess you could say it began to take over my life at 39, when I began the first novel. The Stain, it felt like coming home. It appeared in Greek last year.
So you never studied writing formally.
I studied writing briefly as a freshman at Bard College. Although I was a painter, I was interested in writing already at the time, and had begun a novel.
And I was shut down by Anthony Hecht, a very good poet, who was apparently embittered at the time. He shot a lot of people down. He said "You shouldn't be doing this, you write like a painter."
Then when The Stain appeared, it got wonderful reviews, and the first reviewer said, "She writes like a painter."
Do you paint like a writer?
I have no idea what that means. But there is a commonality, in fact, between the two. I'm very interested in mutability. So my paintings are often about metamorphosis, they often investigate metamorphoses visually. And my novels often investigate the metamorphosis of ideas and character, or of an historical moment.