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.

What sort of historical moments?

I've written about the Nazi era, the French Revolution, Cairo in the 1950's, France at the turn of the 19th Century.

You've lived all over, and now you're in Lafayette.

I love it here. I lived in France for a very long time, much of 18 years, and of course there are areas in Lafayette that evoke France. Like Grand Coteau; I think part of it is the overgrown hedges in the agricultural and grazing land there. I've also seen pollarded trees here... some of the architecture, some of the religious schools remind me of France.

And of course, French is spoken here. I have to learn to speak Cajun French. I have to say, I've come to love the music. One of my students performs with Feu Follet, Josh Caffery. So I fell in love with Cajun music by listening to Feu Follet. And then I got into the Pine Leaf Boys and the Red Stick Ramblers. This place just keeps opening up. It's magic.

And then, Josh is married to Claire, who sings with The Figs. The Figs are fabulous. And you know what, they've both been invited to perform in France, Feu Follet & The Figs.

My son is a musician by the way, and his girlfriend too, in L.A. He's a songwriter, arranger, performer, and producer. Among other things, he wrote a hit song for Santana, Hoy Es Adios, on the Shaman CD. It was a hit single in Latin America and Spain.

My father was Cuban. My mother was a New Yorker. So there was a Cuban Catholic, married to a New York Jew with a Russian father and a mother with a German background.

Tell us a little about your impressions of Acadiana.

There is a special weather to this place. It has its own weather, and it's beginning to get to me.

I think it's a creative place. I'm finding my students are very creative and gutsy, and the strong sense of family is really important to this place, it roots it. And of course, the music is everywhere, and that is so important. I love it that everyone goes out dancing every weekend. I love the fact that you can go out and dance with strangers without a problem [laughs]-- and just have a good time.

And I love crawfish.

You are largely self-taught as a writer. And now you teach writing.

That's right. Well, I think that one cannot really teach writing. But what one can do is create a space that is safe, where first of all one can disrupt the kind of thinking that gets in the way of the creative imagination.

So I always begin my classes by saying we are here to disrupt dogmatisms of all kinds. Political, social, religious, neurotic. The toughest is neurotic, because the neurotic is the forbidden that comes from the family: you are unworthy, you are bad, you are never going to talk about this, you don't have the right to talk about this.

And those determinisms show up everywhere, whether I'm teaching here, or in Denver, or at NOCCA [the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts], or at the Santa Fe Institute of American Indian Arts. Those forbiddens have to be gotten rid of right off.

So students need a safe space in which to let the imagination fly with a kind of muscled lightness, which means it's a free process, and a passionate process, and a rigorous process. Rigor and imagination are the key words. Year after year, I return to the words 'rigor' and 'imagination' as the watchwords, the touchstones.

So then what happens within the class, the writers, the learning writers, learn how to lean into the work, and let it reveal itself, rather than imposing the idea, which interferes with the imagination. It's what hacks do, plan it out ahead of time. If you want to write really original work, you need to trust your own impulses.

It's also true in Sciences. I've often talked about that, it's true for any imaginative thinker, one makes great leaps of mind. I often compare it to what Barbara McClintock calls spontaneous mutation, because it's actually an expression of an innate capacity, something that until that moment has been dormant, hidden.

Do you believe in muses?

You know, I don't believe in muses in any palpable sense, just as I don't believe in angels and gods, but I love the idea of these things. And of course there are people who totally do fire our imaginations. I do think that we have a wonderful way of turning one another on, so a muse can come from a friend, a lover, a professor... or a book, when I read Nabukov or Kafka, Melville, Calvino. So I suppose you can call them muses.

You took over as Eminent Writer-In-Residence after Ernest Gaines retired. What have you two talked about?

We have not yet met.  Part of that is because I've been here so briefly. There was a plan to meet last year, but there was a problem.

There's a funny professional connection between us, though. The two of us were both nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993, and he won it.

Tell us about Steely Dan.

Bard College, Steely Dan was performing.  At that point, Chevy Chase was the drummer-- not a very good one, but he was already funny-- and Donald Fagen was clearly a genius. I was actually a young faculty wife, I was pregnant, I think 2 months-- and he thought I was cute. So he gave me his phone number.

Which I lost. But I thought they were brilliant.

Anyway, I didn't find out about it for 10 years.  I was living in France, and came back to Amherst, Massachusetts. I walked into a record store, and heard Fagen's voice. I recognized it at once.

And I heard my name.

Then a couple of days later, I ran into someone that I had just met, and he said, "Hey, you know that song?  Fagen wrote it for you."

It's like a Zen koan to me... what does that mean, "Rikki don't lose that number"?

What would you do if you weren't writing and painting?

I'd like to come back as a Blues singer.

The funny thing is, Christmas night, I was having a feast with friends. Somebody started one of those things, 'If you could be someone else, who would you be?' I said Eartha Kitt.

Later I learned that she died that night.  But I guess that's what I'd like to be doing, singing like Kitt.