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Interview with Jenny Offill

In Dept. of Speculation (2014), Jenny Offill’s second novel, the writer-narrator is distracted from writing a second novel by motherhood and the revelation of her husband’s affair, but also by a bedbug infestation and a job ghostwriting a history of the space programme for a failed astronaut. In Last Things (1999), Offill’s debut, eight-year-old Grace, homeschooled by her increasingly erratic mother, learns mainly about the formation of the universe and the insects that will remain after mammalian extinction. The very large and the very small, along with philosophy and history, poetry and religion, recontextualise — for Offill’s characters and for her readers — the ordinary and not so ordinary events of domestic life. Dept. of Speculation consists of fragments, most of them well under half a page, that relate the narrator’s trajectory from unattached young woman to wife and mother; interspersed with these are tenets of Buddhism and Manichaeism, self-help jargon and quotations from Rilke, Simone Weil, Hesiod and Antarctic explorers.

 

Offill began writing Last Things shortly out of college, while on a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and it was published eight years later. Since then, she has taught writing at universities in New York and North Carolina, and in September she will take up a post as a visiting writer at Vassar College. She is the author of four children’s books and co-editor, with Elissa Schappell, of two essay anthologies, one on money and another on female friendships. Dept. of Speculation — shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Pen/Faulkner Award and the L.A. Times Fiction Award — was praised widely for the originality of its form and compared to works published around the same time by Elena Ferrante, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk, for its seeming autofictionality and its preoccupation with the difficulty of combining early motherhood, or any intimate relationship, with creative work. ‘My plan was never to get married. I was going to be an art monster instead […] art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things,’ the narrator remembers, once she is married and deeply concerned with mundane things.

 

Offill is now working on her third novel, Weather. Its librarian protagonist, having taken a job at a podcast called Hell and High Water, finds her sphere of concern, previously restricted to caring for unstable family members, widening to include climate change and global politics. I interviewed Offill, who lives in upstate New York, in a narrow French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It was late February, one week after the Parkland school shooting and the day that Trump was meeting survivors in Washington D.C. The topic of climate change came up almost immediately: the temperature was in the early twenties, unnervingly warm after weeks of below zero. (I later discovered that it was the warmest February day on record.) After the interview we walked through a busy Central Park. Offill was totally engaging, at once serious and very funny, with the same black humour evident in her novels. Over several kinds of cheese, we began by discussing our different experiences teaching, and the usefulness — or otherwise — of having mentors or peers read writing-in-progress.

 

New York, February 2018

Q

The White Review

— Do you show your work to people as you’re writing?

A

Jenny Offill

—  I tend to be someone who wants to write the whole thing before I show it to anyone. It’s not ideal, because I’m also really, really slow. It’s such a private language, when you’re in the middle of a book, and there’s an associational, dream logic quality to the way I write. Donald Barthelme talks about the ‘not-knowingness’ of writing fiction. I live in that state for many years, and then it can be a course correction, when you do show it to somebody. I never really want suggestions exactly, but there is a fear that maybe it won’t make sense to anyone else. At the same time, sharing my work too much diffuses whatever mystery there is for me in the writing of it, and then I stop being able to hear what I’m doing.

Q

The White Review

—  I recently heard an interview with Claire Messud, where she said that when she’s teaching fiction workshops, she always asks her students to describe what they see in their peers’ work, rather than making suggestions about what should change.

A

Jenny Offill

— I made a joke in my workshop that I would get them all T-shirts that said ‘I wanted to know more’. The nature of workshops, the way that they’re structured, means they lean towards the writer adding things: OK, we don’t know enough about this person, we don’t know enough about this event, can you show us more clearly what this scene is about? But if you’re someone who is trying to move to a more pared-down language, or language that is trying to do things at a couple of different levels at the same time, the workshop environment can be difficult. So I try to teach my students to read at the line level, because I think that’s what’s helpful: to start thinking about what they’re writing line by line, as well as the bigger picture. I’m also always trying to make them read things in different genres: poetry or essays or non-fiction or primary sources from science or anthropology. I want them to get a sense of the strangeness of language. It reminds you that there are all these different ways in which you can create density and give a vital feeling to the words on the page.

Q

The White Review

—  You talk about using a pared-down language. When you’re writing or revising, how do you think about what to remove?

A

Jenny Offill

— The one dictum that I’ve always gone back to is Italo Calvino: revision as ‘the subtraction of weight’. The Olympics are on right now, and when you watch the really, really good skaters, they make it look easy, and they make you think you’d like to skate like that. There’s some kind of fluidity… and for me the subtraction of weight is also the subtraction of the stagecraft, and the sweat. I want my work ultimately to feel beautiful and mysterious, and also to make people wonder how it was done. Because that’s what I like in books. I like to wonder how it was done. Sometimes you can figure out certain things, ways a writer might use transitions, for example. Or I was talking in one of my classes about Denis Johnson. You’re always told as a writer that you should move towards the specific, but actually in Jesus’ Son Johnson has an amazing vagueness that’s really radiant and strange. There’s a passage where he’s in a Polish neighbourhood, wandering around, and he says something like, ‘They have that fruit with the light on it, they have that music you can’t find.’ That’s all he says, but to me, it gives a feeling of… I know it’s a stand-in for the limits of language itself. I’m always interested in how you get to the point where you can’t say the thing you’re trying to express. It’s what every mystical tradition is interested in: at a certain point language falls away, and how can you go to that point, and participate in that space between what you’re trying to say and what can land on the page? Vagueness, in the hands of a master, is one way you can do that, but of course it only works if you also show that you can be incredibly particular. Then you can say something that’s incredibly abstract.

Q

The White Review

—  When you were writing Dept. of Speculation, did it start big and then you cut it down?

A

Jenny Offill

—  No, I never start big. I write these little things, and I don’t know how they’re going to fit together. I was just reading Frank O’Hara’s ‘Personism’ Manifesto, where he says you just have to go on nerve. That’s what it is: I know things go together, but I have no idea how. I just know they have a sort of…a slightly magnetic quality. They’re not sticking, but if you hold them together, there’s a tiny charge. So I’m just trying to figure out where the things go.

Q

The White Review

—  When you say things, do you mean the fragments of the novel? Or phrases?

A

Jenny Offill

—  It might not be at the phrase level. It’s more like: I have this section about a reporter coming back from the space station, and I also have a thing about explorers, and I have a moment with a mother and a child in a bathtub. With Department, I had all these fragments, but I didn’t know whether there was any story there, because for a long time I resisted having the break in the novel (the revelation of the main character’s husband’s affair). I just felt like, why tell that same story? The larger things, the structuring, point of view and so on, is more intuitive. When I was writing the novel, I changed the point of view intuitively, and the whole time I was thinking I would have to go back and fix it. But your writing brain is much smarter than your analytical brain. And then at a certain point I realised that the way I was using pronouns echoed exactly the emotional distance between the narrator and her husband. So I started moving the fragments to reflect the pronouns, and then I could write the end, because I knew I wanted the novel to go back to ‘I’ and ‘you’ right at the end. But I also knew that I had to put several lines before that final fragment that are just descriptions, no pronouns at all. It was the same with the page that just says ‘soscared’, over and over… I had that originally, but I didn’t know where it went. Then I realised: that’s the transition point between different points of view.

Q

The White Review

—  Because you didn’t want to change the point of view too suddenly?

A

Jenny Offill

— Right. It shouldn’t feel jarring, but if you’re not brave enough in the way you do it, it can feel like a mistake. So the problem is: how do you make everything feel as intentional as it is, but still have that lightness that Calvino talks about? Those two things seem as if they’re working against each other. Some people ask me whether all the parts in the novel could be rearranged. No! Not at all. I know what goes on in between the different fragments, and I didn’t put it in the book because I wanted to experiment with form. I also feel like the character’s mind is galloping along, and so there were places where I wanted visually, in the text, to give you a place to rest. Certain scenes are slowed down for that reason, or there’s text from other places for that reason. I like to be in the character’s head, but I could imagine that some people would be thinking Jesus, I need a break.

Q

The White Review

—  You said you resisted making the husband have an affair for a long time. What made you give up that resistance?

A

Jenny Offill

—  Well, it was a slow deterioration in the relationship originally, but at a certain point I wanted there to be more emotional momentum. I also came across a Katherine Anne Porter quote: ‘Physical infidelity is the signal, the notice given, that all fidelities might be undermined.’ The NYRB review of Department called infidelity ‘the smallest possible disaster’. And it is, in some ways, a small disaster — and in another way, it’s the thing that people blow up their lives for. As for all those ideas about ‘this has already been done’ — well, at a certain point you realise it’s madness to think that a story’s been told too many times, because it’s all in the execution. I wouldn’t say the way I told the story was new, exactly, but I had a particular interest in writing a philosophical novel set in what is usually considered the domestic sphere. There’s more of a tradition of that in European literature, but still there aren’t many of those novels that have a female protagonist. And even if they do — think of Jean Rhys’s work for example — it’s often someone who is very loosely tethered to those around them, and that creates a kind of knockabout feeling. When I was in my late twenties and I was teaching at a summer school in Oxford, I would take my money when it was over, and go to the station and just pick a city on the departures board, and go there and travel around. It was scary, and it was fun… and at the time, I was untethered. I was trying to write, but I didn’t have a partner, and I love to travel. I had a lot of time in New York too, walking and walking around the city alone. So I wanted to write a book about that, and to ask: what does it mean if you are that kind of person, but you haven’t chosen that completely solo, untethered life? I decided that I would interrupt whatever mode my character was in with its opposite. So if her thoughts were floating out there, have a concrete domestic moment that would pull her back. But also the opposite, because there is a lot of time, when you’re a mother, when you’re waiting. It’s a very strange kind of freedom and constraint. Sometimes you do have to walk and walk and walk, to try to get a baby to stop crying, but it’s so different from walking alone, because you’re responsible for another creature.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you think it’s possible to be in a domestic set-up but to retain some of that loneliness, or that untethered feeling, if you need it to write?

A

Jenny Offill

— It probably depends on your temperament. You hear about some people, Grace Paley or Alice Munro, who can sit and write at the kitchen table. There are always those people, but I’m not one of them, so I was always looking for other models. And the ones who can write are very irritated by the idea that you can’t keep going the whole time. They find it so precious. But those people are just not very depressive people. They just don’t tend in that direction; they tend towards making and doing. I am depressive, and I write very slowly. That’s always been the main thing. I’ve been thinking about my new novel: the main character, at a certain point, after not paying very much attention to climate change, is tuning into what’s going on and how much faster it’s moving than expected. And I probably read thirty books for that: I read books to understand the science of it, I read books — these were ones I was much more interested in — to understand the sociology of it, the denial, what does it mean to be frightened of something invisible? I read about terror management and all sorts of things, and I swear to God, all that reading will end up being one line in the novel. And that was a lot of time! But there was a period when I didn’t know much, and then I learned and learned and learned. For a while everything was shaded by it. Someone would tell me that they were going to have their kid learn Mandarin, and I would think to myself, That’s not what you need to be teaching your kid.

Q

The White Review

—  You mean they should be teaching their kid how to survive a flood instead?

A

Jenny Offill

—  It’s more that I just don’t think that the world people are imagining is the world that we’ll have. One of the seeds for this book, which is now pretty buried, is Paul Kingsnorth’s essay ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’, where he says he’s done. He’s just done with environmental activism being his life. I was fascinated by the idea that somebody could be doing something for years and then just walk away from it. So I started doing my own reading, and at a certain point if you go deep enough into the research, you see the scientists talking to each other. And when they’re just talking to each other, it’s so dark. It’s insanely dark. So I wanted to write a book that was in some ways similar in form to Department, but was also about: OK, you’ve been tending your own garden, but what if the world outside is on fire? Is anything required of you? Especially if you’re someone who’s already taking care of lots of people, as the main character is.

Q

The White Review

—  Because a lot of her family members are suffering with mental illness.

A

Jenny Offill

—  She has a lot of things going on in her family, and her role is to be the caretaker. It’s been interesting, but it’s also been hard to take an amorphous idea like that. And I have a bad — or maybe it’s not bad, maybe it’s good — a thing I’ve often done with my books. I’ve often taken something I don’t like: I don’t like books about childhood very much, and I don’t like books about marriage, or certainly not about a writer in Brooklyn — I’d be the first one to say that that’s so tedious. And then it almost becomes a constraint to work against. I feel like it’s impossible right now to be an American and not to think about politics, and what it means to be living at this time. But I also don’t tend to love novels that foreground contemporary politics, because they feel dated really easily. You engage with the moment, and then the moment passes. So I’m trying to figure out a way round that. It’s been difficult. I think I always want some semi-impossible constraint to go up against when I write.

Q

The White Review

—  So you can take the constraint and turn it into the kind of novel you would want to read?

A

Jenny Offill

—  Yes, maybe. What would it look like if I did want to read it? In Dept. of Speculation, with the marriage and the affair, I was thinking: in this kind of novel, usually only a few of the characters are allowed empathy. I thought it would be interesting if the main character was porous enough that everyone received empathy. She tells her husband, after his affair, ‘I’m sorry I let you get so lonely.’ And I was hoping it could be funny, too. I wanted the funny and the sad at the same time. There are amazing books that are just sad, and I’m sure there are amazing books that are just funny too, but when the funny and sad are together, those are the books I love and read over and over.

Q

The White Review

—  When you’re writing, are you aware of that? Do you think, ‘I need a joke now’ or ‘I need something funny here’?

A

Jenny Offill

—  It feels almost musical, as if I’m aware tonally we’ve gone really far in one direction, so either a moment that has more emotional depth is needed, or a sort of off-hand joke. Or a fragment from philosophy. I like really deadpan humour, so I don’t want to signal ‘Here’s a joke’ too obviously. It’s interesting when I do readings, because audiences laugh at really different things. There are superdark jokes in the book that go over well in London and New York, with the writer-crowds, but don’t work so well elsewhere.

Q

The White Review

—  Are there other things in the book that get different responses?

A

Jenny Offill

—  People who are not married and don’t have kids often really respond to the loneliness and the depressive beginning of the book. A friend of mine read it and got to the scene where the couple aren’t married yet and they’re on vacation. They’re in this beautiful place, and the narrator is wondering what it would be like to live there, and she thinks, Would it fix my brain? My friend said that line was the whole book. The main character is always asking: will it fix my brain? If I write, if I get married, if I have a child? And of course the answer is no. That’s a faulty formulation of the problem. Because actually, what I hope becomes clear later in the book is the idea that the whole range of human emotion is… I don’t know if it’s exactly welcomed, but it shouldn’t be pushed away.

Q

The White Review

—  A fixed brain isn’t the most desirable state.

A

Jenny Offill

—  Right. You know, I know people with fixed brains, and sometimes they’re hard to be around in their own way.

Q

The White Review

—  Do you think it’s hard to be inside that kind of brain, too?

A

Jenny Offill

—  Maybe. I’m not a very anxious person. I’m very depressive but I’m not anxious, and I’ve recently been thinking more about that side of things. I’ve realised that anxious people are often very high-functioning, the do-everything-right kind of people, and I was trying to figure out the difference, what makes people go one way or another. Of course, you can’t truly generalise, but my experience has been that sometimes, if nothing has really gone wrong yet in a person’s life, they’re more likely to be anxious, because there’s still a belief that if you do things right, everything might turn out OK. And the people I know who are more on the depressive side, they haven’t believed that for a long time, maybe since childhood.

Q

The White Review

—  Things will not go OK.

A

Jenny Offill

—  Well… things will go. They won’t go one way though. There’s not the idea of: we must perfect this. There’s more of a ‘things fall apart’ feeling. You might reassemble them but… things fall apart.

Q

The White Review

—  Is that a kind of resilience?

A

Jenny Offill

— Yes, I think it is a kind of resilience. But I also think there’s a resilience to being a high-functioning person who can take whatever hard things are going on in their life and turn them into a tangible object that they make, or house that they clean, or dinner that they cook. There’s a whole bunch of different ways that we organise our minds to look away from the fear and dread that we naturally default to. Depression, at least in my experience, is a wallowing in how fearful and dreadful things can be. I’ve always been interested in how much of your temperament you’re born with, and how much you can force yourself to change. So for me, it’s about not defaulting to fear. In fact, I was really angry after Trump won, because my natural tendency is to think, He’s going to win, he’s totally going to win, and of course polls did not predict it, and cooler minds said no, it’s not going to happen, and I shouldn’t worry. I was so angry afterwards. I would have prepared for it better! I was mad at my shrink, all those times she told me not to think about the worst-case scenario. Then I went and looked at my book ordering history and I was like, Oh right, there was some subliminal stuff going on.

Q

The White Review

—  You were preparing for it?

A

Jenny Offill

—  I had ordered all these books on WWII, and resistance, and some spycraft stuff, totally dumb stuff.

Q

The White Review

—  How far had you got in your new novel when Trump was elected? And how have you had to change the novel because of his election?

A

Jenny Offill

— Well, I knew a fair number of people — and I remember this happening after 9/11 too — who, whatever they were working on, suddenly after the election were asking themselves, Does this matter? Is it important? But I was already working on a book that was engaging with questions of what it means to be silent, and so on. I was really fascinated by the work of the South African sociologist Stanley Cohen, who wrote a book called States of Denial, about looking away from atrocities. A few people had mentioned it in connection to why we can’t talk about climate change, and there were a couple of details in that book that really stuck with me. During the military regime in Brazil in the 1970s, for example, when a lot of torture was happening, there was a phrase called ‘innerism’: lots of middle-class people looking away from the political situation and becoming particularly interested in their hobbies. And there was a way in which, when I was thinking about climate change before Trump, I would see all these people I know developing various obsessions, and it just seemed that what they were really saying was, I’m not going to look at that thing.

Q

The White Review

—  What kind of obsessions?

A

Jenny Offill

— Oh, you know, food, the search for the perfect this and the perfect that… it feels a little end of the Roman Empire-ish, sometimes. There’s a kind of avidity about it. But then, I can’t cook very well, and of course I’m saying this all from my own desk chair. I’m not really a joiner. My idea of hell is sitting in a meeting where a consensus has to be reached. It’s truly just not what I want. But with climate change, I was starting to feel that more was required of me. And when Trump was elected, it was that times a thousand. Then I had a moment when I realised that if I didn’t incorporate the election, the book would be frozen in amber. But trying to incorporate it led me down a very wrong road for a few months, because everything was happening so fast. I had decided I wasn’t going to say Trump’s name, and everything would still be approached slantwise, but the constantly changing news was hard to handle. Right now I’m trying to figure out what to do. It was going to be set before and after the election, and now I think the whole thing will be set after, more or less. I’m really interested in how to write about being scared, and not feeling at home with action. Sort of like in Dept. of Speculation, where I was asking what would happen if a depressive, solitary person was trying to be in a very enmeshed, involved domestic situation. Where would all the free-floating thoughts and feelings go? Now I’m trying to figure out how a bookish person would try to engage with this moment in time. And like all bookish people do, my librarian is looking at past ideas about what it means to collaborate or not collaborate, what does it mean to have civic courage, those kind of ideas. So that’s what I’ve recalibrated: how much of the novel is going to be recognisable as this exact moment in time, and how much of it is going to be about the inherent instability and fragility of any society. I think it took them 200 years to realise the Roman Empire was collapsing, and all the while the rich were moving further and further out of the city. Right now there are all these super-rich tech people getting boltholes in New Zealand. I was really interested in this phenomenon, and then last year the New Yorker published an article about it. I was like, ‘Damn it! He got it all on record; I guess I’ll take it out of the book.’

Q

The White Review

—  So you have taken it out of the book?

A

Jenny Offill

—  Sort of. It’s stayed in the book in a very small form, a compressed form. Once something feels like it’s out there in the world, and people are engaging with it in an art form, even if it’s journalism rather than fiction, then I lose some interest in it. It’s probably a character flaw.

Q

The White Review

—  You lose interest because you feel that it’s no longer yours?

A

Jenny Offill

—  Which is ridiculous, I realise. But I’m just saying… yeah, it’s totally ridiculous, but it’s the way I am. It happened after the election, too. Some time before that, I had gone from being a low-level lefty, not evangelical about anything, to being the person who, if you got me too drunk at a party, would be telling you about climate disasters. And then once climate change was on the front of the New York Times Magazine, and after the election, people started emailing me, wanting to talk more about it.

Q

The White Review

—  But by then you’d moved on.

A

Jenny Offill

—  Well, I had stopped needing to tell people about it, because I was wrestling with how I was going to write about it. It had become an artistic question. How do I write about this in a way that isn’t boring? I’m inherently super-bored by environmental things. So I told myself that if there are any environmental things that, after four or five years of thinking about them, still feel as if they have a magnetic charge — well, those can stay. Everything else has to go.

Q

The White Review

—  Can you give me an example of one of the things that stayed interesting?

A

Jenny Offill

—  There’s a comparative religion scholar whose name is Mircea Eliade, and he said that he looked at all the endtime myths of different cultures, and he couldn’t find one of a slow apocalypse. He said that in a way, maybe we understand the idea of the atomic bomb, because it corresponds to some mythic structure of it all ending suddenly. I remember reading a Swiss artist Roman Signer, who said that what we think of as the apocalypse is actually a long, slow process of the world becoming increasingly uninhabitable. It’s already arrived in some places, and it will spread to others. He was talking about post-industrial, broken-down towns in Europe.

Q

The White Review

—  So this is not necessarily climate change. It’s late capitalism too, all kinds of things.

A

Jenny Offill

—  Lots of different things. And it’s really hard to let go of the myth of progress. That was one of the things that was so useful to me about Black Lives Matter, because a lot of the activists were saying that progress is an illusion that you can only have if you’re in a privileged position. The #MeToo movement is the same: very few women responded by saying, ‘Wow, that’s a surprise! Sounds like a lot of people are being creepy to women!’ No woman I know felt that way. And yet there were a lot of people, well-meaning men, who were surprised. There are the generational questions, too. I remember realising that a story I tell as a joke, about someone being a super-creep, could actually be the worst thing that ever happened to someone else. I don’t say that to devalue their experience, but it’s strange. And it’s tricky because the language part of me is all about distinctions and calibrations, but larger social movements are not necessarily about that. They’re about which way we want to go forward.

Q

The White Review

—  At the beginning of the #MeToo movement, Claire Dederer wrote an essay in the Paris Review about how it feels to consume art made by terrible, abusive men (she was thinking about Woody Allen in particular), and she borrowed your phrase ‘art monster’ to think about the selfishness that’s necessary to make art. Do you think there’s a connection between that selfishness and a certain kind of entitlement in other areas, too?

A

Jenny Offill

—  Well, the art monster thing has been a little odd. It was just a phrase I made up, as something my character was thinking. I remember reading a Paris Review interview with William Faulkner, and they asked him whether he ever worried about hurting the people he was writing about, and he said, ‘”Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies’. And when his daughter was complaining about his drinking, he told her that no one remembers Shakespeare’s children. There were serious art monster men, back then. But I’ve met a lot of really cool younger women who love the phrase. One of them had an art monster tattoo! And I like that. It feels kind of cool and punk rock to me. But sometimes it gets pulled in as an anti-mother thing, as if I were somehow saying that you’re a monster if you’re a mother and you create something. The other day, the writer Lauren Groff tweeted that she just wrote and then deleted 2,000 words about hating the phrase ‘art monster’, because it’s mother-shaming. She was nice about my book, but she hates the phrase. And part of me was thinking, of course she feels that way, she’s at that stage where you’re trying to write and trying to be a mother to young children, and it’s a struggle. But at the same time, I do think there’s something monstrous about any kind of art-making, because it’s so inward. And men have traditionally felt more able to say, ‘Don’t come in here unless there’s blood or fire — and even then, go to your mother.’ It’s very hard for a lot of people, but maybe for women in particular, to do that. But I don’t think ‘monster’ is necessarily a pejorative term. In the book there’s a moment where the character is remembering the worst night of her life, after she’s left her husband and is spending the night in a hotel, and she tries to pray and she says, ‘Dear God, dear monster, dear God, dear monster.’ In mythology, the gods are also monsters, and that’s what that phrase meant. It was about a kind of ferociousness and relentlessness. It’s so hard to make anything good, so for most people, it has to be their life’s work. So you ask yourself: could I make something good if I put more hours into it? And some people make that choice. I thought Claire Dederer was right to say that men get a pass if they’re artistic, but women don’t. When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the stories really quickly became about how she had abandoned her children. That’s a plot point in a lot of male artists’ biographies; it’s not the lead point. The original idea of an art monster came to me when I was watching an Andrew Goldsworthy documentary, and he’s saying all these interesting things to the camera about his art, and his wife is in the background and all his children are there and he’s oblivious, he’s just totally single-minded. And part of me is envious of that. But I wasn’t trying to call mothers, or people who make one choice or the other, monsters. Or monstrous.

Q

The White Review

—  It’s surprising to me that someone could read the book and think it was saying that one path or the other is the right one. Both paths have amazing moments, and both paths also seem overwhelming and transformative.

A

Jenny Offill

—  Exactly. It strikes me as a useless argument about balance. It sets up this idea that we should all just keep a steady state. But in fact, sometimes you’re swinging from the ecstatic to the trivial, and sometimes you’re only going to be able to do one thing. If your child is sick or something, that’s almost certainly all you’re going to be able to do, and then sometimes you may be deep in a project and you lose yourself in it. A lot of people — some men, and a lot of women — ask me: number one, are you an art monster? And number two, do I have to choose? I wish I had an answer for it. I always say, oh yeah, I’m an art monster from 9 to 3.30, and then I pick up my daughter. But also, when I’m trying to get further in a book, I have to go away, and I eat like a college student, and I immediately go kind of feral, because I just want to be in my head only. And I do think there’s something monstrous about losing all the domestication that you’ve created for yourself.

Q

The White Review

—  Your first book, Last Things, was about a relationship between a mother and a child, but told from the child’s perspective. There’s a moment I love in Dept. of Speculation, when the narrator talks about a photo of her mother with her as a baby, and her mother has this expression of naked love on her face that the narrator used to find embarrassing — but now that she herself is a mother, there’s a photo of her looking at her daughter in exactly the same way. You wrote Last Things before you had your daughter, and that bit in Dept. of Speculation made me wonder whether you look back at the novel differently since becoming a mother.

A

Jenny Offill

—  When my editor for Last Things read Dept. of Speculation, after it was published, he said it was like watching Grace the child-narrator of Last Things] grow up. And there’s a way in which that’s true. The two books don’t match up biographically, exactly, because Grace is an only child, and I wanted the character in Department to have a sister. But their mother left when they were children, like Grace’s did. And I can feel in this new book, part of what I’m examining is what would happen if the character in Dept. of Speculation hadn’t written a book, and had had a different sort of life. What would that life look like? So yes, there’s part of me that feels that it’s really interesting to be on the other side of something you didn’t previously understand, or something you used to see from a different perspective. The older I get, the more that things I used not to understand, or that I used to make fun of, start to make sense to me. I’m sure that in ten years I’ll probably pass into the stage where I understand why old people are always talking about their health with other old people. I mean, I get it, but I’m not there yet, so I don’t really get it.

Q

The White Review

—  And you’ll probably be at a different stage of life with each book you’re writing.
A

Jenny Offill

—  Right. The most useful thing for me about questions of life versus art was reading lots of Paris Review interviews, when I was younger. I only read the ones of authors I really liked, and you quickly learn that people speak with immense authority about how you should conduct your writing life. But actually, you see that one person wrote every day and another went weeks without writing; one person never left their town and another person travelled all around the world. You go through one door and it means you can’t go through another, or maybe you go through the other door at a different point in time. For me, that was so liberating. And then I came across the William Carlos Williams quote: ‘the artist is free’. I think about that all the time. Because it’s easy to forget, when you’re deep into a problem you’re working on. It’s easy to forget that you’re free, but you are. It was a super-bad idea money-wise, and career-wise, when I wrecked the book I was working on before Department. I’d been working on a more conventional novel, and it was finished, but it had a deadness to it that I couldn’t fix. So I wrecked it. And that free feeling, you know… it’s the biggest indicator, to me, that I’m writing something interesting. You get to feel that you’re wandering without markers, without guideposts, and that’s nerve-wracking, and it’s a bad feeling in some ways, but it’s exciting. If you don’t have that feeling, and if you’re thinking about the marketplace, or what people want to read, or about your last book…that’s not the point. The point is just to get to write another book. That’s always what it is. And if you finish this book, you get to write another one. And then another one, until you die. In some ways, that’s all you can wish for.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Hannah Rosefield is a contributing editor to The White Review and a PhD candidate in English at Harvard University, where she is writing a thesis on Victorian stepmothers. Her work has appeared in The New Statesman, The Point, The New Republic and The New Yorker online.

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