Q&A: Jenny Offill Talks Dept. of Speculation, Motherhood, and “Art Monsters”

“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead,” says the nameless female writer who narrates Jenny Offill’s stunning new novel, Dept. of Speculation. But she doesn’t become an “art monster,” someone who puts his or her art before everything else. Instead, she gets married, has a child, faces her husband’s infidelity, and struggles to find time to write the second book everyone keeps pestering her to do.

It’s easy to see at least one parallel between the narrator’s life and Offill’s own: Offill’s first novel was the well-received Last Things, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1999. Dept. of Speculation is her second novel and her first since she became a mother a decade ago. Well worth the wait, it’s packed with Offill’s brilliant observations of everyday life and snippets of proverbs and quotes from artists, philosophers, and even cosmonauts that inspire and delight on every page. Though the book is experimental in structure, more than eight publishing houses bid on it (she signed a two-book deal with Knopf for about $500,000, according to the New York Times). Here, she talks to the Voice about finding a balance between motherhood and writing, the “promised land” for writers, and her best advice for new writers.

You had more than eight houses bid on the book, and this is at a time when big publishers are supposedly looking for safe bets. Were you surprised by all the interest?

I was completely surprised. There are a lot of really amazing small presses out there now who are publishing writers who are not just debut writers but writers who have been around for a while. So I thought that, with a little luck, one of these would see what I was doing and would like it. So it was a huge surprise and, of course, it felt like winning the lottery, which it basically is these days because it’s not a meritocracy usually. So it was great that people were connecting to it. I guess it had more of a broad appeal than I was imagining.

How long did you spend writing this?

Parts of this book actually date as far back as 10 years ago. I’m a really slow writer. But I originally had conceived of it in a totally different form. It was a much more conventional linear novel that was about a second marriage and kind of the complicated emotional undercurrents in it. And I was writing it from the point of view of the daughter and the second wife. And I worked on it and I tried all these different forms and I couldn’t quite figure out why it wouldn’t catch fire.

And finally, I just admitted to myself that I wanted to write something that was much stranger, and it would have more of an experimental structure. I found the form when I started jotting it down on index cards. Little bits here and there. There are a lot of facts in the book about science and philosophy. I kind of had this idea that it would be interesting to write a novel that was set in the domestic sphere, like so many books are, but that also had more of that novel-of-ideas- and philosophical-novels feeling. So those were kind of the impulses, I guess, that led me to this odd hybrid form.

The book has shifting points of view and the characters are never given names. Instead you call them “the wife,” “the husband,” “the baby,” etc. How did you decide on that?

One of the things that was strange for me is that I kept finding I was writing it sometimes as an address to “you,” sometimes it would be regular first person, and at certain points it would be third person. And I couldn’t quite tell I was doing this. And then it dawned on me that it was about how close the narrator felt to her boyfriend and, later, her husband at any particular point. So at the beginning, when she’s speaking as “you,” it’s this closeness that she feels. It’s this kind of more intimate form of address. Like in other languages they have ways to do this; in French, you use tu or vous. And then once they’re married and they fall more into their regular roles, it becomes “my husband” and “I.” And then later as things start to splinter, there’s this kind of spinning off and going into space and she’s watching it from above, and that’s where it becomes “the wife,” “the husband,” “the daughter.” And later, as they kind of recalibrate again, it comes slowly out of that.

Much of the book is about the narrator’s marriage. But you also address the impact of motherhood and domestic life on someone with artistic ambitions for herself. What inspired you to write about this?

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