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?
I think it’s something that I have wanted to read more about. As someone who is a writer and is a mother I was kind of fascinated by — if you read biographies of male writers — what a small footnote in many of them their family seems to be. And that’s kind of where I came up with the joke of calling them “art monsters.” Because I was thinking, well, right, if you aren’t worrying about any of that, then that’s so exhilarating to think of nothing but what’s in your own head and what you might make. But the world of actually having a kid and loving your kid more than you could ever imagine creates this tension. I think it’s a hard tension to talk about.
I have a theory, which I’m sure is quite filled with bunk, which is that to ever suggest, even if it’s just that you wish you had more sleep or more time or any of those things, is to perhaps bring down the wrath of some horrible god upon you, who will say, You wish you had your old life back? Here you go. And then your child disappears. Anyone who has a child or anyone who just loves a child knows that there is really nothing you can imagine that would be more terrifying than that being taken away. I know people who will talk about any other bad thing that might happen to them, but not that.
In the book, the wife steals time to write by pretending to go to yoga and then pulls over and writes in her car instead. How did you find time to write again after you had your child?
My normal writing habits are not at all conducive to any kind of regular domestic life, because I would kind of write in these spurts and then not write at all. But during those spurts, I’d go completely feral and only eat Lucky Charms for days and wear my dirty bathrobe. And so one of the things that I had to learn was a new way to write. I used to procrastinate. I used to have these acres of time. And I didn’t particularly realize that until they went away. But one of the things that I at least have found from having a child is it’s not ever just one way. For a while it will feel like there’s no time, and then time will feel expansive again. And then there will be times when I don’t even want to write because it’s just kind of completely compelling to me to be doing other things. And then there will be other times where I feel like if I can’t write and have time to myself, I’m going to scream. But kids are so funny, too. They’re much more fun than most of the things I did when I was just a depressive-freak single person.
At Columbia, you taught a course on writing from the perspective of an unhinged narrator, which is something you do really well in this book with the wife. What’s the trick to being successful at this?
I use the term unhinged rather broadly, like unhinged could basically mean unmoored. So sometimes it meant someone going mad and other times it meant someone who was really kind of standing to the side, no longer able to feel a part of that crowd going by. So, for this class, I started to realize that, after book after book that we were reading, you have to have a jumping off point. It’s not that interesting to have someone begin unhinged, stay unhinged, and end unhinged. There has to be a sense of some kind of emotional trajectory. And by that I don’t mean any kind of false uplift or redemption, because I don’t really care about that particularly in fiction. But I do care about the sense of momentum. And I remember with my first book, I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said, “The problem is, I don’t think it has any plot at all.” And he said, “Well, descent is a plot.” And so I feel like that was one of the things that I was trying not only to teach my students, but also [with Dept. of Speculation] I wanted to start when things didn’t feel like they were coming apart and go from there.
Was writing something you always knew you wanted to do?
I thought I was going to be an actress, which is bizarre to me. But quite quickly I discovered that I don’t like to collaborate, and I didn’t actually like to be in plays. I think most writers have a control-freak side — at least I do. When you write a book, it rises or falls on you, for better or for worse. And sometimes it’s a disaster and sometimes you bring it off. But in a play, there were just so many variables. So I took a writing class by chance. My parents were both English teachers, so it’s not that I hadn’t grown up with a lot of books around, but I didn’t quite identify that way. But then once I did, I was pretty much a one-trick pony. And I waitressed and I did all the other little jobs you have until you can figure out how to make a living.
You told The Literary Review, “To be a writer in America where it’s not particularly valued, you have to be driven.” Where are writers still valued, in your opinion?
I’ve heard stories about Russia — if you say you are a writer, they are like, “Then you are a hero!” I don’t know if those are apocryphal or if they’re true. But I did have the experience of meeting a poet once who said to me, “In Slovenia, poets are like rock stars.” And I was like, “Really?” And she was like, “Yes, everywhere you go, people come up and wish to talk to you about being a poet or being a writer.” And then I heard a steady stream of that from other people who had been to Slovenia. So I think that might be the promised land. I don’t know if it’s just for poets. I did a brief month-long residency there, intrigued by this theory that I would have groupies outside my window, but it was a little quieter than that. But it’s a great place. And it was true that everyone I met seemed to be very serious readers.
This is a two-book deal. Are you at work on your next one already?
I am. I am. I’m too superstitious to really speak about it. I’m definitely feeling like it’s filling up my head.
I’ve heard writers say that it never gets easier after the first book. It’s not like you wrote a book and now you know how to do the next one, like building a piece of furniture.
I wish, right? That would be so good. I always feel so sad when I have students who are just starting out writing and they are often very hopeful that if they ask the right question, something will be delivered to them that will tell them how long it will take to write a book or how they can write a book that other people will want to read. All those different things. And the answers are always so unsatisfyingly vague. Which is that it takes as long as it takes and you have to follow the compass of your own interest, really, to discover what the book is that you should be writing.
Do you have regular advice that you give to these young writers?
I will have students sometimes come and say to me, “I really want to be a writer but so and so tells me that’s a bad idea, that it’s really impractical. What do you think? Should I go to law school first?” And invariably it’s their uncle, who is a lawyer, who says, “You know what you should do? You should go to law school.” Sometimes those people love their jobs and so they’re only speaking out of an idea that it will help someone else. But I finally realized that you shouldn’t take advice from people whose lives you don’t want to emulate, because it’s a completely different thing.
So, your advice is to not listen to your uncle if he’s a lawyer.
Yes, don’t listen to your uncle is my advice. I once gave a talk at the college where I graduated from, and at the end of it they said, “What advice would you give if someone wants to be a writer?” and I said, “Don’t have a backup plan.” And I could see all the faculty in the room looking at me, like, That’s terrible advice! Probably no one should follow my advice.
But, in a way, it does sound like good advice. If you treated it as a weekend hobby, you wouldn’t get anything done.
I think there’s a point for everyone, if they’re trying to write, where it feels like, This is a disaster, I should give up on this. In fact, I can distinctly remember the feeling with my first book of sitting in my room and suddenly being like, no one actually is waiting for this book. No one cares if I write this book. Why am I killing myself? But the truth is, you care if you write that book. And why write something that’s not the most interesting thing you can write at a given point in your life?
Offill will read at Barnes and Noble (86th Street and Lexington Avenue, barnesandnoble.com) at 7 on February 18 and at McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street, mcnallyjackson.com) with the Paris Review’s Lorin Stein at 7 on February 24.
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