Jenny Offill is the author of two novels, Dept. of Speculation and Last Things, as well as a number of children’s books, including Sparky! and While You Were Napping. She has also coedited two collections of essays, The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything. Earlier this month, she read from Dept. of Speculation on a visit to Vanderbilt University in Nashville; we took the opportunity to ask her about memory, her writing process, and anti-patriarchal literature.
—Lily Davenport and Ansley McDurmon
SR: You’ve written two novels—Last Things and Dept. of Speculation—as well as numerous books for children. How did you get involved in writing for both adult and young audiences? And how does your process differ, depending on which genre you’re working in? You’ve talked about your interest in compression, saying in a 2015 interview, “I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how you can say the most with the least”; has writing picture books, in which economy of words is paramount, helped you to hone that skill as it applies to your novels?
Offill: The short answer is that I take so long to write my novels that I needed a money-making scheme to get by. An editor read my first novel, which has a child as a narrator, and wondered if I’d like to try my hand at picture books. I was single, childless, and broke, and wrote 17 Things I’m Not Allowed To Do Anymore as a sort of speculative act. Amazingly, she accepted it and we went from there. I do think it has been good practice for my other writing because everything extraneous has to go since I have to convey as much nuance as possible in a very small space. Interestingly, my kids’ books tend to be wildly divisive. I get either one or five stars for them on the reader sites. The one-stars generally complain that I am setting a bad example for children, that there is no clear moral to these narratives.
I did get my favorite review ever for one of those books, though. It said: “This book would have been better if it was longer and more interesting.” I tried to get them to put that on the back of Dept. in the “Previous praise for Jenny Offill” section, but wiser heads prevailed.
SR: Dept. of Speculation ends with the Wife’s assertion that “No one young knows the name of anything.” For me, there’s an implicit challenge in that novel to younger readers. How do you feel about barely-twentysomething interns grappling with your book? How much of its resonance do we miss, when we’re reading without benefit of difficult marriages, colicky infants, or academic jobs of our own?
Offill: Some of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in my life have been with twentysomething interns. Often people are more porous at that age. Everything gets through and you can be borne away on great waves of feeling and intellect. But you have different kinds of receptivity at different ages. You learn to “name” different things. I’m more attuned these days to how similar I am to those I meet, than to how different I am, to give one example. When I was younger, it was the inverse. So that last line is meant more as a comment about the narrator’s own progression from (relative) innocence to experience than as a general criticism about those who are younger than she is.
When the Wife was in her twenties, she was very judgmental about how other people lived their lives. She would NEVER be the person who took the hack job or stayed with someone who cheated on her, etc., etc. She would rather starve in a garret, die alone, that sort of thing. The ghost of her past self is represented in a way by “the boy who is pure of heart” that comes to dinner, the one who is alert to any signs of compromise or dead-ending in them.
Good God, that was me! For many years, I defined myself more clearly by what I was against than what I was for. I was so afraid that I would forget how to feel deeply and somehow end up as that woman at the movies who ruins the Bergman film by rustling around in her purse and pulling out baggies full of cough drops and tissues. (Spoiler alert: I am now that woman.)
And yet . . . and yet . . . there has been beauty and grace and terror and heartbreak at each of these ages of my life. Maybe I didn’t know that would be the case when I was younger. This quote by Virginia Woolf sums up what I mean: “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.”
SR: In Dept. of Speculation, the Wife ends up ghostwriting an “almost-astronaut”‘s autobiography. Have you ever done similar work?
Offill: I made up the astronaut because I wanted to write about space, but I based him partly on a guy I worked briefly for in my twenties. He was a banker or something like that who wanted to write a screenplay and hired me to help him. He had the worst ear for writing of anyone I have ever met, and was constantly asking me questions I knew the answers to and then dismissing my answers when I gave them. For example, Him: What’s the name of that planet that got downgraded? Me: Pluto? Him: No, that’s not it. It used to be the ninth planet. Anyway, it will come to me.
SR: In Last Things, Grace, the child-narrator, can “name” mature topics, such as love, suicide, monstrosity, and death, but she cannot attach those abstract ideas to her own reality. How did you ‘unlearn’ the names of things to recall memories like Grace? Especially towards the end of her mother’s life, Grace observes that memory is defective and unreliable; how did you access memories that were true, in order to accurately convey a child’s voice?
Offill: First of all, this is a beautiful question. Thank you for asking it. There is something about a six or seven year old that is pure radiance to me. The deepest questions of philosophy and religion are right there at the surface. Perhaps this is because a person of that age can still remember and connect with the numinous visions of early childhood, but has also begun to think in an abstract way. So, suddenly, there is this stream of questions: Who made the world? What are ruins? Who will die first? Why don’t we call people animals? They just knock the wind out of you.
In some ways, to be a writer is to remain interested in those questions. Because of this, I found it easy to write in Grace’s voice even though she is only six. I believe some of the best poetry and fiction comes from writers who are able to blur or defamiliarize common things and then bring them back into their “known” state. When I was Grace’s age, the world felt like a book I was just beginning to be able to read. Sometimes the pages lit up and sometimes they went dark and I never knew what turned the light on or off. I still feel this way.
SR: Grace’s memories are especially interesting, as they transition from fact to fable to her mother’s growing psychosis within a few paragraphs. I’m thinking of an instance where, in two pages, she describes the origin of life, her parent’s engagement, and her mother’s transition into an unexpectedly resentful, silent anger with Grace’s father. What is the necessary medium between fact and emotion—or, in Grace’s terms—her father’s world and her mother’s?
Offill: Both her mother’s interests and her father’s interests are intended to have equal weight with her at the beginning. They are both assembling in the world for her. Certain pieces of information blaze into being for her and she doesn’t make much of a distinction about whether they are fact or fiction. But her mother is more charismatic (as the insane so often are!) and this proves decisive in terms of Grace’s loyalties. Her mother allows the stories of extinct animals and poison umbrellas and ancient astronauts to exist on the same plane, which is truer to how Grace at her age thinks than is her father’s empiricism.
A more general answer is that reason and emotion are not in opposition, but are complementary. People who have brain damage in areas that affect emotion generally make terrible decisions even though they are seemingly more “logical” in their thinking. The same goes for people driven primarily by emotional impulses. Grace is learning to combine the counsel of the head and the heart by the end of Last Things.
SR: Both Last Things and Dept. of Speculation use highly fragmented memories interspersed with other, intertextual moments to depict the life of a female protagonist—and there’s something essentially connected about the two voices. Did you think about the association between the two women when you were writing?
Offill: I didn’t (trade secret: writers know next to nothing about their own books), but the editor of my first novel did. He said the Wife sometimes seemed like a grown up Grace. In the first book, she was the child and in the second she is the parent. I did not intend this literally (the biographical facts don’t match), but still there is some resonance for me there.
SR: You’ve fielded a lot of questions about the Wife’s desire to be an “art monster,” as when she observes, “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella.” I’d like to take a slightly different tack: Do you see experimental writing as a feminist act? What does anti-patriarchal writing look like to you? What other modes of writing do you consider a form of feminist resistance?
Offill: Any writing by a woman that insists on the whole range of emotional experience is a feminist act. At times, we have been shoehorned into narrow ways of narrating our lives (the good mother, the bad mother, the young beauty, the old crone, and so on and so on) but the truth is much more complicated. There is a Hindu saying that I write about in my new novel, which goes, “I am also that.” I know that when I remember this, I write in a more interesting way.
As a side note, I will say that I also think we women sometimes shoehorn ourselves into these too narrow spaces. Sometimes we fear being too loud or too ugly or too smart or too dumb. Sometimes we secretly want to be ‘taken care of’ or saved from disaster or told that we are good and kind and wreathed in light. These are all understandable and perfectly human wishes (many men want these things too), but they don’t do much to help us write brilliant, rigorous books. Audre Lorde once said “We’ve been taught that silence would save us, but it won’t.” I believe this and I also believe what William Carlos Williams said: “The writer is free.” There is a lot of space to navigate between those two quotes.
As for form, I will say that compression and distillation of grand themes feels particularly anti-patriarchal to me. I get tired of the idea that big doorstopper books equal ambitious books. But to be fair, that’s just my particular aesthetic. Part of becoming a real artist is deciding if and how you want to push back against prevailing norms. You’re free, remember?