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An Interview with Jenny Offill photo

Jenny Offill is the author of Last Things, and most recently, Dept. of Speculation.  In the words of Michael Cunningham, “Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation resembles no book I’ve read before. If I tell you that it’s funny, and moving, and true; that it’s as compact and mysterious as a neutron; that it tells a profound story of love and parenthood while invoking (among others) Keats, Kafka, Einstein, Russian cosmonauts, and advice for the housewife of 1896, will you please simply believe me, and read it?”


I am interested in your treatment and use of time in Dept. of Speculation. After finishing the book I went back to your first novel, Last Things, and happened upon this quote where the narrator’s mother, Anna, describes words she has written on the wall as a “cosmic calendar,” a record of “everything that's happened since the beginning of time compressed into just one year,” and I was struck by how this idea seemed to demonstrate exactly what you evoke in Dept. of Speculation, a great amount of time and experience compressed into a tiny package. Dept. of Speculation is literally very small (I read it in less than 24 hours) but the emotional and intellectual impact is enormous. Can you talk about the treatment of time in your fiction and your choice to write about years and years of narrator’s life in such a short, snapshot-like way?

I wanted the novel to move quickly so as to capture the quicksilver movement of the wife’s thoughts. I was trying to figure out in any given scene what was essential and what could be jettisoned. I often want to get out my red editor’s pencil when I read novels and say no, no, you don’t need that, trust your reader! Because readers are smart. They bring a whole host of thoughts and associations to the page. It’s a mistake to connect all the dots for them. But you have to be rigorous in your own mind. You have to know the specifics of everything you leave out. Waldo Salt said “art is the elimination of the unnecessary” and I guess I subscribe to this definition as much as any other.

I thought about the compression of time the most in the last third of the novel after they move to country. I needed to show time passing and I did this in simple ways. The puppy they get becomes a dog. Fall turns to winter and winter to spring. But I also wanted to create a sense of the unnerving way time dulls the sting of even the worst things. The wife left him in the middle of all this and went to stay in a Holiday Inn Express.  It was a terrible night, a night she wanted very much to die. But months later she passes another one and it’s just an ugly chain hotel, no longer a container for all that feeling. She marvels a bit at this, that time can undo such intensity.

There is a very interesting intersection between science, or fact, and emotion that occurs in Dept. of Speculation. The book begins with a scientific fact, “Antelopes have 10X vision,” and throughout the text facts and scientific stories are mixed in with the main story in beautiful and heartbreaking ways. The intermingling of these facts works very powerfully and reminds me in many ways of the use of nonfictional anecdotes in Amy Hempel’s short story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” I would love to know more about your process of finding and using fact in your fiction? Did you come across these facts and know immediately that they were perfect for the fiction or did you have to hunt them down?

I look for facts all the time, whenever the writing isn’t going well, which is almost always. I’m influenced by the idea of using chance operations to help create things. My main chance operation is that I wander up and down the aisles of university libraries, picking up fascinating, often incredibly outdated books whose titles intrigue me. Then I flip through them to see if any little things seem strange or beautiful to me. Sometimes there’s nothing and I put the book back, but other times I feel a little ping and know I’ve stumbled on to something that moves me. I never know when I will use them until much later. When chance operations work, they do so because they move you away from your habitual ideas and allow you to think in unexpected ways.

It seems to me that you have to follow the path of your own curiosity, however meandering it might be, if you want to write in an original way. It’s not a rational thing, collecting these bits. It’s more like a silent prayer directed to the gods of chance.

The narrator in Dept. of Speculation talks a lot about what she calls “art monsters,” people who in her words “only concern themselves with art, never mundane things.” The narrator sees her choice to become a mother as the sort of antithesis of choosing to be an “art monster” and sometimes she thinks longingly of the road not taken. Both the concept of the “art monster” and the “perfect mother” seem to be ideals that are in many ways impossible to live up to. Can you talk a little about the pressures of artistic world and the pressures of motherhood for your narrator and maybe yourself?

The demands of motherhood are ferocious and the demands of making art are ferocious so either can exhaust you and leave you too spent for the other. But I think part of the problem is that the conversation around all of this is too reductive. Freud was right. We all need love and work. No one thinks it’s selfish that men want to have a family and meaningful work and yet sometimes woman are scolded for saying the same thing. I think instead of talking in a boring, reasonable way about balance we should talk about something messier, but perhaps more human which is the need to have intense, thrilling, gratifying experiences in both areas. Maybe it’s ok for one to displace the other for a period of time as long as the pendulum swings back again.

In any case, I don’t think we do our kids any favors when we model for them that life is always controlled and perfectly arranged. Because chaos! There’s lots of chaos coming down the pike. Making art is one of the best ways human have figured out to contain this chaos and draw meaning from it.

In Last Things you wrote about a mother and daughter and the mother’s rocky mental and emotional state from the perspective of the daughter and in Dept. of Speculation you write from the perspective of a mother who has a daughter who, by the end of the book, is about the same age as the daughter in Last Things. How different was the experience of writing each of these perspectives? Did the story of Dept. of Speculation come to you always through the mother’s voice or did you ever imagine telling this story from the daughter or husband’s perspective?

The novels are so far apart in time (fifteen years between them) that I can’t say I remember too much about the writing of the first one. But I suppose I’ve always been obsessed with madness in one form or another, especially with the idea that certain kinds of madness seem somehow like a protest against a too narrowly conceived world. Dept. of Speculation rose from the ashes of another novel that was about a second marriage.  It was from the point of view of second wife and of her step-daughter. It was second wife who was the art monster in the original, having given it all up in a destructive love affair with her professor. But that book was too plodding, too conventional. It never caught fire. Eventually, I tore it apart and started over completely. Once I found the wife’s voice, the form of the novel became clear to me. The trick was that I wanted the novel to be narrated in this odd, galloping, way, but not to be so relentless that the reader would want to leap off the horse midway. That’s why there’s so much white space in the story, to give the reader places to rest and think.

Dept. of Speculation is written in a very fragmentary form. I know that in other interviews you have said that you wrote parts of the novel out on notecards and that you wanted to capture the fragmentary nature of thought and the way emotion moves. Can you talk more about that?

One of the quotes that inspired me to write the novel this way comes from Virginia Woolf. She wrote:

“Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.”

I loved this idea of recording the atoms as they fell, of registering each one however small a moment it seemed to be. I’ve always been drawn to the mystical traditions in various religions and one thing they all have in common in the idea that it is wrong to deem some things important and others trivia. If one is truly awake, these differences cease to be apparent, the mystics say.

Once you start noticing this idea, you see it everywhere. Robert Walser talks about how Cezanne’s genius lay in “placing in the same ‘temple’ things both large and small.” And Picasso said: “The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where: from the sky, from the earth, a piece of paper, a cobweb. That is why we must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them.” Making everything in the novel fragmentary and almost aphoristic was a narrative strategy to make all of the moments in the story have a similar weight.

I am interested in the unstated stories, the unnamed elements of your text and the ways in which the fragments frame an absence. You chose not to name any of your characters and even while the reader is drawn in close to the emotional reality of the narrator, there is so much about her and those around her that the reader does not know. What was your thought process like in choosing this absence and distance?

Well, I worried about this a lot because it just seems ridiculously pretentious not to use proper names. It makes everything seem as if it is supposed to be very very deep. I’m a complete hypocrite because no doubt I have talked my students out of doing similar things countless times over the years.

But I knew I wanted the wife to disassociate herself from her own life when everything falls apart and this distant third person seemed like the most logical way to do it.

Throughout the novel, the authorial distance is meant to parallel how close or far she feels from him at any given point. So in the beginning when they are first together she addresses him directly as “you”. After they have fallen into prescribed roles, she starts to call him “my husband” and then when things really fall apart, she spins off into space and speaks only of “the husband” and “the wife”. Eventually, this reverses and the POV comes in closer again. Discovering these emotional calibrations was the key to the novel for me; it told me when and where the moments of closeness and distance needed to happen.

The narrator in Dept. of Speculation has intense and complicated relationships with many women in her life, her mother passed away when she was young, she and her sister are close but the sister is always threatening to (and eventually does) move away, the narrator seems in most ways unable to relate to the other mothers around her and then of course there is the relationship (or lack thereof) with the husband’s younger lover. Can you talk a little about the female relationships in this book?

I don’t know if I can answer this one. I don’t really think of my characters as male or female exactly. It seems to me that disappointment and longing and loneliness (to name a few of the emotional states this book explores) are not gender-specific experiences.

But I did think about gender a bit when I was figuring out the structure of the novel. I wondered why we so often think that a novel is only ambitious if it is physically big, if it telegraphs its own importance with its page count. I was conscious of wanting to write the most complex book I could in the smallest amount of space and there was something of a feminist fuck you in that. Though of course, you can always find counter examples of men who write small books and women who write big ones.

I am interested in your choice to write about writing. In Dept. of Speculation your narrator is a writer and a writing teacher and this fact plays out in wonderful ways throughout the text, especially in the scene where the narrator describes meeting her husband’s lover as if it were a story that one of her students had written. I think the narrator as writer works beautifully in Dept. of Speculation, however, it seems that writing about writers can sometimes be a bit of a taboo. What made you decide to write about a writer and the process of writing?

It’s almost always a terrible idea to write about a writer because it comes off as self-indulgent. I really struggled a lot with this. I kept taking it out and making her some other thing but then the art monster parts didn’t really work. But the deciding factor was the scene with the husband and the girl on the street was such a minefield of potential melodrama that I had to find a way to defuse that and the “line notes” in the margin was the answer that made the most sense to me. And it required she be a writer in order for it to work. One editor said, maybe she could be a painter instead? But I can just see how I’d fuck up that scene with the girl trying to talk in a fake painterly way about chiaroscuro or some such thing. So yeah, I had to do it and take the criticism about being self-indulgent when it came.

image: Aaron Burch