12:22pm

Sun January 26, 2014
Author Interviews

In Fragments Of A Marriage, Familiar Themes Get Experimental

Originally published on Sun January 26, 2014 12:47 pm

Love, parenthood, infidelity, a crumbling marriage ... these are pretty traditional themes for fiction. It's not the kind of stuff that normally makes for an experimental novel.

But in Jenny Offill's new book, Dept. of Speculation, those familiar subjects take on an unusual form. The book is short, just 46 brief chapters, and instead of forming a narrative, they're disconnected snippets of prose, poetry and anecdotes. The story centers on two characters, "the wife" and "the husband," who are never named.

As they wrestle with parenthood and their relationship troubles, there are some funny moments:

The days with the baby felt long but there was nothing expansive about them. Caring for her required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious. They cut the day up into little scraps.

And that phrase — "sleeping like a baby." Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

Offill tells NPR's Rachel Martin about her own experience as a mother, why she chose to make the book so fragmentary and what she finds compelling about characters going unhinged.


Interview Highlights

On why she chose to write the book as fragments, instead of a traditional narrative

The book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction — but at a certain point I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together, and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and which led me down this path.

On how her experience as a mother influenced her writing of the book

I felt like the conversation about motherhood felt a little narrow to me. The word that would come up if you talked about the complexities of motherhood would be "ambivalence," and I think ambivalence implies that perhaps you wish that you hadn't had a child. And instead, what I saw more often in the women I knew, especially the women that had a great passion for some kind of work, was that they were just struggling to bridge the person they used to be with the person they were now — and that maternal love, which is quite fierce and can be obliterating of what came before it. And I wanted to try to put some of that into a book.

On how much of the book is based on her own life

There are many autobiographical things in the book — the obvious thing that people gravitate towards is whether or not I'm the wife and my husband is the husband. And the truth is really much duller: that we haven't had anything so dramatic happen to us, although, like any couple, of course, we've had our moments where things seem to wobble.

... I think part of what I like about being a fiction writer is that I can inhabit something that's beyond the limits of my own personality. I can be bolder on the page, as a character. I can gnash my teeth, I can scream and yell, in a way that I'm perhaps too timid to do in real life.

On what draws her to characters who are unhinged or unstable

I think that when we're looking at things when we're right in the center of things, as opposed to being a bit unmoored from what's going on around us, we see things through a kind of dulling lens of convention, and there's something about extreme emotional experiences that gives us a heightened clarity, I think, of thought and of feeling. And that's always something that you want in a novel.

On whether she was apprehensive about writing about tropes like love and parenthood

I felt incredible trepidation about writing about motherhood and marriage. I was particularly not interested in writing a book that had an affair in it, because I thought that we've all read that a million times. But at a certain point, I realized that I wanted the book to kind of break apart in the middle — to have a before and an after. And I realized that if you defamiliarize things enough, you really can write about anything.

And then I also thought to myself, well, if it was good enough for Tolstoy and Flaubert, who am I to claim that can't be in my book?

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A book about love and marriage, having a child, and then watching as that marriage disintegrates - that's not the stuff that usually makes for an experimental novel. But that's exactly what Jenny Offill does in her new book, called "Dept. of Speculation." Jenny Offill is with us now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us.

JENNY OFFILL: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I'd like to start by talking about the actual crafting of this book because the form is unusual. It's a really short book - 46 small chapters - and rather than a narrative, the book is made up of short fragments, anecdotes, little bits of poetry. Why did you write it this way?

OFFILL: Well, the book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction. But at a certain point, I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together; and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and led me down this path.

MARTIN: You also have an eye for capturing specific detail, and sometimes it's quite funny...(Laughter)

OFFILL: Good.

MARTIN: ...especially when you write about the experience of having a baby and a toddler as she grows. I'd love for you to read this next passage. This is on page 30.

OFFILL: (Reading) The days with the baby felt long. But there was nothing expansive about them. Caring for her required me to repeat a series of tasks that had the peculiar quality of seeming both urgent and tedious. They cut the day up into little scraps. And that phrase - sleeping like a baby - some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her, and scream for five hours in her ear. But the smell of her hair, the way she clasped her hand around my fingers, this was like medicine.

MARTIN: There are a lot of books out there about motherhood and parenting. This isn't that book, but it is clearly written by a woman who has a baby and wants to say something true about that experience.

OFFILL: I felt like the conversation about motherhood felt a little narrow to me. The word that would come up, if you talked about the complexities of motherhood, would be ambivalence. And I think ambivalence implies that perhaps you wish that you hadn't had a child. And instead, what I saw more often in the women I knew, especially the women that had a great passion for some kind of work, was that they were just struggling to bridge the person they used to be with the person they were now and that maternal love, which is quite fierce and can be obliterating of what came before it.

MARTIN: Some of the details in the book read so true that it does compel me to ask the inevitable, which is how much of this book is based on your own experience? I mean, there are certainly some facts that are the same. You are married. You have a daughter. You are an author. How much of this comes from you?

OFFILL: Well, there are many autobiographical things in the book. The obvious thing that people gravitate towards is whether or not I'm the wife, and my husband is the husband. And the truth is really much duller; that we haven't had anything so dramatic happen to us, although like any couple, of course, we've had our moments where things seem to wobble.

MARTIN: We should say, this couple - things get dramatic. There is some infidelity, there are some big blowout scenes.

OFFILL: Right. I think part of what I like about being a fiction writer is that I can inhabit something that's beyond the limits of my own personality. I can be bolder on the page, as a character. I can gnash my teeth, I can scream and yell, in a way that I'm perhaps too timid to do in real life.

MARTIN: But have you ever wanted to yell in someone's ear for five hours, to simulate the experience of raising a baby?

OFFILL: Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Could you read a little bit - this is from a chapter that starts on 112.

OFFILL: Sure. (Reading) What John Berryman(ph) said: Goodbye, sir, and farewell. You're in the clear. These bits of poetry that stick to her like burrs. Lately, the wife has been thinking about God, in whom the husband no longer believes. The wife has an idea to meet her ex-boyfriend at the park. Maybe they could talk about God, then make out, then talk about God again. She tells the yoga teacher that she is trying to be honorable. Honorable - such an old-fashioned word, she thinks. Ridiculous, ridiculous. Yes, be honorable, the yoga teacher says. Whenever the wife wants to do drugs, she thinks about Sartre. One bad trip, and then a giant lobster followed him around for the rest of his days. Also, she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friend calls it.

MARTIN: Hmm. You also teach writing. And one of the courses that you teach - that you created, actually - is one writing from the perspective of a narrator who is unhinged, to a certain degree. Your first novel focused on a mother who's losing her grip on reality. And the narrator in this book, understandably, becomes a bit unstable, shall we say.

OFFILL: She definitely unhinges as the novel goes on.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What draws you to this kind of person, this kind of character?

OFFILL: I think that when we're looking at things when we're right in the center of things, as opposed to being a bit unmoored from what's going on around us, we see things through a kind of dulling lens of convention. And there's something about extreme emotional experiences that gives us a heightened clarity, I think, of thought and of feeling. And that's always something that you want in a novel. So that's why I'm drawn to it, and it's very fun to teach. And I find my students write quite well when given that permission slip.

MARTIN: You are writing about these tropes, right? - love and marriage and parenting. I wonder if you were apprehensive at all about taking on these subjects.

OFFILL: I felt incredible trepidation about writing about motherhood and marriage. I was particularly not interested in having a book that had an affair in it because I thought that we've all read that a million times. But at a certain point, I realized that I wanted the book to kind of break apart in the middle - to have a before and an after. And I realized that if you de-familiarize things enough, you really can write about anything. And then I also thought to myself, well, if it was good enough for Tolstoy and Flaubert, who am I to claim that can't be in my book?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jenny Offill's new novel is called "Dept. of Speculation." It is on bookshelves this week. Thank you so much for talking with us, Jenny.

OFFILL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.