A Conversation in Kyle, Texas with Novelist Jenny Offill
Aug 08 ● BY Emily Rolen
Jenny Offill is the author of three novels: Last Things, Dept. of Speculation, which was shortlisted for the Folio Prize, the Pen Faulkner Award and the International Dublin Award, and most recently, Weather, which grapples with how to deal with the present when the future is growing ever more bleak.
I sat down with Offill on a couple of squeaky rocking chairs on the porch of the Katherine Anne Porter House to talk about craft, stylizing emotion, and resisting convention.
Emily Rolen: You work a lot in Dept. of Speculation and in Weather with underlying feelings that collide with form. In Dept., perhaps that’s loneliness. The experience of reading it felt disassociated and broken for me. And in Weather that felt like dread, but also this swirling feeling that mimicked weather itself. Was that an intentional choice with foresight, or did the books demand to be written that way? And how does all of that change your revision process?
Jenny Offill: I did structure them intentionally that way. I was joking once with a friend of mine who is a psychologist and I was saying, I feel like our professions are mirror images of each other, because she would be sitting in a therapy session with someone, and they’d be describing some kind of scene that happened with another person, and it would have all the brick-a-brack of our everyday life and it would seemingly be about somebody not picking up something for dinner, but it would be about the underlying emotion of feeling like, that someone was moving away from you, or sadness or loneliness, and that was the therapists’ job: to draw that feeling out and being able to name it.
For me, I often start from the opposite. I start from an emotion. And you’re very right, with Dept., it was this thought of loneliness, and also about how loneliness looks different at different parts of your life. It seems like it’s going to be about whether or not you have someone with you, whether or not the loneliness will go away. But there’s a little moment in Dept. where she’s traveling with her boyfriend, who later becomes her husband, and they are somewhere really beautiful, and she’s thinking, If I lived somewhere like this, would it fix my brain? And I think that so much of Dept., for me, was about—what is it like to try to be with other people when you are essentially a person who is very solitary, and sort of depressive, and what does it mean? And then around that, the stories and scenes and the characters began to come. A lot of people do things differently, they start with plot. I’ve never started with plot. I sometimes start with either emotion, certainly in Weather, I started with a feeling of dread, and then I also feel like I start sometimes with just sentences, more the way I guess a poem would sometimes. I’ll hear a sentence and not quite know what I want to do with it, if I want to follow it.
What that means for the revision process is that it’s incredibly slow going to write the novels. Incredibly slow. But there’s not so much revision at the end because I’ve been revising paragraph by paragraph. So I might spend a really long time on a long section before I can move to the next one. But I’ve often found that that’s a weird way to write novels. Like, most novelists I know don’t write that way. I think because it takes so long.
Rolen: I’ve heard many interviews where you refer to yourself that way, to how you’re slow going. I was interested in what that means for your process, and does it help you? Does it give you a sense of freedom with your projects, to allow yourself to take the time you need?
Offill: I wish I felt that way! Usually it just gives me an incredible sense of anxiety, that whatever idea or thought I had is now so far in the past, and that I’ve lost my way with it. I ultimately believe, and certainly all these years I’ve been teaching, too, I’ve seen it born out with my students as well as other writers. I do think things take as long as they take, and if you try to rush them, they often feel that way. A lot of things happen that are surprising when you work on a project for a long time. And I think a lot of times, your original conception might not be as complex as where things really end up. Sometimes we’re working in the beginning from received ideas. Whenever I read a student’s story and the ending isn’t quite right, I often say, like, just take out the ending and just try different things. Don’t think of a new ending. Follow some sentences until you see where you go. Write yourself into a new ending.
My version of that is sometimes I’ll be working for a long time on something and then several years in, I’ll write something, and I’ll think, that’s the very end of the book, because I have a weird feeling about it. And then I’ll put it at the end. But it’s sometimes years to get there. And that feeling seems to be quite true. So far when I have that feeling, it is the end of the book. I sometimes tinker, but mostly I’m really driving in the dark with my headlights shining onto the next few yards.
Rolen: That makes me think about the ending of Weather, where you incorporate the 2016 election. I’ve heard you speak about the ending and your grappling with the ending, so can you talk about what you were feeling, and why you chose to ultimately put the election into the story?
Offill: Well, I really resisted it, because I felt like the book was already grappling with some of these overtly political ideas, and it was much more outward looking already with the climate stuff. It had a lot of dark stuff already with the brother’s intrusive thoughts and OCD. There were a million dark things I already put in it. But I did feel like when Trump was elected, it changed things so much that it felt like I was going to have to basically have the story frozen in amber. The sense of people I knew who were working on climate, essentially years and years of their work was wiped away, and it was. Often in the first couple of weeks, [Trump] would just sign things, things that they had worked on. Also I was kind of becoming equally filled with dread about encroaching authoritarianism and racism and various things that felt like they had been keyed up to a higher pitch. So I felt like I wanted to put that in. And I’d actually been making notes about it already, because I was one of those people that was worried before the election. Maybe because I grew up in the South, so I don’t have that thing that a lot of people in the Northeast have, where they think everyone agrees. I know plenty of people who would seem on the surface like that wouldn’t be their belief system, but voted for Trump when they went into the voting booth.
So I wanted to explore that and see how those two things might intersect. But that’s why I didn’t name him, because my rule was that I wanted someone from another country or another point in time to be able to tell the kind of person that was in charge of the country, and what that would be like, but they didn’t have to know the specifics.
Rolen: So, again, it’s about pervasive feeling, rather than event.
Offill: Right. And leaders like Trump, they act quite similarly. There’s this interesting book from this woman, a political scientist, Ruth Ben-Ghiat called Strong Men and it talks about what happens in times of fear and uncertainty and what kind of figures are often turned to out of people’s sense of dread. And I think they’re not unconnected—the fears people have about climate and migration. I think it’s working on some shadow level.
Rolen: About that anxiety in Weather, at one point I started tracking the anxieties. Once I clocked how many there were, I was enjoying picking out all of them: doctor anxiety, money anxiety, addiction anxiety, cheating anxiety, postpartum anxiety, new parent anxiety. How are you able to steep all of these moments with that anxiety while writing a deeply character-driven novel? It’s not necessarily about event, like you mentioned, so do you have any go-to techniques to be able to do this?
Offill: Weirdly, I’m not a particularly anxious person, I really am much more on the depressive side, but what I noticed in that period after Trump, and I talk about this in Weather, is that there was like a buzz in the air. It was an actual physical thing you could feel. And also, I see in my students how much more difficult anxiety has gotten. So I was trying to reflect some of that feeling that I was getting from people who were younger than me.
But I also felt there are a lot of dystopian novels where in a funny way, you’re let off the hook because [the crisis] has already happened or there are these very earnest calls to arms. And this has changed a lot since then, but in general that felt like the mood of it. I wanted to see, can this character completely use humor as a coping mechanism? What would it be like to make a novel about these really dark things but also see if it could be funny? So for me it was about figuring out mixed states. If you’re going to write about fear, what else could go in there that would be surprising but what you felt on a continuum? That’s what I’m always looking for. The example I’m always giving is, have you ever been at a funeral where something funny happened? Your brain is in such a weird state where you’re trying to process it.
I think the most useful thing if you’re going to write into these dark places is to recognize that people always find some way to lessen it a little bit. And it can take different forms. But thinking about what that character would do to lessen it. It could be drinking or drugs or having lots of complicated romances, but what is the way that they’re not staying constantly in the state of fear? Our brains can’t actually stay there. You can’t stay there. You shut down completely. So that’s what I thought about a lot. Also about the idea that the reader needs relief, too, because if you just write a book it’s like the pathetic fallacy. If you write about being a boring person, but if you write it exactly the way a boring person would be, it would be too boring to the reader. So figuring out how to stylize the anxiety, how to stylize the darkness—
Rolen: Woah. What an idea. I think you just blew my mind.
Offill: Yeah! Well it’s often the same way you stylize dialogue, right? You can’t just have everyone being like:
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Yes, I’ll have a Coke.”
“I’ll get you a Coke. Oh, we don’t have Coke.”
“Oh, well I’ll take—”
I feel like it’s the same way with states of emotion. Addiction in its true reality is incredibly grinding. As is any mental illness. You have to give the reader a little bit of space, even if you’re trying to show its true nature.
Rolen: I think you accomplish that well in the zoom-in, zoom-out effect in both Dept. and Weather, with philosophical ideas and also small moments. It makes me think about how you impose “rules” on yourself when writing. In Dept. you used this idea that whenever there’s domesticity, you would impose a philosophical idea on the character. How do those work, why do you use them, and how effective are they?
Offill: My books always get called fragmentary, but they actually require more rigor to work, because if you do it wrong, it feels random. There has to be some patterning, even if the reader doesn’t necessarily feel it, it still has to be there. For me, I used it as a way to check that I wasn’t staying in one register all the time.
There was this documentary a couple years ago about the Pixies called Loud Quiet Loud, and I started musically to be like this is loud, loud, loud, now we’re going to go quiet. I didn’t do it every single time, but I know that I was in a seemingly-mundane moment in Dept., I would think about, what would that moment be like if it had a mystical or luminous quality? I think it would be very hard to write about ideas that people are very, very serious about all the time like motherhood. You have to let the air out of the idea a little bit.
Like, so that’s why there’s a little exchange [in Dept.] like: “Was she a good baby?” “No, she’s not.” You can’t actually say that when you’re a mother. I mean, I did, and people were like what? But, you know, you have tons of screaming, screaming, and screaming and the answer is no. But the bigger answer is yes, she’s the best baby in the world. But writing the second one is creating something in the narrative that we’ve already heard. Like, we’ve already heard my kids drive me crazy, but…
Both sides of it in my experience were more complex. Both the feelings of love and, really, obsession, that you have as a parent, and the feelings of despair and worry, were much more intense than I realized they were going to be. But the feelings of the beauty of it and radiance of it, are very hard to transfer, because they’re very particular to your life with that little creature.
Rolen: So I have a very MFA question for you.
Offill: (laughs) Sure.
Rolen: We hear all the time, particularly in workshops, about a novel or story’s “aboutness,” or the question “why now, why today?”
Offill: Oh yeah.
Rolen: Yes. So in both Dept. and Weather, you seem to resist that. There’s not one thing that we can pin them down with. How do you think about that question, push up against it, and most importantly, support the urgency and importance of your work with that question?
Offill: It’s very reasonable why these rules are put out [in workshops]. Because, in general, it will work better if you “blank.” In general, it will work better if you use specifics instead of abstractions. However, in one of my favorite collections, Jesus’s Son, some of the moments in it that are the weirdest and best, he’s just using the word “something” three times. It’s something about the—well, now I said “something”—about the moment of someone coming against something they can’t quite put into words. What is it like to touch the hem of that?
So, I guess I am somewhat resistant to rules. It’s also because, just over the years of teaching, I’ve felt like, if you want to do it, just do it really well. But that’s very hard to do, right? In some ways, it’s not useful advice.
I had a funny thing that happened when I was teaching at Columbia, where there was this one professor who taught some things rather than others, and I would sometimes have students in class right after [that professor], and I would realize that they all had no flashback scenes, or they all had scenes of characters going to work. Because those had been laid out as “rules.” And it would be interesting to me, because I could feel the sense of where something had been taken out.
But I also think the workshop process lends itself towards one direction, and the direction is, “I wanted to know more.” Right? My joke was, I was going to get my entire graduate workshop shirts that said, “I wanted to know more.” But the truth is, that’s an easier thing to talk about than what you take away, or what’s left in the spaces.
So for me, I just kind of feel like the main thing we want to get through the MFA is maintaining what is strange and its own idiosyncrasy about your voice. And a lot of things in craft can be taught, but the part where you’re talking about the way this character thinks or the way you see the world, is so particular to you that if you get that taken out because of these questions of logic.
That being said, I often go back over things I’ve [written], and I’ll think, I can’t use that because of “blank.” I sort of fact check in a way. But I don’t really fact check the consciousness of the character. And I don’t really believe in plot the way most American writers believe in it.
Rolen: Which I love.
Offill: It’s funny because fiction writers are not so into plot in other parts of the world. With Dept., people acted like, “You’re doing something so crazy,” and I was like, “Oh, I’m not, I’m just following in the footsteps of many people.”
Rolen: Makes me think of Calvino.
Offill: Yeah, yeah. Tons of people. But plot is more recognizable on the page.
My daughter and husband hate to watch TV with me, because I can predict what’s going to happen from the way they set it up. Which is one of the reasons I don’t like plot, because I can always see it coming. Not always, some people are just amazing at it. But in general, I feel like, “Ah, now I know what’s going to happen, dammit!”
But a lot of times you can feel how it’s set up, and for me it doesn’t allow for enough strangeness and bewilderment, which I think good art contains. There is some kind of irreducible strangeness to it.
But I know why writing teachers do it, because I do it sometimes, too. Because if you say, you don’t need a plot, you get an entire 40-page story where someone has gone crazy but you don’t know that until the last page. The excesses are what people are trying to find. But it can be confining. I think a lot of rules can be confining.
Rolen: Absolutely. For many of us, I think we’re trying to navigate all of those rules, then absorb them somehow, and then just try to do what feels true to each of us.
Offill: Right, right. Well, I always think about Picasso. You know, he could draw like an angel. He could draw perfectly, in a realistic fashion, and so maybe that is what made him able to do those distortions on that level. He was so good that we could still be drawn to the distortions.