About The Author
Jenny Offill published her first novel, Last Things, in 1999; it was nominated for the LA Times First Fiction Prize. She has also written three books for children. She teaches Creative Writing at Columbia University, and is on the faculty at Brooklyn College and Queens University of Charlotte.
Her new novel is Dept of Speculation: there once were a girl and boy who used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: 'Dept of Speculation'. They used to be young, brave and giddy with hopes for their future. Then they got married, had a child and skated through all the small calamities of family life.
But now something, slowly, quietly has changed. As the years rush by, fears creep in and doubts accumulate until finally their life as they know it cracks apart and they find themselves forced to reassess what they have lost, what is left, and what they want now. Dept of Speculation navigates the jagged edges of a modern marriage to tell a story that is darkly funny, surprising and wise.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Jenny talks about how the striking cover design was arrived at , the intensity of family relationships and and the role chance can play in creating a work of art.
Author photo © Nicholas Latimer
Visit Jenny's website
Questions & Answers
Firstly, congratulations on your second novel, Dept of Speculation. I read it in one big gulp and enjoyed it immensely. On an entirely superficial note, I love the cover of the UK edition; were you involved in the decision-making process for that?
They showed the cover to me early on and it had that brilliant design, but the pieces of wood were brightly coloured and looked more like children's blocks. I thought that was too limiting in terms of suggesting the audience for the book. People usually describe this novel as being about marriage and motherhood, and it is about those things, but ultimately it is about loneliness and how we might find ways to lessen that, be it through love or work or smaller moments of transcendence. So I asked if we could keep the design exactly as it was but just make it plain interlocking wood pieces. What they showed me next was the final cover and I was thrilled with it. I think it perfectly mirrors the form and content of the book.
The first thing that struck me about Dept of Speculation was how different it is to your first book. Last Things sticks to a fairly linear narrative structure, whereas Dept of Speculation is fragmented and poetic. What attracted you about structuring it this way?
I wanted to write in a new way as a writer, one that was as informed by poetry and the essay as by prose. Last Things is similar to Dept of Speculation in that they are both filled with bits of science and philosophy and religion. But in this novel, I wanted to capture a sense of the quicksilver movement of thought and feeling. I didn't think in terms of plot of the novel until very far in. What I was after was a sense of momentum, of emotional velocity, that would carry the reader through the story. And I wanted it to funny as well as sad. All my favourite books are funny and sad.
It seemed right to me that the style be fragmented since the narrator's thoughts are so often interrupted. The wife is a person who's always lived in her head, but no longer can. She is unnerved by this, but she also feels rescued in a way. The love she feels for her husband and daughter pierces through her usual solipsism.
I wanted there to be an almost jagged feel to these moments of the story when she is drawn out of herself in this way. So fragments seemed right, these shard-like memories that she is trying to reassemble.
I do find it kind of funny though when someone sternly pronounces that this character is 'self-absorbed' or 'solipsistic' as if it is something they have discerned after a long close reading. Because it's all the wife talks about and jokes about from the first page, how she can't see beyond her own nose.
There's a family of birds in Australia - the bowerbirds - who decorate their nests with vast collections of ephemera gathered from the forest and urban areas: beads, shells, rainforest fruits, bottlecaps, feathers, yarn, tinfoil. Your novels evoke a kind of literary echo of this behaviour: they're packed with snippets of stories, quotes, facts, legends, and poems. Do you deliberately set out to research material for your novels, or does the material tend to come to you?
I love this image of bowerbirds and certainly feel they are kindred spirits in their desire to collect all manner of small, shiny things. As for the research material itself, I find it in all sorts of places. I'm interested in the role chance can play in creating a work of art. Musicians like John Cage or Brian Eno often talk about this idea. I've always been a fan of Eno's 'Oblique Strategies' cards, which are meant to force you out of your usual ways of thinking and make you wander a bit in the wilderness. I do try to wander around when I am first working on something.
One of the things I do is go to a library (preferably a second rate university one with out-dated reference books) and then wander the aisles for an hour or two in the non-fiction sections. I'll pull out a book about doomed artic explorations or ancient death rituals or whatever catches my fancy and then I'll read to see if I feel a little ping. The ping means something is beautiful or surprising to me and when that happens I write it down. I never know if the idea will fit into the final book, but I do have what could best be described as superstitions. It's probably the closest I come to religious rituals in my life, this library wandering.
Motherhood and madness seem to go hand-in-hand in your work. Interestingly, the unnamed female narrator in Dept of Speculation is referred to only in light of the roles she fulfils: 'the wife', 'Mommy', 'writer', 'teacher'. As she struggles to perform these roles her whole sense of self comes to pieces. Do you see this conflict between selfhood and prescribed roles as an experience common to many women today?
I think the love many women feel for their partners and children is fierce to the point of being obliterating. Especially in the early years, it is hard to remember who you are outside of this. Helen Simpson wrote brilliantly about this compulsion to burn yourself on the pyre of family life in her short story collection, Yeah, Right, Get a Life. Some kinds of "madness" feel almost like a form of protest. A way to point out how narrow our conceptions are of how a life should be.
You're clearly a voracious reader. I'm very curious to know what your favourite books are...
On my website jennyoffill.com I have a section called Half a Library which comes from the Samuel Johnson quote 'A man must turn over half a library to make one book'. If you click on it, there's a list of some of the books that particularly influenced me when I was writing Dept of Speculation. But on any short list of favourite books I would have to say you would find Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke, Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass, The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim, Red the Fiend by Gil Sorrentino and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.
And lastly: the wife/mother/writer/teacher in Dept of Speculation regrets not pursuing a life as an 'art monster'. Any advice on how to become an art monster?
It's not quite that she regrets becoming an art monster. She realizes why the word 'monster' is in there. That's why she says about her daughter: I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen. If she would lie quietly with me, if I could bury my face in her hair, yes, then yes, uncle.
But she does regret not having tried harder, to have turned away from her from making art so completely. I don't know how to become an art monster exactly. I think to be one means to be ruthless in a way, to not waste a minute on worldly concerns. As Faulkner famously said, 'Ode to a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies'. And Lord knows, he was one.
I guess I think more these days about how not to sleepwalk through my life. It seems to me that the real artists are just incredibly, inescapably awake. The Russian theorist Victor Shklovsky said once that 'the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known'. The writers and artists I admire have an intense curiosity about the world. They show us that everything is interesting if you look at it long enough.
Interview by Marion Rankine, bookseller at our Charing Cross Road branch