This Friday all odds were against us. We were supposed to meet Jenny Offill in Amsterdam, but the power outage was trying to prevent that. If you’re new to this blog, you might not know about our obsession with her book Dept. of Speculation, but we are big fans and were not planning on letting a little electricity failure ruin our day.
So it took us over three hours to get to Amsterdam, but we met Jenny, had a nice talk about how Portland is America’s Amsterdam and our favorite authors. As good Dutch citizens we forced her to eat bitterballen and scared her into saying how amazing our country is. We met with her for over an hour and afterwards we all said how nice she was to us and how she made us feel comfortable instead of the other way around. What struck me though, is how funny she was. During our short talk she made lots of jokes, told funny anecdotes and made witty observations and I really recognized the voice from her novel in real life.
That evening she was interviewed by journalist and author Sarah Meuleman at the Tolhuistuin. SLAA organized the evening and the authors got to talk in front of an interested, but unfortunately, small audience. I found this surprising as everyone has been praising her book like mad and this was going to be her only performance in our country. But everyone who was there listened attentively and it made for a cozy experience.
Sarah and Jenny talked mostly about Dept. of Speculation and her writing process. The book took Jenny Offill about ten years to write and it took a long time for her to feel like she was writing the right thing. This is something she teaches her students as well (she teaches at several MFA programs in the US). She described it as following the compass of your own interest. ‘It’s so easy to hammer out the strangeness and lose your individuality as a student’, she said. What she wants for her students is to keep the idiosyncratic part of their voices and they can only do this by writing what feels ‘right’.
For Dept. of Speculation, writing the right thing meant starting over. She had been working on ‘the bad novel’ for a long time now and somehow it didn’t seem to work. A poet friend of hers told her to pick about 50 things of ‘the bad novel’ that she liked, take those with her and start over all the way. She did this, wrote some poetry for a year that will never see the light of day, and the novel starting falling into place. Although when Sarah asked her when she knew that the form of the novel was right, she laughed and said she wants to say never, but doesn’t dare to because we all came out to see her.
The term art monster that gets mentioned quite a lot in the book is something Jenny made up herself. An art monster is a person that devotes itself entirely to his art, not caring about anything else. She was into watching art documentaries for a while and noticed that when the man was the subject, they never got asked about their family lives. This is especially weird if you see the kids and the wife in the back and somehow they get ignored. It struck her most while watching Rivers & Tides where the wife is visible in the background a lot. Jenny could imagine the wife getting angrier and angrier while her husband was blabbing away about his art. Women on the other hand, don’t get to be art monsters. You can’t be an art monster and a parent, so she herself isn’t one either. That doesn’t mean that you stop wondering what your life would be like if you dedicate it entirely to your art.
Of course Sarah asked the dreaded question about how autobiographical Dept. of Speculation really is. Jenny tells us she gets this question a lot. Many people ask her if she is The Wife from the book, implying the questions did her husband cheat on her and did she have just as much trouble writing her second novel? Instead, she would like people to ask her how much she is like the husband or even like the girl, because as a writer she puts a little bit of herself in every one of her characters, not just the one that we think is most like her. Men don’t get this as much or as often. She talked about this with Ben Lerner about his latest book 10:04, which is very similar to Dept. in that the main character can easily be mistaken for the author. In interviews people don’t ask him these questions as often. They don’t ask him difficult questions about his marriage and personal life, just because the main character in the book sleeps with his best friend. It’s strange how women who write stories that can be perceived as personal do have to account for the autobiographical aspects, when men don’t or at least not as much. Luckily, this changed when her book got reviewed by the New Yorker, changing the discussion from ‘who would marry her anyway-reviews’ to an actual in depth look at a philosophical work in a domestic setting.
Jenny Offill read a whole bunch of excerpts from her novel, doing an amazing job bringing the book alive. She reads the book in different voices, portraying the boredom and despair just as easily as the fun and beautiful. She’s been working on her next novel as well, which is coming along much faster than Dept. ever did. It will be similar in style, but with a much wider scope, portraying more than just one character. She doesn’t want to talk about it too much, because that often turns into trouble, but does have to hand it in by December. We should be seeing a new book by her relatively soon then and we can’t wait to read what she does next!