Last week I wrote that Jenny Offill’s second novel Dept. of Speculation was probably my favourite new book of the year so far. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the attention of other UK reviewers yet, and amazingly, the Baileys Women’s Prize judging panel hasn’t resigned in embarrassment at leaving it off its recently-announced longlist. Doubtless the Booker and Folio judges will get it right, but in the meantime, I took the opportunity to ask Offill some questions about the book and her work generally.
Dept. of Speculation deals with everyday life but is unusual in its form and content. (“She acts as if writing has no rules.”) Can you tell us something of how the book came about?
I had written a more conventional novel about a student who had an affair with her professor and later married him. The book was from the POV of the second wife and of her stepdaughter. I worked on it for years, but there was always something leaden about it. What I wanted to write was something darker and stranger, something that spoke more directly to the collision of art and life. Eventually, I screwed up my nerve and dismantled that original novel, keeping only a few tiny things.
I read a lot of poetry and non-traditional fiction and for a long time I’d wanted to write in a more experimental vein. Dept. of Speculation was the result of finally writing exactly the way I wanted to without worrying about whether anyone else would like it. (That anyone did was a thrilling surprise.)
The book’s appearance is also unusual: paragraphs appear as separate sections surrounded by white space (you describe it as “maddeningly formatted”). Each paragraph has a stand-alone, aphoristic quality. Was it important to tell the story in this way?
The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop-offs before the wife wheels off in another direction. I thought it would be overwhelming to be in her head in a linear, uninterrupted way.
The aphoristic quality developed because of that constraint, but I liked it and decided to heighten the effect. One of the things I was interested in was making the seemingly trivial domestic moments have the same weight as the more obviously philosophical ones. The aphoristic style helped me to put the mundane and the sublime fragments on the same plane.
Your first novel Last Things was busy and bustling. Dept. of Speculation is much more pared down; it reads like the skeleton of a much larger book. Was it whittled away from a greater mass of material?
Once I found the form for Dept. of Speculation I wrote the narrative sections in a very pared down way, just as they are in the finished book. But the form took me a long long time to find. At first, I didn’t understand why I kept moving back and forth between first and third person POVs. But then I realized that the shifts in authorial distance exactly mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point in the story. After that, I understood how it fit together.
What I did whittle down was pages and pages of trivia on artic explorers, cosmonauts, obscure mystics etc. I threw away any that seemed too obviously symbolic and looked for others that felt quieter to me.
The portrayal of the demands of early parenthood in the novel is painfully recognisable. One character says to the narrator, “I think I must have missed your second book,” to which she replies, “No; there isn’t one.” Does this explain the fifteen year gap between your first novel and your second?
Nothing really explains it. All I can say is that I couldn’t write fiction at all in the beginning and then for a while I could, but not very well. The demands of early parenthood have an urgency to them that is hard to ignore. It feels strange to go hole up alone in a room and write even if you could slip away to do so.
I discovered Robert Walser’s work nearly twenty years ago and it was hugely influential to me. One of his stories ends with this line “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” That really stayed with me. I guess I took it to mean what if everything is interesting? What if nothing is beneath notice?
Part of my fascination with Buddhist thought is that it teaches that this is indeed the case, that the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience is meant to be delved into. (I do think we miss out on a lot of interesting moments when we hope only for happiness. )
Another big influence for me was the New York School of poetry. I particularly love those Frank O’Hara “I did this. I did that” poems that suddenly swing out into these strange ecstatic reveries. I’m also influenced by comedians. Maria Bamford and her brilliant standup routines about anxiety and depression in particular.
You have written three books for children as well as two adult novels. Is it harder to write for adults or for children? Do you find writing easy or difficult generally?
I find writing fiction for adults ridiculously difficult. My reach always exceeds my grasp. But the kids’ books are different. They are more like writing jokes or little fables. Timing and reversals are the key to them. I tried them as a lark to make money to support the glacial pace of my novel writing and they turned out to be fun and to keep me afloat.
Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?
I am reading The Collected Poems of Ron Padgett and it is taking the top of my head off. Two other books I’ve read this year and really liked were Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and Duplex by Kathryn Davis. All of these are put out by small presses so I’m not sure if they’ve made it over to England yet.