An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth

Elizabeth Dubois, Issue 41

Brachiating from Wittgenstein to elephants to Kit Fine, my conversation with Deb Olin Unferth was a little like having a sleepover with a brilliant close friend: the comforter pulled up to your chins, your attempts to muffle a blitz of unexplainable giggles fruitless and stepfather-at-the-door-inducing (“Girls, go to bed.”). Deb is brilliant and funny and generous. Speaking with her about philosophy, revision, and her new collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance  (Graywolf Press, 2017), was a joy.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: To begin, I’m really interested in the way your study of philosophy has influenced your creative writing. Having studied philosophy in undergrad, did you ever think you were going to write fiction?

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: I never thought about writing fiction as an undergrad! I took only one course in the English Department, a required class, and no writing classes. I studied philosophy, and it felt big, like there was a lot of space to move around in it. I didn’t get bored and I spent as little time as possible on other subjects. Later, I figured out that was a terrible approach—I missed out on a lot. I’ve since tried to teach myself other subjects, and I’ve done a patchy job of it at best.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What was your general philosophical focus? Favorite philosophers or works?

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: Let’s see . . . I liked symbolic logic—and calculus and statistics. I liked some of the analytic classes, like philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. I also had a religion phase, Kierkegaard and the traditional arguments for the existence of God. I took several ancient classes, the Presocratics and Plato. My last year I was all about Wittgenstein and Philosophical Investigations (Slab!).

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Did you ever think you would pursue philosophy at the graduate level?

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: After I graduated, I moved to Chicago and took a couple grad classes at the University of Chicago. I was wildly bored. I thought I was literally suffocating in the classes. I couldn’t breathe. I nearly died of philosophy. Still, when I finally began writing creatively at twenty-five, I knew philosophy was influencing every story I wrote.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In your novel Vacation, you play a lot with the word vacation, repurposing the word and its definition over the course of the book. Similarly, in your new short story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance, a story’s purpose is often revealed through its relationship to its title word, like in “Defects” or “Granted,” for example. Like good philosophy, or a good refrain in a song, you use words to move the plot, constantly questioning their definitions and allowing these definitions to change as the characters change. Was this something that interested you when you studied philosophy, something that you felt you could explore more freely through fiction?

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: Thanks for noticing! Absolutely that came out of philosophy. My favorite philosophers were always endlessly trying to decide what a word means. Whole books on it. Or little asides on it. They couldn’t open their mouths without defining something or setting a premise. My husband tells a story about having dinner with a group of philosophers, and one of them, Kit Fine, saying, “But have we actually solved anything?” and them all discussing it and then one of them venturing, “Well, we have made some distinctions.”
Some of my work is maybe poking fun at them a bit? Like the story “Defects.” But also I have a soft spot for philosophers, being married to one! I think they are sort of funny and cute.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Yeah! Related to that, in the new collection, it seems that you’re often interested in people’s gaps of knowledge, their perceived ignorance, and both the satirization/humor and pity that comes from such ignorance. In “Stay Where You Are,” Max and Jane are pretty politically ignorant, they don’t know the languages of the countries they visit, etc.

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: Max and Jane are old-world types of travelers, in the vein of Paul and Jane Bowles, looking to be lost and hoping in lostness to find revelation or at least newness. It is difficult to do that sort of thing now. There is something a tad absurd in these throwbacks who are still wandering around. It makes them at once vulnerable and dangerous. And then, this is one really small example, but if you think about them on a larger scale, humanity blundering along ignorantly, destroying everything in sight and celebrating it as a success and then innocently saying, “Hey, what happened to all the elephants?” I sup- pose I feel like it’s the state of our race. If the question is: Are we good or evil? I might say: We are reckless and a bit absurd.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In the new collection, you also often delve into the future in some stories, showing us our characters and where their lives will go. In “A Crossroads,” you give us a hardworking mother who finally gets to enjoy her house and children and life, “with a bowl of pretzels on her stomach (where a deadly cancer grows).” These details open up wormholes through which to view the future; you travel space and time to allow the reader access to knowledge that a more linear writer would never allow. It’s like you’re being generous to the concept of time.

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: I give this technique to my students as an exercise some- times. The novel I’m working on now, the entire structure is built this way, the future and past swirling around one event. I love playing with that. It makes me feel like I’m outside of time, sitting with the reader. Sometimes I grow annoyed with flashbacks—they often feel artificial when I write them—but flashforwards feel like I’m opening up instead of shutting down.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Another fabulous writer who does this is Muriel Spark. I’m thinking specifically of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: I’m so embarrassed. I haven’t read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! My whole life people have urged me to read it, and now here it is happening again. I better read it already.
I’ve seen that technique in a few places: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad. Alice McDermott does it in That Night, although when I went   back to that book a couple of years ago, it didn’t hold up as well as I remembered. Edward P. Jones does it in “Bad Neighbors.” Lahiri does it in some of her stories.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: So, I’m wondering how many revisions you do on very short works like the ones bundled in the middle section of the new collection. The longer short story? The novel?

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: I revise a lot, all of my work, long and short. I revise way more than I write. I like working on whatever is inspiring me at the moment. Usually, I hate working on novels until very late in the game. I have to alternately bully and sweet talk myself into it with elaborate promises about how,  if I finish this one, I’ll never have to write another one again. I’m in such a place right now. But then the final eight months are so delightful and fun that it’s easy to forget my promise.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: What’s a recent book that really moved you or changed the way you think about writing?

DEB OLIN UNFERTH: Sherman Alexie’s new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, really surprised me. I was expecting to like it—I love his stories— but I wasn’t expecting the shagginess, the playfulness, the rage, and the silliness. The songs. Some people found the book excessive. I like the excess in this case.