An Interview with Jenny Offill

Michael Sarinsky, Issue 36

Jenny Offill had a busy 2014. She published an elegant and haunting novel, Dept. of Speculation (Knopf Doubleday) that tracks not just the casualties of a family veering toward potential collapse, but also what can be salvaged. A fragmentary meditation on infidelity, empty spaces, and cosmonautic history, the book was shortlisted as a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and was named among the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times. (Now included by numerous professors on their graduate syllabi, dog-eared and furiously highlighted copies have been changing hands with uncommon frequency here at New York University.) But Offill wasn’t nearly done. Before Dept. of Speculation could depart from bestsellers lists, Offill published two children’s books, While You Were Napping (Schwartz & Wade), and Sparky! (Schwartz & Wade).

Offill’s first novel, Last Things (FSG, 1999), which plots science against panache in an enchanting battle for our sympathies, was a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award. Emotionally torn between her chemist father and oracular mother, the protagonist navigates her way through a crumbling family to discover the beauties hidden at the intersection of education and faith. Offill is also the author of two further children's books, 11 Experiments That Failed (Schwartz & Wade, 2011) and 17 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Anymore (Schwartz & Wade, 2007), as well as the co-editor, along with NYU’s Elissa Schappell, of two essay collections. She has taught in the MFA programs at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, and Queens University of Charlotte.

We’re excited that she unwrapped the invisible cloak of “assumed loserdom” to chat with us about the chase for immortality, her advice for young writers, time bombs, ancient maps, and what to expect of her next novel.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Permanence and preservation are thematic constants between your novels. Time capsules, for instance, are a recurring motif. And each book is concerned, at least in part, with the process of turning “lost things” into “last things,” to borrow terminology from your debut novel. Writing is sometimes said to aim at the same goal: capturing the current moment, turning the mortal or ephemeral into something that endures. To what extent does documenting the time period motivate or influence your work?

OFFILL: I think every novel is a time capsule of sorts. A way to mark how it felt to be alive in a particular place and time. We never know which of our moments will be last ones, but we do know (if we can stand to admit it) that all of them will be lost eventually. Writing fiction is simply a way to say “Look! I was here.” Ernest Becker noted in his fascinating book The Denial of Death that writing books or making art were what he called “immortality projects.” He put building buildings and having children into this same category. I did read somewhere that time capsules were once called time bombs until someone decided that name was too alarming.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Facts are central to your novels, which operate as a sort of educational experience that runs in parallel with the plot. We learn about evolution, space travel, and art history, to name a few, in ways that most other books simply aren't concerned with. I'm curious how you see the trivia and the story interacting, particularly during the writing process. Do the real-life facts inspire a story around them, or does the story ask for a certain factual backdrop that you then research to find the right fit?

OFFILL: For the most part, the facts are collected randomly as I find them. They are just things that seem surprising or somehow essentially interesting to me. These facts eventually start to cluster together into vague patterns. It’s a bit like noting points of light and then eventually “seeing” a constellation in them. I don’t know what a book is until I look at it for a long time. Sometimes I go back and look for facts about a particular subject, but mostly I try to see what I already have and then begin to build a narrative. As for the trivia, well, I suppose a lot of trivia doesn’t feel like trivia to me. It feels like a slant-wise way to look at important things.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Dept. of Speculation, which is written essentially in stanzas, reads more poetically than most novels. I wonder whether you agree that the book has a poetic structure and feel, and whether you've written or considered publishing any poetry. If, that is, you think the line between prose and poetry is still distinct enough to be meaningful.

OFFILLl: I am as much influenced by poetry as I am by prose, but I do see points of divergence between them. I did write poetry for a while before Dept. of Speculation and that certainly influenced the final form of it. Only one poem made it into the novel and that is the section that begins “Once ether was everywhere…” But as much as I harbored dreams of switching genres completely, I knew I couldn’t really do it.

I work at the level of the sentence; poets for the most part work at the level of the line. These are not the same things. It has taken me almost twenty years to understand a little bit about what a sentence can do and how it can be bent or broken or extended for a particular effect. I assume it would take me at least that long to learn a similar amount about the line. Ultimately, I’m just way too lazy. But the fiction I like best is generally written by writers who read poetry as well as prose. After all, there’s plenty to learn about how to create narratives in poetry. See John Berryman or Henri Michaux or Mary Ruefle for examples.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You've described yourself previously as a “roving adjunct” in reference to your teaching positions at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, and Queens University. Could you tell us about your teaching philosophy? What's the most important lesson you impart on your students, and the best advice you can give them?

OFFILL: I’m not sure I have a teaching philosophy exactly. I think the closest I have to one is that you can’t be a writer unless you can learn to tolerate uncertainty. Not just financial uncertainty but uncertainty about whether you should write at all, whether any of it is any good, whether anyone will ever read it. “Not-knowingness” is what Donald Barthelme called this state in an essay of the same name. I do feel sad when I see talented students spending so much time worrying about their career. Careerism is poison, plain and simple. No amount of networking or glad-handing will make you a better writer. It might get you published, but that’s not all you want. You want to write true and radiant things, right? And you can only do that if you accept that it will take a long time and that while you are mucking around most people around you will think you are a delusional loser. The trick is to wrap this assumed loserdom around you like a cloak of invisibility then hunker down and write your kickass book. It works, I promise.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You told The Guardian in a recent interview that you expect to submit your next project by October. So we have to ask, for the sake of journalism: what can you hint about the book? Or if that's still premature, what's been on your mind lately that seems ripe to write about?

OFFILL: I’m too superstitious to talk much about my novel yet, but I will say that I’ve been reading a lot about people trying to control the weather over the ages. Also about how maps are not objective but also show the mapmakers’ agendas. For example, the maps of the “new world” were often redrawn so that the coastline seemed less jagged and more welcoming to settlers. Familiar old world flora and fauna were added so as to make people more willing to venture out to them. As for the delivery date, October, Schmoctober.