ELISA ALBERT
in conversation with MONICA FERRELL

 

Novelist and poet Monica Ferrell interviewed novelist and short story writer Elisa Albert via email in the late spring of 2017.

MONICA FERRELL

Throughout your work, you have approached serious topics with a mordant irreverence. In your story “The Alternative Weekly,” one character alleges that his wife repeatedly reminds him of her past sexual assault in order to score points; another character gamely commits multiple infidelities in her first year of marriage. Your two novels, The Book of Dahlia and After Birth, are not afraid to speak unsentimentally and bluntly about such sacrosanct subject matter as the joys of motherhood, cancer, and even the Holocaust. Do you aim to provoke? Do you ever wonder if you go too far?

ELISA ALBERT

We human animals are really batshit crazy in so many funny, weird, perverse, common ways. All of us, truly: we are batshit snowflakes. There is a time and place for sentimentality and small talk. Art and literature is not that place. Sentimentality and small talk are for, like, dinner parties and job interviews. I want to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, as the old saw goes. Creative work is a good place to figure out where “too far” might be. If we can play in those shadows, we might be better off in the “real” world.

MONICA FERRELL

This general irreverence is also manifested in style, in how the stories are told, and in terms of their syntax and phrasing. You frequently use sentence fragments and invent or idiosyncratically distort words (e.g., “whatsofuckingever”). Could you talk about how you make decisions about sentences and conversational speech in your stories? Does it take giving yourself a certain kind of permission to get characters to talk so informally?

 ELISA ALBERT

I hear voices and work really hard to sustain their particulars in ways that feel authentic and true. I also eavesdrop like a motherfucker.

MONICA FERRELL

In “The Alternative Weekly,” both protagonists are left unnamed, labeled instead by their occupations. The same is true for most of the peripheral characters here—at one point, while we’re in the editor’s perspective, his wife is referred to as “the architect.” Why?

 ELISA ALBERT 

Great question. Because the temptation to identify completely as whatever-it-is-we-do-for-a-living can be kind of limiting and boring, you know? Any kind of complete identification strikes me as kind of limiting and boring. All the people in this story are struggling to feel present and whole. They themselves use their occupations as sort of stand-ins for their humanity, so how better to embody that than by actually denying them names, I thought.

MONICA FERRELL

Your work is very voice-driven, passages sometimes reading like extended dramatic monologues even when in third-person. How do you maintain cadence, diction and rhythm over the prolonged period it takes to write a short story or novel? In this issue’s piece, you alternate between voices. How does one negotiate two distinct language patterns in the same story?

 ELISA ALBERT

Practice, practice, revision, practice, revision, etc. Dramatic monologues are totally what I’m going for. My first love was theater.

MONICA FERRELL

In one especially sharp passage of your most recent novel, After Birth, Ari observes that, in general, no one’s interested in art about childbirth or motherhood—a clever wink to the audience of readers who are doing precisely that in consuming your novel. Here and elsewhere, particularly the parts that discuss Ari’s C-section as well as her rage at the silence surrounding C-sections in our culture, it feels as though you are engaged with a political project: enlarging the boundaries of our literature, putting a spotlight on a topic that’s normally left in the darkness of either inattention or “polite” omission. Was this a goal of yours? Do you see all writing about motherhood as inherently political? Did you ever worry that your book might be dismissed as being too domestic or deemed not “serious” according to historical understandings of that word?

ELISA ALBERT

I see everything about everything as being inherently political, which can be so so so wearying. And I refuse to worry about reception, ever. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke. I’m grossed out by a lot of what I see in mainstream American culture about motherhood and fertility and the maternal body and women’s bodies in general, and feel called to engage that narratively. Most of what I know to be true of life within my own female body is obscured beyond recognition in our culture. I wish it were as benign as inattention. I think it’s much, much more structured than that. And politics is about money, let us not forget.

MONICA FERRELL

Much of your work seems to be animated by yearning as opposed to action, peopled by characters wistful about unrealized potential or haunted by paths not taken or dead-ended. In After Birth, Ari is avoiding the dissertation she is supposed to be writing and spends a great deal of time considering past female friendships that have fizzled; in “The Alternative Weekly,” the artist creates her sculptures one a day, almost mechanically, without sentiment or real ambition, and finds her life destabilized by her attachment to a past boyfriend. At one point, she says to her therapist, “You can’t control what you think about, or who.” As you develop a plot, how do you balance that interior yearning with the demands of exterior action?

 ELISA ALBERT

Trial and error, revision, revision, revision, revision. So little of our lives is actually action. That’s for, like, screenplays, isn’t it? The banal ways we actually fill the majority of our time—the hundred small interactions, the mundane, repetitive tasks, the eating and driving and putting on our shoes and staring at our phones and how did we sleep last night—that’s what actually comprises most of life, and of course these inner landscapes. I had a teacher once who used to talk about “moving the character around the room.” As readers, we can really do without so much of that stuff! It can be tedious.

MONICA FERRELL

“The Alternative Weekly” is set in roughly the same sort of place as After Birth, a place that resembles the upstate-New York area where you live: definitely not a metropolis, a location characterized by low population density, hipster enterprises starting up in low-rent post-industrial buildings, with the “[s]ame thirty people you saw at every opening around here” coming to the reception when the artist’s show opens. The weird mix of optimism and the possibility of reinvention with disuse and isolation associated with that area seems really connected to what happens in both this story and the novel. You live in Albany, New York. Can you talk a little bit about the role place plays in your work?

ELISA ALBERT

I live downtown in this nice-sized little city, population a hundred thousand. It’s a great place to live, really deep and weird and noir and ugly and beautiful and frustrating and full of potential and doomed. It’s an old, old city, and the history— recent and distant—is just nuts. I still feel like an outsider, which can be shitty as a human but a great as a writer. I am, like, in the hipster diaspora. Place is everything. Place is everything. The same story, starring the same characters, can not be said to take place in either Brooklyn or Albany or Hudson or Schoharie or Rhinebeck or Lake George or London or Syria or Ulaanbaatar. . . context is everything. And where people live—because they choose to or because they aspire to or because they have no choice or because they are from there—is yet another kind of politics, I think.

MONICA FERRELL

Neither of the protagonists in “The Alternative Weekly” has a child, a fact that crops up periodically in the story. This felt especially notable given the subject matter of After Birth. At the end of the story, the childless protagonists have unprotected sex. Do you consider their lack of children central to the development of the story? Do what extent are they defined by their childlessness?

ELISA ALBERT

To be childless in this culture is something that I don’t think the culture ever, ever lets you forget

MONICA FERRELL

What’s next for you as a writer?

ELISA ALBERT

A novel and a couple more stories and a collaboration, if my collaborator doesn’t flake.


ELISA ALBERT is the author of the novels After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and the story collection How This Night is Different.

MONICA FERRELL is the author of the novel The Answer is Always Yes (Dial/Random House) and of two poetry collections, Beasts for the Chase (Sarabande) and Oh You Absolute Darling (forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2018). Her poetry has recently appeared in The Awl, The Baffler, Memorious, The New Republic, and The Offing, as well as in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day Project. She teaches at Purchase College, where she directs the creative writing program, and lives in Brooklyn.


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