An Interview with Elisa Albert, Visiting Writer

Elisa Photo

We recently interviewed our Visiting Writer, Elisa Albert, about her writing career,  her first novel, The Book of Dahlia, views on MFA programs, and her upcoming novel which she describes as “a war novel for the female experience.”

The New Yorker writes “Dahlia Finger, the heroine of this début novel, is a sarcastic, self-absorbed Jewish American Princess, twenty-nine years old and living in a desirable bungalow in Venice, California, bought for her by her lawyer father. She’s also, thanks to Albert’s control of tone and timing, one of the most likable characters in recent fiction, as self-aware about her bad habits (smoking pot, wallowing in hopelessness, refusing to engage with her broken family) as she is incapable of changing them, even when diagnosed with a “level four” tumor in the left temporal lobe of her brain.”

Elisa Albert will be reading with poet/novelist/editor Rebecca Wolff on March 15, Huether Hall, 200, 5-7pm.

When did you start writing?

I have notebooks and journals going back to around the sixth grade. I had some amazing writing teachers in college, and they encouraged me to write stories, which by then obsessed me.

What writers influenced and inspired you?

Lorrie Moore, Phillip Roth, Mary Karr, Stacey Richter, Adrienne Rich, Nick Flynn, Kate Braverman, Grace Paley, Jonathan Franzen, Deborah Eisenberg, Antonya Nelson… the list just goes on for a while.   And a bunch of musicians belong on the list, too…

Tell me about a typical day: how, when, and where do you write?

I have a little office at home, but often I set up camp on the floor/coffee table, or if I’m feeling stagnant I’ll sit at a café with headphones on.  It’s nice to change it up, and there are days I just can’t sit in a room by myself.  I like to imagine that if the conditions are ideal the work will be likewise.  Family life can make consistency a challenge, but at the same time offers its own lovely routine.   I have a notebook with me most of the time.  The kind of thinking I can do with a pen is much looser and freer than the kind that comes from typing, I find.  But typing is better for developing complexity of language and for moving things around and all that good stuff.

In a video promoting The Book of Dahlia, you said, “Our society doesn’t seem to deal with death very well. I think we spend most of our time and energy collectively ignoring the facts of death.” Can you expound on this?

Writing that book meant thinking a lot about death, and thinking a lot about death tends to shift your priorities and energy, and I guess it occurred to me during that time that society would probably collapse in on itself–or at least capitalism would–if we were collectively more attuned to our mortality, the life-cycle, the laws of the natural world.  We like to think we can buy/bully our way to whatever we want, but death is universal, and we waste a whole lot of time pretending stupid shit matters.  The news cycle, whatever they’re selling at the mall this season: how does every day American life read if you’re in touch with mortality?   Also, of course, most of us don’t care for our dying family members.  We farm it out, we distance ourselves.  See also the funeral industry, which capitalizes on our disgust/fear of death, and helps sanitize and further distance us from it.

What inspired you to write this novel? How did it evolve?

My older brother died from a brain tumor when he was twenty-nine.  I was twenty.  He was a hilarious, smart, fucked-up, brave dude, and the whole thing seemed to unfold without so much as a single “why me?”  I guess I had the impulse to revisit his terminal illness and death from another angle, to repeat it via narrative, to re-experience it, to shift its realities, to honor him in some twisted way.

The unlikable narrator–someone who is not offering the reader his or her very best self–is irresistible to me, and I suppose I wanted to investigate some of the murkier dynamics therein.   It’s all well and good to be brave and likeable, but that’s never the whole story.

Although your novel deals with terminal disease and death, I feel the novel is life-affirming and a reminder that every day matters. Did you intend this?

I’m glad.  Absolutely.

Since you’re teaching an MFA class this semester, I was wondering what your opinion is of the proliferation of MFA programs. What do you see as the benefit of receiving an MFA?

I loved my MFA program for the time and space it afforded me.  I was there to write and produce work and share it with a willing audience of fellow readers and writers, and that’s what I did for two years.  It was a paradise. Every program has its pros and cons, and not every workshop is perfect, but you can’t beat the practical experience of having to produce work and present it to a group of focused readers who are then going to tell you at length all about their experience of reading the work.  It’s a gift, to be taken seriously in that way.   More than that, though, it teaches you how to become a better and hopefully more voracious reader, which is totally fundamental to any effort at writing.

Can you tell me a little about your new novel?

It’s a first-person narrative, takes place over three months of winter in a fictional upstate college town.   It’s about violence in birth, women who can’t get along with other women, postpartum derangement, the trenches of motherhood, the fertility industry, friendship, breastfeeding, marriage, real estate, feminism, the Holocaust, name it.   You could say it picks up where The Yellow Wallpaper left off.  It’s like a war novel of the female experience.

Never ask a writer about work-in-progress; you get answers like that.

What is the best advice you ever received from a teacher or writing mentor?

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Write the hard parts over and over again.

To be quite liked by two readers a writer must be actively hated by ten and ignored by twenty. I think that was paraphrasing Alain de Botton.

Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?

Read like you’re starving and there might be a morsel on the end page.

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