The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #139: Debra Jo Immergut

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The Captives lives up to its name: abandon, as you enter this quick-paced novel, your concepts of low and high literature, and succumb to the pleasures of a work which makes of genre a paddock in which the wildest fancies can run free. Open to the first page and you’ll find yourself complicit, become confidante to a voice so deceptively knowing it leads you quickly toward greater depth and metaphysical questioning.

Immergut writes of a realm in which she has worked for years, a world of lockdowns, shivs, friendships behind bars. He smallest detail recalls Flannery O’Connor’s comment (“On Her Own Work”) that fiction concerns “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” The Captives incarnates this idea, making even Immergut’s secondary characters memorable. While the book will be compared to Orange Is the New Black, you’ll find the aesthetic polestar to be different: fans of Hitchcock, Ian McEwan, and Daphne du Maurier will be pleased by the surprise in store.

Recently, Immergut spoke to The Rumpus about the dark absurdity of life, the fireworks of plot, and the gothically savvy uncanny knowing children have about the moral matrix into which they are so unceremoniously born.

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The Rumpus: What first spark led to this novel?

Debra Jo Immergut: As the lone girl between two boys, in my earliest years I constantly tested both femalehood’s limits and advantages. Maybe, just maybe, that urge acted as the wellspring for this story of a woman who does the same thing, if under much more intense circumstances.

Rumpus: Which writers brought you into your particular fold? Were there authors who inspired your process as much as your aspiration?

Immergut: Thomas Hardy and Albert Camus: I fell hard for their joyful fatalism. In high school and into college, I imbibed that stuff and it’s probably still pouring out of me. By the way, you could also find that strain in my first beloved author: Laura Ingalls Wilder. Think about how many dark twists of fate live in those little houses on the prairies. And yet they sit amid a vibrant natural world, which she describes so gorgeously. I think she might have been the first existentialist—embracing the dark absurdity of life, and loving it anyhow.

Other authors who inspired? Ultimately, I’m most drawn to novelists who float their ideas and language on the current of a strong and suspenseful plot: think Toni Morrison in Beloved, which made for my most memorable reading experience ever. Reading that novel leaves you just enthralled and besotted and horrified every step of the way, and the ending almost stops your heart. That a plot could be constructed with such pace, one that serves as a vehicle for delivering rich texture and provocative ideas, I turned to Morrison and to LeCarre. Ian McEwan is another writer I really admire: he dreams up an ingenious, timely premise, sets it down before the reader like a tightly wound mechanical toy, and lets it run.

Rumpus: Your trajectory on the way to this book’s emergence could be charted as a double helix, but how might you define it and what succor would you wish to offer other writers?

Immergut: I’d define it as a triumph of intermittent persistence. In my twenties, less than a year after graduating from Iowa, I sold a book of short stories. Utterly unprepared for the experience, I got my ass kicked. Being reviewed freaked me out, and when I finally got around to finishing my first novel, it was rejected for being too dark in a moment when the marketplace craved lighter stories. After that, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have anything else to do with publishing. At the same time, I became a new mom with a full-time job, and though I gave up trying to get my novel published, I knew I wasn’t finished writing fiction. I wrote on my own, at work, in writing groups, though when other forces in life pulled me away, I also walked away from writing for years at a time.

All that time, the novel I’d written right after my story collection was waiting. The characters were waiting. They were the early versions of Frank and Miranda from The Captives. When I was laid off from my full-time job in 2015, and my son was about to leave for college, I finally turned back to them and they were ready to get out of the crypt.

Lessons from my story: one, it’s a long game, and the game is not basketball or gymnastics—it doesn’t matter if your knees go bad—you will still be good at it, possibly much better, when you’re older. Two: you don’t have to continually beat your head against the door. If the door doesn’t open, it’s okay to walk away, give your poor head a rest. And try again later.

Rumpus: What might readers call a thematic throughline from your first book toward The Captives?

Immergut: How—if we sense it around us as children, or even as adults—corruption and moral compromise seep into our bloodstream. How easy it is to soak it up, become saturated with it, and then let it flow out of you in all kinds of unexpected ways.

Corruption is certainly an evergreen and universal topic, but growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, in the Watergate era was formative for me, I think. And of course, in our present moment, I think in DC there’s again a sense of a whole community struggling to stay upright while the ground shakes beneath them. I’m sure there’s a pack of young DC-area writers being birthed right now as they observe the adults in their lives struggle through this ethical murk.

Rumpus: Can you suggest ideal books to read as preparation for yours and as a palate-cleanser for the grisly after?

Immergut: Books that are much worse than mine.

Joking. Before: read Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Unjustly overlooked, incredibly powerful and timely, even though the letters were written in the 1960s. After: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. It touches on a few of the same themes—captivity, self-determination, how we love and betray each other. My book would serve as a very light palate cleanser before the feast.

Rumpus: When you read, what calls you into happy alertness about an author’s sensibility?

Immergut: Some degree of empathy for even the most despicable. I will often give up on books when I see authors savaging their own characters. Also, I want my authors to be heedless and show courage when it comes to plot. Make something happen.

And mostly I just want to be seduced. First, at the sentence level. Every so often, I want to happen upon a passage that makes me swoon a bit. That’s what makes reading worth our fractured attention right now, don’t you think? So I want to be lured in by the author’s vision and then stumble on delight. It’s the pleasure of surrender that I think can only be found in fiction and sex. The two have something in common for me, I will admit.


Edie Meidav is the author of Kingdom of the Young, a collection of short fiction with a nonfiction coda, and novels, the most recent being Lola, California. Learn more at her website. More from this author →