Jill Alexander Essbaum, a native of Texas, is having one hell of a wild ride. A respected poet long a staple in the indie literary trenches, she was until recently best known for her books Harlot (No Tell Motel, 2007) and Necropolis (neoNuma Arts, 2008), and her distinctive style of mixing playful puns and a Lorrie-Moore-like wordplay with a deep eroticism and Christian imagery. This year, however, Essbaum’s universe exploded with the publication of her hotly anticipated debut novel, Hausfrau. It sold last year in a pre-empt to Random House and has proceeded to sell like wildfire across the globe in foreign rights, changing Essbaum’s visibility, the demands on her schedule, and the logistics of her life as a struggling poet and professor. Hausfrau, which has been widely and passionately lauded—and also faced the occasional disproportionate vitriol that tends to accompany such sudden meteoric rises—is a novel that provokes hot debates over the actions of its intelligent and self-destructive protagonist, Anna Benz, who is by turns fascinating, charming, infuriating, and narcissistic. The novel, which is deeply interior and unapologetically sexual, is also audaciously literary, at times almost “formal,” harkening back to the classic novels that influenced its creation and to Essbaum’s background as a poet. For such a debut to attain this level of success is cause for celebration in a literary atmosphere where it can often seem that the corporate publishers are increasingly unwilling to take risks on books that are “difficult,” either stylistically or because of dark content or “unsympathetic” characters, especially when such books are written by or about women.
I’ve known Essbaum since the days she was giving poetry readings in coffee houses in Chicago, have visited and read with her in Austin, and for the past two years have been her colleague at the University of California Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center, where we both teach in the low residency Masters of Creative Writing Program. As both a colleague and a friend, she is intense, warm, emotional, irreverent, and utterly herself. Amidst her busy schedule, Essbaum and I conducted this interview by email.
The Rumpus: I’ve known you for many years, and I published the first excerpt of Hausfrau on The Nervous Breakdown when you were first working on it and unsure you’d even finish it. You’ve been successful as a poet—you’ve had two NEA fellowships—so let’s back up to what made you want to write a novel to begin with. Is it something you’ve always had a secret hankering to do? Have you experimented with fiction in the past but abandoned it, and this time stuck to it? What was the watershed moment that made you start writing in a different form?
Jill Alexander Essbaum: Oh as a kid I had those fantasies of being a famous novelist. And I wrote stories. And they were awful and they were wonderful in the way that a baby-beginning writer’s stories are both awful and wonderful at once. And I went to college and studied writing (French too—because I also thought I might like to move to Paris at some point and take up with a yet-to-be-determined lover who would probably be named Michel and would almost assuredly be a sculptor because of course he would be). I took some poetry workshops and it turned out that I enjoyed writing poems—and I was good at the ‘game’ of poetry. I’m using ‘game’ as a shorthand for things like maximizing the economy of language in a piece, working with rhyme and meter—working AGAINST rhyme and meter, puns and word-play, the whole shebang. And so that’s what I wrote for a long time. I here-and-thered essays for journals for awhile, but it took returning from a few years living abroad before I thought seriously about writing in a different form. Chiefly, because when I returned from Switzerland, the things I wanted to write, the descriptions and the memories and the sites and the sightings, felt terribly untethered when I put them in verse without any context. So I redirected. Stanzas became paragraphs. Eventually, the ‘I’ of my poems became the Anna of Hausfrau. Who is not me. But of course, who in some ways is. As we all write from a spot that we recognize even if it’s only distantly.
Rumpus: The novel is being called a kind of contemporary Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, and one thing critics talk about is that the options available to women are generally speaking so radically different now, yet somehow your protagonist, Anna Benz, although living in a contemporary world, inhabits a similar passivity and isolation—to the frustration of her therapist, and perhaps the reader, at times. Yet it’s important to state that the limited scope of Anna Benz’s world is not at all “unbelievable” or even unusual. Anna is an expat in a country where she has no strong ties and isn’t fluent in the language, and to some extent that “explains” her circumscribed world…but I have known so many women with small children who lead similar lives of emotional and social claustrophobia, even in their country of origin. I’ve heard women talk openly about not being “fulfilled” but putting their lives “on hold” for their children, with the implicit assumption that this is both normative and noble. Many women still relocate for their husband’s careers, and despite advanced degrees or prior work experience, leave the workforce to become stay at home moms in new cities where they have little in the way of a support network. And obviously many of these women are entirely happy with these choices, and make new friends and have vibrant lives with their kids and their communities…but others of course are deeply isolated, frustrated, depressed, and guilty for their “failures” to be either happy homemakers or liberated career women. Can you speak about how conscious you were in writing Hausfrau of purposely deconstructing and illuminating ways in which the situation of the contemporary “housewife” have and haven’t changed?
Essbaum: It never occurred to me that I was making a statement about anyone’s situation other that Anna’s (and, to a degree, my own). On the surface, that’s an extremely naive thing to have thought, so boo on me. On the other hand, if I’d have come to the page with a wider agenda, there would be the issue of writing a story that becomes ordinary and vapid simply because of its inclusivity. Do you know what I mean? One of the things that I think gets readers going about Anna is how improbable she seems. I say seems because the truth is, a life such as hers isn’t improbable at all. Many women live it, or a version of it. But the bigger picture is her experience of isolation, you’re right to point to that. And I think ultimately that’s the thing that people respond to. We are made separate by the things we do or do not do. Responsibilities of all types curb us. Desire betrays us. No wound is ever truly petty. And there are so many ways to be locked apart from the rest of the world. In our mothers’ era clinical depression was not usually called as such. The thing about Anna is, she doesn’t put her life on hold for her family. She’s actually not living her life at all. She’s going through her life’s motions. She’s taking no responsibility for it. I suppose in that way I am making a statement. She knows she’s in peril. She’s consciously avoiding acting to save herself. She knows better. And sometimes, some of us in some things we do know better. When we know better, I think it’s imperative that we do better. Otherwise we’re perpetuating myths that have for centuries done us no good. Men and women alike. No one is exempt from being called into consciousness.
Rumpus: Anna uses sex as a diversion and a salve and a means of acting out. You write: “Anna loved and didn’t love sex. Anna needed and didn’t need it. Her relationship with sex was a convoluted partnership that rose from both her passivity and an unassailable desire to be distracted. And wanted. She wanted to be wanted.” Psychoanalysis—on which you draw heavily in the novel—infamously long held theories that female desire centered (depending on the theory) on either the desire for a child (which convolutedly itself stemmed from so-called penis envy) or the desire to be desired. Do you think that women, even in an era where people broadcast every manner of their wild sex lives in tell-all memoirs, blogs and social media streams, are still deeply and intrinsically taught that sexual desire is largely about the desire for other things: love, attention, motherhood, approval? How comfortable is the contemporary woman with the desire for sex for sex’s sake—and with desiring others, rather than “reacting to” others’ desire for her?
Essbaum: I think that sex for sex’s sake is not possible. Or, if you will, it’s not practically possible. In theory, sure. Bodies rubbing against each other? Great. Let’s go! But. It’s never just that, is it? We aren’t engines, we aren’t machines. There’s limbic intent behind every kiss, every caress. Simply because it’s a person who’s doing the kissing or the caressing. It’s a daredevil act, to let someone fuck you—to fuck someone—with whom you don’t have at least some emotional connection. You’re teetering on a tight line. Because you’re naked and unguarded and vulnerable and at the peak of orgasm you may well believe you are invincible. And sex is violent even when it’s gentle. The truth is in the vocabulary. Thrust? Penetrate? Those are words of war. What that means to me is that even when there don’t seem to be stakes—there are stakes. For example, even the most grown-upiest of grown-ups still have feelings and sometimes feelings get the better of us. And then get in the way.
Rumpus: You’re a Christian, which comes out more overtly in some of your poetry than in Hausfrau, although some interrogations of faith do come up in the novel. However, one thing that struck me strongly in reading Hausfrau—without giving away too many spoilers—is the way Anna is…well, ultimately tortured in the narrative. One way of reading the novel would be that she pays the ultimate prices for her indiscretions—her sins—and that the novel serves as a cautionary tale for the retribution a woman can face for lapses in fidelity and maternal virtue. Were you hesitant to lead Anna into such ruin for possessing the same shortcomings male characters are often portrayed as possessing with glib aplomb? Do you worry that some readers will see Anna as “getting what she deserved” and it being read as a tale of moral reinforcement for the status quo?
Essbaum: In one of the last scenes in the novel Anna asks a priest if he believes in predestination. He then gives her an analogy to do with setting up dominos and knocking them over, the punchline of which is “God gives us the dominos, it’s up to us to set them in line.”
I understand why people think it’s a morality tale. But I think the issue is with the word morality. It’s very loaded. What it is, I think, is a tale of what happens when you live your life unconsciously. If you sleepwalk through your days, you will bump into things. If you drive a car blindfolded you will wreck it. It’s easy to say the novel’s serving retribution. I did struggle with that in my writing. But the blunt fact is—there are things we cause to happen, there are things we can prevent from happening. And there are things that can’t be prevented at all no matter what we do. No bony finger from the sky points down and damns her to hell. She calls her own self into final account. It’s a sad moment of ultimate consciousness.
The dominos were dealt. She set them up. She knocked them down. In this case.
Rumpus: You write, in one of the most harrowing passages in the novel, about the “three kinds of tears” and “three kinds of grief.” Can you talk a bit about this, and also about your interest in grief, and whether these extremely poignant and wise observations were archetypal or personal for you?
Essbaum: Incredibly personal. After my father died I suffered from what is known as (and explored in Hausfrau) “complicated grief” for close to two years. I literally cannot remember what happened during that time—except I must have ate a lot because when it was done I was really fat. It’s grief on a carousel—you ride a horse that goes absolutely nowhere. I can’t even say how it ended except that one day it was gone. I believe it was an act of mercy from a sometimes indifferent universe.
As far as tears—oy vey. My tears and I have come to a mutual understanding and it’s this: I am to let them fall. I’m 43 years old. I think I’m pretty much the person I’m going to be. I cry. If I shove the tears down all they do is rally forces and come back stronger and harder. In fact—one of the first things I tell my classes is to not freak out if I start crying in the middle of workshop—it just means they’re moving me.
Rumpus: You lived in Switzerland for a time. The novel makes much of national characteristics of the Swiss, and in the end, the fact that Anna is not a Swiss citizen, whereas her husband is, seems to play a crucial role in how she imagines what the outcome of her life will be. In what ways are the roles of women different in Swiss culture than in the United States? Americans often imagine that Europeans are infinitely more liberated and sophisticated and worldly than themselves, but aspects of Swiss culture as you develop it seem highly traditional and almost provincial. Now you live in Texas! Keeping in mind that this is of course just one writer’s subjective opinion and that we don’t wish to start a Swiss-Texan war, where is it easier to be a woman? Or at least, where is it easier to be yourself?
Essbaum: You know what? It is easier to be a woman now, today, here in Texas at 43 years old and remarried than it was then. It’s so hard for me to say anything that isn’t colored by my own rough going at the time I lived there. I was very much like Anna in that I was extremely isolated and had absolutely nothing to do with my time (except write). My husband was in school and, while not a Swiss, did have his own set of friends and circumstances and reasons for belonging. And yet I’d longed to live a expat life since girlhood. I made the best of it. I was miserable, mind you, but I wouldn’t trade that misery for the world. It’s crucial to my development as a writer, as a soul.
Rumpus: Anna thinks, “…if love is not infinite or eternal? Then I want nothing of it.” What are your own opinions on this quote? What is the nature of love—finite or infinite—and should we want anything of it? How have your views on love changed over your lifetime?
Essbaum: Sappy time. I’m not sure I understood what it felt like to be loved before I met my husband Alvin. This is not to say I hadn’t been loved before. I’m not speaking to that. Our relationship has instructed me that—to at least one person—I’m lovable. And, likable. That’s a big one with me. It’s far easier to love someone than to like them. It’s a treasure to have both at the same time. How did I get here? Happy accident. Grace of God.
Rumpus: Anna is very skeptical about making a female friend in Switzerland, but eventually becomes close to Mary. I was fascinated by the ambivalent nuances of their relationship. Our mutual colleague, Emily Rapp has written (in an essay for The Rumpus, actually): Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children. And you, of course, as a professor, mentor, and a woman who has been twice-divorced and spent a fair amount of time living independently without relying on any man, have led a highly different life you’re your character, Anna’s. I’m interested in your own feelings about female friendships and their role in your life and writing.
Essbaum: I’m still quite close with a couple of women who I’ve known since first grade. We still have sleepovers sometimes. I have another friend who has (on more than one occasion I am not as embarrassed to admit as I ought to be) rushed to my house in the middle of one of my panic attacks just to peel me off the ceiling. Emily Rapp herself has sent me a text or two at a crucial moment of chaos. The poet Jessica Piazza is my first and best reader, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life as I do with her. We go to these conferences and we have each other’s back (and feet—we share matched tattoos). My husband is important to me. It’s the central relationship in my life. As it should be. But the first thing I did when I met him was pass him under the eyes of all my girlfriends. As much as I liked him, I told them that if they gave him a thumbs down, I would listen because they knew me and loved me. There’s a whole, huge sisterhood that undergirds my life. You’re in it. All the women we teach with are in it. The wives and girlfriends of the men we teach with are in it. Our students are in it. The women we read, the women who read us, your children, my nieces, Emily’s baby girl—all of us. I got your back, gal. You know it.
Rumpus: Hausfrau beats with the heart of a poet. So many lines slice like lines of poetry. “She had confused herself with the actress who portrayed her.” “Make no mistake: everything has a variant. Like versions of truth, like versions of love, there are versions of sleep.” You also have a deep passion for wordplay, which evokes Lorrie Moore in the fiction universe, but is, for those who know your poetry, absolutely one of your trademarks. What’s next for you in your literary life? Do you have any burning desire to write another novel? Are you back to poetry actively, even as Hausfrau is burning down the house? Will you be polyamorous now between the two?
Essbaum: I’m finishing a collection of poems right now. I think the old gal might have another novel or two in her—I confess, I do like writing fiction. Don’t tell poetry. She’ll know I’ve been cheating on her!