Questions of Legacy: Talking with Adrienne Celt


If you first found author Adrienne Celt, as I did, through her delightful web comic Love Among the Lampreys, you might not expect that she would also write a thriller grown out of the voice of Nabokov.

Celt’s writing has been ambitious—her short fiction has won an O. Henry Story Prize and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. Her first novel, The Daughters, twists threads of folklore, opera and family history to tell the story of singer Lulu struggling with her past as she cares for her own new daughter. It won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award and was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR. She is also the author of Apocalypse How?: An Existential Bestiary.

This new book, Invitation to a Bonfire, shows such an outsize ambition, as soon as I heard about it, I wanted to read it—and talk to the author about how a project of that scale looked to her.


The Rumpus: It’s hard to talk about Invitation to a Bonfire without starting with the voices of your characters—it seems daring to tell a significant part of a story through a Nabokov-type writer, and then also to create the voice of a woman who could seduce him away from his Vera. The way you’re written it, any sentence in the book is clearly written by one or another character, you’ve made all the narrators so individual. How did you approach inventing the characters’ voices? Did you have any false starts before you got to the right tone for each of them? Was there any particular way you did research for the voices in particular?

Adrienne Celt: I’m glad they feel so distinct! Honestly, I developed the voices very intuitively; the Nabokov-type character, Lev, was probably the easiest to wrap my mind around, because I was taking direct inspiration from Nabokov, whose work I’ve been loved for so long, and whose voice is so vital to his work. I see him as an example of form and function being perfectly married: the important themes his writing chases are all encoded in its sound and structure. You can’t fully access his ideas in the absence of his style. And because I’d thought so much about his voice before I started the book, it didn’t feel like work to evoke him, just pleasure. (His first section was also the first part of Invitation that I wrote, so it was exciting to me, like waking up into a new world and feeling instantly at home.)

Neither Zoya nor Vera’s voice had such a clear real-life analog, so they were driven more by trial and error; the process of writing and discovering who they are as people. (Of course I could’ve read Véra Nabokov’s letters for a starting place, but I intentionally avoided doing this, because I wanted to be free to create a character with needs and motivations that weren’t completely tethered to hers.)

Rumpus: That’s so interesting about the Lev voice being easy because you’d already spent so much time understanding Nabokov’s voice as both formal and personal—especially since your Zoya’s first intimacy with Lev is as a reader, while Vera’s is as a person, face to face. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but of course the book doesn’t keep those two intimacies separate, even though they don’t mingle easily.

What started this book for you, when you first had the idea of writing it? Did it surprise you with any of the turns it took as you wrote?

Celt: The biggest surprise of this book was how quickly I wrote it, and how confident I was in the story from the beginning. I absolutely changed the shape of the novel through revisions, and explored the characters more deeply over time—those revisions took a little over a year. But I finished the first draft in about four months, which is very quick for me. I’ve seen other writers distinguish between writing that’s “work” and writing that feels like a “gift,” and this book was definitely a gift. I often felt like I was peering through a window, watching events unfold just on the other side of the glass.

The genesis of the project came from reading a review of the collected letters of Vladimir and Véra Nabokov, and getting really pissed when I realized that Nabokov had cheated on his wife—a heroic wife, a historic wife, arguably the most dedicated wife in literature. Which got me thinking: who is this woman who devoted herself so completely to her husband, and who is the woman who drew him away? It turns out that anger and hurt feelings are really good motivators for writing a novel of passion and betrayal.

I will also say: without giving anything away, the end surprised me. It felt inevitable by the time I got there, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind on page one.

Rumpus: To push you on this a little further, what was it about the juxtaposition of those three people that inspired you?

Celt: I was very much thinking about questions of legacy: who gets to have one, what it means to build one. As an artist, I’ve always been interested in the question of whether making art at all implies that you’re trying to defy death—that is, use your life’s energy to live beyond your body’s time span. A lot of people seem to think the answer is yes: that any energy expended in making something of quality is, by its very nature, an effort to persist. Or that persistence of art or work is 1:1 with a judgment of quality about that work.

The different characters in the novel approach their work in very different ways, and I don’t think the book offers an answer to this question. But it’s part of the landscape I’m exploring.

Rumpus: How does your work as a fiction writer connect with your work as a visual artist? Do you ever find yourself drawing, for example, from a place of anger and hurt—or passion and betrayal?

Celt: Sure, I come to drawing from many points of inspiration, just like I come to writing. But I’d say that my impulse to make a comic or a piece of visual art is usually less grounded in narrative—which isn’t to say it’s not grounded in ideas. In fact, my comics are probably more drawn from ideas and concepts than my writing, which is so wedded to character and circumstance as a vehicle for expression. I like that I can communicate a really specific feeling in a comic without worrying how it connects to a larger story, and I like that mood and context can exist so wholly in the visuals of a comic. That allows me to be really precise and weird in how I write them, in a way that might make me self-conscious in a story.

In terms of process, I often use comics as a respite from writing and vice versa. When I want to make art but I’m exhausted by words, I might draw something—and on the flip side, if I’ve been working on all the fiddly bits of a comic, the background and detail, and I’m going cross-eyed, it can be a relief to walk back into the expansive world of a novel, where there’s a lot of room to fuck up and then circle back and fix things later. Or even let the fuck-up remain and become part of the piece’s texture.

They each offer freedoms the other constraints, which lets both of them be fun in their own way.

Rumpus: Did you have any stylistic guidelines or rules for yourself as you wrote—an extreme example of the kind of thing I mean is the idea of writing a whole story without the letter “E” but it could be anything, anything you told yourself you would never do or always do for any of these narrators?

Celt: Arguably it’s extreme to base someone on Nabokov? But that’s not so far outside the norm for me, because I like strong-voiced narrators and the first person, and I think my prose style is pretty voluptuous anyway.

The fact that the entire book is epistolary and/or built from false documents is a kind of structural restraint, though. It came to feel like the most natural choice, but there were a few sections that I didn’t write that way originally: they were just narrated by an unknown voice. So once I came up with the overall frame—which wasn’t until after I finished the first draft—I had to go back and figure out what their purpose was and how they could be useful in that new context. But that was all imposed after the fact, as opposed to being an experiment I set for myself.

Rumpus: Do you find that you revisit similar situations or themes often in your fiction? Or do you move toward all-new territory each time?

Celt: This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, because I’m of two minds about it!

Obviously I’m human, so I change over time and am forever trying to learn and grow. But recently I’ve been mulling over some of the thematic similarities between my first and second novels, which I hadn’t recognized before: The Daughters is more focused on intergenerational baggage and motherhood—the wounds and gifts we carry throughout a family line, as well as the difficulties of having a career (especially as a woman) while also having a child. Invitation to a Bonfire is more focused on personal legacy, both as an artist and a political agent/ethical being. But they’re both concerned with female power, particularly frustrated power. (Or maybe… sideways power. Recognizing when you can’t get something the ordinary way, and finding an unusual—but forceful—path to get it anyway.) And they’re both interested in fidelity: what it means to different people, and how your ambition or even desire for personal safety can end up being at odds with any pledge of faithfulness. (Which isn’t, by the way, limited to romantic faithfulness. It could be fidelity to a friend, or a place, or an idea. Anything that you choose to build your life around.) So clearly there are some themes chasing me even when I don’t realize I’m chasing them.

In general, I tend to be drawn towards stories about identity, power, and womanhood in all its forms. And while I’d never want to limit myself to those things (who knows where ideas come from, or what the next one will be) I do think the possibilities for storytelling within that list are already infinite.

Rumpus: In Zoya, you have a character who is attracted to a man because of his prose and that seems to be a traditionally feminine response, at least as I understand it, to find something erotic in a man’s intellectual or artistic style. Maybe it connects to the thing you mentioned before about women finding unusual and forceful ways of getting what they want, or identifying parts of themselves in men that they may not have been able to develop in more straightforward ways. At the same time, the book has a countercurrent of physicality—I’m thinking of the way Zoya feels about scrambled eggs, and the plants she works with, the way she encounters other girls when she’s a student, or how Vera encounters obstacles when she’s a child. How did those fit together for you? The book is ultimately a crime novel, with physical violence at its heart—how did that affect the way you worked on it?

Celt: I think you’re touching on something very key to Zoya’s relationship with the world, which is, as you say, both very feminine and also obscure; hungry and visceral, but also analytical. Actually, I think her identity and self-image are much less steeped in gender than the other major characters in the book, because she’s making her calculations first as a survivor. Even when she performs a fairly traditional femininity at the Donne School, she does so to fit in with the notion of womanhood that America presents to her, not necessarily because that performance speaks to her on a personal level. (Vera, on the other hand, tends to see her womanhood as a natural power source.) And I’d say that Zoya’s reaction to Lev could be read either way: if a man was turned on by someone’s ideas, would be seen as feminine? I’m not sure.

In a way, I think all my main characters fit into a crime novel framework because they have nothing to lose—but they each arrive at that position very differently. Lev, because he is a powerful man who doesn’t believe it’s possible for him to lose anything. Vera, because she thinks she can control it all. Zoya because she’s already lost her family and country when we meet her—and for other reasons that evolve in her over the course of the book, and which I hope make themselves apparent to readers in their due time.


Author photograph © Jade Beall.

Catherine Nichols lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More from this author →