The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #225: Debra Jo Immergut

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When I heard Debra read aloud to our group of VCCA fellows from the beginning of her ingenious novel, You Again, I was absolutely hooked, so much that I was disappointed not to be able to read the rest of the book right away. Luckily, Debra sent me an advance copy a few months later. I sent her mine, too. I loved the synchronicity of our reading each other’s ARCs at the same time—my novel about two characters so close they’re almost the same person, her novel about two women who are the same person, meeting each other, both physically in the same place at the same time, at different ages.

Once I read the whole novel I fell in love not just with the voice but with the nimble complexity of the plotting. Plot has never been easy for me, so I was awed by Debra’s masterful handling of three separate mystery threads. You Again is about a woman named Abby who is literally haunted by her younger self, but it’s also about two women (Abby and Tristane, a forensic neurologist) whose ambitions are almost thwarted by men who want them to fail. It’s about the art world, activism, and the strain that can tear apart long-term marriages or open the window to let in the air. It’s also about capitalism, feminism, and—as if that wasn’t enough—quantum physics and the human brain. Plus, You Again offers one of the more accurate representations in fiction of what it feels like to be an artist:

The work wasn’t easy. Sometimes I stood there for hours, a dumb creature frozen, sniffing for a scent in an imperceptible breeze, trying to draw some meaning out of the air, only to find nothing. Sometimes I wished I could paint like someone else. Someone so much smarter and better than me. But the work was in front of me, just me, and only I could do it. So I persisted, a smallish creature, still standing there, open, hoping. Working in the ruins, with the trust that somehow meaning would drift in and settle around me.

Debra is also the author of the Edgar-nominated novel The Captives and the story collection Private Property. We talked over several weeks in May and June about how fiction can explore the dark side of human nature, how this novel speaks to our present moment, “this insane shitstorm of pandemic and injustice,” and how writers can also tap into “a wellspring of light” and joy.

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The Rumpus: Like Abby, you were a young, bright star. You had an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a short story collection published by Random House in your twenties. And then your next book didn’t come out for a couple decades. How else did your own story inspire Abby’s?

Debra Jo Immergut: Yes, the parallels between Abby’s life and mine are ridiculously obvious—except she gets to indulge in all kinds of extreme behavior, and I just write about it!

The Rumpus: That’s part of the fun of writing fiction—letting our characters act out in ways we don’t let ourselves. The way Abby expresses her rage by hammering in a Bank of America window, for instance.

Debra Jo Immergut: The idea for this novel arrived at a moment when I felt bewildered and dismayed by how far I’d strayed from my work. After my story collection was published, I was filled with fear about what to write next. Then I got married, needed day jobs, got pregnant. I have to say, I love the amount of support and solidarity among writers who are new mothers now—every day, it seems, I see essays and articles about the difficulties, but until this generation of women writers came along, it was a lonely battle… like, if you can’t figure out how to write with a baby in your lap, you clearly aren’t meant to be there. I was already wavering about my worthiness, then I just stopped. I now understand that I needed those years away, to marshal my strength and just grow up. Gradually I began writing again, just for myself, then finally, when I was ready and life allowed, trying once more to put my work out in the world. So that whole journey is Abby’s journey, too.

Rumpus: That’s beautiful. Which leads us to the opening of the novel, which begins: “I saw myself last night. I drove right by myself. In a taxi, through a winter rain, coming home very late from work, on a shadowed block southwest of the Holland Tunnel.” I’ve heard you read it three times, and I never get tired of it. In just a few succinct and elegant pages you set up the whole premise. Did you always know the novel would start like that?

Immergut: Yes and no. The first scene of the novel is the very first thing I wrote, years ago, when I was part of a writers’ group that would get together one evening a week to write for a couple of hours, then share that new material. The scene poured out pretty much as it exists now, and the response I got when I read it aloud in my friend’s living room made me understand I had to keep going with it. But on the other hand, I was still changing words in that opening sentence while checking the final page proofs.

Rumpus: I’m not surprised the response was so strong. That passage is like a gut punch. You take abstract notions—regret and longing, the stuff that fuels midlife crises—and make them physical and visible. I’m also not surprised that you kept polishing the sentences up to the end. The writing is so tight. What is your process to get that result?

Immergut: Thanks for saying that. I have no magic tricks when it comes to finding language. Even as a young writer, I sensed that if I let my instincts take over, and didn’t try to over-control, strange and surprising words would sometimes spill out of me onto the page. I found that the tap seemed to open when I accessed deep emotion and memory. In revision, my controlling brain can clarify and concentrate these outpourings. In the first draft, it’s an extremely interior process of delighting and enchanting and sometimes disturbing myself. But in later drafts, I see it as my mission to translate it all for the delight and satisfaction of my ideal reader—I’m trying to make it clear, beautiful, and streamlined, with just the right amount of forward momentum.

Rumpus: Kirkus Reviews called You Again “at once a mind-bending puzzle and a profound meditation on love, ambition, and regret.” Let’s start with the puzzle. The story is told through Abby’s diary entries from January 2015 to December 2016, interspersed with undated therapy session notes and emails from a physics lab from January 2016 to January 2017. How did you decide to borrow these forms, and what kind of challenges did they pose?

Immergut: One of my personal quirks as a writer is that, when I use first-person voice, I have to know why my narrator is narrating. It helps ground the story for me—who is she addressing and why? I can’t wrap my head around an “I” narrator just talking into a literary void. So that led me to imagine Abigail’s voice coming to us in journal entries— she is recording a bizarre year in her life in order to make sense of it to herself.

Rumpus: You make the first person feel natural. We’re not aware that we’re “reading writing.”

Immergut: I find the puzzle aspect of novel-writing to be oddly motivating and enjoyable. The challenge I set for myself in You Again was to offer the reader a range of plausible theories about why Abby is seeing her younger doppelgänger while still retaining some deep and unending mystery. That’s where the other voices and narrative strands come in—they offer clues, they get us out of Abigail’s head, and my hope is that these characters, who have their own issues and conflicts, amplify and deepen the novel’s central notions about our urgent drive toward connection and creative fulfillment.

Rumpus: You do a great job keeping so many balls in the air. How is it possible for Abby to encounter her younger self? Will her predicament be explained by neurology or physics or both? And you weave in two strange deaths, one which a detective is investigating as a possible crime and one which Abby is trying to remember. I once went to a panel at a book festival where one of the authors said she couldn’t imagine writing a novel without a crime in it. Would you say the same thing?

Immergut: Transgression makes good copy—ask the creators of the Bible and celebrity gossip sites. Bad behavior irresistibly attracts our attention. We may hope to steer clear of danger and risk in our own lives, but we can’t help but be curious about it. Art has always provided a relatively safe way to explore the edges and push the boundaries. We all have different tolerance levels for darkness, of course. In places online where readers congregate, you’ll often see commenters who say that they want to read only uplifting stories. But even in the most light-hearted read, there is a crime of the heart, someone has been wronged or told a lie or crossed someone else. As a writer, I love that I can explore any kind of transgression that interests me while still trying to be a decent person in real life. It’s like a free pass, and who can resist that?

Rumpus: Exactly. So what are you writing now?

Immergut: Well, I have a third novel underway, and I’m just letting my unconscious sort that out, as I always do. The rolling American catastrophe underlies everything I write these days—it’s like the heaving ocean, my characters and my story emerge from it and are tossed around by it. So, while I do believe the dark side of human nature makes good copy, I’m also simply responding to what’s going on. In The Captives, my narrator is the daughter of a corrupt politician, and growing up so close to this, she’s unable to get her own moral compass aligned. As I worked on You Again over the past two years, I felt a rising sense that chaos was imminent—how can you not, with our unstable, unhinged so-called leader. While I wanted to explore Abigail’s very personal desire to push against the constraints of her workaday life and reconnect with some truer self, I wanted to do it in the context of our current moment. She gets swept up in a political and public struggle against the status quo, and becomes a witness to—and even a participant in—violent resistance, rioting in the streets, breaking windows. And this morning I awoke to exactly this kind of rage being unleashed in Minneapolis, Louisville, and, as in the book, New York City. Sadly, you don’t even have to be at all prescient to have predicted this. It feels tragically inevitable.

But I do want to add that I find myself very interested in the flashes of lightness and hope that I’ve found in the midst of this insane shitstorm of pandemic and injustice; maybe I’m even clinging to those. I listened to a Tin House podcast with Kelly Link, Justin Torres, and Garth Greenwell about writing toward joy, and I recognized that this is a force or pull I feel in my current work. I seem to be tapping a wellspring of light when I sit down to write, and that is feeling very exciting, and even like another form of resistance to the destructive forces plaguing us right now.

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Photograph of Debra Jo Immergut by Stephen Lewis.


Sharon Harrigan is the author of the novel Half and the memoir Playing with Dynamite. Her work has appeared widely in places such as the New York Times (Modern Love), Narrative, and the Virginia Quarterly Review. She teaches writing at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives with her family. More from this author →