An Interview with Jenny Offill
Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was a New York Times Notable book and a finalist for the L.A. Times First Book Award. She is also the author of four children’s books: While you Were Napping, 11 Experiments That Failed, 17 Things I’m Not Allowed To Do Anymore, and Sparky. In non-fiction, Offill co-edited The Friend Who Got Away and Money Changes Everything, and she has contributed to the anthology Significant Objects.
Her most recent novel, Dept. of Speculation, has received much critical acclaim and has recently been selected as a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award. It was hailed as the best book of the year by The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Vogue.com, and more. Of Dept. of Speculation, The New York Review of Books said, “It’s short and funny and absorbing, an effortless-seeming downhill ride that picks up astonishing narrative speed as it goes. What’s remarkable is that Offill achieves this effect using what you might call an experimental or avant-garde style of narration, one that we associate with difficulty and disorientation rather than speed and easy pleasure.”
Offill currently teaches in the MFA programs at Brooklyn College, Columbia University, and Queens University of Charlotte.
American University is pleased to host Jenny Offill on Wednesday, April 1, as part of the Visiting Writer Series.
CA: First of all, congratulations on having “Dept. of Speculation” named one of the 2015 finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. How do you feel about the critical reception of your book?
I’ve been surprised and thrilled by the reception of this novel. I feel very lucky to have found so many readers.
CA: “Dept. of Speculation” is a master class in the craft of compression; each sentence packs a punch. And the white space seems to do just as much work as the text. How would you describe the relationship between text and blank space?
The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop offs before the wife runs off in another direction. I thought it would be too tiring to be in her head in an uninterrupted way.
The aphoristic quality of the sections developed because of that constraint, but I liked it and decided to heighten the effect. One of the things I was interested in was making the seemingly trivial domestic moments have the same weight as the more obviously philosophical ones. The aphoristic style helped me to put the mundane and the sublime fragments on the same plane.
In some ways, it’s analogous to the way a visual artist might think about or use negative space in a piece.
CA: Many have noted that the book’s suspenseful love story almost demands to be read in one sitting. Was this an effect you strove for? In other words, is page length something that you were conscious about when writing?
I love to read a book in one setting though I rarely manage it these days. I didn’t really think about it when I was writing Dept. of Speculation, at least not in terms of page length. Instead, I thought in terms of compression. I wondered what I could leave out while still keeping in all the essential things.
CA: You seamlessly incorporate many “fun facts” and allusions to other texts into your writing. The wife in “Dept. of Speculation” even has a job fact checking, something that seems to be directly in contrast to the concept of speculation. Where did you get your inspiration to find and include these facts? What do you make of your characters’—and the very human—need to understand the world and communicate with each other in an ordered way?
People like “fun facts” because for a moment they seem to reduce the irreducible world to something that is graspable. I’ve always been attracted to this kind of trivia.
As a little kid, I would read books like 1000 Impossible Facts or Bizarre Animal Trivia and basically, I still do.
CA: Though “Dept. of Speculation” is bursting with emotional tension and life struggles, it is also rings with a charm and humor that feels essential to this story. How do you balance the heartbreak with humor?
My favorite novels are funny and sad. One without the other can make a good book for me, but I need both to think it’s great. In my own writing, I use humor as a way to undercut the darkness of the novel and to show that the narrator is more self-aware than she initially seems.
CA: I’m interested in how you structured the novel. There are jumps back and forth in time, changes in perspective, and sometimes leaps of thought that could seem disjointed, yet still the book flows cohesively and logically forward. How did you achieve this and what was your thought process in structuring the book?
Once I found the form for Dept. of Speculation I wrote the narrative sections in a very pared down way, just as they are in the finished book. But the form took me awhile to find. At first, I didn’t understand why I kept moving back and forth between first and third POVs. But then I realized that the shifts in authorial distance exactly mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point in the story. After that, I understood how it fit together. It was as close as I came to a Eureka! Moment.
What I did whittle down was pages and pages of trivia on evolutionary biology, cosmonauts, stoic philosophy, mystics etc.
CA: This is a book that you spent a lot of time on. What was the revision process like? How did you know when it was finally “finished?”
Italo Calvino said “Revision is the subtraction of weight.” That is pretty much my philosophy when I revise. No novel ever seems finished to me, but sometimes I manage to allow one to be wrenched out of my hot little hands.
CA: What’s next?
I’m working on a new novel, due at the end of the year. I’m too superstitious to talk about it, but I’m thinking about it all the time.
Chelsea Horne is a staff writer for Café Americain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.