How Much Could Be Left Unsaid: An Interview with Jenny Offill


At Work


Issue 207 of The Paris Review included Jenny Offill’s story “Magic and Dread,” an excerpt from her new novel, Dept. of Speculation, published earlier this year. James Wood called it “a novel that’s wonderfully hard to encapsulate, because it faces in many directions at the same time, and glitters with different emotional colors.” Offill is the author of the novel Last Things, and the coeditor, with Elissa Schappell, of two anthologies of essays. She has also written several children’s books, including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore, 11 Experiments That Failed, and Sparky! She teaches writing at Queens University, Brooklyn College, and Columbia University.

For the narrator of your novel, the wife, there’s a lot of conjecture going on—guessing how to write a book, how to be in a marriage, how to raise a child, how to bear the time of writing a book. Do you consider writing to be a fundamentally speculative act?

One of the odd things about being a writer is that you never reach a point of certainty, a point of mastery where you can say, Right. Now I understand how this is done. That is why so many talented people stop writing. It’s hard to tolerate this not-knowing. It’s hard to tolerate feeling like an idiot or an imposter, and it gets harder as the years tick by. 

But I would argue that this feeling of uncertainty is actually the best practice you could have for the other important things you will do in your life. No one ever masters falling in love or being a parent or losing someone close to him. And who would want to master such things, really? Wandering through the woods, looking for a sudden sunlit clearing, that’s the most interesting part of it.

As I read Dept. of Speculation, I kept thinking about the relationship between the blocks of text and the empty space that separates them.

The blank spaces in Dept. of Speculation are meant to provide a place for the reader to enter more fully into the book. The wife is a narrator who hesitates and loops back, then leaps forward again. There is a jittery quality to her thoughts that I was trying to capture. To that end, I thought a lot about how much could be left unsaid in this narrative without sacrificing emotional velocity. If I had wanted to fill in those spaces, I know exactly what I’d put in there.

At one point in Dept. of Speculation, the narrator shares her student evaluations. “She is a good teacher but VERY anecdotal. No one would call her organized … She acts as if writing has no rules.” All these observations could be applied to your work, either as criticism or as praise.

Yes, it was a bit of a joke, of course. I only ever got one of those as an evaluation—the anecdotal one—but after teaching for many years you get a feel for what your students like or don’t about you. I’m very disorganized. I can’t operate a simple stapler successfully and I still xerox things upside down. My students patiently endure all of this.

But the last one—“She acts like writing has no rules”—was a springboard into something bigger, this idea that there are verifiable dos and don’ts in fiction. I don’t believe this at all. If you have enough authority, you can do anything you want.

That said, I did break a secret rule of my own with this book, which is to never ever write about someone who is a writer or a writing teacher. Because who cares? Generally, smart novelists get around this by making their protagonist a painter or a photographer or a documentary filmmaker. That little feint seems to placate the critics.

Your writing is full of allusions to and quotations of other texts. Coleridge, Kafka, Thomas Edison, Carl Sagan. What role does intertextuality play in your writing, and how did you decide to incorporate these particular texts?

Oh, I collect facts and quotes when I can’t write, and I can’t write most of the time. I do a little chance operation sometimes where I flip through outdated reference books to see if anything will strike me as beautiful or momentous. Library roulette, I call it.

I recently read an Enrique Vila-Matas essay on his theory of the novel. He claims that one of the essential features of the twenty-first-century novel will be the triumph of style over plot. When you’re writing, how much are you interested in story, and how much are you interested in form? Does one precede the other?

Fuck the plot, as Edna O’Brien said. What I try to capture as a writer is the feeling of being alive, of being awake. Because of this, I’m more apt to follow the wisp of a thought or a half-glimpsed image than chart a sequential series of events. But I absolutely believe in momentum. Momentum is not plot, but it has that same quality of urgency and forward motion, I think.

Vila-Matas again—“Let’s not kid ourselves; we write in the wake of others.” In whose wake do you write? 

I write in the wake of all the writers and thinkers mentioned in the novel. This novel in particular was influenced by the work of Mary Robison and David Markson. But I list more of the jumping-off points on my Web site under the section called Half a Library.

Rilke appears a few times in Speculation, but one quotation especially resonated with me. “Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further.”

Yes, I love that quote. It seems very true to me. Always the danger for me in life and in art is not to be brave. I am not a naturally brave person. I have to will myself not to hole up in my house and read my life away.