Jill Alexander Essbaum is the author of Hausfrau, the striking debut novel of marriage, fidelity, sex, and morality, featuring a fascinating heroine who struggles to live a life with meaning.
Gina Frangello is the author of four works of fiction, including Every Kind of Wanting and A Life in Men. She co–founded and served as the executive editor for many years at Other Voices Books, and has also been the fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown and the Sunday editor of The Rumpus.
Gina Frangello: 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 wordplay, the whole shebang. And so that’s what I wrote for a long time. I here–and–thered essays for journals for a while, 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.
GF: 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 countries 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 husbands’ 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” has and hasn’t changed?
JAE: It never occurred to me that I was making a statement about anyone’s situation other than Anna’s (and, to a degree, my own). On the surface, that’s an extremely naïve thing to have thought, so boo on me. On the other hand, if I’d 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 named 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.
GF: 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 matter 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?
JAE: 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.
GF: 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 price for her indiscretions—-her sins—-and that the novel serves as a cautionary tale about 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 the book will be read as a tale of moral reinforcement for the status quo?
JAE: 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 punch line 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 as 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.
GF: 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?
JAE: 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 eaten 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 forty–three 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 not to freak out if I start crying in the middle of workshop—-it just means they’re moving me.
GF: 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?
JAE: You know what? It is easier to be a woman now, today, here in Texas at forty–three 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 Swiss, did have his own set of friends and circumstances and reasons for belonging. And yet I’d longed to live an 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.
GF: 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?
JAE: 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.
GF: 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, a 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 than your character Anna’s. I’m interested in your own feelings about female friendships and their role in your life and writing.
JAE: I’m still quite close with a couple of women whom 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.
GF: 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?
JAE: 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!
This interview originally appeared on TheRumpus.net.
Susan Lewis, author of the novel, No Place to Hide–an intimate and deeply moving story of one woman’s desperate attempt to escape a troubled past–and the haunting mystery she’s forced to confront–has written a letter to readers about the joys of writing the book. Read on…
The question I’ve been asked most frequently since I began the research for this book, and throughout the writing of it, is, “How on earth did you, a Brit, come to choose Culver, Indiana, for a setting?”
It’s a good question, given that my experience of living in the States has, to date, all been in Los Angeles, and the US cities I’ve visited are all major centers in their
However, I never seem to tire of reading about smaller towns and communities in the States, particularly those in the Midwest, when I get a real sense of who and what America is really all about. As I’m British, it would be hard for me to do full justice to that without going to live in a small town for a considerable period of time, so in this instance I enlisted the help of a dear friend in LA, Chip Mitchell, to set me on the right road.
It took no time at all, for when I asked Chip if he could recommend a small town in the Midwest to set my story, he immediately put me in touch with his aunt and uncle, Dorry and Channing Mitzell, who have a long history with the Culver Academies and continue to live in Culver. I had no idea at that time what an absolute jewel of a place he was connecting me with, how unusual and inspirational it would turn out to be, or how enthusiastically his family and their many friends in Culver were going to embrace the story. Actually, I shouldn’t really have been so surprised, as I’ve met many Americans during my travels around the world, and so have much experience of just how engaged and even gallant they can be. (I’ve been rescued from many a tight corner by an American, from Morocco to Manila, but that’s for another time!)
So I traveled to Culver, hoping and praying that I was doing the right thing. After all, I’m not American, and the way of life in the Midwest was surely going to be very different from anything I’d experienced in the States to date. I needed to have no fear. Within minutes of arriving I found myself standing on a secluded beach at the top end of town, gazing out at the mesmerizing waters of Lake Maxincuckee toward the glittering, multimillion–dollar homes on the far shore. (If you’ve already read the book, you will know that it is from this spot that I chose to begin the story). It was impossible not to be moved by such a peaceful and yet intriguingly different setting from the one I’d envisaged in my mind’s eye. There was already something about this place that was getting to me.
Within a very short time I found myself, thanks to the Mitzells, actually meeting characters I’d already devised in my head: Susie Mahler, owner of Café Max and real estate agent; Jeff Kenney, editor of the Culver Citizen; Wayne Bean, chief of police; Marcia Adams, writer and longtime resident of Culver; and Sallie Jo Tardy Mitzell, who so generously took time from her busy schedule in Indianapolis to cruise us around the lake in her boat and introduce us to her family’s dreamy cottage on the South Shore.
Among the many experiences and enlightening conversations I enjoyed during my stay, there are two that stand out as firsts for me: giving a talk to a creative
writing group from the Culver Girls Academy, wonderful students, an absolute privilege to spend time with. And the invitation to be part of an exercise that would never happen in Britain, and one can only feel sad that it does in the United States: shooter training at the local elementary and high schools. That really was a surreal experience.
Another surreal but totally divine experience was Dorry Channing’s coffee cake, so good that it has a mention in the book, and I can only hope she bakes again the next time I’m in Culver.
Though many of my earlier books have whole chapters set in various parts of the States, this is the first time I’ve located so much of a book in a place I didn’t know before. I’d love to write more set in America, so I’m very interested to know how well, or not, you feel I have portrayed this small town and the mainly fictional people I’ve used to bring it to life.
A very warm thank-you for reading this one, and I hope it’s left you interested enough to explore some more of my books.
Following one of the most critically acclaimed fiction debuts in years,New York Times bestselling author Tom Rachman returns with a brilliant, intricately woven novel about a young woman who travels the world to make sense of her puzzling past.
Tooly Zylberberg, the American owner of an isolated bookshop in the Welsh countryside, conducts a life full of reading, but with few human beings. Books are safer than people, who might ask awkward questions about her life. She prefers never to mention the strange events of her youth, which mystify and worry her still.
Taken from home as a girl, Tooly found herself spirited away by a group of seductive outsiders, implicated in capers from Asia to Europe to the United States. But who were her abductors? Why did they take her? What did they really want? There was Humphrey, the curmudgeonly Russian with a passion for reading; there was the charming but tempestuous Sarah, who sowed chaos in her wake; and there was Venn, the charismatic leader whose worldview transformed Tooly forever. Until, quite suddenly, he disappeared.
Years later, Tooly believes she will never understand the true story of her own life. Then startling news arrives from a long-lost boyfriend in New York, raising old mysteries and propelling her on a quest around the world in search of answers.
Use these discussion questions to take your book club’s exploration of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers to the next level…
1. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers opens and closes with the character of Fogg. Why do you think this is? What does seeing Tooly through Fogg’s eyes do for us as readers? What do you imagine lies in their future?
2. Tooly keeps twenty–first–century technology at arm’s length. How do you think her upbringing might influence her relationship to technology?
3. Do you understand Humphrey’s dislike of “made–up stories”? What is the effect of having a character express this opinion within a novel?
4. Tooly wonders what it would have been like to live in “an important era.” Do you agree that the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty–first was an era of “relative calm, after all the proper history had ended”? What do you think makes an era important?
5. Tooly worries that there isn’t a “pure state of Tooly–ness.” Did you find Tooly an exceptionally malleable character? Do you think all people have the capacity to take on new personalities? Have you started anew at any point in your life?
6. Tom Rachman deliberately withholds plot information from the reader through nonlinear storytelling. When did you first begin to piece the story of Tooly’s life together? When were you truly surprised?
7. What are some of the different con games characters play on each other? Can you think of instances when a con was mistaken for love, or love mistaken for a con? Are there any moments when you felt that Tooly crossed a moral line?
8. This book is full of fathers and father figures: Paul, Venn, Humphrey, Duncan. Who do you think is the best father? The worst? How might each man’s own childhood have influenced his ideas about family and duty? Who do you think shaped (or engineered) Tooly the most?
9. In 2011, Duncan and his friends are leading very different lives than Tooly expected them to in 1999. How did their dreams as college students and their realities as adults diverge? Why does this surprise Tooly? In what ways is she unlike them?
10. Venn is described as “a being wrought of his own will, belonging to nothing.” What do you think is most important to Venn? Why do you think he drives Tooly away at the end?
11. Do you agree with Venn that Tooly was in love with him?
12. Humphrey calls Tooly “the favorite person of my life.” What are the limitations and the strengths of their relationship? How would Tooly describe what Humphrey means to her in 1988? In 1999? In 2011?
Deb Caletti, the author of The Secrets She Keeps, a beautiful novel about three women coming to terms with love and marriage, has written you, her readers a note. Read on…
Dear Reader –
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years from my many book events, it’s this: We readers understand each other. We can come from different parts of the world and have varying life experiences, but get us into a room talking about our favorite reads, our stack of books turning into a nightstand, and we are all from the very same place. Let me tell you, friends, we can get pretty heated about whether one should fold down the corner of the page to keep our place or not. We are deliciously book-greedy, and we rant and gush and get choked up about the words that have moved us.
I am a reader even before I am a writer, so when I sat down to write The Secrets She Keeps, coming from Random House on July 7th, it was with a reader’s desires as well as a writer’s. I wanted to create a book that you’d read a little slower to make it last longer (do you know that feeling? I love that feeling!), with lines that made you think, and characters you related to and rooted for as the pages turned. I really wanted that satisfying sigh at the end.
The Secrets She Keeps is about two sisters with troubled marriages who gather at their aunt’s now crumbling Nevada “divorce ranch.” The story is told in alternating time periods – one summer at the present-day ranch, and the summer of 1951, a summer of secrets, when high-society women and Hollywood celebs stayed at such ranches to establish residency and secure difficult-to-get divorces. The Secrets She Keeps reflects contemporary life and marriage as we know it, yet it is also full of Mad Men-esque glamour, desert dust and wild mustangs, cowboys and majestic scenery. More than those things, though, it is a book about the power of female friendships, about self-discovery, and resilience. It’s a story about love – its timeless troubles, and its stubborn, enduring joys.
Thank you for being part of The Secrets She Keeps, dear fellow readers. I’m excited to share this one with you. I hope, hope, hope you sigh at the end. And, for the record, please fold down any corner that you wish.
Fleeing her native England with her three-year-old daughter, Justine Cantrell gives herself a new name and a new life in America. In a quiet midwestern town on the shores of glittering Lake Maxinkuckee, Justine hopes to recapture the fleeting days of happiness in the long-ago summers she spent with her grandmother. And though her memories of that time are scant, Justine knows they must have shared a special bond. After all, the power of her grandmother’s love has pulled her back to this haven in search of a new beginning.
But fate has other plans. The more Justine gets to know the small town and its people, the more she realizes that her grandmother had her own devastating secrets—secrets that will soon threaten Justine just as surely as her own dark memories.
If you’ve been reading with your book club or on your own, let these questions help you get thinking about the novel…
1. The subject of violence among children is central to the plot of this novel. Discuss violence in schools. What causes it? How can it be stopped?
2. How well do you feel Susan Lewis captured life in America? How does her experience living in Britain color her view of American life? Does her “outsider” status afford her unique insight, or are there elements of midwestern life that must be lived to be understood?
3. What do you think of Justine’s decision to leave England? Would you have done the same in her position?
4. Who surprised you most in this novel? Why?
5. Justine’s memories of England and of summers spent with her grandmother in Indiana are driving forces in this novel. Describe the function of memory and the past. How do Justine’s memories influence her decisions?
6. Both Justine and Grandma May kept carefully guarded secrets. Compare and contrast their secrets and their motivations for hiding them. In what ways are Justine and her grandmother similar? How are they different? Are there any parallels between their experiences?
7. Discuss Justine and Matt’s relationship. What were its primary strengths? Weaknesses?
8. Discuss the themes of prejudice and bullying among schoolchildren that come into play in this novel. What, if anything, could have changed in order for Ben’s experience to be different?
9. How would you describe Justine as a mother? How is her relationship with Tallulah different from her relationship with Ben? How is it similar? Did Justine inherit any parenting styles from her own mother?
10. What is the community in Culver like? How do Justine’s friends in America differ from her friends in England? Are there any particular qualities they have in common?
11. The theme of escaping the past is prominent in this novel. Can we ever truly escape the past? Is it possible to have a fresh start, or do we always carry our emotional baggage with us?