Bookforum talks with Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation (Vintage Contemporaries) BY Jenny Offill. Vintage. Paperback, 192 pages. $15.

When I recently tried to describe Jenny Offill's novel Dept. of Speculation to one of my closest friends, I told her it was the kind of book that should be boring but isn't. What I meant is that it's about parenting and adultery and a marriage between sensible-enough middle-class Americans, and that plot-wise nothing shocking or even particularly weird happens, but that reading it kept me up into the night, and at six in the morning, closing its covers, I felt invigorated instead of sleep-deprived. Faced with the task of explaining the book, though—of trying to describe the short paragraphs that have the quality of prose poems but work together to form chapters, paragraphs that often relay no sense of setting except that of the narrator's headspace and yet are rich in dimension—I am stumped. And rather than feeling the usual impulse to compare Offill to some other great writer, what comes to mind is shooting a gun. I mean that in learning to shoot a gun I became aware that there is a significant delay between the pulling of the trigger and the bullet firing; that inhabiting the delay feels like being suspended in time; and that to hit the target you have to keep from anticipating or willing the bang because that anxiety can affect your aim. In other words, to shoot well you have to cease to worry about the bullet. In Dept. of Speculation, Offill pulls the trigger and with Zen-like calm writes towards a bang that is not anticipated or willed but seems already to have been inevitably, matter-of-factly, set in motion. Many shots are fired. In the brain, the shots are like stars: A constellation forms. One is expected to try to describe the constellation when what intrigues is what can't really be described—the unusual and exhilarating experience of its formation.

Dept. of Speculation was recently released in paperback. I corresponded with Offill over email.

For me the person who immediately comes to mind, when reading your writing, is Virginia Woolf—not because your work closely resembles hers but because it has a similar kind of authenticity. Are you conscious of an influence?

The two biggest contemporary influences on my novel were Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson and Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever. The first for the swerves from the despairing to the ecstatic and the second for the rapid-fire delivery of a fragmented narrative. But yes, I love Woolf and read her a bunch at one point. The other book that informed this novel is John Berryman's Dream Songs. His poems blew me away when I first read them in college and continue to do so now.

People have said my novel is like Speedboat by Renata Adler and I do like that novel, but have only read it once, which for me isn't a lot. And I've never read the no-doubt amazing Elena Ferrante, who I am also sometimes compared to. I think I was worried that we were mining the same territory perhaps and so avoided her, but I just went and got her trilogy the other day.

Is anxiety about that sort of thing common for you? Have you intentionally avoided other writers or books?

I tend to read mostly nonfiction when I'm seriously working on a novel. It's not that I'm afraid of being influenced exactly, more that I have to believe (however delusionally) that I am following the compass of my own interests rather than being swayed by whatever is being raved about. Sometimes I reread books I've read before and love in hopes of better understanding their charms. Ultimately, that's all I really have as a writer, the idiosyncrasies of what I pay attention to and what I don't. "No new feelings," as that Chinese poet wrote in 812!

Have you had to deal with opposition to that? Have you had to go against the advice of other people to be true to your own compass?

Some people, all well-meaning, suggested that I should continue to revise the mediocre novel I had written instead of tearing it apart and redoing the whole thing. One called it "career suicide" to take several more years to start over after all the years that had already gone by. That gave me pause, of course, but I've never been very strategic when it comes to writing. I just fumble forward, hoping it will all come together in the end.

Did you plan for the conflict between making art and being a mother to be a major element of the book, or did it just evolve that way?

I don't think I was prepared for how ferocious parental love is. One of the things I found out rather quickly was that it was never about juggling or trying to have "balance" whatever the hell that is. For me, it was more about wanting to have emotionally intense, complex experiences in both arenas and finding that there wasn't enough room to feel it all simultaneously. Because of this, I chose to put my own work aside for some time, hoping I'd find my way back to my old life eventually.

But I can't claim I was incredibly sanguine about this choice. I still missed being a writer, being allowed to live in my head in that particular way. Yet at the same time, I was experiencing these glimmers of something sublime and irreducible about being so close to another person. It was like nothing I'd ever felt before. Terrifying and very exhilarating.

The form of this novel evolved because I wanted to create that whiplash feeling of the narrator living out these seemingly contradictory emotions in her daily life.

You write about yoga, and in a way the book reminds me of yoga: There's the sense that no matter what happens, beneath all this, or carrying it—no matter how uncomfortable or unhinged the main character is—there is a powerful and steady meditative state.

I don't know much about yoga, but I do intermittently meditate in the zazen style. There's no mantra or outside focus. In fact, zazen translates to "just sitting."

I think meditative practices are useful insofar as they teach you to become more sky than storm. You're meant to watch what emotions overtake and then watch them recede again. Also impermanence, detachment, blah, blah, blah.

I'm not particularly good at it, but zazen is enough like writing that I feel an affinity for it. Just sitting there alone waiting to see what comes up in your mind. I worry sometimes about how hard it must be for students to write now that they are so rarely alone. Stilling the chatter of your mind even when there is no outside input is difficult, but with calls and texts and all the other pings of the world it seems practically impossible.

I'm an only child so I think I learned to be alone in my head at a very early age. It's a helpful talent but can also be alienating to those around you.

The narrator experiences a lot of intrusion into her world. The child she loves and accepts is at the same time an interloper. The bedbugs are another sort of threat. They seem to precede the next big antagonist in the narrator's life, the person with whom her husband is having sex. How did you get the idea of bringing in the bedbugs?

When I was writing the novel, everyone in New York seemed obsessed with a fear of getting bedbugs. It was indeed going around but there was also a feeling of collective hysteria to it. I thought it made sense to use because it would add to the atmosphere of domestic claustrophobia.

How do you feel about the critical response to your novel?

I feel thrilled and more than a little lucky to have gotten so much attention. Publishing is not, and has never been, a complete meritocracy. Lots of great work gets overlooked or lost. I think it is our job as writers and readers to seek out new and little-known writers as well as to weigh in on those who are (temporarily) in the spotlight like me. Just read and read until you find something that makes you remember how good a book can be.

April Ayers Lawson's short-story collection, Virgin, is forthcoming from Faber & Faber.