A depiction of the four stages of a human life can be seen in the image above. It begins with infancy, progresses to childhood, matures into adulthood, and then finally reaches old age. Each stage is marked by its own specific challenges and experiences.
I can’t recall exactly when I first encountered Renee Gladman, but I have had her books and the ones she released under her Leroy and Leon Works labels in my collection since I learnt what “experimental writing” and “small press” meant – terms which only partially represent our overlapping literary realms.
As a black lesbian writer and publisher, Renee’s presence both challenged and showed the comparative whiteness of the community I found myself a part of. Her sentences and ideas won my admiration, and I quickly became a huge fan.
Our friendship started around a decade ago when we were both part of the Bard MFA program. As housemates as well as faculty colleagues, we began having ongoing conversations about things like which books to recommend to students, shared recipes, and conversations about writing practices whilst making trips to the wine store.
When I was invited by The Believer to converse with Renee, I decided to stay overnight in her light-filled converted barn in the New England town she shared with her partner, the writer Danielle Vogel.
Our time together included a walk, a tour of their art and literature collections, and Renee’s drawings, which are a major part of her creative endeavors. We also had dinner at the local eatery and stayed late drinking wine.
In the morning, over coffee, Renee continued to work on a drawing while we recorded our discussion. Our talk was mainly about Renee’s 2017 book, Houses of Ravicka, and her new manuscript–her “lesbian novel”–as well as my published novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love.
Houses is the latest installment in her celebrated and influential series about Ravicka, a fictional city-country, and its inhabitants. This series also features Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013).
Houses was a project that began in 2008 and was not completed until 2017, with long breaks in between. During this time, Ana Patova and Calamities, a collection of essays on the process of day-to-day living, was released.
The story follows Ravicka’s comptroller, who is tasked with taking careful readings (“geoscogs”) of the city’s buildings and houses. Each building is connected to an unseen twin in another area, and the comptroller must keep them aligned.
This presented a problem to Renee, a writer who usually discovers the narrative of her work as she goes along. In the afterword for_ Houses_, she mentions that no. 96 was not in the place it should have been, so there was no way of knowing if no. 32 was in the right spot.
This “intoxicating” puzzle caused a prolonged pause in writing, and she was left to ask herself “Why couldn’t I, in fiction, discover the location of the missing house in the same manner as the reader might?”
During the same period in which Eleanor was written, I put Renee’s work, Houses, aside numerous times. I finished my final draft during the week of the 2016 election, and Renee completed hers just a few months later in January 2017.
In her words, the understanding she reached when she went back to Houses was, in part, “on a deep level, a way to endure the current political and social atrocities, and a way for me to mark on a map where I am in the world.”
She observed that the missing house was “where I am, and likely where many of us are: somewhere where the border between places has been destroyed.” However, that place of destruction, “is also a place of refracting light, of inconceivable angles.”
At the 2018 &Now and Whenever It’s Needed Festival of New Writing in Notre Dame, Indiana, Renee had been invited to give one of two keynote addresses to close out the conference.
On the day of the event, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court had been decided, and the auditorium we were gathered in had the atmosphere of a courtroom.
Renee opened her speech by sharing her feelings of being triggered by the setting, and then a fellow writer in the audience let out a beautiful and haunting wail.
After this, Renee smiled and then proceeded to give an inspiring talk about her new work, a short story and essay about feminism and kinship, which gave a sense of hope and positivity to the otherwise windowless room.
–Anna Moschovakis is the author of this text
I was eager to speak to you about the experience of writing your first novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, after having read it. As you had mainly written poetry prior to this, were you still able to access the same thought processes, or were you intrigued by the idea of exploring something new?
At the beginning of the process, Anna Moschovakis approached the writing of her novel in a similar way to how she writes her poems.
When she reads the work of other authors, she is often able to detect hints of what was happening in their lives or in the world when they wrote.
This same method is what she used when drafting her novel. She had no plan for the plot and would let her imagination take over, wondering where Eleanor should go next and then allowing her to do so.
In the books of yours, that feeling of closeness to the life of the writer–the writing period, the relationship between the writing time and the written time–seems similar to how I view the process of poetry, where there’s an energy between those two elements (in contrast to a story that may have been totally pre-planned).
I was really interested in the afterword to Houses of Ravicka. It’s great to know how long it took for the piece to be composed, and to be reminded that other things are taking place in the meantime. It’s really beautiful.
And I believe you utilized the term politics , which is not present in the book.
AM: As if you’re considering a change in how visible certain elements are, in terms of salience?–which can also mean they are always moving around within the text. We can then add the dimension of when the text is being read to the timeframe in which it was written and composed.
I was considering how to incorporate present-tense happenings into narrative and how this might tie in with genre in fiction and its associated expectations.
For instance, Houses of Ravicka kicks off as a detective novel, which I found fascinating. It hooks the reader in and keeps them turning the page.
I gave it a go.
AM: This work appears to be utilizing a narrative approach that is distinct from the other Ravicka books.
In my afterword, I acknowledged that this was one of the issues I faced. Ultimately, I needed to pinpoint the location of the unaccounted-for house.
Yes, was the affirmative response.
RG experienced a powerful response to the situation–perhaps there’s another approach to it where they wouldn’t have to be aware of it, but it was really a genre-based problem they faced. It was like, “Oh, I’m meant to know the location of the house, but I’m not aware of it”.
I feel as if I am expected to comprehend the world, as I am the one who created it.
RG confirmed the point made.
My purpose for writing is to try and make sense of the world.
RG pondered if they would comprehend anything by the time they were done. It was impossible to write something without having any prior knowledge of it, which seemed so bizarre.
That was the essence of fiction, creating something out of nothing, as well as documenting the process of discovery.
I noticed a difference in how displacement and sublimation are used in fiction and poetry when writing my novel.
Poems can be a place for disembodied thought, allowing for things that are important to be placed directly in the poem.
When writing a novel, however, a writer needs to be able to take their own thoughts and emotions and make them applicable to the characters and their settings. If the writer is unable to do this, then their work will feel lifeless and stagnant.
RG: I am intrigued by what you have been expounding on regarding this transposition. Would you be able to explain how it is implemented in the novel Eleanor, or? Could you elaborate on how the current emotions and atmosphere at the time of writing are expressed in the book?
I had the idea of leaving “the thing that had happened” to Eleanor’s past without actually specifying it, as a way of showing without telling.
People have asked me what “the thing” was for Eleanor, and some have asked if I had a “thing” that came before I wrote the novel. What’s funny is that I did, but I won’t discuss it.
However, during the process of writing, I got focused on something else: I had been trying to become a parent for a long time and I reached a breaking point while writing the book, but I didn’t want to talk about it in the novel.
This fact that one emotional point for the “thing” was replaced by another one during the writing process got me thinking about how backstories can be interchangeable, when we are more interested in the effect of something, not its cause.
RG affirmed in agreement.
Through my writing, I had accidentally crafted a protagonist who was not determined to become a mother.
Her sorrow was something that would remain mysterious and unexplained, and it is uncertain if even the author character of the book, the one writing Eleanor’s story, was aware of what caused it.
In life, there are small moments that are felt, such as embarrassment or a fleeting crush on a stranger.
To write fiction, one takes this feeling and muses upon how it could be experienced differently by another person in a different environment. By contrast, when writing poetry, the goal is to work through the emotion in the poem itself.
RG’s writings pose the inquiry of what does a poem represent in prose form.
A.M. affirms that they do.
My writing is often in the form of novels or fictional pieces due to the fact that I’m exploring certain emotions and thoughts in my brain, and this translates into words. As I keep using sentences, a story starts to come together.
I don’t alter the backdrop or my writing style in every sentence, so something gradually builds. The main motivation behind my writing is using prose as a thinking tool.
AM: Absolutely, that’s great.
RG found themselves in a creative rut when they realized they had to move on from Houses and couldn’t figure out their next step for a long period of time.
As I was pondering, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge seemed to have come together more simply, yet there’s still a figure in motion going through a backdrop. However, I’m unsure if this is about delineating.
I’m not demanding that this idea must be a poem. I’m saying I want this concept to be as much associated with prose as it is with poetry.
AM: It is my belief that anything is achievable in both fiction and poetry. What you said just now was so intriguing: the formation of a character occurs due to the continuity of language.
When penning poetry, I often find that the unacknowledged figure is myself, however, I’m generally unaware of my exact position.
The positive and frustrating task of writing a story is the need to determine the bodies, putting them into motion, without having a clue where the journey will end.
RG has a different experience when writing poetry compared to their current project, a lesbian novel.
With poetry, they discover where they are in their writing, while with the novel they have to set the scene, telling readers what the house looks like and how the character moves from one place to another.
They understand why people often have to decide whether something is poetry or fiction, even though it can be reductive, and they refer to themselves as a poet due to the awareness of how language works and how they construct it.
AM: What is it about this particular book about lesbians that makes it necessary for you to take this approach, unlike the other books?
I started by mentioning that I was working on a lesbian romance novel, as I had a clear idea of what I was doing. Unlike the situation of writing a book where a house vanishes unexpectedly, which I was incredibly intrigued by.
Indeed, AM agreed.
RG suggested that due to the current widespread representation of lesbianism on television, they could compose a novel that both highlights the topic and is entertaining.
A “Wow!” was the response.
The notion that it appears in every show makes one think that it is mostly men, as well as queer women, who are captivated by female characters kissing each other on the screen.
AM stated that they believe all people are feeling the same way.
A rejuvenation is taking place.
As I worked on my novel, I realized how vulnerable I felt as I explored the realm of fantasy.
RG: Could you explain the concept of fantasy to me?
I often express to others in discussion that I find the idea of writing and releasing fiction to be more nerve-wracking than producing and releasing poetry. This is humorous as my poetry is quite revealing–
People often consider poetry as more expressive than other forms of writing.
AM: I often feel apprehensive about sharing my poetry with others, being concerned of potential judgement and lack of understanding.
Nevertheless, writing fiction can be particularly uncomfortable, particularly due to the nature of fantasy.
When writing poetry, I only have to accept that I have had these thoughts, however, with fiction that has an established setting and story, it also means that I imagined these scenes, which can sometimes put a person in the realm of fantasy, regardless of if it is sexual or not.
RG expressed that the concept of imagining scenes is at the heart of their uncertainty in writing fiction. It can be easy to acknowledge it when a book is finished, but more difficult to comprehend in the beginning.
They feel they are moving with the narrator when crafting the Ravicka novels, seeing what they see, if slightly delayed.
To write this novel, they believe the power of imagination needs to be the main focus, yet when they started it, they felt they blew it. Instead of beginning a story, they launched straight into an interview.
A discussion between two parties was conducted, with one being the interviewer and the other the person being interviewed.
RG: I’m the one being interviewed. The novel starts out with the question, “How would you commence your novel with a lesbian theme?” The attempt to write a conventional, smart love story has already gone wrong due to the insertion of a metafictional aspect.
AM suggested that beginning with a framework would be advantageous because it would provide an outlet for discussing the writing process within the writing. Nonetheless, he maintained that this would not mean it could not become an exciting read; he noted that more detail would need to be included for that to be accomplished.
RG: Please provide more information.
AM: Focus on the creation of the scene. Not how she made her way to the café, but what goes on when she’s there. This is different from, for example, the approach in Houses of Ravicka, where only a few lines are devoted to describing the sex.
Indeed, that is correct.
I recall reading a certain scene where it was hinted in only a few words that two individuals were drinking one another’s liquids, and I realized they were being intimate. It was brilliantly done without being too explicit.
RG: Yes, let’s take it a bit slower.
Visualizing the meeting, discussing the meeting…
AM: Perhaps “detail” is not a precise word; I’m searching for a phrase that implies a great depth or total involvement.
RG: I completely understand your point, it’s currently the most difficult part for me: determining the words to use.
I also wanted to place the story in a real world setting, so the novel is located in Manhattan. I received a few tips–some from you–regarding fiction set in New York City, and I wanted to know how much detail I would need to include when describing the setting.
Can you portray a city without providing specific location details such as streets?
AM: I’m also very passionate about this. Could you please explain what you mean when you say you want it to be in Manhattan; what does that signify? The Jokers written by Albert Cossery, which I translated, takes place in Alexandria, although it is never specified.
Affirmative sound uttered in agreement.
Those who are familiar with Alexandria would be capable of recognizing it.
Indeed, that is correct.
AM inquired as to why the author wishes to set their new work in Manhattan, and what that signifies to them. They asked how this differs from setting the novel in a non-specific place.
RG began with the concept of writing a mainstream, realistic novel. Initially, he considered setting it in his hometown of Providence, RI, however he decided this would not be feasible due to the small size of the city.
The protagonist is an architect-builder who creates models for an architect, and the people around her are all artists. Scenes take place in galleries, and the main character herself is a line artist. This led him to decide the tale should take place in New York.
Affirmative response was given.
I have a greater familiarity with RG than with other cities, such as Los Angeles. When I was creating this project, I wanted to make sure that it was firmly rooted in reality and that the end result was far removed from the other projects I had worked on.
I find this one to be more noteworthy than the other distinctions you have enumerated.
RG: Is it situated in a particular place?
AM commented that it can be difficult to decide to what extent they should take into account the rapid transformation of cities and the different lifestyles that come with it. He pointed out that when one considers Manhattan, it is related to every book that has been written about the city.
Do I need to be the one to label what is currently present, or is it enough to simply point out our location?
As a reader, I’m very fond of the way you handle the names in your Ravicka books. There are three different kinds of place names, with some being quite recognizable, such as Ljubljana and Poland, some that may or may not be made up, and some that seem to allude to language or place origins based on their consonants.
RG: What type of language is the second category, in which it appears to be fabricated but not of Slavic origin?
AM suggests that speculative fiction is an imaginary world with fictitious names. However, these unreal realms are often a blend of multiple existing locations and the words are an adaptation of existing languages.
RG affirmed in agreement.
AM: I take pleasure in the concept of having one foot in the “real” world, but not entirely submerged in it. It’s a way of pointing to the world and questioning it without being too distracted to consider my location and the year I’m in. For me, this concept of time-place is particularly hard to pin down, especially in regards to Manhattan in either 2017 or 2018.
Due to the fact that I am not in New York City currently, I cannot come.
III. “HAVING MORE HOLES AND SHIFTING”
AM: When it comes to representing the reality of people and their lives, I noticed my character walking down the street, and questioned if it truly reflected a person like her day-to-day.
To craft Eleanor, or, I didn’t set it in a particular year, but instead chose to span the five years it took to write the book.
I used news events to set the tone and establish the era, all while keeping the story in an unnamed year. I’m uncertain if it worked out the way I wanted, yet I do believe there is a feeling of eras in cities and countries. Is this issue of representation something that worries you?
In the opening interview, I mention that I’m not sure about my protagonist since I’m writing about her and she’s not like other girls.
She wears a blazer and skinny jeans with boots, and I even say “(it’s cut like blah blah)” because I have to look up the appropriate description. I also never talk about characters’ appearances, which comes up in the interview too.
I am trying to comprehend the challenges that come with writing a novel of this kind; it is helpful in terms of lengthening the story, but it’s strange to create a whole new character. I am usually more comfortable with characters that are more mutable and transient.
AM inquires about the presence of the author in the novels, asking if the writing is not auto-fiction but still has a consciousness that is neither completely fictional nor completely factual.
AM brings up Houses as an example, where gender and racial identity are only revealed late in the book. AM then inquires if it is necessary to make all the decisions about a character’s identity clear from the start.
RG recounts his experience at a Brooklyn art gallery opening, which was full of “beautiful, quirky black people” in a way he had never seen before.
He then goes on to describe the scene at a gallery event in Hudson, New York, which he attended with the interviewer. He wonders if the interviewer feels a sense of belonging with the “predominantly black” crowd, and if there is a certain identity associated with it.
AM: But not one that’s too obvious, right?
RG expressed feeling uncomfortable with identifying a character’s race, other than their nationality of Ravickian. He couldn’t explain why he felt this way, but acknowledged that it was a part of his psychology.
When I bring up the term allegory –which I am not knowledgeable about its usages– I think of your Ravickian books and how it portrays a kind of tribalism. Even when you write about a character’s skin color, you use a metaphor instead of a literal description.
RG: The flavor of hazelnut.
AM: Agreed. Nevertheless, the identity categories are pointed out to the reader to envision, and there are inquiries of influence and inquiries of superiority, and there are inquiries of distinguishing a certain collective of identities and of not grasping their practices.
RG exclaimed as they arrived at the restaurant, “This is a lifestyle I’m now living!”
AM: You brought up being the only African American person in the vicinity as soon as we started conversing.
I am cognizant that I am creating this fictitious Eastern European land called Ravicka, but I am aware that I cannot write any black people into it.
Nonetheless, when I mention that its people are brown-skinned, it implies an impossibility and it is something that is never discussed – the race or complexion of the Ravickians.
When it comes to penning down your books, what do you have in mind?
RG mentioned that when they put in the small details, no one would deny it because it was right. However, it wouldn’t be logical for them to be brown in their specified location.
I was thinking about novels like Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson or Anne Garreta’s Sphinx, where the gender of the narrator is not specified.
We still live in a world where the neutral is the white man, so when an author chooses to write a character without gender, the effect of this depends on who is writing and why.
If a market-research survey was conducted and people were asked to describe the identity of an “architect, successful architect, mid-forties, Manhattan”, the majority of people would probably say the character is white.
It is likely to be a male.
I’m curious if it’s possible to write a commercially viable novel while still being true to your identity, and not revealing the race of any of the characters.
But, at the same time, to insert elements that challenge the reader’s ideas, and create a rupture that is different for each individual depending on their background and how they read. Is it possible to be intentionally and productively non-identifying, or is it just the absence of something?
I’m not sure if I’d be comfortable with deliberately avoiding any discussion of race as it would mean I’d have to talk about all the topics I don’t usually mention in regards to race.
AM: Is this the case in general or only with the new book?
RG commented that, since the interviewee is being questioned, it would be difficult to avoid responding to the question of her race.
The interviewer is likely to bring it up, and she answers that she is not sure yet, but she can offer what she does know. RG anticipates that the interviewer would likely come back to the topic.
AM: Contemplating the concept of not disclosing the data is something you are already doing.
RG shared that they must write as a black writer, being aware that everyone they see is white. Additionally, they recognize the need to write as a white person in a way as well.
AM agreed emphatically.
RG discussed how strange it is to be with someone and recognize the racial difference between them. He believes that he and Danielle, who is white, in some way resemble each other because they spend so much time together.
Ultimately, RG believes that this should be taken into consideration when it comes to writing.
AM: I recall you voicing something similar to me before, expressing how the person you spend the most time with is the one who shapes your visual world.
I recently had this same experience in my feminist reading group where, instead of the other women, it was just me and three men at the table.
They were all seated on one side, opposite of me, and I felt what I know you experience all the time: that I am looking at them and seeing only a singular entity.
However, they believed they were in a blended environment because I was the only one who was not like them. So, they thought, “Oh, this is cool, we’re very mixed.” I’m in other situations with men sometimes, but this was a feminist reading group…
RG noted that Danielle believes she inhabits a divergent environment because she cohabitates with a person of a different skin colour.
AM: That’s true because in her reality, the population isn’t entirely Caucasian.
RG confirmed his agreement eagerly.
When I mentioned it to the group of men, they all seemed pleased that I had brought it up, expressing things such as “Oh, I’m glad you pointed that out.”
RG: Now, if I may return us to our previous topic, what are your thoughts on writing more fiction as you analyze Eleanor, or?
AM: I’ve recently began writing something new, a work of prose with a setting, plot, and characters. It’s more…
Question: “Do you have any interior design experience?”
AM: Yes, I’m also writing poetry. I experienced stress when I was getting this book published as we discussed regarding fantasy and representing it accurately.
I’m concerned that any mistakes I make will be seen and could be viewed as misrepresentation. I’m uncertain if or when I should attempt this again, or if it will be easier next time.
RG: What error do you fear the most?
AM: That is something I need to consider. I don’t fear making an error and in the kind of writing I enjoy, this is a fundamental theme.
You know there is a saying that “walking is a controlled fall”? Maybe writing is a kind of controlled blunder or stumbling: a way to make sense out of the perpetual process of being wrong or taking a risk of being wrong.
This is, of course, an educational process – like learning to walk. In this way, I think I am dealing with this fear in some way as we speak. What about you – is there a mistake that you are most afraid of?
I am concerned that by not completing my novel, I will be neglecting an important part of my life. In the past, I have only ever left a few tasks unfinished, and those were eventually revisited in some fashion.
If I never finish my lesbian novel, I can at least take comfort in the fact that parts of it will have been documented in this discussion.
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