INTERVIEW: Elisa Albert, author of After Birth

It’s not an uncommon experience, when reading a novel, to wonder: when is this thing going to take off? When is someone going to slip a quarter into the jukebox and let this novel start singing? That is not a question one asks when reading Elisa Albert. From the very first page of After Birth, Albert comes out swinging, singing, with remarkable control and beguiling style. Her narrator, Ari, is instantly captivating, with a voice so distinct and idiosyncratic as to be unforgettable. The language dazzles from sentence to sentence, inviting hysterical laughter and wincing and knowing nods and every response in between. It’s a novel you’ll want to start over the second you finish it, a reading experience in which you will exhaust your highlighter of its yellow. It’s a novel about which your unbridled enthusiasm will become contagious, and you’ll end up convincing anyone who will listen to pick up a copy of their own.

It was a thrill to chat with Albert and ask her a few questions by email.

Vincent Scarpa: After Birth is an uproariously funny book, and I so admire the way the humor is doing double duty: we’re meant to laugh, of course, but also to consider the context within which Ari is saying or thinking these comical, often vicious things, and what’s being said in the margins, what isn’t being said instead. Did you have a clear sense when writing the novel that humor would function as a kind of defense or deflecting mechanism for Ari, your narrator? Did it develop in tandem with her voice? It reads seamlessly, yet I imagine a great deal of work went into fine-tuning the voice and figuring out what tonal parameters Ari was going to be operating within.

Elisa Albert: Ari was clear to me from the get-go. Her humor comes from an inability to be emotionally dishonest. This is a blessing and a curse. Being a bad liar is rough going. What we’re “supposed” to do/be/say/think and what we actually do/are/say/think often don’t line up, and generally speaking we lie our goddamn faces off about it, sometimes long and hard enough that we actually lose touch with ourselves. So it’s this huge relief, I think, when we come across someone who’s rigorously honest. Laughter is relief. We are ridiculous egotistical stubborn stingy hypocritical blind jackasses. It’s not human frailty that’s funny, mind you; it’s our predilection for pretense that’s funny.

But what’s even funnier is how we tend to punish honesty. People who say what they really think and feel, we usually try to make them out to be fools, or crazy. Once in a great while we relent and glorify them and treat them like gods and let them do the heavy philosophical lifting for us. But mostly, the truth is inconvenient, not to mention impolite. But at the same time we all kind of aspire to be honest and are jealous of people who can be honest. Which in itself is hilarious, because honest people are usually the most tortured! By us! Pure comedy. What a wacky species.

So yes, I think humor is about clinging — be it naked, battered, maligned — to honesty. Ari strikes me as the saddest kind of funny/tortured hybrid, though: the idealist. She genuinely can’t believe that everything is so fucked up. She’s agape at how fucked up things are: her own mother, the friendships she’s failed to make or keep, American urban planning, gender politics, obstetrics. I think she’s kind of sweet in her idealism. She’s not wrong about things, per se, but she’s making life very, very difficult for herself. Accepting how fucked up things are is a kind of maturity. Ari’s not there yet. Which is probably good, ’cause acceptance and maturity are not as funny as the kind of wild cynicism that is born of thwarted idealism.

Fortunately, my editor had a very astute sense of when I was going too far with Ari, and I trusted her judgment. To me, the stuff in the “cut” file is hilarious, but it’s good to be reined in sometimes. There was one long particularly intense section riffing on the difference between a cunt and a pussy. I visit its grave on the regular, but it’s better off in the underworld.

VS: I guess it’s a question of tone, too, when you’re talking about navigating a balance between humor and tragedy. But it’s so often situated as though the two are mutually exclusive; as if a person, a character, has feelings one at a time, as if things happen that way. They don’t, and that’s something you prove so beautifully on the page. I’m thinking in particular of a flashback where a shrink tells Ari to write a letter to bring to her mother’s gravesite. “Sorry you’re dead, Mom, I love you,” she writes, adding in hindsight that it was, “the best [she] could come up with, and a lie.” That line made me cackle and cringe simultaneously, and it’s a great example of how your blunt wit never once undercuts the palpable sadness we see in Ari — conversely, it textures it. Do you think it’s true that comedy gives a kind of dimension to a character that can’t be established any other way? Because I think what makes Ari unforgettable is the distance between the two spaces we see her ricocheting in — her endearing hilarity and her deep uncertainty about motherhood, her untetheredness — and the two feel imbricated, inextricable from one another.

EA: Comedy and tragedy inform and undercut each other. Maybe you’ve heard the old saying: To those who feel, life is a tragedy; to those who think, life is a comedy. We’re all hopefully trying to strike some sort of balance between the two, because either extreme is insufferable. Everything always having to be funny, that’s exhausting and distancing and straight up annoying. Nonstop tragedy, that’s exhausting and self-absorbed and shortsighted.

VS: One of the many exceptional strengths of this novel is the lens you use to examine female friendship and the ways in which those relationships can operate with the same volume of dependency and intimacy as do romantic relationships, if not more so. Ari’s friendship with Mina — a former riot-grrl musician turned poet, also a new mother — causes Ari to say, “She’s like a big old bell I can feel ringing in the best part of me. The vibrations go on and on and on, clear away the cobwebs, all the dense, cluttered junk, and it’s like oh my god there’s so much space in here, I had no idea there was so much room in me, what a pleasant place I turn out to be.” Which reads like the best you could possibly hope for in romantic love, but Ari is finding it in Mina, whom she has known only a brief while, as opposed to her husband. It’s a kind of dynamic I think shows like Broad City and Girls portray in interesting, if occasionally imperfect, ways. Do you feel like there’s a deficit in fiction of authentic female friendships such as this? If so, what about the ways in which these friendships are portrayed feels incomplete, or toned down?

The puritanical idea of marriage as an endpoint, after which we are emotionally done, is unthinkable.

EA: I think if we’re open we fall in love many, many times throughout our lives, in ways that go beyond simply sexual vs. platonic. The puritanical idea of marriage as an endpoint, after which we are emotionally done, is unthinkable. That kind of closed circuit, codependent relationship that refuses to make room for any other intimacies: no thanks. Friendships can be such great romances. Ari’s not getting what she needs from her husband just now, but how dumb is the idea that we can always get what we need from one person?

I don’t think there’s a deficit of portrayals of authentic one-on-one friendship so much as there’s a deficit of actual authentic one-on-one friendship. Part of what makes those friendships so exquisite and valuable is that they are relatively rare. It’s cool that they’re rare. You treat them differently as such. The shitty ones come and go, no big. Ari’s problem is that (see above, idealist) she wants so much more. That’s how idealism screws you.

I adore everything about Broad City: the humor, the vitality, the chemistry, the irreverence, the straight up who-gives-a-shit-we’re-having-fun. It’s a thing of beauty, what those ladies have going on. It’s once in a lifetime. But it bears almost no resemblance to Girls, which I also watch with great interest. The portrayal of friendship in those shows is not remotely similar. This doesn’t really address your question, but the constant comparisons of these two completely distinct television shows belies a real cluelessness about what each show is actually doing. They’re completely dissimilar in tone, humor, structure, objective, and execution. One is the self-sufficient friend you actually fucking capital-L Love unreservedly in the pit of your stomach in a way that seems likely chemically beneficial to all your internal organs, and the other is the smart pain-in-the-ass but occasionally transcendent but kind of hideously needy drama queen who wears you down, but whatever, she’s all right and you’ve known her since forever, so fine. Both shows are made by people with titties, but that’s not sufficient commonality for serious cultural commentary, people. And we shouldn’t be so starved for recognition of female-made art that we’re willing to pretend it is. Try again, media columnists. Try harder.

VS: In writing a book that is at least in part about postpartum depression, I wonder what you felt you were up against in terms of a reader coming in with preconceived notions of what the narrative might look like. Did the subject matter feel especially delicate? Did you feel a pressure to be in any way careful? Or does one get mired in uncontrollable muck that way? Similarly, I wonder what, if any, hesitation you felt in writing about motherhood, which has of course always been politicized and ruthlessly evaluated by society, but perhaps never so ubiquitously and loudly as it is now. I was fascinated by how the novel handled the surrounding environment for a new mother — the competing schools of thought, the unsolicited advice, the self-righteous judgement at every turn — and couldn’t hope for a better narrator than Ari to take us through what often seems like a space of real toxicity, even if the intentions are good.

EA: In mainstream media, there is almost nothing artful or interesting about early motherhood. It is just this huge unspoken glossed over nothing, and it’s glaring. Occasionally you’ll see lame attempts, all the dumb clichés: the sex-starved husband, the crying fat cow of a mother, the house-arrest, the overwhelming disgust at anything having to do with the female body in any kind of mammalian function. Cue the laugh track. I heard there was some Super Bowl commercial for baby formula under the guise of “let’s stop the mommy wars!” which, omg, dismantling the master’s house with the master’s tools, much?

I felt unquestionably qualified to write about early motherhood because I was in it when I was writing. And I was noticing a lot of things, and asking a lot of questions, and taking careful note of what I found. I was a correspondent from deep within the trenches. I don’t worry about readers’ preconceived notions, because the whole point of a novel is to blow readers’ preconceived notions to bits.

“Space of real toxicity,” by the way, ain’t that the truth. Fear of shitting while giving birth is yet another of those tired tropes people like to trot out for a giggle, but actually it’s a surprisingly apt metaphor for how all babies are born in this country: into some seriously toxic cultural crap.

VS: I’m sure that, as you do press for this book, you must be expecting the inevitable questions about whether or not what you’ve written is an autobiographical novel. I can’t think of a less relevant inquiry, but I do wonder if you share Ari’s concern, regarding motherhood, when she asks, “So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?” That rung especially true to my ears, and I’m wondering if it served in any way as an impetus toward writing this particular novel? As I read, I thought how refreshing your take on this must be for so many mothers who haven’t seen their experience rendered with any kind of accuracy or honesty. I felt so enlivened when — in a moment of immemorial, maternal fellowship with Mina — Ari remarks, “This is my motherfucking dissertation.” In these ways, it feels like a deeply personal book, regardless of the truth-content.

EA: Both those lines came late in the writing of the novel, which I guess is proof positive that I write to find out what I know. Ari and I have a few things in common, but a lot of our experiences are not the same. She’s a version of me having an all-around rougher time of it. She’s an exaggeration of a tendency to take the bleakest view. She’s a distillation of a bad day. She’s a poltergeist, but before we hold up the crucifix and banish her, we should probably hear her out on a thing or two. I love her with great tenderness, like a mama should.

Author photograph courtesy of Hulya Kilicaslan

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