INTERVIEW: Jill Alexander Essbaum, author of Hausfrau
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Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel, Hausfrau, chronicles the unraveling of Anna Benz, an American living in Zurich with her husband and three children. Anna chafes at responsibility and expectation. She defies interpretation as a mother. As a stranger in the bleak Swiss landscape, neither motherhood, nor German language classes, nor torrid affairs, nor Jungian analysis by Doktor Messerli make Anna feel whole. Hausfrau is at once erotic and soulful. Essbaum brings her signature attention to detail to Hausfrau. I’m still haunted by it, weeks after I read it.
I’ve known Jill for the better part of three years. She is a poetry professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program. I graduated from the program in 2013, but not before being profoundly affected by Jill’s class and lectures. We caught up recently so I could ask her about Hausfrau.
Heather Scott Partington: I know you’re going to spend a lot of time answering questions about how your poetry influenced this novel. So I’ll just go there first. I couldn’t help but think about how you said that when you wrote Hausfrau, you’d record yourself reading it and then listen to it to make subsequent edits. It didn’t surprise me that it was so delicately worded.
As I tried to look for evidence of your poetic footprint in the book, I was struck by how you manage tension. Quite often Anna will make a statement and then immediately undermine it. There is a connection from one line to the next. And Hausfrau builds to a crescendo near the end. (Of course, with the book’s themes, that could be said to be sexual rise, too — it’s impossible to talk about this book without innuendo, pun, or double entendre.) This book is a treat to read. I really felt a sense of how one part informs another — almost like I was rewarded as your reader for carrying small details with me as I read. Can you talk about how you thought about structure? And is there any kind of transference of poetic timing to prosaic?
Jill Alexander Essbaum: First off, thank you so much — not simply for this interview, but also for this question. The structure of the book is unquestionably informed by my poetry. All those years writing sonnets and triolets and strangely rhymed creatures of my own invention taught me a crucial truth: form matters. And the shape of a thing — ANY thing — will define (inform, circumscribe, underscore) a person’s interaction with it. Consider a hospital. You wouldn’t build a trauma center so that its many wings were laid out in individual buildings scattered over acres of rolling countryside. Why not? Because people would die. That’s an extreme example, but it makes the point. Hausfrau has some resemblance to a (non-specified) formal poem. The three sections might be said to correspond to three stanzas. The equal length of each evokes a specified composition, a quatrain or a tercet perhaps. That each section is marked by a birthday party is reminiscent of a refrain. There’s a sonnet-like turn in the plot two-thirds of the way into the book. The language lessons and the psychoanalysis amplify, correspond to, and maybe even (dare I?) rhyme with the narrative. But I didn’t set out to accomplish this. It came through organically as the story unfolded. Things like this MUST be organic and develop on their own. Otherwise, it simply won’t work.
HSP: On a note related to structure, did the idea of Predestination inform plot? There’s an arguable sense of doom from the beginning — and by mentioning trains and Anna you get us thinking of Karenina (more on her, in a bit). But do you think plot, itself, is predetermined? To what extent are we dealing with a prescribed set of dominoes when it comes to how we structure novels? To what extent was the structure of the book influenced by the idea of free will and Anna’s chafing at the Calvinistic concept?
JAE: I’m going to redirect for a second and talk briefly about religion (since you sort of brought it up). I think this is a deeply religious book. In the final pages Anna rejects most any notion of preordained destiny and makes a very clear-headed (if blunt and terrible and terribly irrevocable) decision. The domino conversation with the priest is the only thing that makes her feel anywhere near better that day. And even earlier, one of the most benevolent moments that occur between Anna and her husband is his admission that yes, he believes in God. He makes a statement along the lines of ‘without God, nothing matters — and Anna, things matter.’ It’s an unexpected confession. Frankly, I didn’t even expect it when I wrote it. The surprise of it makes it truer.
But that isn’t the question you asked. Prescribed dominoes when we structure novels? This is the only novel I’ve structured, though I’ve put together many books of poetry. Really there’s only one rule: does it work? No? Then do it differently. Repeat until it does. Until it works best of all.
Anna’s most profound understanding of herself, her life, her mistakes happens only when she is left with nothing and no one but herself. She’s lost all connection with the rest of the world. Even her phone is gone. Sex stopped saving her. Sex with HERSELF couldn’t even redeem her. Her analyst slammed the last window. All failsafes fail. It’s just Anna and her own true self, the one she sees and recognizes and greets in the mirror that last, regrettable morning.
This is a long way around saying Anna could not have arrived at an active expression of free will if she hadn’t spent three hundred pages being crushed by her choices. While I don’t know that I’d say the structure is influenced so much by these ideas, there’s no doubt that the resolution of the book depends entirely upon it. Exclusively upon it.
HSP: One of my favorite things: Anna is a paradox, and she is also defined by paradoxical logic — the “is and is not” and “was and was not”-s. Her thinking is binary, but contradictory. She seems to have the most clarity when she in darkness (even “little deaths,” sometimes literally having sense forced into her). Do you think poems allow more easily for this kind of exploration of duality? Are poets more inclined to be comfortable with ambiguity than novelists? The idea that you can both be and not be at the same time? The idea that if you define yourself by one set of rules, you’re sure to break them? Are there contradictory ways you define yourself, too?
JAE: Oy. This is the question that hot-seats me, Heather. I don’t have children, I wasn’t married to a Swiss man, and I didn’t have a slew of affairs, but Anna and I have a few things in common. I’ve mentioned some religious struggles and those are more or less my own. Finishing this book preceded an extreme crisis of faith (I’m not convinced the two are related, I’m not convinced they are not). Anna doesn’t claim to be a believer — but I do. Or, I try to. Then there’s this whole issue of solitude. Writing necessitates it. But what about when you aren’t writing? It’s very difficult not to feel very alone sometimes, even when I know I’m not. Anna imposes her own solitude for reasons of self-preservation. As an artist, it comes down to the simple fact that without time spent apart from everyone else, I wouldn’t be able to put this stuff to paper. But Anna’s faithlessness, her loneliness, her passivity, her active fear of action, the losses that come to possess her — they are as much my own as hers. All artists live in a cloud of doubt. They have to. It’s the contradictions that make the art.
Do poems allow for more exploration of these nuances than prose? No. I don’t think so. But I think as a result of my years of writing poetry, these things were more easily accessible to me than perhaps some more rudimentary aspects of fiction craft. Like, when’s the last time you heard a poet gripe about plot or POV? It was those things I had to wrestle harder in order to pin them to a mat. Or, rather, to a page.
HSP: The paradoxes made me very aware of contrast and delineation: particularly the descriptions of characters with the most visual in their looks — Polly Jean and Stephen, for example. I was also hyper-aware of Bruno’s black and white thinking. Anna seems to be permanently stuck in shades of grey. Here’s what I wonder — how do you feel about her? Do you like her? Does it matter if we do?
JAE: I think about Anna every day. I worry about about her even now. I would say I love her but she doesn’t let anyone love her. I want to shake her. I have no problems gossiping about her, venting against her. I don’t know that her likability ever once crossed my mind. I would never say she got what she deserved. But I would say, perhaps this: because of the choices she made and the inevitable results of these actions, Anna’s life unfolded with tragic consequence.
She may not be likeable. She doesn’t need to be. But she desperately needs to be loved. And not in the way that she’s been seeking it. I think I love her. We should love her. And not because she merits it. But because she doesn’t.
HSP: What was the genesis of the Doktor character? Is she meant to be an idea, or a person? In some ways she becomes Anna’s inner monologue — or perhaps the other component of her dialog. I’m curious about how the doktor came to be.
JAE: Well, my husband and I moved to Zurich so he could study psychoanalysis. And I’ve seen the same analyst for years now. Doktor Messerli had to be there. And we had to have an ‘in’ to Anna’s head that wasn’t just a loop of Anna’s yammering thoughts. It’s a combination of Doktor Messerli’s instruction, Bruno’s ultimate Bruno-ness, and what she learns in German class I think that pulses her through that last chapter and into ultimate consciousness. Without Doktor Messerli, she wouldn’t have understood a thing.
HSP: Let’s talk about the dreams. I don’t generally love dreams in novels, but taken with the Jungian analysis and ideas of anima/animus and shadow, I think they provided important insight about Anna. I think part of why Hausfrau feels so universal to me — or perhaps, like a novel from another era — is Jung’s presence in the story, this constant idea of interpretation. Anna is seeking interpretation of herself, not help. It seems like many contemporary novelists don’t want to go there, or to even admit that there could be a formalist interpretation of what they write. So many things I read now seem to challenge the idea of interpretation: they’re just words, story, plot. But Hausfrau seems to inspire it. How comfortable are you with interpretation of your work?
JAE: You know, I’m suspicious of dreams in books too. Because they’re boring and too self-serving. However, I do think these dreams work and the reason I think they work is because they aren’t dream sequences, per se, but they serve as dialogue between Anna and Doktor Messerli. So that may be a reason that you experience them differently than you may otherwise?
I do believe that dreams are interpretable. Analysis and praxis have taught me so.
HSP: What did you want to accomplish with Anna’s dreams?
JAE: I’m not sure that I wanted to accomplish anything, but I think I did accomplish something and it’s this: when she dreams, she tells the truth. It’s a truth told through association, to be sure. But it’s the only time she doesn’t hide behind hems and haws. Without them, the narrative survives easily intact. But with them we have Anna at her most naked. What she deems, she is.
HSP: How do you like to read? What draws you to a novel? I’m sure you’re going to get asked a lot about your writing process, but I’m interested in your reading process. What speaks to you in a book?
JAE: I like to see what happens when words that don’t usually bump up against each other, do. I’m very invested in crisp, precise prose. I like specifics. I read a lot of specialty encyclopedias to get my fill of that. I also like collected letters and literary diaries.
HSP: My favorite chapter, hands-down, is the riff on fire. It’s such an Essbaumian Riff. When did you start riffing? Have you always seen inside the connections of words? I keep trying to think of a label for how you manipulate words (poetry?) — it seems like words function differently for you than they do for other people (or at least, most of us mortals). The closest thing I can liken it to is synesthesia, where the brain crosses wires meant only to go one way. Can you talk about what that process of connecting words is like for you?
I don’t think in a straight line. But maybe no one does?
JAE: I don’t think in a straight line. But maybe no one does? I think several steps ahead as well, and all at once. There’s a riff at the end that jumps from Burn to Berne to Capitol to Capital to Bruno and then runs through Wagner and Nazis and grammar and stars and a bunch of other things until it gets to das Kind, the German word for child. At this point in the novel, this is Anna’s brain on exhaustion. But I wrote it very quickly. I saw it all-of-a-scene and at the same time. I like what you’ve said about crossed wires and synesthesia. Sometimes I feel like I’m having all the feelings of a thing at once so, I have them. I talk too fast. I jump ahead. Its very hard to sit still. Likewise, in writing. I have all the words at once. This is where being able to step back in as a good self-editor comes in very useful.
Words are living, magical things. And I love them.
HSP: Anna feels in some ways like the embodiment of misogynistic stereotypes. I believe at one point she even refers to her own “hysterical grief.” At the same time, she seems to defy stereotypes about motherhood and loving wives, sometimes by not knowing exactly what those things should look or feel like. How did Anna’s story come to you? I know there was a moment when you pulled ver to the side of the road because you finally understood how to tell this story. What did you discover that day?
JAE: I’ve mentioned this to a few people and it’s been met with great disapproval but, I believe it so I’ll offer it here: Bruno, in his own, complicated way, is a good guy. Is the book’s hero. He knows, but he loves and accepts. He lets Anna be Anna. I don’t think he’s dismissive of her feelings — I tend to think he’s shoving everything down so that he can continue to live a married life with her. I mean — how would one live out a life with Anna?
The scene in the kitchen is deeply complex. In the aftermath, she thinks it through (edited for brevity): I had this coming … she wasn’t the textbook example of a battered wife. She hadn’t been victimized into believing she deserved what she got. She decided it all on her own. In a violent, complicated world… it was lucid, quick and generous solution to a problem of have and lack. I had this coming and I got what I deserved. He’d never hit her before and he would never hit her again. He wasn’t a violent man. There was no pattern of abuse. I brought this to myself. Myself, I provoked this.
I wrote that with a great deal of caution and care. Because I needed her to be clear, mindful, and to speak a truth. She’s not a battered woman. She’s not abused. He shouldn’t have slammed her against the wall and she didn’t deserve it. But she kicked an angry dog. To look at Anna through this lens at this moment is troubling and difficult and uncomfortable.
But all of Anna’s story is troubling and uncomfortable. The sex, the lies, the tedious passivity. The revelation I had was that this wasn’t a first-person story. I knew her, I understood her — but I wasn’t her. The epiphany was that Hausfrau isn’t the JAE story. This came with some fundamental complications. Chiefly, I had to reign in my own will. I have my own ideas about how a woman might best survive all her shitty situations. But to impose those notions is to turn the book into some kind of morality tale (it may already be one).
That said, her surroundings, the landscape, the trains she takes, the shops where she buys her groceries, the grammar points she confuses, all the sites and all the sights belonged to me. I was a forlorn expatriate with little to do. I was sad. My marriage ended in Switzerland. Anna’s context is entirely familiar. What’s different between us is how we dealt with our surroundings.
HSP: I won’t ask you if Hausfrau is a retelling of Anna Karenina, but in light of the book’s Jungian themes, I do wonder if you think there are certain types of stories that beg telling over and over. Did you write with that idea in mind? How do you think this work fits into the larger oeuvre of difficult women? Or does it?
JAE: (It’s not.)
Loss is really the one thing we all share, rich and poor and stupid and smart alike.
I think what demands telling and retelling and re-retelling is this: any story in which complicated grief and desperate sadness is the main character. Anna’s the embodiment of loss. Self-inflicted? Much of it, yes. But not all. Loss is really the one thing we all share, rich and poor and stupid and smart alike. We learn compassion by experiencing the loss of others. We learn love by letting other people share in our own stories of loss.
HSP: What did this novel make you wish you’d learned before you started to write it?
JAE: Nothing. If I knew anything beforehand I would have written a different novel. I think it’s important to let each thing you write teach you how to write it. You must listen to what you do. Let it be in control. I don’t step in until I know what it demands of me.
This was an incredibly humbling experience. Empowering? Yes. But humbling. I had to sit still. The work didn’t do itself. I had to up. It demanded my full attention.
HSP: Is there anything you wanted me to ask that I didn’t?
JAE: In my fantasy casting of Hausfrau, the Movie, I always saw Kate Winslet as Anna and Liam Neeson fifteen years ago as Bruno (alternately: Daniel Craig or maybe really any hot man who can pull a mean face). Anna MUST be cast her age (say, how about Jenna Fischer? I’d LOVE to see her try this. It could be her break-out role a la Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl). Helen Mirren would kill as Doktor Messerli. Ray Winstone isn’t as handsome as Archie, but I like him for the part. Jeremy Renner as Karl. Mary? Hm. I would have loved Marcia Gay Harden also 15 years ago. Stephen, though. Who to play Stephen? It should be someone who’s a bit of a jerk. Not the most handsome man. Judi Dench would make a fine Ursula. Who are good kid actors these days? No clue.
And yes, I named the baby after PJ Harvey. I quoted a song from Uh-Huh Her near the end of the book (it just slid right in!) and I think I listened to White Chalk about a thousand times during my years in Switzerland. Those albums saved my soul.