“I remember when I was seven or eight years old, I imagined a machine that would be connected to my brain and whatever I think about would simply materialize. Like a 3-D printer directly connected to my thoughts. [But] I know from experience that creating an artwork in your mind and actually making it are two completely different things.”
Can harm itself from within
Is the ultimate border
Annette Weisser’s first novel, Mycelium, published by Semiotext(e), is titled after the fungal networks of white thread-like filament that spread underneath soil. Mycelium grows quickly and is unrelenting, if mushrooms are pulled from the surface of the soil, the mycelium remains. The root systems resemble a cancerous spreading of cells expanding their thin branch like tendons as far as they will reach. Both species are defined by a hyperproductivity, a generative function that threatens destruction in the lives of plants and humans.
Mycelium follows Noora, a young art student who is diagnosed with breast cancer in a transforming Berlin of the 1990s, a period of reunification between East and West Germany. Through her protagonist, Weisser investigates cultural trauma, the portrayal of illness, and the identities of victimhood. In the epilogue of the novel Weisser writes:
The mycelium remains in the ground.
Klink, klink, goes the hammer.
It’s the bodies, the bodies.
Eat. Drink. Shit. Piss.
Drip, drip, drip.
Like the fungal roots she writes of, these final lines burrow deeper and deeper into the earth.
Annette and I spoke on a hot afternoon in Los Angeles in February while she was in town from Berlin promoting the book. I thought of our conversation about illness, growth, and recovery as the corona virus began spreading itself across the world, relentless and indiscriminate with the state of recovery in a distant, blurry future.
THE BELIEVER: How do you think this story would have been different had you written it in German?
ANNETTE WEISSER: I don’t think I could have written it in German. I actually began writing in German, I wanted to write a short first-person-singular piece based on the notes and diary entries from my “cancer year.” Then Chris [Kraus] asked me to translate these few pages for her, and that kind of got the ball rolling. It was only when I switched to English when I became more free in working with the material, and when Noora emerged as a third person protagonist. In a way that also reflects my actual experience of living in LA at the time; going out and speaking English: even after so many years, that never stopped feeling like a performance to me.
BLVR: At the reading, you mentioned Sontag’s description of cancer as a “demonic pregnancy,” something your body had created rather than an external force being imposed upon it. How might that connect to Noora’s practice as an artist if illness has potential for a generative creative life? I’ve never heard anyone talk about illness in that way.
AW: In “Illness as metaphor” Sontag traces back the discourses around “cancer types” or “cancer personalities.” They were seen as hesitant, unresolved, unable to make decisions, and always holding back. By now we know that this is bullshit, that there is no “cancer personality.” Yet Noora is this unresolved thirty-something artist without an art practice, and in the book you follow her digging into layer after layer of her existence in order to find out what stops her from being productive, or reproductive, for that matter. The essence of cancer is its hyperproductivity, which is this the very thing Noora lacks and desires, but of course not in this particular form.
BLVR: You were teaching while you were writing this book. What was it like to be writing through the perspective of an art student while teaching art students? Did you pull from students’ experiences? Did you sympathize with them more or less?
AW: [Laughs] It was really fun. I always sympathize with the students. Art Center is where I taught at the time which has a very demanding graduate program, the way the students are relentlessly interrogated and pressed for explanations. It’s very different than in German art schools where you’re basically left alone and if you’re lucky, you meet your world-famous professor twice a year. So yeah, I sympathize with my students because there’s a lot of pressure in these programs.
BLVR: Were you writing based on your own experiences as an art student or the ones you were witnessing from the perspective of a professor?
AW: I never really studied art. First I studied fashion and costume design. Then I studied media art at the media design school in Cologne and that was very technical. In the book, it’s mainly my experiences as a teacher that I drew from.
BLVR: I like the idea of creating sculptures in writing without having to actually fabricate them.
AW: It was a real revelation. [Laughs]
BLVR: Being able to create an art practice without having to have one that seems like the sort of ultimate hack for an artist.
AW: Yeah, right? I remember when I was seven or eight years old, I imagined a machine that would be connected to my brain and whatever I think about would simply materialize. Like a 3-D printer directly connected to my thoughts. I know from experience that creating an artwork in your mind and actually making it are two completely different things. There’s so much that happens in the process, the trillions of decisions you have to make while you work with and through and against the material, it’s impossible to think of an artwork that is completely there and ready. But even though I know it’s not possible, a part of me still wants that machine!
BLVR: Yeah it’d be great. Writing has those limitations too, the thing in your mind versus the thing on the page. You know if you’re writing about a sculpture the description of it becomes different than the thing in your mind and how it would look physically. Just as the physical thing would be different than the description.
AW: Right, for an art critic this must be a real conundrum, or challenge.
BLVR: Was there a particular period of work or artists you had in mind while writing about this scene Noora would have been a part of?
AW: Yeah I was thinking of my own scene when I was a student, like 90s punk rock, wearing black, going to clubs but I was also bringing in these experiences from this American system that I was part of at the time of writing.
BLVR: The title refers to a network of mushroom roots and the book begins with an encounter with a dying sheep. I’m wondering what role does the natural world play in this book? How did you imagine the participation or involvement of the natural world in this story? Those two images carry a strong symbolic quality.
AW: That’s a tricky question. The sheep is sort of a recurring theme in my work, it appears in drawings and woodcuts, too. There’s the connotation of the sacrifice, rooted in Christianity. But there’s also this personal experience of looking like one, when after chemotherapy my hair grew back in these ridiculous little curls. Since I knew that Noora would live, something else had to die at the beginning of the book to set the tone. The confrontation with death that none of these three friends are prepared to deal with.
BLVR: And it sort of sets up nature as a cruel and powerful force.
AW: Yeah I thought I might work around your initial question! [Laughs]. Later in the book there is a scene when Noora traverses this toxic landscape in former East Germany which becomes like an externalization of her body perception. In the process of the treatments, Noora constantly pushes up against her bodily limitations, whereas up to that point she has lived in an abstract space of limitless but non-committal possibilities. The body becomes the ultimate border, and for Noora, accepting that also implies accepting to be part of the natural world.
BLVR: Did you ever consider a version of the story where she died?
AW: No, that would have been way too melodramatic. I didn’t want her to die, I wanted her to understand something. Instead, the sheep dies for her.
BLVR: The book ends with Noora on her way to the airport going to America which suggests a second part to come. Are you working on a continuation of this story?
AW: Yes. It’s set here in LA, and I’m working on it in Berlin. It just happened to turn out that way. But it gives me a distance that I find helpful, and you’re away from the people you’re writing about so you don’t have to be nice all the time.
BLVR: Having gone through the cancer experience yourself, do you think you could have written this character to be a man?
AW: There was an early version in which the main character was split into Noora having breast cancer and a gay man adopting a child. I guess because I’m an amateur writer, I found it very difficult to get into this male character. I started to write these two parts simultaneously and I realized that while the Noora character just took on a life of her own, nothing I wrote from the male character’s perspective sounded right to me. I guess a good novelist, someone who has learned the craft, can do that.
BLVR: Fiction writing is almost unbelievable to me in this way, how someone might write about something they experienced through the perspective of a completely different person, to be able to translate or transcend that experience into the experience of someone else is wild to me.
AW: Yeah, I admire it, too, sometimes, but there’s also this show-y aspect to it. It’s like method acting when you put on fifty pounds to get into your character and then by the time of the Oscars you’re slim again. That’s something I’m not interested in. So in the second part it’s Noora again, with just one “o” which she drops at the end of Mycelium.
BLVR: So the next book will be about her adopting a child in LA?
BLVR: It’s interesting to think about these two interpretations of a kind of pregnancy: one an illness but internal and one a child but external. Is that comparison what you were thinking about? Did you read about adoption’s effects on the mother’s body?
AW: Yes I did. Sometimes when a woman adopts an infant her body can actually produce breast milk. It’s scary and wonderful.
BLVR: Do you consider both books works of autobiography? Or autobiography simply used as an access point to explore larger themes through fiction?
AW: Well, in Mycelium I tried to write through the autobiographical—the cancer experience—and get to broader, deeper issues of family history, or history period. In the next book the process of adoption and the confrontation with a completely different reality—the reality of poor, often illegal Hispanic immigrants in California—becomes the lens through which Nora looks at her own social milieu, that of middle-class, white, bohemian, eco-friendly people like us. [Laughs]. I mean, what good is autobiography if it can’t get the self un-stuck from itself?