I don’t remember when I first met Renee Gladman, but I’ve owned her books, and the ones she has published under her imprints, Leroy and Leon Works, since the time I remember learning the terms experimental writing and small press, both of which incompletely represent our overlapping literary worlds. Renee’s presence as an influential black lesbian writer and publisher both resisted and revealed the comparative whiteness of the community I found myself entering. I loved her sentences and her mind; I became a fan. Our friendship began a decade ago in the Bard MFA program, where, as faculty colleagues and housemates, we fell into the kind of ongoing conversation that living together allows, where a debate about which books to recommend to a student gives way to a shared recipe, or an exchange of insights about writing habits takes place en route to the wine store.
So when The Believer asked me to converse with Renee, I invited myself for a sleepover at the light-filled converted barn in the New England town where she and her partner, the writer Danielle Vogel, have lately made their home. We took a walk, spent hours looking at their lovingly curated library of art and poetry and prose, and at Renee’s own drawings—an increasingly important part of her creative work—and then had dinner at the one open restaurant in town. We lingered late over wine; in the morning over coffee, as Renee added a few strokes to the drawing she was working on, we turned on our voice recorders. What resulted was a slice of that ongoing conversation about writing, focused largely on Renee’s 2017 book, Houses of Ravicka, and about the new manuscript she was struggling to write (her “lesbian novel”), as well as about my own recently published novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love. Houses is the latest book in Renee’s beloved and influential series investigating the city-country of her invention, Ravicka, and its inhabitants; the series also includes Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), and Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013).
Houses is among those projects that begin in one time (2008) and are completed many years later (2017), with long gaps along the way during which other works are completed and released—in this case, Ana Patova and Calamities (2016), a remarkable book of essays on process and dailiness. Houses tells the story of Ravicka’s comptroller, whose task is to take subtle measurements (“geoscogs”) of the city’s buildings and houses. Each building or house is tied to an invisible counterpart in another part of town; the comptroller must also maintain alignment between a building and its unseen twin. For Renee, a writer whose process depends on the discovery of narrative during the act of writing, a problem emerged from this situation: a “mystery” within the story that wound up stumping her as its inventor. As she notes in her afterword to Houses, “[House] no. 96 was not where it was supposed to be, thus we couldn’t be sure that no. 32 was where it wasn’t appropriately.” This “intoxicating” predicament led to the long gap in the novel’s composition, during which its author had to confront a frustration: “Why couldn’t I, in fiction, discover the location of the missing house in the same manner as the reader might?”
Eleanor, or was written during the same period as Houses, and I set it aside several times too during that interval, one which arguably represents a transition between eras in the US: I submitted my final draft during the week of the 2016 election; Renee finished Houses in January 2017. In Renee’s words, the revelation she came to when she returned to Houses was, in part, “on a profound level, a level on which one survives the atrocities of the political and social present, a way for me to put a pin in the map as to where I am in the world.” The missing house, she discovered, was “where I am, where many of us probably feel that we are: somewhere where the boundary between places has broken.” That place of breakage, though, “is also a place of refracting light, of impossible angles.”
Most recently, I saw Renee at the 2018 &Now and Whenever It’s Needed Festival of New Writing in Notre Dame, Indiana, where she had been invited to give one of two keynote addresses to close out the conference. It was the day that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court had been decided, and the auditorium in which we were gathered strongly resembled a courtroom. “I’m feeling triggered by this room” were Renee’s first words from the stage, inflected by traces of her Georgia accent. “I feel like maybe we need a scream.” A beautiful, haunting wail emerged from a fellow writer seated in the audience, and then Renee smiled, and then she gave a breathtaking talk from her new work, a short story followed by an essay about feminism and kinship, letting light into that windowless room.
I. THE THING THAT HAPPENED
RENEE GLADMAN: Having read Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, which is your first novel, I couldn’t wait to talk to you about what it was like to move from poetry, where you’ve done most of your work, to the writing of fiction. Did you feel like you were still able to access the thinking spaces you occupied in poetry? Were you interested in moving away from them?
ANNA MOSCHOVAKIS: Well, at first I approached it the way I do poems, which I think may be similar to how you write your novels. Reading you, there are moments when I think I recognize a trace of something I know was going on in or around your life, or in the world, at the time of writing. That’s how I make poems, and it’s how I drafted the novel. Things came in; I had no idea what was going to happen in advance. And then I’d daydream: Maybe Eleanor should go somewhere. And then she would.
So in your books, that sense of proximity to the life of the writer—the writing time, the way the writing time relates to the written time—seems akin to how I understand poetry to happen, where there’s an aliveness between those dimensions (as opposed to a story that might be fully plotted in advance). I was really interested in your afterword to Houses of Ravicka. I love knowing how long it took for something to be written, and being reminded that other things are going on in the meantime. It’s really gorgeous. And I think you used the word politics, which you don’t use in the book.
RG: Yeah, yeah.
AM: As if you’re accounting for a shift in visibility—in, what’s the word, salience?—of certain things in the world, which can also mean those things shift in the text, or are always shifting. So we can add the axis of reading time to those of writing time and written time.
But I was thinking about this question of letting the present-tense world into a text and how it might intersect with questions of genre in fiction, where there may be certain kinds of expectations from a story. I was thinking about genre because Houses of Ravicka starts out so much like a detective novel, and I love that. It’s a page-turner.
RG: I tried.
AM: This one seems to be doing that in a way I don’t recall from the other Ravicka books.
RG: I remember saying in the afterword that that was part of the problem. I got to a point where I was going to have to know where that missing house was.
RG: And that was such a huge thing for me—I had such a strong reaction to that reality. Maybe there are other ways of handling it, where I wouldn’t have to know, where I could thwart the narrative or something, but it really was a genre-related issue that I came up against. It was like, Ohhhhhh, I’m supposed to know where the fucking house is. I don’t know where that house is.
AM: Like the world is supposed to make sense to me because I made it.
AM: And the whole reason I write is because the world doesn’t make sense.
RG: Or maybe by the time I get to the end of this, something will make sense. But I couldn’t know a thing beforehand, then write it out as if I didn’t know it. That seemed so crazy. I guess that’s fiction. I mean: making shit up, but also making up discovery.
AM: Right. Writing my novel, I kept noticing how displacement—or sublimation, maybe—works differently in fiction. In poetry, often the thing that really matters to me just gets dropped right into the poem, as if poetry can be more comfortably sited in disembodied thought. Maybe one thing that makes fiction fiction—I know this isn’t always true—is that some of the things that happen are happening in a setting with bodies and characters. So in a plotted novel, even if the writer knows just what the twist at the end is going to be, if they can’t find a way to take their everyday bewilderment or distress and transpose it or convert it into something that’s happening to a character along the way to the next plot point, then it’s not going to work, right? It’s going to be dead.
RG: I’m interested in what you’re saying about this transposition. Can you describe how that works in Eleanor, or? Where do you put whatever is going on for you in the moment, or whatever emotion or atmosphere is happening at the moment of writing, on this side of the book?
AM: Well, the “thing that had happened” that hovers in Eleanor’s past, but which I never specify, was a very up-front way to do that. People have asked me what the thing is, for Eleanor, and some people have asked if there was a “thing” for me that preceded the writing. The funny thing is that there was a “thing” for me at the beginning, which I won’t discuss. But during the course of the writing, it sort of got supplanted with another thing: I struggled to become a parent for many years, and that struggle reached a crisis point while I was writing the novel, but I didn’t want to write directly about it. The fact that one emotional touch point for the “thing” was supplanted by another, even during the course of the writing, was a reminder of how transferable backstories can be, when what you’re writing about is the effect of something, not its cause.
AM: And, almost without noticing what I was doing, I had created a character who explicitly didn’t want to be a mother. That was not her grief, and her grief was something that would remain unknown, abstracted, and maybe it’s unclear whether even the author character in the book, who’s writing Eleanor’s story, knows what it is.
But also smaller things from life, like a moment of extreme shame, or a passing attraction to a stranger: you take a thing you felt at some point and imagine it being experienced elsewhere, by a different person, with different details. You ask, Can I put that thing in a situation where the characters will help me write through it? Whereas in poetry—for me, anyway—it’s more like, Can I think through that thing directly, in the poem?
RG: Well, I would say my books want to ask that question of the poem in prose.
AM: They do!
RG: In a way, the reason my writing often takes on the form of novels or fiction is that I’m moving through some kind of feeling or thinking region of the brain, and I’m pulling this through language; a story emerges because I’m using sentences, and eventually something gets woven. I’m not going to change the setting or change the voice in every sentence, so something starts to accumulate. But the point of origin has always been using prose as a way of thinking.
AM: Right, I love that.
RG: And that’s why I got stuck with Houses once I realized, Oh, I have to step outside of this and figure out where to go next. That was something I couldn’t conceive of for a long, long time.
AM: I’m just thinking about how even in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, which you have said came out more easily, there’s still a body moving through a setting. But I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t about making a distinction.
RG: Right, I also am not insisting that it is poetry. I’m actually saying I want this thinking to belong as much to fiction as it does to poetry.
AM: Yeah, I think anything is possible in fiction, and anything is possible in poetry. What you said just now was so interesting: that because it’s happening in language that has some kind of continuity with itself, there’s inevitably an accumulation that becomes a character. I think when I write poetry the unacknowledged body is me, but often it’s me without a sense of where I am in space. So the challenge—the good and the annoying challenge—of writing fiction was about specifying the bodies, placing them on paths, and not knowing where the paths would go.
RG: I know people get frustrated with having to say whether something is poetry or fiction, but I appreciate the task, even though it’s often reductive. I mean, I never consider myself to be writing poetry, but my work is called poetry all the time, and I often refer to myself as a poet because of that awareness of oneself constructing language and being in language. But even thinking about the writing of Houses versus trying to write this current project—my lesbian novel: they’re so different in terms of those bodies and those spaces and what the intentionality of the space is from my perspective. If I’m just writing my normal work—again, I get to discover where I am. And in this new book, I feel like I have to set where we are. I have to tell you what her house looks like and then tell you how she gets from y to z. So even if the other books do that, I don’t feel like I’m doing it.
AM: So why do you feel like this book, the lesbian book, needs that, whereas the others didn’t?
RG: Because I started by saying I’m writing a lesbian novel. Which means I’m writing a romance, which means I already know what I’m doing. I would never begin a book by saying, “I’m writing a book where a house goes missing.” It just happened, and I was excited to discover it.
RG: And, well, if you just look at TV, people are very interested in the lesbian right now, because it’s everywhere. I thought I could write a lesbian novel and a potboiler at once.
RG: It’s in every show. And I think the prevailing theory is that it’s men (and queer women, of course) who are primarily interested in women kissing each other on television.
AM: I think everyone is.
RG: There’s a renaissance.
II. “I HAVE HAD THESE THOUGHTS… I IMAGINED THESE SCENES”
AM: One of the things that I became really aware of while writing my novel was the relation to fantasy. I felt so exposed.
RG: What do you mean by fantasy?
AM: I keep saying this to people in conversation, that writing and publishing fiction feels more exposing or embarrassing to me than writing and publishing poetry. Which is funny, because my poetry is pretty—
RG: Everyone thinks of poetry as more revealing—
AM: There’s always stuff in my poetry that I feel scared to put out in the world, afraid I’ll be judged or misunderstood. And yet there is something specifically embarrassing about fiction, and it has to do with the erotics of fantasy in general. Because with poetry—again, for me—the only thing I have to own is I have had these thoughts. Whereas with fiction that has any level of setting or story, it’s also I imagined these scenes. And that suddenly puts you in the fantasy realm, whether or not it’s a sexual fantasy.
RG: Yeah, that admission—I imagined these scenes—is actually what’s at the core of my perplexedness in fiction. It’s something that is easy to admit at the end of a book, but harder to grasp at the beginning: the difference between imagining something and experiencing it… When I’m writing the Ravicka novels, I feel that I move as the narrator moves; I see what she sees, maybe just slightly before or after she sees it. To write this novel, I think imagination has to somehow take precedence over experience. But as soon as I started it, I messed it up. Instead of starting a story, I started an interview.
AM: An interview between…
RG: Someone is interviewing me. The novel opens, “How would you begin your lesbian novel?” I’ve already failed at writing my sort of normal, straightforward, intelligent romance novel, because I’ve immediately added this metafictional layer to it.
AM: It seems like the perfect way to start, because it will allow you [to have] a framework, and a kind of escape valve—so you can talk about the process of writing in the writing. But I also don’t think that means it will fail to do that other thing, to make it a potboiler. I think for that you might just need to add more detail.
AM: Detail in the imagining of a scene. So not so much the setting of the scene in terms of How did she get to the café? but what happens when she’s there. Compared with, for instance, the way you treat sex in Houses of Ravicka, where there’s a couple of lines.
AM: Some allusions—I remember reading that scene that refers, in a couple of sentences, to people drinking each other’s fluids, and I thought, Oh, they’re fucking. But it’s so inside the language. I mean, it’s great…
RG: Yeah, so slowing that down.
AM: Just imagining the encounter, talking about the encounter…
AM: Maybe detail is the wrong word; some kind of fullness of something, or some kind of immersiveness.
RG: I know exactly what you mean, and I think that’s what’s the hardest thing for me right now: figuring out what to say. Oh, and the other thing I wanted to do was to set it somewhere that was in the world, so this novel is happening in Manhattan. I got a bunch of recommendations—I think I got some from you—of New York City fiction, and just wanted to see how much naming I had to do in order to make a place. Or can you just occupy a city without naming where you are and what street you’re on and all that?
AM: This is something I’m obsessed with as well. What does it mean when you say you want it to be in Manhattan; what does that even mean? The Jokers, the novel by Albert Cossery that I translated, arguably takes place in Alexandria, but it’s never named.
AM: But people who know Alexandria would recognize it.
AM: Your Ravicka books have a bit of that allegorical quality, where things could be stand-ins… as if they’re not specific cities but political realities of cities. So why do you want this new novel to be set in Manhattan, and what does that mean to you? How do you think that’s different from not having it be set in a specific “real” place?
RG: I just started by thinking I’m going to write a concrete, mainstream novel, you know, and I guess it could have been set in Providence, [Rhode Island]—I mean, there’s no way it could be set in the tiny town where I live now. But I was just thinking about the kinds of people these are. She’s an architect—a builder, really; she builds models for an architect. And all her friends are artists. Some of the settings are galleries. The woman in question is a line artist. So I think it just makes sense for the story to take place in New York.
RG: I guess I know that city more than I know LA or another city where there would be those different kinds of artists together. I wanted to ground it in reality and make it as different from what I had been doing as I could.
AM: To me that feels like a bigger difference than any other difference you’ve described.
RG: That it’s located somewhere?
AM: Yeah, because then you’re automatically in relation to so many other things, including every book that’s ever been set in Manhattan. And the quickness of the changes to cities and what kinds of lives are possible—I think it is really hard to negotiate how much of that to let in.
RG: How responsible am I for naming what’s there currently, or is it enough to just say where we are?
AM: As a reader, I love, I really love, what you do with naming. There are three different options when encountering a name of a place in your Ravicka books. Some of them are like Ljubljana, or Poland—and then there are names that appear to me to be made up but might not be; they could be names I don’t know. And then some of them are identifiable in a sort of general way, like by how many consonants there are. Something will seem like a Slavic name, or like an Arabic name, as if they are gesturing toward known languages or places.
RG: What’s the second category—where it doesn’t seem Slavic and you don’t recognize it, but it seems made-up?
AM: That feels more like a speculative fiction environment: an invented world with invented names. But even those invented worlds are often mash-ups of a couple of different places, and the words are transliterations of sounds from existing languages.
AM: But I love that space, having one foot in. As if you’re never that far from the “real” world; you’re pointing at it, and you’re constantly asking questions about it by dropping in these markers of it, but it’s never distracting enough to cause you to ask, Where am I? Is this here or there? And I also think time is as important as place. So Manhattan in 2017 or 2018 is a very particular time-place. And that’s the part that feels even trickier.
RG: Because I’m not in Manhattan right now.
III. “MORE POROUS AND FLICKERING”
AM: So there’s that question of representation, of real people and lives. You have your character walking down the street, and is that really the experience that a person like her would be having on that day? I decided to set Eleanor, or not in a particular year but to let it reflect the span of the five years or so that it took me to write it. I organized the news events from those years seasonally to articulate the era, while setting the story in a single unnamed year. I don’t know if it works the way I want it to, though I do feel like cities and nations have eras. But is this question of representation part of what concerns you?
RG: Yeah! Because even my character, my protagonist, is unknown to me. I talk about this in the opening interview. I say, after I first describe her, that I’ve dug myself into a hole because I’m writing about this girl—she’s a girl! She’s not as girly as other girls are—she wears a blazer: her outfit is a blazer and skinny jeans and boots, but the blazer has a feminine cut. I write it in parentheses because I don’t even know how to describe it; I write, “(it’s cut like blah blah)” because I have to go and do research. I never talk about what people look like, which also comes up in the interview.
So I’m processing how different it is to write this kind of novel, and the fact that it’s difficult is actually useful in terms of extending the novel, but it’s just so weird, this level of fiction where you invent a person. I’m used to characters who are more porous and flickering.
AM: And pretty much in all of your novels there’s some level where it’s you, right? Not that it’s about you—it’s not auto-fiction—but there’s a consciousness that is something less than embodied in a fictional way and also somewhat more than not that. That porousness, right… Like at the end of Houses, there’s all this gender stuff that comes at the end, and there’s the mention of brown skin and white bodies. And I thought, Oh, right, we don’t have a picture of this person as having a race. It’s really interesting to have these facts about the character revealed so late in the book. So is that another thing you’re thinking about, that if you’re creating a character, you have to make all of these decisions clear?
RG: Yeah, but the interviewer says, “Is she African American?” and I say I don’t know yet; I’m not ready to say; I just like her having kind of wild hair. She goes to this gallery event in Hudson, New York, like an opening, and what I end up doing is kind of describing what my first opening, for an exhibition of drawings, was like. It was in Brooklyn, and it was full of so many beautiful, quirky black people in a way I’d never seen, so many all together. There were all kinds of people there, but it was predominantly black, so I transposed that scene, and she’s describing what it’s like to be there and her relationship to that—like, does she belong to that? As if there is some kind of identity there.
AM: But not a totally obvious one?
RG: I don’t know; it’s weird for me. It’s some kind of thing for me to say what she is. And I think it’s because I’m never comfortable, when I’m writing, saying—I don’t think I’ve ever said, other than their nationality, which is Ravickian—I don’t think I’ve ever come out and named a character racially. And I think I feel uncertain about that, and I don’t know why. I can’t; I feel like that’s kind of in my psychology. I’m not really sure.
AM: This is where in my mind the word allegory—and I always hesitate to use that word, because I am not fully fluent in its history of use, but—the way that you describe what could be called a kind of tribalism in the Ravickian books, or at least in this one, because it’s so fresh in my mind, even when you do describe a character’s skin color, you use a different word; you use a metaphor—
AM: Right. But the identity categories are clearly referenced for the reader to imagine, and there are questions of power and questions of hierarchy, and there are questions of othering whole identity groups and of not understanding their habits.
RG: Well, you remember last night when we got to the restaurant and I was like, “This is my life now—”
AM: Yeah, it was the first thing you said: you’re the only black person in the room.
RG: I think I realize that I’m writing into places—even Ravicka as this proposed Eastern European country—and obviously I can’t write black people into that story, but I know I’m there, because I’m writing it. So when I say they’re brown-skinned, it’s sort of inserting an impossibility and also… Well, no one ever talks about that, the race or the color of the Ravickians.
AM: You mean when writing about your books?
RG: Yeah. And no one pushes back when I do put those small little things in, because as a reader you can’t deny what I’m saying; you can’t tell me they aren’t brown. But it wouldn’t make sense for them to be brown where they are.
AM: I’m thinking about those novels—like that Jeanette Winterson book Written on the Body, or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx—where you don’t know the gender of the narrator. And I’m thinking about how, depending on who’s writing that book… Obviously, we still live in a world where the neutral is the white man: the white, straight, able-bodied cis man, for the most part. So what that gesture is, to write an ungendered character, or a mysteriously gendered character, depends on who’s writing it, and with what intention, and how well they pull it off. If you just say “architect, successful architect, mid-forties, Manhattan,” and you do a market-research survey among people, probably the majority of people will, if they’re asked what the person’s identity is, say white—
RG: And probably male.
AM: And probably male. So I guess what I’m wondering is, what would it mean to write a novel that’s within the more commercial novel world, being who you are, and with all these questions in mind that you’re clearly thinking deeply about, and to somehow resist divulging the race, or any particular aspects of the identity of a character, but to do it in a way that’s intentional, that challenges. It’s kind of like what you were saying before. You insert, at the end of Houses, the hazelnut-colored skin, and—depending on whether the person reading has been picturing someone the whole time, or picturing their skin, or not—it creates a rupture, which will be different for each reader, depending on who they are and how they read, and what they have been imagining. I don’t know how you would do it where it’s assertively not-raced, or non-identified; whether there’s a way to do that that’s productive, and political and interesting, or whether it’s just the absence of something.
RG: I think, in trying to avoid it altogether, I would inevitably end up putting in all the things that I don’t usually say about race. I don’t know if I would want to do that.
AM: At all? Or in this new book?
RG: Well, because she’s being interviewed, or I am being interviewed, I don’t think I could get away with never answering that question of her race. The interviewer would have to ask about it, which I do think he does ask, and she does say, “I don’t know yet; I’ll let you know; these are the things that I do know right now.” She puts it off, but I would imagine he’d return to them.
AM: You’re already playing with the idea of what it means to withhold that information.
RG: I am, and I think I’m doing it because I realize I have to write as a black writer, because that’s what I am, but I am aware that all I see, out of my face, are white people, so I must also be writing as a white person, in a way.
RG: And I talk about that, too: how weird it is to be with someone—if you look down and you see your hands, you see what color you are. But I must in some way think that I look like my partner, Danielle, who is white, because that’s who I see most days. And I think when we write, we must encompass some of that.
AM: I remember you saying that to me before, about how much your world is visually made up of the person you see the most. I had this experience in my feminism reading group recently where all the other women were absent, and it was just me and three men who are in the group. They were all sitting on one side of the table, across from me, and I was struck by this thing that I know you feel all the time, which was just: I’m looking at you guys, and I’m seeing a monolith. But they think they’re in a mixed room, because I’m here as the one person who’s not like them. So they’re kind of like, This is cool; this is integrated. And of course I’m in those situations at other times with men, but this was a feminist reading group…
RG: Yeah, like Danielle is thinking she’s in this kind of diverse world, because she lives with a brown person.
AM: Right, because in her world, half of it is not white.
AM: I said this to the men and they all said things like “Oh, I’m glad you pointed that out.”
RG: So, if I may redirect us, as you’re looking over Eleanor, or, are you feeling that there is more fiction in you to write?
AM: I finally started writing something else, and it’s mostly prose, and it has some setting and characters, but it’s more—
AM: Yes. And I’m writing poems too. I found it fairly stressful letting this book into the world, and that had a lot to do with what we’ve been talking about, about fantasy and representation. Whenever I publish something, I fear that it’s full of mistakes and people will see only the mistakes. But this time I was even more worried, because mistakes when you’re depicting a world feel less personal, more like they could lead to inadvertent misrepresentation. Or also they could just be especially vulnerable to misinterpretation. So I’m not sure whether or when I might gear up for that again. Or maybe it gets easier.
RG: What’s the mistake you’re most afraid of?
AM: I have to think about that. I’m not ashamed of making mistakes—and in the writing I love most, errors or fucking up are kind of at the heart. You know that expression that “walking is controlled falling”? Maybe writing is just a kind of controlled fucking up, or stumbling: a way to make meaning out of the constant process of being wrong, or risking being wrong. Which is, of course, a learning process—like learning to walk. So maybe I’m actually working through this fear somewhat as we speak. What about you—is there a mistake you’re most afraid of?
RG: I worry about leaving language behind. I worry this novel will fail to mystify me in the ways that will actually lead it to being written. In my life there are only one or two things I’ve ever abandoned, and even those projects were eventually memorialized in subsequent works. I guess if I never finish my lesbian novel, at least some aspect of it will have existed in this conversation.