The WTAW Features Chapbook Series presents the first chapter of NoNo, a novel by Jenny Wu, and chapter one of Octavia Street, a novel by Amelie Prusik. These limited edition chapbooks are available for purchase HERE, along with the First Look Chapbook Series limited editions of Louise Marburg’s The Truth About Me, a Story and Mike Smith’s My Emilys, an Essay, each of which are excerpts from the full-length books, forthcoming September 2017, from authors Louise Marburg and Mike Smith.
Lauren Alwan (*see bio below), one of the best literary interviewers we know, recently interviewed Amelie Prusik and Jenny Wu about their chapbooks. First up, Amelie Prusik.
Amelie Prusik is the author of the novel Light Sister, Dark Sister (Random House) and has published short fiction in The North American Review, America West, Bosque, Lantern Journal, and The Copenhagen Review. Her poetry has appeared in Antaeus and Intro 8. She is a graduate of the Warren Wilson Program For Writers and teaches at DePaul University in Chicago.
Lauren Alwan: Octavia Street is the story of a woman, Jane, with strong attachments—to her home, her family, her troubled brother, Theo. At the same time, she’s suffering the loss of a child—a separation that puts her existing attachments under threat. How did you come to write this particular story?
Lee Prusik: An image came to me of a woman standing in an empty room looking out the window at neighboring houses. I pursued the image and found that the room had once been a nursery, the child long gone, and wondered what else this woman had lost or was about to lose.
LA: As the excerpt opens, the mortgage on Jane’s beloved house is in arrears, and she’s in danger of losing the place where she grew up. Though Jane’s failure to pay the mortgage is due to the entanglement with her troubled brother, I couldn’t help but wonder if the 2008 mortgage crisis, a period when thousands of stories of people losing their homes predominated, influenced the story?
LP: Yes, quite a bit. I wanted to explore personal loss in the context of communal loss. Jane’s vulnerability is echoed in the collective story of the financial crisis. However, I chose to approach the economic context obliquely; often we aren’t fully aware of the ways our own stories fit a larger paradigm.
LA: In Octavia Street, the house is as much a character as the principals. Jane refers to the house as “a brooding presence,” a place she imagines, long after her father has died, is ”still waiting for him to come back.” Setting is clearly important to you as a writer. Could you describe how this narrative device informs your work?
LP: Place always seems so rich with possibility. There’s a challenge, too, in creating a place on the page that already has many associations for readers. It forces the writer to look more closely, to become more specific and detailed, when using a particular setting. New Orleans after Katrina continues to have palpable sense of loss, although on the surface people go about their business.
LA: Jane is a character with a set of highly charged contradictions. She’s a keeper of secrets—her husband Thomas isn’t aware of the delinquent payments—even though keeping those secrets causes her, as she confesses, a sense of grief that compounds her feeling of loss. Narratively, it’s a good strategy, a way to put pressure on your character. What has it been like to write this character whose story centers on this degree of tragic circumstance?
LP: I wanted to write a character who was both a keeper of secrets and a revealer of them. She’s both a creator and a destroyer. These twin impulses carry a lot of energy.
LA: Did you think about these characters in advance of writing, discover them in the process of writing, or some combination of both?
LP: Both. I had Jane’s voice in my head from the start but I needed to discover the other characters by writing them.
LA: The prose style of Octavia Street is striking for its clean, precise, and careful crafting. Can you talk a bit about your writing process, and which writers you admire for their prose styles?
LP: My process is a mixture of fast and slow. I write fairly quickly at times. Then I rewrite and draft over and over. It’s not efficient, but it helps me to find the rhythm of the story, the exact sentences. I admire writers who combine formal style with mysterious and confounding subject matter—Colm Tóbín, Elizabeth Strout, Katherine Ann Porter, Mavis Gallant, Edward P. Jones, John Banville, and Rachel Cusk.
LA: Some writers of fiction prefer to write only fiction, while others find periodically working in other genres, such as poetry, or nonfiction, can invigorate their fiction. Where do you fall on this spectrum?
LP: I write mostly fiction. Sometimes poetry, which is where I started.
Next up, Jenny Wu
Jenny Wu is an MFA candidate at Washington University in St. Louis, where she edits The Spectacle literary magazine. Her writing can be found in Word For/Word, dislocate, The Blue Route, and elsewhere. She holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Emory University (class of 2016). In the past she has worked as a political science TA and a box office salesperson.
Lauren Alwan: Your novel, NoNo opens with a young student, Klara, who’s studying art under the Weimar Republic’s education and welfare provisions for youth. What drew you to this time and place as the setting for the story?
Jenny Wu: I chose, first of all, to write a historical novel because I love research, and situating story in the past allows for a certain degree of de-familiarization that I think is so important. Also, I love the process of finding oblique angles at which to “enter” history. For example, women at the Bauhaus were mostly known for and limited to the production of textiles. I like the idea of inserting fictional characters (not just Klara, but lots of other women artists) into the painting workshops, into intimate conversations with famous painters, where they are less likely to be found than in the usual historical records.
LA: Chapter one---the chapbook---begins with a quote by Paul Klee, an artist who was a figure from the Bauhaus and an influential teacher at the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar. Does his vision of modernity come to have an influence on Klara?
JW: Klee was always an unreachable ideal, not only as a painter but also as a virtuoso violinist, an experimental chef, and a strange, ethereal genius who seemed to have unique relationships with his consciousness, with nature, and even with cats. He remained aloof to all the messy drama of the Bauhaus masters, and inspired awe and respect from his students (an ideal supported and preserved, I think, in his collected letters and diaries). That ideal is unreachable for my protagonist, at least, because she finds herself mired in financial troubles, in obligations to her lover, and a number of other personal and interpersonal crises. But I do maintain throughout the book that Klara is one of those students in awe of Klee and his “vision.” A lot of people tried to imitate him.
LA: The characters and setting are seen through a lens of social and economic turbulence that includes the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, the rise of nationalism, and the French invasion of the industrial Ruhr Valley as retaliation for Germany’s default on reparations the country owned after the first World War. At one point Klara says, “Everything about Weimar was good and fine, except for the feeling that we did not belong in Weimar.” As an outsider and an artist in this uncertain milieu, Klara is well-suited to serve as the story’s narrator. How did you come to construct her character?
JW: Klara is, throughout the book, a rather dodgy character. She’ll very soon, in the next chapter or so, do things in her personal life most would call morally questionable. But I think you mean in relation to, as you said, the role of the artist in an “uncertain milieu” and how I went about envisioning a character who attempts to narrate from the heart of an experience while simultaneously being an outsider; questioning whether the artist figure is inherently an outsider; whether some kind of character traits might reconcile this inside-outside divide.
There is a passage from an essay by Bertolt Brecht that one of my former professors, Todd Cronan, translated. An interlocutor asks a young painter who hails from a community of barge-haulers why he does not paint barge-haulers. The conversation that ensues is, predictably, rather absurd. For example: “I draw lines and patches and the feelings I sometimes have.” “Are they at least the feelings about the terrible situation of the barge-hauler?” “Maybe.” Drawing from that idea, the words that probably formed my conception of Klara from the onset more than anything were “naivety” and “folly.” I was certain that my protagonist should have very visible flaws and contradictions, that her mistakes should both advance the plot and spark criticism.
LA: The story takes place in a time and place of marked oppositions in politics and the arts: the Academy and Modernism, the Left against the Right, the past and the future. Even the apartment Klara and her friend Anja move into is seen through this polarity:
“…our living space would be modern, efficient, and proletarian. There would be no trace of our parents’ decorating tastes.” Could you talk a bit about how these oppositions inform the story?
JW: One can almost estimate the precariousness of a society by its binaries. My characters in this first chapter are in what you might call a permanent state of “coping.” There is so much they can’t, for a long time in the book, articulate—because they want to break from tradition not just for the sake of doing something new but in accordance with the ideas of certain philosophers and national heroes they view as vanguards. At times it’s as though they are reaching backward in order to move forward, despite the fact that they do seem, especially from our perspective nowadays, to be living in an ever-widening rift between past and future. The third chapter, for instance, shows the characters engaging in a lively, almost farcical debate over Bauhaus ideals and attempting to carve out their own original ideas about art, but as the plot progresses this idealism wanes and is replaced by darker realities of both a political and personal nature.
LA: Reading this excerpt of NoNo, it’s impossible not to think of the political climate we now face in the United States, as so many communities have come under threat, the most recent of which is the arts community, with the Trump Administration’s promise to eliminate NEA and NEH funding. Given the current political climate, how do you see Klara’s story, as well as all the characters who occupy the Weimar Republic in its final years?
JW: In the short-lived interwar period we saw artistic credos like De Stijl, the Bauhaus,and Dada emerge out of an overarching vision to dismantle many (but certainly not all) of the unsustainable, imperial-minded ideologies of the early twentieth century. I find myself returning to an anecdote I first read about in a book by Nicholas Fox Weber regarding Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the third director of the Bauhaus. In 1933, he appeared before the desk of the Nazi minister of culture, who had more or less shut down the art school under suspicion of Communist activity, proclaiming the Nazi’s writing desk was shabby and that he, Mies, would “throw it out the window!”
The relationship between politics and art is crucial but fraught. At times it seems that one is left with the choice of either politicizing art or aestheticizing politics.Fascists aestheticize suffering, and, to quote Walter Benjamin, “all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.” However, to quote Benjamin again, it is possible too that “distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception.” Obviously there is a political reason to present the arts and humanities as frivolous in comparison to military expenditure, but I think—and we see in, say, in the lasting impact of “Degenerate Art”—that the specific artistic traditions under threat in a regime could in turn pose a threat to the consolidation of tyranny without checks. To return to your question—though this is sort of a weak offering in light of today’s political realities—Klara and the other artists throughout the novel, despite being broke, despite their (fictional) art not selling, despite the political upheaval, continue to make art, and this was true for real actual artists during the time as well.
LA: The character of Mr. NoNo, we learn, is an “unlikely Swiss pantomime choreographer,” whose name, the narrator tells us, is “a play on the convention of childish repetition and a foreshortening of his real name, which I never revealed to anyone.” There’s a thread of secrets in this excerpt, in the things one doesn’t dare reveal about oneself, or want to hear others reveal about themselves. As Klara says, “…if you weren’t careful, you would hear something you didn’t want to hear.” The sense of necessary secrecy is palpable, even in this brief excerpt. Was this idea central to your concept of the story?
JW: Secrets factor largely into the novel’s plot; in fact, most of the protagonist’s interpersonal relationships are sustained by some tacit withholding of information. I’m very interested in concealment as a form of power, especially in relation to Bauhaus architecture’s directive to “lay bare” the scaffolding of modernity. This novel allowed me to explore the sometimes unconventional, sometimes illusory transfers of power one finds in everyday life.
LA: Who are some of the writers, and artists, you draw inspiration from?
JW: In hindsight, the books that influenced this book the most were Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Anaïs Nin’s diaries.
LA: Any other thoughts you’d like to share about the process of writing the book?
JW: I had some really great mentors along the way.
***Lauren Alwan’s fiction has appeared in the Southern Review, StoryQuarterly, the Alaska Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, and in the Bellevue Literary Review as a recipient of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. Her essays have appeared in the Northwest Review of Books, the Rumpus, The Millions, Catapult, and Zyzzyva, and cited as Notable in Best American Essays 2016. She is a prose editor at the museum of americana, an online literary review, and a staff contributor at LitStack, a literary news and review site. Find her on Twitter at @lauren_alwan.