Raphaela Weissman and I met when she took part in one of my first creative writing workshop in the upstairs library of Shakespeare & Company. She was an NYU student on her semester abroad, and it was a pleasure to have her in my class. I knew from the writing that she shared and her keen insight on the works that we read that she would one day write a novel. I am so pleased to interview her today about her book Monsters!
What is the first line of your book?
“The first time it happened was in the spring.” There’s also an epigraph, I’ll leave you in suspense about that.
What are the themes of Monsters?
It’s about fear, in several forms: The child in Monsters has the kinds of fears we, as adults, can comfort ourselves knowing we’ve outgrown, like actual monsters, but, like all children, he also intuits deeper truths about the reality around him, which causes the kind of fear we never outgrow. The adults in the novel are experiencing marital difficulties and parenting challenges and mental health issues and restlessness, and I tried to depict those struggles through the lens of fear. And layered over all of it is the communal fear that people experience collectively after an event like September 11th, which is haunting my three protagonists as well.
One of my favorite poems is ‘Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.’ Can you talk about the experience of writing your novel at the Richard Hugo House in Seattle?
I read this poem a couple times to prepare my answer. You’re right, it’s definitely one that would elicit a lot of “poetry moos” (that’s the chorus of “mmmm”s you hear at a poetry reading when the audience reacts to poignancy). I moved to Seattle in 2008 and wrote Monsters from 2009 to 2011, largely in classes at Hugo House, which is a writing center in Seattle that offers classes, readings, performances, fellowships, and other writing resources. Hugo’s poem and my experience at Hugo House echo each other nicely in that no matter how long I live here, I think I’ll feel like a bit of an outsider, because this area’s language and shared history, which I think is the backbone of this poem, are not mine. My language and shared history are about upstate New York, where I grew up; it’s about snow and isolation and strip malls and the leaves changing and the Hudson River and a younger sibling relationship with New York City. That’s what my “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” would be about. On the other hand, there are places like Hugo House, which are rooted in a place and its traditions but also tap into a more universal language: the connectedness we can feel as writers and readers who grew up in literature as well as in our own little parts of the world. So I wrote this novel, which takes place in New York City and New Hampshire, entirely in Seattle, because that shared writing experience is kind of a key to unlocking your own language and history and putting it down in a way that’s (hopefully) exciting and rewarding to read.
Do you have a schedule when you write?
I write in spurts. I’m a “pantser,” not a “plotter,” one of the weirder pieces of writing jargon that means you write by the seat of your pants. I write a lot of scenes out of order as they come to me and then try to fit them together at a later stage. I can’t write in my apartment, which is a place I love very much but I spend a lot of time there watching very bad TV, so thoughtful prose is kind of allergic to it. I get writing done when I’m in a coffee shop or a library, and I stay there for hours (I mean hours; I might not get anything down until hour three). I’m real picky about seating, too. I can be surrounded people, but I can’t write if someone’s directly across from me. I’ll move.
Things have changed since I last saw you. After studying in Paris, you’ve returned to the States, and moved from New York to Seattle. Does place influence your writing? What is the best part of living in Seattle?
Place is definitely a huge part of my writing. I find that I want to write about places I know well when I’m not physically there. I did my thesis on expat literature, and gave it the not at all pretentious title “Writing in Paris: The Expatriate Myth,” so I could explain why that is by going on and on about Henry James and James Baldwin and Gertrude Stein and Caliban and The Other, but that wouldn’t be much fun for anyone. Instead I’ll say I think homesickness and always feeling just a little alienated in a far away place is a decent formula for creativity.
I love that Seattle is a city of neighborhoods, and that there are places where the staff know my name and coffee order (shoutout to Wylie and the gang at Barjot!). It also makes going to a farther away neighborhood for the day feel like an adventure. There’s also an amazing thriving activism scene here. Maybe most importantly, it’s a perfect city for introverts: some people fantasize about being on a beach with a cocktail; I fantasize about being inside on a rainy day with a book and tea and warm socks, and that happens a lot here.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Writing-wise, it came from Julia Slavin. She told her writing classes that you’ll never be able to write unless you can honestly answer two questions: What is the worst thing that’s ever been done to you, and What is the worst thing you’ve ever done? I’m tempted just to leave that because it’s so perfect; I’ll just add that I love that advice because I truly believe that honesty and fearlessness are non-negotiable necessities for art.
What advice would you share with first-time novelists?
If you’re writing a novel, let’s hope you’re doing it because you love writing. To that end, WRITE, before you do anything else. Don’t read articles or books about how to get an agent or how to get published or how to sell or how to pitch until you’re done with the writing. Don’t worry about any of that or convince yourself that it’s important. You can get published if you’re not a good writer, and you can be a great writer and not get published. If you’re honing your craft and creating good work you can feel good and sleep at night, no matter what the dollars and cents outcome is.
What is the role of the writer in the era of Trump?
Boy, have I been thinking about this a lot. I keep thinking about Surrealism and Existentialism and Absurdism and Dada and the Lost Generation, and how all of it was in reaction to some terrifying political and cultural climate. I hope we’re on the verge of another creative golden age, and I think we might be. What’s even more exciting than the idea of, for example, Surrealism making a comeback, is that something completely new could be on the horizon. Totalitarianism and widespread fear doesn’t just inspire explicitly political work, the Animal Farms and Catch-22s; it can transform the actual language of the art into something we’ve never seen before. I’m generally opposed to finding silver linings in oppressive political realities which can destroy people’s lives, but if I’m honest I do find this aspect of it kind of exciting. I believe that when artists are provoked, through anger (and even through fear) to be more honest, more transgressive, it also makes us more creative, and makes our voices louder.
What books are on your nightstand?
Only one book lives on my nightstand permanently, the Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. The rest are on shelves and tables spilling all over my living room. Right now I’m reading Plays Well With Others, by Allan Gurganus, and next up is Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, which my whole family is reading as an homage to my first job as a hostess at the Red Lobster in Kingston, New York.
I’m deciding whether to channel my energy into a novel I’ve started that’s roughly based on my experiences in high school marching band, or a surreal/absurdist play set entirely in an airport. I’ve always fantasized about being a playwright.