Interview with Elisa Albert: “I like telling stories that aren’t being told.”

Elisa Albert is the author of the novels Human BluesAfter BirthThe Book of Dahlia, and the short story collection How This Night is Different.

Her fiction and essays have been published in n+1Tin House, Bennington Review, The New York Times, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Literary Review, Philip Roth Studies, Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Longreads, The Cut, Time Magazine, Post Road, Gulf Coast, Commentary, Salon, Tablet, Washington Square, The Rumpus, The Believer and in many anthologies.

She has taught creative writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, The College of Saint Rose, Bennington College, Texas State University, University of Maine, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize and Paterson Fiction Prize, winner of the Moment Magazine debut fiction prize, and Literary Death Match champion, Albert has served as Writer-in-Residence at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Holland and at the Hanse-Wissenschaftkolleg in Germany.

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Hi Elisa! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself? 

Jew freak in my mid-forties, furiously reading and writing since I was a kid. In conversation with Judaism, gender, reproductive struggle and liberation, grief, love, family, anger, mortality, the body. Always trying to balance humor/heartbreak. Never want to identify fully with either, or anything. Heartfelt cynic. Cynical idealist.

Would rather conjure a character and hold space for them and put them through some shit than just straight-opine about politics/culture/whatever. Bringing a person fully to life is way more interesting, and ultimately I think offers better/richer/funnier context for engaging any/all necessary political/cultural quandaries.

How do you approach the process of creating characters in your novels, such as in The Book of Dahlia and After Birth?

I hear voices and work really hard to sustain and develop and honor them, warts and all. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that these people haunt me, and the writing is a kind of exorcism. Good times!

Can you speak to the themes you explore in your writing, such as motherhood and feminist issues, and how they have evolved throughout your career?

I like telling stories that aren’t being told. I like finding holes in culture,  places where I don’t see complex reflections. I like putting my finger on what’s being shushed or flattened or discounted. There’s often a disparity between what the culture is telling us and what’s going on under the surface, and I dig trying to give voice to those disparities. I want deeper, more complex, more “authentic” lives for my characters. I want to insist on full expression of body and soul. If that’s not too much to ask.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

It’s pretty fluid, given the other demands of domestic and community work, teaching/lecturing gigs, deadlines waxing or waning. I do find it helpful to ritualize – movement and/or stretching, lighting a candle, unfolding into work more than trying to force it.

I’m only really creative when I’m able to access a calm and chill headspace, so I keep my living/working spaces well organized and appointed, with good energy and lots of room to move around and roll around on the floor like the arrested child I am.

Can you discuss your experience teaching creative writing at various universities and how it has impacted your own writing?

It’s an honor to be in conversation with students of writing, because I continue to be a student of writing. It can be very cool. It’s good to remind myself, as I remind them, that process is more important than product. Or rather: that process is the only way to get to a worthwhile product. So: learn to love doing the work or don’t bother. 

How do you balance the demands of writing with the responsibilities of promoting and publicizing your work?

I don’t! The energies are fundamentally different. When I have to be the public face of something I wrote, the writing gets paused. Public stuff can be super fun but it’s also super draining. Whereas writing, for me, is about focusing, harnessing, turning inward. (Though I guess I do enjoy some instagramming when the day is done, and that’s certainly a public space, too.)

Writers are “supposed” to be charismatic salespeople/personalities, but publicity and PR have very little to do with writing, the quality of the writing, the posterity of the writing. The writing is a message in a bottle. PR is a popularity contest, and triggering af! The writing obviously “matters” more, but PR is louder. I’ve written about this in an essay called The Snarling Girl, which lives on Hazlitt and is the piece of writing I continually get the most reader mail about.

What does your writing workspace look like? 

It’s a tiny room with a proper desk and a window, and I’ve adorned it with beauty and inspo. But since the pandemic, I work on the couch or floor downstairs, or standing. Like I need to dissolve the borders between work and life. Life is work, work is life. I hope to get back into my “official” space at some point. Maybe I should swap out the desk for a couch up there. Actually, hell yes that’s a good idea.

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