What Makes Me Catch My Breath: Erika Swyler in Conversation with Adrienne Celt

June 4, 2018 | 3 books mentioned 9 min read

I first met Adrienne Celt at the Tucson Festival of Books, where, after watching her befriend a macaw, I knew I needed to know her better. We’d both written novels involving family secrets and the same Slavic folklore. The Daughters went on to win the 2015 Pen Southwest Book Award. I devoured it in a day. Her writing is effortless and elegant and feels like eavesdropping on someone at the exact moment they reveal themselves. She’s also ridiculously funny. In her newest novel, Invitation to a Bonfire, she turns her attention to a dangerous affair inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage. It’s fierce, daring, and had me rethinking how to read Nabokov. I had the pleasure of chatting over email with Adrienne about Nabokov, political rage, fabulism, and of course, sex.

Erika Swyler: With Invitation to a Bonfire you’re drawing from—at times audaciously channeling—Nabokov. What was it like to work with his style, which could be both reverential and damning of all things female?

coverAdrienne Celt: Ha. I was eager to be both reverential and damning of Nabokov, so it felt natural? That sounds glib, but I’ve adored Nabokov, reverently, for my entire adult life, and yet this book came from a place of sudden rage at discovering that he’d had an affair (well, probably many affairs, but one especially significant one) and quickly thereafter a desire to get even. I spent a long time believing that the way he cherished Véra was a kind of atonement for the level to which she gave herself over in service of him, that his understanding of what she was offering to him made it palatable for me as a feminist not to look at his work with a judgmental eye. If you believe that Nabokov understood the value of women’s work (and in particular, Véra’s gesture of total devotion to his work), then it allows you to filter all his writing through that lens, and finding out that he slid often and purposefully off that pedestal made me so mad.

This wasn’t a reaction of moral judgment; it was purely emotional. Nabokov the man—even Nabokov the writer—never asked me to have this level of faith in his marriage (or…did he? He certainly characterized their union as unearthly pleasant). But his work touches me on a deep level: I feel now and have always felt as if his novels see the world in much the same way that I see it, this slipstream of beauty and possibility that is always butting up against a hard reality and then, occasionally, gliding past it. Any wounding of my view of Nabokov as a man felt like an affront to my very pure aesthetic relationship to his work. Which made me feel bratty.

In terms of working in conversation with his style, it’s probably closer to my natural style than it is for a lot of people, and after so many years of reading and rereading his work, the voice was very loud in my head. It never felt intimidating to me, only intimate. I guess this book is a kind of lover’s quarrel, in addition to its other qualities. Mostly, it was pure fun. Pure joy.

ES: Can we dig in on the idea of rage? In Invitation, Zoya and Vera share a deep anger, which is almost its own character. Though the affair is an obvious driver, these women are furious for reasons that touch their lives at every level. What drew you to explore rage, and particularly this rage, which feels very female? Are you angry, Adrienne?

AC: I’m tempted to just say, “All of us are angry now, Erika,” and leave it at that, but I think there is a useful distinction to be made between my personal anger and Zoya/Vera’s anger in the novel. The writing of this book was absolutely propelled by a particular rage, which was of a personal and wounded variety, but quickly I found myself more interested in the inner workings of the women who were willing to fight for this selfish, talented man than I was in the impulse behind his cheating. Even in service of punishing it.

I’m angry about the way the world’s engine is fueled by a gasoline of exclusion, capitalism, sexism, greed. But because those forces are so powerful, I’m also artistically interested in them: I think the modes of power have a funny way of being both obvious (greed is obvious) and mysterious (why does it work so well? How can greed be plain as day and also, to so many people, invisible?), which is a good narrative dualism to work with.

My Vera, in Invitation (as distinct from the actual Véra Nabokov, for whom I would not presume to speak) is very aware of the power structures running her world and is both smart and experienced enough to know that despite their intimidating edifice, they’re malleable. By recognizing them, she’s able to subvert them, turn them toward her own ends. And like all incredibly confident people, she can be shortsighted, but she knows what works for her. Vera is angry because although she perceives herself to have gotten the better of her tormentors, she’s still lost a great deal and is only able to hold on to her power by staying quiet about it, moving behind the scenes. I think that boiling her down to rage is not correct because she’s also driven by preference and mood and desire, as we all are, but the rage is definitely there.

Zoya, on the other hand, wants to believe in something and is willing to give her whole self over to any system that can support and nourish her. She’s more trusting: a structuralist, if you will, to Vera’s post-structuralist sensibilities. Her anger comes from the way that these systems keep failing her, no matter how much she genuflects to them, how much she sacrifices. I relate to that. I want to be a joiner, but there so often seems to be nothing worth joining.

ES: It’s easy to read everything as rage, particularly in the current climate, isn’t it? Yes, I’m furious too! But you make me question if that’s also our latest way of being joiners.

AC: I keep being tempted to start my answers with a loud HA. And I think in some ways, yes: There’s definitely a great deal of performative rage happening, especially on the internet, and I’ve spent some time trying to parse what I’m feeling naturally and what I’m feeling out of social pressure. It’s hard, because even when the answer seems to be “social pressure,” the issues are real—so what do you do with that? When you’re on the verge of giving yourself a panic attack, and you can’t focus for more than 15 minutes because you’re so overwhelmed by issues, and all of them are real and pressing? I don’t know. (Also, if I were a person of color, or if I were trans, for example, would I have less freedom to make that distinction? Almost certainly.) I try to engage where I can be meaningful, but that’s not always easy to parse either.

It’s interesting to note that I wrote a fairly complete draft of this book well before the 2016 election. Before Russian spies were relevant again! I did a major revision afterward in which I was able to clarify a lot of my thinking around the, shall we say, “joiner-ism” of political panic, with the help of current events. How being part of a political movement or a political party or, for instance, a bitchy clique in school, comes in most cases from a deep-seated desire for connection and belonging and sense-making in the world. But those themes were there in the book before the election, and that means they were in me before the election, too.

God, now I feel compelled to say: The book is not as didactic as I’m making it sound! There’s also lots of sex!

ES: There is! I’ve found myself describing Invitation to people by saying, “It’s pure brain sex,” but the physical act is key. On multiple levels, it’s a very sexy book. You’re dealing with agency and power imbalances within sexual relationships. What was most important to you when diving into those scenes?

AC: I should really get the phrase “pure brain sex” printed on a T-shirt right above a picture of the book cover. But you’re right; the physicality of sex is important in the book—the push and pull of it, the danger and desire of it. It’s a little hard to talk about without sounding absurd, though; can we say that talking about sex (or talking about writing about sex) is like fucking about architecture?

One of my professors in grad school described the difference between my best friend and me by saying, “Branden writes about the body to write about ideas; Adrienne writes about ideas to write about the body,” which I’ve always considered a very astute delineation between us. But this time I thought, maybe I want to write about the body, too? Maybe I want to explore what makes me catch my breath, partly for the sake of doing so, but mainly as a really powerful form of narrative propulsion? That was what felt most important to me: making sure the desire felt real and urgent for the characters, like something they’d be willing to fight for.

Can I say I had a lot of fun writing the sex scenes? And that also felt important? The whole book was an exercise in writing exactly the story I wanted to read, and this one has sex in it.

ES: Hearing my writing described so succinctly would have been paralyzing to me, but it seems like you found it galvanizing. Was it something to work toward? Push against?

AC: I did find the description galvanizing because it was so keyed in to the work I wanted to be doing—and it’s not like there’s a limit to “writing about ideas,” you know? It made me feel seen.

I’ve come to realize how close the mind/body connection really is in my work: Zoya, Lev, and Vera are all cerebral but also highly animalistic, and none of them does a perfect job of distinguishing between the two. Zoya is in love with Lev’s writing before she meets him. Lev realizes from the beginning that welcoming Vera into his bed means welcoming her into his work. Vera wants to swallow the world. All of which feels right to me. There’s no clear line.

There are always articles floating around about how we think with our guts; how trauma can be delivered genetically; how we’re just rationalizing our instincts a lot of the time when we believe ourselves to be carefully deliberating. The animal and the mind: Of course they’re both always there, especially in situations animated by desire. The mind almost never knows why the body wants, which can be either scary or restful, depending on your relationship to having an orderly existence.

ES: Your webcomic, Love Among the Lampreys, is a literal exploration of animal and cerebral. People are accustomed to the “animals doing human things” trope. You’re working with something slipperier: animals doing animal things, with human thoughts. You’ve got deer discussing transmigration of the soul. Are you writing a fabulist comic?

AC: Wow, sometimes my subconscious is so on the nose. I am absolutely writing a fabulist comic! About cerebral animals! Doesn’t it seem like deer would discuss transmigration of the soul? I think so, though I also sort of think that deer are a discussion about transmigration of the soul, no words necessary.

coverAs a note for anyone interested in how long it takes to develop a visual style, I’ve been publishing Love Among the Lampreys since 2011, but the comic’s actual genesis dates back much earlier, to my college years, when I drew a much worse zygotic version for the school paper. It’s very much a labor of love. And now it’s also available as a collection called Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary, which DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press did a beautiful job with a year or so ago.

I love drawing a comic because thinking visually often allows me to access a part of my creativity that writing does not. When I’m tired of words, I go to pictures. I spend hours meditating on the right shade of gray for a flower. I laboriously hand-wrinkle a bat’s wing. (Love! To! Stipple! And! Hatch!) Then when my hand starts cramping, I start thinking narratively again.

ES: I find that about sketching, too—those different processes feed each other. That gets me thinking about form. It’s assumed that a writer should be able to work in short fiction, novels, and churn out essays on demand when a novel is about to hit the shelves. To me, that’s like asking a runner to specialize in marathons, sprints, and hurdles.

AC: I was just on a panel about turning short stories into novels (because that happened with my first book, The Daughters), so I think it can work; people have different sides to themselves, and ideas have different natural shapes. The trick is, as much as possible, you have to be true to what and how you actually want to write, and recognize that issues of what you “should” write almost always come from outside, not within. Graduate professors tend to want their students to write short stories, because those are workshop-able, and they give you a low-stakes way to experiment with voice and style—but it doesn’t work for every student, and of course not everyone even goes to graduate school. The flip side being: A lot of writers think they “should” write novels when they actually prefer stories or even something more hybrid and experimental.

Writing essays pre-publication is its whole own issue; it always feels weird to me that this is a requirement, but then again, if someone has a better idea for how to publicize a book, I’m listening. Stephen Colbert, I await your phone call.

I’ve learned it’s never useful to skirt too far away from my natural inclinations. That isn’t to say don’t stretch yourself or take chances: do both those things! But if I’m writing something in a particular style because I think I “should,” it almost always turns out to be a disaster. It’s usually more fruitful to lean into whatever kernel of inspiration I’m trying to write around instead of trying to steamroll it; that means trying harder, and letting myself get frustrated—in the service of being honest. There’s a way in which, when you’re writing fiction, you can be honest through form—not only in what you say but how you say it. Through theme, through motif, through structure and phrase. Sometimes it means saying what you think more straightforwardly, but sometimes it means exploring your weirdest self and really getting lost in the jungle of an idea before emerging with something exciting and new.

was born and raised on Long Island, N.Y. Her debut novel, The Book of Speculation, was one of BuzzFeed’s 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015 and a Barnes & Noble Discover selection. Her follow up, Little Twitch, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury. You can find her on twitter at @erikaswyler.

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