Elisabeth Sheffield has won an NEA Fellowship and two Fulbrights, and she is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Her FC2 books include Helen Keller Really Lived, Fort Da: A Report, and Gone. This interview was conducted upon publication of Gone in 2003.
Elisabeth Sheffield’s book Gone was written with the intention of exploring nostalgia. She wrote the book “as an exploration of a time and a place that I’d lost-my childhood in Cooperstown, NY.” Elisabeth uses the framework of another FC2 book, The Talking Room, by Marianne Hauser, to explore the “quest for origins and ‘originality.’”
Elisabeth uses the human body, the “feminine” much like she does “home” in the book, as “the product of a certain nostalgia, as the creation of desire and longing for a place that is always already gone.” Elisabeth says that Gone, although a “strongly feminist work” is “problematic as it works against the notion of any feminine body as such.”
Elisabeth first discovered Marianne Hauser and Fiction Collective Two while she was a graduate student in the ’80s. She says that finding The Talking Room in her class, Postmodern American Fiction, “opened up new possibilities” for her own writing, “as it showed how a literary work could question cultural schemas of sex and gender by challenging language itself, rather than simply the world language represents.” Elisabeth Sheffield represents FC2’s ongoing efforts to publish works by women, which has grown significantly since she first discovered FC2.
Elisabeth has published Joyce’s Abandoned Female Costumes, Gratefully Received. She also co-edited and wrote the introductory essay for Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics. She had several stories published in 2000 and 2001. Elisabeth is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder where she lives with her husband, Jeffery DeShell, who is another FC2 author.
What is the most difficult thing about being a writer, and what is the easiest? What drives you?
The first most difficult thing for me about being a writer is writing. I find it hard, painfully hard, nearly every day. And while you didn’t ask what the second most difficult thing is, I’m going to tell you anyway: not writing. Not in the sense, of course, of actually doing something else instead (e.g. opening my e-mail program, the New York Times web page, or googling for cancer symptoms). But in the sense that when I’m not writing, I don’t feel like I’m a writer. And then I feel like a loser. The other day I was thinking about the difference between the term “writer” as opposed to the term “novelist” — about how the first is derived from a verb, the second from a noun. With the second, you still have something when you’re done, something to claim and to base an identity on — I’ve written a novel and therefore I’m a novelist. If you’d asked me what is the most difficult about being a novelist, I would have given an initially similar answer to the one above (i.e. “The most difficult thing about being a novelist is writing a novel.”), and then gone on to say that the easiest thing is walking by my bookshelf, seeing the copies of my novel there, and thinking “Wow, I’m a novelist.” As the question stands, there is no easy part. (Roland Barthes says all this better in “Death of the Author.”)
What drives me is egotism — the feeling that I’m not a writer if I’m not writing. I write to puff myself up, to feel like I’m more than I am, with the hope that others will think I am more too. In person I’m not, like a lot of writers, particularly articulate. At the same time, what I find tremendously satisfying about writing are the times when “I” forget about “me” and become a kind of nameless force in the field of language (Maurice Blanchot says this better).
What is your proudest accomplishment as a writer?
I think I will answer this as a novelist! My novel. Before this I’d written short stories and also a critical book (which was in a way a warm up for the novel). I didn’t think I could sustain a longer work of fiction, and now that I’m in the throes of my second would-be novel, once again I’m not sure.
How did the idea/concept of Gonecome to you?
I wanted to write about the time and place where I grew up, like every other Joe(sephine) working on their first novel. One of the things I admire about my husband, the writer Jeffrey DeShell, is that he doesn’t touch his hometown or his childhood until his fourth novel [The Trouble With Being Born, FC2 2008], and when he does, the figure of the child is mostly absent. The project began out of a desire to rummage around in the past, as if I were going through old boxes and photo albums. As time went on, however, I became more self-conscious about the desire itself — I wanted to explore that, why a person would want to go back, what they’d hope to gain. Svetlana Boym says “nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” In my novel Stella Vanderzee believes that if she can get what’s been taken from her, everything will be fine — what has been lost can be retrieved, the original plenitude restored. The other main character, her Aunt Juju, knows better.
Gone is a romance with a home that no longer exists or perhaps never existed (given the reconstructive work of memory and desire). It’s also a romance with Marianne Hauser’s The Talking Room (FC2 1976), which is one of my favorite novels. I’ve adopted a couple of Hauser’s central themes, the longing for the “lost” mother and the quest for origins and “originality” (which in my book manifests itself in the quest for the “original work,” the painting Stella believes is hers). Further, the triad of Stella, Juju and Stella’s mother, Barbara Salzmann, owes something to the triad of B, her Aunt V and her mother, J, in The Talking Room. I think that Hauser’s novel, via its questioning of origins and originality, anticipates the discourse of postfeminist and queer theorists like Judith Butler and Thomas Lacquer about the “constructedness” of sexuality and gender and the way language and perception shape the body, a discourse in which I was very interested as I was writing Gone. The fact that Barbara is an artist whose work plays with and undermines traditional representations and perceptions of the body and sexuality reflects my interest in this discourse. So too does the running motif of cows and the reconstruction of the aurochs, the cow’s “original” ancestor. Like “home,” I see the body, the “feminine,” as the product of a certain nostalgia, as the creation of desire and longing for a place that is always already gone.
How did you decide on the format and construction of Gone?
This is difficult to remember. I began the novel in 1994 and had to put it aside at least twice for extended periods of time to tend to other duties and projects. I also threw out about a hundred pages. As I recall, the grandfather character was originally a grandmother and more present physically, rather than just psychically and emotionally. The grandmother became a grandfather with the introduction of Stella (originally there was only Judith). It seemed right for him to be physically paralyzed, ineffectual, a presence more in Stella’s head than in reality. I’m not saying patriarchy doesn’t have tangible effects (e.g., count the women in political office), but I do think it’s a fiction that we author(ize) first in our minds. I added the Stella character to better interrogate the cliché of wanting to go back “home.” She appeared as I became more self-conscious about the project.
Once I added the Stella character/voice, the possibility for more than one version of the past opened up (as it always does when you’ve got more than one perspective). I decided to run with this as it seemed thematically significant-the problem of the past is not simply that it’s irretrievable temporally, but also that it’s always already entangled with individual memories and desires. And while I do find Juju’s version of the past more compelling than Stella’s, I don’t think it’s necessarily any more “true.”
Stella’s portions were always in the present tense, in part, I suppose, to provide a contrast with Juju’s, but also to show how completely she’s cut off from the past, even as she’s obsessed with it and the injustice she thinks has been done to her, which is the main function of the second person used to address the grandfather — to show her preoccupation with her “patrimony.” It might be appropriate to add here that if Stella weren’t so obsessed with her own patriarchal vision (seeing power structures as homogenously masculine) she might be better able to appreciate her mother and that alternate legacy. Stella is thoroughly stuck in the present, and further never gains any insight in the novel and the intention behind the present tense was to show this. As I began working with first-person present tense, however, I began to find the “I do this, I do that” pattern the narration was falling into really flat (I think first person present tense can lend itself to a lot of “telling”). So I began working at blending in interior monologue (which helped with character development, as well as adding texture) and also at trying to tie the first person narration more to sense perception. One example would be the paragraph at the bottom of p. 22, where I originally had something awful like “I don’t hear [Heidi’s] return.” Eventually I cut this and instead repeated the phrase “far far away” to show that Stella’s awareness of Heidi’s location is still tied to her earlier perception of the sound of Heidi’s feet at the top of the house. And I also think the “far far away” functions on other levels as well, as for instance, Stella feels far from her goal. In the course of writing the novel I became quite interested in the technical challenge of how to make the first person present tense voice more “showing,” and also more for itself (so that the reader would have the sense of eavesdropping on a mind at work) while at the same time keeping the story going. It was really difficult, and I don’t think it entirely works.
The lack of punctuation harks back to another first-person female voice I created years ago, that I wanted to do an older version of (the earlier version belonged to a sixteen-year-old girl), and no doubt also to Joyce’s Molly Bloom. I think it helps technically, to better blend thought with action and perception. Further, it perhaps works to show Stella’s lack of rigor — she’s not very self-examining or analytical, which is part of her problem. She sees herself as a victim, of academia, of her grandfather, of a lack of opportunity, and thus abandons herself to the tide of self pity.
Juju’s voice is, like Stella’s, reminiscent of another female voice I’ve done — an algolagniac voice, obsessive and cruel. But I think Juju’s voice is more playful, and also more pained. I think I’ve stolen more than a bit of Humbert Humbert, and this is also reflected in the letters of “advice” to young girls. Like Humbert Humbert, Juju is obsessed with a type as well as one particular object of desire. The girls for Juju are a way of approaching Barbara’s absence “like a tongue obsessively searching the socket of a lost tooth” (to quote Juju!). I see Juju as much more self aware than Stella, even as she’s also self deceiving in her own way — she can’t just say “all I really want to talk about, to think about is Barbara.” The letters are, I suppose, a kind of self therapy — a means to explore but also stand back from abject desire.
A couple of years ago someone asked me “Why did all of the letters end up back in Juju’s possession?” The answer is because she never sent them. (Although I don’t think I make this clear.) The letters were really always for the self — their form (i.e., the fact that they are addressed to an other/others) is a way of trying to deal with this alterity (Barbara’s) Juju can never really reach. I see the letters as a kind of “art” — an address to the other that becomes an other (e.g., this book I wrote, Gone, no longer really feels like I wrote it — which is why, I think, a lot of writers only feel like writers when they’re writing). I’m not sure why Juju leaves the letters at Heidi’s — perhaps having created this “otherness,” she no longer feels like it is hers? And perhaps because she realizes this “otherness” is no longer hers, she thinks she might as well pass it on to Stella?
The two narrators in Gone, Stella and Juju, have noticeably different voices. Was it difficult to keep each voice distinct when writing the novel?
I love this question, because it begins with the assertion that the voices are different! My great fear was in fact that the voices wouldn’t seem distinct, or that the use of present tense and the lack of punctuation in Stella’s voice would seem like a cheap trick to keep it separate from Judith’s. And I do think that both voices are clearly the florid creations of their Joyce, Nabokov and Hauser loving creator. One of my guiding principles of composition was that Judith’s voice would always be more “artful,” more detached than Stella’s. I also found that as I got a better grip on the desire(s) driving each that I got better grip on the voice of each. Each became a kind of “language machine” (Juju’s toward the end in fact started to irritate me a little as its main mode seemed to be a shredding one; i.e. it seemed like she was always ripping into everyone and everything).
Which of the many female characters that populate Gone do you consider the strongest, personality wise? The weakest? The most feminist?
If by “strongest” you mean the most willful, I would say Judith — she persists (even perseverates) in a way that Stella doesn’t. And while Barbara is portrayed in Juju’s version as a kind of feminist art hero, she’s also a cipher — a placeholder or space into which the two main female characters project their desires (Juju’s desire is to see her as triumphantly elusive; Stella’s is to see her as victim). Sure she fucked Uncle Buck (up), but first she also went back upstate to marry James and have a couple of kids — (what was that about?)
Ellipsis and mystery seem to be a large part of why the novel works so well. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Well one of the things I decided to leave out very early on was the possibility that Stella would ever find the letters. Initially I think I decided to exclude this possibility because it was just too corny and cliché to contemplate. But later it seemed like the right decision because for me the novel is ultimately about representation. I want there to be that sharp division between Stella’s view of how things were and Judith’s, and also to suggest that neither is ultimately truth (to have Stella learn about and recognize Judith’s would be to validate the latter) — all we have are mirrors and lenses for looking at a world we can never be certain about. Although in my mind, Juju’s view is more interesting (because she acknowledges that all we have is representation, so therefore why not play with it — change the perspective, screw up the picture — this is what Barbara “teaches” her). Juju is like the man in Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie in the Non-Moral Sense” who knows we live in the house of language, so why not move the furniture around and design things to our liking?
How did you decide on the title Gone?
For one, the word is in the first line of the novel, for another it seemed thematically right — everything disappears, is lost in one way or another. The original thing — the past, the mother, the other can never be reached. Unfortunately, however, there are now about six other books titled Gone. Originally there were only two, which I found out about after I finished my novel (Gone had been my working title for the last three years out of six that I worked on it), but one was a memoir (as I recall, about someone’s days working at the New Yorker!), and further there’s no copyright on titles. A couple of months ago I was at King Soopers and saw two different crime novels titled Gone, one with a lurid green cover that is completely the opposite of the tasteful salmon pink the designer chose for mine. So if anybody publishes my next book, I’m going to be more careful with the title. Or get a lurid green cover.