Jenny Offill by Claire Vaye Watkins

BOMB 152 Summer 2020
152 Cover
Jenny Offill author photo

Jenny Offill’s books will fuck you up emotionally, aesthetically, philosophically, and spiritually. That is not a warning but an invitation.

Offill’s process is lapidary, her books built of organic shapes tumbled by time and devotion and cut sharp against the ordinary. Her narrators magpie not altogether willingly from poetry, religion, philosophy, myth, and the so-called natural world. What Offill’s Dept. of Speculation did for the domestic novel, her newest book, Weather, does for the environmental novel—dispensing with the sanctimonious screeching and instead playing the music of vulnerability and loss, a desperately needed new mode for the emerging literature of doom. You are unlikely to encounter a novel more expressly and stylistically anti-capitalist than Weather, and I know of no work that so acutely replicates the psychic bleat of trying to care for one’s self and others in this exceptionally cruel and deathy era of climate collapse. 

From Weather:

Q: What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?
A: You can teach them how to sew, to farm, to build. Techniques for calming a fearful mind might be most useful though. 

Jenny was the reason for one of my last outings, back on the other side of the pandemic threshold. We were IN CONVERSATION (her mocking caps) at Powell’s, the legendary and—at the time of this writing—endangered bookstore in downtown Portland. After the event we got day-drunk and talked about extinction at the Ace Hotel. The next time we spoke was by video chat, this side of the threshold, for BOMB. We talked about nothing and everything else. 

—Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Watkins Hi.

Jenny Offill Hey! I can’t see you for some reason.

CVW I didn’t turn my camera on because I was too ashamed.

JO (laughter) Well, as you can see, I was not able to clean my room before you called. I just want to see you for a second.

CVW Okay. Let me see if I can figure out how to do that. (turns camera on) I have a blanket around me.

JO Truth is, before this I thought, Hmm, I have not brushed my hair or in any way done anything for a long time.

CVW I wasn’t really fastidious about the personal hygiene before all this started so, yeah.

JO If I lived alone, I know exactly how this would be going down.

CVW It’s really crazy to live alone for a week and then be a mother the next week. It’s like, whoo!, whiplash.

JO That seems super hard. Is your daughter going back and forth every week?

CVW Yeah, we go back and forth, but there’s no school, so beyond that there’s no structure. I’m not trying to do any type of home-schooling thing.

JO You’re not teaching her Mandarin or anything?

CVW I am teaching her about the sixth extinction. (laughter) I’m like, This is why this is happening. Have you noticed what’s going down, Esmé?

JO Well said. So, are you holding up okay?

CVW I’ve been looking forward to this phone call so I can talk to someone who won’t make me feel crazy. I don’t have to be like, We’re animals and not special. (laughter) What about you? How are you holding up?

JO Basically, if you started getting worried about this and preparing early it just meant that people thought you were insane for longer. And of course that you’ve been hunkered down for longer. (laughter)

CVW Yeah. I didn’t realize it before, but I’ve become pretty comfortable with people thinking I’m insane. They’re like, Eh, you read too many of those doomer books. You know?

JO Oh, I know! Wait, should we talk about this for real?

CVW Yeah! I mean, I have, of course, an outline and blah, blah. But that seems like the old way. Because that’s what I would want if I got a copy of BOMB in my mailbox with your name on it. I would be like, “Goddess head, speak to me! What shall I do?”

JO I so wish I knew what to do. I’ve actually been getting a lot of interview questions about the pandemic. The general idea has been “You were writing about disaster prep and disaster psychology in the context of the climate crisis, does any of it carry over?” But I feel nervous talking about it because we are in the middle of this very particular tragedy. There is no bird’s-eye view. The only thing I know for sure is that the gravity of both of these situations first became apparent to us through math. My husband was a very early adopter of pandemic worry and that is because he is a mathematical person and exponential growth did not feel abstract to him.

CVW Do you regret having prepared early, like psychically prepared early?

JO I suspect playing out worst-case scenarios has become second nature to me because of the reading I did while writing Weather. All of these discussions about your actions and how they might affect others, and also about frightening apocalyptic landscapes your child might live in… Well, they were already being discussed in our house for the last few years. But they’d had a diffuse quality. And then suddenly hearing other people have those discussions every day made everything feel urgent. But the situation now is so weird because I can’t follow my instincts and say, “Come stay with me if you need to.” Not many of the usual ways of caring for people in a crisis work right now.

CVW Right.

JO I mostly feel useless in this particular crisis. Other than making sure the vulnerable and older people in my orbit don’t shop, I haven’t been sure how to help. But in the beginning I sort of slid into being this doomer version of Emily Post by accident. Because in March, friends and acquaintances started writing me and asking me, “Is it okay if I still…?” “Do you think I should…?” And I’d be like, “Whoa, whoa! Don’t do that! Stay inside!”

CVW I think you and I probably serve similar functions in our friend groups, which is, like, neither of us is the person who is called to talk someone down. If you need someone to validate your choices for freaking out, I’m like, Yeah, it’s a good time to freak out. But now freaking out looks like doing nothing alone. I feel like my body’s just been in kinda like this little ball of tension for about a week or so. You know?

JO Yeah. I started doing eight-minute Tai Chi with some, like, old guy who doesn’t seem like he really should be teaching Tai Chi online. [Update from Jenny: “Gentle Reader, please note that the Tai-Chi phase lasted exactly four days. Now I am in the drinking-and-ordering-candy-in-bulk phase.”] To be honest, the only verifiably useful thing I’ve done was help a friend who is still in New York and has an essential job figure out how to get Klonopin.

CVW I have a hard time believing that’s your only usefulness at the moment. Reading Weather is a comfort for me in the same way for me our friendship is: I don’t feel crazy. I’m not alone.

JO Oh good. When I’m writing a book, I am definitely trying to feel less lonely and, ideally, to make someone else feel less lonely. That’s sort of about as essential as it gets. I think that one of the strangest things about this pandemic is that I’m not writing about it; I’m not taking it in the way I would if I was having a personal crisis, where everything goes into that sharp clarity that it does in really scary times and you’re noticing weird things. Well this one is just very strange because everyone is going through the same crisis at exactly the same time, but there’s also the obvious truth that many people I know are in much worse straits. You’re not sure you can say anything about your life without it being ridiculous compared to what’s happening to people who are delivering things or driving Ubers or working in healthcare.

CVW There’s a lot about quarantine that’s a lot like my regular life. I’m home alone with my books or trying to talk to a friend or going on a walk. I’m just drunker and stoneder.

JO (laughter)

CVW Part of what Weather illuminated for me was the complete dissolution of all innocence in regular life. I feel like in the span of my lifetime, at least, I’ve gone from feeling sad every time I use a piece of plastic to just feeling omnipresent sadness all the time. I feel so complicit because it’s corrosive to live so comfortably in this grotesque inequality and benefit from it. Almost like how audacious it is to say, “And now I shall observe that inequality as a writer.” You know, from this comfortable vantage point. But you have to.

JO I think sometimes about a friend of mine who immigrated here as a kid, as a refugee from war—I actually quote him in Weather: “Your people have finally fallen into history…. The rest of us are already here.” I remember him saying once, “Everybody in America, in lefty circles, makes all these caveats like, I shouldn’t feel joyful doing this, or, I should feel guilty about doing this. But, you know, when I was at my poorest, or my family was at its poorest, everybody wanted to find any source of joy, and they don’t begrudge it to others at all.” I thought that was really interesting. I mean, that said, I live all the time worrying about things. (laughter) But I do think everyone has to figure out what it is they can do that allows them live their life not live their life not feeling complicit all the time because every one of us is enmeshed to some degree in this fucked-up system. But also the plutocrats that run it would very much like us to feel that it’s all on us and our choices.

CVW Yes.

JO Words like interconnected used to be used in kind of a groovy, green way, like “Oh, look at this: the web of life. Oh, very pretty.” But now if you go to the grocery stores you’re like, Oh my God, okay, this person harvested this and this person had to pack it and none of these people have any protection…. I think it’s good to be aware that those invisible threads are there.

CVW It’s true. I keep thinking to myself, like, interconnectedness and interdependence and enmeshment are true whether or not I live in a political system that acknowledges that truth. Whether or not my society is arranged to accept that reality, it is still true. The virus isn’t a capitalist.

JO That’s exactly right.

CVW I guess that’s part of the Cassandra feeling I have that’s like, Welcome, everyone. We were going to learn this lesson the easy way or the hard way, and we picked the hard way in, like, the ’80s.

JO I think one of the things that’s been so unnerving and perhaps also liberating is to see how quickly these provisions can be put up that make sure people are not hanging by their fingernails. Whether it’s small business grants or consideration of universal income, or childcare provisions for these essential workers. And it’s just like, Oh, I thought you said we couldn’t do any of those things. I thought it was “impossible.”

CVW Mm-hmm. “It’s impossible.” Then it’s, Oh look, we found a couple trillion in the couch cushions. Maybe another way is possible?

JO It’s so heartbreaking that if we had a president right now who was not a Republican we might see a real repairing of our society once we are able to recover from the pandemic. But the powers that be are not going to say, “Huh. The economy has been crashed by this. As we rebuild why don’t we go ahead and deal with this other existential threat, climate change, at the same time, and make our infrastructure more resilient, make our safety net more robust.”

CVW Yeah!

JO One of the first things Trump did was loosen environmental regulations, to allow polluters to do whatever they want. That was his middle finger to all this wimpy talk of the common good.

CVW The whole environmental movement is always coded as being a bunch of “flowery Mother Earth girls.” And the response is then always, “Yeah, peace and love, sweetheart.” You know? But in Weather, motherhood is like a superpower, a crazy sort of sixth or seventh sense that can make you think in terms beyond your own lifecycle, beyond a news cycle, beyond a season of buying crap. A different timescale that is more animal, vegetable, mineral—more of the “natural world.” Which is what we don’t seem too good at.

JO All of these things that feel more like animal comfort are what the second half of my life has been about discovering. Like how much it means to lie next to another creature you love.To be honest, I wasn’t very good at thinking in that way either before I became a parent. I think I put that into Dept. of Speculation, that suddenly there was a moment when I began to think less and feel more—the animal was ascendent was how I phrased it. Before, I’d been a person who lived almost entirely in my head. I remember every once in a while someone would say, “Well, what does your body say? Listen to your body.” And I’d be like, “What body?”

CVW (laughter) I thought yoga was a metaphor for like five years. I was like, Oh wait, you’re actually saying smile with my collar bones?

JO It’s one of the reasons that I often get myself in one of these terrible pain situations because I don’t pay a whit of attention to my body until something sneaks up on me, and then I think, Oh that seems to be a strange sensation in my back. Hmm. Better write longer and forget about it, and then, suddenly I’m being told by a doctor, “You have a severely herniated disc” and “Try not to move much for two months until you have surgery.” And then I think, Wow, I should have paid attention. I should have listened more, I should have remembered I am an animal. And I’m trying to get better about that. One thing I really like about working at home is that my dog stays with me all the time and I watch her just living her little daily life. When she gets up, she stretches; when she looks up and there’s nothing to do, she just folds over and goes back to sleep. If she’s wet from being outside, she shakes the water off and curls herself into a little ball because she’s cold and needs to conserve heat for a little while. All these things feel weirdly amazing to me. Because I don’t even have that basic sense, like that basic ability to notice and adjust to my physical environment. But I do adjust automatically to the emotional environment around me, most especially, of course, to the needs of my family.

CVW So, I wanted to ask you about the art monster, which is something that comes up in Dept of Speculation: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” This became an instant cultural touchstone I think for a generation of women who read that book, especially. I know a lot of people whose lives have actually materially transformed because they encountered that phrase in your book, and you know—

JO Really?

CVW Definitely. I think the question about who being an art monster is available to and what it looks like and what exactly is monstrous, particularly—people have been rolling that around. How did that line come to you?

JO I was watching this documentary about Andy Goldsworthy, and I was noticing how he was at the kitchen table and all his kids were running around and you could see his wife in the background, who turns out to actually be a great artist herself, but I just was watching her sort of stoically manage the chaos of the kids. And he was… he had such equanimity as he talked about making his art even with all of this going on around him.

CVW Mm-hmm.

JO I have no idea whether he’s an art monster or not, but I was thinking that when anyone else is in the room with me, I don’t have any space to think about writing or art. My mind immediately fixates on the other humans, to register their emotional states and see if somebody needs anything. I kind of knew the concept of, like, an art monk—I have friends like that, who’ve just chosen this austere, super-solo life. I guess I thought that I was to be one of those people who lived very frugally so as to spend my free time trying to write a really great book, however impossible such a quest might be.

CVW Mm-hmm.

JO What I was a little surprised about is…
I thought some of the discourse about the art monster thing became reductive—as often happens with any debate about motherhood and work. Some people said, “I certainly don’t think it’s monstrous to make art.” And, I’m thinking, Well, first of all, the narrator is like twenty.

CVW Uh-huh. (laughter)

JO You know, I can remember when I was twenty, I’d be coming home from one of my stupid jobs, and there would be this line from Wordsworth running through my head, The world is too much with us. The world is too much with us. I might as well have been wearing a cape day-in and day-out in those days, I had such ridiculous romantic visions of myself. But ultimately, I think that both men and women—if they’re making things—have these art monster moments. But they only get called monstrous if they’re a woman, for the most part.

CVW Yeah.

JO Otherwise it’s just “dedication.”

CVW “Genius.” And then, for me, in Weather, there’s a similar phrase to “art monster,” which is “wrong living.” What are your thoughts about wrong living? Do you chant it to yourself like I do? (laughter)

JO Wrong living for me is often about speed. And a feeling that I’m in someone else’s structure, and I’m not in any way figuring out how to adapt to it. So I feel that way when I encounter any giant institution that I become part of. Or even something like when you do publicity, and you’re part of a bigger machine, something that’s there to help you but is also weird and moves very quickly. I just always realize how slow I am in those moments. Like right now some people have been asking me to write, saying, We’re doing a pandemic journal. Why don’t you tell us what it’s like where you are? A lot of these projects seem really interesting, but I don’t know what I think about anything. It hasn’t been long enough. Mostly I just swing between tedium and terror. In that way it is a bit similar to climate dread.

CVW What is your syllabus for trying to get one’s head around climate departure?

JO I found that it was really useful to read almost as far away as I could from things that were directly about it. I do like to read natural history books, though sometimes I can’t quite cotton to the way they’re written at this lyrical pitch that feels a little odd to me, falsely heightened maybe, and I can’t always be like, Yes, the thistles are waving in the blue light!

CVW I remember you mentioning Joy Williams and Robert Walser last time we talked.

JO Yes, two writing heroes of mine. Walser with his temple that contains both the large and the small, and Joy Williams with her bracing moral clarity about the natural world and what ungodly things we’ve done to it. I teach her fiction mostly but sometimes her book of essays too. Ill Nature is such a strange book. It’s written as if someone is screaming at you, berating you for all the wrong living you have done. But then in the middle of it, there’s just this incredibly beautiful essay called “Hawk” about her beloved dog viciously biting her and then her making the harrowing decision to put him down. Which seems to go against every other thing in the book. But by putting that essay in the middle of the book, she’s made the book… I’m not sure I can articulate it well, but I feel like understanding and acknowledging your complicity in our estrangement from the natural world is part of what allows you to have enough humility to write about it. One of the things I’m always looking for in anything I read about climate is that the person who’s writing seems to show humility about what they know and what they don’t know.

And I also read a lot of sociology and psychology. I was really interested in what makes people go against the popular current of how they should act. I discovered this whole subgenre of sociologists and psychologists who either were children during the Holocaust or lost family members during it, and then in their later life they began these big projects trying to figure out why people did things that they knew were wrong, long before there was the actual gun to their head. So that’s like Stanley Milgram, for example, and all sorts of people doing that. And it was very useful for researching climate change, to read all those kinds of things. And also philosophers who are asking what it means to not set yourself apart from those around you, but instead to try to live in community. Someone like Emmanuel Levinas, who talks about the other, and what does it mean to know a stranger, to notice your common humanity with them; all that was very useful to me.

CVW I was quite enlightened by the way Weather approaches the concept of milling.

JO I came across milling in an old book called Survival Psychology written by John Leach, a British psychologist. He talks about how there’s a part of most disasters where the people involved in it try to figure out if it is really a disaster. For example, the safety instructions they say to you on a plane are basically intended to stop you from milling. Because our brains, even in novel and dangerous situations, are primed to look for a template of something that’s already happened—When I leave a plane, I stand up and I get my luggage, so even though this particular plane appears to be on fire… It’s like the arguments I was having with people at the beginning of the pandemic where I’d ask, “Do you have enough food?” And they’d say, “Yeah definitely…but we don’t have any popcorn so I think I’m going to pop out to get some.”

CVW Yeah. The popping out is over!

JO I’m also fighting that impulse, the part where I’m like, Oh, God, we need popcorn! (laughter) It’s a very, very natural impulse. And this was the sociology stuff that was so interesting to me. As humans, we really, really, really would rather not embarrass ourselves by being deemed alarmist. So if others are acting like there isn’t an emergency, we almost always will too. But weirdly I’d always rather know if something might be bad. Denial is not a very comfortable place for me.

CVW There is even denial in how we talk about “the end of the world,” “the end of time,” these abstracted ways of talking about basics for everyone with a body: clean air, clean water. It’s been so repressed, the fear. The technology’s been systematically repressed too, the information. For my whole life, you got attacked for even saying that it’s happening. But that stuff has to come out, and often when it does the response is bonkers: We’ll go to Mars! And I’ll be the one to take us!

JO I just wish these people would pour their billions into things that would matter to more people—less grandiose things. I also find the reasoning of the people that want to go live on Mars, who want to go on that one-way trip, so poignant. I put all those quotations from them in Weather. Those are all real. If you go online and you look at the videos of the people trying out for it, I mean, some of them are just saying well, “Hey, I’ve always been really interested in space since I was a little kid.” But others seem so fatalistic and sad about this world. The young ones really get to me. They say things like, “I don’t even see any reason to be here. If I die, that’s fine. I’d rather die doing something bigger than myself.” Please just stay here. You could join the Peace Corps!

CVW “I will join the Peace Corps if it’s on Mars…” Because you want even your despair to be heroic?

JO The other day I was trying to figure out if I still had this old T-shirt that said “NO FUTURE.” But outside of punk rock posturing, I think no future is not actually a concept that the human can take in. Like, we have to have some idea of what comes next, of some ongoingness. Because even in what have been some of the worst times in human history, people had to think even just of someone that was outside of it. Viktor Frankl talks about this in Man’s Search for Meaning. That even in the concentration camps it was sometimes this belief in an imagined future or of loved ones in an imagined future that was the only possible form of hope or solace. To love anyone or anything is to wish for a future. It’s the nature of it. You have to be without entanglements not to hope for the future.

I will say in terms of the pandemic, I was worried that some environmentalist or doomer was going to come out of the gate and be like, Well look, the Earth is getting better because we are the virus. And some people did. But it feels like such a myopic reaction because it ignores this enormous moment of suffering that we are in right now.

CVW This is a fraught train of thought for me, but I can’t help but have that little fantasy about like what if this is the stopping and the rethinking and if we just click a few degrees in a new direction—

JO I do hope that something might come of this besides just sadness and suffering. But I feel like it’s a ways down the road. There may be a sense of staying closer to home and perhaps some small understanding for privileged people that we can’t keep living in an everything-at-your-fingertips kind of world. It is going to be more local. Of course, much of the world already lives this way. We are the outliers in the West. It’s just that in this past we’ve been told the economy can’t stop. “The economy can’t stop!” And then it did just sort of stop and there are immense consequences to that, but it was shut down with remarkable speed and worldwide coordination. So if we would think big, instead of about going to Mars, but about what would a better, less precarious life feel like for the majority of people…

CVW I feel the most not crazy when I talk to people like you, when I read you—and when I talk to children. The kids that I’ve talked to are like, I’m so sad. They’re not too embarrassed to grieve for right now.

JO I think it’s scariest when you first start to grieve. It’s very overwhelming. But I think it’s a sign of a healthy worldview that death and life are both approached with respect.

CVW When I can understand myself as a person who’s grieving, then I’m like, Oh yeah, you’re not going to be washing your hair right now. That’s fine. You’re good. You’re grieving. The books that have actually brought me comfort and changed the way I think have really looked at death… I’m thinking of this book Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor that Tin House published a while ago, where—

JO Oh, I haven’t read that.

CVW It’s so good. But it chronicles that, that… journey. But yeah, we don’t grieve well in America because it’s bad for the economy—death.

JO We are still trying to figure out how to grieve for all of this loss. I mean, rituals are containers to hold things, so if it’s like, we’re going to sit for seven days after our father dies, or we’re going to drape our mirrors in black, or we’re going to sing and dance at the wake—all these different ideas, but they’re all about how we’re all in it together. And I think one of the many incredibly sad things about this moment right now is the loss of being together, right next to each other—that animal comfort I was talking about before. Instead we have the residue of this unexpressed grief, all the unwashed hair and short tempers and trailing off mid-sentence. And so I think that we’re being stretched to figure out how to make new rituals, new containers to hold all of this. The drive-by funerals that are happening now are one example.

CVW I’ve been going outside and screaming every night at 7 PM. You know, I guess officially it’s for the healthcare workers, but I have all sorts of private reasons for screaming.

JO (laughter) That’s brilliant. A bit like my idea in Dept. of Speculation that you should go to a cemetery when your life is in tatters because then if you’re crying people won’t think you’re crazy. You have to put yourself in these places where it’s sanctioned to crack up. Then we can cry and yell like we’re meant to in times of grief.

Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of the novel Gold Fame Citrus (Riverhead, 2015) and the collection Battleborn, which won the Story Prize. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, One Story, the Paris Review, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere.

Related
Rowan Ricardo Phillips by Gregory Pardlo
Rowan Ricardo Phillips spread from BOMB Magazine 152

From epics to lyrics, Rowan Ricardo Phillips considers poetry’s reckoning with history and how writing will reflect our current crisis for future generations.

Warmer: A Collection of Comics About Climate Change for the Fearful & Hopeful by Matthew Thurber
Warmer 01

Comics have a good chance of surviving ecological disaster. Unlike, for example, blue-chip video art, there may be a place for hand-drawn sequential graphics after floodwaters recede.

Amitav Ghosh and Curt Stager
Ghosh And Stager Bomb 01

If novelists could tell the story of climate change, they might spark the action scientists are calling for in order to save the planet.

Originally published in

BOMB 152, Summer 2020

Our summer issue includes interviews with Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, Brenda Goodman, Odili Donald Odita, Jenny Offill, Craig Taborn, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Jibz Cameron; poetry by Safia Elhillo and Nathaniel Mackey; prose by Lydia Davis, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Saidiya Hartman; and more.

Read the issue
152 Cover