I carried Dawn Raffel's Further Adventures in the Restless Universe around with me while I was reading it, because I couldn't let it go. Truly unlike anything I've read before (and it boasts a terrific cover by her son and a fabulous YouTube video), this book is still haunting me. Dawn's also the author of Carrying the Body and In the Year of Long Division, and she was kind enough to let me pepper her with questions. (Thank you, Dawn!)
Your writing is more like exquisite poetry than prose. There’s an exactness of language here. Given that precision, what is that writing process like for you? Do you start with an image, an emotion or an idea? Do you do a great deal of rewriting?
Thank you for that question! I often start with an image that is charged for me in ways I don’t understand. Other times I’ll be trying to find a way into a story and a sentence will pop into my head with such force that I know it’s the beginning, even if I can’t for the life of me figure out why. After that, I’m just trying to unpack the image or the sentence. What I love about writing short stories is that I never know where they will lead me. I do revise a lot, especially for cadence, but I don’t try to redirect the narrative.
What struck me so much about the collection was the importance of emotion over structured plot, which absolutely haunted me. Was that intentional?
Yes. Plot is not my strong suit. For a novel, you need a plot—even Ulysses has one--but for a story, especially a very short one, you need only to establish that something is at stake. You can create drama from the composition—the juxtaposition of two sentences—or from two feelings rubbing up against each other, as well as from the action.
What I loved was the dialogue, how it seems that one person will say something, but the answer is often about something else. Why do you think it’s so hard for people to have real intimacy, especially in conversation?
Most of us have a pretty strong inner narrative and we often have our own agenda for a conversation. Sometimes the drama in our head is so loud that we can’t really hear what the other person is saying. For my magazine work, I’ve transcribed a lot of live interviews. People almost never respond directly to a question or to the last thing said. That’s not just politicians trying to obfuscate. It’s ordinary people genuinely trying to respond.
What was different about writing this collection than your previous work, for you? Can you talk about where the idea for the collection came from?
In December of 2000, my father sat down in the middle of a ballroom dance class and died. One minute he was laughing and dancing; the next minute, he was gone. After the funeral I kept telling myself that I was fine, when really I was in shock. About two weeks later, I needed to get a passport snapshot taken. When I saw that photo, it was as if I’d been sucker punched—I looked at the image of myself and thought, That is just the saddest woman. A little while later I started writing stories, all of which—no matter how I started or where I thought I might be going--ended up being about loss: sometimes death, sometimes more subtle loss, such as loss of self-concept. Some of the stories are based on my parents and grandparents; others are entirely fiction. For me, the questions rumbling underneath all the stories were: What do we do with loss? Where do we find faith? Before I finished the book, my mother died as suddenly as my father; she went to sleep one night and did not wake up.
Although everything is so beautifully precise in the stories, many of the characters go by the names “the woman” or “this boy” which allows the reader to imprint an identity for them and also makes the reality of the collection a bit fluid. Would you say that it’s true that you expect your readers to meet you halfway, to make their own connections, so to speak?
I do ask the reader to connect the dots. And I don’t think it matters whether the woman is named Sally or Susie or Emily. What’s important is her relation—wife, mother, daughter, sister—to the other characters. I wanted both the reality of the stories and the passage of time to feel fluid, so I am very glad it read that way to you.
How much of your own Wisconsin experience (you grew up there) figures in the stories?
Most of my stories are set in the Midwest—north of Milwaukee, where I grew up, and in Chicago, the Emerald City of my childhood. This is the first book I’ve written in which a few stories take place in New York or an unspecified location. I’m pretty sure everything I write is informed by where I was raised, where my parents lived, where I first heard language.
The book, to me, is really about the chaos in the world and dealing with losses. People get sick mysteriously in your stories. They drown suddenly or vanish, or they die. One fable in particular, has a devastating ending. And yet, there was a kind of stubborn hope, even in the opening quote from Max Born’s The Restless Universe about visible light covering only one octave, in musical terms. Another character says “No moment is sacred and yet all of them are," which I thought was lovely, too. Even the word “adventures” in your title seems to convey this sense of possibility and hope, even in the saddest of circumstances. Was this something you knew before you began writing or was this a discovery in the writing?
This was something that was very important to me from the beginning. These characters are constantly searching for hope and grappling with faith. Max Born was a Jewish physicist who escaped from Nazi Germany before the Holocaust. After WWII he revised The Restless Universe, his book about quantum physics, to account, with sadness, for the development of atomic weaponry. And yet there is his assertion that the visible world, and by extension, the material world is only a fraction of all there is.
The Restless Universe was an important part of my childhood. My father was an engineer in the Army Air Corps during WWII—he was trained at both Harvard and MIT and went with the first group to Guam to set up the first-ever radar. After the war, despite some of the best training in the world, he could not get a job as an engineer because engineering was a rampantly anti-Semitic field. He ended up working in the family furniture store and spending a lot of time with his homemade ham radio and with books about engineering and physics. He loved The Restless Universe and read it with me again and again as a bedtime story. I, of course, did not understand a word of it—to me, my father was the restless universe.
The final story in the book, about the death of my mother, is titled Beyond All Blessing and Song, Praise and Consolation. This is a translated line from the mourner’s Kaddish; the ancient Jewish prayer intended to be spoken by the brokenhearted. This was the only way I could say goodbye.
You’ve worked in women’s magazines for years, from Redbook to O Magazine and More and now as the Books Editor for Reader's Digest. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe a very different sensibility is needed for those than for your own writing. Is it difficult to switch between the two? Does one impact the other?
I think one incites the other. I like the tension; it makes me challenge assumptions in both arenas.
With all that you do (plus you have a family), how do you make time for your writing? And what are you working on next?
I’d like to tell you that I am very disciplined and write every day but I’m not and I don’t. I write when I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t write. At that point, a missile could be coming through the wall and I might not notice. I’ve just finished a memoir in short vignettes, and I am trying to find my way into a new novel that is being irascibly elusive. I suspect it’s going to turn into something else when I least expect it.