Elisa Albert writes fiction and teaches creative writing. Raised in a relgious Jewish home with two older brothers, she studied creative writing and women’s studies at Brandeis and earned her MFA from Columbia.
She granted us this interview just after the publication of her first novel, The Book of Dahlia.
What were the origins of The Book of Dahlia?
I was influenced by Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, as well as by the death narrative of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I also read a lot of feminist theory in college, and it transformed how I see the world and my place in it.
I wanted to explore via fiction Sontag’s brilliant catalogue of social/cultural responses to and opinions about cancer, while at the same time echoing what I thought was a very real, very heartbreaking truth in Ivan Ilyich: that we, the living, just can’t freaking deal with death, and so the sick/dying are fundamentally left pretty much to their own devices.
At the same time, I liked the idea of playing with a (mostly) unrepentant, totally unsympathetic female character, given that so many very repentant, very “sympathetic” female characters are shoved down our collective throats at every turn in this society.
What do we learn from watching a downward spiral, the terrible flailings of the cosmically doomed? And how much do we want to separate ourselves from that doom by distancing ourselves from said flailing?
What conditions do you require in order to practise your creativity?
I think there are a lot of things that can be extraordinarily helpful—a room of one’s own, a nice money cushion, supportive environs and peers, an Aeron chair, room in the budget for a personal masseuse, etc.—but I like to think we’re all really hardy creatures, and can/will make do with a broad spectrum of conditions.
I sort of self-isolate, on and off. I find it useful to be able to unfurl, as it were, within an undetermined set of hours. I like to have only myself to answer to/for—it’s unsettling to have dinner plans, for example, because I can’t switch on/off so easily.
I feel the need for space—the physical and the emotional kind—and the freedom to indulge myself however is necessary to get where I want to go. It’s not the most practical methodology, but when it works it’s really fun.
I read books, watch films, and listen to music—basically I’m a happy consumer of art that I find creatively nourishing. And, of course, fun normal non-writing things like yoga and cooking and hanging out with loved ones, etc., too.
The prose of Lorrie Moore and Philip Roth, in particular, inspire me enormously. Stacey Richter’s short stories make me want to scream with joy, and Alicia Erian’s Towelhead is a perfect example of what can be done with an unreliable narrator in a totally skewed, ultimately unjust universe.
I’m not into “happy” endings, which is to say any ending wherein there’s definitive resolution. I was hugely moved by Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, which I watched about three times in its entirety.
As a teen, Ani DiFranco spoke to me really profoundly, and I can still remember the hope and recognition I felt at the prospect that righteous anger was a worthy thing to voice, no matter how “unpleasant” others might find it.
When you were writing the passages in which Dahlia vented about her Jewish family and peers, did you ever fear you might be fuelling anti-Semitism?
No. The freedom of the novelist to write openly about real or imagined problems in any real or imagined racial/ethnic/cultural group is integral to the existence of the novel.