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Picking Elisa Albert’s Brain

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Oy!’s Stefanie Pervos chats with the young author about being labeled a Jewish writer, her aversion to Jewish institutions and tackling the subject of death in fiction. 
05/12/2009

Elisa Albert

Elisa Albert 

I stumbled upon Elisa Albert’s  The Book of Dahlia  at Borders one day, looking for some light reading to bring on a girls’ weekend to Vegas. And while I didn’t get light reading by any stretch of the imagination, I did get hooked–on Albert’s dark, witty prose and the bizarre way she managed to turn life—and death—on its head. The book’s main character, Dahlia, is a brash, uninspired, bitter, underachieving 29-year-old when she finds out she has terminal brain cancer. As I read, following Dahlia as she hurled toward death, I found myself snickering at parts—it seemed at once both the wrong and right thing to do—and crying at others.

When I finished, I wanted more. So I picked up Albert’s first book, a collection of short stories titled  How This Night is Different , which follows several young Jews as they struggle to find their place in this world and a place for Judaism in their conflicted lives.

In addition to her two books, Albert’s work has also appeared in journals and anthologies including Tin House, Nextbook, Lilith, Post Road, Washington Square, Body Outlaws, The Modern Jewish Girl’s Guide to Guilt and How to Spell Chanukah. She is a founding editor of Jewcy and an adjunct creative writing professor at Columbia University—all this and she’s barely 30!

Just as I finished her short story collection, through a stroke of luck and good timing I discovered that Albert would be visiting Chicago in May. Jumping at the opportunity to pick her brain, in a recent phone interview I questioned Albert about everything from her aversion to Jewish institutions to the challenges of writing a fictional account of death to her involvement with the founding of Jewcy:

Stefanie Pervos: How would you describe your style of writing?
Elisa Albert: I don’t know that fiction writers can accurately describe themselves. I feel like I’m kind of a little bit of a blank-slate and other people kind of project onto me and anything that somebody wants to take away form my work can be true or wrong. I don’t write with an agenda in mind and I think in fiction you’re freer to let the chips fall where they may.

When did you know you would become a writer?
I was a really big reader growing up and books were always kind of my favorite thing. I didn’t have the temerity to think that I could be a writer at any point, I just really loved reading. When I got to college I sort of lucked [my way] in to a really great creative writing program. I went to Brandies and there were some really wonderful writers teaching there, so it was kind of a happy accident.

How would you describe your Jewish background and your Jewish identity today?
I grew up in a Reform/Conservative house. My parents were pretty secular until at a certain point they became more religious—my mom especially. I went to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp and I went to Hebrew school all the way through the 12th grade, so I was pretty steeped in Conservative Jewish identity growing up. Today, I would say I’m kind of struggling to find ways to reconcile that identity with my intellectual social identity, which is not one that I would call Jewish really. I think I’m sort of incidentally Jewish at this point in my life, but I expect that to evolve—I think its something that keeps evolving if you’re engaged with it.

I’ve heard you say that you think labeling authors as Jewish writers, or their work as Jewish fiction, is kind of stupid—more just a statement of fact. Are you adverse to this label?
I’m Jewish and I’m writer, so I’m therefore a Jewish writer, but most of the time when I am called a quote-on-quote “Jewish writer” it seems to be kind of in the spirit of an easy categorization or a dismissiveness—it’s a way to engage on a more superficial level with what is actually happening in my fiction. And so, that’s sort of where I bristle against it and I think it’s lacking.

You have such a strong sense of voice as a writer, like you can read your work and just know, that’s so Elisa Albert—How did you find that voice?
I think it’s something that’s just kind of there—voice is one of those things that people struggle with—it’s not something that can be taught or learned. I try not to think about it too much when I’m writing and hope that it is there.

Though you say your fiction is not autobiographical, how much of you is reflected in your writing?
Whatever I’m writing about, I have to be able to put myself in that mind frame. I’m always there, because I’m the only one who can conjure up the things I’m conjuring up. So, in that way it all comes from me.

Basically from the first page of The Book of Dahlia you know the main character is going to die. Did you have any trepidation about tackling death and cancer so directly?
I think we all have sort of the right to tackle whatever we want in our creative endeavors. Cancer is pretty universal. If we haven’t personally struggled with it, most of us have some of it in our family somewhere, so I think we all have the right to think about it. And ditto [with] death. We’re all going to die, so it belongs to all of us that subject. If I was emboldened a little bit, it may have been because my older brother died of cancer, so I felt like, okay, no one can suggest that I don’t have the right to tackle this subject because it’s mine, in some fundamental way. I think that’s true most of the time. It just kind of takes that chutzpah to claim it.

How did you manage to make a book about death, funny?
I think we die the way we live a lot and it didn’t ring true to me to have someone who was really cynical and kind of messed up and really troubled and angry to suddenly do a 180 and become super nice and accepting and sweet and likeable. So if we accept that this character was already pretty fucked up, then it just made perfect sense to me that in dying she would confront that in a really fucked up way. You know from the outset that she’s dying, so for me the interesting part of writing it was in just exploring how and why—what does it look like to go down this road, what does the process of her death look like.

How was it for you to write Dahlia?
It was hard. It was kind of traumatic in a lot of ways. It was a lot of months putting myself in that headspace and being with her, having her with me all the time. And I think that’s part of where the humor comes in, because I wouldn’t have been able to stand her or the book if in the process of writing it if I hadn’t been able to entertain myself with some of the humor. They say that you write the book that you want to read that doesn’t exist, and that certainly [was] what my experience was like with this, and you have to entertain yourself as your writing.

Did you write this book in honor of your brother?
The book is dedicated to my brother, so in a lot of ways it’s for him. I wrote it with him in mind a lot. He was 29 when he died—I was 19—so I wasn’t totally present in an adult way for his illness. As I started to approach the age that he was when he died, I started to understand more about what that actually means to die at 29—to have your life up to that point be it. A lot of that went into Dahlia. My brother was nothing like Dahlia, he was kind of her opposite, which is probably another factor in why she is who she is.

What do you want readers to take away from Dahlia?
I guess it would be that if we limit our empathy to people who are really easy to like then our empathy is not really worth anything.

On the back cover of, How This Night is Different, it says your collection “boldly illuminates an original cross section of disaffected young Jews.” Why is it that your writing has focused on this group? What is it that you’re saying about and to disaffected young Jews?
It’s fiction, so it’s distinct from non-fiction in that its message is totally subjective and it’s not crafted in the way that I’m trying to say something. There are themes that occur and I can see that in my work, but it’s not something that I have in mind when I’m sitting down to write. So, I can’t speak so well to that kind of thing. It’s like an organic evolution.

It also seems from your writing that you’re not the biggest fan of institutionalized Judaism—Why is that and did that influence your involvement in the founding of Jewcy?
I got involved with Jewcy after having lunch with Tahl Raz who is the editor-in-chief. He had read my stories and I guess he found the sensibility in the stories about Judaism and about institutional Judaism to be what he wanted for the tone of Jewcy. It was a nice meeting of the minds. I was blogging a little bit and editing, so it wasn’t the same as what I was doing with stories, but it was a great outlet for me to vent my dissatisfaction with a lot of the institutional Judaism that I’d grown up with and that I saw around and that sort of turned me off from being too observant myself. So it was a really good marriage, I think.

If you too find yourself wanting to know more about Elisa Albert, come hear her speak on a  panel about American Jews detachment from Israel  this Sunday afternoon at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, or attend a  book signing and discussion of The Book of Dahlia  this Monday evening. at the  Space  in Evanston.

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