The story of the second chance, or second act, is one of the great themes of American literature, and it’s front and center in Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel, Wonderland. It tells the story of Anna Brundage, a red-haired 40-something former indie rock phenomenon who travels to Europe for one more tour after a long hiatus away from music. D’Erasmo, an associate professor in the MFA program at Columbia University, is a subtle, lyrical writer whose prose often stuns with its powerful imagery. I spoke with her on the phone about her new book and her own artistic journey.
—Jordan G. Teicher
Interviewer: It can be difficult to find the language to describe music. Was that tough for you?
D’Erasmo: The thing is, it’s usually pretty dull to put music, as such, on the page. You wouldn’t want to say, “I developed this song in a G minor chord and then at the bridge I switched to a major C, etc.” These things don’t tell us much about what music actually sounds like and even more importantly they don’t tell us that much about what it feels like to be a musician sitting down creating original sound. It did take me a while to figure out how to express making music from the first person point of view of someone who’s actually doing it. I worried a lot that I was getting it wrong, and I tried to go as deeply as I could inside the sounds I imagined Anna was trying to make and what it felt like to make that sound.
Interviewer: Do you see any crossover between the audible and the visible in the way you write?
D’Erasmo: I think image making is inherently synesthetic. I was just quoting an Anne Carson line in something else I was writing in which she was talking about crushing grapes as being like wet, red satin under her feet. That description has this tactical quality but it’s also about the visual beauty of satin. In almost any image you look at there are going to be a lot of other senses involved. In language, we don’t really have to choose among the senses. In film, you don’t have smell or taste, but you can suggest those things by other means. In language, we’re free to evoke all of the senses at once.
Interviewer: You read the autobiographies of people including Patti Smith and Keith Richards to gain some insight into the musician’s life. You also spent some time on tour in Europe with the band Scissor Sisters. Do you think you could have written this book without that research?
D’Erasmo: Walter Abish famously wrote How German Is It without going to Germany. A lot of times you can, if you want to, evoke a place or a world thorough a few details without actually going there. But I have to say I feel Wonderland would be a much less visceral and much more abstract book if I hadn’t actually gone on tour and slept on the tour bus and been on the stages and felt the sweatiness and felt the crowd and the vibe. I wanted Anna to be real and I wanted the world to be real and I really didn’t want it to be a sort of cerebral exercise. I wanted to have immediacy and in that way I think I really had to do the research. Because I’ve never been a musician or been in a band; I didn’t have anything to draw on and so I needed to experience those things.
Interviewer: Gabriel Collins, the protagonist of your novel, The Sky Below, is also an artist. Why does writing about artists appeal to you?
D’Erasmo: In both The Sky Below and Wonderland, those characters are very uncertain about their artistic careers. They’re strivers. They’re scrambling for it. I don’t come from a family of artists. To me, artists are heroes. I think it’s incredibly heroic to make something in your house and then trundle it out in public and have people respond to it sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. In so many ways the workaday world just doesn’t care. They want to get to work on time. They want to get the grocery store. Babies have to be birthed and kidneys transplanted. The world has a lot of stuff on its mind. I find the figure of the artist extremely moving.
Interviewer: Do Anna’s artistic anxieties mirror your own in any way?
D’Erasmo: Oh, sure. As a writer of literary fiction—are you kidding? Why not do needlepoint for money? It’s impossible to write a novel. But then to actually see if someone might want to publish it or read it, and not only read it but lay out money to read it? Forget it. It just seems absolutely ridiculous and it’s always uncertain. There is no moment when you can say, “Well that’s it, now I know I’ve got this and this will continue for the rest of my life.” That’s never the case, not in what I do and not in the way that I wish to do it. Four books in, I feel a little more confident than I did for the first book, but I can honestly say every single book has felt like an act of brinkmanship.
Interviewer: Certainly, though, there are writers who would envy the success you’ve had.
D’Erasmo: I don’t really think of myself as being that successful. I don’t write bestselling novels. The Pulitzer committee hasn’t called recently. What has helped me is that every single time I’ve put myself out there and written a book and gotten it published and gotten good reviews it has built enough of a foundation so I can make the next one. I think for some people real success would mean having all the money in the world and having everyone love you every minute of the day. I don’t know if that’s really my aspiration. I just want to keep doing this. I just want to keep finding new ways and new paths and new territory. Every time I get to do it, it feels like freedom.
Interviewer: You’ve worked as a literary critic in the past. How have those experiences shaped your fiction?
D’Erasmo: Working as a critic and editing critics definitely de-mystified that whole process for me. What I understood from working at the Voice Literary Supplement was that people who wrote criticism were really smart and really intense. I didn’t necessarily agree with them all the time, but the Voice in the late 80s and early 90s was a really vibrant, really amazing community of people. This was not some fearsome panel of mandarins sitting there passing judgment with feathered pens. These were smart people thinking hard about culture. Sometimes I haven’t gotten good reviews, but it hasn’t felt like the end of the world. These are people sitting in their houses cranking out copy. Also, as a critic, you can’t sit in an office with all the books coming in and not see that there is a huge range of topics and ways of writing. That really opened up my world and opened the doors of my sensibility.
Interviewer: Was the process of writing this book different from that of your previous novels?
D’Erasmo: I did all the things I usually do—I sat at my desk and I wrote it and scrambled for time and made tea. In writing previous books I was a little more anxious about the craft police and in this book I just really didn’t care. I wanted it to be in fragments and I wanted it to be lyrical and have a lot of emotion in it and I wanted to roam around between the scenes and have these digressive, meditative moments. Maybe it just comes with getting a bit older, but I just didn’t care if I would get a craft ticket. In that way, the book was tremendously liberating for me.
Interviewer: I imagine you talk a lot about craft in your teaching position at Columbia University. How has teaching shaped the way you write?
D’Erasmo: I hope I don’t make my students feel that the craft police are going to give them a ticket. I teach a lot of grad students and that’s a moment in one’s apprenticeship when one is particularly prone to thinking you’re doing it either “right” or “wrong” and I truly try to say there’s a million ways to do it. I also challenge myself to teach a lot of books that are not necessarily to my taste but which are doing interesting things and that have had an effect on me as a writer. Once you become a teacher you realize that you’re really not modeling mastery because you never possess it. Hopefully you’re modeling curiosity and inventiveness and openness and I hope that keeps me honest in terms of what I’m doing in my own work. Also, there’s nothing like teaching a lot of books and reading a lot to help convince you that the world does not need another boring or conventional book. So why write one?