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Q & A with Anne Marsella

Posted on June 16, 2008 by Lauren Elkin

Text: Lauren Elkin (Maitresse)  

Native Californian Anne Marsella‘s debut novel Remedy
(Portobello Books) is set in a Pariscape peopled by odd, intriguing,
and enthusiastic characters. The resulting novel is more than the sum
of its eccentricities: it is a joyous romp, and an endearing read.

At
the center of this very funny and highly original work is a young lady
called Remedy O’Riley de Valdez, originally of Florida, USA and lately
of Paris, France.  The chapters mirror the Calendar of Saints,
and Remedy, a “devout, if unorthodox” Catholic, lets the
saint-of-the-day’s hagiography infuse her esprit du jour.

Remedy
spends her weekdays as an assistant at a fashion website, and her
weekends learning to belly dance; nights she entertains (acrobats and
cowboys, mostly) and dreams of meeting her “man o’ the moon,” “one with
some free time but not too much. Preferable one who dances the cha-cha
and who can recite Emily Dickinson’s poems on command.”

Marsella
was kind enough to answer some questions for us about life in Paris,
the role of Catholicism in the novel, her love of language, and writing
in general.

 

1. Many of the stories in your collection, The Lost and Found, as well as your first novel, Remedy, have been set in Paris. What is it about Paris
that has made it your setting of choice? Will you continue to set your
stories here?

Yes, most of my writing thus
far has been set in Paris.  Clearly it is a city that has captured
me – I’ve been here for twenty years! – and my imagination.

When I first arrived as a student, I wandered a great deal, gazed at
the faces in the metro, made encounters – gallant and other –
in the Luxembourg gardens.  Paris seemed to be teeming with possibilities
and oddities beckoning to be explored through narrative; it was a playground
of the unexpected and I remember feeling both exhilarated and lonely,
though the loneliness was a catalyst for writing, a fertile ground for
planting my little seeds.

At the time I was reading a great deal
of Rilke, held The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
as my spiritual guide to Paris and saw the city through his melancholic
yet romantic lens.   I also remember reading Djuna Barnes
and loving her peculiar and incantatory use of language, her manner
of peopling Paris with such singularly mad characters.

I still marvel at the fabric of this
city, its weave of multiple worlds that convergence in surprising ways.
I like to spend the morning working in my local Belleville café before
skipping down to the very bourgeois  7th arrondissement
to teach at The American University.  The differences between these
two neighborhoods are significant but not extreme – this is France
after all – and both are equally fascinating for me to explore.

My writing is so much about sensibility, about expressing a particular
and singular way of being in the world. And Paris has been a
city that lends itself to this kind of exploration.  Why?
Perhaps because it is slow to move, more concerned with how it feels
and looks than how rapidly it can thrust itself into action. It is not bold like New York or London but  intimate, human, more
feminine. I probably will continue setting my stories and novels in
Paris, though I do hope to write about America one day.

I’ve
been here so long,  I now find the United States rather exotic
and thoroughly bizarre even if familiar; perhaps I will eventually feel
impelled to write about the greed and collective insouciance that has
turned the San Joaquin valley where I am from into a unsustainable sprawl
of strip malls and housing developments.  Now that would be an
American story!

 

What do you make of the particular linguistic situation of the
expatriate writer: how does writing in English and living in French
affect what you produce?

I find this linguistic situation
particularly propitious.  To have two or more languages at one’s
disposal can only enrich one’s writing; it is like experiencing several
consciousnesses, several points of view and writers often try to create
this level of complexity in their work.  Speaking French has made
me all the more aware of the English language, of is pliancy, it syntactic
musculature and formidable concision, its ability to accommodate and
absorb otherness without feeling threatened by it (so unlike the French
language with its gun-pointing Académie!).

The experience
of living here has also made me aware of how indebted the English language
is to the French.  English is teeming, of course, with French and
Latinate words and if you go back to Shakespeare you find that his syntax
often perfectly mirrors French syntax.  Instances of this in English
literature are too numerous to enumerate here.

To some extent
I think the English language considers itself married to the French,
even if it does, after years of conjugality, take its spouse for granted.
But it is strange to assume one is married to a woman – I assume French
plays the bride –  who has never officially given her hand.
This is the way it is between English and French, the former being almost
childlike in its absorbency, the latter, resistant and a tad scornful.
However, it is because the French resists that playing on its Latiny
register in English creates a kind of shock, much like an unexpected
encounter.

I love shifting from the Latin to the Saxon just for
the surprise of it, just for the jolt of sound it creates. In the arts,
particularly the visual arts and fiction, we speak a great deal about
discovering new ways of seeing.  But what about hearing?
How do we hear the world?   How might the way we hear language
make us feel more alive, more connected, or less so?

I write
from my ear, almost like a composer, to achieve certain rhythms, rhymes,
alliterations, syncopations and, as in music, the ensuing sound both
creates a particular world and suggests how to navigate its music.

To use Freud’s term, Remedy’s relationship to language is somewhat
polymorphous perverse; she alliterates and rhymes with unabashed pleasure
as if living in France, in this great fishbowl of the French language,
has lead her to rediscover something of her childhood tongue and the
experience of finding words full of wonder, ripe with mystery as if
by their very sound, on the cusp of meaning, they have the power to
transport us and awaken feeling.

 

How would you qualify the role Catholicism plays in the novel? Remedy
unravels in a sequence of chapters each dedicated to a (usually
idiosyncratic saint); she attends Mass every afternoon with the blind
Sister Dagobert and her tumor-laden dog; she baptizes her neighbor, Jeronimo,
raises his cat from the dead, ordains herself as a priest and performs
a gay marriage ceremony. Clearly this is not your mother’s Catholicism!

Let’s just say that Remedy is
a faithful but very unorthodox Catholic!  She rewrites the rules
to her taste and becomes a self-ordained priestess,   She
knows better than to butt heads with one of the most unshakeable hierarchies
in the history of the western world!  But her choice to “reform”
from within rather than to slam St. Joe’s door is significant.

I think
you noticed that Remedy does not shuck or reject; she accumulates.
She records the daily details of life, fashion trends, her favorite
foods, rituals, lovers, and as she does so, her odd collection gains
meaning or takes on new meanings.

For example when Remedy first
mentions her former lover’s stove top espresso maker, it might seem
like a random detail, but when she continues to talk about it, to worry
and fuss over it, to take it to Djamila, her “fairy godmother,”
for a de-tarter treatment, we see that the coffee maker comes to symbolize
what she desires deep down, namely the stimulant that the love connection
is, the feeling of being fully incarnated, nerves aflutter because of
love!

But why does Remedy evoke (and provoke!) all these minor,
plus a few major,  saints?    First of all, she
is fascinated by their excesses, by their striking fortitude born of
the single-mindedness of their mission.   But she is also
raising a fundamental question about spirituality as she converses with
them: Might one also achieve spiritual fulfillment by embracing presence?
Are suffering and renouncing the sole means by which we advance the
soul?

There is a poem by Mary Oliver that goes You do not have
to be good.  You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred
miles through the desert, repenting.  You only have to let the
soft animal part of your body love what it loves. 

This is similar to the spirituality Remedy embraces, which has to do
with a quality of presence, receptivity, an attentiveness to the world
that suspends judgment.

 

What’s the function of the chick lit format– girl works at a magazine,
has kooky sidekicks, and practices “Adult Sex,” all in the pursuit of True Love?

My intention was to subvert 
the chick lit format.  I wanted the novel to be its antidote
Remedy
, though it does play with chick-lit-like figures early on,
quickly spins off into something of its own, something very singular.

I set the novel in the fashion world because at the time I was working
for a press syndicate and next to me, behind a thin partition, was a
fashion web site run by couture junkies who talked non-stop about bee
striped boxers and the size of Angelina Jolie’s mouth .

Whether I
wanted to or not – and I didn’t – I had to listen to their chatter
all day long  (not even earplugs availed me). To sublimate the
situation – and to take revenge! – I came up with the idea to use
(and mock) the world of couture as the backdrop of a narrative.
And so I started reading fashion copy, picking up articles left in the
photocopy machine or in the recycle bin, and, to my surprise, began
to revel in the depictions of Fashion Week’s offerings.

I didn’t
experience any kind of conversion; it was not fashion that interested
me as such, but the language that represents it.  I found it lush,
funny, absurd and completely mad, and I loved the energy of it, the
rush it created.  Writing about fashion was a wonderful way of
talking about something else, I found, namely the economy of excess
I already mentioned.

As I read fashion descriptions (and wrote
them!) I felt something akin to the marvel I feel at the Galérie de
l’Evolution when looking at the rows and rows of butterfly displays.
Butterflies!  Beautiful, of course, but what is the point?
Why so many patterns and colors of wing?  Why all this insane variety?

And yet we know that as we kill off such “pointless” species we
are reducing the possibility of continuing life on this planet.
So there is something about this excess that is essential and at the
heart of life.

I find that the Catholic Church, to return to your
earlier question, with its nimiety of rituals, saints, mystics, hierarchies,
and art is a perfect playground for celebrating this dimension of existence.

 

What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?

Without a doubt her poem “Wild
Nights – Wild Nights!” which Remedy recites for inspiration.
There is so much passion condensed in this short poem and it shoots
out with Dickinson’s dashes and exclamation points.  It suggests
the kind of internalized eroticism usually associated with mystic marriage.
And I love the strange image of rowing in Eden.  Her “Ah, the
Sea!”  It really is a very erotically charged poem!  The
eroticism is sublimated and yet remains quite explicit: “Might I but
moor – Tonight – In Thee!”  Goodness!

WILD nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,—
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!