Dept. of Speculation is marked by Offill’s clever and subtle language, as well as references to everything from Lynyrd Sknyrd lyrics to Rilke and Einstein, in showing the experience of marriage and motherhood for a young woman.
The book is made up of short fragments. Was that your original intention?
This novel rose from the ashes of another novel one that told the story of a second marriage from the perspectives of the stepdaughter and the new wife. It was originally much more linear in form, but at a certain point I rewrote it completely.
I knew I wanted to do something stranger, something that captured the quicksilver of thought and was radically distilled in form. Once I switched the POV to the wife I found a sharper, funnier voice, one that owed more to poetry and lyric essays than to prose. But it took a lot of experimentation to find a form that felt intellectually rigorous and emotionally acute.
What were the benefits and pitfalls of having a fragmentary structure, as opposed a more traditional, linear one?
The main pitfall was that there was no obvious guide to tell me what went where narratively. For a long time, I wrote the sections out on index cards and shuffled and reshuffled them. And often (very often) I suspected that the book made no sense to anyone but me. But the benefits were huge too. I felt like I could play with all sorts of odd and surprising juxtapositions. I felt like I could capture how emotion moves through a person and then out again. I felt like I could write about quiet, self-contained moments and also about those moments when the world rushes in again. Most of all, I felt that instead of building dutiful bridges I could leap into space.
You play a lot with tense and point of view in this novel, which gives it an almost restless quality. How did that choice inform or reflect the psychology of the protagonist?
The novel’s shifts in authorial distance are meant to mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point. So in the beginning when they are closest, she addresses him in very direct language as “you.” After they marry and fall into prescribed roles, she calls him simply “my husband.” And then when it all comes apart, you see her zoom back and attempt to view everything from a great eagleish height. This is the part of the book where she speaks of “the wife” and of “the husband” and then slowly, very slowly, the point of view moves in closer again. My hope was to make the reader feel the same sort of emotional recalibrations that the narrator did, ideally at the same points in time.