Read PW's Starred Review of Hausfrau & Buy the Book

Poet Essbaum set her debut novel, Hausfrau, in suburban Zurich, but it was on the road between Houston and Austin, where she lives, that she was hit with the aha moment that started her writing a novel. “I pulled off the highway and sat in the cab of my truck and scribbled notes for the next hour,” she says.

She began a fresh draft in January 2011 and finished at exactly 8:30 p.m. on April 23—“just in time for Easter vigil at church. That was not a madwoman’s dash to the finish line [but] rather a solemn choice I’d made. I wanted the gravity of religious observance to carry through to the sobriety of those last pages.”

Hausfrau (the German word for housewife), which takes on themes of sexuality and morality, joins a long literary tradition of stories about married women who bristle at the constraints of bourgeois life, such as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina. Essbaum says the novel “isn’t Flaubert 2.0. It’s a tribute, an homage. What better book to honor is there?”

Essbaum says Hausfrau is her “first honest-to-Jesus attempt at a novel” but that her background as a poet helped train her “to painstake over words.” David Ebershoff, v-p, executive editor at Random House, agrees: “Often we think of poetic writing as lyrical or pretty. This isn’t that. This is poetic writing in the sense that Jill has carefully chosen nearly every word for image, sound, and meaning.”

Comparing writing poetry and writing fiction, Essbaum says fiction is “far lonelier.” “I don’t know if it’s because the book takes place in a foreign country or if it’s a marker of my inexperience as a novelist... but writing this forced me to dig in, hunker down, block out the world. It’s a thrilling, heartbreaking story, and I had to experience it alone.”