Elisabeth Sheffield is the sort of writer most writers only hope to become: a ventriloquist offering up voice after voice. Each of her voices expands and complicates her readers’ view of her fictional world. Together her voices suggest the impossibility of ever fully seeing either fictional or real world.
But hers are not Beckettian voices whispering into the void about the void. They belong to characters travelling from place to place, often from country to country, in search of love and respite and one last victory over their perceived enemies. They take part in a lush world in which women can shapeshift into hares, and fairies can carry them off.
In the following interview, she discusses her many voices as well as the origins and development of her latest novel, the wonderful Ire Land (A Faery Tale). I appreciate both her time and her generosity.
Marcus Pactor: Ire Land’s Sandra Dorn strikes me as a singularly memorable crone figure, a kind of urbanized Baby Yaga who curses babies one second and recounts the art scene in 70s New York the next. But I cannot remember ever reading about a crone figure, no matter how interesting, which served as a protagonist. Did you have any models in mind when you conceived Sandra, and what difficulties did you face while making a traditionally supporting figure into your star?
Elisabeth Sheffield: Thank you for these questions! I think my fiction has been creeping toward the crone for decades now (as is my biological body). The first story I wrote as a young adult was written from the perspective of a teenage boy whose sixtyish unmarried aunt lives with his family. He’s barely aware of her even as she is similarly disenfranchised in matters of familial affection and privilege, similarly unmoored and adrift. He bobs along, oblivious to her, even as she floats along in the dark beside him. It was Harold and Maude (a movie that made a big impression on me as an adolescent), without desire or any sort of real conflict. Unsurprisingly, it was never published. In my first novel, Gone, there’s a similar dynamic. Though in this case both the younger (thirtyish Stella) and older (late fiftyish Juju) perspectives are equally developed, neither is aware of the other’s presence in the novel, and their narratives do not intersect. But Juju was a young woman’s/writer’s crone (not even sixty!), whose sexual and emotional development is frozen in time, if not arrested, by her fixation on Stella’s long gone mother. So Sandra Dorn is perhaps an attempt to rectify that, by creating a crone whose desiring body has been marked and complicated by decades of experience.
In regard to your question about difficulties I faced making Sandra the main character, I didn’t see obstacles so much as a challenge. Beckett’s Malone is an old man with a weak and disobliging body, and yet he fills the stage. So why couldn’t an old woman? It was more a matter of creating an interesting and compelling voice (it doesn’t matter what a character “looks like” on the page). But I suppose I was working against certain expectations and beliefs about old people as characters, and old women in particular, specifically that at this point there’s nothing to do but sit around and reminisce, nothing left to fight or struggle against, because all the important battles have been fought, and death conquers all. I think this was part of what limited my characterization of Juju in Gone (my own ingrained belief that the interesting, “sexy” part of her life must be over. Then again, it had to be, to fit with the novel’s theme of things that had been irretrievably lost). So I gave Sandra real problems (a big one being the loss of her home and income) and a desiring if dessicating body with a long, desire driven history. Then I juiced it all up with animal brio. Her transformation into a hare, whether imagined or not, is her super power. As for models, I think Maude in Harold and Maude was one, though it’s been forty years since I last saw it, along with the Wife of Bath. And definitely Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, which I read around the time this novel was conceived.
MP: The novel contains at least two allusions to legends of the Irish hero Oisin. The filmed “hunt” for Sandra recalls Oisin’s hunt for the were-hare, while all of Sandra’s recollections suggest that, for her, America has been a Tir na nOg gone wrong. Did you have these legends in mind before you began writing, or did they come to you in the course of your work? How much do you plan and how much do you learn as you write?
ES: Yes, the were-hare is borrowed from Irish legend, and also an Antrim folk tale about a milk stealing coney. And there is also a lot of faery lore woven in here, including fairly obvious allusions to the ancient Irish queen Medb, later the fairy queen Mab, Anglicized as “Maeve,” as well as less obvious nods to the concept of some looming other world/Tir na nOg. I’m gratified that you noticed. But I did not in fact have any of it in mind when I first conceived the project. Originally I was thinking about violence—both literal violence and more abstract kinds, specifically the violence language and culture do to bodies, and how these forces make some kinds of bodies invisible, or at least unviable as objects/subjects of interest (or protagonists).
But I knew from the beginning that I wanted at least part of the book to be set in Northern Ireland, so I applied for a Fulbright, which got me to Queen’s University in Belfast. Near the end of the five months I spent in Belfast, we drove to see the Hill of Tara, an ancient ceremonial and burial site that C.S. Lewis (who was born in Belfast) supposedly drew upon for the sacrifice of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I thought I might use Tara in my book somehow, if only in contrast with urban spaces of Belfast. So while my family wandered the grounds, I sat on a knoll recording impressions and sensory details in a little red notebook, including a description of the flock of huge black ravens that had alighted on a swathe of grass nearby, disconcertingly close and loud.
When I was finished writing, I joined everyone in the gift shop, which was about to close. Quickly scanning the books, I picked up a couple, including one titled Irish Superstitions. As my partner drove us back to Belfast along the coast road, I leafed through it, coming upon the following: “The ancient Celts considered the raven to be a significant bird of augury…It is generally seen in negative terms. For example, the appearance of a raven while new work is being undertaken signifies that the work will not be a success…” Shortly afterwards, I discovered that the notebook I’d been writing in, which also contained all the notes and observations I’d made during my time in Belfast, and which I’d hoped to eventually work into Ire Land, was missing. The next morning, I called the Hill of Tara gift shop but no one, said the young woman who answered, had seen anything “resemblin’ a wee red notebook.” Someone, or something, I then decided, didn’t want me to write this novel, and the paranoia lingered for weeks. I even thought about giving up on the cursed project entirely, having soured on both the narrative voice and the story. But eventually, back in the arid light of Colorado, the spell, or whatever it was, broke. I decided to make the na daoine maithe, the “good people” who’d stolen my notes, part of the story. Because what is paranoia but a fantasy of “outside” beaks, tapping away at the brittle shell of self? Or to quote Ire Land’s crone protagonist, “when you know, deep down, that no eyes are upon you, you invent them.”
So yes, there was some planning, but also a lot of learning and researching along the way, prompted perhaps, by faeries or fate (as fae is from the Latin fata, “the fates,” plural of fatum, that which is ordained or destined). And I’m only half joking about the faeries.
MP: I love the way your novels incorporate one or another sort of additional layer of commentary on their events. In Fort Da, Rosemarie Ramee interrupts her own report to discuss its nature and difficulty; In Helen Keller Really Lived, Timor’s insults and reports on the lives of the dead are juxtaposed with Selena’s crime novel; and in Ire Land, Malachi McLaughlin’s sidebars become increasingly, wonderfully, terrifyingly unhinged. Taken together, these commentaries are clearly an essential aspect of your work. When did you first develop this aspect, and how do you ensure that each novel’s particular sort of commentary is distinct and interesting in and of itself?
ES: Each layer of commentary is an additional voice. Voice is a long standing interest of mine, an interest nurtured perhaps by Raymond Federman, who was one of my first writing teachers, and who got me hooked on other “voicey” writers such as Marianne Hauser and John Hawkes. I remember him saying that he’d once thrown out a manuscript because the voice wasn’t right, and started again. This made a big impression on me. I’m also interested in a language and perspective that doesn’t efface itself in service of “story,” or what Jaimey Gordon calls the “Big I,” and at the same time, the disclosure/confession that hides as it reveals. An egoistic bid for attention entwined with fear, a wanting to communicate (and commune) as well as a self preserving need to hold back. So I think of those additional layers of commentary/voices as the friend (or frenemy) just beyond reach. Each speaks to the desire of the primary voice to break out of its solipsism, and also to its dread of what might be on the other side of the bars (loss of face, loss of self).
I did think, when the second voice in Ire Land, i.e. the voice of the “editor” in the marginalia, emerged, oh no, not again, here I am once again writing a story with two non-interacting narrators, like two toddlers playing side by side (a doubleness that was in that early story about the boy and his aging aunt mentioned above, though I wrote it in third person, not first). At the same time, I hope that this voice is sufficiently distinct from the “commentary” voices of my previous novels because it arises out of and speaks to the singular egoism of the primary voice. Or to put it another way, everyone creates (or at least inspires) her own particular hell, and Sandra Dorn’s Tir na nOg is tailored just for her.
MP: At the same time, such commentary distances readers from whatever they might want to call “the real story.” You also distance the reader in your arrangement of dialogue. Rather than use conventional quotation marks and dialogue tags, narrators like Sandra mediate all conversations, so readers can doubt whether they are receiving an accurate record of characters’ speech. What uses or advantages or pleasures have you found in these (and perhaps other) forms of distancing?
ES: I think these forms of distancing are intrinsic to the kinds of voices I create—voices that both reveal and conceal, that both seem to proclaim “I’m telling you everything,” and at the same time hide their fear of open borders and breached boundaries. But I’m also interested in these distancing elements as plot devices and sources of tension. I’m partial to unreliable and/or biased narrators, and do find pleasure both as a reader and a writer, in the tease. Of course the withholding that unreliable narrators do is just another form of what all story telling does, to keep the reader wanting to see what cannot yet be seen. Roland Barthes, I think, says something somewhere about how narrative is a kind of burlesque—a veiling and unveiling and veiling again. I consider the commentary in my novels as well as other elements that obscure “the real story,” (e.g. the marginalia of Ire Land, the “revenant files” of Helen Keller Really Lived, etc.), as part of the plot structure. Who wants to watch a strip show where the dancers simply walk out naked?
MP: Many canonical feminist novels feature young women either breaking free or struggling to break free of patriarchal constraints. Your novels feature women (and sometimes men) who have no apparent constraints on their sexual freedom. Instead they struggle with the consequences of their sex acts. Their endings suggest that assertions of sexual freedom are bound to fail. Am I reading this pessimism correctly? How do you see your work in relation to mainstream feminist literature?
ES: My characters do seem to go for it. But I’m not sure I agree that there are no apparent constraints, particularly in the cases of RR in Fort Da, and Stella Vanderzee in Helen Keller Really Lived. Both characters at some level put the brakes on themselves, whether they realize they are doing this or not. Stella, for instance, stayed in her relationship with Timor, long after the sex was over, and one of the novel’s questions is why she did that: was it out of real love, economic necessity, emotional inertia? And while the young version of Sandra Dorn clearly lacks ethical as well as sexual inhibitions and is willing to use anyone and anything for her own gratification (as in the first “Belfast” section), I did mean for the older version to have regrets in the present of the novel that would likely get in the way of sex with the “objects” of her desire, even if her desire was reciprocated (aside from the farmer professor, her geriatric peer, who briefly becomes her lover near the end). Maybe that’s an example of what you mean when you say that these characters “struggle with the consequences of their sex acts.” At the same time, her desire for the mind blowing fuck, the experience of ecstasy (in the full sense of the Greek root, ekistani—to stand outside the self) never leaves her, and in my own reading of the final pages of the book her desire is fulfilled. Or to quote Susan Sontag, “It’s toward the gratifications of death, succeeding and surpassing those of eros, that every truly obscene quest ends.” I don’t consider the end of Sandra’s journey to be a failure, even if it ends with death (or in Tir na nOg), because I think she’s about to get what she’s always wanted, without hurting anyone else. It’s a faery tale come true.
As for how I see my work in relation to mainstream feminist literature, I think that’s hard to answer due not only to certain differences in focus, but also in form. I’m interested not just in actual material constraints and problems (e.g. things like lower pay or the physical exploitation of women’s bodies, as happens via the reproductive clinic in HKRL) but also in exploring the more abstract but equally powerful constraints of language and culture, which I think requires more than the toolkit of conventional realism. I’m also interested in sexuality not just in relation to choice (to engage in this kind of sex or that, with this person or that), or rights (including reproductive), but also as something that remains, to quote Sontag again, “one of the demonic forces in human consciousness.”
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is now available from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.