an interview with Jennifer Spiegel
conducted by David Abrams
Sybil Weatherfield is a 30-year-old hot mess. A temp worker in New York City flitting from job to job, Sybil is the riveting main character of Jennifer Spiegel’s debut novel Love Slave (Unbridled Books). She has a boyfriend and is in love with another guy (the lead singer in the band Glass Half Empty), has issues with food, and writes a column called “Abscess” for the alternative weekly New York Shock. Early in the novel, Sybil says, “I’d like something really, truly, completely unique to happen to me—something utterly unexpected.” The same can be said of Love Slave. Firmly planted in space and time (New York City in 1995), it’s funny, off-beat, 100-percent entrancing and unlike anything I’ve read in years.
Jennifer earned a BA in Creative Writing and Political Science from the University of Arizona, an MA in Politics (International Relations) from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. In her long and varied career, she has worked as a movie theater concessionaire, resident assistant in a dorm, admin assistant, and a university professor. According to her website, she also once set a microwave on fire with fish crackers.
I first “met” Jennifer online about a year ago. We bonded as two kindred spirits whose first novels were being published in September and who were riddled with anxiety over this Big Event which was about to swallow our lives. At least I was riddled—maybe Jennifer was only peppered. She actually one-upped me (and a gabillion other writers) by having two books published in 2012: Love Slave and a collection of short stories, The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc Books). Somehow, she has maintained her sanity and her sense of humor throughout the whole experience. Jennifer and I recently had the following exchange over email.
David Abrams: First of all, why 1995? What's significant about that year for you?
Jennifer Spiegel: I think I’m guilty of writing what I know. I lived in Manhattan then, and the milieu was so very present for me when I was writing. Love Slave is a novel about a moment in time, you know? Sybil, a definite Gen X girl, will—we all know it—grow up soon, very soon, and begin worrying about other, maybe more important, things. But in Love Slave, she’s in 1995, when things like the inundation of pop culture, the slap of feet on sidewalks, the sounds of city, the approach of bums, and the temptation of pigging out are in her face. I chose 1995, because I knew 1995—and it’s after 1994, but before 1996. I wanted to write about a woman of a particular generation whose post-childhood angst had not yet transformed into full-fledged adult anxiety.
DA: There are also those very significant historical markers of 1995: the OJ Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, Superman (Christopher Reeve) falls off a horse and is paralyzed. It was also the year Yahoo! was founded (I learned this while doing a Google search). So, there is all this historical scenery in the background of your novel. I imagine these events are as much a part of your life as they are Sybil’s, right? Was there ever a point where you felt that too many historical events or pop culture figures would take over the book? Was there anything which you cut so it wouldn’t be too distracting, this intersection between true history and imagined characters?
JS: Not necessarily take over, per se, but distract. I’ve heard all the rules for writing that require one to avoid references that date one’s work—and, in truth, I ignored these rules, opting for the belief that such details add to the novel’s authenticity. My hope is that, like other novels, there’s something universal within the specifics, and the specifics make it richer. Plus, I just really like cultural details in other people’s work.
That said, I did cut many, many, many rock ’n’ roll facts I originally sprinkled throughout the book at the start of every chapter. I had used trivia to demarcate chapters, and I finally, thankfully, realized I was intruding upon the flow of my narrative, ultimately robbing my characters of their story.
DA: On the heels of this, would you consider Love Slave a “historical novel” due to the intensity of its setting?
JS: Yes, I would say it’s potentially historical fiction—so much fiction is. I guess this may be determined, though, by the proximity to the present day. Are we still too close to today?
DA: Do you think it's time to finally start getting nostalgic for the 90s?
JS: I am. Aren’t you? I have to admit that I’m a little obsessed with aging and the way generations are characterized, so I suffer from extreme nostalgia. I love to obsess about Generation X. These hipsters interest me too. Milennials? They seem a little unoriginal. Plus, I don’t think they get my jokes.
Of course, I don’t get theirs either.
DA: The novel is built on a romantic tradition stretching all the way back to Jane Austen. If I were to compare Love Slave to one of Austen's novels, how would you take that?
JS: I would say the following: “God bless you, David Abrams.”
DA: Which leads me to one of those standard, writerly questions: who are some of your influences?
JS: Though I’m tempted to resist cliché, I just can’t. The biggest influence on this book, at least, is J.D. Salinger. I’ll try to be specific in my answer so I don’t sound like an idiot, which is mostly how people sound when they talk about how Salinger has influenced their writing.
First, in Catcher in the Rye, I fell in love with the authenticity of the private moment. I don’t know how long it’s been since you read it, but one scene especially comes to mind. Holden tap-dances in the bathroom while talking to Stradlater. He gets really into it. When I first read this scene, I gushed because I believed in its truth. People tap dance on bathroom floors. We sing to our reflections in the mirror. Salinger knew it, he exposed it, and I wanted to do the same thing: I wanted to capture the specific and the private, like Salinger did with Holden. I like the idea that we’re so close to Sybil in Love Slave that we’re squirming. Is she neurotic or just honest? She might tap-dance at any moment.
Second, Catcher is also about a New York moment. This influenced me. I wanted my own New York moment.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that Lorrie Moore has influenced my attempts at humor. I admire her blend of comedy and tragedy—how she makes loneliness funny. Like Salinger, she has an eye for authentic detail.
DA: One thing I love about Love Slave is the fact that you toss in so many cultural references--some of them quite obscure--with such aplomb and bravery. I mean, I might be one of the few guys to read this who instantly knew who silent film comedian Ben Turpin was when you mentioned him--I got an exact mental picture of his cross-eyed face when I came across him on the page. This isn't so much a question as it is a statement of my adoration for your writing--it's bold and brash and very smart.
JS: Thank you. I’m writing for the likes of you.
DA: So, I'm going to give you a little pop culture pop quiz right now--no fair consulting with Sybil before you shoot back your answer. Ready? Here goes: Favorite movie of the 90s?
JS: Pulp Fiction, Farewell My Concubine, Raise the Red Lantern, Wayne’s World, Crumb, Barton Fink, Short Cuts, Life Is Beautiful, Lone Star.
DA: Favorite quotable line from a 90s movie?
JS: What Jules says about walking the earth like Kung Fu.
DA: Poster I'd most likely find on your wall between 1990 and 1999?
JS: Bono forever.
DA: Favorite 90s band?
JS: Actually, I was a little mad at U2 for much of the nineties. I listened to P.J. Harvey, Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, Nirvana. I never, though, took down my Bono poster. And I still haven’t.
DA: Favorite TV show from the 90s? Or was there even any TV worth watching in that decade?
JS: I only remember “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” and “E.R.” And I loved them, but not like I loved “Lost” or “The Office” in later years.
DA: Most significant event that happened in Jennifer's life in the 1990s and how that rippled into your future? (Ah, you knew I'd sneak an Oprah-esque question in there, didn't you?)
JS: Well, to be totally honest, the most significant thing to happen to me happened post-1995. In 1998, I was living in South Africa and I was in a very serious car accident. But that’s for the next book. During the Love Slave era, the most significant thing to happen to me was that—while in Manhattan working off student loans in various jobs that were supposed to result in a career in international relations—I decided to go for broke and become a writer. I just stopped, dropped everything, and did something else. That was pretty big.
DA: Did you ever write for a publication like New York Shock?
JS: I tried to get a job for New York Press, because I liked the writer Jim Knipfel a lot—and this other guy who has disappeared off the face of the earth (Zach Parsi). I think I answered an ad for a columnist by submitting three columns I wrote on the spot. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe Zach Parsi got the job and I didn’t—and that’s how I came to read him. At any rate, I didn’t get the job. That Parsi guy wrote some good stuff.
DA: You published two books in the same year--a literary feat unequalled by anyone else I know (except maybe Alix Ohlin who published a novel and a short story collection on the same day). How did this come about?
JS: I don’t know. Divine intervention, I’m sure. I’d been writing for twenty or thirty years, of course. Dzanc Books took on The Freak Chronicles (which was really written after Love Slave and deals with characters older than Sybil who are often expats in South Africa), but there was a huge delay between the time they accepted it and the time they actually published it. Perhaps this time allowed me to get my writerly shit together. I also felt legit, to be honest. When Unbridled Books took on Love Slave, I felt like a real writer. I’ve since learned that this may not mean too much, but I remain most grateful to my publishers for that magic.
DA: Unbridled and Dzanc are two small presses I really admire. How was it working with each of them? Were the editorial processes similar or diverse for the two books?
JS: Oh, what to reveal? I thoroughly enjoyed working with both of my editors. Matt Bell edited The Freak Chronicles, which was probably more heavily edited than Love Slave—and I know it’s a much stronger book because of his smart editing. Fred Ramey edited Love Slave, and his professionalism emanated throughout all of his comments. I think that working with both of them taught me a lot about writing, and—this may be weird to say—I liked that they were men. I write like a girl, I’m sure—and I valued that male presence. Plus, Matt is something like ten years younger than I (remember: I’m age-obsessed), and he probably brought a new perspective to the table.
My guess is that many writers have similar experiences to mine when editors are good; it’s more intimate than one anticipates. Someone else is reading your work so carefully, so comprehensively; you just can’t believe you’re being taken this seriously. You can’t believe someone wants to read your work in this way. And the comments are so smart, so perceptive! I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but I know I had editors who genuinely care about literature.
DA: I share that same kind of experience with my editor at Grove/Atlantic—a young editor (my junior by about 20 years—not that I’m age-obsessed or anything) who really took my debut novel to heart and became its champion. I think you and I share similar backgrounds as late bloomers who waited a long, long time for this “legitimacy” of publication. Do you think this was the right time for us? Would you have reacted differently if Love Slave had been published when you were in your twenties?
JS: I definitely think it was the right time for me. I wasn’t ready. I probably—no exaggeration—became a different person in the ensuing twenty years. I think my own immaturity, lack of life experience, failure to have real vision, etc. would’ve been costly.
DA: You once promoted your books by standing in Costco and giving away free samples of text in little plastic cups. I thought (and still think) this was brilliant. How did you measure the success of this kind of book promotion? And on the heels of that, what is the state of book promotion these days? Do you ever get frustrated?
JS: I totally stole that from Jess Walter, by the way. It’s completely his idea.
I’m not Jess Walter, however, and it added nothing whatsoever to my success.
In truth, book promo depresses me. I try not to be bitter. I get sad. I find, if I can just spill my guts, that I made mistakes. I realized early that there would be no real promotion, so I had to do it myself. Having no clue how to do it myself, I went nuts. I became obnoxious. I didn’t know what to do. Do I posture myself? Do I stand back and hope for the best? Do I go out on a limb and beg for attention at the risk of sounding pretentious? What is humility and gratitude under such circumstances? (Yes, over-analysis is my thing.) I think my naïveté showed. Now, here I am—a year later—and I don’t know what to do. I get sad when I think about my books disappearing into obscurity. I get all excited when I remember I got freakin’ published in the first place! Mostly, I do lots of laundry, make lots of sandwiches for kids, and retain a shitload of information about Bono in this head of mine. I teeter ever so precariously on that line between being your basic homeroom mom and being an infamous—not famous—writer, between being the ultimate force of stability in the life of my family and being this nutty, moody, cocky artiste on the brink of madness.
Book promo is a mystery. All I can tell you is I’m writing another book.
DA: Are you comfortable telling us a little bit about it? Or are you one of those writers who, when asked about the work-in-progress, throws salt over her shoulder, spits between her fingers, and runs away chanting reverse hexes?
JS: I’m okay with it, though don’t hold me to anything I say. Sappho Unspoken is about marriage and drugs. Meth, bath salts. The effect on the non-addict, the possibilities for recovery. Sappho was this uber-passionate Greek poetess, whose identity is pretty unknown. Just a lot of speculation. I’m thinking this will be a novel about the unspoken things in a marriage riddled with addiction problems.
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