A site for a certain kind of thinking: A Conversation with Anna Moschovakis

Anna Moschovakis
is a writer and translator with an interest in the edges where languages, forms, and subjectivities meet. Her books of poetry include the James Laughlin award-winning You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, and They and We Will Get Into Trouble for This. Her first novel, Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, came out last year. Her translations from French include Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, Annie Ernaux’s The Possession, and Bresson on Bresson, and experimental translations of and with the Algerian poet Samira Negrouche. A recipient of grants and fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, The Poetry Fund, the Howard Foundation, and apexart, she has taught in the graduate writing programs at Bard, Pratt, and Columbia. She is also a longtime member of the publishing collective Ugly Duckling Presse and a co-founder of Bushel, an art and community space in Delhi, NY.


Katie Willingham: Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love is your first novel, though you’ve been publishing poetry for some time, so first, congratulations! Reading your work in another genre made me curious what it’s been like having this in the world. Do you have an idea of someone you’d most like to discover this novel? Or did that enter your mind during the writing process? Have you been getting a different kind of response to this than your poetry?

Anna Moschovakis: Thank you! It’s definitely been different to put a novel out, after only publishing poetry for many years. And now that the first few months post-publication have elapsed, I am able to get some perspective on those differences. One thing that surprised me was the number of friends (a handful, really) who sent photographs of the book on the shelves of their local public libraries. This is probably how I’d answer your question about the person I’d like to imagine discovering this novel: someone at a public library who gets intrigued by the title or cover and takes a chance on it. But I wasn’t thinking about audience while I was writing—this book took many years (on and off, mostly off) to write, and I never quite believed it would find its shape, let alone find a publisher and a readership.  One thing I’ve been able to articulate to myself more recently, about each of my past books, is the way in which—whether it’s fiction or poetry or anything else—whatever I’m writing is wrapped up in the problems I’m living with, the questions I’m confronting, during the time of the writing. And the writing doesn’t necessarily solve those problems or answer those questions, but if I’ve done a good enough job delving in, the process of writing each book does change me. So in a sense, I’m the audience while I’m writing, and then after it’s written and published, I no longer “need” it. As a reader, I like to imagine that the books that have found me at the perfect time—the ones that seem to put words to my current conundrums or obsessions or troubles, whatever they may be—were written by people who themselves were changed by the writing. So we’re passing along these invitations to work through things, but across time and space and other differences.

KW: As you talk about being changed by the writing and also writing this book on and off over years, I’m curious how those two things influenced one another. As in, did returning to a problem or question return you to working on this, or were different conundrums coming up that felt like they could be intertwined in the novel?

AM: This palimpsest of writing selves is such an interesting and integral part of working on a long-term project. The short answer to your question—which is very perceptive—is that both happened. By the end of the process, I felt that many facets of the novel’s driving questions (and some important movements in relation to those questions) were represented, but not necessarily in a logical or conclusive order. More like a giant mesh bag barely containing a season’s harvest.

KW: I’m looking at the cover right now and noticing how the word “Eleanor” is translucent, blending into the background a little. This character opens the book, but her narrative then gets interrupted by “the narrator” who reveals Eleanor’s story is still a work in progress and she’s getting feedback on it from Aidan, “the critic.” Can you talk about navigating these two trajectories and how they move together—the voice, the mood, the timing of switching between them?

AM: Now that I think about this in the terms of my response to your first question, I’m wondering whether, in a sense, the character Eleanor can be read as a projection or cypher on the part of the narrator (the author character), and as the narrator works through some of the issues she’s confronting (internalized misogyny and imposter syndrome among them, as well as melancholic responses to events in the public world and her private one), Eleanor’s story, and Eleanor herself, become less necessary. Or they become more abstracted, as if story and character dissolve into the idea-space that they were exploring. There’s a phrase that recurs in the book about the importance of creating a “site for a certain kind of thinking”: maybe Eleanor is that site, for the narrator. But a more concrete response to your question would be to tell you that I first wrote two-thirds of Eleanor’s story before I even got the idea to add the storyline of the narrator and the critic. I was intrigued by the opportunity to incorporate my own questions about fiction, and about Eleanor’s story (which kind of built itself out of my subconscious: I didn’t create an outline) into the book. The third section was drafted after both storylines had become equally important, and I wanted to test the extent to which I could collapse the characters into their subject matter, and into each other. At one point, I realized I was thinking about the two threads “infecting” or “contaminating” each other, so that a phrase or a character trait could hop from one thread over to the other. This might be confusing for some readers, but I’m okay with a little confusion. Confusion is one of my subjects!

KW: Switching between these two  narratives (your use of contamination feels especially apt!)  also primed me to notice how open this novel is in other ways, inviting other interlocutors into the work. To me, it makes the book feel expansive. It has a way of pointing inwards by pointing outwards, revealing interiority via reaction, response, engagement. I also appreciate how this subverts expectations of female confession, especially in the context of Eleanor’s unrevealed trauma, “thing prime,” which the narrator defends not disclosing. Could you share some of your thoughts on representing interiority and your approach to that here?

AM: I really love this formulation: “pointing inward by pointing outward.” The most obvious enactment of that within this book is the accumulation of titles (of books and other artworks) that are often just dropped into the narrative without being particularly contextualized or described. I do think of this gesture as a gesture of pointing: in pointing “out” toward things in the world that are important to a character, I’m hoping to provide clues to that character’s inner world (a world which no novel can fully explore, so much needs to be suggested in any case)—while also offering the reader an invitation to share something “off-page” with the character, by hunting down and reading an unfamiliar book, for example. So it’s also a case of pointing into the book as a way of pointing back out of it, and into the lives of individual readers. I feel like the non-disclosure of “thing-prime” relates to this as well, in the sense that to leave something like that unnamed necessarily invites readers to feel, if not imagine, echoes of their own “things.” I guess it’s a way of encouraging a kind of corollary interiority or intersubjectivity, which to me is an alluring alternative to the contours of confession or disclosure as a route toward connection.

KW: I like this invitation to search off-page—with a book inside a book here, it almost turns readers into characters as well—or, at least, I felt as a reader I was just one among many unfolding relationships here. I’m curious now, are there texts or works that didn’t end up getting directly referenced in the book but influenced its writing or perhaps its form?

AM: Definitely, books and films have come to mind since the book came out and I’ll think: Oh, did I remember to mention that? And then before I can check, I’ve forgotten again. But yes. And I love the idea of a blurring between reader and character.

KW: Something that always strikes me in your work is this really particular way of thinking feelings and/or feeling thoughts—to trouble this binary.  In Eleanor, you describe a melancholy that “blurred Eleanor at her edges, just where the structure of her feeling met the margin of her thought.” Later, Eleanor is reading a poetry chapbook sent by a friend and her reaction again refuses this clear separation: “she had the thought or the feeling that she was all-in with these poems, and took note. She had the feeling or the thought that this book was sent from her future: six blank pages at its end.” You’re showing how insufficient these categories are, and it strikes me as something so important to understand. I mean, these words are how we frame our experience of the world! Can you talk about this blurring and how it figures into your writing?

AM: I’m afraid to try to answer this question in any way except (1) to share that for a long time, this book carried the subtitle “a novel about thinking and feeling” and (2) to point to a line buried in the novel (in parentheses, even, I believe) that characterizes Eleanor’s psychology as being “subject to binaries”—a painful condition the whole book is, in some sense, about. I’ll also just cop to having had the often-quoted line by William James, from The Stream of Consciousness, in mind a lot as I was writing this book: “We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold.” Of, if and but  are words of logic, of grammar—of the domain we often ascribe to thinking—but of course they are, or have, or are inextricably bound up in feelings too.

KW: I feel this so strongly, but don’t find many authors engaging with it at the level of language and really troubling those two words themselves, so thanks for adding this quote to my repertoire as well! I think/feel your answer is also pointing to who might want to find/lose themselves in this book, which seems like the best way to conclude! I’d love to leave you with the last word, though. Perhaps a taste of what confusions or quandaries you are writing towards now? Approach that in any form you’d like! And thank you so much again for taking me further into the world of Eleanor and Anna.

AM: Ah! I think I’ll always be writing, in some sense, the same book, but hopefully different pages of it… The thing I’m working on most now is a fiction, but a less typically structured one, and the language breaks away, under pressure, from sentence-based prose. It takes as its premise two reading groups and is told from multiple perspectives. It also contains syllabi and is concerned with the relation of study, discourse, and—as if these things could be neatly separated; they can’t—embodied experience. Especially experiences of erotic and civic/communal desire (surprise, surprise!).


Katie Willingham

Katie Willingham is the author of 'Unlikely Designs' (University of Chicago Press). A graduate of the Helen Zell Writers Program, she has taught writing at the University of Michigan and now serves at the poetry editor for Michigan Quarterly Review. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Poem-A-Day, Bennington Review, Diagram, Rhino, Indiana Review, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. More fun facts at katiewillingham.com.

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