October 2014

Rebecca Silber


An Interview with Elisabeth Sheffield

Helen Keller Really Lived is Elisabeth Sheffield's third novel. Sheffield, an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, takes creative and artistic risks that seep out of the pages of this work of experimental fiction. Helen Keller Really Lived tells the intricate story of Selina Van Staal and her relationship with her deceased ex-husband, Timor Zinkovsky. Sheffield's writing flips between and connects Selina's story, Timor's story, and the stories of a couple of other key characters -- Lyndon and Fritzi. Much of the book takes place in, or is closely tied to a fertility clinic where Sheffield explores notions of family, new life, destroyed life, and human interactions in a unique way.

Helen Keller Really Lived is experimental fiction; it flows, it stops, different writing formats are pieced together -- really, it is almost like a collage. What is your process in writing experimental fiction, or specifically, the process you followed in writing this book?

Thank you for these observations as well as your question. This novel began with a character, Selina Van Staal, fortyish former barfly and grifter, semi- and self-educated, who must now make a living in the wake of her divorce (a separation compounded by her husband's death as she was divorcing him). I've long been interested in con artist characters (Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit," Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley," the Jim Thompson crew) and I'm also interested in the compromises, both conscious and unconscious, that women make in marrying and having families (feminism notwithstanding). I see Selina as a kind of fictional intersection between these two preoccupations. Another seeding idea was in the title, which derives from an anecdote I once heard from a friend (which Selina retells in the novel). The gist of that being, what does it mean to really live, or not?

Everything else, Selina's dead ex, Timor Zinkovsky, the ghosts' stories, the frozen embryos' laments, emerged out of these two main ideas. Selina's quest to support herself gives the novel its ostensible linear momentum, though I think the more important story tension is in Selina and Timor's competing tales of the failure of their marriage. At any rate, I did have the notion of something unfolding as I wrote, something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But I don't see narrative as a simply linear structure. There is also has a spatial aspect, "like a collage," as you say. The ghost and embryo stories are part of the bigger narrative picture, repeating, emphasizing, contrasting with and refracting storylines, images and motifs from elsewhere in the story. It's like a collage, or a canvas -- a swirl of blue in one place dictates a swirl of blue, or maybe orange, in another. 

Selina's late ex-husband, Timor, used to say to Selina, "You see connections and find patterns where there are none." This is repeated more than once in your book, and very often, it is true. As a reader, I found myself trying to find patterns and connections in this book -- but when I encountered Timor's observation, I sort of felt like he was talking to me, too. I think I was searching for patterns and connections because I was trying to unite the different pieces, or "swirls," of the book. What was your intention in repeating Timor's words to Selena? Was it partly to make the reader think about the connections between the different characters, timeframes, and viewpoints? Or is this a connection and pattern that I see that isn't really there? I suppose what I am really asking is, was my search fruitless? 

I think there are two ways of reading that line. One is in the sense of "you see connections and patterns where none exist (and never will)." The other is in the sense of "you see, or make, connections and patterns where none existed, previously." But now they do. 

Timor's meaning is the belittling first one. And I see him making this pronouncement from a scientific or rationalist standpoint -- that there's a predetermined order behind things. He's discounting the human capacity to make order (or meaning), even as that's what he's doing in his work as a "ghostlorist," as well as in his examination of his past with Selina. And Selina too is making "patterns and connections," by telling her story, even if she's not always getting it "right." Ideally, that's what all stories do; they make patterns and connections where there were none (or make new patterns and connections out of preexisting ones). And ideally the novel is a kind of pattern-making kit, first assembled by the writer, but then also assembled and reassembled, ad infinitum, by readers. So yes, I do want readers to look for connections between the different time frames, characters, and viewpoints, and I really hope their search isn't fruitless! 

I love that you call a novel a "pattern-making kit," because it really is! I feel like not all writers share this perspective, which is unfortunate, but understandable after all of that work. I would think that seeing your writing as something malleable, would make it easier to send it out into the world, so to speak. Perhaps this viewpoint would shield writers a little from the sting of harsh reviews, or simply readers who seem to miss the point (but, are perhaps just making their own connections). Do you agree?

Some novels do demand more of the reader than others, or seem more written out of a sense of language as vast, complex and shifty, a material that may exceed or surpass (especially once the reader comes into play) any one writer's intentions. Ulysses, for instance, or Finnegans Wake. In the case of the Wake, Joyce seems to have seen readers as meaning-makers not just after but also before the fact: "Really, it is not I who am writing this crazy book," he supposedly told a party of friends. "It is you, and you, and you, and that man over there, and that girl at the next table." The writers I find most interesting seem to write out of this sense of language, or in other words, as a material that exceeds or surpasses intention.

Does seeing your writing as mutable (I like this word better than "malleable") make it easier to send it out into the world? Not for me! When I write, I think very hard about words, about syntax, about point of view, about form, and about the implications of my choices -- where they might lead the text overall, and also the reader. The word "malleable," for instance. I like the tactile connotation, but for me it implies an initial, if only temporary, solidity and stasis of form that I'd rather avoid (Roland Barthes's distinction between work and text comes to mind here). Words can mean more than one thing, including the "wrong" thing. So I spend a lot of time, choosing, assembling, creating, trying to make it all seductive and interesting enough that the reader will be willing to play hard. And if the reader finds the game (or kit) dull or somehow unsatisfying, I'm disappointed. I like to think that I've put enough into each novel that it will hold together, provided readers are willing to put in the thought, so sure, it's a bummer when a reader or critic misses the point. At the same time, I realize I'm asking a lot.

I want to shift the conversation over a little to some Helen Keller Really Lived specifics -- the characters and the plot of this book are quite clever and also complex -- I don't want them to be overlooked. Can we please discuss Fritzi? Every time her character came up in the book I kind of shuddered, but I also was excited to read on and find out what she was going to do next. Her character is pretty crazy, and the mental image that I have of this gray-haired, young-faced lady is also somewhat manic. Frankly, I really didn't like her at all! Where did you get the inspiration for her character? Do you think she has any redeeming qualities? 

Early on, I decided that Selina's narrative would take the form of a "true crime" story (ostensibly, at least; she has trouble keeping with the format). Making her crime into a story for sale seemed in keeping with the more manipulative, exploitative side of her character. So I read some true crime stories, including Capote's In Cold Blood and The Confessions of an American Black Widow by Gregg Olsen, and it seems that there's usually a partner in crime, and also one character who's more aggressive, or unscrupulous. At any rate, it didn't seem like Selina could go down the path of iniquity without a catalytic companion. I also like a good female villain (equal opportunity for evil, I say) -- Laclos's Madame de Mertueil, Henry James's Madame Merle, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman. Selina's name is in fact a reference to the original, human identity of the comic book feline (Selina Kyle), though it's Fritzi who's the true femme fatale in the book.

Fritzi's already gone over the edge, before she meets Selina. The backstory she provides to Selina about her prior life in the city is meant to provide some circumstantial context (and a dash of black humor for any reader who, overwhelmed by professional and domestic life, has ever felt like she's about to lose it). I'm not sure she has any redeeming qualities, but I find her mad logic interesting.

Fritzi's silver hair: A number of years ago, a middle-aged woman I know was talking disapprovingly about her secretary, another middle-aged woman. She mentioned, in passing, that this woman had thick, straight gray hair, and I said something like "good for her, for not dyeing it." At which point the woman doing the dissing said that it just showed how vain this other woman was, and how she was always "tossing her head" to show off her shiny, gray hair.

At the time, I thought this was funny (even as I found myself coveting that hair, too!). But I don't think Fritzi is vain. In fact, I think she no longer cares about conventional feminine practices, behaviors, and attitudes (among the other things she no longer cares about).

Fritzi and Selina meet in the fertility clinic where they both work. Ultimately, Fritzi gets Selina involved in a plot to kidnap frozen IVF eggs in order to get back at her ex-husband, the doctor at the clinic. A fertility clinic is not a setting one typically encounters in a novel, and the notion of committing a crime in a fertility clinic, is even more unusual. What determined your interest in making a fertility clinic such an integral part of Helen Keller Really Lived? 

Time to confess: we used a fertility clinic, or Assisted Reproductive Technology, to have our own children. And while I'm very happy about the outcome (our two kiddos), the process was disturbing. I felt that we (patients, gamete donors, doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators) were all on shaky ground, ethically. I found that there was a very strong hetero-normative and paternalistic discourse that our clinic used, to promote, it seemed, the idea that this was all okay, since we were bringing life into the world. And now I'm going to get even more political and add that I think that discourse is continuous with the larger cultural one outside the clinic that encourages us to bring more children into a world that we're slowly destroying (landfills up to their brims with Pampers and all). So the fertility clinic comes out of my own experience, but it also struck me as a "fertile" place to explore the issue of what it means to really live, when for so many of us, really living seems to mean bringing others into the world (certainly it has for me). Having children through ART (and I love that acronym) is such a deliberate act -- you don't get pregnant accidentally in a fertility clinic! I wanted to use the fertility clinic to foreground that choice, in relation to the question implied by the title.

The issue of what it means to really live is certainly a universal life theme that everyone struggles with at some time or another (or always). Each character in this novel faces his or her own internal and external obstacles in attempting to "really live." Is there one character in Helen Keller Really Lived who stands out from the other characters as someone who lived particularly well?

This is a great, as well as hard, question. If you define a life "really lived" as a life lived to the hilt, as a life full of experiences, that is not necessarily a life lived "well." Giving birth is an experience, but so is murdering someone. Flannery O'Connor's "Misfit" says that if there's no god, then there's "no pleasure but meanness" and that there's "nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him." While I can't imagine anything I'd enjoy less, and in fact, just decided this morning that the plastic guns on my sons' bedroom floors (all gifts from relatives) are going into the trash before the school day is done, my point is that the idea of a life lived well depends on a larger value system. I don't believe in a god, but somehow I've been implanted with these Judeo-Christian values. So does living well sometimes mean not "really living" or, in other words, making sacrifices for others? A writing student of mine was telling me the other day about her children, one of whom has special needs. She spends a good part of her day schlepping him over the mountains to his school, which is in the opposite direction of the one attended by her other children -- time that she doesn't get to write. And she wonders if it would be better for him if she sent him to a closer, but less well-equipped school, because then she would be happier.

The character who lives most "well" in the religious or moral sense in this novel is Lyndon. "With her openly acknowledged processed hair she [has] the makings of a real dupe" (as opposed to au natural Fritzi!), but she's also unpretentious, generous, and thoughtful. Because we only see her through Selina's eyes, and because she's no longer useful to Selina once she gets Selina a job at her husband's clinic, she doesn't get much play. But that's her embryo at the very end of the novel mourning the mother she'll someday lose.

Is there one character who you relate to more than the others?

The characters I feel most connected to are Selina and Timor, equally. I spent the most time in their perspectives, and I understand their desires, their vices, and their frustrations (which is not to say that their feelings and failures are my own). I've also given each bits of my own biography. Like Timor, I have an undergraduate degree from SUNY Purchase, and like Selina, I dabbled in the biological sciences, worked in restaurants, and drifted (though for a comparatively short while). As one character tells another in Samuel Beckett's Molloy, "Life is a thing of beauty…and a joy forever."