Anne Marsella is an American writer who has been living in Paris for 22 years. Her first book, The Lost and Found and Other Stories, won the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers in 1994. Since then, she has written two other novels in English – and one directly in French! Anne was kind enough to answer a few questions for me in advance of her October 12 reading at the American Library of Paris.
Your writing is quite difficult to classify. It has fairy tale elements, as well as literary and chick-lit leanings. How would you describe your style or aesthetic – and how did it arrive to you? (Influence of certain writers? Conscious decision? Organic discovery?)
I see my writing in part as an ongoing conversation with the writers, and collective narratives (ie fairy stories) that precede me – those I love and admire in particular – and, to a lesser extent, current story-telling trends, such as chick-lit, a form I subvert in my novel Remedy. My writing process is largely organic, guided by both intuitive and conscious choices about language; mostly I want my characters and their language to surprise me — not just occasionally but most of the time. I put my pen to the service of sensibility and this switches the focus of the narrative from plot to a singularity of voice (or voices) and energy, which must drive the story forward.
Herman Melville writes in The Confidence Man: “The people in a fiction…must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” This is by no means a prescription for the conventional novel but it is one I naturally adhere to and I always have a copy of the operatic Moby Dick on my writing desk. I need to have my literary ancestors near me even if their genius is nearly crushing. Though they don’t crush: their presence keeps me afloat.
In your first book, The Lost and Found and Other Stories, the characters live in many different countries, the theme of displacement a common theme throughout the collection. I imagine this interest might have been spawned from your own experience as a foreigner in France. You’ve now lived in Paris 22 years, however. Do you still feel a sense of displacement? Does being an outsider still resonate as a theme for you? How do you define home now, after so many years abroad?
When I wrote The Lost and Found I was still struggling with my own foreignness here in France and developing a language within my mother tongue that included invented patois and foreign syntax to express and transform the alienation I felt. A fertile period of exploration ensued, one that remained open to and eager for linguistic cross-pollinations, oddities, accumulations, and displacements.
Part of the experience of being a foreigner is that you can’t master or control your environment and this position of non-mastery can either cause you endless grief or become a source of freedom: I chose to celebrate the latter in my writing. Now I am very much grounded in French life, having founded a family here and taken French nationality. But I’m still no stranger to strangeness. My concerns – aesthetic and thematic – remain largely the same.
You have not only written novels in English, but one in French, too! While I’m busy trying to overcome my awe, can you describe the experience of writing in a language that is not your native one? Or is French so much in your DNA now that it comes to you as easily? Are there differences in your writing depending on whether you write in French or English? Does knowing both languages somehow liberate possibilities in the other?
I wrote my novel Patsy Boone in French as a mirror narrative to Remedy. It’s an epistolary story written in the hand of a young American woman in Paris who undergoes a rather bizarre treatment for amenorrhea under the auspices of a French shaman and during which she relives, through dreams, key periods of American colonial history. For me this was largely an experiment in finding the degree to which the French language could accommodate otherness. Would it bend, stretch and Jack Lalane like English? The Académie Française watches its language like a hawk, so I had to find a less callisthenic route. Patsy’s langue is a mix of the precious, literary French she picks up from reading Diderot, Rousseau, Flaubert etc., everyday day street French and her own Anglicisms. The discrepancy between these registers of language produces funny moments, surprises, and an effect that is “suffisamment étrange” as one French reader told me in the book’s early stages. So I figured I was on the right track.
Living in France has certainly changed the way I hear and write English; what I can say very briefly is that this experience has opened up new possibilities, for French to a certain degree already exists in the English language and by playing on those keys a new music is created. Writing for me is much like composing in any case, so maybe it is no coincidence that I married into a family of composers.
What’s most rewarding are the surprises, the way the unexpected ultimately shapes the narrative. It never ceases to amaze me that by blindly trusting (and struggling through!) a process that seems at times impossible and improbable you create a work of art. The challenge is to transform an experience that burdens (and this was particularly true for me in writing about motherhood in my novel The Baby of Belleville) into something light and alive with energy.
It feels like kind of the wild west of publishing right now with a quickly shifting landscape. What do you think about some of the changes that are happening now (the rise of ebooks, self-publishing, etc) and how do you see yourself negotiating the terrain moving forward?
Wild West is a good way of putting it. The landscape of the industry is changing for certain. I confess I don’t lose sleep thinking about it because my attention is already being pulled in multiple directions and a writer must first of all put her energy into her art – whatever is left of that energy after a day of work (in my case directing a study-abroad program), and attending to family! I choose not to have an ereader myself; I love real books too much and would never want to take an electronic device to bed, which is where I do most of my reading.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Persevere! And read widely.
A novel it seems, but I’m still in the early stages so I can’t say much about it yet.
Anne Marsella will be reading at the American Library of Paris on October 12 at 7:30 PM. More information about the event can be found at ALP’s website. More information about Anne can be found at her website.