For Books’ Sake talks to: Elisa Albert

1st May 2015

For Books' Sake talks to: Elisa Albert
Image: Hulya Kilicaslan
New York author Elisa Albert pulls no punches. The prize-winning writer behind The Book of Dahlia, a darkly humorous book about a 29-year-old woman dying from cancer, has just released her second novel After Birth; a similarly stark and unconventional tale about the harsh realities of motherhood. Although Albert’s subject matter may be controversial, her fiction is characterised by an acerbic wit and infectious warmth.

We loved After Birth at For Books’ Sake, and we were lucky enough to catch up with Elisa about everything from her creative process to feminist angst and breastfeeding.

After Birth has been referred to as ‘The Bell Jar of our time’ – how would you respond to this? And which women writers have been an inspiration for you?

That’s a thrilling comparison, given how Plath has affected generations of readers.  The writers who’ve meant the most to me are the ones I trust completely, too self-aware to bullshit or pussyfoot around difficult things.  I don’t really care what the genre is: you spend your life reading and hopefully you get to a point where you just know when the writer is not quite up to the task of complete authenticity.  You know it in a few sentences. 

Too many inspirations to name, female and otherwise.  Iris Owens, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Zucker, George Orwell, Susanna Kaysen, Susan Sontag (particularly her notebooks), Adrienne Rich, Ani Difranco, Cookie Mueller, Emily Carter, Chloe Caldwell, Merritt Tierce, Ariana Reines, Viva… They all share a very real sense of no time to mess around.  A funny, serious, genuine, sometimes outrageous and sometimes ugly urgency and honesty characterises the work I love.

Ari and Mina’s relationship is extremely realistically drawn, both in its warmth and its flaws. Was this based on a real friendship in your life?

There are elements of me and my friends and their friends and imagined friends and wishful friends and former friends threaded throughout the novel. No doubt, the women who showed up by my side when I was learning to be a mother forever redefined friendship for me, and that’s where Ari and Mina’s story began to take root. 

That actively and joyfully and eagerly inhabiting the normal physiological processes of healthy childbearing might so outrage and threaten family members and “friends” and passing strangers alike came as an absolute shock to me. With the exception of Mina, Ari struggles to make authentic bonds with other women – why do you think this is? Did your own experience of female friendships inform this at all?

It’s very common for women to have love/hate relationships with their friends, which is puzzling.  I’ve come to see it as a sort of arrested adolescence.  Ari’s history of impossible/thwarted friendship is a perfect storm, really.  She had this very damaged, cold, hurtful mother, who in turn had an extraordinarily broken mother of her own.  We need healthy, loving, confident, powerful women modelled for us; it’s very hard to conjure it for oneself without that blueprint.  And this is what it can look like when we don’t have that blueprint.  Not pretty.    

There’s an interesting friction between motherhood and feminism throughout After Birth. Marianne, Ari’s academic mentor sees having children as a failure. How would you respond to this viewpoint? Do you think the conflict and disapproval within feminism (this idea someone can be a ‘bad feminist’) is damaging?

This is a very complex question, and there’s no easy answer. Feminism is not a set of rules and regulations; feminists often disagree.  If we can’t disagree without exploding the whole enterprise, we’re in big trouble.  It’s certainly much, much bigger and richer and deeper and more essential than any individual squabbling.

At one point Ari takes off on a brilliantly passionate rant about public breastfeeding during a snobby dinner party; is this an issue close to your heart?

I was truly shocked and hurt and freaked out by what happened when I nursed in public.  The looks!  The comments!  The jokes!  Outrageous and unending harassment.  It was a feminist education in and of itself.  Yes, in other words: it is an issue very dear to my heart.  That we have twisted issues with the female body is not, of course, a surprise.  That actively and joyfully and eagerly inhabiting the normal physiological processes of healthy childbearing might so outrage and threaten family members and “friends” and passing strangers alike came as an absolute shock to me. 

In the novel, to make time for her dissertation Ari drops the baby off at daycare, but then procrastinates at home on trashy websites to avoid her work. Is this something you’re guilty of personally? Do you have a particular ritual around writing?

I like to write longhand in a notebook a lot of the time, so when I do turn to the laptop, it’s with a certain readiness to rock.  I do appreciate spaces without wifi, and will impose “Freedom” on my laptop when necessary, but I find the act of sitting and typing to be pretty bound up with writing.  So I rarely waste my precious sitting/typing time.  Lying on the couch with a smartphone, however, is a different story; I can lose hours that way, like people you see at slot machines.    

What’s next for you? Are you working on another novel?

I am! Currently in the blissful infatuated obsessed stage.  We’re in love, me and this new novel.  Soon we’ll have to meet each other’s families and there will be unforeseen challenges and our eyes might wander and our habits will begin to annoy one another, but we’ll do what it takes to keep the spark alive, and the spark will see us through.

After Birth (Vintage, £16.99, hardback) is available to buy from Foyles and all good bookshops.

Elisa Albert is the author of After Birth, The Book of Dahlia, and How This Night is Different.  She also has a brilliantly illustrated website: Follow her on Twitter @Eeeeelisaalbert

Jennifer Acton is For Books’ Sake‘s Reviews Editor. She tweets at @_JenniferLou