Learning to Play a Different Instrument: Jill Alexander Essbaum on HAUSFRAU

Article by ben

by Benjamin Rybeck

Before I call Jill Alexander Essbaum, I know just a handful of facts about her. I know that she grew up in the Houston area and remains a huge (read: sort of frighteningly rabid) Rockets fan. I know that HAUSFRAU, out 3/17, is her first novel after publishing several collections of poetry on small presses. I know that most of what’s written about her poetry highlights its “erotic” aspects (and I have, in fact, read some of this poetry, including this one, which will turn on the surrealist in your life). And I know that, in an email exchange, she challenged me to ask questions she has never heard before.

But immediately before she picks up the phone—I mean, seriously, the phone is ringing in my ear—I find one particular fact about her that excites me more than any of the others: she’s a Nick Cave superfan.

“Favorite album,” I say, which sounds less like a question and more like an initiation.

It’s not easy, and she takes her time with the answer, thinking about it before saying, “No More Shall We Part…it plays like a novel. It’s so different from, say, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, which I didn’t like until I saw him on tour.” Her favorite songs, though? “Stagger Lee” and “Deanna.” “What’s your favorite?” she asks me.

“I came to him on No More Shall We Part,” I say—which actually, I realize after I hang up the phone, is a lie: I first fell in love with Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus on a long drive from Tucson to Denver. I confess to her that I prefer mellow Nick Cave to fire-and-brimstone Nick Cave.

“Angry Nick gets me going,” she says, referring to him by his first name (always) in the same way that a handful of my friends refer to the artists they love most: with familiarity, as though they’ve invited them into their homes many times, so why not use their given names? “But when he’s gentle,” Essbaum says, “he really scratches an itch in me.”

She tells me that she dedicated one of her books of poetry to “Nick,” not just because he’s awesome, but because he helped her think about new ways of writing her own work without abandoning her preoccupations and obsessions—“to move in a direction that’s not my usual way, and if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, you leave and move on. Else you start to parody yourself or get used to your own gimmicks.”

Another artist she relates to, for similar reasons, is PJ Harvey. “Her album White Chalk deeply affected me. For that album, she learned to play piano.” And so, in writing HAUSFRAU, Essbaum “learned to play a different instrument too. I feel good about trying new things.”

How about Nick Cave’s novels—has she read them?

“Moving on…” she says after a pause so deep it makes me think she has ended the call.

I ask her which of her loves is greater: Nick Cave or the Houston Rockets?

“I’ve loved the Rockets longer,” she says. “They fill different needs in my life.” She tells me about her history with the Rockets when she was going to Alvin High School. She used to go to the games with her dad, but when he passed away, she didn’t have anyone to watch basketball with. Later, she and her husband discovered, after a year of marriage, their shared love for the Rockets, so they started following the games together. “It was killing us,” she says. “I screamed, yelled—ate a lot of throat lozenges.”

The point? “[Nick Cave and the Rockets] both get out some aggressions.”

If my conversation with her is any indication, these outlets for aggression seem to be working, for she comes across as the least aggressive person on the planet. This is not the same as saying that she’s timid, because she isn’t (even though she tells me she’s a shy person), but that she seems measured and not prone to heated thinking.

If only Anna, the protagonist of HAUSFRAU, was the same. The novel—which seems like a modern version of THE AWAKENING or MADAME BOVARY—focuses on the perfectly mundane marriage between Anna and Bruno, living with their three young children in a comfortable suburb of Zürich. An easy life, right? Perhaps, but Anna doesn’t let it be. Instead, she finds other outlets—some harmless, like her German lessons, and some less harmless, like the series of lovers she takes on. (Does Anna just need to listen to some more Nick Cave?)

As I read HAUSFRAU, I found myself relating to Anna—not because of her actions, but because her feeling malaise is a universal one. After all, sometimes everything seems okay, yet you can’t shake the dread or the melancholy. Does anyone else feel this way? Do I just sound desperate? Should I be worried that I identify with Anna?

“I don’t think so,” Essbaum says. “One of the attractions of the book is that we recognize ourselves in…well, maybe not the way that Anna thinks and the things she does, but in the way that one choice becomes the next choice becomes the next choice.” In other words, many of us don’t live lives as extreme as Anna’s, but we can relate to one fundamental fact: “Our choices really do matter.”

One of HAUSFRAU's most fascinating characteristics is that, even though the book focuses on Anna, the third-person narration ensures that the reader is kept outside her head in certain ways. For instance, we may know her feelings about certain matters, but we never really know why she comes so close to detonating her happy life—not exactly.

The book wasn’t always like this—not in its first draft, anyway, which Essbaum wrote in first person present tense, a choice that any writer knows leads mostly to agony. “The tone was quite different. Anna had more pizzazz and snark to her voice. She was more devil-may-care. She flaunted herself more.” But every time she tried to write the book, she hit a wall around page 100.

Essbaum’s breakthrough would make a great scene in one of those movies about an artist—the moment when the viewer sees dramatized the inspiration behind a great work. “I was driving from Austin to Houston, and I was listening to nonsense radio, and it hit me in the face: I knew how to fix the book. So I pulled over somewhere around Paige, Texas. I found a park, pulled in, and started writing. I scribbled for an hour and got it!” And what was her revelation? To write the book in third person past tense.

In some ways, it seems like a strange revelation, considering that for a very long time in the history of the novel, third person past tense was the default position from which to tell a story. Not that this was exclusive, but you know what I mean—all those grand authorial works, by Dickens and Austen and Fielding. Certainly the tone of Hausfrau feels old fashioned. “[It’s] written with a higher level of diction,” Essbaum says, “and there are a lot of inverted sentences. It feels old-timey.”

In hindsight, Anna never could’ve narrated her own story, for it would have removed much of HAUSFRAU's levelheadedness. “In first person, there’s too much hysteria…” Here, Essbaum adopts the frantic hypothetical voice of Anna as narrator: “Oh my gosh, my husband has found out about my infidelities, what am I going to do?”

Talking to Essbaum, I suddenly feel like I’m getting a craft lesson. After all, she has taught for many years, and she jokes that her students “say terrible things about me behind my back.” Why? Because when her students don’t choose the best words in their poems, she tells them.

“Look,” she says, “we have every technology at our fingertips. And I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the place to go for the final say in informal, but if I’m looking for a specific word that’s going to help me understand how, for example, a lock or a door works, I can type that in. All of a sudden, I’m down the rabbit hole.” It’s a sort of precision arrived at through elimination: you find all the things that don’t work until eventually you find the thing that does. “If I have a word that’s okay,” she says, “why not vet it against all other possible words?”

Essbaum demonstrates this same precision in HAUSFRAU's sex scenes—frank, exploratory moments that don’t titillate but, instead, teach the reader about the characters. One scene in particular stands out to me: there’s a moment, halfway through the book, when Anna comes on to her husband, Bruno, at a dull party, and they abscond immediately, driving home and essentially undressing each other before they even make it through the door, as is always the way in lurid romance novels. But this is worlds beyond that, and what astonishes about this particular sex scene is that Anna and Bruno really get each other, and after reading over a hundred pages about indifference and infidelity, this fact comes as a revelation.

For Essbaum too, who learned, while writing this scene, that “their relationship was very real—the most important relationship in Anna’s life—and it’s undeniable. There’s no question why she’s with him.” Through their sex lives, Essbaum learned about her own characters.

“When you’re writing sex, if the only thing you can manage is ‘the earth moved,’ then you’re not going to be able to explore what intimacy is. And sex is the most intimate thing that can ever happen between two people, and there’s not a single person on the planet who didn’t come about from lovemaking. That’s the single most fundamental thing, and here’s your chance as a writer to explore that moment.” (Though, of course, Essbaum does acknowledge that the book gets explicit: “I didn’t realize how far I went until I heard the audiobook!”)

These questions of intimacy, particularly the intimacy between Anna and Bruno, sit at the center of Hausfrau, the mystery that pulled Essbaum as a writer—and pulls us as readers—through a book that the author seems genuinely excited and grateful to be discussing.

So did I manage to ask her questions that she hadn’t heard before? I don’t know—or at least I’m not saying so here. But as we get off the phone, I do make one promise: “When you get here for your Brazos event,” I say, “I will have a really cool fact to tell you about the Houston Rockets that you’ve never heard before.”

Essbaum seems happy—and now I have to find a fact. Any suggestions?

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