I met with Rebecca Wolff for lunch at Le Pain Quotidien in Chelsea where we talked about her novel, The Beginners, a gothic coming-of-age tale set in a small town. The Beginners is Rebecca Wolff’s first novel. Previously, she had written three books of poetry: Manderley (which was selected for the National Poetry Series by Robert Pinsky), Figment (winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize), and The King. During our conversation we talked about the difference between writing poetry and fiction, the supernatural, and Wolff’s being a descendant of one of the accused Salem witches.
Jade Sharma (Rail): Do you consider The Beginners to be part of the Gothic fiction tradition?
Rebecca Wolff: Yes, I do. In a really technical sense I was pretty conscious of working within that context. I have to say I’m no scholar/I’m not a scholar, so I might say something stupid...
Rail: Neither am I. Frankenstein is the only one that comes to mind.
Wolff: Right, well, that’s the masterpiece of Gothic fiction. I reference Frankenstein in the book. Also thematically, the sense of the self as monstrous is very central to the book.
Rail: I saw the same thread in all your work of this line between the supernatural and the real, like it never veers off into a supernatural place.
Wolff: Talk about clichés, but I think it’s really important to have a sense of the world as something other than what it appears to be most easily. I suppose my concept of the self is something I definitely explore in my poems. Let’s see if I can articulate it: like there’s a slippage, a needing to feel that you are real in ways that are emotionally connecting and community-based and there’s also a need to understand the ways in which one is cut loose. I think that’s something I explore in my poems, a lot of the time. In early poems, ones you haven’t read, like in my college binder, this classic sense of alienation. But to get back to the supernatural, it functions as an antidote to the more traditional existential alienation because you can’t believe in a supernatural world without believing there is a world that is natural.
Rail: What do you mean that the supernatural connects people?
Wolff: Like in the novel there’s a lot of questions about telepathy, the concept of reading someone else’s mind, but you can’t read another person’s mind if you don’t have a shared reality. So that’s what it does for me. It connects me to the world in which one doesn’t have to doubt that one is really in the world. I realize, as I’m saying this, probably for most people they would consider it the opposite. Like the presence of the supernatural in Frankenstein. There’s a question: what does it mean to be a natural man if you can create this monster out of dead bodies? What is the experience of having authentic emotions?
Rail: And the doctor is burdened for creating him; that’s the central theme, that one is left alienated if he goes against the natural laws of nature. The book itself mimics the act of artistic creation, as well.
Wolff: Right, and that’s a trap in the believing one is God-like in one’s authorial powers too. You know, there are a lot of weird things about The Beginners that people don’t seem to notice. One of them is that Ginger doesn’t speak except at the very end, and it’s not a direct question she answers. So it’s just this funny thing that no one seems to notice.
Rail: I didn’t notice that at all.
Wolff: No, there’s no dialogue. She never says anything. Sometime she will recall a response to something.
Rail: What was the purpose of that?
Wolff: I had this idea that she was silenced from her detachment from the events around her. A big problem for me with the book was how to balance a kind of existential detachment, which I was initially more interested in, with her actual emotional reality, which in the end, when you’re writing a novel, your character has to have a real emotional reality; otherwise, it’s just not going to be a good book.
Rail: How much did you want to tell a normal coming-of-age tale and how much did you want to investigate the psychology that makes young woman fall prey to malicious men?
Wolff: I’m trying to engage the reader in that question. I’m trying to actually make the reader feel complicit, like the way it’s sort of exciting to read about the sexual exploits, which feels really creepy, right?
Rail: Right, it was creepy.
Wolff: Right, so it brings up: what is her agency in this? And that’s just what I’m trying to directly address. She’s a minor; therefore she cannot be held accountable and must be considered a victim, right?
Rail: Right, but by calling her a victim, it flattens the character and takes away some of her presence of mind as she seeks out these sexual experiences. It’s kind of like when I read that it was more interesting for you, as a descendant of the Salem witches, to think of them as actually being witches rather than victims.
Wolff: I’m glad you picked up on that because that is something I wanted to capture. It is also mirrored in the book, as Raquel doesn’t want to research the Salem witches, she just wants to imagine things. The power in mystery. It sort of flattens the event to me to think Rebecca Nurse, one of my ancestors, was a nurse who was an herbalist and wealthy and that’s the reason why they wanted her gone. It’s humanism versus the cultural, like I can say “you can create reality as you want it” but then you deny human injustices.
Rail: Did the book start in your mind with the idea of the Salem witches?
Wolff: No, it emerged when I was writing the book. It’s funny, it’s a hook for the novel but it’s more a device.
Rail: Like it has more a thematic importance?
Wolff: Right. And the reason I like it there, like Manderley [Wolff’s first book of poetry] being the name of the estate of the Hitchcock film, Rebecca, it’s self-referential. I really am descended from Rebecca Nurse, and that’s really how I found this little town the novel is based on, because I really was looking for family members in graveyards. But it’s n