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A Conversation with Deb Olin Unferth


Deb Olin Unferth is the author of Minor Robberies, a collection of stories, and Vacation, a novel, both published by McSweeney’s. Her new memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, has been excerpted in Harper’s and The Believer. It will be published tomorrow in hardcover by Henry Holt.

MINOR: You left college in 1987 to join the Sandinista Revolution. You’ve written plenty between then and now, but not this story. Why did it take so long to decide that this was a subject for a book, and then to write and publish the book?

UNFERTH: I was very self-conscious about writing a memoir. For many years I wasn’t sure if it was a form with enough intellectual energy, which I now know was silly, since I’m very excited about memoirs and feel like they have tremendous intellectual energy. It was probably just an excuse for me. Also, I think maybe the story wasn’t over yet? Maybe I had to live a little more to figure out what the story was. Also I think I’ve struggled as a writer to figure out how to open up and reveal myself. Writing my novel, Vacation, helped me figure out how to do that, and afterwards I was ready to jump into the memoir. People had been telling me to write up my “revolution story” as a memoir for years. Tao Lin mentioned it to me I don’t know how many times. Also Nate Martin.

MINOR: What was the thing you figured out that allowed you to open up and reveal yourself more than you had in the earlier stories?

UNFERTH: I started out as a philosophy major. And I’ve always had an interest in form and in more intellectual styles of fiction writing. I think I was afraid to write with bald emotion, I thought it was too feminine or something. I think the breakthrough came when I read Chris Ware. I read that big red book of his, the compilation of Acme Novelty Library. It was very formal and right from the first pages dealt with ideas and theories about art and philosophy, and yet it was one of the most emotional books I’d ever read. Then I read an interview with him where he said he tries to put as much emotion in his work as possible. I found that very freeing. I saw that I could do both. My first effort was with Vacation, and then in Revolution I found it easier to open up.

MINOR: The book’s progression is not strictly chronologically linear. We open, for example, with the McDonald’s chapter, where the returning would-be revolutionaries meet a pair of parents at the border, and even though your father would have taken you anywhere you wanted to go, you wanted the familiar fast food. I wondered about that choice — why not start at the beginning? Or, if the idea is to hook the reader with something like a movie’s teaser trailer, why choose something that comes after the book’s major action. But then I started to think about how it’s a beginning that undercuts all the romantic associations the title might promise: Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. And I thought similarly about the way the book manages information from then on. There is a tentativeness that seems to match the interior life of the narrator and the person she was during the time of the events. She doesn’t have a confident narrative to offer. Instead, she seems to say, like the poet Molly Peacock: “Here, use my rags of love.” And, of course, there seems to be a corresponding confidence beneath that choice: I’m not going to give you the story I want or the story you want. I’m going to give you the story I’ve got.

UNFERTH: Oh that’s nice. I especially like what you say about not having a confident narrative to offer. I had such a hard time with the tone and the voice of the book. Once I got that down, I realized the book could work, but until then, I thought it probably wouldn’t work. The voice had to contain all the doubts and fears I had about everything having to do with this project: the going to “join” the revolution in the first place, the writing about it later, all of it was tinged with self-conscious hesitation or even embarrassment. That had to be part of the voice. And the confidence you detect is my realizing that I found the voice.

MINOR: And yet there seems to be a continuity between this book and the fiction that precedes it. Sometimes the fiction seems to draw on similar source material (“Passport,” to give one example.) And there are certain formal similarities between the short chapters and the very short fiction.

UNFERTH: Yes, in fact those stories and even big chunks of Vacation are evidences that I was always half-writing this book. Or trying to figure out how to. This subject matter was part of my shadow-life, always had been. Maybe what you are doing at eighteen forms you even more than what you were doing at five or two (to argue against Freud for a moment) and that might be because at eighteen you are taking control of your life, probably for the first time, you are becoming. I say this because when I started looking at memoirs I realized a huge number, a ridiculous number, of them were about being eighteen or thereabouts. So if you see the subject matter being dragged through all my work, that might be why. And the formal similarities — yes, there is a Deb Olin Unferth style and voice, that’s for sure. Like it or not, I do have that, if nothing else.

MINOR: Do you have the fear, then, that you might have exhausted the material that is at the center of your consciousness, and what now?

UNFERTH: Ha! You know, there is another part of my life that I’ve written about over and over and over. After I finished grad school and moved back to Chicago, I was kind of floundering there for a few years — I touch on it a little in Revolution, toward the end. They truly were the worst years of my life and nearly all of my published stories came out of the experiences I had during those years. Or at least all the stories that weren’t about Nicaragua. And what now? Indeed. I do feel an exhaustion, but it isn’t with writing. It’s some of kind of sensory overload. Or brain overload. Or my brain is breaking down or something. But I think it’s okay for the moment. I’m willing to wait it out a bit. In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of things that are interesting to me.

MINOR: Here is the most extraordinary description of a person’s attraction to evangelical Christianity that I have ever read: “I liked how confusing Christianity was, how it required so much explaining: why we’d sip blood, why we’d pretend to sip blood, why God would punish us, why He’d punish someone else and pretend it was us, and so on. The enormous mystery of God was much more congruous with my disorienting experience of the world than the arrogant certainty of atheism.”

UNFERTH: Ha. Yes, that’s how it was! It was very, very hard to figure out how to write about Christianity, how to express the reverence I once had, the strangeness and the beauty I saw in it, without flat out making fun (what could be more boring than another writer coming along and poking fun at Christianity for being nonsensical?), and at the same time I couldn’t be simply reverent, because I’m no longer reverent and I’m so irreverent that I doubt my previous reverence. I tried to think back and remember, impressionistically, what it was that I loved about it. I tried to capture the initial attraction and desire and piece of me it filled up.

MINOR: And yet there is much about the young woman in the book that is willing to place limits on reverence and its corollary, control, even to a degree that the adult narrator later comes to regret. For example, the moment in the orphanage where she takes a stand against Hermana Mana over the issue of wearing a bra.

UNFERTH: Yes — she? I? –that young woman was, at heart, a bit of a brat, and I do regret that. Over the years I had written that scene and played it in my mind so many times, wishing I could play it differently and that the ending would be me being a bit of a hero, a caretaker of children, a soldier for the poor, and so on, but it just wasn’t me.

MINOR: The other major figure in the book is the man you call George (I assume that’s not his real name.) There’s a real wrestling with him throughout the book. He is an attractive, charismatic figure, and it’s not difficult to see why the speaker is attracted to him. But he is also an enigmatic figure in some ways — he hasn’t yet figured himself out, even though he acts out of a confidence that would seem to indicate that he thinks he has. Even the adult narrator seems puzzled about what to do with him, and it’s a puzzlement that announces itself from the first chapter. On page 27, we get this: “Maybe he’s sitting somewhere looking typical right now. Maybe for years now he’s been looking that way, and no one around him knows who he really is.” But did you? Do you? Does he? How difficult was it to construct his character in the pages of this book?

UNFERTH: Wow, yeah, good. It wasn’t hard to have the image in my mind of who he was. That was easy because it was already fully formed and has been sitting there for me to measure everything I’ve ever done against over and over since I was eighteen. It was hard to create that outside my head. I felt immensely sympathetic to his vision and defensive on his behalf against anyone who might criticize him for God-only-knows, not being a responsible enough citizen or some such. I’ve always felt like I had this unique person during a formative time in my life, and also that this figure represented a generation, and that what he was isn’t around much anymore. I felt like I wanted to preserve it.

MINOR: That protective impulse seems to manifest itself in other ways. You don’t tell us his name, you obscure the name of the college and the megachurch and even which state the early part of the action is set in. It’s a tightrope, right?, this balancing act between what to give and what to withhold in a memoir in which you’re the only character who signed up for the job. How did you think about these matters and make these choices, and are there ongoing consequences, personally and otherwise?

UNFERTH: The school of writing I tend to gravitate toward — a more minimalist, even slightly Lishian school — frowns on proper nouns, for the most part. I’d been in the habit for years of shying away from place-names and proper names. Actually I was doing that before I encountered or learned about Lish, and when I started coming across his students’ work, I recall it was one of the ways I knew I’d found friends: I noticed the resistance to naming. So when I started the memoir, I was pretty stuck. I’d confronted the problem in Vacation and I got away with a lot. The wife has no name. Several other characters have no names or have place-holders for names or have names that sound slightly fake. But a memoir, boy, that’s tough. And on top of that I did want to protect George’s identity as much as I could. So if you read carefully you can figure out where all this stuff is taking place in the passages that are set in the U.S. Colorado is eventually mentioned, for example, but I tried to keep as much away from it as I could, until we get to Central America — that was a completely different challenge because I wanted to identify everything, and how to do that and keep the tone and voice and humor and style? Rough going.

MINOR: I wanted to ask you about the ending of the book. I’ve never read a memoir with multiple endings before. It seems right — these are the things we’ve been talking about, right?, the narrative persona that ultimately must give itself up to the irresolvability of the narrative in the conventional sense. Of course I was thinking right away of what Malamud did in The Tenants, except that in that novel, there were three literally different endings, whereas in this memoir, there are multiple choices for endings that are raised by the narrator as possible places to “land” (“land,” again, not quite conveying the openness that is intended, if I’m reading the book intelligently.) And I wondered — what is it like to take a survey of the big story at the center of your formative years and walk away requiring a multiple ending? Is this what it means to be an adult, or is this another way in which the narrator places herself in opposition to expectations toward sometimes productive and sometimes unpredictable ends?

UNFERTH: At one point when I kept going back to Nicaragua in the early 2000’s, I met up with another former Internacionalista (one who seemed to have actually accomplished a few things) and I told him I was writing a book about Nicaragua (I don’t even remember which horrific incarnation the book was in at that point). He asked me what the ending was and I said there would be two or three endings. And he said that any book about Nicaragua had to have more than one ending. I thought that was a perfect statement. The history of Nicaragua is like that of a person to me. I can see the hopes and desires, the strivings, the failures and lessons learned, the energy, the personality. It feels that way to me. And I suppose in order to fully express the identity of a person, you can’t just have one ending or have one final word on them. A person or a country is too complicated for that, and narrative does them a disservice to pretend otherwise. Also I wanted to create a sort of yoyoing sensation, where you first think one thing, then another, then another, and your understanding of what happened keeps shifting and changing. Part of the reason for writing the book was to express that shifting feeling.