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The Anxiety of Influence

by Jessie Goetzinger

Yelena Moskovich was born in the former USSR and emigrated to Winconsin with her family as Jewish refugees in 1991. She has written for the New Statesman, the Paris Review and 3:AM Magazine, and won the 2017 Galley Beggar Press Short Story Prize. She was a curator for the 2018 Los Angeles Queer Biennial. She now lives in Paris. Her second novel, Virtuoso, was published by Serpent's Tail in January 2019. She speaks to Jessie Goetzinger.

Who would you pick out as your literary ancestors? Who did you read when you were younger, and how did those authors teach you how (or how not) to write?

My literary ancestors would include: Marina Tsvetaeva, Anne Sexton, Joseph Brodsky, Jean Genet, Anais Nin, Samuel Beckett. I actually wasn’t a big reader in my youth (other than the ever-present Russian poetry in my household, recited and sing-sang by my mom), but in my teens I wanted to be an actress, so I started reading plays, and it’s there that I actually fell madly in love with reading. I loved how plays looked on the page, how immediate and intimate they were, like my own private cinema. I devoured: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Genet, Edward Albee. I was in the American Midwest then, so I was limited to the selection at my public library, but in my twenties (in Boston, then in Paris) I discovered: Caryl Churchill, Paula Vogel, Suzan Lori Parks, Sarah Kane, Nathalie Sarraute, Marie NDiaye, Jon Fosse, Roland Schimmelfennig, Koffi Kwahulé. I learned about how the page should breathe. I learned about timing, voice, and what needs to be said so that the unsaid can speak.

How much of your fiction is influenced by real events in your own life and how do you feel about the recent trend for autobiographical fiction in the book market? Should fiction always be tied to the 'real world'?

I’m not sure I have enough of a realistic grasp on my reality to use it realistically. I’m by nature symbolic, skeptical, or dream-ridden. I’m usually chasing after a feeling, a mood, a tone – an atmosphere first and foremost. Also, I’m very interested in language, how it can feel alive, strange, how it threatens and soothes my grasp of semantics in equal tides. Beyond that, I would feel quite burdened by a sort of expected accuracy from a naturalistic form.

As for auto-fiction, to be honest I don’t have an opinion on the category, or any category of writing for that matter. If it’s good, it’s good. I am personally horribly page-shy, so I find it hard to situate myself directly in front of the reader (though getting more comfortable through the essays I write). There is a certainly power to that position, but the language must sustain the proper proximity between too distant (cold, all-knowing) and too close (smothering, indignant).

Do you find yourself inspired by other artistic mediums when you are writing? I think the influence of film and theatre is really apparent in your work, but are you also inspired by music, painting or poetry, for example?

Absolutely, I’d say I’m equally responsive, stimulated, awakened by so many other mediums. One of Marlene Dumas’s portraits. A nice grungy Russian song. A verse of Brodsky. Pina Bausch’s 'Café Mueller' choreography, Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire.

My background is in theatre and body work, I’ve made a bit of music in the past (the things one does as an adult in their parents basement while saving up money), and I still draw, paint, craft. I love the experience of art, as a spectator and a creator. I love being in front of an art piece and just feeling its energy, or just looking at all the paint tubes at the crafts store, or sitting in front of the sleek black lagoon that is an empty theatre stage. Nothing will ever replace writing for me, but I am euphoric at all the possibilities of expression, each one helps me understand and bond deeper with this stir of language within myself.

What do you want people to take from your work? What do you hope is your influence on others?

I hope my work can make someone feel accompanied in a secret surfacing into their consciousness. As for my influence, perhaps not to take language for granted and seek with exhilaration what a novel can be or do.

What is the best piece of advice anyone gave to you about writing? Taking on the role of teacher yourself for a moment, what advice would you give to someone picking up a pen to write a novel for the first time?

The best piece of advice about writing probably came from my mom (a lifelong lover and writer of poetry): know when your cup is full and when your cup is empty. Also: when you sit down to write, it has to feel like a revolution. For a first-time endeavor at a novel, I’d say: This is not only a practice in writing, but a practice in getting to know how you write, how you want to write, how you want writing to feel for you, how you’d like writing to be with you, in your life. Take note, observe, carry on.

Also: don’t be cruel. On or off the page.

What were your favourite books of the last couple of years?

I loved Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights for its form and unwavering sincerity. Also, Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, every sentence feels like I'm re-discovering the way that the English language moves. I am always in awe of how lightweight her prose is, and with what gravity it churns my heart.

Andrès Barba’s Such Small Hands is one of the most stunning experiences of the uncanny I’ve ever felt.

Guillermo Rosales’ The Half-Way House (though the original came out in 1987 and translation in 2009 – but I only discovered it last year), for its lucidity and heartbreak. I’ve rarely been as furiously haunted by language and tone. Also for the background of the exiled Cuban author, his early death, and how this manuscript came to be published.

JESSIE GOETZINGER reads English at Christ Church. She is a very rich widow with a very terrible secret.

Art by Abigail Hodges

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