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Rachel B. Glaser

Rachel B. Glaser is the author of the short story collection 'Pee on Water' and a poetry collection called MOODS.

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". . .this book, these stories, are somehow important, and I am glad to have read them. . ."

– Tania Hershman

". . .Glaser’s collection both echoes and contributes to the literary mood of the day."

– Danielle Burhop

"Glaser's supple narratives reward the reader with dazzling effects."

– Stanley G. Crawford

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Pee on Water

An Interview with Rachel B. Glaser

03/25/13

For this series I’m asking writers I love to recommend a book. If I haven’t read it, I read it. Then we talk about it.

In this installment, I’m talking with Rachel B. Glaser (author of Pee on Water and MOODS) about I Am Elijah Thrush by James Purdy.

Colin Winnette: Some books we love and would recommend to anyone because we just deep down believe that everyone should read them(!), other times our recommendations are tailored to suit the individual receiving the recommendation . . . but then there are books we love in a selfish way, that we hesitate to recommend to anyone, as if they need our protection. Where on that spectrum does I Am Elijah Thrush fall for you? Is there, in your mind, an ideal reader for this book?

Rachel B. Glaser:  I know what you mean about “protecting” the books we love. I think I Am Elijah Thrush should be reprinted and read again by many, but I did enjoy the way the book made its way to me, as if by mistake.  It feels great to “uncover” a book.  There is an idea that it’s rare to come upon a great book that you haven’t heard recommended many times before, but it keeps happening, which is encouraging to me, though it means that there are great books out there, lonely from not being read!  Though I felt precious about this book, I did the opposite of keeping it to myself, and have been regularly buying it online (bookstores never have it, though they all have tons of Purdy!) and distributing it.  In terms of an ideal reader for this book—someone who enjoys the absurd?  I feel that Jane Bowles has a lot in common with Purdy, so anyone who appreciates her writing should seek out I Am Elijah Thrush.

CW: It’s true. It’s a little depressing to think about how many great books are out there, going unread. Without your recommendation, I never would have heard of this one. In fact, it was sort of a difficult title to get my hands on. But I’m thrilled to have had this opportunity to read I am Elijah Thrush, because it’s a fantastic book, wild and funny and moving and super strange. What brought you to this particular book originally? And, if you can remember, what were some of your initial reactions?

RBG:  I’m so glad you enjoyed it!  My boyfriend, John Maradik, picked this book up off the shelf while at Grey Matter Books (in Hadley, MA) with the poet/our friend Christopher Cheney.  John read it and loved it and then Cheney read it immediately after, and they were both so enamored and entertained with it that I felt there was no way I could feel the same, but when it was my turn I was just as surprised and delighted.

From the first line you can tell it’s going to be good:

Millicent De Frayne, who was young in 1913, the sole possessor
of an immense oil fortune, languished of an incurable ailment,
her willful, hopeless love for Elijah Thrush, “the mime, poet,
painter of art nouveau,” who, after ruining the lives of countless
men and women, was finally himself in love, “incorrectly, if not
indecently,” with his great-grandson.

That first line is like a book in itself!  Each word is so forceful in creating a story and defining the characters.  When I read Purdy, especially this book, I am consistently deeply surprised.  In some ways, a first line like this could deflate surprise.  For instance, we already know Elijah Thrush is in love with his grandson.  It is not revealed in some suspenseful way.  The surprises happen on a smaller level, in the sentences and the moments of the book.  So, my initial reaction was disbelief and joy.  Since I knew that Purdy had written many books, reading and loving IAET felt like the beginning of a long life with Purdy.

CW: That opening line really is something. It’s almost as if, for Purdy, love and obsession are givens. It’s how those states are expressed that occupies him most. We learn that the narrator is “in love with a bird” long before his “habit” is revealed, and with far less ceremony. Purdy presents the object of the narrator’s affection as if there is nothing potentially strange about it. It’s the ‘habit,’ the form that the narrator’s love takes, that interests Purdy. What do you make of the way these characters love?

RBG:  I think their love drives this whole plot home.  “Make your characters want something” is the well-worn phrase in fiction classes, and I’ve never agreed with it as much as when I read Elijah Thrush.  I used to think of characters wanting in a more traditional way, like character A just wants to become a famous musician.  Character B is really hungry and hasn’t eaten in days.  Purdy creates love triangles among two elderly white enemies, a black man hired as a spy, a child who speaks in kissing sounds, and an animal that lives locked in a room.  Love is written about in a great, new way.  It feels good to watch these loves like an outsider, to not immediately relate.  I also enjoy how all these loves are hopeless.  No character in love falls out of love.  All the loves have barriers keeping them complicated.

CW: That’s a good point. These are all perpetually frustrated loves. It’s all messy and there’s no way out of the mess. It’s a tragic kind of farce. A huge part of the joy of the book for me was watching these characters navigate those “barriers” you mention. So, rather than just making his characters want something, Purdy keeps his characters wanting, and in a major way.

RBG: Yes, I think you’re right. The characters in this book are in an almost constant state of wanting. They have much anxiety, pain, and sorrow over their love. Love is a cruel torture in this book. Moments of joy, surprise, and friendship, ease the mood, but do not erase the pain. So much of Purdy's work feels exaggerated, but he's just exposing the ridiculous, unrelenting, human parts of ourselves.

CW: Let’s talk about the weirdness here, and how Purdy manages to maintain an unpredictably bizarre world with emotional consequences that are acutely experienced by the reader. The various frustrated loves and emotional sacrifices all have recognizable and sympathetic emotional content, but are presented in somewhat alien packages. Again, I think of the example of the narrator’s “habit”. It is simultaneously horrific and bizarrely tender. It presents an emotional state I relate to, though the physical reality is like nothing I have ever seen or experienced before. Could you talk a little about Purdy’s tactics in this regard? Did you have a similar reaction?

RBG: While trying to find other people writing about Purdy online, I once came upon a review (I think on Amazon) where someone referred to Purdy’s writing as “Social Fantasy.”  I had never seen this genre referred to, (and have not since), but it accurately described Purdy’s work to create unexpected, heightened (often absurd) interactions between characters that create a tension of possibility and show human existence to be inane, dramatic, and incongruous.  The characters of Jane Bowles and James Purdy are capable of anything, nothing is “out of character” for them.  Ascertains are reversed, logic is dismantled.  This is how I’ve come to think of the term “social fantasy,” which has been a continual reference point when working on my own work.  I think this feeling might be what you are getting at too.  The way Purdy writes human emotion so beautifully and true, even in the most (especially in the most) unfamiliar relationships.

CW: “Tension of possibility,” that’s perfect. (The book is always one or two steps beyond believability, which is not to say we don’t feel for the characters, but their lives are, as you say, pointedly absurd. So while it begins to feel that nearly anything could happen, there are still identifiable consequences to the absurdity, and we feel for the characters, so we’re invested in that “anything”.) I also think “social fantasy” is a great way of talking about your and Purdy’s work. I’m always curious when I hear a writer talk about personal points of reference in their own work. Could you list specific examples of how you’ve applied that reference point in your writing? Is it a conscious thing applied during drafting/editing or a just useful way of talking/thinking about your work in general?

RBG:  Twice in my life I have stumbled upon an author that I feel has pre-inspired me. The first time it was with Barthelme, the second with Jane Bowles. Both times it felt I had been channeling them before I’d ever read them. Barthelme gave me extra confidence to let my narrative voice go wild, and allow my characters to talk in an unrealistic manner. Bowles and Purdy encourage me to write characters that act and want unusually. Sometimes I am writing a story that is very strange, and no matter how typical the characters act or talk, the story is still going to have a weird, intriguing undercurrent. Other times, as with the novel I am working on, the situations are familiar to me, and I need to picture Bowles and Purdy and find the inspiration to make it “bristle with impossibility” (as Purdy once said).

CW: Are you far enough along in the new book to talk about it? If so, would you tell us a little bit about it?

RBG:  Sure, Colin!  It’s my first novel and currently called “Paulina & Fran” (or alternately “Careers in the Visual Arts”).  It’s about the complicated relationships between girls, the culture of art school, artist/career disappointments, and the power of nostalgia.  It’s a love triangle at art school in the early 2000’s, but I’m hoping to transcend some of the conventions of the kind of book I just described!  I’ve got some crazy sentences in there, but recently I realized my female characters are not insane enough.  I was somehow reading a summary of what had taken place on a reality tv show I have never seen (Real Housewives of Somewhere) and I saw that the ladies on this show were acting far more ridiculous than I had arranged for my characters to act.  So I am I taking this as a challenge.  Here is one of my favorite sentences from the story:

“Libraries!” Paulina cried, “What a trap for youth!”  One did not
become realistic in libraries.  One filled their head with mold
and ideas, and left their sexuality in a coil near the stacks,
where it turned to nothing and joined the dust on the floor,
swept by losers. 

CW: Could you talk a little about your attraction to absurdity? I know you’re a die-hard Bowles fan, and we’ve talked about Gaeton Soucy in the past, but who are some others and what draws you to them?

RBG:  In Junior High I was reading Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and the plays of Christopher Durang.  I went to public school in New Jersey, and I think I was partially attracted to absurdity because I was surrounded by a lot of conventions.  Art seemed like an escape out of the ordinary.

CW: You’ve also got a new book of poems forthcoming on Factory Hollow Press. Is your poetry equally influenced by the writers you mention? How does your approach to poetry differ from your approach to writing fiction, if it does at all?

RBG:  The influence of Purdy and Bowles might be even stronger in my poetry, though I wrote most of the poems in MOODS before I’d read either author.  I love making bold declarations and those occur in a higher density in my poems.  When I’m writing a poem, I feel like I’m prancing alone on a stage.  When I’m writing fiction, it feels like I am organizing my closet, bidding on things at a massive auction, or strategically planning a war.  These sensations are partially a reaction to the number of words on the page, but not entirely.  A poem distills things.  I think I am more accepting of my poetry.  I write it with immediacy and don’t mess with it, bemoan it, and cart it around the way I do with fiction.

CW: Any final thoughts on I am Elijah Thrush by James Purdy? Anything you want to make sure gets said before we say goodbye?

RBG: I want to comment on the bravery and nerve of Purdy. People who read this book often assume that Purdy was African American, because few white writers write so boldly about African Americans. The racism against Albert is a constant force and pain in the book. I think what I find so complex, interesting, and troubling, is the way the characters Millicent and Elijah are racist and loving at the same time to Albert -- both in the same sentence and in the same feeling. In many books, racism is implied or alluded to, but in Purdy’s book it is bared and explored. Purdy’s narration as Albert is so thoughtful, bizarre, and intimate. It is important to see from Albert’s point of view, to experience his pain and his love, and there is so much of both.

Thank you, Colin, for your great questions!  I feel I understand Purdy on an entirely new level!

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