The Elisa Albert Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions

So I wrote about The Office, 30 Rock and also interviewed the girl who was kicked off America's Next Top Model.

But I also interviewed someone for! Today I speak with the author of The Book of Dahlia, which was highlighted in the New Yorker recently, a novel about a 29-year-old, pot-smoking, chronically underachieving Jewish-American princess who learns that she has brain cancer. Elisa Albert is also the author of How This Night is Different, is an editor-at-large at Jewcy and is an adjunct assistant writing professor of creative writing at Columbia University.

I've heard Dahlia described as an "antiheroine." What does that mean to you?
That she's not simple to like. That identification with her might not be immediate. That she does not exist for the sole purpose of making us feel good about ourselves. That she challenges us, baits us, shows no consideration for us, maybe pisses us off. That she's untrustworthy.

Did it seem unusual to write about a female pothead? It seems like your stereotypical pot enthusiasts in pop culture are male.
Right. So, no. Girls are supposed to be busy making themselves more likable and fuckable; boys get to sit around doing drugs and geeking out over pop culture and being complex and sometimes unlikable but ultimately lovable. Yeah, so no.

What kind of research did you do for what Dahlia was going through physically in the book?
Your basic webMD stuff. Just wanted to be sure all the bare facts were there, from that point I felt qualified to wax narrative about the emotional process, having watched someone in my immediate family go through something not dissimilar.

I read " There's a sense of guilty relief when Dahlia starts to fail," in a review of the book. Do you think that's the case?
A novel's a deep echoing well from which one can get many different things, I think. I wouldn't begrudge anyone her own take-away. I certainly had no qualms about dooming Dahlia.

Are you one of those writers who mourned the loss of Dahlia or was she just a character to you whose fate was her story?
The act of writing the book was a decidedly mournful one, in the character's honor. Her fate is her story, her story is her fate. I didn't harden my heart to her even as I methodically killed her off, in other words.

Did writing the book make you think about how you'd like your exit, or funeral to be?
A little too much.

How was working on a novel different from a book of short stories?
Novels are much longer.

(It can take a while before you realize you're on the wrong track. You can't complete a novel and hand it to someone and get a response twenty minutes later. When you think about maybe throwing out an unsuccessful story, it doesn't make you feel physically ill.)

Are you aware of how your students perceive you when you teach at Columbia, especially considering that you came out of your program?
I've taught undergrads, so it's not the MFA program I went through. But yes, in general I find I am all too aware of how I think others perceive me...

What can a Catholic girl learn from reading Jewcy?
Hopefully that stereotyping Jews is uncool. Also that many aspects of the human experience are universal. That if you prick us, we do in fact bleed.

It seems like you have a lot of stuff going on at any given time: how do you prioritize your work?
I let procrastination morph into panic. Then I'm good to go.

I stole this question from the National Yiddish Book Center discussion questions for How This Night Is Different: In the closing story, "Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose," Elisa Albert comments sarcastically, if
indirectly, on the literary merits of the preceding nine pieces, implying in the words of a British student in her writing workshop that all her Jewish stories are the same. Do you think these are the "same stories over and over again" or is the author short-changing herself?

That was an amusing (to me) way of grappling with my own worst fears about my work. I learned -- as a train-wreck of an adolescent -- that if you can find a way to articulate all that is possibly wrong with you, others are usually content to enjoy the spectacle of your poking at and shaming yourself. Or, to put it in slightly twisted therapy-speak, self-awareness is everything. Pity the shrinks of writers.

I read that you're a dinner party hostess: what's the biggest disaster you ever faced and how'd you deal with it?
I've yet to experience anything truly disastrous (though fully expect to now; thanks!). What I hate is that phone call an hour beforehand saying "I'm so sorry but I can't make it." You have to come! You agreed! The whole balance will be off now!

What's been the last playlist you made and what was on it?
It was for traveling around on book tour:

Someone Great -- LCD Soundsystem

Came a Long Way -- Heartless Bastards

Hardwire -- Metric

Feeling in Love -- JJ Cale

Lonely Holiday -- Old 97's

Burning Up -- Madonna

Failsafe -- New Pornographers

Fucker -- The Brian Jonestown Massacre

Toes -- Norah Jones

One Step Up -- Bruce Springsteen

Paper Planes -- M.I.A.

Work That -- Mary J Blige

The Night is Still Young -- Billy Joel

Missed The Boat -- Modest Mouse

Eyes Closed -- Rowboats

It must have taken an emotional toll to write about your Times announcement and subsequent divorce. Did you talk about it at all with your ex before publishing it?
Writing about it was cathartic and helpful to me in getting through the whole ordeal. My ex is a great friend, happily, and he was highly impressive about letting me say what I had to say.

I have to admit that I have been thinking about submitting my own announcement to the Times but do you think yours is a cautionary tale?
I do not think that having your wedding announced in the New York Times will doom your marriage to failure. I think having a crappy relationship will doom your marriage to failure.

You live in Brooklyn but were raised in "LA-LA land." How do those bicoastal traits reflect in your writing?
No one's really concerned with seeming smart in L.A. (at all). So I feel like I have a great bullshit meter for pretension, which can come in handy here sometimes.

What are you reading now?
The End of Vandalism, by Tom Drury. On deck, Black Postcards, the memoir by Luna frontman Dean Wareham. Slightly nervous Wareham'll come off irritating as fuck, 'cause I live for Luna, but can't not read it.

How does it feel to be the 205th person interviewed for
Awesome! Thanks.