Dawn Raffel’s illustrated memoir, The Secret Life of Objects, is a life story revealed through simple possessions. Her previous books include two story collections—Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division—and a novel, Carrying the Body. Her stories have appeared in BOMB, Conjunctions, O, The Oprah Magazine, Black Book, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and more. She is the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction, and the Books Editor at Reader’s Digest. There will be a book release party for The Secret Life of Objects at The Center for Fiction on Wednesday, June 13th, 7pm. If you can’t make that, you can also write to Dawn about your own secret objects at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will post your story on her website.
Michael Kimball: I’ve been reading your work for almost twenty years now, and I loved The Secret Life of Objects, but I never would have guessed that you wrote it. What happened?
Dawn Raffel: Thank you—I’m so happy that you liked it, and just as happy that you’d never have guessed I wrote it. I’ve always said that, as a writer, one of the most important things for me is to never write the same book twice. That said, this book was a bit of an accident. I didn’t plan for it, and I wrote it very quickly. The first draft was done in a week, which is about the amount of time I normally spend writing one sentence and crossing it out.
What happened was, I was drinking coffee one morning out of the mug I always reach for, even though I have a cupboard full of mugs. I chose that one because I took it from my mother’s house after she died, and for me it contains a story about my mother and my aunt, whereas for anyone else, it holds only coffee. I realized I had a house full of objects like this—nothing special in terms of face value but full of hidden meaning. So I started writing very quickly about my objects; I decided I wanted to create a record—for myself, because I am already beginning to forget the people from whom I’ve inherited some of these things, and for my children. As I was writing, it felt sort of like painting with watercolor; it needed to be completed quickly and not overworked. I didn’t look back; I kept going like a woman possessed, and was pretty much oblivious to everything going on around me in a busy household and, for that matter, for the need for sleep. It was only when I was done and looked at the whole of it that I realized it was a life story, and that while in some ways—certainly in terms of sentence-making—it’s very different from my previous books, my obsessions—family relations and legacies, the passage of time, the weight of detail—were still there.
Kimball: I think there is some other overlap as well. Even though the sentences are so different, there’s still a kind of quiet tone that lulls the reader into them. And I think your sense of organization or structure is here too. It is a life story, but you still don’t write in chronological order.
Raffel: I don’t think in chronological order. I don’t remember and feel in chronological order. Nothing in my interior life is linear, and I suspect that is true for others as well.
Kimball: You said that you wrote quickly about each of the objects and suggested that you didn’t revise much. What did you recognize in the writing, what did you see that you had captured, that you wanted preserve through not overworking the material?
Raffel: I hope there’s a kind of openness and spontaneity to the writing, that it feels unguarded. Let’s compare the opening sentence to the opening sentence of my previous book. Further Adventures in the Restless Universe begins “After the rains had come and gone, we went down by the reservoir.” That is a sentence that I needed to write aloud, paying careful attention to its inflection and cadence; the intent was to create a rupture, however slight, from everyday experience, as if to say, “We are about to enter into an oddly lit space and I will lead you.” The Secret Life of Objects begins, “Every morning I drink coffee out of a mug that came from my mother’s house.” That sentence is completely without artifice. The message here is, “Come on in; it’s safe here”—although it isn’t, really. The revisions I did make weren’t to the sentence-making; they weren’t at the level of the syllable. They almost all involved cutting.
Kimball: The Secret Life of Objects is deceptively inviting, and the writing is quiet in a way that almost comforts the reader, but it is not safe. I finished reading the book four or five days ago and I still find myself thinking about the objects—the mug, the frogs, the dress, the daughter vase, etc. The book possesses the reader in a way. Now you said that you felt possessed while writing the book. How would you describe that feeling?
Raffel: Thank you. I would describe it as exhilarating. There was no second-guessing, no starting and stopping, during the whole first draft. I hope I have the good fortune to feel similarly possessed by another book at some point in the future.
Kimball: So what’s next then? Are you currently possessed by something or might you be soon?
Raffel: What I wouldn’t give to feel possessed in that same way! I have an idea that has been a little worm in my brain for a few years now, but it still refuses to show itself on the page.
[Michael Kimball is the author of three novels, including Dear Everybody (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”) and, most recently, Us (which was named to Oprah’s Reading List). His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, and New York Tyrant, and has been translated into a dozen languages. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard). His new novel, Big Ray, will publish September 18, 2012 (Bloomsbury).]