Over the past decade and a half, Deb Olin Unferth has earned the accolades of such luminaries as Geoff Dyer and George Saunders and gained a reputation for smart, funny, and unpredictable prose, as evidenced in her books Minor Robberies(2007), Vacation(2008), Wait Til You See Me Dance(2017), as well as a graphic novel with Elizabeth Haidle I, Parrot(2017), and a marvelously funny and unsentimental memoir, Revolution(2012.) A recent transplant to Austin, she teaches creative writing at The University of Texas and a maximum security prison in South Texas. I met with Unferth at a West Austin cafe on a chilly February afternoon, and we talked at length about reading, writing, modernism, darkness, and her love for the city she now calls home.
Sightlines: Your work is varied and diverse from book to book: Surrealist elements, echoes of Leonora Carrington short stories, Kafka, and the book Vacation in particular has this existentialist fiction feeling like Beckett –
Deb Olin Unferth: Modernist, yeah.
S: Yeah, like that mid-20th century type of thing. But also in the short stories in the newest book(Wait Till You See Me Dance) I hear, not the voice of David Foster Wallace exactly, but it reminds me of the way his stuff can be comic and also profoundly sad at the same time. But your voice is new, it feels new. What are your influences, or rather, where do you come from?
U: Those are all really good guesses. I love Leonora Carrington, Kafka, Beckett…I definitely consider myself to be a modernist, and if I think about what modernist writing is, a big part of it is not trying to root itself in any one particular time, but is in telling a wider universal story – I feel like I’m in that tradition. I wouldn’t put myself in the category of writers like Jonathan Franzen or other realist writers. I mean, I read that stuff and love a lot of it, but… You mention David Foster Wallace. Even though he writes about very specific people or characters, it always feels like it’s in the service of some larger thing. I’m interested in that; I was a philosophy major, which might explain it.
S: DFW was too, right?
U: Yeah, he was.
S: There’s a playfulness in what you do, and you don’t see that a lot now, whereas you would have maybe 50 or 60 years ago. What motivated you to write and what motivates you to continue to do it?
U:That’s always a big question. Whatever you do for a long period, you’re going to have different motivations for it over time. My motivations have changed a lot over the years, you know? How I started writing was that I met a guy in a bar who I thought was cute. He said, “I’m a writer. What do you do?” so I said “I’m a writer too” just to sort of impress him (laughs), and then I had to actually write something to show him. I wrote something and suddenly I just loved writing. I was 25, so I was older than most people are when they start writing. I wrote every day after that. I went through periods where writing brought a tremendous amount of meaning to my life – writing Vacation brought tremendous meaning to my life, and then I went through phases where I didn’t know why I was writing, it was just what I’d always done. I went through periods where I hated writing, I was only doing it because I had to finish a stupid book. And then I went through phases where I was rediscovering what it meant and why it was important. Now I write for very different reasons. It’s like having a relationship. Take you, for example. The kind of love you had for your wife in the first year of your relationship is different from what it is now, and it has probably gone through a lot of phases. In 30 years your reasons for loving her will be very different again.
S: Do you have a routine? Some writers do and some don’t. Are you worried if you don’t write? I write too, but I always wonder when I finish something if that’s the last thing I’ll ever write, the last time it will ever happen – Like, it’s gone, inspiration. I always wonder about that and I wondered if you do too. Do you have a routine you stick to?.
U:I do. My plan is to write every morning, and I usually do. Right now I’m writing every morning and most of the day because I’m on a book deadline. Sometimes when I’ve gotten very disillusioned, I stopped writing, but that’s only happened once for any extended period. I also teach at the university, and sometimes it’s hard to get the time in (to write), and I also teach at a maximum security prison, and I have to get up early to get there. When I go to the prison I don’t write. I know what you mean about wondering if it will ever come back (inspiration to write) – that’s something I struggle with all the time. There are always battles you go through emotionally…
S: Does it bother you? I read some interview with Roberto Bolano somewhere, maybe it was just an article about him, but he said (and I’m wildly paraphrasing here) but something to the effect of “if you’re a writer and you feel like nothing good is coming out when you write, it’s always better to just read.” you know, because he was a big reader and he was also very critical of a lot of his contemporaries and he came from that radical movement (Infrarealism)…
U:He said don’t worry about writing? Or he said don’t worry if you feel bad about writing?
S: I think that the gist of it is like don’t pressure yourself. Don’t freak out. Just read, you know?
U: Well yeah, you gotta read…
S: It’s like it’s fuel or something.
U: Yeah, you have to read. Man, I feel like there’s this idea going around that people are reading less and less. I don’t know if it’s true or not…
S: Last night I was reading a book at a bar and someone said to me, “I haven’t seen somebody reading a book in years.”
U: I know, I know. I notice that on planes and stuff. I used to walk down the aisle and everybody would be reading and now everyone has their phones out. So yeah, I don’t know if that’s true or not. If it is true, the quality of writing in the world is going to go down. It makes you wonder: if quality writing isn’t valued in our culture anymore, then what’s the reason to be a good writer? I’d never completely dismiss that question and I wouldn’t want to. It’s important to always feel that tension and know that you have to answer it. I went through a period of disillusionment a few years ago, like I said. The state of publishing. But I started coming around slowly – I started teaching at this prison in Connecticut. Every time I gave the students a story to read, it meant so much to them. It rejuvenated my understanding about the power of literature and the power of language and I remembered, “Oh yeah! I’m not writing because of stressful career and publishing stuff, that’s not why I started writing at all.”
S: Yeah. I think it is a cliche, but to make something great really is its own reward. Or at least that’s the motivation. Like, “I can do this. Or at least try.”
U: It’s like taking part in a great conversation. A great, urgent, important conversation. To create art.
S: You have a keen eye for human feeling in your work – there’s simultaneously a great amount of empathy and warmth, coupled with a fairly bleak outlook on human behavior or situations. I’m sure it’s filtered through characters and situations, and of course you’re throwing your voice at times, but how much of that is you? How do you feel about people? You have a lot of sympathy for your characters, but they aren’t necessarily admirable…
U: They’re not heroes, exactly. Yeah, I guess that is how I see the world. I do have a lot of empathy for people. That’s always been a part of who I am, and it’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older. I put that in my writing. The world is such a sad place.
S: The world is such a sad place?
U: It is. It’s so sad. It’s a very dark place to spend your life, you know?
S: I mean, maybe it’s also perspective. It’s hard for me to think of it objectively that way. Like, it is dark but… elaborate on “dark place.”
U: I’ve known many sad people. These days I know more happy people, but most of my life I’ve known mostly sad people. Even people who look like they’re happy or even people who have every reason to be happy – these people are often really sad. And even when you are happy, you’re so vulnerable. Take you, for example. If something happened to your kid, you’d be destroyed forever. You would never recover. Even if you have 5 more kids, there will still be this broken piece inside of you forever. We’re so vulnerable, even in our happiness. I am so vulnerable in my happiness. My life is so good, but my husband is everything to me, and if something happened to him, if you just took that one element out, the whole thing would just be destroyed. And you know what? There’s something really beautiful in that. I’m so glad that I have something like that, that I’m willing to risk my love in that way, that I’m willing to stake everything on that one person…
S: Vulnerability makes it valuable.
S: What brought you to Austin and how do you feel about it?
U: My job – I’m a professor at UT and that’s what brought me here. I love it. It’s the best. I’m never leaving.
S: What do you like about it?
U: Well, it’s warm. I’m from Chicago –
S: Not so warm.
U: Not so warm. I like being in Texas. The prison program means a lot to me, and if I lived in California I could work in a prison but there are a lot of people trying to help incarcerated people in California. At the prison that I go to, for example, and at a lot of prisons in Texas, they have very little educational programming. They tend to have a lot of religious programming … and I love bringing education. It’s so exciting. And Austin is great — I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. I love my job – it’s the best! I’m ridiculously lucky.
S:I like that. I’ve lived here for a long time, so when I hear people say things like that about where I live, it gives me perspective. Because part of me feels like…
U: Oh you mean when someone says they love Austin? ‘Cause you’re thinking, I dunno, “geez maybe I should live in New York” or something like that?
U: Yeah, no. New York is like a shopping mall now…
S: Yeah, totally. What I mean is like, people here, people who have been here for a long time take it for granted – I’m guilty of it too – but you start thinking like “this place isn’t cool anymore” or “this sucks now” or whatever and and it’s important for it to be put in perspective like you just did.
U: This is a great place to live. It’s so easy to get around. There’s so much parking. People complain about the traffic here, which I think is so funny. The traffic here is like traffic for tinker toys. You can be in a traffic jam for eight minutes and people here are like, “Oh. My. God.” (laughs)
S: I think a lot of that is growing pains too, because it’s small, and it used to be a lot smaller so…
U: Right. Austin is amazing, and the people are really nice, too – it’s a laid back community. I came here three or four years ago. I was in Connecticut teaching at Wesleyan University for 5 years, and I lived in New York part of that time and commuted. For those five years, I was kind of a nervous wreck all the time and didn’t realize it. And when I came here for my interview –
S: So you wanted to move here then?
U: Oh, badly. Yeah. I gave a reading and afterwards I was supposed to go out to dinner with the head of the Michener Center. I was nervous about it. I was standing outside waiting for him to pick me up, and standing next to me was this jolly older man. He was laughing and joking around. I was having such a good time talking to him, and then I was like, “Ok I gotta find the head of the Michener Center, I’m meeting him for dinner,” and he said, “Oh, that’s me.” (laughs) I was happy and relieved. “Please let me get this job,” I thought.
S: That’s great.
U: It’s mellow. I love it. The kind of pressure I felt in New York was bad for my writing. I’d show up at a literary party and I would be asked 5 times who my agent was, who was publishing my book. If you’re in that situation, you start feeling like those things are important, and that’s not good for you creatively.
S: I was going to ask what are your all time favorite books, but that’s a really big question, so to be more specific, what do you reread the most? What do you go back to?
U: Kafka. What else do I reread a lot? Gertrude Stein. I don’t read her as much anymore but The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was really important to me at one point. I used to reread Diane Williams all the time. She’s a weird avant-garde writer, she’s great. Proust, Edward P Jones The Known World, have you read that?
S: I haven’t.
U:I think that’s my favorite book of all time.
S: But you say you reread Proust?
U: Yeah, in the last few years. Also I reread Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It is so good. The voice is incredible, the story is heartbreaking. There’s this guy from El Salvador, Castellanos Moya. He wrote Senselessness, this amazing book about this guy whose job was to edit the interviews of accounts of campesinos who watched their families be murdered during the war. He slowly goes mad. It’s in the tradition of Thomas Bernhard. The voice is so solid and strange.
S: That sounds like some things I’ve read by Cortazar.
U: I love Cortazar. Hopscotch…
S: Yeah you kind of remind me of him too. The playfulness…
U: Yeah, he’s a modernist…
S: The way you kind of mess with the reader.
U: He’s really really good.
S: What’s next? What are you working on? You said earlier you were working on a book, can you talk about it?
U: I can talk a little about it. It’s a heist – two USDA auditors decide to steal a million chickens. How are they going to do it? What are they going to do with a million chickens? Is it possible to do it? And why? That’s the central act of the book. I got the idea for the structure from a story I wrote, “The First Full Thought of Her Life.”
S: I’m looking forward to it.
U: Thank you.