INTERVIEWS & SPOTLIGHTS: VICTORIA REDEL
Victoria Redel is the author of three books of poetry and four books of fiction, including her newest novel Before Everything (Viking Penguin in the USA and Sceptre in the UK). She has a new collection of poems forthcoming in 2022. Her work has been widely anthologized and translated into 11 languages. She is on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College.
Read an interview with her below.
Where is the distinction between what is possible in art, specifically writing, and what is necessary?
Doesn’t every writer want to get to the material that’s most personally essential, most necessary? But that presumes we know what that really is and, even if we do have a sense of it, that we’re ready to go there. Often it’s scary, uncertain terrain. Often what is necessary and most potent for a writer is hidden behind layers of “shoulds”, “shouldn’ts”, “shame”, “fear” and even one’s own sense who we think we ought to be in our writing. Even joy can feel dangerous to write into. Thus, before we even write a word, we begin to limit what’s possible. It’s hard to get out of our own way. My hope always is that the work we do in class opens a writer to what they need to write—their deep fascinations, the stories they need to tell—and gives them lots of tools—syntax, point of view, description, place, recursion, character range etc.—to get there.
Do you think any writers innately get to what is “necessary” or do you think there needs to be a period of digging, writing and rewriting, and self-reflection to get to what is necessary?
It helps me to think of writing as something physical, like gardening. Digging around in the soil of the imagination, turning over, weeding, rooting, untangling, watering, waiting, are all absolutely inevitable before there’s a finished work. Our relationship to language is personal and often complicated, so we need to invite, play and coax our own unique way of being on the page. Writing is messy and the more we embrace the mess and tolerate a place of unknowing, the greater the chance that we’ll surprise ourselves and our readers.
How often in your work do you play with all the possibilities you mention—e.g. narrative point of view, syntax, omission, etc—to get at the way in which you want to tell a specific story?
Oh, all the time! I’ll just use my last novel, Before Everything, as an example. I started it thinking I’d alternate, in first-person, between two points of view, two characters. By the time I published the book it was in third-person with 18 different points of view woven through the book. I’m not sure I would have even thought I could do that. I wouldn’t have dared set out to do that. In the end, the story changed—it was no longer about two characters but a community. That’s the other thing, the more we play around, try things, the more of a chance we have to write a fuller, richer, more emotionally complicated and even truer story than we set out to write.
As a teacher, how do you know when you’ve done for your students what you’ve set out to do?
There’s a kind of buzzy fun, a thrill sometimes, that happens in a room of writers opening themselves up to working in new ways, trying new approaches to story, even reconsidering what is a story. When we come away from class with drafts of new work and excitement that the work is going in unanticipated directions, then both the students and I feel we’ve surpassed initial expectations—which is what I want. Then I kind of feel that I’ve done my job okay.