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Adrienne Celt Talks About Her First Novel, Comics, and Feminism

Sarah Marcus: As you are aware, I am an avid follower of your comics blog,, where animals have very rich inner lives and thoughts about the world. Of course, one of my all time favorite posts is bear related. How do you come up with the dialogue for your comics? What's your "process?" (I know, sorry to ask that.) What do you hope that hybrid forms might argue or accomplish?

Adrienne Celt: I'm delighted you picked that particular doleful polar bear – he's one of my favorites, too. And I think that "process" questions are fair, with the caveat that semi-vague "process" answers will result. (Insert evil laughter.) Though actually, it's a bit easier for me to speak in concrete terms about the comic than it is about fiction, because my comic is deadline-driven, and so I'm more aware of how it comes together on a day-to-day basis. Let me give this a try:

In a perfect world, the images and the dialogue are all part of the same idea, arrived at organically. I think the comics work best that way – and the polar bear is a good example of this – because the words & images tend to put more pressure on one another, adding a layer of visual irony or thematic resonance or even slapstick that might not exist if, say, I just pick an animal at random. Though I do it that way too. The dialogue itself comes from many sources, including (but not limited to): lines I had to cut from a piece of fiction, ideas born while walking my dog or making bad jokes at breakfast, an image that came to me while listening to a podcast, or something from a really bad (or good!) dream. Then I pick an animal (or use the animal I pre-picked) and start sketching until I hit on a visual layout that satisfies me. Often this has to do with my mood: sometimes I choose to do, say, an underwater scene because I'm feeling dark and want to while away a few hours hand-inking a nearly full-black panel.

I don't know that I have an argument related to hybrid forms, except that I believe they can accomplish emotion and depth in the same way that single-genre work does. I'm not a trained visual artist, and the existence of my comic is totally urge-based; it just exercises a different part of my brain and - if this doesn't sound too cheesy - my heart than fiction does. Writing is very consuming process to me, but it's also very non-physical (or rather, the physical elements of it all occur in the brain, and by tapping keyboard keys), and when that makes me feel stuck or itchy, it helps to have an avenue of expression that uses my hands and my eyes and my sense of spatial reasoning in a different way. (The ideas that I get to exercise through comics are differently shaped as well, in a manner quite obviously informed by the space I have to work in.)

SM: I am SO excited that your debut novel, RUSALKA, will be published by Norton/Liveright in summer 2015! Please tell us all of the things about this project.

AC: Thank you so much for this question & for your excitement! I'm over the moon myself.

RUSALKA (if that's the title we stick with!) is my first novel. It follows Lulu, an operatic soprano who lives in Chicago and has just given birth to her first child. Lulu was raised by her grandmother to believe in a series of Polish myths: most importantly, that a woman in their family made a deal with the devil that would turn each new woman born into their line progressively more beautiful and more musically talented. Though of course (it being a deal with the devil) each woman would lose something, too.

I'm particularly interested in how stories that are passed down from person to person in a family are both transformed – and transformative. My own grandparents (I have a lot of Polish heritage, if you couldn't guess) lived (and live) rather fascinating lives, and though I didn't bring any of their actual stories into the book, the sensibility of them is very much at work there. The way they stretch and flex, in particular. For example, my maternal grandmother (who was quite Catholic) once told me a story about how she fell in love with a Jewish boy in China (the way she ended up there is a long, immigration-related story in its own right), and was going to live with him in sin, until he went on vacation with his family and died in a tsunami. And no one in his family told her. They left her to just feel abandoned, until some mutual friend invited her to the funeral.

That's tragic, and strange – it really sticks with you – though when I told my dad about it, he expressed a suspicion that it may have been exaggerated. Very possible. But then, really, who cares? The story is malleable enough to contain the truth of my grandmother's experience and the truth of telling, both; the pleasure of a good tale and how it connected my grandmother and I together. All of which is, in its own way, real. And anyway, whenever I think I'm exaggerating stories about my paternal grandparents' lives during World War II (paratrooping for the Polish government in exile; pretending to be a Hungarian priest with laryngitis to mask a lack of Hungarian language skills; being hit by a bomb while crossing a bridge and floating, back broken, down a river) it turns out that the truth is, if anything, more spectacular. When I talk about sensibility, that's a lot of what I mean.

So there you go. It's a book about the intersection of history and story; about music; about how women (in particular) form one other within a family. And of course, about the rusalka, a particularly interesting water demon who also happened to inspire an opera by Dvořák.

SM: This will be our third year working for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts together! We began as Counters and have embarked on our second year as Count Coordinators. What role do you see VIDA playing in our literary community this year? How do feel VIDA has become more inclusive? What does being an inclusive feminist mean to you?

AC: Yes, it's so strange for me to think that if it wasn't for VIDA, we wouldn't even know one another! Nor the great and formidable Jen Fitzgerald. So that's one quick answer to your question about the importance of VIDA (to me, and to the literary world): it's a nexus for voices spread out all over the country. VIDA has connected me to a community of writers who are full of intelligence, bravery, and spitfire, and I truly believe that (in addition to the vital work the Count does in displaying the ongoing and often unintentional biases of the publishing world) it is this show of communal strength and fellowship that is a real gift to women in the wider literary world. To that point, our member network is really picking up steam. Join us! We want to know you all!

On another level, I think VIDA will continue to play the role of mirror-holder and rabble-rouser that it has played since the first VIDA Count was released. In the past several years, a number of venues have made strides toward sustained gender parity (notable examples being Tin House, of course, and the Paris Review), and others – like The New Republic – have at least shown themselves to be more interested in the conversation. I think that the openness is almost (almost!) as vital as the change in numbers, because it allows us all to progress a little away from party lines and on to a more interesting, complex dialogue. After all, how often can editors say "It's the slush pile!" and have us respond "Systemic and subconscious prejudice! Try harder!" (though I fully expect we will all say those things again this year) before we get sick of saying the same lines?

This year is also exciting because we are making strides towards inclusivity. Writers of color can fairly claim frustration with VIDA in the past few Counts for making them repeat the same old lines about "Where is the Writers of Color Count?" It's more complicated than just doing it or not doing it – beyond the question of work-hours (we're an all-volunteer organization, as you know!), there's the issue of how writers identify themselves, and whether or not they want to be identified, & etc. But I think the point has been made that people feel the need for a Writers of Color Count in the same way that women felt the need for the original VIDA Count, and we have been talking seriously about how to make that happen.

The last part of your question – the meaning of inclusive feminism – is really interesting to me, and I don't want to lose sight of it. Simply put, I see it as the widening of our personal definitions to make space for the needs of others. It always makes me sad when I hear about women saying they don't view themselves as feminists because that term has somehow left them feeling ostracized – especially since, to me, all feminism really is is the belief that women and men are equals, and that women deserve equal rights and opportunities. So simple! It's for everyone! It's even for men!

But to be truly inclusive (to *trans men & women, to women of color, to people who have, as I say, felt themselves pushed outside of what they view as the feminist sphere) I do think we need to spend time listening to how people feel, and absorbing some of the genuine frustrations and fears that people have related to feminism. I don't mean that we need to back down, or change/lessen our commitment to broad equality, but perhaps just approach conversations with less cynicism about our interlocutors. (And believe me, this is an ongoing challenge to myself as much as to anyone.)

SM: What question do you want to be asked?

AC: One great and extremely simple question is: "Why do you write?" I'm sure I'll get sick of answering this eventually, but what I find as I anticipate the publication of my first novel is that I'm newly excited by the prospect of connecting with readers. Being a writer has two distinct and equally important pleasures for me: the immersion in a new world, and the intimacy it offers between minds. Immersion I can do on my own, but intimacy requires other people.

As so many writers did, I grew up with a book in my hand, and so I learned early on that there is real pleasure to be found in losing yourself in another person's experience – you go deeper into your own mind by letting it converse with the deepest stuff of someone else's. Publishing a novel, then, feels like coming full circle: I've built a world of my own, and I get to offer it to readers. I get to share from the other side. I'm immensely grateful and rather humbled to be standing on the precipice of that new conversation.


Adrienne Celt is a writer and a comic artist living in Tucson, AZ. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Liveright Publishing (summer 2015), and her short fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, The Southeast Review, Blackbird, Carve Magazine, Gargoyle, and other places. Her comics, essays, and translations have appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, Lemon Hound, Cerise Press, Hobart, and elsewhere. She publishes a weekly webcomic at

#Interview #fiction

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