Collaboration and Crystal Elephants

An interview with Rachel B. Glaser

My introduction to Rachel B. Glaser was Paulina & Fran, her first novel. It’s a seductive book that pulls you in with its first line: “Paulina was dissatisfied with her lover.” Its two female protagonists revel in the self-indulgence and freedom of art school, until Paulina decides even art is meaningless. I continued to read Glaser, and was lucky enough to take a workshop with her. She drew foxes on the corners of my pages, explained the difference between a burlesque venue and a sex club, and found comedy in her students’ work where it hadn’t existed before, helping us see the power of surprise and contrast.

Glaser is an author who insists on pushing boundaries and refuses to be constrained by a single mode of expression. She is the author of a story collection and two collections of poetry. She once had a side gig painting NBA players, inspired by a teenage fascination with Dennis Rodman, and has released a poetry album. The first track has her voice tuned up to an artificially child-like pitch with an echo you could only find in the largest cathedrals. Her story, “Pee On Water,” in which she contextualizes the progress of man from the beasts in terms of the successes of modern plumbing, was anthologized in 2015’s New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. Last year Glaser was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. She holds a BA in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We sat down to talk about two current projects: a collaboratively written young adult novel, and the novel excerpted in this issue, 33. We met at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, where she ordered a glass of milk and elevated her right foot to accommodate a recent ankle injury.

– Ashley Bales

Interviewer: Paulina & Fran, Pee on Water, this excerpt–they all deal with feminist ideas. Do you consider that a goal of your work?

Glaser: Cool! Yes. When I was writing Pee on Water, I don’t think I was thinking as much about that. As a teenager, I went to this arts camp called Buck’s Rock, and then later, RISD. I was around really unique, fascinating, expressive women, but I don’t think I necessarily had started to categorize it as feminism. I’m more conscious of how that plays out in my work now than I was ten years ago.

Interviewer: In the excerpt, your narrator says, “…she’d been in a kind of boy-land for much of her life,” and talks about an awakening. What’s “boy-land?”

Glaser: I think it’s just not realizing how dominant male culture is—like watching a lot of NBA basketball, without thinking, Oh wow, it’s only men. Now there’s a female assistant coach on the San Antonio Spurs, but all the players are men, and the coaches and most of the commentators. For most of my life I didn’t find that unusual.

Interviewer: You’re writing about privilege and otherness and you talk about the Occupy movement. What is it like to confront those topics as that dialogue is changing so rapidly?

Glaser: I’d been avoiding it, because I was afraid of saying the wrong things and exposing naïve viewpoints. But the conversations I was having with my friends about it were really interesting to me. At some point I thought, Is it so horrible if someone “takes down” my writing? And I decided that that’s part of what it’s there for. The point isn’t to write something everyone likes.

Interviewer: Do you think your background in the visual arts informs your writing?

Glaser: While I was at art school, writing was a hobby. That helped me not to take it too seriously. And then when I was studying fiction at UMass, it felt like poetry was my hobby. If you feel a little like an outsider or a newcomer then you can go at it in a different way. And I think visual art is often more experimental than writing, so I think that helped stretch my mind. There’s no right way to make a painting, and no right way to write a story, but if I hadn’t gone to art school, who knows. Maybe I would have felt more like, I need to develop this character. Maybe I would have been more interested in “the rules.”

Interviewer: Or less engaged with form, it sounds like–with pushing those boundaries, experimentation.

Glaser: I took this class Experiments in Drawing with the artist Sheila Pepe, who had this idea that everything is a drawing—[points] these crumbs on your plate have made a drawing, and the lines in the road are drawings. The class had to bring in something that was just on the edge of not being a drawing. I brought in this piece of cheese that I pinned to the wall and, by the time we got around to critique it, it had started to sweat and smelled weird. But that was a really exciting thought experiment.

One night as I was going to sleep, I had this vision of a white chocolate Michelangelo’s David melting on a hot plate. I thought, maybe that will be my final project? And then the next day it had snowed and everything looked beautiful and, Oh, maybe it’ll be surrounded by powdered sugar, which will be like snow. I just kept building this image in my mind. And maybe it will have a moving part, and I would think, Huh, how do I make this crystal elephant rotate? So, I would go to Radio Shack and talk to someone. I felt like the project was an animal, or monster, asking things of me. I was like okay, I guess I have to go to the fish store. That was a fun feeling I began to look for in my fiction a bit more. I wanted a story to lead me somewhere weird.

Interviewer: You mentioned that you felt Paulina & Fran was less experimental, but you’re returning to an experimental approach with 33?

Glaser: 33 started as a loose idea, an idea I’ve been taking notes on for the last two years. It’s a fantasy of a novel and a mind game. It’s a way for me to think this scene—what is happening now—I can think of it as a scene in the book. All right, how would I write this scene? Would I describe [points] those plants? There are a lot of interesting moments every day that we ignore to go back to our computer and work on some stilted scene.

Interviewer: Do you think that the process of writing this book in particular is making you observe the world differently?

Glaser: Yes. I started writing in a notebook a lot, “reporting” on what was happening. That helped meld ideas. In my notebook, I’ll talk about the writing that I’m working on, but I’ll also write about, like, [points] that woman’s earrings, which are really cool. I like how there are different tenses and realities. I love that writing can jump between internal or external, past and future. Notebook writing helped me track how the mind can just drift. You’re writing in a little notebook and not being too self-conscious. It’s like your diary. In New York there’s all these sounds. Sometimes I’ll just sit on a park bench and write descriptions of people who are passing. I like when one idea interrupts the last idea. I want to capture that in this book.

Interviewer: Were you one of those kids who wrote in diaries growing up?

Glaser: I had diaries and then when I was in college, it became more emailbased. I sent a lot of long emails to friends.

Interviewer: That’s changing. We’re close to the same age, and I remember that interest in letters and writing long emails. Now that’s all trickled off into two-sentence emails.

Glaser: Well, now people are tweeting things that they would have been emailing to people. One time I was writing an email to friends and I thought of a joke and stopped writing the email to tweet it instead, which seemed like a dark moment.

Interviewer: Yeah, talk about boundaries and fluidity, between the private and wildly public.

Glaser: Twitter has been very inspiring to me. Someone says something smart about gun control, and then right below it, someone else has written a scene between like, God and a chicken. There are confessions mixed in with the news. It captures a fun thing about the mind. It’s like reading poems, seeing the different moves and places people are coming from, randomly stacked together. Instagram and Facebook posts take up more space, but Twitter—I mean now the tweets can be longer and there are pictures, but I remember when it was just text and it looked and felt more like an actual poem.

Interviewer: It’s creating opportunities for those observational moments you were talking about, which can feed directly into literature. But also there’s this cacophony of information that needs to be filtered.

Glaser: Yeah, it’s really collage-y. It’s like the mind is a collage, Twitter is a collage, reality is a collage, like a slow or fast-moving collage—a movement collage.

Interviewer: A collage with a time dimension, which makes perfect sense if you’re translating it into a novel.

Glaser: Yeah. That’s actually a good way to describe the collaborative writing I’ve been doing with my friend Noah Gershman. We wrote a whole book in Google Docs, writing at the same time, working sentence by sentence. When it’s just you writing alone, you’re the only one who can move it forward. But when you’re writing collaboratively, it’s super dynamic. You write out a phrase and then they change it around. You’re hanging out. It’s like writing and reading at the same time and it’s so fun.

Interviewer: Is that something you’d like to explore further?

Glaser: For sure. Noah and I call it “writing without suffering.” We imagine giving these symposiums on how to do it, and I recently taught a group of twenty people our method. You’re both in Google Docs at the same time. Someone starts writing a sentence, anyone can do whatever they want to that sentence, and when both people are satisfied with it, they make an X in the chat box on the side. Once we’ve both X-ed it, we can’t change it. And then we move on to the next one. Since both people are editing in real time, sentence by sentence, no one has time to get too invested. In the past, when we were writing a TV show together, I would spend a few days writing a scene and then he could be like, Meh, I don’t like this, and I’d be disappointed. But in this new form, your ideas are just thirty seconds old, so you’re not attached to them in the same way.

Interviewer: You have to be so collaborative and open to the people you’re working with, and productive. You have to set your ego aside in that moment.

Glaser: Writing solo, you’re used to having full power. You’re the king or queen of your writing. You’re giving that up, but you have veto power, which is really important.

Interviewer: Even having that collaborative instinct seems really rare for writers. Where did that come from?

Glaser: Well, I definitely like talking to people, making jokes, and pretending. One night, when Noah and I were writing, I realized it’s just like playing with dolls. That’s how I started making stories as a kid, with my Legos and Barbies, these different dramas. And if you’re inventing a world, it can be really thrilling to have someone else influencing that world. It makes it feel like a real place where unexpected things happen. So with Noah, it’s still playing with Barbies, but we’re writing it all down, working really diligently, and turning it into a book. I think most writers are really interested in people, but writing keeps us away from people. We end up just living in dream worlds. So, it’s been really fun to have a friend in the dream world with me.

Interviewer: Could you see this sort of collaboration happening more?

Glaser: I feel like a short story is a great way to see if it could work with someone. I met Noah in my first MFA fiction workshop in 2007, and I never thought we would write a book together. I know what hell it is to edit a novel and I couldn’t imagine going through it with someone else. But for the most part, it’s been better than I thought. It’s still a little excruciating—like, every comma we need to agree on where it goes. But we’re both artistically positive people and spend a lot of time telling each other how good our writing is.

Interviewer: You think that is an important part of the process?

Glaser: Definitely. We call it “basking.” And we say that for every, he worked out some ratio, but for every, like, ninety minutes of work, there’s ten minutes of basking. Sometimes when you’re working collaboratively you might be in a situation where the person you’re working with is down on the project and you’re the one who cheers them up. When you have two people who are like, How did we do this?! it makes it feel easier. We spend a lot of time fantasizing about this catalogue we want to make that will sell all the objects in our book. It’s generative thinking and it really helps, because it is such a leap of faith to spend hundreds of hours on a novel. That’s why I didn’t want to do it again. When you do it yourself, you can have a positive thought, but then it’s often immediately followed by: Oh, I’m so full of myself, or, Oh, what am I thinking, of course that’s not gonna happen.