Elena Bowes caught up with Debra Jo Immergut to discuss You Again, Immergut’s haunting page-turner where the protagonist 46-year-old married and settled Abigail Willard bumps into her former 22-year-old self, the girl in the silver platforms, raspberry coat and dreams of making it big as an artist. Abigail’s elusive double makes her question a lot of her life decisions. If she could go back, would she? And would the ending be different?
Bumping into one’s former self– a time when the world seemed like your oyster, when anything and everything is possible –is both an original plot idea and something that a lot of people might like to do– even if just briefly. How did the germ of that idea come to you?
While living in Brooklyn, I wandered by accident onto the Greenwich Village block where I’d lived right out of college. The old building was still there, very unchanged, and I hadn’t been there in years. I almost felt as if I’d see that version of myself striding out the door. She’d wanted to be a novelist, but at that point I was far from my creative work, as a wife and mother with a full-time job. I wanted to know what she’d say to me, and what our conversation might be like, so I decided to write that story.
You write empathetically about your protagonist Abigail Willard, who goes by Abby. Once a very talented painter, now an art director at a pharmaceuticals company. Have you ever toiled away in a soul-destroying job and if so, what advice would you give to others – stuck for whatever reason – who seek a more fulfilling artistic life?
I think one of my reviewers noted that I’d worked for years in a “soul-destroying” job, and that made me wince a little bit. I did work on parenting magazines for 15 years. I felt lucky to have that work, and I had wonderful colleagues. Was it my dream job? No. But I needed the paycheque. I did try to keep a connection to my creative work when I could, when time and life allowed — and it didn’t always happen. There were years when I didn’t touch my writing. But then I joined a group that met one night a week to just sit and write, and that’s the big lesson I learned, and the advice I’d give others who feel stuck. Find a community of like-minded people. Work alongside others pursuing their creative ambitions. It helps so much to keep your own fire lit–especially if you aren’t putting your work into the public or getting the response you want from the tastemakers and gatekeepers. Having a circle of fellow artists gives you a kind of mirror, so you can keep your true aims in sight.
Abby refers to Joseph Albers’ book The Interaction of Color a few times in You Again, including when she says, “No two people live in the same universe. My green is not your green.” Can you expand on this? And does Albers’ perception of colour have a broader theme relating to memory and time in You Again?
I’d studied Albers a bit in college, but was reintroduced to his seminal book by an artist I met while working on You Again at the MacDowell Colony. Rereading it, I was so taken by his ideas about how context and the physical structure of our eyes and brains transform what we perceive. If no two people see precisely the same colours, then really, it seems as if we each construct our own personal vision of the world around us. I knew that Abby, a painter who was obsessed with colour, would be deep into Albers and this book would be her bible. And I saw many connections between his ideas about the mutability of perception and Abby’s situation, in which she can’t be sure about what she’s seeing.
You once said: “I love visual art, I’ve dabbled in it a bit, and I have a bunch of friends who are artists. Whenever I go to see an exhibit, I always think, ‘This would be so much more fun than writing.’” Why would it be more fun?
A painter’s workspace is full of paints, mess, tools, smells. When I’ve visited friends’ studios, I see how they move as they work, sometimes it’s almost like a dance, and they’re playing music–there’s a lot going on. I sit at a computer in silence. No comparison!
If you couldn’t be a writer–or an artist–what would you do?
Brain scientist or florist or a DJ on the international club circuit.
What advice would you give fiction writers about using memory in their craft?
Do your best to recount the tiniest things in precise detail, and lie boldly about the big picture.
Which authors do you most admire for surprising you, haunting you?
Toni Morrison, Shirley Jackson, Ian McEwan, Otessa Moshfegh.
What new books are you excited to read?
I’m reading Ceremonials by Katharine Coldiron right now. It’s daring and gorgeous.
Do you think You Again would make a good film? And if so, who would you like to play Abby and her younger self, A?
I have just signed a contract for a television option with a very talented producer/director and a big fat Hollywood studio which cannot yet be named. With any luck, it will soon be appearing on a screen near you, and I think it will be very binge-worthy.
Another novel. More teaching. And, let me put this wish out there with great hope– the world coming back into some kind of healthy balance. That would open the door to enlivening new experiences, and that’s always what I hope is coming next for me. But for the immediate future, I’m hunkered down for the winter in New England with my family, and grateful to be here.