Joanna Walsh‘s bibliography spans fiction and nonfiction, and frequently eludes easy categorization. Her latest book, Break.up, is subtitled “A Novel in Essays.” It might seem head-spinning at first, but once you’re enmeshed in its narrative–an account of a trip across Europe, with abundant reflections on intimacy and distance–the book’s structure memorably clicks into place. Accentuated by quotes from other works, Walsh’s narrative blends the familiar and the philosophical, creating a bold and unexpected reading experience. I talked with Walsh about the process of writing Break.up, how it relates to her other works, and more.
In both this book and Hotel, you’ve zeroed in on particular aspects of travel. How does travel differ for you when it’s part of a literary project as opposed to when it’s not?
I haven’t ever started a journey with writing in mind, but also I’d never section off any aspect of my life from writing. Writing isn’t something I ‘sit down’ to do (though obviously there comes a time when I have to spend a concentrated period sorting things out on the page); often I write the most important bits when I’m doing something else, as notes on my phone or on a bit of paper.
Did the process of writing this book change the way you thought about moving through Europe?
As I was travelling, I realised I was writing something, but a lot of the writing was done after the travelling, as research, but very much emotionally-motivated research: a need to read other perspectives on things I’d done, and that had happened to me. What I did do while I was travelling, that also altered the experience, was take the photos that are in the book.
As you were working on the book, when did you have the idea to intersperse quotations from other literary works around your text?
I always want to make it clear where my thoughts have come from. I don’t just ‘have’ ideas, I’m often responding to things other people have thought and written. This is one of the beefs I have with fiction, something to do with the way characters in books seldom think directly about other texts, as though it might break the 4th wall and expose their fictionality. I wasn’t writing an academic essay and didn’t want to interrupt the flow of narrative by having to say, “as Freud said,” or to break the reader’s attention by footnoting in a traditional way, with a number that links to a passage at the end of the chapter or the bottom of the page. So I wanted to use separate and clearly credited footnotes, but I put them at the side of the page. Thinking about reading online (as online reading is one of the subjects of the book), they work like a sidebar. We’re used to reading the main text of any online piece with one eye on the sidebar, the headline, subheader, the ad, the illustration or the links menu. Readers’ visual capacity is underexploited in most print-published writing.
Were the other works you allude to in the book fresh in your mind as you traveled, or did they come to mind as you looked back on those experiences?
A mix, some I reread, some I read after. I didn’t take many books when I was travelling. I’m pretty sure I took exactly the ones I mention in the first chapter. I don’t read as much – I suspect – as writers are ‘meant’ to read, and I’m pretty sure don’t read as much fiction as fiction writers are expected to either. I can feel overwhelmed by ‘putting too much in’. When I’m travelling I hardly go to art shows or museums. I’d rather sit on a street corner and watch people going by.
Late in the book, there’s a scene of a tarot reading. Did you find any parallels between that and the maps and schedules that were an essential part of this trip?
I’ve used Tarot a bit in my work recently, and Tarot is another way of mapping experience. I also like horoscopes, and Buzzfeed quizzes, I like all the ways we have of making our lives into stories, especially if they’re methods that generate anxiety about their moral content or verifiability. I don’t believe in the reality of archetypes beyond their culturally-sanctioned power to affect us–which can be very strong and difficult to overcome–but I do believe in the importance of our impulse to tell stories via these tools. And whenever a method has a hazy reputation but remains compelling I sit up and take notice.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Break.up?
Really, really going through the stuff that made me write it. I know a good few writers who talk about the agonies of writing: for me wrestling difficult experiences into words is a joy. Art and life are very different, yes*, and life is without doubt a lot more difficult.
Photo: Liam Bundy