I first encountered Rachel B. Glaser‘s writing via the memorably-titled 2010 collection Pee on Water. She’s returned with a new novel, Paulina & Fran, that follows the lives of two young women, beginning when they meet in art school and following them into the uncertainties and economic anxiety of post-collegiate life. It’s a memorably unpredictable book; just as the dynamic between its two central characters shifts repeatedly over the course of the book, so too do the reader’s perceptions of each one. I talked with Glaser via email about the novel, her background in art, and more.
Did either of the two title characters arrive in your mind first? How did you figure out the shifts in the dynamics of their relationship over the years?
Paulina, Fran, and Julian were created the same night in a Microsoft Word document. The first paragraph established their love triangle and personality traits. The shifts in Paulina and Fran’s relationship evolved as I wrote. Initially their love and obsession with Julian was more overpowering, but after a few early drafts, their attention was drawn to each other and Julian became more like a sex object they stored memories in. Figuring out what the characters wanted wasn’t always obvious. Talking to my friends helped, and daydreaming about the characters helped too. There were definitely some dead ends–pages and pages of a direction that didn’t make the cut. It’s sort of like sculpture in that way, carving something out of the block.
What first drew you to writing about the lives of students in art school?
I went to RISD for undergrad, so it’s a familiar setting to me, but more importantly I found art school to be narratively fertile ground. The school work is personal and part of the students’ identities, and the society is a kind of dreamworld, very different from high school and the post-grad professional world.
This culture clash is something I first experienced as a teenager going to the art camp Buck’s Rock. I went to public high school in New Jersey, where most kids were trying hard to fit in, and wear unassuming clothes from The Gap, and not say anything that would make them stand out. But at Buck’s Rock, people were openly gay and walking around in purple bathrobes and writing songs and making shrines. There was no fitting in or saying the wrong thing. I felt completely free. RISD felt similarly. It wasn’t the utopia of Buck’s Rock, but it had that under the radar feeling. Nothing was “weird.”
You’ve studied both visual art and creative writing; how did the two experiences compare? Did you find a similar dynamic among the students in each program?
There was more dancing at art school, and less of a desire to figure out the mystery. What unites the experiences is the amazing energy of surrounding oneself with people interested in art. It creates a contagious inspiration to make work. One is learning and inventing just by hanging out with friends. There is a real collaborative feeling to it, with everyone influencing each other. Both schools were in secluded and semi-secluded places which made my classmates and I even closer.
How did you work out the timeline of the book? The line “Terrible things happened in the news” struck me as situating that particular chapter in 2001, but there’s also a timeless quality to much of the book.
I imagine the characters graduate in the early 2000’s, but wasn’t thinking of 9/11 when I wrote that line. I was thinking more about the daily tragedies that passed unnoticed while the characters were in school. Once they graduate, they are exposed to the world beyond their art school, but are still caught up in themselves and oblivious to political issues and strangers around them. I think the timeless quality adds to the characters’ isolation.
After they leave college, neither Paulina nor Fran ends up working as an artist. In your mind, was that more due to a lack of talent, or due to economic necessity?
I think it’s mostly lack of motivation. Paulina scorns art-making early on in the book, but Fran seems to be the kind of artist that needs assignments and the encouragement of sharing a studio with friends. Fran is a social painter. She’ll only paint if she’s placed in the perfect painting environment. She has trouble creating it herself. The economic necessity plays into it too, of course. They must make money. It feels daunting or delusional to try and make money from painting. Many art grads make art on the side, but Fran lacks vision. No one is treating her like a painter so it just becomes a hobby.
Did writing about artists inspire you to create any visual art over the course of the novel?
It actually worked the opposite way. I had to stop painting in order to focus on finishing the novel. But before I made that decision, I had an art show in Brooklyn at a cool, small gallery called Primetime. During the editing stage with my publisher, I became obsessed with looking for paintings that worked as cover art for the book. I was staring at my iPad for hours a day, but it was the most art I’d looked at in years, and I discovered many artists I’d never known about (like Alan Feltus, Angela Dufresne, Lara Schnitger, etc.) and better figured out what kind of painting I want to explore once I’m back painting again.
Neither Paulina nor Fran seems to have much of a connection to their family. Was there a conscious choice that you made early on to have each of them be relatively alone in the world?
Yes. I think going off to college, especially art school, allows one to reinvent themselves. I liked thinking of these characters as characters born on page 1. Giving them parents would cloud their stakes and resources, their motivations, their values. It would have connected them to something greater than themselves, and I wanted them to float around like astronauts in space.
In addition to your prose, you’ve also released a book of poetry and an album on Black Cake. Do you find that your poetry and your prose feed into one another at all?
They definitely influence each other. Poetry has made me a better line editor, and prose has opened doors for my poems, but the relationship goes deeper than that. I have good feelings of realization switching formats and art forms. More is explored, more is discovered. While writing the novel, poems were a great escape for me. They allowed me to play around with new ideas, and to (sometimes) edit something to completion in an hour or a day or a week. It’s encouraging to finish things while working on three year project. Currently, I’m writing screenplays. I really encourage all writers to try new formats, and all artists to try writing, and all musicians to try painting. There is this uninhibited relish in trying something you don’t completely know how to do. In finding your way, you sometimes find a new way, and you have excitingly low expectations.
Photo: Emily Pettit