When it comes to instant bestsellers, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s first novel, Hausfrau, is a dark horse: a deeply literary work, the book follows the slow, inevitable ruination of Anna, a depraved American housewife living in Switzerland.
The novel, which gives away its own ending and centers on a character who has been widely decried as ‘unlikeable,’ explores the religious themes and morality and debuted at impressive #15 on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Essbaum, who has previously published four poetry collections and a chapbook, was perhaps just as surprised as anyone when the novel sold.
She remembers thinking, “You want this?’” she says with a laugh.
So what, exactly, is it about Hausfrau?
“When I first started it, I thought, I’m absolutely not going to write a morality tale,” said Essbaum. “I’m not going to make it so that the terrible thing happens to the woman who does terrible things. But when you go through life like Anna does, terrible things do happen to you. You hurt other people when you’re focused only on yourself.” “I think Hausfrau’s a very religious book,” says Essbaum. “I say that to people and they disagree. But I do think it’s religious.” “The word religious, it just means ‘to tie things together.’ Religare,” she says, referring to the word’s Latin root. “And Anna does tie things together. Is she a Bible-believing Christian? Not really. But she finds some answers, and some satisfaction, I think, and some truth. By the end, she has this understanding of a world that’s bigger than herself.”
Essbaum wrote the novel after the collapse of her own first marriage, which fell apart while the couple was living in Switzerland. She admits to seeing aspects of herself in her main character, Anna. But, she insists, Anna and Anna’s husband are just characters. “They’re not me and they’re not him. They’re not,” she says, referring to her first husband and herself. “[Anna] has aspects of me… I think the things she sees is stuff that I saw. …. Her bench—that’s my bench; that’s my fucking bench. I sat on that bench and cried every day. In the middle of the night—I’d go up there at like two or three times in the middle of the night. And I rode those trains in circles. Like her character, Anna, Essbaum says, “I also think in riddles a lot. I think in wordplay. I hear jokes. That’s how try to make order of things, the way language interacts.” Through Anna, Essbaum explores her fascination with how the human tendency to make meaning can stray into mental illness. “Anna makes sense of stuff. She’s got this overload of stuff—there’s no filter coming in,” says Essbaum. When she thinks that way, it can spin out of control. There’s one bit near the end where I really let loose. It’s like her tour de force of associative thinking.” Essbaum, who is currently married to her second husband, says that after she came back from Switzerland, “I was so angry; I was so pissed. Switzerland swallowed my life for two years, and I was ruined. I was full of despair, and my marriage was over.” For Essbaum, the period of her life that fed the work of Hausfrau was one of resounding sadness and discomfort. She has successfully channeled many of these emotions in the character of Anna. Anna’s inability to sit with discomfort, Essbaum thinks, “isn’t an uncommon feeling. That’s why people drink, or gamble, or fuck around.” More than that, she says, Anna is sad and afraid, in ways that readers don’t fully understand even after reading the whole novel. “Anna wasn’t just a housewife by default,” says Essbaum. “There was something in her—and it’s not completely explored in the book, more just hinted at. has this idea of what it meant to live in a happy home, because her parents were happy. They parents tried to make her happy, but even as a child, she wasn’t, because clearly, there were overtones of mental illness.” Essbaum goes on to say that her character, Anna, has an unambiguous conscience, which she acts against constantly. “She knows everything she’s doing is wrong. She catches herself; thinking, “He’s not a stranger anymore; his cock’s been in your mouth.” This guy is not a stranger. She knows she’s telling lies,” Essbaum says. “She knows she’s hypocrite.The hypocrisy she could live with, but it’s the clarity that she couldn’t dodge. I see this as a wisdom in her. She’s not unwise; she just doesn’t act in such a way that it behooves her. She can’t sit with the discomfort of herself. And I recognize that feeling.”
Although many readers have described Essbaum’s character as “unlikable” Essbaum doesn’t agree with this description of Anna.
“When people say they don’t like Anna,” says Essbaum, “I say, ‘It’s not important. You should love her. She needs love.’ It never occurred to me not to like her.” But Essbaum maintains that Anna has good qualities that reach beyond her depraved choices. I think she is really open to loving, but she’s not open to receiving love. She understands love as something that you give out, but she can’t accept it.” “If she was able to receive love, I think it would be a different story. Because then she could have friends; then she could have a husband, rather than just being a wife. Then there would be reciprocity,” Essbaum says.
Though Essbaum is unafraid to call Hausfrau a religious book, she squirms at being labeled a religious author and prickles all the more at the phrase some use to describer her: “Christian erotic poet.”
“I hate it. Being called a Christian erotic poet cheapens all things. It makes Christians sound bad. It makes erotic poets sound bad. It sounds gimmicky. I hope I’m not a gimmick.” Despite her impatience with some religious labels, Essbaum does espouse some religious wisdom through the characters in her book. Towards the end of the book, a priest tells Anna that “God gives us the dominoes; we set them up.” Essbaum says she views the priest’s words as “a true way of looking at it.” The religious aspect of the book offers the work a sense of wholeness and unity, circumscribing Anna’s experience in Switzerland, which stands in stark contrast with the disruptive, heavily foreshadowed ending.
Of the ending, which is given to readers from the start, Essbaum says she “left the book open.” Once she had decided on the ending, she says, “I needed to show my hand at the beginning.”
Perhaps one of the impressive technical feats of the novel is that it remains compelling despite the fact that the ending is heavily foreshadowed. Essbaum points her efforts to develop the studied difference between surprise and suspense in her work as key to the novel’s emotional architecture. When citing examples of surprise versus suspense she points to The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock. “Don’t get me wrong, I love The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling, he’s a genius. He’s an absolute genius, and very, very smart writer.” “But The Twilight Zone is all about surprise, the big reveal. But take Hitchcock—The Birds, for example. You know the birds are coming. It’s in the title. You know the birds are going to come get you. There’s going to be a shit ton of birds, right?” “My favorite Hitchcock movie is Strangers on a Train, and we’re in the mind of the killer—but it’s the suspense. It’s not the surprise, but the suspense. It’s the difference between someone coming in to a room and shooting the room up, and somebody coming into the room, laying the gun on the table, and saying, “I’m going to shoot everybody in here at some point.” “There’s value in both of those, but I didn’t like the first one. So Hausfrau is not a surprise. It’s a set-up. If you’re looking for a surprise ending, this is not it.”
Essbaum was a poet before she was a novelist, and it shows. She says that the poetic rigor of her sentences is fed by her habit of reading her work out loud.
“I know the book backwards and forwards. I’ve read it aloud five or six times, start to end. It’s worth it. It’s definitely worth it.” She advises young writers, “When you write your novel, before you get it published, I can give [writers] no better advice than this: read every chapter out loud. Make mp3s of every chapter. I put it on my iPod and walked. I walked, I listened to it.” Reading your work out loud allows you to become “deeply intimate with your own work, in a way that you never would be otherwise.”