Hannah Tennant-Moore's work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, n+1, Tin House, Salon, Bookforum, Dissent, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and has twice been included in Best Buddhist Writing. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.
A Conversation with
Q. Wreck and Order is your debut novel. Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration and how it came to be?
A. Throughout my twenties, what I wanted most was to write a novel, since novels were what I most loved. But no novels came to me. I wrote plot sketches for plays, the beginnings of an essay collection, a children’s book, fragments of stories, and a memoir (ill-advised, given my youth and relatively average life). For publication, I wrote criticism and personal essays, probably because I felt less vulnerable and more confident working in these forms than working in fiction. The goal of fiction, I’ve always believed, is to find a new way to particularize human experience, and I didn’t yet trust myself to translate scenes and events into language worthy of a novel. I often felt desperate and hopeless, as the form I most admired seemed to evade me, but now I think I needed this time to practice the art of sentence-making before I was able to conceive of a novel.
When I was twenty-seven, I spent a two months backpacking around Sri Lanka. I was standing in a dirt yard in a small village one morning, and something happened to me that hadn’t happened since I was a child, before I’d learned to divide life into units of time and productivity: I felt the moment as if I weren’t in it. The world around me took on a crystalline clarity, but since I wasn’t there to process it, all I remember of those few minutes now is dusty sunlight. I was the moment, and when I came back to an awareness of myself, I knew: This is my novel. I had no sense of the narrative, only the future fact of the book.
The actual words didn’t start coming until a few months later, on my twenty-eighth birthday. I had the whole day to myself—as I often did then, when I supported myself through babysitting and transcribing interviews for researchers—and I was feeling a celebratory carefreeness, which, since I was all alone, became daydreaming. I started writing a story about an American woman who had returned to Sri Lanka as an act of desperation, survival. I didn’t know yet what she had been doing in Sri Lanka on her first trip, or what she was running away from this time, but I knew she had gone through hell in love and sex and that she was imprisoned inside her head and used sex and alcohol as a way out. At that point, I was spending a lot of time thinking and talking and reading and writing criticism about adolescent and young adult sexuality, since I felt sad about young women’s sex lives as they were depicted in books and movies, on TV and the Internet, and frustrated with sex as it was experienced by myself and my friends. So I knew the novel would contain two things—Sri Lanka and female sexual awakening, in all its disappointments and surprises and urgency—but I had no idea if the book would end up being any good, or if I would even end up showing it to anyone. My highest goal when I began to write was to see the novel through to the end.
Q. Claire Messud has described Elsie, your protagonist, as “a woman savagely at odds with herself: a heroine who’s anything but, for these strange times.” Norman Rush calls her “heterodox and unnerving but touching.” How would you describe Elsie?
A. I’ve been immensely grateful for readers who have described Elsie better than I could describe her myself, descriptions that have made me consider her more objectively than I was able to while writing her. Elsie is at odds with herself—both exuberant and depressed, passive and fiery, courageous and fearful. She is a thoughtful, analytical person who has no role models for the kind of adult she wants to become, and so violently resists belonging to any particular group or preordained way of life. She finds joy in meditation, yet dislikes the structures organized around spiritual pursuits—retreat centers, yoga classes, Buddhist groups. She longs for passion and intimacy, but does not trust long-term monogamy or any of the difficult compromises that make love something more than a distraction from loneliness and anxiety. She wants to do meaningful work, but can’t bear to submit to any of the usual stepping-stones to get there (college, entry-level jobs, networking). So she rejects all the traditional pathways to stable, happy adulthood—education, career, family—and yet can’t seem to forge her own way to a life she loves.
Ultimately, Elsie’s resistance to preordained social roles comes down to the fact that what she wants most of all is to understand as much as she can about what a human being is—and naturally, her own life is the most direct path to this knowledge. So nothing she pursues—men, jobs, geographical locations—works out because all of it is simply a distraction from her highest desire. In other words, her longings are metaphysical, so she will never find answers in the physical and material. But for all her mistakes, Elsie never stops valuing her connection to her own life above all else. That’s what I love about her, even when she frustrates and embarrasses me.
Q. Mona Simpson describes Elsie as “a new kind of feminist.” Do you see her that way?
A. I’ll start with my definition of feminist, since the word has become so overused as to be meaningless. To me, a feminist is someone who believes men and women are entitled to the same rights and privileges, and is willing to take action to stand up for this belief. In this way, Elsie is not exactly feminist, but Wreck and Order is. None of Elsie’s feelings about sex are conceptual or ideological. They are just feelings, and she rarely allows them to inform her decisions, so that she is often caught up in bad, preventable sexual experiences. But by describing the particular pain she feels when her body is used as the object of a man’s pleasure and her own pleasure is overlooked, I hoped to signal a common problem facing young women in a new way: through emotion rather than prescription. Righteous feminist rage can be off-putting (I know mine is to me) without an acknowledgment of the pain underlying the rage. The inequality of pleasure in our contemporary “sex-positive” culture has been well documented, through diatribes against porn; the lack of colloquial, sexy words for female masturbation and oral sex; the double standard that gives rare cunnilingus scenes in movies an NC-17 rating, while common depictions of fellatio get a common R. But a dry observation of this discrepancy does not explain what’s wrong with it. Only a description of how the discrepancy feels—as a bodily, emotional experience—can do that.
I do not presume to speak, through Elsie, for what all women want and need. But I did want to make one woman’s desires, and the inaccessibility of their fulfillment, real, immediate, and relatable—not conceptual, not ideological, but human.
Q. Elsie is such a multi-faceted character. Do you see any elements of your own personality in her?
A. Absolutely. Elsie’s thoughts and feelings are thoughts and feelings that I’ve had. But the events that lead to and result from her thinking are mostly invented. That, for me, is the great gift of fiction: to create unlifelike order around the chaos of lifelike emotions, to use concocted stories about made-up people in order to communicate truths about the self.
When I began writing Wreck and Order, I was writing the character I likely would have become if I didn’t have many support systems that Elsie lacks: two loving, devoted parents who are always there for me; a good education that encouraged me to pursue writing as a career; close, long-lasting friendships; the role models that are my older sister and mother, two wonderful, independent, kickass women whose work is both helpful to others and personally rewarding. Even with these many gifts, I was afraid I would be unable to forge a decent life for myself, and that fear gave birth to Elsie, a woman five years older than I was when I began writing. Interestingly, by the time the book comes out, I will be the same age that Elsie is at the end of the book. And somehow, in the course of writing her, she became not only the person I feared I would become, but also the person I still hope to be.
The particulars of my life are happier and more conventional than Elsie’s—I love my husband, our small country home, the tiny human currently gestating inside me—but Elsie’s spirit (as opposed to her actions, which often betray her spirit) is a kind of beacon for me, a reminder of what’s most important: not events and circumstances, but the quality of awareness one brings to them.
Q. In Wreck and Order, Elsie finds herself drawn to Sri Lanka, seeing it as a place where she can go to sort out her life. Can you tell us a bit about your own experiences in the country? And what it is about Sri Lanka that inspired you as a writer to choose it as a setting?
A. I first went to Sri Lanka after I finished an MFA program and had a rare chunk of open time—no boyfriend/husband/family, no prescribed work schedule. Both to make use of this freedom and to stave off panic about what came next, I decided to spend two months backpacking around Sri Lanka, a country that appealed to me because of its proximity to India (where I had previously, happily traveled), its Buddhism, its affordability, its smallness and relative isolation.
Solitude and unscheduled time are probably the conditions most conducive to writing, and I had both in Sri Lanka to an intoxicating degree. I had no cell phone, checked email rarely, and knew not a soul in the country. I spent my days wandering, looking, listening, sitting, daydreaming, having occasional conversations with people who were open and unguarded because we knew we would not see each other again. Being all alone in a foreign place creates a rare openness and receptivity to the outside world that has always been good for both my mental health and my writing. My life had no context in Sri Lanka; I was reduced to an organism of observation. And what I observed there was such richness in all aspects of life—from food to wildlife to landscape to politics to gender dynamics to religion—that I only had to sit down with a pen and paper and wring myself out like a sponge at the end of each day. These notes later helped me create a sense of place in Wreck and Order.
I have been back to Sri Lanka twice since then, but since I was already writing the novel on my subsequent visits, there was a calculated purposefulness to my observations and experiences that detracted from the joyful, easy self-forgetfulness of my first trip. I’m looking forward to returning now that the book is finished, and I will again have no goal but to feel the sights and sounds and people and daily rhythms that I love so much and which are so foreign to my normal life.
Q. The themes of sexuality, self-scrutiny, and meditation are woven throughout Wreck and Order. What is the experience or message that you hope readers will take away from their reading of your novel?
A. I will be happy enough if readers find one or two sentences they love. But if I had to distill the themes of the book into one specific message, it would probably be to get very curious about the mechanism of suffering. By suffering, I do not mean the feeling of breaking your toe or losing a loved one: that feeling is pain. Suffering is what comes in pain’s wake, the belief that you will not be okay if things do not go a certain way. I hope Wreck and Order encourages readers to question the particular kinds of suffering they’re loyal to, from the small and personal (needing your hair to look a certain way on your wedding day) to the large-scale and political (torture and indefinite detention in the war on terror). Think of how much angst we are willing to undergo and create in an effort to get certain things. And how do we even know we need these things to be safe and happy, to be at ease in the world? Where does that belief come from? Pain is inevitable; suffering is not.