Dawn Raffel's newest book, The Secret Life of Objects, is a lovely illustrated memoir revealed through essays about everyday possessions. Here’s more about this unique gem from Dawn:
Jennifer Haupt: How did you come up with this concept?
Dawn Raffel: It started one morning when I was drinking my coffee out of the mug that I always take from the cupboard, even though I have a dozen other mugs. I always pick this one because I took it from my mother’s house after she died, and for me it contains a whole story about my mother and my aunt. I was thinking about that and about the fact that my house is filled with simple possessions that are meaningful to me because they are suffused with memory. Some are emblematic of passages in my life; others are remembrances of people who are gone, or children who have grown. I wanted to write about the objects now, before some of those memories evaporate. The stories about my parents and grandparents aren’t of much interest to my children now, but I suspect they will be someday. And I think the book speaks to others because, while the book is in some ways intimate, there isn’t anything special about my life; everyone has objects like these.
JH: How did you decide on the objects to focus on?
DR: I wrote very quickly, intuitively, until I felt I had come to a natural resting place. I didn’t stop to analyze; I just wrote. One object led to another.
JH: This is your first nonfiction book, and it has a lot of the language and imagery (in words as well as photos) that I enjoy in your fiction. Why did you decide to tackle nonfiction this time around?
DR: The subject matter dictated the form. When I write fiction, I write my way into the story. I might start with a visual image or a piece of language that’s charged for me in ways I don’t understand, and I write as a way of discovering what that’s about. The narrative emerges from the act of composition. In this instance, there were real stories that I wanted to tell; while there are always surprises that occur in the writing, I pretty much knew what I wanted to say.
JH: Are fiction and nonfiction two different parts of the brain for you? Do you use different techniques to access each one?
DR: Fiction, for me, requires solitude, whereas I can write nonfiction while all kinds of other things are going on.
JH: Is there a writing habit you have that might surprise people?
DR: Is procrastination a writing habit? I guess it is. I’m not a very disciplined, write-every-day kind of person. I write when absolutely I need to.
JH: What is the One True Thing you learned from writing this collection of essays about everyday objects in your life?
DR: Everyone has objects that far exceed their surface value and function, and that comfort us and connect us to others in strange ways.
JH: What’s next for you?
DR: I wrote this book while procrastinating on a work of fiction that is rooted in research. The research was fun; it’s the getting-it-on-the-page part that’s been a bit of a bear.
Dawn Raffel is also the author of two short story collections, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division, and a novel, Carrying the Body. Her stories have appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, Conjunctions, BOMB, Black Book, The Mississippi Review Prize Anthology, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, Arts & Letters, The Quarterly, NOON, and numerous other periodicals and anthologies. She was a fiction editor for many years, followed by a seven-year stint as Executive Articles Editor at O, The Oprah Magazine and three years as Editor-at-Large at More magazine; she has also taught in the MFA program at Columbia University. She is now the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian at the Center for Fiction in New York.