A Lesser Day by Andrea Scrima, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in 2010, available for Kindle since 2014
Photo: Uli Sauerland. Schlachtensee, Berlin, May 2016
Hi Andrea, congratulations—the English print version of “A Lesser Day” currently seems sold out. What are your plans with the book?
I’ve just sold the German-language rights to a fine literary publisher in Austria; the translation will be coming out in the spring of 2018, and so it seems like a good time to plan a second edition of the book in English. It was a small print run with an independent press, and while it’s not entirely sold out, it’s getting close: there’s a small number left in stock at Small Press Distribution and in independent bookstores around the US, but I think Amazon still has used copies available. I was very glad that Spuyten Duyvil released a Kindle version two years ago, because it keeps the book available to readers—although the actual physical book is a nice thing to have. This might sound a bit strange, but I did the typography, layout, photography, and design myself: a luxury and freedom I never would have enjoyed with a mainstream publisher. The cover image, a dribble of paint on a sidewalk whose paving stones were at some point dissembled and put back together again, but in a different order, with the dribble no longer a continuous flow, but a fragmented line going this way and that, is a metaphor for the reconstruction of time and experience in memory—the way in which we perceive our lives in retrospect. It’s a metaphor that occurs in the same paragraph as the book’s title, the two are thematically intertwined, and so the physical book is like a small work of art.
I saw on your website that you transitioned from visual art to writing. Can you talk about how your art developed in this way?
I studied fine arts in New York and began my studio work as a painter. Gradually, I moved on to installations that incorporated, in various different constellations, small objects, writing, painting, and photography. At some point I began doing mostly text installations, that is, I wrote short pieces, essentially very short stories, and then painted the letters of these texts in Times italic onto the walls of various spaces. Most of these installations were site-specific: they were written in response to a particular location and engaged directly with its architecture. It was an exacting process in which doors and windows and, indeed, every last electrical socket and light switch fit precisely into the flow of the text on the wall. I did these works because I was interested in what happens to a story when it’s read in a very different way than, say, on the printed page. There was a choreographic element to it that fascinated me. It always sounds a little complicated when you talk about how something functions in an art context, and so I should probably say that the stories were psychological studies on particular states of mind, written in a language that sounded confessional, like a journal entry. I was interested in drawing in the reader/viewer, in catching him or her off-guard, in creating a kind of intimacy in a public space.
Gradually, however, after completing around a dozen of these large-scale works, I came to realize that my artistic process—the thing you do that keeps you “in the flow,” the way in which you do your creative thinking—had shifted from painting to writing. And so the logical question became: what would happen if I cut everything else out? Was it time to try to write a book? It was tempting, but it was also a scary prospect for me, because it meant that I’d be leaving one profession mid-career and trying to gain a foothold in another—as a total beginner. It didn’t matter that this transition had come about as an organic development in my work. In professional terms, art and publishing are two separate worlds, and there’s nearly no overlap. I had no idea if my writing would hold up in a literary context.
“A Lesser Day” feels very neatly organized, like a mosaic of small pieces fitted together. What was the writing process behind it: did you have the pieces or the whole picture first?
I wrote “A Lesser Day” in the first year and a half of my son’s life. In other words, during a period when I had very little time to myself. I kept a notebook with me, and I used every available moment in between nursing and naps to write. It was usually just enough time to home in on a particular memory and explore it fully before I had to close the book and attend to my son again. I began with short descriptions of whatever recollections I had of certain places I’d lived in over the years, and eventually pieced them together until I saw a kind of pattern emerge. It was a stroke of luck that I’d happened upon a form that fit perfectly with my life at the time—I mean, it’s very hard to think through even a single thought when you’re taking care of an infant, but for some reason the fragmentary form made it possible to concentrate in short, intense spurts. And then, one day, I realized that the page I’d just written was how the book would end. It startled me. There it was, the entire shape and structure: the narrative arc, all the themes and leitmotifs, the formal rhythm. And so I began to identify the gaps, and sew together the various narrative threads, and eventually I was able to make a cohesive book out of it, which I dedicated to my son.
The idea had been to explore memory as a thing that’s interwoven with the places we’ve inhabited, places that encapsulate a certain period of our lives in a particularly vivid way. But I think the experience of becoming a mother—of being the door through which another person enters the world—of no longer being merely a person, but also, quite suddenly, a “place” for someone else—is the fundamental metaphysical inspiration behind the book.
Do you ever go back to the settings where the book takes place? Areas like the Wrangelkiez are hotspots of gentrification in Berlin these days, and it must have changed a lot since you lived there.
Oh, yes, all of these places have changed enormously. Of the five locations in the book, one was an apartment in the East Village of the early eighties that cost two hundred dollars a month in rent, another a summer sublet in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, and another a beautiful waterfront loft I lived in the year before I became pregnant with my son, in a building that I can happily return to now and again, because friends of mine instrumental in getting the NYC Loft Law passed still live there. The two locations in Berlin are in Kreuzberg, but I have to admit, I don’t always feel comfortable returning to places I once lived in. There’s something beautiful about the way a place can be conserved in the mind, when it doesn’t have to compete with its own ghost.
I’m sure you have some new projects under way. Can you tell us something about your upcoming book?
I’m currently finishing a novel, and the writing process has been very different this time. It’s a book in two parts, and it takes place over a twenty-year period in a woman’s life. Each of the characters in the book is traumatized in some way: a mother whose foiled attempts at achieving independence lead to an eating disorder that eventually devours the entire family; a daughter whose emotional outbursts lie beyond her understanding and control; a boy who sets out to find the father that abandoned him when he was three; a young man from the former GDR who was expatriated to the West after being released from juvenile prison. The book explores what all of these various different types of traumatic imprinting have in common: the ways in which pain is stored in the mind and body, and the detours taken to swerve around that pain in whatever way possible. The book isn’t quite as dark as it sounds, however—and in the end, art emerges as a powerful tool for self-discovery.
Excerpt from A LESSER DAY:
Kent Avenue, and the trees that had grown along the fences in the neighborhood, chain-link fences closing off empty lots filled with used refrigerators and rusty car parts. Weeds no one had bothered to cut back, supple shoots winding in and out between the diamond-shaped grids, weaving through like sewn threads and growing from year to year until their stalks began to stiffen into branches and there could no longer be a question of unraveling them; they were inextricable now. And then the spring came, and there was an explosion of green everywhere, the first fresh leaves sprouting from the bound trunks. And here and there a tree had been cut down, and a segment of chopped wood would remain caught in a fence, because the trunk had grown and swelled, incorporating the wire into its wounded flesh and covering it with layers of scarred bark.