Q&A With Jill Alexander Essbaum
The poet-turned-novelist talks about the intersection of sex and shame and the influence of Madame Bovary
This spring, local poet Jill Alexander Essbaum published her first novel: Hausfrau, a beautifully haunting work of fiction that explores the desperation of a depressed expat housewife in Switzerland. We caught up with Essbaum via phone to ask about main character Anna Benz's terrible decisions. For more of the interview, visit austinchronicle.com/daily/books.
Austin Chronicle: There are the much-touted Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary references in Hausfrau, but I also keep having flashes of Anaïs Nin's A Spy in the House of Love – in subject matter and in the beautiful writing. There's something classic about Anna and how the book tackles the intersection of women, sex, and shame.
Jill Alexander Essbaum: I would say it's Madame Bovary more than Anna Karenina, although of course there's a huge nod in that direction. There's no way around that. But Madame Bovary is closer to what's going on – the setup is very similar. And Anna's situation – she's an outsider. She's married to a man who may be not be best suited to her. She's bored, although her boredom may be a little more connected to some existential problems. I think it is a little more serious, and potentially there may be some postpartum stuff going on. It's not a retelling, and I like to think it becomes its own story.
There are a lot of people who've read the book and want to say that it's dated in the sense that women don't stay at home, women don't lock themselves in their surroundings, and women don't go without their own checking accounts, and that's just wrong. You don't have to not have a bank account or a job to be locked into something in a marriage. But it's not an indictment of marriage or motherhood. People have asked me what I'm saying about marriage or motherhood. I'm saying nothing. I'm saying something about this woman.
What I might be alluding to is that all of us are only a few steps away from making some decision that we really wish we hadn't. Or at least I know that I am. Her decisions just happen to be about the men she's chosen to sleep with. It could've been about how much money she gambled away or what drugs she decided to take into her body. How many steps away am I from doing something that can't be undone?