Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Q&A with Dawn Raffel


Photo by Claire Holt



Dawn Raffel is the author of the new book Boundless as the Sky. Her other books include The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including O, the Oprah Magazine. She is the fiction editor of the Northwest Review.


Q: What inspired you to write Boundless As the Sky, and what initially intrigued you about Italo Calvino's book Invisible Cities?


A: Invisible Cities is a book I have returned to over the course of many years; it’s that rare book that not only stays with you but also shows you more of itself each time you read it. I didn’t set out to write a book that echoes Calvino’s masterpiece. I wouldn’t have dared. And I haven’t replicated its structure. But as I was writing, I began to recognize the deep original influence of these pieces.


The epigraph for the first part of the book is: “If I tell you that the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time, now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe the search for it can stop.” That is a line from Invisible Cities that has stayed with me for the better part of my adult life.


In the middle of the book, in the story called “The Lost City” is an image of a wall with this line graffitied on it: “Everything happens all over, all the time at once.” I believe that’s true. Underneath whatever city we inhabit, all the previous and future cities repose, and everything that happens in one place affects every other place.


Q: The author Eugene Lim said of the book, “A beautiful collection where the impish comedy of dark fables meets the urbane planning of Calvino and the exquisite miniatures and deft turns of language that are all her own.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m grateful for it!


Q: How was the book's title (also the title of the second half of the book) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The titles of my stories and books often come to me from a place that I can’t really describe. Much later, I was pretty embarrassed to discover that there is a book by the Dalai Lama with the same title.


I haven’t read that book and I’d never have chosen the same title consciously! I have no idea whether it was somehow in my mind subliminally, and part of me just wants to slink away with my tail between my legs.


But for me, the title evokes both the sense of boundlessness that aviation gave the people on the ground, who weren’t able to see what the future would bring, and also the way that events from seemingly distant places and times continue to ripple through the moment we live in.


The two parts of the book—one a collection of cities, real and imagined, that resists chronological order and the second a story taking place in a single city (Chicago) on a single day are two sides of the same coin.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: There’s not any single “takeaway” but with the title novella, I hope to suggest we pause to consider the deeper implications of the events that might bedazzle us on a particular news day. In 1933, it was the arrival of Mussolini’s “roaring armada of goodwill” in a spectacular feat of aviation technology, but the same impulse, the same bedazzlement with the surface of the news, is with us now.


Calvino ends his masterpiece with a discussion of the ”inferno.” The ending of Boundless is a nod to his words.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Something too unformed to let out of the house. I hope that changes soon. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Dawn Raffel.

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