Thursday, September 28, 2023

Q&A with Nora Fussner




Nora Fussner is the author of the new novel The Invisible World. She teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, and she lives in Pittsburgh.


Q: What inspired you to write The Invisible World, and how did you create your characters Eve, Sandra, and Caitlin?


A: When I was getting my MFA in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, I was scraping together a living out of different freelance jobs.


One of those jobs was for a reality TV post-production company, logging footage for shows like The Haunted and Psychic Kids. Logging means I saw all the raw interview footage and transcribed it, word for word, to make the editors' jobs easier.


In one episode I worked on, a husband and wife disagreed about the severity of the paranormal activity in their home. This was curious to me--they lived in the same house, so how could they have such different experiences? That disconnect was the seed of inspiration for the novel.


As for the characters, I put aspects of myself into all the characters in the novel, but the three women most of all. 


Eve is a potential version of myself. Like Eve, I was living in New York when I started the book, and never would have guessed I would actually move to Western Pennsylvania before finishing it.


I have a supportive husband and friends and all the resources I need in order to work, but Eve is definitely a version of myself if for some reason I couldn't write. I imagine that the built-up energy and angst around it would come bursting out of me in unpredictable, possibly catastrophic ways. 


Sandra is closest to the version of me when I was initially writing the book. I was teaching developmental reading/writing at a community college in Brooklyn, and while it was an excellent job in many ways, I wasn't teaching literary analysis or writing at the level I would have liked to.


At the same time, I knew I was good at the work and worried that I wasn't a good enough teacher--or a good enough writer or analytical reader--to teach at a higher level. I grappled a lot with that uncertainty: is there a next step in my career? Or is this where I actually belong?


Caitlin is definitely a young me in many ways--she's drawn to spooky stuff in a way I have been my entire life. I can remember tormenting my friends at sleepovers by wanting to watch scary movies. When I was in fourth grade we did a unit on the history of New Jersey (where I'm from) and my favorite part was the Jersey Devil.


At the same time, teaching for so long has given me a bit of perspective on young women, and former students have crept into her mannerisms. 


Q: The writer Helen Phillips said of the book, “Part ghost story, part love story, part exploration of a woman’s relationship to the powerful force of her thwarted creativity, The Invisible World is an eerie and virtuosic debut.” What do you think of that description?


A: It's incredible praise, and I'm very thankful for it, especially from a writer I respect so much. I like that Helen narrowed in on Eve's thwarted creativity.


I struggled with the "origin story" of the house--all haunted houses have some tragedy at the center, but I couldn't come up with anything that satisfied me. Considering Eve as both victim and source of the haunting ended up feeling right.


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did not know how the book ended when I started writing it! In fact, the ending came to me very, very late in the process--I had already sold the book to Vintage and was working on edits with my amazing editor, Ellie.


What I've found in my work is that often what I think is the ending is actually about 75 percent of the way through the book--I might tell myself I "like an ambiguous ending" but in fact I haven't fully thought through all the characters' arcs to their conclusions.


In discussions with my editor and through a ghost hunt I attended with my husband at an old mental hospital in West Virginia, I was able to find a more satisfying ending (I hope!).  


Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I struggled quite a bit with the title. For a long time, the draft on my computer was called "Untitled Haunted House Reality TV Show Project," which is a bit unwieldy.


The title of the novel came to me around the same time as I came up with the title of the reality show in the book, which is "Searching for... the Invisible World."


For me, the title signifies not just the spirit realm that characters in the book are looking for, but the unlived lives we carry with us, the weight of our expectations and failures and disappointments, our pasts and the lives we envision for ourselves in the future.


I think that for many people, certainly for myself, the potential is so much larger than the actual, so much more attractive, and that can be as dangerous as it is consoling, in terms of living our real, tangible lives.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on my next novel. I am a bit superstitious about sharing the plot until the draft is at a certain point, so that's all I'll say for now.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I just want to express my deep respect to all the ghost hunters, psychics, and paranormal researchers I encountered while researching and writing this book (I've thanked some specifically in the acknowledgements).


This work has been relegated to the margins of scientific inquiry, but they're out here asking the really big questions about what it means to be alive, and I am forever changed by my experiences learning from them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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