July 26, 2016
Five Questions/Five Dresses
Who: Authors Irina Reyn and Allison Amend.
Where: A Diane von Furstenberg sample sale in the Flatiron District of NYC.
What: Irina purchased a discounted oversized scarf; Allison came out with a cute dress (A-line, not wrap), and a black eyelet top.
How Much: That’s not polite to ask. Let’s just say everything was steeply discounted.
Present: Every single woman in Manhattan. And two men.
Allison and Irina paw through racks of clothing sorted by size. Occasionally, Allison holds up a dress and Irina shakes her head. Irina, seasoned sample sale shopper, needs no input from Allison.
Irina Reyn: Being at the DVF sample sale makes me think of what you once said about your book and shopping. You said that for good logistical reasons there was not a lot of shopping in this novel, Enchanted Islands. What does being at a sample sale make you think of in relation to the writing of Enchanted Islands?
Allison Amend: I feel since I finished the book, the cupboard is bare; I feel like I’m replenishing the imagination reserves by getting some new ideas for my closet. Tell me about your process with your new novel, The Imperial Wife?
IR: With every book I start, I think I’m finally about to undertake the Nabokovian—
AA: You dropped the ‘N’ word!
IR: — the Nabokovian challenge and write the perfect intellectual novel full of melancholic wordplay, when in the end my characters almost always wind up shopping.
AA: So write what you know.
Allison and Irina get into a line that snakes around the back of the floor. They are forced to speak over shoppers who push past them to paw the bins.
AA: Is this the line for the dressing room, or the one to pay?
Lady with small child in danger of being trampled: Dressing room.
IR: In The Imperial Wife, I use shopping to signify class differences. My protagonist is always noting what others are wearing around her—the Hermès scarves at the auction house, for example, and how she feels inferior to others. For her, clothing is so loaded.
AA: Well, clothing is always loaded, isn’t it? I’m thinking of your protagonist Tanya’s immigrant insecurities. “Am I wearing the right brands? How do I get them?”
IR: And the importance of returning clothes. Which is something you don’t often see in fiction. An underused literary theme: the importance of keeping the receipt, just in case.
AA: I think there is a parallel between shopping and the writing process. For example, in keeping multiple drafts. Sometimes you go in the wrong direction and it’s nice to go back to the beginning and reassess what you originally thought.
I’m a buyer, not a shopper so I don’t spend a lot of time shopping but I think there are many ways we trick ourselves into thinking we are spending our time writing.
IR: It may seem like I procrastinate by going to a sample sale, but my mind is free to think about my book while I’m here trying to find the perfect discounted item of clothing.
Fitting Room Warden: Ladies, I’m not counting items. You’ll have fifteen minutes in the fitting room. Then you must exit the fitting room, no exceptions.
Irina and Allison are herded into a group fitting room. Women frantically scramble for scarce mirror space. One woman attempts to try on the skirt Allison is wearing that day which she has owned for eight years. Allison informs her that it is not for sale.
IR: How does this sample sale make you think of the themes in your novel?
AA: It very much makes me think of island savagery, everyone only worrying about themselves.
IR: [Sees Allison trying on white A-line skirt:] Ooh, that’s cute.
AA: You don’t think it’s too unforgiving?
Allison and Irina go back to the racks to find different sizes and styles.
IR: Now shopping is a presumably quote-unquote female activity and I feel like both of our books are really interested in the female experience.
AA: Yes, I would mark that true.
IR: I remember talking to you about that pivotal point when you decided the book was actually about female friendship.
AA: I was thinking about the challenges women face in navigating the world. [Allison is attacked by a hanger. She fights it off.] I mean, my protagonist was born in the 1880s; yours are Catherine the Great and a contemporary woman who is trying to break into the not necessarily male, but certainly rarefied art industry, who is forced to subsume her femininity. But she is also encouraged to express that femininity as part of her arsenal of weapons to be successful.
IR: This is a nice large scarf. You know I love a large scarf. Too loud?
AA: No. I love it. Accessories are incredibly important in your book. I mean, the plot hinges on a necklace!
Allison and Irina return to the long line and eventually reenter the group fitting room.
IR: I felt like the book needed a link between the 18th century and the contemporary story, because what I was most interested in, in the two women’s experiences, was the more powerful person in a marriage.
AA: You needed something tangible. It’s interesting that it turned out to be an accessory. And what an accessory it is! It’s not just a pair of junky earrings.
IR: It’s a $7 million accessory. But it’s then used as an accessory at the end when-
AA: Don’t reveal it! [Addressing room full of uninterested women focused on trying on clothes before the clock runs out.] You will see how it’s used as an accessory when you read this excellent book cover to cover!
IR: Do you think writing a friendship between women is similar to writing any love story as far as depicting the ways in which characters forge that initial bond?
AA: [Pointing at the sack hanging on Irina:] That is too big on you. But I like it. Smaller size? Yeah, I think writing a love story is like writing a friendship. And in some ways it’s more challenging to write the friendship because the bond is almost never physical, and the physical relationship is usually a good way to show how two characters interact. But speaking from my life experience, friendships are never easy. They are as durable as romantic relationships. What do you think about writing women—
Fitting Room Warden: Five minutes ladies. Then you must all exit the fitting room. Five minutes.
AA: Women’s friendships?
Dress Four. Still in the fitting room.
AA: I think I like this one.
IR: It looks great on you.
AA: I don’t think I’m getting the skirt.
Fitting Room Warden: Ladies, please place items you don’t want back on the hanger and exit the fitting room now.
Allison and Irina get into a new and different snaking long line to pay for their items.
IR: A scene like this, what we’re experiencing right now, could be something out of a Jane Austen novel. On the surface, what we’re doing appears so insignificant, but the conversation itself contains all these complicated valences that include our friendship, the work we do, the trust we’ve built over the years, hope for one another’s futures.
AA: Look, there are two men here!
IR: That’s nice to see. In reality, what we’re actually experiencing is a kind of connection. In both male and female friendships so much of that undercurrent of interpersonal tension is sublimated in these side by side activities whether it’s golf, or shopping or . . .
AA: Drinking at a bar. Or what else do men do together?
IR: Um, bowl?
AA: Yes, they do bowl.
IR: So I think that’s the trick of fiction, to imbue that kind of meaning into something that on the surface seems like such a banal or mundane activity. I think one of the harms that arbitrary designations of “chick lit” has done is to make these automatic associations in the mind of the reader that shopping equals superficiality when in reality there’s actually no reason why buying a pair of shoes should be less of a profound or transformative moment in literature than-
AA: Bowling a strike. Shoes are necessary and will have more durability than that bowling game. In my book there’s no shopping whatsoever because they’re on a deserted island.
IR: I skimmed right through that section. I was like, When do they get to Century 21?
AA: But the absence of those possibilities for connection . . . I think Frances, my protagonist, misses those pretty profoundly. And then when she’s back in the U.S. she and her friend Rosalie bond by getting their hair done, taking the kids somewhere. Those are the moments that she misses when she’s not in a place where those are available. I have no idea what I’m talking about. This is the least conducive place for a literary interview ever.
IR: And yet also the best. [Purchases scarf.]
IRINA REYN is the author of the novels The Imperial Wife and What Happened to Anna K. Her short fiction and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, One Story, Tin House, Post Road, and other journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
A Chicago native and a diehard Cubs fan, ALLISON AMEND is the author of the Independent Publisher’s Award-winning short story collection Things That Pass for Love, and the novels Stations West (a finalist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Oklahoma Book Award), and A Nearly Perfect Copy. Her new novel, Enchanted Islands, about spies in pre-WWII Galapagos, was published in May 2016.