Speaking to the depths

Q&A with Rachel Nagelberg


Recently, I had the opportunity to trade questions for answers with Rachel Nagelberg. Rachel is the author of The Fifth Wall, her debut novel and one of Black Sparrow’s most recent releases. Begun in Women’s History Month, this interview at first focused on Rachel’s reckoning with womanhood. As I dove deeper into her novel itself, however, its web of introspection on art, terror, and family demanded a more wide-ranging exchange. Here is Rachel’s fascinating dive into aesthetics, trauma, and the search for home in The Fifth Wall. —Reece Wallace

We’re so glad your debut novel found its home in Black Sparrow Books, particularly as we update and diversify its offerings for new readers. Do you think about your work in the context of the Black Sparrow lineage, and if so, how? How would you like The Fifth Wall to contribute to the imprint’s legacy?

I am deeply honored to be published within the avant-garde literary tradition of authors such as Charles Bukowski, Paul Bowles, and Lucia Berlin. It’s crucial within this sea of commercialized art to cultivate and circulate writing that challenges conventions, speaks to the depths, and plays. So thank you for seeing the spirit in my work and for including it in the Black Sparrow lineage, which I sincerely hope continues to discover and publish new authors exploring the contemporary condition!

Given your background in screenwriting and visual art, seeing is obviously an important aspect of your practice. How do you achieve or sustain the visual experience as you move from explicitly visual media to fiction?

It’s funny—I think I fool a lot of people into thinking I have a screenwriting background, but really I’m just a cinefile who grew up in a generation addicted to TV and a household addicted to screens. Screens in general have long been a major obsession of mine, as they provide a direct manifestation and metaphor of a dissociative state I’ve struggled with since an early age. I also took a lot of film theory classes in college, where I became obsessed with Deleuze’s Cinema 1 & 2 texts and also The Fold as a new language from which to contextualize experimental film and also contemporary art. And although I grew up as a visual artist—I was known in school as the girl you’d approach with a drawing propositionmy fascination with contemporary art really began in undergraduate art history and English classes where art shifted from primarily a visual medium to a living archive of the present—I was fascinated by the idea (during this time, around age 21, I’d gotten my first smart phone) that not only are artists contemporary archivists but all of us who use technology, for we are constantly recording life as it’s happening; everything is happening live. And how does this new speed with which we are documenting and interacting and responding address how memory works—how do images today affect the way that we remember? I was reading a lot of Paul Virilio and Slavoj Zizek and WJT Mitchell, all whose fascinating radical minds delve into the visual aesthetics of late-capitalist globalization and its relationships to technology, science, trauma, and war. So to answer your question I think the visual experience in my fiction writing is inherently built into its foundation; I feel stories very cinematically and I have been told my sentences can resonate on a chromatic level.

Sheila calls herself a “terrorist.” For her, destruction scrubs the veneer off “this life with a filter” (69). From your perspective as an author and artist, how hard is it to produce terror in your audience? Why does it matter?

This is an incredible question. To me terror and art have often met brilliantly on the level of performance art, which, when done successfully, breaks the barrier between reality and fiction in real time—it’s not an object displayed in a white-walled gallery space separated from space and time but instead roots itself in the immediacy of the present, in conversation with bodies, within the realm of civic engagement, and is inherently political at its core. Just like a terrorist’s motive is to produce real terror and fear—to provide a shock of the real—so, too, I would argue, is really good art—and what I’m really fascinated by is the ideological reversal that occurs when one is “woken up” by something shocking—that the new experience or world you suddenly find yourself in suddenly feels fantastical and unreal. And how this then relates to the fight-or-flight fear-body/mind when one experiences a traumatic event—the space in which we find ourselves becomes porous and malleable and galactic and how we attempt to respond in the presence of this gray area becomes the real essence of living. I’m recalling the experimental play by Austrian playwright Peter Handke called Offending the Audience which involves four nameless speakers that directly address the audience and force them to call attention to themselves, their bodies, their presence in the actual space of the theater, forcing them to acknowledge the “real” outside of the presupposed intention of becoming lost in representation. Granted this was written in the mid 60’s—but the timeless juice here is in the feeling that the audience member experiences upon realizing that the play they were intending to see is not going to happen; what then does one do with their time? Does one resist with feelings of anger, isolation, and resentment, or does one succumb to the newness of the now and move around in the discomfort, allowing room for the difference? This transition from the former to the latter can be the most epically transcendent moment that prepares us for all of life’s shifting tides…

Speaking of terrorism, Sheila recounts a fraught hook-up with her old TA, Adam. It’s a frightening, murky encounter that feels a lot like violation, although Sheila does not or cannot confront Adam about it directly. In fact, she affixes an artwork label to the memory, calling it (him) The Terrorist. How, if at all, can art register and/or validate intimate trauma, particularly as faced by women?

The phrase healthy distance immediately comes to mind. I meditate on this phrase often. Art allows us to create a healthy distance from traumatic events that we often hold too close to us, events that keep us sick physically and mentally. Art, like really good energy work, can allow a space for processing, opening up a new frontier in which we can play with matter and memory and create new narratives that retell our stories in methods that allow us to release their imposing limitations. I consider writing in particular to be the sharpest scalpel for reclaiming power for people belonging to repressed, muted races, cultures, and genders. To quote Kathy Acker: “For me writing is freedom. Therein lies (my) identity,” she writes in her preface to Bodies of Work, “…the excitement of writing, for me, is that of a journey into strangeness: to write down what one thinks one knows is to destroy possibilities for joy.”

While it’s doubtful that Sheila will put her romantic and familial trauma “behind her” altogether, The Fifth Wall challenges the conventional wisdom that such overcoming is possible or unequivocally desirable. Does Sheila’s confrontation with the darker aspects of her past model a more realistic or productive approach to surviving life’s difficulties? Is this a lesson a woman character is particularly well-suited to share?

One of the greatest lessons that my own healing journey has taught me is that we are all beautifully flawed combinations of lightness and darkness, and it’s only through looking directly at and communicating with our shadow side that we can transcend our negative past patterns and integrate our highest and best selves into our chosen, desired identity. And it’s not like it’s a one-time deal—this is a tumultuous, life-long process inherent to the nature of having a body designed to hold and store things. We meet Sheila at the beginning of her emotional journey as her body literally forces her to confront her psychological lacks by manifesting them physically as blackouts. The body can speak in frightening and mysterious ways when you stop listening to it—like art, or a terrorist, it has the ability to shock you into the present; sickness is a language that many of us spend lifetimes struggling to translate. I believe women contain innate, often latent intuitive powers, as we are deeply, biologically connected to the cycle of literal creation, to ocean and moon and dream cycles—we are emotional wells with foundations that inherently dig deep, and for so much of history, continuing to this day, we’ve been cut off from these depths. May we, like Shamans, journey into the Charnel Ground and live there taking it all in, learning from it, understanding it, and healing it from within so that we can work together to help heal others.

Sheila thinks about death in ways that remind me of Walter Benjamin. At one point she describes a German artist who receives death threats just for “wanting to display a person dying naturally, in peace.” Evidently, she thinks, “it’s such a complication to portray the beauty of death, to create human places for the dying and dead.” Sheila seems to believe that art is or can be one of these places. “Perhaps it’s not that we romanticize our own destruction,” she observes, “but that we have to fantasize about it in order to understand it” (41).

Benjamin seems to have had a similar idea. He says that “[t]he novel is significant…not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.”

How can we understand Sheila’s quest in this light? What is it about death that is so deranging and so endlessly attractive to artists and their audiences? Is there meaning, or at least comfort, to be found in the stories we tell about death?

I mean, everything is about death—the great mystery and impermanence of everything, something we all will experience—what Tolkien calls The Great Escape—it’s everywhere and infused in everything, and in our modern Western world that works very hard to repress this mystery, it is the job of artists, writers, philosophers and healers to explore these invisible realms and make maps of them to inspire and help guide others. To risk sounding as “California” as I know I have become—basically, we’re all in this together; the novel provides us with the deepest form of connection via perspective—to be in the mind/language of someone else and co-create—by the very nature of reading another’s words from a base of our own experiences—a story with them. In other words, stories fuse us back together; they make us feel less alone.

We often think of grief (whatever it means) as the natural response to loss, especially of a parent. But for Sheila, it’s difficult to grieve a mother she feels she can’t understand. She literally takes apart her childhood house, apparently expecting closure. When it’s all said and done, though, she realizes her home was gone the minute her mom pulled the trigger.

For her as for so many of us, our mothers really are what we mean when we talk about home. What do you think The Fifth Wall has to tell us about mothers and our attachment to the homes they create and destroy?

Oh, dear. This is a hard one, as I seemed to have written a whole book to explore this question, and I’m still unclear! But what I can say is this. I believe that trauma is passed down in our DNA. That history lives in bodies. I believe in the continuation of healing through lineages. I have experienced profound moments in my 30’s where I feel my own body as my mother’s body. I have journeyed—in psychedelic realms with and without the aid of plants—deep into my sick body and communicated with my DNA (my mother’s likely reading this and thinking O my God) and have felt the presence of not only my mother, but her mother, and her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother’s mother. We are all inextricably linked. A mother doesn’t have to die for one to feel the loss of her. Objects—especially grand ones, like childhood homes—often work to provide a sense of stability of ones roots, one’s history, one’s foundation—but they’re just vessels; the essence, the memories, live within us, wherever we go. The Fifth Wall attacks these notions in a similar manner that Sheila attacks her mother’s house with a pickaxe—blindly and with a brutal force that looks sort of like a dance.

As we digest The Fifth Wall, readers will want to know what comes next for you. Do you have a new novel on the way, or should we be looking out for your next screenplay?

I have a lot of little projects in the works. Recently I had very limited edition chapbook of three hybrid prose-poem-essays called Cover the Earth published in Los Angeles by a local designer, Scott Barry (Instagram: @miesenplace). My latest project that I’m most excited about is taking the form of a 30-minute dramedy pilot that takes place in Los Angeles, but you’ll have to stay tuned in for more details!