Author interview with Adrienne Celt
Adrienne Celt is Pima County Library's writer in residence, part of a new statewide project dispatching writers to libraries throughout the state. Her debut novel, The Daughters, was released in paperback last month (W.W. Norton/Liveright 2015); and won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award and named a Best Book of the Year by NPR. On Tuesdays and Fridays, you can usually find her at the Downtown and Himmel Park library branches eager to talk to writers of all ages. For more details about her work, visit her website adriennecelt.com.
Where can we find you at the library being a writer in residence?
I'm there twice a week, usually at the Downtown branch on Tuesdays and the Himmel Park branch on Fridays. I've done workshops, and we are coming on to the third one on finding the familiar in fiction. I work with different age groups, but mostly adults. Right now I have a dedicated regular who is working on her book. I was hoping there would be more teens, but not so far.
How is seeing your first book go paperback?
Exciting and gratifying and extremely crazy-making. It's as if all your dreams are coming true. There's also a lot of anxiety. It's surprisingly a vulnerable process. I'd published short fiction widely before the novel. With short fiction, you know who your audience is, but with a novel you put your heart into it and people are either going to love or hate it.
Being a writer can be a lonely process. It must be nice getting out as a writer in residence to meet with people?
Absolutely. I love the office hours aspect. It has been so meaningful to me to have very intimate conversations with people and see the passion people bring to writing for professional or personal enrichment. It's wonderful to just see how much talent and passion is in the community.
How long have you lived in Tucson?
Three years. I went to grad school in Phoenix at ASU. We were with our in-laws in Wisconsin for three months, but Tucson was always the place we came to escape when we lived in Phoenix. We bought a house and now a horse, so this is now home.
Yes, impulse-purchased a horse. It's not as bad as it sounds. I'm taking lessons at this particular ranch.
What do you love most about the Pima County Public Library?
It's a well oiled machine full of books and people who love books. What could be better? They give you all the books you want, for free! If they don't have one, they'll borrow it from somewhere else, or buy it just to please you! Libraries are the greatest, most civilized gift society gives itself. It astounds me when people aren't obsessed with the library.
Editor's Note: This story misidentified Celt as the Pima County Library's first writer in residence. The first writer in residence was Janni Lee Simner, who held the position from March – May of this year. Simner is the author of the post-apocalyptic Bones of Faerie trilogy (Bones of Faerie, Faerie Winter, and Faerie After), and the Icelandic saga-based fantasy Thief Eyes. She has also published more than 30 short stories for kids, teens and adults. She can be found online at www.simner.com.
An excerpt from a novel by Adrienne Celt
My grandmother Ada recounted her stories with the unwavering faith of a missionary, and so as a child I never questioned how she came to know so much about what her mother thought and said and did in her absence. The stories about Greta and Ada just existed, they just were, like Baba Yaga and the Dragon of Krakow and Peter Rabbit. I cried at night for more Greta, just one more Greta, in the small purple bedroom where I discovered my voice, where poster versions of Lucia Popp smiled her pristine soprano smile down at me under a bouffant hairdo.
Greta's story followed a path that wound and split like a road on a map. It diverted into variations, forded streams, ducked through trees. You could step off it and run any number of directions, but eventually, no matter how far you wandered, it ended up in the same place.
A woodland clearing marked with a dark cross.
A blue girl, unbreathing, wrapped up in a shawl.
And here's where the story always started.
"There was a party." Ada perched on the edge of my bed, one knee balanced neatly on the other. I settled beneath the covers and could see the threads of the narrative occurring to her: inspiration weaving together with myth, the certainty of the tale mingling with surprise. "The fabryka ozina, the factory of pianos, invited all the young people by to hear the voice of their instruments, and to dance."
She repeated herself often, looking for just the right word. Drifted between English and Polish so that from her mouth I heard them both as the same language.
"A large room. A hall. A loft."
Her tongue tripped from the L of loft to the F in a broad arc, as though saying lolly or lopped, halfway to loop. I was thirsty, but I didn't want to ask for water. If Ada got up she'd fuss around about something. Find that all the glasses in the kitchen were dirty and tie an apron on with a sigh. Or she'd come back with the water, but lose the thread of the story, and maddeningly embark on something different. The spit in my mouth was heavy and thick, and every time I swallowed I felt my throat getting drier. But I wrapped myself around Ada's arm and leaned my weight into her. Listening.
She stroked my hair, and then she truly began.
"Someone had swept the wooden floor so it was as clean as it would ever be. The window was tall, kolosalny, prodigious. Let us look at it. The harvest moon glinting through the glass. Snips of wire lit up around the room by the moon's beams. Like fireflies.
"Then what do we see? The doors open up and in rush the young people, stamping their feet in excitement. Hitting each other with an elbow, a knee, in their hurry. Young people are always in a hurry, you see, and sometimes it gets them where they're going faster than they ought to go."
Ada smoothed her skirt.
"But our young people didn't know that. They rushed from place to place and looked around. The boys huddled over a table of apples and bread, adjusting their ties, while the girls swarmed and dispersed with – well. They were light on their feet and they chattered. They followed the same logic as birds.
"By chance the bird girls were all wearing blue dresses, and each of the dresses was brand new."
In my mind these antic girls were clear, tugging at one another's hems and judging the geometry of waistlines, the pristine nature of pressed fabric. Any piece of dirt or dust was carefully picked away by fingernails, which were themselves buffed and polished to a diamond gleam. I could hear the matching dresses flutter.
"Then," said Ada, "came the music. There weren't cassette tapes then, and no radio. So if you heard any music at all it was either an accident – walking by a lucky window – or the music was being played just for you. For your pleasure. In the fabryka there was a little bandstand, a stage, with a piano and a fiddle and a clarinet. The players looked into each other's eyes to make sure they started playing at the exact same time. In the space of one heartbeat.
"The sound got under everyone's skin, so the young people were terribly over-excited. A girl and boy cracked their heads together reaching for the same slice of apple, and the whole room burst out laughing. They didn't know what to do with themselves."
Ada unpeeled me from her arm and laid me back onto my pillow. Twitching her mouth into a secretive pout, she leaned an elbow on her knee, her chin on her palm.
"You'll probably want to know, why are they so...provoked? Why is every heart beating so fast? The whole room was full of energy. The whole factory was. Up in the ceiling beams there was a colony of little grey birds, little starlings, and when the musicians played they swept around the roof, going crazy. They beat their wings all at the same time, and the young people could feel the wind those birds stirred up.
"Shoosh," she said, sweeping her hand through the air, and then smacking it against the other one. "Boom."
"And why? Why? No one knew. They just felt their breath coming fast and short. And they decided they should fly like the birds – or at least, they should do the next best thing. The boys bowed," Ada tilted her chin, "and the girls curtsied," she flicked her chin back up. "And they all flooded out onto the dance floor. Like petals," she said. "Like petals in a rainstorm.
"As the boys and girls danced the room filled up with the heat of their bodies. Steam curled off the girls' naked shoulders and from under the collars of young boys' shirts. The dancers' faces were covered with little beads of sweat, like jewels, and instead of annoying them it just made them more eager. They shook their hair to get out the water. And they danced two-steps. Foxtrots. Every type of dance they knew. Until the boards under their feet got so hot they glowed.
"Just as the heat was really raging, just as the room was about to flash and erupt into flames, just as the factory inhaled a breath to release up the walls with a woof..."
"What?" I squirmed, tapping her leg with my toes through the blanket.
She clamped a hand over my feet and clicked her tongue. Pinched her eyes into slits and peered at me, half-smiling.
"Do you really want to know?"
"Well alright. Just then a gust of wind blew the door open with a bang. Standing in the doorway was a girl. She wore a dress as red as holly berries."
"Is it Greta?" I asked.
"Of course," Ada said. "Of course it's Greta. And when she crossed the threshold into the hall, the heat was snuffed out," she licked her thumb and pressed it to the pad of her index finger, "like a flame. One moment the dancers were pink in the cheeks. In the next, they were frozen into sculptures of ice."
I closed my eyes and smiled. Tried to breathe in a whiff of winter air.
"But this forces us again to ask a question: why did Greta choose to freeze them? What need did she have for such silence, such a chill? They were her townspeople, after all – familiar with her dirty childhood feet and uncombed hair, the wildness of her arms and legs.
"Was she jealous of them for the heat of their dancing? Maybe she was.
"For the townspeople also knew that Greta was a strange girl, who prickled with lightning when she was angry and hummed in time with the bees in the field. But they didn't know her as she was that night, wrapped in red linen and tapping her clean, fresh shoes on the floor. Greta wanted something, wanted it deeply, and she knew that she would never find it by standing on the edge of a cloud of dancers. Outside.
"With the townspeople frozen, she could walk among them. She was careful not to disturb the statues, not to knock against them and upset their precarious balance, send a young girl or boy crashing to the floor. But she got as close as she could without touching. Peered into their faces. The ohs of surprise and the tongues stuck out just a bit, with exertion.
"She wanted something, but she wasn't sure quite what it was. So she looked everywhere. At the arch of a foot rising out of a shoe, at the symmetry between the fingers on twin hands. None of the girls or boys in the room seemed quite right, though. They didn't have it – this thing that Greta desired."
Ada paused and rolled her shoulders. She worked all day bent over, mending clothing, so I often saw her stretching out to the fullest capacity of her spine – vertebrae clicking unlocked, bones popping away from their sockets. Normally I liked to imitate her, pulling on my joints until the tendons tugged back. But during a Greta story? I had no patience for it.
"So?" I said.
"So." Baba Ada gave one last stretch. "She was angry. Frustrated. Yes? It's difficult, not getting what you want to get. Just as she was becoming really furious though, something caught her eye on the other side of the room. An ice man, taller than the other dancers, slightly stooped. As if he didn't want to be seen."
"No. By anyone else. His hair was shaggy, hanging down against his neck, and he looked somewhat disheveled. A little bit wild. But his eyes were warm even through the ice. Greta stood right next to him and held her breath so he wouldn't fog up. The ice man had strong hands and an untucked shirt.
"Greta looked him up and down, and then pressed her thumb to his fat bottom lip. Her warm thumb left a print, and the skin stuck slightly as she pulled it away. And then. Can you guess?"
I gave a little scream.
"Just tell me."
"Alright, okay. As soon as Greta stepped back the room burst back into its noisiness and its scuffling. The ice man – well, the man – fell into tapping his toes, and he held a hand up to his mouth. The lip Greta touched had a new dark bruise, and do you know what? It was bruised for the rest of his life. Saul knew he was to become her husband, and he held out his hand and invited Greta to dance."
I pulled the sheet taut over my fist and sucked on the knuckle of my thumb through the fabric, imagining my fingers clasped by someone I loved. In my head Greta appeared, standing in front of Saul while the rest of the now-unfrozen girls in the room shook their heads, like colts, to clear them. Her red dress was a blot of blood against the inky blue cotton and twill around her. Saul took Greta in his arms, and the skirts twisted and swayed together, their colors melding, so that from above you might track their movements by the purple streak tailing behind Greta through the crowd.
"What are you thinking about?" Ada asked me. She always seemed to ask after my thoughts when she already knew what they were, seeking confirmation. Or seeking to correct. I sunk my teeth into the sheet, to slice through it like scissors, but my incisors just rubbed blunt and dry against the threads.
"Did they live happily ever after?"
"Hmm." Baba Ada frowned and tucked the covers around me until I was as immobile as a mummy. "Did you think we were at the end of the story? Do you think that's where it ought to finish?"
"Oh." I lay still. "I guess not?"
"Good," Ada said. "Because the most important thing is still to come. Even with the dancers melted and dried off, even with the flame of their dancing banked, the fabryka still sizzled. And Greta felt it all over her body. She was awake in a new way, her ears tingling and her spine straight, in the arms of her marked man.
"She looked at Saul's face, which was stern and serious, heavy with concentration. As though he'd never danced before, but had been studying the art of it all his life, from afar. His fingertips put just a bit of pressure on her back, telling her which way to turn, which way to move. Greta let him lead her around and around the floor. She closed her eyes.
"And she felt the music. The fiddle yawning. The starchiness of the clarinet. And the piano running lightly, very lightly, over its notes, as a brook runs over pebbles.
"Her heart pounded. Like a knock at the door. Klapa, klapa, klapa."
Ada ran her fingernails down my arm. I shivered.
"Do you know what it feels like," my baba asked me, "to be someone's darling?"
She knew the answer: yes and no. I was her darling, but that wasn't what she meant.
"It's like sinking into a bed. Sinking into a bath. Knowing there is no better place for you on earth. Greta and Saul's feet made light scuffs on the floor, which were swept away by the scuffs of the other dancers. The band played on, and the dancers twirled.
"A drop of sweat trickled down Greta's face, over her forehead from the hairline, between her eyes and nose, to the lips. The heat in the room was once again rising. And now Greta was a part of it, part of a pair.
"This should have made her happy, yes?" I nodded in response to baba Ada's raised eyebrow. "But for some reason it made her nervous. As she and Saul moved in time with the other young men and women, couples scattered slightly, avoiding them. They seemed to remember, somewhere deep down, the feeling of being as still as stones. Cold to the very center of their bones.
"Greta wanted to dance forever, here in the center of a happy crowd. But you cannot change your nature. If you are a lonely creature, this cannot be undone. Something will always crop up to remind you."
"Like what?" I asked.
"It might be simple. Just a noise across the room. A cry."
"What kind of cry?"
"Like you, lalka. Like you when you don't get your way. Wah wah. When you scrape your knee. There was a cry like this coming from the other side of the factory floor, and it cut through the music and went straight for Greta's ears.
"No one else seemed to hear a thing. Or anyhow, they heard the band playing and that was all. Greta shook her head, stuck a pinky in one ear, but the noise wouldn't go away. Saul looked at her strangely. With a question. But he didn't notice that cry, that wail, any more than the other dancers.
"Greta began to feel frantic. Her heart threw itself against her ribcage as she craned her neck and scanned the room for the source of the sound. But she couldn't see a thing out of the ordinary. How could it be? An invisible mouth? An invisible throat? An invisible misery? She was desperate to hear the music, to feel again the simple pleasure of dancing. But she couldn't ignore the weeping, the sobbing, that called to her and her alone from somewhere close by.
"So what else could she do? In the middle of the song, in the middle of the dance, from the embrace of Saul's arms Greta broke off and ran into the crowd. Saul made a sound of surprise, but Greta didn't turn around. She didn't dare, until she could find the cry that was tugging at her heart and still it.
She pushed her way through the swarm of bodies, knocking girls and boys out of place as she went. And do you know what she found?"
I held my breath. Shook my head.
"There was a man. He was wearing a suit as grey as ashes. And he was holding a baby as small as a cat. It was shrieking with all its tiny might, its face red and blotchy with despair.
"Greta stopped. The man saw her and he smiled. As if he knew she would come, as if he expected her. Then he held a finger to his lips and handed her the child."
"Who was it?" I asked.
"Who?" Ada shrugged. "A little girl."
This wasn't the answer I was looking for. I meant who was the man? The man as grey as ash? But baba Ada had a hard look in her eyes that didn't invite further questioning.
"Greta held the little girl, and the child's face started to clear. Her mouth nestled on Greta's shoulder, her sack of a body on Greta's breast. And the grey man, standing nearby, smiled.
"His smile was like a lock. As it widened the child quieted down, and Greta held her more firmly, feeling a sudden need for her slight weight. Where she might have come from didn't matter; this was where she belonged. The rest of the room seemed to disappear around them as Greta pressed the girl to her chest, tighter and tighter. The room was silent. The room wasn't there."
Ada brushed a lock of hair away from my eyes. She sighed through her nose.
"It was a moment of enchantment, lalka. But such things don't last forever. There came a tap on Greta's shoulder and she turned to find Saul standing there, his brow all wrinkled up in concern. After all, she'd run away from him as if he was on fire. It was normal that he might worry about such a thing as that.
"Greta tried to hold the child out to Saul, as an explanation. But she found her hands were empty. The child was gone. And when Greta looked the grey man was gone too, with not so much as a footprint remaining where he'd stood.
"Saul scratched his head and touched his lip. Greta just stood there. What could she say? But Saul knew better than to ask a woman like Greta to justify herself. He nodded at her. Whatever it was, it didn't matter, he seemed to say. He would be her husband anyway."
I considered silently the meaning of this understanding.
Baba Ada sat with me for some time, and then took my silence for a slide towards sleep. She stood up and crept towards the hall. As she flicked off the switch by the door, though, and set one foot outside, I called her back.
"So did Greta and Saul live happily ever after?"
"Oh." Ada frowned, leaving me with a feeling I couldn't place. "In a way," she said finally. "You could say they were happy. But every so often Greta turned Saul once again into ice."
Ada slid out the door, so only her head was still visible to me.
"To try and get back what she lost the first time. To make the world to bring back that child."
Excerpted from The Daughters: A Novel by Adrienne Celt. Copyright © 2015 by Adrienne Celt. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.