Eight years ago, on her thirtieth birthday, Jessica Lott began writing her debut novel, The Rest of Us. In the interim years she has written a novella and became an art critic and essayist.
She begins reading from the opening of the novel, an obituary for Rudolf Rhinehart, the narrator’s former professor and lover. Quickly the reader learns that Rhinehart is still alive. This juxtaposition between dead object of affection and living character is the basis for Lott’s subtle humor.
As she reads, Lott’s natural cadence emerges. She reads less precisely than her written words stacked ever so neatly into pulsing beats. The narrative voice on the paper carries with it a refined, measured rhythm. For instance, that beat emerges, like this example: “I wanted to point out that statistically, in New York, I was likely in the majority.” But in her reading, Lott draws out the more whimsical moments, like the discovery that Rhinehart lives: “He was alive! We’d seen each other again after all!” It is a reminder that the narrator is having fun with the story as much as anything.
In these moments, the narrative voice often masks prose’s intent as to whether the text is actually overly concerned with itself or whether it is self aware and sarcastic. Lott treads a fine line between cliche and satire, and within that space generates back of the brain laughter. That ambiguity generates her quiet sense of humor woven throughout but never interrupting the text.
When Lott finishes, she takes questions from the audience.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first question concerns the autobiographical nature of the story. The novel follows the story of woman roughly Lott’s age and a love affair with a much older professor, so the possibility exists, but Lott assures everyone its a work of fiction. If anything, Lott says she relates better to Rhinehart, the old man, rather than her narrator.
She conceived of the novel in the back of her parents’ car on her thirtieth birthday while she was “mourning my 20’s.” Between moments of distress, she imagined some of the conversations between characters. “It always starts for me with dialogue,” she says.
From there she went on to write four hundred pages. Her method is to begin with the different scenes and then tie them together later. For much of the eight years writing the novel, she struggled to bring the scenes together in a coherent way.
She also spent much of the time working at the Brooklyn Museum “absorbing” art and other information. Finally, she quit everything and fled to Spain for three months to work on the novel. In her final weeks abroad, she spent ten hour days writing hoping to have something to show when she returned to New York.
Lott resisted writing in the first person. She felt concerned about losing the weight of literature and derailing herself with a female narrator. She considered at the beginning approaching the text from a close, third person male narrator, her preference at the time. She explained that most of her writing in college relied on that form.
Partly the interest in the male narrator stemmed from her literary education reading white, male authors and the mistaken belief that she needed a male voice to carry gravitas in literature. She saw a conflict between the producing literature and achieving that same goal with a female narrative voice. “I had a real problem if those things are incompatible,” she explained, so she forced herself to commit to the female first person. After eight years, she now finds it a natural fit.
At last she confesses she is currently working on a new novel. She has been writing it for the last four years, or about halfway.