A Conversation With Dawn Raffel

Dawn Raffel is a brilliant miniaturist. From her exquisitely crafted short stories (In the Year of Long Division, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe) to her slender but ice-pick sharp novel (Carrying the Body), her canvas may be restricted but it is never slight; Raffel finds big meaning in the seemingly small, be it word, gesture or in, the case of her newest book, object. That book, fittingly called The Secret Life of Objects, is a collection of prose poems/love songs/tributes to the stuff—a mug, a pair of lamps, a sewing box, a ring—that make up the warp and woof of her daily life. Raffel answered questions posed by Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about the genesis of her newest collection, where she finds inspiration and the surprises that she uncovered when she was willing to probe just a little bit deeper.

Did you know you were writing a book from the outset?

The whole thing happened very fast. One morning I was drinking coffee from the mug I always take from my cupboard, even though I have a dozen other mugs. I go straight to that one because I took it from my mother’s house after she died, and for me it contains not only coffee but also a whole story about my mother and my aunt. Then I realized that I have a house full of objects like this—things that have a secret personal value that far transcends their surface worth. I wrote them all down very quickly, resisting the urge to over-analyze; it felt like creating a watercolor where you don’t want to muddy things with too much revision. When I was done I saw that what I had written was a book and that it told a life story.

How did you go about organizing these pieces?

I wrote these in the exact order you see them in the finished book, which was intuitive. At one point, an editor asked me to organize the book chronologically, ordering the objects by when I received them. For me, that effort fell flat, I think because so many of the objects are saturated with stories from multiple generations, and in part because memory and feeling simply aren’t linear.