After years of writing non-fiction for such outlets as Artforum, e-flux journal, and uncube magazine (where she was a founding editor), writer Elvia Wilk is taking a more fictional route with her first novel, Oval (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Elvia talks about the story’s inspirations, influences, and inclination to be relevant.
Photo Credit: Nina Subin
To begin, what is Oval about?
Oval is about a relationship and a city. At the center of the story are Anja and Louis, a couple living on a mountain in an alternate-reality version of Berlin. The narrative begins with the death of Louis’ mother, which immediately shifts his dynamic with Anja in many ways — or reveals its existing but hidden dynamics. A lot of what happens throughout the book is driven by how each of them deal with his grief. They’re coping with this against the backdrop of a quickly changing urban landscape, where space is increasingly privatized, so a kind of mourning — for a lost parent, a lost relationship, a lost era, a lost city — occurs on many levels. The main event that emerges from the characters’ sense of helplessness is that Louis invents a pill called Oval intended to make anyone who takes it more empathetic and financially generous.
Where did you get the idea for Oval and how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
The idea for the story simply emerged from many years living in Berlin. The city always seems like a character or participant in social life there. People often talk about the city in a self-referential way, trying to understand its peculiarities and identify how it’s changing in relation to where they are in their lives. The increasing wealth disparity and privatization are jarring for anyone paying attention, but I and many of the people I know still felt for a long time like we were living in a safe bubble.
In the book, I imagine a single company buying most of the urban space and reconfiguring it to suit its needs. The character of Louis thinks he can solve this structural shift with a pharmaceutical that operates on the individual level. With elements of the plot I tried to encapsulate the feeling of colliding scales, of living on the precipice of a shift you can’t quite understand as a whole — only to realize it’s (always) already happened.
I was also trying to find a way to play out the deep sense of isolation that living in that state can engender, and connect it to the isolation I had felt in some relationships with men. The metaphor of isolation became concretized in this figure of an actual mountain in the middle of the city where the two characters live. This also allowed me to explore the idea of constructed environments, where encounters with nature or history are totally circumscribed.
On the surface, the finished book is wildly different than its first draft. But even though so many characters, scenes, and plot points have changed, I think the emotional core is the same. There is a kind of internal logic to a novel that coheres over time, a micro-world where each thing that happens only makes sense in tandem with the other elements, so a lot of the writing process for me was about finding what didn’t fit and cutting it.
Oval is set in the near future. Does that mean it’s a science fiction story, or a work of speculative fiction? How do you see it?
I’m not so concerned with genre categories, except insofar as they serve as useful ways to align myself with other authors I love. But most books I’m excited by manipulate or upend genre conventions anyway. It would be hard to categorize Oval as a work of classic “hard sci-fi,” because the sites of speculation are not technological. There are plenty of scientific references in in the book, but I don’t aim for anything like plausibility, rationality, or technological realism. I’m speculating — which really just means imagining — rather than trying to describe the world exactly as it appears on its face, so speculative is a fine adjective, but then again, you could just call it fiction.
It also sounds like Oval was heavily influenced by what’s going on in the world. Did you set out to write something with a sociopolitical bent, or did you come up with the idea for this story and it just naturally lent itself to being so topical?
Writing about the current moment is a funny thing because no matter how contemporary or predictive you try to be, the world will always move faster and end up being weirder than you could model. That’s part of the impetus to write in the “speculative” realm; you’re released from the burden of being hyper-current, because you’re a step to the side. Maybe another word for speculative would be “reality-adjacent.” I didn’t set out to comment on politics as such, but rather to find the ways that the macropolitical and the micropersonal drive and affect each other. In the book I write a lot about subcultures or enclaves of people in a city, using the current art world as a sort of template or starting point, in order to express how large-scale power structures can end up replicating themselves on the level of interpersonal relationships.
While Oval is your first novel, you’ve written articles for a number of outlets over the years, including Artforum, Mousse, and Zeit Online. Are there any fiction writers who had a big impact on Oval but not on your non-fiction work?
Everything feeds together eventually. I’m always finding connections across topics and reading material long after I’ve ingested it. The author who I returned to most while writing the first draft of Oval was Kurt Vonnegut, and this was specifically for understanding story construction, humor, and certain devices of his that I wanted to borrow — not necessarily for what the books are actually “about.” In general I found myself reading books as learning tools during that time, so there are a ton of things I read that were not topical in the slightest, but that I learned a huge amount from in a formal or technical sense.
How about non-literary influences, like movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on Oval?
Well, the reality series The Bachelor makes a cameo in Oval, as do various other bits of pop culture, just because the characters are consuming a lot of media. It was hard not to think about classic Berlin movies while constructing the city — Berlin Alexanderplatz, Wings Of Desire, Run Lola Run, Goodbye Lenin, The Lives Of Others — but these were mostly helpful when considering how various Berlin historical eras have been portrayed and what people’s preconceptions likely are. I don’t dwell too much on the remnants of the Berlin Wall, for instance, but the former city division does still haunt the landscape. The mountain in the book is partially there as a drastic deconstruction of the memory of a divided space, a new historical landmark.
Speaking of movies, TV shows, and video games, if someone wanted to adapt Oval into a movie, show, or game, which of those do you think would work best?
Actually, I’d prefer to cast my friends, and I’d want a friend to direct it.
The story has actually already become a game of sorts: a live-action roleplay that I co-designed for a small group of participants. Each of them got character descriptions and an overview of the setting, and then they were given a lot of free reign to improvise. The new plots and relationships they came up with were amazing — they gave me enough story ideas for at least a whole second book.
Finally, if someone enjoys Oval, what politically-relevant novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Jeff Vandermeer’s work, especially the Southern Reach trilogy, is similarly preoccupied with the natural world and ideas of isolation and enclosure. I think Adelle Waldman has written incredibly well on the nuances (and traps) of gendered relationships in The Love Affairs Of Nathaniel P. Alexandra Kleeman cuts close to the uncanny aspects of intimacy in You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine. Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City similarly treats a city as a character. Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island is an amazing exploration of corporate structures and the affective states they produce. Glow by Ned Beauman is also oriented around an imaginary drug whose circulation has unintended effects. I could go on…