When Jeanette first moves into her new apartment, she’s holding all of her earthly belongings in her two hands. She’s just enrolled in grad school in a city on the West Coast and this is the first time she’s ever truly lived alone—no parents, no roommates—at last, a place to call her own. On that first night she celebrates by indulgently drinking wine straight from the bottle and jumping into the pool all by herself as the sun sets. Her life is just beginning.
Abigail Stewart’s The Drowned Woman is a bright spark of a novella that explores one young woman’s winding path from the realm of academia into the art world as she chooses to pursue her true passions. Before the story’s end, Jeanette will be confronted firsthand by the very same challenges that so often plagued the female artists she studied in school: the question of motherhood and the difficulties of creating art under the persistent male gaze.
In echoing the heroines of Elena Ferrante novels and the creative work of Louise Bourgeois, Stewart has crafted an atmospheric and memorable story about being young in a new city and striving to discover what—and who—you truly love. Stewart and I discussed, among other things, the novella as a medium, the early days of the internet, and the eternal question of whether or not artists can have harmonious romantic relationships.
Abigail Oswald: I know you’re drawn to the novella form as a reader and now as a writer, too—in a feat of beauty and brevity, The Drowned Woman runs just 130 pages. Would you say that the novella is your favorite literary form? What do you like about it as a medium?
Abigail Stewart: I am enamored of novellas. I like how they can be one dreamlike sequence or contain a very tightly written plot. Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces, for instance, portrays the claustrophobia of being trapped in the narrator’s head as her mental state unravels—it is also 130 pages and I can’t imagine it being any longer or shorter. The reader couldn’t bear it.
Of course, when I first began writing novellas, everyone told me they weren’t marketable, no one would publish them. But I believe there is something to be said for the economy of language and, if an author can say something profound or interesting or beautiful in 40,000 words, why is that less viable or important?
AO: Could not agree more. And while we’re talking books—I love how much your protagonist reads! Sometimes in fiction the characters move so quickly from one instance of action to the next that we miss out on getting to know them in moments of quiet. But Jeanette spends a lot of time alone, and she often uses that time to read: Madame Bovary, The Diary of Frida Kahlo, Moby Dick… Does Jeanette reflect any of your own tendencies as a reader?
AS: That’s something I love to read and write about—the moments of quiet. I like to see who people are when they’re alone. Jeanette’s solitary reading habits reflect mine in that she’ll read whatever she comes across. I was once out with a friend at a bookstore, gathering an armload of books, and she asked me why I was picking up so many things I’d never heard of before. I mean, that was exactly why I wanted to pick them up. I like to imagine Jeanette isn’t reading the classics out of any real sense of obligation, rather just because she’s interested in things.
AO: To continue on the “moments of quiet” thread, Jeanette spends a whole day at the university library in Part One. I love this—she listens to audiobooks and soundtracks on the headphones meant for music majors, drinks the free coffee, people-watches… Basically she passes an entire day with the kind of activities that smartphones have in large part rendered obsolete. It’s such a pleasantly nostalgic scene! What led you to set The Drowned Woman in the early internet era?
AS: I romanticize the early days of the internet, when “going online” was an activity unto itself and not a constant state of being. I miss feeling like the internet was a hobby. Also, with the more recent rise in the popularity of online lit mags, I began to wonder what it would be like to witness the creation of a very early one and that was really the impetus for the setting.
AO: One of the themes you grapple with in The Drowned Woman is motherhood. Something that Jeanette often does is mentally insert herself into established scenes of parenthood—both in real life and in art. She watches a family at the park; she considers Mary Cassatt’s painting, The Child’s Bath. I especially like the moment where she thinks about Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, a sculpture of a spider that is, by its unchanging nature, doomed to eternal pregnancy. Why does Jeanette approach motherhood this way? Can you talk more about the thought behind those scenes?
AS: Jeanette’s own experience with the concept of family is fraught and, lacking in that firsthand knowledge, she tries to imagine another way into the traditional familial scene. It’s kind of like the frequency illusion, once you start thinking about a certain object or topic you see it everywhere. But I think anyone who’s had a negative experience in any type of relationship often seeks out confirmation that it’s possible to find a positive version.
AO: I’m reminded of this line: “She’d cultivated a life built around loneliness in that way that others cultivate theirs to fit around a family.” There’s this tension throughout between the frugal, isolated life Jeanette has carved out for herself and her burgeoning relationship with Oliver, who comes from wealth and has a pretty sizable family. Their differences certainly cause conflict, but there are also moments where they seem truly happy together. I was so fascinated by the layers of their relationship. Do you think that Oliver understands Jeanette and her desires by the end of the book?
AS: Both Oliver and Jeanette do care for each other, but the strata of privilege, class, gender, and conflicting artistic passions often come between them. Ultimately, I think they want similar things but have to find their own way of getting there and, by the end, Oliver understands her better than he ever did prior, which isn’t to say perfectly, but certainly better.
AO: Oliver is a writer and Jeanette is a painter. Much has been made about whether two artists can have a truly harmonious relationship—what do you think?
AS: I do think artists can live a harmonious life together. Probably the best example in literature I can point to is the couple at the center of Tove Jansson’s novel, Fair Play.
Anecdotally, in my own life, my partner is a writer and musician and we manage to make space for one another creatively. However, I also think there can be a competitive drive among creatives that has the potential to grind down the more positive facets of romantic and platonic relationships. The artist’s singular focus can be a daunting thing to contend with as a lover.
AO: There’s this moment where Jeanette compares herself and Oliver to two constellations, “made up of entirely different parts, that had only touched due to the earth tilting far over on its axis.” I was reminded of this when Oliver goes on a walk to the part of town that Jeanette thinks of as “hers.” He passes through various locations that hold all of this emotional gravity for Jeanette, and they’re just everyday places to him—nothing special. It’s so interesting to me that people can lead overlapping lives in the same city and still have such different experiences of it. Are any of those places—Jeanette’s apartment, the corner store—homage to ones you’ve loved in your own life?
AS: People’s different experiences of a city is a concept that always fascinated me. Even now, I can tell someone about a particular restaurant I love or recent experience I had, and they tell me they don’t like to leave their neighborhood or they never cross a particular bridge and I realize we are in the same twenty-mile radius having wildly different times.
Jeanette’s world is a mosaic of many places I’ve loved, and also none specifically, just those personal places that evoke a certain feeling of belonging somewhere in a much wider world.
AO: There’s a point in The Drowned Woman where Jeanette decides that she feels happy, but the revelation surprises her because she previously believed she had given up on happiness. “Contentment, perhaps, but not happiness,” she notes. What do you think differentiates contentment from happiness, and how does that difference tie into Jeanette’s story as a whole?
AS: Contentment, to me, is found more often in the day to day. Perhaps it’s your house being clean and a satisfying meal on the table, there’s a feeling of accomplishment there. Or perhaps it’s just a sense of tangible pleasure in your day, the walk to work, the spontaneous drink with a friend.
Being actively happy can sometimes feel like an effort, but contentment is all ease—as long as you have found that which makes you content. Happiness takes you by surprise, but it’s also more unstable and fleeting. Jeanette’s own experiences make her wonder if she can have both the ease and excitement and, if she can, does she deserve it.
AO: Another instance of happiness occurs after one of Jeanette’s art shows… I was so entranced by your descriptions of her paintings. There’s a unique quality to verbal description of art with no visual accompaniment, as each reader will imagine something slightly different. Were there any particular artists you had in mind when you visualized her work?
AS: There’s a Flemish still-life artist named Clara Peeters who did these really dark, sumptuous paintings of stacks of soft cheese and great platters of seafood. You can smell and feel her paintings as soon as you see them. Still Life with Cheeses, Artichoke, and Cherries is the one I became quite fascinated with. She was also one of the only female artists I’ve read about painting professionally during the Dutch Golden Age.
I like to think Jeanette’s own still-life art and her embracing of the “everyday” as subject matter is similar in spirit to Clara Peeters and her “ontbijtjes,” or breakfast still-lifes.
AO: In a hypothetical fictional world where literary characters all hang out together, who would be in Jeanette’s circle?
AS: I think Jeanette might cross paths with Leda from Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, Sophia from Barbra Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Edna Pontellier from The Awakening. Their dinner parties would always have a mix of wit and nihilism, too little food and too much wine.
AO: You’re also the author of a Substack newsletter called Learning to Interrupt, in which you discuss, among other things, the books you read—and you read quite a few of them! I’d love to hear about some of your favorite novellas, specifically; which ones would you love to see on a shelf alongside The Drowned Woman?
AS: I just finished Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow and would certainly love to share a shelf with her, her writing is enigmatic in exactly the way I like.
Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, Chloe Caldwell’s Women, and Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth also come to mind as slender books I’d like for mine to lean against.
AO: To wrap things up, I know you’re working on another book right now—care to share anything about that?
AS: Yes, I recently finished editing and polishing a collection of short stories entitled Assemblage that has taken me a few years to build. The stories are more speculative than The Drowned Woman, but similar thematically in that they deal with the unique experience of existing in a female body, humans who exist on the periphery, and the place of art in society. I can say that I recently partnered with a press to bring this collection into the world, so I am looking forward to sharing more about that soon.
Abigail Stewart (she /her) is a fiction writer from Berkeley, California. Her short fiction has been published widely. The Drowned Woman is her debut novel. Presently, she lives with her partner in an apartment filled with plants and books and breakable things.