Q & A with Anne Marsella by Lauren Elkin
Native Californian Anne Marsella‘s debut novel Remedy
(Portobello Books) is set in a Pariscape peopled by odd, intriguing,
and enthusiastic characters. The resulting novel is more than the sum
of its eccentricities: it is a joyous romp, and an endearing read.
At the center of this very funny and highly original work is a young lady called Remedy O’Riley de Valdez, originally of Florida, USA and lately of Paris, France. The chapters mirror the Calendar of Saints, and Remedy, a “devout, if unorthodox” Catholic, lets the saint-of-the-day’s hagiography infuse her esprit du jour.
Remedy spends her weekdays as an assistant at a fashion website, and her
weekends learning to belly dance; nights she entertains (acrobats and
cowboys, mostly) and dreams of meeting her “man o’ the moon,” “one with
some free time but not too much. Preferable one who dances the cha-cha
and who can recite Emily Dickinson’s poems on command.”
Marsella was kind enough to answer some questions for us about life in Paris,
the role of Catholicism in the novel, her love of language, and writing
1. Many of the stories in your collection, The Lost and Found, as well as your first novel, Remedy, have been set in Paris. What is it about Paris
that has made it your setting of choice? Will you continue to set yourstories here?
Yes, most of my writing thus far has been set in Paris. Clearly it is a city that has captured me – I’ve been here for twenty years! – and my imagination.
When I first arrived as a student, I wandered a great deal, gazed at
the faces in the metro, made encounters – gallant and other –
in the Luxembourg gardens. Paris seemed to be teeming with possibilities
and oddities beckoning to be explored through narrative; it was a playground
of the unexpected and I remember feeling both exhilarated and lonely,
though the loneliness was a catalyst for writing, a fertile ground for
planting my little seeds.
At the time I was reading a great deal of Rilke, held The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge as my spiritual guide to Paris and saw the city through his melancholic yet romantic lens. I also remember reading Djuna Barnes
and loving her peculiar and incantatory use of language, her manner
of peopling Paris with such singularly mad characters.
I still marvel at the fabric of this city, its weave of multiple worlds that convergence in surprising ways. I like to spend the morning working in my local Belleville café before skipping down to the very bourgeois 7th arrondissement
to teach at The American University. The differences between these
two neighborhoods are significant but not extreme – this is France
after all – and both are equally fascinating for me to explore.
My writing is so much about sensibility, about expressing a particular
and singular way of being in the world. And Paris has been a
city that lends itself to this kind of exploration. Why? Perhaps because it is slow to move, more concerned with how it feels and looks than how rapidly it can thrust itself into action. It is not bold like New York or London but intimate, human, more feminine. I probably will continue setting my stories and novels in Paris, though I do hope to write about America one day.
I’ve been here so long, I now find the United States rather exotic
and thoroughly bizarre even if familiar; perhaps I will eventually feel
impelled to write about the greed and collective insouciance that has
turned the San Joaquin valley where I am from into a unsustainable sprawl
of strip malls and housing developments. Now that would be an
What do you make of the particular linguistic situation of the expatriate writer: how does writing in English and living in French affect what you produce?
I find this linguistic situation particularly propitious. To have two or more languages at one’s disposal can only enrich one’s writing; it is like experiencing several consciousnesses, several points of view and writers often try to create
this level of complexity in their work. Speaking French has made
me all the more aware of the English language, of is pliancy, it syntactic
musculature and formidable concision, its ability to accommodate and
absorb otherness without feeling threatened by it (so unlike the French
language with its gun-pointing Académie!).
The experience of living here has also made me aware of how indebted the English language is to the French. English is teeming, of course, with French and Latinate words and if you go back to Shakespeare you find that his syntax
often perfectly mirrors French syntax. Instances of this in English
literature are too numerous to enumerate here.
To some extent I think the English language considers itself married to the French, even if it does, after years of conjugality, take its spouse for granted.
But it is strange to assume one is married to a woman – I assume French
plays the bride – who has never officially given her hand.
This is the way it is between English and French, the former being almost
childlike in its absorbency, the latter, resistant and a tad scornful.
However, it is because the French resists that playing on its Latiny
register in English creates a kind of shock, much like an unexpected
I love shifting from the Latin to the Saxon just for the surprise of it, just for the jolt of sound it creates. In the arts, particularly the visual arts and fiction, we speak a great deal about discovering new ways of seeing. But what about hearing? How do we hear the world? How might the way we hear language
make us feel more alive, more connected, or less so?
I write from my ear, almost like a composer, to achieve certain rhythms, rhymes,alliterations, syncopations and, as in music, the ensuing sound both
creates a particular world and suggests how to navigate its music.
To use Freud’s term, Remedy’s relationship to language is somewhat
polymorphous perverse; she alliterates and rhymes with unabashed pleasure
as if living in France, in this great fishbowl of the French language,
has led her to rediscover something of her childhood tongue and the
experience of finding words full of wonder, ripe with mystery as if
by their very sound, on the cusp of meaning, they have the power to
transport us and awaken feeling.
How would you qualify the role Catholicism plays in the novel? Remedy unravels in a sequence of chapters each dedicated to a (usually idiosyncratic saint); she attends Mass every afternoon with the blind Sister Dagobert and her tumor-laden dog; she baptizes her neighbor, Jeronimo, raises his cat from the dead, ordains herself as a priest and performs a gay marriage ceremony. Clearly this is not your mother’s Catholicism!
Let’s just say that Remedy is a faithful but very unorthodox Catholic! She rewrites the rules to her taste and becomes a self-ordained priestess, She
knows better than to butt heads with one of the most unshakeable hierarchies
in the history of the western world! But her choice to “reform”
from within rather than to slam St. Joe’s door is significant.
I think you noticed that Remedy does not shuck or reject; she accumulates.
She records the daily details of life, fashion trends, her favorite
foods, rituals, lovers, and as she does so, her odd collection gains
meaning or takes on new meanings.
For example when Remedy first mentions her former lover’s stove top espresso maker, it might seem like a random detail, but when she continues to talk about it, to worry and fuss over it, to take it to Djamila, her “fairy godmother,”
for a de-tarter treatment, we see that the coffee maker comes to symbolize
what she desires deep down, namely the stimulant that the love connection
is, the feeling of being fully incarnated, nerves aflutter because of
But why does Remedy evoke (and provoke!) all these minor,
plus a few major, saints? First of all, she is fascinated by their excesses, by their striking fortitude born of the single-mindedness of their mission. But she is also raising a fundamental question about spirituality as she converses with
them: Might one also achieve spiritual fulfillment by embracing presence?
Are suffering and renouncing the sole means by which we advance the
There is a poem by Mary Oliver that goes You do not have
to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred
miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the
soft animal part of your body love what it loves.
This is similar to the spirituality Remedy embraces, which has to do
with a quality of presence, receptivity, an attentiveness to the world
that suspends judgment.
What’s the function of the chick lit format– girl works at a magazine, has kooky sidekicks, and practices “Adult Sex,” all in the pursuit of True Love?
My intention was to subvert the chick lit format. I wanted the novel to be its antidote! Remedy, though it does play with chick-lit-like figures early on,
quickly spins off into something of its own, something very singular. I set the novel in the fashion world because at the time I was working for a press syndicate and next to me, behind a thin partition, was a fashion web site run by couture junkies who talked non-stop about bee striped boxers and the size of Angelina Jolie’s mouth.
Whether I wanted to or not – and I didn’t – I had to listen to their chatter
all day long (not even earplugs availed me). To sublimate the
situation – and to take revenge! – I came up with the idea to use
(and mock) the world of couture as the backdrop of a narrative.
And so I started reading fashion copy, picking up articles left in the
photocopy machine or in the recycle bin, and, to my surprise, began
to revel in the depictions of Fashion Week’s offerings.
I didn’t experience any kind of conversion; it was not fashion that interested
me as such, but the language that represents it. I found it lush,
funny, absurd and completely mad, and I loved the energy of it, the
rush it created. Writing about fashion was a wonderful way of
talking about something else, I found, namely the economy of excess
I already mentioned.
As I read fashion descriptions (and wrote them!) I felt something akin to the marvel I feel at the Galérie de l’Evolution when looking at the rows and rows of butterfly displays.Butterflies! Beautiful, of course, but what is the point?
Why so many patterns and colors of wing? Why all this insane variety? And yet we know that as we kill off such “pointless” species we are reducing the possibility of continuing life on this planet. So there is something about this excess that is essential and at the heart of life.
I find that the Catholic Church, to return to your earlier question, with its nimiety of rituals, saints, mystics, hierarchies, and art is a perfect playground for celebrating this dimension of existence.
What is your favorite Emily Dickinson poem?
Without a doubt her poem “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” which Remedy recites for inspiration. There is so much passion condensed in this short poem and it shoots out with Dickinson’s dashes and exclamation points. It suggests
the kind of internalized eroticism usually associated with mystic marriage.
And I love the strange image of rowing in Eden. Her “Ah, the
Sea!” It really is a very erotically charged poem! The eroticism is sublimated and yet remains quite explicit: “Might I but
moor – Tonight – In Thee!” Goodness!
WILD nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port,—
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
FT Magazine – Rose Jacobs
Some readers will be turned off by the conceit of this first novel, in which an American fashionista in Paris seeks help from a syndicate of Catholic saints in her search for true love. But this is less chick-lit than an insight into one strain of modem expat life. Remedy, the narrator, is fluent in French and appreciated at work, but she befriends outsiders – the Muslim office cleaners. her Egyptian dance teacher, a blind nun – more than she does the natives. An idiosyncratic, deliberate character, she lives at the intersection of an immigrant’s vivid Paris and her own internal world, she turns what could be a cloying tale into something much stranger – and more charming.
Chloe Rhodes, The Telegraph
Remedy by Anne Marsella
This is classic Marmite literature – you either love it or you hate it. The main character, Remedy, is so eccentric and her narrative so self-consciously quirky that, unless you’re hooked within the first five pages, you’ll never be.
The concept is familiar: a lonely romantic is on a quest to find the man of her dreams and has several unsuitable suitors before finding Prince Charming. But the originality of the writing makes the plot irrelevant. What’s especially appealing here is the access given to the inner voice of such an unusual heroine.
The traditions of Catholicism (along with the teachings of Islam and the joy of Arabian belly-dancing) are cleverly woven into the story; Remedy addresses her thoughts on love and life to a different Catholic saint each day and each chapter begins with a potted history of their lives. The result is a delightful sort of hagiographer’s Bridget Jones.
The Times – Kate Saunders
“The heroine is named Remedy so it is fair to assume that her company is supposed to be a tonic. An American fashion hack in Paris, she lives in the heart of the quartier cliché, surrounded by colourful characters. There’s a lot of whimsy – but Remedy is irresistible. When not working, she attends Mass with her friend, the blind nun, meditates on the lives of the saints and waits for love. Her romances are the funniest parts of a strangely pleasing novel.”
The First Post
” The eponymous heroine of REMEDY is a nice Catholic girl from Florida with an adventurous sexual appetite who works in Paris for A la Mode Online. Every lunchtime, while her colleagues hit the gym, she goes to Mass and entreats that day’s saint to send her an agreeable lover. When not lusting after A La Mode’s gay photographer Jean Claudi, or fighting off the attentions of otherwise inappropriate Frenchmen, she reads Balzac, makes much of her cat Jubilee and muses philosophically. Marsella’s writing is arch, literary… heroines who can do Henry James and Jean-Paul Gaultier are few and far between and should therefore be treasured.”
“This is less chick-lit than an insight into one strain of modern expat life: Remedy, the narrator, is fluent in French and appreciated at work, but she befriends outsiders – the Muslim office cleaners, her Egyptian dance teacher, a blind nun –more than she does the natives. An idiosyncratic, deliberate character, she lives at the intersection of an immigrant’s vivid Paris, and her own internal world…she turns what could be a cloying tale into something much stranger – and more charming.”
The Daily Telegraph
“The concept is familiar: a lonely romantic is on a quest to find the man of her dreams. But the originality of the writing makes the plot irrelevant. What’s especially appealing here is the access given to the inner voice of such an usual heroine. The traditions of Catholicism (along with the teachings of Islam and the joy of Arabian belly-dancing) are cleverly woven into the story; Remedy addresses her thoughts on love and life to a different Catholic saint each day and each chapter begins with a potted history of their lives. The result is a delightful sort of hagiographer’s Brigit Jones.”
Olivia Laing, The Guardian
There is something decidedly disturbing about an adult who calls her mother “Mumly”, particularly when she is dubbed “Princess” in return. But Mademoiselle Remedy O’Riley de Valdez – Catholic, fashionista and belly-dancer extraordinaire – is a very singular singleton, and though her speech patterns sometimes recall the babble of the nursery, the tenacity with which she searches for love suggests a more steely soul. Remedy’s aim in life is to find “her man-o-the-moon” (and if you find that painful, just wait until she calls Jesus the “Lamb-o-God”) on the boulevards of Paris, and to this end she has petitioned saints and ancestors alike for their celestial aid.
Though she tries to practise Adult Sex, an approach to dating advocated by the love-relations psychologist at Belle magazine (“In this day and age,” she tells herself sternly, “a woman cannot behave like the pubescent romanticist, a sitting duck stuffed with false notions of the love connection. No, she must take love as an assignment, fulfil the duties and dispense with it at term”), Remedy is an inveterate romantic. So far, so Bridget Jones, but what distinguishes Marsella’s heroine from the solipsistic sisterhood of chick lit is her absolute lack of neurosis, social anxiety or self-doubt.Read More
This is at once refreshing and perplexing, all the more so because Remedy, like Marsella herself, hails not from the 16th arrondissement but from America. None the less, she practically glistens with joie de vivre, trumping even the French in her ability to find pleasure in the quotidian. This somewhat unconvincing transfer of national stereotypes extends to the table, where Remedy is regularly to be found tucking in to tartiflette (“that creamy Savoy concoction of potatoes, creme fraiche, lardons, and reblochon cheese that’s all the rage in Paris these days”) while her co-workers at A La Mode Online skip repast in favour of the gym.
Such insouciance also affects Remedy’s relationship with the Catholic church. The narrative is structured as a series of supplications to the saint du jour, begging for divine intervention in matters of the heart (“Well, the Concise is certainly imprecise when it comes to your bio,” reads a typical plea. “Was your name Ruold or Rombaut? Since we really do not know, I suggest we call you Rambo. This will make it easier for modern believers to remember you”). But it doesn’t take long for Remedy to tire of this passive approach. After carting a sea-green basin back to her apartment, she builds her own font, carrying out weddings and even raising a cat from the dead with the spiritual authority that her self-confidence bestows upon her.
No matter how low one’s tolerance of whimsy, it is hard not to warm to a character so entirely determined to embrace life. Remedy’s bold refusal to be cowed by her single status or lowly job is heartening, which is fortunate, because there is very little in the way of narrative tension to drag the reader forwards – the eventual recipient of her affections being evident from the inside front cover. But Marsella’s sly wit and spirit of play, not to mention the very oddness of her heroine, ensures this debut novel cannot easily be dismissed, despite possessing all the froufrou foolishness that any self-respecting romance requires, right down to a midnight ball in Marie Antoinette’s own chambers. In fact, it’s almost a shame when love comes at last, because rarely has the state of single womanhood, in a book so evidently written for girls, been made to look like such a blast.
Alex Clarke, Red magazine
What’s the answer for a solitary young American in Paris? For Remedy, salvation doesn’t lie in her job at A La Mode Online, but at a local Catholic church, where she finds inspiration in the saints. It is with the help of these ancients that the ups and downs of working life, romantic traumas and an extremely odd set of neighbours become bearable. Anne Marsella’s debut novel is one of the most quirky to have hit the shelves for years – and certainly boasts one of the most unusual and entertaining heroines.