Sue Mell’s debut novel Provenance (Madville Publishing, July 19, 2022) focuses on DJ, a fifty-something writer living in Brooklyn, who is grieving his wife’s early death by blowing the insurance money on second-hand guitars, vinyl records, and vintage ephemera. When his apartment building is going to be sold, he moves in with his newly divorced sister upstate, where he becomes his 11-year-old niece’s caretaker and discovers he can’t afford a storage space, so needs to sell off his stuff. He wants to figure out the best things from his hoarding collection to give to his niece—but what he realizes is that he needs to give of himself. Provenance feels like a story for our times: in DJ’s collected objects, we find a poignant portrait of Gen-X loss and unfinished business, complete with its own rich network of cultural references.
I met Sue through the BookEnds novel revision fellowship at Stony Brook University, where she was finishing the revision of Provenance with her mentor Amy Hempel. Sue Mell is from Queens, NY, and earned her MFA from Warren Wilson. Provenance won Madville Publishing’s 2021 Blue Moon Novel Contest. Her collection of micro essays, Giving Care, won the 2021 Chestnut Review Prose Chapbook Prize, and her collection of short stories, A New Day, was a finalist for the 2021 St. Lawrence Book Award. We conducted this interview via email.
In the wake of his wife Belinda’s death from cancer, DJ verges on becoming a hoarder—then he needs to give up all of his stuff. The first sentence of the Prologue sets us up for this conflict: “There was so much stuff, piles and piles of stuff, and DJ couldn’t let any of it go.” What were the challenges of writing a story in which the conflict centers on inanimate objects?
To be honest, the inanimate objects were more like a lifeline, pulling me forward when I stalled, which I often did. It was a puzzle, though, what to do—and how DJ would finally deal or not deal—with all his stuff, especially his vast record collection. One challenge was to create a contrast between the more common and relatable objects (records, guitars) and the more unique items, like the celadon teapot shaped like a bearded wiseman, or the marbled glass egg DJ gifts Elise. The objects needed to be tangible, but also comprehensible, in terms of their sentimental value. Essentially, the question of, why should we care?
When you started writing, which objects were the most significant to you? How did that change as the story evolved?
Provenance began with the idea of a narrative that had—not a happy ending, necessarily—but a lift at the end, a kind of transition from one generation to the next. DJ’s a passive and self-destructive character. I wanted to leave the reader with a fragile hope that his later-in-life connection with his young niece might stand in opposition to his abiding sense of loss, and constitute a deeper sense of meaning and self-worth for a man whose life, in many ways, has fallen short of its potential. What he couldn’t manage for himself, he could—at least, in part—give to someone else. In that light, the marbled glass egg was the most significant object, with the antiques store where he buys it leading to a love interest as well as other things. The objects listed in the prologue came to organize the material, and DJ’s record collection and a wonky chifforobe gained much greater—and plot-altering—importance. Belinda’s decoupaged boxes also attained a wistful prominence that I didn’t expect.
I deeply admire the palpable way in which Belinda haunts the story—and beyond this, DJ is plagued by guilt and regret over his relationship with Sarah. But neither character appears in the narrative present of the story. We only see them in flashbacks. Yet they are quite present for DJ throughout the book. How did you work with haunting, guilt, and shame through these absent characters?
Belinda is never far from DJ’s thoughts; she’s like a frame of reference for him. But the backstory of his feelings for Sarah, and her shadow on his marriage, was more complicated to figure in. Belinda’s the steady beat of a bass line, but Sarah’s a troubling riff, from a whole other song of an alternative life, and I found the best approach was to give their affair—and the failed reprise of their relationship after Belinda’s death—its own separate chapter.
One of the ways I worked with DJ’s guilt and regret, was to confront him with fresh conflicts of loyalty in his present relationships. DJ must consider where his true allegiances lie, throwing him back on the choices he did and didn’t make. I made extensive use of objects, such as a photo in DJ’s wallet, and a ceramic figurine that Belinda loved, for that haunting factor. There’s a ghost-like moment, one of my favorites in the book, that involves a sense memory, which DJ describes as “a subtle imagining that Belinda was still with him, was still alive, in any number of incarnations of her younger self—just in another room.”
Songs are so evocative of the past for all of us, and I created musical ties to haunt him: a record he once gave to Sarah, the songs he spun for Belinda, on a daily basis.
Music is central to this story; as you’ve mentioned, DJ has a serious record collection, and there are his guitars, too. Belinda meanwhile was a photographer and visual artist. How did these characters come to have these artistic/cultural lives? How did you work with the visual and the musical in writing the story?
For me, the visual always comes first. A million years ago, I earned a BA in ceramics and painting, and much later on, worked as an illustrator for several years. I picture a scene in their head, peering around to see what’s there, then straining to hear what the characters have to say. And music has always held a place of significance in my life, as a way to access and communicate feelings—can you say mixtape? I also worked for a while producing independent pieces for radio, and found creating a music bed to be one of the finest pleasures in life. Along with deepening the reader’s sense and understanding of these two characters, it was engaging and almost second nature for me to imbue them with those aspirations, and to use those elements—songs, records, and DJ’s unfinished composition; Belinda’s photos and artwork—to trigger memories and associations, or underscore moments of emotional resonance.
Throughout this interview we’ve talked about the influence of both visual art and music within this novel, and I’d love to conclude with some thoughts from you on the interplay between the arts—how visual work and writing inform one another in your artistic practice.
I think of all these mediums—art, music, and writing—as ways of expressing how it feels, at various moments, to live in the world. Over the years, I’ve tried my hand at so many creative forms, always seeking the best fit, the one most suited to my potential abilities and the experiences I wanted—yearned, really—to convey.
In life, words often fail me, but on the page I can revise and revise until I reach a desired effect. With painting, I found that much harder to do. There were also far fewer opportunities to get my work out there, and—especially with illustration—a great deal of compromise was often required. When you finish painting, there’s always the mess of dirty brushes etc. to clean up, you can’t necessarily pick up where you left off, and sometimes you’ve ruined the piece you’d begun. In the end, I found that writing was the best container for all the rest. What’s that old commercial? I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. Writing allows me to take on those other roles, and make good use of their resonant or associative qualities. My characters often grapple with artistic aspirations or failures.
A fantastic full circle was having the chance to create the cover art for Provenance. One of those rare times I was able to truly match the play of color and light I had in mind. An abstraction that evokes the feeling of the book better than a more literal or figurative image could. Book covers, album covers . . . it’s interesting, right? All those words, all those musical notes—and the feelings they express—first reach their audience through a visual representation.
Jennifer Solheim is writer based in Oak Park, Illinois. She is a member of the Honors College Faculty at University of Illinois Chicago, and the Associate Director of the BookEnds novel revision fellowship at Stony Brook University. She is also a Contributing Editor at Fiction Writers Review. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review, Four Way Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Pinch, and Poets & Writers. More about her work at www.jennifersolheim.com.
By Sue Mell
Madville Publishing (TX)
Published on July 19, 2022