The city of Prague is famous for throwing men out of windows. It even has a word for it. In Marta’s family, the act casts a shadow that spans generations. Since her great-great-grandfather threw a stonemason out of a window, his ancestors have been prone to falling. After her twin brother Nick falls victim to it, Marta grapples with the family curse and fights to keep her family from falling apart. A strikingly inventive debut, Renee Branum explores belonging, inheritance and the nature of storytelling itself.
Tell us about the title of the novel.
The word “defenestrate” means to throw someone out of a window. In Prague, in the Middle Ages, several famous defenestrations took place, and it wasn’t an uncommon form of execution in those days. The narrator of my novel, Marta, grapples with a family myth that features her great-great-grandfather pushing a stonemason out of the high window of a cathedral at the end of the nineteenth century. According to family lore, all her ancestors are susceptible to death or injury by falling so this idea of defenestration actually has personal meaning for her. I also love the word because of its extreme specificity – the fact that a word exists for throwing someone out of a window – and Marta is really drawn to an understanding of the specificity of experiences: which experiences are shared through family ties and which are specific only to her.
How did the form of the novel evolve into a series of vignettes?
I have had an ongoing love affair with the vignette form for many years now. I discovered it first as a management tool for my tendencies to write long passages of dense, descriptive lyrical prose. I felt that the vignette was helpful in giving natural pauses of breath to break up my flights of poetic language. But when writing Defenestrate, I really found that the vignette form arose very naturally from the telling and from the character of Marta. She is very scattered in the way she is processing her heritage and her relationships with her family members and so it makes sense that her narration would be inherently fragmented. It gives her the opportunity to shift easily across timelines, across continents (since the novel takes place both in Prague and in the American Midwest) and across subject matter. She’s an evasive narrator who doesn’t always look at things head on, and she is frequently incorporating her own obsessions with stories of real-life falls and with the silent film comedian Buster Keaton into her telling. So the vignettes also facilitate a way for her to move through all the things that preoccupy her, circling around the heart of the matter without confronting it directly.
How did the lives of Czech author Bohumil Hrabal and Buster Keaton inspire the story?
Hrabal was a writer I encountered during my time living in Prague, and I fell in love with his work there. I sought out the places where he used to have drinks or take walks. Hrabal’s work embodies the city of Prague for me, and so I couldn’t imagine writing about Prague without writing also about Hrabal. His death, falling from the fifth-floor window of a hospital while attempting to feed the pigeons that had gathered on the windowsill, served as inspiration for the narrator’s twin brother’s fall in the novel, who is also an avid Hrabal fan in the book.
Marta and I both share an obsession with Buster Keaton. Once I started exploring Marta’s preoccupation with falls and falling, Keaton seemed like a perfect figure for her and her twin brother to revere. Marta worships Keaton in a way because of his mastery of the fall. Falling has been a source of fear for her family for generations, and here is this man who has turned falling into an artform and a livelihood. This makes Keaton into a kind of guardian figure for her and her brother Nick.
In what way is our speech “full of falling” and why is that?
In the book, at one point I list many of the common phrases we use that involve “falling,” and I think that these falls are so present in our speech because they represent the tumultuous uncertainty that is inherent in the lives we live. Within falling, there is this element of the unexpected, and our speech seems to convey a sense that any of us, at any moment, could tumble. Life is precarious, and our words reflect that.
Is Marta’s family curse a self-fulfilling prophesy and do you think that family myths do have a lasting impact on generations to come?
This is one of the things that Marta seeks to understand in the novel. I believe that the stories that families share with one another have immense power, and these stories definitely contribute to the ways that individuals within the family process their identity. In the case of Marta’s family, I think that the curse is a self-fulfilling prophesy in that, once a pattern exists, we start to look for it everywhere. But I also believe that shared family narratives have deeply permeating impacts on how people define their own experiences.
Tell us about Nick and Marta’s relationship. Do brother-sister relationships differ from other sibling relationships?
I think that they do. I cannot speak from personal experience because I’ve never had a brother. I have a sister who’s six years older than me, and there are glimmers of my relationship with her in Nick and Marta’s relationship, though we are much more independent than Nick and Marta are. But I do see differences between the brother-sister bond and the bond between sisters. My mother grew up with two much older brothers, and I think this gave her a very different lens for her upbringing than I had. I think it makes you aware of the differences in treatment between the sexes, and Marta is definitely interested in the ways that her relationship with her mother is different from her brother Nick’s. Because of their closeness, she tends to be surprised by these differences, sometimes even thinking of herself and Nick as a single entity, but these differences are what ultimately leads Marta to a reckoning with her familial and individual identity.
Has the Christian concept of the Fall kept people on the straight and narrow or have we been morally stumbling ever since?
It’s interesting to me that grace strikes me as such a beautiful concept and original sin as such an ugly concept. But of course, grace cannot exist without sin, and this seems to be what the whole system is based on: we can’t have beauty without ugliness to compare it to.
I suppose, to answer your question, the Fall really has done both things historically: it’s helped people to strive for a path toward beauty, goodness, grace. And it’s also caused people to stumble in its insistence that we are inherently broken and flawed. In this way, I suppose it reflects a universal theme of trying to reach an ideal self and failing again and again.