Kirkland House Faculty Dean Verena Andermead Conley usually restricts her work with romance to the French language. As Long-Term Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature and Romance Languages and Literatures, she’s written on the environment, technology, film, cultural theory, and all their various intersections. Her newest book, “Cree: To Believe in the World,” explores a different subject entirely: It’s a romance novel. FM met with Conley to discuss the love, fraught relationships, and the pleasure involved in crafting books.
Fifteen Minutes: How did you get into romance novels (if that’s what you would call your latest work)?
Verena Conley: It’s very funny, because I didn’t envision it as that, but it’s interesting that that’s the reaction I’ve gotten. I wanted to write an environmental fiction that was different from the fictions I usually read, where you have a big company that is a villain, and then the person who discovers that the company has polluted something. So I tried to do something that would bring out some of [these] problems and also attract attention to a character who is really alienated from the world and just thinks about her work.
My big obsession right now is the question of care, in the sense of attentiveness to the world. We live in a world of censors where experience is discounted, but I still wanted to go back to a case where the woman from [this world] becomes observant and starts to look at the world better. But then it was picked up as “the woman goes through the divorce, and suddenly has this conversion.”
FM: How do you feel about the title of romance novelist?
VC: I am greatly amused! I have not seen myself this way, but I like it. Usually people accuse me of being highly abstract.
FM: So there’s a bit of separation between your own experiences and the works that you produce?
VC: I think it comes from other things you read or see and there is a separation. The writing is not autobiographical, per se. But there are certain constants, nonetheless; certain preoccupations. There’s always a kernel of something that you like and that you do that’s repeated over time.
FM: Can you give me an example of one of those kernels?
VC: I’m like a little girl when it comes to romantic movies. I like oldie old actresses and their old movies. Now you don’t have old romantic movies anymore. So I have a great appetite for that.
FM: Could you see yourself writing to fulfill that appetite for yourself and other people who miss that old style?
VC: The people who read “Cree” said I should have been more explicit with the love story. And I said, “That’s not my way of being.” I’m a very understated person.
FM: Where do you find inspiration for your work? Do you look for it, or does it come to you?
VC: I think it comes to you, and it really comes through you. Something that you read about and then suddenly think, “That’s it! I really want to spend time on this and I want to explore this question more.” You have to see theoretical writing [as] almost like being with a person. You have to write and read a lot of books, so you have to want to be with these books and have [them] keep you company and open your imagination and then really engage with them, like having a relationship with a person. The more your mind gets to work, the more you want to do it.
But at the same time, I would like to insist that I read and write from other books, from fictional books, from all kinds of books or from films. It’s not an expression of a self. It usually comes from something I watch, and I get bits and pieces of a film or of a book or of a character.
FM: Do you have any upcoming projects or things you’re working on?
VC: I always work on a lot of things, time permitting. I have a longer project precisely on the notion of care. I have another fun project about somebody who falls in love with an image on TV, and then their whole life sort of unravels. And then I have a funny thing too; I still want to do a funny thing.
FM: Do you have any musings about love and romance at Harvard?
VC: At Harvard, there is romance now as there was in the old days. Of course people are so busy now that they don’t have time for romance, or so it seems, but when spring comes around, you watch it blossom here and it’s always nice. I think it’s lovely that people have romantic feelings, especially in the spring. Still happens the way it did before. Even in the day of Instagrams and what is it, Cinderella?
VC: [Laughs.] Tinder. It still happens. Nothing will ever take this away. But it’s also different because, especially at Harvard, people don’t have that much time.
FM: Anything else on the topic of love and romance, or your work?
VC: Of course there always has to be a romance. I wanted to combine that romance with a different sense of perception that the woman gets [as a result]. In this day of censors where perception is really no more, I want to emphasize that there is such a thing, and that you can perceive the world. There’s always a transformation of blindness and insight, perhaps of an event that makes you see things differently, and the romance is part of that.
Come on—how could you have life without romance? There’s no such thing. It’s very boring. That’s precisely what happens to this character in the beginning. She’s so focused totally on her work that she doesn’t see anything, so that ends in divorce. So do I say that you shouldn’t be committed to your work? No, not at all. But I wanted a sense of perception and a strong sense of the world.