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Harvard Authors Profile: Valerie Werder on ‘Thieves’ and Intellectual Property

"Thieves" by Valerie Werder
"Thieves" by Valerie Werder By Courtesy of Fence Books
By Aiden J. Bowers, Crimson Staff Writer

It is rare to find a novelist who encourages copying of her work. Valerie Werder breaks this mold, and many others. Her debut novel, “Thieves,” is a work of autobiographical fiction depicting her growth from childhood to adulthood as she navigates sex and sexuality, insecurity, thievery, consumption, and challenges societal and ethical limitations. In “Thieves,” Werder, who is a Ph.D. candidate in film and visual studies and a presidential scholar at Harvard University, divulged the details of her unconventional entrance into the world of autobiographical fiction, shedding light on her own path to authorship and the turbulent road to publishing.

In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Werder unpacked the beginnings of her writing career and inspiration for this novel. Much like the main character of her work, also named Valerie, Werder began her writing career working in a New York City art gallery. As the Head of Writing and Research, Werder’s job was to be the “voice of the gallery,” writing press releases, sales pitches, and performing interviews.

Werder began her career as a ghostwriter, producing work anonymously and not for pleasure; she had to write with the intention of persuasion and under the pressure of unrelenting deadlines. Having never taken a creative writing course, Werder describes adapting to become a “language machine,” developing the skill of incredible production speed — a talent she now sees as separate from the skills of a novelist.

When Werder decided to apply this unconventional style to writing a novel, the pace of the gallery stood in her way. “I had no time to write my own words, but I was constantly writing. So what I did was I lied. I told my boss that I had gotten a really prestigious writing residency, and that I needed a three month sabbatical” Werder said. The following 90 days would be spent in her friend’s rural Tennessee cabin, quickly conceptualizing the novel from the ground up.

Werder set a daily writing goal, realizing that with a certain daily word count she would reach novel length by the end of her sabbatical. She started writing about the moments in her life that felt “the most scary.”

“What I wanted to do with this kind of radical self exposure,” Werder said, “was to say look, these are the weird fantasies that I have, this is my relationship to food, these are the things that have happened to me. And if other people can see themselves in this a little bit, I thought that it would kind of reduce the shame around these things.”

From this spirit of honesty and the impending end of her sabbatical, Werder crafted her signature, atemporal style. She began to switch between points of view, realizing different vignettes required different perspectives. When writing did not flow from day to day, the process became as creative as the final product: “Sometimes I would receive a spam email from Wells Fargo,” Werder Said. “Then, I would edit that into something more surreal or strange, and that would be the chapter for the day.”

From there, she only needed to configure and assemble the fragmented pieces — Werder likened this process to sculpting or visual art, rather than a traditional editing process.

The final product, “Thieves,” inspects themes of thievery of both intellectual and physical property. Shoplifting is a major focal point of the story, and both real and fictional Valerie have partaken in a borrowing of words from other sources, including their own past works. She learned to write academic papers via a sentence-level insertion of her own subject matter into existing papers published in journals, teaching herself this new skill through the language of others.

“We are all a walking bibliography of everything that we’ve ever read, listened to, people that we’ve spoken to,” Werder said. “So I see this [project] as really freeing, and I hope that it also allows my readers or even just people reading this interview to have a more relaxed relationship to language and not worry so much about finding their authentic voice.”

As a teacher, Werder notes how many scholars unabashedly copied each other in the era before the internet; in many ways, this borrowing of language is preferable to the alternative of jealously-guarded prose. Ultimately, Werder views language as a collective creative project, where collaboration and participation should be valued.

“I hope that people read my book and steal little bits of what I wrote,” said Werder, “and twist them around into their own language.”

Werder’s final hurdle to becoming a novelist was in the publishing of “Thieves.” Two years after having received a handful of rejections and “radio silence,” Werder heard back from Fence, her now publisher.

Yet in the space between submission and publication, Werder was left without direction, having left the gallery industry but without a published novel to her name. This time in limbo led Werder to apply to Ph.D. programs, eventually enrolling in Harvard’s Film and Visual Studies graduate program.

Working alongside her talented peers, Werder produces nonfiction films using archival footage. This process has expanded the way she thinks about writing. As she pieces together the film, she is reminded of the way that the fragments of her book congealed into a finished whole, shifting her ideas about writing not to be constrained to language, but to investigate how she can sculpt from any material. “I started to think about writing and the way that I work,” Werder said, “not just in terms of what I do with language, but what I can do with really any material even if it's not linguistic.”

This interdisciplinary aspect is part of what gives “Thieves” its power. By thinking beyond the language, Werder has crafted a relatable narrative exposing the societally-shared insecurities of the modern day — and perhaps even helping to conquer them.

—Staff writer Aiden J. Bowers can be reached at aiden.bowers@thecrimson.com.

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