Ask the Author: Renee Branum

Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Renee Branum wrote her novel Defenestrate after spending time abroad in Prague. The tale revolves around a family history of falling that haunts twins Nick and Marta’s lineage and delves into themes of mental health.


Ariana Lessard, Arts Reporter

The word “defenestrate” means to throw or push someone out of a window.

University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop alum and author Renee Branum’s debut novel titled, Defenestrate, takes place in Prague, and follows twins, Nick and Marta, reconciling their family’s “falling curse.” Branum currently resides in Cincinnati, where she is pursuing a doctorate.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

The Daily Iowan: What was your inspiration for Defenestrate?

Branum: I think the most important contribution to the book coming to be was the time that I lived in Prague. Like, right after I finished my undergraduate degree, my friend and I moved abroad. We had a mutual friend who had lived in Prague and taught English as a second language, and he talks about it like it was the most magical experience imaginable, and I mean, it was magical for sure, but it was also difficult in all the ways — like, living abroad when you’re 21 years old and don’t know what you’re doing and don’t know how to be an adult. I feel like that kind of carries over into the character of Marta. I feel like she’s sort of figuring herself out and figuring how she fits in the world, and how she fits within her own family dynamic. So, that was definitely a big inspiration.

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DI: What inspired the “falling curse,” and does it have any special metaphorical meaning or symbolism that wouldn’t be a spoiler?

Branum: Yeah, so its seeds were a very short lyric essay about the idea of defenestration, and it was really just about me walking around Prague, looking up at windows and sort of feeling a little bit displaced and kind of building a map of the city in my head. I was really obsessed with [Bohumil] Hrabel while I was living in Prague, and, famously, his death was a defenestration of sorts. He fell out of his hospital window — the fifth floor of his hospital window — while trying to feed pigeons, allegedly. So, he was sort of my guide while I was in Prague, and I was sort of thinking about all the ways that falling surrounds us and how the idea that that falling mirrors the human experience of risk and sort of like the precariousness of just being a person in a body in the world, and so when I started growing the essay and found a fictional narrator. I feel like it was a natural fit for her to have this preoccupation with falling in this family history of her ancestors being impacted by generational falls. So that’s sort of how it came about. In terms of like metaphorical usages, there’s a passage in the book where I talk about how full of falling our speech is that, you know, there’s so many expressions — “falling in love.” I have a lengthy list of them in the book, but they’re not coming to me right now. So I mean, I think it’s already sort of a preoccupation, like, inherent in our language.

DI: Can you expand upon the themes of repression and mental illness in more depth?

Branum: I mean, I think that that’s sort of the discovery of the book is that murder Marta’s sort of discovering. What she thinks is happening as a twin. She is sort of projecting all of her worries about her own mental state onto her twin brother Nick, and I think that that can happen sometimes when you’re in the throes of difficulty. It helps to not feel alone there. Whether it’s your siblings or your friends and you know, she really is in the process of sort of sorting out the threads of her own mental state, and that certainly does manifest in repression. She is in many ways a very repressed narrator both sort of sexually, and sort of like self-monitoring, you know, like she chooses what she wants to look at and think about. She doesn’t want to think about her own mental situation and precariousness, but she does want to look at the history of falling in her family. Even though she’s using them as a sort of evasive technique, they’re all pointing back to the thing that she is avoiding, essentially. That’s sort of a lot of times how unreliable narrators work, but I think not all unreliable narrators have the opportunity of ultimate discovery and kind of like redemption, and I feel like that’s more the endgame of the book for Marta which is, I hope, the final uplift of the story.

DI: You mentioned you have another book on the back burner. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Branum: I’ve been working on this project a long time. It’s also a sort of family narrative, and it’s also about storytelling and the stories that families tell one another and how they sort of persist and manifest differently for different family members. So essentially, the central storyline of the novel is that a mother of two daughters leaves her family for a month when her daughters are very young, and she returns but she has no real explanation of where she was or why she left, and this month of absence sort of has echoes and repercussions for the two daughters in different ways. So, they sort of swap the narrative back and forth — it alternates between their two perspectives, and kind of explores how that event kind of branched out through their whole adulthood.

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