Apricity Magazine: What are you working on, now that you’ve finished your third book?
Dr. Alexandra Wettlaufer: What I’m writing now is a book on George Eliot and George Sand, sort of looking at the relationship between the most important French female writer of the nineteenth century and the most important British author of the nineteenth century, arguably. Through the nineteenth century they were read together, and people were always comparing them. Now nobody looks at them. When you study English literature, you don’t really think about France and visa-versa, so I’m trying to bring them back together and understand the development of the transnational novel. In the nineteenth century people were reading across languages all the time.
AM: How was the whole process of applying for the Guggenheim, getting it, deciding where to go?
AW: Amazing. I was writing applications for grants for the project, it’s called Reading George, and I was applying to just a bunch of different things to get a year for the project. When I received the news, I was attending the longest lunch meeting I’ve ever been in and I thought “I’m going to start screaming.” I checked my phone, and it was a letter from the Guggenheim foundation, and I thought “A bad day just got worse. I’m getting rejected” And then I opened it and found out. You get invited to New York, and there is Joyce Carol Oates, and all these other amazing people. I’m still starstruck. Your name is in the New York Times. At this party, at the Guggenheim office in New York, there were all these people who had gotten it before, and somebody collapsed, and they started asking if there was a doctor in the house and we are all looking at each other going, “Well…kind of.”
AM: And you spent a year living in France?
AW: I spent some time in Paris and then London. It was an amazing year.
AM: Was that time spent on research, or were you working on a manuscript?
AW: I did some research and wrote about half the book. I’m just hoping to find time to write the other half. I think I can do it this summer. Once this gets easier I’ll have a little more time to write.
AM: Can you talk about your last book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman? What is that about?
AW: It’s a book about real life painters and novels about women painters in nineteenth century France and Britain. These women were showing, they were selling, they were popular, they were present, and then history kind of erases them. I was trying to bring back their presence. We have all these novels by Anne Bronte, George Sand, Sydney Owenson, all these women writing books about women painters, so they must be there. I thought, let's excavate, lets see what is going on. It was really fun, writing it.
AM: You mentioned the transnational novel, can you go a little more into that?
AW: I think we understand the world better when we don't break it into these fairly arbitrary -- American literature, English literature, French literature, German -- because we are all living in this larger world, where larger events are affecting all of us. George Eliot, yes she was reading the British authors, but she was also reading the French authors, and she was being read in America, so people have been reading outside of their nations. And I think these two women authors are particularly acutely aware and trying to move out of their restrictive definitions and categories and structures to propose a greater sense of humanity. It's so easy to focus on difference. You read a novel by Salman Rushdie and you have a better sense of India and Pakistan than you do if you read a history book. It helps us understand similarities and differences, but it also breaks down barriers.
AM: What are your goals for Plan II?
AW: Well we had a visitor's committee, with alums, which was such an amazing, exhilarating, energizing day. I had to throw my agenda out the window because they were generating so many ideas. So what moved to the top of my list of things I want to accomplish is to set up a professorship so we can have a class in computer programming. I do not think it should be that hard to raise money for; it makes sense, and it will make our students go on the job market with such an extraordinary set of skills, from the humanities, writing, languages, science, math, and then just to know the language of computer science. We are debating on whether it would be required or an elective. I want to make that available: it’s a language everybody should speak. And even if you go on to do a PhD in French, it’s good to know that stuff. The way we have Plan II physics, it would be Plan II computer science. So that’s number one. I want to bring back Praxis; I want to have a track in social engagement. I’m going to be raising some money to have a chair in social engagement, in honor of Lee Walker and Grant Thomas, who have done so much for us, so that can be permanent, and so we can bring people not from UT, but from the community, to teach us. I want to have a track, so your first year have Lee Walker courses, second year you would have KIPP or this healthcare course, then junior year would be TC 358, a junior seminar, on civic engagement. What do you do, how do we fix these problems: housing, homelessness etc. That's really important to me. And again, not everybody has to do it, but I think that if you could do a track, and then your senior thesis could be on some kind of civic engagement. We are training the next generation of leaders in the state of Texas, and in the world, and I think it’s really important that we teach you about history, philosophy, physics -- all this is fantastic -- but also to engage with the world.
We are all really lucky to be here, and really lucky to have the skills we have at our fingertips, and so turning some of that energy to make the world a better place is not a bad thing. My hope is that all Plan II students would at some level become socially engaged with something that they care about. I really wanted to organize, with P2SA, Habitat for Humanity with Plan II students and faculty. Totally voluntary, but modelling what we believe, which giving back. Getting out of the ivory tower and doing something together. But the maximum group size is twenty five, so back to the drawing board. Maybe something at Pease Park, a clean up, something as a community where we are not talking about a book, we are not doing homework, we are not analyzing anything, we are just working together. I think that’s really important.
AM: We have talked a lot about leaders and civic engagement. How do perceive the role of a leader within the arts community?
AW: I think the wonderful thing that the arts can do, whether it’s literature, film, painting, photography, is they let us see other ways of thinking and living and imagining. So speaking another language, or reading books in translation you can understand… The worst thing that can happen to us is that we become so self referential that nothing else has value. Whereas when you are reading you’re in somebody else’s mind and experience, you can image the pain of a different situation and you realize that pain is human. Or that love is human. It unites us. I think it really shows us what we all share, experientially, emotionally. And I think that it is a way of refusing the isolation of the contemporary world. It’s sort of the anti-selfie. It’s looking outward, rather than looking in, but also trying to bring the outer-world within emotionally. I know that's a little incoherent but it’s how we connect. I think we are better connectors when we experience art. It’s what makes us human, I think.
Have any recommendations for the next interview? Let us know! Support our cause!