Molly Rogers writes on the history and theory of photography. She is the author of Delia’s Tears (Yale, 2010) and co-editor of To Make Their Own Way in the World (Aperture, 2020). She is associate director of the NYU Center for the Humanities and lives in Queens, New York. On February 17, 2021, Colorado Review editorial assistant Nicole Piasecki called contributor Molly Rogers to talk about the craft of writing and her essay “House of Secrets,” which was published in the Spring 2021 issue of Colorado Review. [This transcript has been edited for clarity and excerpted for space.]
Nicole Piasecki: Since “House of Secrets” focuses on spaces, objects, and contexts, I thought it would be fun to start by contextualizing this interview. Where are you sitting right now? What you’re looking at? What objects are around you?
Molly Rogers: I am comfortably in the brightest room in my New York City apartment. I am facing a wall, which has two very nice cabinets with a lamp on one and a snake plant on the other. Above them are two framed photographs that I took. Both are interiors of shops. One is the inside of a restaurant near me. It’s just a funny little picture of a child’s coat hanging on a rack in a window. It looks like the coat is animated. The other one is a bunch of jackets on a rack in the window of a shop in Manhattan. They are just two pictures that I like that I wake up and face every morning. So, yeah. Images. Images all around.
NP: Would you mind telling me just a little bit about your academic work, creative background, and other writing projects or publications so our readers can find more of your work.
MR: Sure. My formal education is in film production and art history. I did a film degree as an undergraduate and then went back and did a master’s in art history. Then I decided I really wanted to write. I was just really churning things out, trying to get somewhere. That, weirdly, led to a short play, which was produced. That led to the first book that I wrote: a narrative history on race, science, and photography in nineteenth-century America. It’s called Delia’s Tears.
Most of my publications have been on the history and theory of photography, but I occasionally write personal essays and other kinds of things as well.
NP: That is very relevant to our conversation about “House of Secrets.” It seems that your academic research and interests prompted the narrative sections of the essay, rather than the narrative prompting the research. Is that accurate?
MR: Exactly. Years ago, a friend of mine said to me: “It’s all research.” I’ve really taken that to heart. Everything I read, watch, and think about, I’m storing it away and thinking, How does that connect to other things? I’m really interested in how things connect or coincide.
NP: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the direct connections between your thinking and research in history and philosophy and how it drove your writing of “House of Secrets?”
MR: A crisis of belief or confidence, I guess you might say, is something I struggle with all the time. What that means is that I start things and don’t finish them. I have a lot of text that is not finished work, but I don’t delete anything. Lesson Number One: Don’t delete. I can, then, draw on this work for other things.
“House of Secrets” draws on the history and theory of photography that I’ve studied for many years. It [also] draws on a project about my mother that I worked on for many years that I abandoned recently. Then I get another idea, or, in this case, it was those photographs of empty rooms of the house I grew up in that just always struck me as being an odd little archive, an odd little collection. So, what does that then suggest? That made me think about the history of photography and Eugène Atget. And then, What does that suggest?
The words on the page start to suggest what the next piece of writing is. And sometimes that’s something I can pull from elsewhere, and sometimes that’s something I need to sit down and write anew.
NP: I love that. Asking “what does this suggest?” is a wonderful tool to offer other essayists. That question can open a number of possibilities.
I was wondering if you’d say a little bit about your essay’s endeavor to recontextualize the objects within the frame: the frame of the house, the frame of the narrator’s life, and the frame of history of the United States and the world.
MR: That is such a beautiful question. There is a kind of fixation on objects in this piece. Writing about childhood, everything is out of context. We look back and everything seems strange. Back then, it seemed normal that we had a part of a nuclear weapon in our kitchen because we never questioned it; we never asked about it. Humans are very good at pretending that strange things are perfectly normal.
This is part of why personal writing is so attractive because it allows us to go back to those objects, back to those places and look at them differently, look at them with adult eyes and see what they are and how they relate to history.
Absolutely, the missile battery was an emblem of the Cold War that terrified me and everyone of that generation. It absolutely structured my life—my mother’s work absolutely structured my life. In “House of Secrets,” her secret work was central to that. All these things start to ripple out from that object. It becomes very, very emblematic.
But to go back and look at it as just this thing, this super weird, out-of-place thing—of course, it wasn’t out of place at all; it was the thing everyone was so afraid of. It’s finding those resonances and those connections between object and place and time and history and memory and the personal that’s so important. It’s the reason I write.
Nicole Piasecki is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Colorado State University and an editorial assistant at Colorado Review. Her creative writing has been featured in Literary Mama, Longreads, Hippocampus Magazine, Gertrude Press, and the Brevity blog. She is working on a collection of essays.