I read Elise Juska’s absolutely enthralling novel The Blessings at first because we’re fellow Philadelphia writers and I try to keep up with my hometown (after 26 years, I can say hometown) crew. But this is a book to make you forget any reason you may have picked it up, and to replace that with complete involvement and unfolding interest. It’s what I think of as a “repercussion book,” or maybe the word is “reverberation” as it traces something I have observed in my own family and in others, which how the tragic, early loss of one family member can echo through the years, and through the generations. This is a serious book, but by no means solely a somber one. And it’s wise. And it has an unusual structure, unusual even in this era of novels-in-stories, and I wanted to know more about the craft.
So I sent Elise some questions to which she was kind enough to respond. And her wonderful answers make me oh so glad I had!
The Blessings is available wherever fine books are sold, and since we’re two Philly writers, I’m also suggesting you order it from The Spiral Bookcase – a tiny but mighty store celebrating its 4th Birthday this weekend, July 19!!
RB: Your amazing book, The Blessings, is about the travails and joys of an Irish Catholic family in Philadelphia, over a period of many years. I have a lot of questions, but the one I want to start with is pretty craft-oriented. The book is structured around chapters – each its own short story in many ways, and each from a the point of view of a different family member. Even before asking about that over-arching structure, I want to ask about the decision you made to give away some future events, in the opening chapter. As far as I can recall – and feel free to correct me – it’s the only section that does that, that peers into the future. I found it fascinating and very effective, because one of the events to which the narrator eludes is the main tragedy, still to come; and the effect of having it mentioned before it happens gave me the unique and eery feeling of it echoing both forward and backward in time. But I was wondering went into your thinking.
ES: That’s such a great question and one I haven’t been asked. I’ve never used “flash forwards” in my writing before (and probably would have been pretty skeptical of the idea) but here, I was hoping they would achieve a couple of things, both within the opening scene and in the context of the book. In the scene—a family gathering as seen through the eyes of Abby, 18, home from college for the first time—I wanted those brief glimpses into the future to lend a different sort of fragility and complexity to the present. Abby is seeing her family differently, struck by their sameness and predictability, but for the reader, knowing what’s ahead, these seemingly ordinary details—saying goodbye to her grandfather, watching her uncle pack his kids in the car—have, I hope, a different sort of gravity. Also, because the novel is written in stories—eleven different points of view, sometimes skipping years in between—I wanted to make sure there was a sense from the outset of a shared narrative, something binding all these characters together, and to establish that the novel is not about any one person but the clan. If this were a stand-alone story, I doubt I would have added the future glimpses—they might have felt too clever or tricky—but in the context of the novel, I hope they added tension, gave a more ominous and complicated feeling to Abby’s leaving.
RB: More generally, on the subject of that structure, I loved the way that it seemed to evoke the way that this family – among many – is both knit together, close as they are; but also loose in that construction, which competes with the reality of people being individuals, and of such groups as siblings so often having such different roles and perspectives. What was the history of your choice of that form? Did you ever see the book as a linear, more traditional novel, or was it always conceived as being this way?
ES: I love how you describe the loose-but-knit-together feeling. That dynamic was one of the things most on my mind when I began writing, the relationship between the individual and the clan. Because there is, in a big family, a sense of oneness: everybody shares this long history of traditions, rituals, well-worn stories. The identity of the individual is wrapped up in the identity of the family. But of course, there are also parts of every person that are private, separate, unknown to the rest. I wanted the structure of the book to reflect that dichotomy, the private experience versus the shared. The story is one I’ve been attempting to write for a long time (more on that below…) but it was when I finally landed on the structure that the first chapter began.
RB: There isn’t a central figure in the book, not exactly, though there is a central event. This seemed again like a fascinating choice. Can you talk a bit about that – without giving too much away, of course, which I’m trying hard here not to do! Did you always know the book would be so much about a family’s reactions to and the long, long term reverberations of one event?
ES: The death of the uncle, both specifically and generally, has been a presence in my fiction for quite a while. In reality I had two uncles who died quite young, both of cancer, both with small children. Those losses have certainly shaped my own family and impacted my writing. So I did know from the beginning that the central event would inform the rest of the book—the way roles shift in response to such an absence, the way a family grieves both collectively and individually—though I didn’t know how or through whose eyes; those things became apparent as the story evolved. Though the book spans twenty years, I never wanted the characters to lose sight of that absence; it continues to impact them all. It unites them and it defines them and it can isolate them, too.
RB: It’s a book full of empathy for a crew of characters of many different sorts – for all that they are related. In writing a book with so many very close points of view, did you find some more difficult to sympathize with? Do you find either gender easier to write than the other? I have been through periods of preferring to ‘write men’ and I often wonder about other gender-crossing authors.
ES: Unexpectedly, I found that I most enjoyed writing the male characters. They were more challenging but also more surprising, probably for the same reason—they felt most unlike me. I love trying to inhabit unfamiliar points of view, understand different characters and walk in their shoes. I had compassion for them all, even the ones who were screwing up—especially the ones who were screwing up. Ultimately, though, the character who was probably the most difficult to write was the grandmother, Helen, who’s just moved into an assisted living community and is feeling, after the loss of her son, that she’s “done.” That chapter was tough for all kinds of reasons, some having to do with life and some having to do with craft: she’s quite alone throughout most of the chapter, recognizing early signs of dementia. I wanted the narrative to reflect her quality of mind on the line level—spare sentences, short paragraphs, frequent shifts between present and past—and to feel authentic, to have her perceiving her own decline at the same time she’s declining. And then my own grandmother died while I was working on the book, making that chapter additionally hard; I had to set it aside for a while. Among other things, I didn’t want my own sorrows and sympathies to spill into Helen’s character, for she’s not at all sentimental or self-pitying about herself.
RB: How long did you work on this book. It has the feel of something that developed over some time – in a good way. And are you onto the next project yet?
ES: Writing the book took about three years, though in some way I’ve been working on it for—two decades? In my first real fiction workshop, as a sophomore at Bowdoin, I was definitely writing some version of that opening scene—the aunts gathered around the dining room table, discussing sad things—and wouldn’t be surprised if some bits (the aunts flexing their stockinged feet under the table) might have been there almost verbatim in 1993. In the years since, I’ve written a great deal about grieving, especially in my short stories, so in a way this novel has been gathering for years. Finally writing it was a matter of figuring out the structure and, I’m sure, growing up and seeing my own family with clearer eyes.
I have two new projects in the works, one a collection of stories (see above: grieving) that I’ve been writing and publishing individually over the past ten years or more. The other is a new novel, pretty different than this one; it’s set in a small New England town and involves a college professor, an act of violence. As you can probably tell from The Blessings, I love small moments and quiet details. In the new novel, I’m trying to keep those small details intact while building a story that’s bigger, more (conventionally) dramatic, even sort of scary. This is new for me. For all the sadness in The Blessings, I think it’s ultimately a kind of cozy book, because the reader—like the characters—can take reassurance in the underlying solidity of this family. The new novel is more discomfiting. It reminds me of when I was a kid, afraid of literally everything, and spent most of my free time typing stories up in my room; I once came barreling downstairs and told my parents: “I scared myself writing!” I’m having that same feeling, thirty years later.