JESSICA SOFFER earned her MFA at Hunter College. Her work has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, and Vogue, among other publications. She teaches fiction at Connecticut College and lives in New York City. Her debut novel Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots came out with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2013. Jessica is reading at Fiction Addiction on May 28, 2013.
Amanda Faraone: First, let me just say that I devoured Apricots in one single day, and—both because of the beautiful descriptions of food laced throughout the novel and the characters’ deep longing for things they can never have—it made me feel so deeply hungry for the story to unfold, in a way that I used to feel when I would read as a kid. Would you say that hunger, in all its forms, was the thread that pulled this novel together for you? Or something else?
Jessica Soffer: You laced such a generous compliment into that question. Thank you ever so. Hunger wasn’t on my mind when I was writing–at least not consciously. What I did know I was writing about, what I am deeply concerned with, is loneliness in all its forms and the very human, and often very voracious desire to transcend it. So that’s probably where the hunger comes in. What all the characters are looking for is a vehicle out of their own solitude and the need for that is pressing for different reasons, but equally so. It drives them, and the story. It’s at the heart of everything in the book. At least, for me.
AF: I was interested by the three voices in your novel—Lorca, Victoria and Joseph—and how they intersected and diverged from one another. During the writing process, how did you write from so many different perspectives at once while keeping their voices distinct?
JS: It felt very necessary to be in more than one character’s head. Lorca has such young energy–though she’s weighted down by sadness, too–and I wanted to explore someone else at the other end of things. The end, so to speak. Victoria is Lorca’s counterpoint, seeing the world from a different place, maybe even the opposite place. It felt that the book, the story, needed that as much as I did. To bop back and forth warded off boredom, and became a dialogue: between the characters and for me. It’s harder, much harder, to have a conversation with oneself. Obviously.
AF: On the subject of having a conversation with oneself: how did you approach material that was close to your own life experience–growing up in New York, with Iraqi Jewish relatives–but also distinct from your life experience? When you were writing it, how did you create a separate mind-space? Did writing from a much younger and much older perspective from yours help?
JS: I didn’t think about it too much. I think that’s the most honest answer. I never set out with the intention of writing “about” anything: any subject or emotion. Of course, certain things came to the forefront and became what I was writing about. But I think attempting to honor my father’s culture (the Iraqi Jewish one) from the get-go would have set me up for failure. The same goes for “honoring” New York, which I meant to. I wanted to do those things, of course, but I had to not think about them in order to do it–otherwise the writing would have felt very heavy-handed. But I didn’t write a memoir, or anything of the sort. I couldn’t have. I’ve realized that I love fiction because you can lose yourself in it, get lost in an entirely different world, and create something new in its place. There’s so much room. The world quite literally becomes your oyster. The world IS the oyster.
As for voices: Victoria came very naturally to me. I’ve always had the concerns of someone much older and so writing about mortality, nostalgia, and regret didn’t require a giant leap. Not at all. Lorca was harder. I never felt like a teenager even when I was one and so her rhythm needed lots of adjusting. It felt like translating: my thoughts to words, words to the page, the page to Lorca. I hope it worked.
AF: I think it worked beautifully, and I agree with you absolutely about fiction, its expansiveness, its oyster-ness. In terms of writing your first novel, how did you make the shift from writing a short story (“Pain”) to the novel? What were the challenges in shifting from a short piece to a longer form? Any surprises?
JS: Lots of surprises. I had no idea what I was doing, writing a novel. And I’m terrible at plot. And so I ended up with a 300-page sketch. In many ways, it’s a miracle that the manuscript was bought: that someone had the vision for it, despite itself. But my editor did–and before that, my agent did. I ended up doing a giant overhaul, making what happened on page 250 happen on page 80. Next time around, I plan to think more about architecture. And I want to. I love playing with form in short stories and I think I was intimidated by doing the same for a novel. But next time, I hope not to be. I hope to make different mistakes.
AF: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received about writing?
JS: Scratch what itches.