A Conversation with Jessica Soffer

I met Jessica Soffer at the end of the summer of 2007, during our first day of class at Hunter College’s MFA program. All of us were nervous. It was brutally hot outside and brutally cold in our air-conditioned room. We became close almost immediately, on a walk around SoHo—I think I was looking for a dress to wear to a wedding, and I don’t think I was successful—and since then she has become an important friend, a confidante, a writing partner, an associate, a mind-reader. Jessica Soffer is generous with her time and her brain. Jessica Soffer enjoys laughing at jokes. When she laughs at your jokes you feel brilliant. Jessica Soffer just got a puppy [see below]. Jessica Soffer makes delicious tea. Jessica Soffer puts together a killer guest bed.  Jessica Soffer has nicknames: Jess to most of the world, an assortment of terms of endearment to her boyfriend, funny affectionate epithets to her college friends, Jessie to me. Jessica Soffer just published her first novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, and she granted me an e-mail interview, which we completed over the course of a month, in between all the other e-mails we send each other on a daily basis.

 –Liz Moore

INTERVIEWER

In your novel you write about food with a sense of nostalgia and warmth and fondness. It seems like the antidote to suffering. Do you have your own fond, familial memories of food? If so, what are they?

 JESSICA SOFFER

I come from a long line of people who believe in the curative powers of food. My father was born in Baghdad, Iraq in the 1920s and his mother was a healer. She believed in eating for one’s well-being, to strengthen and fortify and enrich the body by eating particular things. Iraqi Jews of that time also believed in eating by color: yellow fruits and vegetables for happiness, rose petals for love, shunning black and unlucky foods, such as the skin of eggplants. When my father came to the United States, he was forced to abandon his family, his Jewish faith, his national pride, and so food and the flavors of his childhood were the way he reestablished a home in New York, by replicating his mother’s recipes.

Growing up, the smell of his cooking is my strongest memory: of cumin and cardamom and cloves. There was nothing processed in our home: no sandwich meats or soda or chips or, heaven forbid, gummy fruit snacks. There was no cough syrup during cold season. There was ginger and garlic and terribly smelly teas. Notions of how to properly nourish the body were innate to him: drinking room temperature liquids to avoid shocking the system, well-spiced stews to warm the limbs, and lots of citrus to cleanse were things that he did intuitively, without fanfare or explanation—and how I learned to eat, and live. In a way, the two are inextricable: we eat in order to live. It’s the most obvious thing in the world. And yet, I think that a childhood like mine, with such emphasis placed on eating for one’s well-being is likely to turn out a person particularly attuned to that connection—and of food generally, which I am.

  INTERVIEWER

I love this answer. I also see so much of that in you: your first question, every time I walk into your apartment, is, “What can I get you? Tea?” (I’ll overlook the part about how you then ask me if I want hemp milk in it, the thought of which chills me to my bones.) I think food, offerings of food and drink, are such a beautiful part of friendship. I think I have told you about how weirdly sentimental I get when people split fruit with me—like, “here, want half of this orange?”—because it’s such a primitive gesture and triggers some uncanny ancestral memory in my cerebrum, and it also speaks to the fundamental good of human beings. We humans have been splitting fruit with each other for millennia. I know some animals do it too, but we split fruit with people outside our family, or herd. This is not a question yet. I guess my question is, do you feel that way too? Do you offer food as a gesture of something?

JESSICA SOFFER

I have three things to say to that. First, asking about the tea has to do with you. How I want you to stay a while, forever, always. And tea is a good start. I keep ice cream in the freezer because I know how you prefer it not only to hemp milk, but to world peace, puppies and winning the lottery. Second, asking that question has to do with my childhood. My mother is not much of a cook but she is a professional at making people feel at home: sitting them down on the couch with a good book, tucking their feet into a wool blanket when she’s only just been introduced. My father was a more traditional in his home-making. The Iraqi Jews believed in being generous hosts: dried fruit and nuts for days when any Tom, Dick or Harry dropped in. Third, asking that question has to do with always wanting everyone to feel comfortable in my presence. If you get my name wrong, I will not correct you. I don’t want you to feel weird. It’s not a question of allowing myself to be walked all over—which I won’t allow—but with something that you and I talk about often: empathy. How some writers have it in spades (I’m not assigning judgment to that at the moment): they rely on it, are burdened and motivated by it, and it’s what allows them/compels them to write about people who are not themselves. That is the case with you and me, which means that we can imagine standing at the door awkwardly, not being offered tea. So we ask: tea, ice cream, a soft place to land?

 INTERVIEWER

You’re a nice lady. OK, let’s talk about MFA programs. We met in one. Some of our most important friends came out of one. The roots of Apricots were formed in one. What do you say to people who are considering them? What was pleasant and what was hard about the experience? Do you have deep/complex thoughts about what MFA programs are doing to contemporary writing? Go.

JESSICA SOFFER

I say/would say that it depends on who is asking. For me, two great things came out of our MFA experience: first, I met the people with whom I talk about writing, with whom I sit across a table and write, with whom I avoid writing. That is a gift that keeps on giving. Writing is a solitary act in many ways, and finding the means to make it less so, people to make it less so with, is of the utmost. Second, I learned about living a writer’s life from Colum [McCann] and Peter [Carey] and Nathan [Englander]. They are incredible teachers, and their styles so complementary to one another, but more than that, they are living, breathing, brilliant writers. And seeing how they struggle to balance writing with the rest–with family and self-doubt and teaching and bills and noise, both literal and otherwise–has been invaluable.

The drawback of the MFA for me was that at a certain point ten opinions felt crushing. Too much. There were particular pieces that I simply couldn’t bring to workshop because I was afraid of what would happen–that they might deflate and I’d never be able to resurrect them. Workshop is not a delicate place, but sometimes what the work needs more than anything is a delicate hand.

Here’s the thing: if an MFA buys you time to write, great. And if you can afford that time, great. If it lights the fire under your ass, great. But if the idea of ten opinions make your skin prickle, not great. If it sends you into the deepest, darkest regions of debt–or even if it compromises your creativity because of its financial demands–not great. And so not great if you do not trust your professors and your classmates. An MFA won’t buy you a book deal. Quite simply, it promises exactly nothing. And yet, it can mean everything.

 INTERVIEWER

Aside from meeting the people with whom you talk about writing (as we are doing now…how meta) and avoid writing (as I am doing now….how meta-squared), what do you feel you took from your time at Hunter that you were able to apply directly to the writing of Apricots? These can be writing-related or non-writing-related skills.

JESSICA SOFFER

From Peter [Carey]: everything must be in service of the story. Every line. Every word. Cut one-third (or was it two-thirds?) of everything you write. Be succinct. And eat well. From Colum [McCann]: write from the heart, from a place of fire. Language means a whole lot, but not everything. It is not enough. Write something that matters. Colum is a great bullshit detector. And bullshit has no place in good work. Something that matters is the opposite of bullshit. And drink well. From Nathan [Englander]: writing is a moral act. Write hard. Write in a vacuum. Write something that you don’t believe can be written until you write it. And caffeinate.

 INTERVIEWER

Speaking of learning about writing: can we go back earlier in your life and talk about your earliest experiences with creative writing in school?  For some reason I have been thinking a lot about my very early writing teachers recently: the kindness of certain elementary school teachers who went out of their way to say something encouraging, the awesome toughness of some of them. They gave us writing prompts so inspiring that I am still jealous of their creativity. Whether or not your memories are as positive as mine–what are some early-childhood experiences you had with writing in school?

JESSICA SOFFER

I didn’t go to a school that placed great value on creativity: on math and science and hard work, yes. But art and creativity, no. Definitely no prompts. Lucky you. All that is to say that I didn’t have much opportunity to write in school until late in the game. We did, however, read a lot. And me even more so. I always had my nose in a book. During my freshman year, I took a poetry class and we did little riffs and I remember mine being OK, and feeling validated, though I hadn’t even known it was validation I was lacking. All that reading, I realized, paid off. It had everything to do with my ability to write. From then on (and because writing electives were few and far between) I gravitated towards the teachers that encouraged more creative lines of thinking. I remember writing a story about geometry. Two angles meet a fork in the road etc.

 INTERVIEWER

What are you scared to write? What are you scared to write but can imagine writing someday nonetheless?

JESSICA SOFFER

Will answer tomorrow. On our way to pick up Scout Finch. Oh yeah. It’s happening. Ready to be Auntie Lizzie?

[Whereupon a frenzy of text messages ensued.]

[Whereupon puppy pics were sent.]

JESSICA SOFFER [cont.]

I used to be scared of writing emotion, of sounding melodramatic and false. Now what I’m scared of writing (or not writing) has more to do with craft and career and the big picture than with content. So, I’m scared of writing 300 pages of a novel that go nowhere. I’m scared of doing that again and again. I’m scared of writing something that doesn’t matter, that doesn’t mean anything. Of doing that again and again. I’m scared of writing something that I’m not proud of, and realizing that too late. I’m scared of the dark: that time between work when you have no idea if you can do it again. So many writers that I respect say that it never gets easier. I’m not scared of the challenge in that. I’m scared that one day the challenge might not even be on the table.

 INTERVIEWER

I think the challenge will always be on the table because you will always write. For me, these times are rare, but–when are you most elated while writing? What’s the best feeling you have as a writer?

JESSICA SOFFER

That’s a beautiful question. And particularly hard to answer right now as I wait for the “verdict” on my first novel. It’s a real moment of dread for me and it’s hard to remember the good stuff. But it’s probably important that I do. And when I do, I come up with two instances of elation, as you put it.  The first is when the story takes over. That might happen when I’m at my desk or maybe when I’m sleeping or maybe when I’m talking to you about a particular detail in the text and it dawns on me that I’ve built something and it’s bigger than the parameters I’ve drawn for it. The narrative, the characters, the world I’ve created becomes bigger than myself, than itself. It has a life of its own, and it exists. The other day someone told me that she missed the characters in my novel when she’d finished reading. It was among the most meaningful things anyone has ever said to me, and leads me to the other moment, which happens once the work is done. Writing, I think, is really just a way of asking the world if it likes you, if it thinks you’re good enough, if it gets you. It’s not always that, but that is a big part of it. We write for ourselves, of course, but. But but but. So, the moment in which someone does get it: finds the meaning you hoped they would, or maybe even meaning you didn’t hope for but moves you nonetheless is a really amazing thing. It’s cause for elation. We are, on good days, making something exactly like nothing else. And when it works, it can be big and it can be meaningful. That’s something I can get behind, can find great joy and pride in. Elation, for sure.

 INTERVIEWER

I’m not asking you what your next project will be, because I know what it’s like to want to keep those cards very close to my chest. But I am asking you: are you dreaming about it yet? Speculating about it? Excited about it? Worried about it?

JESSICA SOFFER

I have to say: I am beyond excited to started on another novel. (Talk to me two days in and I might have a totally different answer.) I have one percolating, though there’s nothing concrete about it yet. I’ve been working on lots of non-fiction as of late, and the other day, I started a short story and I remembered how very much I love fiction. How you can lose yourself in it in a way that non-fiction doesn’t allow. And I’ve learned so much from writing APRICOTS. I’m sure the next novel will be full of errors too, but different ones. That’s the hope. That’s all I can ask for. The opportunity to write another book with its own unique set of issues. That doesn’t feel negative to me. It feels like the best way to spend the next bunch of years.

 INTERVIEWER

I can’t wait for you to start writing your next novel, so that I can have someone else to kvetch with about novel-writing again. (Although I am much more of a kvetcher than you.)

As today is the publication day of your very first book and I’m sure you have other things to do–like swilling champagne or crying quietly in a corner–I’ll end here. Congratulations, Jessica Soffer, published novelist. Now go outside for a walk.

JESSICA SOFFER

Scout and I are going for a walk, crying and boozing every step of the way. Can’t wait to talk to you later.

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