Thursday morning, I interview the author (Joanna Hershon) of this acclaimed new novel.
Over the past month, I read all three of Joanna’s novels. Swimming (Order from Amazon.com) was the sexiest and Bride the most cinematic.
As a child, Hershon wanted to be "an actress and a writer."
"Writing won out over everything else. I just kept doing it. It became the thing I wanted to do every day."
Luke: "How did writing change you?"
Joanna: "Writing seriously has made me more internal. I crave that space, that autonomy, that writing offers. I’m not a loner at all. I’m very social. Over the years, I’ve become more solitary."
Luke: "Does that extra solitude make for more or less happiness?"
Joanna: "I don’t know. It definitely makes for more fulfillment (when it’s going well)."
"I’ve always needed writing in my life. I felt found or understood if by no one else than myself."
Luke: "If I gave you a random page of literature [by an unknown writer], with what degree of accuracy could you predict whether the writer was male or female?"
Joanna: "I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it."
Luke: "Your writing strikes me as quintessentially female."
Luke: "Because it is hyper-interior, hyper-relational, hyper-emotional."
Joanna: "You can think of famous books by men where you’d say all the same things. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary."
Luke: "All your books make me feel uncomfortable. I’m encountering the other. Men don’t have as good social skills as women. You touch on areas that evoke awkward feelings in me, a lack of competence feeling."
Joanna: "I like to investigate vulnerable states."
Luke: "How do you see this book as different from your first two?"
Joanna: "The subject matter — it’s a historical novel. The arc of the book is more taut. Each chapter can stand by itself. The writing is more spare."
Luke: "In your novel Swimming, I always had the feeling that someone was gonna get screwed."
Joanna: "There’s possibility everywhere in that book."
Luke: "People are always failing with each other in your books."
Joanna: "True. But I think there’s a lot of hope in my books. My first and third books end with a feeling of great possibility."
Luke: "But the great majority of what you write about is our failure to…"
Joanna: "Connect? I don’t think of it that way. I write about the struggle to connect."
"What I really write about is desire."
Luke: "In an interview you said, ‘I am very honored when I’m told that I don’t judge my characters.’ What does that mean?"
Joanna: "When somebody says do you like this character? Do you think he’s good or bad?’ I don’t write that way. I don’t think that way about characters. For me it is more like approaching characters as through acting."
"Don’t judge the character, be the character," is famous acting advice.
Joanna: "You’re not playing bad. You’re playing motivation, desire. I’m not writing a morality play. I’m writing about people and their faults and strengths. That’s the way I see people in life. It’s rare that I write someone off as a total jerk."
Luke: "Is it OK for readers to judge your characters?"
Joanna: "Absolutely. A lot of my readers of my first book became obsessed with Suzanne, Aaron’s girlfriend. They either loved her or hated her. One editor wanted me to rewrite the book so that she accompanies Lila to find Aaron."
Luke: "Is there any more consistently compelling topic to write about than infidelity? It just seems to generate a rush."
Joanna: "It does."
Luke: "I kept turning the pages waiting for it to happen."
Joanna: "What about in The German Bride?"
Luke: "Eva wasn’t sexual for me."
"I notice your characters often have trouble controlling their voice. They try to sound calm but it always gives them away."
Joanna: "It’s dramatic. To work against the explosion makes the explosion all the more dramatic."
Luke: "What do all of your main characters have in common?"
Joanna: "They’re full of desire and they’re conflicted."
Luke: "Are any of them happy?"
Joanna: "Happy? What is happy? They’re happy in moments. All of my characters are capable of great happiness."
Luke: "They may be capable of it, but they’re certainly not consistently living it."
Joanna: "I don’t know how many characters of fiction are consistently happy. Very few novelists write about happiness. It’s very difficult to do. Laurie Colwin was a great writer about happiness."
"I think there’s great happiness in all of my books. It’s just hard-won."
"I love writing about sensual pleasures, not sexual necessarily. I mean food and weather and light and the natural world. There are moments of deep enjoyment in all of the books."
Luke: "God doesn’t seem to play much of a role in any of your characters, even the bishop."
Joanna has a good long think. "Eva certainly thinks about God in terms of judgment and fear, but I know what you mean. None of my characters are deeply religious."
Luke: "They don’t seem to feel the presence. God doesn’t seem to play a role in their lives. Has God played a role in your life?"
Joanna has another good long think. "Yes. I find it difficult to talk about spiritual matters in this kind of way. The concept of God is certainly a question and a presence in my life. The journey of grappling with His or Her existence is at play."
Luke: "Why is it difficult for you to talk about God in this context?"
Joanna: "I think it’s personal. I guess I have a lot of questions. I have an aversion to dogma, with being identified in terms of spiritual identification. I definitely culturally identify myself as Jewish, but in terms of my personal feelings about God, it seems different. Maybe that is a total contradiction, but it seems to be a very Jewish feeling from what I can gather."
Luke: "What is a very Jewish feeling?"
Joanna: "Questioning God and the question of whether you are religiously Jewish or just culturally Jewish. I feel that’s a big question and something people discuss a lot. There’s an argument to be made that it is all one and the same. One of the things I love about Judaism is that there’s room for that discussion. There’s room for great questions and doubt."
Luke: "Why do you think so many well educated Jews find it easier to talk about blowjobs than about God?"
Joanna: "I don’t know. I don’t think that I’d be comfortable talking about that either."
Luke: "But you write about sexual things. Why is it that we’re sophisticated people and we can describe sex intimately but the God stuff is so personal?"
Joanna: "People are afraid of being misunderstood. Or they don’t understand what they think. That’s how I feel. I’m not sure how I think. When I’m not sure how I think, it’s very difficult for me to talk about. It’s an ongoing question in my life. It doesn’t feel natural to talk about. If it is something I’ve done, I feel more comfortable ruminating about it out loud."
Luke: "I get the feeling that most of your characters would feel more comfortable talking about clitoral vs. vaginal orgasms than about a personal God."
Joanna: "Ohmigod. Really? In The German Bride?"
Luke: "Not so much."
Joanna: "I think you’re stuck on my first book."
Luke: I feel claustrophobic when I read your books. I feel like I’m being put in an MRI machine.
Joanna: "That’s terrible."
"In the first book (Swimming), I was writing about youth and jealousy and obsession and escaping that kind of focus and growing up."
Luke: "How do you think the MFA has affected American fiction?"
Joanna: "Maybe it’s killed the romance of a writer being on a solitary journey towards his masterpiece because it’s treated like a craft, something that you go to school for."
Luke: "How did you come to write The German Bride?"
Joanna: "A friend of mine made an off-handed comment that his ancestors were Jewish cowboys. His great great grandmother who committed suicide was a famous ghost in Santa Fe and that she was haunting this beautiful hotel. I was immediately intrigued and started researching his family which led me to all kinds of research. I went down a rabbit hole of the Southwest post-Civil War 19th Century."