“We are all pawns of history.” ~ from Safekeeping by Jessamyn Hope
One of my all-time favorite quotes about story comes from E.L. Doctorow in his lecture, “Biography in Fiction” (available as a podcast from CUNY), where he says, “What is the past if not the present and the future?” He’s talking about historical fiction, but his quote speaks to the importance of stories for writers and readers.
As a writer, stories allow me to untangle and reason through life experiences, past and present; as a reader, they offer different or new perspectives to understand the world around me and consider the future. Stories act as a bridge between generations and cultures and the human spirit.
Doctorow’s quote fits well into the heart of Jessamyn Hope’s debut novel, Safekeeping, a book that weaves generations together with an ancient and precious brooch and with themes of loss and survival in the face of recurring physical, mental, or political hardship. The book’s cover reflects the beauty and intricacy of the well-drawn novel, and once you enter the “Fields of Splendor” with one of the protagonists, Adam, you won’t be able to put it down.
I’m honored to host Jessamyn Hope today and am thrilled to offer a giveaway as well. Read her excellent Q&A below, then drop your name in the comment section for a chance to win a copy of her novel. Deadline to enter is Tuesday, June 14th, at noon.
Now, welcome Jessamyn Hope!
Christi (CC): In your interview on Tablet Magazine’s Unorthodox Podcast (readers, click in at 11:57m for Jessamyn’s spotlight), you hint that this book has been years in the works. As a novelist-to-be who has nurtured a story for many moons, I’d love to hear about the beginnings of Safekeeping and how it finally fell into novel form?
Jessamyn (JH): Safekeeping was eight years in the making. Why did it take so long? Party due to outside factors (I had a day job most of that time), but mostly due to the work itself: I am a very slow writer, and Safekeeping is a sweeping book with multiple protagonists, spanning seven centuries and several countries. My advice to aspiring first-time novelists would be keep a sense of urgency, otherwise you won’t write regularly, but not so much urgency that you needlessly suffer. The book is going to take as long as it is going to take. You can lengthen the time frame by not dedicating enough hours each week to the book, but can you hurry the labor of bringing a certain novel into being? I don’t think so.
CC: The brooch, a family heirloom that Adam carries in his pocket, serves a dual purpose in this story as the reason he travels to the kibbutz and (even more important) a symbol of Jewish history and preservation. Even so, Adam is careless with it at times. As the story of the brooch is revealed, what do you hope readers will come to understand about what it truly represents?
JH: There isn’t one thing the brooch truly represents. As you suggest, the heirloom embodies a lot: the burdens of our personal and national histories; the inevitability of loss; our astonishing will to survive. I was particularly interested in the fact that although we sometimes know exactly what happened in the past—to us personally or to our ancestors—that affects our present, often we don’t.
I remember my college professor, novelist Mark Dintenfass, explaining this image from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom: a series of pools are connected by a narrow channel so that a stone tossed in one pool sends ripples endlessly into the others. Long after the stone is forgotten, lying on the pool’s floor, its effect is still rippling into the future. In Safekeeping, the reader learns about the brooch’s far-flung past and future, things that happened to it in a medieval Jewish ghetto, in WWII Dresden, in present-day New York City—things the characters holding the brooch in 1994, the novel’s main setting, never find out. And yet, the reader can see, whether the characters know the history or not, it still affects them and the world they live in.
CC: Ziva as a character intrigues me. We know from the beginning that she is quite ill, but we never find out exactly why or how she became sick. After reading your book, I wonder if her resistance to change on the kibbutz is what ails her. I know only a little about life on a kibbutz, but I understand the ones of today are quite different from those in the early 1930’s and ’40’s. Change is inevitable in your book (and in the world at large), but often something lost means something else is gained–a life saved, a future procured, a mind brought back to sanity. Do you think the modern-day kibbutz makes way for a greater future, or does it hint at what Ziva fears: a collapse under the pressures of society and a repeat of history?
JH: I am so happy Ziva intrigued you! Her character—her fortitude and single-mindedness—intrigue me too.
I don’t think Ziva’s failure to adapt makes her physically sick. She is simply growing old, something even the most adaptable of us cannot avoid. But you are right: I was exploring Ziva’s inflexibility, the pros and cons of it. I am fascinated by the type of person who is so dedicated to a cause that she is willing to relinquish everything to achieve it—her personal relationships, her comfortable life, perhaps even life itself. Although it must be painful to be the child or spouse of such a person, I believe without these dedicated people we would have far less medical breakthroughs, great works of art, advances in human rights, and groundbreaking, if at first unpopular, ideas.
So although evolution teaches us that adaptability is important to survival, I wonder if human beings need to have in our ranks a few uncompromising idealists, even if, like Ziva, they can be difficult to be around. Maybe we wouldn’t have the theory of evolution if Darwin had been more chill about his studies.
CC: Pieces of ourselves sometimes weave their way into our fiction. Is there a character in Safekeeping with whom you relate most?
JH: I do not relate to one character more than any other. A dimension of me lives in each of them. Sometimes the battles between the characters dramatizes a tension within me: for instance, the tension between Ziva and Franz that complicates their love affair, her dedication to the community versus his strong individualism, reflects a tension that exists in me. As an artist who has suffered through many a day job, I relate to Ofir’s frustration at having to be in the army rather than working on his music; and as someone who has suffered from severe OCD, I identify with Claudette’s struggles. I have felt the way drug-addict Adam does: racked with guilt, afraid I am too weak to be as good a person as I want to be. Sometimes people tell me how much they hate Ulya, the Soviet émigrée, which means they hate something that exists in me: the part I drew on to bring to life her selfish survivalism, as well as her fondness for dramatic eyeliner.
CC: What are you reading these days that most feeds your writerly self?
JH: I almost exclusively read novels. Right now I am halfway through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which most Americans read in their youth, but that I didn’t hear much about growing up in Montreal. Now every day I walk down the exact streets whose previous incarnations the novel describes in such lively and heartbreaking detail.
Jessamyn Hope is the author of the novel Safekeeping—a recommended read for summer 2015 by The Boston Globe; acclaimed by The Globe and Mail, Tablet Magazine, The Montreal Gazette, The Jerusalem Post, and Booklist; a New York Public Library Staff Pick; a finalist for the 2016 Paterson Fiction Prize; and found at number two on BuzzFeed’s “53 Books You Won’t Be Able to Put Down.” Her short fiction and memoirs have appeared in Ploughshares, Five Points, Descant, PRISM International, Colorado Review, and other literary magazines. Recent accolades include two Pushcart Prize honorable mentions, in 2015 and 2016, and selection for Best Canadian Essays 2015. She was the Susannah McCorkle Scholar in Fiction at the 2012 Sewanee Writers’ Conference and has an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
Born and raised in Montreal, she lived in Israel before moving to New York City.
Don’t forget: drop your name in the comments for a chance to win a copy of Safekeeping!