[img_assist|nid=674|title=Elise Juska|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=200|height=301]Elise Juska is in good company. Her writing has been compared to the work of Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby and her newest essay will appear in Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned from Judy Blume this summer alongside noted women writers Meg Cabot and Jennifer Connelly.
Her work has also been published in numerous literary journals and her first novel, Getting Over Jack Wagner, was named a "Critic’s Choice" by People. Her second novel, The Hazards of Sleeping Alone, received similar praise. This June, Elise’s third book, One for Sorrow, Two for Joy, will be published by Simon & Schuster.
Along with being a successful writer, Elise is as an assistant professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia She also runs writing workshops for the New School in New York City and has served on the fiction faculty at many writing conferences around the country.
Where did you get your inspiration for your newest book, One for Sorrow, Two for Joy?
When I was in college, I lived in Galway, Ireland, for six months— my mother still refers to those times as "the gem in my life." I’ve wanted to write about the place ever since. When I began working on this book, I wasn’t exactly sure at first where it was going, except that Claire, the narrator, would end up there.
One of the things that struck me in Ireland was the way language was used and how it sounded when people were telling stories. The content of a particular story often seemed less important than how skillfully and colorfully it was told. In the novel, Claire is enamored with language too, but her interest is more academic— she’s a linguist, a crossword puzzle writer— and the attitudes about language that she encounters in Ireland contrast and challenge her own.
In a related story from my own life, when I lived in Galway, I studied with a flutist there. I had been classically trained, though, and when she talked about ancient church modes, encouraging me to play by ear, without notes on a page, I panicked. Gradually— though not very gracefully— I managed to do it. When working on the novel, I had this general shift in mind: that my changed perspective on playing music would be reflected in Claire’s changing relationship with language.
The title — One for Sorrow, Two for Joy — is a line from an Irish nursery rhyme about spotting magpies. If you see one, it’s a bad omen; two, a good omen. In Ireland, I was surprised that my college aged Irish friends believed in this legend so whole-heartedly. The sight of magpies could leave them alternately crushed or elated. It was the completeness of this belief that I found fascinating. The title of the novel speaks to the superstition specifically, as well as Claire’s struggles with faith and belief.
This third novel is fairly different from either of the first two. For one thing, the setting is more palpable and important, not just in the physical details but the sensibility of the place. And structurally, this story relies as much on the past as the present, so writing it required a different, perhaps more difficult, balance. If there’s a common thread among the three books, it would probably be mother-daughter relationships, as viewed through various lenses: in The Hazards of Sleeping Alone, the narrator is the mother of a recent college graduate; in One for Sorrow, Claire’s visit to Ireland forces her to look more closely at her relationship with her mother, a complicated Irish woman with whom Claire was never close.
With your teaching load at the University of the Arts and the New School how do you find time to write? In turn, how does teaching writing influence your own writing life?
For me, the two things— writing and teaching—invigorate each other. As a teacher, you’re forced to organize and articulate what you think about your subject, to reiterate it to your students as you reiterate it to yourself. If I’m feeling frustrated with writing or publishing, stepping into the classroom and talking about short stories with a group of smart, energized, creative students reinforces what I love about writing fiction. It reminds me of what matters.
Like many working writers, you split your time between Philadelphia and Maine. How do these two particular settings influence (or impede) your writing?
I grew up in Philadelphia but have roots in Maine too. Growing up, I spent time in Maine each summer. The two places seem to complement the two parts of my writing self: the part that feeds off the creative energy of a busy city and the part that needs to hole up and work in a cottage in the woods (which, in the summer, is where I disappear to).
Who are you reading now?
"The Emperor’s Children" by Claire Messud and "The Ruins of California" by Martha Sherrill — I just finished and enjoyed both. The most satisfying reading of the past few weeks, though, has been the final fiction portfolios from my students at the University of the Arts; their effort and creativity blew me away.
Aimee LaBrie’s stories have been published in many literary journals. She recently received the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, which will publish her short story collection in December. Aimee serves on the Philadelphia Stories Planning & Development Board.