Joanna Hershon, ST. IVO

Joanna Hershon, ST. IVO

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Joanna Hershon who’s the author of five novels, Swimming, The Outside of August, The German Bride, A Dual Inheritance, and her most recent book, St. Ivo. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, One Story, Virginia Quarterly Review, and two literary anthologies, Brooklyn Was Mine and Freud’s Blind Spot. She teaches in the creative writing department at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their twin sons and daughter.

Welcome, Joanna. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Joanna Hershon: It is a pleasure to be here and so nice to meet you.

Zibby: We were just talking about how great Joanna’s voice is.

Joanna: And we were talking about how great Zibby’s voice is.

Zibby: No. I just had asked her, and I was like, don’t say it until I start the podcast, but you used to act a while ago?

Joanna: I did. I always acted. Then after college, I acted for a couple of years, or more accurately, auditioned.

Zibby: Tried to act.

Joanna: I did start writing plays. A couple of them were produced on a small scale. I was in one of those. I used to act. Someone said recently I’m a recovering actress. You’ll always be. There’s a part of me that has that in me. It definitely is a huge part of the way that I approach writing.

Zibby: Thinking of it like scenes, you mean?

Joanna: No, more like I discovered in graduate school — when I got my MFA, I just kind of thought everyone thought relatively similarly about writing fiction. I realized a lot of the way that I think about it is almost like method acting. I’m all the characters. I feel like when I start talking about it, it sounds really woo-woo, but I’m very immersed in my characters. A lot of the same principles of acting training, I feel like that’s how I write. Also when I teach writing, I end up teaching about that through the lens of being an actor in a way more than you’re the director. It’s more like you’re in it.

Zibby: I love that. Now you should just market your services to all actors and actresses. You should hand out little pamphlets of everybody online for auditions, like, take my class, how to become a writer as a recovering actress.

Joanna: That’s right.

Zibby: Anyway, as I’ve told you, I really loved this book, St. Ivo. From the minute I opened it, I just plopped myself down and tore through it. It was really good.

Joanna: Thank you. That means a lot.

Zibby: It was really good. It was really fun to read and awesome and thought provoking. The characters were so real, so whatever you’re doing with the method acting or whatever, it worked. Can you tell listeners what St. Ivo‘s about and how you came up with the idea for this book?

Joanna: It’s hard to talk about. Obviously, it’s hard to talk about any book and sum it up. It’s specifically hard to talk about this book, as my publisher and publicist, editor, we’ve discussed it, because it has somewhat of a mystery to it. It’s hard without giving it away, exactly. It takes place over three days. It’s about a couple that you come to realize met when they were very young and had a daughter when they were very young. You don’t know exactly what happened with the daughter. You don’t know if she’s alive. Something’s off. You realize slowly there’s quite a large story to it. The structure is that this couple are going to visit old friends for the weekend. It has the country weekend visit structure and reuniting with old friends who you haven’t seen in a very long time. Then you also come to realize there’s quite a story as to why they haven’t seen each other in so long. It’s an emotional thriller or psychological investigation of how we become who we are as adults, something like that.

Zibby: It’s also so timely because it’s about how people cope with uncertainty.

Joanna: That is right.

Zibby: And what different people do and how they do it together, how you can bond with your partner or how you can go in completely opposite ways, and how you deal with that emotional torment. It’s very relevant.

Joanna: It is very relevant. It really is a book about emotional uncertainty and how to live, how not only to survive, but how to live. I’m always really fascinated with this narrative that I think we have about moving through trauma, moving through loss. There’s this kind of linear image. You go through something, and you come out the other side. I always think of it more of like a parallel life, like if you can live alongside your trauma or your sadness where it almost seems like — I always hear people talk about how when they experience a death of a loved one, it seems like how can the world be going on? How can everyone just be living and going to restaurants? Also just things like when someone is in crisis, it’s also possible to enjoy the taste of something or laugh. We are not just suffering even when it feels like that. I’m really interested in how we can live alongside sadness and we still are humans.

Zibby: You also have this whole idea of parallel lives with, what if? What if certain things? You have your main character, Sarah, spends time imagining, what if I had had a child who was a son? What if his name was Alex? What would that have looked like? She goes into this entire narrative in her head about Alex. You write, “She supposed she wasn’t the only person who daydreamed these glimpses, other children, other husbands, other lives. She dreamed of the children she might have had if this or that pregnancy had taken, if this or that man had been hers,” which I do all the time. What if I had stayed with that guy? What would our kids — what if? It’s this whole Sliding Doors thing. What do you make of that?

Joanna: In some ways, I feel like it’s just a byproduct of being human living in an era, maybe, of more choice than ever and more freedom as a woman. I also think it’s just the storytelling impulse. I’m absolutely a curious person. I’m curious about everyone else’s lives. I love knowing what people eat for breakfast. What if I had stayed home? The storytelling impulse to imagine.

Zibby: When I was in kindergarten, my mother told me I pulled out the class list and I called everybody in my class and asked them what they had for dinner that night.

Joanna: Oh, my gosh, we’re kindred spirits. You wanted to know.

Zibby: I just wanted to know.

Joanna: I think that wanting to know leads to — it’s an active imagination.

Zibby: It’s funny. Your character Sarah, I found her interesting on so many levels. One thing that she talked about was how she needs to be alone and how this is such a hard thing to do when you’re with a spouse, and something that sometimes I think about because as much as I adore my husband, sometimes you just need that time to yourself. Sarah, you write in the book, “She loosely calculated that she needed at least four hours of being completely by herself every day to feel vaguely okay. And she wondered, as she often did, why she wanted so badly to stay married.” What happens to introverts who have to be around people all the time? Do you feel you’re an introvert?

Joanna: You know, no. I would say that I’m definitely an extrovert. I get so much joy from other people. I’m collaborative by nature, super social, but I have chosen this life of — I was acting, but I always wrote my whole life. I’ve always written stories. I have chosen this life in which I’m alone a lot. It’s very isolating work. I’m fascinated by my own choices because I do feel like I’m an extrovert and I do feel like I need that time totally alone with my own thoughts. So I don’t know. My guess is that a lot of writers are like that. There’s this image of the writer as an introvert and kind of socially awkward and not able to socialize. Surely, there are many introverted writers. I also feel like it’s that contradiction. I certainly see it in other writers. I need both.

Zibby: At least from my anecdotal evidence having interviewed a lot of authors, I do not feel that authors are, in general, an introverted bunch who just like to toil away in obscurity. I also feel like today’s world is set up so that you have to be a little more outward facing as an author anyway even to get something published. You might have to prove —

Joanna: — Right, you have to put yourself out there. I actually enjoy people. That line, I relate to. I do love being alone.

Zibby: I like to write too. Sometimes I don’t even — this sounds ridiculous. I don’t even realize I’m really alone because I’m so engaged with all these other people in what I’m writing that sometimes I don’t even notice. It’s like if you’re dreaming.

Joanna: It’s not a lonely feeling. It’s a companionable feeling, companionable with yourself.

Zibby: Yeah, because really, writing is about, you have to understand and be interested in other people to write about them all day long.

Joanna: Also, Joan Didion famously said — I’m sorry if I’m going to botch it — I write to find out what I think, something like that. I remember reading that line when I was probably seventeen or eighteen. It was just this profound recognition. I need to write in order to find out what I think. I don’t know what I think until I write. I don’t have one big idea and then I write it. That’s not how it ever works for me. I need to kind of engage with myself through writing in order to have a clue as to what I’m thinking or feeling.

Zibby: It helps. I know. Sometimes I’m like, what would I do if I didn’t have that?

Joanna: I know. It’s really a gift to oneself.

Zibby: I guess that true. How did you pick the title for this book?

Joanna: In the book, there is an encounter in the beginning that really sets the whole plot in motion. The title has something to do with the encounter. The encounter is mysterious. The mood is mysterious. It’s a bar. It’s place, St. Ivo, or ee-vo, depending on how you say it, but I’m going with Ivo. It became this almost talismanic thought for the character as she moves through the couple of days.

Zibby: Did you always know that would be the title?

Joanna: I think so, yeah, because she is curious about St. Ivo and curious about which saint he was and looks it up. Also, some of what she learns is relevant.

Zibby: It’s great. It could’ve easily been The Weekend.

Joanna: There’s already a book called The Weekend.

Zibby: Okay. All right, fine. I’m sure. That’s too generic.

Joanna: It’s by Peter Cameron. It’s very good.

Zibby: The book starts off with this encounter on a subway between Sarah and a man she meets. I was wondering if a similar subway situation had happened to you and that you thought, oh, this could be cool.

Joanna: I will say that unlike almost anything I’ve ever written, this actually started — this whole book started from a very similar encounter I had on the subway, but I am not the character Sarah. It was different because she’s carrying around a lot that I was not carrying around when I had this encounter, but I did have this interesting encounter on the subway. After it happened, it immediately thought — this is completely out of character for me. I don’t usually take notes, or I don’t usually think, oh, that would be a great story. That’s not really the way I work. This encounter happened. I immediately thought, this is the opening of something. This is something. I don’t know what it is, but I wrote it down, just wrote down what happened. It really set me off on this whole research journey. I thought I was going to write about something very, very different and ended up doing research for years about —

Zibby: — Really?

Joanna: Yeah. Then I thought it was going to be more of an actual thriller, but then…

Zibby: It didn’t turn out that way?

Joanna: No. I had to kind of listen to what was going on underneath my — I had the best of intentions to do one thing. Then something else was emerging. I had to listen to that. It was a really interesting encounter, and not terribly dramatic. It was more of how the encounter made me feel and all of the things I started thinking because of it, so very similar encounter.

Zibby: What about the weekend away with friends? Did that come from a place? Did you go away with friends who you hadn’t seen in a while? Have you had an awkward weekend away or past guests who wouldn’t leave?

Joanna: No. I’m always really, really interested in weekends with friends and how very, very quickly people end up forming this ecosystem. The wonderful writer Jennifer Egan, I remember her saying at a reading probably twenty-five years ago or something, I remember her saying that she loved writing about traveling because every time you travel, you kind of reinvent yourself or you reinvent your family in some way, if you’re traveling with your family. There’s this opportunity to kind of, even in the smallest ways, you discover new routines. There’s just something about it. I feel that way about weekends with friends and my friends’ kids. There’s this interesting way that we fall into roles. You learn a lot about your friends through traveling.

Zibby: You definitely learn a lot about your friends when you spend the weekend with them as a parent too.

Joanna: Yes, and how people relate to their kids. You realize people do things really differently or very similarly. Maybe you didn’t think you had this much in common with someone. Then you realize, oh, we operate on the same frequency.

Zibby: Yes, that’s always nice.

Joanna: I was very inspired by a house that my family and I rented about twelve years ago, just rented for a couple weeks. It stayed with me, just the geography and the feeling of what was going on around the house. I always thought maybe I’d write about that place. It’s not very literal. It’s not like that’s exactly the house or that’s exactly the town, but a certain area of Upstate New York.

Zibby: I feel like a lot of your books — I’ve only read this book, but now I want to go back and read all your other books because this book was really good. I feel like they all sort of touch on these themes of disappearance or searching for someone or loss or something. Do you know where that comes from?

Joanna: That’s a really good question. I’m just going to tell this story.

Zibby: Tell the story.

Joanna: I’ve never told this story. I don’t know if I’ve told anyone. My first novel I wrote, I started it when I was twenty-four, twenty-three or twenty-four. It’s definitely not an autobiographical first novel. In the novel, though, it’s a girl. She has two brothers, two teenage brothers, or young adults. One of them dies, and tragically. It sets in motion this whole many years of the other brother disappears. There’s a lot that happens to their family. This did not happen to me at all, thankfully. I had a woman contact me. I’m trying to remember if she wrote me a letter. The book came out in 2001. It was probably an email. She contacted me. She said she wanted to meet me because she said that she had never read a book that so described to her — she felt this loss because her son was autistic. She felt like this book, which was not about that at all, spoke to her in some way about her own feelings about her inability to communicate with her son. I did, I went and met her. I was really moved because my brother has a syndrome. He’s not autistic. I have one sibling. He’s wonderful and lovely. I love him very much, but I can’t communicate with him the way that most siblings communicate. I thought it was really striking that she felt that in my book. So I don’t know. I do think I have something about searching for an intimacy and closeness with a family member.

Zibby: That makes sense.

Joanna: It’s not literal. I’ve never written about that. I think it informs a lot of my writing.

Zibby: I was just talking to another author who said sometimes you don’t know your themes and what you’re working through until you see it all in front of you.

Joanna: Oh, totally. It can be really fascinating. There’s another — I wish I knew who said this. Someone said that writing a novel is about following your unconscious anxieties. I remember hearing that. At the time, I thought about the maybe four books I’d written, or three books. I thought, oh yeah, that’s probably true. I’d never thought about it that way. I think it’s also about following your interests, just following what compels you. Usually, what compels us can be tied to anxiety.

Zibby: Did your parents read your books?

Joanna: Yeah, my parents have read my books.

Zibby: Do they see that connection between you and your brother playing out in the books, or you think not so much?

Joanna: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t know.

Zibby: Now you have to reread them in that lens.

Joanna: It’s strange for me even to think about that because it really — I think that there’s truth to it, for sure. It is interesting to examine it way after the fact because I certainly wasn’t conscious of it when I was writing.

Zibby: If books are really our unconscious anxieties played out, then I could write a thousand books. Don’t you feel like we all have a trillion things we’re worried about all the time? Then everybody has like a trillion books in them, right?

Joanna: Yeah. I definitely think the moment we’re in at this moment — what’s the date? Things are changing every day. I do think that this uncertainty in the air is, it’s rich. I wonder what’s going to get written out of this moment.

Zibby: That’s a good way to look at it. Maybe really great stuff.

Joanna: Maybe.

Zibby: Maybe not. Are you working on another book now?

Joanna: I haven’t started another book.

Zibby: It’s okay.

Joanna: I’m definitely in this percolating moment, which is usual for me. It’s always hard for me to — this is my fifth novel. Every time — well, I had a second novel idea after my first one, but it usually takes me a while.

Zibby: How long does each book take to write?

Joanna: I would say my average is about three years. The German Bride, which is a historical novel, I think I researched for about three years before I found my way into the story. Then it took about two years to write. Then my last book, The Dual Inheritance, also had a tremendous amount of research. I definitely feel like since having children, the books have taken longer to write. But no, not this one. This book took about two years.

Zibby: In this book, two of the characters are married to more artistic types. What about that in your life? You’re married to an artist.

Joanna: That’s true.

Zibby: His work is so great. I went and looked at his website. I was like, these paintings of freeways are so cool.

Joanna: Oh, thank you. That’s wonderful.

Zibby: Being married to someone creative, you even wrote in this book about how, I think you said something like, “To use one’s imagination for art, or even for leisure, seemed like the world’s greatest luxury.” Is that how you feel? How does that play out in your own home?

Joanna: I do think that’s true in the sense of I’ve met a couple of people who are fiction writers and suffered terrible losses, I guess two people. It just made a really big impact on me because they said they stopped — in one case, it was someone who stopped reading fiction. In another case, it was someone who stopped writing fiction. They lost their taste for it. The imagination was too — I don’t know. The words they used to describe why, it made a kind of sense to me. The brutal reality, they couldn’t escape anymore. I’ve never experienced that, but it made sense to me. It’s just the greatest gift to me, is to be able to imagine and to pursue your imagination. I do think of it as a gift. It’s true, the book’s characters are artists or have —

Zibby: — Artist-ish.

Joanna: Artist-ish. They have creative pursuits. It’s relevant to who the characters are, for sure.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, especially since you teach writing?

Joanna: Read. Pay attention to your anxieties. Pay attention not just to story, but to the daily feeling of mystery. There’s mystery out there. Sometimes we’ll have moments where we can kind of tap into that. That’s what happened to me on the subway that day. It’s not like something happened. If I told you the story of what happened, you wouldn’t say, that’s a great story. It was more like something was in the air, and I felt it. I feel like just paying attention to the parts of life that we don’t understand or know about can lead to some really interesting stories.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you so much for coming on this podcast.

Joanna: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure.

Joanna Hershon, ST. IVO