We were lucky: Lucy Ferriss found us. The award winning author of ten books sent us two pieces to read, a narrative essay and a short story, which we were delighted to read and over the moon to include in the third issue. Like our favorite writers, nothing feels superfluous, each sentence, each choice of punctuation, each gentle description of character and dialogue, are compelling and so carefully crafted, yet effortless and smooth; she is, quite simply, a joy to read. Her essay, “Chasing the Boy,” recounts when she took a semester off from college to follow a romantic crush to Europe. In the essay, she brings to life the inhabitants of a small Austrian skiing village and the often silly motivations that lead us to the other side of the world. In correspondence, she has been helpful and humble, and gracious enough to answer some of our questions.
Q. You are a writer, that is, you are steeped in the world of it: teaching, writing (fiction, nonfiction, more?) Can you tell us about how large of a place writing has in your life? What brought you to it? What compels you to be a writer?
A. I’ve been a writer more or less since I became a reader, or at least a consumer of stories – that is, kindergarten. As Rosellen Brown points out in her wonderful essay “The Polymorphous Perverse Pleasure of Writing,” there was a time for some of us when a distinction didn’t really exist between reading and writing – they were all part of the same activity. In my teens and 20’s, writing was something I did because language drew me like a moth to flame and because I seemed to have some talent; it did not occur to me that my work could actually be published and reach readers. In the decades since I began publishing my work, I’ve tried to stay attuned to the difference between the “place” that being a professional author and teacher has in my life and the place that belongs to writing itself. The former calls on me to respond to what others expect (e.g., I always strive to be more helpful than my own teachers were, which is unfortunately setting a low bar). The latter insists that I remain open to the always-expanding possibilities of language and story, always in a sense naïve, always willing to step onto unfamiliar territory.
Q. Can you talk a bit about your experiences abroad, living in foreign places, and how they have influenced you personally, professionally?
A. I first lived abroad at age 15, when I was very unhappy at school in the Midwest and an opportunity arose to go on a school exchange to Belgium. I learned French, and I also learned that American adolescence wasn’t a completely necessary stage in life. Since then, I have lived in Europe on several occasions (working low-level jobs in Austria and France, house-sitting in Ireland, a Fulbright in Brussels, several seasons teaching in France) – occasions that are shared with very few of my family and acquaintances in the States, so that I’ve almost begun to feel like an alternate version of myself when I am lodged in a European country, especially one where I’m fluent in the language. This mode of living has deepened and complicated my feelings about travel generally. That is, I am far more interested in steeping myself in a place, in a culture, in a language, than I am in seeing sights, and I’m a bit of an evangelist about it; when I have taught abroad, I’m always exhorting my students to leave off being tourists in favor of making more profound connections. That said, I’ve now traveled to plenty of far-flung places – Pakistan, China, Australia – and those experiences have made their way into my writing. My 2012 trip to Pakistan, for instance, was research for what became my novel A SISTER TO HONOR, and I could not have written the book without the very personal connections I made there and the cultural understanding that finally sank in.
Q. We are excited about Foreign Climes, and belated congrats on winning Bright Horse Books Prize! Can you talk about where you drew inspiration for some of the stories? Is “Concorde”from there?
A. “Concorde” is indeed included in FOREIGN CLIMES, in which all the stories are named after a place that also gives a nod to another meaning, as place names so often do. (“Concorde,” for instance, = “peace.”) The collection considers “foreignness” not merely in terms of geography or culture but also in terms of discomfort in or alienation from one’s own life. I am always interested in how people respond when their comfort zone feels erased or out of reach, and that can happen two steps from one’s driveway, or at an encounter where a parent suddenly feels that his son is a stranger to him. These are moments ripe for change, moments that challenge our identity.
Q. Favorite foreign writers that we should read? IE. Those writing from the place of an outsider and culture that is not their own.
A. Joseph Conrad is an old favorite, a Pole educated in French who writes in English and often sets his works very far from any of those places. Among contemporary writers, I enjoy Ha Jin, who also writes in English as his second language and brings to it the sensibility of a writer brought up in China’s Cultural Revolution; Leila Slimani, who moves with insight between the cultures of Morocco and France; Jamaica Kincaid, writing as a Jamaican who is also thoroughly American; André Aciman, who grew up speaking French in Egypt but is now an American writing in English; and the Pakistani-American writers Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, and Uzma Aslam Khan, all of whom helped me as I tried to bridge that cultural gap in my latest novel. Americans generally have been less successful writing as outsiders – consider the current response to “American Dirt,” with the whiff of cultural appropriation. These are dangerous waters, and I admire the writers who can navigate them successfully.
Q. What are you working on now? (When you’re not sewing masks. We checked out your blog!)
A. I am working on two projects, taking a break from each to focus on the other. The first is an exploration of late-in-life passion in Paris, with (I hope) a less romanticized view of that city and a sharp engagement between mortality and libido. The second travels over both space and time, bringing to life the story of a nun in 12th-century France who secretly illuminates manuscripts – and the story of the archaeologist in 21st-century America who discovers the traces of her work. I am also very slowly putting together a book of what I call “meditations,” nonlinear essays that proceed from the physical to the metaphysical through intuitive connections.
Q. What did you study for your phd? Can you talk about that experience and what opportunities came from that?
A. I actually enrolled as a PhD candidate at Tufts University after I had been offered a book contract for a monograph on Robert Penn Warren. The book offer came as a surprise – I had presented exactly one paper on Warren’s feminism at a conference – and I decided that if I were going to write a scholarly book, I might as well make it a dissertation as well. I was the financial support of my family, and having the PhD and a published scholarly book gave me job security in the form of a tenured position. But perhaps more significantly, as a fiction writer in academe, I didn’t want to be a second-class citizen. Both the degree itself and the assessments leading up to it (oral exams, language exams, comprehensives) meant that my knowledge of literature was at the same level as my colleagues’. This is true for most writers anyway, but since earning the PhD I have felt that solid ground under my feet.
7) We’ve surmised that you’re also a musician. Can you talk about your involvement with music? (I’m also a musician/singer/songwriter, but always think about Hemingway saying that pursuing music and writing is like trying to chase two rabbits, so he gave up music. I think it was Hemingway who said that.)
A. Music has played a role in many of my stories and essays. (Note the klezmer band in “Concorde.”) It is the most abstract of the arts, so the emotion it arouses takes place at a less identifiable and perhaps more primal level – and for that reason I love making music as a way of “cross-training” from working with words. I sing in a small choir and also play mediocre piano – my lifelong ambition is to master Beethoven’s 3 greatest sonatas. But I like involvement across the arts generally – another form of cross-training, for me, is figure drawing, learning the language of gesture.
Thank you again to Lucy Ferriss for the insightful answers. Read her story Concorde, and check-out issue three of the journal to read her longer nonfiction work about chasing romance to Europe in the 1970’s, soon available on Kindle.
Lucy Ferriss is the author of ten books, mostly fiction. In addition to her new novel, A Sister to Honor, her novel The Lost Daughter, a Book-of-the-Month pick, was published in February 2012 and has appeared in Poland and China. Her memoir Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante was called Best Book of the Year by the Riverfront Times; her novel Nerves of the Heart was a finalist in the Peter Taylor Prize competition; her collection Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories was the 2000 winner of the Mid-List First Series Award. Other short fiction and essays have appeared most recently in the New York Times, Missouri Review, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Georgia Review, and have received recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Faulkner Society, the Fulbright Commission, and the George Bennett Fund, among others.