Jessica Anthony's debut novel, The Convalescent, is the inaugural recipient of the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award and was released by McSweeney's in 2009. In October, she spoke with TAR's Jefferson Navicky in Portland, Maine.

1.

Jefferson Navicky:  I noticed within the first few pages of The Convalescent your particular attention to naming and place names: Adelpha Salus Santino, Rovar Akos Pfliegman, Back Lick Road.  They reminded me of a line from Proust:  “Names are of course fanciful designers.”  I wondered if you’d be willing to talk a little about your fanciful design process.

Jessica Anthony:  So much of the novel is centered around the last name for my character: Pfliegman.  The story actually began with a young boy who was living next to his neighbor who was a butcher. All I knew in the first few pages was that he was about to murder his next door neighbor.  Obviously this was not the direction that the story went in. This was in 2003, right after we’d invaded Iraq, and I realized I wanted to work on something big.  The MFA faculty at George Mason University had given me a year to write in lieu of teaching and so, during this time, I was essentially looking through my work and I found this short voice piece written for a class that examined this butcher of a neighbor. 

JN:  Did you have the name Pfliegman before writing the short piece?

JA:  No, for whatever reason, this was the name that I wrote in the piece.  I had studied some German in college, and I was looking at the etymology of Pfliegman, which turned out to be a loose definition for ‘Flying Person.’  None of that really came to anything at the time.  For whatever reason, I just wasn’t particularly interested in writing about a character who was German, and then I thought to myself, well, what if he’s Hungarian?  And that’s one of those crazy what-if questions that will lead you down a very long and involved path of inevitable research.  I had actually lived in eastern Europe for a year, in Prague, and I’d been to Hungary.  I started thinking about the fact that if my character had a German last name, but he was Hungarian, that was a real conflict.  Was there anything in Hungarian history that could speak to this?  Of course, there was.  I started focusing on this one-hundred year span of time between when the Hungarian emigrated into the Carpathian Basin and when they became a Christian nation.  At the time I began writing the book, we had all this stuff going on about Bush and Christianity, and the idea of Barbarians vs. Christians, and I was applying that philosophically to the political realm as I was writing.  I created these paradigms of people in the book that became the Subdivisionists and the women who worked in the pediatrician’s office became these people that Pfliegman butts up against.  I wanted to play around with the idea of who is a Barbarian and who is a Christian.  What is true and what is myth?  But it all came from the name Pfliegman.  So when I sat down to write the book, I had already subconsciously written all these butterfly themes into the book.  I wrote the first half of the book in about a year, but I was resisting writing about God or Butterflies, because I thought to myself, these are stale themes.  But that’s the direction the book was pointing me in.  At The Millay Colony in late 2005, I was getting toward the end of the book, and suddenly I saw the ending of the story, and I realized the connections between Butterflies and Flying People that was there all along.  That’s one of the amazing things about writing a novel as opposed to a short story – you develop all of these platforms that are there for you and you have to figure out how they’re going to fit together and what’s going to work for you and what’s not.  It’s like putting together a puzzle in a lot of ways.

JN:  How about the other names like Back Lick Road?

JA:  There’s actually a Back Lick Road in Virginia, and it’s a major interstate.  When I was living down there I thought to myself, what a crazy name for a road.  It’s very much Virginian terminology.  I spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of names that would appear in Virginia as opposed to the Hungarian names, which I had to do a ton of research for.  Like the river, the Queeconococheecook.  It had a different name in the beginning of the novel, but when I was looking at all these rivers in Virginia, a lot of them have these long, strange, Native American-sounding names.  So I thought I’d play with that.

JN:  It’s an incredible name: Queeconococheecook.  I was trying to say it in my head, syllable by syllable, but wasn’t having much luck.

JA:  I know, it’s so engrained into my mind now that people say, wow, you say that really fast.

{PAUSE}

JA:  I mean, the names are everything.  Proust was right. 

JN:  Yes, it’s like you’ve got this little engine that can do so much.

JA:  When you think about…Holden Caulfield.  If his name was anything other than Holden Caulfield, we would not have the same character.  Gregor Samsa.  Humbert Humbert.  These are very specific choices by the writers.  I see it as the tenor of the book exists in that last name.  You’re getting not only a definitive definition for what that name means, but it’s a larger reflection for the entire aesthetic.

JN:  It’s almost like a tone or a vibration.

JA:  It is.  It’s a chord.



2.

JN:  I wonder how you balance your teaching with your writing.  How do you view yourself as a teacher as opposed to, or in conjunction with, yourself as a writer?

JA:  I actually think teaching and writing are pretty closely linked.  If I weren’t teaching I think I’d feel detached from the world in probably an unhealthy way.  It’s bringing the ideas and the rules of fiction into the classroom, although technically there are no rules for fiction, but you have to have some rules in order to have a meaningful conversation.  Then, students can feel free to rebut those rules.  It’s a very helpful reminder to take something you’ve said to your students and think about if it’s applicable to your own work.  Usually it is.  Often times my classes aren’t designed around what I’m doing at the moment, but I definitely have these moments where I’m reflecting a little bit of my own writing experience, whether I’m starting something new or heavily editing.  That being said, the personality you have as a teacher and the personality you have as a writer is completely different.  As a teacher, you are a professional, but as a writer, you’re a reckless bandit.  So you have to learn to gear shift between those two personalities, and I’m getting better at doing the blending. But it was tough in the very beginning to learn how to make those separations.  I’ve found it helps to have a very strict writing schedule.  I really try to write from eight until noon.  That’s my ideal writing schedule. 

JN:  Except when you get interrupted by interviews…

JA:  Well, I’m also teaching a morning class this term because it’s the only class I could get, so although that’s my ideal schedule, it doesn’t always work with the reality.

JN:  That gear shifting into the professional, from my experience, can be particularly harsh.

JA:  It certainly can be, especially when you’re teaching Composition.  When you’re teaching Creative Writing, the students want a different type of experience.  It’s not technically an academic class, so they want to have discussions about writing in a very honest, earthy, humorous, engaging way.  It’s a different kind of education from studying literature for its feminist, historical, theoretical approach.  My students are being treated as writers in my classroom, and I talk to them like writers.



3.

JN:  I’m interested in History in The Convalescent.  In an interview with Tara Laskowski for the Literary Blog of Metro Magazine, you said that you “began to realize that the history was intertwined with the present.  I was writing both narratives separately and never planned on one influencing the other or vice versa.  But when I saw how each could actually tell the other’s story, things really started to snap into place.”  Could you talk more about that moment, that snap, when you harnessed that momentum?

JA:  This is a little about what I was talking about before about the platforms.  I’d never written a novel before, and I actually based the structure of The Convalescent on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, which I loved.  I was thinking about alternating between past and present, but essentially telling two very different stories.  To be honest, I don’t remember what scene in the book it was, but I do remember wondering around Hannaford [a grocery store].  That’s when your thinking happens, when you’re not writing and those connections start to present themselves to you.  It just occurred to me.  What if this background story, all this historical information, is actually this character revealing to Dr. Monica what happened to him with his parents as a boy.  That’s the honest story, if we’re talking the difference between truth and myth.  That’s the truth about what really happened that day when his parents were in a car accident.  As soon as that moment in Hannaford happened, I went back through all the historical information and scenes, and while I had to do some revisions, it wasn’t a lot of revisions.  A lot of it was simply there.  It was one of those paths that your brain subconsciously takes and it works.

JN:  That is an incredibly beautiful moment where you have these two things working separately and then all of a sudden you realize that they were never disconnected in the first place.

JA:  I wish that there was some prescription because my writing students are always asking for some type of geometrical theorem to follow for story writing and there just isn’t one.  You have to trust what’s in your gut and write.

JN:  Although there seem to be some stories that do follow a kind of theorem, but those may not be the stories you want to write.

JA:  Sure, maybe not.  I think it helps to practice as many forms as you can, and in as many voices as you can, to expand your options as a writer, so when you have a moment like that, you know what to do with it.  It’s the great lifting of the veil moment when suddenly you realize all this stuff makes sense, but if you don’t have the apparatus or the technique to actually manage that moment, then it’s all for naught.  I’m not even sure that moment is possible without the practice.  Malcolm Gladwell says you can’t be good at something until you’ve practiced for 10,000 hours, so you’ve got to put in your 10,000 hours.  Writing requires a huge amount of practice, for most people.  I won’t talk about the whimsical geniuses who sit down at the typewriter and…I don’t know what happens with those people.  They’re mad.


4.

JN:  I know you’ve spent some time in Brooklyn, which is a vastly different writing scene than Portland, Maine.  Having experienced these two communities, I wonder how you relate, as a writer, to the writing community around you, both the physical geographies and the more abstract communities (internet, literary journals, etc).

JA:  {laughs} I really don’t interact with the community very much as a writer.  Part of it is that so much of what I draw from as a writer comes from what I read.  When I first moved to Maine, I had difficulties with the fact that there weren’t so many readings going on, and there wasn’t so much of a scene.  But there is a scene here if you look for it, and you can meet people who write.  I definitely have good friends here who are writers, which helps.  You need to have a couple of people who you can talk to about the craft.  But also my husband is in the music business, and we talk about art constantly.  There are similar philosophies in both realms, so we feed off each other…{laughs} well, feed off each other is probably the wrong way of putting it…we support each other…

JN:  while feeding…

JA:  For me a big benefit about coming to Maine was the opportunity to begin teaching and nurture a teaching career, and to get out of the grind of the city where you’re struggling to afford a living, and you’re struggling to give yourself a little bit of space for your brain to inhabit.  Living in New York, you fight with people, not literally, but you’re fighting crowds, you’re fighting trains, you’re fighting time.  Living in Portland, you still have wonderful cultural interests here – museums, music, theatre – and so you can get that part of yourself fulfilled, and yet there is still that great expanse of ocean, and these beautiful mountains.  You can give yourself a bit of space to think.  It’s quieter here.  The air is really good.  These are important things.  It’s more affordable, so you can work part-time and you can write.  I shouldn’t say too much because everyone’s going to move here.


5.

JN:  Rovar Pfliegman is a character intimately and extensively familiar with failure, as both a person and as a member of the clan of misfortunate Hungarian Pfliegmans.  This sense of failure, and the emotional resolve necessary to live in the world, pervades the book.  It makes me think that writers, although not bound by blood, are apart of a similar clan of misfortune and failure, and that by resigning one’s self to being a writer, one enters, willingly or not, into this clan.  I wonder if you could talk about how a writer in the twenty first century deals with this kind of failure.

JA:  Interesting…

JN:  Yeah, as I was reading the question, I was wondering where I was going with it.

JA:  No, that’s a great question.  I think what you’re asking is that you want to better understand the emotional connection to the character’s isolation.  In a lot of ways, he’s a reflection of myself because this is the first novel that I’ve written and I didn’t know how much time you have to spend alone to write a novel.  There’s definitely a pervasive sense of loneliness, of missing community, that’s an absolutely honest part of what I was experiencing then.  I was also feeling, with regards to the political slant, that we didn’t have a voice for eight years of the Bush administration.  It was a very Orwellian society that we were living in, and you have to find some form of expression.  My form of expression came out in this stunted little mute character who can’t speak, and yet is forced to inhabit this space with all these people that he has to resist against.  Absolutely, he is a reflection of my own experience.  As far as the failure and misfortune goes, that’s more of me having fun as a writer.  There were originally ten Hungarian clans who emigrated from the Steppes, and again, it’s the what-if question; there’s a wayward eleventh clan who are the losers of the losers, trailing along behind, and the Hungarians are the great and civilized people who, in the story, mirror Americans.  The Civilized Americans are all doing this, but I can’t inhabit the world in that civilized manner.  As a writer, we can all feel that way sometimes.  We’re not fitting into some societal structure; we’re observing, not always participating.  So I was enjoying the canvas of the character and having fun with it. 

JN:  And it seemed like the richer that canvas became, and the more failure Pfliegman faced, the easier it was to like him.

JA:  By the end of the novel, you realize that he’s not really as bad off as he says he is.  Rather, it’s this process he’s going through, which is inevitable in accordance to his historical past.  The ending, I feel, is hopeful for this character.  It’s debatable what actually happens at the end of the novel.  My husband read it in a completely different way than I originally planned, and so you can interpret it in several different ways.  I never anticipated that, but it’s wonderful when it happens.  I do feel the end is a representation of hope and possibility.  After two hundred pages of failure, despair and isolation, albeit humorous isolation, to have the ending somehow resolve itself is ultimately why I do believe I’m an optimist.

Five Questions for Jessica Anthony
by JEFFERSON NAVICKY
JEFFERSON NAVICKY'S work has appeared in Tarpaulin Sky, Bombay Gin, Octopus, and is forthcoming in Artifice and Smokelong Quarterly.  In 2007, Black Lodge Press published his chapbook, Map of the Second Person.  He teaches Composition and Literature at Southern Maine Community College, and lives in South Portland.