Curtis Smith: Congratulations on If We Had Known. I really enjoyed it. Can we start with a bit of craft talk? This is your fifth published novel. How has the process changed for you over the years? Is it more streamlined? Less time consuming? Do you find yourself carrying over lessons learned from previous books? Or is each book a new and distinct entity?
Elise Juska: This was a very different novel for me, and by far the most difficult, beginning with the very premise. The basic story—that of a writing teacher who realizes her former student was the gunman in a shooting—was not an easy one to write. More technically, the structure of the novel—told in different, sometimes disconnected points of view over a relatively short period—was a challenge. My stories, even novels, tend to have rather quiet, character-driven arcs. This one, while still focused on character, has a more tense, driving plotline; I needed to make sure the various storylines were braided together suspensefully, but realistically. I suppose if there’s any lesson I carry over from writing my previous books it’s to anticipate the feeling of despair that inevitably arrives at some point in the middle, when it seems like the novel isn’t working—to know that stage is a part of the process and I’ll emerge on the other side.
CS: School shootings are hard for me—I think partly because I taught high school for so many years—and after the recent Florida shooting, I spent the rest of the night crying and/or drinking. I in no way mean to compare my experience to what anyone else went through, yet I can’t deny a certain gut-level kinship with the whole horrible scene. And I’m wondering if you, having thought about this kind of thing for so long and wrestled this story from your imagination to the page, also now feel a bit more horror and sadness as we keep reliving these kind of stories?
EJ: Absolutely. In fact, I first started working on a version of this story about ten years ago, after the shooting at Virginia Tech. I watched an interview with one of the shooter’s creative writing professors, Lucinda Roy—you probably remember this. She talked about having seen disturbing, violent material in her student’s creative writing assignments and trying to get him help. That interview haunted me, and still does. I’ve been teaching writing at the college level now for twenty years, and have many times been concerned about things I’ve seen in student work—not necessarily intimations of violence, but material (sometimes fiction, sometimes non) that in some way worried me. So this was where the idea for the novel originated: horror at the Virginia Tech shooting, and within that, the unusual role and responsibility of teachers. Over the years I worked on the novel, the climate around gun violence grew only more harrowing, and what was something of a rarity in 2007 has now become so commonplace it’s heartbreaking and sickening. Along the way, there were specific passages that needed editing and updating to reflect the ways the gun problem had worsened since I began writing the book.
CS: I’ve always been an admirer of your style. It’s so lyrical yet measured—and I think your style also translates into assisting the book’s pace. We’re allowed to watch events unfold, and as we go on, you develop a real gravity, and despite the surprises, I also felt a kind of quiet inevitability pulling me forward. So two questions—first about your scenes of description, which are always so lovely—how do these come to you? Do you see them completely at first—or nearly completely? Or do you paint with broad strokes in your early drafts and then come back and fill in the rest of the scene? And secondly, when does the question of pace come to you? Is it always there, formulated yet evolving in the back of your mind? Or do you get to the end then revisit your handling of time and events?
EJ: Those two aspects of the writing actually unfold quite differently. With descriptive scenes, I tend to burrow into them in a fair amount of detail in the first draft. I don’t imagine the scenes in advance—they sort of materialize as I write them—but I have trouble moving forward if the last scene feels too vague or unformed, so there’s a lot of working and reworking on the line level as I go. With the pacing, it’s different; I don’t do any planning before I write a novel, which ultimately necessitates a lot of shuffling and reorganizing of scenes and chapters. This usually happens once I have a substantial amount of material to work with, am able to step back from it, assess how all the parts are working within the whole.
CS: How did Maggie come to you? From the first few pages, you give us a character who is both solid (her teaching career, her independence) yet also fragmented and wary of a number of small fires in her life. And did you see her first—or did you initially see the story of Nathan and then imagine Maggie’s role in his life?
EJ: The story was definitely Maggie’s; in fact, I didn’t originally anticipate there being any other perspectives in the novel. I wanted to write about a teacher, and I thought that Maggie’s story was an angle on this crisis—the role of the teacher, and in a unique way, the writing teacher—that I hadn’t yet seen explored. I also think teachers in general make for complex characters. There are inherent layers. There’s the person a teacher is in the classroom (which is to some degree a kind of persona) and the person they are outside it. There’s the way life at home can intersect with life at school, as it does for Maggie here. Maggie is actually a good and devoted teacher, but during the semester she taught the future shooter, her own personal life was imploding, so she had less patience for Nathan, which contributed to her underreacting when his essay crossed her desk. So, yes, this was Maggie’s story. It was a story about teaching—the fraught, subtle, complex aspects of teaching—and everything else grew from that.
CS: There’s also another point of view offered—that of Anna, Maggie’s daughter, a young woman who has troubles of her own. In your last novel, you also utilized an alternating point of view (check out my review of The Blessings here). What does this strategy bring to your—or any—story? When in the process did you realize we needed to hear Anna’s voice as well as her mother’s?
EJ: I had been working on the first chapter, told from Maggie’s point of view, in which we learn she has a daughter who’s headed to college. I wanted Maggie’s daughter to serve as a counterpoint to her students (at the point the book is set, they are exactly the same age). We learn that Anna struggled with anxiety and anorexia in high school but Maggie became aware of it only once the situation reached a crisis point. Her guilt—and resulting hyper-vigilance—about Anna contribute to her growing feelings of self-doubt about her student and what she might have missed.
That said, I hadn’t planned on writing from Anna’s perspective, but when I started Chapter Two, there she was: headed to a party, struggling with resurfacing feelings of anxiety and terror. The original impulse for the novel, which centered on Maggie, expanded to consider the ways different people in Maggie’s orbit might be affected by a shooting, both directly and indirectly. For Anna, the shooting exacerbates her dormant anxieties—and the more I wrote her, the more that perspective on this experience felt important to address. In my own recent life, teaching students of Anna’s generation, I’ve seen more struggles with anxiety than ever before in my career. It’s heartbreaking, really. I think it’s, at least to some degree, the larger anxiety of the current moment filtering down.
CS: Social media plays a role in the book, especially the way it can be twisted and turn on us. It’s this whole other layer of reality—or unreality—that we now have to deal with. But it’s a tricky kind of reality, one that our generation, who didn’t grow up with it, struggle to understand. By incorporating it into the story, what were you hoping to highlight—not so much about social media as a tool but about the human motives behind its use?
EJ: I am not a social media person. I sympathize with Maggie and her “old school” teaching methods (I, too, insist on students reading work on paper instead of screens). So the social media aspect was not something I’d planned to take on, but as I started getting deeper into the story—especially as Anna’s, and later Luke’s, perspectives gathered more weight—I realized it had to play a role. First, there’s the reality of how people react to tragedies, the way information is spread—this needed to be woven into the story. But beyond that, I was thinking about the ways that social media can be both connecting and isolating: a way of being “with” people while you’re in fact alone, or of interacting with people but in ways that are manipulated or false. That said, I didn’t want the portrayal to be entirely negative—in the end, for two characters, social media provides a needed connection. From a technical standpoint, it was a bit intimidating, trying to write “dialogue” in this format, but thankfully I had input from experts—my students. Along the way, they read some of the social media-heavy passages and weighed in on tone and usage, which was a terrific help.
CS: The role of teachers is also explored. As a high school teacher, I was used to my institution reacting to whatever the current social ill of the moment was. But college professors, at least until recently, have been immune to this. Do you believe the role of the professor is evolving? If so, is this a good thing—or would such a course, if taken too far, detract from a university’s mission?
EJ: I do see changes around this in recent years, a greater sense of vigilance and responsibility around identifying students who might be struggling in a variety of ways—from dealing with serious mental health issues to experiencing anxiety before an exam or struggling to meet a deadline. Which is complicated, for professors are not mental health professionals. But we do learn things about students—or sense things in their work—that can be cause for alarm. I’m grateful to have more resources for addressing these things and getting students help when necessary. I can recall students from early in my teaching career who likely needed intervention that I—at 22, 23 years old, well-meaning but inexperienced—wasn’t equipped to provide. I do worry, though, that this new vigilance, in certain cases, has the potential to go too far. Part of being a college student is meeting deadlines, dealing with pressure, discussing challenging topics, taking responsibility for oneself—my concern is that the protectiveness, if carried to the extreme in college, can leave students underprepared to deal with the realities of the world outside it. This fundamental question—of where the responsibility of teachers begins and ends—is one the novel wrestles with, and I have too.
Elise Juska is the author of the new novel If We Had Known, published this spring by Grand Central. Her previous novel, The Blessings, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and one of The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Best Books of 2014. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review, Good Housekeeping, The Millions, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, and numerous other publications. She is the recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction from Ploughshares and her work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. She teaches fiction writing at the University of the Arts, where she received the 2014 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. Website: www.elisejuska.com.