A conversation with Elise Juska, author of The Blessings
What inspired you to write a novel about a family?
In a way, I feel as though as I've been writing this novel, or some version of it, for a long time. When I was in college and graduate school, I wrote several short stories about close extended families, always with this central imagethe aunts around the dining room table, the uncles gathered around the TV, the quiet emphasis on food and children.
I grew up in a big family, one of sixteen cousins on my mother's side, and as I've gotten older, I've thought a lot about what the particular experience of being from a big family means. For me, and I imagine this is fairly common, the familythe beliefs and traditions, that long shared historyis a crucial part of who I am. At the same time, there are parts of my life that remain separate, and private, that the family couldn't or wouldn't know. Figuring out how to write the story I'd been circling since college was probably in part a matter of maturityapproaching the subject with more experience and (hopefully) more insightand finding the right form in which to tell it.
You grew up in Philadelphia and still live there. Is The Blessings autobiographical or otherwise informed by your experiences there?
The characters in The Blessings, are fictional, but the rhythms and rituals of this close family were certainly influenced by my own. Like the Blessings, my relatives on my mother's side are based in Philadelphia. They've dealt with devastating loss, and they're the strongest, most grounded people I know.
In "real life," two of my uncles died quite young, and both had young children. These deaths occurred about ten years apart, but they have shaped our family history. Though the events of this book are invented, that absence has loomed large in my life, and in my writing. The multiple perspectives provided a way to show the long ripple effect of such a loss, the way the family grieves both separately and together.
How did you come up with the title for the book?
Naming the book was largely about naming the family, which was surprisingly difficult. Ultimately, the name Blessing was chosen for a few reasons. It's an Irish-Catholic surname, one I'd heard in Philadelphia; it's also, in the context of this story, a name that has dimension. At first I hesitated about choosing a name with an extra layer of meaning, but the meaning of this word, a blessing, felt so right for this family. It's not pretentious or grand. It's an abstract concept, but still rather everyday. It's a word I can imagine Helen using. To me, it speaks of small things, ordinary joys, and a fundamental inclination toward what is good.
Though the novel starts with a chapter from the point of view of a young woman, you are able to evoke the voices and experiences of a range of different charactersa middle-aged man, an elderly grandmother, a teenage boy, and more. Which of these was hardest to write? Why did you choose to set up the book this way?
Writing linked chapters from multiple perspectives enabled me to capture that relationship between the individual and the clan, and to explore the experience of a big family from several different angles. In writing Lauren, for instance, I imagined what it would feel like to be a sister-in-law from a small family, unaccustomed to the constant togetherness of big family life. In Alex's story, I wanted to explore geography, to think about what a close-knit, intensely local family feels like when you're far away from home for the first time.
I enjoyed writing each one of these characters. I suppose the most difficult to write was Helen, not for reasons of craft, but because my grandmother died while I was writing the book. They weren't the same person, yet there is something at the core of Helen that reminds me very much of my grandmother. After she died, it was difficult to go back to that chapter; it took me a while to get through it.
The chapter that came easiest was probably Elena's, though that must have been partly a function of how I wrote it: in a little cottage in Maine during Hurricane Irene, the trees thrashing wildly, bracing myself for one of them to come crashing onto the roof or my power to go outI'm sure that some of my own anxiety was in the mix as Elena waited for her plane to take off.
Do you plan out the whole novel in advance? If not, did anything surprise you as you wrote?
I didn't have much of a plan when I started writing, but as the families began taking shape and the relationships falling into place, there were certain characters' perspectives I naturally gravitated towards. As I wrote their stories, many moments came unexpectedlyin "Two Houses," for instance, the fact that Patrick was contemplating infidelitybut the one that surprised me most was when Stephen started beating up the old man in the parking lot at Wendy's. It was one of those scenes that sort of appeared on the page, and part of me wished it hadn't, though I knew that it felt true to Stephen, who wasn't a violent person but just didn't know how to handle his anger and sadness.
You currently teach college students at an arts-focused university. What about late adolescence interests you, and what did you want to convey through Abby, Alex, and Elena, the three characters who are college-aged in their chapters?
Going to college seems to me a moment when you begin to define yourself as an individual in a number of waysto make independent decisions, separate yourself from your family, see your life at home with more objectivity. I clearly remember going to college and, like Abby, being surprised to find that not all kids had families like mine. It was the first time I understood that it might not be the norm to see your first cousins on a weekly basis and to have fifteen relatives watching you go to the prom!
Abby, Alex and Elena all find themselves at similar junctures. For Alex, away at grad school, traveling abroad with his girlfriend causes him to confront how he is (and isn't) like his family, to evaluate his values and priorities. Abby's and Elena's stories I see as bookends to the novel and parallels in various ways, both in terms of plotboth are eighteen years old, one is leaving and the other coming homeand insight, as Abby is realizing that she's not just like her family, while Elena is coming to appreciate the ways that, despite their differences, she and her family are alike.
If you were to write a follow-up to The Blessings, which character's story would you be the most excited to expand or bring into the future?
I loved living with these people so much, I felt as though I could have gone on writing them forever. But if there's one family I feel particularly compelled to return to, it's Margie and Joe and Joey and Stephen. Specifically, I'm interested in Amy's experience after she marries former high school basketball star Joey and how it might not end up being quite what she'd expected. I'm also curious about Stephen's daughter, Faith, and what would it be like for herthe daughter of a dad with very partial custody, parents who were never married to each other and are no longer togetherto be part of a close extended family like this one. What is her mother's family like, and how does she reconcile the two? I wonder how the dynamics of the Blessing family might change, in general, as the grandchildren get older and have families of their own. Maybe I'll check in with them in ten years or so to find out.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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