by Len Lear
One of the Philadelphia area’s most celebrated novelists, Elise Juska, will spend Saturday evening, Nov. 7, starting at 7 p.m., discussing her work with local literary buffs for Musehouse, the local non-profit that provides a forum for writers, at the Chestnut Hill Gallery, 8117 Germantown Ave. Elise and another local novelist, Rachel Pastan, will look at different ways a single person’s passing can leave a lasting imprint on a wide group of people.
Juska, 42, who grew up in Glenside, has received nothing but raves for “The Blessings,” her fourth novel, about a large Irish Catholic clan from Northeast Philadelphia. The oldest sibling, John, a beloved member of the family, has just died, and his niece, Abby, is particularly crushed. The novel is told from multiple points of view as various generations of the family work through grief, loneliness and jealousies to come to terms with what John meant to them.
In selecting “The Blessings” as one of the best books of the year (it was released in May as a paperback), the Philadelphia Inquirer said that “Juska’s moving, multifaceted portrait of the Blessing family gleams like a jewel.” The book was selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers series” and featured on Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List,” among other honors.
Elise, who graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1991, told us she has been writing stories “for as long as I can remember, a shy kid typing away in my room. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer; it was something I never questioned. For many years, my parents had a poem stuck to their fridge that I had written in junior high called ‘I Am A Quiet Voice Waiting to Be Heard.'”
Elise typed her stories on her father’s old manual typewriter. Her mom now recounts that when Elise had friends come over to play, they could only stay a little while because the budding novelist needed her “writing time.”
Some characters in “The Blessings” are based loosely on Elise’s own family members, while others are complete inventions. “To me,” she said, “what feels most autobiographical about the novel is the loss of the uncle at the beginning — in my family, two young uncles died of cancer — and the rhythms and rituals of family life in this big, close, Irish Catholic Philadelphia clan.”
One really interesting feature about “The Blessings” is that each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member. The author explained that the multiple perspectives reflect the fact that the family members have a shared identity, but they “also have parts of their lives that exist separately, privately, outside the family sphere.”
Novelists, like almost everyone in the creative arts, can tell horror stories about trying to make a living while plying their craft. Juska is no exception. When asked if the critical bouquets for “The Blessings” have translated into impressive sales, she replied, “Well, regrettably, the book’s publication coincided with the dispute between Amazon and Hachette, my publisher, which had the unfortunate consequence of making it difficult to buy the book from Amazon for the six months after it appeared.
“It’s hard to say precisely what impact that had on sales, but it is reasonable to assume that sales were crippled because of it. I was very happy about the reviews, though. At the end of the day, positive regard from critics and peers is more important to me than numbers of books sold.”
How did Elise’s family members react to the more autobiographical parts of the novel? “My family has been very supportive. Several of them actually read the book before it was published. What I heard from them was that it was difficult to read, not because of how the family was portrayed but because the story touched on parts of our family history that were painful to revisit.”
Elise is currently working on a new novel about a teacher whose former student is involved in an act of violence. Juska is a teacher of creative writing at the University of the Arts, so is the new book based on a factual episode from her own life?
“Thankfully, no, not a real-life situation. A real-life fear, though. Over the years, I’ve found this to be a very real part of teaching, especially teaching writing: the pressure to identify students who might be violent or troubled or need help and the sometimes-difficulty of doing so.”
Elise, who said she can hardly bring herself to open her previous books “for fear I’ll begin mentally editing,” added that “I’d always like to think the thing I’m writing now is the best thing I’ve ever written. I hope that’s always the case…With ‘The Blessings,’ I feel I really found my style. (Amazing how long that can take!) This book feels the truest to who I am.”
Juska now lives in Havertown with her husband and one-year-old son. More information about Saturday’s event at 215-248-2549 or www.facebook.com/events/982994981763298/. For more about Elise, visit www.elisejuska.com.