'Self-Harmers Are Not Just Depressives': Writing a Book About Cutters Who Cook

Jessica Soffer talks about her beautiful debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Jessica Soffer / Beowulf Sheehan

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, the sorrowful, beautifully written debut novel of Jessica Soffer, tells the story of a young woman named Lorca. A cutter who feels trying to win the affections of her mother, an otherwise occupied chef, Lorca enrolls in a cooking class taught by an aging, recently widowed Iraqi-Jewish woman named Victoria. The two bond over Iraqi cuisine, but soon suspect a much deeper connection, causing them to examine the nature and nuances of what it means to be a family.

Soffer is a New York City native who was born to accomplished artists of the canvas and written word. "I grew up with a lot of inspiration around me," she told me. Her mother, Stella Sands, is an author and playwright. Her father, the late Sasson Soffer, was a highly-regarded abstract monumental sculptor and painter. "Both my parents are great proponents of creativity, and instilled that in me at a very young age. There were no coloring books in my house."

She attended college in Connecticut, and went to Hunter College for her Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. Among her instructors were Peter Carey, two-time winner of the Booker Prize, and Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award in 2009 for Let the Great World Spin. "Just after he won the National Book Award, there were a lot of people milling around eager for Colum's attention," she says. "He somehow, in his charming way, parlayed that attention on his students. There were four of us in my year, which was nice." Her literary career took off from there, culminating in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Jessica was kind enough to talk with me about her book, which is out today. The following interview took place by phone on March 14, 2013.

Why did you go the MFA route?

I studied creative writing in college and I didn't really know what else to do with myself, so I decided that I would apply. I didn't apply to very many schools—all of them were in New York City—and Colum from Hunter called me and sort of explained what an MFA would look like, particularly a Hunter MFA, which is different than some. The way he said it was that it was essentially just buying a time to write, and that's what it ended up being for me. It was a set amount of time in which I was paying for the opportunity to write; to share my work with people whose opinions I cared about; to read; to think abut writing; and to see living breathing writers working hard at their craft.

What was your takeaway from the Hunter program?

On the level of craft, it was finding voice—finding a particular voice that I could commit to and believe in, and wouldn't be shaken by the 10 people having 10 opinions about what that voice should say or do. But on a life level, it was learning what it meant to be a writer. To wake up every day and be diligent about your craft. For example, Peter Carey is very methodical. Colum writes very much from the heart. They write very different ways, but at the same time, it's not that Peter doesn't pack a huge emotional punch or that Colum isn't incredibly diligent about research. It's just that they work differently. And both of them are humble and hard working. Seeing that very early in my career gave me energy to figure out my own style and method.

And how would you describe your fiction?

It's too early to tell, I think. I know what I want my fiction to do, which is essentially what fiction has done to me my whole life. I mean, I started out as a reader; I was always a reader, and fiction has changed the way that I live in the world and the way that I organize my life. In a way that's what I want my fiction to do—to not just reflect the things that we see, but kind of constitute something entirely new and different, and in that way, move people. That's obviously incredibly lofty, but I want to move people in the way that fiction has moved me.

To that end, which authors come to mind as people who have moved you?

That's a toughie. There are the writers who have changed me fundamentally—it's a twofold answer. There are the writers who have changed my life as a writer and the writers that have changed my life as a person. As a person, which obviously—well, not obviously, but for me it's more important—people like Beckett and Gabriel García Márquez and Flannery O'Connor. And then as a writer, people like Alice Munro and Nabokov and David Foster Wallace for sure.

At a certain point, the kind of bigness of those writers started to weigh heavily on me, and I had to find my own voice. During my graduate program, I didn't read very much other work. I read the work being produced for workshop, but I think at a certain point while writing, reading can be toxic; it can undermine the inventiveness of one's own prose. 

Considering your family's artistic background and the long path you've taken in pursuit of your craft, when did you finally think of yourself as a capital-w "Writer"?

It's hard to say. I've always been aware of this kind of distance between myself and the world—it sounds like a weird thing to say—a distance between myself and objects and people and emotions. I think around the time I was twelve or 13, I began to identify an internal, obsessive stream of observation, of kind of narrating everything—narrating in the world as if it were in a story. And the first time that I really tried writing something (I think a poem was the first thing I really wrote), that obsessive stream touched and continues to do so. But I learned to rely on the noise and the silence and it is the thing that energizes what and why I write. It's what I rely on, and what produces work in the end.

Which leads to your novel. Describe Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is the story of two deeply lonely and isolated women who are navigating around large holes in their lives. They find solace through each other and through Iraqi-Jewish cooking classes in New York City.

What kind of research went into the book?

My father was an Iraqi Jew who came to the United States around the same time that Victoria and Joseph [Victoria's late husband] do in the novel. I always knew that I wanted to write about my father's culture and honor it in some way. And I thought that he would be the authority in my research, but he became pretty sick very on in the writing, and couldn't contribute in any kind of meaningful way. And so I was left to the research on my own, which I think was probably for the best because it was unbiased and more comprehensive, and made me think I had earned the right to write about what I did. But the issue was finding an immigration story to parallel my father. My father—most Iraqi Jews fled to Israel from Baghdad and Iraq in the late 1940s, and they were forced to give up their identities and belongings, and from that group was a very outspoken and political population in Israel. But my father went to Iran and then Ellis Island and eventually Brooklyn. There weren't many people who had done that. So finding the writerly details that he was unable to give me was a bit of a task. I hope I succeeded.

As for Lorca: I was never a cutter myself, but I had friends who were, and are, I guess. Self-harm is really an epidemic and it fascinates me. I think what I try to say in Lorca is that there is a way in which you can forego happiness in most realms, but not all of them, and that's where Victoria falls in. I wanted to say that self-harmers are not just depressives or just completely unhappy humans. I went to cutters meetings, I talked to psychiatrists, I read books. The scars of self-harm, whatever form it takes—scars or bone marks or baldness from pulling out hair, or eyelashes—that all lasts. And so even if it's a phase, and in many cases it is, it's really quite permanent.

Lorca was born out of a story I wrote in graduate school. It was the staccato recounting of a woman's life of self-harm from the time that she was a young girl until the time that she was an adult. The story really didn't work, but it ended with the character giving birth, and she's in the hospital and she has cuts all over her legs, and the doctors tell her that she's not fit to be a mother. And that to me is the core of what's lost for the entire life of a self-harmer, that regardless of how long the phase lasts, there's a very harmful permanence.

Apricots is a moving, extraordinary novel. What can readers next expect from you as an author?

Right now I'm working on a lot of nonfiction. A lot of personal essays. But presently I'm trying to enjoy the moment before the book actually comes out, because there's not that much opportunity for disappointment right now. And that's kind of a welcome surprise. Also, I don't feel like the characters in Apricots have quite settled down in my mind. It feels like they're still scurrying round. To give up on them entirely now and take up something brand new would feel like abandoning a child. But I've really realized through writing Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots that I want to write another novel. I enjoy writing these personal essays now, but there's something that feels a little bit constricting about it. It's impossible to lose yourself in nonfiction and to build something new because you're beholden to facts, and I'm excited to be back in a place where I feel the freedom of fiction.