Janice Eidus (Photo credit: Steve Schulman)
Mary Mackey: Janice Eidus is a novelist, essayist, short story writer, and writing coach who, after a celebrated career writing fiction, has turned to writing nonfiction as well as fiction. Today we are going to talk to her about the experience of doing both.
Welcome to my People Who Make Books Happen interview series, Janice. As I noted, before you also started writing nonfiction, you had a very successful career writing fiction. Let’s talk about that first. Could you please start by telling us when you started writing fiction?
Janice Eidus: I began writing and illustrating stories and plays that were percolating in my head when I was a little girl. Usually they were about girls my age having grand adventures, sometimes in the Bronx, where I lived, and sometimes in the wider world as I imagined it. I also wrote short poems, celebrations of New York City and the occasional “ode” to favorite teachers.
Mary: What inspired you to write?
Janice: I wrote for reasons I couldn’t articulate back then. I wrote to invent whole worlds of people and places that were unlike my unhappy family and the housing project in which we lived; to be heard by someone, somewhere, since I never felt truly listened to or understood at home; to transform words into art; to bear witness.
I believed that when I grew up I’d write a novel on Monday, a poem on Tuesday, and a play on Wednesday. Fresh out of college, I did publish some poems in literary magazines but I quickly came to see that at that time my passion was fiction. I loved “spinning yarns” the old-fashioned way while simultaneously “re-inventing” the world. Even in my most fantastical or magical realist stories (as opposed to my more realistic work) I never eschewed traditional storytelling elements of plot, character, conflict, and theme.
Mary: Tell us about some of your novels and short stories. Do they fall into any specific genre?
Janice: My short stories are all over the map, stylistically. However, as with my novels, they’re connected through theme, character, place, emotions, and worldview. Take, for example, two of my novels, The War Of The Rosens and The Last Jewish Virgin. One is firmly rooted in the realm of reality; the other is situated (at least partially) in the realm of literary myth.
The War Of The Rosens, the realistic novel, is also my most autobiographical novel. While much of it is totally invented, it’s deeply informed by my family and my childhood. The novel portrays a family that is passionate about leftwing politics as well as their Jewish identity while they confront illness, grief, and violence.
As for The Last Jewish Virgin, I call it my literary, Jewish, feminist, fashionista vampire novel. It pays homage to the myth of the vampire — a timeless, romantic myth I’ve adored since I was a little girl — while also subverting it with humor, through a contemporary lens. The main character is Lilith Zeremba, a young fashion design student who’s in the midst of a mighty rebellion against her intellectual, feminist Jewish mother.
The Last Jewish Virgin initially appears very different from The War Of The Rosens. For starters, you’ve got a vampire running around New York – which means realism is tossed out the window, right? Well, not really, because it takes place largely in two very real Manhattan neighborhoods: the West Village and the Upper West Side. In addition, the novel explores female sexuality and mother/daughter tension in authentic ways. And, much of it takes place in an art school modeled on The Parsons School of Design, where I used to teach.
The War Of The Rosens and The Last Jewish Virgin are linked not only to each other but also to my other novels and short fiction. All delve into issues dear to my heart: love and heartbreak; female passion; socioeconomic injustice; secularism versus faith; illness and grief; and, the creative process.
Mary: You’ve won major prizes for your fiction. What were these and for which stories did you receive them?
Janice: Among the prizes that mean the most to me are my two O.Henry Prizes because, as a kid, I adored O.Henry’s playfulness and wit, and, oh, those surprise endings! My first O.Henry was for my short story “Vito Loves Geraldine,” a contemporary fairy tale romance about two rock n’rollers from the Bronx – Vito the tough boy who becomes famous, and Geraldine, who sets her hair nightly with beer cans while waiting for Vito to return to her and the Bronx.
The second O. Henry Prize was for “Pandora’s Box,” a story about a survivor of incest who supports herself as a phone sex worker, all the time fearing her own Pandora’s Box of painful memories and truths.
The Pushcart Prize I received also meant a lot to me. It was for a funny and “naughty” story I wrote called “Not The Plaster Casters.” It’s literally about the genitalia of rock stars. An extra perk of winning that prize was that the talented, edgy actress Sean Young performed it at Word Theatre in L.A. It was thrilling beyond words to hear my words coming out of her fabulous mouth.
Mary: Given that you are successful as a fiction writer, what inspired you to start writing nonfiction?
Janice: I’ve always loved reading memoirs and personal essays. And, whenever I was asked to contribute a personal essay to anthologies on subjects ranging from Barbie Dolls to female desire to the meaning of “dirt” in my life and more, I happily did so. Nevertheless, for many years fiction was my main priority and passion. And then, one day . . . I had two “main” priorities.
I’m still writing fiction, but a new switch just seemed to get turned on in my brain, and ever since then, ideas for personal essays keep coming. I’m certain that this is connected to the fact that many things in my life were (and are) changing. By choice, I’d become a first-time mother in middle age. I adopted my daughter from Guatemala, which suddenly made me a member of a transracial family. Thus, issues of race, always important to me, now took on urgent new meaning. Every single day, my daughter and I were forced to confront the fact of our difference. This continues to be the case, even now that she is a teenager. In addition, becoming a parent made me realize how much my identity as a cultural Jew meant to me, and how strongly I wanted to raise my daughter as one.
Also years of therapy helped me to become calmer and more grounded, as well as more confident about my opinions and beliefs. Plus, I’d been diagnosed with celiac, an auto-immune illness one is born with, but which I didn’t know I had, despite being ill on and off for my entire life. For those of us with celiac, gluten is toxic. Living gluten-free has affected every aspect of my life, and once I was diagnosed, I felt physically better than I ever had.
In addition, I’d accomplished many of my goals as a fiction writer and a person. Many things came together for me, and this contributed to who I am as a human being, a woman, and a writer – and therefore to my new desire to write personal essays.
Mary: Do you find writing nonfiction difficult?
Janice: No. It’s actually exciting and thrilling: thinking in a brand new way, working with new editors, and speaking to new audiences, especially in the evolving landscape of digital magazines. I’ve even made new friends, people who are writing the same kind of deeply personal essays that I am. Friendship is, in fact, a very important subject for me–the ones that end, the ones that stay, the ones that transform. For example, recently I wrote an essay for NextTribe entitled “The Zen of Female Friendships: Why Some Last and Some Don’t.”
Mary: Tell us about some of your favorite nonfiction pieces
Janice: I love all of Vivian Gornick’s writing, but especially her two courageous memoirs, Fierce Attachments, about growing up as a Jewish girl in the Bronx with her widowed Communist mother, and The Odd Woman And The City, which explores her love affair with New York City alongside her intense friendship as a heterosexual woman with a gay man. I greatly admire and am moved by Gornick because of her unflinching honesty and specificity, as well as her intelligence and meticulous prose.
Mary: Are as happy writing nonfiction as you are writing fiction? If so, why?
Janice: I’m happier in my life now than I’ve ever been, and that happens to coincide with my writing so much nonfiction. I treasure the changes wrought by years of good therapy, parenting my amazing daughter, and being in a long marriage – and the things I’ve learned from all three.
I’ve also moved around a lot geographically and I wasn’t always happy where I landed, which was especially difficult for me because place is very important to me in both my life and my writing. I’m happy to say that I feel completely at home in the Manhattan neighborhood where I now live, the charming and untrendy Murray Hill, close to the river and the U.N. Of course the larger world is in great turmoil, and these are not happy times for those of us who care about social justice and the future of our planet. I’m heartbroken about so much that is going on, but I’m also galvanized and determined to effect as much change as I can. Writing essays is actually very good for my soul during such turbulent and tumultuous times.
Mary: What advice can you give writers who want to move between writing fiction and nonfiction?
Janice: Read, read, read – and not just the writing of people with whom you’re familiar. Read across the globe, and across genre, age, gender, sexuality, color, class, etc. Listen to your voice. Listen to the voices of others. Balance your intuitive self with your analytical self. Be specific yet universal. Understand that the creative journey is as important – if not more so – than the finished product. Revise like mad.
Mary: What is it like going back and forth between writing fiction and nonfiction?
Janice: I still read as much fiction as I do memoir and personal essays. I continue to work as a private Writing Coach to writers engaging in both. As time goes on, I’m sure I’ll continue to move fluidly back and forth between the two genres. Both live inside me.
Mary: What are you up to next?
Janice: I have a Word doc that’s a list of ideas for essays I want to write about things that are deeply personal and meaningful for me. It’s a very, very long list and it keeps growing. And I’m writing fiction inspired by visual art.
Mary: That sounds fascinating. I’m eager to read the essays that you will write based on that list. Readers are always invited to leave comments here. How can people connect with you in other ways, read your work, and find out what you’re doing?
Janice: If you want to know what I’m up to, you can sign up here for the newsletter I send out a few times a year with info including publications, interviews, and writing courses I’ll be teaching.
Here’s a link to some of my favorites among my essays in magazines: http://www.janiceeidus.com/essays.php . And a link to some of my favorites among my essays in anthologies: http://www.janiceeidus.com/anthologies.php.
Mary: Could you give us your website url and point us to some magazines that have published your nonfiction?
Janice: My website is at http://janiceeidus.com/ As for online magazines, I’ve written over 50 essays just for Purple Clover. I also write for a very cool magazine for women called Next Tribe. I’ve also written for She Knows, The New York Times, The Forward, Lilith, and so many more. I love hearing from other readers and writers, so feel free to be in touch!
Mary: Thank you, Janice. You’ve given us all a lot to think about.
Janice: And thank you, Mary, for your terrific questions and your ongoing support of the literary community.
Mary: If you would like to find out more about Janice Eidus you can follow her on Twitter @JaniceEidus and connect with her on Linkedin.
Subscribe to my quarterly Newsletter and check out the other People Who Make Books Happen Interviews on my website to discover what other great writers like Marge Piercy, Jane Hirshfield, D. Nurkse, and Ellen Sussman have to say about their work and literary passions