Authors and Editors in Conversation
Jonathan Galassi: Rebecca, lots of people are going to be asking, Where did this all come from? I mean: a fly. I mean: a Jew in 18th-century France becoming a fly here and now. We’re well beyond the bounds of realism here. Can you tell us what the first kernels of Jacob’s Folly were, and where you found them?
Rebecca Miller: The first thing I wrote was in the spring of 2008. It was the moment where “reliable, true” Leslie Senzatimore, the volunteer fireman, is peeing on his front lawn as the moon sets. So all I had was this big, very good man peeing at dawn—and then I saw a creature above him, nestled in the sky—some kind of demon or sprite, a mischievous soul stuck as if between two harp strings in some sort of transmigration accident, laughing down at him. So I started with a human and a low-order divinity. This spirit/human dichotomy had been fascinating to me since I was a small child and used to stare and stare at my mother’s tiny Mexican earthenware chapel that contained a few people praying, a priest blessing them, and the devil laughing down at them all from the roof. For some reason this little object fascinated me and I would spend hours staring at the praying people, and then up at the laughing devil. The irony of the situation, the fact that the people had no idea the devil was there, and the mirth of the devil, was fascinating and a little terrifying to me, maybe because it implied that nothing was as it seemed. That little object opened me up to the void, the mystery behind the material world.
But back to finding Jacob the fly: it wasn’t till I realized that my protagonist Masha was an Orthodox Jew and I began to research that system of belief that I struck on the form of my sprite, and Jacob’s voice first came to me. I need to mention now how important both the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer and also Jewish folk tales were to my writing the book. Singer’s stories are full of animals who embody transient souls, as are the folk tales. So it’s probably fair to say that this book exists within that tradition.
JG: One of the things that intrigues me about the book is its rollicking mixture of magic and realism. Jacob’s French story—before he is reincarnated as an insect and time-travels—is like a fable to a degree, but it falls within the bounds of a certain kind of non-magical realism. And the Leslie-Masha story is a “realistic” or at least a plausible story of today. How did you arrive at this freeform sort of narration?
RM: I think I arrived at it by convincing myself I was truly free—that the novel could be anything. Then I followed my nose. I started with character. The realism was spun out of the characters. I had a hunch that produced the essence of Jacob, Masha, and Leslie. Then through writing, gradually the hunch accrued a certain heft, a reality—a velocity, maybe even a destiny within the worlds of the story. So the characters created the causal chain, which is the plot. But to find the characters I had to do a lot of research—I would write what I could and then go off and read for six months. The reincarnation element was born of the (astounding to me at the time) discovery that reincarnation exists in the Jewish tradition. I was researching ultra-orthodox Judaism and I came upon a book of witty newspaper essays by a Hasidic woman living in Canada. The essays were about her daily life, her kids. And in one of them, her grown daughter is followed around by a fly all day long. And the girl says to her mother, jokingly, maybe it’s a soul paying penance. And I thought, wait a minute! Is there reincarnation in Judaism? And I looked it up, and I found Gilgul Neshamot—the transmigration of certain errant Jewish souls who have to expunge their sins. These souls can come back as animals. That’s when the whole thing took flight, and Jacob the character was born, and the 18th-century thread was woven into the story. Strangely, I have no memory of how I decided he had to live in 18th-century Paris—I think it was because I had read so much about that period, was fascinated by it, and also that the Jewish population was so tiny, and so little has been written about it.
JG: One of the paradoxes of the book for me is that it has multiple focuses, with relatively equal weight. It’s Jacob’s story but also Masha’s, and Leslie’s too. Where does the center of the novel exist, for you?
RM: The center is Jacob because every part of the narrative is filtered through him, seen by him, even though at times he becomes transparent. In those moments he is all eye, all observation—he loses himself and the reader may forget about him as the story shifts focus and even tone to match the inner life of the character being written about, but Jacob is always there. I suppose he is the writer in a way. His frustrations—of not being able to control the characters, or not being able to see into the secondary characters—are writerly frustrations.
I wanted the shape of the novel to be like a challah bread with three strands, a braid of the three fates—Jacob, Masha, Leslie—but all through the lens of Jacob’s consciousness. Arriving at the structure was tough. I remember you saying simply, “I think we need to see Leslie three more times.” And because of the intricacy of the structure (and the ensuing rewrites), that simple endeavor took an extra year. The whole novel was up on my wall in little squares of index card, each card color-coded so I could see the balance between the stories. If you moved one card, every card after it had to be reshuffled. If I lifted a card and someone called my name, and I turned away from the board, it could be disaster, because I really couldn’t lose concentration. I’m not sure this makes sense.
JG: I actually have a suspicion, though, that the character who is at “the deep heart’s core” of the book, to borrow a phrase, is Masha. The men circle around her and ogle her and love and interact with her—but isn’t her heroic struggle to be the center around which everything else turns? Maybe that’s overstating the case. Or is it?
RM: I think you are actually right. Masha is the sexual pulse of the book—she’s finally the reason Jacob’s story even has meaning. Her struggle is to individuate. To be seen—in the soul sense. She’s hope in the book. Just goes to show, the worst person to ask about a book is the poor writer, feeling around in the dark for the occasional recognizable piece of furniture.
JG: You know everything about the book, but perhaps don’t always know what you know. One of my favorite comments is this one by E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I mean till I see what I say?” In some ways I see the book as a debate between responsibility, or order, and desire. Does this ring true to you?
RM: I agree. Or perhaps it’s responsibility versus freedom. That’s the debate lurking at the heart of the book and maybe at the heart of nearly every mature life. When does a person’s desire—their heart’s deepest need—take on its own morality, even when it is contrary to responsibility, order, apparent goodness? What does a person lose through pursuing personal freedom? What are the dangers of assimilation, of losing cultural identity in favor of personal identity? And desire comes in different forms in the book—sexual in Leslie’s case, but also Masha’s soul-exhibitionism—her need to reveal herself . . . but even sexual desire is not only sexual desire—when it’s marrow deep, as with Leslie—some kind of seismic shift. At one point Le Jumeau, the 18th-century valet, asks Jacob, “that is the question—which is better—freedom, or happiness?” I think there is an assumption in our culture that freedom is synonymous with happiness. But freedom can be terrifying. All this sounds so serious, and the book is really just a romp. I thought of it as a soufflé.
JG: Soufflés are serious things!
Rebecca Miller is the author of the short-story collection Personal Velocity, her feature-film adaptation of which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (FSG, 2008), which she also adapted for the screen. Jacob’s Folly is available this month.
Jonathan Galassi is the President and Publisher of FSG.