Jaime Boler: Thank you, Jessica, for letting me interview you. I love Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots for its profound message, its well-drawn characters, its rich recipes, and, perhaps, most of all, for your phenomenal writing. How did you come up with Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots?
Jessica Soffer: During graduate school, I wrote a story called “Pain.” It was the chronicling of a woman’s entire life of self-harm from childhood to womanhood. It was an unsuccessful piece in a lot of ways—most of all, I think, because it was so sad. And there was no break from that.
Lorca was the protagonist, though, and she was the upshot. I loved her. Love her. She’s so sad, and yet in Apricots, she finds a way out of that: through food, through friendship, through a kind of persistent optimism that she never got around to in the short story.
JB: Please describe Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots using ten words or less.
JS: A(1) debut(2) novel(3) you(4) simply(5) cannot (6) live(7) or(8) breathe(9) without(10).
Food(1), friendship(2), NYC(3), growing(4) up(5), growing(6) old(7), sadness(8) and(9) hope(10).
JB: “Soffer” means “scribe” in Arabic. Your father was a sculptor and painter, your grandfather was a scribe, and you are a writer and storyteller. It’s as if writing is in your DNA. As a child, did you want to be a writer?
JS: I’ve always been obsessed with books and words and rhythm. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started to consider a career in writing, what that might look like. And it was very much because of my parents that I wasn’t afraid, because they dedicated their lives to the pursuit of creativity—of living in it, for it, because of it—that I felt I could too. And I had some idea of how to begin.
JB: Food is a symbol in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, substituting for love, affection, and companionship. What prompted you to use food in such a way?
JS: Food is certainly a symbol for all those things in Apricots. But as much as that, I’d say that food is a source of real sadness, reminding the characters of what once was, what can no longer be, what can never be. I’m deeply interested in the things that bring us—in equal measure—joy and sorrow. And the notion that it is often those very things that can be most useful. For Lorca and Victoria, the novel’s protagonists, food is a way to communicate happiness and loss. It’s a way to engage with the world: with emotions, memories, each other.
JB: There are a lot of mouth-watering dishes in Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots. Do you like to cook? What is your favorite food?
JS: I love to cook and do often. I’d say that my favorite foods change seasonally: mushrooms in fall, bean soups in winter, greens in the spring, and watermelon in the summer. I don’t mind if it’s covered in sand and saltwater. In fact, I’d prefer it.
JB: What are the perils and pitfalls of incorporating food into a novel? What are the rewards?
JS: I think that’s probably a question for the reader, and not me. I mean, maybe the self-harm and the food will turn people off. Maybe I’ve ruined French bistro food for anyone who has read the novel. Maybe some people like their food on a plate and not between the pages.
But I never thought about that while writing. You can’t, I don’t think. You write. You write. You write what you can write, what you feel you have to. Of course, everything is a choice and writing has little to do with fate. But I wrote the book I felt most compelled to write. I never thought about whether it was good or bad idea to write about food (and it would scare me to really consider those questions now)—it was, call me idiotic, simply what I wrote.
JB: I never sympathized with Lorca’s mother, Nancy, even when I discovered her history. Is she a sympathetic character?
JS: I think that every character is a sympathetic character. And every person. Nancy shouldn’t have been a mother and her treatment of Lorca is unforgivable. But she is deeply unhappy, always has been, and cannot find her way out of it. That, for me, commands a whole lot of sympathy. Lorca will be OK. Nancy never will.
JB: What kind of research did you do for your book?
JS: On Iraqi Jews: I spoke with family members, read books, watched documentaries. On self-harmers: I went to cutters’ meetings, met with psychiatrists, psychologists, cutters too. At a certain point though, I had to put the research aside: let the good stuff sift in and let the rest vanish for a time. All the “facts” were pressing too hard on the work and it came through burdensome and clunky.
JB: You teach fiction at Connecticut College. Has teaching fiction made you a better author?
JS: I hope so. I guess that remains to be seen. But I have had to think about the fundamentals of writing again. All the stuff that I take for granted, that feels second nature, I’ve had to reanalyze and consider and articulate. Like, why it’s unfair to say, “And then she woke up.” Why and why not and what’s an appropriate alternative. Fiction feels fresh again. Like I’m seeing it with a new set of eyes. It’s wonderful. And my students are smart and eager and fantastic. Just fantastic.
JS: Masgouf was carp, typically from the Euphrates or Tigris, pulled out of the water, grilled on the banks and prepared with lemon and tamarind and tomatoes. Because of all the dead bodies in those rivers, there was a fatwah declared on those fish. And Baghdad is not what it once was. All the Jews are gone. Their experience of eating masgouf as they once did is very much over.
JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
JS: Virginia Woolf, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabokov, Roberto Bolaño, Flannery O’Connor, James Salter.
JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
JS: Read, of course. Walk the streets of New York City, the beaches of Eastern Long Island. Cook. Yoga. Read.
JB: What was your publication process like?
JS: I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve been blown away by my agent, editor, and publicist. I don’t think everyone gets a crew this dedicated and generous and lovely, really, and I’m hesitant to talk too much about it lest the magic dispels. But I worked hard and long with my agent, revised and revised. And then again with my editor. They were both tireless. The work needed it. I had to do big structural shifts but they could see past those, believed in the book despite its shortcomings, which is surprising to me now. They saw a better version of the book than me. And they led me to it.
JB: How different were earlier versions of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots from the finished copy?
JS: It meandered much more. There was more Joseph. People kept calling it “literary,” and not in a good way. I think “obtuse” would have been a better word, though less a sensitive one. It required a stronger plot, more forward momentum, more of Lorca and Victoria together. And that’s what it got in the end.
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this novel?
JS: This part. The letting go. The having faith that it will find a place in the world, its place. Faith is so hard and so crucial. In a lot of ways, there’s a sadness to the whole thing. That what I love the most—writing—has been bastardized (I know that’s a very strong word and maybe not the right one) for my career. It’s no longer just joy, which is obvious and should have been for the last five or six years. But it’s only just dawning on me. And I’m so sensitive. The thick skin must grow. It will.
JB: What did you learn about yourself while in the midst of writing and editing?
JS: That I love to write. That I can’t wait to write another, better novel with its own set of issues—different ones, I hope. That I can’t imagine a different career, a more engaged way to spend my days. That if I was on a deserted island and could only take one item with me it would be my computer so I could write. And a charger and a very, very long extension cord. I wouldn’t need the Internet, but my handwriting is atrocious. So a computer, yes.
JB: Please give us a peek into a typical day in your life when you are writing.
JS: It changes radically. There are days when I do not get out of my pajamas. When I cannot pull myself from the computer screen. There are days of staring into space. Days of erasing. Days when I know I won’t be productive and so I try to find alternative ways of contributing to the work: reading, looking at art, doing yoga until it hurts, considering something new and writing notes until I scrap them and revert back to what I’d been toiling away on previously. The good stuff tends to rise to the top. I worked full-time until I started working with my editor so those days looked very different than the days when I taught undergrads—and different still from the days when I had no real “job” but the writing itself.
JS: I can only hope that it moves them as writing has moved me my whole life. That the characters linger, the sadness, the hope, the sense of nostalgia. Not that readers learn anything—I don’t have anything to teach really—but that there is a certain feeling that comes across and it doesn’t vanish. Good books have done that for me for so long: moved me in a fundamental, physical way, as much as an emotional one. That’s lofty, I know. But here’s to hoping.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
JS: I have an idea for a novel but I haven’t really gotten down to it yet. I’ve been working on lots of non-fiction for newspapers and magazines as the book stuff is happening. But I’m eager to get back into fiction. It’s what I love the most and what requires the most—space, time, energy. Of course, it’s what rewards the most, too.
JB: Thanks, Jessica, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!