Off the Shelf: Jessica Soffer

Jessica Soffer glances at her debut novel, Tomorrow there will be Apricots, after a quinoa salad at The Butcher's Daughter

Today I reviewed Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow there will be Apricots, for the birchbox blog.  Check out the post here.  Apricots is required summer reading so pick up a copy and throw it in your beach bag over Memorial Day Weekend, if not sooner!  I was lucky enough to catch Jessica for brunch at a shared SoHo favorite, The Butcher's Daughter.  The weather was perfect.  The conversation was endless.  And I had the distinct pleasure of asking an author I admire about what it takes to make a story.  

Jessica is a twenty-seven-year-old graduate of the prestigious MFA program at Hunter College who is as chic as she is smart.  She is a Manhattanite, born and bred, whose old soul is obvious even in her swoon-worthy white leather jacket and reflective raybans.  Jessica's work has been featured, among other places, in The New York Times opinionator blog and Vogue.  I had the chance to ask Jessica about her novel and her life, and this is what she had to say:

I once read that if you want to be a writer you should "first try to be something - anything - else."  How and when did you know that writing was it for you?

I’ve always been obsessed with words and rhythm. Words from my mother who is a writer herself and who believes in books like some people believe in God. And rhythm because of New York City, which is a city flooded with music: inside, outside, restaurants clanking, buses braking, people shouting and laughing and whistling. I don’t remember ever not putting phrases together in my head and breaking them apart. The first time I wrote down a sentence was the first time that the obsessive stream of narration hushed. And maybe then I knew. But it took years to figure out what a career in writing would look like, which is very different from knowing that I wanted to write for my whole life. Totally different. 

How would you describe your personal style?  Any overlaps with your writing style?

That’s hard to say. Style evolves always. Or at least that’s the goal. There are days of bathrobes. Days of red lipstick. Days of tiny delicate gold chains and days of lots of bulky wristwear. It’s so much a product of mood. But there’s lots of black and lots of white always. Until there’s lots of pattern. Mood. Again, mood.

I’d say that more than my personal style mirroring my writing style, how I style things (myself, my bookshelves, my medicine cabinet) mirrors how I write—not the style of my writing, but of my process (though that word sounds absurd here and ever)—which is careful. I’m not the kind of writer who will madly spew out fifty pages, only to throw them out and come up with a better fifty the next day. I edit, of course, but I think a lot about what I’m trying to say before I say it so that often when I sit down, I have imagined that very moment for months. And I’m ready for it. At least until it’s time to edit. The same goes with how I dress, for example. I don’t try on thirty-five shirts until the right one comes around. I imagine it, and then try to make it work. And if it doesn’t work right off the bat, I try for something entirely different. I don’t know if that has to do with a lack of patience, or something deeply obsessive and a tendency to avoid risk. But so it is.   

Describe your workspace.  Are you an at-a-familiar desk type?  The scratching-scenes-on-the-back-of-cocktail-napkins type? 

My boyfriend varnished my father’s drawing table for me after my father passed away. It’s covered in paint splatter and years of hard work. It’s in front of a window and surrounded by photos: my father’s father in Baghdad (Soffer means scribe, which is what he was), my arms wrapped around my mother when I was tiny, a photo of my boyfriend on the water, which is his favorite place to be. Also: a framed vintage Hermés scarf with characters from all the fairytales, John Derian plates that spell out E-D-I-T, Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, Ernest Hemingway On Writing, a silver cup that my friends engraved with the perfect J.D. Salinger quote about good books. For the most part, I write only at that desk, unless I’m writing at the East Hampton Library, which is the only other place where I’ve been industrious consistently. There’s a table there that feels like it belongs to me—but try telling that to the guy who keeps getting there first. 

Handwritten or typewritten?

Typewritten, though that seems somehow sad and abrupt. What would F. Scott say? I can only hope—or not—that one day computers will be considered nostalgic. All those writers’ writerly moments, slaving away in front of the bright screen, will become the new stuff of literary legend. But somehow I doubt it.

What makes you feel most inspired?  

I wish there was rhyme or reason to that. Sometimes, it’s everything. The city inspires me: the colors of the subway, the latticework of the streets, the splashes of light over the West Side Highway. Sometimes, the city feels like too much and then the quiet of Amagansett inspires me. Stuff comes up—there’s space for stuff to emerge and start to mean something when there’s less buzz. Sometimes I have to turn inside for inspiration but sometimes I need to look out: at books, at the beach, at the bottom of a cup of tea. It depends. Maybe one day there will be a method to it, but I doubt it. If I knew to always go to the sea, that the answers would be there forever, it would mean that the answers were very pat, wouldn’t it? I think so. 

One of Lorca's (Apricots' main character) charms is her staccato of food descriptions.  Are you a foodie?  Any life changing meals or NY favorites you'd recommend to our city readers?

I think everyone in New York City is a foodie. It’s impossible not to be, I think. Ethiopian food is on Seamless. There’s the United Nations of food trucks in every neighborhood. You have to live under a rock to not take advantage of that.  

Lure Fishbar is such a favorite. I would have spent my last dime (or two hundred dimes) on their fluke ceviche. But then they took it off the menu and I was so upset that the waiter who shared the news actually hugged me. True story. There’s nothing like Miss Lily’s. A ball and delish. A meal at Le Bernardin was the most memorable of my life. Everything is so perfectly choreographed there. Stools come from the sky when one goes to put down a clutch on the floor. Perfect. Perfect Perfect. I’ve been getting the vegetable dinner at Spring Street Natural since I was four. Brunch at Public. Bloody Mary’s at Pravda. I’ll do gluten only at Dell’Anima and it’s always worth it. Even when I have to go fetal the next day. Still worth it.

Your characters feel, in a sense, well-loved by you.  Do you ever think of Lorca when you're not expecting it?  Does she have a life that exists outside of Apricots?

That’s such a compliment. I have grown to love my characters. I wouldn’t have a book without them. I’m grateful to them. They are part of me, of course, but now that they are in the world and people are talking about them, they’ve become bigger than me. Someone told me the other day that once she finished the book, she missed them. It was an incredible thing to say. What I didn’t know to hope for, but did. Apparently.   

What does it mean, today, to be a good reader?

I almost just said, “These days, someone who reads at all is a good reader,” but I don’t think that’s true. I think the world is reading—I’ve been heartened by the evidence for that theory recently—though maybe differently than it did years ago.

A good reader reads for more than pleasure, to escape, but to engage, inhabit the mind of someone else for a while and therefore be part of a larger conversation about empathy and what it means to be human, alive, hurt and fickle and lovesick and manic and exhausted and lost. Imagine what the world could be like if we could all imagine, and keep imagining, what it would be like to be someone else. Imagine how everything would shift and get better, kinder, more mindful and meaningful. 


A Saturday worth investing in: Tomorrow there will be Apricots & linen Supergas.