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The Great Divide: An Exclusive Q&A with Jayne Anne Phillips, Mira Jacob, and Ruth Joffre

Posted Tue, 9/17/2019 - 12:17pm by  |  Category: , ,

On September 27, Jayne Anne Phillips, Mira Jacob, and Ruth Joffre will start off the 2019–20 Hugo Literary Series with new works on the theme of “The Great Divide.”

In a recent email exchange, Jayne Anne, Mira, and Ruth revealed details about their projects, their favorite writing advice, and what they would do if they could lead two separate lives.

Find out more about the upcoming literary series and buy tickets »

Jayne Anne Phillips

Q: What, if anything, can you tell us about your Lit Series piece?

I’m writing about a past apocalypse, the result of an earlier “Great Divide.” In the late 1850s, Virginia funded the first public works project ever in the mountainous western frontier of the state. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylumwas based on the ideas of Quaker physician Thomas Story Kirkbride, who advocated “Moral Treatment” for the insane: private, well-ventilated rooms; a strict regimen of exercise and activity; ornamental gardens; walking trails; and healthy food grown on the premises. Construction of the Asylum halted when Virginia’s ‘western frontier,’ in the wake of moral and economic divide from Virginia’s booming, slave-based economy, seceded in 1863 to become West Virginia and fight for the Union. Some women and children in the highest ridges of the Alleghenies survived the war in isolated homesteads, defending themselves from marauding soldiers and deserters. I’ll be reading “Journey,” a section of my novel that takes place in September 1874, seven years after the war. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, in a world transformed by devastation, is for some a refuge. Dr. Story, a nephew and protégé of Thomas Story Kirkbride, has taken on supervision of the Asylum. A thirteen-year-old girl, the adult in her family for as long as she can remember, undertakes a journey to the Asylum with her mute mother and the man she calls ‘Papa.’ And so our story begins.

Q: The theme for your Lit Series is “the Great Divide.” Tell us: If you could divide yourself in two and lead two separate lives, what would you do?

I’m pretty sure that writers already experience this phenomenon. Writing has always seemed a ‘secret life’ inside my life—the equivalent of leading two lives!

Q: What’s one piece of advice that keeps you going when the writing gets tough?

I said long ago that it’s a privilege to have a passion, that writing is like “listening to a whisper,” or “practicing for Death.”  But remember, in the Tarot, the “Hanging Man” means transformation, or the “death” of the past, a movement into space and light, the “other side” of the Great Divide…

 

Mira Jacob

Q: The theme for your Lit Series is “the Great Divide.” Tell us: If you could divide yourself in two and lead two separate lives, what would you do?

This summer, after being on book tour for a little too long, I found myself fantasizing about all the things I might have done if I hadn’t been a writer, or more accurately, hadn’t been filled with the longing to write from the minute I could hold a pencil. I decided I would know Spanish right now. And maybe how to sew. I would definitely have more organized bathroom drawers and completed at least one half marathon. I’d probably be a better listener without all these other worlds in my head, competing for attention. My husband would feel more understood, my child would flourish, my waistline would be instagrammable, my eyebrows would trim themselves, my fury, having never been illuminated, would died on the vine and then further decompose into the perfect mulch for the perfect tomatoes I would grow every August. My orgasms would last half an hour, after which, I would reverse-age. Well, that’s one fantasy. The other is that I’d be a physical therapist.

 

Ruth Joffre

Q: What, if anything, can you tell us about your Lit Series piece?

When I described the central conceit of my piece to someone, they said, “Oh, so you’re writing about the Republican Party.” My story is about zombies.

Q: The theme for your Lit Series is “the Great Divide.” Tell us: If you could divide yourself in two and lead two separate lives, what would you do?

I kind of feel like I’m already leading two separate lives because I work a 9–5 and then come home and do my own writing. So there’s corporate me and creative me and nary the two shall meet. If money weren’t a thing and I could do whatever I wanted instead of that 9–5, I would want to be one of the following: a food critic, an astronomer, or a cinematographer.

Q: What’s one piece of advice that keeps you going when the writing gets tough?

Do the writing no matter what. You can always reward yourself with cake after.