by Andrea Tarr, Corona P.L., CA
A Hertog Fellow and recipient of the Bernard Cohen Prize, Jessica Soffer earned her MFA at Hunter College. Her work has appeared in Granta and Vogue, and she teaches fiction at Connecticut College. Her father, a painter and sculptor, emigrated from Iraq to the United States in 1948. Soffer’s debut novel Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots—from the Arabic expression bukra fil mishmish—will publish in April. It is the bittersweet story of Lorca, a neglected daughter of a chef, and Victoria, an Iraqi Jewish widow, who connect through cooking.
Your novel is a rich, savory stew of a story. What is your own culinary background?
My father was an Iraqi Jew and his mother was a healer, which means that I come from people who believe in eating for one’s health, in nurturing the body through what you put in it. I don’t think I had Tylenol until I was a teenager, much less processed turkey or a gummy worm. Garlic, garlic, and more garlic in our house. Sometimes, if I was lucky, ginger tea with honey. But definitely there was nothing artificial in the fridge, and no red meat. It’s probably not terribly surprising that I went through a phase of spending lots of time at friends’ houses, slinking around their stocked pantries, lusting for a snack that might turn my tongue neon orange.
My mother cooked (she was a health nut by default, by association with my father) and we ate lots of tofu, brown rice, and pesto, for example, because of all the garlic that it can accommodate. My father’s sister is an amazing cook and I remember endless dinners at her house: the long-simmering things on her stove, smells of cardamom and turmeric, her freshly-made almond milk. I do think that a childhood like mine—with an emphasis on placed on the importance of eating in a mindful way—is likely to turn out a human interested in food, which I am. Food is, of course, what sustains us, but it’s also, to borrow your word, rich. It’s asking to be written about.
Artists find inspiration in a variety of places and experiences. What inspired you?
I have always been obsessed with loneliness, and more recently, with death. And because I imagine that a first novel is a very long time in the making and it bears the brunt and the benefit of that, it’s probably unsurprising that the book I wrote is greatly concerned with loneliness and death—and that the novel’s two main characters build their lives around those particular manholes. That said, there are more concrete sources of inspiration: I wrote a story in graduate school whose narrator was Lorca and she felt like the most alive character I’d ever written—a character with actual legs. So, when I started work on something larger, I knew I had to take her with me. Too, I’ve always wanted to write about my father’s culture, about the Iraqi Jews. Soon into the writing process, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together. Just like that, Victoria showed up. From then on, I just kept writing towards the image of those two people in a kitchen, writing to justify that exact moment.
Do your characters have any ties to individuals you may have encountered?
Apricots isn’t autobiographical and yet, the senses of grief and loss and happiness are mine—who else’s could they be?—but only ever to a point. I feel it important to say that my relationship with my mother (thankfully!) is exactly the opposite of Lorca’s relationship with hers. A great part of what I love about writing fiction lies in dissimilarities like that. The freedom to invent,…losing oneself in order to build something new can’t be done in nonfiction, where there’s an electric fence humming all around always: do not cross. I want to cross. I was never a self-harmer, but imagining what that might feel like is at the heart of why I write. Or being in the head of someone 60 years my senior: I imagine that. I imagine it all the time.
What we can expect next from you?
I’m trying to enjoy these moments before the book actually comes out. There’s little opportunity for disappointment to sneak in here, now, which is a welcome surprise. And still, it doesn’t feel as though the characters in Apricots have quite settled down yet. They’re still flailing around in my head. It will be hard to abandon them before that changes… That said, if I’ve learned anything from writing Apricots it’s that I want to write another novel, a better one. So, I suppose I just want to keep writing. More and better and lots. I’d feel lucky to.