by Morgan Mann
Fiction writer and fellow Portlander Sara Jaffe will be on campus Wednesday, October 7th in the Bookstore as part of the English department’s Readings and Lectures Series, following the recent publication of her debut novel Dryland. Released in early September, Dryland is a coming of age novel narrated by 15-year-old Julie Winter set in Portland in the early 1990’s. Jaffe has a unique, wistful style that reflects deep insights into family, swimming, sexuality, and self-awareness.
Jaffe isn’t just a novelist, though. Her fiction and criticism has been published in Fence, BOMB, NOON, Paul Revere’s Horse, matchbook, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is also the co-editor of The Art of Touring (2009), and co-founding editor of New Herring Press, a publisher of prose chapbooks. Jaffe is no stranger to UP, either—she has taught our Fiction Writing Workshop twice in recent years.
I had the amazing opportunity to ask Sara Jaffe a few questions to gain insight into her and her writing, and let me tell you—you’re going to want to attend this event.
What should we know about you as a person and a writer?
Let’s see… I have identified as a writer since I was 7, but didn’t begin seriously pursuing a writing career until I was 27 or so. I am typically more interested in character, language, and form than I am in plot, though that’s not to say I am completely plot-averse. In addition to writing, music is a really important part of my life—I grew up playing piano, and in my 20s toured and recorded with post-punk band Erase Errata. I have lived on the west coast for much of my adult life, but still identify as a New Yorker.
How would you describe your writing process?
Alternating between slow and precise and fast and messy.
What works of literature have influenced you and your writing?
So many! Talking specifically about Dryland, I’d say the book was particularly influenced by Denton Welch, a British writer who published several novels in the 1930s and 40s, particularly In Youth is Pleasure, a strange and lovely book about an adolescent boy drawn equally to the abject and the beautiful. Also Lynne Tillman’s Haunted Houses, a novel that tells the stories of three women from girlhood through their early 20s. It’s the first “coming of age” novel I remember reading where the focus isn’t on the character’s “learning” something. And I was just reminded recently of how much I’ve always loved James Joyce’s “Araby”—just thinking about the unadulterated, naive yearning in that story makes me sweat with teen anxiety!
Where did you get the idea for Dryland?
I’ve been a lifelong mediocre swimmer, and so I was interested in writing something that explored the mental and physical sensations of doing something over and over and, essentially, failing. I’d also been wanting to write about queer teenage experience without turning it into a conventional coming-out story.
How has living in Portland influenced you, especially while writing Dryland?
I think the mellower pace of Portland (as opposed to the frenetic-ness of New York, where I moved here from) has given me the mental space to really focus on my writing. And while it’s not nearly as cheap to live here as it once was—i.e. you need to work more to pay rent, etc.—there’s still the general vibe that the work you don’t do for money is as, if not more important than your day job.
Do you have any advice for writers?
I get so frustrated when prominent writers talk about their writing process as if it’s this near-mystical experience that can’t be put into words, and they talk about how inspiration just strikes them—rather than owning that writing is work, and that, though inspiration is real, writers make choices when they decide what goes down (or stays) on the page. So my advice is to really embrace writing as a process, which includes generating, reading, talking to other writers, writing, rewriting, and throwing lots of stuff away. It’s not always fun—it’s often not fun—but what work is?
Don’t miss Sara Jaffe’s reading on Wednesday, October 7th at 7:30 in the UP Bookstore. Hope to see you there!