Online Fiction Interview: Jake Wolff

Jake Wolff author photoThis month’s online fiction interview is with Jake Wolff, author of “When a Woman Thinks That her House Is on Fire.” In this lyrical tale of one family’s double-loss, we learn that Nasya and Ned have lost one son and we watch as they lose their house to a fire. More than a story of loss, though, the piece looks at the things that  tragedy leaves in its wake. There is the memory of Henry. There’s Nasya’s subsequent dedication to serving the members of her synagogue. There’s Nasya and Ned’s surviving son, Conrad, who Nasya worries has grown strange in the shadow of his brother’s death. There’s Nasya’s perennial concerns about safety, and Ned’s comparatively dangerous lack of concern, particularly when his sinuses prevent him from smelling the smoke from blaze that ruins their home. In this interview, Wolff was kind enough to give us the skinny on what brought this lovely, elegiac story into being, and on what becomes of little Conrad. 

 

Nate Brown: The title of “When a Woman Thinks That her House Is on Fire” comes from one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories. Did you start with the title and work from there, or did the title come later?

Jake Wolff: I started with the title, which I almost never do. The quote comes from the story “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Sherlock is explaining his methods to Watson, as per usual, and says, “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it.” To me, that quote is hilarious. It’s both absurd and absurdly sexist. (And I should point out that Doyle gives Sherlock his proper comeuppance; this is one of the few stories where Sherlock is outwitted.) But it does seem true that a fire might reveal a person’s priorities, right? So I started thinking about what a story set during a fire and covering only five to ten minutes of time might look like.

NB: Nasya Beckman is such a round character, a feat for any story, but particularly for one this short. She’ s experienced terrible loss, and yet she’s a big participator in Synagogue, she’s almost hyper-aware of her responsibilities to her family, and she even seems to use the antique six-inch double-bell alarm clock in loyalty to her rabbi, who gave it to her as a thank you gift. Is Nasya so together in spite of her family’s loss of a son or, perhaps, as a result of it?

JW: Thanks for saying she’s a round character, first of all. A lot of the qualities you’re describing, especially the service to her synagogue, came after the death of her son. I think she’s taken that platitude spoken by her rabbi—the one about keeping yourself busy after tragedy—and channeled all of her grief into other things, most notably her religious service. There’s an intensity and an obsessiveness to Nasya that I don’t think you would have seen before the tragedy. This is maybe just a long way of saying that she’s become something of a control freak, though I hope it’s more complicated than that. The scene where she lets Conrad play with matches, for example, softens that kind of characterization.

NB: I got the sense that Ned might not be Jewish, actually, though there’s no way of knowing that in the story. His sarcastic, faux-aggravation at the “Jews” — nominally responsible for the terrible din of the alarm clock — is funny, but it’s also read to me as a kind of indictment of Nasya. Which is to say that it’s a funny gesture, but beneath the humor in Ned’s exclamation is something a bit sharper, maybe, and I think it’d be there whether, in fact, he’s Jewish or not. Is that how you intended it? 

JW: Well, Ned is definitely Jewish, but you’re right that there’s a difference between them in terms of what that means. There’s often a divide between a person’s, or people’s, cultural and spiritual engagement with their own Jewishness. That describes Ned and Nasya, at least in my conception of their lives together. They are Jewish culturally, but I don’t think either of them were particularly religious when they first met or even when they started a family. But after Henry’s death, Nasya threw herself into synagogue in a way that Ned has not, and this has created a separation between them. They have different ways of grieving, or of avoiding grief. The alarm clock, for Ned, is a reminder of this.

NB: So, the alarm clock also serves as a reminder not merely of Nasya’s  service to the synagogue, but also of the divide in how Ned and Nasya are grieving. I imagine that’d be a terrible thing to wake up to each day, and it leads me to a question you’re not really supposed to ask, maybe, but I’m going to do it anyway: outside of the framework of this story, do you imagine that Ned and Nasya will stay together? I had the sense that, in spite of their loss, they were going to weather things ultimately.

JW: I agree with you. I think the worst is behind them. I tried to avoid any of the obvious fire-as-rebirth imagery in the story; that said, the ending still points to a new beginning for Nasya and her family.

NB: Now that I think of it, it’s odd, actually, that Nasya uses the alarm clock at all because it’s such a terrible noise. She could just as easily hit up Target and get a more modern, milder alarm clock, and yet she sticks to this one. Why?

JW: Nasya has drawn a connection between the clock and Henry. She would never have worked so many hours at the synagogue were it not for Henry’s death, and so to throw the clock out, or replace it, would be more than just an act of disloyalty to her rabbi. It would be an act of disloyalty to Henry. At least, that’s how she sees it. Part of what the story is suggesting, at the end, is that Nasya may need to find a healthier way forward.

NB: That’s nicely put— how does one find a healthier way forward? So much in our lives—and, of course, so much good fiction—is about precisely that kind of seeking. Is that an idea that crops up in your other work? 

JW: That’s a good question! I think most short stories—written by me or otherwise—are about the disruption of a routine. So part of the question short fiction tends to ask is something like, Can the character(s) turn this disruption into an opportunity for positive change? In answer to that question, some stories end happy, some sad, some in the middle, but I know it’s important to me that all of my stories contain the possibility for hope, even if that possibility fails to actualize.

NB: You’re a PhD student at Florida State, studying creative writing. How’s that life treating you? Is that conducive to getting a lot of writing done?

JW: Well, I just turned in my dissertation, and it’s over 500 pages long, so my committee probably wishes I had less time to write. Overall, it’s been a great experience, and I would definitely make the same choice again.

NB: Well, congrats on turning in the dissertation. Can you tell us a bit about the project?

JW: Sure! My dissertation is a novel called The History of Living Forever. The main character of the novel is actually Conrad, the older son we meet just a little bit in this story. He grows up to be something of a science prodigy who enters into an inappropriate sexual relationship with one of his high school teachers the summer before his senior year. The novel picks up right as that senior year begins, and we see the fallout of that conflict (and others) in his life.

 

Jake Wolff‘s stories and essays have appeared in One StoryBellevue Literary ReviewTin House, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he’s currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Florida State University. See more at www.jakewolff.com.

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