The Blessings

Juska Explores Family and Identity in The Blessings
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Elise Juska

By Ellen Birkett Morris

The Blessing
by Elise Juska

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October, 2014

When she wrote The Blessings, a novel that spans twenty years in the life of Irish-Catholic family from Philadelphia, Elise Juska was interested in exploring the fine line between family identity and an individual’s private life.

“As I’ve gotten older, I think about how the identity of a family is wrapped up in the identity of each member. There is a fine balance between shared rituals and memory and the private lives we all lead,” said Juska.

She started exploring those themes in short stories, which she wrote in the mid-90s while at college.

“I had to figure out how to tell the story . . .”

“Although I wrote the book fairly quickly over the last couple of years, I feel like I’ve been writing it for decades. I had to figure out how to tell the story,” said Juska.

When she decided to tell each chapter of the novel from the perspective of a different member of the family the story began to flow. “That structure is a way to capture the whole family and explore each individual’s private experience,” she noted.

The result is a novel that offers the rich particularity of each character’s journey, delving into issues like infidelity, eating disorders, mental illness, amidst a backdrop that includes larger shared losses, such as the death of a family member, and how that loss resonated throughout the life of the family.

“I had two uncles who died early with young children. This was an opportunity to explore those losses through fiction and how they reshaped my family,” said Juska.

The Blessings is the fourth book for Juska, who lives in Philadelphia and is the director of the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of the Arts. Juska, who started writing as a child, encountered her first workshop while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Bowdoin College. She went on to get a Master’s in Fiction Writing at the University of New Hampshire, where she received the Tom Williams Memorial for fiction writing and the Charait Award for best short story.

“I am particularly drawn to characters who are unlike me and who behave in ways I don’t understand.”

Juska said character is where stories begin for her, both as a reader and a writer. “I am particularly drawn to characters who are unlike me and who behave in ways I don’t understand.”

When crafting The Blessings, she looked to books including Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (which she reads once a year) and Halfway House by Katherine Noel. Juska put the death of the family member at the start of the book to “establish a shared narrative” and returned to the loss throughout the span of the book to show how it affected each family member differently.

The book deals deftly with a range of emotions, a topic her students struggle with.

“I give them a broad emotional word and have them write something specific that expresses that feeling, without referencing the word itself.”

The goal is for the writer to get at emotional moments in ways that are unexpected.

Juska struggled with how her family might react to the more autobiographical parts of the book. Her grandmother died while she was writing the book.

“I had to navigate my grief and not have it seep into the chapters of the book that dealt with the character of Helen,” she said. The challenge of the book for her was getting into the head of a troubled sixteen-year-old boy and a man contemplating infidelity.

“This book feels like me. I think it works on more levels than my other books and this story feels like mine.”

She was happy with the result of her efforts.

“This book feels like me. I think it works on more levels than my other books and this story feels like mine. I’m glad I didn’t write it twenty years ago. I needed to be a more experienced writer and person to pull it off.”

Juska worked with her agent Katherine Fausset to hone the manuscript, making sure she took stories far enough, before sending it out. She worked with editor Emily Griffin at Grand Central Publishing after the book was picked up.

As a teacher, Juska lets her students see multiple drafts of stories she has worked on to illustrate the process. “We spend a lot of time reading and talking about how stories are put together. I encourage them not to think about publishing too soon.”

Her best advice to students is to put the needs of the story first.

“It isn’t about being clever or showing off with your language. Ask yourself what is in the best interest of the story.”

Juska is now at work on a novel about a teacher whose former student is involved in an act of violence and the impact of that incident on the teacher’s family.

About the Author

Elise Juska is the author of four books. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals including Ploughshares, the Gettysburg Review, the Missouri Review and Good Housekeeping.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.