Elise Juska’s latest novel REUNION takes the tension of reentering the world after Covid and adds the unique brand of angst that accompanies a college reunion. Told in alternating points of view by Polly, Adam and Hope, we see how they each experience coming together for the first time in a while as they carry the emotional baggage of their home lives. The result is a thoughtful exploration of the pressures of modern life.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that you can share with us?

“I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer.”

Juska: I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. When I was five, I started tapping out stories on a manual typewriter. I was shy and read voraciously—early mentors included Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, Madeleine L’Engle—and was fortunate to have many people support my writing, from my parents to my teachers to my elementary school librarian, who added a story I wrote to the library shelves. Later in my life, I had several excellent writing professors. A particular moment I remember was my first year in grad school, when my teacher asked: “When you were a kid on the playground and other kids formed a circle, did you feel you wanted to stand slightly outside it?” It wasn’t so much advice as affirmation: that the way I’d always felt was a way others felt, a way writers felt, and that I was in the right place.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the idea for Reunion come from?

Juska: In spring 2020, my twenty-fifth college reunion was canceled, like so many events. That May, feeling lonely and probably stir-crazy, I wrote the opening scene of the novel, when Hope tells her husband she’s going to her rescheduled reunion, in May 2021. At the time, I didn’t think I was writing a novel. The scene felt like an act of wistful projection during that disorienting time. Hope’s first line—“I could have sworn you knew this was coming up”—was a response to her husband feeling caught off-guard by the reunion but was also, I think, a reflection of how caught off-guard so many of us felt by what was happening in the world.

AUTHORLINK: The novel brings together the pressure of reentering a post lockdown world and a college reunion. Talk about that combination and how that worked to up the stakes for Hope, Adam and Polly?

As I worked on the novel, those two parts of the story—returning to the college, returning to the post-lockdown world—felt more and more thematically aligned.

Juska: As I worked on the novel, those two parts of the story—returning to the college, returning to the post-lockdown world—felt more and more thematically aligned. I thought about how attending a college reunion is returning to a place that’s familiar, but inevitably changed; our collective return to the world in 2021 could be described in a similar way. That parallel felt relevant and resonant. It also invited other tensions into the story. Along with all the usual pressures of socializing with people one hasn’t seen in years, these characters arrive still dealing with the emotional aftershocks of the pandemic, preoccupied with problems that have arisen in their lives at home. Also, more immediately, they were contending with the strangeness of navigating those first large gatherings after an isolated time.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your choice to have three such different point of view characters. How did that drive the narrative?

Juska: One of the many striking things about the pandemic was how differently people were affected, depending on their jobs, their neighborhoods, the ages of their kids. For that reason, I felt I needed more than one point of view character. Though there are some parallels among them—for instance, concern for their children—the three main characters all return to campus carrying their personal baggage from the past year. I was interested in how it would affect them, to face these intense adult challenges while back on their old college campus, a place synonymous with being carefree and young.

AUTHORLINK: Your settings are very particular, the college campus and the wilds of Maine. How did they work in the novel? Were they haunted places or places of possibility?

Juska: What an interesting way of describing it. Ultimately, I think for all of them the college spaces are to some degree haunted. Of the three, Polly is the one for whom the campus is most fraught—to her, the windows of Thompson Hall are a pair of watching eyes—but all of them encounter shadows of their former selves, which spotlight who they are now and who they used to be. And though I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, I do think the unrefined natural beauty of the surrounding area fosters a sense of possibility. This is particularly true on the island near the college. It’s one of a few islands in the story: a home in lockdown being one of them, a college campus being another. Some islands breed insularity—like a college campus in the nineties—and from other islands, insight can emerge.

AUTHORLINK: Mental health challenges are present in several of the characters in a way that I might not have seen ten years ago. Can you talk about your willingness to go there?

“As a writing professor, I’ve seen my students contend with much more anxiety in recent years…”

Juska: As a writing professor, I’ve seen my students contend with much more anxiety in recent years, certainly more than a decade ago. In part, I think this is a product of the world they’re living in, the stress of climate change, political unrest, financial insecurity—it’s inescapable. College is no longer a bubble. After the pandemic, this felt even more true. Writing about that time, it felt necessary to address the anxieties teenagers were facing—and adults were facing too. For the adults in the story, those anxieties are actually more destabilizing; the young people are more articulate, more self-aware, about what they’re going through.

AUTHORLINK: This book hums with tension that characters experience on multiple fronts. Can you offer advice to other writers on how to depict bodily tension effectively?

Juska: That’s a true compliment, because my first drafts are often full of generic nods and shrugs and deep sighs and sweaty palms. In subsequent drafts, I try to vary these physical details, make them more idiosyncratic and character-specific. It helps me to consider how physical actions and gestures can add something new to a scene—something contradictory, revealing. surprising—beyond reinforcing dynamics that are already on the page. And for this particular novel—because there is a lot of tension in it—I thought about where tension resides in the body of each of the three main characters, to help guide my descriptions: Polly stomach, Hope head, Adam chest.

AUTHORLINK: What was your greatest challenge in developing Reunion?

“Over the three years I wrote this book, the biggest challenge was the intersection of fiction and reality.”

Juska: Over the three years I wrote this book, the biggest challenge was the intersection of fiction and reality. When I started writing, in May 2020, the entire story felt something like speculative fiction—I had no idea what the world would look like one year later, whether the story I was writing would even be plausible. Then eventually came a moment when the timeline of the novel caught up to the timeline of the world, and surpassed it. At that point, the process became more reflective, as I took details that had emerged over the past year—for instance, remote schooling and the ways it affected children—and integrated them through additions and revisions.

AUTHORLINK: This is your third novel. How has your writing evolved over time?

Juska: I’ve learned that each novel is an entirely different undertaking. I don’t do any outlining or planning (possibly to my detriment) so each is a process of finding the story’s structure and shape. It’s one of the pleasures of writing, that sense of discovery; it’s also one of the challenges, not knowing where the story’s going and how to get there. Usually, at about the year and a half mark, panic sets in . . . What has gotten easier, though—or at least more familiar—is that emotional journey. I recognize the phases of the writing process, trust that I’ll work through the panicky middle, and find some clarity on the other side.

AUTHORLINK: I’m wondering what advice you offer to apprentice writers about either craft, or staying encouraged in the face of rejection, or both.

Juska: As much as possible, I try to keep publishing separate from writing—easier said than done, I know. Mostly, we hope that what we’re writing will one day be in print. But I’ve found that to think too much about publication is to influence my writing in ways that can be unhelpful, bend it in directions that feel less organic. I try to let the story lead. And while rejection stings, I do truly believe there’s no wasted work. I’ve written two novels I didn’t sell. Do I cringe when I think about the years that went into writing them? Yes! On the other hand, I learned a lot from those unpublished novels, and they helped me write the ones I published next.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

Juska: This question is surprisingly difficult to answer! At the moment, I have two projects in motion, and I’m choosing which to commit to going forward. One is about childhood in the eighties. The other is about motherhood. They’re very different in terms of style and structure, but both are realistic, and nostalgic. That tends to be the place I write from.


Elise Juska is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of the novels Reunion, If We Had Known, and The Blessings, a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection and one of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s best books of 2014.

Elise’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, Good Housekeeping, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, and many other publications. She is the recipient of Ploughshares’ annual Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction, and her stories have been cited as distinguished by the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies.