A brief conversation with author Tamar Jacobs. Read The Part That Stays The Same, an extract from Tamar’s novel, A Book of Rules, in Issue Zero of L’Esprit Literary Review.
L’Esprit Literary Review: How did your piece come to be and what do you want our readers to know about your work? Is there any context you would like to provide to either the extract specifically or the novel in general?
Tamar Jacobs: My novel happened as a direct outgrowth of my life as a parent. Kids have a way of forcing reconsiderations of ideas and language which might go unexamined without constant interrogation, and my kids are constant interrogators. They ask questions that are often profound and revealing in their simplicity. Questions my kids have had about race, in particular, have illuminated and underscored for me how constructed race is as a system of categorization, what performances and balancing acts of ideology and selective vision it can demand. I wanted to write about this.
I also wanted to write about autism, which I’ve come to appreciate as a unique lens through which some people see the world. It’s framed in our culture as a limitation, a disability, and I know that it sometimes is, but I also see it as a mode of neurological wiring facilitating the rejection of pretense and performance, a kind of allergy to coded language and coded anything in general. Autistic people tend to be all about the truth, all about figuring out what’s most real, most clear. I wanted to stretch out and explore this a little, the way autistically oriented thinking works to sort things out. Autistic thinkers are often drawn to neat, clean lines of categorization, but an idea like race defies clean lines. I wanted to follow a child as he worked to limn around cultural constructs of all kinds, to figure out what’s real and what just stays murky and mysterious. Things like race and gender are murky and mysterious, and I wanted to write about them through the eyes of an autistic kid trying hard to make everything make sense that which categorically doesn’t, and can’t, make sense.
LLR: What is your creative process like? Can you speak to the journey of working on this novel some?
TJ: I try to wake up every morning before any of the other people or animals in my house are awake and I tiptoe to my desk to write. I don’t make coffee, I don’t brush my teeth, I just try to get straight to my desk to get into what I’m working on. As long as I can get in a solid half-hour, this is enough for me to keep my writing alive in my mind through a day spent doing other things, and I’ve found this to be plenty. I remember a time (long ago and far away) when I had broad swaths of days to sit in coffee shops and write, and I remember spending a lot of that time just daydreaming. I’m more productive now.
LLR: How would you define your literary ancestors, as a writer generally and/or with regards towards this project? Which novels, stories, literary movements, traditions, or ideas do you see your work as being in conversation with?
TJ: With regard to my novel, I feel so indebted to a single book, Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. I fully intended as I began to write my novel to make my characters less similar to people I’m close to, and to myself. I didn’t want anyone to be able to read it and think they recognized me, or my family. The thought of this made me cringe, and still does. As I waded into writing my novel, the force of my cringing was really inhibiting my progress, and this was frustrating. Then I just happened to read Homeland Elegies, which I understood had sparked from deeply autobiographical elements of Akhtar’s life and yet it is still resolutely a novel, a work of fiction. This gave me a feeling of permission to dive in, to just write untethered from care of what people would think, whether they’d think Douglass is my son, or that his father is my husband. (For the record, though: He’s not, and he’s not.)
LLR: What was the last book, story, poem, work of art that moved you?
TJ: Every single thing Bernardine Evaristo has ever written. Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! left me floored by its exploration of marriage and relationships forged in the wake of trauma, and the residue of trauma in general. Also, Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, and Olive Again. I was stunned and flabbergasted by the lyricism of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. I always return to Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking. Yaa Gyasi; Rachel Cusk; Hilton Als’ essay collection White Girls; Zadie Smith’s essay collection Feel Free. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has been deeply inspiring to me. Maggie O’Farrell; Teju Cole; Julie Otsuka’s use of the collective first-person plural perspective in her radiant novels. The way the first-person narrators of Jenny Offill’s Weather and Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through express and reflect panic about climate change. And I hate to be hokey, but my kids’ art and writing moves me deeply on a daily basis. Having a window into their processing of the life we share through their own particular modes of expression is a hugely inspiring thing for me.
Read an extract of A Book of Rules in Issue Zero of L’Esprit Literary Review, available here.