But Jessica Soffer‘s debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, really did begin with a short story she wrote in 2009 for a graduate school assignment. In sharp contrast to the novel’s lyrical title, the short story was severely entitled “Pain,” and encompassed a woman’s life from early childhood to adulthood lived in, well, pain. The story’s protagonist was a self-harmer, addicted to pain. “There was something about her voice that I found so compelling,” Soffer explains, “and I wanted to make her something larger, to take her with me.”
Four years later, that woman reappears as the teenager Lorca, half of Soffer’s protagonist duo in Apricots. “Soon into the writing process, an image popped into my head of a young girl and an old woman cooking together in a kitchen,” she recalls. And thus Victoria, the novel’s octogenarian widow, came to life: “Victoria is a nod to my father’s [Iraqi Jewish immigrant] culture.”
In a city of millions, Lorca and Victoria are isolated, lonely Manhattanites. Separated from her country-dwelling father in New Hampshire, Lorca lives with her less-than-maternal mother in her aunt’s apartment. A wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader, Lorca is suspended when she’s discovered in the bathroom harming herself (yet again), and has just one week to convince her mother not to send her away to boarding school. She’s convinced that if she can duplicate her chef mother’s favorite dish – the elusive grilled fish called masgouf, redolent of memories and spices – she will somehow escape further separation from what is left of her family.
Lorca’s search leads her to Victoria, who once upon a time with her husband ran the Iraqi restaurant in which Lorca’s mother last tasted that perfect masgouf. The uptown restaurant closed years ago, Victoria’s husband Joseph has just passed away, and Victoria’s one leftover relationship in the world is with the needy upstairs neighbor for whom only Joseph seemed to have any patience. In the week following Joseph’s death, Victoria must confront their decades together, filled with too many secrets and unsaid truths that refuse to remain buried. In the maelstrom of Victoria trying to reclaim her life, Lorca appears at Victoria’s door – impossibly young, beautiful, and perhaps even hopeful enough for both lonely souls.
“I’ve always found that something profound exists in a relationship between an older and younger person,” Soffer says. “They can illuminate corners of life for each other in such a unique and energizing way.” That profundity – and the shared humanity – is at the core of what becomes Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots.
Reading Apricots, I admit, made me so hungry. Those sort of descriptions has to mean that you’re very facile in the kitchen. So, who taught you to cook?
My father’s mother was a healer in Baghdad and instilled in my father the notion of eating for one’s wellbeing. There was nothing processed in our house when I was growing up. For a cold: ginger, ginger, ginger. For dessert: honey on an apple. My parents weren’t big cooks or fans of elaborate eating, but they did think about consumption, about nurturing the body through food, in a way that stuck. I imagine that a childhood like that, with an emphasis placed on eating mindfully, is likely to turn out a person deeply interested in food, which I am. I learned about flavors from my father and his sister – but I’ve been self-taught from there on out. I read insatiably about food, watch cooking shows, eat out, ask questions: I’ve absorbed a lot of cooking know-how from the world.
And you’ve also discovered a way with words. How did you decide to become a writer?
My mother is a voracious reader, and an editor, grammarian, and true crime writer. She put a book in my hands before I knew what to do with it and so it began. Red pens, manuscripts, books on every surface of our apartment attributed value to words above all else. Words for decoration, for work, for pleasure, forever. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write and, perhaps more importantly, when I didn’t organize my thoughts in sentence form. There’s a constant narration stream gushing through my head always and the only way to interrupt it is through writing. So I write.
I wasn’t quite sure from this part of your bio: “the daughter of an Iraqi Jewish painter and sculptor.” Are both of your parents Iraqi Jewish? How did your ethnic history affect your identity formation?
My father is an Iraqi Jew. My mother is not. Her grandparents came from Russia, but her parents were born in Brooklyn, and she was born in Florida. Her parents were the only grandparents I knew and big fans of pickled herring, matzo brei, gefilte fish. They ate Chinese food on Sundays and went to the movies on Christmas and lived in Boca Raton and played Barbra Streisand in their Cadillacs. I like matzo brei but I can’t say that my grandparents’ “experience” informed mine. My parents built their own bubble of culture around art and books and New York City and that is the particular background I owe most to. [... click here for more]
Author interview: Feature: “An Interview with Jessica Soffer,” Bookslut.com, April 2013