What if you lost your spouse and your child in the same accident? And what if soon thereafter you discovered you have a twin sibling you didn’t know you had and that your birth parents weren’t the ones who raised you but instead were a White Russian film star and a French Stalinist?
What if you admitted that you really do not know who you are and so permitted yourself to imagine being an eighteen-year-old boy who sets off cross-country or a woman who flees to Paris and falls in love with a mysterious man?
What if your life were a silent movie?
Jesse Lee Kercheval lives in this “What if?” world, both tragic and comic, and her gifts to us, her readers, for doing so are plenty.
The recipient of numerous awards and veteran professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jesse has authored fifteen books – novels, a novella, short story collections, poetry, nonfiction, a memoir. Her imagination’s flexibility and skillful versatility – able to cross genres and borders and plot line plausibilities – bespeak her mastery.
A thread that runs through much of Kercheval’s writing – amidst motifs of travel, films, and family – is the question of “What if I don’t really know who I am?”
I wanted us to get a peek into who is Jesse, a colleague of mine at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference this year, at least through the books that matter to her.
In this Books That Matter feature, Kercheval shares the book she never finished, her love of Uruguayan poetry, and her desire to live in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Jeffrey: What one book most took off the top of your head (Dickinson on poetry) or was “the axe for the frozen sea within” you (Kafka) or otherwise just changed something profound within you? What did it do for you? Maybe a book that lit you up as a child or that turned you on as a young adult or last week that salved some pain or turned your thinking upside-down.
Jesse: For me the book that lit me up as a child was Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I expect that is not a very common answer, though Jorge Luis Borges and Seamus Heaney are often quoted as saying how they also loved the novel. But my father had a copy—one I still have—with lovely watercolor illustrations. I remember wanting to read it before I was old enough to read. Then when I did, I identified completely with the protagonist David Balfour who is orphaned and has to find his way in the world. I even loved the title—which has nearly the whole plot of the book in it: Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; his Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he Suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson.
What one detail do you still recall from that book?
Actually I remember a very vivid scene where David Balfour’s Uncle Ebenezer, who doesn’t want to share the family inheritance with him, sends David up to the top of a tower to fetch a chest but the tower is unfinished and only a flash of lightning saves him from falling to his death. My heart still turns over in my chest when I think about that scene.
The book you imagine living inside of is what?
I think my answer to the first question has me reliving the books I loved as a child so I will confess the book I imagined living in then was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The hard part was deciding whether I would rather be a hobbit or an elf.
The one book you have most often re-read is what and why?
This is a hard question for someone who teaches because there are books I read over and over again because I teach them! But one I often teach and so often re-read that is always a pleasure is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. It has a voice that never fails to pull me in from the first sentence and it teaches me again and again about the impermanence of all things.
What kinds of books are you most appreciating or seeking out these days?
Books of poetry written by Uruguayan poets. I know that is a very odd answer. But one of my current passions is translating poetry and my other is Uruguay. So I have stack I am reading full of books I bought there and brought back or got through interlibrary loan from far flung university libraries!
You will read anything written by whom?
Alice Munro. She can do more in a single short story than most writers can do in the longest novel.
What little-known book do you most relish and champion?
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell. I am not sure it is little known—but it just came out, but I read it and found it astounding. I have been walking around for three weeks telling everyone I know to read it.
If you had the time, talent, grit, and support, the book you would write is what?
One I started but never finished. After my first novel, The Museum of Happiness, I started another, even larger, historical novel set in the early 19th century, in the part of upstate New York that was called the “burned over district” because of all the sects and denominations born there. It’s called The History of the Church in America and it follows the children of the founder of one of those new faiths through their childhood and into the 20th century. But life—teaching, children—made me put it aside and move on to other, shorter projects. If I were myself as a writing teacher talking to myself as a writer, I would say, “Get that novel out and buckle down and finish it!”
Now that I have given myself that stern advice, maybe I will.
The one thing you hope readers of Space: A Memoir come away with is what?
A sense of how fragile but resilient children are. Also, I wish everyone who reads it would end up wishing we could take vacations on the moon as much as I do!
JESSE LEE KERCHEVAL is a poet, fiction writer, and memoirist. She was born in Fontainbleau, France, and raised in the United States in Washington, D.C. and Florida. She currently divides her time between Madison, Wisconsin and Montevideo, Uruguay. Kercheval has authored fifteen books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. To learn more about Jesse Lee Kercheval, visit jlkercheval.com.