A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed
Joanna Hershon

A Conversation with Joanna Hershon, Author of Newly Released Book “St Ivo”

June 14, 2020

I had the opportunity to interview Joanna Hershon, the author of The St. Ivo. Here are some highlights.

Joanna Hershon

Do you write for others or for yourself only?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve written. I started writing stories and poetry as a child and also kept a journal from when I was about 13 to 25. The journal was definitely not written for anyone else. When I was eighteen or so, I read an essay by Joan Didion, in which she wrote: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This quote and the essay in its entirety made all the sense in the world to me. I must have started writing in order to attempt to understand myself and the world around me, but at some point I do think I began writing also to communicate with others. Or maybe I was always writing to communicate. Writing and communicating feel inextricably linked for me; the act of writing certainly makes me feel not only less confused but less lonely. 

Are you affected by other people’s appraisal of your work? Have you ever been hurt by them?
I try not to be too affected by other people’s appraisal, as the kiss of death for creative work has to be to create while actively trying to please others, but I admit I don’t always succeed in not being affected. I’ve probably been the most hurt during moments of feeling ignored. Any criticism is engagement and I so appreciate engagement, even if it’s negative. 

Do you feel that you and the characters in your book have been well understood by your readers?
I think some of my characters have elicited strong reactions and that’s been satisfying, which I’ve mainly learned from being a guest author at some wonderful book groups. I’ve recently been moved by not only a profoundly sensitive review in the New York Times Book Review by Danya Kukafka, but also by receiving emails from readers who are responding with such empathy to Sarah, the protagonist of my new novel St. Ivo. 

What books are currently on your book stand?
Too many. The stacks are threatening to topple. To name a few: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon, Writers and Lovers by Lily King, That’s All I Got by Lauren Sandler, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

What do you plan to read next?
Probably an article online about our current crisis regarding race in America. It’s been a very important week (today is June 4, 2020) and of course it’s ongoing. 

What is next for you?
I’m not sure what I’m going to write next. It’s a destabilizing feeling, but its one I’m familiar with, as it’s often hard for me to move on after I’ve published a novel. I guess I’m in a state of active listening. I’m sure I’ll eventually feel compelled to write something new, if only to attempt making sense of something during what is— in myriad ways— a profoundly uncertain time in our society. I do have a new short story forthcoming in the Yale Review. It’s called The Queen of Bark and Darkness, and I have to say that I truly lost myself while writing it. I’d love to revisit that feeling. 

St. Ivo by Joanna Hershon

About the Author
Joanna Hershon is the author of five novels: St. Ivo (Farrar, Straus & Giroux April 2020), SwimmingThe Outside of AugustThe German Bride and A Dual Inheritance (Ballantine Books).  Her writing has appeared in (among other places) GrantaThe New York TimesOne StoryThe Virginia Quarterly Review, the literary anthologies Brooklyn Was Mine and Freud’s Blind Spot, and was shortlisted for the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories. She teaches in the Creative Writing department at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, painter Derek Buckner, their twin sons and daughter.

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