Hidden Flavors: An Interview with Jessica Soffer
Words By Dani Hedlund
Don’t judge a book by its cover, or so the old adage goes. But what about the far less obvious: don’t judge a book by its genre? Sure, we’ve all stumbled on those intellectual young adult novels, those hilarious horrors, that rare gem of realistic sci-fi. But women’s literature? By its very definition, it’s a genre that alienates half the population. You toss in a colorful cover, a fun loving title—like Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots—and two female protagonists obsessed with food, and we all know what we’re about to read: predictable plots, self-absorbed narratives, and some cheesy romance.
If this is what you think, you’ll be wrong. I certainly was.
Tomorrow There will be Apricots by debut novelist Jessica Soffer is, to say the least, an unexpected treasure. Perusing the book blurb, you’ll learn that this story focuses on two main characters: Locra, a girl obsessed with gaining her chef mother’s love by recreating an obscure middle eastern dish, and Victoria, an elderly Iraqi Jewish immigrant who starts hosting cooking classes in the wake of her husband’s death. You’re already starting to see how the narratives intertwine, right? Now, throw in the fact that Lorca’s mother is adopted and Victoria and her husband still mourn the baby they gave up, and surely you see the whole plot forming before you: a story of families reunited, haunting secrets released, laughter and joy rising like loafs of bread in the oven?
This book is not the powered-sugared treat we expect. Like the best cuisines, Jessica Soffer has concocted a work of intense flavors, some so sour they are almost implantable. However, it’s precisely these thematic zingers that make this novel so brilliant. From Lorca’s dark obsession with her mother’s happiness—and the self-afflicted pain she uses to cope with it—to Victoria’s pull toward death and mortality, each of the characters in Tomorrow There will be Apricots is deeply troubled.
With an utterly stunning mastery of language, Soffer slowly intertwines the narratives of Lorca and Victoria. As the two narrators grow closer, we finally begin to pierce the delusions that dominate their lives. As each new truth is revealed, we watch these two characters—who are connected only by their love of food and fascinating with death—bond in thrilling ways, finding both pain and solace in their hours cooking together. Through the lenses of both young and old, Soffer bravely peers at death, mortality, addiction, and, most frightening of all, family.
Tomorrow There will be Apricots is not a light literary snack. It’s not even a rich hearty meal. In fact, after your last bite, you’re going to feel a little sick to your stomach. Because you just consumed something real—no artificial clichés, overdone flavors, or cookie-cutter characters. No, you just read something gritty and brave and utterly substantial.
Ignore the packaging. You’re about to bite into something brilliant.
Soffer on Tomorrow There will be Apricots
When Jessica Soffer and I sat down for this interview, I launched into an ode to Tomorrow There will be Apricots—one much like the review you’ve just read—exalting her ability to transcend the genre of women’s fiction. Immediately, I feared that I’d said something wrong. Soffer’s angular face tightened. “It’s funny that you say women’s literature,” she began, “because I’m very conscious of that label.” Launching into the story, she explained that she’d just received the proofs for the potential paperback, one that marketed the book with a chick-flick angle. “I’ve never thought about myself as a writer geared toward women or someone interested in women’s issues—in the way that we’ve come to understand women’s issues in literature. I definitely have reservations about it being pushed in that direction.”
In fact, although her novel has a primarily female cast, Soffer’s inspiration for the novel had nothing to do with women’s issues. When Tomorrow There will be Apricots was in its inception, Soffer only knew she wanted to write a book about her father’s culture—Jewish Iraqi—and food. “I’m big foody,” she explained, “though I’m hesitant to say that, because I feel like everyone in New York City is a big foodie, but my obsession with food stems from my father’s mother, who is a healer in Bagdad. I grew up with a particular attunement to food, how it nurtures your body and that sort of thing.”
Both her protagonists being female was simply a result of the creative process. Lorca, our teenage narrator, was inspired by a short story Soffer wrote years before. Like Lorca, that story centered around ideas of pain addiction, and how difficult it is to overcome regardless of age. However, Soffer was sure to add that Apricots is not autobiographical, “I was never a cutter myself,” she explained, “but I find addictions to release pain to be fascinating. I don’t think of it as a way to escape but as a way to feel more.” Laughing, she admitted that pain addiction mirrors her relationship with reading: not escapism but a way “to be more fully inhabited in your own skin.”
Although this connection allowed Soffer to identify with Lorca, she still found writing her character to be very difficult: “That nervous, teenage energy, youthful love, open wide-eyed-ness…that’s never something that I had. I felt like writing her needed a element of translation. I’d have to come up with Lorca’s ideas, translated them into words, and then translate them into the way that a person of her age and mentality would say them.
In contrast, Victoria’s character—elderly Jewish Iraqi woman—poured out of Soffer. “I definitely identified with Victoria. I’ve always felt like I’ve been in a much older skin.” In addition, Soffer is fascinated by the same themes that plague Victoria: mortality, regret, and nostalgia. “Those are the sort of things I’ve been thinking about since I was a little kid. I mean,” she added with a smile, “I was eighty when I was four.”
Although writing Lorca and Victoria was very different, what Soffer was particularly drawn to were the moment’s when their narratives intertwined. “The bond, the connection, the thread—what made writing about both of them, not necessarily easy, but important—was that they are looking at the same thing, but from two different places.” As Soffer sculpted those moments, she was able to look at death—an issue she’s fascinated by—through the lens of both the young and the old. “In very different ways,” she added, “they are looking into the same abyss.”
Soffer on Writing and Publishing
When I asked Soffer how she got into writing, she explained that she’d always been obsessed with words and rhythm. “I wrote a big creative writing honor’s thesis in college and then applied to MFA programs when I was still there.” While at Hunter for her masters, Soffer focused on writing short stories. Although she was producing good work, she didn’t get noticed in the industry until she published a story in Granta, “It was a really tiny, tiny little story,” she explained, “and for whatever reason, it got some attention—I think because it was so short—and that was really helpful because, when I was ready to start searching for an editor, I already had a lot of contacts.”
Of course, before she could use those contacts, she needed to transition into the world of professional writing. Reflecting on that move, Soffer said, “I wouldn’t have called myself a novel writer—I guess, I didn’t even call myself a writer until I had a publisher—but I was more concerned with short stories. I think this was in part because it felt like a more accessible form…so that was my first real inspiration.” However, her professors all encouraged her to put short fiction behind her—bemoaning the unsellable nature of story collections—and begin work on a novel. Thus, Soffer started Tomorrow There will be Apricots.
The hardest part about transiting into novels for Soffer was the plot structure. “When I started writing the novel, I think I was intimidated by the form, by the quantity of writing I’d have to do, so I didn’t really think about the architecture of the book. Next time around, I think the book will be much more about architecture. You know, seeing things from the outside in instead of the inside out. Tomorrow There will be Apricots is so internal, and I don’t think I had the faith in myself as a writer to take a step back and reimagine the novel in a different way, but now, I know the mistakes that I don’t want to make again.” Laughing, she added, “Though I’m sure I’ll make another one.”
Despite the issues this lack-of-structure caused, Soffer did find something beneficial about it. Pointing out that writers can become overwhelmed if they try to focus on everything at once—architecture, plot, and character development—Soffer advocates just focusing on one thing. “In the beginning, I set out to write as much as I could about these characters without really knowing where it was going to go. And I believe in that, in the power of the unknowable, following your nose…so much of the whimsy can be lost if we overthink it, especially from the get-go.”
As we began discussing the writing process in depth—lingering on the moment when “your characters grow their own legs and starting moving on their own”—Soffer paused, telling me how easy it is to forget about the actual writing now that her book is published. “I keep finding that I’m at a loss of words for certain things. Like the weirdness of this moment: you know, people having opinions about your work, how strange those opinions can be, and how even the most eloquent, generous opinions cannot penetrate because of the “bigness” of having your work out there. You lose sense of it.”
“Everyone—my agent, editor, and my publisher—have been brilliant,” she explained, “but, regardless of that, the novel is a precious thing to a writer. You can’t forget that.” Juxtaposing a writer’s relationship to his or her work against Soffer’s recent marketing angst, we turned back to the potential paperback cover. “Because it gets branded as women’s lit, I think a lot of readers feel like they are being hoodwinked,” Soffer confessed. “I don’t know if it’s the cover or the marketing, but whatever it is, they got into this book thinking it’s really a redemptive story, a whole positive one, upbeat, cheery, all of that—and yes, there are moments of that—but they’ve been really disappointed and felt like the rug was pulled out under them when they got to the dark bits.” Of course, Soffer doesn’t want this. Like every writer, she wants to find the reader that will love her work for the actual content, darkness included.
In an inspiring display of humility and grace, Soffer simply shrugged her shoulders and smiled at me. “At a certain point,” she said, “I had to make the decision if I was okay with this novel not being read by the masses…and I decided I was. This was the book I wanted to write. I came to the realization that a lot of people weren’t going to like this book. It wasn’t going to be a bestseller, and that was okay…Really, all you can do is feel good about the work you’ve done. And I do.”
Excerpt from Tomorrow There will be Apricots
I was pretending to read the paper. I thought that if I didn’t say anything, my mother might stop glaring at me, burning a hole in my face.
I was home from school. I’d been sent home.
And though I hadn’t gotten myself caught on purpose, as soon as Principal Hidalgo said “suspended,” my first thought was of my mother waking to the smell of homemade croissants. I’d be in an apron, piling the hot pastries high in a breadbasket, just beside the cranberry-sage brown butter I’d whipped up. I was suddenly happy, hopeful, thinking of the time we could spend together.
Then I came home. The fact that she refused to look me in the eye made me feel more like a nuisance than a disappointment.
“Kanetha told your teacher that you looked drugged,” said my mother, biting a nail, then examining it, the picture of calm on the couch, as if we were talking about leftovers. She had a green towel slumped on her head, and her long shiny legs were spotted with freckles I’d never have. I’d never have her perfect eyebrows either. They were like the feathery finds of her famous pan-roasted sea bass.
I went quiet. She did too. I had to remind myself not to say a word. I talked too much when I was upset. I had a habit of asking her is she loved me. She had a habit of not answering.
“Kanetha’s a sneak,” I said. “She writes equations on tissues and pretends to blow her nose during tests.”
More words bristled against my tongue. My mother’s silence baited me. I wanted to tell her that Kanetha didn’t always wear underwear and that she flashed the boys during American History II. Kanetha Jackson, eighteen-grade busybody. She said I’d been standing in the stall and not “making.” So she’d kicked open the door with her neon sneaker. I hadn’t even known she was in the bathroom. The stupid thing didn’t lock. She found me with my skirt up, my tights down, my shoeless foot on the toilet seat, the paring knife to my thigh. Her lips were stained with fruit punch.
I wanted to ask my mother is she knew the paring knife was hers. The Tojiro DP petty knife, her second favorite. I’d taken it off the counter that morning.
“I wasn’t drugged,” I said, “I’ve never done drugs.”
I held my breath and looked down at the obituaries. “Mort Kramish, Celebrated Hematologist and Master Pickler, Dies at 79.” Still, silence. I could feel it without looking: my mother’s low, growly simmer. I gave in.
“I’m fine,” I said, wanting and not wanting her to believe it. “I won’t do it again.” I wanted her to ask me to promise. I waited for it. She swatted the newspaper out of my hands. It cracked as it closed against my knee. She stood up. Her hands were heads of garlic, tight to her sides.
“I could have left you in New Hampshire, you know. You could have grown up with nothing, no one.”
She meant that she could have left me with my father. Sometimes, she called him pudding. “He’s as useful as box pudding,” she would say.
“I’m a good mother,” she said so quietly it was like stirring the air.
“I know,” I said, “You’re a great mother. That’s not the point.”
Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop talking.
I was sorry and I wasn’t. I had the urge to hug her and I didn’t. I told myself to be less selfish. She was so busy. She had a “staff of thirty-five and an untarnished culinary reputation to uphold.”
The towel sat like a turtle on her head, its feet pushing and bending her ear. She had perfect ankles. Her eyes were the color of ripe pine trees. She made no sound when she cried. Like women in the movies. I was a blubberer. Full of watery snot. Aunt Lou said that when I cried it looked like I was about to throw up.
I put my hand on my thigh, willing her to forget. The scabs were pomegranate seeds, tiny and engorged.
“You’ve always been like this,” she said.