The Blurry Years: A Conversation with Eleanor Kriseman / by Peter LaBerge

BY SHANNON BRADY

 Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of   The Blurry Years     ( Two Dollar Radio , 2018).

Photo credit: Jeff Clanet. Eleanor Kriseman, author of The Blurry Years (Two Dollar Radio, 2018).

Eleanor Kriseman is a social worker in New York City. She was born and raised in Florida.

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Shannon Brady: First off, I want to say how much I enjoyed reading The Blurry Years and becoming immersed in your protagonist Callie’s world. Her loneliness, with an absent father and irresponsible, alcoholic mother is poignant. From the beginning I was expecting something terrible and relieved by her pluckiness and resilience. How did Callie come to life for you?

Eleanor Kriseman: The book started as a short story, which is the middle section of the book where Callie and Jazz meet. I kept writing about Callie and filling in her early adolescence and the book grew from there.

SB: Callie is an intriguing protagonist. When we first meet her she’s well read, getting good grades, generally raising herself and trying for a long time to not blame her mother for all the turmoil, irregularity, and danger she brought into her life. Her mom, Jeanie, is complicated. How did you approach writing about Callie’s mother?

EK: I wrote a couple of chapters from Jeanie’s perspective that I know wouldn’t be a part of the book. Even though I knew I wouldn’t use it, I needed to have an idea of her backstory and past history, so she wouldn’t be just a villain. I wanted her needs and wants to be palpable, too.

SB: Motherhood is such a loaded topic and role in our society. The unrealistic expectations for grandeur and martyrdom go hand in hand and there’s the other extreme of irresponsibility, neglect, and abuse. It doesn’t seem like we have many cultural or literary models for sustainable, balanced motherhood. Are there any literary mothers you love to hate or hate to love?

EK: I think this is also a loaded question, in addition to a loaded topic. I certainly didn’t want to contribute another mother to “love to hate” or “hate to love” to the canon, and I hope I’ve managed to give Jeanie enough credit and complexity to understand why she might mother the way she does. Callie’s father is largely absent from the novel—I think he’s only mentioned once or twice, but as far as they know, he’s still alive. He’s still out there. But Jeanie’s the one taking care of Callie, not him. The dynamics and responsibilities of parenthood are so gendered, even today, that mothers are the ‘default parent,’ and everyone seems to have an idea of how they could be doing their jobs better (without offering any support to accompany that advice).

SB: I agree that parenthood continues to be gendered and full of unsupported advice, and that as flawed as she is, Jeanie was the present parent to Callie. I also think you did a lovely job of not editorializing about Jeanie but showing her actions and how Callie responded. Was that tough? Dealing with motherhood and parenting and the safety of children, I wonder if there was a temptation to judge her on the page?

EK: It was incredibly tough to write Jeanie. I actually did write at least one chapter from her point of view, as a separate story originally, but it didn’t feel right to insert it into Callie’s story, so it didn’t stay in the manuscript. But, you know, as much as this book is not a memoir, or autobiographical, it is much easier for me to put myself in a position to feel as a daughter than as a mother, even though my life circumstances and relationship with my mom are nothing like Callie and Jeanie’s. What I tried to do—and I don’t know if it fully worked—is to craft her character in a way that would both explain her actions but not necessarily excuse them. Neglect and abuse and cruelty—those are cyclical and systemic issues, and often get passed down from generation to generation, or exacerbated by the precarity of economic instability. Rather than judging her, I’d hope that a reader—by the end of the novel—might get a sense of Jeanie’s own pain, or frustration, or setbacks that played into her identity as a mother.

SB: I was immersed in Callie’s perspective, but I did clearly see the effects of Jeanie’s parenting and the pressure of her having to parent alone, especially as Callie becomes a teen and her life takes a darker, more troubling turn. The weekend I was finishing your book, I also saw a powerful teen performance of Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creatures. It’s a play whose monologues of teens in different parts of the world explore their pain, subjugation, confusion, and their strength. The sexualization of teens was also reflected in your book. How did you approach Callie’s sexualization?

EK: I think it is deeply sad. The way teenage girls are sexualized has changed, but the way it makes a teenage girl feel is the same. When dealing with it in writing, I start with feeling and work out the circumstances from there.

SB: From your work as a social worker, have you seen some of the teen issues you explored in your novel?

EK: Most of the book was written long before I became a social worker. I began when I was a student and continued when I was working in publishing. It’s an age I’ve always been interested in. Now, it’s important to me to not mine the stories of anyone I work with and to keep it very separate. I’ll be at a middle school this year and definitely want to keep my work and writing separate.

SB: That makes sense. You have a good understanding and presentation of teens that comes throughout your work.

EK: It’s easier to write as an adolescent because that time marks you and I’ve lived through it. Right now I don’t feel as if I have the authority and knowledge to write much older characters.

SB: Do you have favorite teen literary characters?

EK: A Complicated Kindness is the coming-of-age story of a young girl in a Mennonite community in rural Canada. It was written by one of my favorite writers, Miriam Toews. I first read her book at age 15 and read it about once a year.

SB: As you read it again, has Toews’s book changed for you?

EK: Initially I was all about the teen narrator, but as I get older, I can interpret and understand the decisions of the other characters more. I also return to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It came out in 1948 and has a teen narrator who lives in a crumbling castle with her father and sister. It is a very funny book, basically her journal.

SB: Do you have a favorite genre?

EK: I like coming-of-age, short stories, and place-based novels, especially if it’s someplace I’ve never been.

SB: Speaking of place, although your book is Callie’s story, another protagonist seems to be Florida. Clearly you know the place well and infuse the setting with vivid, lush details that make the reader able to feel the humidity, the pools, the languor, the long, hot, lonely days. What does Florida represent to Callie?

EK: I love that you got the sense that there were two protagonists here, one being place (Florida in particular.) I think Florida represents something very different to Callie than it does to many other people—for Callie, Florida isn’t a vacation destination, or a relaxing break from reality. It is her reality. So the things she finds special and intriguing about it aren’t necessarily what the rest of the world does—a glimpse into the refrigerator of a rich woman whose son she babysits is just as “exotic” and foreign to her as “life on the beach” would be to anyone else. And I think, at least later on in the book, she becomes somewhat aware that what Florida represents to her does not align with the rest of the world’s perceptions of and about it.

SB: Your cover art conveys that duality of Florida well, with a picture of a young girl on the beach holding a blue balloon and another shot of a high-rise apartment and palm trees next to rubble. How did you choose your art?

EK: My mom owned a bookstore when I was growing up and I worked there, and then in another indie bookstore in Brooklyn, then in publishing, so I know that people judge a book by its cover. I was fortunate to have a lot of creative input with Two Dollar Radio. An old friend of the family, Bryan Thomas, did a photography series about the areas of Florida hardest hit by climate change. He calls it The Sea in the Darkness Calls. He had already combined the two images on the cover as a diptych and I liked the juxtaposition.

SB: I found it intriguing that you set your story in the past. What made you choose the late-seventies and early-eighties?

EK: I don’t like writing about cell phones. Hopefully it’s a limitation I won’t always impose upon myself, but cell phones have changed dynamics and communication and I didn’t want to write about that with Callie. It also makes it easier to say it’s not me. People assume autobiography or memoir about this book, and the time setting became a nice barrier. It’s really interesting working with teens now and I’m fascinated by how their communication is evolving. I love reading work set in the present day and writers who are able to weave miscommunication via technology into their work.

SB: Did your writing about Florida happen when you lived there or once you moved to New York?

EK: New York. I’ve lived in the city for 10 years. I came for college at NYU and have a degree in French language and literature, which is the least practical thing you can study. I started writing this book my last semester of undergraduate and finished the rest when working at a bookstore or in publishing. I wouldn’t have seen Florida as clearly had I not left.

SB: Are there any best times of day, places, or ways for you to write?

EK: Late evenings and early mornings on the weekends are good because it feels quieter in terms of the city, not everyone is out doing things. I write at home in a corner near a window. I also like the NYU library. It’s very calm and quiet. I work best when I have constraints on time and when my job doesn’t require the same kind of thinking. I don’t do as well with having a lot of time!

SB: What would you suggest to someone starting out and wanting to write and publish while holding down a day job?

EK: Break things up into more manageable tasks to make it less daunting. Start with a story or chapter. You can submit small parts of something larger and that can fuel your creative process.

SB: What are ways for readers to follow you and your work?

EK: I have an author Instagram account where I’ve been posting old pictures and things researched when writing. There are pictures from my childhood, vintage tourism posters, and images from photographers like Stephen Shore, who used to take extensive cross-country trips in the ‘70s and managed to work Florida into his route on at least one of them!

SB: I’ll take a look at it and look forward to continuing to read your writing. Thanks for chatting and sharing your process and thoughts.

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Shannon Brady has written about dance for The Village Voice, book reviews for The New York Times Book Review, reporting for Vanity Fair and various other freelance writing projects and poetry publications. Shannon once joined a dance troupe in order to write a profile about the choreographer. She has taught high school and college writing in New York and California.