Juska blessingstp cover

The confinement and the comfort

Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott

When Elise Juska’s most recent novel was published in hard cover last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer said that the “moving, multifaceted portrait of the Blessing family gleams like a jewel."

This wasn’t just a matter of hometown pride, either, for the reviews were enthusiastic nationally.

Entertainment Weekly, for instance, said: “There's no shortage of novels about the quirks and tragedies of large families, but ‘The Blessings’ is a uniquely poignant, prismatic look at an Irish-Catholic clan as it rallies after losing one of its own."

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Describing the novel as “wonderfully readable,” the Library Journal’s reviewer said: “She is a shrewd observer of human nature and has an outstanding ability to bring her characters to life on the page.”

And fellow writers agreed. One, the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, commented: “Elise Juska is so good at describing people, places, and moments that you not only picture them, you feel them.”

Now that it is out this week in paperback, the Echo asked the author herself to describe it.

“‘The Blessings’ chronicles the life of a large, close Irish Catholic family, the Blessing family of Philadelphia, over two decades,” Juska said. “I grew up in such a family and its particular dynamics—the rhythms and rituals, the constant togetherness—are something I've been drawn to write about for years.

“In the novel, the central event is the premature death of a young uncle and its ripple effect on the family, with each chapter told through a different family member's point of view,” she added. “Through these changing lenses, the reader sees unfold the shared story of the family, but also glimpses what’s going on with individual characters internally, privately, outside the family sphere—an uncle coming to terms with his daughter's eating disorder, for example, or a nephew going down a dangerous road. Always, though, and despite whatever else, the family remains a constant.

“The book is ultimately about those contradictions that exist in big families: the separate-but-togetherness, the confinement and the comfort, the life-altering alongside the everyday,” said Juska, who is the director of the undergraduate Creative Writing program at the University of the Arts.

Elise Juska

Date of birth: May 17, 1973

Place of birth: Philadelphia

Spouse: Jake

Children: Theo, 8 months old

Residence: Philadelphia during the school year, Maine in the summers

Published works: Most recently, the novels “The Blessings” and “One for Sorrow, Two For Joy,” both of which are about Irish-American families.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

My perfect writing conditions are quiet, solitary, foggy mornings. I've spent most of the last 10 summers up in Maine, writing, so I've had plenty of those. But since having a baby this fall, I've become much more flexible. When I can grab time at my desk, day or night, I make the most of it.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I wasn't too focused on publishing when I first started writing, and I'm grateful for it. I wrote because it was what I most loved doing. I'd tell aspiring writers to do the same: focus on writing the best book you can write. Read widely. Remember that drafts that ultimately don't work, pages that are cut, aren't wasted; they're part of the process of getting to the next thing, the better thing.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

Elizabeth Strout's “Olive Kitteridge” I've read and reread at least a dozen times. The lightness of touch, the human insight—it's the book I turn to when I want to feel inspired. For the beauty and immersiveness of the sentences, the fat volume of Andre Dubus’s “Selected Stories.” And “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, for its inventiveness, intelligence, generosity of spirit.

What book are you currently reading?

I just finished devouring “The Green Road” by Anne Enright. Next on the pile are “Our Souls At Night” by Kent Haruf and Helen MacDonald's memoir “H is for Hawk.”

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

“101 Things to Do with a Slow Cooker.” I managed to make a few of these recipes without any casualties.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

Grace Paley—she fascinates me as a writer and a person.

What book changed your life?

I remember being a teenager, reading Anne Tyler's “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and having this jolt of recognition: these are people I know, feelings I've felt. The kinds of moments we all read for. I remember being amazed at her ability to capture so accurately what life is like. I wanted to write books that felt like that.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

I lived in Galway for a semester during college, so my favorite spots are all steeped in nostalgia for being 21 years old: Eyre Square, the banks of the Corrib River, the King's Head pub where I celebrated my birthday with a gaggle of good Irish friends.