By Carissa Chesanek
Jessica Gross is a New School MFA alum, writer, and soon-to-be published author. Carissa Chesanek sat down with Gross to chat about her forthcoming book, Hysteria, her revision process, cognitive behavioral therapy, and writing sex scenes. Click here to pre-order Hysteria.
- What inspired you to write the book?
Meeting Freud at my local bar—naturally!
- The protagonist is a bit of an unreliable character. She has a lot going on and the reader is left to wonder what is real in her world. What do you think is so intriguing about an unreliable character both for the writer and the reader?
As I see it, every narrator—whether of fiction or nonfiction—is unreliable to the extent that each of us is limited by our singular perspective and history. There’s a great passage in Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and The Story in which she describes a rafting trip she took with her then-husband and a friend down the Rio Grande.
"The river was hot and wild; sad, brilliant, remote; closed in by canyon walls, desert banks, snakes, and flash floods; on one side Texas, the other Mexico: a week after we’d been there, snipers on the Mexico side killed two people also floating on a raft. Later, we each wrote about the trip. My husband focused brightly on the “river rats” who were our guides, our friend soberly on the misery of illegal immigration, I morbidly on what strangers my husband and I had become. Reading these pieces side by side was in itself an experience. We had al used the river, the heat, the remoteness to frame our stories. Beyond that, how alone each of us had been, sitting there side by side on that raft, carving out of our separating anxieties the narrator who, in the midst of all that beauty and oppressiveness, would keep us company—and tell us what we were living through."
So every piece of writing presents a worldview filtered through a very specific lens. In that sense, the narrator of Hysteria, who’s maybe or maybe not having some kind of delusional episode, only amplifies what’s present in any and every literary work. What really happened? What has she projected? What does it mean for something to really happen? That might go some way toward explaining what’s intriguing about this sort of character, for me and hopefully for readers, too: she offers an extreme version of something we encounter in literature and in life all the time.
I also think every piece of writing is propelled by mystery in some sense. I don’t mean that every work uses “What happened?” or “What happens next?” as a hook—though they’re very effective ones!—but that every work does use questions of some kind to string the reader along. The question of what is real, and what isn’t, is part of the mystery I wanted to set up in this novel: part of what I wanted to interrogate, part of what I wanted the reader to continue to be curious about the whole way through. Without any mystery (even, in a polemic, the mystery of how the writer is going to pull off supporting this argument), why keep reading?
- The bartender is such a fascinating and mysterious personality in the story. Without giving too much away, can you tell us about how he came about in the book? What was the intention behind his existence? And/or what do you think he means to the protagonist?
I’m really into psychoanalysis and have read a lot of Freud over the years, so I suppose the initial desire to plop him into the book arose from some kind of wish fulfillment. But as I originally conceived of the novel, before I started my MFA, it was quite different: the narrator was a young woman living in contemporary Brooklyn, as she is now, but in that book her dad died, which prompted her to go to Vienna to investigate her heritage, and there, she met Freud, who just happened to be living in Vienna today…somehow. It would take an hour, at least, for me to trace how that initial book evolved into what it is now, where she thinks she’s met Freud in a bar in Brooklyn, and both of her parents are very much alive; it involved many, many rounds of writing in response to classmates’ and professors’ feedback in the program. But that’s how the idea initially came about.
I also wanted to reflect the dichotomy in both practice and principle between cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and psychoanalysis. The narrator’s parents practice CBT, and so represent that framework in the context of the book; in response, the narrator reaches for Freud—in some sense their ideological nemesis, within the bounds of contemporary therapeutic practice—as a kind of rebellion.
- You have a lot of juicy sex scenes throughout the book. Sex scenes are notoriously hard to write and you nailed them (no pun intended).. Any advice to those looking to write about what happens between the sheets?
Thank you! Here, too, I’m indebted to The New School. I remember submitting a chapter with a version of the blow-job-in-a-bar scene in my first workshop class. I was pretty nervous; I imagined I’d get feedback that it was off the mark, did a bad job of representing sex on the page, embarrassing for one reason or another—you know the kind of mental spinning that precedes being workshopped. Instead, I got encouragement, which emboldened me to try again with another sex scene, and then another, and then another. At each step along the way, my classmates and professors, and eventually my thesis group and advisor, pushed me to get weirder and wilder rather than to tamp things down, and that gave me the courage to keep going.
As far as how to write about sex from a technical perspective, I’d say corny euphemisms like “mounds” are where things start to feel icky, so I’d avoid those at all costs and just be direct. I don’t think that means you need to be as explicit as possible (though that’s my personal style, at least in this book): you can easily leave certain details out of a sex scene and include just a few salient ones. But I’d avoid replacing details with euphemisms. “He thrust his member into her fertile garden…”—just, yuck!
- I was really inspired by your prose and overall writing style. Can you talk a bit about your writing and revision process with this book?
Ah! Thank you so much. I far prefer revision to the initial drafting stage, which is lucky, since the vast majority of the time I spent writing this book was on revision. I tend to move back and forth between writing/revising by hand and on the computer. I’ll draft by hand, type up and revise as I go, print it out, revise what I’ve printed (often by literally cutting with scissors and pasting with a glue stick), type that up, do some revision on the computer: that cycle, or some version of it, happened over and over again as I worked on this book. I can get a bit obsessional, tweaking my sentences; it gives me so much pleasure when I feel I’ve got it exactly right.
- Has your writing time/practice changed during the current pandemic?
Initially, it came to a total standstill—reading, too. But I’m lucky to be spending the pandemic with my boyfriend, who’s a scholar and writer. We recently started setting aside time to write together each morning, no internet or talking, and that’s turned into a really enjoyable, fruitful part of my days. It’s one of the most regular writing practices I’ve had to date.
- Can you tell us about your experience in the MFA program. What did you find most helpful?
I had such a good experience! I loved how open the program was—it felt to me like any genre was fair game. Although I wasn’t writing genre literature myself, I think that ethos, and being exposed to classmates’ writing in various modes, helped liberate me to take my work in more bizarre directions than I might have otherwise. It was also a really encouraging, warm program, in my experience, and that too helped me feel safe enough to write outside the comfort zone I came in with (and to write, period—scary no matter what you’re writing!).
- What are you currently reading?
Samanta Schweblin’s Little Eyes, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, and a book of Robert Frost’s poetry.
- What's next for you?
I’m working on a new novel, which I’m really excited about.
Jessica Gross has contributed to The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and Longreads, among other places. She earned her MFA in fiction from The New School. Hysteria is her first novel.
Carissa Chesanek has worked as a journalist for many years, writing for publications that include The Rumpus, Food Network, The Village Voice, Miami Herald, and Zagat. She is a current MFA Creative Writing (fiction) student at The New School and a volunteer writing mentor for PEN America's prison writing program.