Joanna Hershon is the author of the new novel St. Ivo. It focuses on the relationship between two couples over the course of a weekend. Her other books include A Dual Inheritance and The German Bride, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Granta and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for St. Ivo, and for your character Sarah?
A: The initial spark began with an encounter I had on the subway, much like the one my character Sarah has towards the beginning of the novel. Since I am not Sarah, it was a different experience, but it was a haunting one, nonetheless, and I knew it was the beginning of something.
Initially I thought I was writing a more traditional thriller and spent years doing research that I never used. I couldn’t get into the project.
Then I set it aside, had a baby, and when my daughter was about six months old, I forced myself to write without thinking of plot or what would happen next. Very quickly I had what became a short story (eventually published in Granta) called "Saint Ivo."
I thought there was more to be explored and eventually I ended up writing this novel, using the short story as a kind of spring board. Sarah developed out of the feeling of my original subway encounter. There was something dark and mysterious about the whole situation.
Many questions arose from the experience, and from those questions, Sarah emerged.
Q: In the New York Times review of the novel, Danya Kukafka writes, "The novel is steeped in this hushed paranoia: the jumpy fear that permeates contemporary life, as its characters simultaneously long for connection and refuse to let themselves be seen." What do you think of that assessment?
A: I think Danya Kukafka wrote a stunning review that utterly captures my novel. She really engaged with what I was trying to do, and for that I’m very grateful. I think this sentence is a perfect description of St. Ivo’s anxious and, yes, contemporary feeling.
Q: Most of the novel occurs over the course of a weekend. What was it like to write a novel set over such a short time span?
A: It felt very natural to set the novel over the course of a few days. There’s a fever dream/fairy tale feeling to the book that lent itself instinctively to a short stretch of time. All of my four previous novels are broad in scope, but this one was about narrowing my lens.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?
A: I hope readers will take away what it means to live with uncertainty. Even when your life looks nothing like how you’d imagined it would, nor how you’d wanted it to, life can still burst with pleasures, even in the darkest moments.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on cooking and dishes and laundry and homeschooling three children during a global pandemic.
I’m also working on connecting with readers and ushering St. Ivo into a very different world than the one I’d anticipated. It’s been an often touching experience, how intimate those connections with readers can feel, especially when everything takes place over a computer screen.
Being isolated during this time has been challenging, but that isolation has also brought new meaning to my novel.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I do really enjoy connecting with readers and St. Ivo—if I am allowed to say so— is a perfect book club read. It is a slim novel (about 200 pages!) and inspires truly fascinating conversation. I’m happy to join a book group discussion so feel free to write to me through my website, www.joannahershon.com
Oh, and I recorded the audiobook! So if you listen, you can know that it's me reading aloud and getting emotionally worked up right along with my characters.
Thank you, Deborah, for these questions and for the opportunity to share a bit of what went into this novel, which I hope will transport many readers, during this time of great uncertainty and always.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb