Jessica Lott discusses the hopes, frustrations, isolation, and overarching determination that went into publishing her debut novel The Rest of Us.
Zola: You’re writing about a photographer, Terry, who’s trying to find herself. And yet in today’s world of camera phones and Instagram, everyone seems to fancy themselves a photographer. Do you think technology is making us more creative or less? What do you think Terry would make of it?
Jessica Lott: My brother is a photographer, and over the years when we’ve talked about photography, which is often, we’re usually discussing conceptual ideas and how they can be explored visually. I guess I’ve always understood photography as an art form, and a career. Consequently, I don’t take many photos myself. But I’m all for creative expression across the board, and the development and exploration of visual ideas. Perhaps Terry would see it that way? She’s very old school—is still shooting film when a lot of photographers had already gone over to digital.
Zola: How much are Terry’s struggles of trying to be an artist based on your own?
JL: Probably a lot. That sense of frustration, desire, dreams, expectations that are alternately extraordinarily high, or way too low, feels very familiar to me. I was also likely picking up on my environment. In New York it can feel like everyone has a creative project—the talent and striving are all around you, and it can be exciting, motivating, and also make you feel small, like who am I to try this? It’s easier for me to get at this idea through the lens of visual artists, whom I’ve worked with, written about as a critic, and whom I have so much respect for. They work really hard to build their careers.
Zola: One of the book’s other characters, Rhinehart, hasn’t written poetry in years and believes it would take a cataclysmic event to bring it back. Have you ever gone through a period where you couldn’t write anything? What brings you back when your inspiration is blocked?
JL: I love what Philip Roth has to say about this, that writers are often more interested in what hasn’t happened to them than what has. I’ve yet to experience a sustained period of writer’s block, but I go through periods where I’m not writing because I’m too distracted or fragmented or whatever. I also write nonfiction, but “writing” for me will always mean fiction, and particularly novels, which require a tremendous amount of emotional and psychic energy. The times when I’ve found myself drifting too far from the shore are when I pick up Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates on writing, Edna O’Brien. I read a lot of poetry, too. Reading is by far the most inspiring and worthwhile thing I know how to do. I start underlining, taking notes, and inevitably it gets me thinking.
Zola: Rhinehart claims “every art form has its mirror in another.” For instance, he believes Rimbaud’s mirror is Satie. Who might your mirror be?
JL: I do believe this in principle, but wouldn’t want to presume. I can say that I feel a deep recognition, that openness like when I’m creating, in the way Woody Allen films New York; many of Fellini’s films; Carlos Saura, particularly Cría Cuervos. André Kertész’s photographs, the color polaroids from his later years, that late-day sun climbing in through the window. In music, it’s jazz—Paolo Conte’s “Gioco D’Azzardo” and Zim Ngqawana’s “The Widow” and “Kubi” that split the world open for me. Incredible.
Zola: The novel highlights the challenge of juggling one’s career and relationships. Any advice on finding that balance?
JL: I need the advice! I’m always looking to improve on this. For me, at least, I had to strip my life down to have the energy and fire to finish writing the novel, get it out there, published, to fight for it—for the past few years it’s been the sole focus. My friends and family are really inspiring and supportive, and I’m lucky in that. Before you have the structure in place to help you finish a book, you have to really want it—you have to be hungry. It’s so easy for me to get distracted, I was distracted for years before I got serious about finishing, and the process came with highs, but a lot of rejection, too. It can feel really slow and discouraging sometimes, but underneath I believed, and that made it worth it. I think everything goes in cycles, though, and sometimes you write intensely, and sometimes you’re out there living or working or spending time with other people, absorbing. That’s really important, too. Already now that this book is out, I’m feeling my energy freeing up.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.