Finding Meaning in Footnotes: An Interview with Author Jane Rosenberg LaForge

USPrincessAn Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy | A Fantastical Memoir, Jane’s debut novel, is an unusual mix of fantasy and memoir that builds slowly but steadily in intensity to a climax that will have you reaching for the tissue box. A poet, former literature professor, and journalist, Jane ties together lovely, lyrical fantasy and hard-boiled memoir to say something about love, loyalty, and the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t live up to our ideals.

A few weeks ago, Jane interviewed me on her blog about A Wizard’s Forge—the sort of deep-rooted questions about character motivation and literary influences that an author loves to chew on. Here we turn the tables and I ask Jane about some of the things that intrigued me about An Unsuitable Princess. I hope you’ll pick up a copy of her book and look for the next one when it appears in 2018.

AMJ: Why did you choose to blend memoir and fairy tale/fantasy in An Unsuitable Princess? Can you talk about your literary as well as your personal reasons?

JRL: Since the memoir covers a lot of ground—my family life, my neighborhood in the 1960s, the birth of Renaissance Fairs, and this one friend I had—I had to find one theme that would unite them all. And I think that uniting factor is my imagination. All of these things have had an impact on my imagination. And if you look at my imagination, you can see how ordinary it is; it’s been influenced by the same things that influence everybody’s imagination: childhood, old jealousies, movies and TV (and for my generation, rock ‘n’ roll). I was trying to say something about how imagination works, how everyone’s imagination works, and I thought that if I was really going to reveal something in my memoir, since I’ve had a pretty good life without much tragedy or abuse and then redemption etc., I would have to reveal how my imagination was constructed. Besides, going to or participating in a Renaissance Fair is the ultimate in trying to make your imagination or your daydreams tangible, or real.

I have to admit, though it is probably obvious, that I was influenced by David Foster Wallace and other innovators of the contemporary footnote—Nicholas Baker—because the use of footnotes makes the reader question just where the story is. At least that’s what I think footnotes do. Is the story the main text that the writer wants you to read? Or is it really in the footnotes, which in my case were messy, personally revealing, nothing like the pretty little story the main text was trying to tell.

AMJ: So, it sounds like the memoir came first in the writing. Was your purpose then to embellish your real experiences with the fantasy, or frame the fantasy with the real-life story? If the former, it’s interesting how you used the footnotes to tell the memoir, because when presented as footnotes, the memoir seems like the embellishment.

JRL: I wrote the two of them together, because I don’t think that either one stands that well on its own. You can read them separately, but they really need each other. The memoir is very self-centered and was even called narcissistic by one critic; the fantasy is very formulaic, though I sort of meant to make it that way, as a commentary on how books and movies shape our imaginations. My idea for a story with footnotes came about as I was considering writing a piece of fan fiction; my idea was to write the fan fiction and then footnote points in the story where I could explain why I had chosen to take the plot in a particular direction. I wanted to show scholarly precedent for my decisions. I had the whole thing plotted out when I realized it was too much “inside baseball,” and that no one would probably want to read it.

I’d like to note that another criticism the book received (this time from a literary agent) was that the footnotes had nothing to do with the fantasy. But there were themes in the fantasy that were also developed in the footnotes and I tried very purposely to develop those parallels. If no one saw them, well, mea culpa, but I put them in there for a reason.

AMJ: What was the fan fiction piece about?

JRL: It was “The Prisoner,” a 1967 television series from the UK. The “prisoner” is a retired secret agent who is always trying to escape from “the village,” where he’s been sent because he knows too much. I was trying to write something in which he actually escapes; he isn’t brought back, because he is always failing and in the end, you wonder if he is a prisoner of the government or his own imagination. The footnotes would have justified how I chose to get him out, because there’s a lot of speculation among fans about where the village is, who runs it, etc.

AMJ: That is so cool! I’ve never seen that show (since it was on when I was a baby) but I know of it.

JRL: Definitely the coolest thing ever broadcast on television. My family and I watched it as we were traveling up California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada, and we always had to make sure our hotel rooms had televisions so we could see what was happening. I was obsessed, [and] so was my mother. I’m still obsessed. Greatest show ever.

AMJ: I’ll bet fans would love to see and discuss those footnotes.

JRL: True, but it would be like a discussion board on the Internet, lots of back-and-forth and disagreements over whether I had it right or whether I had the right to even enter the discussion.

AMJ: Getting back An Unsuitable Princess, both Jenny and Samuel suffer greatly. Why was their suffering necessary in your tale, and why do you think it’s such a universal element in the stories we tell each other?

JRL: Well the Buddhists would say that everybody suffers… I guess it’s what makes us human, this ability to feel and possibly learn from it. Samuel suffers because he’s sick and then he goes to war, which is some real first-class suffering. Jenny suffers because of the circumstances of her birth, which really isn’t too pretty either. But Jane hasn’t really suffered at all, and that’s the point. When I was a kid, I thought that no one suffered more than I did, in terms of feeling physically ugly, emotionally strange, out-of-control, unwanted, unloved, out of place—you name it. This must be a normal, developmental stage in human growth, at least in the United States. I believe we call it adolescence. But is that real suffering, or do we even know nowadays, with all our sanitizing conveniences, what real suffering is? I don’t know the answer to that, but having Jenny and Samuel suffer was important to show how little suffering I went through as a kid. And what does the human imagination do with that? That was one thing I was trying to explore.

AMJ: I was struck by the stark difference between Jenny and Samuel’s devotion to each other, and the casual convenience of your relationship with your high school boyfriend—who himself suffered quite a lot in real life. What were you trying to say by crafting the imagined story as the inverse of memoir, in terms of the climactic events?

JRL: That’s the point! There’s the first high school boyfriend, who is called Slayer in the memoir, who makes mincemeat out of Jane, and that is pretty much the extent of Jane’s suffering. Jane can’t realize what true suffering is—whether it’s Samuel’s or Jenny’s or Sam Waynert’s—because she’s a pretty self-involved adolescent. She is the self-involved adolescent. The dictionary definition. That was what I was trying to illustrate.

AMJ: You’re a poet and you go to readings. How has that informed your fiction?

JRL: One way to test out whether a poem is working is to read it out loud, in front of an audience. That’s why it’s so important for poets to read their work publicly. I think this affects my prose in a number of ways, although I’m not aware of all of its impacts. One thing I do know is that sound is very important to me; it needs to sound, if not poetic, round and full. There needs to be a rhythm or that rhythm needs to be consistent throughout the work so that the reader can settle into it. Reading aloud also lets you know when you are going on too long or when you are repeating yourself too much, [although] repetition is sometimes necessary. [Reading aloud] should make your sentences cleaner, but I’m not going to claim that my sentences are stronger or cleaner than other writers’, only that I aspire to have them be so.

One time I was just gossiping in my office and someone asked me if I was a writer or a mom, because of the rise and fall of my voice. That person said everything I said came out like a fairytale, beginning with “once upon a time,” and ending with “they lived happily ever after.” I really wasn’t writing then, since I was a new mom, and I was just trying to get through the day. But I was telling my daughter a lot of stories, usually involving her stuffed animals or characters from other stories we had read, so I guess that’s what that woman heard. I found it to be very reassuring, because I was both unable to write and to publish. I guess it gave me a bit of confidence to keep going.

AMJ: Your work involves a lot of magic. How does that work as a literary device, or in other words, how do you define fairy tale, fantasy, and magic realism? Do these distinctions matter to the story telling—in other words, do these literary forms serve different purposes?

JRL: Some of these are easy, and some are hard. Magic realism is real things happening but by magical means. So in One Hundred Years of Solitude, it’s all believable—wars, elections, romance, people isolating themselves with their strange thoughts, aging and insanity—but taken together it’s all a little weird. A better example, or more current one, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, where the railroad may be magical, but all of the things that happen in the book are truly rooted in fact. Magic realism involves a certain point of view, or at least I think so. I think that you could write the same book without magic realism, and have the same story propelled by different means.

I could be wrong in saying this, but I think fantasy is about world-building. That said, you might consider all novel writing world building. But fantasy, or what we have come to know as fantasy, has a medieval flavor, I guess so the stakes are so clearly defined, and science fiction, pure science fiction without other elements, is relatively contemporary in setting. But I don’t know. I’m thinking that the LOTR trilogy is the primogenitor for 20th-century fantasy, because I haven’t read the Gormanghast novels, and in The Hobbit, nothing really happens that could not happen realistically. There’s one section where Gandalf works his magic by simply throwing his voice. Of course, the ring is magic, so what does that mean? Perhaps fantasy gets its legitimacy from grounding itself in these medieval elements, in the lore and voice of previous fantasies.

Ellen Kushner once said to me that fairytales were a way of helping children cope with the impossible circumstances they faced—being powerless in a world of malevolent adults and a social order they don’t understand. That sounds like a pretty good definition to me. There is debate over whether Christianity influenced fairytales, or whether they were old pagan stories remade with a Christian ethos; you can probably argue all day about that. What interests me now is the contemporary fairytale, which uses practically none of these elements, but is instead based on the morals or the plots of classic fairy tales. That’s where you get Roxane Gay and Helen Oyeyemi and of course Kate Bernheimer, and I think their work is just wild, really inventive.

AMJ: Tell us about your next book.

JRL: It’s called The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, and it will be published by Amberjack Publishing in 2018. It’s based on a Grimm’s fairytale called “The Bearskin,” with a little of “Beauty and the Beast” stirred in. If you read a lot of Grimm’s all at once, you’ll see that there are certain tropes, mechanisms, similes, or metaphors—or whatever you want to call them—that repeat themselves, and these two fairytales have a lot in common. I hope people will see that the book touches on many topics, including war since it takes place before and after World War I, and ultimately comments on the act of storytelling itself.