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Interview With an Author: Eva Jurczyk

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Eva Jurczyk and her first novel, The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections
Author Eva Jurczyk and her first novel, The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Author photo by Alice Xue

Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian living in Toronto. She has written for Jezebel, The Awl, The Rumpus, and Publishers Weekly. The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is her first novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections?

When I was in graduate school, I worked as a student assistant at the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library. I was in charge of gifts—getting them ready for appraisal, arranging tax receipts, that sort of thing. The last summer I worked there, I processed a gift of Marshall McLuhan’s personal library. 6000 books in dusty boxes, his copies of Finnegans Wake made basically illegible because of his notes in the margins. The library is a beautiful space but a big part of the collection is stored in two unbeautiful basements. There are thousands of rolling stacks of treasure, arranged sort of haphazardly because it’s been added to over the years. Two months, I spent down there, with McLuhan’s books. And it was so spooky. Most of the time I was all alone but even if someone else was In one of the basements, you couldn’t see them, maybe couldn’t even hear them. Anything could have happened to me, and I could have done anything, and it would have been a long time before anyone noticed. It’s hard not to write a book about an experience like that.

Are Liesl, Christopher, Francis, Rhonda, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I once read that Lauren Groff said, “I have held every human I’ve ever met upside down by the ankles and shaken every last detail that I can steal out of their pockets.” So while Liesl, Christopher, Francis, Rhonda, and the others aren’t exactly people I’ve known, there are plenty of quirks and details that I’ve appropriated. Dan Haberer’s propensity to listen to music on a Discman long after the technology was obsolete—that’s from someone I knew. A rare books librarian with a Scottish brogue who sometimes wore his shirt unbuttoned too far? Knew one of those too. But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t engaged in a decades-long emotional affair with any of his coworkers.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Luckily, I tend to write short, so in every edit, I got to add more and more. The character of Professor Mahmoud was added in one of the last edits and now he has one of my favourite lines in the whole book (“Al-Hallaj’s ashes were thrown in the Tigris, not consumed by a tiger”). I feel lucky to have worked with great editors who let me build the world out more and more. They did make me take out all the Canadian-isms though. So now Francis wears a knit cap, rather than a toque.

You worked in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto as a graduate student. What was your personal favorite item in the collection?

My answer to this question varies depending on when you ask me but today I’ve been thinking of a collection of Canadian theatre programs I worked on. These are meant to be ephemeral; you toss them after the show. But we had a donor who had kept his for his entire life. And I remember sorting through and cataloguing them and there was one, I think it was a single blue sheet of paper. A program for the Niagara Falls Theatre Festival in 1952, where there was a production of the play Nina, staged at the Niagara Falls Collegiate Auditorium, starring one Christopher Plummer. When we talk about libraries as our collective memory we are thinking of books, and of beautiful manuscripts, but also of places that preserve a scrap of paper that can be used to construct the history of a person.

Most thefts from libraries, archives, and museums are perpetrated by staff members rather than outsiders. And, generally, they are viewed as crimes of passion, because the thief has strong feelings about the item rather than being motivated by monetary value. What is the rare book, manuscript, or artifact that would tempt you to remove it from a collection if you could?

I have my own small collection of Alice in Wonderland editions. Nothing valuable, but when I travel I’ll pick up a version in the local language because they tend to be quite beautifully illustrated. Ralph Steadman, best known as the illustrator of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas did an Alice in Wonderland and the illustrations are as loopy as you’d imagine. I have a copy, but somewhere, someone has those original illustrations, ink blots and all, and if I were ever in a room alone with them, I might be tempted to slip them into my tote bag.

In the novel, there is a debate over preserving and carbon dating a manuscript. You provide the characters on both sides compelling arguments. Have you faced these types of decisions in your work at the University of Toronto? If so, can you talk about the object? Do you have a leaning toward preservation or investigation that may damage, even if minimally, the artifact?

I’ve actually been talking about this topic this week, though with far less severe consequences than the Peshawar manuscript in the book. We’ve been talking about graphic novels. Now, as an academic library, it’s our practice to discard dust jackets. But with graphic novels, the dust jacket sometimes contains part of the narrative. So we’ve been talking—if we want to keep the dust jacket then we should really send them to the Rare Books library. Because we’re saying we’re concerned with preserving the object. But then they’re harder to use, you can’t browse them. So I guess I err on the side of removing the dust jackets—damaging the object—so the novels can go to general stacks where they’re more likely to find their users.

The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections enters a long line of media portraying librarians depicting the inner workings of libraries. Do you have a favorite (novels, film, or television)? A least favorite? One that is so bad it is fun?

All of the Library of Congress stuff in All the President’s Men is dynamite. The filmmaking makes that building look so beautiful, and I love the WORK of it. Elbows deep, digging through, I find it so captivating. On the bad side, and this is going to be an unpopular answer, but guys, Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a terrible, terrible librarian. You know what the students at Sunnyvale High need? SAT prep manuals. Ease up on the ancient tomes on demons, my dude, and let the students use that study space!

Do you have a favorite library that you have had the chance to visit or work in/with?

It’s a bit of a cheat to say the Fisher Library, so I’ll branch out. I lived in London for a bit after my undergrad and worked down the street from the British Museum. I didn’t know anyone in the whole country and was so lonely and I would go to the museum on my lunch break nearly every day, so I wouldn’t have to sit and eat lunch at my desk alone. The British Museum Library Reading Room is one of the most beautiful rooms in the whole world. It used to be, you had to apply for entrance to the principal librarian and over the years people like Karl Marx, Bram Stoker, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did just that. By the time I got to London though, they let us normies in so I could wander over on my hour off and stand in that spectacular room and share the air with all those writers who I felt like I knew. An excellent cure for loneliness.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Two of the three of these are currently overdue. My apologies to the Toronto Public Library. William Boyle’s A Friend is a Gift you Give Yourself, Zadie Smith’s play script for The Wife of Willesden gorgeous cover, google it, and a little speculative novella by Kristen den Hartog called And Me Among Them.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Zadie Smith, who taught me how to write setting, when she made Willesden Green seem like the most interesting place in the world.
Richard Price, who took me, a writer who was allergic to plot and to genre, and demonstrated how to sneak your obsession with an area or a character into a mystery novel.
Jane Austen, who maybe didn’t invent writing in the third person but certainly did a lot to display the rhetorical power of point of view. Bonus points because she named her most beautiful, perfect characters after herself. Boss move.
Kazuo Ishiguro who writes characters that taught this coldhearted Canadian librarian how to feel.
Italo Calvino who I, thank goodness, read at age nineteen, because I could not possibly wrap my nearly middle-aged brain around his work if I picked it up today.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It’s. Just. So. Slow. My publisher offered to buy my book in May 2020 and it’s being published in January 2022. We finished the edits, the bulk of the work I had to do, by August or September 2020 and since then I’ve been waiting.

You think writing a novel takes long but nothing prepares you for the length of time it takes to turn that manuscript into a real book. Everything about publishing that first book will feel like it takes forever and it is hard sometimes to remember not to be impatient, to savour the anticipation!

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I don’t have a strong recollection, but I think it must have been Anne of Green Gables. That’s a very Canadian answer but I’m sure that baby Eva related to that fiery, misunderstood orphan.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Perhaps this is a common experience for immigrant children, but no, not really. My parents didn’t have the language skills or the cultural awareness to really understand what my brother and I were reading, so there was never any need for hiding. My mom worked at a library and she only knew that we were voracious readers so from the time I was eight or nine she would bring home books that she saw were really popular at the library. And it might be, Stephen King, for her fourth-grader. Maybe if she had understood the content she would have objected, but probably not. Reading is reading.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

There is a particular category of book that I will label “ books that dudes I went to college with really loved.” It includes Infinite Jest and Catch-22 and House of Leaves and books like that. Books that I really did try to read but found impenetrable. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I pretended to have read those books, to appeal to those dudes in college, but now I own my failings as a reader.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

There are so many! But most recently, David Benioff’s City of Thieves, in paperback. It has a cover designed by Francesca Belanger. I know that the trend in cover design now is blobs of colour, or images that are quite abstract but this is a quite cleanly drawn picture of a man and boy walking away from the viewer in the snow. It’s bleak and evocative, and I loved it.

Is there a book that changed your life?

If there was one, it was Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. I have a distinct memory of sitting in a tutorial in the first weeks of the first year of university, and the TA reading the opening passages of that book. And it wasn’t assigned reading for the class or anything. Maybe it was a book she was reading for her own work and she needed to share it with someone but I couldn’t get it out of my head. I didn’t know you could do that in a book. That book changed the way I thought about writing and reading.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I have given Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West as a gift to seven or eight people and forced it onto the lists of three different book clubs. If someone asks you what they should read next, no matter who they are, no matter what they like to read, the answer should be Exit West. It’s not even Hamid’s most famous book! I don’t get it! Everyone go read Exit West!

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Is it boring to say The Secret History? It’s boring, but my answer is The Secret History. I re-read it this year and it holds up, it was an absolute delight to re-enter that world, but what I would give to go back to that first, feverish read!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’ve spent the last week being dazzled by The Beatles documentary Get Back. I thought eight hours would be too long but it turns out it’s not long enough. There’s something really moving about watching art that has meant a lot to you in your life being created. There’s a real sadness to the film, because as a viewer you know what comes next but there’s so much joy in watching the threads come together.

I’ve thought a lot about the two minute sequence in which Paul goes from playing nothing to the distinctive riff in Get Back. I’ve thought a lot about George’s self-doubt through the whole process, when he was one of the most successful musicians in the whole world. I’m going to go back to that documentary a lot in my life, I think.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Lunch with Nora Ephron in Paris. I suppose this would need to be in the past - when Nora was still alive and any time before cell phones were invented. Nora Ephron was a filmmaker but to me, and anyone who loves Heartburn, she was a writer first. And Nora Ephron is a quintessential New Yorker but to me, and anyone who loves Julie and Julia, she’s someone who really understood Paris. We would drink cold white wine and eat escargots all afternoon, and we would gossip. Ephron, Paris, snails, gossip. That’s it for me.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

No one has asked me to dream cast the movie version of my book! Everyone wants to know about the real world inspirations that are dancing around in my brain and no one is asking about the filmic representation. So let me take this opportunity to say to Dianne Wiest. If you’re reading this, pretty please will you play Liesl if Rare Books ever gets adapted for the screen.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a piece of speculative fiction. I’ve been working on it for years, actually, but recently returned to it, because I’d like very much to see it published one day. It’s set in Eastern Europe, where the sun hasn’t been seen in thirty years. But one day, a pirate radio broadcast reports an unclouded day in Prague. In the following weeks, thousands of people head for the closed border, hoping to feel the sun on their faces for the first time in their lives. The novel follows a young couple in the 1980s as they start a family in this grey world and navigate the margins between the dark wasteland where they are imprisoned and the world beyond where they seek a better life for their children. It’s about food and family and it’s very close to my heart so I’ll keep tinkering with it until it’s fit to be read by others.

Book cover for The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections: A Novel
The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections: A Novel
Jurczyk, Eva